The same apostle who said, "Let us not love in word or tongue, but in deed and in truth" (1 John 3:18), also recorded Jesus saying, "I say these things in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves" (John 17:13) and "The words that I speak to you are spirit and are life" (John 6:63).
If the "speaking" of Jesus imparts joy, and the "words" of Jesus give spiritual life, then surely such speaking is love.
It has always troubled me that 1 John 3:18 could be taken to imply that what we do with our mouths is a less real or less frequent form of love than what we do with our hands. "My little children, let us love not in word and speech, but in action and truth" (1 John 3:18). It seems to me that we have practical and biblical reasons for saying that the muscle of the tongue is more frequently the instrument of true love than any other muscle of the body.
So let's step back and see what John is saying in 1 John 3:18 and what the wider witness of Scripture is. Notice the context, the structure of his words, and what other witnesses say.
1. The Context
The preceding verses give us a clue what John means:
"By this we know the love of God: that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. Whoever has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, but closes his heart of compassion from him, how can the love of God remain in him?" (1 John 3:16-17).
If it comes down to your life or my life, and I take the bullet, no demonstration of love could be greater. "Greater love has no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13).
Then John draws out a principle of love which is more pervasive and less dramatic: "By this we know the love of God: that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. Whoever has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, but closes his heart of compassion from him, how can the love of God remain in him?" (1 John 3:16-17). In other words, true love not only gives its life for the loved ones, but also its goods.
This is what James was saying: "If a brother or sister is naked and lacking daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,' and yet you give them nothing that the body needs, what does it profit?" (James 2:15-16). This is what John is criticizing: Saying, "Be warmed, be filled," but giving no food and clothing when you have them to give.
So the first thing John has in mind is people who say they love others, but when it comes down to practical sacrifices, and acts of self-denial, they don't do them. That's what John means by loving "in word and tongue." It's not real. Deeds of sacrifice validate words of love.
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