“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.” I John 3:16
God wants His born-again children to manifest their new righteous nature by living righteously (2:29-3:10a) and loving their Christian brothers and sisters (3:10b-23). This love for one another is not like Cain who took his brother’s life (3:10b-12). It is like Christ Who gave His own life: “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.” (I John 3:16). Christ is the opposite of Cain. Cain’s behavior was life-taking; Christ’s behavior was life-giving.
Let’s look more closely at Christ’s love. The Bible says He “laid down His life.” Jesus’ love was voluntary. He willingly took the initiative and gave up His life on the cross (Rom. 5:8). Christ’s love was not a response to our love (I John 4:10, 19). He loved us even if we never loved Him. Jesus loves us when our walk of faith is weak or when it is strong. He sticks with us in the good times and the bad. Nothing about us makes Christ love us. He loves us because it is His nature to love. If Jesus waited for us to love Him first, He would still be waiting. Thank God that He loved you and me first. His love does not require that we love Him back.
Secondly, Christ’s gave His life “for us.” His love was vicarious. 1 He sacrificed Himself on a cross as our Substitute to pay the penalty for all our sins (John 1:29; I Cor. 15:3-4; 2 Cor. 5:21; I Pet. 3:18; I John 2:1-2). He took the punishment we deserved. You may be familiar with the shooting spree on January 21, 2023, in a Monterey Park dance studio that left eleven people dead, and nine others wounded. The suspected shooter, an elderly Asian man, later shot and killed himself. 2 Suppose that man had not killed himself, but, instead, was captured, tried for his crime, and sentenced to die for it. If it were possible, would you take that man’s place and sacrifice yourself so that man could live? I doubt any of us would. But that’s exactly what Jesus did when He took the place of undeserving sinners like you and me. Who else would die for you except Someone Who loves you that much!
Hatred for a Christian brother or sister makes us like Cain. Love for a Christian brother or sister makes us like Christ. Christ’s love for us is intended to motivate us to sacrificially love our Christian brothers and sisters: “And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (3:16b). Christ laid down His life once for us (Heb. 7:27; 9:12, 26-28; 10:10), but we are to lay down our lives repeatedly for one another. 3
“It is easy to ‘lay down one’s life’: martyrdom is heroic and exhilarating; the difficulty lies in doing the little things, facing day by day the petty sacrifices and self-denials which no one notices, and no one applauds.” 4
We may not have the opportunity to express our love for another Christian by dying in his or her place, so John gives us a tangible example of how we can love another believer. “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?” (I Jon 3:17). The word for “goods” (bios) means “life, livelihood,” 5 or “resources to maintain life.” 6 The phrase “and shuts up his heart” (kai kleisē ta splanchna autou) conveys the idea of closing or slamming shut the door of one’s sympathies or compassions toward another person in need. 7 John is saying that when a Christian has the resources to help another Christian “brother in need,” and refuses to give him assistance, God’s love does not “abide in” that believer, that is, he is out of fellowship with God.
During the first year or so in the Philippines as missionaries, my wife and I were often approached by someone asking us for money or food, simply because in their eyes we were “rich” Americans. And by their standards, we were rich. But I had closed my heart off toward those in need. I became resentful of people who would approach me as if I was a bank on two feet.
I must say, however, that my wife and I would eventually make a good team when we would go to the market to buy groceries. She would do much of the shopping while I shared the gospel with others verbally or through the distribution of gospel tracts. During one of those visits to the market, God’s Spirit pierced my heart when I watched my wife gently and graciously give beggars some fruit or vegetables along with a gospel tract. I had been telling people at the market about God’s love for them through Jesus, but my wife was showing them that love. The apostle John would have said that my wife was walking as Jesus walked (2:6), but I, on the other hand, was not. God’s love had made its home in my wife’s heart, but I did not allow any room for God’s love to dwell in mine even though I had shared the gospel with many people there.
John addresses Christians like me when he writes, “My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.” (I John 3:18). Christian love is expressed primarily with our lives, not just with our lips. Imagine where we would be if Jesus expressed His love for us verbally without any actions. We would still be dead in our sins.
