Once again, the love that John is writing about is a distinctly Christian love and so its practice proves a person a genuine Christian. John is not talking about our love for God – that is assumed – but our love for one another. “Love one another” occurs three times: in v. 7 as an exhortation, in v.11 as a statement of our duty, and in v 12 as a hypothesis. [Stott, 160-161] And John is himself an example of this love: he begins this new address to his readers by calling them “beloved”!
There are three other statements in the New Testament as to what God is in his very nature: he is “spirit” (John 4:24); he is light (1 John 1:5); and he is “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29 which is itself a citation of Deuteronomy 4:24). The statement that God is love is repeated in v. 16. It is a statement to ponder because love, in the nature of the case requires an object. It is a grand proof of the triune nature of God that he is love, for only in the life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit could the living God be essentially and eternally the God of love.
John’s assertion that one who does not love does not know God repeats the point made earlier that there will be a family resemblance between God and his children. A loveless Christian is an oxymoron because the Christian life is a manifestation of God’s own life in us and that life is a life of love.
“No one has ever seen God” occurs in one other place in the New Testament: in the prologue of John’s Gospel, 1:18. There the point is that you may not have seen God but if you have seen Jesus Christ or you come to know him then you can see or know God in that way. Here John’s point is that the unseen God can be seen in and through the lives of his people because his life of love is manifest in them.
“we know that” is a familiar phrase in 1 John. We might rephrase: “here is the proof that…” [NEB] In what follows John sums up what he has said in the first paragraph of chapter 4, regarding “testing the spirits” and the verses we have just read regarding loving one another. We have learned to expect this of John. He tends to repeat the things that he finds most important! In this paragraph the fact that God lives in us will be mentioned three times: first here in v. 13 – “he is in us” – second in v. 15 – “God abides in him” – and third in v. 16 – “God abides in him.”
Twice John refers to Jesus as “the Savior of the world;” once here and once in the fourth chapter of his Gospel. Remember in John “world” means sinful society, estranged from God and unworthy of his love. The amazing thing about God’s love for the world is not that the world is so large or contains so many human beings, but that it is so bad and so unworthy of his favor.
In this single phrase – “the Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world” – we have a summary of our whole faith, from the triune nature of God, to the incarnation, to the death of Christ for our salvation.
You will recognize immediately that we have here a short restatement of the doctrinal test: right belief regarding Jesus Christ.
The only person who can have confidence in the prospect of the day of God’s judgment is the person who has been living the Christian life and that life is the life of love.
The positive point of v. 17 (our confidence in anticipation of the Judgment Day) is now put negatively in v. 18 (the banishment of fear). The defining characteristic of real Christians is not fear of punishment but the love of God and of one another and in that love they come confidently to the last judgment.
For the first time John uses the term “liar” in regard to the social test, the term he employs once in the Letter in regard to each of the three tests: the moral test in 1:4; the doctrinal test in 2:22; and now the social test, the test of love here in 4:20.
We are back to love as a test of life for the third time now in 1 John. As William Tyndale put it, “John singeth his old song again.” In his commentary on Galatians chapter 6, Jerome, the 4th century church father, relates what was obviously a well known story about the Apostle John. The great man was near the end of his life and he used to be carried into the church in Ephesus on the arms of his disciples. He was weak and unable to speak but a few words at a time but given opportunity he would say repeatedly, “Little children, love one another.” At last, growing weary of the repetition, they asked, “Master, why do you always say this?” “Because,” the old apostle replied, “it is the Lord’s command and if this only is done, it is enough.” Whether or not that story is true, no one can say; but it sounds true. John loved to speak of the love Christians ought to have for one another. The greatest texts on that theme are from the Gospel of John and John’s letters. And we also know something else about John: he repeated himself! So talking about love over and over again sounds very like the Apostle John.
Now, there is little in this text that does not strike the practiced Christian as both familiar and obvious. But the question is not whether we understand John’s exhortation; the question is whether we obey it! We know that our lives ought to be well known for love, we know that other Christians and even unbelievers should be able to see the love that we practice and have no doubt that what John says here can easily be seen to apply to us. But we are also well aware that we hardly love one another as we should; as Christ has loved us. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, but how many of our neighbors would say that we do? We are to love our fellow Christians as God loved us, but how many of them would say that we do? These are questions real Christians ask and cannot be kept from asking.
