|Life in God's New Community (1 John 4:7-16b)
Life in God’s New Community
1 John 4:7-16b
Minister’s Summary: Christian love within the incarnational community is rooted in God’s very nature and modeled on his love for us. One must understand that he cannot love God unless he also loves all those whom God loves and in whom he has set his Holy Spirit.
Note: Given that Harvest Sunday is coming on November 23, the next three teaching lessons (Novermber 9, 16, 23) will correspond to the two sermons on November 9, 16.
While in 3:10-24 John exhorted us to love each other (more practical orientation), in 4:7-21 John unveils what inspires this love for each other. 3:10-24 is the practical imperative, but 4:7-21 is the theological indicative. One cannot appreciate or seek to obey 3:10-24 without understanding the theological reality portrayed in 4:7-21.
Brown notes that Dideberg reflects on the three discussions of love in 1 John in this manner: "in 2:3-11 fraternal love represents the observance of a command; in 3:10c-24 fraternal love is the imitation of a Christ who gave his life; in 4:7-21 fraternal love is related to its source in the God who is love" (Brown, p. 546, n. 8).
The structural understanding of this section is difficult and varies widely among the commentators. Some believe this section should include 5:1-4 as well. I will follow Brown's structural breakdown (Brown, 512-13). I think his assessment is best because it maintains the theme of love which not only appears in 4:7-12, but also in 4:16 and 5:4 though the emphasis shifts to faith.
He uses "Beloved" (4:7,11) as a structural key that marks off respective sections (4:7-10; 4:11-16b). I think these two sections are paralleled by two further sections (4:16c-19; 4:20-5:4a). Thus, there are four sections in two groupings. The two groupings parallel each other. The second extends the first. Since the theme of love ends in 5:4a, it is best to break the section there. The whole text, then, offers a relationship between faith and love.
What is the relationship between faith and love? Those who believe in Jesus Christ are born of God, so they love the children of God. Those who believe God's revelation of himself in Jesus Christ understand that they must love as God is love. Faith in Jesus is the foundation of loving each other because God has revealed himself in Jesus.
The Revelation of Love (4:7-10)
Love one another because of the relationship between God and love (4:7-8). These verses focus on the relational quality of this love. We love due to our relationship with God and everyone who does love has a relationship with God. Love does not exist as an independent reality in which both God and us share, but God is love. He is the loving reality, and when we love, we love through him. When we truly love, it is God's love with love others with. It is not a reservoir of love within us, but it is drawn from the reservoir of God's own being. All love derives from God because God is love.
God has manifested (revealed) his love through Jesus Christ (4:10-11). “By this” (en touto) the love of God has been revealed among us (4:10). God sent his Son into the world that we might live. “By this” (en touto) love is [known] (4:11). God sent his Son as a propitiation or atoning sacrifice for our sins.
For more on the atonement of Christ, see the lesson on the atonement between 1 John 1:5-2:2 and 1 John 2:3-11.
Verse 11 is an elaboration of verse 10 in almost a kind of Hebraic synonymous parallelism where the second line furthers the thought of the first line. God sent his Son into the world that we might live, and we live only because the Son is a sacrifice for sin. The focus here is on the love of the Father, whereas in chapter 3 it was on the love of the Son. This is parallel to John 3:16 but it includes the additional thought of sacrificial atonement.
The Obligation of Believers to Love (4:11-16b)
We ought to love one another because God has loved (4:11-12). Ethical obligation arises out of God's love for us. Our love for each other arises out of God's love for us and the fact that God lives in us. For if God lives in us, then God's love lives in us because God is love. When we love one another, his love in us is perfected. We become the instruments of his love. His love is completed through us because it reaches its goal, that is, that not only he loves but that we love others with his love. This is the perfection of God's love in us.
We are assured of God's love (by this we know...; 4:13-16b). Verses 13 and 16a-b form the bookends of this section. The term "know" occurs in 4:13 and 4:16a. We know (and believe) that God loves us because.....
--he has given us of his Spirit (4:13)
--we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son (4:14)
--e confess Jesus is the Son of God (4:15)
Theological ethicists often refer to the indicative and the imperative in biblical ethics. Grammatically, the indicative describes a state of affairs, such as “the door is closed” or the “window is open.” Theologically, it describes what God has done or is doing. God has loved us. God has loved us in the death of Christ. Christ loved us through his own death. Grammatically, the imperative prescribes an action, such as “shut the door!” or “close the window!” Theologically, it prescribes our response to divine action. Love each other! Believe in God!
