5. Love in Action (1 John 3:11-24)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (22:15)

Max Hegele (1873-1945), St. John mosaic, Karl-Borromäus-Kirche (1908-1911), Vienna Central Cemetery, Austria
Max Hegele (1873-1945), "St. John" mosaic, Karl-Borromäus-Kirche (1908-1911), Vienna Central Cemetery, Austria.
John begins the next section of his letter with his central theme -- love:

"This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another." (3:11)

It's amazing that we Christians need to hear the message, the command, of love so often -- and still we don't get it. Our churches are full of selfish, bickering people. The world knows the church for its judgmentalism and rigidness, not for its love and joy. How very sad.

So it is important, my brother, my sister, that you don't let the message of love slip off your consciousness like water off a duck's back. Don't be waterproof to God's message for you!

It's likely that John's opponents in Ephesus were characterized by their hatred of the faithful, orthodox Christian community. But it's also likely that the true Christians were responding in an unloving manner, too.

Hated Because of Righteousness (3:12-13)

John begins this teaching by exploring the relationship between love and hatred, and between hatred and the spirit of murder.

"12 Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother's were righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you." (3:12-13)

Cain Slays Abel out of Jealousy (Genesis 4:2-8)

John refers, of course, to the ancient and familiar story of the brothers Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:2-8). Cain was a farmer; Abel was a herdsman. When it came time to make an "offering" to the Lord, Cain offered the fruit of the ground, while Abel offered an animal sacrifice. The word is minḥâ, with the basic meaning of "gift, tribute," used to describe gifts of tribute to human rulers and as well as to God. While minḥâ usually referred to cereal offerings, in Genesis 4:4-5 its meaning encompasses both agricultural as well as animal sacrifices.1

We're not told why Cain's offering was rejected while Abel's was accepted. There seems to be no inherent reason in this instance why a cereal offering would have been inferior to an animal sacrifice. The reason Cain's offering was rejected seems to stem from his unrighteous actions, his sins, since God exhorts him:

"Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it." (Genesis 4:6-7)

Cain hadn't repented of his sins, but is angry and jealous that God favors the sacrifice of his righteous brother Abel. In a fit of jealousy Cain slays Abel -- and that is John's main reason for introducing the story here.

Jealousy toward the Righteous (3:12b-13)

"And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother's were righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you." (3:12b-13)

John is explaining why the opponents hate the believers -- and why the world hates them. They can see the stark difference between the believers'righteous behavior compared with their own. John's teaching echoes Jesus'words:

"If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: 'No servant is greater than his master.'If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me." (John 15:19-21)

The world says that it hates Christians because they are "holier than thou" and a bunch of hypocrites. And I am sure that these charges are often true. But the real reason for the hatred is that when Christians seek to live righteously, it exposes the sin and corruption of those not committed to Jesus, stimulating both shame, anger, hatred -- and persecution energized by a spirit of murder.

Don't miss the important link here between anger and murder. That's why John calls on the story of Cain and Abel.

Q1. (1 John 3:12-15) Why did Cain resent Abel? Why did Cain kill Abel? How does the story of Cain and Abel illustrate Jesus'explanation of why the world hates us?




Passed from Death to Life (3:14)

Love, says John, is a mark that we are different from the world.

"We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death." (3:14)

There's an echo here of Jesus words:

"Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me ... has crossed over from death to life." (John 5:24)

The common word in these verses is metabainō, "to transfer from one place to another, go/pass over," here, figuratively, "to change from one state or condition to another state, pass, pass on."2 Love from the heart is a true indication -- not subject to counterfeit -- that something has changed deep within us.

Notice that this love first manifests itself in the Christian community itself, "because we love our brothers" (3:14b). This, too, echoes Jesus'words:

"My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:12-13)

Sadly, churches are so often loveless places. We sing, we pray, we worship, but we do not love. I have no complaint with the rise of large churches. Praise God! But unless people connect with a small group within these churches, they are doomed to a loveless model of the Christian congregation. We cannot afford the outward show of success, if at the core of the church we are missing the essential element of "love for the brothers and sisters."

My dear Christian friend, if you really love the brothers and sisters in your church, how does that love show itself in your actions? If it doesn't show up in actions, how do you know it is a real love?

Hate Drives Murder (3:15)

Now John goes back to murder that he introduced with the story of Cain and Abel:

"Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him." (3:15)

Certainly there's a difference between hatred (an attitude) and murder (an action). But the spirit that underlies both hatred and murder is exactly the same spirit. Recall Jesus'own troubling teaching on this from the Sermon on the Mount:

"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.'But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment...." (Matthew 5:21-22a)

This hits home for us when we begin to catalog the people with whom we are angry. Inside we seethe with anger when we suffer unrighteousness -- or even blows to our pride. Anger, of course, is a common, God-given response to cause us to take action. Vital, but dangerous.

