1 John 3:14-15
“(And it is) that this is the message which you heard from the beginning: that we should love (each) other.”
In 2:8, the author treats the directive to love as a new command (cf. John 13:34), while here he describes it as something which believers have heard “from the beginning”. This builds on the play between “old” and “new” in 2:7ff—the two-fold command to trust in Jesus and to love one another (3:23-24) is both old and new. This may be understood in many ways; certainly for the early (Jewish) believers, faith in Christ and love for one’s neighbor could be viewed as a fulfillment of the Old Law (Torah), cf. Romans 10:4; 13:10, etc. It is also something which believers have been taught from the very beginning (i.e. since they first heard the Gospel message). Yet, it continues to be restated and presented anew in the life of each community and to each generation of believers. The very thrust of 2:7-11, and again here in 3:11-24, suggests that there may have been Christians who were not truly living out the directive to love. Indeed, this would appear to be at the heart of the author’s polemic in the letter (which takes on prominence in 4:1ff), marking those who have separated from the Community as being without the proper love (for the Community).
The rivalry between the world and believers in Jesus, as also between “true” and “false” believers, is indicated clearly by verses 12-13, where the ancient example of Cain and Abel is introduced. Here is an illustration of someone hating his brother—just the opposite of love. This hate leads to murder, and the author, along the lines of Jesus’ teaching in the Antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:21-26), equates hate with murder/manslaughter, even if no actual killing occurs. This hatred of one’s brother is further equated with the world’s hatred of believers (v. 13). In verses 14-15, this conflict is defined in terms of the dualistic contrast between life (zwh/) and death (qa/nato$):
“We have seen [i.e. known] that we have stepped across, out of death (and) into life, (in) that we love the brothers; the (one) not loving remains in death.” (v. 14)
The verb metabai/nw specifically means “step across”, with the preposition meta/ indicating a change of place or position (lit. within [a boundary]), i.e. from one point to the next—in this case from death to life. The same language and imagery is found in the Johannine discourses of Jesus (Jn 5:24):
“Amen, amen, I relate to you that the (one) hearing my word/account [lo/go$], and trusting in the (one) sending me, holds (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life] and does not come into (the) Judgment, but has stepped across out of death (and) into Life.”
This fits the motif of resurrection—of the dead hearing the voice of the Son (of God)—in John 5:19-29. In vv. 24-25, the end-time resurrection is given a new interpretation (i.e. “realized” eschatology) for believers in Christ, and it is this spiritual sense of resurrection that we find also in First John. The “Life of the Age” is defined more generally as “Life”, i.e. in Christ, and in the Spirit. The opposite of 3:14 is stated in verse 15, continuing the dualistic contrast (Abel/Cain, love/hate, life/death):
“Every one hating his brother is a man-killer [a)nqrwpokto/no$], and we have seen [i.e. known] that every man-killer does not hold [i.e. have] the Life of the Age remaining [i.e. abiding] in him.”
This statement follows the fundamental ethnical-religious principle that a murderer (who in the law would be put to death) will surely not pass through the Judgment and inherit eternal life (cf. Exod 20:13; Num 35:16ff; Matt 5:21ff; Rom 1:29ff; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21, etc). Hatred toward one’s brother (i.e. toward a fellow believer) is regarded as the equivalent of murder or manslaughter. We must understand that, for the author, “hating” (vb. mise/w) does necessarily require the kind of overt ill-feeling and hostility usually associated with the word. It is better defined here as the absence/opposite of the true love which believers ought to have toward one another. The nature of this love is clear from verse 16 (following Jesus’ words in 13:14-15, 34-35; 15:12-17)—it entails following Jesus’ own example of sacrificial love, laying down one’s own life for another.
Moreover, it is clear that, the one who fails to love violates the fundamental ‘command’ of Christ (and God the Father), and is thus sinning. And, according the theology in the letter, any one who sins this way has not been “born of God”, and possesses neither the living Word nor the Spirit of God. The significance of this for the remainder of the letter is indicated by verses 23-24, where the command to love is linked to the command to trust in Jesus—i.e. the two-fold command which governs all true believers. This will be discussed further, in the next note.