We are studying 1 John 3:11-24 for Sunday, November 15 (which, by the way, is also the Sunday that we’re scheduled to turn in pledge cards for the annual stewardship campaign). This is a portion of the short book of 1 John that reminds its audience that Christ’s command is to love one another. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: 1 John is one of a group of New Testament texts – James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2, & 3 John, Jude – known as the “general” or “catholic” epistles, because we can read them as being addressed to all the churches in general, or to no church in particular. At any rate, they are not addressed to a church as particular as the church in Rome or Corinth or Philippi.
We say this, even though 2 & 3 John actually are addressed to someone in particular, and even though the story is that they were written to a specific church, and to a specific individual, something as cover letters for the main letter of 1 John.
Our lesson book tells us that the author of 1-2-3 John is not the author of the gospel of John. Other sources say different. If the books don’t have the same authors, they at a minimum have authors from the same theological community. The language and themes in 1 John clearly echo the language, themes, and theology in the gospel of John.
The Bible Project has a concise and illuminating animated synopsis of the three letters here.
1 John is short (5 chapters), and it repeats a lot. Its structure is more or less circular, in the sense that the author keeps looping around the same main point(s) over and over: the children of God, who is light and love, love one another, and walk in the light; part of that includes holding on to the truth that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has come “in the flesh.” Denying that and not loving one another amounts to walking in darkness.
[Walking in darkness is a good way to stub your toe, or to trip and fall flat on your face, or worse; so, don’t do that.]
Part of the text (1 John 3:16-24) is in the lectionary for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B, so there’s a chance that churchgoers will have heard a sermon or two on the text. Maybe, that is – it has stiff competition from Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, and John 10 “I am the good shepherd.”
CLOSER READING: No contest: love is on the author’s mind in this text. That verb is repeated seven times in these 14 verses.
Verse 11, which gives “love one another” as the message the audience has “heard from the beginning,” refers back to earlier verses (1 John 1:1, 2:7) and ahead to 4:21, “the commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
Verse12, the reference to Cain, is to Genesis 4:1-16; our study Bible points out it’s the only reference to Hebrew scripture in the entire text, which is remarkable. The word translated “murdered” is a different word than the one translated “murderers” in verse 15. Even so, it identifies Cain, who slew his brother, with anyone who hates a brother or sister, and who therefore is a murderer. [We will probably think of Matthew 5:21-26 here, too.]
Cain slays his brother, according to the exegesis in the text, because his brother’s deeds or works were “righteous,” while Cain’s were evil. That explanation definitely leaves something out. Maybe the idea is that someone who does evil will feel shame, or resentment, in the face of someone who does righteousness? Maybe John’s thinking presages Mark Twain’s principle that “few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.”
Whatever it is, the explanation seems intended to stretch to explain the world’s hatred of the Christian audience for John’s letter as well (v13).
The model for love is Jesus’s laying down his life (v16), but the concrete form of that for the audience is how they treat a brother [or sister] in need (v17). If people have “the world’s goods” but “refuse to help” – if you literally “close your guts,” suppressing a visceral feeling of compassion – how is that love? [Here, the text presages Elie Wiesel’s principle, that “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”]
Non-indifference makes concrete what it means to love in action and truth rather than in word [logos] and speech [glōssa] in v18.
In v19, when “our hearts condemn us” they literally know something against us. This makes the importance of God’s knowing everything clearer. God, as judge, is greater than our hearts, and also knows more.
The boldness “we” can have before God (v21) is the special kind of speech, parrēsia, that is associated with frankness and full disclosure. This seems to be contingent on our hearts not knowing anything against us, or conversely knowing that “we obey his commandments and do what pleases him,” which would be why our hearts wouldn’t know anything against us. These days, we would probably say we “have a clear conscience.”
Vv23-24 echo the themes of John 15 from last week, the abiding that involves keeping / obeying God’s [Jesus’s] commandments, to love one another. To this John adds believing in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, seemingly to counter the concern that emerges in the letter as a whole, that of affirming that Jesus was a real flesh-and-blood person.
John is adamant: life, real life, life in the light, is about love. And love is about care – acting on our “gut feelings” for brothers and sisters in need.
Edited 11-13-20 to add James to the list of catholic epistles. Sorry about that.