WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

By Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER THREE (Lesson LXXX) 11/02/21

3:17 Suppose a believer who is rich enough to have all the necessities of life sees a poor fellow believer who does not have even basic needs. What if the rich believer does not help the poor one? Then it is clear that God’s love is not in that person’s heart.

It isn’t easy to prove our love to others if we choose to avoid acts of generosity. Being generous is an indication of our fellowship with God. We cannot fellowship with God and show no deeds of goodwill. It displays our likeness of God.[1] If we can pass by hurting and needy Christians without a twinge of compassion, then all our spiritual talk is nothing but a loud, clanging cymbal.[2]  The resolution to indifference is compassion. God intends for each believer to become a channel of blessing to others.  Unfortunately, some Christians take on the attitude of receiving the grace of God but not giving by God’s grace.[3]

COMMENTARY

On the subject of compassion, someone asked Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) whether the legal principles of the Law were suitable to follow in the relationship of one person with another? It would seem, they say, that judicial ethics are not ideal because people cannot live together in peace if one takes what belongs to the other. However, this seems to have been approved by the Law since Moses declared: “When you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, but you must not carry any away in a basket.”[4] Therefore, the Old Law did not make suitable provisions for mankind’s peace and the welfare of the people.

Aquinas is quick to answer. First, he points to what the Apostle Paul said to the Romans, “If you love your neighbor, you will be obeying all of God’s laws, fulfilling all his requirements.”[5]  Therefore, the teachings of the Law seem to aim at promoting love for one another. It is precisely what the Apostle John is saying here in verse seventeen. Hence, the purpose of the Law was to accustom people to give of their excess to others willingly. No wonder, Paul tells young Timothy to instruct the wealthy to use their money to do good. An individual does not prove to be generous if they won’t allow some needy person to take small things from them without any risk to their property or estate. Among well-behaved people, the taking of a little does not disturb the peace; in fact, it rather strengthens friendship and accustoms people to give things to one another.[6]

On the subject of showing love and kindness to others, John Owen (1616-1683) says that the faith the Apostle John intends and describes here is altogether useless if it is practiced to earn salvation. John proves this by comparing it with a similar act of charity, “If you have a friend who needs food and clothing, and you say to them, ‘Well, good-bye and God bless you; stay warm and eat heartily,’ and you don’t give them any clothes or food, what good does that do?”[7] This is not the grace and mercy the Gospel asks for, and those who behave like that do not have God’s love dwelling in them, says John.

And the Apostle James implies whatever name it may have, whatever it may pretend to be, professed to be, or accepted as, says Owen, it is not love nor has any of the effects of love. James tells us that it isn’t enough just to have faith. You must also do good to prove that you have it. Faith that doesn’t show itself by good works is no faith at all – it is dead and useless.[8] [9]

Thomas Scott (1747-1821) suggests that if a person has all they need to live comfortably and has plenty to spare without deriving themselves, they should respond generously when they see a brother or sister in the Lord needing the bare necessities just to get by. Their failure to have any compassion or show reluctance to help relieve their fellow saint’s misery raises whether God lives in their hearts. The example of the Anointed One laying down His life for us should inspire any child of God to reach out to those in dire circumstances. The only way to keep the love of the Holy Spirit, placed by God in their hearts, from expressing itself is when a person chokes off any rise in compassion they feel when they see a person in need. How could any believer hold on to more than they need, when some do not have enough to survive. Indeed, the love of God is missing in that person’s heart.[10]

Charitable giving and hospitality, says Charles Hodge (1797-1878), have been excessively promoted in some church ages, as though they were the sum of compassion and the most significant part of devotion. But, while we avoid this extreme, we should remember that we are God’s stewards, and the Apostle John clarifies that if a person sees a brother or sister who has a need and goes by without doing anything, the love of God does not dwell in them.[11] [12]

Richard Rothe (1799-1867) points out that if a believer is called on to sacrifice their life for a Christian brother or sister willingly, how can you trust them when they won’t even help out a fellow believer who needs food or clothing?[13] Some might argue that self-preservation and the survival of the fittest is the common goal of everyone, so how can they be expected to give up what is so essential for their good? If they both end up poor, what good does that do? But the main factor is forgotten with such reasoning. Jesus said, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”[14]

