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The Gospel in a Word is Love (1 John 3:11-18)

The Gospel in a Word is Love
1 John 3:11-18

Minister’s Summary:
When the church behaves like Cain and brothers and sisters in Christ “murder” one another with hateful attitudes, selfishness, and strife, what we have called the “hallmark” of the incarnational community (i.e., love) has been abandoned. Death has replaced life. Darkness is enveloping the light again.

Exegetical Notes

Topic Sentence (3:11): This is the message which you have heard from the beginning: that we should love one another. The topic sentence is tied to the last sentence in the previous section which links the two halves of the epistle.

3:10 -- the one who does not love his brother

3:11 -- we should love one another

This topic sentence is structurally parallel with 1:5 that was the topic sentence of the first half of the epistle that God is light. While "God is love" does not appear until chapter 4, it is the dominant motif and root of the command to love each other. Thus, the first half of the epistle was dominated by the theme “God is light,” and the second half of the epistle is dominated by the theme “God is love.” To fellowship God means we walk in the light because he is light and we love each other because he is love.

This section falls into three natural divisions: (1) Cain (3:12-15); (2) Christ (3:16-18); and (3) Confidence (3:19-24). There are several indicators of this structure. John begins (2) and (3) with the phrase "by this we know” and concludes (3) with the same phrase (3:16, 18, 24). It also indicates that assurance is a key theme in this section as it relates to faith and love.

The first section (3:12-15) is primarily negative as it contrasts death and life; love and hate; Cain and Abel; evil and righteousness. It links the beginning of the second part of the epistle with the first part of the epistle: light vs. darkness (even though those terms are not used). Thus, Cain offers us the path of darkness as a bad example. But we know the path of light through the Christological revelation of God.

The Bad Example: Cain (3:12-15)

Does the 3:12 mean that Cain was from evil (NRSV) or that Cain belonged to the Evil One (NIV)? I think the latter makes more sense. It is more consistent with other uses of ponhroß (evil; cf. 2:13,14; 5:18,19). Even though absent in Genesis, John attributes Cain's actions to the inspiration of Satan. It is because he belonged to the Evil One that his actions were evil. He "butchered" (slaughter; often used to describes sacrificial offerings in the OT) his brother.

The contrast between evil and righteous is strong here, and the sibling relationship ("brother") is important for the point John makes. Rivalry between brothers is hatred and it leads to murder. Early Jewish and Christian writers focused on the Cain and Abel story quite often. Philo wrote four books on Cain.

Who is Cain here? Does John have in mind the opponents, or does he have in mind potential hostility within the church? Are the secessionists the ones who do not love the brothers, or is there ongoing conflict in the church surrounding the schism or surrounding something else? While the secessionists are probably not far from John's mind, I think John is more concerned about the community's life together against the background of that schism. John appeals to the brothers not to be like Cain, but the secessionists are already like Cain, that is, they already belong to the Evil One. They are antichrists! Now, the community must learn the lesson of love and deal with the inner tension of the community.

I think this inner tension may be specifically related to economics and hospitality rather than what created the schism over Christology. Faith (Christology) and Love (Christology as well) must exist together in order to form community.

The Contrasts
Murder[Share - 3:17]

This is the light vs. darkness contrast restated in terms of love and hate, and against the background of Cain and Abel. Cain hates Abel, and the world (including secessionists) hates Christians, but we should love each other (and, by extension, we should love the world, just as God loved the world too, as we will see in 1 John 4).

"Eternal life" is a concept injected again from the prologue and we will see again in the epilogue. It appears here at the juncture where we are moving from the first part to the second part of the epistle. It is the life we now possess as we abide in the one who himself is eternal life (1 John 5:11, 20). We have already passed from death to life when we love as Christ has loved. This leads to the next section. The transition from verse 15 to 16 is Christological.

The Good Example: Christ (3:16-18).

What Christ Did (3:16a). "Christ" is not in the original text. Rather, refers to "that one" which surely refers to Christ. The NIV supplies "Jesus Christ." Christ laid down his life for us. There are three components to that sentence. First, it was a voluntary "laying aside" [only here in 1 John; but in John 10:11,15,17,18; 15:13]; it was a self-giving. Second, he gave himself, fully and wholly with no "holding back". He gave his "soul" (life in the fullest sense). Third, it was for our benefit. It was about sin (2:2), but for our advantage.

What We Should Do (3:16b-18). Our response should imitate Christ. We should do for each other what Christ did for us...even to the point of laying down our "souls" for each other.

