Yesterday morning in our journey through 1 John we finally got to the point of defining love. What is love and what are the five implications for getting it right in our lives that John outlines? Keep reading to find out.
Love Flows Out
Near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus looked at the crowd gathered around Him and said this: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
Now, I suspect many of you are familiar with this little parable whose imagery is a little more familiar than we are comfortable with thanks to recent events. The point Jesus was making is this: We need a foundation in our lives in order to withstand the storms of this world. We need a rock of reality on which to build our “houses” so that when things begin to go in ways decidedly other than we would have them, we will be able to stand firm. I saw a picture from Florida after Irma went through of a beach house that had completely collapsed. We can make all the preparations for the storms of life we want, but if we are not securely anchored to the rock, we are taking our lives in our hands.
If you think about it, this idea that we need some sort of a firm anchor in this world in order to withstand its destructive forces fits right in with what we have been learning from John’s first letter over the past several weeks. First John, more than most other documents in the Scriptures, gives us a clear picture of reality. Being where we are in the second-to-last week of our series, A Word on Reality, we’ve seen this over and over again. As we said a few weeks ago and several times since, reality is defined by God. The characteristics, attributes, and kingdom of God are the constituting features of reality. Anything that does not cohere with this is simply fantasy. It may seem very real in the here and now, but in the end, it will pass away just like all the other lies of this world. We have also said along our journey that the world hates the fact that believers are locked in on reality. The reason for this is that the stronger we hold onto reality, the more clearly the world’s falsehoods are put on display. In response to this, the world presents us with a constant stream of alluring images designed to tempt us to leave the safe and secure harbor of reality and enter into the dangerous waters of fantasy. If it cannot get us to leave the safety of the harbor this way, it will launch a series of attacks on us aimed at drawing us out and attacking us while we are out in the open. When this happens—not if—unless we are anchored securely to the rock of reality, we will be blown away. When we are so anchored, we will be able to not only withstand the storms, but to come out even stronger on the other side.
In this vein, we have spent the last several weeks of our journey through 1 John talking about various tests he has offered in order to determine and have confidence in our standing before God. The thought here is that if we can pass these tests, then we can boldly affirm that we are God’s children and are accordingly heirs to the great riches of the kingdom. These tests have been of both an ethical nature—focused on how we are living—and also, as we saw two weeks ago, of a doctrinal nature—focused on what we believe about God. If a person or idea passes both of these tests, we can be sure they or it are from God.
And yet, ultimately, even these tests need anchors. They too must be rooted in something else that gives them substance and meaning. A test for a test’s sake doesn’t do anybody any good. Well, as we are going to see this morning, this something else is the love of God. Now, this theme of love has been flowing throughout the entirety of the letter. We have talked about it several times. There is a reason, after all, that the letter’s nickname is “the love epistle.” But, starting in 1 John 4:7 where we are going to begin this morning, John draws near the close of the letter by focusing even more directly on this chief of virtues. He begins to unpack the implications of God’s love for us in ways at which he has so far only hinted. In fact, between 4:7 and 5:5, John unpacks five implications of getting love right in our lives. As we work through these we will gradually come to see not only how love works and how getting it right puts us in consonance with reality, but also what love is.
With all of that being said, let’s take a look at this powerful text together. Open your Bibles to 1 John 4:7 and follow along with me as we unpack what the apostle has to say. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 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 but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
Over the course of this letter, John has aimed at doing two things: Helping us to see what are the borders of reality so that we can live within them, and helping us see how to remain within those boundaries so that we can enjoy the life to be found there. There are two major ways to make sure we are living comfortably inside reality’s broad lines. These are the two tests for fidelity to the faith we have given a great deal of our attention over the past couple of weeks. John has been bouncing back and forth from one test to the next as the letter has unfolded. He’ll emphasize one for a while, shift over to emphasizing the other, and then go back again to the first. It’s a little like driving a car. Experienced drivers know you cannot simply hold the steering wheel without moving it and hope to stay on the road. This is true even for straight roads. If you let go of the wheel the car is going to gradually drift to one side of the road or the other. To keep things moving in the right direction you have to make constant course corrections along the way. Two weeks ago, we saw John land with both feet on the importance of right belief in keeping us within the lines of reality. Here he comes back to the other side. Right belief must be paired with right action.
