Words, like coins, can be in circulation for such a long time that they start wearing out. Unfortunately, the word love is losing its value. It is really difficult to understand how a man can use the same word to express his love for his wife as he uses to tell how he feels about a shirt or ice cream! When words are used carelessly, they really mean little or nothing at all. Like the dollar, the word love has been devalued.
As John describes the life that is real, he uses three words repeatedly: love, life, and light. He explains they belong together and must not be separated. In our present study (1 John 2:7–11), we learn how Christian love is affected by light and darkness. A Christian who is walking in the light (which simply means he is obeying God) is going to love his brother Christian. On the contrary, those who walk in darkness practice hatred. The Bible repeatedly emphasizes this truth.
John not only writes about love, but also practices it. One of his favorite names for his readers is “Beloved.” He felt love for them. John is known as the “Apostle of Love” because in his Gospel and his epistles he gives such prominence to this subject.
However, John was not always the “Apostle of Love.” At one time, Jesus gave John and his brother James, both of whom had hot tempers, the nickname “Boanerges” (Mk. 3:17), which means “sons of thunder.” On another occasion these two brothers wanted to call down fire from heaven to destroy a village (Lk. 9:51–56).
The commandment to love is not new in time, but it is new in character. Because of Jesus Christ, the old commandment to love one another has taken on new meaning. In 1 John 2:7–11, we learn the commandment to love is new in three important ways:
1. IT IS NEW IN EMPHASIS (2:7)
In the previous paragraph (1 Jn. 2:3–6), John had been talking about the commandments “in general,” but now he narrows his focus down to one single commandment: “love one another.” In the Old Testament, the command that God’s people love was only one of many, but now this old commandment to love is lifted out and given a place of preeminence.
How is it possible for one commandment to stand head and shoulders above all the others? Because love is the fulfillment of God’s Law (Rom. 13:8–10). When you love people, you do not lie about them or steal from them. You have no desire to kill them. Love for God and love for others motivates a person to obey God’s commandments without even thinking about them! When a person acts out of Christian love he obeys God and serves others—not because of fear, but because of love. In a similar way, parents take care of their children not because it is the law, but because they love them.
The command to love is new in emphasis. It is not simply one of many commandments. No, it stands at the top of the list! It stands at the very beginning of the Christian life (1 Jn. 2:7). The commandment love one another is not an appendix to our Christian experience, as though God had an afterthought. No! It is in our hearts from the very beginning of our faith in Jesus Christ. John wrote, “We know we have passed from death to life because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death” (1 Jn. 3:14). Jesus said, “By this everyone will know you are My disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:35).
By nature, an unsaved person may be selfish and even hateful. As much as we love a newborn baby, we must confess the infant is self-centered and thinks the whole world revolves around him. The child is typical of an unsaved person: “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another” (Tit. 3:3). This description of the unbeliever may not be beautiful, but it is certainly accurate! While some unregenerate persons may not display the traits mentioned here, the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:19–21) are always potentially present in their dispositions.
When a sinner trusts Christ, he receives a new life and new nature. The Holy Spirit of God comes to live in him and the love of God is “poured out into his heart” (Rom. 5:5). God does not have to give a new believer a long lecture about love! “For you yourselves have been taught by God [through the Holy Spirit within you] to love one another” (1 Thess. 4:9). A new believer discovers he now hates what he used to love and loves what he used to hate!
The commandment to love one another is one of the most important commandments Christ gave us (Jn. 13:34). In fact, love one another is repeated at least a dozen times in the New Testament (Jn. 13:34, 15:9, 12, 17; Rom. 13:8; 1 Thess. 4:9; 1 Pet. 1:22; 1 Jn. 3:11, 23, 4:7, 11–12; 2 Jn. 5). And there are many other references to brotherly love too.
It is important we understand the meaning of Christian love. It is not a shallow, sentimental emotion that Christians try to “work up,” so they can get along with each other. It is a matter of the will rather than an emotion—an affection for and attraction to certain persons. It is a matter of determining—of making up our mind—we will allow God’s love to reach others through us and then acting toward them in loving ways. We are not to act “as if we loved them,” but because we love them. This is not hypocrisy—it is obedience to God.
Perhaps the best explanation of Christian love is found in 1 Corinthians 13. To paraphrase, “the Christian life without love is NOTHING!”
2. IT IS NEW IN EXAMPLE (2:8)
Love one another was first true in Christ and now it is true in the lives of those who are trusting Him. Jesus Himself is the greatest Example of this commandment. When we look at Jesus Christ, we see love embodied and exemplified. In commanding us to love, Jesus does not ask us to do something He has not already done Himself. He says to us, in effect, “I lived by this great commandment and I can enable you to follow My example.”
The four Gospel records attest to the fact of Christ’s love. Jesus illustrated love by the very life He lived. He never showed hatred or malice. His righteous soul hated all sin and disobedience, but He never hated the people who committed such sins. Even in His righteous announcements of judgment there was always an undercurrent of love.
