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.
3. WHAT GOD IS DOING: “God is Abiding in Us” (1 John 4:12–16)
At this point, it would be good for us to review what John has been saying about the basic truth that “God is love.” This truth is revealed to us in the Word, but it was also revealed on the cross, where Christ died for us. “God is love” is not simply a doctrine in the Bible; it is an eternal fact clearly demonstrated at Calvary. God has said something to us and God has done something for us. But all this is preparation for the third great fact: God does something in us! We are not merely students reading a book or spectators watching a deeply moving event. We are participants in the great drama of God’s love!
In order to save money, a college drama class purchased only a few scripts of a play and cut them up into the separate parts. The director gave each player his individual part in order and then started to rehearse the play. But nothing went right. After an hour of missed cues and mangled sequences the cast gave up.
At that point, the director sat all the actors on the stage and said: “Look, I’m going to read the entire play to you, so don’t any of you say a word.” He read the entire script aloud and when he was finished one of the actors said:
“So that’s what it was all about!” Once they understood the entire story, they were able to fit their parts together and have a successful rehearsal.
When you read 1 John 4:12–16, you feel like saying, “So that’s what it’s all about!” Because here we discover what God had in mind when He devised His great plan of salvation.
To begin with, God’s desire is to live in us. He is not satisfied simply to tell us He loves us or even show us He loves us.
It is interesting to trace God’s dwelling places as recorded in the Bible. In the beginning, God had fellowship with man in a personal, direct way (Gen. 3:8), but sin broke that fellowship. It was necessary for God to shed the blood of animals to cover the sins of Adam and Eve so they might come back into His fellowship.
However, by the time of the events recorded in Exodus, a change had taken place: God did not simply walk with men: He lived or dwelt with them. God’s commandment to Israel was, “Have them make a sanctuary for Me and I will dwell among them.” (Ex. 25:8). The first of those sanctuaries was the tabernacle. When Moses dedicated it the glory of God came down and moved into the tent (Ex. 40:33–35). God dwelt in the camp; He did not dwell in the bodies of the individual Israelites.
Unfortunately, the nation sinned and God’s glory departed (1 Sam. 4:21). But God used Samuel and David to restore the nation; and Solomon built God a magnificent temple. When the temple was dedicated, once again the glory of God came to dwell in the land (1 Kings 8:1–11).
Then, history repeated itself: Israel disobeyed God and was taken into captivity. The gorgeous temple was destroyed. One of the prophets of the captivity, Ezekiel, saw the glory of God depart from it (Ezek. 8:4, 9:3, 10:4, 11:22–23).
Did the glory ever return? Yes—in the Person of God’s Son, Jesus Christ! “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling (“tabernacle”) among us” (Jn. 1:14). The glory of God dwelt on earth in the body of Jesus Christ for His body was the temple of God (Jn. 2:18–22). But wicked men nailed His body to a cross. They crucified “the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8). All this was part of God’s thrilling plan: Christ arose from the dead, returned to heaven, and sent His Holy Spirit to dwell in men.
The glory of God now lives in the bodies of God’s children. “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own” (1 Cor. 6:19). The glory of God departed from the tabernacle and temple when Israel disobeyed God, but Jesus has promised the Spirit will abide in us forever (Jn. 14:16).
With this background, we can better understand what 1 John 4:12–16 is saying to us. God is invisible (1 Tim. 1:17) and no man can see Him in His essence. Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). By taking on Himself a human body, Jesus was able to reveal God to us. But Jesus is no longer here on earth.
How, then, does God reveal Himself to the world? He reveals Himself through the lives of His children. Men cannot see God, but they can see us. If we abide in Christ, we will love one another and our love for one another will reveal God’s love to a needy world. God’s love will be experienced in us and then will be expressed through us.
That important little word abide (or dwell) is used six times in 1 John 4:12–16. It refers to our personal fellowship with Jesus Christ. To abide in Christ means to remain in spiritual oneness with Him, so that no sin comes between us. Because we are “born of God,” we have union with Christ; but it is only as we trust Him and obey His commandments that we have fellowship with Him. In a similar way, just as a faithful husband and wife “abide in love” though they may be separated by miles, so a believer abides in God’s love. This abiding is made possible by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (1 Jn. 4:13).
Imagine the wonder and privilege of having God abide in you! The Old Testament Israelite would look with wonder at the tabernacle or temple because the presence of God was in that building. No man would dare to enter the holy of holies, where God was enthroned in glory! But we have God’s Spirit living in us! We abide in this love and we experience the abiding of God in us. “Anyone who loves Me will obey My teaching. My Father will love them, and We will come to them and make Our home with them” (Jn. 14:23).
God’s love is proclaimed in the Word and proved at the cross. But here we have something deeper: God’s love is perfected in the believer. Fantastic as it may seem, God’s love is not made perfect in angels, but in sinners saved by His grace. We Christians are now the tabernacles and temples in which God dwells. He reveals His love through us.
Dr. Campbell Morgan, famous British preacher, had five sons, all of whom became ministers of the Gospel. One day a visitor in their home dared to ask a personal question: “Which of you six is the best preacher?”
Their united answer was, “Mother!”
Of course, she had never preached a formal sermon in a church, but her life was a constant sermon on the love of God.
The life of a Christian who abides in God’s love is a potent witness for God in the world. Men cannot see God, but they can see His love moving us to deeds of helpfulness and kindness. The world will not believe God loves sinners until they see His love at work in His children’s lives.
A female Salvation Army worker found a derelict woman alone on the street and invited her to come into the chapel for help, but the woman refused to move. The worker assured her: “We love you and want to help you. God loves you. Jesus died for you.” But the woman did not budge. As if on divine impulse the Army worker leaned over and kissed the woman on the cheek, taking her into her arms. The woman began to sob and like a child was led into the chapel, where she ultimately trusted Christ.
“You told me God loved me,” she said later, “but it wasn’t until you showed me God loved me that I wanted to be saved.”
Jesus did not simply preach the love of God; He proved it by giving His life on the cross. He expects His followers to do likewise. If we abide in Christ, we will abide in His love. If we abide in His love, we must share this love with others. Whenever we share this love, it is proof in our own hearts that we are abiding in Christ. There is no separation between a Christian’s inner life and his outer life.
Abiding in God’s love produces two wonderful spiritual benefits in the life of a believer: he grows in knowledge and he grows in faith (1 Jn. 4:16). The more we love God the more we understand the love of God. And the more we understand His love the easier it is for us to trust Him. After all, when you know someone intimately and love him sincerely, you have no problem putting your confidence in him.
A man standing in the greeting card section of a store was having trouble picking out a card. The clerk asked if she could help and he replied: “Well, it’s our fortieth wedding anniversary, but I can’t find a card that says what I want to say. You know, forty years ago it wouldn’t have been any problem picking out a card because back then I thought I knew what love was. But we love each other so much more today. I just can’t find a card that says it!”
This is a growing Christian’s experience with God. As he abides in Christ and spends time in fellowship with Him, he comes to love God more and more. He also grows in his love for other Christians, for the lost, and even for his enemies. As he shares the Father’s love with others, he experiences more of the Father’s love himself. He understands the Father’s love better and better.
“God is love,” then, is not simply a profound biblical statement. It is the basis for a believer’s relationship with God and with his fellowman. Because God is love, we can love. His love is not past history; it is present reality. “Love one another” begins as a commandment (1 Jn. 4:7), then it becomes a privilege (1 Jn. 4:11).
But it is more than a commandment or a privilege. It is also the thrilling consequence and evidence of our abiding in Christ (1 Jn. 4:12). Loving one another is not something we simply ought to do; it is something we want to do. Some practical applications grow out of this basic truth:
First, the better we know God’s love the easier it will be to live as a Christian. Bible knowledge alone does not take the place of personal experience of God’s love. In fact, it can be a dangerous substitute if we are not careful.
Helen came home from a youth retreat greatly enthused over what she had learned. “We had some terrific sessions on how to have personal devotions,” she told her sister Joyce. “I plan to have my devotions every single day.”
A week later, while Joyce was running the vacuum cleaner, she heard Helen screaming, “Do you have to make all that noise? Don’t you know I’m trying to have my devotions?” And the verbal explosion was followed by the slamming of a door.
Helen still had to learn that personal devotions are not an end in themselves. If they do not help us love God and love one another, they are accomplishing little. The Bible is a revelation of God’s love and the better we understand His love the easier it should be for us to obey Him and love others.
A second application is unless we love the lost, our verbal witness to them will be useless. The Gospel message is a message of love. This love was both declared and demonstrated by Jesus Christ. The only way we can effectively win others is to declare the Gospel and demonstrate it in how we live. Too much “witnessing” today is a mere mouthing of words. People need an expression of love.
One reason why God permits the world to hate Christians is so that Christians may return love for the world’s hatred. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me… But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:11, 44).
“Pastor, the Bible tells us to love our neighbors, but I doubt that anybody could love my neighbors,” Mrs. Barton said at the close of a Sunday School lesson. “I’ve tried to be nice to them, but it just doesn’t work.”
“Perhaps ‘being nice to them’ isn’t the real answer,” the pastor explained. “You know, it’s possible to be nice to people with the wrong motive.”
“You mean as though you’re trying to buy them off?”
“Something like that. I think you and I had better pray God will give you a true spiritual love for your neighbors. If you love them in a Christian way, you will not be able to do them any damage,” the pastor pointed out.
It took some weeks, but Mrs. Barton grew in her love for her neighbors; and she also found herself growing in her own spiritual life. “My neighbors haven’t changed a whole lot,” she told the prayer group, “but my attitude toward them has really changed. I used to do things for them to try to win their approval. But now I do things for Jesus’ sake because He died for them—and it makes all the difference in the world!”
In this paragraph of John’s letter, he has taken us to the very foundation of Christian love. But he still has more to teach us. In the next section, he deals with our own personal love for God and how God perfects that love in us. These two aspects of Christian love cannot be separated from one another: if we love God, we will love one another; and if we love one another, we will grow in our love for God. Both statements are true because “God is love!”