We often tell others, “I love you,” without being prepared to act sacrificially for those to whom we say this. John reminds us that true love involves action (“in deed”) and conformity to the “truth” which involves a genuine concern for the person “as opposed to some self-serving motive.” 8
The apostle John is instructing us to to express our born-again nature as children of God by loving our Christian brothers and sisters (3:10b-18). This love is sacrificial.
“Two Americans were challenged to go to Russia and spend some of their time in ministry to orphanages. They weren’t professionals, and it cost them a pretty penny to leave their jobs and pay their own way. They sacrificed, but as they gave their love, they too found love in return. They came to one orphanage of about a hundred kids where the Christmas story had never been told. So they shared the story of Bethlehem, and the inn, and Mary and the manger, and you know the rest. Then they gave each kid some cut-outs to build their own little manger scene. They used brown flannel to make baby Jesus, some cardboard for the manger, and some yellow scraps of paper for straw.
“As these women went around to look at the work of each child, all went well until one of the women got to the table where little Misha sat. He was about six years old, and everything was in perfect order until she looked into the manger. There were two babies in the manger. She thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. What’s happened here?’ So she asked the translator to come over so she could find out where Misha had gotten mixed up.
“As Misha told the story, everything was accurate. He had all the details in place until he got to the very end, and then he began to ad lib. He said, ‘And when Maria laid the baby in the manger, she looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay. I told her, ‘I have no mamma and I have no pappa, so I don’t have any place to stay.’ Then Jesus told me I could stay with Him. Then I told Him I couldn’t because I didn’t have a gift to give like everyone else did.‘
“’But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much, I thought, what do I have that I could give as a gift? I thought maybe if I keep Him warm, that would be a good gift. So I asked Jesus, ‘If I keep you warm, would that be a good gift?’ And Jesus said, ‘If you keep me warm, that would be the best gift anyone gave me.’ So I got into the manger, and Jesus looked at me and told me I could stay with Him in the manger … always.’”
“As little Misha finished his story his eyes brimmed with tears and they began to splash down his little cheeks. Then he put his hand over his face, his head dropped down to the table, and his shoulders shook as he sobbed and sobbed. The little orphan had found Someone who would never abandon or abuse him, Someone who would always stay with him. The American finished her story by saying, ‘And I learned it’s not what you have in your life, but who you have in your life, that counts.’” 9
As believers in Jesus Christ, we have the most loving Person in the universe living inside us. He guarantees to never leave us nor abandon us. This amazing love of our Savior motivates us to love others sacrificially as Christ has loved us. We then discover that when we love, we live. That is, we experience Christ’s life in a deeper and more fulfilling way as we continue in fellowship with Him.
Prayer: Heavenly Father, we are eternally grateful that Jesus did not express His love merely with words, but also with actions. He voluntarily laid down His life on a cruel cross that all who believe in Him may have everlasting life. O Father, fill us with Jesus’ love so we may love our Christian brothers and sisters with compassionate hearts. Lead us, we pray, to those You want us to love with our lives and not just with our lips. Forgive us for closing off our hearts toward those in need and please renew our love for them. In the matchless name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.
1. Tony Evans, CSB Bibles by Holman, The Tony Evans Bible Commentary (B & H Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2019), pg. 2944.
2. Retrieved on January 31, 2023, from J. David Goodman, Amy Harmon, and Adeel Hassan’s January 24, 2023, New York Times article entitled, “‘Tragedy Upon Tragedy’: January Brings Dozens of Mass Shootings So Far,” at https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/24/us/mass-shootings-january.html.
3. Tom Constable, Dr. Constable’s Notes on 1 John, 2022 Edition, pg. 85.
4. Ibid., cites David Smith, “The Epistles of St. John,” in The Expositor’s Greek Testament, Vol. 5 (1910), 4th ed., edited by W. Robertson Nicoll, 5 vols., (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1900-1912), pg. 186.
5. Archibald Thomas Robertson, A. T. Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament [with Bible and Strong’s Numbers Added!], 6 Volumes (E4 Group, 2014 Kindle Edition), Kindle Location 206300.
6. Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature: Third Edition (BDAG) revised and edited by Frederick William Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000 Kindle Edition), pg. 177.
7. Robertson, A. T. Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament, Kindle Location 206346.
8. David R. Anderson, Maximum Joy: I John – Relationship or Fellowship? (Grace Theology Press, 2013 Kindle Edition), pg. 171.
9. Ibid., pp. 172-174.