There is a phrase I heard in seminary that has stuck with me for decades because it is both catchy and true. “Text out of context is pretext.” For Christmas, last year, Alean made me a coffee mug that says, “I can do all things through a verse taken out of context.”
Context is critical, and ignoring context can lead to disastrous conclusions. Today we are going to look at some verses from 1 John in their larger context.
Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God. – 1 John 3:18-21, NIV-1978
The logical thread running through this set of verses looks something like this:
- We can know that we “belong to” the truth (verse 19)
- Our hearts can be at rest before God (verse 19)
- This happens if we love in actions and in truth rather than merely with words (verse 18)
- A lack of that heart assurance condemns us (verse 20)
- If our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God (verse 21)
In this passage, John opens with a call to love, and he charges us to love in deeds and in truth. Loving as a Christ-follower is neither a feeling nor a phrase. It is action. It is deed. It is truth (ἀλήθεια).
I had a rather spirited exchange recently with a man who sees himself as unloving. While it is true that he can be rather gruff and brusque (he’s a U.S. Marine), it is not at all true that he is unloving. Indeed, I would say he is probably one of the most loving men I have ever met.
The challenge with which this man wrestles is that he is subconsciously defining love as something soft, squishy, and Hallmarkish. As we will see momentarily, that is not at all what love is.
Loving in Deed
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? – 1 John 3:17, ESV
It is helpful to recognize that the statement above is what immediately precedes our target verse. How do we love in deed? By meeting the needs of our brothers and sisters rather than closing our hearts against them.
John also defines the love of Jesus as an action – that he laid down his life for us, and as a result we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.1
Likewise, James defines love not as a feeling, a sensation, but as action.
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. – James 2 14-16, NIV-1978
We hear the phrase, “Well, he talks a good fight.” This describes the one who boasts courage and athletic prowess, but who never dons the gloves and gets into the boxing ring.
Talking about loving one another is not loving one another. Meeting each other’s needs, laying down our own lives, our own desires for the good of others, that is love.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of the others. – Philippians 2:3-4, NIV-1978
Loving in Truth
Loving in word or tongue is the opposite of loving in truth.
The word truth is ἀλήθεια – aleithia. It carries the idea of genuineness, integrity, sincerity. Our love for one another is not a façade, a face we put on. Our love is sincere. Our love has hands and feet. It is real. It is observable.
If we stop and ponder it, we all know how off-putting artificiality is. We know it when we see it, and we find it repulsive. We find genuine love attractive and artificiality repugnant. This is precisely why sinners found Jesus so compelling. He was real, so unlike the religious aristocracy of his day.
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. – Romans 12:9, NIV-1978
It costs to love with sincerity. It costs us in both time and resources. Indeed such love cost Jesus his life. Yet the benefits that accrue to us far outweigh any sacrifice on our parts. For that matter, we do not love others in order to receive from them. We give of ourselves because that is what love does.
Returning to our target verse, when we love not with words or tongue, but in deed and with sincerity, it is then that we know we belong to the truth and our hearts are assured and at rest before God.2 It is then that our prayer life flourishes.
Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. – 1 John 3:21-23, NIV-1978
Thus, the key to intimacy with God is to love his children well – to love our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is our tangible love for one another that emboldens our prayers.
And finally, our love gives us confidence in the final judgment.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. Love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. – 1 John 4:16b-17, NIV-1978
You have heard of the “vicious cycle?” This, to me, is a glorious cycle. We gain confidence as we love sincerely in our deeds. We grow bold as we understand God answers our needs and prayers for others. That emboldens us to love even further and to pray more boldly, and we continue to gain confidence before the throne of God.
Go and love well this week brothers and sisters.
Blessings upon you, my friends.
Victoriously in Christ!
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1. 1 John 3:16
2. 1 John 3:18-21
Thank you for this post. I also thank God for His mercy upon me, in learning what love is.
For most of my life I thought of love as a feeling. God has used the past couple years to teach me that love is an action and a discipline. Last year and this year my 90-year-old mother has had different health issues. In my life, I’ve had trouble being assertive; during this period of time I’ve had to be assertive with her. She doesn’t always realize when she’s not acting as she should, so I’m the one who calls the dr., calls the ambulance, etc. That’s not popular with her. But loving her as I believe God wants me to (as He would were He physically here) requires I step up to the plate. Love means not taking things personally when she has said things that would in times past hurt. Love means patiently repeating things to her. Love means treating her with grace.
Yes, Peggy!! Love is often making the decision to do the difficult, unpopular, unpleasant thing. I do so admire you for absorbing the challenge of loving your mother in this way and for disciplining yourself to say, “This isn’t personal, and I will respond with grace.”
This couldn’t come at a better time for me! My plumber of 27 years had a stroke and when I heard about it I felt lead to send a card of encouragement and money. (With food allergies now-a-days it’s difficult to take covered dishes, etc.) I told my mom what happened (he’s her plumber, too and she knew his parents) and what I was planning to do, she promptly told she wouldn’t do that and then proceeded to give me a ‘list of why nots.’ I started to have reservations/doubt about my initial intentions and even discussed it with my spouse (who is in agreement with whatever I feel lead to do). Love is an action and it is the motive behind why we do what we do. If this had happened to my husband, I would covet the prayers of others and appreciate others being the hands and feet of Jesus to us. From the first verse to the end of this post I KNEW I would follow my initial instinct and choose to love my plumber and his family well. Thank You!
Wow, Cathy. Thank you so much for sharing that story, and for the affirmation of how it helped you. I had a similar experience just a couple of weeks ago wherein I learned that a Twitter follower, a pastor in a different state lost his job. And just like you, I was moved to send him and his family support.
I remember reading years ago how, rather than saying “Let me know if you need anything,” or “Let me know how I can help,” we should just look around us and we can SEE what is needed. They will never ask, and we know that, even if our offer is sincere. They just won’t ask, but we can look and see, “Hmmm, the yard needs mowed,” or “I’m just going to do these dishes for her.” We can pick up the laundry basket and say, “I’ll bring this back later today.” Stuff like that.
I believe God is using this timespan to mold me (ref. Jeremiah at the potter’s house). That doesn’t make it any easier to do, but it makes it easier to understand. There is a reason behind all of it, so I don’t get resentful.
The other part of it is that I don’t have any siblings, so I’m it.
I have deep respect for those who do what you’re doing.