The Not-Oft-Quoted 1 John 3:16

I have to be honest. I don’t remember much from my year or two attending Sunday School in my younger days (do I really have younger days?). There are only about three prominent things that I remember. Two of which are a bit embarrassing.

1. Every time I would go, I would cling to my mom and cry. I didn’t want to leave and go to the class with all the other kids. I was scared of what they would think of me. People frightened me (they still do [just kidding]).

2. I distinctly remembering sitting in class one morning and for some reason, I asked the teacher what God’s name is. She laughed, as well as the class, and they told me God’s name is simply, “God.” I was confused, as I had remembered learning somewhere that God’s name was “Jehovah.” She told me again that I was silly and God’s name is “God.”

3. John 3:16. John 3:16. John 3:16. Did I mention John 3:16? This got pounded into my brain (not complaining), even though I really had no idea what it meant. I just knew the words – and could quote it from memory. It obviously had no impact on me until much later. (I went to Sunday School in early elementary years and started following Christ in late high school) It must have planted some sort of seed, though, as I was adamantly against all things religion during Junior High and early High School. Although, I told people I was a Christian, simply because I grew up in Midwest, rural, farmland, Apostolic Ohio. I was already an outcast – I didn’t want to be considered some anti-God freak, although I was on the inside.

That said, John 3:16 definitely is important. It helps reveal the beauty and character of our loving God. But, I think there is another John three sixteen that we need to focus on. And that is 1 John 3:16:

We know love by this, that [Jesus Christ] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.

I first happened upon this verse while doing a study in the book of 1 John my Senior year of high school. To be honest, I don’t remember much of what I learned in the study, but I remember this verse sticking out to me. So I looked into it a bit more. I knew that both context in the letter itself, and historical context of the time it was written, is important, so I tried my best with my very limited knowledge to study into it. I remember discovering that for the first three hundred years of church history, the church generally believed self-sacrificial, non-violent love was crucial, and even central, to discipleship. I didn’t know at the time whether or not I agreed with this, considering I was discovering faith in a very Conservative and Fundamental church that taught war was not only important, but necessary. I eventually let the issue die down over time, as I was still caught up in whether or not God actually loved me, why God tormented people eternally in Hell, and frankly what it means to be saved. They seemed like more crucial issues to me than this 1 John passage.

For about a year I entirely forgot about the whole thing. Then, in my Freshman year at Cairn University, during Spring Semester, my professor of Intro To Christian Theology revealed to us we had to write a paper on the book of 1 John. “Yes!” I thought, “I studied this a year ago! This should be easy peasy.” Although, I had recently learned a lot more about exegesis, hermeneutic, and historical context, so it was a bit more complex than I thought. Nonetheless, it brought this verse to my attention again. This time, I decided to dig a bit deeper. Until recently, I’ve been digging deeper. I’ve finally come to what I believe to be my conviction, and that is the call to Christians to be non-violent in their approach to life. Here is my case and my understanding thus far, and why I believe 1 John 3:16 should be emphasized just as much as John 3:16:

As John points out in the first part 1 John 3:16 (“We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us…”), Jesus emphasizes non-violent, sacrificial love throughout His ministry as seen most emphatically on the cross. The cross signifies many important things to the Christian, but the aspect I want to emphasize here is the non-violent approach Jesus takes to His accusers. His enemies are unjustified in their crucifixion of Him, and He undeservedly goes through torment that no man, let alone God, should go through. Yet He volunteers for it – for the sake of people who treat Him like He is nothing. The God of the universe becomes man, goes through unimaginable torment, death, and separation from perfect love, all for the sake of a rebellious, evil, and heinous race of beings that could care less whether He lives or dies. Jesus had every right to call down armies of angels to violently prevent his accusers from crucifying Him – but He didn’t.

Accordingly, Jesus preaches a message of non-violence to His hearers. He teaches that God loves both the just and unjust, causing the sun to shine and the rain to fall on both parties, whether they deserve it or not; to turn the other cheek; extreme generosity; not to resist the wicked; and to love those who don’t love you:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:38-48

Notice here, that Jesus even goes so far as to say, “Love your enemies…that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” He points out that even the most wicked people know how to love people that love them. So what makes followers of Jesus stand out? Loving one’s enemies in a cross-like fashion. This a characteristic of a child of God – and an essential one at that. So what of your fellow employee who unjustly blamed you for the mistake? Take the fall. What of the friend who gossiped about you and ruined your reputation? Let it go. Pray blessings for that person. What of your arguing with your roommate who just won’t let you find peace and quiet in your own room? Go somewhere else to study. Be creative, be loving.

In the book of Luke, Jesus emphasizes once again that God loves even the most wicked and heinous of people, and so should we:

But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. – Luke 6:35

Obviously Jesus expects us to love everybody – even those who threaten us, or violently oppress us. This is extreme. This is radical. This is Jesus. We are called to model our lives after Jesus (“Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” 1 John 2:6), and Jesus humbly surrendered to His accusers – even at the cost of His own life. Retaliating, although justified, was not as important to Him as displaying the immense love of the Father. And that is what we, as followers of Christ, are called to replicate. Not just in martyrdom, though, but also in our day to day lives. As the latter half of 1 John 3:16 says, “…and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

In a future post I hope to look at the writings of Paul and how they point to a cross-like, non-violent approach to love and discipleship.

Blessings and peace!

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