A few days ago I heard a sermon on the love of God the conclusion of which was a sentimental and emotional story about a wealthy father’s love for his son. The problem was that the preacher – in a fit of honesty – told us beforehand that he suspected the story wasn’t true. After hearing it I could have assured him it wasn’t true. And we Christians I think very often tend to comfort ourselves with stories like that. We feel sentimentally attracted to the life of love. We have an emotional commitment to the life of love, all the more when we hear about someone who practices love wonderfully and powerfully. We’ve heard many such stories through the years. But John isn’t interested in sentiment and he is not interested in a story that will require you to dry your eyes when it is finished. He is interested in your life day after day as a demonstration of God’s nature as the one who is love itself. He wants this to be true and factual. He wants it to be identifiable. He wants it to be a defining feature of your life, so defining that anybody and everybody else can see it from a mile away. So how do we take John’s exhortation and make it powerful to change our lives to make us more the loving people that John has described?
And the answer to that question lies in the text itself. The first thing to notice is the obvious: this is the third time John has rung the changes on this subject, our love for one another. He spoke of it in 2:7-11, again in 3:11-24 and now he speaks of it again, repeating some of his former points and adding others. If there is a lesson here for us, a practical lesson, a lesson in how to apply John’s exhortation and how to practice it, this comes first. Christians have to think about their life of love over and over again! It is not enough to know it as an article of Christian doctrine and ethics. It is not enough for us to be able to say to others when prompted that God is love and that we are to love one another. We have to think about this repeatedly, talk it over with ourselves repeatedly. If John’s principle of organization in his first letter leaves us somewhat confused, if we find his repetitiveness frustrating, stop and consider: this is the Word of God, everything John wrote the Holy Spirit himself lies behind in content and in organization. It cannot be an accident or a matter of unimportance that the same thing is said over and over again; arguments added in every case. This is truth that must be dinned into us, truth we must think about not once or twice but hundreds if not thousands of times in the course of our lives in this world.
You know what soliloquy is. On the stage an actor will talk to himself, have a conversation with himself. It is the playwright’s way of letting you in on the thoughts of one of his characters. Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” is a soliloquy. He is talking to himself while the audience listens in.
But soliloquy is also a biblical technique. Its purpose in biblical usage is not to disclose our hidden thoughts to an audience but to urge upon ourselves the action we know we ought to perform as the followers of Jesus Christ. It is to make a case to ourselves, as if we were two people, the one arguing with the other, the one commanding the other, the one exhorting the other. You find this soliloquy as a spiritual technique often in the Psalms.
The famous Psalm 103 is almost entirely soliloquy. The psalm writer knows he ought to praise God, that he ought to be a man of worship and of thanksgiving, that he ought to revel in his knowledge of God and God’s grace to him. But he also knows his own soul, how dull it is, how often backward when it comes to worship. He knows that he, like you and me, can take the most remarkable and amazing things almost entirely for granted. You were on the road to hell, there to remain forever in misery, and in the nick of conversion God grabbed you and took you off that road and placed you on the road to everlasting life and everlasting joy. What might have been so easily; what instead will be! You ought to live with chills going up and down your spine every second of every hour of every day. And yet you and I will confess we can go for days without thinking a really serious thought about what we deserved and instead what we will receive. We;; the psalm writer knew this about himself and so he gave himself a talking to. He enumerated the reasons why he ought to praise, thank, and love the Lord. And it worked. He created in himself a spirit of praise by making the case for it to himself.
Or take Psalms 42 and 43, originally one psalm. This is another classic instance of soliloquy or a conference with oneself, if we may call it that. Here is a man who is depressed, borne down by his circumstances, losing hope, discouraged. And what does he do? He grabs himself by the front of his shirt and gives himself a talking to.
“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” [42:5; cf. v. 11; 43:5]
The man knows God is sovereign and faithful. He feels himself, in the clutch of his circumstances, forgetting those grand truths, and so he reminds himself of them, gives himself a lecture about them, won’t let himself forget them. You come to church to hear a sermon because you believe you ought to have the Word of God preached to you; you need to have it preached to you. You know that it is important for you to hear the Word of God proclaimed. But it is also important that you preach it to yourself, over and over again. This is much of what the Bible means by meditation. Meditation is mulling over in the mind what Holy Scripture says, considering what it means, and then applying it to one’s conduct. This preaching to oneself is soliloquy, a conversation, talking to oneself.
In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s clandestine seminary in the late 1930’s, he required his ordinands to meditate on a single verse of Holy Scripture for half an hour every morning every day of the week. The same verse all week long, half an hour a day. [Mataxas, 268-269] I don’t know about that, his ordinands all found it quite difficult to do frankly, but I know for a certainty that I don’t think nearly enough about what the Bible is actually saying to me and what it means for my life today and how it ought to change the way I live my life today. And I certainly don’t nearly often enough turn that truth into an argument with myself, an argument that I will not allow to be concluded until I have embrace and obeyed the truth as God has taught it to me in his Word.
