June 11 – 1 John 3:16-24
Main focus: Abiding in Jesus means loving one another with Jesus’s love.
As you read the passage for this week, it’d be helpful to read back up to 3:11—remember, this is a letter, and as much as we chop it into chunks for preaching and discussion, John’s writing has some flow to it. Back in verse 11 he introduced a new section that goes through to 3:24 (and connects to the sections before and after), all of which covers the true life of a child of God. Interestingly, 3:23-24 is a surprisingly succinct summary of the entire book, so first off in discussion we’ll use that as an opportunity to reflect on the past seven weeks or so of discussion. To be even more succinct, this week is all about “love one another, just as he has commanded us” (3:23b).
But here’s one of the crucial things we need to ask ourselves when we’re reading 1 John: what do we mean by love? This is no mere philosophical speculation, or an excuse to conjure the 1993 hit “What Is Love” (well, maybe it is). In a chapter, the question will speak to the very nature of God. If “God is love” as 1 John 4:16 describes, what we mean by the word love has gargantuan implications for how we read the Bible.
Thankfully, John gives us a definition right here in our passage. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for others” (3:16). John is a master of double entendre, and “by this we know love” is a prime example: not only is Jesus’s death the example of love, as in “in his death we observe love at work,” but Jesus’s death is also the avenue of love, as in “through his death in our place we come to understand love.” Jesus’s death in our place is the definitive statement of love par excellence; pour through all of history, journey to the farthest reaches of the galaxy, and you’ll find no greater love than this. But it’s not simply an example we follow; Jesus’s death wins salvation for us, making us recipients of God’s gracious love. Read “know” in that passage with the fullest understanding of the word in mind—through Jesus’s death we are invited to come know Love himself.
Of course, that’s a whole different definition of love than most of us are walking around with today. That’s why defining love is a crucial step in reading 1 John; while we use “love” in a common way, and frequently make stipulations about what can and cannot be considered “love,” we need to see just how much the Bible wants to discombobulate our earthly ways of thinking. Love himself gets to define what love is and is not; it is our job not to make pronouncements about love but to listen with regenerated hearts, to be repeatedly melted down and recast in a new mold.
In discussion we’ll ask, “Why do you think Jesus wants us to love people like he has loved us?” You might immediately resort to a quick retort, “because the Bible says so,” but dig into the reasoning here. Followers of Jesus are “born of God” (3:9), our perfect and loving Father wants his love to abide in us (3:17), our elder brother Jesus commanded our love for one another (3:23), and God is deeply interested in destroying the works of the evil one through his Son (3:8). God taught us love through Jesus and wants us to walk in his ways because we are his children now—he’s teaching us the family way.
Throughout 1 John we’ve seen passages like this one that call us to obedience, which might leave us ready to muscle up and figure out how to achieve a better Christian performance record. Simply put, this is an exercise of unbelief—when we fall prey to this thinking, we’re forgetting what actually saves us and opting for a DIY approach to salvation (spoiler: it doesn’t work). But on the flip side, these same passages might leave you feeling defeated, all too aware of how often you fall short of this record. We’ll touch on verse 20 to address this pitfall and the immense source of comfort we find in God’s acceptance of us in Jesus; how precious is this truth, that God is greater than our hearts?
Finally, we’ll land the plane with our own growth in loving others as Jesus has loved us. Certainly we could reflect on our fraught relationships, intolerable neighbors and coworkers, or the times our spouse/friend is a punk. We could also reflect on how we need to grow in our receiving love from others. But in honor of John the double entendre master, the question as it’s posed below, “what’s an area where exercising Jesus’s love seems impossible?” should provide a good opportunity for two levels of meaning. On the surface we’ll likely all think of that person in our life who is impossible to love, or those habitual areas where our selfishness seems insurmountable. But below this we’ll have the chance to second guess that conclusion. Is loving that person with Jesus’s love really impossible? Is my selfishness really insurmountable? This is a chance to put into practice the hope we’ll have just discussed: “God is greater than our heart.”
• Could someone read 1 John 3:16-24 for us?
• Verses 23-24 are a good summary of the book—how does that sum up what we’ve discussed thus far in the series?
• How does the definition of love in verse 16 differ from your typical understanding of love?
• Why do you think Jesus wants us to love people like he has loved us?
• Look at verse 20—when are you most prone to having your heart condemn you?
• How can the rest of verse 20 give you hope?
• When you think about loving others like Jesus has loved you, what’s an area of your life where that feels impossible?