Post Series on 1 John 3:11-24:
- Why Righteousness Attracts Persecution (1 John 3:11-15)
- Righteousness Looks Like Love (1 John 3:16-18)
- How Righteous Love Offers Assurance (1 John 3:19-24)
Yesterday as we looked at 1 John 3:11-15, we talked about why righteousness attracts persecution. Put simply, John explains that when we become children of God, a radical transformation happens: we pass out of death into life. That new life infused into our lives, then, creates a supernatural love for other Christian believers, “the brothers.”
The presence of this kind of love, then, offers us a kind of assurance of our salvation: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). As John explained earlier in 1 John 2, love functions as a litmus test to evaluate the genuineness of our faith. If we love, we have confidence that we have passed from death to life; however, if we do not love, John writes that we remain (“abide”) in death.
This means that it is critical for us to evaluate our lives. Is love present in our lives, or not? What kind of love are we looking for, specifically? And how does love relate to righteousness?
Righteousness Looks Like Love
Remember that righteousness is the primary issue in this passage. In 1 John 3:4-10 (the immediate context of the passage we are exploring this week), John contrasts those who practice sinning with those who practice righteousness. It was the righteous deeds of Abel that enraged Cain, prompting Cain to murder his brother. But, beginning in verse 14, John seemingly switched subjects to speak of “loving the brothers.”
It is clear, then, that when John speaks of righteousness, he is talking about love. This shouldn’t surprise us, since Jesus taught us that to love God and to love other people were the two greatest commandments, both of which summarize the entire Old Testament law (Matt. 22:34-40). Then, Paul wrote that “Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10) and that “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Gal. 5:14). Perfect righteousness—the perfect keeping of the whole law—happens when we love one another.
By This We Know The Love
But when we talk about righteousness-love, it’s important that we are clear on our terms. There are so many different definitions of love in the world, and so it’s important to be crystal clear about what we are talking about. John, in fact, is very specific in 1 John 3:16-18:
16By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17But 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? 18Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18 ESV)
The ESV does a great job with the translation, but the translation smoothes out an important word “the” in this passage. Literally, verse 16 reads, “By this we know the love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” The word “the” doesn’t make much sense in English, which is why I’m not aware of any English translation that includes the word “the” in v. 16.
But the word adds an incredibly important nuance in Greek, functioning almost as though it were the word “this”: “By this we know this love…” In other words, John is specifically limiting the word love to the kind of righteousness-love that he has been talking about so far. Donald Burdick writes this about the word “the”:
The presence of the article with agapen, “love,” serves to identify the specific love John has in mind—God’s active, sacrificial love manifested at the cross. (Donald Burdick, The Letters of John the Apostle: An In-Depth Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), 267.)
We are not allowed to choose for ourselves the definition of this love; instead. John tells us exactly what this righteousness-love looks like: laying down our lives for fellow believers. If we want to practice this righteousness-love, then we must sacrifice of ourselves for the good of brothers and sisters in Christ.
And so John puts a test to us in very plain, practical terms: if we possess worldly goods and see fellow believers in needs, do we give up what we have to serve them, or not? If we close our hearts against our brothers and sisters in Christ’s, then how could we possibly claim to have God’s love in us?
John closes this passage with a plea: “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” Please, let’s stop talking about love and actually live according to what claim to believe. If we say that we are followers of Jesus Christ, who voluntarily gave up all the riches of heaven and laid down his life so that we might have life and inherit the kingdom, then we ought to live as he lived by sacrificially giving away the worldly goods we possess when we see fellow believers who need them.
By this we know that this righteousness-love of God dwells in our hearts, and that we have passed over from death to life. Tomorrow, we will look at the kind of assurance that this righteousness-love provides to us.