But whoso hath the world’s goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God abide in him? My Little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth. (1 John 3:17-18).
John has been spending much time in his letter encouraging fellow Christians. He has encouraged them to walk in the light, since God is the light, abiding in His commandments (1 John 1:1-2:6). John has spoken of the “new old commandment,” to love one another, to not love the world, and to not be troubled by the “antichrists,” those denying that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 2:7-29).
In 1 John 3, John has been contrasting the righteous with the wicked. The righteous set their hope on God, are pure, do not sin, and love one another; the wicked engage in sin, lawlessness, and hatred (1 John 3:1-16). 1 John 3:16 is quite parallel to John 3:16: Jesus’ death is the demonstration of love, and we should be willing to “lay down our lives” for the brethren.
While John is famous for his abstractions and general discussions, he turns and becomes much more specific in 1 John 3:17-18: how does the love of God abide in someone who has the “world’s goods,” who sees his brother in need, and closes off compassion for him?
John does not want Christians to walk away from his letter thinking of love in only generic, abstract ways. Love is not just some feeling, emotion, or impulse– love must be translated into action! As Jesus indicates in Matthew 7:16-20, people are known by their fruit.
John’s very specific application involves the relationship between Christians of unequal class or wealth. One such brother has the “world’s goods,” and with those goods comes responsibility, as Paul shows in 1 Timothy 6:17-19: they are not to trust in the uncertain riches of the world, but be full of good works, using their physical wealth to store up treasures in Heaven. One easy way to do that would be to assist his fellow Christian in need. After all, this is one of the standards of the judgment as portrayed in Matthew 25:31-46!
Yet, for whatever reason, some Christians with the “world’s goods” have closed off their compassion for their fellow man. John’s word choice here is deliberate, for the primary motivation we have to help others in need ought to be compassion. In the parable of the good Samaritan, the Samaritan is moved by compassion on the man, and that is why he provides the necessary assistance (cf. Luke 10:25-37). We ought to follow the “Golden Rule:” since we would want to be helped if we were the poor brother, we ought to provide that assistance (cf. Luke 6:31)!
The answer to John’s rhetorical question is evident: if a brother has the world’s goods, but closes off compassion to his brother in need, the love of God does not abide in him, no matter his protestations. It is not enough to just say or believe that we love one another– we must communicate that love in deed and truth!
And thus we have the message of 1 John 3:18: John wants his “little children” to love not in word or “tongue” but in deed and truth. John also uses the designation “little children” in 1 John 2:18 and 1 John 5:23. He perhaps uses this very tender designation to gently remind his audience of his authority and his love for them and their need to heed what he is about to say.
The message is quite important. It is akin to James 1:22-25, the exhortation to be doers of the word and not hearers only. A lot of people are willing to profess Jesus Christ and to say that they believe in His truth, but few are the ones who are willing to really act upon it (cf. Matthew 7:13-14, 21-23). It is easier to profess to love God and to love one another than it is to demonstrate that love through deed and sincerity. As John has just indicated, God has already demonstrated His love for us by accomplishing the means of our salvation through the blood of Christ (1 John 3:16): if God was willing to make such a great demonstration of His love for us, we ought to be willing to help one another in need and to demonstrate the love we say we have for one another. Let us do so, and fulfill God’s purpose for our lives!