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1 John 4 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
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Abiding in Faith and Love

What is love? is a question asked by theologians, philosophers and ethicists; by romantic poets and adolescents; by betrayed spouses and abandoned children; by the hope ful and the hopeless; by the dreamy-eyed and the cynical. Answers to the question are many. And, sadly enough, many of the answers betray a hard-edged cynicism. The familiar folk song "Lemon Tree" has a father giving his son this advice: "Don't put your faith in love, my boy. . . . I fear you'll find that love is like the lovely lemon tree . . . very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet, but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat." In short, dream about love, sing about it, write about it--but avoid it, for it does not bring hope and joy, only hopelessness and bitterness.

The author of 1 John has a different view of the matter. Simply and boldly he writes, God is love. Inadvertently this often gets turned around to read "love is God." If love is God, then it is what we live for, what we serve, the ultimate standard of all. Augustine wrote that, prior to his conversion, "I loved not yet, yet I loved to love. . . . I sought what I might love, in love with loving" (Confessions 3.1). Love itself was what was sought, cherished, hoped for. Love is, as one pop song of the sixties had it, "all you need."

But John does not write "love is God," that love is the final and supreme good. He writes, God is love. If we want to know what love is, then we must let God define it. As Frederick Buechner comments, "To say that love is God is romantic idealism. To say that God is love is either the last straw or the ultimate truth" (1973:54). For John, it is indeed the ultimate truth. God is not hate, anger, bitterness or deceit, but love. Love does not de scribe the fullness of God, but God defines the fullness of love. In this section of the epistle (4:13--5:5), we are shown that God is the standard of love (4:13-16); the one who encourages us in love (4:17-18); the source of love (4:19-20); and the one who commands us to love (4:21--5:5).God Is the Standard of Love (4:13-16)

When we say that God is the "standard" for love, we mean that God's actions reveal to us what love is and how it manifests itself. Earlier John had argued that there is a concrete manifestation of God's presence and activity in the Christian community in the love of Christians for each other (4:7-12). Now he asserts that God's love for us is manifested in sending Jesus as the Savior of the world (vv. 15-16). If we have never seen God (vv. 12, 20), we have seen that the Son has been sent for our salvation. The "seeing" referred to here is the sight of faith (Barker 1981:345; Smalley 1984:252; compare Jn 9:37-41). What the eyewitnesses saw (1 Jn 1:1-4) and what all subse quent believers have experienced in Jesus by faith was God's act of salvation for the world. Some physically saw Jesus; but perceiving that Jesus is the life of the world is not limited to eyewitnesses. As an African proverb has it, "God has no grandchildren." All believers come to God on the same footing as those who heard and saw and followed Jesus.

The confession of Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the world encapsulates the Johannine understanding of Jesus. First, Jesus is the Son of God. Because Jesus is the Son, he stands in a unique relationship with God; therefore, he mediates salvation (v. 14), the indwelling of God with us (v. 15) and the love of God (v. 16). Second, Jesus is Savior. His life and death mediate salvation or fellowship with God (1:3; 4:2; compare Jn 17:3). Jesus makes God known and takes away sin (2:2; 3:5, 8; 4:10) so that we may indeed have fellowship with God. Third, Jesus is the Savior of the world. This affirmation summarizes the universal scope of Jesus' work: no one, even the one hostile to God, stands outside the scope of God's love. Salvation is appropriated by the person who ac knowledges that Jesus is the Son of God.

All that Jesus is and does testifies to and manifests God's love. Those who confess Jesus as Son of God and Savior know and rely on the love God has for us. Rely on suggests the trustworthy nature of that in which we put our trust. Christians can count on the steadfastness of God's love, because they have experienced it in God's faithfulness to them. They can rely on God. The cynical songwriter who counseled, "Don't put your faith in love" really meant "don't put your faith in people." But John writes that we can trust God's love, because we can trust God. The evidence of God's steadfast love is the sending of the Son (1 Jn 3:16; 4:10; Jn 3:16). It is impossible to confess the Son without at the same time understanding him to be the incomparable manifestation of God's love.

So in verse 16 the Elder moves easily into a reassertion of his earlier thesis that God is love, a statement that is difficult to improve upon, explain or paraphrase. We can say that God's nature is love, that God's actions are loving, that God repeatedly demonstrates love for us and others, that God loved even a hostile world and that God sent Jesus to make all of this known to us. That God's love provides the standard for love means that authentic love is steadfast and constant, that it is directed toward others with life-giving healing, that it seeks out its enemies for good and that it is known pre-eminently in the cross. Human love de rives its character and shape from the standard of divine love.

