Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 3, 2015
1 John 4:7-21 Commentary
Comments and Observations
When I read this passage, I hear the Beatles’ famous song, “All You Need Is Love.” But I don’t hear John agreeing with John, Paul, George, and Ringo–not completely. Though he insists on the absolute importance of love, John has more important things to say about love than “all you need is love.” Perhaps the most important thing he says is in verse 11. “Dear children, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” That linkage between our love for each other and God’s love for us is the distinctively Christian message of this text. If I Corinthians 13 is a poem on love, then I John 4 is a complex piece of music in which we hear variations on a theme.
John’s symphony of love begins with a statement the Beatles never considered. Where can we get this love that is “all we need?” “Dear friends, let us love one another, for loves comes from God.” God’s love is not only the reason we ought to love (as in the theme, verse 11), but God’s love is the source of our love. Calvin says that God’s love is the “fountain” from which our love flows. Wherever we find true love, it came from God. Indeed, says John, “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love, does not know God, for God is love.”
Those strong words can lead to some wrong conclusions if we don’t read them carefully in context. They have been interpreted to mean that what we believe doesn’t really matter. It’s how we live, and particularly how we love, that matters. Religion and theology don’t matter nearly as much as ethics and morality. Faith, particularly the content of faith, is much less important than love for our fellow human beings. But as the rest of I John indicates, that is not at all what verse 7 means. Another of the tests John gives to help us be sure we are true children of God is precisely what we believe about Jesus. “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.” (verse 15 of this very chapter)
The key to interpreting these apparently open-ended words of verse 7 is to recall that John is writing against the incipient Gnosticism which insisted that the key to salvation is the possession of a secret knowledge. You know that you know God if you know certain esoteric doctrines. No, says John, the key to assurance, the secret of certainty is not knowledge, but love. “Everyone who loves… knows God. Whoever does not love, does not know God.” That is true, says John, because God is love—not Light or Spirit or even Truth (as the Gnostics might have claimed), but love.
Above I said that wherever you find true love, it came from God. The important word in that sentence is “true.” John has a specific kind of love in mind here. The word for “love” throughout our text is the Greek word, agape, which is repeated in one form or another 43 times in I John, 32 of those occurrences in this section of the letter. John is not talking here about eros (love drawn by the worth of the beloved), or philos (affection for a member of the family), but agape (love for the unworthy stranger, even the sinful rebel). Thus, John is not saying that wherever you find eros or philos that came from God. He is talking specifically about the kind of love God has show to sinners who didn’t love God. That’s exactly what he explains next. After saying that God is love, he defines that love not as an abstract idea, or as a powerful emotion, or even as a divine attribute, but as a specific action of God. “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.”
Does this mean that God sent his Son to demonstrate love, to reveal the way God wants us to love, so that we could live in love? Well, yes. That’s what John says. But that is not all he says. The purpose of Jesus coming to earth was not merely to set an example of love. He showed us God’s love by becoming “an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” The word hilasmos has to do with expiation (covering sin, as with blood) and propitiation (removing or satisfying the wrath of God). Thus, John claims that the death of Christ was not only the revelation of how much God loves us, but was also the way God redeemed sinners whose sins deserved his punishment. In other words, God’s overwhelming love didn’t make that hilasmos unnecessary; in fact, it was precisely God’s love that provided hilasmos.
And, says John, God sent his Son for us, not because we were so loveable, but simply because God loved us. This idea of self sacrifice for those who are unloving and unlovable is exactly what John is pointing to when he says, “Dear children, since God so (outos, to such an extent) loved us, we also ought to love one another.” It is important to notice that we aren’t commanded to love each other as we love ourselves, as the second great commandment put it (Matthew 22), but as God loved us in the death of Christ. This is the distinctively Christian theme that sets this Scripture far above any other call to love, whether it’s the rocking Beatles or the sentimental Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
Having called us to love each other as God loved us and having shown us what that means by pointing to the cross, John makes an incredible claim about that love. He begins with a statement that has deep biblical roots. “No one has ever seen God.” We might expect John to continue as he did in John 1:18, “but God the one and only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” That would point to the revelatory effect of Jesus life. But instead John says here that, “if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” Rather than simply knowing God through the work of Christ, John says that if we love each other as God loves us, we actually have union with the unseen God. What’s more, that is exactly what the love of God had in mind when God sent his Son—not just a more complete knowledge, but deep union, abiding (menei in Greek) in God and God in us. When we abide in God by loving each other, God’s purpose in loving us is completed. His goal of reuniting all things in Christ (Ephesians 1) is accomplished. That’s how important it is that we love one another.
