Here’s the next in the series of “posts that didn’t make the transfer” from the lessons in the study of 1 John. This was lesson 11, covering 1 John 3:11-24. These posts are long, because they were written to be more of a book chapter than a blog post. If you have the endurance to read to the end, I pray that you are blessed by the explanation of this potion of God’s holy and inerrant word.
In our passage this week we find John returning to the second test of assurance: the social, or, love test. In 2:9-11, he reminded us that loving our “brothers” in the faith is a distinguishing characteristic of believers and he briefly described the effects of this love as walking in the light, as opposed to those who hate their brothers and therefore go about stumbling blindly in the darkness. This time around, John will apply the love test to how we live with one another, showing us that our love is not to be merely “word and talk, but in deed and in truth” (18). Our love for one another does not end with sentimental words, but it flows out of our hearts through our hands and feet into acts of compassion in response to the needs of others.
In contrast to this love, John holds up the example of Cain, to illustrate the true nature of hatred and its effect on others. In our passage we see that murder, hatred, and evil are all bound up together because they come from the “evil one,” and they lead inexorably to death. As we read last week, there are only two types of people, children of God and children of the devil, and the difference between them is clearly evident: “whoever does not practice righteousness is not from God, nor is the one who does not love his brother”(10). This, he says is the nature of the world and it should not surprise us. In fact, it was our own nature before we were brought to life by the Spirit whom Christ has given us. But, praise be to God, “we know that we have passed out of death into life,” and John is emphatic that we know this “because we love the brothers” (14).
The Hatred of Cain and of the World
We began our lesson by reading the account of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4:1-12. Cain’s motives for murdering Abel are found not only in the account in Genesis, but also in our passage from 1 John and, by inference, in Hebrews. According to these, Cain was angry with Abel because Abel’s sacrifice was offered in faith and was accepted by God, where his own was not accepted, and therefore sin was crouching at his door and he needed to master it. But instead of mastering this sin, because he was “of the evil one,” and “his own deeds were evil, and his brother’s righteous,” he murdered his brother in a jealous rage (3:12; Gen. 4:6-7; Heb. 11:4). The word used in Genesis 4:8 for “killed” may also be translated “butchered” and so reveals the violence of Cain’s anger against Abel. He didn’t just give him a hard shove and Abel accidently hit his head on a rock, but Cain deliberately and brutally slaughtered his brother because Abel’s righteousness offended him so very deeply.
John brings this truth to bear on our lives now by reminding us not to be surprised that the world hates us (3:13). And, yet, we are surprised, aren’t we? We’re pretty nice folks, and, if we’re living the way Christ calls us to live, we make pretty decent neighbors and downright good citizens. But John is reminding us that this is quite beside the point. The world hates us because we are righteous, and the system of the world is evil.
If that sounds harsh, read through what Jesus warned us about the world’s hatred of believers.
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.’ —John 15:18-25
The world’s hatred of us is not without reason: they hate us because they hated Jesus, because we are not of the world, because Jesus chose us out of the world, because they do not know the Father, because of the works that Jesus did among them, and because it is the fulfillment of prophecy. The world may be without excuse for their sin and hatred, but their sin and hatred are not without reason.
Jesus himself experienced Cain-like hatred in response to his ministry. Read Mark 3:1-6 and note the parallels between the Pharisees and Cain:
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. — Mark 3:1-6
The Pharisees were so blinded by their hardness of heart and hatred for Jesus, that, rather than seeking the good of the crippled brother in their midst, they sought to destroy Jesus for doing good by healing him. As the shepherds of Israel, they ought to have been compassionate toward the man with the withered hand, but instead they planned to murder the One who extended compassion to him in one of the many acts that proved he was the Messiah. Jesus’ healing revealed their pettiness and lack of compassion. Their jealousy moved them not to be “their brother’s keepers,” but to use their brother’s condition as a trap to condemn the Lord they thought they served.
Jealousy lay behind [Cain’s] hatred, not the jealousy which covets another’s greater gifts but that which resents another’s greater righteousness, the ‘envy’ which made the Jewish priests demand the death of Jesus. Jealousy-hatred-murder is a natural and terrible sequence.
