I came across a story this week about a young man who met the girl of his dreams. So he asked her to marry him and made plans to bring her home to meet his mother. But before he did so, he called ahead to make sure he didn’t take her by surprise. And knowing that his mother liked a challenge, he decided to make a game of it. He said he was bringing her two closest friends with her to see if his mother could tell which one he was going to marry. His mother agreed and that night he showed up at the door with three lovely young women who sat together on the couch and spent the evening visiting with his mother. Then just before leaving, he pulled his mother aside and asked her, “Okay, Mom. Which one do I want to marry?” Without a moment of hesitation, she replied, “The one in the middle!” The young man was astounded. “How in the world were you able to tell?” “Easy,” she answered him. “She’s the one I didn’t like!”
Maybe you can identify with that. We can. In fact, we were talking about this just the other day—how neither set of our parents was initially excited about the one we chose to marry. In my mother’s case, I dated several young women before I met Cheryl and she never had a negative word to say about any of them until I met Cheryl. Then what she found fault with wasn’t her personality. It was her faith. I’d accepted Christ several months before I met Cheryl and was very outspoken about my faith leading to all sorts of conflict with my family, especially my dad who took any form of disagreement as an act of disrespect. So we had all sorts of blow-ups over my faith. I also stopped attending the church my mother belonged to all of her life because they didn’t teach the Bible.
Who got the blame for all of this? Cheryl did. After all, she was the first Bible-believing Christian I’d dated and a pastor’s daughter to boot! So instead of blaming me for my bad behavior, Cheryl got the blame. Over time, of course, she realized that Cheryl was the best thing that ever happened to me and grew to love her very much. She also went on to make a commitment to Christ herself. But initially that wasn’t the case.
But then that’s what Jesus told us to expect. He said in Matthew 10:34—“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.” The point is: Jesus didn’t come to make life easy for us. He came to give us a choice. Either we’re for Him or against Him. But He didn’t suffer and die so we could remain in neutral about Him. We have to decide whose side we’re on, and if we decide we’re on His side, there is going to be some fall-out over it, because not everyone else is going to feel the same as we. In fact, there are going to be those within our own families who will oppose us because they oppose Him.
He also warned in John 15:19, “If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” Vice versa isn’t true of course. We don’t hate those who hate us. We love them with the love of Christ and pray that they will come to love Him too. But in the meantime without the approval of our own family, where do we get the love and support we need?
That’s where the letter of 1 John is so helpful again. John warns us in 1 John 3:13, “Do not be surprised brethren if the world hates you.” But then he goes on to give us God’s answer to the love and support we need. He says it’s found in the love of the brethren—Christians who love Jesus just as we do and now have a supernatural love for one another.
Jesus also promised that, you’ll remember. On one occasion Peter said to Him, “Lord, we’ve left everything to follow you. So what then shall we have?” Jesus answered, “Anyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my name’s sake will receive 100 times as much in return and inherit eternal life,” referring not to our biological brothers and sisters now but to the spiritual family He’s given us—fellow believers who love Him just as we do and us as well because of our love for Him. You see for various reasons, many of us aren’t as close to our own families as we’d like to be. But Jesus hasn’t forgotten our need. In their place, He’s given us dozens of spiritual brothers and sisters and parents and children that we now love with all our hearts. In fact, the love of the brethren is so important John takes half a chapter to talk about it.
That’s what I want to look at together, if you’ll open your Bible to 1 John 3 starting with verse 10. It’s a relatively long passage, so I’ve broken it up into 3 sections, each one giving us a different reason why the love of the brethren is important. The first reason is—
John writes in verses 10 to 12, “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother. For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another; 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 brother’s were righteous.”
You’ve probably noticed by now that John likes to make use of contrasts in his writings—light and dark, truth and lies, life and death. He does that here in talking about how we feel about those who love Christ. He says there are two fundamental reactions. We can either love them like our own brothers and sisters or we hate them. To illustrate the difference, he takes us back to the first two brothers, Cain and Abel who were born of the same parents, raised in the same setting, given the same training, and were both very religious.
Don’t think for a moment that Cain’s downfall was that he wasn’t religious enough. The fact is some of the greatest haters have been religious people. Cain too brought an offering to God, just like Abel, but his was rejected because his heart wasn’t right with God. So God gave him a chance to repent. He asked him, “Why are you so angry? And why do you look so dejected? If you do well, won’t you be accepted? But if you refuse to do what’s right, watch out! Sin is crouching at the door and its desire is for you but you must overcome it!” But Cain refused to listen to the Lord’s counsel, he let bitterness consume him, and as a result, verse 12 says, he “slew his brother.”
