God's Heart for the Poor: Another Look at 1 John 3:17

agape.jpg"How does God's love abide in anyone who has this world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help" 1 John 3:17


Before looking into this verse specifically it is necessary to see and understand the wider context in which John is addressing. I will therefore be seeking to comment on 1 a John 3:11-18 and then look at the wider implications of the passage. 1 John is a magnificent letter, written by the apostle John who at the time of writing is an old man. It has been estimated his age is somewhere between 80 & 100 years.

John is also a very straight talker. What you see is what you get. His message could be considered as very simple and basic and yet is extremely profound and fundamentally radical. You could say that the centrality of his message is God's amazing love for us which as I will show later demands a response from us to love others

It is my belief that 1 John on love is probably one of the most intense passages on love in the entire bible, possibly even rivaling that of the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13.

1 John 3:11-15

11 For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another; 12 not as Cain, who was of the evil one and slew his brother. And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brothers were righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. 15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.

Here we have the tragic example of Cain.  John is saying in verse 14 that if we are to really know that we have experienced his salvation, that we have "passed from death to life' then the proof of that is that we will love each other. For John, the proof of our salvation, the tangible sign, the evidence that we are part of God's family is how we love others.

He says that anyone who hates his brother, just like Cain hated Abel, is a murderer like Cain was. And no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. The word for 'murderer' could also be translated 'butcherer'. When we hear John talk like this it has echoes of Jesus' teaching we find in the sermon on the mount.

21 You have heard that it was said to those of old, You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment. 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, You fool! will be liable to the hell of fire.

When we read the words of Jesus here we see him saying that to hate your brother is in one sense, to have committed murder. However, if that is true, then the reverse is also true. To those who demonstrate love, forgive freely and place value on each other, then they bring life and healing. It is these people that demonstrate eternal life, the kingdom of God, the heart of the Father and the life of God that dwells in them.

So the instruction here by John is not to be like Cain. The question that arises then is, who should we model our lives on? John answers this in the following verses

Verse 16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers (and sisters)

For John, the source and the origin of love is found in God himself and specifically in the concrete action of the giving of his son, Jesus Christ and through his death on the cross

 'Jesus Christ laid down his life for us'

The word "life" means much more than the physical body or the biological life of someone. Rather, it's everything that can be summed up in all that that person is. And for John, this is the origin of the biblical concept of love. He laid down, he surrendered, he gave up his life for us.

Most Christians would have no problem I think in agreeing with this. But this is where it gets challenging for us. Because John then proceeds to the next statement. For John, if it is true that live begins in a God and with him through Jesus Christ laying down his life for us then as a consequence of that;

 "we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters"

 The word 'ought' word in the bible is not one that is that common. It carries the idea of owing somebody something. You could also use the word 'debt.'

And what we have here is a picture of love in its most magnificent and purest form. For God, love is not abstract or theoretical. Here we have a picture of Jesus Christ, who doesn't love in word only but actually goes ahead and gives up his life for us. For John, Jesus is the supreme example of the love of God. He Kai's down his life for everyone, no matter how undeserving we were. God' sacrifice on the cross is the perfect expression of his "agape" love. God gave his only son, that which had unsurpassable worth on behalf of a people who had no apparent worth.

And that is the nature of God's love

According to John, this act of unconditionally giving worth to others at a cost to oneself, this has created an obligation for us to do the same to others.

The cross therefore is an example to copy not simply a revelation of love to admire.

For John therefore, if I really know God's love and it dictates how I live, then I am indebted, I must, I ought to lay down my life for others.

The next question must be then, how can I do that. What does that look like? John gives us the answer in the next verse

Verse 17 But whoever has this worlds goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?

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? (NIV)

The thinking here when John says that whoever has material possessions, this world's goods or the means of life in its simplest form means that if a person needs water and you've got water, if a person needs clothes and you've got clothes or if a person needs bread and you've got bread then you've got the means of life.

Whoever had the means of life and sees (a prolonged look) his brother or sister in need and then builds up a walk and shuts up his or her heart of compassion to that person then John is saying;

'You can't possibly have the love of God in you'

Because anybody who has the material possessions and takes note of a needy person and then deliberately draws back from offering help and assistance cannot have God's love in them. You may talk a 'love' talk, you may have a love language, you may go to church regularly etc but if you hear the cry of need from your brother or sister and you close your heart of compassion against the cry of need then you cannot have the love of God dwelling in you

Verse 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

Let us not love in ideas or theories or philosophies because live that fails to take the form of action is nothing more than empty words and christian rhetoric. True biblical love has to go beyond mere debate and concept. Rather it has to be with 'actions' and in 'truth'

This verse could say, let us love with energy, let us love with practical works, let us love in reality in and in truth. Let our love be genuine.


Of course, what John is saying is only what he had seen Jesus demonstrate in his life  and heard him teach - the call and the command to love.

One day an expert in the law came to Jesus to test him and to try to catch him out. He asked him a question;

"What is the greatest commandment?"

He asks for one but Jesus gives him two

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.(Matthew 22:37-39)

By giving us two the implication is that you can't do one without the other. Because you really can't ascribe worth and love to God while refusing to ascribe worth and love to those whom he ascribes worth and love to, which is everyone.

This is why the 2nd commandment is "like" the first commandment.

We affirm the love of God by ascribing and demonstrating love to ALL others because Jesus died for ALL. And we are commanded to love the way he loves them.

And to do anything less is to fail to love God

John emphatically says;

20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (1 John 4:20-21)

To truly love God includes loving others with the same "agape" love that God has for us I would suggest that this is the distinguishing mark of a disciple of Jesus Christ, the distinguishing Mark of a Christian. 







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