Well, if soliloquy is the technique, then John’s arguments are the stuff of the conversation we are to have with ourselves. Did you appreciate that as we read our text? John is making a case. He is giving us arguments to use with and upon ourselves. He has supplied the raw material from which we are to construct a conversation with ourselves, a conversation we should have over and over again.
Now, obviously, we must first understand the arguments John has set before us. And certainly most of us do. They are familiar to us. Or are they? There is one argument here that I am somewhat embarrassed to say, I never recognized or thought about before or at least I don’t remember having done so. It is really quite remarkable what John says. Back to that in a moment. But first the ones we are familiar with.
There are a number of them in these verses.
- First, by loving one another, we prove ourselves Christians. Like it or not, assurance of salvation is suspended here on the practice of Christian love. As John puts it in v. 7, “whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” And he goes on to say “whoever does not love, does not know God,” whatever may be his protestations to the contrary. Assurance of salvation is a wonderful thing; it brings with it peace and joy and spiritual power. You remember this from your own experience. You have fallen in love with someone, but you are wondering, all the time you are wondering: does he or she love me back? And then you find out that he does or she does and that is a happy day! However intellectually confident you may be that you are a Christian in truth, the subjective state of being sure and feeling the certainty of it in the soul, knowing God loves you, that depends upon the practice of brotherly love. John says so here. If you want to feel the assurance of your own salvation and have the blessing of that wonderful feeling, knowing and experiencing God’s love, you need to practice love for your Christian brothers and sisters. That makes sense to us. We get that.
- Second, we are to love one another because God is love. That is, as his children, we are to manifest our Father’s nature and character. It is our privilege and our obligation to do so. We are to be a credit to our heavenly Father and, since he is love, we bring credit to him by being loving people ourselves. That makes sense to us as well. We understand that.
- Third, we are to love one another because God loved us. This is John’s point in vv. 10-11. The logic is not spelled out but it has a force we all recognize. No one can receive from God the great love with which he loves his children, no one can go to the cross and there see the terrible and wonderful love that Christ had for his people and then content himself or herself with a life of selfishness. To do so would be to despise God’s gifts and your own salvation. To do so would be to demonstrate that you really understand nothing about salvation. You can’t rest your whole life upon God’s love for you and then spit on that love by living in selfishness yourself. Christ saved you to make you like himself, a great lover, not to permit you to wallow in selfishness. That also makes sense to us. We understand that.
- Fourth, we are to love one another because our communion with God depends upon it. This is John’s point in v. 16. When we open our hearts to love others we open them to more and more of the presence of God in our hearts. And since God is really the true fulfillment of our lives and the answer to all our problems, if love brings more of him, then love brings more of everything we need. We get that too. We understand that.
- Fifth, we ought to love one another in prospect of the Judgment Day, in prospect of having to answer for our lives as we lived them in this world. And the more we do, the more that prospect ceases to be fearful to us and becomes a welcome hope. That makes sense. A life of love, in other words, draws the fears and spirits of oppression out of our hearts. We understand that.
- Sixth, by loving one another we keep from lying to ourselves about our state before God. That is the point at the end of this paragraph. It is easy to do that, most people are always doing that, lying to themselves about their state before God. The life of love cuts through the crap, as we are wont to say, and keeps us truthful toward God and ourselves. That too makes sense to us. Pretentious people are never noteworthy for their love of others.
- And seventh and finally, we are to love one another because God has commanded us to and we are people under orders and because it is right for us, it is our duty to do what God commands and to do it heartily and cheerfully and enthusiastically. Besides, as Scripture says in many ways, in keeping the commandments of God there is a great reward. Still more, Jesus said that if we loved God we would keep his commandments, and his first commandment is that we love one another. So we cannot really love God unless we love one another. We understand that, too.
Now that is, I would say, sufficient material for giving yourself a good talking to. You could write your own psalm with material as rich and varied as that! But even all of that doesn’t do justice to all that John has written. There is another argument that he provides us, one I never saw before and one I’m not entirely sure I understand. But I want to.
In v. 12 John says that if we love one another God’s love is perfected or made complete in us. God’s love is perfected or made complete in us! That is a remarkable statement, is it not? “No one has seen God.” John said that in the first chapter of his Gospel but then went on say that God has been revealed on the earth in his Son, Jesus Christ, so that if you know Christ you know the Father. You can tell what God is like by looking at Jesus.
