John saw the extent of Jesus' love. The author of this letter is also the author of the fourth gospel. There he tells us of that time when Jesus said, 'a new commandment I give to you: love one another.' Of course there was a sense in which that commandment was not new. In the Old Testament we are told to love our neighbour. But Jesus infused that command with new depths and meaning.
That night, when Jesus commanded the disciples to love one another, he washed the disciples’ feet. Jews did not wash the feet of their equals. That was a job for a lowly servant. Yet Jesus stooped down before his followers. John had experienced what it was like to have Jesus wash his feet.
The foot washing took place the night before the crucifixion, and it was a picture of the crucifixion, for as Jesus served us by dying for us the grim of all our sin would be washed away. No greater love has been shown to humankind. Now John teaches that the love that has been poured into our lives must flow out of our lives.
It is important to remember the order of things. We do not purchase God's acceptance by obeying his command to love. We obey his command to love because we have been accepted. It is the fruit of what God has done in our lives. It is our grateful response to the kindness he has shown us. We love because he first loved us. Love is like the beeping of the heart monitor that tells us that the person is alive. If God has rescued us from our guilt and sin, lavished his love upon us, adopted us as his beloved children, and given us the Holy Spirit we will become people of love. As we see this love grow within us we will grow in our confidence that we do know God.
But what does this love look like? John focuses on the particular and special love that Christians are to have for their fellow believers.
1. Our older brother commands us to love one another
'This is the message that you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.'
Love is a foundational truth of the gospel. It is to be among the first thing that we learn about following Jesus. We love because he first loved us. As one commentator writes, 'a person cannot come into a real relationship with a loving God without being transformed into a loving person’ (Marshall).
John is going to use the word ‘brother’ a lot. The Greek word translated ‘brother’ can refer to both brother and sisters. It is a word that literally means from the same womb. Christians are profoundly related to each other. We have been born again through the Holy Spirit (we come from the same womb), we have the same Heavenly Father, we share the same older brother, and we should live by the same family values. Like all parents, our loving Father longs for his children to enjoy one another. It grieves him when we aren't getting on with each other.
I find it immensely challenging to realise that the bonds that we have with our fellow believers are even more significant and real than the bonds that we share with our natural blood relatives.
2. Those who are not our spiritual brothers will give us a hard time
John gives us the example of Cain as someone who did not love his brother. That was because while Cain and Abel were brothers by natural birth they were not brothers by spiritual birth.
Both Cain and Abel made a sacrifice to the Lord. Cain's sacrifice did not demonstrate a heart filled with loving submissive penitence and faith whereas Abel’s sacrifice did. Cain was jealous that God looked on Abel’s sacrifice with favour but was not pleased with his. In his jealousy Cain murdered Abel. This hatred showed that he did not belong to God but belonged to the devil.
Cain is an example of someone who did not love the Lord and so did not love the Lord's people. Don't be surprised when people oppose what you believe. Don't be surprised if your family aren't keen about what you believe. Don't be shocked when people slag you for being a Christian. Don't be upset when the media always portrays Christianity negatively. The fact of the matter is that our message does offend. We are telling people that they are not okay as they are, that they are separated from God if they are not in Christ, that if they don't have God as their Father then he will be their judge, and that they are helpless to reform themselves.
3. Showing love to Christ's people is evidence that we have received love from Christ
But we know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers.
This might sound strange, but if you come to me and confess that you are struggling to love someone there will be a party of me that will be deeply encouraged for you. For it will be evidence of the Holy Spirit doing a work in your life.
John has said that the Christian continues to struggle with sin. But he has also said that the Christian cannot continue in sin - meaning that they can't treat sin as if it does not matter. Before you became a Christian you may have had no problem holding a grudge against someone. Now you can't rest until you have done everything to be at peace with people.
Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life. Not that there is no forgiveness for murder (Moses killed a man and was forgiven, and David was complicit in murder and was forgiven) but murder is incompatible with the Christian faith. If you refuse to love other Christians, if you don't care about the bitterness you sometimes feel towards them, if you are happy to hold a grudge against them, then you claim to be a Christian makes as little sense as that of someone who murders and says it doesn't matter!
4. We love our brothers and sisters in Christ in practical ways John compares the love of Jesus with the hatred of Cain.
One of my favourite preachers explains, ‘Cain sees Abel in his righteousness and is filled with hate; Christ sees us in our unrighteousness and is filled with pity.'
Cain's hatred took the life of another. Christ's love gave his life for another. If we have truly encountered the love of Christ then that love that has been poured into us will flow out of us towards his people.
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.
The cross is our ultimate model for Christian love. Christ loved us even when our backs were turned on him. He loved us even though we had done nothing to deserve his love. He loves us even though we have given him many excuses not to love us. He demonstrated his love for us when he laid down his life! Now he calls us to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
What will that look like for you? How will that show itself in our words? Can you see that this is incompatible with gossip? How will that affect your use of time and money? How does this shape your pursuit of pleasure and ambitions? How does it affect the way you chose friends? Whatever God calls you to lay down for others, remember that Christ laid down infinitely more for you!
5. The fruit of love for other Christians is growing sense of assurance
This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us.
As we experience God making us love his people more then we grow in our confidence that we have really been born again. John writes that we might have this assurance. A growing sense of certainty that we belong to God is essential to having joy in him. At times our hearts condemn us, for we know things about ourselves that others cannot see. When our conscience is troubled we should be able to say, ‘I know what I did was inconsistent with being a Christian nevertheless I know I am a Christian—for God is drawing me into deeper relationship with his people.’
6. Don't expect God to listen to your cry for help if you ignore you brother/sister's cry for help.
Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us we have confidence before God, and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him.
Don't imagine that we can earn answers to our prayers. Don't think that we can force God's hand to say yes to all our requests. Sometimes God says ‘no’ to the most heartfelt of prayers. But don't imagine that God will listen to you if you are unwilling to listen to the cries of your brother and sister in Christ. As we draw near to him he graciously draws near to us. As his fruit displays its evidence in our lives he delights to bless us.
I was a border in school. For six years I lived in close proximity with a group of other guys my age. While I enjoyed school it left me with a poor view of what people are like. I saw the bullying and the backstabbing. I witnessed how the crowd fell in behind those who were dominant. Sadly, I was self-righteously blind to my own failings in that situation.
Then, after repeating my leaving, I went to college and decided to get involved with the Christian Union. I have to say that there was an infinite distance between what I experienced in the Christian Union compared to what I experienced in school. There was a friendship, love, gentleness and patience in that college group. The difference has to be the influence of Christ.
My prayer is that Christ will show his influence in our meeting in a way that leaves you in no doubt that he is working in you and in the lives of everyone else here.