More specifically, right belief must be paired with love for one another. Here, though, John gets down to the reason this is so important. Love is from God. Love radiates from God the way light and heat radiate from the sun. If we are claiming to be from God, then we are going to be reflecting His love. Because God fundamentally is love, if we do not also love the people around us, then we don’t really know Him in any kind of a meaningful way. Think about it this way. I am a Kansas Basketball fan. I told the search team that early on and the hired me anyway. But hey, if you’re a Duke fan, we really don’t have any kind of a rivalry and you’ve usually beaten us anyway; if you’re a UNC fan, we’ve given you four of your five championships; and if you don’t like either of those two, I don’t either so really we can all get along. Silliness aside, I’m a KU fan. It’s part of who I am. I was raised in it and probably won’t ever leave it. If someone doesn’t know that about me, they don’t know me very well. The same goes for God…the fundamental character part, not the KU part.
Still, fundamental as this may be to God’s character, we wouldn’t really know it unless we could see it as clearly as we do. It isn’t just that God loves us, it’s that He sent His Son, Jesus, to die in our place, satisfying His justified wrath over our rebellion (remember, that’s what that big word “propitiation” is talking about), and paying the price for our sins to demonstrate His love that gives us this confidence in who He is. You see, God’s love has never been displayed in merely words and feelings, but always in actions. And—v. 11—because God didn’t just love with words, neither should we.
Okay, but what does this look like? How about this: When you love your kids, you don’t let them do whatever they want to do. In fact, a clear mark of a parent who is more interested in avoiding hassle than loving kids is a bunch of brats who are given everything they ask for. The reality is, kids don’t know what’s good on their own. Micah likes to snack. Some mornings when we ask him what he wants for breakfast, he responds with, “Umm…gummies and chips.” And just in case you’re sitting there thinking, “Well, that doesn’t sound so bad,” gummies and chips do not make a healthy, balanced breakfast. As kids get older, though, their misplaced desires turn to things a bit more sinister than gummies and chips for breakfast. No, because we love our kids, we put up guardrails and boundaries within which they can become fully who God designed them to be without the junk of the world around them drawing them off-course. Now, this doesn’t always feel good to them, and I suspect that if you are a parent you’ve heard about it once or twice…a minute for the last several years. Yet this is the reality of real love.
Real love, biblically defined love, the kind of love that is fundamental to who God is, stands in complete contrast to what our culture declares about it. More to the point: Love is not a feeling. This vicious lie is what has led people to get themselves in all kinds of relational trouble. Rather, real love is something entirely more substantial than that. I’ve been telling you for three weeks that I was going to define love for you this morning. Here it comes. Get out something so you can write this down—there will be a test later. Real love, godly love is this: An intentional decision to see someone else become more fully who God designed them to be. When we are talking about love, we are talking about a description of our intention toward another person in which everything in us is geared toward seeing them become the very best possible version of themselves. That’s simply what love is. This is why love can persist even in hard relational times. When we are committed to moving someone in the direction of Jesus, how we feel about them in a given moment is irrelevant. This is why we can love our enemies as followers of Jesus. We want them to become fully who God designed them to be, namely, a fully devoted follower of Jesus. How we feel about them does not matter. And, when our enemies get to this point, they aren’t our enemies anymore. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Not only is this what love is (again: an intentional decision to see someone else become more fully who God designed them to be), it’s what love does. Love flows out. It starts with God as John wrote in v. 10, but it doesn’t stay with Him. It flows out from Him to us. But—and this is our test to know if someone really has the love of God or merely a cheap imitation—it doesn’t stay with us. It flows us from us to the people around us. It flows into them and accomplishes its purpose: It moves them in the direction of Jesus, the best place for anyone to be. Love naturally wants the best for someone else. This means that it must be directed at someone else. And don’t bother trying the excuse that you just want to save all your love to give back to God and not waste it on other people. That’s not real love. That’s not how it works. Jesus Himself said that getting a relationship with God right requires two things: loving Him and loving people. If we really love God, then we will seek to pour that love out on others; we will be intentionally committed to seeing them become more fully who God designed them to be. In other words (and this is the first implication of getting love right John talks about here), if God loves you, love others too. If God loves you, love others too.
The second implication of getting love right is that when we do—and we’ve talked about this before in this series—we can have confidence in our standing before God. Check this out with me starting in v. 12: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” Pause right there for a minute. That’s a pretty jaw-dropping statement. In fact, if you think about that very much, this idea should really make you squirm a bit. If you are a follower of Jesus, you are the way other people see God. Or, to put that another way, nobody is going to see God except for in the way you love them. Listen: If God loves you, love others too. Love others too, because nobody is going to know that God loves you or them if you don’t.
But when you do—look at v. 13 now—“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. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”
John actually gives us three tests here by which we can have confidence in our standing before God. The presence of the Holy Spirit in us, our confession of Christ’s lordship, and our love for one another. The other two are really important and good conversations for another time, but consider the weight of this last test for a minute. When we love the people around us, God lives in us. By our active demonstration of God’s love through our intentional efforts to move the people around us in the direction of Jesus we can know with assurance what God’s love is and that we have it. And when we have, it flows out. If God loves you, love others too.
This confidence in our standing before God is wonderful here and now in terms of giving us the courage and hope we need to face each day. When we are down or struggling with some temptation and wondering whether or not God is really there, if we can go out and show the love of God to someone else, then we can be sure that He is. This is totally backwards from how the world thinks, isn’t it? The world says, “When you’re down, you need to do something for you to lift you up.” How many times have we all fallen into that trap? I know I have. Maybe you have too. I’m going to buy this thing or go to this place or see this person or indulge this habit or you pick what else it might be. The kingdom of God, on the other hand, says, “When you’re down, you need to do something for someone else to lift you up.” If God loves you, love others too, and when you do that, it will boost your spirits no matter how low they have fallen.
But, this confidence from love is even better than that. When we get love right—and this is the third implication here—we can have confidence that our standing before God is never going to change. Look with me starting at v. 17: “By this [this, being our practice of love guaranteeing the presence of God in us] is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.” Something most folks don’t like to admit even though they know it’s true is that this world is going to end at some point. What’s more, our collective human memory has always held that when the end comes, somebody is going to judge us based on our behavior while we lived. Who will do the judging and exactly what the rubric will be varies, but the fact of the judgment does not. Pushing a bit further here, for most of us, if we’re honest, the thought of being judged on our behavior is a scary one. If the standard is very high, we know we’re not going to measure up. This fear can lead us to do all kinds of silly things. Do you know what can break this fear? Love. When we love one another, John says we have God in us. More than that, we are as Jesus is in the world. Practicing love for one another actually molds us more and more fully in the image of Christ to the point that, again, we are as He is in the world. Well, if we become like He is, then we will be judged like Him too. That’s a pretty good deal.
When we get our hearts and minds wrapped around this, all of a sudden, all that fear of not measuring up vanishes. Now, the devil may tempt us with it, but we are able to respond with confidence that of course we don’t measure up. But Jesus does. And if we are loving one another, then we have Him in us filling in the gaps that would otherwise keep us from God. This is why John says in v. 18 that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” When we get love right, all our fear of the future begins to evaporate. We can stand with confidence knowing that we have God in us now and will have Jesus on our side then. There is no force in this world that can ultimately pose us any meaningful threat. Love is simply too powerful a shield. But, we’ve got to get love right to bear it. If God loves you, love others too.
Well, if that confidence was the carrot of getting love right, in the next couple of verses John offers a bit of a stick. This is the fourth implication here. You can’t fake it with love. When it comes to love, either we are intentionally committed to seeing the people around us become more fully who God designed them to be, or we’re not. There’s really no middle ground here. Now, this doesn’t mean we treat everybody around us in exactly the same way. That wouldn’t make sense at all in fact. The people around us aren’t all in the same place with regard to Jesus and so moving them in His direction is going to look different from person to person. Also, our obligations with respect to the people around us vary from person to person. This is because, again, love is not a feeling. It is this intentional commitment to seeing the people around us move in the direction of Jesus. It is an intentional commitment that will vary depending on how big a role the person plays in our lives and us in theirs. Loving your husband or your wife will not look the same as loving your kids which will not look the same as loving your coworkers which will not look the same as loving a stranger you meet on the street. Love is the constant. Its actions are more fluid. As fluid as they may be, though, we can’t miss the constant. If God loves you, you love others too. We can’t miss this because God is the one who started it and if we miss that, we miss the whole thing.
