If you get trained in CPR, they frequently say things like, “Don’t worry about tearing their clothes or breaking a rib; they are dead; they won’t care – that is, unless you can bring them back to life! Puts the whole deal into perspective. It really matters when you go from death to life.
Jesus knew that humans were not connected to the Holy Spirit and were dead – “dead” like a cell phone is dead without a cell signal. (For another analogy, see Who Can Fix It?) But Jesus came with spiritual CPR. He said,
“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. (John 5:24)
Notice, that “eternal life” is not something given once a person dies, but is given at the moment of belief. The crossover from death to life has already happened for those who believe. It is the Holy Spirit, living in their souls. But this “new life” is given to people who had always assumed they were already alive! But how can we be sure this new life is real? How can we check? On a phone, you make a call: if it goes through, you know your phone isn’t dead. How can we know about eternal life?
We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. (1 John 3:14)
But what is “love?” Anybody who has ever exchanged valentines in 3rd Grade knows that the word, love, is pretty loosey-goosey. And everybody loves somebody in some kind of way. But John doesn’t leave us wondering: He is talking about the kind of love that is the exact opposite of hate.
Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him. This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. (1 John 3:15-16)
Hate is a response designed to protect myself from someone who I think wants to take something away from me (could be money, girlfriend, fame, prestige, an aisle seat…). Love, John says, is a response motivating me to give myself to someone because they have a need. This isn’t 3rd Grade valentine love. It’s not “I love you, I need you, I wa-aaaa-nt you…” Not even close. This is, “I will give myself up for you.” Even if you hate me.
But let’s face it: we are not often in a situation where laying down our lives would make any difference for someone else. So, John makes it practical, … and threatening. He says:
If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:17-18)
Are you dead or alive? John says, consider your response when you see someone in need. If we turn away, hoping someone else takes care of the need, or perhaps rationalizing why it would be wrong for us to help, then “how can the love of God be in [us]?” Whose love? God’s! Where? In us! This kind of self-sacrificial love is so contrary to our ordinary human impulse that, when we see it in ourselves, we know God is doing it, we know God’s Spirit lives in us. God’s love doesn’t just say, “I love you;” it puts that love into action!
John is not claiming that everyone who believes in Jesus is immediately transformed into the person Mother Teresa wished she could be. John knows that receiving the Spirit does not make us suddenly perfect in every way. However, if you habitually harbor an attitude of hatred toward someone, or if you habitually turn away with indifference from someone else’s need, you have good reason to question whether you have “passed from death to life.”
But, if you notice a change in your heart, and find yourself acting with self-sacrificial concern for others, the costly kind of love Jesus extended to us,
This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. (1 John 3:19-20)