Satan’s Children Are Indifferent Toward God’s Children
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. (3:16–18)
The phrase we know love by this again affirms genuine love as the outstanding mark of the Christian (cf. the discussion of v. 11 above). By God’s grace, a loving willingness to give up everything to help others (cf. 2 Cor. 9:6–12; 1 Tim. 6:17–19; Heb. 13:16, 21) permeates the attitudes of believers and shines forth in their lives. The New Testament contains several notable examples of such sacrificial love. One such example was Epaphroditus, whom the apostle Paul commended to the Philippians:
I thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger and minister to my need; because he was longing for you all and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick. For indeed he was sick to the point of death, but God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, so that I would not have sorrow upon sorrow. Therefore I have sent him all the more eagerly so that when you see him again you may rejoice and I may be less concerned about you. Receive him then in the Lord with all joy, and hold men like him in high regard; because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was deficient in your service to me. (Phil. 2:25–30)
Paul also was willing to surrender his life for the cause of Christ, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21; cf. Rom. 9:3–5; 2 Cor. 1:9–10). Of course, the Lord Jesus was Paul’s role model, because at the cross He laid down His life for all who believe (cf. John 10:11, 14–18; 15:13; Rom. 8:32–34; Gal. 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24).
The expression laid down His life for us is unique to the apostle John (John 10:11, 15, 17, 18; 13:37–38; 15:13), and in addition to life itself it refers to divesting oneself of anything important. Obviously, Christ’s atoning death is the supreme example of selfless love (John 15:12–13; Phil. 2:5–8; 1 Peter 2:19–23; cf. 2 Cor. 8:9). Thus John exhorts his readers, as followers of Christ, that they ought to lay down their lives for the brethren, should such sacrifice be necessary. That this expression refers to something far more extensive than only sacrificial death for a fellow believer is clear from the subsequent statement about having goods that someone needs.
The selfish indifference of unbelievers stands in sharp contrast to the generous, compassionate love that believers exhibit (Acts 2:45; 4:36–37; 9:36; 11:29–30; 2 Cor. 8:1–5; 9:2, 11–13; Phil. 4:14–16). John illustrates the difference in attitude in practical, specific terms: 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? The children of the Devil often have the world’s goods (material wealth) at their disposal. When they do give sacrificially to anyone else (cf. Mark 12:43–44), they are motivated by selfishness. Unbelievers’ philanthropic efforts are usually merely to pacify their consciences, satisfy their emotions, or bring honor to themselves (cf. Matt. 6:1–2) rather than glory to God.
But that is not to be the case with believers, as John’s closing injunction to his readers indicates: Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. It is not enough for an individual merely to profess love for others (which is also true regarding faith; cf. Luke 6:46; James 2:18–26). The proof that one has genuine love and is a child of God rests not in sentiments but in deeds (cf. Matt. 25:34–40).
For John, therefore, the differences between Satan’s children and God’s children could not be more distinct. Those who murder, habitually hate, or are chronically self-centered and indifferent to the needs of others do not have eternal life. But those who, as part of their repentance from sin and trust in Christ, have renounced murderous, hateful attitudes and all cold, selfish indifference to the needs of others give evidence that they have been born again. In place of those sinful traits, Christians manifest genuine love to others, especially fellow believers (Rom. 12:10–13; Gal. 6:10), because of the love of God shed abroad in their hearts. They sincerely obey James’s injunction: “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27; cf. 2:8, 15–17).
16 Having vilified the Antichrists by analogy with Cain, John offers a positive example of true love: Jesus. The NIV’s colon renders the Greek hoti, which here introduces a paraphrase of John 15:13—“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (cf. Jn 10:11–18). “Lay down his life [psychē, GK 6034]” is a uniquely Johannine way of describing Jesus’ voluntary self-sacrifice, an act that represents the highest possible expression of love (Jn 15:13). The citation at 1 John 3:16 is introduced with the perfect tense of ginōskō (“we have known,” GK 1182), which probably refers both to mental awareness and emotional experience (see comment at 2:2). True believers “have known” of Jesus’ love not only in the sense that they have accepted John’s witness about Jesus but also in the sense that they have experienced divine love and forgiveness. Such an experience should motivate them to act in the same self-sacrificing way toward other believers.
