Jesus' death and love creates the community of life and love. Those within that community ought to manifest a love for others that serves the end of nurturing community (v. 16). And one does not strengthen community by speech alone, but by actions and in truth.
But what is self-giving love? To lay down one's life for another sounds noble and heroic, but this concept is often misunderstood and misused. To tell the woman or child who is being abused that they are manifesting "self-giving" or sacrificial love is bad advice and poor theology. Sacrificial love that models itself after Jesus' example does not enable the destruc tive behavior of others, but encourages them in actions that lead to love and life, and to healing and wholeness.
We may note at least four features of Jesus' self-giving love as we seek to implement truly sacrificial love in our relationships. Jesus voluntarily chose to lay down his life. He had a choice, and he could have chosen differently. Second, the results of his death are life-giving for others (Jn 10:11, 15, 17-18). Third, true love is always accompanied by truth and never by deception or lies (3:7-10). It lives fully in the light, and does not have to hide its actions. Fourth, we are to give out of our abundance, from what we have, to those who have not. Jesus gave the life he had from the Father to be our life: he gave from his strength to our weakness. Self-giving love gives out of what we are and have to the weakness or lack of others.
Specifically, the Johannine Christians who have material possessions (echein ton bion tou kosmou) are instructed to give to those who are in need (echein chreian). Although this may seem far less demanding and heroic than the willingness to sacrifice one's life for another, it is surely difficult enough! It is sobering to be reminded that the average American church member gives about 2-3 percent of their annual in come to various charities and causes—including the church. The prin ciple of conduct John gives here is simple: we ought to be willing to give up what we have in order to enrich the lives of others. And while it is commendable when this is done out of a free and generous spirit, it is more important to do the right thing than to wait for the right motivation. Often willingness and motivation to do right can be nour ished by the actual action of doing what is right.
Since John has just laid down a principle for conducting ourselves in love toward one another, we come back to the question with which we opened this section: Why is it that John's own church could not settle its dispute and restore the bonds of fellowship? In fact, the choice of Cain and Abel portrays in the strongest possible imagery the dualism between death and life and between hate and love. The unremitting dualism and the absolutely negative terms in which the Elder interprets the actions of the secessionists is a bit disconcerting.
But it is important to remember that we do not know everything we would like to know. For example, we do not know what measures the Elder or his adherents took to bring the secessionists back to the fold. This letter was probably written after the break, since it seems to look back and interpret what has happened and why it happened. What went on before this point is not known to us. Clearly the Elder would not have considered compromising his understanding of the person and work of Jesus. But what else he might have done to try to heal the rift, or how he acted, or what was said, remains lost to us. By the time this letter was written the categories are fixed in the Elder's mind, and he speaks in absolute, dualistic terms. It is important to remember how "dualism" and dualistic language functions. When the author speaks of the truth, life and love of the church, he refers not to the church's moral superiority so much as to its commitment to these realities and to the one who ultimately is truth, life and love. And it is incumbent upon the children of God to be as persistent in love as God was in seeking each of them out.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.