It is encouraging to think of Jesus’ love for the twelve disciples. How they must have broken His heart again and again as they argued over who was the greatest or tried to keep people from seeing their Master. Each of them was different from the others and Christ’s love was broad enough to include each one in a personal, understanding way. He was patient with Peter’s impulsiveness, Thomas’ unbelief, and even Judas’ betrayal. When Jesus commanded His disciples love one another, He was only telling them to do as He had done.
Consider too our Lord’s love for all kinds of people. The tax collectors and sinners were attracted (Lk. 15:1) by His love and even the lowest of the low could weep at His feet (Lk. 7:36–39). Spiritually hungry rabbi Nicodemus could meet with Him privately at night (Jn. 3:1–21), and 4,000 of the common people could listen to His teaching for three days (Mk. 8:1–9) and then receive a miraculous meal from Him. He held babies in His arms. He spoke about children at play. He even comforted the women who wept as the soldiers led Him out to Calvary.
Perhaps the greatest thing about Jesus’ love was the way it touched even the lives of His enemies. He looked with loving pity on the religious leaders who in their spiritual blindness accused Him of being in company with Satan (Matt. 12:24). When the mob came to arrest Him, He could have called on the armies of heaven for protection, but He yielded to His enemies. Then, He died for them—for His enemies! Jesus died not only for His friends, but also for His foes! As they crucified Him, He prayed for them: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:24). In His life, teachings, and death, Jesus is the perfect Example of this commandment to love one another. In Christ, we have a new illustration of the old truth that “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
What is true in Christ ought to be true in each believer: “In this world, we are like Jesus” (1 Jn. 4:17). Jesus Christ is the standard of love for Christians. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (Jn. 13:34). Jesus repeats, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (Jn. 15:12). We are not to measure our Christian love against the love of some other Christian (and we usually pick somebody whose life is more of an excuse than an example!), but against the love of Jesus Christ our Lord. The old commandment becomes “new” to us as we see it fulfilled in Christ. The life of love is the life of joy and victory.
As we have seen the commandment to love one another is new in emphasis and new in example.
It is also new in a third way.
3. IT IS NEW IN EXPERIENCE (2:9–11)
Our passage continues the illustration of light and darkness. If a Christian walks in the light and is in fellowship with God, he will also be in fellowship with others in God’s family. Love and light go together, just as hatred and darkness go together.
It is easy to talk about Christian love, but much more difficult to practice it. For one thing, such love is not mere talk (1 Jn. 2:9). For a Christian to say (or sing!) that he loves the brethren, while he actually hates another believer, is for him to lie. In other words (and this is a sobering truth), it is impossible to be in fellowship with the Father and out of fellowship with another Christian at the same time.
This is one reason why God established the local church, the fellowship of believers. “You can’t be a Christian alone”—a person cannot live a complete and developing Christian life unless he is in fellowship with God’s people. The Christian life has two relationships: the vertical (Godward) and the horizontal (manward). Each of these two relationships is to be one of love, one for the other.
Jesus deals with this matter in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21–26). A gift on the altar was valueless as long as the worshiper had a dispute to settle with his brother. Note Jesus does not say the worshiper had something against his brother, but that the brother had something against the worshiper. But even when we have been offended, we should not wait for the one who has offended us to come to us: we should go to him. If we do not, Jesus warns us that we will end up in a prison of spiritual judgment where we will have to pay the last penny (Matt. 18:21–35). When we harbor an unforgiving, unloving spirit, we harm ourselves most.
Look, for a moment, at the contrast between “saying” and “doing” in John’s letter (1 Jn. 1:6, 8, 10; 2:4, 6). It is easy to practice a Christianity of “words”—singing the right songs, using the right vocabulary, praying the right prayers—and, through it all, deceiving ourselves into thinking we are spiritual. This mistake also ties into something Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:33–37). What we say should be the true expression of our character. We should not need extra words (“oaths”) to fortify what we say. Our “yes” should mean yes and our “no” should mean no. So, if we say we are in the light, we will prove it by loving the brethren. Many Christians urgently need to be accepted, loved, and encouraged.
Contrary to popular opinion, Christian love is not “blind.” When we practice true Christian love, we find life getting brighter and brighter. Hatred is what darkens life! When true Christian love flows out of our hearts, we will have greater understanding and perception in spiritual things. This is why Paul prays that our love may grow in knowledge and perception, “so you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (Phil. 1:9–10). A Christian who loves his brother is able to see more clearly.
No book in the Bible illustrates the blinding power of hatred like the Book of Esther. The events recorded there take place in Persia, where many of the Jews were living after the captivity. Haman, one of the king’s chief men, had a burning hatred for the Jews. The only way he could satisfy this hatred was to see the whole nation destroyed. He plunged ahead in an evil plot, completely blind to the fact the Jews would win and he himself would be destroyed.
Hatred is blinding people today too! Christian love is not a shallow sentiment, a passing emotion that we perhaps experience in a church service. Christian love is a practical thing; it applies in the everyday affairs of life. Consider the “one another” statements in the New Testament and you will see how practical it is to love one another; here are just a few (there are over twenty such statements):
- Wash one another’s feet (Jn. 13:14).
- Prefer one another (Rom. 12:10).
