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God Manifests Himself in Love

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7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.    9 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. 10 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. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

It is not difficult to know what John’s aim is in this passage. Three times in these verses he says the words “love one another” (vv. 7, 11, 12). This is also the third time he has brought up the subject of the believer’s love for others in this letter (2:7-11; 3:11-18). Between John’s Gospel and this letter, the word “love” appears about 100 times. It is a major theme in the writings of John, who is known as the Beloved Disciple.

John thinks it is very significant that believers demonstrate love for one another, so he urges his readers to love each other. In order to do this, he wants us to know and meditate on why we should be compelled to love. This basis for the believer’s love for each other is what John is writing about in this passage. He doesn’t just command us to love; he believes that love should flow naturally. He wants believers’ love for one another to be as natural as the love between a husband and a wife.

But John still finds it important to command us to love, just as the Apostle Paul needed to command husbands to love their wives (Eph 5:25). It was necessary to command this, not because love is unnatural, but because love can grow cold. And because we have not truly loved until we love the way that God loves. Paul wanted husbands to love their wives, “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” John likewise wants us to love each other as God has loved us.

So in Christianity we find that love is not merely a trait we should exhibit for the betterment of society; love is a trait we should exhibit for the glory of God. That’s why the title of this message is “God Manifests Himself in Love.” The title is purposely ambiguous. It can be taken to demonstrate the manner in which God reveals himself, that is, when God reveals himself he does so in loving ways. But it also can indicate the means by which God reveals himself, namely, God is seen when love is displayed.

In other words, we cannot truly comprehend love without God being at the center of our discussion. This is what John wants us to see. This is the reason why Christians, of all people, should be the most loving. This is why John commands us to love.


It is John’s command to love that is the main sentence of the passage. But it is not what John spends most of his time with. Rather, he gives us the reasons why we should love. He assumes that he will be far more effective in getting his readers to love if he can show them why they should do so. Specifically, in verses 7-8, he gives us two reasons.

Love comes from God

The first reason why Christians should love one another is because “love is from God.” In other words, John says that love has a divine source. John is saying that whenever we see love, we can know that God is behind it. Now that means that much of what we call “love” is really no love at all. It means that when the world uses the word “love,” they are defining love in ways different than how God defines it.

This becomes even more explicit at the end of verse 8. There John says flatly, “God is love.” What does this mean? First, it cannot be a convertible proposition. That is, it does not mean that “love is God,” that love and God are one in the same. We must not make a God out of love. Instead, it must mean that God has the quality or attribute of love.

But this does not mean simply that God has the ability to love. You and I have the ability to love, but I cannot say, “Ben Janssen is love.” The difference is that when we speak of something as being an attribute of God, we mean that it is a characteristic of God that is true all the time. So we can say that God is patient and just and true and holy. All of these are characteristics of God that are always true of him at all times. That means that when God demonstrates his holiness and his justice and his wrath, he is just as loving as when he demonstrates his patience and mercy and goodness. God does not put his attribute of love on hold when he demonstrates his wrath. God is not somehow unloving because he condemns some people to hell. This is a simple truth but it is so often misunderstood by people, both Christian and non-Christian alike.

Already, then, if we will accept this truth, we can begin to see that the kind of love with which God loves and expects of his followers is not the same kind of love we usually see in this world. As Wayne Grudem says,

We have an idea of love from human experience. That helps us to understand what Scripture means when it says that God is love, but our understanding of the meaning of “love” when applied to God is not identical with our experience of love in human relationships. So we must learn from observing how God acts in all of Scripture and from the other attributes of God that are given in Scripture, as well as from our own real-life experiences of God’s love, if we are to refine our idea of God’s love in an appropriate way and avoid misunderstanding.[1]

This also means that we must not “exalt the love of God as his supreme feature just because it is more congenial to our thinking.”[2] In other words, we must not define love by our own experiences and then force that definition upon God and thereby not present his other attributes properly. Already in 1 John we have been told that God is "light" (1 Jn 1:5), an analogy that refers to God’s perfection and holiness. So God is love at all times but in such a way that his holiness is never compromised either. Similarly, God is also “spirit” (John 4:24) and “fire” (Heb 12:29). If we are going to think of God properly we must think of him wholly with all his attributes and not elevate one of them to the diminishing of any of the others.

We come from God

There is a second reason why we who are followers of Jesus are commanded to love. The first reason is because “love is from God.” The second reason is because “whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (v. 7). John says the reason why we should love is not only because love comes from God but also because we Christians come from God. 

