For the third time in John’s first letter, we are considering the subject of love! This does not mean John has run out of ideas and has to repeat himself. It means the Holy Spirit, who inspired John, presents the subject once more, from a deeper point of view.
In our current section (1 Jn. 4:1–16), we discover why love is such an important part of the life that is real. Love is part of the very being and nature of God. If we are united to God through faith in Christ, we share His nature. Since His nature is love, love is the test of the reality of our spiritual life.
A person who knows God and has been born of God will respond to God’s nature. As a compass naturally points north, a believer will naturally practice love because love is the nature of God. This love will not be a forced response; it will be a natural response. A believer’s love for the brethren will be proof of his sonship and fellowship because “God is love.” Three times, in this section, John encourages us to love one another (1 Jn. 4:7, 11–12). He supports these admonitions by giving us three foundational facts about God.
1. WHAT GOD IS: “GOD IS LOVE” (1 John 4:7–8)
This is the third of three expressions in John’s writings that help us understand the nature of God: “God is spirit” (Jn. 4:24); “God is light” (1 Jn. 1:5); and “God is love.” Of course, none of these are a complete revelation of God and it is wrong to separate them.
God is spirit. This refers to His essence; He is not flesh and blood. To be sure, Jesus Christ now has a glorified body in heaven and one day we will have bodies like His body. But being by nature spirit, God is not limited by time and space the way His creatures are.
God is light. This refers to His holy nature. In the Bible, light is a symbol of holiness and darkness is a symbol of sin (Jn. 3:18–21; 1 Jn. 1:5–10). God cannot sin because He is holy. Because we have been born into His family, we have received His holy nature (1 Pet. 1:14–16; 2 Pet. 1:4).
God is love. This does not mean “love is God.” And the fact two people “love each other” does not mean their love is necessarily holy. It has accurately been said that “love does not define God, but God defines love.” God is love and God is light; therefore, His love is a holy love and His holiness is expressed in love. All God does expresses all God is. Even His judgments are measured out in love and mercy (Lam. 3:22–23).
Much that is called “love” in modern society bears no resemblance or relationship to the holy, spiritual love of God. Yet, we see banners saying “God is love!” displayed at many festivals, particularly where young people are “doing their own thing”—as if one could dignify immorality by calling it “love.”
Christian love is a special kind of love. Love that is born out of the very essence of God must be spiritual and holy because “God is spirit” and “God is light.” This true love is “poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5).
Love, therefore, is a valid test of true Christian faith. Since God is love and we have claimed a personal relationship with God, we must of necessity reveal His love in how we live. A child of God has been “born of God” and shares God’s divine nature. “God is love” and Christians ought to love one another. The logic is undeniable!
Not only have we been “born of God,” but we also “know God.” In the Bible, the word know has a much deeper meaning than simply intellectual acquaintance or understanding. For example, the verb know is used to describe the intimate union of husband and wife (Gen. 4:1). To know God means to be in a deep relationship to Him—to share His life and enjoy His love. This knowing is not simply a matter of understanding facts; it is a matter of perceiving truth (1 Jn. 2:3–5).
Certainly many unsaved people love their families and even sacrifice for them. And no doubt many of these same people have some kind of intellectual understanding of God. What, then, do they lack? They lack a personal experience of God. To paraphrase 1 John 4:8, “The person who does not have this divine kind of love has never entered into a personal, experiential knowledge of God. What he knows is in his head, but it has never gotten into his heart.”
What God is determines what we ought to be. “In this world, we are like Jesus” (1 Jn. 4:17). The fact Christians love one another is evidence of their fellowship with God and their sonship from God, and it is also evidence they know God. Their experience with God is not simply a once-for-all crisis; it is a daily experience of getting to know Him better and better. True theology (the study of God) is not a dry, impractical course in doctrine—it is an exciting day-by-day experience that makes us Christlike!
A large quantity of radioactive material was stolen from a hospital. When the hospital administrator notified the police, he said: “Please warn the thief he is carrying death with him and the radioactive material cannot be successfully hidden. As long as he has it in his possession, it is affecting him disastrously!”
A person who claims he knows God and is in union with Him must be personally affected by this relationship. A Christian ought to become what God is and “God is love.” To argue otherwise is to prove one does not really know God!
2. WHAT GOD DID: “HE SENT HIS SON” (1 John 4:9–11)
Since God is love, He must communicate—not only in words, but in deeds. True love is never static or inactive. God reveals His love to mankind in many ways. He has geared all of creation to meeting men’s needs. Until man’s sin brought creation under bondage, man had on earth a perfect home in which to love and serve God.
