NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
By Dr. Robert R Seyda
FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN
CHAPTER THREE (Lesson LXXXI) 11/03/21
3:17 Suppose a wealthy believer who has all the necessities of life sees a poor fellow believer without many 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.
John J. Lias (1834-1923) says that instances of “bowels” in the sense of the seat of the affections constantly occur in the First Covenant. The nearest equivalent in modern English would be “hardens their heart against them.” It seems as if a Christian refusing to help a fellow believer in need violated the principles of Christianity, even to the promptings of human nature. Some think that the Apostle John’s words convey that such Christians must force themselves to act against their better feelings when, in fact, it would “grieve God’s Spirit.” The Revised Version gives the idea that a love that once lived in them has already moved out. “Love of God” means God’s Love, poured out into our hearts and then manifested by our actions.
Lias then shares that there is a tendency among people to admire great principles but do not attempt to follow them. This ideological admiration for Christianity, which is content to announce its mission but then forgets to implement it, is common in every age. People hear a good sermon and complement the speaker, yet their lives, though condemned by it, remain unaltered. People speak of the high morality of the Bible and refuse to abide by it. In his country, Lias remarks that many talk enthusiastically of the “beautiful Litany” of the Church of England, which prays so touchingly for those in need or distress. Still, they do nothing to relieve the conditions for which it prays.
Nevertheless, it is possible to become blinded by our delighted admiration of the Love accomplished on the Cross that we forget the words, “go and do likewise.” Yet, at the same time, we applaud this basic principle of love while we forget it does not require one heroic act. That is something we may never be called on to do. However, this same principle rules all the details of our daily life.
Rudolf Schnackenburg (1914-1990) notes that the Apostle John does not make laying down one’s life for the Anointed One a requirement. However, distributing one’s earthly goods to the needy believers is a compelling necessity for all Christians. We see those of the world doing this, so why shouldn’t believers be at the forefront instead of followers? The incentive is more than the emotions of sympathy or compassion; it is all based on love. Sympathy and compassion are human terms, but agape love is divinely inspired. Not only that, but loving our fellow humans is the same as loving God.
Simon J. Kistemaker (1930-2017) points out that the Apostle John does not say, “Let the one with possession share with the needy, and thus show love.” Instead, John says, “Let those with goods to spare show their love to the needy by sharing with them what they have to give.” The intent is not to “make a show of one’s love” but “to show one’s love.” Unless a believer is willing to do this, even without expecting any “thank you” in return, then there is reason to doubt that they have God’s Love abiding in them.
Stephen S. Smalley (1931-2018) says that the Apostle John swiftly and strikingly applies the principle he stated in verse sixteen, a practical illustration of the Anointed One giving His all for all of us, as a plea for the needs of the congregation, possibly in Ephesus. Smalley describes it as a drama. Someone who has (a) plenty to live on, (b) takes note of a needy person, (c) and then deliberately shuts the door in their face. The moral of the story: how can anyone like that claim to have God’s love living in them?
Michael Eaton (1942-2017) points to something I think we have all experienced. That is, those who are the loudest and most aggressive in begging for money already have sufficient sources to meet their needs. Some do what we call today “double-dipping.” That means they collect from one charity after another, each time claiming they are in desperate need of help. But those who need it most often say nothing and are the most neglected. For this reason, they must identify them and stop such indifference.
That’s why the Apostle John says that “When you see.” The Greek verb theōreō (“seeing”) implies “to view attentively, make an assessment of, survey,” also, “view mentally, consider.” Such seeing may occur by chance, or a friend may direct you to someone, and when you understand their situation and condition, you perceive that help is needed. In other words, we do not address the needs of a brother, sister, or neighbor passively but actively.
David Jackman (1945) mentions that a high school senior once told their graduating class, “I want you always to remember, it’s your attitude that will determine your altitude!” Jackman feels that the Apostle John would agree. He also senses that we may never be called on to risk our lives for other Christians, but what about the comparatively minor opportunities we do have for showing love? If we ignore such urges, how can we believe that our love for God is genuine? After all, this is where it counts. That means a believer’s love for God will be tested every time they encounter a Christian actually in need.
