They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”  These words of Jesus, recorded by Matthew in his Gospel, leave no doubt as to the importance of love in the life of His followers.  John expands upon the concept of love and the role it should play in the believer’s life in his first epistle.  In John’s letter, we see love in at least three key roles:  love is truth, love is abiding in Christ and Christ abiding in believer’s, and love is obedient.

The first key role that the concept of love plays in the life of a believer is truth.   True knowledge of God both develops from love of God and in turn further develops love of God.  John describes God as light, which shines into the darkness and reveals the truth.  The Christian life must start with true and correct knowledge of God and Christ Jesus.  John wrote his letter to refute false prophets promoting compromise and unsound teaching that tended toward Gnosticism.[1] He was concerned that the believers would not be lead astray by teaching that contradicted the messiahship of Jesus as well as both his humanity and divinity.  Jesus warned in Matthew 7:15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”  Therefore, John begins his letter with an assertion that the truth can be known because he and others witnessed it (1 John 1:1-3) and proclaimed it to those to whom he is writing.  Love begins with true knowledge.  In Christ, we are forgiven (1 John 2:12) and given love through the gifts of truth and understanding (1 John 5:20).  Paul asserts in 1 Corinthians 8:3 that “whoever loves God is known by God.”  Love to God is the true knowledge.[2]  If we love God, we know God and He knows us.  Those who truly know God love Him and abide in Him.

This leads us to a second key role that love plays in the life of a follower of Christ, love requires abiding in Christ and allowing Christ to abide in us.  We are told that we can know love in fellowship with God through Christ and that this love makes our joy complete (1 John 1:3 – 4).  John compares this to ‘walking in light’ (1 John 5-7) which correlates to knowing God in truth.  In His infinite love, God called us to be his children (1 John 3:1-2).  This grafting into God’s family is a gift of love, along with eternal life, that is made possible only through the atoning sacrifice of His Son (1 John 2:24-25, 4:9-10).  John tells us that this love is born of God and that God is love (1 John 4:7-8).  Moreover, God has given us the Holy Spirit to live in us as well, further proof that we are to abide in Him and Him in us.  (1 John 4:13).  We are made complete in God’s love.  By faith, we take on His very nature and characteristics; as children of God, we are love because it is God who lives in those who are in Christ (1 John 4:15-16).[3]

To truly abide in Christ, we must be obedient to the Father, another key role of love.  True love of God requires our willing submission to His will and His commands (1 John 2:4-6).  Not only does love entail obeying God’s commands, love is itself the greatest commandment as Jesus told us in Matthew 22:37-39.  We are to love God and love each other.  This is an old commandment, part of God’s word from the beginning (Deut 6:4, Lev 19:18, Mark 12:30-31).  At the same time, it is now founded on a new and consummate example in Christ (John 13:34).[4]  John tells us that if we truly abide in Christ, we will walk as he walked (1 John 2:6).  In other words, we will emulate Him in all that we say and do.  Jesus’ sacrificial love to the point of death is the love that He calls us to display towards others.  This love that we are to show for others flows from God because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).  John also tells us in his gospel that our love for one another will set us apart as disciples of Christ (John 13:34).  By our actions, John tells us, our love shall be known and therefore God shall be known.  (1 John 3:17 – 18, 4:12).

As stated previously, John had a specific reason for writing his letter: to disavow false teachers.  These were primarily secessionists who had withdrawn from the Christian community.  John proposes two ways to test the spirits: a moral-ethical test and a faith test.[5]  The first encompasses whether an individual, or group of people as in the case of the secessionists, keep God’s commandments, especially love for the Christian community.  The Old Testament is clear on the subject of hatred for one’s Christian brothers and sisters (Lev 19:17).  John’s intent with this test was to show that the secessionists have broken fellowship with other believers by withdrawing from the Christian community thus showing hate rather than love.[6]  The second test John proposed was a faith test or the right view of Christ.  These false teachers had a very different view of the world, believing there was a line between the spiritual (good) and the material (evil).  According to this view, nothing the body did could stain the purity of the spirit.  This often led to a life of immorality as well as a denial of Christ’s human nature.  If Christ was not human, then He could not have died.  John argues that this is contrary to the very heart of the gospel message.  If Christ was not both fully God and fully man, He could not have died for our sins and there is no true Christian faith.[7]

Certainly, love is a central theme in John’s letter because it is meant to be a central theme in the life of a believer.  The question then becomes, how?  What is this commandment to love to look like, in a practical sense?  As a well-known song states, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”[8]  John states this as well in his gospel, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:35)."  Love is meant to set the Christian apart, to be the means by which others see and understand that we are Christians, without a word being spoken.


[1] Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. 2nd ed. Downers Grove, IL, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014, 707.

[2] Spence-Jones, H. D. M., Joseph S. Exell, and Edward Mark Deems. The pulpit commentary. Vol. XIX. Mclean, VA: MacDonald, 266.

[3] Bromiley, Geoffrey W. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986, 176.

[4] Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. 2nd ed. Downers Grove, IL, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014, 709.

[5] Keener, 707.

[6] Ibid, 709.

[7] Alexander, Pat, and David Alexander. Zondervan Handbook to the Bible. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse, 1999, 758.

[8] Scholtes, Peter.  They’ll Know We Are Christians.  Copyright © 1966, F.E.L. Publications, assigned to The Lorenz Corp., 1991

Bibliography

Alexander, Pat, and David Alexander. Zondervan Handbook to the Bible. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse, 1999.

Bromiley, Geoffrey W. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986.

Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. 2nd ed. Downers Grove, IL, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Scholtes, Peter.  They’ll Know We Are Christians.  Copyright © 1966, F.E.L. Publications, assigned to The Lorenz Corp., 1991.

Spence-Jones, H. D. M., Joseph S. Exell, and Edward Mark Deems. The pulpit commentary. Vol. XIX. Mclean, VA: MacDonald.

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