But here he says the same thing about us! People who have never seen God can see him in us. As we love one another, we show to others the character and nature of the living God. The high God, the God who is impossibly great and whose glory is such that no one can see it and live, that God is revealed in our living! Astonishing; hard to believe, but we have learned elsewhere in Holy Scripture, in church history, and in our own observation, that loving Christians are “the strongest apologetic that God has in the world.” They prove him by revealing him by the lives of love they lead. Remarkable. Still, that makes sense. That is not a new thought to us. But John has said something more.
When we love one another, he says, God’s love is made complete or is perfected in us. This is the kind of statement we are accustomed to hear without much thought and pass by without comprehending what we have heard. God’s love is perfected in our love. What do you think that means? Do not the words mean, and all the more in this context in which John has been speaking about God’s love throughout; I say, do not the words mean that God’s love, the love that is his very nature as the God of three persons united eternally in love, the love that sent Jesus into the world and to the cross, that love is made complete or perfect in us when we love one another.
It is a staggering thought, and as I said, I don’t remember ever noticing it before. It is as if God’s love needs our lives for its complete expression. It is a way of speaking only, to be sure, God has lived in eternity past without us and he was essentially and perfectly love all of that while. Still it is a phenomenal way of putting things, as if God needs us to make his love what he wants it to be! But we can believe that this is so at least in some sense. There are many things in the life of God that are completed in the salvation of his people. There is glory that he gets from our salvation that he would not have had otherwise. We complete the sufferings of Christ, Paul says mysteriously in Philippians 3 and on and on. We speak of things we hardly understand.
But, take John’s point and take it to heart and speak it to yourself and don’t let yourself turn away until you are ready to deal with this and act upon this. God awaits your loving others for the perfection and completion of his own love. In a strange and mysterious way, you may contribute to God and to God’s own love. Surely that is a daring thing for John to say! And surely that is an inspiring and uplifting and ennobling thing for us to realize and to believe. But you must remember it and the only way you will is if you force yourself to! Your experience has taught you that often enough.
John Bunyan, in his spiritual autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, relates a battle that he had with the Devil over one particular passage of Holy Scripture. The Devil was always snatching it away from him so that he couldn’t put it to good use and get the good of it for himself. The text, in this case, was John 6:36: “whoever comes to me,” Jesus said, “I will never drive away.”
“‘But Satan,’ Bunyan remembered of his early Christian life, ‘would greatly labor to pull this promise from me…if ever Satan and I did strive for any word of God all my life, it was for this good word of Christ; he at one end and I at the other. Oh what work did we make! …he pulled and I pulled; but, God be praised, I got the better of him…’” [Paragraph 215]
Well John is well aware of the fact that Satan is at work to defeat the Word of God. He has already mentioned his nefarious presence in the world and will do so again before the letter is done. Now, think of yourself as Bunyan did.
John has given you arguments every one of which by itself ought to make us zealous lovers of one another. All together they amount to overkill! They leave us utterly without excuse for not seeking out opportunities to love one another and for not making the most of every opportunity that presents itself. But Satan is even now pulling those texts out of your mind, out of your active consciousness. Some of you are beginning to think about what you will do after the service, or of some problem that has preoccupied you in recent days. Perhaps you are wondering when the sermon will end. Satan is pulling these arguments away in hopes you will forget them. He doesn’t care if you felt the force of them for a few moments in a church service. But he very definitely does not want you to feel the force of them day after day next week and the week after that and for the rest of your life.
Don’t think I am asking a small thing of you. It takes concentration of will, it takes determination to go over the same arguments with yourself time and time again and refuse to allow your mind to wander until the point has sunk home to the point of obedience. John Flavel, the Puritan preacher and writer, reminds us that “there are some men and women who have lived forty or fifty years in the world, and have scarce had one hour’s discourse with their own hearts all that while.” [“Keeping the Heart,” Works, v, 426] They never talk to themselves. They never take the Word of God off a page and ram it home, argument after argument.
But the fact remains that if only John and John only occasionally is arguing with us in favor of a life of love, we are unlikely to love all that much. If we don’t think about it a great deal more than we are accustomed to do, we are unlikely to grow eminent in the love of one another as any Christian ought certainly to aspire to do for the very reasons John has given us here. “The saddest things of tongue or pen, to tell the things that might have been.” And what sadder thing is there to have to say about a Christian’s life that this:
I lived for myself,
I thought for myself,
For myself and none beside –
Just as if Jesus had never lived,
Just as if he had never died.
Love keeps no record of wrong, except its own. Be strict with yourself. Master John’s arguments, hold yourself to account, and make the case over and over again. God will reward you and others will bless you and you will reap the love you sow!
John has made the case; now you take it up and make it over and over again. Keep making it again and again and again. “Why Master these words and these only?” “Because it is our Lord’s command and if this only is done, it is enough.” God is love and whoever abides in love abides in God!