Studies in the
First Epistle of John
1 John 3.10-12
"Whoever does not do right is not of God, nor he that does not love his brother. For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that you should love one another." (1 John 3.10-11). This declaration is a bridge be between John's words in verses 4-10 and the things he is going to say in the rest of the chapter. He has already been at pains to stress that we, the disciples of Christ, have a standing in righteousness before God, dependent upon our sincerity and purity of mind and purpose. Without that righteousness we cannot claim to be of God. That righteousness, that justification, is an inward possession, known only to God and the believer, and not of itself discernible to the onlooker.
Now John would tell us that there is a means by which our righteousness is manifested to those around us, to our brethren, our neighbours, and others. That means is our love for our brethren, our neighbours, for all. It was Jesus who first proclaimed the law of love and He made it incumbent upon His disciples to develop a love for all mankind of the nature that He Himself possessed. Nothing short of a deep and sincere love and solicitude for all who have been made in the image and likeness of God can be acceptable in those who are eventually to be entrusted with the task of reconciling men to God.
But even John's fellow-brethren, accepted into Christ and constituted sons of God as they were, could not reach up to that height at once. John must lead them by a succession of steps, appealing first of all to that which lay nearest to their hearts. So he confines his argument at the beginning to the family circle, the fellowship of the believers, the community of the Church, where of all places the love of each true hearted believer should be most manifest. If that love, the love of the brethren, is not present, says John, then without any further argument it can be definitely stated that the professed child of God is not so in fact. He that loves not his brother is "not of God".
Now that does not mean that we must as a matter of obligation extend the full privileges of our fellowship and receive into all the implications of brotherly love anyone who chooses to come into our midst. Not all who profess acceptance of our beliefs and standards and claim to be a brother or sister in Christ are genuine. There has often been a certain amount of loose thinking in this connection and not infrequently "wolves in sheep's clothing" have taken advantage of the too-ready friendliness of earnest disciples endeavouring to follow out what they believe to be the requirements of the Scriptures. When John says "his brother" he means just those who can truthfully be described by the term, those who are in deed and in truth children of God and therefore brethren of other children of God. There can be no denying that there is a love that we should bear toward the world in general, and towards our enemies, and toward all, no matter how evil or depraved or far from God they may be, but that is not what John is talking about here. He is talking, for the moment, of matters exclusively concerned with the circle of believers, the brethren. His major theme, to which he returns time after time in the course of his exhortation, is that we must first recognise the strictness of the standards by which a true child of God is to be identified. Given that, we must necessarily find that we feel a love toward him that transcends all other affections and friendships. The love of the brethren ought to be the greatest thing in our lives and the most powerful force in our fellowship.
"For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another" (v.11). What beginning is that? Certainly not the beginning of Israel's existence as a nation, for although the Mosaic Law certainly did command men to love God above all things and then to love their neighbours as themselves, the same Law provided for things that were the very antithesis of love. "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life" - that certainly is not the law of love as we understand it today. And love cannot be commanded; the Mosaic Law gave commands and the only love it could inculcate was duty love. The love that Jesus brought to light in the world was so much beyond the loftiest reach of Moses' precepts. Jesus could justly say "You have heard that it has been said, 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy', but I say unto you, 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you, that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven'." (Matt. 5. 43-45). That must have been the beginning of which John is speaking.
In these words of Jesus we find the same association between the possession of all-embracing love and being a child of God. John, so far as he has gone in the course of his exhortation here, in the middle of chapter 3, is for the present only asking for love for the brethren. But he appeals to the right authority. For him and for all who then and thereafter were to read his words, Jesus is the beginning. The words of Jesus constitute that "message that ye have heard from the beginning".
And how whole-heartedly the Church of the first few generations did enter into the spirit of that exhortation! It is impossible to read the thrilling stories of the Acts of the Apostles without sensing the atmosphere of Christian love in which the fellowship was born and developed. There were rifts and the occasional quarrels, it is true. The Grecians murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily ministrations (Acts 7). The Jews resented the extension of the call to the Gentiles and at first refused to count them brethren, causing Peter and others some difficult times before agreement was attained and harmony restored (Acts 15). Paul himself was not always received in the manner befitting an Apostle and an elder of the flock. But on the whole these were only incidents in the life of the Church. In the main the joy of salvation and appreciation of the High Calling to which they had been called overshadowed all other considerations.
This made the early Christian fellowship so joyous and happy that those outside envied the believers for the possession of what they themselves could neither understand nor emulate. "How these Christians love one another!" cried Tertullian many years afterwards; that word has lingered and echoed down the ages to our own time, where it has mingled with another expression "the love of the brethren". As it was in the first century, as it was in Tertullian's day, so it is in our own time that the spirit of Christian love manifest in assemblies of God's people today, is still one of the most potent means of conversion. It is a solemn thought that loss of that spirit may be a contributory factor in the decline of the number of conversions we observe. It is in our fellowship that we have opportunity to show the enquirer how our beliefs and hopes work out in practice. If our practice does not match our profession we pardon the candidate for conversion being a little sceptical. If we would persuade others to accept for themselves the rule of life which we have accepted and found good, we must expect to be judged by our manifestation of that life in actual practice under everyday conditions.
(To be continued)