Most websites get clicked on and then get clicked off. However, some of them hold your attention. One that stopped me in my tracks about a year ago was The Commercial Appeal’s Memphis Homicide Tracker. On this site are balloons dotting a Google map where murders have occurred in the Memphis–metro area. There are all kinds of other stats on this page.
But statistics don’t always grab our attention. However, if you click on those balloons, there are biographical details of those who died. Some have smiling pictures of the deceased. And that’s where it’s tough to escape the horror. They had life; someone took it away.
Why talk about this? Because John’s talking about love in our passage. But to do so he brings up a murder, its motive, and its opposite. In this text, love is inextricably tied to life, both it’s giving and it’s taking away.
- If you take life, you do not love
That’s fairly obvious, right? If you murder people, you don’t love them. We’re all agreed.
In v. 11, John writes, For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. But to talk about this love, he goes to its antithesis. If you wanted to illustrate hate by bringing up someone from human history, a few names might go through your mind. Jewish history had its own examples, to which John turns in v. 12, We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother.
So, while we might think of Pol Pot, Stalin, or Hitler as the antithesis of love, John goes to Genesis 4. If we’ll set the flannel–graphs aside for a moment, we’ll grasp something of Cain’s hatred. The word here for murder meant Cain slaughtered his brother. It wasn’t an accident. It was premeditated and violent.
Not unlike the local investigator, or Dateline NBC, John turns to motive. Verse 12 continues, And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.
I like how John Stott writes about John the Apostle’s writing, “As he now fills in his preliminary sketch, he uses no colours but black and white.” No need for a jury; no one confused Cain and Abel’s deeds.
Of course, deeds proceed from disposition, as Pastor Phil mentioned last week. So, here’s a follow–up question: Why were Cain’s deeds evil? The beginning of verse 12 answers, We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one . . .”
Their deeds were in stark contrast, because so was their origin. Pastor Phil mentioned chapter 3:8 last week, whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil. Then the next verse, No one born of God makes a practice of sinning. The closing verse of chapter 2 mentioned that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. Again, this is black and white. One birth results in one set of deeds. Rebirth results in the practice of another.
John brings up Cain to illustrate what love is not, but also to contrast these followers of Jesus with the world. The antagonism between the two is not a recent development. In verse 11, he tells them, “You heard from the beginning to love one another.” But longer than we’ve been telling you to love one another, evil has hated good. And that division has had relational consequences, some if not most of them, violent. The good ol’ days ended in Genesis 2.
If this division is true, and it’s been going on for a long time, then v. 13 Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. John must’ve assumed we’d be surprised. In John 2:15, he’s already made clear the tension, Do not love the world. . . . All that is in the world is not from the Father. Then just a few verses earlier in chapter 3: The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Yet he reminds the readers once again of the difference. He knew we inevitably ease back in, and then get comfortable to such a degree that opposition surprises us. But John makes things black and white to remind us that this is what the world does. It’s the world’s disposition.
But John’s not done with Cain. He brought him up for a reason, that is, the reality that we might be like him. Note v. 15 everyone who hates his brother is a murderer. Hate is one of those words we wince at if someone says it in front of our kids. Right or wrong, we don’t want them to repeat it. It’s too strong; too on the nose. But according to John, it’s not strong enough. To hate is to murder.
Of course, John’s repeating what he’s heard. We concluded the Sermon on the Mount Wednesday night, but just a little while back we covered Jesus’ teaching on the law. The authorial intent of the law meant that to look was to commit adultery and to be angry was to commit murder.
We can rationalize Jesus away, of course. I usually really like Robert Yarbrough’s commentary on 1 John, but of the Sermon on the Mount he writes, “It is widely conceded that Christ was speaking hyperbolically.” To be sympathetic, I think I know what he’s getting at. However, the effect is only to minimize what Jesus commanded. And what John wrote here. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer. Stott makes this point, “In equating the hater with the murderer, John is not exaggerating.” Then he quotes Calvin, “for we wish him to perish whom we hate.”
Isn’t that where Cain’s act began? No one thinks, “Cain sure did love Abel.” No, he hated him. Then he murdered him.
This hate in 1 John is present tense. It’s describing the disposition, the practice, we discussed last week. It’s not a flash in the pan. It’s more story than snap. But if hate’s the world’s story, it’s a serial killer.
If you take life, you do not love. Verse 15 continues, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. The order is significant for the text thus far. Not loving is hating. Hating is murder. Murder means you don’t have life. The dead are the ones who take life.
- If you love, you show life.
There are signs something is alive. For example, if I’m looking at a branch in a tree in June, but I can’t find leaves on it, there’s a decent chance that branch is dead. This is especially true if other green leafy branches surround that branch. There are signs of life in us too. I see a few right now. In more dire situations, we might check someone’s pulse, or watch to see if they’re breathing.
John points out a sign of life in v. 14: We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren.