Judith Lieu (1951) notes the difference between offering moral support and supplying nourishment. That’s why the Apostle John wanted to help the congregation develop a hospitality ministry to those among them, both in and out of the Church. But what upset John the most was not that they didn’t take the time or make an effort to respond to these needs, but that they shut the door of kindness in people’s faces. John’s question of whether God’s Love lives in such a person needs no answer. On the contrary, says Lieu, the rhetorical question acknowledges that the presence of God’s Love is itself invisible, but those who possess it must surely manifest its presence.
Marianne M. Thompson (1954) says that the Life and Love seen in Jesus’ death and resurrection is the fountain of nutrition for the Christian community. Merely talking about it does not strengthen a believer when they don’t do anything about it. Thompson explains that our Lord’s passion resulted from voluntary “love-giving.” Then, consequent to His death, we have “life-giving” for those who believe. And such compassion turned out to be “light-giving” so that we operate in the truth, not deception. And finally, His selflessness became “liberal-giving” so that we share with those in need out of our abundance.
Bruce Schuchard (1958) says that life in this world describes not just an earthly and ordinary everyday existence but lived in the dark, wayward, hell-bent-on-its-destruction world. He claims that, in more than one English translation, it does not reflect John’s particular interest. No reference to the “riches,” “wealth,” or “money” is made in the original text because John wishes for “whoever” to include everyone, not just the wealthy. Thus, John moves quite understandably from the believer’s need to give of themselves as Jesus gave of Himself, responding to the need to give in everyday life.
Peter Pett (1966) points out that if someone casually says, “I am ready to lay down my life for the brethren, I am ready to take up the cross,” the Apostle John would be proud of them. But what about a brother or sister wanting help? How would you respond to them? Do you pass by on the other side? Do you have a closer look and yet do nothing? Or do you go up to them and assess their need? If you do nothing, you block the compassion that must surely spring up within you and close the door to your heart. So, how can you still say that God’s Love dwells in you? If you do not help them, you show that His love does not reside in you. For, if you have God’s Love dwelling in you, you could not possibly behave that way of one beloved by God. How we behave towards people demonstrates how we feel towards God.
Pett notes that all this relates to love between fellow Christians. It is not because John is unconcerned about the world but because of the importance of love between believers. It is a vital test of active Christian faith. John recognized that those who fail to love their brothers and sisters inside would be concerned more about the world outside. In this verse, John’s anxiety is discussing the subject of the action, not the object, with those who claim to be Christians. He is not talking about general attitude and behavior; he is making a thorough examination of believers. He wants them to face up to what they are. Regarding God’s other children, they should have had an urgent sense of compassion, for they are considering those belonging to God. So, if they do not help them, their case is hopeless. Indeed, they are revealing that they do not have God’s Love dwelling within them. If they do not pass this test, they fail in everything moral and spiritual.
 See Genesis 43:30
 See Ephesians 4:30
 Lias, John J., The First Epistle of St. John with Exposition, op. cit., pp. 267-268
 Ibid. With Homiletical Treatment, op. cit., pp. 265-266
 Schnackenburg, Rudolf, The Johannine Epistles, op. cit., pp. 182-183
 Cf. James 2:15-17
 Kistemaker, Simon J., James and I-III John, op. cit., p. 311
 Smalley, Stephen S., 1, 2, 3 John – Word Commentary, Vol. 51, p. 195
 Cf. Mathew 28:1
 Hebrews 7:4
 Eaton, Michael, 1, 2, 3 John – Focus on the Bible, op. cit., p. 114
 Jackman, David, The Message of John’s Letters, op. cit., p. 101
 See Hebrews 13:1-3
 Lieu, Judith, I, II, III John – NT Library, op. cit., pp. 151-152
 See John 10:11, 15, 17-18
 Thompson, Marianne, M., 1-3 John, op. cit., p. 104
 Schuchard, Bruce G., 1-3 John, op. cit., p. 384
 Luke 10:31-32
 Pett, Peter: Truth According to Scripture, op. cit., loc, cit.