The Apostle John’s first letter has been compared to a spiral staircase because he keeps returning to the same three topics: love, obedience, and truth. Each time we return to a topic, we look at it from a different point of view and are taken more deeply into it.
We have already learned about our love for other believers—“the brethren” (1 Jn. 2:7–11). A believer who is “walking in the light” will evidence that fact by loving the brethren. In our present section (1 Jn. 3:11–24) the emphasis is on his relationship with other believers.
Christians love one another because they have all been born of God, which makes them all brothers and sisters in Christ. Obedience and love are both evidences of sonship and brotherhood. We have been reminded a true child of God practices righteousness (1 Jn. 3:1–10) and now we will look into the matter of love for the brethren (1 Jn. 3:11–24). This truth is first stated in the negative—“Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister” (1 Jn. 3:10).
A striking difference should be noted between the earlier and present treatment of love for the brethren. In the section on fellowship (1 Jn. 2:7–11), we are told loving the brethren is a matter of light and darkness. If we do not love one another, we cannot walk in the light, no matter how loud our profession. But in this section (1 Jn. 3:11–24) on brotherhood the epistle probes much deeper. We are told loving the brethren is a matter of life and death: “Anyone who does not love remains in death” (1 Jn. 3:14).
When it comes to this matter of love, there are four possible “levels of relationship,” so to speak, on which a person may live: murder (1 Jn. 3:11–12), hatred (1 Jn. 3:13–15), indifference (1 Jn. 3:16–17), and Christian compassion (1 Jn. 3:18–24). The first two are not Christian at all, the third is less than Christian, and only the last is compatible with true Christian love.
1. MURDER (3:11–12)
Murder, of course, is the lowest level on which one may live in relationship to someone else. It is the level on which Satan himself exists. The devil was a murderer from the beginning of his fallen career (Jn. 8:44), but Christians know, from the beginning of their experience, they are to “love one another.” John emphasizes origins: “from the beginning…” If our spiritual experience originates with the Father, we must love one another. But if it originates with Satan, we will hate one another. “As for you, see that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father” (1 Jn. 2:24).
Cain is an example of a life of hatred; we find the record in Gen. 4:1–16. It is important to note that Cain and Abel, being brothers, had the same parents and they both brought sacrifices to God. Cain is not presented as an atheist; he is presented as a worshiper. And this is the point: children of the devil masquerade as true believers. They attend religious gatherings, as Cain did. They may even bring offerings. But these actions in themselves are not valid proof a man is born of God. The real test is his love for the brethren—and here Cain failed.
Every man has a “spiritual lineage” as well as a physical and Cain’s “spiritual father” was the devil. This does not mean, of course, that Satan literally fathered Cain. Rather, it means Cain’s attitudes and actions originated with Satan. Cain was a murderer and a liar like Satan (Jn. 8:44). He murdered his brother and lied about it. “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9).
The difference between Cain’s offering and Abel’s offering was faith (Heb. 11:4). Faith is always based on the revelation God has given (Rom. 10:17). It is clear God had given definite instructions concerning how He was to be worshiped. Cain rejected God’s Word and decided to worship in his own way. This shows his relationship to Satan for Satan is always interested in turning people away from the revealed will of God. The devil’s first deception, “Did God really say?” (Gen. 3:1) was the beginning of trouble for Cain’s parents and for all mankind since.
We are not told by what outward sign the Lord accepted Abel’s sacrifice and rejected Cain’s. It may be that He sent fire from heaven to consume Abel’s sacrifice of an animal and its blood. But we are told the results: Abel went away from the altar with God’s witness of acceptance in his heart, but Cain went away angry and disappointed (Gen. 4:4–6). God warned Cain that sin was crouching at the door like a dangerous beast (Gen. 4:7), but promised if Cain would obey God, he, like Abel, would enjoy peace.
Instead of heeding God’s warning, Cain listened to Satan’s voice and plotted to kill his brother. His envy had turned to anger and hatred. He knew that he was evil and his brother was righteous. Rather than repent, as God commanded him to do, he decided to destroy his brother.
Cain’s attitude represents the attitude of the present world system (1 Jn. 3:13). The world hates Christ (Jn. 15:18–25) for the same reason Cain hated Abel: Christ shows the world’s sin and reveals its true nature. When the world, like Cain, comes face-to-face with reality and truth, it can make only one of two decisions: repent and change, or destroy the one who is exposing it.
Satan is the “prince of this world” (Jn. 14:30), and he controls it through murder and lies. How horrible to live on the same level as Satan!
A hunter took refuge in a cave during a rainstorm. After he had dried out a bit, he decided to investigate his temporary home and turned on his flashlight. Imagine his surprise when he discovered he was sharing the cave with an assortment of spiders, lizards, and snakes! His exit was a fast one.
If the unsaved world could only see, it would realize it is living on the low level of murder and lies, surrounded by that old serpent Satan and all his demonic armies. Like Cain, the people of the world try to cover up their true nature with religious rites; but they lack faith in God’s Word. People who continue to live on this level will eventually be cast into outer darkness with Satan to suffer apart from God forever.
2. HATRED (3:13–15)
At this point, you are probably thinking, “But I have never murdered anyone!” And to this statement, God replies, “Yes, but remember hatred is the same as murder” (1 Jn. 3:15; Matt. 5:22). The only difference between level 1 and level 2 is the outward act of taking life. The inward intent is the same.
A visitor at the zoo was chatting with the keeper of the lion house. “I have a cat at home,” said the visitor, “and your lions act just like my cat. Look at them sleeping so peacefully! It seems a shame you have to put those beautiful creatures behind bars.”
“My friend,” the keeper laughed, “these may look like your cat, but their disposition is radically different. There’s murder in their hearts. You’d better be glad the bars are there.”