The word “slew” here is a very violent word used of a lamb whose throat was slashed as it was offered in sacrifice. Cain was nothing more than a brutal killer without a ounce of mercy in his heart. And yet, the most telling thing about him is why he was the way he was. John says it’s because “he was of the evil one.” What does he mean by that? He means that Satan not God was the energizing spirit at work in his life. It’s the same thing Jesus warned the Pharisees about in John 8:42. He said, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. But you belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning.”
It’s a frightening thought, but it’s entirely possible to grow up in the same family and be taught the same things are your brothers and sisters, and have it do you no good at all. That was Cain—a member of the same biological family as Abel, but not the same spiritual family. For as John clearly points out, there are two spiritual families that you can choose from—the children of God or the children of the devil. And John says Cain was a child of the devil because he gave himself to hatred instead of love.
At this point, someone will probably say, “I’ve never murdered anyone! So I must be a child of God.” “No, don’t assume that too quickly,” John cautions us. “For in God’s sight, hatred is the very same thing as murder in the heart.” Verse 13 continues, “Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren.” And he adds, “He who does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”
Murder in the heart may not inflict the same degree of physical damage as literal murder. But the same spirit is behind it. It reminds me of the story of the man who visited the zoo and struck up a conversation with the keeper of the lion cage. Watching the giant cat sleep so peacefully, he said to the zoo keeper, “It’s a shame you have to keep that beautiful creature behind bars. He looks just like my cat at home.” The zoo keeper laughed, “My friend. You’d better be glad those bars are there. He may look as peaceful as your cat but there’s murder in his heart.” The same thing is true of us until we surrender our hearts to the Spirit of Christ. There’s evil in our hearts that’s held back by fear of disapproval or shame or arrest or even prison. But absent those bars, it’s ready to break lose and hurt everyone around us.
But the good news is we can change! Paul was once a murderer. Did you know that? So was Moses and David and many others whose hearts have been changed by the love of God? And when He does change our hearts, what’s the first sign that He has? Notice verse 14 one more time. John says, “We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the brethren.” Jonathon Edwards, the first and greatest of all American theologians called it “the chief holy affection,” because it’s the first sign that we have new life. People we once thought were odd and had no interest in knowing—I’m talking about Christians—we now love like brothers and sisters because we share the most important thing of all—a common love for Jesus Christ, and that gives us a bond with each other that we share with no one else on earth.
2. It’s a Reflection of Christ.
Have you ever stopped to consider how uninvolved our generation is? The lone ranger is our screen name and privacy is our password. We drive in and out of our homes, garage door openers keeping us from having to meet the neighbors; smart phones keeping us in touch with the world without requiring face-to-face communication; our children playing video games for hours on end without any meaningful human conversation. Sad to say, churches fall prey to this syndrome as well—people slipping in and out of services without ever getting involved in anyone else’s life. No wonder we’re so lonely and spiritually dry! God never intended us to live like that. God wants us involved in one another’s lives.
John describes God’s plan for us in verse 16. He says, “We know love by this that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.”
Notice a couple of important things with me. First, who’s the model for everything we do? Jesus is! John says, We know love by this that He laid down His life for us.” Jesus sacrificed Himself for us in every way imaginable. First, He gave up the glory and worship of Heaven to become a man. Then He went on to live a life of unending service to others—healing the sick, casting out demons, teaching the poor and humble. Finally, in the ultimate act of sacrifice, He gave His life on the cross for us. So in light of all He has done for us, what’s the only reasonable thing for us to do in return? John says we’re to lay our lives down for the very same people He laid down His life to save – our brothers and sisters in Christ – in whatever way they need us to do so.
I came across an example in a book someone shared with me recently called The 36 Hour Day. Anyone ever heard of it? It’s a book about the challenge of caring for someone with an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s. One of the men interviewed put it like this: “The thing that gets to you is always being on duty, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with no time off for good behavior.” A woman who cares for her elderly mother was asked if she could turn to her church family for help. She said, “Many people assure me of their prayers and occasionally someone tells me to let them know if there’s any way they can help. But what really makes a difference is the friend who shows up on Saturday to stay with Mom and gives me the day off.”
