In the previous passage, John had stressed the importance, indeed the necessity, of obedience to the commandments of God. One commandment that John stresses to his readership is the requirement to love one another. He is addressing a situation in Ephesus and its surroundings in which false teachers have come in with wrong doctrine and disturbed the churches. In such a circumstance we might say that the most important thing is to deal with the heretics. John would not deny that such a response is important, yet he focuses on brotherly love.
So what does John say about brotherly love? He writes that brotherly love is a commandment about which new converts should receive instruction (v. 7). John reminds his readers that his current emphasis on love was not a new aspect of Christian living, an aspect that he only mentioned because of the current problem. Instead, John reminds them that they had heard of the importance of brotherly love from the onset of the gospel in Ephesus. The Book of Acts describes how the gospel was brought there by Paul, Apollos, Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:19–19:40), and John states here that they taught the necessity of brotherly love. This reference by John is a reminder of the common teachings of the various apostles and preachers of the early church.
Did the church in Ephesus in its early day practice brotherly love? An answer to this question can be found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians which was written about thirty years before John sent this letter. Note that Paul says their brotherly love was a stimulant for his prayers for them: ‘For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers’ (Eph. 1:15-16).
Did Paul give instructions about brotherly love in his letter? He did: in 4:2, he exhorts them to bear with one another in love; in 4:15-16, he urges them to speak the truth in love so that they would grow as a body in which each part grew in love; in 5:2, he reminds them to ‘walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’; in 6:23, he reminded them of the source of this love: ‘Peace be to the brothers, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.’
So the Ephesian church’s beginning, in the content of what it was taught and practised, was familiar with brotherly love. John’s claim was indeed true: ‘Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard’ (v. 7).
We will think about more features of brotherly love tomorrow.