Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

1 John 3:16-24



This is a pastoral letter to churches in conflict––written to address the conflict and to prevent its spread.  A number of scholars think of this as a sermon in written form.

The problems in the churches were caused by false teachers who had left the church (2:19). These false teachers were haughty and unloving.  They denied the Incarnation and the deity of Jesus and claimed not to be sinners.  They may have been precursors of the Gnostic heretics who plagued the second century church.

These false teachers remained influential.  The danger was that they would persuade neophyte believers to accept their heretical teachings.

In the first part of this chapter, John has called these fledgling believers to a high calling, telling them that they are children of God (3:1-3)––called to be righteous, not sinful (3:4-6)––and telling them not to allow anyone to lead them astray (3:7a).   He drew a sharp distinction between those who are righteous and those who are sinful, saying, “He who sins is of the devil” (3:7b-8)––and “Whoever is born of God doesn’t commit sin” (3:9).

The “sin” verbs are present tense, which in the Greek indicates a continuing action.  John isn’t saying that believers never sin, but that they don’t sin deliberately and continuously.


16 By this we know love, because he laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and closes his heart of compassion against him, how does the love of God remain in him? 18My little children, let’s not love in word only, neither with the tongue only, but in deed and truth.

 “By this we know love, (Greek: agape) because he laid down his life for us” (v. 16a).  We use the word love in different ways.  When a young man says, “I love you,” we can’t be certain what he means apart from his actions.  He might mean, “I am truly devoted to you, and can’t imagine life without you”––but he might simply mean, “I want your body.”  We also use the word love in odd ways, such as “I love your dress.”

The Greeks had four words for love that distinguished among the various affections that we call love in the English language.

  • Agape is love that is devoted to the welfare of the beloved.
  • Eros is romantic love or sexual passion.
  • Philos is friendship or brotherly love, as in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love.
  • Storge has to do with love between family members, and can be also used in other ways.

The two words for love used in the New Testament are philos and agape.

In some cases, the love that one person has for another is a blend of two or more kinds of love.  The love that a young man has for a woman almost certainly involves eros, but hopefully it will involve philos and agape as well.

The character of love can change over time.  A professor in his 50s told us that he loved his wife more than when they were first married.  He also said that the character of their love had changed over the years.  While he didn’t explain further, I took that to mean that eros had dominated their love in the beginning, and agape had become more important over the years.

The word for love used in this verse is agape––the kind of love that is concerned for the welfare of the beloved.  John says that we can know the meaning of agape love by seeing it acted out in the person of Jesus Christ––in particular in his death on the cross on our behalf.

Jesus said as much in his Good Shepherd discourse––“I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).  He contrasted the actions of the good shepherd with the actions of a hireling.  In the face of danger, a hireling would flee, because he would care nothing about the sheep, but the good shepherd would “lay down (his) life for the sheep” (John 10:13, 15), which is in fact what Jesus did.

“And we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (v. 16b).  Again, in Jesus’ Good Shepherd discourse, he said,

“This is my commandment, that you love one another,
even as I have loved you.
Greater love has no one than this,
that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13).

We occasionally see examples of this kind of sacrificial love.  William Manchester, best known for his biographies of J.F.K. and Churchill, was once a Marine.  During World War II, he was wounded at Okinawa––a “million dollar wound,” serious enough to keep him out of combat but not serious enough to kill him.  As his buddies continued to fight and die, Manchester found himself in the rear––in a hospital––safe. He couldn’t take it. He slipped out of the hospital, and made his way to Sugar Loaf Hill––wounds and all––made his way back to his friends––back to almost certain death.

It took him half a lifetime to understand why he had done that.  When he finally figured it out, he wrote about it in his book Goodbye Darkness.  He said that he was acting in love for men who were like family––closer than anyone before or since––some of whom had saved his life.  He couldn’t let them down.  They had saved him, and he had to try to save them.

Both Jesus and John say that Christians need to have that kind of love for one another.

We must be careful not to misunderstand this call to sacrificial love.  It is not a call to purposeless sacrifice.  If a ride to the doctor’s office is all that is needed, then that is all that agape love requires of us.

