the First Epistle
Part 17 1 John 3. 17-24
"But if anyone hath this 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 RSV)
The Apostle John, for all his deep spirituality, was eminently practical. His Christianity was a faith to be exercised on earth toward others as well as in heaven toward God. The Christian society to him was much more than a congregation of individuals, each of whom individually had been made right with God and each of whom had to make his or her calling and election sure. The Christian society was a brotherhood in the deepest sense such as the world had never known before. It is impossible, therefore, John insists, for any truly to be regarded as a member of that brotherhood if they fail to act up to the spirit of the brotherhood. It just means that there can be no such thing as destitution within the Christian community unless all are destitute. At least that is what it means in theory; in practice because the Christian community in the world has never reached up to the ideal set before us, it cannot be said that this condition is truly attained.
Yet a great number of those who are Christ's, are in possession of "this world's goods" to more than a usual degree. There are many indications that they have truly appreciated the spirit of this injunction and do minister to the material needs of their needy brethren. The Lord who sees in secret will one day reward them openly but they do not do those things for a reward. They do them because the love of God that is in their hearts leads them irresistibly to make use of their ability to give happiness and comfort to the Lord's afflicted ones.
No one can love God who does not love his brother and all men are brethren in God's sight. A man who at first does not love God, if he has true love for his brother and his neighbour in his heart, may soon become a lover of God also.
The expression 'bowels of compassion' (AV) is not used in modern English and can be meaningless. The word has changed its meaning since the days of the Authorised Version translators. At that time the inward parts including the heart, were a symbol of the affections. The same Greek word is better translated in 2 Cor.7.15, "His inward affection is more abundant toward us" and in Luke 1.78 "Through the tender mercy of our God whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us." The Septuagint uses the same word in Proverbs 12.10, "The righteous man regardeth the life of his beast, but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel." This meaning "inward affection", should be applied wherever this word is used in a metaphysical sense, in the New Testament, that is 2 Cor.6.12; Phil.1.8 and 2.1; Col.1.2 and Philemon 7, 12 and 20. It will be noticed, all these occurrences are in the writings of Paul. He evidently had a great love for the sentiment that this word denoted.
Incidentally, in classical Greek, the word is used by Herodotus, to denote the inward parts of sacrificed animals, the lungs, liver, heart, etc. which were roasted by fire and eaten by the offenders. These were supposed to be the life-producing and life-sustaining organs ‑ as indeed they are ‑ and in the same way did the High Priest of Israel offer these same organs on the Brazen Altar of the Tabernacle during the progress of the Day of Atonement sacrifices. It has often been said that the 'inward parts' thus offered in the sacrifice, represent the heart's devotion and best endeavours of the consecrated life; here is the physical basis for that thought.
"Little children let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth. By this we shall know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts and he knows everything. (1 John 3.18-20 RSV)
This is a better rendering of the Greek in verse 20 than the AV, and completely alters the sense of the passage and makes it more harmonious. The AV has it "If our heart condemn us God is greater than our heart and knoweth all things." It can be fairly argued from that sentence that John is issuing a warning. If we have, as it were, a guilty conscience, a heart that is telling us inwardly that we are doing wrong, we may depend upon it that God, who is greater than our heart knows all about that wrong doing also. He who searches the heart can read our inmost thoughts and there is nothing hidden from his penetrating gaze. Now that is perfectly true but it is not what John is talking about here.
He is giving comfort and assurance, not warning. He is telling us that in every such time of self-condemnation, if in our natural depression and foreboding on account of inward sense of sin, we condemn ourselves unduly, this knowledge that we are loving him and his children, not only in word, but in deed and in truth, will constitute an assurance to us. We shall assure our hearts that God who knows all things, knows of the sincerity of our love and has taken note of the actions that accompany that love. In so doing he has counted us acceptable in His sight not withstanding our weaknesses and shortcomings on account of which we tend to condemn ourselves too severely.
It is admittedly true that some disciples do not view in sufficiently serious light their failures to reach up to the Divine ideals. There are almost certain to be some particular weaknesses or failures or indulgences ‑ different in different people ‑ which we do not repress or condemn so strictly as we should. However, on the whole, it is probably true, that most of the Lord's children are too severely self-condemnatory. Usually the more earnest they are in their consecration, the more they tend to condemn themselves too severely. It is good for us that our Lord judges us neither too leniently nor too harshly ‑ and, too, in his judgment he guides us in his way so that we may do better in future.
