Our Scripture reading this morning comes from 1 John in chapter 3 and verses 10 through 24. Let's come before God, and particularly the Holy Spirit, and ask for that work of illumination that He gives upon His word. Let's pray together.
Holy Spirit, You caused this word to be written. Now we ask that You would break forth and give us light and understanding. And help us, we pray, not just to be hearers but to be doers of Your word, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Hear the word of God.
By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother. For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, not as Cain, who was of the evil one and slew his brother. And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother's were righteous. Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world's goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. We will know by this that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him in whatever our heart condemns us, for God is greater than our heart and knows all things. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight. This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us. The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.
Amen. And may God bless to us the reading of His holy and inerrant word.
The point of this passage is given to us in verse 10. John is telling us what a true believer looks like. He is enabling us to distinguish the one whom he calls “the child of God” from the one whom he calls “the child of the devil.” You see, for John, everyone isn't going to heaven. He divides mankind into two groups: the children of God and the children of the devil. The one, he tells us, practice righteousness, and the other does not. Now he wants us to see something of the specificity of this practicing righteousness. The child of God, he tells us, loves his brothers. It's a test.
Now, as it happens, John has spoken of this before, actually on two occasions before. John says to this congregation in Ephesus as he writes this first epistle, ‘This is something that you have heard from the beginning.’ Now he may be alluding to the fact that from the first time they heard John preach, or maybe from the time that they were converted, from that beginning they've heard this message: ‘You are to love one another.’ John is known as “the apostle of love.” In his old age, when he couldn't walk anymore, they apparently carried him in on a chair, and he would exhort the brethren, saying, “Love one another.” But maybe John has something else in mind. He's going to go on and refer to Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, so maybe by the reference, “in the beginning,” he's actually referring to the beginning of the Bible. ‘From the very beginning of the pages of Scripture, this is the message. It's not something new. It's not just a message that Jesus brought. It's not just a message the apostles preached. It's the message of the whole Scriptures, that we're to love the brethren.’ The very fact that you've heard this before, many times before–as John is reminding his audience that they've heard it before–brings with it the temptation that familiarity breeds contempt. ‘We've heard this message before,’ John says. ‘Now pay attention to this message. It's an important message. It couldn't be more important.’
I. The test of love
Let's look, first of all, at the test of love. For John, it's a matter of life or death. It's not a trivial thing. It's not a peripheral thing. It's not an optional thing. It's a matter of life or death. He tells us in verse 14, “He who does not love abides in death.” ‘If you do not love the brethren, if you don't love the things that God loves, if you don't move in the sphere of love–then you move in the sphere of death,’ John says. He goes on in verse 15 to be more specific, “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer.” Now note a couple of things with me. In verse 14, he talks about not loving and in verse 15 he talks about hating. For John, not loving means hating. There's no middle ground. It's either one or the other. You either love or you hate. There's loving and then there's hating. Note that not to love someone, for John, is to be a murderer. John had heard Jesus say that in the Sermon on the Mount. ‘That if you refer to your brother and call him…’ he uses an Aramaic word, ‘raca’ meaning a fool,’ Jesus said, ‘you've committed murder in your mind, in your thoughts.’
Note how John moves from loving the brethren in the first part of verse 14 to a much more general sense of love in the second part of verse 14. John says, ‘This is the characteristic of a child of God. It's not a characteristic of the child of the devil. The child of God loves: loves God, loves the things of God, loves the people of God.’ It's a litmus test. It's an issue of life or death. You’re either on one side or the other. There's no middle ground. John isn't a Universalist. He doesn't believe that everyone is going to heaven. There are the children of God and there are the children of the devil. This is the test. This is what distinguishes the two.
II. The illustration of love
Look with me, in the second place, at the illustration of love. You see the test of love, but lets look in the second place at the illustration of love, because John draws a contrasting illustration. On the one side, there's Cain. It's interesting; he says in verse 12, ‘We shouldn't be like Cain.’ He has no problems drawing a moral, ethical imperative from a biographical account in the Old Testament. John has no problems with that. Now, some theologians have problems with that, but John doesn't have any problems with that. ‘Take a note of this man. Mark some of the qualities and characteristics of this man, and don't be like that.’ Cain was a murderer. Isn't it astonishing? The first person born into this world was a murderer. How more graphic could the Bible be in its description of the pervasiveness of sin as a consequence of the Fall than the description of Cain, the fruit of Eve's womb, as a murderer?