The only reason some people have never actually murdered anyone is because of the “bars” that have been put up: the fear of arrest and shame, the penalties of the law, and the possibility of death. But we are going to be judged by “the law that gives freedom” (Jas. 2:12). The question is not so much, “What did you do?” but, “What did you want to do? What would you have done if you had been at liberty to do as you pleased?” This is why Jesus equates hatred with murder (Matt. 5:21–26) and lust with adultery (Matt. 5:27–30).
This does not mean, of course, that hatred in the heart does the same amount of damage or involves the same degree of guilt as actual murder. Your neighbor would rather you hate him than kill him! But in God’s sight hatred is the moral equivalent of murder and if left unbridled it leads to murder. A Christian has passed from death to life (Jn. 5:24) and the proof of this is he loves the brethren. When he belonged to the world system, he hated God’s people; but now that he belongs to God, he loves them.
These verses (1 Jn. 3:14–15), like those that deal with habitual sin in a believer (1 Jn. 1:5–2:6), concern a settled habit of life: a believer is in the practice of loving the brethren, even though on occasion he may be angry with a brother (Matt. 5:22–24). Occasional incidents of anger do not nullify the principle. If anything, they prove it true. A believer who is out of fellowship with his fellow Christians is a miserable person! His feelings make clear to him something is wrong.
Notice another fact: we are not told murderers cannot be saved. The Apostle Paul himself took a hand in the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:57–60) and admitted his vote helped to put innocent people to death (Acts 26:9–11; 1 Tim. 1:12–15). But in His grace, God saved Paul.
The issue here is not whether a murderer can become a Christian, but whether a man can continue being a murderer and still be a Christian. The answer is no. “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 Jn. 3:15). The murderer did not once have eternal life and then lose it; he never had eternal life at all.
The fact you have never actually murdered anyone should not make you proud or complacent. Have you ever harbored hatred in your heart? Hatred does the hater far more damage than it does anyone else (Matt. 5:21–26). Hatred that is not confessed and forsaken actually puts a man into a spiritual and emotional prison! (Matt. 5:25)
The antidote for hatred is love. “Hateful and hating one another” is the normal experience of an unsaved person (Tit. 3:3). But when a hateful heart opens to Jesus Christ, it becomes a loving heart. Instead of wanting to “murder” others through hatred, he or she wants to love them and share with them the message of eternal life.
Evangelist John Wesley was stopped one night by a man who robbed the preacher of all his money. Wesley said to the man, “If the day should come that you desire to leave this evil way and live for God, remember that ‘the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from all sin.”
Some years later, Wesley was stopped by a man after a church service. “Do you remember me?” the man asked. “I robbed you one night and you told me that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from all sin. I have trusted Christ and He has changed my life.”
3. INDIFFERENCE (3:16–17)
The test of Christian love is not simply failure to do evil to others. Love also involves doing them good. Christian love is both positive and negative. “Stop doing wrong; learn to do right” (Isa. 1:16–17).
Cain is our example of false love; Christ is the example of true Christian love. Jesus gave His life for us so we may experience truth. Every Christian knows John 3:16, but how many of us pay much attention to 1 John 3:16? It is wonderful to experience the blessing of John 3:16; but it is even more wonderful to share that experience by obeying 1 John 3:16: “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”
Christian love involves sacrifice and service. Christ did not simply talk about His love; He died to prove it (Rom. 5:6–10). Jesus was not killed as a martyr; He willingly laid down His life (Jn. 10:11–18; 15:13). “Self-preservation” is the first law of physical life, but “self-sacrifice” is the first law of spiritual life. But God does not ask us to lay down our lives. He simply asks us to help a brother in need.
John wisely turns from “the brethren” (1 Jn. 3:16) to the singular, “his brother” (1 Jn. 3:17). It is easy for us to talk about “loving the brethren” and to neglect to help a single other believer. Christian love is personal and active. This is what Jesus had in mind in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25–37). A lawyer wanted to talk about an abstract subject: “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus focused attention on one man in need and changed the question to, “To whom can I be a neighbor?”
Two friends were attending a conference on evangelism. During one of the sessions, Larry missed Pete. At lunch, when he saw Pete, he said, “I missed you at the 10:00 session. It was really terrific! Where were you?”
“I was in the lobby talking to a bellhop about Christ. I led him to the Lord,” said Pete.
There is nothing wrong with attending conferences, but it is easy to forget the individual and his needs while discussing generalities. The test of Christian love is not in loud professions about loving the whole church, but in quietly helping a brother who is in need. If we do not even help a brother, it is not likely we would “lay down our lives” for “the brethren.”
A man does not have to murder in order to sin; hatred is murder in his heart. But a man need not even hate his brother to be guilty of sin. All he has to do is ignore him or be indifferent toward his needs. A believer who has material goods and can relieve his brother’s needs ought to do it. To “close the door of his heart” on his brother is a kind of murder!
If I am going to help my brother, I must meet three conditions: (1) I must have the means necessary to meet his need; (2) I must know the need exists; (3) I must be loving enough to want to share. A believer who is too poor to help or who is ignorant of his brother’s need is not condemned. But a believer who hardens his heart against his needy brother is condemned. One reason Christians should work is so that they may be able “to share with him in need” (Eph. 4:28).
In these days of multiplied social agencies, it is easy for Christians to forget their obligations. “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10). This “doing good” need not be in terms of money or material supplies. It may include personal service and the giving of oneself to others. There are many individuals in our churches who lack love and would welcome friendship.
If we want to experience and enjoy the love of God in our own hearts, we must love others, even to the point of sacrifice. Being indifferent to a brother’s needs means robbing ourselves of what we need even more: the love of God in our hearts. It is a matter of love or death!
To be continued…