1 John 3:16-24
16 This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 But if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care– how can the love of God remain in him? 18 Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth. 19 This is how we will know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts in God’s presence. 20 Even if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts don’t condemn us, we have confidence in relationship to God. 22 We receive whatever we ask from him because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love each other as he commanded us. 24 The person who keeps his commandments remains in God and God remains in him; and this is how we know that he remains in us, because of the Spirit that he has given to us. (CEB)
Action and Truth
How do we know love? It’s a question Tevye asks his wife Golde in Fiddler on the Roof. After their second daughter makes her own marital match rather than following the tradition of marriages being arranged, a distraught Tevye asks Golde if she loves him. After all, the first time they met each other was on their wedding day. Their parents told them they would love each other in time but, because their daughters keep finding love before marriage, Tevye needs to know if his marriage to Golde has resulted in love. So he asks Golde if she loves him.
First, she calls him a fool, but he persists and asks the question again: “Do you love me.” Then, Golde says, “For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked your cow. After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?” But that’s not the answer Tevye wants. He wants to know, so he asks again, “Do you love me?”
Golde thinks about it, asking herself, “Do I love him?” And her answer is: “For twenty-five years, I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him. Twenty-five years, my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?” Tevye responds, excitedly, “Then you love me!” like it’s an accusation. And, Golde concedes, “I suppose I do.” Then Tevye replies, “And I suppose I love you, too.” Then, they sing together, “It doesn’t change a thing, but even so, after twenty-five years, it’s nice to know.”
How do we know love? Like Golde and Tevye, John the Elder tells us we know love because of the actions of God—the things God does—on our behalf. It’s not because God said, I love you or because God said Hey, dear little humans, this is what love is…, and gave us an explanation. Instead, we know what love is because Jesus laid down his life for us. In the actions of Jesus Christ, God has acted lovingly toward us and for us.
In much the same way that James declares how faith is recognized through actions (c.f. James 2:8-26), John tells us that love is known through actions. And, like James, John even gives a contra-example (c.f. James 2:16-17). Just as faith doesn’t exist apart from action, love doesn’t exist apart from action. John asks, “But, if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care—how can the love of God remain in him?” (1 John 3:17 CEB). It’s our action that reveals the truth and genuineness of our love. In verse 17, love is a verb. “Little children, let’s not love with words or speech, but with action and truth” (CEB).
Now, Greek subjunctive verbs aren’t always easy to translate into English, and love is a present-active verb in the subjunctive mood. So, my Greek professor might argue that, because the present tense indicates the kind of action, and non-indicative moods (such as the subjunctive) have little to do with time, another possible translation of this would be, “Little children, let’s not continue to love with words or speech, but in action and truth” (my translation).
So, instead of this sounding like a suggestion, as most translations make it seem (let us not love…), it’s probably intended to be corrective of either incorrect or inadequate behavior, which fits well with the overall tone of First John. It’s not enough to love in word or speech because words are easy to say and let slip away. Love is recognized, known, and proved through action. This action of love is how we know that we belong to the truth. Our loving action also reassures our hearts in God’s presence.
Our hearts can be fickle, and sometimes we’re harder on ourselves than we ought to be. We can wonder and even worry about our own salvation. We can ruminate on questions like, Am I good enough? Do I really love God? Do I have saving faith? One thing of which we can be certain is that our salvation is never defined by our feelings about ourselves. For one, we’re often wrong about ourselves.
John tells us that, even if our hearts say we’re not good enough, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things. When we lack confidence in our standing before God, we can have confidence despite our lack of confidence because of God’s greatness. Because of our confidence in God’s greatness, we shouldn’t listen when self-doubt needles its way into our minds.
Our actions also act as proof to ourselves that our standing before God is in a good place. Earlier in the chapter, John said, “Little children, make sure no one deceives you. The person who practices righteousness is righteous, in the same way that Jesus is righteous” (1 Jn. 3:7 CEB). When we do things that are righteous, and that can be any number of things, we are righteous. Now, John continued that thought by saying that those who practice sin belong to the devil. But it’s the same definition that Jesus gave us. Just as a tree is known by its fruit, we are known by our actions. John the Elder must have been a Methodist, because this is the practical divinity of John Wesley.
