True love – 1 John 3.16-24

True love – 1 John 3.16-24

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John is writing this letter in order that his believing readers might know that they have eternal life (5.13). In 3.14 he makes it clear that such assurance of God’s gift of life comes to those who love their fellow Christians (3.14). Now in 3.16-24 he elaborates further on that love which lies at the heart of all true discipleship. The model of such true love stands before us in Jesus; John affirms that we know/recognise love in the historical fact that Jesus “laid down his life for us” (3.16). This may refer supremely to his death for our salvation, but it surely means all his sacrificial giving of himself for us in leaving the Father’s glory and descending to earth where he lived sacrificially in love amongst us. Now, John declares, we too ought to lay down our lives for our sisters and brothers in Christ. In 3.16 we note the emphatic “and we” in the second half of the verse. John’s use of “Beloved” in 3.21 shows that he himself follows the model of Jesus in love.

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Relating back to his reference to Cain (3.12), John states in strikingly emphatic and challenging words that whoever fails to love their fellow believers is a murderer (3.15). Through love comes life; lack of love robs people of life and steals life away from them. At first we may be shocked by the apparently exaggerated accusation of murder against those who fail to manifest love in the fellowship of the church of Christ. But the vital importance of such love cannot be ignored. Without it eternal life eludes us (3.15).
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Christian love is not just a romantic feeling; nor can we reduce it to an artificial smile or a hearty slap on the back. Jesus’ love demands practical service. If we have this world’s goods, we dare not fail to show our sympathy with a sister or brother in need. True love works itself out in very practical service and help for those who suffer. The 1st century church strongly emphasized loving care for the poor within the church. Deacons were appointed to make sure that widows, orphans and the needy were cared for. So John asserts that we are not to love just in word and in theory, but “in deed/action and in truth” (3.18). We may note too that charity begins at home within the borders of the Christian church.

The consequences of love

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If we love one another, we know with confident assurance that we have eternal life and that we “are of the truth” (3.19). Our faith and trust in Jesus is shown to be genuine. John then goes on to add that we are to “set our hearts at rest in his presence”. This NIV translation is attempting to translate a difficult Greek word (peitho); the old Authorised Version says we shall “assure our hearts”. The word implies a deep assurance based on being persuaded. So we come before the Lord with a confidence that is based on the fact of our love which shows us that our faith is true. Our love gives us the evidence that we can come before the holy God with genuine confidence. This confidence does not stem from pride and self-assurance, for all of us have to confess that some times “our heart condemns us” (3.20). Happily we can rest assured that God is greater than our doubting hearts. He knows us through and through, so we can come with assured faith into his presence. No wonder Paul declares with victorious joy that “death has been swallowed up in victory” and quotes Hosea 13.14 in asking “Death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15.54/55).
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Interestingly, the Greek word peitho is some times translated incorrectly as ‘obey’ (e.g. Hebrews 13.17) whereas it really signifies ‘yielding to persuasion’. Likewise two other Greek words, hupakouo (Eph. 6.5) and hupotasso (Eph. 5.22), are also translated incorrectly as ‘obey’ or ‘submit’ (e.g. Eph. 5.22).  When the suffix arch of authority (as in the English monarchy or oligarchy) is added, then peitharcheo does indeed mean ‘obey’ (e.g. Acts 5.29, 32), but it is only used of our response to God. Peitharcheois never used in relation to other human beings. Towards other human beings (children towards parents, slaves towards masters, all of us towards teaching concerning the Gospel) we are to yield to persuasion. Rebellious attitudes which will not listen humbly will spoil Christian relationships of love. Likewise unthinking obedience goes against the will of God. Some Christian leaders and bishops may demand obedience, but this is clearly unbiblical. Rather, we are called to weigh people’s words of instruction and yield humbly and lovingly to them if they seem true.
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Our confidence before God, which stems from our love for our sisters and brothers in Christ, produces such a confident relationship with our heavenly Father that “we receive from him anything we ask” (3.22). Keeping (not the unthinking word ‘obey’ as in NIV) his commands and doing what pleases God are the basis for effective intercessory prayer (3.22). What a privilege we have as Christians! We can have assurance that God answers prayers that are in line with his will. When we read that keeping his commands is an essential condition for effective prayer, inevitably we ask ourselves what his commands consist of. The answer is simple: believe in God’s son Jesus Christ and love one another (3.23). If we obey these two commands, John assures us that we shall abide in the Lord and he will abide in us (3.24). What an amazing relationship of love we are given! We are totally at one with almighty God through Jesus Christ.
Can this all be possible? It all sounds too idyllic! John affirms that confirmation comes from the Spirit whom God has given us. We so experience the working of the Holy Spirit in and through us that we gain confidence that the Lord does indeed dwell in us and we in him. God’s Spirit lives in us and brings growing Christ-like holiness into our lives. He enables us to love our fellow believers. He works through us to share his good news of new, abundant and eternal life with others.
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So, God’s command to us through the writings of John comes once again to us. Believe in Jesus, trust and follow him! Let love reign in the church of God!
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