Theologically, the indicative (God loves us) grounds and empowers the imperative (loving God and each other). We are called to love each other because God has already loved us in Jesus. We love because he first loved us in Jesus, and we love because God empowers us to love through his ongoing work in us by his Spirit. The imperative is not an isolated command, but is a command rooted in the nature of God (“God is love”), the work of God (“he sent his Son”), and our experience of his love in our own lives (“love made complete in us”). We do not love of our own or out of our own resources, but we love out the resources of God’s own love which he has poured into us. The love with which we love is the love of God perfected in us by his work.
“God is love” is subject to varied understandings. Too often it is abstracted from the context of the story of Scripture. As a result, it is turned into some kind of mere sentimentality, or worse some kind of unbounded tolerance. It is reduced to “God loves me, he wants me to be happy, so whatever makes me happy, God okays!” But this not only ignores the story of God’s relationship with humanity in Scripture, it undermines John’s first point in this epistle: “God is light.”
God is love, but he is also light. We should not reduce one to the other. God is both love and light (holy, righteous, just). God’s love is a holy love and his holiness is loving. Consequently, we should not reduce the love of God to mere sentimentality, and neither should we reduce God’s holiness to a kind of personal vengeance. They must be balanced. Love shapes light and light shapes love so that God is holy love or loving light.
Indeed, they are balanced in the climactic event of God’s story—the work of Jesus. In the ministry of Jesus, he did not tolerate sin, but neither did he hate the sinner. And John points us to the act that clearly demonstrates both the love and light of God. God demonstrated his love for us at the cross, but the cross also had atoning significance because it averted the wrath of God. At the cross, the love and light of God met to redeem humanity. God dealt with sin justly in a way that demonstrated his love for us.
Our knowledge of this, however, is not merely cognitive. It is not simply an intellectual grasp of what God has done, but it is the experience of what God is doing in our lives. We know God because he lives in us. The cross is not merely a historic, past event that forgives sins, but it is also the power of transformed living in the present by the presence of the Spirit. “God lives in us and we live in God”—this is the essence of Christian experience. It is not simply a piece of information, but the dynamic relationship that exists between God’s love poured into our heart by the Spirit that transforms us into people who love as God loves.
The Love of God Revealed (4:7-16b)
Function of Text: While 3:10-24 exhorts us to love each other, this section unveils what inspires, motivates and empowers that love, that is, that God himself is love.
Theology: The imperative to love each other is rooted in the divine indicative that God loved the world in Jesus Christ before we loved him.
Application: You can rest assured in the love that God has for you because he has demonstrated that love in an unqualified manner. Nothing should undermine your confidence in God's love.
Teaching Outline: This is How We Know God Loves Us
1. We have two problems with love: (1) we find it difficult to love some people, and (2) we sometimes find it difficult to believe that God loves us. We want others to love us first; we want others to take the initiative. At other times, we have been so wounded by those whom we thought loved us (a father, a mother, a spouse) that it is difficult to believe that God could love us too. ["If my own father won't love me, then God can't either."] Or, such tragedies have surrounded us that it is almost impossible to believe that God loves us.
2. But God has revealed his love in such a way that the testimony of love is unequivocal if we will but believe the testimony. God demonstrated his love in that he sent his Son into the world as an atoning sacrifice for our sins that we might live. He loved first. He took the initiative.
3. God is love--it is the experience of God's own community, his own nature. God does not simply love or love is not simply something that God participates in, but God is love. He is the very definition of love, and we see it in his actions. God's acts are acts of love, and his actions can never be divorced from his love. Consequently, the love of God is constant and unending. No matter what our circumstances, the love of God is as enduring and everlasting and certain as God himself is.
4. Our response is not simply to love God in return, but to love those whom he himself has loved. Our obligation to love each other arises out of God's own love and the love with which we ought to love each other is not a love drawn on our own resources, but a love drawn on the inexhaustible love of the one who is love.
5. When we understand that God is love, then we are empowered to love others (even when they are unlovable) and we are confident of God's love for us in Jesus Christ. We know and believe that God loves us because he has sent his Son and he has given us his Spirit.
Questions for Discussion:
1. “Love” is the key word in this text. What are different ways in which the word is used? How do these different uses illuminate the meaning of the word?
2. What is does it mean to say that “God is love?” How is this related to “God is light”? Why do we tend to define God in terms of love more so than light? Given John’s language in this epistle, how do we balance our understanding of God as both light and love?
3. What is the “Trinitarian” (or triune) picture of God in this text? How do the Father, Son and Spirit relate to our experience of salvation and love? Think about how the divine community has shared love with us and this grounds the sharing of love in our own community. How is love communal in character? [If God is love, and God is a triune community, love is experienced as communal, and thus the love of God is most authentically expressed in loving each other.]
4. With God as the standard of love, Jesus as the exemplar of love, and the Spirit as the power of love, how do John’s words help you experience and practice that love? How does this text motivate and empower you to love?