1 John 4: 7 – 21 Unreserved love Sermon in IREF service 22 June 2014
This passage is one of the two famous passages in the Newt Testament letters about ‘love’. The other is 1 Corinthians 13 (The ‘song of songs’ about love).
Love is one of the most popular topics in books and papers, in poems, in literature and music, in talks of people and discussions in families.
The apostle John starts wit an exhortation (vs. 7). He is not interested in a theoretical essay about love; he encourages the congregation to love one another. We should see what it means in practice further on, but we see his motivation first: ‘Because love comes from God’. So he connects Christian love (love for brothers and sisters) immediately with God. God is the source of love, and also by this love you may know that you are a child of God (‘that you have been born of God’, he says in verse 7. And the opposite is also true (vs. 8). Here the apostle adds a strong statement: ‘God is love’.
Questions about God and love…
During the Andreascourse (a Biblical course for those who are not familiar with Christian faith) precisely the connection of between the concept of love and God caused a lot of questions. Two main points participants indicated. (1) ‘How can the infinite God of universe, who created heaven and earth, know me and love me in a personal way, among the billions of this earth?’ When I was a student in biology I often had discussions with my fellow students about the existence of God. Many of them believed that God was something like a vital power, a big influence in universe. They admitted that there must be ‘something up there’. But they had many difficulties in believing a personal God who can have a personal relationship with people and I could understand their questions very well.
Another burning question was: (2) ‘How can a God of love still maintain a world that is so bad and cruel. Look only at IS in Iraq, we saw video’s showing how they killed lots of innocent people in the streets with machine guns.’ You can add innumerable stories. Take that one of the 13 years old girl that finally reached Italy after having lost her mother and two sisters in the desert on the long journey from Sudan to the West. How can God be a God of love? There are no easy answers. Sometimes these questions strike me too, and they are multiplied when suffering comes very near in our life. Let us listen anyhow to what the apostle John says.
Love is the essence of Gods nature
John doesn’t describe God as ‘truth’, or ‘righteousness’ or ‘faithfulness’. He doesn’t say: ‘God is peace’, but: ‘God is love’. Why? Because love is not just one of the qualities of God, no it is the essence of his being. Love is based in his Godly nature. The fathers from the early church have thought a lot about this when they were talking about the Trinity. Why –they said- God is Three-in-One? They indicated that God is not static. Not a God who is up there and giving his commands to the world. No God is a dynamic God, because the Father loves the Son and the Holy Spirit, The Son honours the Father and the Spirit and the Spirit loves the Father and Son. They affirm one another and find joy and pleasure in one another. They are always focussed on the other Person. The Greek fathers called this ‘perichoreia’. It is like a holy dance of love and joy. And in his infinite love God decided also to expand his love in creating a world outside Him that he wanted to love and by which He wanted to be loved and respected freely.
‘This is how God showed his love among us’, John says in vs. 9. God didn’t stop his love after the world that he created in freedom, chose against his creator and fall away from Him. No, for this fallen world He gave the dearest and most precious what He had, the most precious object of His love: His own Son.
God’s love is manifested in Jesus
John explains more about God’s love in Jesus in verses 9 and 10. God made his love manifest in the clearest way. He expressed his love in that act in history, when His son came into the flesh, came in the shape of a human, the least of humans: a slave, even more, he suffered the rejection of his brothers and sisters and died in the most cruel circumstances on the cross. That is what He did for people who showed their animosity. He didn’t love because He waited and found some love from humans. No he loved enemies. This love-in-action is fully God’s initiative. Literally verse 9 says: ‘His Son He has sent, God has sent Him..’ There are no reasons for God’s love outside God. He only took reasons from Himself. Why did he do this?
John adds in verse 9: in order that we should live. We were bounded in sin and death, even if we didn’t recognize that. We were inhabitants of the kingdom of the enemy, Satan, which is a very seductive and attractive kingdom. But it leads its inhabitants to death, because it is a lie. In verse 10 He adds: He sent his Son as reconciliation, for atonement. The word ‘atonement’ literary says: ‘to make at one’. That it what He has done. But it required a tremendous price. God couldn’t just love and lay off his righteousness and truth. He paid the bitter price to regain freedom. ‘Sacrifice of atonement’ (RSV). It means that he himself paid the price by giving His Son, but that He also restored live. He took away the old (sin, resistance against God, a bad life) and brought the new (a new life, a new future, to be accepted as a son or daughter of God.
This is the heart of the Good Message (the gospel). The Gospel isn’t just a good idea, an advice or instruction how to love; no it is a proclamation of what God has done. God came so near in Jesus. And by His Holy Spirit Jesus comes very near to you, when you hear and accept the Gospel. And you may ask: ‘Why did God chose this way? Couldn’t He simply destroy evil?’ If God had finished all the evil and suffering of the world in one blow, He should have destroyed everything, including you and me (because we cannot but say that we are unrighteous in ourselves, in the light of His just and holy eyes). Yes, He could have made us puppets without evil, but He chose to make us persons in His image. And He could have destroyed us after He found rebellion and sin in us. However, He didn’t decide to destroy his creation, but to save his creation.
