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The fact of the matter is, looking around at the faces around me on any given day, I know that some of us had abusive parents, absent parents, divorced parents, step-parents, parents who abandoned us, parents in the military, parents in prison, parents we’ve never met at all, parents we wish we’d never met. Some of us grew up hearing about what a family is “supposed” to be like and for us, it all sounded like a big, fat lie, because our family was nothing like that.
Here we have a disconnect that can really impact our early Christianity, not to mention all of the relationships in our lives. We can grasp the idea of romantic love because we’ve all seen plenty of movies that show us what that kind of love is supposed to look like, but some of us grew up in circumstances where familial love was simply not something that we saw modeled for us in our daily lives. So we can read the Bible, and when we run into words like mother and father, brother and sister, son and daughter, those words might ring hollow for some of us. Or they might arouse some very deep-seated feelings of anger and betrayal. That kind of love is not necessarily something we have felt, so we have a hard time believing in it.
Let’s just set all of that aside for now. Whether or not we’ve experienced it for ourselves, we can form a picture of the ideal. We do know, even if it’s just a rumor to us, what a family is “supposed” to be like, even if we only know it as something we never had. And we all know that until we’ve experienced it, we don’t really know what it’s like... because that's what we're told. As a woman, I’ve heard the same thing every other woman has heard: You don’t know what love is until you become a mother. Perhaps some of you men have heard someone say, When you have kids of your own, then you’ll understand.
Personally, I don’t know what it’s like to fall in love with my newborn child. I haven't had that experience yet. The world loves to remind me, There's no other love like the love of a parent for a child. Some of us have parents who made that real for us. Some of us don't. I hope to experience that kind of love. In the meantime, so far in my life experience, I can only take everyone’s word for it. I can only be open and hopeful and faithful that when I do have a child, that will happen for me, too.
It's kind of like being told about the love of Christ. Until I knew Christ, I had a hard time believing in His love. If I went with what I knew before I knew Christ, you see, my experiential background provided me with no parameters for that kind of love. I’d heard about it, but I hadn’t experienced it. In my experience, that kind of love didn’t exist. Therein lies the danger of limiting our perspectives of love to only that love which we have felt for ourselves.
So let’s set aside our personal experiences for a minute. For illustrative purposes, let’s keep our eyes on that ideal about what familial love is “supposed” to be like.
We’re going to start transitioning into 1 John at verse 3:10, but before we begin there, I want to point something out to you. If you have your Bible nearby, open it up to 1 John. As you’re on your way to 1 John 3:10 with me, I want you to pause for just a moment at 3:7 and see what it says there. Look at the way John addresses this letter: Dear children.
Now, I’m not going to make you flip back through 1 John with me to look at all of the other places where John writes, Dear children. I’ll just tell you what I’m getting at. The word children is used 15 times in 14 verses throughout the epistle of 1 John in the New International Version of the Bible. This is an epistle that is only five chapters and a little over one hundred verses long. Five of those times, when John uses the word children, he uses the term children of God. Nine of those times, when John uses the word children in his letter, he is writing the words, Dear children, to address his words to his audience—the same way we might still begin a letter today.
And when John writes Dear children, John is writing to a church of believers just like any one of our churches of believers. You see, the reason John’s letter to his church is included in our canonized Bible two thousand years after he wrote it is that the principles of his letter are just as relevant to our church today as it was to that church in John’s day. So when John writes to that church, Dear children, he is also writing to The Church, with capital letters, which includes our church, Christ’s church—the Church we live in today.
Let’s look at a couple of other words that we see a lot in 1 John. Let's look at the words brother and sister. Those words go together, right? Where there are children, there are oftentimes brothers and sisters. The words brother and sister appear together 12 times in the epistle of 1 John. One of those times, in 1 John 3:16, John is speaking to the church and refers to “our brothers and sisters.” In 1 John 3:13, addressing the church directly, John writes, “my brothers and sisters.” The other 10 times John uses the words brother and sister, he is writing about “anyone” in relation with a brother or sister, meaning “whoever” is among those brothers and sisters.
Moving on, the word Father, capitalized, as in God the Father, appears 12 times in 1 John. The word father, not capitalized, as in you fathers within the church, appears three times in 1 John. Now, get this: the word Son appears 22 times in 1 John. When the word Son appears in 1 John, that word is always capitalized, as in the Son of God and God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
Here's a fact of biblical composition and structure that is taught during inductive Bible study classes at the university level: when authors of the Bible use the same words a lot, that’s on purpose. If it's in the Bible, there's a reason for it. If it's repeated a lot, that's because it's important. This is something you can take home with you, so when you’re reading your Bible by yourself, and you notice the same word being used a lot, that’s the author telling you “Hey, I’m making a point here. I’m repeating this word because I want you to notice this word, and I want you to look at what this word means.”
