By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. –1 John 5:2 ESV
1 John 5:1-5
Repeatedly throughout his letter, John has strongly encouraged us to love one another. But he has only given us one example of a practical application of this command. We find it in verse 17 pf chapter 3. “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” Then John clarifies his question with a statement. “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18 ESV). Seems pretty clear, doesn’t it. Our love is to show up in legitimate action. But no where else in this letter does John give us a list of acceptable actions that would prove we are loving correctly – as Jesus has loved us. He doesn’t provide us with five steps to follow or ten iron-clad examples of godly love. Because if he had, we would turn those things into measuring rods of righteousness. Take John’s example from chapter three. We might see a brother in need and write a check to help him get back on his feet. Or we might give him a handout of cash to help him bide his time. And in doing so, we might feel as if we had loved him. But notice that John says the problem to begin with is that the brother with the worldly goods “closes his heart” against the one in need. He sees the problem but doesn’t allow his heart to engage. Writing a check can be a heartless activity. Giving someone cash can be as well. The King James Version paints a much more vivid picture of what is going on in this illustration. It reads, “and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him.” The Greek word John uses means “to shut up compassion so that it is like a thing inaccessible to one, to be devoid of pity towards one.” The word translated “heart” in the ESV is translated “bowels” in the KJV. It is the Greek word, splagchnon. Check out what Strong’s Concordance has to say about it: “the bowels were regarded as the seat of the more violent passions, such as anger and love; but by the Hebrews as the seat of the tenderer affections, esp. kindness, benevolence, compassion; hence our heart (tender mercies, affections, etc.).” This all ties back into Paul’s great love chapter in 1 Corinthians. We can do a lot of great things, but if they are done without godly love, without mercy, compassion, kindness and a legitimate love for the one being helped, they are all worthless in the end.
John says we must not love in word and talk, but in deed and in truth. The word, talk, can also be translated, “tongue.” It is as if John is saying, “don’t just act like you love someone by speaking words that come from nowhere other than your tongue.” Instead, we are to love in deed, in actions, but backed up by truth. Truth refers to “what is true in things appertaining to God and the duties of man, moral and religious truth.” It is to love as God has commanded us to love. Which brings us back to our passage for today. John tells us, “By this we know that we love the children of God” (1 John 5:2 ESV). Again, it’s significant that John does not supply us with a list of acceptable deeds or actions to follow. But what he does give us is a way of knowing that we are truly loving our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is when we love God and keep His commandments. Then he qualifies it further by saying that to love God is to keep His commandments. I think this helps us understand what John meant earlier by deeds done in truth. It is doing what God would have us do, as made known to us in His Word. We show our love for God when we live our lives in obedience to His Word. And John lets us know that when we do, we will find God’s commandments not burdensome. They won’t feel heavy and oppressive to us. In fact, they will be a joy to obey because of the benefits and blessings they bring to us and to others through us.
When we remove the truth, God’s Word, from the equation, we will tend to love one another according to the world’s standards. We may end up showing compassion or mercy to a brother or sister in need, but to love them in truth is to love them as we have been loved by God. It is to care about them as children of God. It is to care as much for their spiritual well-being as we care about their physical needs. Worldly love tends to focus on the externals. But godly love focuses on the heart. So many of the issues we end up dealing with in our attempt to “love one another” are symptoms. And it isn’t that we should ignore the symptoms, but we must look to the root cause of the problem. We must learn to look at the heart. This is where it can get messy. When we begin to learn to look past the surface issues and into the heart, we will find we are loving as God has commanded us to love. Paul writes, “Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important” (Galatians 6:1-2 NLT). Godly love is costly love. It requires sacrifice. It involves the heart. It is obsessed with the spiritual health of the other. It meets needs, but never on just a surface level. It digs deep. It obeys well.