WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

By Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER THREE (Lesson LXXVII) 10/28/21

3:16 So now we can tell who is a child of God and who belongs to Satan. Whoever is living a life of sin and doesn’t love his brother shows that he is not in God’s family;

Rudolf Schnackenburg (1914-2002) puts it this way: “After this horrifying glimpse into the abyss of hatred, the Apostle John proceeds to give us his positive assessment of the nature of love and how it operates.”  And all we need to do is look at the Son of God for an example of love put to the test. His willingness to surrender His life on our behalf provides the best illustration of the essence of genuine love. Pure love is expressed by ordinary means as well as in extraordinary ways. Love, sometimes, requires selflessness and, at other times, sacrifice. But for this demonstration of love to be far-reaching, it must begin in the House of God among the children of God.[1]

Donald J. Burdick (1917-1996) also emphasizes that the original Greek text does not read: “Hereby we perceive the love (of God).” The definite article “the” before the noun “love” identifies the particular kind of love of which the Apostle John is speaking. It is the love John has been describing that we know as agapē, whether expressed by God to us or from us to others. So, when you say that you love a brother or sister, it is not romantic infatuation or physical attraction, but love from God’s heart instilled in us.[2]

John Phillips (1927-2010) points to what the Apostle John means by saying, “This is how we perceive Love.” The Greek verb John uses is ginōskō, which can mean: “learn to know,” “come to understand,” “become acquainted with.” I remember living in Switzerland and showing a guest from the United States around the countryside. I wanted to show him a flowery green alpine meadow with a sparkling lake. It was very foggy as we drove up the mountainside, and I was becoming fearful that the higher we went, the foggier it would get.  So, as we entered the tunnel to get into the center where the valley lay, it meant he would not get to see the enchanting scene in all its beauty. However, when we exited the tunnel, it was sunny and bright, and the valley and lake looked as fantastic as ever. I came to understand that the fog on the outside did not jump over the alp to the inside. In the same way, John implies that despite all we’ve seen and heard about the foggy hatred in this world, we’ve come to understand the ripeness and sunshine of Love. Which love? God’s Love![3]

Raymond E. Brown (1928-1998) reminds us that the Apostle John says we must not be like Cain, who joined the devil’s brood and killed his brother. And why did Cain kill him? Because he was personally involved in the practice of evil, while the acts of his brother were righteous. So, don’t be surprised, friends, when the world hates you. It has been going on for a long time. We know about our transfer from spiritual death to eternal life, that we love our brothers and sisters. Anyone who doesn’t love is spiritually dead. Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know very well that eternal life and murder don’t go together.[4] But now, John leaves the negative for the positive. Now that you know, this will help you understand real love. In this case, instead of the world (Cain) killing Jesus (Abel) to usher in death, our Lord brought in eternal life. So, while hatred leads to murder, love guides to everlasting life.[5]

Simon J. Kistemaker (1930-2017) says that we can paraphrase what the Apostle John says here about getting to understand Love by stating, “We have learned our lesson and know it well.” Kistemaker reminds us that Jesus’ death on the cross is not a passive death, comparable to the sacrificial death of an animal. On the contrary, Jesus died actively and purposefully. They did not take His life from Him; He gave it freely to them. Kistemaker recalls an old sacred hymn that expresses this sacrificial love so beautifully:

I gave My life for thee,
My precious blood I shed,
That thou might ransomed be,
And raised up from the dead;
I gave, I gave My life for thee,
What hast thou given for Me?
I gave, I gave My life for thee,
What hast thou given for Me?[6]

When John says we “ought” to lay down our lives, he imposes a moral obligation. It also calls for action instead of just words. [7]

Stephen S. Smalley (1931-2018) says that the Apostle John continues developing the theme of obedience as a condition of living as a child of God by studying the pattern of loyalty in fulfilling the love command of the Anointed One. John focuses on the exemplification of obedient love, supremely found in Jesus. Love is something that has to be proven, not just verbally expressed. A husband can say to his wife, “I love you,” a dozen times during the day, and it will be taken as a promise. But only when he does some kind, loving, and caring deed for her will it resonate in her heart as real. Love must be presented as a concrete act, not just an abstract thought.