As noted above, we must not turn the affirmation God is love around to read "love is God." The second part of verse 16 lends itself to such a misreading when it says whoever lives in love lives in God. But the Elder can write whoever lives in love lives in God only because he has first written God is love. In other words, he assumes that those who love live in God--but only because he assumes that those who live in God nec essarily love. Love comes from God who is love; hence, those who live in love show that they live in God. Love for others and living in relation ship with God are inseparable. The dissidents who claim to live in God, although they do not love the children of God, live neither in love nor in God.God Encourages Us in Love (4:17-18)

The relationship of divine and human love is further developed here. God makes our love complete and so gives us confidence. As noted above in the comments on verse 12, love that is complete is love that reaches its goal by being bestowed upon our brother or sister. To put it another way, the shape of perfect love is triangular: love comes as a gift from God that enables us to love each other and so return to God the gift that is given to us. In the words of C. H. Dodd, "The energy of love discharges itself along lines which form a triangle, whose points are God, self, and neighbour." Where any one leg of the triangle is missing, love remains incomplete and immature.

But where the triangle is whole, love is complete. As a result, we have confidence on the day of judgment because our love signals to us that we already enjoy fellowship with God. And those who share fellowship with God in the present need not fear that they shall be judged unfa vorably in the future. God will not take away from them the salvation and love that has already been granted to them in the Son. They need have no fear of punishment.

The Elder further underscores the point when he writes, in this world we are like him. Here is an analogy between the children of God and the Son of God at the point of fellowship with God (compare Jn 17:21-23). As the Son has free access to and confidence with God (2:1), so too does the believer have a boldness with God (2:28; 3:19-22; 4:18; 5:14). And since boldness and fear are opposites of each other, the author writes that in love--the hallmark of our relationship to God and of Jesus' relationship to God--there is only confidence: not fear. As Barclay puts it, "When love comes, fear goes" (1976:98).

And so John writes, There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear. As the context shows, fear means fear of punishment by God when one comes to the judgment. Those who live in God do not need to fear God's judgment. But the statement ought not to be turned around to mean that any anxieties or fears are evidence that we are imperfect in love. Confidence and fear are opposites, and the Elder believes that because Christians have confidence before God they need not be fright ened of God's judgment. Fear of being condemned has been driven out from them by the perfect love of God.

Nonetheless, many Christians are tortured by feelings of worthless ness, self-doubt and inadequacy, that they are not good enough for God, that somehow by trying harder they really can make God love them more. A young Christian counselor once told me of working with a woman who had great difficulty accepting God's unconditional love for her. His well-meaning but misguided strategy was to exhort her, "You just have to believe it." But we cannot badger others into accepting God's love. Although we can preach and teach about it, and try to model it in our life and community, each of us must ultimately open up with vulner ability and humility to acknowledge our unworthiness and yet also to accept our own worth, which is sometimes the more difficult. In con fessing our sin before God, we accept our unworthiness--not worthless ness! In that moment of vulnerability we discover that God is "faithful and just" and, through Jesus Christ, graciously covers the sinner with love and forgiveness. We know that although we have been found out, we have also been found. We come to accept that God sent the Son into the world because he deemed us worthy to be loved and forgiven, we who are created in the divine image and destined to become fully re stored to it when "we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (3:2).

To know that we are forgiven for our sin, loved in our weakness, saved by his mercy, destined for fellowship with God, all because we are supremely valued by God--that is to know the perfect love that drives fear away. It is not because of what we have done that we can have such confidence before God, but because of what God has done for us.God Is the Source of Love (4:19-20)

The Elder has not yet fin ished with his reflections on love. The statement We love because he first loved us summarizes the relationship of human and divine love, and especially the previous verses (vv. 7-18). Quite simply, the Elder states that God's love for us has empowered us to love both other human beings and God. Yet God does not give us some power or ability apart from his own presence that motivates us to love. God loves us, and it is the very love of God that empowers us to love. The gift cannot be separated from the Giver. For love is enabling power, and those who have known themselves loved by God are empowered to love. Love is a life-giving force, an invigorating gift that flows from God into human beings with vitality and energy. Love--being loved and knowing that one is loved--empowers us to love.

And so if God's love empowers us to love, no one can claim to love God while hating a fellow Christian (4:20). Often the words anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen are taken to mean that it is much harder to love an invisible God than it is to love a brother or sister whom one can see. But John does not say that love for God is more difficult than love for others. Rather, love for God without love for others is simply impossible to imagine, since God is love. As Stott comments, "This `cannot' expresses not so much the person's incapacity to love God, as the proof that he does not" (1988:173; compare Dodd 1946:123-24; Marshall 1978:225-26; Smalley 1984:264).God Commands Us to Love (4:21--5:5)

And, finally, John tells us that God commands us to love. Whether we are speaking of love of God or love of others, love epitomizes the divine will for human beings, since God is love. All those who are children of God, who confess Jesus as the Christ, are to love each other. Two parallel statements in 5:1 both begin, everyone who . . . One points to the importance of faith in Jesus, the other to the importance of loving each other. These are not two separate commands that one must keep in order to become a child of God; rather, they are two expressions of what the child of God does. Faith and love are each expressions of the work of God in a person's life. Each is centered in the person of Jesus Christ: our faith is in Jesus as the Messiah of God, who provides the fundamental manifestation of God's love for us.

