I’m writing this at the dining table of some friends in North Carolina. I’m here for the funeral of a dear friend of ours, Carroll Henderson, who was one of the most loving and giving people you could ever wish to meet. His labour of love in the small fellowship he led for 27 years was an inspiration to many. The way he gave to us and to the many teams of young adults we brought out here over the years showed his love for the Lord and the people of God. He will be sadly missed by many. I wanted to honour him as I write this article about love and I dedicate these words to one who always went the extra mile for people around him.
One of the questions Jesus will ask us when we stand before him in heaven is, “Did you learn to love?” The whole Bible from beginning to end, as it looks at the behaviour of people, is to do with loving God and loving people. On four occasions in one letter John brings up the subject of loving God in the context of loving people. In Chapter four of his first letter he says:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. 13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (1 John 4:7-21)
G.K. Chesterton said “All people matter. You matter. I matter. It’s the hardest thing in theology to believe.”
John repeats Jesus’ command to “love one another.” He mentions love 27 times in this passage! How is that possible? How is it possible to love those who aren’t lovable? How is it possible to love those who don’t like you? How is it possible to love those who don’t want to be loved? Many Christians focus exclusively on the fact that they have access to God without having to bother with other people. Their desire is to go to God for inspiration and comfort when they’re frustrated with people around them. Maybe underneath all that their goal is to gain the advantage with God in their struggle with people.
Sometimes our determination to get on the inside track with God makes us think we’re free to treat others however we like – it goes right back to the dawn of humanity (John has already cited Cain and Abel in Chapter 3 as an example of what happens when hatred festers in a person’s heart). This attitude promotes a distorted version of the kind of religion God requires for us as his people. It’s also the sort of religion that the Bible is determined to root out.
A solid spiritual life is founded on a relationship between people as well as God, but it’s easy to develop the misunderstanding that my Christian life is something personal between God and me—a private thing to be nurtured by my own personal disciplines. If we think this way for very long, we will assume that the way we treat the people we don’t get on with has nothing to do with God.
That’s when the Bible steps in and insists, “Everything you do or think or feel has to do with God. Every person you meet has to do with God.” We live in an age where interconnectedness is an everyday phenomenon and those connections have consequences, either in our lives or in the lives of other people—and all the consequences come together in God. That’s what the Bible calls Judgment Day and we can’t be reminded too often or too forcefully of this day of reckoning. That’s why the issue of love is of great importance as we seek to live obediently to what the word of God tells us.
Let’s look at what John says to us:
The Example of Love (verses 7-12)
Have you ever tried to copy something? How did it turn out? What if you make a copy of a copy of a copy? I suppose it depends on how good the copies are that you’re using. It’s always wisest to check the original. What the world calls love today is a pale imitation of the real thing. Just check the titles of some of the popular songs. You can easily replace the word lust for love in most cases without any change in meaning.
The command in verse 7 is to love one another. This is the most common “one another” command in Scripture. Why? The rest of the verse tells us that this is the evidence of our relationship with God. Part of God’s very nature is love. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the attitude of many pre-Christians. I get the impression that many who avoid Christianity use the excuse that they don’t want to become closed minded bigots.
The truth is that if we don’t love we don’t really know God. We may know a valuable creed or tradition but we don’t know God. Why not? What does it mean to know God? The more we know him, the more we become like him.
How has God exemplified Love? Verse 9 reminds us that God showed his love for us by sending his Son Jesus into the world that we might live through him. He loved us first with such an overwhelming, reckless love that doesn’t even make rational sense. He loved us while we were still enemies because of our sin. God showed us a self sacrificing love and people still mock him for it.
Why does God love us so much? What does he get out of it? In response to God’s love we need to love one another. Why? Verse 12 tells us that if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. Does this mean that God’s love is somehow incomplete? The King James Version says His love is “perfected in us”. That seems worse. Some could take that to mean that God’s love is imperfect. How can that be? If love is one sided is it complete?
We need to love back.