The Bible doesn't tell us why it was that Abel's offering was acceptable to God and Cain's offering was not. It may be that Abel offered a blood sacrifice and Cain offered the fruit of the ground. And it may be that Abel understood the way of salvation and the way of forgiveness, that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins. Maybe it was that Abel understood the way of faith and of the gospel, and Cain did not. Or it may be that Hebrews 11 tells us that Abel offered his offering by faith, and, by implication, Cain did not offer by faith. Maybe it was a faithless offering. Either way, Cain slew his brother. The word that John implies here is a very graphic word. Literally, John says, ‘He cut his throat.’ You could translate it as slaughtered or butchered. Cain reveals himself as a child of the devil. Jesus said, didn't He, that ‘He was a murder’–the devil, that is, was a murderer–‘from the beginning’? And why did Cain kill his brother? Not because Abel was evil, but the very opposite, because Abel was righteous. It was out of jealousy. It was out of envy that Cain killed his brother. We’re not to be like Cain. We don't think of ourselves like that, do we? We don't put ourselves in the same category as men and women who are in the penitentiary and are there because they've murdered. And yet the Bible is saying, and Jesus says, and John is reiterating it here, that if we've thought hateful thoughts about a brother, we've committed murder. And John says, ‘Don't be like Cain, but be like Jesus. Be like Jesus.’
Now John is going to draw a moral, ethical implication from the death of Jesus. Now John isn't saying that that is all the death of Jesus was, a kind of moral example. No, John has already told us several times in this epistle, and he’ll go on to say it a few more times, that the purpose of the death of Jesus was to shed His blood in order to provide a sacrifice for our sins, to propitiate the wrath of God. That “without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.”
But in addition to that, there is a sense in which the death of Jesus is an example to us. It's a moral imperative to us. It involved the greatest possible sacrifice. “He who thought it not robbery to be equal with God, made Himself of no reputation. He humbled Himself and was found in fashion as a man, in the form of a servant. He became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” “Let this mind be in you,” Paul says, ‘a mind of self-denial for the sake of others, an attitude that isn't always standing on their own rights and privileges.’ “Greater love…” Jesus said, didn't He, in the Upper Room, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” So John says to us here in verse 16, ‘We are to lay down our lives for the brethren.’ There's an oughtness to it. There's an imperative to it. It's a commandment. This is what we're supposed to do. This is what the children of God look like. Don't be like Cain but be like Jesus.
III. The assurance of love
We've looked at the test of love, and we've looked at the illustration of love, but let's look in the third place at the assurance of love. In a sense, this is where John wants us to see his emphasis. It's by doing this, by working these works of righteousness, that we demonstrate that we are the children of God. John isn't saying that this is how we become the children of God. We’re not saved by our efforts; we're not saved by our good works; we're not saved by loving the brethren. We’re saved by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” But the evidence that we have faith, genuine faith, saving faith, is that we love the brethren, so that by loving the brethren we assure ourselves that we belong to the kingdom of light rather than to the kingdom of darkness.
Now there are a couple of things here that I want us to see. In verse 20, John says, ‘There's a scenario. There's this possibility that our hearts may condemn us. We are children of God. We have faith in Jesus Christ. Our sins are forgiven. We’re on our way to glory, but our hearts are condemning us. We’re under conviction of sin. For whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart and He knows everything.’ Now it would be interesting to read out the list of commentators who have come down on two different interpretations on what John is saying. It's a long list.
One list of commentators think that what John is saying is giving a word of comfort. Here's the scenario. You find yourself wanting to love the brethren, but you fail. You read the Scriptures. You listen to a sermon. You listen to one of your brothers or sisters, and your heart condemns you. And what do you do? ‘Well,’ John says, ‘You look to God and God is greater than your sins. God has forgiven you in the name of Jesus Christ. You look to Him; you look to the cross; you look to Jesus; and your heart will be comforted.’
There's another whole batch of commentators who see the very opposite; that that's not what John is saying at all. You think your heart condemns you? Well, you haven't seen the half of it, because God knows everything. Actually, there are sins that you've committed that you don't even know about. You think your heart is evil? You think your heart has a propensity to walk in the ways of darkness? You feel condemned? You don't know the half of it. You don't know how wicked your heart is capable of being, but God does. I know you prefer the first interpretation, but it's all too possible that what John is saying is the second interpretation. And you know, Luther is on one side and Calvin is on the other, so take your pick.
Loving someone vs. liking someone
I want to be very practical here. I want us, first of all, in trying to ascertain…What does John actually mean when he says we're to love the brethren; we're to love the people of God; and that this is a test? I want us, first of all, to distinguish between loving someone and liking someone. Not every child of God is equally likeable. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there are some children of God that we don't like. Let's be honest about it. There are some people who may be saved. They believe in Jesus Christ. They've repented of their sins. They’re washed in the blood of Jesus Christ. They’re the children of God. They’re on their way to glory. They’re going to go to heaven…but you don't like them. Their personality rubs you up the wrong way. There's something about them that you’re not drawn to them. Actually, in some cases, you may even be repelled by them. Now I know that that sounds difficult and awkward and it ought not to be in the kingdom of God, and that ought not to be a description of the church of Jesus Christ, but there it is. It's a fact, isn't it? There are some children of God…Let's face it: there are some that we know that we don't actually like very much.