But how does this translate practically? How do I love as Christ loved? If Christ would lay down his "soul" for us, should we not be willing to give up some "material possessions" (bion) for each other. We see the need, we have the compassion (this word only here in 1 John) and we share our bion. This is the "love of God" (cf. 2:5; 3:17; 4:9; 5:3). We know what love is because of what God did in Christ, and if we will not do the same, then we do not have the love of God. If we do not love the brothers, then we have not passed into the eternal life of God's love.

Thus, we love in deed as well as word. We love in truth (reality) as well as tongue. It is not a mere appearance--it is not a mere verbalization, but a concrete reality in our actions toward the brothers.

This may simply be an example of a specific way in which to love, but it also may reflect some tension in the community. Love is demonstrated through hospitality and sharing. It is demonstrated by helping those in need. Perhaps it is connected with the traveling evangelists who need hospitality. Do you love the brothers? Then you will offer hospitality to those in need.

Theological Perspectives

John offers us two models: Cain and Christ. The former is fratricide and the other is self-sacrifice. One belongs to darkness, hate, murder and the Evil One. The other belongs to light, love, self-sacrifice and God.

Our actions arise out of our orientation in life, and our sense of belonging and community. Cain hates because he belongs to the “dark side” (that is, he belongs to the Evil One), which is death. Christ loved because he belonged to the light, which is love. Their actions demonstrate to what community they belong and their orientation to life.

As we exist in community, our actions will demonstrate to which community we authentically belong. In particularly, how we respond to needs of our community will demonstrate the direction of our orientation. We can say we love the brothers and sisters, but only our actions will demonstrate that we do so.

Hate is the attitude that is evidenced by the neglect of the needs of others. Our hate murders fellow believers, just as Cain murdered Abel. Our actions may not be so overt (though they can be as in church splits, envy among Christians, etc.), but the failure to share sacrificially is an evidence of this hatred. When we have the means, but do not share, we act like Cain. When we share, we act like Christ.

Thus, whether we share with those in need is a genuine test of whether we belong to the community of light and love. It is a demonstration of our passage from death to life; it evidences that we follow Christ rather than Cain.

The central theological point is the origin and nature of our experience of God. If we hate the brothers and thus murder them, then we have “no eternal life” in us (3:15). If we neglect our brother who is in need, then the “love of God” is not us (3:17). Eternal life and love are through Jesus. If the nature of our experience of life (how we relate to each other, whether we share with each other, whether we treat each other as “family”) is directly related to whether “eternal life” and the “love of God” are in us. The seed of God’s love and the experience of “eternal life” shape how we exist in community with each other. God’s love and life will transform our hate and selfishness into a sense of community sacrifice. It is the love and life of God in us that generates and shapes our communal relationships. As a result we love the brothers and place their needs above our own. This is the love and life of God revealed in Jesus.

Teaching Particulars

Cain and Christ: Contrasting Examples (3:11-18)

Function of Text: The text contrasts living in the light (eternal life) and living in darkness (death) by the examples of Cain and Christ who illustrate the lifestyles of hate and love respectively.

Theology: Jesus Christ demonstrates that eternal life is a communion of love where there can be no hatred or murder within that fellowship.

Application: Your actions will demonstrate your attitude--you will murder or you will share, and your actions will demonstrate whether you follow Cain or you follow Christ.

Teaching Outline: Whom Do You Follow?

1. Sibling rivalry--will my kids ever stop fighting? Will petty jealousies ever cease? Will churches ever stop fighting among themselves?

2. When the world invades the church, the church begins to hate, fight and murder. This is the invasion of Cain rather than the model of Christ. Death destroys life.

3. Christ gives himself fully for our benefit at great cost to himself. Our response to that model is to lay down our lives for each other, particularly to share our material substance with each other. This is the demonstration of love.

4. Thus, love is not only a verbalization ("I love you"), but a deed. Love acts. Love cares and it shares. Love is concrete or else is not genuine love.

Questions for Discussion:

1. What in the story of Cain illustrates the general attitude of the world towards God’s people? How does this attitude infect the community of God? How does John use this as another test of a true Christian?

2. In contrast to Cain, what stands out to you about what genuine love involves as modeled in Christ?

3. How is assurance related to loving each other self-sacrificially? What is the evidence of this love in our lives?

4. What Cain-like attitudes do you see in your own life?

5. In what ways should we “lay down our lives” for the community—our brothers and sisters? What examples of such have you seen in your community? Who are the models of such life-giving love in your community?


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