Their hatred lead to the murder of the Lord of life, whom God had proven to be the Messiah with the mighty works and wonders he performed in their midst, as they were well aware—and yet, they had him crucified. God raised him to life again because it simply wasn’t possible for him to stay dead—death had no claim on the sinless Son of God. That this was God’s plan all along did not release them from the guilt they incurred by committing the most abhorrent act of evil in the history of mankind. Their jealousy of Jesus lead to hatred of him, and then murder (15a; Acts 2:22-23).
Aren’t we often surprised when the world’s hatred spews forth? Rather than being surprised, our response should be to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:43-44), rejoicing as we share Christ’s sufferings (because if we suffer for being Christians, that is precisely what is happening), knowing that we are blessed, and rather than causing shame, our suffering glorifies God (1 Pet. 4:12-16). We must remember that we were at one time just as lost as our enemies and persecutors. It is only the grace of Christ that has brought us into fellowship with him and with one-another. We therefore ought to pray for the same grace to be extended to those who now count us enemies, that they too may find peace with God through Christ, and so bring glory to God the Father and his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Because of the fall, sin entered not only the world, but also our relationships, disrupting our fellowship with one another and with the Father. As a result, Cain was a life-taker, and is given in our passage as the supreme example of all who are of the evil one. Christ, on the other hand, is the supreme example of a self-sacrificing life-giver. And as a result, we who have been born of God are to be life-givers, giving of ourselves for the benefit of those with whom we share holy fellowship in Christ, to the glory and praise of God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Love of Christ and of the Church
In 3:11 John revisits the command “that [we] heard from the beginning,” that we are to love one another. John heard this command from Jesus, not once, but multiple times, as they shared the last supper in the upper room, before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion (John 13:34; 15:12, 17). Jesus spoke of the love which they, and now we, were to have among themselves even while eating the Passover meal which pointed directly at what was about to happen to him, the Lamb of God. As the terrible events unfolded later that night and the next day, the disciples scattered in fear. These former quarrelers who were to be the future leaders of Christ’s church needed to have this drilled into them, for their mutual love would not only bind them more tightly to one another, but it would set them apart from the rest of the world and be a distinguishing mark of the church (John 13:35).
According to John, we benefit from this love for one another in many ways. By this love, we know that we have passed out of death into life; we know that we are of the truth and our hearts are therefore reassured before God; we have confidence before God (which points to our prayer life); and God abides in us and his love is perfected in us (14, 19, 21, 4:12). Remember, this is the love test, and we are passing the test if we love one another! These benefits are all about our assurance and the ripple effect it has into the rest of our life and faith! Loving one another washes outward to the rest of the church and back over us and builds our confidence before God, deepens our prayers, and feeds back into love for God and, yes, love for others. The love of the church is the tide that lifts all our hearts.
When studying Peter’s life and letters, we observe the transformation that Jesus wrought in him through the working of the Holy Spirit in changing impetuous, quick-to-speak-before-thinking, frightened-enough-to-deny-his-Lord Peter into the leader of the church and a bold outspoken-for-the gospel preacher. Now we read John, the former son of thunder, who with his brother tried to elbow his way to the top of the apostolic heap (Mark 10:35-39), and who once asked Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven on a village which had rejected his message (Luke 9:53-55), now urging us to love one another. John writes about love more than any other writer in the New Testament, and is called by many theologians the ‘apostle of love.’ John was transformed to his core by God’s love. He knows how vital this love is to the life of the church and the assurance of every believer.
In verse 16, John echoes Jesus’ teaching in John 15:13, that, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” When Jesus laid down his life for us, how did that demonstrate the greatness of God’s love, and what did he accomplish? Paul gives us a thorough answer in Romans:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. —Romans 5:6-10
We were weak, ungodly, sinners, enemies of God—nothing good about us—when he demonstrated the greatness of his love by sending Jesus Christ to die for us. By dying for us, Christ accomplished our justification, our salvation from God’s wrath—which we richly deserved—and reconciled us to God, and we therefore rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ! John concludes in verse 16 that, because Jesus laid down his life for us, “we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.”