Do we best show our love for God by removing ourselves from the world and spending all of our time in prayer and Bible study? These things are important but I almost think that they are easier than what God commands. He commands us to love each other. If we don’t than we are disobedient. John and his brother James had been known as “sons of thunder”. He was ready to call down fire on a Samaritan village when he felt slighted by them. Now he’s remembered as the disciple that Jesus loved. What made the difference? Knowing God. When he wrote this letter he was in his later years. He wanted the church to follow the loving example of Jesus Christ. If we want to be more like God, we need to learn to love.
The Evidence of Love (verses 13-18)
I’m sure we all think that we’re loving but how many of us actually reach out to people and serve them as Jesus asked us to do? Less than we might think. How do we know if we’re truly loving? What’s the evidence? In verse 13 we’re told that we know because God has given us his Spirit. How is the Holy Spirit evidence of our love? One thing we need to get used to is listening to the Holy Spirit. It is he who empowers us and teaches us. It is he who is our evidence of love. In verse 14 John says that we testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world. This was not just for the people of John’s day who had seen Jesus Christ in the flesh. How have we seen this? He’s at work in our lives.
It is made obvious in verses 15 and 16 that this is more than an intellectual acknowledgement. How? We live in love. What does that mean? With his love in our hearts we have nothing to fear. Why not? What about fearing God? He deserves our respect and I’m convinced that too often we take Him far too casually. He’s far greater than many give him credit for. If we ever think we have God all figured out then our God is too small. It means that we don’t need to be paralysed by fear. I want to trust God instead and I know that he is above everything. He says not to be afraid. So I can love fearlessly because of his love at work through me.
The Reason to Love (verses 19-21)
As a young Christian I learned a chorus, “Oh, how I love Jesus. Oh, how I love Jesus. Oh, how I love Jesus.” Why? “Because He first loved me.” Why is that a reason to love? There is nothing we can do to make God love us any more and there is nothing that we can do to make God love us less. I really believe that the love of God is far greater than we can ever fathom. Here’s the hard part. Jesus told us (John 13:34) to love one another in the same way that he loved us. How can we ever hope to accomplish that? His love is far greater than we can ever hope to match.
It’s one thing to love Jesus because he first loved us, but to love our brothers and sisters is a different story. According to this, if we say that we love God yet hate our brothers and sisters than we’re liars. Why? Sad but true, loving God can be little more than an idealistic concept for many. Yes I love God, but I can’t see him so that love can take any form that I want it to. God says to prove it by loving our brother. He even sends some people who are really hard to get along with!
There is no neutral term in Greek between love and hate. That means that we’re not to merely tolerate each other. We need to truly love each other. It’s one thing to love an enemy, which Christ also commands. We may expect them to act in an unhelpful way. We can’t be surprised when sinners act in an ungodly manner. What’s harder to swallow is when Christians, who should know better, act the same way.
We need to show each other God’s love in practical ways. Love is an important virtue; it’s a command of Jesus that is mentioned often. Why then don’t we see it in evidence more? If I ever justify in myself disdain towards my brother or sister, regardless of what they have done to me, then, as John says, I’m showing hatred toward God; then his love is not alive in me. Let’s choose to love instead. If we want to be more like God we need to learn to love. Without love for one another and for God – we have nothing and we are nothing! Our love for God is demonstrated by our love for one another! D L Moody wrote, “Show me a church where there is love, and I will show you a church that is a power in the community.”
An Early church example
The non-Christian Greek writer Lucian who lived from A.D. 120-200 made an observation about Christians. He said, “It is incredible to see the fervor with which the people of that religion help each other in their wants. They spare nothing. Their first legislator [Jesus] has put it into their heads that they are brethren.” Lucian said that Christians “spare nothing.”
“Sparing nothing” is an indication of unconditional love.
And when the church of Jesus Christ today demonstrates that kind of unconditional and sacrificial love for one another – then God is made known to a world riddled with pain and sin. If you want to know how closely you are following Jesus then look at how you are loving others. If we want to know how closely we are following Jesus as a community, look at how we are loving others.
So, what is church? Is it a place for the religious and the ceremonial? Is it a place for history and tradition, is it a place for socialising and cliques – or is it a place where the love of God is known, where the love of God is experienced, and where the love of God is expressed amongst the fellowship.
‘Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.’