Look at Golde and Tevye again. When Tevye asked her if she loved him, she took a moment to consider the matter. She wasn’t sure and had to ask herself if she loved Tevye. And what did she do to find an answer to her their mutual question? She examined her actions toward him. “For twenty-five years, I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him. Twenty-five years, my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?” Golde’s actions toward her husband told her that she loved him. Tevye recognized that, too. That’s why he pointed his finger at her and declared, “Then you love me!” Tevye saw it, too. He saw Golde’s love for him in her actions. We can see our love for God and our love for others in our actions. And we can see our lack of love for God and for others in our lack of action. How can the love of God abide in us when we see a sister or brother in need but don’t care?
Now, a few people have mentioned that, after reading 1 John, they felt bad about not handing money out to people on street corners. If we tithe, then we have no reason to feel bad or let our heart condemn us. By giving to our church, we’re already supporting all kinds of ministry. And there is something to say about giving our resources responsibly. So, if we’re worried that someone might abuse what we give them on a street corner, then give to the church, and to local shelters, and to local food pantries, and to relief organizations that do things the right way. The Community Emergency Assistance Board helps people in Mount Vernon who are having financial difficulty, and they hold appointments here at our church. And that’s only on the money side of things. We can do a lot more than give our money. We can volunteer our time at a mission of the church, or volunteer with another organization.
I love working with kids, so I’m at the Thrive after-school program almost every weekday, even on my days off. I volunteer each Fall to work with students for a writing project. I run our youth group alongside the Simpsons. There are innumerable ways for us to show that we care, to put our love into action.
One of the more difficult verses here is verse 22, which says, “We receive whatever we ask from him because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.” (1 John 3:22 CEB). It’s difficult because we’ve all asked for things and not gotten them. Now, this is not prosperity gospel where we can ask for that new Mercedes and God will deliver it to our driveway. Note what John says: we receive… because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. We receive whatever we ask of God when we learn to pray rightly, when we learn to pray for the things God wants for us. What are the commandment we’re told to keep? It’s actually one commandment in two, inseparable, parts. First, we believe in the name of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Second, we love each other as he commanded us. The reason I say it’s one commandment is because John uses the singular to describe it: “This is his commandment…” (1 John 3:23 CEB).
When I look at John’s words to us, I can’t help but think that John the Elder had the same definition of belief as James. They were both disciples who walked with Jesus. They were both Elders of the church. They knew each other and had conversations about this stuff. Believe comes from the same root word in Greek as faith: (πιστεύω and πίστις). We need to believe—have faith—In Jesus and, according to James’ definition of faith/belief, that means our faith is active. When we see someone who lacks food or clothing, we do something about it. Belief is the first commandment John mentions. We believe, so we act like a person who believes by acting on our faith, our belief in Jesus Christ.
We also love each other as Jesus commanded us to love each other, which is an active kind of love. It’s interesting that First John uses the same example as James. If we don’t care when we see a person in need, how can the love of God, which does care about such matters, abide in us? Love is action. Love is what we Christians are supposed to do. Keeping the commandments keeps us in God, we abide in God by keeping them.
The parable of the vine in John 15 gives us a good idea of what Jesus meant about abiding—remaining—in God. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper… Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples. As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you” (John 15:1, 4-12 CEB).
That’s a lot of remaining, and it highlights that we must be coworkers with Christ. There’s no excuse for Christians to not get our hands dirty.
Aside from our actions, how do we know that God remains in us? John tells us it’s through the Spirit that God has given to us. The Holy Spirit is the gift promised by Jesus after his resurrection. The Spirit is the guide that strengthens the community of believers and, clearly, the one who inspired John the Elder to write this letter.
John wrote this epistle as the last living disciple. These are his words to us: believers who are generations removed from himself. He reminds us that Christians believe and love, and both belief and love are exhibited, proved, and shown to exist through action. Our actions are where belief and love become real.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay