1 John 4.7-21
All throughout Scripture, one of the most prominent themes you will notice is that of "love." God commanded the nation of Israel to love the Lord with all their heart, soul, and might. And their obedience to God's commands would reveal their love for God.
Jesus stated time and time again that his followers would also love the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. This was the greatest commandment from the Old Testament. The second was to love neighbor as yourself. Paul dedicated an entire chapter in 1 Corinthians 13 to love. In fact, Paul concludes the chapter by saying of faith, hope and love, the greatest of these is love. The reason for this, I believe, is because when we see God in heaven, there will no longer be a need for faith and hope. But love will remain because God is love.
As you look at this next paragraph in your Bibles, you may have the section heading of "God is Love." This is likely a quite familiar phrase as people often quote it in different contexts. People like to throw it around to speak to many different issues. But I think that many use it in a way that is not faithful to its context. This morning will present us an opportunity to investigate this phrase more deeply and hopefully more faithfully.
This section I found to be one of the most difficult to outline. This paragraph is follows John's typical pattern of circular teaching. So we will be moving around these verses a bit this morning. I will try to be sure to keep you informed of which verses I am speaking to. Let's read the text as we get underway. READ. 1 John 4.17-21.
The first point we will look at is Love Discloses a Relationship. This has already been demonstrated in several places in the letter. In chapter 3, it is the one who loves his brother that shows himself to be a child of God. And here again, John will say that a characteristic of God the Father will be seen in those who are truly his children.
In verses 7-8, John exhorts his readers to love one another. And the reason for this is because love finds its source in God. And if love has God as its source, wouldn't you expect to find that it is somehow exemplified also in his children. After all, Paul has said in Ephesians 5 that Christians are to be imitators of God as beloved children. John says here that "whoever loves has been born of God." What a tremendous truth that this is!
John has written about becoming a child of God in his Gospel. In John 1, he speaks of the Word of God becoming flesh. He spoke of the world that did not know him or receive him. But, by contrast, he says in verse 12 that "all who did receive him, who believed on his name, he gave the right to become the children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God." This truth of becoming a child is due solely to God himself. It is not the will of man, but the will of God that makes us his. John says here that the one who loves has been born "of God" and knows God. It is not the person's ability to love that causes the new birth, but his ability to love flows from his regeneration in Christ.
In verse 8, he provides a contrast. "Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love." We'll address this last statement shortly - that God is love - because John will show how this is to be understood. For now, we recognize that John issues a word of caution as well. Primarily, he is out to show that those who had defected from them, the false teachers, have disqualified themselves because they had failed to love.
Look down at verse 12. John will again reiterate by saying, "No one has ever seen God; if we love on another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us." Initiially, it seems a bit odd that John would say that no one has ever seen God. But I think the point he is making is that despite knowing that no one can claim to have seen God, believers who love one another demonstrate that the unseen God lives within them. This is meant to reassure his readers that they do really know God, despite what the false teachers were saying and exemplifying.
In other words, if we claim to have a relationship with him, what we know of Scripture tells us that God lives in us and transforms us so that we too can demonstrate his love. It gives Christians confidence and unbelievers caution.
Now jump down to verse 16. The second part of this verse says that God is love and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. Again John reiterates that the one who is characterized by their love gives evidence of abiding in relationship with God.
Not only is this tremendously beneficial in the present but in verse 17, John says that this relationship is necessary for the future as well. Throughout God's Word we recognize that it is vital that one not be alienated from God, but reconciled to him. As Christians who believe the Bible, we know that one's relationship with God determines how that person will spend their eternity. Often out of love and concern for unbelievers, we will challenge them on this issue. We believe that there will come a day (day of judgment) where God will expose our deeds and examine our confession of Jesus Christ. While on this earth, we all abide under the common grace of God where we still have opportunity to repent and believe in Jesus. But we know that there is a day that we will cease to exist. There is a one to one ratio on this. Usually it is an unexpected experience. People die in car accidents, because of diseases and crimes, and many because of aging. Because sin entered the world at the outset of Creation with Adam and Eve, all will eventually die and meet face to face with their Creator.
So why do I bring up such an unpleasant and unpopular topic? Because if you have not yet trusted in Jesus, you will need to address this issue while you have the benefit of still being alive. And as a Christian, we need to embrace the urgency to speak the good news of Jesus Christ to those who remain alienated from God and will face the day of judgment unprepared.
Look to the middle of verse 18. John says that fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. Regarding this day when we see God face to face, the unbeliever will be inundated with fear and the Christian, confidence. John has already mentioned in 2.28 that we "abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming."
In verses 19-21, John reiterates the point that the child of God will love his brothers and sisters. In verse 19 he states that it is only because God loved us that we have the capacity to love. Momentarily, we will address the issue of how he loved us. But for now we need to note that apart from his intervention, we are dead in our sins and unable to love in the same manner that he loves.
In typical fashion, John sets up the clear distinctions yet again. In verse 20, "if anyone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar." It is incompatible for someone to love God and hate his brother because God loves people and we are to imitate him. For someone to love God, he or she must also love the same things and seek to honor him in this way.
Then John inserts an interesting phrase. He says that "he who does not love his brother who he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen." What he means is that if people cannot carry out the lesser requirement to love their fellow believer (whom they have seen), they cannot carry out the greater requirement of loving God (whom they have not seen). For us, people are tangible. We can see them and love them directly and practically. We see immediate results and benefits as we love them. With God, the fruits of our love for him are often more subjective. We develop our relationship with an invisible God. The question John asks with this statement is "how is it that one claim the faith of trusting in and loving an unseen God when they cannot even love his own children who are physically present?" It is incompatible. And the actions of these detractors have disqualified their claims to God.
And this brings us back to his point in verse 12 when John says that "no one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us." He works the same thought backward. If we love, we show that we believe in an unseen God who abides in us. He says it both ways to make the point.
The basis for this reasoning is in the commandment from him who told his followers: "whoever loves God must also love his brother" in verse 21. In chapter 3 verse 23, he said that the commandment is to believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he commanded us." In his gospel, he records Jesus' words to his disciples during the Last Supper: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." So it is pretty consistent throughout Scripture that the child of God will love one another.
We recognize that John's primary targets with these statements are those that had left their midst and were teaching his readers different things and were not loving the believers. But that doesn't mean that they don't have relevance for us as well.
Let's be honest here. We read the words on the pages of our Bibles and believe them to be true. But people, yes even Christians, are not always the most "lovable" people. I'll admit that sometimes I find myself not having this loving attitude toward others. Anybody else? Probably just me. Because we have not yet been perfected and still struggle with sinful tendencies, we remain needy people, selfish people, prideful people. And there are times when I forgot to look at people and treat them as Jesus would. So I need to embrace these texts and pray that God would change my heart and my actions toward other people.
I don't think that John is saying that occasionally treating someone in an unloving manner would disqualify them as a child of God. But if your life is characterized by such things, you may need to do a reassessment of your confession to Christ. And we do need to recognize that this is a clear command of Scripture that we love each other because God has loved us.
And this is what we will want to know. How has God loved us? This brings us to our second point - Love Defined. Like I mentioned at the outset, people have a very diverse understanding of what it means that God is love. Some would conclude that because God is loving, it somehow eliminates many of his other attributes - namely his holiness, justice, and wrath. They then suggest that a God who is loving would never send someone to a place of eternal torment. Because of his love, he must somehow minimize or overlook a person's sinful rebellion.
But we cannot place one of his attributes against another. So our pursuit of understanding how God deals with our sin must be derived from his Word and not from human reasoning or sensitivities. And he has chosen to reveal how these concepts are harmonized in Scripture. How can God be both holy and loving toward his sinful creatures. Look at verse 9.
Well, in verse 8, John said that God is love. In verse 9, he spells out for us what this means. "In this the love of God was made manifest among us." God does not keep us second guessing. He revealed his love. And he did it among us. It was a public affair.
So let's break this down. The first thing we notice is that in God's love being manifest among us is that he sent his Son into the world. Jesus is the Son of God who left a throne in heaven to go on a mission in our world. The purpose of the mission is mentioned next. “God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him!” This is significant because apart from Jesus, Paul says that we are spiritually dead in our sins and helplessly following the course of the world and its ruler, the Devil. But Jesus came so that we might live through him.
“Life” is a repeated theme throughout this letter. John mentions this several times. We will see in our next chapter that eternal life is found in Jesus Christ, God’s Son in 5.11. In 5.20, he is eternal life. In 1.2, eternal life was with the Father from the beginning. In 5.13, those who believe in the Son have eternal life. In 2.23, those who acknowledge Jesus Christ have the Son (and the Father), and those who have the Son have eternal life in 5.12. “Life” is precisely what dead people need. And, praise God that he sent his Son so that “life” might be an option for us!
But it wasn’t just that he “came” that provided life for us. Verse 10 provides us with more explanation of his mission. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” In this verse we have our million dollar theological word. “Propitiation” (our bulletin this morning will help us out a bit) is a sacrifice that bears God’s wrath to the end and in so doing changes God’s wrath toward us into favor. Even heathen nations understand this concept when they offer up sacrifices to “appease” the angry gods. That’s why you hear of tribal people offering up children or women or food or whatever so that the “gods” no longer would be angry.
And yet this situation is much different. First, because God is perfectly holy and just, it is necessary that he despise sin. Sin is an affront to his very nature and is in opposition to him. He must be angry with sin. Second, who “appeases” God? God himself provides the provision for “propitiation.” Why? He didn’t have to. “In this is love…” What kind of love? Where did this “propitiation” take place? On a cross for six hours one Friday.
Let’s back up for a minute so that we can feel the weight of this one. Verse 9 says that “in this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son…” Any parents in the building this morning? Think back to how God gave us a glimpse of this significant event. Remember Abraham and Isaac? Genesis 22:1–2 1 After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” You know how the story goes. Abraham rises early in the morning, takes his Son Isaac, brings the wood for the burnt offering. Isaac knows how this goes. He’s seen it before. “Where’s the lamb for a burn offering?” He asks. Abraham responds with, “God will provide it.” They come to the place, Abraham builds the altar, binds his own son and places him on the altar. Any parents fully understand this? Me neither.
I believe that this was largely to test the faith of Abraham and whether he trusted his God. The story concludes with the angel of the Lord calling out and telling him not to lay a hand on the boy but to offer up a ram that was nearby. But I think that this story helps us understand what it means when John uses the same phrase to describe the sacrifice of the Son of God. God sent his only Son, Jesus because “in this the love of God was made manifest among us.”
There is a tendency in our day to understand the love of God differently. People like to think that it is his love that prevents him from carrying out justice to those who deserve it. And so it is argued that a loving God will not send anyone to Hell. Love trumps other attributes like holiness and justice. But we forget that he is perfect in these other attributes as well. And… we want him to be. We want God to act on the injustice in the world. We want to see the sick healed, the slave liberated, the poor to be provided for. And we want criminals to receive their punishment as well. We want the rapist and the pedophile to be held accountable and punished for their crimes. We don’t like to hear of criminals escaping their just retribution. The problems is that we don’t often realize that we are criminals. We’ve committed crimes against the God who made us.
Ephesians 2 reminds us that we are spiritually dead in our sins. Romans 3:23 “23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Romans 6:23 “23 For the wages of sin is death.” And Romans 1.18 reminds us of God’s necessary response to rebellion against him. Paul says that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.”
It is necessary that these truths become rooted within us. This is another theological concept known as “total depravity.” In this we realize that we are hopeless and helpless before God. We are NOT pretty good people that need “tweaking.” Sin has permeated our very being – from birth. David said in Psalm 51 that he was “brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Because of the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, all of humanity enters the world in this condition. We are objects of God’s wrath.
To see what love truly means we must see ourselves as sinners (totally depraved), and thus as the objects of God’s wrath. Have we grasped this yet? There is nothing within us that calls for his favor. The playing field is level. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Now, do you want to know what love is? “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God… sent his only Son… into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God (we can’t apart from his intervention) but that he… loved… us and sent his Son to be the (sacrifice that bears God’s wrath to the end)… propitiation for (what?)… our sins. What’s the verse from the passage we are memorizing? Isaiah 53:5 “5 But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.” The real meaning of love and the real source of life are discerned only in the cross. John 3:16 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” 1 John 3.16 said “by this we know love, that he laid down his life for us…” THIS is Love Defined.
There is a word in the next verse, verse 11, that I find quite significant. It serves as the foundation for John’s exhortation. He says, “Beloved, if God so loved us…” How can we not love others? We also out to love one another. What right do we have NOT to? “That person is really difficult and full of pride and only thinks of themselves…” And yet God so loved us – those who are really difficult, full of pride and selfishness… We really have no choice but to love others. In fact, as we consider this love demonstrated to us, we should find joy in extending love to others.
Let’s look at our last point now – Love Confirmed. Again, John sets out to instill confidence in his readers. Having just considered that justice and love meet at the cross of Jesus Christ, we should also note that a historical fact does not indicate that “all” are saved. There is a response that is required in order to appropriate (personalize) this sacrifice. In verse 15, John says that whoever “confesses” that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.” We discussed briefly that it not only in a single concept of Jesus that saves a person. And here John introduces this important point that is part of a bigger picture. It is like he is pointing backward to the previous reference and saying, “whoever confesses that Jesus is that Son of God, the One sent as propitiation… God abides in him and he in God.”
Now look at verse 13. John says, “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his son to be the Savior of the world.” The emphasis here is on the role of the Holy Spirit in our conversion and our perseverance with God.
John refers to seeing and testifying to Jesus Christ. I believe that his primary understanding looks back to the letter’s opening when he says that he has seen and heard and touched Jesus Christ and can testify to him. But I think that there is more here because he refers to receiving the Holy Spirit from God. To understand “see” and “testify” alludes also to the idea that the good news of Jesus is historical reality and relates to personal experience. Thus all believers in Jesus will acknowledge the truth that Jesus died in their place on the cross (or “see”) and will be convinced in his mind so that he “testifies” to his embracing him.
Those who repent and trust in Jesus Christ do so only because the Holy Spirit has convicted them of sin and their need for a Savior. Do you remember the account when Jesus met with the woman at the well in Samaria? Jesus used a physical reality (thirst) to speak of spiritual thirst. After a short dialogue regarding her many husbands, they speak of true worship that consists of worshiping in spirit and truth. She runs and tells her friends about Jesus and many believe in him. They then say to her, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” How did they know? The Spirit of God convinced them.
My guess is that many of you know this. There is no way that you can prove to others that Jesus is the Savior of the world. To embrace this requires faith that the Holy Spirit has given you. But you know. In fact, if somebody asks you about it, you may say that somehow “I know that I know that I know.” John says, “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” 1 John 3:24 24 Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us. Romans 8:16 “16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Likewise, we can say “we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.”
Some of you I would suspect cannot say, “I know that I know that I am a child of God.” You cannot admit that love has been perfected within you because of a relationship with God. Perhaps there is yet fear for the day of judgment. And what you long for is to be known by him, to abide in him, to have assurance that the Spirit provides, to have confidence on the day of judgment.
I hope that you understand the significance and the magnitude of God’s love for his people. It is not that his love trumps his wrath or his holiness or justice. It is precisely his love that sent his Son as a provision so that he would remain faithful in all his attributes. Listen to Romans 3:23–26 “23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” It is my hope and prayer that you would receive Jesus by faith today. There are no guarantees on the length of your life and I want you to have confidence on that day when you stand before him.
The believer in Jesus Christ shall have confidence because the Holy Spirit resides within him or her. The love of God demonstrated to us demands a response. God so loved us. We also ought to love one another. And when we do, we confirm that we abide in him. Let’s pray.