Even though the First Century was a time of great spiritual vitality, not everything was well within Messiah’s Holy Community of Jews and Gentiles. Within seventy years of Messiah’s coming, heresy had already taken root in Messiah’s Holy Community of Jews and Gentiles. It was a synthesis of Messianic Judaism and Greek philosophical dualism. It taught that matter was inherently evil, and spirit inherently good. It was being propagated by respected and otherwise able teachers who had defected from the faith. They had become false teachers, claiming that their unique, superior knowledge about the spiritual realm would provide salvation for those who followed them. The heretics boasted of possessing a “new teaching” and a deeper spiritual knowledge, but their teaching was deeply flawed. In his first letter, Yochanan (John) gives a number of tests to help us determine if we are in the true faith, and remain part of God’s genuine community.
What is the greatest single piece of evidence that we belong to Yeshua? It is our love for one another, as Yochanan, who was the last of the living emissaries sent by the Lord, wrote in his first letter: For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, not as Kayin (Cain) who was of the evil one, and killed his brother. And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother’s were righteous. Do not marvel, brothers, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. He who does not love abides in death (1 John 3:11-14).
What Is Love?
Plato described love as “a grave mental disease.” Perhaps he saw it as an annoyance, intruding upon his philosophical disciplines. But certainly Plato wasn’t talking as much about love as about infatuation. Our culture often misapplies the word “love” to describe what is really infatuation, the emotional highs and lows of wanting another person’s affection. That was probably what Thomas Carlyle was thinking when he spoke of love as, “not altogether a delirium, yet it has many points in common.” Delirium? Would genuine love cause us to lose hold of rationality? Of course not, yet it was this false idea of what constitutes “love” which prompted Nietzsche to describe it as, “The state in which a man sees things most decidedly as they are not.”
The romantic definition of “love” definitely has its limits. Whatever love may be, there are a number of things it certainly is not. For example, love does not mean having nice feelings about people. Neither does love entail doing other people’s jobs for them or shielding those we care about from the consequences of their illegal, sinful or foolish actions. Contrary to Erich Segal’s philosophy in “Love Story,” love may mean frequently having to say you’re sorry! Let’s see if we can improve on that list, by considering some of Rabbi Paul’s thoughts about love:
Love Isn’t Jealous
It is not possessive. It is confident, generous, strong, and not easily threatened by perceived competition.
Love Isn’t Arrogant
Boastful or arrogant behavior is usually masking some form of deep-seated insecurity. It may attempt to pass itself off as strength or superiority, but to the discerning, it is apparent that such a person lacks inner confidence and self-respect. Love, on the other hand, is confident. Love is true power and it enables its possessors to carry themselves quietly, humbly and with dignity.
Love Doesn’t Act Unbecomingly
Contrary to Hollywood’s portrayal of “love” causing people to go to extreme (even comedic) lengths to win the object of their affection, genuine love is thoughtful, considerate of others, and wellbehaved. Those who are truly lovers conduct themselves at all times with wisdom and discretion.
Love Isn’t Self-Serving
Love is concerned with the wellbeing of the one loved, not consumed with its own objectives, which is why a young man who truly loves a young woman would never pressure her to engage in premarital sexual activity. The best response to the manipulative young man who says, “If you loved me you would…” is “If you loved me, you wouldn’t pressure me to do something I know is wrong…” Love is preoccupied with doing what is best for the other person, not with seeking its own satisfaction.
Love Doesn’t Keep A List Of Offenses
The person who loves is willing to forgive, and will not call up past offenses as a means of gaining emotional leverage in order to have his or her way. Love seeks justice, not gaining personal victory at all costs.
Love Isn’t Selfish
It isn’t about fulfilling my personal ambitions and desires. It isn’t even necessarily about me helping you fulfill your ambitions and desires, since some of the things you may desire may not be in your best interest. Love seeks the highest good for others, whether they appreciate it or not. Love sometimes requires unpleasant tasks of us. That’s why we occasionally must correct those we love. Love will do whatever it takes, irrespective of the cost to itself, to bring about the best possible end result for another. That’s why we have such a hard time loving, and it is why God Himself is the consummate definition of love. He expressed His love for us in the clearest possible terms, by sending His Son Yeshua, to die in our place, to exchange His righteousness for our sinfulness, and in so doing, to give us eternal life. But God’s love came at such a cost!
Love Is From The Beginning
Yochanan tells us that the command to love one another is not new. It has been heard from the beginning. One might ask, “the beginning of what?” The answer is provided for us in the mention of Kayin, son of Adam and Eve, the third human being to inhabit the Earth. Hence, Yochanan means from the beginning of man’s existence on Earth.
Two Interesting Facts About Love
In the first place, there are approximately 500 references in the Holy Scriptures to the words “love,” “loves,” “loved” and “loving.” That may seem like a lot of love, but it is proportionally very small when you consider that the Bible contains well over three quarters of a million words. Nevertheless, however infrequently the word itself may appear, love for God and for one another is the central theme of the entire Book. The second interesting fact concerns where the very first mention of human love appears in the Bible. It is, of all places, in Genesis chapter 22, where we read of the Akedah (binding), where Avraham is called upon to offer up his son Yitzchak, whom he loves, as a burnt offering. How remarkable that the first mention of love in all the Scriptures concerns great personal sacrifice!
