Another John 3:16: Who Is My Neighbor For Whom Christ Died?

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. (1 John 3:16 ESV)

Interesting, isn’t it, that John doesn’t say for the world, or my neighbor, but us?

We find many who place upon the Christian a burden of love for neighbor which encompasses the entirety of mankind, or at minimum, equivocates by either lowering the status of believers, or raising the world to their level. This verse in its context, however, points to another reality. Beside it being about a limited particular atonement, it is found among others which specify the commandments. John is speaking of the two great commandments, of course. This parallel is found in the final verse of the Epistle:

And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:21 ESV)

Again, shouldn’t this read whoever loves God must also love his neighbor? But no, John restricts the application of the second commandment, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, by the scope of the sacrifice of Christ. His atonement is limited to the brothers, and likewise, love of neighbor is limited by the same parameter.

How is it I make this leap? We can look at the OT passages where we find love of neighbor. There are two things to note there. First, a neighbor is one within the covenant community. Second, those who were not of it were not allowed to partake in all things pertaining to Israel unless they submitted to the covenants of the Law, such as circumcision. In modern parlance, unless one is a communicating member of a church in covenanted, spiritual family relationship, known as a brother, he is not to be afforded the consideration of being a neighbor.

Or, we can look at the NT, where we find the restatement of those laws governing the treatment of neighbor. The two Great Commandments sum up the spirit of the Law, love of God and love of neighbor. John reissues these commandments and is clarifying their application. The question that needs to be asked, afresh, is “who is my neighbor.” It is at this juncture that more often than not the teaching of brotherly responsibility and responsibility to those in the world goes astray. John transposes brother with neighbor in these commandments. Why then are most appeals made to the Good Samaritan parable where teachers universalize neighbor? That’s a problem in John. Universalizing destroys any sense in which John is drawing a distinction. Destroying the distinction would not equip his readers, which is his aim, to discern who are their enemies and who are not, but would confuse them making them more vulnerable to deception.

The parable itself is not so much prescriptive, as descriptive. It is descriptive of the hypocrisy of some religious men. It is prescriptive only in that the conclusion is obvious. The parable does not define neighbor in the sense it was asked. As is often the case, Jesus reframes the question so as to expose the heart of the inquisitor. Instead of an objective answer, a subjective one is given. Beside, if neighbor is universalized, shouldn’t the circumstance be? This is a specific circumstance. A universalized parable would consider universal needs, wouldn’t it? The parable speaks in not so generic terms. Not just about the circumstance, but who the players are is often glossed over.

A man went down from Jerusalem and was stripped, beaten and left for dead. The inference, though not specific, is that he is a Jew. Only a Samaritan stops to render aid. Two, a priest and a Levite, and most likely both Jews, did not do what the Law required of them, even though the inference is that they were keepers of the Law. The Samaritan, who also by inference is an Israelite, a brother of the Jews by Law, though estranged, did what the Law required, even though the Samaritans had long before abandoned the Temple worship and had corrupted the teachings of Moses in many ways. This particular Samaritan had retained some of the Law, if only its spirit, for this Samaritan does what the Law requires. The particular Jewish/Israelite references are germane to the parable’s object, that being, to point out the hypocrisy of the Jewish teachers of the Law who could choke on a gnat and swallow a camel.

Jesus further explained what it means to be a neighbor when he asked “who proved himself a neighbor?” The man’s answer was that which Jesus said that his inquirer should do. So, being a neighbor is showing mercy. And again, the focus is not on the beaten man as a neighbor, but the one who showed mercy. So, also, is John’s focus. It is not so much who needs, though that is part of it, but who shows mercy.

How does any of this further the proof that everyone is my neighbor? It doesn’t. The parable wasn’t about who I should consider my neighbor, but to whom am I a neighbor. Mercy was part and partial with the meaning of the Law. As it was said in reference to another use of this commandment in the NT, mercy is greater than all the sacrifices. Or, as the prophet said, we are to love mercy (after saying we are to judge rightly). Prior to the Law God had shown mercy to Israel, indeed, before there was an Israel, or even a Jacob, God had shown himself a God of mercy. And so it is, that above the Law is a principle which overrules the Law’s ceremonial and civic observances. Namely, that the sacrifices pointed to God’s mercy and not to the Law’s subjects. God, in whose image man was made, counted his likeness a priority. And thus we have the first commandment. The love of God is reflected in the second, love of neighbor who was created in the image of God. The subject of both is the one doing the loving, even though there is a particularity shown to those who are loved. We should also recall, that in God’s offer of mercy to Israel, he invited strangers. However, there were requirements attached to the receiving of that mercy. The stranger had to separate himself from Egypt and attach himself to a household of Israel and remain in it, partaking of the Passover with that house, until the Angel of Death had passed over. Beside, God had proclaimed that he would have mercy on only some, not all. Further, we find some who had received God’s offer of mercy of separation deceptively would be destroyed in the wildness. We also understand that prior to the Law, even prior to the Egyptian captivity, God had chosen a particular people. It was not all nations, but only one, to whom God would show mercy.