But that kind of union is pretty ethereal and mystical. How can we know that we are abiding in God? How do we know that we love each other well enough? As he has done before, John applies two of his other tests to help us grow in our assurance. “We know we live in him and he is us because he has given us of his Spirit?” (verse 13) That’s the spiritual test John introduced in 3:24 and expanded in the opening verses of this chapter. Then he introduces the doctrinal test in verse 14 and makes it crystal clear in verse 15. “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.” Put all three of those tests together (social, spiritual, and doctrinal) and you can be sure of your salvation. “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.” (verse 16b)
We might think that John is done with this test of love for each other, but he wants to drive home how important it is with two more hard words, both probably aimed at the Gnostics. In verses 16-18 he focuses on “the day of judgment.” That probably grows out of verse 10 where the Son of God is “the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Our need for expiation and propitiation points to the certainty of God’s final judgment of sinners. But John may also have raised this judgment theme because his Gnostic opponents were blowing off all John’s talk about love. “We all know that our gnosis matters more than this simple business of love.” So John talks about the day of judgment in terms of love for each other.
Reiterating his theme of “God is love” for the third time and repeating his theme about loving and abiding in God for the second time, John says in verse 17, “In this way love is made complete in us….” In what way? Well, probably by loving each other and thus abiding in God. As we do that, “love is made complete in us (or among us in our community)….” And the more loving we are, the more we are like Christ in the world. And the more like Christ we are, the more confidence will have on the day of judgment. If we love each other in the way God loved us, we don’t need to fear punishment on that day. John is not teaching that we are saved by our love. He is telling us how we can know that we are saved and, thus, how we can be confident that we have nothing to fear on that Day. The one who fears God’s judgment doesn’t really know God. You think you know God by your special gnosis, but you only know God when you love each other as God loved you. If you love God by loving each other, you won’t be afraid to face God on that day of judgment. Love casts out fear.
In his second hard concluding word John attacks the often repeated claim, “I love God, even though I hate that person over there.” That’s an empty claim, says John. For one thing, says verse 20, God loved us first and poured his love into us. So if we don’t love each other, that’s a sure sign that the love of God isn’t in us and we don’t really love God. Indeed, “If anyone who says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar.” To John that is obvious.. “Anyone who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” That’s just common sense. And quite beyond common sense, we have God’s explicit command. “Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
Those last words, particularly, will go down hard in a world and church filled with partisan spirit and justifiable rage in the face of horrendous evil. We’ll need to stress three things in a sermon on this text. First, John is talking about hatred here, not mere disagreement or dislike. We are called to agape, not eros or philos. We are not called to give up our principles or wink at evil. So, we must be careful not to use this text to condemn fellow Christians who feel passionately about the wrong in the world.
But, second, this text is a strong call not to let our strong feelings keep us from loving each other as God loved us. John speaks in no uncertain terms about the importance of love by linking it inextricably to God’s love. In a real sense, we have no choice if we are Christians. No matter how we feel about others, no matter how much we may disagree with them or dislike them, we must love them enough to lay down our lives, as Christ did when he disagreed with and probably disliked us.
And third, we must be careful not to preach a work’s righteousness here. John’s strong words have led many Christians to think that we “get saved” by loving. And that’s right, but it is God’s love for us that saves, not our love for God and each other. This text is not about how to be saved, but about how to be sure that we are. We are saved by Christ, and we can know we are in Christ when we love as he did. When we aren’t sure, we must follow John’s words in the opening verses of this letter—confess our sins and trust in that Advocate who is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
Here’s an angular and graphic way into this well-known text. In his best-selling autobiography, American Sniper, Chris Kyle looks back on his bloody past (over 160 sniper kills) and says this: “I am a strong Christian. Not a perfect one—not close. But I strongly believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible. When I die, I believe God is going to hold me accountable for everything I’ve done on earth. He may hold me back until last and run everybody else through the line, because it will take so long to go over my sins. ‘Mr. Kyle, let’s go into the backroom.’
Honestly, I don’t know what will really happen on Judgment Day. But what I lean toward is that you know all your sins and God knows them all, and shame comes over you at the reality that he knows. I believe that the fact that I’ve accepted Jesus as my Savior will be my salvation.
But in that backroom or whatever it is when God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them. Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.”
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