In the case of 1 John 3, we’re seeing a lot of repetition of some very emotional terms. Familial terms in particular, like children, brother and sister, Father and Son—these are words intended to evoke an emotional response by creating sentimental associations. By addressing his church members with the words Dear children, John is suggesting a much more emotional connection with these readers than if he just said, Hey, you guys. And by referring to his church members as brothers and sisters, John is suggesting a much deeper relationship within the body of believers than if he just referred to all you people who show up at the same time on Sundays.
With the intentional, deliberate repetition of these familial terms, John is really driving home a point here, before he even gets into the topic of love and action. So what do Bible readers generally know before we even start reading from 1 John 3? We know, for instance, that we are known as children of God, and we know Him as God the Father and God the Son, and in Christ, we know we have brothers and sisters in the Spirit, and we know we are His church. So when we look at this word love in 1 John, let's first shift our thinking away from this idea of love as a feeling—love as a romantic thing. Let's look at love as a family thing. That is, after all, the next identifiable kind of love as we know it, right? There’s the romantic kind of love we hear about in all the poems and song lyrics, and then there’s the kind of love we’re supposed to have in our families, where we all love each other because we have to.
Okay, that’s a little sarcastic, but now we’re getting a little closer to the biblical concept of love. We’re moving away from the idea of love as something we want for ourselves and something we give exclusively to people of our choosing. Now we’re looking at an idea of love as something that is shared in a familial sense, among parents and children, brothers and sisters. When you bring God into the family, the way 1 John shows us here in the third chapter, then we can begin to grasp this concept of love as an action, not a feeling.
Love in the Church
So here we go, reading 1 John 3:10-18 from the New International Version, and it goes like this:
This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.
For this is the message you heard from the beginning: we should love one another. 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. Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.
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 and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”
In the King James Version of the Bible, the word love is used 43 times in 24 verses throughout 1 John. Almost 10 percent of appearances of the word love in the New Testament occur in 1 John, which is one of the shorter epistles in the New Testament. In eight cases, the word love appears in reference to “love for God” (2:5), “love for the Father” (2:15), or loving God. References to love for other people, as in loving “their brother and sister” (2:10) or loving “one another” (3:11) or “each other” (3:14) appear 13 times in 1 John. References to Christ’s love or God loving “us” (3:1) appear nine times throughout the letter. Finally, the statement “God is love” appears twice (4:8, 16).
Let’s look at the word love in that context, then, because that’s another thing they teach in biblical studies: always look at the immediate context within Scripture before you look to outside sources to answer your questions. So let’s look at the immediate context, and let’s see who John is talking about when he says we should love one another.
First of all, there’s a continuous contrast throughout 1 John which draws the line between those who “know” Christ and those who “claim” to know Christ. In 2:14, John states, “I write to you, dear children, because you know the Father.” These “children” who “know the Father” are, in fact, “children of God,” along with John, as indicated by the collective pronoun we in verse 3:2, which states, “Dear friends, now we are children of God.” John’s us-versus-them contrast is then made plain in 3:10, where he states, “This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.” Therefore, loving “brother and sister” is a condition of being “God’s child,” meaning that references to “brothers” and “sisters” throughout 1 John refer to God’s “children,” or those who “know” Christ. Are you still with me?
Using those familial references to speak to fellow believers, then, John is drawing upon relational imagery to illustrate the type of emotional connections manifest in “love” between believers. Here’s the kicker: love for a brother or sister is not merely an expected outcome of knowing Christ, but it is in fact a defining mark of being a brother or sister, as stressed in 3:10. As 1 John 3:16 defines for us, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our life for our brothers and sisters."
By John’s definition, love is therefore a sacrificial action of God, and in loving “brothers and sisters,” John’s fellow believers and our fellow believers, as “children of God,” are bound to the same sort of sacrificial action toward one another. Again, as 1 John 3:18 tells us, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth."
There we have a pretty good start on our application of the day: we are the people John is writing to here. We are fellow believers, children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ, and according to John, we need “not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” So what in the world does that mean?
Next >>> When We Don't Feel Like It: Love is an Action, Not a Feeling (Part Three)