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).
Christian Love (vv. 14–18)
Just as the presence of jealousy and hatred in a life indicates that the person involved is of the world and not of the family of God, so also do love and self-sacrifice indicate that such a one has now passed out of the world and into God’s family. John turns now to an analysis of Christian love, elaborating his statements over against the background of the world’s hatred and murderous designs. In this section he restates and elaborates upon the social test itself, digs deeper into love’s essential nature, and finally suggests two ways in which the Christian may show love practically.
The Social Test
Once again John brings forward the social test, but this time he does so in the context of a black and white contrast with the world’s hatred. In the Greek text the opening pronoun is in a prominent position and is therefore emphasized. It has the effect of saying, “Whatever may be the attitudes and actions of the world, we who are Christians are different; we love one another. This is evidence of the fact that we are God’s children.”
In John’s statement of these ideas in verses 14 and 15 some important truths are passed over quickly. It is profitable to reflect on them. First, when John says that the one who does not love “remains in death,” he indicates that men and women are spiritually dead in trespasses and sins to start with and not that they die later through sinning. In other words, this is an indirect expression of the doctrine of original sin that is so unpopular with some churchmen. Men do not begin neutral, as we might say, and then either choose or reject God. They start as sinners and express their sin in everything they think and do.
Second, there is a passing reference to the supernatural nature of the new birth. When John says Christians are those who “have passed from death to life,” he is indicating that becoming a Christian involves something much like a resurrection. No one grows into Christianity, in other words. Christianity is a divine creation or recreation, by which God of his own free will plants spiritual life within a person who otherwise is dead spiritually.
Third, the impartation of the divine life is of necessity accompanied by the characteristics of the one who gave it, above all by love, so that the one who does not love cannot be assured that he is of God’s family (whatever his beliefs or upbringing) and so the one who does love can know that he is of the brethren.
John’s reference to “brothers” involves a special emphasis. We might have expected him to use the term “beloved,” as he did in the corresponding section earlier (2:7). But he says “brothers” instead, which suggests the idea of families. On the one hand, there is the world’s family with Satan as its father. On the other hand, there is the family of Christians with God as its father. The hatred of the world is seen not merely in the hatred itself but in the fact that it principally hates Christians. For in hating them it hates Christ (“Why do you persecute me?” Acts 9:4). Similarly, the love of Christians is seen not merely in a general love for all mankind, though they have that also, but rather in a particular love for the brethren.
If Christians really do love one another, then they will not spend so much time criticizing one another, as is often the case. They will not abandon the assembling of themselves together while substituting some kind of private religion. They will not neglect one another’s needs. Instead, they will find themselves uniting together in a spiritual fellowship in which the Lord is worshiped and they themselves are mutually encouraged in the Christian life.
The Example of Christ
As John has been writing of Christian “love,” he has been using the greatest of all Greek words for love, agapē. This now brings him inevitably to that supreme example of agapē love, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as he gave himself for our salvation. The love about which John is speaking cannot be analyzed apart from this event. Indeed, it cannot be known apart from it, for it is at the cross and only at the cross that this greatest of all loves is fully demonstrated.
It is interesting to notice in this connection that there is hardly a verse in the New Testament that speaks of God’s love that does not also speak (or the context does not also speak) of the cross. For instance, there is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” First John 4:10: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” In each of these verses the cross of Christ is made the measure of God’s love as well as the primary means by which we become aware of it.
What is it that gives the love of God as seen at the cross its special character? Primarily it is the element of self-sacrifice on behalf of those who are totally undeserving and even undesirous of the sacrifice.
Here the continuing contrast between Cain the murderer and Christ the Savior is seen in its sharpest focus. Life is the most precious possession anyone has. Cain showed his hate by killing righteous Abel. Jesus revealed his love by sacrificing his own life for those foul creatures of sin he chose to make his brethren.
Love for Others
But what does this supreme example of self-sacrifice have to do with Christians? It has everything to do with them, for John does not hesitate to point out that it is precisely in this self-sacrifice of himself that Christ is to be their example. Did he give of himself? Then “we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.”
It is not often the case, at least today, that a Christian literally has opportunity to die in place of a Christian brother or sister. So John (who knew this even for his own more perilous times) will move on to more common matters in the next verse. Nevertheless, we should not pass over the idea of self-sacrifice too quickly. True, we do not often have opportunities literally to die for others. But we do have opportunities to “die to self” or, as we might also say, “sacrifice our own interests” constantly.
This is true of all forms of Christian work, involving both time and money. To make the gospel of Christ known worldwide involves sacrifice on behalf of God’s people. They must live less lavishly than they otherwise might in order that money might be available to send Christian workers to tell others about Christ. They must be willing to sacrifice their sons and daughters to go if God should so lead them. They must go themselves if God directs it.
