In the letter which we know as the book of 1 John, there are an abundance of topics which are addressed. Some relate to basic doctrines, some relate to troublesome false messengers, and others pertain to the everyday lives and choices of Christians.
One passage which grabs our attention is the message of 1 John 3:16-18, where it is written:
(16) By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. (17) But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? (18) My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.
What a marvelous, memorable message that is! Let us look at those words and the surrounding context to learn about God’s will for love in our lives.
Love – a recurring theme in this letter. Love for our fellow Christians is one of the dominant themes of this epistle, especially in chapters three and four. From a number of angles, the Spirit through John appealed to the first-century disciples to love one another. That is just a part of whom God’s children are, recognizing this truth: “. . . we should love one another” (3:11). Would it be correct to say that God commands members of His church to love each other? Read for yourself: “And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment” (3:23).
Love in word – When we read, “. . . let us not love in word or in tongue” (3:18), that is not a divine decree forbidding children of God from verbalizing their love for one another. The point being made is that we ought to do more than talk about love – we need to show it in our action. Jesus told His apostles,
“. . . I have loved you” (John 15:12). Paul wrote the same thing to the saints in Corinth, saying, “. . . though the more abundantly I love you, the less I am loved” (2 Corinthians 12:15). When it comes from a sincere heart, saying or writing “I love you” does not violate Jesus’ teachings.
Love “in deed and in truth” – Again, that is the plain point of 1 John 3:18. Genuine love for other humans is something that we put into practice.
In this context, we see that such love was exemplified. It was shown by none other than the Lord Himself. What was His greatest manifestation of love for humanity? “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us” (3:16). What kind of love was that? It was love in action, love sacrificing, love doing what was in the best interest of others.
In this context, we also see that such love is expected of every single follower of the Christ. He exemplified it and He expects it from us, too. In view of what He did for us, we know, “And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (3:16). In this matter, Cain seriously failed his brother (3:12). We must not do the same. When we see our brother in need of material goods, we need to have compassion, open our hearts and our stockpile of blessings, and help! (3:17). Until we grow to the point of putting love into helpful action, we are just talking and tinkering, and maybe, deceiving ourselves.
Love in deed and in truth – love from the heart. Immediately following the charge for you and me to love in deed and in truth (3:18), in each of the next three statements/sentences there is reference made to a Christian’s heart. Look at them: “our hearts before Him” (3:19), “our heart” (3:20), and “our heart” (3:21). Our heart may or may not condemn us (3:20,21). God sees and God knows.
Words are words. Action is action. But do the words and/or action come from the heart? Are they sincere before God and man, or are we like the hypocrites of Jesus’ day who looked great on the outside but were a mess within? (Matthew 23:27,28). Yes, God calls us to put love into action, but none of us should believe the faulty notion that all action shows true love. Such is not the case. Action without proper motivation (love!) is empty and fruitless.
Lack of love – This is not a pretty picture, but it is one that John sets forth. If I fail to love my brother in the Lord, which is the same as hating him, that makes me a murderer (1 John 3:15). That is what the Bible says, and such language gets my attention. What else?
If a child of God does not love his brother, he is “not of God” (3:10). Such a disciple of Jesus is acting like Cain (3:12). Raise your hand if you want that label (“Acts Just Like Cain”) for your conduct. The world hates, and we expect that (3:13), but we do not expect to see such among God’s family. What else?
One who does not love his brother abides in death, which is separation from God (3:14). The saint who hates his brother is a murderer, and the consequence of being a murderer is that one does not possess eternal life (3:15). You see, my relationship with God, in part, depends on how I treat other people. Think about it.
— Roger D. Campbell