“The need of the world is not for heroic acts of martyrdom, but for heroic acts of material sacrifice.”
Lesson Focus God’s love for us enables us to love others as God has loved us. More often than not, we are called to express our love for others through our care for those who do not have.
Lesson Outcomes Through this lesson, students should:
Understand that an important part of Christian love expresses itself through material care for others.
Examine the quality of love that we have for one another in the church.
Identify ways in which we might grow in our practice of love for one another and for the world.
Catching up on the Story John has been describing for us what it means to be a child of God. We have been and are in the process of being changed into the likeness of Jesus. While Jesus is for us the fullest revelation of who God is, we still do not yet know Jesus in his fullness. When he returns we will finally know him fully and, as children of God, we will become like what he is.
Another important aspect of being children of God is our freedom from sin. We have had our sins taken away and so, we should not continue to commit sin. John made a startling statement that those who have truly been born of God cannot sin. We explored what this means, and came to the conclusion, with a little help from John Wesley, that indeed we do not need to sin, and will not as long as we are attentive to authentic prayer and worship in mind, body, and spirit. As the Spirit breathes into us, we are transformed and empowered so long as we continue to breathe the Spirit in and out. Finally, John tells us that doing right means loving our brothers and sisters. John will continue discussing what this kind of love looks like.
Luv is a Verb This week’s text can be split into two sections. The first, 3:11-17 defines the sort of love that Christians should have for their brothers and sisters in Christ. The second, 3:18-24, gives us some assurance in the midst of our shortcomings in love as well as helping us to understand the link between belief and love.
Section #1: Love From the Beginning… John begins this section by declaring that this command to love is what “we” have heard from the very beginning. This statement, “from the beginning” harkens back to the opening line of the epistle where John declares that what was from the beginning was the person of Jesus Christ. This message of love then is tied tightly to the work and person of Jesus. John may be referring to Jesus’ words in the Gospel: “A new commandment I give you: love one another” (John 13:34). As such, the command to love spoken of here is nothing new.
What is the nature of this love that we have been commanded to show and to who is it to be given? Most commentators believe that John is referring to love for one’s Christian brothers and sisters. Love for neighbor, as Jesus defined for us in the parable of the Good Samaritan, must begin with love for one’s fellow Christian. The community of faith is the place where we learn and practice the love that we are called to have for the world. Without loving our Christian brother or sister first, it will be impossible for us to share with the world the love that we have received.
As John has done throughout the letter, he compares and contrasts a negative example of love with a positive one. He begins first with the negative in the form of an admonishment. We are not to be like Cain, who you will remember from your elementary Sunday school class, who killed his brother Abel. John claims that Cain was from the evil one. This is not to discount Cain’s personal responsibility in the matter. Rather, it is to display that those who engage in murder, and even hate are still under the influence of the realm of evil and death, the realm, John says, that we have been freed from because of Jesus.
Verse 14 can be taken the wrong way. John is not asserting that love is how we cross over form death to life, but rather that love is the result of our being freed from the power of death. The proof that a person possesses eternal life is displayed through expressions of love for one’s brothers and sisters. Love expressed in concrete action for others is the evidence of Christian faith.
If love is the evidence of Christian faith and love, then hate, and the murder that springs from it is the evidence of lack of faith. Most, if not all of us, are not, nor will become murders. John’s description, however, should not fail to convict us and call us to examine our inner thoughts towards our Christian brothers and sisters (not to mention the world at large). Something as simple as hate can derail our Christian life. Hatred is the wish that another person was not there. It is the denial of a person’s right to live in full connection within the community. Nowhere is hatred expressed more, by Christians at that, than on social media. Our posts in support of this or that cause, or our posts in opposition to this or that movement, often reveal to us and the world around us just how much hate lives in our hearts. Those who hate, John says –and he draws on sayings of Jesus in Matthew 5:21 and in other places — do not “have eternal life abiding in them.”
John now moves to the positive image of love. He goes straight to Jesus and his actions for the best and clearest picture of love. We know what love is because Jesus, in love, laid down his life for us. It was not just that Jesus sacrificed himself for us, but that in Jesus’ death he said no to his own life so that we might live. It was for our benefit. Love that does not work for the benefit of the other is not love.
What Jesus has done for us, the love that we have experienced through Jesus we ought to share with others. This is more than a mere telling of the love of God through Christ; it is a concrete, lived-out expression of love for the other. It is self-sacrifice for the benefit of another. No doubt, due to the nature of Jesus’ sacrifice for us that resulted in his death, we will champion the kind of love that actually leads one to literally give up one’s life in martyrdom. For some, in some contexts, this might be a close reality. This is not so here in America or most of the developed world. We might, at some point, be asked to lay down our lives for our Christian brother or sister, but this is not what John has in mind.
