A Study of 1 John 3:11-24
Somewhere along the way in your school experience when you studied Victorian Literature you probably read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poems. In recent years, she’s been rediscovered by feminists and by political philosophers who have praised her. But we ought to remember she was first and foremost a follower of Jesus and an eager student of the Bible. She read the Bible both in Hebrew and Greek, and she made extensive notes in her personal Bibles. For example, in one of her notes in the margin of the book of Psalms, she noted how this particular Psalm was describing the yet-to-come Jesus Christ. She was saturated with Scripture.
I wonder if that is why she wrote so beautifully of the concept of love. Her most famous poem described her love for her husband, Robert Browning, with these familiar words:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach….
She was writing that to her husband, but she was drawing from Ephesians 3, which talks about the depth and breadth and height of the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.
In the Bible, the apostle John is called the Apostle of Love. When you read the four Gospels, you’ll find that Matthew uses the word love 15 times, Mark 7 times, Luke 13 times, but John uses it 39 times—more than the other three put together. And He uses the word another 27 times in this one epistle we’re studying—1 John. Today we’re coming to the apex of this subject as we read 1 John 3:11-24:
11 For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. 12 Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15 Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24 The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.
This is one of those passages in which, to study it, it’s best to go verse by verse inductively, and then at the end we can develop the main point. John begins with verse 11, saying:
11 For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.
Here again John seems to have been harkening back to the Upper Room Discourse, recorded in his Gospel in chapters 13 through 17. On the eve of His crucifixion, Jesus told His disciples to love one another. He said everyone would know we are His disciples if we love one another. Now here in the epistle of 1 John, this is the first of six times when John tells his disciples to love one another.
What does it mean to love one another? John is going to provide several maxims about this.
1. Don’t Be Like Cain; Be Like Christ
12 Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous.
John went all the way back to the beginning of the book of Genesis and to the beginning of human history to remind us of the first two sons of Adam and Eve. Abel was righteous, but Cain was evil. Out of his evil heart came envy; and out of envy came anger; and out of anger came hatred; and out of hatred came murder.
Jesus said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”
In other words, whether we love others depends on the overall condition of our heart. A person who is righteous in God’s sight is able to love others; someone who is not righteous in God’s sight cannot love. They may be able to express affection; they have emotions that feel to them like love; but the person without the righteousness of Christ cannot truly love as Christ does and as Christ demands. So we must not be like Cain; we must be like Christ.
2. Don’t Be Surprised by Evil; Be Secure in Christ
13 Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you.
Just as Cain hated his brother Abel, so the world is conditioned to hate the followers of Christ. Jesus pointed this out again and again, warning His disciples to expect hatred and ridicule and castigation and persecution. John told us not to be surprised by this, and Peter said the same thing in 1 Peter 4:12: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come to test you.”
John here tells us not to be surprised, but to be secure. In verse 14, he said:
14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other.
The fact that we find the existence of divine love inside of us is evidence that we belong to Christ and have passed from death to life. John goes on to say:
Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15 Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.
3. Don’t Give a Lecture on Love; Lay Down Your Life
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.
Isn’t it interesting that this is 1 John 3:16, and it’s the perfect echo of John 3:16. God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son; and just as Christ laid down His life for us, we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.
We all know stories of people who died for someone else. In reading about World War II and Vietnam and other stories from military history, we come across true heroes who fell on grenades or in some other way sacrificed their lives to save their compatriots. When the tornadoes hit Middle Tennessee last year I read about a father in a mobile home who put his son into the bathtub and lay on top of him while their home was destroyed. The father died, but the son lived. Jesus said in John 15;13, “Greater love has no one than this; to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
But John adds an interesting twist. He says that laying down our lives for someone else doesn’t necessarily mean dying for them. It means living in order to serve them.
17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
This New Testament emphasis, which was taught in the Gospel of John and explained in the epistle of 1 John has changed the whole world.
In the Greco-Roman world of John’s day, almost no one gave anything in the form of charity. There were occasional exceptions to this, but the times were hard. Plato taught that a poor man who was no longer able to work because of sickness should be left to die. Another philosopher taught that when you gave supplies to the poor, you simply lost what was yours and prolonged the beggar’s misery.
The world was unbelievably callus. Their idea of fun was watching people be killed and devoured by wild animals in the colosseums. If a child was born but unwanted, it was taken out and left to die of exposure. This was especially true of baby girls who were regarded as less desirable than baby boys.
Torture and crucifixion were commonplace.
Historian Alvin Schmidt wrote, “the Greco-Roman culture did not see the hungry, the sick, and the dying as worthy of humane assistance. The worth of a human being was determined by external and accidental circumstances in proportion to the position he held in the community or state. A human being only had value as a citizen, but very few people qualified as citizens…. Non Citizens were defined as having no purpose and hence not worthy to be helped.”
