The Apostle John’s first letter has been compared to a spiral staircase because he keeps returning to the same three topics: love, obedience, and truth. Each time we return to a topic, we look at it from a different point of view and are taken more deeply into it.
We have already learned about our love for other believers—“the brethren” (1 Jn. 2:7–11). A believer who is “walking in the light” will evidence that fact by loving the brethren. In our present section (1 Jn. 3:11–24) the emphasis is on his relationship with other believers.
Christians love one another because they have all been born of God, which makes them all brothers and sisters in Christ. Obedience and love are both evidences of sonship and brotherhood. We have been reminded a true child of God practices righteousness (1 Jn. 3:1–10) and now we will look into the matter of love for the brethren (1 Jn. 3:11–24). This truth is first stated in the negative—“Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister” (1 Jn. 3:10).
A striking difference should be noted between the earlier and present treatment of love for the brethren. In the section on fellowship (1 Jn. 2:7–11), we are told loving the brethren is a matter of light and darkness. If we do not love one another, we cannot walk in the light, no matter how loud our profession. But in this section (1 Jn. 3:11–24) on brotherhood the epistle probes much deeper. We are told loving the brethren is a matter of life and death: “Anyone who does not love remains in death” (1 Jn. 3:14).
When it comes to this matter of love, there are four possible “levels of relationship,” so to speak, on which a person may live: murder (1 Jn. 3:11–12), hatred (1 Jn. 3:13–15), indifference (1 Jn. 3:16–17), and Christian compassion (1 Jn. 3:18–24). The first two are not Christian at all, the third is less than Christian, and only the last is compatible with true Christian love.
1. MURDER (3:11–12)
Murder, of course, is the lowest level on which one may live in relationship to someone else. It is the level on which Satan himself exists. The devil was a murderer from the beginning of his fallen career (Jn. 8:44), but Christians know, from the beginning of their experience, they are to “love one another.” John emphasizes origins: “from the beginning…” If our spiritual experience originates with the Father, we must love one another. But if it originates with Satan, we will hate one another. “As for you, see that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father” (1 Jn. 2:24).
Cain is an example of a life of hatred; we find the record in Gen. 4:1–16. It is important to note that Cain and Abel, being brothers, had the same parents and they both brought sacrifices to God. Cain is not presented as an atheist; he is presented as a worshiper. And this is the point: children of the devil masquerade as true believers. They attend religious gatherings, as Cain did. They may even bring offerings. But these actions in themselves are not valid proof a man is born of God. The real test is his love for the brethren—and here Cain failed.
Every man has a “spiritual lineage” as well as a physical and Cain’s “spiritual father” was the devil. This does not mean, of course, that Satan literally fathered Cain. Rather, it means Cain’s attitudes and actions originated with Satan. Cain was a murderer and a liar like Satan (Jn. 8:44). He murdered his brother and lied about it. “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9).
The difference between Cain’s offering and Abel’s offering was faith (Heb. 11:4). Faith is always based on the revelation God has given (Rom. 10:17). It is clear God had given definite instructions concerning how He was to be worshiped. Cain rejected God’s Word and decided to worship in his own way. This shows his relationship to Satan for Satan is always interested in turning people away from the revealed will of God. The devil’s first deception, “Did God really say?” (Gen. 3:1) was the beginning of trouble for Cain’s parents and for all mankind since.
We are not told by what outward sign the Lord accepted Abel’s sacrifice and rejected Cain’s. It may be that He sent fire from heaven to consume Abel’s sacrifice of an animal and its blood. But we are told the results: Abel went away from the altar with God’s witness of acceptance in his heart, but Cain went away angry and disappointed (Gen. 4:4–6). God warned Cain that sin was crouching at the door like a dangerous beast (Gen. 4:7), but promised if Cain would obey God, he, like Abel, would enjoy peace.
Instead of heeding God’s warning, Cain listened to Satan’s voice and plotted to kill his brother. His envy had turned to anger and hatred. He knew that he was evil and his brother was righteous. Rather than repent, as God commanded him to do, he decided to destroy his brother.