The Greek makes the connection between loving God and loving each other clear in a rather elaborate play on words (somewhat obscured by the NIV). Born of God, father, and child all have roots in the same Greek verb (gennao). A literal but wooden translation would read, "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah has been begotten of God, and the one who loves the one who begets, loves the one who is begotten of him." The Elder emphasizes the inevitability and necessity of loving both the child and the parent, since the one is intimately related to the other. "Begetting" obviously points to the relationship of the parent and child, but it also establishes an affinity and an affection between the children who are begotten (Stott 1988:175).

Love for the children of God is one criterion by which we test the veracity of the claim to know and to love God, and this has been stated regularly in the epistle (3:17; 4:12, 20-21; 5:1). But verse 2 turns this thought around by stating that we can be assured that we love the children of God if we love God. This is by far the harder idea, since, as the Elder has already acknowledged, no one has ever seen God. How, then, can love for God provide the evidence that we love others?

One helpful clue is offered immediately: we know that we love God by carrying out [God's] commands. In fact in verse 3 we have virtually a definition of love for God: it is to obey [God's] commands. Certainly the commands in question would include the command to love (4:21), as well as the command to "believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ" (3:23). The somewhat unusual usage of the plural commands suggests again that 5:1 speaks of two things--believing and loving--that simul taneously characterize believers and that manifest that one knows and loves God.

But does obeying the commands completely exhaust the meaning of "love of God"? Probably they are not equivalent. Rather John means that love of God will express itself in obedience to God's commands. Nevertheless, the emphasis on living out one's commitment to God by obedience rescues the concept of loving God from the purely private realm. Those who love God do what pleases God, just as children want to please their parents. Since the Elder views the dissidents as failing to do what pleases God, he also finds their claim to love God invalid.

To speak of doing what pleases God can lead some people to imagine that it is by doing enough of what pleases God that we somehow gain approval or favor in God's eyes. But pleasing God and keeping God's commands cannot be measured statistically. Pleasing God is the re sponse to God's love in our lives. Thus the commands of God are not burdensome. God's commands are not demands extraneous to us, im posed upon us, to which we must measure up. In fact, the Elder seems to deny that fulfilling the commands is possible by human power or initiative when he writes that we love because of God's prior love (4:19) and confess Jesus by inspiration of the Spirit (4:2).

To put it another way, we fulfill the commands because the one born of God has overcome the world. This statement of God's victory in us provides the real basis for why the commands are not burdensome. The word translated "overcome" (nikao) has the same root as the word "victory" (nike). "Overcoming" means gaining the victory in a contest. In 1 John the victory of believers has different manifestations (2:13-14; 4:4). But it is in essence one victory--namely, a victory over the powers that oppose God and in overt and subtle ways have sought to turn them from God. Those born of God have resisted the forces that try to hold them captive in the world by persuading them to abandon their true faith in Christ and join the realm of the unbelievers. But the Johannine Chris tians have stood firm. They have faith in God, and they hold to faith in God. The Elder stresses the present reality of their victory; he does not write that believers can overcome or that they will overcome, but that they have that victory now.

"Victorious faith" in this context means continuing steadfastly in their faith that Jesus is the Son of God and that through his mediation they have passed from death to life, they have overcome the world (3:13-14), they continue to receive life (2:1-2; 5:13) and they are kept safe from the evil one (5:18). Faith is not the means to the goal of victory, nor something that enables us to gain victory: faith is the victory, and not because of what faith is in itself but because it is directed to the Son, through whom God wins the victory for us (5:6-12).

To have such faith is to have the kind of trust in God that children have in their parents. And they have such trust because of their expe rience of the faithfulness and love of their parents for them. So the call for faith and the call for love are really one. Although the Elder repeat edly emphasizes the importance of Christian love for each other, that obligation is not arbitrarily imposed. Rather the call to love is derived from the very nature of God, who is love, and who loves us and encour ages, commands and empowers us to love. Indeed, God's saving work is at heart a work of love, for it brings us into a household of filial and familial relationships, in which Jesus is the foundation and love the mortar. We are called to trust in the God who is love. For John, God is love is not romantic idealism or the last straw: it is the ultimate truth.

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Let Us Love One Another

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