John moves on from depicting the way brotherly love is displayed in the worship of God, which we thought about in yesterday's reading, to how it is practised in daily life by Christians. Before he details the method of brotherly love he provides his readers with a theological reason for showing true love. He did this with regard to the previous point when he said, ‘Don’t be like Cain when you worship God!’ With regard to our current point, he says, ‘Imitate Jesus when you interact with your brothers!’ John says that the best example of love, indeed its most significant display, took place when Jesus died on the cross.
There is an obvious detail connected to the death of Christ which John cannot mean, and that is that the laying down of the lives of believers can be an atonement for their sins. Making atonement for the sins of his people was the primary purpose of the Saviour's death and it belongs exclusively to him. It is essential that we trust in him as the One who provided atonement, that we depend on him alone. Yet, in addition to seeing his death as an act of atonement, we are also to view it as an example of healthy brotherly relations. Therefore, we need to note some aspects of Christ's sacrifice and apply them to how we express brotherly love.
To begin with, we can observe that the sacrifice of Jesus was voluntary – he did not perform it against his will. Second, we know that his sacrifice was wholehearted, that he held nothing back that was essential in order for him to perform a sufficient sacrifice. Third, his sacrifice was personal in the sense that he dealt with the sins of specific people. Fourth, his sacrifice was difficult – the path that he went down was marked by great trouble and arduous, gruelling experiences.
We should be able to see the kind of expressions of brotherly love that John has in mind. Brotherly love is not shown by reluctant, reticent, vague and easy displays. Instead it is seen in actions that are freely chosen, fully given, precisely targeted, and done in trying circumstances. John points out that if we have the means of solving the difficulty, then true brotherly love will do so. Failure to meet the need, when we can do so, is clear evidence, says John, that God's love is not at home in our hearts. John uses a very graphic word picture when he writes that such a refusal is the equivalent of closing one's heart against a needy brother.
Of course, we all know that talk can be cheap – in fact, talk by itself, even if accurate, is not always an expression of truth. Brotherly love involves an inner, united response to Christians in need: our minds assess the situation, our feelings are moved by the circumstances, and our wills spring into action. When such a response takes place, the world sees that members of the Christian family love one another.