What does it mean to lay down our lives on behalf of our brothers and sisters? Who are our brothers and sisters? Can 1 John 3:16 actually refer to giving up our lives for someone else ... to the point of death?
Interpreting 1 John 3:16One could argue that "the brothers" mentioned in 1 John 3:16 refers only to fellow Christians, since the apostles often refer to their fellow ministers of the gospel as "the brothers" (1 Corinthians 16:11; 2 Corinthians 9:33; 3 John 3; Acts 21:17). You could even quote Jesus in support of this argument:
"Who is my mother and who are my brothers ... For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, my sister, and my mother" (Matthew 12:48-50 NIV).
However, the book of James strongly urges us to show no partiality when it comes to loving others. James goes so far as to say that if we show partiality, we are sinning and are convicted under the law as transgressors (James 2:9).
Christ Shows What Impartial Love Looks LikeChrist is the greatest example of impartial love, for he went to the cross for all humankind, the unrighteous and the righteous alike. As the apostle Paul put it:
"But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8 NIV).
We know we are meant to lay down our lives for all humankind, not just Christians or those who practice righteousness. But to what extent are we to go in order to complete this task? Are we really to die for someone else (1 John 3:16)?
To answer this, I will go again to the example of Christ. Christ's sacrifice shows that we are meant to love one another to such an extent that—though it may not be required of us by God—we would be willing to suffer the punishment of death on behalf of another. A love like this changes the world.
Loving Everyone, Even Our EnemiesChrist once said:
"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and 'Hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven, because he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?" (Matthew 5:43–46 LEB).
Paul elaborated on this point in Romans 12:9–18 (LEB):
"Love must be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; be attached to what is good, being devoted to one another in brotherly love, esteeming one another more highly in honor ... Bless those who persecute, bless and do not curse them. ...Think the same thing toward one another; do not think arrogantly, but associate with the lowly. ... If it is possible on your part, be at peace with all people."
Many of the earliest Christians gave up their lives not just for the God they served, but also for the people they were serving. In the case of many believers, their lives were taken at the hands of evil men and women who hated God. And yet, their sacrifice has become an example of faith to us all (see Hebrews 11:36–38).
God Requests Self-Sacrifice and LoveGod himself requires only one death from every believer: that we die to ourselves and live for Christ.
"For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one died for all; as a result all died. And he died for all, in order that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for the one who died for them and was raised" (2 Corinthians 5:14LEB).
And in living for Christ, we become an example for all people of his love. Jesus came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
So I urge you, brothers and sisters, to think this day about the life you have to give and to whom you have to give it. And I pray that in giving of our lives together, we can change this world for the better, for sake of the Kingdom of God.