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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – God Commands Us to Love (4:21—5:5)
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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