To me one of the most “savage” verses in the bible is from the Apostle John (one of the closest of the 12 most closest followers of Jesus) who pierces our hearts with a question:
“If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” – 1 John 3:17
What does he mean by this?
In this verse and passage it comes from (the book of 1 John, Chapter 3, was initially written as a letter in the late 1st century to circulate amongst the churches in the Roman provinces of Asia, in modern day Turkey) John is making the case that our actions reveal the reality of our hearts.
So if there really is love in our hearts it is demonstrated by action. In the verse that comes right before v.17 John states that Jesus gave us the ultimate example of what love looks like: “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 and sisters.” For those who claim to know the love of God, expressed in Jesus’ sacrifice for them, to not have mercy for those in need is a deep hypocrisy that John cannot abide.
Why is this particular example a proof of love?
We, who are recipients of God’s love, are to love when it costs us. Literally. We might put in some time to love. But the church today is much less likely to put in MONEY to love. According to recent statistics, Christians are only giving 2.5 percent of their income per capita, while during the Great Depression they gave at a 3.3 percent rate!
God’s people in Jesus’ time, who were as a whole more poor than us in America, were to give 10% tithe of their income to the temple, 10% tithe for religious celebrations, and an additional 3% offering for the poor). So Israelites, in addition to the taxes they paid to Rome, were to give 23% of their income as a demonstration that they knew EVERYTHING belonged to Him. Any more giving to the poor, that John was likely referencing here, was IN ADDITION to these tithes, to celebrate how much God had given, abundantly.
But you might say “Those are OT laws, they don’t apply to us since Jesus has come.” However, Jesus declared in Matthew 23:23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
Notice Jesus is saying we need to CONTINUE tithing (whereas religious temple laws such as dietary restrictions and temple sacrifices are explicitly ended, nowhere in the NT do any of the writers state that tithing no longer applies), but we should add on justice, mercy, and faithfulness. The tithe is just the minimum and many of us don’t even do that. If anything doesn’t Jesus challenge us to give more, not less? In the words of Micah the Prophet, we have robbed God and we have strayed so far from His heart.
To go even further in the example we are to love from our heart. “Pity” in v. 17 is not a great translation as it has a connotation to look down on someone, but in the original greek this passage literally says that we might “close [our] heart against” the one in need. So John is not talking about simply giving money, but rather to open up our hearts to actually love the poor. Jesus said where our treasure is THERE our hearts will be also. So if we give money to the poor our hearts will be more likely to follow in love.
Many of us also do not have cross-class relationships. Most of us in America are likely more wealthy than Jesus ever was. His parents were too poor to afford a lamb for the temple sacrifice so they gave pigeons. Jesus more than likely did not have citizenship status, as he was condemned to die without a formal trial. Jesus was homeless for a lot of his ministry. Would he have been a friend of ours?
Why is loving like this so important?
Because it’s evidence of our salvation. Not that we are saved by works. V16 (above) reminds us of Jesus’ initiative and V.17 reminds us of his love in which we live. However, a salvation that works, has good works. V.14 in this chapter, reminds us that our love for each other is the evidence that we have passed from “death to life” and v17 tells us that when we open our hearts to those in need it demonstrates a reality of the love of God living in us. God is the origin, initiator, and source of love.
So how can we change?
There is hope. V.20 states: “If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.”
God is greater than our hearts! Praise God, that He is not limited by our hearts! We must simply GIVE our hearts to Him. V. 20 also reminds us that God loves us and laid down his life for us in SPITE of knowing everything about us, and how our love has fallen short.
So where ever are hearts are at, we can give ourselves to God. Maybe that means we need to stop ourselves at some point in the day and ask “Jesus, what do you want me to do today?” Maybe we listen to His still small voice when we are interacting with people throughout the day, of how to love them better…Maybe it’s really listening to them, maybe it’s lending a helping hand or a prayer, maybe it’s offering them a gift. We trust Jesus and keep putting ourselves out there to love others. We don’t wait for the feelings. We take the actions of love and THEN the feelings will come.
As we put ourselves out there to love, we get to know Him more and we experience even more intimacy with Him. As we take step of faith and risk to love we are transformed in the process. As we love we enter right into His resources, His joy, His heart.
An example of change
A story that demonstrates the transformation that happens when we give ourselves to Jesus’ love, is the story of Apostle John himself, the very person who wrote these verses we’re reading! John was one of the 12 closest disciples of Jesus himself. Jesus called John and his brother James “the sons of thunder”. Probably, because they were really fiery guys. These are the brothers that argued with the other disciples of how great they were gonna be. These are the brothers that wanted to call down fire from heaven to destroy a Samaritan village that turned Jesus away. Jews hated and were deeply racist of Samaritans, who they thought were mixed breeds that were beneath them. John had that kind of hate in him and Jesus had to call him out on it. Jesus, was GREATER than the limitations of John’s heart. Jesus saw something in John and didn’t give up on him.
So this John, after walking intimately with Jesus for years, even after Jesus was crucified and resurrected, was transformed so deeply. A church father records one particular story of John when he was already an old man. John went to different churches now amongst FOREIGNERS in Asia Minor, encouraging people in the faith and at one church, left a young man in their care. This young man was baptized but after awhile got caught up with some bad influences and fell away so far that he became the leader of a merciless gang of robbers.
When John came back to visit and heard about what happened to this youth he tore his clothes in grief. This OLD MAN got on a horse and raced right over to the place the gang was staying. Weeping, John told them to take him to their leader. When the young man recognized John, the man took off, ashamed. John chased after him crying “Why, my son, do you run from me, your father, unarmed, old? Son, pity me. Fear not; you have still hope of life. I will give account to Christ for you. If need be, I will willingly endure your death, as the Lord did death for us. For YOU I will surrender MY life. Stand, believe; Christ has sent me.” On hearing this the youth surrendered his weapons and started bawling and John embraced him and took him back to the church and didn’t leave till this man was fully restored to Jesus and the church in strength. John, who once was an arrogant young man became a pillar of the early church, was willing to lay down his reputation and his life to serve a fallen criminal. John’s love did not give up on this young man, as Jesus too did not give up on John. You see JESUS, had won John’s heart, and that is why John has become known as the apostle of love.
John’s love revealed, Jesus. May our love reveal Jesus.
So how is our love?
Let us love not only when it’s convenient but when it’s uncomfortable. Let us love when it costs us something. Let us love more with the money God has given us. We must remember it all belongs to Him, not to us. Let us love not only those who are like us but those who are different from us.
“...let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” – 1 John 3:18.