In verses 10-15, John set the contrast between the child of God who practices righteousness and loves his brother and the child of the devil who practices unrighteousness and does not love his brother. He held up Cain as an example of a child of the devil. Cain hated his brother and killed him because his brother’s deeds were righteous and his own were evil. And like Cain, all who hate are murderers because murder is where hate leads. Those who hate do not have eternal life abiding in them – they abide in death. Conversely, children of God – who are hated by the world – love the brethren and have passed out of death into life.
John now elaborates on what it means to be a child of God who loves his brother. He again uses an example, but this time points to Jesus as the anti-Cain. A child of God emulates the Son of God and learns from Him how to love.
John continues to use strong language and what seem to be extreme examples to make his points. Just as he said all who hate are murderers like Cain, now he says those who love are willing to lay down their lives like Jesus. In typical John fashion there is no gray area and no contingent language. If you hate, you kill others and if you love, you are willing to die for others.
Jesus did not just die – He died for us. His death was not self-sacrifice for the sake of self-sacrifice. He died that we might live. And in our living we ought to love as He loved – love enough to give our lives for others. Sacrificing FOR others is the essence of godly love.
Note the “We” at the beginning of the verse. John wants to draw a stark contrast with the world and their following of Cain and his hate. Unlike the world, WE know love by this. THEY do not know what love is, but WE know love by seeing the life of Christ and understanding His sacrifice. Unlike Cain who out of hate took the life of another, Jesus out of love gave up His life for another.
John echoes Jesus’ words in John 10:11-18 where He said He would lay down His life for the sheep. Jesus did not have His life taken from Him – He willingly gave it. John’s words also tie in with Jesus’ commands to the disciples in John 15:12-14 that they love one another – and greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. The example of love is Jesus who gave His life for His friends. And the command is from Jesus that as His followers we love enough to lay down our lives for the brethren. We must love with the greatest love – God’s love – and the greatest love is willing to die. (See also Phil 2:5-11)
Death for another is the ultimate self-denial. Jesus said that any disciple of His must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Him (Matt 16:24). Discipleship involves self-denial. By its nature it involves living for another. To be a disciple of Jesus is to live for Him and not for ourselves – to give our life to Him (as He gave His life FOR us). And if our life is His, then it is not so much of a stretch to willingly lay down what does not belong to us out of love for another. In this case death is really a synonym for self-denial and self-denial is the nature of godly love.
Note that nothing is said about the worthiness of the loved. We do not only love the lovely and we do not only love the people we like. We love the brethren. No qualifications. No limitations. If we love like God loves we love ALL the brethren and are willing to deny ourselves for them. This is why the greatest commandment is to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind, and why only after we fulfill the greatest commandment does the second greatest come into play – love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:37-39). The second cannot happen without the first. We love others because our focus is on God and not them. We naturally love only those we deem worthy of our love – but with our eyes on God and our minds set on loving Him and obeying Him and living for Him we are able to love others with the love we experience in Him. We do not love others for their sake but for HIS sake. We give what we have been given and lovingly glorify the One we love by loving others.
Christian love is finding one’s own joy in actively working for the joy of another, even at the self-sacrificial cost of one’s own private pleasure, all for the glory of God. – John Piper
Thought: Does this mean we must LIKE everyone? No. We will always have a natural affinity towards certain people. There will always be people we enjoy being around more than others. There is nothing wrong with that. D Martyn Lloyd-Jones gives an excellent explanation of what loving the brethren means in light of our daily interactions with others: The Bible does not ask us to like the brethren, it asks us to love them, and that means, therefore, something like this: From the animal standpoint – and men and women have an animal part of their nature, let us never forget it – we may not like certain Christians. I mean by that, there is none of this instinctive, elemental attraction; they are not the people whom we naturally like; yet what we are told is that to love them means that we treat them exactly as if we did like them. (Life in Christ; 102)
So what does loving the brethren enough to give our lives for them really mean? How many of us have been in situations where sacrificing our life was truly in question? Perhaps it makes the passage more applicable if we substitute other words for the word lives in verse 16. If we put in the word “time” or “money” or “home” or “weekend” or “vacation” it might make the verse hit us a little harder. Remember that John is telling us we ought to love others with the “greatest” love that Christ modeled in His death. At the root of that love is self-denial. And self-denial is not limited to giving up our life. It might be the loss of comfort or convenience or wealth or time. We are called to love one another with the love God has for us – and no self-sacrifice (however small or large) is outside the bounds of that love. In some respects it is easy to say we would lay our lives down for a brother when we never have to prove it. But to lay down other aspects of our lives that we hold dear is the real proof of our love for God and of God’s love in us.
