(1Jo 3:16 ESV) 16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.
John has just simply and powerfully defined “love” in the Christian context. Of course, in today’s world, few of us will be asked to literally die for our brothers, and so we sigh in relief and figure “love” means go to church each Sunday, be nice, and be decently moral. But John will have none of that.
(1Jo 3:17-18 ESV) 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
The love that Christianity demands is self-sacrificing. It’s not enough to do no harm. We must “do unto others.” Love is shown by actions — actions that are costly. Remember: our example is Jesus.
John reasons that if we must give up our lives for each other, we must also give up our possessions.
(Luk 9:23-24 ESV) 23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
The first sentence is found five times in three of the Gospels. Jesus repeated it and the Gospel writers considered it important enough to report that repetition.
(1Jo 3:19-20 ESV) 19 By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.
Remember: “truth” is the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is the truth. So what is “this”? What reassures us? Evidently, our love for one another. You see, a heart transformed to love as Jesus loves is plain evidence that the anointing of the Spirit remains in us and we remain in good stead with God.
Even if our hearts tell us we are lost, if we love, then God judges us saved — and his judgment matters much more than our own!
(1Jo 3:21-23 ESV) 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.
[We’ll come back to v.22 later.]
But John’s intent is that we understand God’s own heart well enough that our hearts do not condemn us so we may have confidence before God. The preferred, natural state of the Christian is confidence before God. This is not for the rare nearly-perfect Christian. It should be common.
Now, John follows the language of Jesus in latter chapters of the Gospel of John in playing off “commandments” against “commandment.” His point is that if we love God, we’ll obey all the commandments, but the “commandment” (singular) is simply to have faith in Jesus and to love one another.
Search 1 John top to bottom, and you won’t find much more in the way of commandments. However, he takes these with the utmost seriousness. Rather than focusing on countless side issues, John boils it down to “where the goats can get it,” as they say in West Alabama. Get these things right and you’ll be fine with God: faith in Jesus, love for others patterned after Jesus’ own love. That’s it.
Oh! And he adds the Spirit, as we’ll see. The Spirit is key to his thinking.
Could it really be that simple? No, because those are not simple things. There’s a lot of content in those simply stated commands. But Paul agrees —
(Gal 5:6 ESV) 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
(Gal 5:18 ESV) 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
(1Co 13:13 ESV) 13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
(1Ti 1:5 ESV) 5 The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
And so John concludes the chapter —
(1Jo 3:24 ESV) 24 Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.
Now, to a legalist, “his commandments” includes every detail of how to conduct the assembly and organize the church and use funds in the church treasury and church autonomy etc., etc. But that is plainly not John’s meaning. In context, the “commandments” are the “commandment” to love others and have faith in Jesus — from which numerous corollaries flow.
If we love and have faith, we are in God and God is in us. We are saved, we are in right relationship, and we enjoy the same sort of relationship that Jesus had!