It is our part, therefore, to see to it that our love, expressed in word and speech, is worked out in our lives. It is easy to read about the virtues of love, or to listen and give mental assent to discourses extolling the quality of love; and all that may fairly be described as 'loving in word'. It is nearly as easy to talk about love, to profess the characteristics of love, to exhort others from the platform or pulpit, or in conversation, to love in daily life. That is truly loving with the tongue. John certainly does not mean us to understand that we are not to read, hear or talk about Christian love. But all of this, desirable and good as it may be, is of no value to us unless that same love is demonstrably effecting its good works in our hearts and lives. It is quite possible for any one of us to "preach to others and oneself be a castaway". After all it is not until one begins to put these things into practice that one really finds out what they mean. Many an audience has sat listening to an eloquent exhortation to Christian love, with much nodding of the heads and many eyes riveted on the speaker. After it is all over many in that audience have gone back to their daily routine without any intention of applying the things said to the incidents of daily life ‑ it has just not occurred to them to do so. John wants us to take his words very seriously and make them our own. But do not be content with that. He wants us to go away and put them into practice and see for ourselves how they work out.
"Beloved, if our hearts condemn us not, then have we confidence towards God and whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight" (vv.21-23).
This expression "if our hearts condemn us not" is not an antithesis to v.19 but is a development of that verse. The fact that we know our love to be one that is practised in our lives gives us assurance in heart against unnecessary and unjust self-condemnation. Since our heart no longer condemns us, we have a confidence ‑ a boldness, is the real meaning of the word ‑ toward God which enables us to approach him in full confidence and full assurance of faith. As the writer to the Hebrews says "Having therefore brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus...let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith." (Heb.10.19-22). When in his wisdom and mercy and love our Heavenly Father accepts our proffered offering, the dedication and consecration of our hearts and lives to his service also gives us the privilege of access to him. We ought to realise and hold as a fundamental article of our faith that He has cast all our sins and shortcomings behind his back. He stands ready to help us over every obstacle, even though many of those obstacles are of our own making. We may have that confidence all the time that we retain the witness of our own heart's sincerity.
That is why John can say so confidently that "whatsoever we ask, we receive of him". It is because we "keep his commandments and do those things that are pleasing in his sight" that we receive whatsoever we ask. We ask only for those things that it is his will we should have. True, all of us voice many requests for things both spiritual and temporal that we never receive. There is a reason. We attach to every such request the unalterable proviso 'if it by Thy will' If the request is not going to be in accordance with his will ‑ and at the time of proffering the request we do not know whether it is so or not ‑ then that part of the request is not granted. So that if such a request is not granted, that is just what we ask for! It is literally true therefore that if we are keeping his commandments that include desiring his will to be done in all things, we do receive the answer we want to every request we make. It is 'yes' or 'no' according to the Divine will and it is that for which we ask. We accept the decision and we shape our course accordingly. The making of the request, whether it be granted or not, is good exercise. The acceptance of the decision if it be in the negative, is good discipline. The receipt of that which is asked for, if the Lord's will be to grant it, affords opportunity for good practice, the making use of the gift for its intended purpose to the glory of God.
At last then, John comes to the conclusion of the second 'book' in this his first epistle. Chapters 1 and 2 contained the first self-contained little treatise, chapter 3 the second, whilst chapters 4 and 5 constitute a third that introduces further and deeper doctrinal truth concerning the person of Jesus Christ our Lord. Now in vv 23 and 24 he gives a fitting conclusion to his long exhortation. "This is his commandment, That we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as he gave us commandment. And he that keeps his commandments dwells in him and he in them. And hereby we know that he abides in us by the Spirit which he has given us."
There is so much that might be said about that final word; and yet, because it is a final word it is better to leave it to convey its own message, unelaborated. It was Jesus himself who declared that love for God is the first and greatest commandment, and love for one's neighbour was the second and like unto it. Now John translates that word into one that is of more particular significance to the Church, the members of the body of Christ. Just as those words of Jesus are true in the larger, in the universal sense, so in a more restricted sphere love of the Lord Jesus is the first and greatest commandment and love for the brethren is second. That has been John's insistence throughout his epistle. Those who realise that fact and act upon it and whose love both for their Lord and for their brethren is worked out in their lives, dwell in God and God dwells in them. The Holy Spirit gives its witness in the heart of each believer, that this is so.