Cain’s attitude represents the attitude of the present world system (1 Jn. 3:13). The world hates Christ (Jn. 15:18–25) for the same reason Cain hated Abel: Christ shows the world’s sin and reveals its true nature. When the world, like Cain, comes face-to-face with reality and truth, it can make only one of two decisions: repent and change, or destroy the one who is exposing it.
Satan is the “prince of this world” (Jn. 14:30), and he controls it through murder and lies. How horrible to live on the same level as Satan!
A hunter took refuge in a cave during a rainstorm. After he had dried out a bit, he decided to investigate his temporary home and turned on his flashlight. Imagine his surprise when he discovered he was sharing the cave with an assortment of spiders, lizards, and snakes! His exit was a fast one.
If the unsaved world could only see, it would realize it is living on the low level of murder and lies, surrounded by that old serpent Satan and all his demonic armies. Like Cain, the people of the world try to cover up their true nature with religious rites; but they lack faith in God’s Word. People who continue to live on this level will eventually be cast into outer darkness with Satan to suffer apart from God forever.
2. HATRED (3:13–15)
At this point, you are probably thinking, “But I have never murdered anyone!” And to this statement, God replies, “Yes, but remember hatred is the same as murder” (1 Jn. 3:15; Matt. 5:22). The only difference between level 1 and level 2 is the outward act of taking life. The inward intent is the same.
A visitor at the zoo was chatting with the keeper of the lion house. “I have a cat at home,” said the visitor, “and your lions act just like my cat. Look at them sleeping so peacefully! It seems a shame you have to put those beautiful creatures behind bars.”
“My friend,” the keeper laughed, “these may look like your cat, but their disposition is radically different. There’s murder in their hearts. You’d better be glad the bars are there.”
The only reason some people have never actually murdered anyone is because of the “bars” that have been put up: the fear of arrest and shame, the penalties of the law, and the possibility of death. But we are going to be judged by “the law that gives freedom” (Jas. 2:12). The question is not so much, “What did you do?” but, “What did you want to do? What would you have done if you had been at liberty to do as you pleased?” This is why Jesus equates hatred with murder (Matt. 5:21–26) and lust with adultery (Matt. 5:27–30).
This does not mean, of course, that hatred in the heart does the same amount of damage or involves the same degree of guilt as actual murder. Your neighbor would rather you hate him than kill him! But in God’s sight hatred is the moral equivalent of murder and if left unbridled it leads to murder. A Christian has passed from death to life (Jn. 5:24) and the proof of this is he loves the brethren. When he belonged to the world system, he hated God’s people; but now that he belongs to God, he loves them.
These verses (1 Jn. 3:14–15), like those that deal with habitual sin in a believer (1 Jn. 1:5–2:6), concern a settled habit of life: a believer is in the practice of loving the brethren, even though on occasion he may be angry with a brother (Matt. 5:22–24). Occasional incidents of anger do not nullify the principle. If anything, they prove it true. A believer who is out of fellowship with his fellow Christians is a miserable person! His feelings make clear to him something is wrong.
Notice another fact: we are not told murderers cannot be saved. The Apostle Paul himself took a hand in the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:57–60) and admitted his vote helped to put innocent people to death (Acts 26:9–11; 1 Tim. 1:12–15). But in His grace, God saved Paul.
The issue here is not whether a murderer can become a Christian, but whether a man can continue being a murderer and still be a Christian. The answer is no. “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 Jn. 3:15). The murderer did not once have eternal life and then lose it; he never had eternal life at all.
The fact you have never actually murdered anyone should not make you proud or complacent. Have you ever harbored hatred in your heart? Hatred does the hater far more damage than it does anyone else (Matt. 5:21–26). Hatred that is not confessed and forsaken actually puts a man into a spiritual and emotional prison! (Matt. 5:25)
The antidote for hatred is love. “Hateful and hating one another” is the normal experience of an unsaved person (Tit. 3:3). But when a hateful heart opens to Jesus Christ, it becomes a loving heart. Instead of wanting to “murder” others through hatred, he or she wants to love them and share with them the message of eternal life.
