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By now the reader is well aware that love is a central theme and concern of 1 John. But with 3:16 we come to the first of several statements in the epistle that state explicitly, This is . . . what love is (compare 4:8-10, 16). And it is the voluntary self-giving of Jesus to others, in life and death, that constitutes the epitome of God's love (4:9-10). Not only do we see the fullness of God's love in Jesus' death, we see also the essence of love itself.
With the statement This is how we know what love is, John points to two things important for us to remember. Jesus' voluntary giving of life is both an example for us to emulate and a revelation of the extent of God's love (Smalley 1984:194; Stott 1988:147). As an example, Jesus shows us that true love is concrete and active, not merely felt or thought, but lived out. As a revelation of God's love, Jesus shows us that God was active in sending the Son so that we might know God, have life and live within the circle of love. But in saying that the sending of the Son is a revelation of God's love, we do not mean that we admire it as we might a display in a museum or art gallery. Nor does God put the Son on parade as we might celebrate a hero, president or winning sports team or figure, so that we can cheer and applaud.
God's love is not simply a thing to be admired. It is, rather, the power that transfers those who have faith from death to life, from the realm of hatred to love. Imagine that a friend is standing at the end of a pier and throws a life-preserver out in the water. If he then turns to you and says, "See how much I love you?" the action will seem odd at best. If you are safe on the pier, how does your friend's action embody love? But if you are drowning in the water and your friend throws you the life-preserver and pulls you to safety, you would not need idly speculate about his motivation, and he would not need to say, "I love you." Because your life has been saved, you know you are loved (see Marshall 1978:193). Similarly, for people to know of the reality and greatness of God's love they must experience it as a love that is active for them.