John’s dualistic mind-set is evident in his narrow and absolute definition of love (agapē). There are no degrees of love: those who sacrifice themselves, like Jesus, show love; those who do not act this way show hate. The NIV reflects this emphasis with the translation “This is how we know what love is.” Since there is only one kind of love, and since this one kind was modeled by Jesus, Christians, like Jesus, “ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” In the historical setting of 1-2-3 John (see Introduction), this might mean that some Johannine Christians had literally suffered martyrdom for the community, but the application of the principle in v. 17 suggests that John is thinking of one’s material possessions. The person who does not sacrifice herself and her wealth for her brothers is no different from the Antichrists and Cain. If it seems too much to ask for this sort of love, John could point out that Jesus laid down his life not only for his friends (Jn 15:13) but even for the hostile world (Jn 6:51). Surely, then, Christians can at least love other Christians.
17 Up to this point, John’s discussion of love and hate has been rather abstract, focusing on vague generalities. Here he offers a direct and practical test that will identify selfless love. John states this test in the form of a sarcastic rhetorical question. The Greek text of the verse consists of four phrases loosely arranged in a brief narrative:
- If someone has “the life of the world” (NIV, “material possessions”), and
- If that person “sees his brother having need,” and (kai; NIV, “but”)
- If that person “closes his heart to” (NIV, “has no pity on”) the needy brother,
- then the love of God does not remain in him.
The opening statement in John’s illustration is considerably stronger in the Greek text than in the NIV. While the NIV translates ton bion tou kosmou (“the life of the world”; cf. Marshall, 194 n. 20) with the somewhat neutral “material possessions,” both bios and kosmos (GK 3180) have negative implications in Johannine thought. First John 2:16 refers to material wealth as the “pride of life [bios],” associating it with “the lust of the flesh” and “the lust of the eyes,” which do not proceed from the Father. The true origin of such things is indicated here in 3:17: they are “from the kosmos,” the hostile world that is alienated from God and hates Jesus (see Introduction). While modern Western Christians might be uncomfortable with the association, John suggests that material wealth is inherently worldly, making it almost unnatural for a believer to be possessed of excess resources. This being the case, Christians should have no difficulty relieving themselves of money whenever a need arises.
Phrase 2 introduces the second character in John’s scenario. The contrast between this person and the first person hinges on the repetition of echō, “has.” While the first person “has life,” the second person “has need.” John uses theōreō (“sees,” GK 2555), to describe the first person’s realization of the second person’s need. While poverty may indeed manifest itself visibly in the appearance of its victims, John probably wishes to stress that the person in question has firsthand information about his brother’s need. In such a situation, the example of Jesus would call the wealthy brother to divest himself of his worldly goods and help the person who is less fortunate.
The plot of John’s story, however, takes a tragic turn, for phrase 3 indicates that the wealthy brother has gone the way of Cain. The NIV dilutes the treachery of the wealthy man’s deed by saying that he “has no pity,” suggesting only a passive indifference toward the brother’s need. In fact, John portrays the wealthy brother as one who actively distances himself from the situation by “closing his heart” to his brother. “Heart” here is splanchna (“the bowels,” GK 5073), which the ancient Greeks saw as the seat of the emotions. The unusual image of “closing” (kleiō, GK 3091) one’s affections probably builds on theōreō from phrase 2. The wealthy man’s eye is open to his brother’s need, but his heart is closed so he takes no action. He has failed the test.
Phrase 4 offers the conclusion that must be drawn in such a case. “Love of God” uses the objective genitive (“love for God”) to stress a point that echoes a number of sayings in both the Synoptics and the fourth gospel: those who do not love their brothers do not love God either. Jesus set the standard for self-sacrifice, and those who disregard that standard cannot legitimately claim to love him (Mt 25:31–45; Mk 10:45). The Johannine Jesus stresses this point in the final moments with his disciples in the upper room. After washing their feet, Jesus tells them, “You should do [for each other] as I have done for you” (Jn 13:14–15). Shortly thereafter Jesus gives the disciples the “new command,” that they must “love each other as I have loved you” (13:34; 15:12). Since Jesus commanded believers to treat one another in this way, and since only those who obey Jesus’ commands remain in his love (15:9–14), John concludes that those who disobey the command to love are not friends of Jesus, meaning that they do not truly love God. Caring for one’s brothers becomes, then, a visible test of one’s relationship with God. Those who fail this test remain in the world with Cain.