Evangelist John Wesley was stopped one night by a man who robbed the preacher of all his money. Wesley said to the man, “If the day should come that you desire to leave this evil way and live for God, remember that ‘the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from all sin.”
Some years later, Wesley was stopped by a man after a church service. “Do you remember me?” the man asked. “I robbed you one night and you told me that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from all sin. I have trusted Christ and He has changed my life.”
3. INDIFFERENCE (3:16–17)
The test of Christian love is not simply failure to do evil to others. Love also involves doing them good. Christian love is both positive and negative. “Stop doing wrong; learn to do right” (Isa. 1:16–17).
Cain is our example of false love; Christ is the example of true Christian love. Jesus gave His life for us so we may experience truth. Every Christian knows John 3:16, but how many of us pay much attention to 1 John 3:16? It is wonderful to experience the blessing of John 3:16; but it is even more wonderful to share that experience by obeying 1 John 3:16: “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”
Christian love involves sacrifice and service. Christ did not simply talk about His love; He died to prove it (Rom. 5:6–10). Jesus was not killed as a martyr; He willingly laid down His life (Jn. 10:11–18; 15:13). “Self-preservation” is the first law of physical life, but “self-sacrifice” is the first law of spiritual life. But God does not ask us to lay down our lives. He simply asks us to help a brother in need.
John wisely turns from “the brethren” (1 Jn. 3:16) to the singular, “his brother” (1 Jn. 3:17). It is easy for us to talk about “loving the brethren” and to neglect to help a single other believer. Christian love is personal and active. This is what Jesus had in mind in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25–37). A lawyer wanted to talk about an abstract subject: “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus focused attention on one man in need and changed the question to, “To whom can I be a neighbor?”
Two friends were attending a conference on evangelism. During one of the sessions, Larry missed Pete. At lunch, when he saw Pete, he said, “I missed you at the 10:00 session. It was really terrific! Where were you?”
“I was in the lobby talking to a bellhop about Christ. I led him to the Lord,” said Pete.
There is nothing wrong with attending conferences, but it is easy to forget the individual and his needs while discussing generalities. The test of Christian love is not in loud professions about loving the whole church, but in quietly helping a brother who is in need. If we do not even help a brother, it is not likely we would “lay down our lives” for “the brethren.”
A man does not have to murder in order to sin; hatred is murder in his heart. But a man need not even hate his brother to be guilty of sin. All he has to do is ignore him or be indifferent toward his needs. A believer who has material goods and can relieve his brother’s needs ought to do it. To “close the door of his heart” on his brother is a kind of murder!
If I am going to help my brother, I must meet three conditions: (1) I must have the means necessary to meet his need; (2) I must know the need exists; (3) I must be loving enough to want to share. A believer who is too poor to help or who is ignorant of his brother’s need is not condemned. But a believer who hardens his heart against his needy brother is condemned. One reason Christians should work is so that they may be able “to share with him in need” (Eph. 4:28).
In these days of multiplied social agencies, it is easy for Christians to forget their obligations. “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10). This “doing good” need not be in terms of money or material supplies. It may include personal service and the giving of oneself to others. There are many individuals in our churches who lack love and would welcome friendship.
If we want to experience and enjoy the love of God in our own hearts, we must love others, even to the point of sacrifice. Being indifferent to a brother’s needs means robbing ourselves of what we need even more: the love of God in our hearts. It is a matter of love or death!
4. CHRISTIAN LOVE (3:18–24)
True Christian love means loving in deed and in truth. The opposite of “in deed” is “in word,” and the opposite of “in truth” is “in tongue.” James 2:15–16 gives an example of love “in word”: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”
To love “in word” means simply to talk about a need, but to love “in deed” means to do something about meeting it. You may think because you have discussed a need or even prayed about it that you have done your duty, but love involves more than words—it calls for sacrificial deeds.
To love “in tongue” is the opposite of to love “in truth.” It means to love insincerely. To love “in truth” means to love a person genuinely, from the heart and not just from the tongue. People are attracted by genuine love, but repelled by the artificial variety. One reason why sinners were attracted to Jesus (Lk. 15:1–2) was because they were sure He loved them sincerely.