The theme of assurance runs through this book. This passage is no exception. When John says, “We know,” Curtis Vaughan says this is to “know with positive certitude.” What is it that John knows? That we have passed out of death into life. He’s not talking––at least directly––about murder anymore. The Commercial Appeal doesn’t cover this phenomenon. Interestingly, the verb here (have passed) “translates a Greek verb which was used in ancient times of persons migrating from one country to another country.”
That’s not a subtle change. When you’re in another country, you don’t have to remind yourself you’re there. The signs are in a different language. The people walking by are using those unfamiliar words. The architecture might be different. The people look different. You don’t put an alert on your phone, “Remember Joe, you’re in France.”
But the example John uses is even more drastic. We know that we’ve passed out of death into life.
Last week we baptized one of our young ladies who recently trusted in Christ. I teach the 3-5th grade Sunday School class and knew they would be watching the baptism a few minutes later, so last week we discussed it some. I said something like, “Wouldn’t it be cool to watch a movie in church today?” I thought that might pique their interest. Then, I told them we were going to. When they watched Pastor Phil baptize, they’d be watching a movie about the gospel.
That is, as Pastor Phil lowered her into the water, he would say, “buried with Christ in baptism.” That pictured her death. You can imagine their response when I told them the girl they were about to watch be baptized had died. “What?!” But, in conversion, that’s what happened.
Of course, if we got what we deserved, that’s all that would happen. We’d not come up out of the water. And it’d be just. But the gospel says more, not less, than we’ve died to self. So, to put a spotlight on the picture, as we come up out of the water, pastors say, “raised to walk in newness of life.” Which is what John’s talking about. Baptism pictures v. 14’s, “passed out of death into life.”
So, how do we know that’s happened? Is it because we’ve been in a baptistery? Not necessarily, though hopefully your church took your baptism seriously. John says you know you’ve been brought to life, because we love the brothers. We’re not looking for leaves on a tree. Our spiritual pulse is love for other Christians. If you love, you show life.
The converse is true. John says in verse 14, Whoever does not love abides in death. That John mentions abiding means that’s our natural state. We remain in death, unless we’re brought to life.
Elsewhere John states ( John 13:35) that the world will know we’re Christians by our love for one another. Surely if that’s how the world recognizes it, it would clue us in as well.
Loving others shows you have passed from death to life. It’s proof you’re breathing.
But, as we’ve said, loving others can be vague. However, few passages put feet to the concept like this one.
- If you give your life, you show love.
Just as there are signs of life, there are signs of love.
Verse 16 tells us what love is, By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us. I think John’s still got Cain in mind partially. Rather than hate leading to the taking of life. Love led to the laying down of life. If love is the antithesis of hate, Christ is the antithesis of Cain. Cain sacrificed his brother’s life; Jesus sacrificed his own.
However, not only did He lay his own down, in giving His life, he gave life. He’s the reason we have a pulse. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us. Not only did love prompt Him to lay down His life, laying down His life teaches us love.
John continues, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.
Whenever we find passages imploring us to do what Jesus did, we keep in mind that we can’t replicate it. His laying down of life was for our salvation. That’s not what our laying down of life looks like.
Further, often in discussions on the death of Christ, some emphasize Christ’s example over and above the atonement. They say very little about Christ’s death absorbing the wrath of God for our sin, describing it as merely an act of love that shows us how we ought to consider others above ourselves.
We repudiate such a notion. 1 John 2:2 would as well. He was the propitiation for our sins. However, conversely, this text won’t allow us to completely dismiss how His laying down of life models for us love.
Which is what v. 17 describes. So what does this imitation of love look like more specifically? Again, John says what it’s not, 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?
I don’t need to give you any Greek etymologies here. It’s clear. If you know a brother in Christ has a need––and it’s one you can meet––yet you close your heart, John wonders how you can love God. He makes the point later in the epistle, He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. (4:20)
When we’re told to lay down our lives for others, that doesn’t mean merely jumping in front of danger for them. You die for another person because you value their life above your own. That’s a basic definition of love. You consider others above yourself.
Therefore, if they’re broken down on the side of I-40 and you’ve got the time and the resources to help them but, instead, you ignore their texts, ignore their calls, and sit on the couch streaming the next episode, John says, “You don’t love them.” I think you’d agree.
And it doesn’t matter if you wrote them a poem about your undying affection. Verse 18, Little Children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
Again, no long delineation needed. Replying to a text about a broken down vehicle with “I love you” would be obtuse. If you were sitting on the side of the road, what would you say back? Maybe, “No, actually you don’t.”
In fact, knowing what God knows about us, if you take away Jesus’s death on our behalf, you might wonder if God actually loved us. But his love is not vague. He didn’t love merely in words or talk. He demonstrated it by laying down His life. This is the opposite of murder. He did it so we might live.
 Rogers and Rogers, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament, 596.
 Stott, TNTC, 139.
 Stott, TNTC, 142.
 See Curtis Vaughan, Founders Study Commentary, 83.