“But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and closes his heart of compassion against him, how does the love (agape) of God remain in him?” (v. 17).   This verse gives us additional insight into the meaning of verse 16.  John equates love with giving material help to a brother or sister in need.  How can we claim to love our brother or sister with agape love while having no compassion for their obvious need for food, clothing, shelter, medical care, etc., etc., etc.?  That, of course, would apply only if we have the means to help––but most of us have some means.

This raises the question of whether our faith requires us to give money to panhandlers who station themselves at stop signs and the entrances of shopping centers.  The issue is whether our monetary contributions help such people––or simply encourage dysfunctionality.  Are we being benefactors or enablers?

I will admit to a good deal of skepticism about stop sign beggars.  I prefer to use my resources to help organizations, such as Samaritan’s Purse or Help House, that help people in extremis.  I am happy to help people whom I know personally so that I can assess their situation.  I am willing to give food to almost anyone who asks.  I also consider it in keeping with the spirit of this verse to give larger-than-required tips to people who are working at low-paying jobs.  I will not, however, give money to strangers.  I believe that to do so––in most cases––simply encourages dysfunctional behavior.

“My little children, let’s not love in word only, neither with the tongue only, but in deed and truth” (v. 18).  James says as much in his treatise on faith-and-works:

“If a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food,
and one of you tells them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled;’
and yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs,
what good is it?
Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself”
(James 2:15-17).

While James is talking about faith rather than agape love, the principle holds.  Both faith and love require action to help those in need.


19 And by this we know that we are of the truth, and persuade our hearts before him, 20 because if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. 21Beloved, if our hearts don’t condemn us, we have boldness toward God; 22 and whatever we ask, we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight.

 “And by this we know (future tense––we will know) that we are of the truth” (v. 19a).  When the crisis comes––when the chips are down––how will we know that “we are of the truth”––that we belong to God.  We can use the principle established in verse 18, which requires expressing love in deed as well as in word.

This is also how these fledgling believers can evaluate the false teachers.  Do the false teachers love their brothers and sisters or hate them?  Those who hate their brothers and sisters are “in the darkness, and (are walking) in the darkness.”  They are the blind leading the blind (2:9-11). Those who love their brothers and sisters “have passed out of death into life,” but those who don’t remain in death (3:14).

“and persuade our hearts before him” (v. 19b).  If we love one another in deed as well as in word, then our hearts can be at rest in the presence of God––because we will know “that we are of the truth” (v. 19a).

“because if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things” (v. 20).   And even if we feel guilty, God is greater than us, “and knows all things.”  God knows that we aren’t perfect, but he knows whether our heart is with him or against him.  He knows whether or not we are in his camp.

Note that the word “heart” is singular in this and the next verses, so John might intend these comments to apply to the church rather than to the individual.

“Beloved, if our hearts don’t condemn us, we have boldness toward God” (v. 21).  If our heart condemns us (v. 20), we can find solace in God’s greater knowledge and grace.  But if our heart doesn’t condemn us, we can approach God with boldness––with confidence.

“and whatever we ask, we receive from him” (v. 22a).  This notion is found elsewhere, especially in Jesus’ teachings (Matthew 7:7-8; John 16:23).  Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in my name, that will I do” (John 14:14).  To pray in Jesus’ name involves assuming the role of emissaries, using Jesus’ authority to carry out his will.  To pray in Jesus’ name, then, requires that we first try to understand Jesus’ mind so that our prayers represent his will. To pray in Jesus’ name is to bring our prayers into accord with the character of Jesus.

Later, John will add another qualification, “This is the boldness which we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he listens to us” (1 John 5:14).  That is a significant qualification, because:

  • We might not understand God’s will with relation to a particular request.
  • What we want might be very different from that which God wants.
  • The promise is that God will listen, but not necessarily give.

The problem, of course, is that we have asked and not received––at least not as asked.  However, if God were to grant the request of every saintly person, no one would ever die––or even need medical care.  We would be stacked up like cordwood, and there would be no space for succeeding generations.

