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John speaks of love in contrast to murderous motives, using Jesus as the prime Example. 1 John 3:16 says,
16 We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.
The love of Jesus motivated Him to give up His life for us, rather than to defend Himself or demand that we give up our lives for Him. In demonstrating love, He showed that He was (and is) worthy to rule the world, because He is not a tyrant. He does not desire power in order to be served but desires instead to have the ability (authority) to serve.
It is peculiar among the governments of men that they think they have the right to be served and to expect the people to defend the rights of government. Kingdom government is the opposite, for it is based on genuine love, not selfish interest. Kingdom government puts the people first. That is why its King was willing to die on behalf of the people.
The love of God is defined further by Paul in Rom. 5:7, 8,
7 For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Religious Muslims would die for Mohammed. Religious Jews would die for Moses. Religious Christians would die for Jesus. But who would die for the ungodly? Most religious people think the right thing to do is to kill the ungodly. Muslims have their jihad, Jews have their wars of annihilation, Christians have their crusades. But the love of Christ goes far beyond the ability of most religious people who think that they know the meaning of love.
Paul (Saul) himself, before his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, was on a religious quest to rid the world of God’s “enemies,” those Christian “heretics.” He thought he was doing what God wanted. But then Jesus met him on the road and showed him how he was actually fighting God without realizing it. Jesus was not indignant at his actions, but hurt. Jesus was pained, because He loved Saul even while he was acting in a very ungodly manner.
Hence, Saul (later called Paul) understood the love of Christ, for his life had been changed by it forever.
Seeing and understanding such love, John tells us, is our motivation “to lay down our lives for the brethren.” Some try to make the point that we are only required to lay down our lives for fellow believers or for those who are of our own family or race, i.e., “the brethren.” But the law says that we are to love our neighbor as our self. “Brother” and “neighbor” are equivalents, insofar as love is concerned.
Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan answers the question about who is our neighbor (Luke 10:29). Jesus made it clear that the Samaritan was being “neighborly,” whereas the Levite and the priest were not fulfilling the law of love (Luke 10:36). There are many whose carnal minds want to water down the love of God in order to accommodate their own low standard of love. Hence, they limit their responsibility to love according to their own view of who is deserving of their love. Yet in the end, they only demonstrate that they do not understand the depths of God’s love.
1 John 3:17 says,
17 But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?
Generosity is one of the primary evidences of love. Love is not selfish, because, as Paul says in 1 Cor. 13:5, “it does not seek its own.” In other words, true love does not prioritize its own interest or its own benefit, but seeks the welfare of others first.
I have been struck by a peculiarity of human nature that the less one has, the more generous one tends to be. Conversely, the more one has, the less generous a person is. But generosity is at the heart of God’s love. The Hebrew idea of righteousness—especially the righteousness of God—is His benevolence and generosity. This comes out in the New Testament concept of grace, but it is actually rooted in the foundational truth that God is love.
We are all presented with many opportunities to give. In each, we learn something about how and when to give, for there are times when it is actually in the best interest of the one in need to make them work for it. We see this often with our children, but also in the world at large. For example, many people need jobs—not social welfare.
Giving ought not to support laziness. There are many who have an entitlement mentality, thinking that they deserve to be given the fruits of other men’s labor. They think they deserve it simply because the other person has money, and they themselves do not, and yet they have never really learned work skills. I have met some who consider begging for hours on a street corner to be their full-time job.
Hence, it is clear that giving is not always the best action to take, even in the face of need. While giving may solve an immediate problem, it does not always solve the deeper problem. One must exercise discernment to know what to do in each individual case, knowing that God Himself does not give everyone what they want or what they think that they deserve.
Yet having said that, it is clear that our hearts ought to be unselfish and generous, especially if we claim to know the love of Christ.
1 John 3:18 says,
18 Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.
The comparison here is word vs. deed and tongue vs. truth. Many speak words of love, but their deeds or actions fail to support those words. Many Christians tell God how much they love Him in praise and worship meetings, but when they leave the church, their actions show their lack of love. Jesus spoke to me many years ago, saying, “I wish they would love Me less and obey Me more.” I believe He was referring to what He said long ago in John 14:15, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.”
