Loving as Children of God (preaching resource for Easter 4, 4/21/24)

This post exegetes 1 John 3:11-24, providing context for the 4/21/24 (Easter 4) RCL Epistle reading. This exegesis draws on commentary from Warren Wiersbe ("Bible Expository Commentary"), Stephen Smalley ("Word Biblical Commentary") and Leon Morris ("New Bible Commentary").

"I Feel My Savior's Love" by Greg Olsen
(used with artist's permission)


In John chapter 3, the author is focused on living as the children of God that we truly are. In vv1-10 he explains that we experience this true identity by sharing in Jesus’ righteousness (right living). Now in vv11-24, John explains that sharing in Jesus’ living involves sharing in his loving (and due to divisions in the church, John’s focus is on loving other believers).  In exploring what it means to love people, John notes that humans in our fallen world tend to relate to others at four different levels. The first three, murder, hatred and indifference, are of the devil and yield death. The fourth level, which is love, is of God (who is love), the fruit of the life that is real (eternal life). John’s wants us to understand the origin and nature of each of these levels so that we may reject those of Satan and share actively in the life of the Father, through Jesus, in the Spirit by loving as children of God.

Let’s look with John at each of these levels of relating. We start with murder.

Murder (3:11–12)

11 This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. 12 Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother's were righteous.

Murder is of the “evil one”—the devil (v 12). It’s the lowest possible level on which to relate to other people. The devil was a murderer from the beginning of his fallen career (John 8:44), but Christians have heard, from the beginning of their experience as believers that they are to “love one another.” Indeed, love is the way of God for humanity since creation.  So John’s point is that if we are sharing God’s life, we will love others. But if our identity is rooted in Satan, we will hate others. 

Cain is a primary biblical example. Though God was Cain’s true Father, he showed by his behavior that his core identity was rooted in the devil, who was his spiritual father (John 8:44). As a result, Cain was a murderer and a liar (Gen 4:9). God warned Cain that sin was crouching at the door like a dangerous beast (Gen 4:7) but promised that if Cain would turn to him in obedience and faith he, like his brother Abel, would enjoy peace with God, within himself, and with other people. But instead of heeding God’s warning, Cain listened to Satan’s voice and murdered Abel. Centuries later, the Pharisees, in the same spirit of murder, followed their spiritual father, the devil, in lashing out at Jesus (Mark 15:9–10; John 8:44). 

Cain’s attitude is characteristic of an entire world system (1 John 3:13) that is opposed to Jesus (John 15:18–25) for the same reason that Cain hated Abel: Jesus’ perfection exposes the world’s system as corrupt. When the world’s system, like Cain, comes face-to-face with reality and truth, it can make only one of two decisions: repent and change, or destroy the one exposing it. Like Cain, people caught up in this system (which is expressive of the spirit of Satan), try to cover up their true nature with religious rites; but they are living a trajectory of life that leads to death, not life. 

Let us renounce the devil’s spirit of murder and follow God’s Spirit by loving as children of God. 

Hatred (3:13–15)

13 Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15 Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.

Hatred is also of the devil and is akin to murder (v15; cf. Mat 5:22). The only difference is that murder involves the act of taking life. But the spirit and intent are the same. This does not mean, of course, that hatred does the same amount of damage, or involves the same degree of guilt, as actual murder. But in God’s sight, hatred is the moral equivalent of murder, and if left unbridled it leads to murder. A believer experiences and actively enjoys God’s love—they have passed from death to life (1 John 3:14; cf. John 5:24), and their love for others (including believers) is proof. Sadly to love others will often bring forth a negative response, for to love is to buck the world’s system, which is grounded in death, not life.  

These verses (1 John 3:14–15), like those that deal with habitual sin in a believer (1 John 1:5–2:6), concern the settled trajectory of a person’s life: a believer is in the practice of loving others, even though on occasion they may become angry with others (including other believers). Occasional incidents of anger do not nullify the principle. If anything, they prove it true, because a believer out of fellowship with another believer is miserable. They know something is wrong and they seek reconciliation. So the issue here is not about losing salvation by getting angry, but whether a person who is actively sharing the life of God can continue in a spirit of hatred. The answer is no, for we “know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15b, NASB). The spirit of anger, which is the spirit of murder, keeps us from participating in the life that is real—God’s eternal life.  Of course, the antidote for a spirit of hatred is to embrace God’s love. When a hateful heart yields in repentance and faith to God and his love, God’s life is actualized in them. Instead of wanting to “murder” others through hatred, they want to love them. 

Let us renounce the devil’s spirit of murder and hatred and follow God’s Spirit by loving as children of God.

Indifference (3:16–17)

16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?

If indifference seems benign, don’t be fooled. It too is of the devil—it is the way of death. Participating in Satan’s evil often means standing idly by and doing nothing. In contrast, participating in God’s love means taking action to do good to those in need. This is the way of Jesus who had compassion on the lost and gave his life to save them. And now as God’s children, we are called to share in Jesus’ sacrificial living and loving. This is not easy, of course, because self-preservation is a very strong instinct in our fallen natures. 