That’s why John uses Jesus as an example at the beginning of this verse, says Smalley. So, it is not so much that we say we love, but how we display our love to our fellow believers and God.[8] And when it comes to acts of love, there is a difference between sharing and sacrificing. Sharing means you take something you have in abundance and pass it around to others. Sacrifice denotes taking something of which you only have one and giving it away. Jesus only had one life, and He gave it away on our behalf. In using this illustration, John sets up the next verse as an example.[9]

Edward Malatesta (1932-1998) says that John purposely proposes the positive example of the Anointed One who gave His life so that others might live. Similarly, Christians should give their lives so that their brothers and sisters might live.[10] Not only does this prove that we can live by example, but we can also live by following a righteous pattern. At the same time, we cannot be an example unless we have a representative to follow.

John Painter (1935) sees in these texts God’s Love in giving His Son, who in love laid down His life for us to define what love is and create the obligation (Gk. opheilōmen) for us to love one another the same way. It implies that our responsibility is in the form of a debt, which is the commandment’s ingredient. Then Painter says that we can link the failure to live by the commandment to an unwillingness to confess that Jesus the Anointed One came in the flesh. It is not surprising in the light of what he says here in verse sixteen. Here the love command is grounded and defined by Jesus’ loving action in giving Himself for us. We will see that love is described in terms of action responding to those in need in following these two verses.[11]

David Jackman (1945) says that since love is what drew us to the Anointed One, then certainly that same love should attract us to each other, and even bring sinners to hear the message of salvation. Sometimes expressing that love is easy because it fills our hearts like a fountain, but at other times it may require sacrifice, which can cost us dearly. But instead of seeing such surrender as a fatal act, look at it as an investment in someone else’s life. It may not pay off, or it may pay back moderately or even awesomely.[12] In either case, that is the risk we run every day with other commitments in our life.[13]

Robert W. Yarbrough (1948) tells us that the first half of verse fifteen makes the point that everyone who hates their Christian brother or sister is a killer. In the linguistic style of his epistle, John says not to love is hate, [14] and to hate is to be a murderer. It is not very satisfactory as a strictly logical argument. In fact, there seems to be a whole spectrum of options available between the interpersonal relationship of love and hate. Similarly, it is not true that if we do not love someone, we have murdered them in the same sense that Cain murdered Abel. John, however, is not marshaling a strictly logical and literal argument. Instead, he uses the either/or imagery found in the Sermon on the Mount.[15] There, Jesus says to be angry is murder, just as lusting mentally is to commit adultery.[16] Most Bible scholars agree that the Anointed One was speaking hyperbolically. John is likewise using overstatement to clinch his point here in verse fifteen.


[1] Schnackenburg, Rudolf, The Johannine Epistles, op. cit., p. 182

[2] Burdick, Donald J., The Epistles of John, op. cit., p. 60

[3] Phillips, John, Exploring the Epistles of John, op. cit., 109-112

[4] See verses 12-15

[5] Brown, Raymond E., The Epistles of John – Anchor Bible, op. cit., pp. 473-474

[6] I gave my Life for Thee, Frances R. Havergal, 1858

[7] Kistemaker, Simon, James and I-III John – NT Commentary, op. cit., p. 310

[8] Cf. Matthew 22:37

[9] Smalley, Stephen S., 1,2,3 John – Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 51, op. cit., pp. 192-195

[10] Malatesta, Edward, Interiority and Covenant, op. cit., p. 266

[11] Painter, John. Sacra Pagina: 1, 2, and 3 John: Vol. 18, op. cit., (Kindle Location 8702)

[12] See Matthew 13:1-8

[13] Jackman, David, The Message of John’s Letters, op. cit., pp. 100-101

[14] 1 John 2:10-11

[15] Matthew 5:21-22

[16] Ibid. 5:28

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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