Summary: A two-pronged, present-continuous, commandment to love - set in its original context.
A SINGLE COMMANDMENT
“This is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another” (1 John 3:23).
Before we look at the two prongs of this single commandment, we need to set the verse within its immediate context. The ones who ‘abide in death’ (1 John 3:14) are identified as those in whom ‘eternal life’ has no abode (1 John 3:15).
By way of contrast, the ones who “keep His commandments” dwell in God, and God has His abode in them (1 John 3:24). This takes us back to Jesus’ words in the Upper Room, in which He teaches us that we are indwelt by both the Father and the Son (John 14:23; cf. 1 John 1:3). Jesus’ abiding is elaborated in His ‘true Vine’ saying of John 15:4-5. As we unfold this mystery, we will also discover that the Holy Spirit is present with us (1 John 3:24).
1 John 3:16 is the beautiful counterpart of the more famous John 3:16. The instructions of this passage are rooted in Jesus’ sacrificial love. Our “laying down our lives” for one another begins with - and consists in - the ‘love in action’ of 1 John 3:17-18. This a theme taken up in James 2:15-16, and which Jesus graphically illustrates in His end-times discourse (Matthew 25:41-45).
We might be inclined to condemn what we see as our feeble efforts to fulfill our obligation to our brothers and sisters in Christ: but we draw not from our own natural abilities, but from the resurrection power of Jesus coursing in our veins (1 John 3:19-20). Ultimately, it is God who reassures our hearts – and that is where we begin.
In fact, we are empowered to exercise a holy confidence before God (1 John 3:21). We are enabled to obey God, doing those things which are pleasing in His sight - and because we have been made holy in Jesus, our ‘asking’ in prayer is in tune with His will, and therefore renders a good result (1 John 3:22). This is in fulfillment of the promise of Jesus (John 14:13-14), and stands in stark contrast to James 4:2-3.
So we come at last to our text (1 John 3:23). The commandment is in the singular, but consists of two prongs.
The first prong addresses the issue of belief, and was extremely important in the churches to which John was writing. There were those who denied various basic tenets of the Christian faith, and John was appealing for creedal integrity.
All these were classified as ‘antichrists’ by John. They were those who went out from the church, because they were not at all of it (1 John 2:19).
For example, there were those who denied that Jesus is the Christ, and ‘denied the Father and the Son’ (1 John 2:22-23).
Furthermore, John found it necessary to stress that ‘Jesus Christ is come in the flesh’ (1 John 4:2-3; 2 John 1:7; cf. John 1:14). If He did not, then His incarnation becomes an illusion, His sacrifice devalued, His resurrection an unnecessary deception, and the efficacy of His blood rendered null and void. If that is the case then we are (to quote Paul again), ‘of all men most miserable’ (1 Corinthians 15:19).
In our days there have been those in both churches and universities who have argued that it is not necessary to believe in the virgin birth or the resurrection in order to be a Christian. Yet these are those who, unlike in John’s churches, are sometimes allowed to take high office.
The second prong of 1 John 3:23 is that we should love one another, as He gave us commandment. We are to “go on loving one another" (present continuous).
‘A new commandment I give unto you,
That you love one another as I have loved you,
That you love one another as I have loved you.
By this shall all men
Know that you are my disciples,
If you have love one for another’
Finally, how do we know that Jesus has made His abode with us? Outwardly, by our obedience. Inwardly, God testifies to this reality through the Spirit whom He has given us (1 John 3:24).