I John 3:13-18
In the previous section, we are told that what one does defines the person. A person is not who heshe claims to be unless they can back their words with actions. If one speaks like Jesus and acts like the devil, heshe is the latter. The principal distinguishing mark which differentiates God’s people from everyone else is love. Love and righteousness here are seen as two sides of the same coin.
On the other hand, hate and unrighteousness are also paired and are shown to be the marks of a life dominated by Satan. Hate is demonstrated in the actions of Cain against his brother Abel who was slain like an animal by having his throat ritually cut.
Exposition of the Text
Verse 13: Stop being amazed that the world hates you!
Here the world is paired with Cain in the previous verses. John just finished stating that Cain had just killed Abel out of jealousy and hate because Abel’s faith in God outshone Cain’s works. Cain is the example of all who would justify themselves before God. The world tries to dictate terms to God as though He was the servant. So when God chooses another way than that, they are outraged. It is also a warning that our testimony for Christ can be a call to martyrdom. Jesus has as much said so elsewhere.
We must also be warned that the world’s hatred of us is more than just a possibility. We can be thrown off by the word “if” as though this may happen rather than will happen. But the Greek work here is εἰ, ee, which is better translated “since”. The world cannot but hate the Christian. The world’s wisdom and way of doing business is totally contrary to the will of God revealed in the Bible. Paul makes much of this distinction in I Corinthians. The world considers the ways of God to be foolish. Many of those who had left the church to do religion on their own had rejected God’s wisdom for their own. The preaching of the cross and suffering would be anathema to such worldly people. And when they perceive that the true Christian has peace and acceptance with God, and they don’t, they will get angry, mock, persecute, and even kill the Christian out of jealousy. If only the world would realize that the way to acceptance is simply to believe on and confess Christ.
Verse 14: WE know than we have been transformed from death unto life because we love the brethren.
The question is often asked—how can I KNOW that I am a Christian and have eternal life. If there is ever a question we want to be sure about, it is this one. Many a Christian has been tortured over this including Luther and Wesley. We would like to see some sign come down from heaven like Jesus saw at His baptism. If we could just see the Holy Spirit come upon us like a dove or hear the words of election from God in heaven! If we could just touch Jesus and feel the wounds inflicted upon Him, to behold Him, or to hear Him. what a privilege John had been granted! If we remember, John begins the epistle with a reminder that John himself was an eye, ear, and touch witness of Jesus. To the rest of us, we would have to be content with accepting John’s, Peter’s, or some other eyewitnesses’ testimony except for the fact we are given this verse.
How do we know that we are Christians and have everlasting life? The assurance is right at hand. Jesus had told the apostles that our love for each other was a witness to the world that we are Christians. We sing the song “They will know that we are Christians by our love”. But even more importantly, we know that we are Christians by our love. We need not to look to heaven for a sign. All we need to is to see if we are walking in love with our Christian brothers and sisters and we can be sure that we are secure. At first this sounds deceptively simple until we realize that this is far easier said than done. We might ask like some of the Pharisees asked, “And who is my neighbor?” The Pharisees had assumed that their brother was the nearest Jewish neighbor. Gentiles and Samaritans did not count. Jesus answer was the parable of the Good Samaritan.
It is difficult if not impossible to determine who are our Christian brothers and sisters. We, like the Pharisees, would naturally gravitate to those who are most like us culturally, economically, or racially. And we easily jump to the same wrong conclusions the Pharisees did. Some of those who we would think are good Christians are not, and some that we think are the scum of the earth are really good Christians.
Seeing that the task of discerning who is and is not of the fold is the job of the Shepherd and not ours, we should not try to separate the sheep and the goats. Indeed the only safe way to be sure that one loves their brother and sister is simply to love everyone! And in this, Christian love finds perfection. We read in Romans 5 that while we were still at war against God, Christ died for us. Jesus commends us to love the brethren even to laying down one’s life. But Jesus lay down His life for a world who still hates Him. The disciple must become as His master.
But this leads us into another dilemma. What about truth? Isn’t sound doctrine important? What do we do with “heretics”? Unfortunately this has been a problem throughout the history of the church. The ones who had left the fellowship of the church in this epistle could rightly be called heretics. Does not John stress sound doctrine in talking about Jesus coming in the flesh as essential to the Gospel message? Yes, this is true. Sound doctrine is so essential.
