Exegetical Matters: Leon Morris on 1 John 3:16,17 part 2

Why would a church leader speak of the Christian’s responsibility to love non-Christians who are in financially difficult situations or some other kind of physical crisis or vulnerable position?

Sometimes when people stress the importance of the leadership of the church discipling its members in showing the love of Christ even to those outside the church in practical and specific ways, there are those within the church who immediately seem to become suspicious and see this as a distraction from the church’s mission.  

“Worldly” they say.

Or,”sounds like the social gospel.”

But if the aim of our charge (1 Timothy 1:5) is love, then wouldn’t it make sense for church leaders to be passionately concerned about helping the members of their church grow in expressing love in every area of their life?  To their wives. To their children. To the other members of the church. To the needy in the church.  And to the needy outside the church as well?


There’s the rub. Why even bring that up? I think some really wonder. What does our love for the needy have to do with our Christian faith? Even if it is a responsibility, it is just one of many. Why talk about it?

Because the Bible does.

And in pretty serious ways.  It’s often what the Bible brings up as a test of the reality of one’s faith.

For example, the apostle John tells us, “If anyone has the 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 3:16)

Now immediately, I know many are saying, this word brother means Christian here in this context. This is, “if he sees his Christian brother in need and closes his heart against him.”  And it may be. (In fact, it probably likely is.) Though I still think if that’s what John means, it is pretty challenging, since where I live a large majority of people would say they are Christians. Plus, as Blaney asserts, “Love for the brethren is a better piece of evidence than love for the sinful world, because if one cannot love the ‘children of God,’ how could he be expected to love
the ‘children of the devil’?”In other words, even if brother means Christian here, it’s not because it means we aren’t supposed to love unbelievers, but if we don’t do the one, we certainly wouldn’t do the other.

But still, when John talks about brother here, some suggest he isn’t necessarily speaking of another believer.

There are scholars who see brother in this context as fellow man.

Leon Morris is one.*

He writes, “The First Epistle of John says a good deal about brotherly love; in fact, there are those who claim that 1 John, like John, looks for love only among believers. True, in some places the writer seems clearly to have believers in mind. This must be so, for example, in his explicit mention of love for the children of God. (1 John 5:2) Similarly, he writes, ‘This is the message which you heard from the beginning, that we love one another’ (1 John 3:11), and he records the command that ‘we love one another.’ (1 John 3:23; cf. 2 John 5) But more often he refers to love of ‘the brother,’ a usage that makes a wonder if the term always or sometimes refers to those outside the Christian community. The term, of course, may mean ‘brother man’ as well as ‘brother Christian.’

The wider meaning seems demanded in a number of passages. For instance, we read, ‘In this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; we too should lay down our lives for the brothers.’ (1 John 3:16) Here believers are urged to model themselves after Christ. Now his death ‘for us’ was not a death for the good or the faithful or anyone who could claim merit. In his death Jesus was the ‘propitiation for our sins, not for ours only but also for the whole world.’ (1 John 2:2) Because Jesus died for sinners and because believers are called on to be ready to die in the same manner as he did (1 John 3:16), they are plainly directed to show sacrificial love for others.”

This is just one of several arguments Morris gives to make his case. One of the reasons love for the undeserving is such an important great test of the reality of one’s faith is because it gets to motive. Why am I loving someone?

Paul Hoon writes, 

“The attractiveness or responsiveness of those to be loved is an inadequate motive. The essence of Christian love is that it is to be directed precisely toward the unlovable, the unlovely, even toward the hostile (cf. Matt.5:44-48), for such is the character of the love of God.”

In other words, if I am interested in God, I must be interested in loving the unlovely because God does.  After all, He loves me! And it seems of course, very natural, if I am interested in helping people become like God that I would be very interested in helping them learn to love those they normally wouldn’t. Not because I want to distract them from the gospel, but because the gospel produces this kind of fruit in a person’s life, and when it doesn’t, questions need to be asked.

*Though, see John Piper and his article, Put Strong Pillars Under Your Case for the Unbelieving Poor. He’s obviously not convinced this is a good argument! But still he does think there are others.

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