- Be of the same mind one to another (Rom. 12:16).
- Do not judge one another (Rom. 14:13).
- Receive one another (Rom. 15:7).
- Admonish one another (Rom. 15:14).
- Edify [build up] one another (1 Thess. 5:11).
- Bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2).
- Confess your faults to one another (Jas. 5:16).
- Use hospitality to one another (1 Pet. 4:9).
In short, to love other Christians means to treat them the way God treats them—and the way God treats us. Christian love that does not show itself in action and attitude (1 Cor. 13:4–7) is phony.
What happens to a believer who does not love the brethren? We have already seen the first tragic result: he lives in the darkness, though he probably ‘thinks’ he is living in the light (1 Jn. 2:9). He thinks he sees, but he is actually blinded by the darkness of hatred. This is the kind of person who causes trouble in Christian groups. He thinks he is a “spiritual giant,” with great understanding, when actually he is a babe with very little spiritual perception. He may read the Bible faithfully and pray fervently, but if he has hatred in his heart, he is living a lie.
The second tragic result is such a believer becomes a cause of stumbling (1 Jn. 2:10). It is bad enough when an unloving believer hurts himself (1 Jn. 2:9), but when he starts to hurt others the situation is far more serious. It is serious to walk in the darkness. It is even more dangerous to walk in the darkness when stumbling blocks are in the way! An unloving brother stumbles himself and in addition he causes others to stumble.
A man who was walking down a dark street one night saw a pinpoint of light coming toward him in a faltering way. He thought perhaps the person carrying the light was ill or drunk, but as he drew nearer he could see a man with a flashlight carrying a white cane.
“Why would a blind man be carrying a light?” the man wondered and then he decided to ask.
The blind man smiled. “I carry my light, not so I can see, but so that others can see me. I cannot help being blind,” he said, “but I can help being a stumbling block.”
The best way to help other Christians not to stumble is to love them. Love makes us stepping-stones; hatred (or any of its “cousins,” such as envy or malice) makes us stumbling blocks. It is important Christians exercise love in a local church, or else there will always be problems and disunity. When we are falling over each other, instead of lifting each other higher, we will never become a truly happy spiritual family.
Apply this, for instance, to the delicate matter of “questionable things” (Rom. 14–15). Since believers come from different backgrounds, they do not always agree. In Paul’s day, they differed on such matters as diets and holy days. One group said it was unspiritual to eat meat offered to idols. Another group wanted strict observance of the Sabbath. There were several facets to the problem, but basic to its solution was: “Love one another!” Paul put it this way: “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (Rom. 14:13). He said, “If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died” (Rom. 14:15).
A third tragic result of hatred is that it retards a believer’s spiritual progress (1 Jn. 2:11). A blind man—a person who is walking in darkness—can never find his way! The only atmosphere that is conducive to spiritual growth is the atmosphere of spiritual light—of love. Just as fruits and flowers need sunshine, so God’s people need love if we are going to grow.
The commandment to love one another becomes new to us in our own day-by-day experience. It is not enough for us to say, “Yes, love is important!” Nor is it enough for us to see God’s love exemplified by Jesus Christ. We must know this love in our own experience. The old commandment to love one another becomes new as we practice God’s love in our daily life.
Thus far, we have seen the negative side of 1 John 2:9–11; now let’s look at the positive. If we practice Christian love, what will the wonderful results be? (1) We will be living in the light—living in fellowship with God and with our Christian brothers; (2) we will not stumble or become stumbling blocks to others; (3) we will grow spiritually and progress toward Christ-likeness.
A Christian couple came to see a pastor because their marriage was beginning to fall apart. “We’re both saved,” the discouraged husband said, “but we just aren’t happy together. There’s no joy in our home.” As the pastor talked with them and they considered together what the Bible has to say, one fact became clear: both husband and wife were nursing grudges. Each recalled many annoying little things the other had done!
“If you two really loved each other,” said the pastor, “you wouldn’t file these hurts away in your hearts. Grudges fester in our hearts like infected sores and poison the whole system.” Then, he read 1 Corinthians 13:5: “[Love] is not easily angered; it keeps no record of wrongs.” He explained, “When we truly love someone, our love covers their sins and helps to heal the wounds they cause.” Before the couple left, the pastor counseled them: “Instead of keeping records of the things that hurt, start remembering the things that please. An unforgiving spirit always breeds poison, but a loving spirit that sees and remembers the best always produces health.”
Now, all of us must admit we cannot generate Christian love under our own power. By nature, we are selfish and hateful. It is only as God’s Spirit floods our hearts with love that we, in turn, can love one another: “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5). The Spirit of God makes the commandment to love one another into a new and exciting day-by-day experience. If we walk in the light, God’s Spirit will produce love. On the other hand, if we walk in darkness, our own selfish spirit will produce hatred.
Perhaps the best thing we can do, right now, is to search our hearts to see if we hold anything against another person or if someone has anything against us. The life that is real is an honest life—and it is a life of doing, not merely saying. It is a life of active love in Christ.
Hatred makes a man miserable, but love always brings him joy. The love life is the only life because it is the life that is real!