To make sure his readers understand that love that would give its life for others is worked out in more ways than dying, John now gives a very practical application of his teaching. Sacrificial love is active in the more mundane areas of life also. The key is denial – and in this case it is a willingness to meet physical needs out of our own wealth. If we see a brother in need and do not meet that need out of what we have, we cannot claim to have the love of God in us (nor can we really claim to have a love FOR God). And we certainly cannot claim that we would lay our life down for him.
God’s love is never passive or theoretical. Passive love is like passive faith – both are impossible by definition. James said faith without works is dead and used roughly the same example as John uses here to make his point (James 2:14-17). In the same way love without action is dead. Passive love does not go to the cross. Passive love does not prepare a place for us in paradise. Passive love does not pray for us with groanings too deep for words (Rom 8:26). And passive love does not meet the material needs of a brother. We can claim to love the brethren, but the proof of our love is in our actions (see also Deut 15:7-11).
Those who have experienced the love of God in their lives WILL love others actively (we lay down our lives for the brethren because He laid down His life for US). This is just like mercy and forgiveness. Those who have experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness in their lives will be merciful and forgiving (Matt 18:21-35). Consequently, those who do not love actively and are not merciful and forgiving cannot claim to have experienced God’s love and mercy and forgiveness. Remember verse 10 of this chapter – it is those who PRACTICE righteousness who are the children of God.
Note how John in verse 17 changes from the plural to the singular. In verse 16 he said we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. Here he discusses a brother in need. He wants to make this very real and personal. We practice our love on individuals – we love one brother at a time.
John ends the section with a plea in verse 18. He uses the same affectionate term he has used several times in the letter – little children. He wants his spiritual progeny to fully understand this concept. Do not love in theory – do not love only with words. Love in action – love in truth. Jesus said at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that it is those who act on His words who are wise. Hearing is good and giving mental assent is good – but acting on the commandments of God and acting on our love for others are what prove we are His. Jesus said His sheep will feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit the sick (Matt 25). Godly love is never satisfied with words and thoughts. It proves itself in actions.
A note about loving in truth. Just as the tongue produces the word, so truth produces the deed. The truth of the gospel and the truth of God’s love produce active love in the believer. Loving only in word and tongue shows the lack of truth in the individual. Jesus described Himself as the truth – so we love in truth when we love as He loves – and Jesus laid down His life for us.
It may be helpful to summarize the teaching in this passage about hatred and love. Hatred characterizes the world, whose prototype is Cain. It originates in the devil, issues in murder and is evidence of spiritual death. Love characterizes the church, whose prototype is Christ. It originates in God, issues in self-sacrifice, and is evidence of eternal life. (John Stott, The Letters of John, Tyndale New Testament Commentary; 103.)
The intent of studying this passage is not to motivate us to volunteer for dozens of ministries or give to global outreach or volunteer at an inner-city mission. All those things are good things to do but this passage is actually after something deeper. Its intent is to make us examine our lives. If we do not see any evidence of God’s love working itself out in our actions (if we are not now doing any of the things listed in the first sentence) and if we are not motivated to sacrificially and actively love others – then we must question whether or not we are His.
Beloved friends, let us meditate upon these things; let us look at them; let us realize the nature of love and the implication of claiming that the love of God is in us. And then let us proceed to prove that we have it by loving one another, not in word, not in tongue, but in deed and truth. (D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ; 104.)