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One of the best-known works of Western art is surely that section of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which depicts God reaching down to touch Adam's fingertip and give him life. So well known is this portion of Michelangelo's monumental work that it appears not merely in art histories and coffee-table display books, but is also used and caricatured in advertising and political car toons. Only the most jaded of tourists can fail to marvel when gazing up at the mural, so laboriously and painstakingly painted, so powerful in its depiction of the life-giving power of God. We stop, study, appraise and admire. What a masterpiece! What an artist!
In this section of the epistle, John writes, This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world (v. 9). We might be tempted to exclaim, What a masterpiece! What an artist! But "The Sending of the Son" is not simply the title of a painting that we study, admire and appreciate. Michelangelo's painting has power not just because of its artistic merits, but because we can virtually feel the life that flows from God's hand to Adam. Even so, John writes not just that God showed his love among us but that he did so by sending the Son into the world that we might live through him.
God's life-giving love, then, is the theme of this passage. As John develops this theme, he makes three important points: God is the source of all love (4:7-8); God models what genuine love is (4:9-10); and God commands us to love each other (4:11-12). We move from the assertion that God is love to the command that we are to love each other. Indeed, the whole point of the passage is to trace the relationship between God's love and human love, and to show how human love flows from God's own love.
In exploring the relationship between God's love for us and our love for each other, the Elder makes two statements: love comes from God (v. 7), and God is love (v. 8). The second statement is more far-reaching than the first. To comprehend the sweeping character of the statement God is love, substitute the name of anyone you know--your mother, pastor, friend, a well-known Christian or hero of the faith or even yourself--for "God." Few are the people we would describe simply with the word love. Mom may be the most loving person you have known. She may have shown you what mature, self-giving, genuine love is like. But no matter how full, rich and steadfast her love, the statement "Mom is loving," can never be changed into "Mom is love." For love does not characterize her as it characterizes God.
Because God is love, love comes from God. God is the source of love. Like the electricity running through electrical wires, love comes from God to us, then flows through us to others in the community. When John exhorts his readers, let us love one another, he is encouraging them to allow God's love to flow through them. For because God is love, love must characterize those who claim to be born of God or to know God (v. 7; 3:10, 14; 4:20-21). Those who claim to be doing the will of God and reflecting God's activity in the world will be known by the love they manifest for God and for each other. This was what Jesus told his dis ciples (Jn 13:35).
It is typical of the Elder that, having stated his case in positive terms, he then states it negatively: Whoever does not love, does not know God. Where there is a lack of love for fellow Christians, there is neither love for nor knowledge of God. As John Stott puts it, claiming to know God while failing to love others is like claiming to have intimate knowledge of a foreigner while remaining ignorant of his or her native tongue (1988:114). In their historical context, the statements about those who do not love are probably directed to the secessionists. Although these people undoubtedly claimed to know God, the Elder deems such a claim impossible: for how can one who lacks love for God's children be said to know the God who is love? Their lack of love shows that the dissidents are not in touch with the source of love (4:8, 16), they do not imitate the model of love given to them in the cross (3:16; 4:10) and they have disobeyed the command of Jesus (2:7; 4:21; Jn 13:34-35; 15:12, 17). In short, their claim to know God is hollow.
Also typical of 1 John, the discussion does not remain on the abstract level. Following the general statement love comes from God, the epistle here begins to speak of the specific manifestation of that love in the sending of the only Son. God's love is a model for how and why we are to love each other. The Elder emphasizes the visible manifestation of love (v. 9); its active and redeeming character (vv. 9-10); and its ultimate definition in terms of God's action rather than our own (v. 10). We may look briefly at these three items.
First, just as God's love was manifested in the sending of the Son, so John expects that we will demonstrate love in action to others (compare 3:16-18). Christians will live out their love in kindness, generosity and service to others. But, second, the Elder's argument moves quickly beyond the example that God's love provides for us to an examination of its active and redeeming character (vv. 9-10). God has loved us in a way that has given us life. The atoning death of Jesus provides the means by which believers come into a life-giving realm where love is received and expressed (Jn 3:16). We do not simply gaze at the painting on the wall; we are touched by the hand of God and given life-giving love. And, third, because life and love come from God, it is God's activity and not our own behavior and efforts that defines the essence of love.
Because God's children have experienced such love, the command that comes to them to love each other is not the "ought" of external compulsion but the "ought" of internal constraint (Bruce 1970:109). On its own, the commandment cannot provide the incentive or the power to fulfill it, and this might foster either discouragement or indifference. But those who are in touch with the very source of love, who have been shown what love is and who are the recipients of a great and healing love, can receive the command ment with hope and joy. For they are not commanded to do something that is alien to their experience or beyond their ability to learn and to do.
So strong is John's confidence that the Christian community will fulfill this command that he writes that mutual Christian love manifests the presence and action of the invisible God (v. 12; Smalley 1984:246). When he writes no one has ever seen God, he calls to mind the same statement in the Gospel of John (1:18). In both cases, he is not trying to tell us what God is like but how God is known. And God is known not only in the revelation that comes to us in Jesus (Jn 1:18) but also by the manifestation of our love for each other (1 Jn 4:12). The love of believers makes evident and concrete the activity of God among them. In fact, when the Elder writes that this is how [God's] love is made complete, he means that it reaches its intended goal when it flows from God, through us, to our fellow believers. The love with which God loved us must in turn be extended to the fellowship of believers.
In short, God not only gives us the command to love but has also modeled for us what true love is, just as Jesus modeled love for his disciples when he washed their feet before his death (Jn 13:1-17). Love that does not express itself concretely and in service to others is not love (1 Jn 3:16-18). But even more, God also empowers us to love. By con fession of the Son whom God has sent, we are born of God and come to know God, who is love (v. 7); we are given life (v. 9); our sins are forgiven (v. 10). We come into the realm of life and love, in which we are given life and are empowered to extend the same kind of life-giving love to others. We come to know the source of love.