Anger comes and goes with the situation. But when we hold onto this anger, it becomes a resident bitterness within us. It produces an unforgiving spirit that Jesus warns us against. Following his teaching on the Lord's Prayer, Jesus says:

"For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." (Matthew 6:14-15)

Of course, full forgiveness can be granted when there is full repentance (Luke 17:3). But we are required to flush our souls of the unforgiveness that manifests itself in harbored anger -- which is in us the spirit of murder. We must! So long as we hold anger towards another, we cannot love him or her as Jesus calls us to.

Q2. (1 John 3:15) How can anger turn into hatred in our hearts? In what ways do anger and hatred relate to murder? How can we get rid of stored-up anger in our hearts so that we may love those who have offended us?



Laying Down Our Lives for Our Brothers (3:16)

To teach this subject, John is going back and forth, from the positive to the negative and back to the positive again.

"This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers." (3:16)

Here he defines love as "laying down one's life"3 "on behalf of"4 one's brother or sister. This, of course, is another echo of Jesus'teaching on love that we considered above:

"My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:12-13)

Love Requires Acts of Compassion (3:17-18)

What does this kind of sacrificial love look like in real life? John says,

"17 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth." (3:17-18)

We're so afraid that people will take advantage of us or scam us that we try to suppress our compassion. Certainly we need to be wise. But we must give out, if God has given to us. This is the most natural thing that love can do. This is loving "with actions and in truth" (3:18).

St. James brings the same message in his letter.

"Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,'but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." (James 2:15-17)

Of course, our most powerful example of pouring out our lives in love is found in our Savior, Jesus Christ:

"This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:10)

"But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8)

"Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13)

Q3. (1 John 3:16-18) What does it mean to "lay down your life for your brothers"? What are some concrete examples of this kind of love in action within the Christian community? If you are in a large congregation, how can you get to know other members so you'll be able to lay down your life for them -- and they for you?




Loving "in Truth" (3:18-20a)

It's one thing to love in action. Now John's thoughts turn to loving in "truth."

"18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.19 This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence 20 whenever our hearts condemn us."

"Truth" in verses 18 and 19 is alētheia, from the root idea of "hiding nothing." The word is often used in the New Testament in the sense of "truthfulness," as well as the content of what is true: "truth," and especially of Christianity as the ultimate truth, as in verse 19 -- "we belong to the truth," that is, the true faith, as opposed to the twisting and half-truths of their opponents in Ephesus. But there is also a sense in verse 18 ("with actions and in truth") that John uses the word with the idea of "reality."5

Phony love talks about compassion; real love does something to express that compassion.

Assuring Our Troubled Hearts (3:19-20)

Have you ever struggled with a crisis of guilt? How can God accept me, as weak and sinful as I am? How do I know that I'm even a true Christian? The answer, says John, is by the objective fact that we truly love our Christian brothers and sisters:

"19 This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence 20 whenever our hearts condemn6 us. For7 God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything." (3:19-20)

These are difficult verses to translate and to understand. For details see the commentaries, but here is the gist of the meaning. "This" in verse 19 seems to look back to true love that loves the brothers and sisters as manifested in deeds of love. "Heart" in these verses seems to refer to the conscience.8

"Set ... at rest" (NIV), "reassure" (NRSV), "assure" (KJV) is peithō. The verb usually means "convince, persuade." But here the context seems to require the rarer meaning of "conciliate, pacify, set at ease/rest," such as found in Matthew 28:14. God seeks to reassure our sometimes troubled hearts. We don't always measure up to his high standard of holiness and we are sometimes troubled with doubts. But the reality of our love for the brothers and sisters is an objective standard upon which we can rely -- and that reassures us.9

In verse 20, the clause, "for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything" (NIV, NRSV) is puzzling. Of course, the conscience isn't perfect. It can be educated, seared, or even become overly tender to the point of causing excruciating doubt. However, it is God's judgment that counts (1 Corinthians 4:3-5), not that of a troubled conscience. John's meaning here can be reduced to two possibilities:

  1. Comfort. God is more merciful than the self-recrimination of our consciences, since he sees the big picture and knows our love for him.
  2. Challenge. God is more rigorous in his judgment than our own consciences, since he knows the full scope of our sin.

But John's purpose in these verses is "to heal the wounded conscience, not to open its wound wider."10 Therefore, it is more consistent to see this clause as giving comfort rather than challenge. Marshall observes:

"No matter how much his heart may condemn him, God still welcomes and forgives the man who seeks his forgiveness and casts himself upon his mercy. And even when we are no longer capable of conscious faith in God and tread the dark valley of severe physical or mental illness, this God will still hold us in his hand. 'The Lord knows those who are his'(2 Timothy 2:19)."11

To summarize, assurance for a troubled conscience comes from two sources: (1) love in action and (2) trust in the omniscience and mercy of our God.

The Blessings of a Confident Heart (3:21-22)

John turns from healing a wounded conscience to the blessings of the heart that has been reassured.

"21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him." (3:21-22)

The blessings are two-fold: (1) communion with God that is characterized by confidence and (2) answered prayer. "Confidence" (NIV, KJV), "boldness" (NRSV) is parrēsia, "a state of boldness and confidence, courage, fearlessness, especially in the presence of persons of high rank,"12 a word we already saw in 2:28.

