Hereby know we love, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren (1 John 3:16).
“I would die for you.”
Such a line makes for a very touching moment in a romantic movie, or an inspiring one if it involved a political leader fighting a worthy cause. It would seem quite strange if used toward one who was evil or vile, an enemy, or someone we otherwise have reasons to dislike.
And yet Jesus laid down His life for us (1 John 3:16); He gave of Himself for those who did evil, who did not understand His work and purpose, and who acted against God and His purposes (Romans 5:6-11).
John is writing to exhort Christians to love one another (1 John 3:11-4:21). Cain is offered up as an example of one who hated his brother: his brother’s works were righteous, and his were not, and in jealousy Cain killed him (1 John 3:11-12; cf. Genesis 4:1-8). For this reason Christians who do what is right should not be surprised when the world which loves the wrong hates them; Christians can know they have passed out of death to life based on their love for one another (1 John 3:13-14). Those who do not love abide in death; whoever hates his brother is a murderer, not having eternal life in them, because they have no concern for the welfare of their brother (1 John 3:15). And so John points to Jesus as the means by which we know love: He laid down His life for us, and therefore we as Christians should lay down our lives for one another (1 John 3:16). He will go on to critique his fellow Christians: if a Christian has the world’s goods, and sees his or her fellow Christian going without, and yet shuts up his or her heart and compassion from them, how can they say they really love their brother (1 John 3:17)? Christian love should be in deed and truth, not with mere words (1 John 3:18).
No doubt early Christians were as convinced as Christians are today regarding love for one another. We all know we are supposed to love one another, right? But do we really and actually love one another, or do we just profess it? That is why John writes as he does in 1 John 3:11-18. Christians are inspired by the lofty ideals of love; they, no doubt, are willing to lay down their lives for one another as Jesus laid down His life for us. But in the very practical matter of seeing a brother in need, then what? It can be easy to excuse or justify why some have an abundance and others have nothing, and nothing is done to assist. That, John emphasizes, is not love; that’s hatred, of the world and Cain and the Evil One. If you are so willing to lay down your life for one another, why not start by providing something for a fellow Christian in need?
Nevertheless 1 John 3:16 proves almost as famous, and just as easily taken out of its context and proof-texted, as John 3:16. It provides a powerful message and a good reminder: as Jesus laid down His life for us and thus manifested His love toward us, we should prove willing to do the same for one another (cf. Matthew 20:25-28). But what does that mean? What did it look like for Jesus to lay down His life for others?
John makes it clear why Jesus laid down His life for His people: to be the propitiation for their sins (1 John 4:10). He loved them; He did not want them to experience hellfire; He wished to reconcile them with Himself and their God (John 13:1-3, 17:20-23, Romans 5:6-11). He suffered the evil; He suffered violence; and in suffering the evil and violence He overcame sin and death (Romans 8:1-8, Colossians 2:15). Jesus was a pure and holy sacrifice; He opened not his mouth, and proved to be the Suffering Servant in every respect (Isaiah 42:13-53:12, 1 Peter 2:18-25). His death was as much for those who crucified Him as those who were devoted to Him (Luke 23:34).
Christians following the Lord Jesus are not sinless, and yet even their sacrifices, up to and including death, have value and standing before God. Paul considered the suffering he experienced as making up for what was lacking in the afflictions of the church; his tribulations were for the glory of those who believed (Ephesians 3:13, Colossians 1:24). Thus, in some way, Christians can suffer for one another; we can imagine that within the early church some Christians suffered mightily so that others might be spared. Yet even then they did not retaliate in kind; they knew they needed to suffer as Jesus suffered if they would obtain the same victory Jesus did (Romans 8:17-18).
This image of sacrifice is so powerful that it is easily taken up and applied in other contexts never intended by the Lord Jesus. In the United States of America, as in many other nation-states, the willingness of a person to go and fight and give up their lives in conflict for the advancement of the nation-state and its ideals is highly commended. In this way a picture is painted of a person who goes down, guns blazing, to protect or defend an ideal, a nation, or a person. We may appreciate what a given nation-state provides, and even appreciate the willingness to give one’s life for the advancement of that nation-state’s purpose, but that person has not laid down their life as Jesus laid down His. Jesus did not die seeking to harm others; He died for the salvation of all mankind. Anyone who dies in combat or in a context in which violence is returned for violence is seeking the harm of others, however merited that harm may seem. One may think one’s sacrifice in war or in defense valorous; it rarely seems as valorous to those on the other side who would have been the ones killed or injured otherwise.
For Christians the cross of Calvary always stands before them, the way forward to find life indeed. It is a path that will involve personal hardship, suffering, and for some, even death for the cause of Christ. Yet the cross of Christ was not an instrument used to harm others; it was the means by which God worked to reconcile the world to Himself in Jesus, the terrible criminal as well as the “good, upstanding” citizen. If called upon, the Christian ought to willingly lay down his or her life for the brethren, as Jesus did; such a calling does not justify harming others in the process. May we love one another as Jesus has loved us, loving in deed and in truth, and thus obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry