The same apostle who said, “Let us not love in word or tongue, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).
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. “Little children, let us not love in word or tongue but in deed and in truth.” 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 love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? (1 John 3.16–17″ data-version=”esv” data-purpose=”bible-reference”>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 one than this, that someone 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: “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” 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 poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2.15–16″ data-version=”esv” data-purpose=”bible-reference”>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.
2. The Structure of His Words
But there are more clues. You can’t see this one in the English translation, but the contrasting pairs of words (“word and tongue” vs. “deed and truth”) are not exactly parallel. The first two are dative, and the second two are objects of the repeated preposition en. Hence literally: “Little children, let us not love by word or by tongue but in deed and in truth.” The difference may be incidental. Or perhaps there is a reason for it: “Let us not think of love as actions of instruments like tongues and the sounds they make (words). Let us rather think of love as a reality that is happening in our deeds and in truth.”