Now let's put it the other way around. They don't like us very much. There may be all kinds of reasons for that. It may be that they’re not terribly sanctified. They’re saved; they’re trusting in the blood of Jesus; but their sins are still apparent. Actually, it may be that you are not sanctified enough. But whatever it is, there are people in the kingdom of God that you don't necessarily like, but you are to love them. You are to love them. You are to love them as Jesus loved the church and gave His life on their behalf.
You see, it's easy to love people that you like, isn't it? Let's face it. That doesn't cost us anything to love people that you like. Oh, that you liked everybody! But the test is when you love somebody that you actually don't like, or actually that you love someone who doesn't particularly like you. And the temptation is that you begin to think thoughts that are evil. And how easily those thoughts can turn into hateful thoughts and jealous thoughts and spiteful thoughts.
Let me take it a step further. It's not only true that there are some people that we like more than others, but it's also true that there are some people that we like a great deal. We have within our societies and communities, even as the children of God within the church…we have what we call “personal friends.” Now Jesus had personal friends. Jesus had twelve disciples, but do you know anything about Thaddeus? Do you know anything at all about Judas, not Iscariot? But you know a great deal about Peter. And you know a great deal about John, John who writes this very epistle, John who calls himself–and only a man under inspiration could call himself “the one whom Jesus loved” and get away with it. John was a close, personal friend of Jesus. I’ll put it like this: that there's a sense in the incarnate life of Jesus as He identifies with our humanity, that He needed friends, and He needed close, personal friends. I think it's possible to say that. And that this commandment to love doesn't preclude the fact that there are some people who are close, personal friends. I have a very close, personal friend. I call him every Sunday, or he calls me. We’re 6,000 miles apart. We've known each other for almost 30 years. Apart from Rosemary, I know more about him than I know about anybody, and probably vice versa.
Let me say a third thing, because John is saying this, that it's all too possible to study what John is saying here about loving the brethren and to follow the logic of his argument–and it takes some doing to follow John's logic in this epistle, and it's beyond me sometimes to exactly follow his logic and train of thought–but to read this and to study this and to come away saying, “Isn't that wonderful? Isn't it wonderful to hear what John is saying? It's a glorious thing! But it's all just in the head. It's all just in my mind.”
And John is saying, ‘You know, the real, real test is what you do with this.’ You see, it's one thing to sit here in the pew this morning at church and to hear what John is saying about loving the brethren and to be convinced by it and to nod in agreement with it. But John is saying, ‘Here's the test.’ He says in verse 17, ‘Here's the scenario. You have all the world's goods…’ And this is us. This is all of us now. ‘You have the world's goods, but you see your brother in need and you close your heart towards him. How does the love of God dwell in you?’
You know, God prepares even hardened, cynical preachers. I didn't want this text. I said to Ligon, “Can't I preach on something else?” Last week, I wasn't in church. I was in bed. I was feeling wretched. Flu, something…the contagion is gone. But my wife is 6,000 miles away. I'm feeling a little low. I go to the drugstore. This was Saturday night; it's about 11:00. And outside…I wanted something, you know, to soothe my troubled spirit…Nyquil, something. And there at the door of the drugstore is a man, and he's got his hand out, and he says, “Can you give me some money? I'm hungry.” And I did it. I did what we've all done. I rationalized. I said to myself, “He's a drunk.” Actually, there was no evidence of him being a drunk at all, but that's what I said, “He's a drunk. You know, why should I give him money?” And I went into the store. And as I went into the store, I heard those sliding doors shut behind me; it was like…it was like a dagger: “You’re just a hypocrite.” Now I'm not telling you what I did, but the man was genuinely in need of food. McDonald's was right across the road. ‘Here's the test,’ John is saying.
And I wonder for you and for me this morning…I wonder if God in His providence has made a need known to you. Maybe somebody in this church, maybe somebody who's lost a job, maybe somebody's who's been going through some dark, dark providences–and they’re in need, and you have the world's goods. And John is saying, ‘Here's the test. When all the talk and all the studies and all the sermons and the worship services are over–here's the test: What are you going to do with that need? What are you going to do with that need?’ You know, as you Americans say, when the rubber meets the road, this is it. This is it. It's as practical and down to earth as that. Here is somebody in need and God has made that need known to you. And what are you doing with that? And John says, ‘This is the test. And there's a response that declares you to be a child of God, and there's a response that declares you to be a child of the devil.’ And it's like a dagger, isn't it?
And may God help us as we try to see the application of this text in our lives to declare ourselves truly to be the children of God. Let's sing together the words of hymn #359, “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds Our Hearts In Christian Love.”
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
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