God’s love is presented in the church
Many people ask: ‘Yes, you can say all this, but where is God in all the suffering and evil?’ If we are human, thoughtful and down to earth we cannot escape this question. Nobody. Somebody said to me recently in speaking about the questions of evil and suffering: ‘OK, we can ask where is God, but shouldn’t we ask firstly: where are we?’ Indeed, did you do everything you could do in order to show God’s love to the world? Why blaming God and excusing ourselves? In verse 12 Johns returns to his starting point in verse 7. If we may be sure that God has loved us so much, we ought to love one another, because of thankfulness for God’s deeds. The apostle repeats this point in verses 19-21.
In verse 12 the apostle adds a clear reason why we ought to love one another. Nobody has seen God, but if we love one another God lives in us and makes his love complete in us. You notice the parallel with the Gospel of John (1: 18). There it is the incarnation of Jesus which is thought of as the visible manifestation of the invisible God. Here it is the love between Christians. Dr Francis Schaeffer, the founder of l’Abri studycenter, described that as the ‘ultimate apologetic’. The Christian Church should be a community of love, unlike any other human society. The church exists for the benefit of those who are not members of it. The love among her members should be one of her most powerful magnets. How can people around us see God? They cannot, and we cannot blame them for that. They only can see God in the way Christians love one another. God continues His presence on this earth in his body that is the church. The Christians are the only Bible that non-Christians are able to read. In the Andreascourse this was one of the most convincing points. Some participants said: ‘Now we have seen real love in action. Now we can believe that God is there!’
How shall we then love?
How can we learn to love truly? It is a process in which the Holy Spirit will help us to overcome our fear. Human love is mixed with anxiety or fear usually. For example many of us have experienced the expectations of our parents to do our best, to gain good notes, to go for a career, etc. I had such loving parents. They also had a lot of expectations. They worked hard themselves and loved me because I worked hard and I made success in my study. They were very disappointed about the fact that I didn’t choose for a PhD in my natural science career, but that I decided to work with people rather and to serve the Lord as a missionary or pastor. So I started with theology after biology. Still I discovered gradually that –secretly- a pattern can creep in your emotional thinking and behaving: I am only precious if I work hard, if I deserve it. As long as I am a good person people can accept me and love me. Actually it meant: ‘I should pay for being loved’. It took much time and a hard work of the Holy Spirit was necessary to convince me that God accepted me as I was, and that I am good enough for Him as I was, and that He wanted to change me according to His purpose, after He had accepted me. When I really began to understand the cross, Gods unconditional love, a stream of love began to flow in me. I never had experienced this: I was very selfish and self- concentrated till that point, but then I was able to love others by God’s love. Actually it was Christ’s love in me, not my love that enabled to love somebody else, also if he or she was not nice or even behaved in a hostile way. It meant a revolution in my life. Because fear began to disappear. You may know: old patterns are still strong. We have to learn time and again that the secret of lasting love is not to try and try (to do your best), but as Johns says: to stay in Christ. See the beautiful words in verses 14 – 16.
An illustration of love-inaction
A colleague of the Protestant Church worked as a missionary in China for 8 years. He has a big family, over 10 children. Before he went to China he travelled to Romania frequently even in the communist time. Once a brother of the church in Romania said to him. I invite you to come and bring the Gospel in the Romanian prisons. But he was afraid and refused to do this. But when he was back home it was as if the Lord spoke to him; don’t be disobedient to that voice. Take courage and go to the prisons next time. So when he came back to Romania he started to visit the prisons and his family joined him in it. Later he went to China and in China they were very moved to see children who were abandoned because of their handicap. One girl with hydrocephalus and a boy with other severe handicaps. They were meant to die somewhere on the street because they were left alone by their families. So they adopted these two children and they returned back with them to the Netherlands after 8 years in China. A couple of weeks he told me how he started again to visit Romanian prisons. Recently they visited a ladies prison with many ladies very lonely and in despair about their future. The handicapped Chinese children were there, they song a hymn in their wheelchairs. Then the pastor explained the Gospel to the ladies in the prison and used the example of the children. If God is so gracious that He knows to find two lost children among the billions in China to give them a new life and future, to turn their faint eyes into radiant eyes, how able is He to find you here who feel so lost. The prisoners were moved very much. Many came afterwards in tears. They never heard such a message of hope. This is love in action and God waits for his church to put his love in action, and whoever by his grace has rescued one of these little people, has rescued a world!
God’s good work in us
The love John indicates here is not a physical love, based on the attractiveness of a nice body, a good-looking face, or satisfaction of sexual or emotional desires. It is not psychological love based on mutual respect and recognition of character and competences in friendship. It is the love of the Spirit (pneumatic). It is the sign of God’s good work in us. This love combats all kinds of fear: concerns about our live, our careers, our family, our future, our financial problems, whether we are good enough for others, etc. Even the last and biggest fear: that we aren’t good enough for God. How can stand firm in the Day of Judgment (vs. 17)? The day God asks us to give an account of our deeds. How can we pass this exam? Can we count our goods deeds and cross away our bad patterns? No way to succeed! Although many Christians do…They still think that you can be love because of your good deeds). But because God’s love is working in us by His Spirit and because we have trust the offer of His Son, we have confidence (literally: a free access, in Greek: a right to be there in the gathering). Let us think and pray over that this fearless love will motivate and inspire us from day to day. Glory to Him who loved the world so much that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. Amen