“But does it not cost a great deal for us to exercise this kind of love?” Yes, it does. It cost Jesus His life. But the wonderful benefits that will come to you as by-products of this love more than compensate for any sacrifice you make. The principle, “Give and it will be given to you” (Lk. 6:38) applies to love as well as to money. John names three wonderful blessings that will come to a believer who practices Christian love.
The first blessing is assurance (vv. 19–20). A believer’s relationship with others affects His relationship with God. A man who is not right with his brother should go settle the matter before he offers his sacrifice on the altar (Matt. 5:23–24). A Christian who practices love grows in his understanding of God’s truth and enjoys a heart filled with confidence before God.
A “condemning heart” is one that robs a believer of peace. An “accusing conscience” is another way to describe it. Sometimes the heart accuses us wrongly because it “is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). The answer is, “God knows the heart!” More than one Christian has accused himself falsely or been harder on himself than necessary, but God will never make such a mistake. A Christian who walks in love has a heart open to God (“God is love”) and knows God never judges wrongly.
John may have remembered two incidents from Jesus’ life on earth that illustrate this important principle. When Jesus visited Bethany, He stayed at the home of Mary and Martha (Lk. 10:38–42). Martha was busy preparing the meal, but Mary sat at His feet and listened to Him teach. Martha criticized both Mary and Jesus, but Jesus knew Mary’s heart and defended her.
The Apostle Peter wept bitterly after he had denied his Lord, and no doubt he was filled with remorse and repentance for his sin. Jesus knew Peter had repented and after His resurrection the Lord sent a special message (Mk. 16:7) to Peter that must have assured the hot-headed fisherman he was forgiven. Peter’s heart may have condemned him because he knew he had denied the Lord three times, but God was greater than his heart. Jesus, knowing all things, gave Peter just the assurance he needed.
Be careful lest the devil accuse you and rob you of your confidence (Rev. 12:10). Once you confess your sin and it is forgiven, you need not allow it to accuse you anymore. Peter was able to face the Jews and say, “You disowned the Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14) because his own sin of denying Christ had been taken care of, and was forgiven and forgotten.
No Christian should treat sin lightly, but no Christian should be harder on himself than God is. There is a morbid kind of self-examination and self-condemnation that is not spiritual. If you are practicing genuine love for the brethren, your heart must be right before God, for the Holy Spirit would not “pour out” His love in you if there were habitual sin in your heart. When you grieve the Spirit, you “turn off” the supply of God’s love (Eph. 4:30–5:2).
The second blessing is answered prayer (vv. 21–22). Love for the brethren produces confidence toward God and confidence toward God gives you boldness in asking for what you need. This does not mean you earn answers to prayer by loving the brethren. Rather, it means your love for the brethren proves you are living in the will of God and God can answer your prayer. “We receive from Him anything we ask because we keep His commands and do what pleases Him” (1 Jn. 3:22). Love is the fulfilling of God’s Law (Rom. 13:8–10); therefore, when you love the brethren, you are obeying His commandments and He is able to answer your requests. A believer’s relationship to the brethren cannot be divorced from his prayer life. If husbands and wives are not obeying God’s Word, for example, their prayers will be hindered (1 Pet. 3:7).
An evangelist preached about the Christian home. After the meeting a father approached him. “I’ve been praying for a wayward son for years,” said the father, “and God has not answered my prayers.”
The evangelist read Psalm 66:18—“If I cherished sin in my heart the Lord would not have listened.”
“Be honest with yourself and the Lord,” he said. “Is there anything between you and another Christian that needs to be settled?”
The father hesitated and then said, “Yes, I’m afraid there is. I’ve harbored resentment in my heart against another man in this church.”
“Then go make it right,” counseled the evangelist and he prayed with the man. Before the campaign was over the father saw his wayward son come back to the Lord.
These verses do not, of course, give us all the conditions for answered prayer, but they emphasize the importance of obedience. One great secret of answered prayer is obedience and the secret of obedience is love. “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (Jn. 14:15). “If you abide (remain) in Me and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you… If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love” (Jn. 15:7, 10).
