I’ve discovered that much of 1 John is easy enough to translate from the Greek into English, yet I find his message a bit more perplexing than I expected. Note: I’ve included my own translations below but reference links to NRSV.
We are familiar with John’s assertion that “God is Love” (4:8). I still remember my children singing that peppy tune with Psalty, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God!”
Loving Those We Hate
This first letter by John is not merely about love for others or love towards those who abide in Christ. It is about loving all of humanity — especially those whom we hate. In truth, the letter appears to be more of a lesson against hating so we can love rightly. In order to accomplish this we must be honest about the hate hidden in our hearts.
“The one who claims to walk in the light, yet hates his brother — well, that one still walks in darkness.”1 John 2:9
Then there’s another disturbing verse that reminds me of the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount.
“Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer.”1 Jn 3:15
Yes, of course. Jesus and John spent much time together. It seems John took his master’s message to heart as the above verse reveals. We reassure ourselves that the old law was nailed to the cross, yet we see here how Jesus fleshed out a new rationale for one of the shortest and oldest commandments, “Do not kill!”
Cain and Abel
John, the beloved disciple, more precisely reiterates and expands that message from the mount. The one who hates is a slayer like Cain. Apparently, John’s listeners were as familiar with that story as we are today. You may remember Cain, the first murderer who killed his brother Abel (1 Jn 3:12). If not, the heartbreaking story is found in Genesis 4. When confronted about his anger he seethed forth, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The names and faces have changed throughout history but the story is the same through generations — brother and sister rising up against brother and sister!
Most artwork successfully captures the rage in Cain’s heart, but many fail to depict the graphic nature of Cain’s heinous crime.
I always imagined Cain clubbed Abel with one blow from a rock or a wooden object, perhaps shedding a small amount of blood. The image was disturbing, but tolerable. But the word John uses portrays a bloodier, more gruesome death. It’s not the clean shot through the heart, but a sharp blade to the throat. A copious amount of blood would be shed.
John’s choice of word — sphazō — is used in 1 John 3:12 and eight more times in the book of Revelation. Each use of the word pictures a way of killing done by someone to someone. Its use in the Septuagint refers to the work of sacrifices and religious rituals. 1 Strictly speaking, the word sphazō is used in reference to the victim of the sacrifice, whether a person, such as Isaac, or of an animal, such as a lamb.2
Later as the sacrificial system increased rabbinical regulations were developed so the sacrifice of animals would be humane. This was done by deftly slitting the throat to drain out the life-giving blood. 3
Three times in Revelation the word is in reference to Christ, the Passover Lamb, pointing us back to the Exodus narrative which records the first ever Passover on the night Pharaoh let God’s people free (Ex 12; Rev 5:6, 9, 12). The lamb is slaughtered (Ex 12:6). Its blood is painted over the doorposts and door frames (12:7). Only then would those gathered within the home be spared from the angel of death.
This brings me back to Cain and his brother Abel. If God desired a sacrifice, Cain would defiantly offer one. And most likely a blade, rather than a blunt object was involved. Cain — unwilling to sacrifice an animal — chose to slaughter a human instead!
Yes, Cain could have bludgeoned his brother to death. The deed could have been finished in a minute with one blow to the head. But the image John evokes for anyone who hates, is that of holding a knife to another’s throat!
That image should haunt us every time we find ourselves harboring hatred in our hearts towards another human being.
So, then, how can we genuinely love? John tells us how. Truly loving is a costly business. It requires action, not mushy sentiments.
“By this we know genuine love: Since that one, Jesus, laid down his own life for our behalf, we are obliged to lay down our life on behalf of our brothers!”1 John 3:16
Only when we are willing to die, when we are willing to lay down our own life — on behalf of those harboring hostility toward us and on behalf of those we hate — can we truly participate in the work of Christ. Only then do we partake in eternal life.
But, here’s the catch. Genuine, legitimate love, loves even when there is no guarantee of reciprocation!
“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”Romans 5:8, NASB
The act of loving goes beyond the notion of tough love, where discipline and boundaries hopes to ultimately restores another back into our good graces.
No. To love legitimately, as Christ loved, as God loved, demands that we who claim to be Christians, love by laying down our life for others all the while fully aware that reconciliation may never materialize. That is tough love. That is genuine love! Only then will we know that we have crossed over from Death into Life when we demonstrate that kind of love to one another (1 Jn 3:14).
In two weeks the Christian world celebrates Easter. Let us remember then that Jesus — in placing himself into the hand of enemies to die a gruesome death with no guarantee that his enemies would follow him — modeled genuine love in action.
We must remember that Death — the voluntary action of laying down one’s life — precedes Resurrection. It always will.