That’s the kind of love John is prescribing. That’s why he also switches now from the plural to the singular. Did you catch that? Instead of continuing to talk about love for the brethren, which can be kind of theoretical—after all, anybody can say they love the brethren, but that doesn’t actually help anybody – he now talks about loving an individual brother in need. He asks, “If you have the world’s goods, and see your brother in need and close your heart against him, how does the love of God abide in you?” The answer is it doesn’t. Genuine love isn’t a noun (a feeling in your heart); it’s a verb (something you actually do to help someone in need). So take a moment to ask yourself before we go on: Is there someone the Holy Spirit is nudging me to help today or in the week ahead?
Ralph Neighbour shared an example from his life. He writes, “Jack had been the president of a large corporation and when he got cancer, they ruthlessly dumped him. He went through his insurance, used up his life savings, and had practically nothing left. I visited him with one my deacons who said, ‘Jack, you speak so openly about the brief time you have left. I wonder if you’ve prepared for your life after death.’ Jack stood up livid with rage. ‘You blankety-blank Christians! All you think about is what’s going to happen to me after I die. If your God is so great, why doesn’t He do something about the real problems of life?’ He went on to tell us that he was leaving his wife penniless and his daughter without money for college. Then he ordered us out.
Later my deacon insisted that we go back. We did. ‘Jack, I know I offended you,’ he said. “I humbly apologize. But I want you to know I’ve been working since then. Your first problem is where your family will live after you die. A realtor in our church has agreed to sell your house and give your wife his commission. If you’ll permit us, some other men and I will make the house payments until it’s sold. I’ve also contacted the owner of an apartment house down the street. He’s offered your wife a 3-bedroom apartment plus free utilities and a $1200 a month salary in return for collecting the rents and supervising plumbing and electrical repairs. The income from your house should pay for your daughter’s college. I just want you to know that your family will be cared for.’
He concludes, “Jack cried like a baby. He died shortly thereafter, so wrapped in pain that he never accepted Christ. But he experienced God’s love even while rejecting it. And his widow, touched by the love of caring Christians, went on to receive Christ as her Savior.” That, John would say, is love in deed and truth, reflecting the love of Christ and proving that we do have new life in Him.
3. It’s a Builder of Faith.
Verse 19 promises: “We will know by this that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight.”
Have you noticed as we’ve been reading through this passage how often John uses the phrase “by this?” That’s important because each time he does he says this is how to tell that we really do belong to Christ. And he does so again here. The question is: What’s he referring to when he says, “By this?” He’s talking about our love for other believers! He says that’s how to tell for sure that we really do belong to Christ even when our hearts condemn us.
But that raises another question: Why would our hearts condemn us now that we love Jesus? There are two reasons for this: 1) Satan, the accuser of the brethren, accuses us before our God day and night. 2) We know so much more about what God expects of us now than when we were first saved. Don’t we? I mean, at first we knew “we shouldn’t smoke or chew or go with girls who do.” But now we know so much more. We know that God I not only concerned about what we do but also about what we say and think in our minds. That’s what the enemy uses to accuse us. He is forever pointing out how far short we fall of God’s standard, and because we are spiritually more sensitive than we once were, our hearts quickly condemn us whenever we do or say or think something that displeases Him.
That is good if it keeps us from sin. But it’s bad if, like Adam and Eve in the Garden, it destroys our confidence in God’s love, makes us hide from Him, and keep us from entering His presence. So how do we overcome this spirit of condemnation? By loving the brethren and letting them love us! That, John says, is how we soothe our consciences and assures ourselves that we belong to Him, because that love is actually the loving assurance of the Holy Spirit.
And one final question before I finish: Why is it important to have assurance before God? Because that’s what gives us power in prayer! Verse 21: “Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight.” The word for confidence here is a synonym for faith except here it’s boldness in faith—the same word, I might add, as the book of Hebrews uses when it tells us “to come boldly to the throne of grace that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” It’s a faith without doubting, absolutely convinced that God will hear and answer us “because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight.”
So to summarize what we’ve learned, why is love of the brethren so important? John has given us 3 reasons: 1) It’s proof of our new life in Christ; 2) It’s a reflection of the love of Christ; 3) It’s a builder of our faith and power for our prayers. So as I said in closing last week, keep it simple, saints, and focus on love! Frederic Ozanam, founder of the Society of Saint Vincent De Paul summed it up like this: “Christianity isn’t about great ideas; it’s about great deeds inspired by love.” And I believe he was right! The greatest act of love was that of our Savior dying on the cross for our sins. And now because of His great love for us, we love one another thereby proving that we really do belong to Him and assuring our hearts before Him. Will you pray with me, please?