Look at what John says next: “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” Got that? More with the discomfort here. He calls anybody who claims to love God and doesn’t back up this claim by loving others a liar again as he did back in chapter 1, but he goes a step further this time. He says that if we don’t love the people around us we cannot love God. It’s not possible. To try and claim otherwise is to create another of these fantasy worlds that keep us separated from God as long as we remain in them. In other words, it is to make ourselves liars.
Now, if you’re not a follower of Jesus, you don’t really have to worry about any of this. It doesn’t apply to you. For those who would claim such a mantle, though, v. 21 makes clear that this isn’t optional stuff. This is simply how being a follower of Jesus works. Look at what John says in 5:1 now: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.” Loving one another, being intentionally committed to seeing each other become more fully who God designed us to be, is fundamental when it comes to being a follower of Jesus. If God loves you, you love others too. That goes for everybody, but particularly fellow members of the body of Christ. Indeed, if we can’t love each other well in the church, we’re not going to be doing it well out in the world. This is the place we get it right before we go out and put it into practice. This is a training ground for life outside the confines of this community (and I’m not talking about the building).
But, somebody may ask in response to this: How can we know when we are doing this like we should? The answer to this lies in our attitude toward God. Do we love God? Are we obeying His commands? If the answer to both of those questions is yes, then we are going to be loving the people around us by definition. This is John’s point in v. 2: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” This points us back yet again to the need for both right beliefs and right behaviors. We will know that we are meeting the ethical demands of the faith when we are meeting the doctrinal demands of the faith and vice versa. The two go hand-in-hand. As a German commentator wrote almost 70 years ago: “If God means little to you, people will become worthless to you too, and love even for them will die out.” Simply living a life consisting of doing the right thing is not enough. The life of good deeds will prove empty in the end. In fact, absent the right beliefs undergirding it, we will not be able to keep it up for long anyway. The Christian faith is not found in being nice to people and demonstrating the expected religious fervor on occasionally appropriate holidays. Without the love and corresponding obedience of God rooted in the deepest parts of our souls, all these attempts at dressing ourselves up to look like reality will prove hollow and hopelessly trite. Our firm belief in the surpassing glory of Christ points us to doing what God said, namely, to love Him and the people around us, which will in turn point us back to the surpassing glory of Christ. It is a life-giving circle rooted in love. If God loves you, you love others too.
There’s one last implication here and this is perhaps the most immediately encouraging part of all. Look with me starting at v. 4: “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” When we get love right, we can overcome the world.
Do you know what we don’t have when we set out to follow Jesus’ command to love one another from out of our belief that He really is the Son of God? Guarantees of a good reception in this life. We don’t have any guarantees that things are going to go well for us here and now when we do this. None. In fact, if anything, we have the guarantee from Jesus that things are not going to go well for us. What this means is that the person who does it anyway is certifiably cuckoo for Cocoa-Puffs…kidding. No, it means the person who endeavors to love others in spite of the risks involved has faith. But, lest you think something that isn’t true, faith like this isn’t blindly stepping into the unknown. Biblical faith is moving forward with hope in an outcome we cannot see based on the evidence of the things we have seen. In this case, we hope in the outcome of moving the people around us in the direction of Jesus even though their initial responses may not be positive. When we love one another we don’t know what will happen in the short term. But we have this incredible evidence in Jesus’ example of love that was poorly received at first, yet culminated in the resurrection and His becoming the Lord of all creation. By His love He overcame the world in all its fury. What’s more, there are thousands of stories of His followers over the last 2,000 years experiencing the same overcoming power. By faith we follow His and their examples, trusting that our eventual outcome will be similarly glorious. If God loves you, love others too. When you do, nothing will be able to stand in the way of the kingdom’s advance. You will be able to stand confidently before God, knowing that there is no power now or ever that will be able to move you from that spot. If God loves you, love others too. That’s what living in the real world looks like. That’s what the foundation necessary to build a real life looks like. Anchor yourself to this rock and stand firm in love.