Love Is Found In Torah
How has this message about love been communicated? God first gave us this foundational teaching in the Torah. One might say, “Sure, loving God is commanded in the Torah, but this thing about loving your neighbor as yourself – that’s the New Testament, isn’t it?” Actually, it is first recorded in Vayikra (Leviticus). In fact, in Vayikra 19:34 we were even commanded to love the “ger” (stranger, resident alien) as we love ourselves.
Love Others, But Expect To Be Hated
In calling us to love one another, Yochanan employs a stark contrast: …not as Kayin, who was of the evil one, and killed his brother. The message of loving one another has been known from the beginning; unfortunately, love’s opposite has also manifested itself from the beginning. Yochanan calls to mind what happened with Kayin and Chevel (Abel). Chevel’s offering was accepted by Adonai, whereas Kayin’s was not. Kayin was furious over this, and though the Lord offered him both a warning against sin and an opportunity to repent, Kayin hardened his heart, and ultimately became the first murderer – of his own brother!
Now most of us, though we might admit that our love for others is far from perfect, are certainly not murderers. Did Yochanan really need to draw such a radical dichotomy, and in such absolute terms? If we believe (and I do) that the Scriptures are inspired by God, then there is an important reason we are supposed to see this contrast. He goes on to ask… And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother’s were righteous. We may live in a world of philosophical shades of gray, but the spiritual realm is light versus darkness, and good versus evil. Moral neutrality really amounts to moral bankruptcy. This applies even more to the spiritual realm. There is certainly no such thing as spiritual neutrality. One is either hot or cold towards God. Chevel, through no action of his own, simply by virtue of his virtue, became the object of his brother’s hatred. There was no logic or reason to Kayin’s hatred – it was rooted in spiritual darkness.
The spiritual realm is governed by its own kind of gravity. Evil would sooner drag goodness down than allow itself to be lifted and helped into the light. People involved in wrongdoing would much rather have you join them in their wrong (and, in so doing, forfeit your right to say anything about it) than make the effort to come clean and forsake their sin. It is so much easier to pull others down than to pull oneself up. Like a black hole in the recesses of space, darkness not only doesn’t want to come into the light, it wants to pull whatever light there is into its darkness.
Yochanan writes these things because he sees the first two brother as archetypes of the unbelieving world and its hatred for the community of Yeshua’s followers. To the extent that you live your life in a manner that pleases God, you daily remind those around you that they are not right with Him. If you have ever had to confront someone about a wrongdoing, or if you have ever been outspoken for the cause of Yeshua, you know that it can be easy to make enemies. It may not be your desire to make enemies, but if you are publicly identifying with Yeshua and believe in standing up for what is right, you will quickly find out who is with you and who is against you; and those who are against you are sometimes really against you!
Those in darkness might accuse those in the light of being intolerant, but the fact is, darkness can be quite intolerant itself. Anyone who has ever, for conscience’ sake, politely declined an invitation to join co-workers in a couple of rounds of drinks after work, can tell you that they soon found themselves unwelcome in that circle of people. As children of God, we never threaten, but are perceived as a threat. We may be accused of bigotry, arrogance, intolerance, narrow-mindedness; some may even consider us dangerous; and dangerous we are – not to society, but to society’s twisted values and absence of virtue.
Passing From Death To Life
If we are loathed by those who loathe Yeshua, it must be obvious that we belong to Him. However, it is not the extent of unbelievers’ distaste for us, but rather our love for one another, that demonstrates that we truly belong to God. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. By love Yochanan does not mean warm, fuzzy feelings, but rather commitment to the physical, moral, spiritual and emotional well-being of the Kehilah – the assembly of God’s people. This was an immensely comforting verse to me as a new believer in Yeshua. Long before I knew the Scriptures, before I understood God’s grace, before I realized that salvation had nothing to do with how well I performed, I knew one thing – I loved my spiritual brothers. That was, according to Yochanan, the surest proof of belonging to God – love for His people; and if there was one thing I knew, it was that I genuinely loved my new-found family in Messiah. I wanted to be where they were. My ears would perk up whenever I heard people discussing the Bible in a restaurant or some other public place, and I would always ask to join them. My heart was full of joy just to be with others who loved Yeshua. Maybe I loved them all the more because Yeshua was my first love, and I had not lost that first love.
Tradition records that Yochanan, in his later years, would rise up in the midst of the congregation, spread out his hands and say, “Brothers, love one another.” So often did he do this, that once he was questioned by a young believer, “Why do you always say the same thing, that we should love one another?” “My child,” he responded, “if we can master this one thing, all else will follow.”
Do you love your brothers and sisters in the Faith? What is the quality of your love? Yochanan is not asking whether you have nice feelings about them, but whether you are committed to the well-being of your brothers and sisters in Messiah. Are you? Is your love measurable and observable? Ask yourself, “when was the last time I went out of my way for the sake of a brother or sister in Messiah?” Does your love have as its source the love of Yeshua in your innermost being? Does it come naturally? Genuine, unselfish love for others is not natural to the man or woman who has not had a change of nature. If you have not yet allowed Adonai to circumcise your heart, if you have not yet recognized Yeshua as your Messiah and sin-bearer, I urge you not to put it off so much as one day. And when you yield to Him, He will change you, and your love will be evident! And we must love, for he who does not love abides in death. Although a statement such as this may be intellectually unfashionable and politically incorrect, it’s true nevertheless. Our eternal destination is either heaven or hell. Our lives will either be characterized by light or by darkness, by truth or by error, by love or by hate. May God grant us the capacity to earnestly love one another, in accordance with this ancient and unchanging mandate.