Rothe goes on to say that what better example could we have than the Lord Jesus? He laid down His life for all of us. Remember that sacrificing one’s life is the greatest of loves. We can do so many small things for our neighbors with patience and consideration before being asked to sacrifice everything. And that’s the point John is trying to make. That’s where it starts. If a brother or sister can count on that, they can have confidence that sacrifice will be made on their behalf if it reaches that level.[15]

William Alexander (1824-1911) states that the Apostle John illustrates charity in this verse with an incident showing the opposite of love. The reason for John to provide such an everyday occurrence is wise and sound. So often, we hear ideal acts of giving told in lofty and eloquent language, but they are hard to understand. Yet, they are necessary because, without these grand concepts, our ethical language and morals would lack dignity, fullness, inspiration, and motivation, often required for the call to duty. But, they can be dangerous in proportion to their grandeur. People are apt to mistake the emotion awakened by the sound of these magnificent expressions of duty for the discharge of the task itself.

But beware of hypocrisy, however, because it delights in inspiring heroic speculations with the intention it will not cost anything. As the world will long remember, one of such characters in the parable by Jesus of the rich man and Lazarus, [16] proclaiming that sympathy is one of the holiest principles of our common nature while he shakes his fist at a beggar.[17]

Archibald. T. Robertson (1863-1934) sheds some light on the Greek verb kleiō, translated in the KJV as “shutteth up.” (NKJV has “shuts up”). It simply means, in the active subjective aorist tense, to “close the door.” Robertson tells us that the translators changed it deliberately from the present tense to the aorist, meaning “slammed the door of his compassion.” This was unnecessary since there is no indication that it was done with indifference, not anger. Keep in mind that the Apostle John did not say go out and see who you can find in need. Instead, he says, “if you happen to see” a fellow believer in need, then stop what you are doing and see how you can help. Like the priest and Levite in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, don’t cross to the other side of the street to avoid getting involved. It is your turn to be the good Samaritan.[18]

Let us remember, Jesus told this story to a Jewish individual who thought that only people of their race and religion were their neighbors. Jesus wanted to teach this person an important lesson – that they needed to expand their concept of “neighbor” to include more than just their fellow Jews.[19] Thus, this account was included in the Bible to benefit everyone who wants to please God.[20] The story teaches that a good neighbor demonstrates compassion by action. They respond to the needs of a person suffering – regardless of their background, race, or nationality. A genuine neighbor acts toward others in the same way they would like to be treated.[21]


[1] Hebrews 13:16

[2] 1 Corinthians 13:1

[3] Ephesians 4:28

[4] Deuteronomy 23:24

[5] Romans 13:8

[6] Aquinas, Thomas: Summa Theologica, Vol. 2, p. 1253

[7] James 2:15-16

[8] Ibid. 2:17

[9] Owen, John: The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, p. 549

[10] Scott, Thomas, The Holy Bible with Explanatory Notes, op. cit., p. 699

[11] See 1 John 3:13

[12] Hodge, Charles: Commentary on Romans, op. cit., p. 636

[13] See James 2:15-16

[14] Matthew 16:26

[15] Rothe, Richard, The Expository Times, June 1893, op. cit., pp. 410-411

[16] Luke 16:19-31

[17] Alexander William, The Expositor’s Bible, Discourse IX, II, p. 193; See Footnote (1). It is an option that on Quinquagesima Sunday before the beginning of Lent, when 1 Corinthians 13 is the Epistle and Luke 18:33-34 the Gospel to be read, that the lyric of love is joined with verse one of this Epistle to tell us of a love which not only proclaimed itself ready to be sacrificed but condescended individually to the blind begging homeless who sat by the roadside calling out for alms.

[18] Robertson, A. T. Word Pictures, op. cit., p. 1957

[19] Cf. Luke 10-36-37

[20] See 2 Timothy 3:16-17

[21] Matthew 7:12

About drbob76

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