It is right to note that the image of God is in all men, believer and unbeliever alike. So that, there is a sense in which we must show mercy to all. But, we should not refrain from examining the worthiness of the recipients of it, nor apply it without regard to the circumstance. Jesus did both. There are requirements, which if are not met, demonstrate a rejection of mercy. Then, there are circumstances, each requiring reasoned response. His sending out of the disciples, demonstrated that. There was always a required response from those to whom they were sent. He didn’t always send them out. At times the circumstances were presented to them as with the blind man, made blind by God so that mercy might be shown for the particular man and the particular teaching it demonstrated. In all, however, the requirements remain. We should not faint at the fact that in some circumstances the help preceded and in others followed the requirements. In any case, mercy was withheld when the message was rejected.

That we don’t find willingness on the part of the beaten in the parable of the Samaritan, we assume it, tells us something about it. It is not focussed upon the one in need of assistance as much as it is upon the one, who having the world’s goods, shows mercy to a fellow kinsman. That is over against those who, though religious and having the world’s goods, would let their brother die. There is, then, a uniqueness about the parable, in that the man, half-dead, either could not respond, or we must assume that he did so in an affirmative, acceptable manner. But, speculation on the parable moves us beyond its primary goal of demonstrating hypocrisy, and not who is my neighbor, or even mercy. Unfortunately, much of the teaching that goes on under the rubric of this parable has little to do with the reality of rightly showing mercy to either the world or the brothers because much of such teaching has erased the distinctions drawn elsewhere in Scripture.

Jesus required the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood to have part in him. So must we. He demonstrates in the foot washing what is meant by stating later that the world will know his disciples by their love for one another. Such service we must also require. His description of the final judgement posits that it is not his disciples who are to give to the world, but it is those who give to the disciples who will be counted among them. There is this requirement, then, that the disciples were to die to themselves for one another. Serving one another in love, as John points out is a mark, though not the only one, of a worthy recipient of a cup of water.

It is this dividing line that is the point of John. John’s first epistle is not about love in a generic sense going out to all men as brothers, but to the brothers who are in Christ. Jesus said, “in as much as you have done it to the least of these my brothers,” brothers who likewise have done it unto others. On the left will be one group, on the right another. Jesus is pointing out what the difference is and that his brothers are not both groups. John is expounding upon the priority of the brethren over those who are in the world to whom the brothers should not love while giving them the earmarks of those to whom they should.

No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.

For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. (1 John 3:9-11 ESV, cf. John 13:34)

The reciprocal arrangement is all too obvious.

Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:13-18 ESV)

John has vigorously pointed out that there is a difference in the way we approach the world and the way we approach those of the church:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15-17 ESV)

Love must not only be in deed, but in truth, or it is not love at all.

John has explained that those who love the fellowship of believers are brothers. It is a strict warning. This is reflexive. If they are hated by the world they are not to love the world, if they are loved then it is by the brethren. There are parameters to that love. It requires that one loves the Son, for if he does not love Him he does not love the Father, and if he does not keep the first commandment, he cannot keep the second. John’s warning is to believers so that they won’t be deceived. The fact is, that those who do not have eternal life cannot love. John calls them murderers, because those who do not love, hate. Irrespective of their “felt needs,” or even those which are physical, the reason for their seeking help from the brethren, or receiving it, is not so that they may show reciprocity. To the contrary, it is to bleed the body dry. They cannot love, for they have not known Him who is love. Their aim is selfish not sacrificial. Whether those in the world are aware of it or not, their mission is vampirically diabolical. It is to sap the body of Christ.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 John 5:1-5 ESV)

At the beginning of this post I quoted John in saying that we lay down our lives for the brothers. And why? Because Jesus laid down his life for us (the brothers). This is vitally important. Jesus didn’t lay down his life for the world, but for believers. So like that, John requires of us no new commandment. We are to love God and our brother as ourself. Why? Because, as he is so are we in this world. We are not to love the world that way. He who denies the Son came in the flesh is the world. God so loved the world this way: that he sent his Son that the brothers might be saved, 1 John 3:16 says.

