We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for each other.– 1 John 3:16
It’s good, essential even, to place things in the proper order. We know what love is because we’ve seen Jesus do it. To know what love is, we don’t look first to ourselves, or even to each other, but first to Jesus. If we can begin to know Jesus, knowing ourselves will sort itself out eventually. We know what love is because we’ve seen Jesus do it, and so we’ll do for each other what we’ve seen him do. And John doesn’t make us guess what the love of Jesus looks like. It looks like sacrifice. It looks like laying down the one thing we so instinctually and intensely cling to – life itself. But that’s what love does. Love lowers itself. Love gives and gives. Love relinquishes. Love makes a sacrifice. “How does God’s love abide in anyone,” John asks rhetorically, “who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (3:17) Love will not stop at words. Love will appear. Love will make itself undeniably, tangibly present. Love, when it is really real, will get our hands dirty, will make our bodies sore, will make us lose sleep, will disrupt our schedule and priorities. Sooner or later, love will cause us pain, just as it did for Jesus. “So let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (3:18)
The biggest threat to the Church, as John confronts it, is not something or someone outside the Church, but very much embedded within it. The biggest threat to the Church is the Christian who only claims to love, who is very good at loving with speech but does not know how to love in truth and action. That is nothing less than poison to the Church. John expends a good amount of energy in this letter going after this kind of Christian, the one whose love is only surface level, the one who speaks words of love when hate is what truly abides in the heart (4:20), the one who claims to walk in light but truly walks in darkness (1:6). This kind of Christian will rot the Church from the inside out. If love does not at some point become plainly visible, then we’ve got a lot of work to do.
The end of 1 John 3 does a wonderful job of simplifying what it means to be human, to be a child of God. “This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.” Throughout his letter, John has much to say about God’s love, God’s word, God’s very self imprinting itself on our hearts, remaking us in the image of his son. And because God’s transforming love abides within us so deeply, it must also pour out of us into each other, into the world around us in the most visible, undeniable ways. So let us love in ways that make our hands dirty, our bodies sore, in ways that make us lose sleep, in ways that disrupt our schedule and priorities.