top of page

1 John 3:16-24

Perhaps you’re a fan of ’90’s Christian music. If you are, and let’s be honest who isn’t, then you’ll be familiar with DC Talk’s classic song “Luv is a Verb.” I have no doubt that if Toby McKeehan, Michael Tait, and Kevin Smith would have been around, the author of 1 John would have had them perform this song. At the very least, John would have included a copy of their cassette tape or liner notes with the lyrics included because the words of the song are spot on.

If you want to check out this piece of Christian pop culture, you can do so here.

The author of 1 John is primarily concerned with helping his readers understand what it means to live as children of God. For John, 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. Yet, until Jesus returns, we’re continually growing into the likeness of Christ. Sometimes, we know what that means, and sometimes we need a little help understanding it. For this week’s passage, the concept John’s readers need a little help understanding is love. Lucky for us, we have 1 John and DC Talk to help us on the way…

“Hey, tell me haven’t ya heard? Luv, is a serious word Hey, I think it’s time ya learned I don’t care what they say I don’t care, care what ya heard The word luv, luv is a verb.”

Instead of love being a passive feeling, love is an action we perform on behalf of others. It’s a movement toward the good of the other.

Now, John’s custom is to present his argument in both negative and positive terms. Verses 11-15 of chapter 3 is the negative example. Those who have hate in their heart, regardless of if it works its way out as murder, don’t have love. John goes a bit further, if you don’t have love, then you abide in death, and you’re no child of God.

Verse 16 begins the positive example. Again, DC Talk is helpful here:

“Back in the day there was a man Who stepped out of Heaven and he walked the land He delivered to the people an eternal choice With a heart full of luv and the truth in His voice Gave up His life so that we may live How much more luv could the Son of God give? Here is the example that we oughtta be matchin’ Cause luv is a word that requires some action.”  

We know what love is because it’s been displayed for us in the person, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Love means laying one’s life down in a sacrificial manner for others. It’s easy at this point, because Jesus actually did die for us, to focus mainly on death as a means of sacrifice, but most people in our congregations will never be called upon to give their actual lives for another. Focusing on whether or not you’d be willing to actually lay down your life for the faith distracts us from what the author of 1 John is really saying.

John throws the gauntlet down in verse 17, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help.” Boom. “Luv is a verb.”

Unpacking that verse for your congregation, especially the last phrase, might be helpful. 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 one’s inner selves from the suffering and want that takes place around them. The language is active in nature. This is an intentional 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. It’s what you do when those ASPCA commercials come on with those sad and neglected animals scrolling by while Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” plays in the background.

The image is vivid and describes something we almost all certainly have felt. We have seen great and small human need and felt the knot in our stomach that is compassion for their plight. Yet, at some time or other, every last one of us has 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.”[1]

Here’s some more 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.”

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.

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.