Taking the Gospel to the world to call out of it those for whom Christ died becomes a muddled mess when that Gospel is mixed with the social gospel of humanitarian samaritanism which will not discriminate. The Gospel discriminates between those who love God and those who don’t, just as Jesus did when he called all to either be part of him or against him. He required submission to his crucifixion and resurrection to be partakers in the substance of his body. He required fellowship of the common table and the rejection of the world. This then must be the priority of a right Gospel. We cannot win the people of the world to the Gospel by trying to redeem their circumstances. We can call people out of the world to Gospel obedience, however. When and if they repent and believe and give themselves to the accountability of the love of the brothers, in faithful fellowship, then we can answer rightly who is our neighbor.

The difference is that the sheep cared for each other. Earlier in the sermon, Jesus warned his followers that they would be hungry, thrown out of their homes by their own family members who would even turn them in to the authorities, imprisoned, and abandoned. The sheep are those who cared for their brothers and sisters—even total strangers—in the face of persecution, even at the cost of their own safety.

2 thoughts on “Another John 3:16: Who Is My Neighbor For Whom Christ Died?

  1. I’d like to focus on the following statement(s) you made:

    “The Gospel discriminates between those who love God and those who don’t, just as Jesus did when he called all to either be part of him or against him. He required submission to his crucifixion and resurrection to be partakers in the substance of His body.”

    I think I understand, in broad strokes, what precipitates these statements, and those underlying reasons contain considerable truth. There are, however, some considerations that come to mind that might give us pause as we read over the words themselves.

    1. When you say that it’s the “Gospel that discriminates”, I can’t help but recall that the sower scatters the seed indiscriminately over all of the soil types. There is no less efficacy in the seed that falls in rocky soil than good soil. Yes, there is much mystery here, but the fact remains.

    2. “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). What “requirements” are you really referring to in order to be “partakers in the substance of His body?” Submission? If he did not die for the UNGODLY ME, I would be lost forever.

    3. “Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able by his own strength to convert himself, OR TO PREPARE HIMSELF thereunto.” (London Baptist Confession, 9.3) When you say you believe in the confessions “mostly”. I’m kind of hoping that this article isn’t one that you leave out. :-)

  2. 1. There is no less efficacy in the seed that falls in rocky soil than good soil.

    There is no efficacy in the seed sufficient in and of itself. To the contrary, it is the soil which is the necessary compliment to the seed. Indeed, it takes more- water, and sun. The indiscriminate seeding is a different subject. We know that God calls upon men everywhere to repent. That being said, the Gospel itself lays out requirements. By those requirements it discriminates. That the Gospel is to be freely preached, we do not doubt, but that it is a commandment and not an invitation, we may not doubt either.

    2. God died for the ungodly.

    God is not a respecter of persons. In that, he finds nothing in man commendable, rather, only that worthy of his wrath. TBS, as above, the commandments a requisite. True enough, they are evangelical graces bestowed so that the ungodly would be saved. OTOH, “unless you repent and believe you shall die in your sin,” is a requirement of the faith. Those things we do according to the measure of Christ, of course, are nothing in and of ourselves that we merit anything from God. Still, God gave his Son in this manner, that those who are believing ones should not perish, but so that those who are not believing will. We know Jesus came to his own the light of the world, but he preached conditions which discriminated between those who were given to him and those who were not. Of those, he preached, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

    3. Mostly.

    Salvation is a broad subject. It encompasses regeneration and sanctification. In both, the confessions rest all graces upon the work of the Holy Spirit, both requiring a prior work of the Holy Spirit before anything which man can do which might be called “good works.” Of those good works we have the commandments, again, which instruct us to do. It is not preparatory in the sense that man can make himself fit, on the contrary, in as much as the works are called good, they are of the Holy Spirit. Still, the fact remains that we are to work out our salvation. The we find this command to prepare a path for the Lord, to make his ways straight. John and Jesus, and all those who followed him followed the same “preparatory” nuance, preaching, repentance for the forgiveness of sin. That repentance is also an evangelical grace, and all graces are gifts given without cause in us, does not eliminate the requirements that prepare a way of salvation. Repentance, as Jesus said, is a requirement to receive forgiveness. what that doesn’t mean is that any of it is of us, it is a free gift of God that we are made vessels of mercy fit for his use.

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