God’s love was revealed in the way He dealt with the nation of Israel. “The Lord did not set His affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you … that He brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery” (Deut. 7:7–8).
The greatest expression of God’s love is in the death of His Son. “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
The word manifested means “to come out in the open, to be made public.” It is the opposite of “to hide, to make secret.” Under the Old Covenant, God was hidden behind the shadows of ritual and ceremony (Heb. 10:1); but in Jesus Christ “the life was manifested” (1 Jn. 1:2). “Anyone who has seen Me,” said Jesus “has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9).
Why was Jesus Christ manifested? “He was manifested to take away our sins” (1 Jn. 3:5). “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 Jn. 3:8). Where did Jesus take away our sins and destroy (render inoperative) the works of the devil? At the cross! God manifested His love at the cross when He gave His Son as a sacrifice for our sins.
This is the only place in the epistle where Jesus is called God’s only-begotten Son. The title is used in John’s Gospel (Jn. 1:14, 3:16). It means “unique, the only one of its kind.” The fact God sent His Son into the world is one evidence of the deity of Jesus Christ. Babies are not sent into the world from some other place; they are born into the world. As the perfect Man, Jesus was born into the world, but as the eternal Son, He was sent into the world.
But the sending of Christ into the world and His death on the cross were not prompted by man’s love for God. They were prompted by His love for man. The world’s attitude toward God is anything but love!
Two purposes are given for Christ’s death on the cross: that we might live through Him (1 Jn. 4:9) and that He might be the propitiation for our sins (1 Jn. 4:10). His death was not an accident; it was an appointment. He did not die as a weak martyr, but as a mighty Conqueror.
Jesus Christ died so we might live “through Him” (1 Jn. 4:9), “for Him” (2 Cor. 5:15), and “with Him” (1 Thes. 5:9–10). A sinner’s desperate need is for life because he is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). It is something of a paradox that Christ had to die so we may live! We can never probe the mystery of His death, but this we know: He died for us (Gal. 2:20).
The death of Christ is described as a “propitiation.” John has used this word before (1 Jn. 2:2), so there is no need to study it in detail again. We should remember propitiation does not mean we must do something to appease God or to placate His anger. Propitiation is something God does to make it possible for us to be forgiven.
“God is light,” and therefore He must uphold His holy Law. “God is love,” and therefore He wants to forgive and save sinners. How, then, can God forgive sinners and still be consistent with His holy nature? The answer is the cross. There, Jesus Christ bore the punishment for sin and met the just demands of the holy Law. But there also, God reveals His love and makes it possible for men to be saved by faith.
It is important to note the emphasis is on the death of Christ, not on His birth. The fact Jesus was “made flesh” (Jn. 1:14) is certainly an evidence of God’s grace and love, but the fact He was “made sin” (2 Cor. 5:21) is underscored for us. The example of Christ, teachings of Christ, and whole earthly life of Christ find their true meaning and fulfillment in the cross.
For the second time, believers are exhorted to “love one another” (1 Jn. 4:11). This exhortation is a commandment to be obeyed (1 Jn. 4:7) and its basis is the nature of God. “God is love and we know God; therefore, we should love one another.” But the exhortation to love one another is presented as a privilege as well as a responsibility: “If God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:11). We are not saved by loving Christ; we are saved by believing on Christ (Jn. 3:16). But after we realize what He did for us on the cross, our normal response ought to be to love Him and love one another.
It is important Christians make progress in their understanding of love. To love one another simply out of a sense of duty is good, but to love out of appreciation (rather than obligation) is even better.
This may be one reason why Jesus established the Lord’s Supper, the Communion service. When we break the bread and share the cup, we remember His death. Few men, if any, want their deaths remembered! In fact, we remember the life of a loved one and try to forget the sadness of his death. Not so with Christ. He commands us to remember His death: “Do this in remembrance of Me!”
We should remember our Lord’s death in a spiritual way, not merely sentimentally. Someone has defined sentiment as “feeling without responsibility.” It is easy to experience solemn emotions at a church service and yet go out to live the same defeated life. True spiritual experience involves the whole man. The mind must understand spiritual truth; the heart must love and appreciate it; and the will must act on it. The deeper we go into the meaning of the Cross the greater will be our love for Christ and the greater our active concern for one another.
We have discovered what God is and what God has done; but a third foundational fact takes us even deeper into the meaning and implications of Christian love.
To be continued…