We live in a culture that is saturated with conversation about love. We find it in the media, in popular culture, in public service announcements for social causes, and even in political discourse. Yet, with all of these conversations, love continues to feel somewhat abstract. To what do we refer when we speak of love? Some use the word to refer to sex, others are speaking of philanthropy or generosity, and still others are discussing an ambiguous feeling that is nice and valuable, but largely without substance. Something that we can fall in and, of course, out of.

In the midst of all of this “love” talk, however, it is important to remember that love is not only a thing—a noun—it is even more importantly an action—a verb. Love is not only something that is, it is something that we do. And this becomes one of the overarching themes of John’s first letter. Love does not simply exist—it lives.

In 1 John, the apostle was writing to followers of Christ who were struggling under the influence of false teachers (2:18–26), and that influence was generating a significant amount of confusion among the recipients of this letter. John responded in a variety of ways to that confusion, but in the center of the letter—chapter 3—it seems that John responded to the confusion by reminding these Christ-followers of what they can know. And this great certainty is absolutely known through a love that lives. What can we know?

We Know We Have New Life

We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. (1 John 3:14)

The night before the cross, Jesus shared a final Passover with his disciples. This last supper included an extended teaching time (the upper room discourse; John 13–16) which this same apostle John recorded in great detail in his gospel record. Perhaps the key element of that session can be found in John 13:35, where Jesus said:

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Here, Jesus was clearing expressing how those outside the family of faith would recognize the distinctiveness of Jesus’ followers. It would be recognized by an active, living love. Now, John takes that idea and turns it as a reminder to us. Just as those who do not yet know Christ can see the distinctive nature of the Body of Christ by how we love one another, it is also an evidence to us that we have, in fact, entered into a new life through the risen Christ.
New life not only results in a love that is noticeable on the outside, it also generates a love that is confirming on the inside. We can have certainty about our relationship with Jesus because of how we live out love for one another.

We Know How Real Love Lives

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (vv.16–18)

Jesus models the actual definition of living love—and it is seen in His ultimate example of self-sacrifice. He laid down His life for us. Once again, John is providing an echo from the upper room. In John 15:13, the Master presented the heart of His lesson and the heart of His mission when He said:

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

This is the ultimate essence of a living love. It seeks the welfare of another to such a degree that self-sacrifice becomes the only reasonable action. Laying down one’s life is that action, both as defined by Jesus and as explained by John in v.17. A selfish, self-centered love is not actually love at all. True love acts in terms of self-sacrifice, not self-satisfaction.

We Know We Belong in His Love

Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. 19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence:20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. (vv.18–20)

Love that lives is love that is active. We often hear phrases like “actions speak louder than words” because our actions often tell the true story of our hearts. If our love only speaks, and does not act, John makes it clear that there is a problem in our relationship with God. Active love not only evidences new life and sacrifices self for another, it works on behalf of others as an expression of the truest truth. What is that truth? I would suggest we can find one possible answer with one final visit to the upper room the night before the cross when Jesus said:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

Jesus is the ultimate example of love and the ultimate example of self-sacrifice. As we live out His example with an active, living love, we are speaking to the world the greatest of all possible truths: “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and through Jesus we can know, experience, and live out His great love.

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