While the general ethical implications of this test are obvious (if painful), John’s sudden emphasis on Christian benevolence, a subject he has not previously mentioned, seems abrupt. In what way does this test apply to the Antichrist situation, and how does it distinguish the children of God from the children of the devil (v. 10)? The answer may lie in the distinction John makes between Gaius and Diotrephes in 3 John. Both 2 and 3 John suggest that the Johannine churches were held together by a network of itinerant teachers, protégés of John who spoke and acted on his behalf (see Introduction; comment at 1 Jn 2:19). Second John 10–11 and 3 John 5–8 indicate that John’s representatives relied on the support and hospitality of local congregations to finance their travels. The test at 1 John 3:17 may be aimed at people such as Diotrephes, an apparent ally of the Antichrists, who “refuses to welcome the brothers [and] also stops those who want to do so” (3 Jn 10). In such a setting, the wealthy person would represent the kind of inhospitable people (e.g., Diotrephes) who show hatred for their righteous brothers (John’s representatives) by ignoring their needs and refusing to support them. Such hostile behavior proves in John’s mind that Diotrephes and others like him do not truly love God. On the other hand, Christian leaders such as Gaius, who has shown hospitality to John’s associates and has “sent them on their way in a manner worthy of God” (3 Jn 6), prove their love for God by obeying the love command.
18 After blasting the Antichrists John suddenly shifts to a more pastoral tone to encourage his “children” (teknion), those who pass the test of love. Verse 18 summarizes vv. 11–17 and also John’s general view of Christian duty. Love does not express itself “with words or tongue” but rather “in deeds and truth” (NIV, “with actions and in truth”). This statement parallels John 4:24, where Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that true worshipers must approach the Father “in spirit and in truth.” “In truth” has a doctrinal orientation, referring to a correct view of Jesus. Just as real worship depends on a proper recognition of Jesus’ identity, genuine Christian ethics must also be based on John’s orthodox witness. This verse epitomizes John’s belief that all aspects of Christian life are grounded in Christology.
3:16 / Continuing the theme of love, the Elder offers an experiential and operational definition (lit., “By this we have come to know love”): Jesus Christ (the Greek text only has “he,” ekeinos) laid down his life for us. This is one of the most common elements in early Christian creeds (1 Cor. 15:3; Gal. 1:4; 2:20). Two aspects of the Greek text of this verse reinforce the idea of love. The Greek word order itself emphasizes for us; it is put first, just as Christ put us first in the gift of his life. The verb laid down (ethēken) stresses that Jesus gave up his own life willingly, thus showing the motivation of love. So in the Gospel of John, Jesus, “the good shepherd,” voluntarily “lays down his life for the sheep” (10:11, 15, 17–18). The death of Jesus is also the decisive evidence of God’s love (John 3:16; Rom. 5:8; 1 John 4:9–10).
Here, as in many other places in the nt, the conduct of Jesus is taken as the example or model for Christians to follow. (In 1 John 4:11, it is God’s love which provides the pattern.) This is true in general, but also with specific reference to his suffering and death (cf. 1 Pet. 2:21–23; Heb. 12:3–4; 13:12–13). In John 15:12, Jesus tells his disciples, “Love as I have loved you” (cf. 13:34), and in the next verse he says, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus’ actions demonstrate the sacrificial element in authentic agapē love. Love is a personal commitment to give oneself to foster the highest good and well-being of others. Sometimes giving oneself for others means more than giving one’s time or money or energy; it may mean giving one’s very life.
3:17 / As a concrete instance of this love and the lack of it among the secessionists, the Elder turns to material possessions and how they are handled. He envisions a situation in which someone has material possessions (lit., “the life of the world,” ton bion tou kosmou), sees (theōrē, “stares,” “gazes”) his brother lacking them, and yet refuses to help him. This may have been the very condition of the writer’s community, especially if those who withdrew were numerous and the community had been a network of interdependent house churches (as 2 and 3 John seem to suppose). In 2:16 the writer knows of people, likely the schismatics, who boast of “the world’s goods” (tou biou). They boast of what they have, and they do not share it with others (even their former brothers and sisters) who are in need (lit., “having need”). What is missing is the element of pity (lit., “closes his innards [heart] from him”). Not only do they not help the needy brother or sister, but they deliberately “shut off a feeling of compassion that the needy would instinctively arouse” (Brown, Epistles, p. 450).
The three previous clauses in v. 17 all lead to the question: how can the love of God be in him? Does the author mean love for God, love from God, or God’s kind of love? It is not easy to decide. First John 4:20 expresses the first alternative, but here the writer means God’s kind of love, divine love. Just as eternal life does not abide (menousan, untranslated in the niv) in one who hates his brother (3:15), so it is unthinkable that God’s love abides (menei, untranslated in the niv) in such a merciless person. The question implies a negative answer.