Another area in which self-sacrifice must be practiced is in the Christian home, particularly in love between a husband and wife. Today’s culture glorifies self-satisfaction. It teaches that if one is not personally and fully gratified in marriage, one has a right to break it off, whatever the cost to the other spouse or to the children. But this is not God’s teaching. God teaches that we must die to self in order that the other person might be fulfilled, for it is only as that happens that we will find the fullness of God’s blessing and personal satisfaction.
The title of Walter Trobisch’s little book, I Loved a Girl, is an illustration of this point. The book is a recollection of letters between a young African boy and Trobisch, his pastor, after the boy had made love to a girl and had written to his pastor about it. One of the pastor’s letters says this:
One phrase in your letter struck me especially. You wrote, “I loved a girl.” No, my friend. You did not love that girl; you went to bed with her—these are two completely different things. You had a sexual episode, but what love is, you did not experience. It’s true you can say to a girl, “I love you,” but what you really mean is something like this: “I want something. Not you, but something from you. I don’t have time to wait. I want it immediately.” … This is the opposite of love, for love wants to give. Love seeks to make the other one happy, and not himself.
“Let me try to tell you what it really should mean if a fellow says to a girl, ‘I love you.’ It means … ‘I will give everything for you and I will give up everything for you, myself as well as all that I possess. I will live for you alone, and I will work for you alone. And I will wait for you. … I will never force you, not even by words. I want to guard you, protect you and keep you from all evil. I want to share with you all my thoughts, my heart and my body—all that I possess. I want to listen to what you have to say. There is nothing I want to undertake without your blessing. I want to remain always at your side.”
This is the standard of love that blesses homes and makes them stable. But it is only learned, as Trobisch later notes, from God as he is revealed in Jesus Christ.
A third area in which self-sacrifice should be practiced is in professional Christian relations. Terrible battles again and again divide the churches. These are usually portrayed as doctrinal battles, as they sometimes are. But more often they are simply personality struggles fueled by jealousy. Choir members can be jealous of one another and hate one another even when they are singing in praise of God. Ministers can be jealous of other ministers, so much so that they rejoice in the others’ failures. Those in one denomination can have the same jealous hatred for those in another and can seek to undermine their ministry. These things ought not to be.
It is important, then, that we do not too quickly pass over the matter of the Christian’s obligation to emulate Jesus’ giving of himself. But neither do we want to linger there forever, for it is also true that the Christian is called to show love in less exacting ways. Suppose that one believer sees another believer in need, says John. And suppose that the first believer has the means to supply what the other is lacking. Well, then, he must supply it. For “if anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (v. 17). Here is practical Christianity. A person may claim to be filled with God’s love and to be so motivated that he would gladly give his life for others. But this can be no more than sentimentality. What John wants to know is how we treat our individual brother (singular, not plural) and how we meet his particular, very tangible need.
His final words are a true conclusion. “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (v. 18). It is not by words alone that love is shown. It is not by words alone that those who are without Christ are won to him, important as words are. It is by deeds, for these back up the words and give them content.
16. Hereby perceive we, or, By this we know. He now shews what true love is; for it would not have been enough to commend it, unless its power is understood. As an instance of perfect love, he sets before us the example of Christ; for he, by not sparing his own life, testified how much he loved us. This then is the mark to which he bids them to advance. The sum of what is said is, that our love is approved, when we transfer the love of ourselves to our brethren, so that every one, in a manner forgetting himself, should seek the good of others.
It is, indeed, certain, that we are far from being equal to Christ: but the Apostle recommends to us the imitation of him; for though we do not overtake him, it is yet meet that we should follow his steps, though at a distance. Doubtless, since it was the Apostle’s object to beat down the vain boasting of hypocrites, who gloried that they had faith in Christ though without brotherly love, he intimated by these words, that except this feeling prevails in our hearts, we have no connexion with Christ. Nor does he yet, as I have said, set before us the love of Christ, so as to require us to be equal to him; for what would this be but to drive us all to despair? But he means that our feelings should be so formed and regulated, that we may desire to devote our life and also our death, first to God, and then to our neighbours.
There is another difference between us and Christ,—the virtue or benefit of our death cannot be the same. For the wrath of God is not pacified by our blood, nor is life procured by our death, nor is punishment due to others suffered by us. But the Apostle, in this comparison, had not in view the end or the effect of Christ’s death; but he meant only that our life should be formed according to his example.
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.
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.
 MacArthur, J. (2007). 1, 2, 3 John (pp. 135–137). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 Boice, J. M. (2004). The Epistles of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 93–97). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (pp. 219–220). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Thatcher, T. (2006). 1 John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, p. 464). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Johnson, T. F. (2011). 1, 2, and 3 John (pp. 83–84). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.