But how to live in love and be true to the truth seems like a contradiction to us. But this epistle clearly tells us it must be both. One who’s love tolerates everything, even practices which are destructive to self and others, and thereby sacrifices doctrinal truth, sacrifices love also. And the one who tries to maintain doctrinal purity at the expense of love also loses the battle for truth as well because Jesus commands us to love. So then love and truth are inseparably bound to each other.
Verse 15: Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and we know that not a single murderer has eternal life in him.
This verse is the complement of the previous one. If we do not abide in life, we abide in hate. Jesus clearly teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount that every person who hates his brother/sister is in danger of judgment. And here too, Jesus says this as an extension of the 6th commandment of not committing murder. There seems to be no middle ground here. We either love or hate. Stating it this way means not only do we need to love everyone, but also that we dare not hate or carry a grudge. This seems very hard to do, and I would say that by ourselves, it is impossible. Those who had left the fellowship John wrote this epistle to had cut themselves from the very source which could make this a reality. We must only remember that we are only safe when we are in Christ.
Verse 16: This is how we know love. Just as He lay down His life for us, we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.
No greater love can someone have than to lay down his/her life for the sake of the family. Jesus even said as much on the night He spoke His final words to the disciples before the crucifixion. And just as He stopped an argument over who was the greatest disciple by taking on the garb of a slave to wash the disciples feet, and even more by dying the death of a slave on a cross for our sin, we are reminded that if the Lord did this, we too must do the same.
This isn’t necessarily dying physically, although this is a real possibility. It also means preferring the other over self. Just as parenthood entails surrender of many of one’s personal freedoms and choices to care for the child, the call to be a Christian means the same. We need to take the time to care for the needs of others, even if this means that some of our own needs are unmet. But to tell the truth, the Lord knows what we need anyway and will provide for our sustenance even as we provide for the needs of others.
So then, the assurance that we are right with God is found or missing in our relationship to the body of Christ, the Church. If we are living in love and fellowship with one another, then we can be assured we are right with God also. If though we are having difficulties with our brethren, then we need to seriously consider if something is amiss with our relationship with God.
Verse 17: But if someone has worldly means and beholds his brother or sister in want and has no compassion on him/her to help, how can God’s love be in him?
Here John gets down to the nitty gritty and gives an example of what love is all about. Love does not turn its back on anyone. Love has to have an object. It simply cannot exist alone. James says something very similar in 3:14 and following. One cannot simply wish good cheer on the needy, hoping God will provide them food and shelter when the answer to the prayer of the poor is in your hand? How is ignoring the need of the poor going to glorify God and prove that you really love God at all. Perhaps Jesus has come in disguise. If we are people who believe in the power of prayer, then perhaps God is letting us be the means to answer to the prayer of others. It is by walking in love that we can be assured that we have eternal life. Now John has given us a concrete example of what it means to lay down one’s life for the brethren. And if we cannot even lay a little of our abundance of worldly goods at the feet of the poor, then how can we rightly expect we are ready to die for them?
Verse 18: Children, we must not love by mere words spoken by the tongue, BUT we show our true love by our deeds.
This is not an exact translation of the Greek, but it is a good expression of what is meant here. We have a saying: “Talk is cheap” which is similar in meaning. Love is an action verb. All verbs which are transitive (takes an object) express some kind of action as compared to verbs of being which do not. Love is not a state of being. It must be demonstrated to be genuine.
We have to arm ourselves with the truth that the world hates us because the works of Christ which are done through us show the world up. But at the same time, we must take care not to hate the world in return. We remember that Jesus so loved this very world that He lay down his life for it. We were once perishing in this world, but Christ’s love for us gave us hope and has translated us from death to life.
Jesus said that the servants must become like their Master. The example Jesus set for us now becomes our example to others, even if this means laying down our life. This laying down of our life might include physically dying, but it also can mean putting aside our goals ambitions, and selfish desires in order to help another brother/sister. Laying aside the “I” and putting on the “We” is indeed one of the chief purposes for this epistle. Christian faith and love must be directed outwardly to be genuine faith and genuine love. Love is not merely an intellectual concept. Love is willing to get its hands dirty in difficult circumstances. It gives and keeps on giving, even though it receives nothing in return, or even scorn and hate. Love does good even to one’s enemies.
So when we examine ourselves, how is our love life? Can we yet say we love as Jesus loved us?