3:18 / Verse 18 is a fitting conclusion to the teaching on love for one another in vv. 11–18. Influenced by the negative example in v. 17, the present tense command in this verse is also negative: “let us not be loving.” The command is followed by four nouns in two pairs: with words (the Greek is singular, “word,” logō) or tongue (tē glōssē), but with actions (again the Greek is singular, “action,” or “deed,” ergos) and in truth (alētheia). Genuine love must be practical, visible, and active. Just as God’s/Jesus’ love is made manifest in the giving of his life for us (3:16), and just as the secessionists’ lack of love is seen concretely in their failure to help their brothers and sisters in need (3:17), so authentic love is a matter not of words (“I/we love you”) but of practical actions.
The most difficult aspect of interpreting v. 18 concerns the relation of the second word in each pair to its partner. At first glance, they do not appear to be parallel. While word and tongue are roughly similar, actions and truth are not. In truth can mean “in reality,” as opposed to mere intention or even deceptive lies. But in the letters of John, in truth usually means “within the sphere of God’s truth,” i.e., God’s revelation of the way things really are in Christ, who is the truth (John 14:6); much as in Paul’s writings “in Christ” can represent “in the sphere of Christ,” where he is the all-determining reality. The writer means, then, something like “deeds of truth,” or “actions which come from the truth.” The words and tongue phrase could also be parallel, since words come from the tongue. The Elder means that his readers should love, not with mere spoken words, but with the kind of actions which knowing Christ (3:16) and having God’s love within them (3:17) produce.
3:16–18. In stark contrast to this unspeakable hatred is Jesus’ remarkable love. We can understand what love is by looking at Jesus’ example. He laid down his life for us. We ought to be prepared to do the same for one another. While the necessity of laying down our lives for one another is rare, the necessity of helping meet one another’s needs is not. The true test of a Christian’s love is not his words (loving with words or tongue) but his willingness to sacrifice for the sake of his brother … to love with actions and in truth.
16. This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.
John is a pastor and a teacher. As a wise pastor he places himself at the level of his readers by using the pronoun we. And as a teacher he reminds his readers of the message of the gospel by saying, “We know,” that is, “We have learned our lesson and know it well.”
But what do we know? We know what love is. John calls attention not to illustrations of love taken from daily life, but to the supreme example of love, namely, to “Jesus Christ [who] laid down his life for us.” In short, we know what love is, because we have heard the gospel message.
Jesus’ death on the cross is not a passive death comparable to the sacrificial death of an animal. Jesus died actively and purposefully. Of his own will he laid down his life for his people. If, then, Jesus gave his life for us, what is our obligation to him? In the nineteenth century, Frances R. Havergal put this question in the form of a hymn:
I gave My life for thee,
My precious blood I shed,
That thou might’st ransomed be,
And quickened from the dead;
I gave, I gave My life for thee;
What hast thou given for Me?
John has an answer, for he writes, “And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” When he says ought, he imposes a moral obligation: as Jesus extends his love by giving his life, so the Christian ought to express his love for the believers by being willing to lay down his life for them. When the honor of God’s name, the advancement of his church, and the need of his people demand that we love our brothers, we ought to show our love at all cost—even to the point of risking and losing our lives.
3:16 Our Lord Jesus gave us the ultimate example of love when He laid down His life for us. Christ is here contrasted with Cain. He gives us love in its highest expression. In one sense, love is invisible, but we can see the manifestation of love. In the cross of Calvary we see the love that is love indeed. John draws the lesson from this that we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. This means that our lives should be a continual giving-out on behalf of other believers, and that we should be ready to die for them also if necessary. Most of us will never be required to die on behalf of others, but every one of us can manifest brotherly love by sharing our material things with those in need. That is what is emphasized in verse 17.
3:17 If verse 16 suggests the most we can do for our brethren, verse 17 suggests the least. John distinctly says that a man is not a Christian who sees his brother in need and yet withholds from him what is necessary to satisfy that need. This does not justify indiscriminate giving to everyone, because it is possible to harm a man by giving him money with which to buy what would not be good for him. However, the verse does raise very disturbing questions concerning the accumulation of wealth by Christians.
3:18 We should not love in word or in tongue, but rather in deed and in truth. In other words, it should not be a matter of affectionate terms only, neither should it be an expression of what is not true. But it should be manifested in actual deeds of kindness and should be genuine instead of false.
 MacArthur, J. (2007). 1, 2, 3 John (pp. 135–137). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 Thatcher, T. (2006). 1 John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, pp. 464–466). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Johnson, T. F. (2011). 1, 2, and 3 John (pp. 83–85). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Walls, D., & Anders, M. (1999). I & II Peter, I, II & III John, Jude (Vol. 11, p. 197). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of James and the Epistles of John (Vol. 14, p. 310). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 2318). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.