The Character of Love
Published June 26, 2023
The distinguishing mark of a follower of Jesus Christ is love for one another. Love for the people of God is essential for disciples because we cannot be disciples of Jesus Christ without genuine, Christ-like, Spirit-wrought love for His people.
It comes as no surprise that the Apostle John, who recorded the Upper Room Discourse in John 14-16, asserts that one test of true salvation is our love for one another in 1 John 3. John argues that the true children of God are characterized by love for one another, and so this forms the basis for a powerful test of salvation. If we do not love other believers as John describes in this passage, then we very well may be self-deceived about our spiritual condition. But if we see this love, that Christ has commanded, active in our lives, then there is great evidence that we have been born again and have eternal life.
This test concerning love comes right on the heels of John talking about the return of Christ and its impact in our lives. The return of Christ should move us to holiness, obedience, purity, and righteousness. Then John pivots from obedience to love without any warning because he wants us to see that there is an inseparable connection between righteousness and love. Obedience in our lives manifests itself in our relationships with others and characterizes those relationships with love.
We might all testify that the reality of our holiness, the depth of our obedience, is often best viewed as we relate to others in the body of Christ. It is often easy to act in a way that seems holy when we are alone. When our preferences are not challenged, when our desires are not at odds with the desires of others, when our opinions reign supreme, when the only person we discuss what to do with is ourselves – it is much easier to appear holy than when we collide with other people and their preferences, their desires, their opinions, and their decisions. Our sanctification is put to the test in relationship with other Christians. These are the fires that test the mettle of our holiness. And this is why John joins doing what is right with loving the brothers and sisters in Christ.
We need to see what kind of love John has in mind so that we ensure that we are truly loving one another as God commands and as His children will do by the Spirit’s power. To this end, John gives us two examples of love to test ourselves by: one negative and one positive, so that we might know if we are living one another as God commands. The first example is the negative example of Cain. Cain was jealous of Abel, and he was convicted of his own sin. John makes the point that Cain didn’t merely kill his brother, but he murdered a true worshipper of God in a violent rage.
Here are two brothers, and they should love one another – just like those of us in the body are brothers and sisters in Christ, and we should love one another. And the example we must avoid is that of Cain. John’s lesson is plain: the world is going to hate us –because we are of God and they are of the evil one, like Cain. It’s a good reminder that we have enough enemies out in the world that we don’t need to create enemies in the church. At Shepherd’s Conference 2020, John MacArthur said that the next time a trivial, petty disagreement occurs in the church, tell the people involved to get busy fighting the real enemy. We, in the church, waste so much time fighting each other when we have a real enemy, a deadly enemy, a serious enemy, who isn’t wasting his time, who is fighting us.
Loving the brethren gives us confidence we are no longer spiritually dead. But if we don’t love God’s people, we abide in death. John says that if we hate our brothers and sisters in Christ, the same impulse that led Cain to murder Abel exists in us. No one whose heart is filled with hatred, which leads to murder, has eternal life.
Now, we have a second example, this time the positive example we are to follow: the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the perfect example of love, and He defines what love is for us. He was willing to sacrifice everything, including His own life, to benefit us with eternal life.
We, then, should follow His example, as John writes. Though there’s a chasm of difference between us and Christ, we should be willing to sacrifice for one another as an act of love. John knows we cannot bear others’ sins, or bear God’s wrath in another’s place, or make atonement for anyone as Jesus did; but he goes to the heart of what drove Jesus to give up His life for us, which was that our Lord saw us in need.
Christ knew that we were helpless, that we were dead in our sins, that we had no hope of salvation, and that we were careening toward an eternity under God’s wrath left to our own devices. And seeing that need, Jesus came down from heaven, grew up living a sinless life, and paid the price of our sins on a cross. He saw our need, and He knew He alone could meet that need; and so He did in the most marvelous and unimaginable way possible.
John applies that to us. If we see a fellow Christian in need, and we have the resources to meet that need, and we decide not to meet that need, how can we say the love of God abides in us? The love of God moved Him to send His Son to meet our greatest need through the cross. Surely if that love is in us, then will it not do the same thing in us, and move our hearts to meet the needs of our fellow Christians?
John applies this to financial needs, and that is right and true. We should be more than willing to help someone in need in the church financially if we are able to do so and it would provide the help they truly need. But John is likely not limiting this to financial needs, but he is giving that as an example. Sometimes people need forgiveness, or mercy, or grace, or prayer, or love, or encouragement, or room to grow, or a shoulder to cry on, or someone to laugh with, or someone to talk to. John’s point is that when we see someone with a need, and we have the ability to meet that need, the love of God compels God’s people to meet needs, whatever they are.
This is John’s point. Let’s not just talk about love; let’s love each other. Let’s not just tell people we love them; let’s show people we love them by how we treat them. That’s the character of love. It’s active. It shows itself in behavior. It meets needs. It is selfless, looking out for the other. It is not jealous; it is not angry; it is not rude; it does not keep an account of wrongs; it believes and hopes all things.
John’s test is to examine ourselves by this standard and ask ourselves, “If I look at the character of love, is it obvious I am a child of God?” Christ has shown us such wondrous love by laying down His life for us. Will we imitate the murderous example of Cain and treat the people of God with contempt? Or will we follow the example of our Lord and willingly lay down our lives for one another?