In God’s economy, love is not a mere concept, but practical action. This is what Jesus extols in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). The lawyer wanted to talk theory: “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus focused attention on one man in need, and changed the question to, “To whom can I be a neighbor?” The application of God’s love is not in loud pronouncements about loving the whole world, but in quiet acts of helping one needy person at a time. But if we harden our heart against a needy person—and John has in mind here a needy fellows believer, we stand guilty of indifference, which John says is akin to murder and hatred—all three express the self-centered way of the devil. 

As an aside, we note that one of the reasons believers are urged to work is so that they, “may have something to share with those in need” (Eph 4:28). Of course, this sharing need not always be in terms of money or material supplies. It may include personal service. Indeed, one of the great needs of many people is for friendship. It behooves us as believers to steward our lives (including our schedules and our budgets) so that we allow “margin” for being generous with others. Generous God; generous children of God.

Let us renounce the devil’s spirit of murder, hatred and indifference and follow God’s Spirit by loving as children of God.

Love (3:18–24)

As believers, we repudiate murder, hatred and indifference—all three are of the devil.  Instead, we actively embrace God and his way, which is the way of love. Note how John defines it in 1John 3:18:

Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.

We note that God’s love is real—based in action and truth. The apostles experienced this from Jesus when he was with them on earth, and they continued to experience it following his ascension.  This love was the focus of much of their writing: “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled’; and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” wrote Jesus’ brother James (James 2:15–16, NASB). It’s easy to think that because we’ve discussed a need, or even prayed about it, that we have fulfilled our duty; but love calls for action. In 1John 3:18, to love “with tongue” means to love insincerely. To love “in truth” means to love genuinely, from the heart. People are attracted by genuine love, but repelled by the kind that is mere talk. One reason sinners were attracted to Jesus (Luke 15:1–2) was because he demonstrated his love through action—his love for them was real!

John goes on to name three wonderful blessings that come to us as we experience and express God’s love. The first blessing is that of assurance… 

1. Assurance (vv. 19–20)

19 This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence 20 whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

As we share in God’s love for people, we grow in our understanding of God’s love for us. As a result, our hearts are baptized in assurance. This is important, because it’s easy to buy into Satan’s lie that God condemns us. Peter experienced this lie after he denied Jesus. He was filled with remorse and fear. But then, following his resurrection, Jesus sent Peter a message (Mark 16:7) assuring him that he was forgiven. Peter’s heart may have condemned him, but God and his grace was greater than Peter’s self-condemning heart. Jesus gave Peter assurance; and he does the same for us. By practicing Jesus’ genuine love for others, we deeply experience God’s love for us and our hearts are put at rest. 

2. Answered prayer (vv. 21–22) 

21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him.

As we express God’s love for people, we grow in assurance which is reinforced by answered prayer. This does not mean that we earn God’s answer to our prayers by loving other people.  Rather it means that our love for people (which is conformance with God’s command to love) is evidence that we are living in God’s will, and “…[we] receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him” (1John 3:22). When our delight is in the love of God, our desires expressed in prayer are in the will of God, and God answers such prayers.

3. Abiding (vv. 23–24) 

23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24 Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.

When Jesus was asked to name the greatest commandment in the Law (the old covenant), he spoke of the law of love with two parts: "'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'”(Matt. 22:34–39). And now here in 1 John, we find that under the new covenant, love remains the focus, again with two parts: “And this is his [God’s] command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another” (1 John 3:23). To share through the Spirit in God’s own love, which is incarnate in Jesus, involves our believing in Jesus—which unites us to God and to his love in faith. Then in communion with Jesus, we are given to share actively in Jesus’ own unconditional love for people. Faith in Jesus and outgoing love toward people are two sides of the same coin. Sometimes believers emphasize faith, but neglect love. Others love, but overlook the source of that love, which is Jesus. Faith and love go together in our sharing in Jesus’ living. 

And note that this faith and love are not our own. It is by grace, through the Spirit, that we are given to share in Jesus’ own faith and love. As it says in 1 John 3:23-24 NASB, we “abide” in Jesus and he “abides” in us.  All people, in and through Jesus, have an objective union with God, but not all are subjectively (personally) abiding in that union, which produces communion. When we share through the Spirit in Jesus’ believing and loving, the indwelling Spirit gives us a deep inner witness and thus peace in knowing that we truly are God’s children (see 1 John 4:1-6). Love is not something we “work up” when we need it. Rather, as Paul says in Romans 5:5, “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit,” and this is our ongoing experience as we abide in Jesus by sharing in his knowing (believing) and in his doing (loving). 


Sadly, instead of abiding in Christ, some people (even some believers) default to lower levels of relating—they express Satan’s spirit of murder, hatred or indifference. But those living actively (“abiding”) as God’s children, are loving as children of God—they share deeply in the love of the Father, through Jesus, in the Holy Spirit. This is real life—the life that yields assurance, answered prayer and faith-filled abiding with God. This is our life of loving as children of God.