Keeping His commandments is not love but is the evidence of love in one’s heart. Good deeds can be done as a religious exercise, or to make a person feel less guilty about hidden matters of the heart, but such actions are not evidence of love. The good deeds, or keeping His commandments, must be an outward expression of love in order to have value with God.
The other contrast is between the “tongue” and “truth.” The implication is that some lie while talking about love, whereas they ought to speak the truth in love. It is possible to speak lies in an apparent loving manner. Love and truth ought to go together, even as we are told to worship God “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Faith (faithfulness) and truth are derived from the same Hebrew root word (aman). Our tongues ought to be faithful to the truth. This is possible only when our words come from a heart of love.
1 John 3:19, 20 continues,
19 We shall know by this that we are of the truth, and shall assure [peitho, “persuade, convince, tranquilize”] our hearts before Him, 20 in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.
In other words, when our deeds match our words and when our truth matches our tongues, then “we are of the truth.” If our manner of life does not match our words, then we are not really “of the truth.” Hence, if our heart condemns us—if we feel guilty or if we lack confidence—we can “assure our hearts before Him,” by reminding ourselves that our deeds match our words.
That is the measuring rod of love, whereby we may know if the love of God truly abides in us. There are some who do not know their hearts. Some have been beaten down in the past and thereby lack confidence. John is telling us that there is an objective way to measure whether or not we are “of the truth.” It is whether or not our deeds match our words.
Whether we know our hearts or not, God “knows all things,” because He “is greater than our heart.” He is, after all, the Creator. The problem is that we ourselves often have difficulty knowing our own heart. My observation in life is that a lack of confidence is more common than over-confidence.
Of those who are over-confident, most of them are simply reacting to an inner inferiority complex, where their lack of self-confidence causes them to react in the opposite manner.
John seems to understand this, for he speaks of those whose hearts condemn them, while saying nothing about those who live a lie without any condemnation from their heart. John’s purpose is to comfort and assure his “little children,” building them up in faith and assurance, so that they can live victorious Christian lives.
1 John 3:21, 22 then says,
21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God, 22 and whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight.
Many have faith, but they lack confidence, because they look at their old flesh man and they see nothing good in it. They still identify with the old man, not fully grasping that they are no longer that old man but a new creation. Thus, they have an identity problem. Such people need to study and meditate upon Rom. 7:17, where Paul says, “So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me.”
Like Paul, we can admit that “nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom. 7:18), without wallowing in guilt over the desires of the flesh. We are no longer that flesh man, for we are children that have been begotten by God. We are new creatures living alongside the old man. The old man should have no confidence, but the new man has no reason to lack confidence, for “he cannot sin, because he is begotten of God” (1 John 3:9).
There is a difference between faith and confidence. Confidence should be the expression of faith. Those who lack confidence are unable to exercise faith, because lack of confidence—caused by guilt—acts as a barrier. Faith is good, but if one lacks confidence, he finds it difficult to put his faith into practical action. Yet if we can deal with this problem of inner guilt by the blood of Jesus, we can move on and “do the things that are pleasing in His sight.”
1 John 3:23, 24 concludes,
23 And this is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us. 24 And the one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And we know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.
To “believe” is to have faith, because to believe (pisteuo) is the verb form of the word for faith (pistis). We are to believe in the name of Jesus Christ, and we are to love one another. Faith and love are the two big issues here. To show love is, in a practical sense, to keep His commandments, because the entire law hangs upon love—loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Those who love do not violate the rights of others.
John says that those who keep His commandments are those who abide in Him. Likewise, Christ abides in them, because His seed abides in the new creation man (1 John 3:9). We know this, because the Spirit abides in us. The seed of the word is also the Spirit of God that has begotten Christ in us.
In this way, John introduces his next topic, dealing with the Spirit of God. In the next chapter, John discusses the difference between true and false spirits and how we may discern the difference between the two.