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? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
It is a real shame that John never made it to the third chapter in his other epistles, because he seems to have this magic touch with the sixteenth verse of third chapters. Oh well.
Coming out of his analogy of Cain as the bad example, John is commanding us to do the opposite. While Cain laid down his brother’s life for his own, Christ laid down His own life for us. Thus, we should emulate Christ, laying down our own lives for our brothers.
So is John telling us to die? Is John telling us to be a living sacrifice for the sins of our brothers? No, and I do not expect anyone to think so. The point is to value the life of your brother above your own, even to the point of death if necessary.
This is then demonstrated with an example. If anyone has that which another needs, and refuses to give it to that person, then one is not loving. What is worthy of note here is that “material possessions” here does not mean just anything. It refers to those things which are necessary for life. Indeed, the word in the Greek is bios literally meaning life, the root where we get biology from. We are not talking about your best friend wanting to borrow your copy of Third Day Offering here. We are referring to real and actual need, as if that person’s life is on the line. Are you sacrificing that man’s life by ignoring his cries from bread? That is the context that John is referring to here.
Then in 18, we grasp the real point. The essence of love isn’t what you feel, but what you do. It’s a value thing, not an emotion. Emotions are responses. I am angry because I believe an injustice has occurred that must be righted; I am sad because I recognize I have lost something I cannot recover; I am happy because something has occurred which has benefited me, etc… When I love, I don’t love because of something that has happened, or because a certain condition has been met by another. I love because I value something above myself. It is a point of view, a perspective, a prioritization. Therefore, if you love something, you care for it above all else, especially yourself.
That is what John is saying here. You need to love your siblings, especially your Christian siblings. And you cannot say, “Well I feel love for them.” That is not enough. You have to make them a priority in your life, and that requires action. How do what know what love is? Sacrifice. ; the sacrifice of one’s own life for the care of something or someone else.