This is not a call to martyrdom, but a call to a living, giving-of-self, outward-focused love. Notice the subtle shift from a general principle in verse 16 which we all ought to follow, to how personal it suddenly becomes in verse 17: “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” He’s not talking here only about mailing off a check to provide fill in the blank for the numberless masses we will never meet this side of heaven—though we certainly may be called to do at least that much (see 1 Cor. 16:1-3). John is also talking about giving of ourselves, with open hearts, sacrificially, to those in our covenant communities, with whom we lift our voices in worship on Sunday morning, with whom we break bread and share wine at the Lord’s table. These are the brothers and sisters who are within our reach and into whose eyes we can look as we share with them the gifts God has entrusted to us.
The transition from the plural (‘our brothers,’ 6) to the singular (his brother, 17) is deliberate and significant. ‘It is easier to be enthusiastic about Humanity with a capital “H” than it is to love individual men and women, especially those who are uninteresting, exasperating, depraved, or otherwise unattractive. Loving everybody in general may be an excuse for loving nobody in particular.’
We are neither able—nor expected—to accomplish for others what Jesus accomplished by his death on the cross. Nevertheless, John concludes verse 16 by reminding us that because we have been loved with a sacrificial love, we also ought to love one another sacrificially. What will this look like?
Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:18)
And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Gal. 6:9-10)
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Phil. 2:3-4)
Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 4:8-11)
We are called to an active love which embraces our brothers and sisters in need with material aid and life-sustaining help. We are to continue doing good, even when tempted to grow weary, and not give up, but seize every opportunity which God sets before us to love one another in deed and in truth. We are to render these good deeds without selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility counting those we help as more significant than ourselves.
Pause right there. More significant than ourselves. They need our help—not our condescension.
This is the love that covers a multitude of sins: hospitality without grumbling; being good stewards of the variety of gracious gifts given to us by God by sharing them with those in need; speaking in love and serving in love with the strength that God supplies. These gifts of grace were not earned by us, and we aren’t to give them in meager, watered-down, stingy portions, or only to those who we deem have earned them. God lavished his grace upon us while we were still sinners, we ought to lavish our loving gifts upon one another with the same open-hearted generosity. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper! And as we so serve one another, God is glorified.
Keep in mind that “The New Testament never calls upon us to do anything without first reminding us of who we are,” and this is John’s purpose for writing this epistle. So, let’s pause to remind ourselves: what is it that makes believers what they are—what is a Christian? As a Christian, I am one who has been born of God and God’s seed abides in me (3:9). I have passed out of death into life (3:14). I know the only true God and Jesus Christ who he has sent (John 17:3). I no longer live, but Christ lives in me and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal. 2:20)!
It does seem to me more and more that what accounts for most of our failures in Christian living is our failure to realize what we are. It is our failure to realize what God has done to us, what has happened to us. Our whole tendency always is to rush to practical applications before we have grasped what we are. . . . We must think less and less of doing and more and more of being. If we only are what we ought to be, then the doing will more or less look after itself.
Confidence Before God
In verse 18, John exhorts us to love one another in deed, but also in truth. In his very next breath he assures us that this is how we will know that we are “of the truth and reassure our heart” (19). Why is the truth so important to our reassurance? John Stott writes that “it is the mind’s knowledge by which the heart’s doubts may be silenced.” When we are struggling with doubts and need reassurance we cannot trust our feelings, for they may be storm-tossed and wind-blown, coming from a heart which is deceitful and desperately wicked and unknowable by us (Jer. 17:9). We need an objective standard by which to judge our faith, a standard outside of ourselves. Therefore, God has established this test: this test of love in deed and truth, so that we can point to actual things we have done, not worry over “things we have professed or felt or imagined or intended.”