What Jesus and John taught was radically new in their times. But this message took hold and changed the western world. Justin Brierley in his book, The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God, wrote: “Christianity was the pivot point that turned civilization in a radically new direction, from a culture in which many lives were regarded as cheap and expendable towards the valuing of every human life.”
Justin Brierley wrote about Tom Holland, who is an English historian who was fascinated by ancient civilizations even in childhood. His father was an atheist, and Holland himself disavowed belief in God. His earliest books were about Greece and Rome, but he became disillusioned with what he learned. “The more you live in the minds of the Romans, and I think even more the Greeks, the more alien they come to seem. And what becomes most frightening is the quality of callousness that I think is terrifying because it is completely taken for granted…. This is a really terrifying alien world, and the more you look at it, the more you realize that it is built on systematic exploitation…. In almost every way, this is a world that is unspeakably cruel….”
Next Holland studied the history of Islam, and again he was disillusioned with what he found.
He kept asking himself one question—where did our modern ideas of compassion and human rights and charity come from? The only answer, he discovered, is that the changing element was Jesus Christ and the early Christian teaching about love.
Holland ended up writing an article entitled, “Why I was Wrong about Christianity.” He wrote about how it was the Christian story of Jesus Christ that brought compassion, human values, charity, goodness, and selflessness to western civilization. He ended his article saying:
Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.
Tom Holland subsequently wrote a massive book entitled Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.
This is the power of the agape love that Jesus Christ introduced to the world and infused by His Spirit into His followers. This kind of love says, “How can I help someone? How can I meet their needs?”
This is the kind of love that transforms a marriage. How many romantic movies have we seen in which a man tells a woman, “You really make me happy”? We’ve heard this so many times we don’t even think about the implications of such a statement. What the man is really saying is: “Your job is to make me happy and to meet my needs.” Agape love would say, “My job is to make you happy and to meet your needs.”
Verses 19 and 20 are very difficult to interpret. There are many ways of translating and looking at these verses, and it can become very complicated. But if we take it at face value in the NIV it says:
19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
That seems to be saying, “When we love others with the agape love of God, we know we belong to Him and to His truth, and that fills our hearts with rest and peace. And even if we feel the distress of our failure to love as we should, God is greater than our hearts and He knows how to help us do better.” Verses 21-24 goes on to say:
21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.
4. Don’t Depend on Yourself; Depend on the Holy Spirit
So the unfolding line of thought in this passage seems to be: Don’t be like Cain; be like Christ. Don’t be surprised by evil; but be secure in Christ. Don’t give a lecture on love; lay down your life. And finally, don’t depend on yourself; depend on the Holy Spirit for this love. Verse 24 says:
24 The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.
The apostle Paul told us in the book of Philippians to work out our salvation as God is working in us. He works in us, and we work it out. This is a prime example. The kind of love John is describing is impossible for normal human beings. It’s only possible for the followers of Christ because it is imparted by the Holy Spirit.
- Galatians 5:22 says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love….”
- Romans 5:5 says, “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
Jesus Christ loves the world with perfect agape. We have none of it in ourselves—not one drop. But the indwelling Holy Spirit, as He has full access to our hearts, takes the agape-love of Jesus and begins to cultivate it inside of us, and we begin to learn how to put the interests and needs of others before our own interests and needs. In a marriage, for example, the husband learns that his main job is to meet the needs of his wife; and vice versa. At the office, we learn to look at situations more carefully—not just reacting in anger when something doesn’t go our way. We look at the other person and try to understand what’s happening in their own heart and mind.
Let me give you an example of what I think this looks like. Let’s say two sixteen-year-old fellows were competing for the same spot on the basketball team and only one could be chosen. If both these boys had the mature agape love of Christ in them, the one who lost out would understandably be disappointed, but his disappointment would be mitigated by his joy that his companion got the spot, and he himself would learn the vital lesson of trusting God with the disappointment. The one who gained the coveted spot would be disappointed that his schoolmate didn’t get it, and his joy would be mitigated by his concern for his friend, though he himself would trust God with his victory.
In other words:
- Agape-love rejoices when others succeed.
- Agape-love works hard for the welfare and happiness of the other person.
- Agape-love forgives easily, encourages heartily, and sacrifices often.
The apostle Paul put it like this in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (Message):
Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
We can’t produce that kind of love in our fallen humanity. We can only ask the Holy Spirit to cultivate it inside of us.
Here’s a good prayer, composed by hymnist Kate Wilkerson:
May the mind of Christ, my Savior,
Live in me from day to day,
By His love and power controlling
All I do and say.
May the Love of Jesus fill me
As the waters fill the sea;
Him exalting, self abasing,
This is victory.