It is possible, of course, to keep God’s commandments in a spirit of fear or servitude rather than in a spirit of love. This was the sin of the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk. 15:24–32). A believer should keep His Father’s commandments because this pleases Him. A Christian who lives to please God will discover that God finds ways to please His child. “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4). When our delight is in the love of God, our desires will be in the will of God.
The third blessing is abiding (vv. 23–24). When a scribe asked Jesus to name the greatest commandment, He replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind… And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:34–40). Faith toward God and love toward man sum up a Christian’s obligations (1 Jn. 3:23). Christianity is “faith that expresses itself through love” (Gal. 5:6).
Faith toward God and love toward men are two sides of the same coin. It is easy to emphasize faith—correct doctrine—and to neglect love. On the other hand, some say doctrine is not important and love is our main responsibility. Both doctrine and love are important. When a person is justified by faith the love of God is poured out in his heart (Rom. 5:1–5).
“Abiding in Christ” is a key experience for a believer who wants to have confidence toward God and enjoy answers to prayer. Jesus, in His message to the disciples in the Upper Room (Jn. 15:1–14), illustrated “abiding.” He compared His followers to the branches of a vine. So long as the branch draws its strength from the vine, it produces fruit. But if it separates itself from the vine, it withers and dies.
Jesus was not talking about salvation; He was talking about fruit-bearing. The instant a sinner trusts Christ, he enters into union with Christ; but maintaining fellowship is a moment-by-moment responsibility. Abiding depends on our obeying His Word and keeping clean (Jn. 15:3, 10).
As we have seen, when a believer walks in love, he finds it easy to obey God and therefore he maintains a close fellowship with God. “Anyone who loves Me will obey My teaching. My Father will love them, and We will come to them and make Our home with them” (Jn. 14:23).
The Holy Spirit is mentioned by name in 1 John for the first time in 3:24. The Holy One is the abiding Spirit (1 Jn. 3:24; 4:13). When a believer obeys God and loves his brethren the indwelling Holy Spirit gives him peace and confidence. The Holy Spirit abides with him forever (Jn. 14:16), but when the Spirit is grieved, He withdraws His blessings.
The Holy Spirit is also the attesting Spirit (1 Jn. 4:1–6), giving witness to those who are truly God’s children. When a believer is abiding in Christ the Spirit guides him and warns him of false spirits that would lead him astray.
Each member of the Triune Godhead is involved in the “love life” of a believer. God the Father commands us to love one another; God the Son gave His life on the cross, the supreme example of love. God the Holy Spirit lives within us to provide the love we need (Rom. 5:5). To abide in love is to abide in God and to abide in God is to abide in love. Christian love is not something we “work up” when we need it. Christian love is “poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” and this is your constant experience as you abide in Christ.
As we have seen, there are four levels on which a person may live. He may choose the lowest level—Satan’s level—and practice murder. Murderers “have their part in the fiery lake of burning sulfur, which is the second death” (Rev. 21:8).
Or, a person may choose the next level—hatred. But hatred, in God’s sight, is the same as murder. A man who lives with hatred is slowly killing himself, not the other person! Psychiatrists warn that malice and hatred cause all kinds of physical and emotional problems.
The third level—indifference—is far better than the first two because the first two are not Christian at all. A man who has constant hatred in his heart or who habitually murders proves he has never been born of God. But it is possible to be a Christian and be indifferent to the needs of others.
A man who murders belongs to the devil, like Cain. A man who hates belongs to the world (1 Jn. 3:13), which is under Satan’s control. But a Christian who is indifferent is out of fellowship with God and is living for the flesh, which serves Satan’s purposes.
The only happy, holy way to live is on the highest level, the level of Christian love. This is the life of joy and liberty, the life of answered prayer. It assures you confidence and courage in spite of the difficulties of life.
A psychologist studied children to determine what affect love and neglect had on them. The survey proved children who were neglected and unloved were much slower in their development; some of them even died. In a physical sense, love is the very atmosphere of life and growth.
But it is even more so in the spiritual sense. In fact, it is a matter of love or death!