The last verse in this section, verse 17, displays for us John’s intention, and that intention is much more mundane than dying as a sacrifice. The love that is expressed in laying down one’s life for another person is love that sacrifices one’s material goods, time, and money so that another might live. Here John speaks of love that is displayed through compassion and mercy for those who do not have adequate means of caring for themselves.
The NRSV’s phrase “yet refuses to help” fails to communicate the true nature of what John is expressing. The NIV’s “but has no pity” is a little better, but still misses the mark. What these two translations render as “refuses” and “no pity” comes from the Greek phrase that means, “to close the bowels.” The intestines were regarded as the seat of emotion and compassion. To close off one’s intestines means to shield their inner selves from the suffering and want that takes place around them. The language is active in nature. This intentionally shielding oneself from the very real physical reaction that takes place upon seeing someone in need and refusing to help. It is a conscious choice. The image is vivid and describes something we almost all certainly have felt. We have seen great and small human needs and felt the knot in our stomach that is compassion. Yet, we all have, at some time or other, shut off our minds to those feelings and have gone on our way.
John’s point is that “Christian love is love which gives to those in need, and so long as we have, while our brothers [and sisters] have little or nothing, and we do nothing to help them, we are lacking in the love which is essential evidence that we are truly children of God.”
John concludes the section with the admonition, based on his argument to this point, to love not just in speech and word but also in the truth of love expressed through action. I’m sure that, if the popular Christian rock band from the ’90s, DC Talk, would have been around in John’s day, he would have quoted their song, “Luv Is A Verb.”
So What? The question that John poses in verse 17 should stop to give us pause. How can the love of God truly remain in someone if they choose to turn from the needs of their brothers and sisters in Christ? While it is true that John is speaking about the love that members of the community of faith have for one another, this community is the place that we practice our love for the world at large. If we cannot seriously take care of one another we will not be able to exercise our love for the world, and if we cannot exercise our love for the world then we fail at being the body of Christ, the physical hands and feet of God in our world.
What is at stake here is more than just the nature of our own community of faith, how we might love and live together, it is the very nature of our witness to the larger world. If we are to take seriously the part of our mission statement, which says, “…to bear witness to the kingdom of God,” then we must intentionally and tangibly express our love for our Christian brothers and sisters, so that we can better express our love for those in need in our community.
This is not to say that our church does a bad job with loving one another and caring for each other’s needs. I know our church to be just that kind of place, a place of love and generosity. It never hurts, however, to be reminded of the true nature of the love that we are to exercise. We can always do better. I’ll leave you with the words of DC Talk,
“Words come easy but don’t mean much When the words they’re sayin’ we can’t put trust in We’re talkin’ ’bout love in a different light And if we all learn to love it would be just right.”
Critical Discussion Questions
What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?
This message that we have hard from the beginning, that we should love one another, is intimately tied to the One who was from the beginning, Jesus. The nature of love has always been about God’s self-sacrificial care for his creation. Love itself is born in God’s creative act. It is expressed through God’s promise to a barren Abraham and Sarah. It is manifested in the Exodus, and it is exemplified in the incarnation, in Jesus’ becoming one of us. Love seeks the good of the other. God is always seeking our good. God is love.
What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
Our sanctification is bound up with our willingness to allow the Spirit to perfect us in love. We will only be a holy people, who call others to be holy when we allow the Spirit to help us to love in intentional and tangible ways. There can be no salvation without our reciprocating God’s love. There can be no holiness without expressing our love to one another and to the world.
How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
We must become people who gather to practice love for one another so that we can love our world. We must love in word and deed. We must seek and find ways in which we can better and more fully love each other. We must identify the things, attitudes, structures and the like that keep us from loving one another.
Specific Discussion Questions
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
John says that we must not be like Cain who was from the evil one. What does that mean? What does Cain do that might show that he is from the evil one?
Why does Cain kill Abel? Why does John say that we should not be astonished when the world hates us?
John says that we have passed from death to life because we have loved one another. What does John mean by that? Do we receive life because we love? Or, do we love because we have received life? Why would that distinction matter?
How are hate and murder connected? Has there ever been a time when you have hated someone? How did that come about? Have you moved on from that? If so, how?
According to John, how do we know what true love is? Who shows us what true love is? What is our proper response to an encounter with that love?
In verse 17 John asks this question, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and see a brother and sister in need and yet refuses to help?” What do you think John is getting at with this question?
John is addressing a community of believers and encouraging them to care for one another. Why is it important for us to care for each other, as brothers and sisters in Christ, first? How might our care for one another impact our witness to the world around us?
As a church, how good are we at tangibly caring for one another? How might we be better at it? What are some specific and intentional ways we might practice our love for one another so that we can love our world better?
 I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), 195-196.
 Marshall, 195.