John assures us that God knows our hearts and assesses our deeds more accurately than we do (20). Note the intimacy with which our God knows us, as recorded in the following passages of Scripture:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. (Psalm 139:1-4)
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matt. 25:35-40)
He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. (John:21:17)
The acts of compassion which we do for others and our motives for doing them are all seen by our Lord, from simple to great. He knows us so much better than we know ourselves, from what we do and where we are and why, to our thoughts, and even our words before we speak them. Jesus even knows the depth of our love for him, more than we know! He not only knows all this, but he wants us to know that he knows. He wants us to know that he sees our service for one another, our acts of love given out of love for our Savior. And when we serve one another in the body of Christ, we are serving him. Because he dwells in and among his people, the gifts we share with one another we share with him.
For the believer, this intimate knowledge of us may be frightening, but ultimately it is deeply comforting. God’s love reaches to us out of his knowledge of us and does not leave us as we are, but transforms us, cleanses, purges, purifies, and removes our sins from us. God searches and tries us in order to lead us in the way everlasting, because he loves us (Psalm 51:6-10; 103:8-14; 139:23-24).
Beloved, when the condemning voices of our hearts are silenced by this intimate communion with God, it is a blessing indeed, for it is the enjoyment of the peace with God which our Lord Jesus Christ made possible by his death (Eph. 2:14-18).
As a result of our confidence in our relationship with the Father (21), we come to him in prayer, not fearfully, but expectantly. John tells us that the Father answers our prayers “because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him” (22). Remember, we only obey because we have been born of him—we have been given a new nature which desires to please our Father—and as his children we have the privilege of approaching our Father in prayer.
John does not mean to imply that God hears and answers our prayers merely for the subjective reason that we have a clear conscience and an uncondemning heart. There is an objective, moral reason, namely because we obey his commands and, more generally, do what pleases him. Obedience is the indispensable condition, not the meritorious cause, of answered prayer.
We will look more deeply into prayer in lesson 15, because there really is so much more to say, and I am sure this is an area where we have many questions. This lesson is already running long, so let us leave this here for now as we turn to the final verses in our passage.
John has particular commandments in mind which we must obey if we are to approach the Father in prayer: “that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another” (23). In verse 24, John directly mentions the Holy Spirit for the first time in this epistle. The Spirit is given as an assurance of our mutual abiding in God and Christ, and they in us. John will return to discuss this abiding in 4:13-16, and so shall we. But notice that all that John has been unfolding for us to assure us that we are indeed in Christ comes together in verses 23 and 24. Those who believe in the name of Jesus Christ, who love one another, and who keep his commandments are those who abide in him and he in them. And if these aren’t enough to reassure us, the Spirit is given to us that we may know that we are in him. “The Spirit whose presence is the test of Christ’s living in us, manifests himself objectively in our life and conduct. It is he who inspires us to confess Jesus (4:1ff.; cf. 2:20, 27). . . . who empowers us to live righteously and to love our brothers and sisters (cf. 4:13; Gal. 5:16, 22).”
If we believe that Jesus is the Christ, who came in the flesh from God; if we love one another as he loved us and show that love in sacrificial service to one another; and if we make a practice of obeying his commandments, it is because the Holy Spirit indwells and empowers us. And if the Holy Spirit is in us, it proves that we abide in the Father and in the Son, and they in us. Here we see the Holy Trinity in one voice assuring us that we are indeed in the faith. How can our own doubting hearts override such Sovereign comfort? I pray that you know that you are of the truth.
 Stott, 142.
 Stott, 145, quoting Greville P. Lewis, The Johannine Epistles, (republished by WIPF and Stock: Eugene: OR, 2017) This quote by G. P. Lewis has often been wrongly attributed to C. S. Lewis, and this mis-attribution is traced directly to Stott’s usage of it in his commentary on 1 John where he listed only “Lewis” as the source of his quote. It took some digging to find the actual source and I have included as much publishing info as I could find via the internet.
 Martin Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John, (Wheaton, Il: 2002), 336.
 Ibid., 339.
 Stott, 147.
 Ibid., 147.
 Ibid., 150.
 Ibid., 152.