These two reasons for why Christians should love go together as verse 8 makes clear: “Anyone who does not love does not know God” (that’s reason 2) “because God is love” (that’s reason 1). We have to see this connection in order to understand how John hopes his command to love will be obeyed. He doesn’t emphasize our experience of love in hopes of motivating us to love in return, though he is not opposed to it (see 3:1). But here he focuses on our genetic disposition as those who have been “born of God” and says that love is what comes out of such a person.

In other words, the reason why we should love is because this is what those who are born of God do. Those who are born of God have a share in his nature and so become lovers just like God. The lack of love, then, is an indication that one has not been regenerated by God.

So what does it mean to be “born” of God? Besides the obvious reference to procreation, the word beget in the New Testament also means to exercise the role of a parental figure, as in 1 Corinthians 4:15 and Philemon 10. By Jesus’ day, conversion to Judaism was commonly referred to as a “birth” and the one who led him to convert was often considered his father.[3] For John, the phrase “born of God” is primarily used to emphasize the ethical consequences that come from it such as “doing righteousness” in 2:29 and not sinning in 3:7.

But there is more to the Bible’s use of the word “regeneration” than conversion. One reason the Bible uses the concept of new birth is to emphasize the fact that we play no active role in it whatsoever. John 1:13 makes this clear. We were born, “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Just as we had no choice in our physical birth, the Bible indicates that the new birth is not something we choose but something that happens to us.[4]

The exact nature of the new birth is still somewhat of a mystery to us. Nevertheless, the fact that it has happened to us is evidenced by the believer’s conversion and by the believer’s character that begins to resemble the character of God. Just as a child shares the physical traits of his biological father, we who have been born of God begin to resemble the spiritual traits of our Heavenly Father. And since one of those traits is love, John can say that “whoever loves has been born of God.”


But again we should note that it is not mere love that indicates one has been born of God; it is God-like love. So John is not just interested that his readers love; he wants them to love like God loves.

Love must manifest itself

We do not have to guess what it means to love as God loves. John begins verse 9, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us.” Because God is love, he acts out of love. In verses 9 and 10, the Apostle reminds us what the love of God looks like. Both verses begin with the words “in this” and give us a clear picture of love. The implication is that we cannot excuse our lovelessness on the grounds that no one can prove that we don’t love. Love must manifest itself, or we do not have it. Because God is love, he manifested it by sending his only Son into the world.

God sent his Son, his only Son

John only needs to show us one picture of God’s love in order to demonstrate what God-like love is. That’s because this one act of God’s love cannot be superseded. God manifested his love by sending his Son. He mentions this twice, once in verse 9 and once in verse 10.

In verse 9, however, John stresses that God sent his only Son (ESV), his “one and only Son” (NIV), his “only begotten Son” (NASB). The word used here to describe Jesus does not have to be translated with the word “begotten.” Ancient writers did not use the word just to refer to a child who was the only one procreated by the parents. Instead, this word usually described a child who stood in a special, unique relationship to the parent.[5] Now oftentimes such “special” children were also the only biological children of their parents. But the Bible uses this word to describe Isaac (Heb 11:17) who was not the only biological son of Abraham.

John will later say explicitly that Jesus was “begotten” of God (1 Jn 5:18). But I think his point here is to point out that Jesus is unique in how he relates to God. He is the only example in the category of God’s “Son.” No one else can say that they are God’s Son in the same way that Jesus can say it. In fact, John never uses the phrase “son of God” to describe anyone else’s relationship to God but Jesus’. He can call believers “children of God” (tevkna qeou:) but he never calls any of them a ”son of God” (uiJo;V qeou:). Only Jesus gets that title. So it is clear that John is referring to Jesus as being the “Son of God” in a way that no other being could possibly claim. Elsewhere (John 1:18) we find out why this is so. Only Jesus shares the exact nature of God and so is God, just like the Father.

Because of who Jesus is, the Father’s sending him into the world “is the supreme proof of God’s love for the world.” No greater gift from God could be possible. And as the only Son of God, only Jesus could provide life and salvation from eternal destruction.[6] God manifested his love by sending his Son into the world, “so that we might live through him.” Now we are beginning to see what God-like love is really like.

God loved us. And that is love!

But that’s not all. Verse 10 says, “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.” The emphasis in this verse is that if we want to know what love is, we have to begin with God and not us. “There can be no explanation or definition of true love which does not start from God’s love. We cannot begin to understand love by considering the nature of our love for God.”[7]

In other words, God’s love was “free, uncaused and spontaneous” while all our love is only a reflection of his and a response to it.[8] And God’s love was an act of self-sacrifice in order to achieve good for another.[9] His only Son became the wrath-satisfying propitiation that we needed because of our sins. He sent his Son so that we could live, because without him we are dead (Eph 2:1, 5). This is love! God could have been just to simply leave us alone, dead in our sins. But it is God’s nature to act with this kind of love, eternally giving of himself to benefit others. And he always acts that way toward those upon whom he has set his love.[10]

So if we want to know what true love is we can only look to God for an example. And what we find is that God loves by eternally giving of himself for the benefit of others. He acted in this way before he created the world in his love for the Son (John 17:24). It spilled over after creation in his love for humanity (John 3:16). And John’s expectation is that those who have met God through the new birth will become lovers in the same way that he loves.


After we understand the source of true love, and after we see an example of just how far God’s love has gone, John is ready once more to return to the main point of this passage: he wants his readers to become God-like lovers.  But there is also, in the final two verses of this passage, one more thing John wants to add to his exhortation. There is an ultimate reason why we should love one another. We should love others with a God-like love so that God is manifested in us and through us. We should love so that God is seen!

Imitate God’s love for you

Verse 11 says, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” This verse begins very much like John 3:16: “for God so loved the world.” But the meaning of the adverb “so” is different here than in John 3:16. There it refers to the extent to which God loved the world (God loved the world so much that he gave.) Here I think it refers more to the manner in which we are loved. God loved us in a self-sacrificing way. The implication is that we are to imitate that kind of love in our love for others. John is saying, “beloved, if God loved us like that, we should show that kind of love toward others as well.”

Twice in this passage, and both times before commanding his readers to love others, John refers to them as “beloved” (vv. 7, 11). This forms a nice play on words, especially in verse seven where John’s address of his readers as “beloved” is followed immediately by the exhortation to love: ajgaphtoiv, ajgapw:men. As those who have been loved by God, we are now exhorted to pass on that love.

God’s love through us proves God’s love in us

But notice that John did not say, “if God so loved us, we also ought to love God.” Instead, what we find here is that we who are recipients of God’s love should now be conduits through whom God’s love is extended to others. In John’s day it was considered appropriate to love only those who were considered worthy of being loved. But in Christianity we find that God loves those who are unworthy of his love, even those who instead are deserving of his wrath.[11]

And we are to love in that way! We are not to love only those who seem lovable but also those we would rather not love. Why? Verse 12 tells us why. It begins, almost abruptly, “No one has ever seen God.” Once again, these words remind us of John’s Gospel. In John 1:18 he wrote, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” In other words, God the Father cannot be seen, but the Son of God has revealed him. Similarly, in this passage John is saying that although God the Father cannot be seen, he intends to reveal himself through the love that Christians show to others.

So God wills to reveal himself to the world through us, specifically through our self-sacrificing acts of love for the benefit of other people. When we love in that way, we can be sure that God is abiding in us and that his love has been perfected in us. We can be sure of this because the goal of God’s love in us is always to manifest itself in God-like love for others. If we love like the world loves, we will look no different than the world and God who cannot be seen will continue to be veiled. If we love like God loves—radically, self-sacrificially, indiscriminately—then the world will recognize our love as being otherworldly, and the God who cannot be seen will be manifested.

Although John speaks frequently about our love for others, this does not mean that love for others is the summation of Christianity. He has been equally clear that we must both accept his command to love one another and practice a right belief about who Jesus is. The two go together, right doctrine and right practice. That’s because none of this loving of one another is possible without the new birth. It is God’s love and not our own. “Human love, however noble and however highly motivated, falls short if it refuses to include the Father and Son as the supreme objects of its affection.”[12]

So it may be that what the world needs today is love, love, love. But the only kind of love that will meet the need of the world is God-like love. Such love is self-sacrificial and beneficial. And God wills that his love flow freely through Christians who have personally experienced this love. When it does, our love will be seen for what it is, God’s love working through us. And the God who cannot be seen will be manifested to the world through us. He will be seen and he will be glorified.


[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 159.

[2] I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), 212.

[3] Karl H. Rengstorf, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964–74), 1:666.

[4] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 699.

[5] Robert M. Bowman, Jr. and J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2007), 327-28.

[6] Friedrich Büchsel, TDNT,  4:740.

[7] I. Howard Marshall, Epistles of John, 214.

[8] John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1988), 164.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 199.

[11] John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John, 165.

[12] I. Howard Marshall, Epistles of John, 212.

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