Many years ago, someone gave me a copy of Merlin Carothers’ little book, Prison to Praise––and it changed my thinking about answered prayer.  The book is short and autobiographal, so it is easy to read.  Carothers had a bad start in life––got in with the wrong people and ended up in prison.  But then he discovered a verse that changed his life:  “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus toward you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).  Carothers decided to try it––to give thanks when things went well and when they didn’t––when he received what he asked for and when he didn’t.  That turned out to be the key that opened the door to his amazing life.  The book is still available on Amazon, and I commend it to you.

“because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight” (v. 22b).  This adds another qualification.  We will receive that which we ask if we keep God’s commandments and do that which is pleasing in his sight.  This too is a significant qualification.  Who always keeps God’s commandments?  Who is always pleasing in God’s sight?


23 This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, even as he commanded. 24 He who keeps his commandments remains in him, and he in him. By this we know that he remains in us, by the Spirit which he gave us.

“This is (God’s) commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, even as (Jesus) commanded” (v. 23).  Do “his” and “he” refer to God the Father or God the Son?  “His” in the first part of this verse clearly refers to God the Father, because the middle part of the verse refers to the Father’s Son.  Also, the antecedent for the pronoun is found in verse 21, where it is God.

However, I believe that “as he commanded” at the end of this verse refers to Jesus’ commandment as found in the Gospel of John:

“A new commandment I give to you,
that you love one another,
just like I have loved you;
that you also love one another.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

This verse (v. 23) appears to include two commandments (believe in Jesus AND love one another), but there is a sense in which they are intrinsically linked:

  • Loving one another depends on believing in Jesus’ name, because we must rely on him to make it possible to love one another. We might think it would be easy to love our Christian brothers and sisters––until we have to work with them and live in close proximity. Anyone who has served on a church board (vestry, session, etc.) understands the need for divine strengthening if we are to love one another.
  • Believing in Jesus leads to loving one another, because Jesus has identified the greatest commandments as (1) love God and (2) love your neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40).

This verse brings to light two of the sins of the false teachers.  First, they didn’t believe in the Son––that the Son was God incarnate, God in the flesh.  Second, they were haughty, and tended not to love anyone except themselves.

“He who keeps his commandments remains (Greek: meno) in him, and he in him” (v. 24a).  Again, the question is whether “his” and “him” in the first part of this verse refer to God the Father or God the Son.  We can’t say with certainty, but I think it is God the Son.  “He who keeps (Jesus’) commandments remains in (Jesus) and (Jesus) in him.”  But it makes little difference, because Father and Son are two expressions of the same deity.  Also, Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

The Greek word meno can be translated “remain” or “abide”––and means dwelling in a particular place––remaining there––abiding there.  It suggests the kind of peace and stability that we associate with being at home––among family and trusted friends.  When used of relationships, as it is here, meno suggests steadfast relationship––heart and soul unity.

“By this we know that he remains in us, by the Spirit which he gave us” (v. 24b).  Again, “he” is ambiguous and could refer to God the Father or God the Son.  Again, it makes little difference, because they are different expressions of the same deity.

John’s point here is to give these believers grounds for assurance that they are in good standing with the Father and the Son.  They can know that they are in good standing “by the Spirit which he gave us.”

Shortly before his death, Jesus told his disciples:

“If you love me, keep my commandments.
I will pray to the Father,
and he will give you another Counselor (Greek: parakletos),
that he may be with you forever,
the Spirit of truth, whom the world can’t receive;
for it doesn’t see him, neither knows him.
You know him, for he lives with you, and will be in you”
(John 14:15-17).

A test that these fledgling believers can apply to confirm their good standing is found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians––the passage dealing with the fruits of the Spirit.  Paul contrasts the fruits of the flesh––”adultery, sexual immorality, uncleanness, lustfulness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, strife, jealousies, outbursts of anger, rivalries, divisions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these”––with the fruit of the Spirit––”love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control” (5:19-23).

No one manifests the fruit of the Spirit perfectly, but there is such a stark contrast between the fruits of the flesh and the Spirit that these believers can easily determine if they are on the side of “adultery, sexual immorality, uncleanness, etc.” or on the side of “love, joy, peace, etc.”  Unless they are far off the mark, the presence of the Spirit that God gave them can reassure them.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2017, Richard Niell Donovan