Obedience and Answered Prayer (3:22)

Verse 22 raises a question in a Christian culture that views everything through the lens of grace.

"[We] receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him." (3:22)

Do we receive answers to prayer because of our obedience? That's what St. John is saying. In contrast to the heretics, who had disconnected obedience and righteous living from their religion, John underscores the importance of holy living.

Is this contrary to grace? No. We know that God doesn't "owe" us anything. Our salvation is entirely by grace. But our continued Christian life requires our participation with God's grace.

If one of your children had been petulant and disobedient, would you be inclined to grant his requests? No, that would only encourage his rebellion. Parents usually grant non-essential requests only if the child is obedient. Grace maintains our relationship as children of our heavenly Parent. But for answers to our extra requests, obedient living is required. That's part of wise child-rearing.

Q4. (1 John 3:22) We know that God doesn't "owe" us anything.  So what is the relationship between obedience and answered prayer? Do we "earn" God's favor through obedience?



Believe and Love (3:23-24)

Now John returns full circle. The apostle reiterates the command to which obedience is required -- the prime directive: Love.

23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24 Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us." (3:23-24)

The Spirit as Our Proof (3:24; 4:13)

Verse 24 and a similar one in 4:13 are given as a proof of our relationship to God: The Holy Spirit.

"And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave13 us." (3:24)

"We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit." (4:13)

For many Christians today the Holy Spirit is mysterious and mystical. They have no real grasp of who or what the Spirit is.

However, for John to twice use the presence of the Holy Spirit as a proof that God lives in us clearly demonstrates that the recipients of this letter were well-taught concerning the Spirit and well-acquainted with his working. In this letter the Holy Spirit is spoken of figuratively as:

  1. The "anointing" that gives us knowledge of the truth (2:20, Lesson 3) and teaches us (2:27), and
  2. The cause of being "born of God" which causes God to "abide/continue" in us (2:29-3:2, Lesson 4).
  3. The "seed" of God in us that keeps us from habitual sin (3:9; Lesson 4).
  4. The "witness" or "testimony" in one's heart (5:10), an inner assurance of God's presence. "The Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God's children" (Romans 8:16).

It's likely that John's recipients experienced and ministered in the charismatic gifts of the Spirit, but those "evidences" aren't what John points to. Rather, he is saying that you know the Spirit's presence from his teaching, leading, sanctifying, and assuring work in your lives.14

Discipleship Lessons from John's Letters, e-book or paperback book
The study is available as a free e-mail Bible study, or as an e-book or paperback book at a modest cost.

One way we can make the Holy Spirit less mystical to the present and next generation of Christians is to continually teach, preach, and rely on the Holy Spirit in our lives as individuals and in our congregations.

John's heretical opponents could talk like Christians, but they didn't love like Christians. In this section, John has taught his "little children":

  1. The significance of letting go of anger so that it doesn't turn into hatred,
  2. The importance of deliberate acts of compassion that demonstrate our love, and
  3. The blessings of keeping Christ's command to love one another.
  4. The assurance of the Holy Spirit with us.


Father, perfect your love in me, I pray. Keep me on a short leash so I don't hold on to anger. Show me how to lay down my life in practical ways, in acts of love for my Christian brothers and sisters. Teach me to love as you do. In Jesus'name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers." (1 John 3:16)

"If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth." (1 John 3:17-18)

"[We] receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him." (1 John 3:22)



1. G. Lloyd Carr, minḥâ, TWOT, #1214a.

2. Metabainō, BDAG 638, 2b.

3. The verb is tithēmi, "put, place." Here it is used in the sense of, "take off, give up" (BDAG 1003, 1bβ).

4. The preposition "for" is huper, "a marker indicating that an activity or event is in some entity's interest, for, in behalf of, for the sake of someone or something" (BDAG 1030, 1aε).

5. Alētheia, BDAG 421.

6. Kataginōskō, "condemn, convict" (BDAG 515).

7. Hoti is often translated "that," as in verse 19. But the context of verse 20 ("For God is greater than our hearts") seems to require the common meaning of a "marker of causality, because, since" (BDAG 732, 4a).

8. In Hebrew thought there is no separate word for conscience, for example, 1 Samuel 24:5 (Marshall, Epistles of John, p. 198, fn. 5; Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, p. 202).

9. "'We can be sure we belong  to the truth,'John affirms, by our obedience to the love command" (Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, p. 200).

10. Stott, Epistles of John, p. 148.

11. Marshall, Epistles of John, p. 199.

12. Parrēsia, BDAG 781, 3b.

13. "Given" in 4:13 and "gave" in 3:24 translate the very common verb didōmi, "to give." The phrase "of his Spirit" (4:13) uses the preposition ek, "out from," specifically, a "marker denoting origin, cause, motive, reason, from, of" (BDAG 296, 3).

14. There is a helpful discussion of various alternative interpretations in Brown, Epistles of John, pp. 465-466, 483-484. Possibilities: (1) The Spirit inspires love, (2) the Spirit inspires gifts, such as prophecy, (3) the Spirit brings an interior witness with our spirits, and (4) the Spirit inspires our confession of faith.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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