1 John 3:17-18 (How God’s Love in Christ Causes Love)

Dear Church Family,

We’ve seen how God’s love in Christ for His people causes hate (1 John 3:11-15) – how the world hates those who are born of God. And, we’ve seen also how God’s love in Christ for His people causes change: “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16). Jesus’ sacrificial love for us changes us and then teaches us how we ought to sacrificially love our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Now, let us consider how this change that God’s love causes, also causes us to love as He loved us (1 John 3:17-18):

17 But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?
18 Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.

There are two reasons why we went to such lengths in describing the love of God in Christ for us from the previous versus, why we talked about Agape, Affection, and Friendship in such detail. First of all, it is so that we can try to get past all the clichés and the language that has become so common among us; so that we can better understand how much God loves us.

The other reason that we examined the various aspects of the love of God in Christ for us, though, is this: For those who have experienced that love, God calls us to love our brother in that exact same way.

God did not – and does not – love us in words only – but in deed and in truth. And, we are called to do the same. Do you see that last phrase of verse 18? “Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and in truth. “To love in deed” means to take action, to do something. God in Christ took action to love us, and so should we. “To love in truth” means to be sincere – to be genuine, and not hypocritical. God in Christ was sincere in His love and so should we.

So, what does this “in deed and in truth” kind of love look like? He tells us in verse 17. True love sees the need of his brother, and if he has the “world’s goods” – material possessions to help – he does not “close his heart against him.” The King James Version renders that phrase about closing one’s heart in verse 17 in what I find to be a very interesting turn of phrase: he “shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him”!

You see, if the love of God abides in a person, this compassionate love cannot be closed off. It causes a person to love, even as God loves – with Agape, Affection, and with Friendship Love – by giving to that need.

Becoming like the Father

I have a painting in my study – a print, really – of Rembrandt’s painting called “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” It’s a wonderful and fascinating rendition of the scene from Jesus’ parable in which the prodigal son returns home and is embraced by his father. In Rembrandt’s rendition, you can clearly see the prodigal son, kneeling before his father in a humble embrace. The father is affectionately holding his son to himself. And, off to the side, standing erect and judgmental is the elder son, looking on in spite.

I have come to really love that painting, but one of the main reasons that I love the painting is because of the insights that I learned in a book by Henri Nouwen called The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. In that book, Nouwen describes his own life and spiritual transformation through the story that is depicted in the painting.

In the final chapter of Nouwen’s book, as he concludes his examination of Rembrandt’s painting and of his own life, Nouwen strikes upon a truth that is also taught in 1 John 3:16-18: Just as Christ has loved us, so ought we to love one another.

No doubt, if you’ve ever read or heard Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, you have identified with the rebellious son. The rebellious or prodigal son went off and spent all of his inheritance, only to be driven by his own sin and destitute condition to go back to his father and plead for mercy. I think we all can identify with him, and we all have been grateful that our heavenly Father welcomes us back with a warm embrace.

At other times, perhaps you, as I have, identified with the son who remained. You take your privileged status as a child of God for granted. You start to think that your status in God’s household is due to the fact that you earned it somehow. And so, you scorn those whom you deem to be less worthy.

But, have you ever considered that as a child of God you are called to identify with the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son? Now, obviously, I don’t mean that you become God. What I mean is that God wants you to emulate the love of the father as is expressed in that parable. We are to love one another, even as we have been loved by our Heavenly Father. Listen to how Henri Nouwen puts it at the end of his book. It’s a bit lengthy, but so insightful and well said. These are Henri Nouwen’s words…

“I am amazed at how long it has taken me to make the father the center of my attention. It was so easy to identify with the two sons. Their outer and inner waywardness is so understandable and so profoundly human that identification happens almost spontaneously as soon as the connections are pointed out. For a long time I had identified myself so fully with the younger son that it did not even occur to me that I might be more like the elder. But as soon as a friend said, “Aren’t you the elder son in the story?” it was hard to see anything else. Seemingly, we all participate to a greater or lesser degree in all the forms of human brokenness. Neither greed nor anger, neither lust nor resentment, neither frivolity nor jealousy are completely absent from any one of us. Our human brokenness can be acted out in many ways, but there is no offense, crime, or war that does not have its seeds in our own hearts.

“But what of the father? Why pay so much attention to the sons when it is the father who is in the center and when it is the father with whom I am to identify? Why talk so much about being like the sons when the real question is: Are you interested in being like the father? It feels somehow good to be able to say: “These sons are like me.” It gives a sense of being understood. But how does it feel to say: “The father is like me”? Do I want to be like the father? Do I want to be not just the one who is being forgiven, but also the one who forgives; not just the one who is being welcomed home, but also the one who welcomes home; not just the one who received compassion, but the one who offers it as well?

“Isn’t there a subtle pressure in both the Church and society to remain a dependent child? Hasn’t the Church in the past stressed obedience in a fashion that made it hard to claim spiritual fatherhood, and hasn’t our consumer society encouraged us to indulge in childish self-gratification? Who has truly challenged us to liberate ourselves from immature dependencies and to accept the burden of responsible adults? And aren’t’ we ourselves constantly trying to escape the fearful task of fatherhood? Rembrandt certainly did. Only after much pain and suffering, when he approached death, was he able to understand and paint true spiritual paternity.

“Perhaps the most radical statement Jesus ever made is: ‘Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.’ God’s compassion is described by Jesus not simply to show me how willing God is to feel for me, or to forgive me my sins and offer me new life and happiness, but to invite me to become like God and to show the same compassion to others as he is showing to me.” (The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, 141-142).

Every time I look upon Rembrandt’s rendition of “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” I am reminded – “I can identify with the rebellious prodigal son who came crawling back to his loving father. And, yes, I can identify with the prideful elder son who remained.” But, then, I am reminded – “But what of the father? Are you interested in being like the father?”

The Lord be with you!

– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch