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We Keep God's Command to Love (1 John 4:16c-5:4a)

We Keep God's Command to Love
1 John 4:16c-5:4a

Exegetical Notes:

The Experience of Love (4:16c-19)

The experience of love is the mutual indwelling of God with his people, and this is an experience of love because God is love. "God is love" repeats what John said in 4:8 of this section than thus provides a structural parallel.

This love has been perfected "with us" (4:17) as distinguished from "in us" (4:12). The latter reflects the internalization of the love of God in the believer's life, while the former reflects the communal dimension of the love of God among believers. If we love one another, not only is the love of God perfected in us subjectively, but it is also concretely present communally or objectively. I agree with Brown that "with us" means that God's love is perfected in the expression of love that believers have for each other and for God; it is the cooperative dimension of perfected love (Brown, pp. 527-8). The love of God perfected in us is triangular: God, others and self. Love is perfected when it expresses the communal fellowship and is experienced in community with God and others.

The witness of this experience of love is the loss of fear and the presence of boldness. When the love of God is internalized and concretized in practice, then we lose the fear of God's final judgment because we no longer fear the punishment. We are assured, not arrogant. We do not fear the punishment because we share God's life of love. Consequently, when we truly love one another, we no longer fear because God's love has been perfected in us. Yet, we cannot be arrogant about this love because God took the initiative by loving us first! Again we see how eschatology invades John's perspective.

The Command for Believers to Love (4:20-5:4a)

This section identifies "the command" (4:21) which takes us back to 2:9-10. Believers in Jesus Christ must love each other just as they claim to love God. Indeed, whether we love each other is a test of whether we truly love God as we claim we do. When we fail to love each other, we fail to perfect the love of God among us and thus deny that God is truly love. We thereby demonstrate that we do not love God as we claimed.

While many separate 5:1-4a from 4:20-21, 5:1-4a actually extends the discussion by introducing the two tests of community: (1) faith in Jesus Christ; and (2) love for God which entails that we love each other. This is signaled by another en touto ("by this") in 5:2. All believers in Jesus Christ are born of God (thus, children of God), and we share this community by loving each other. Thus, the means of assurance is loving God and loving each other ("keeping his commands").

The idea of "command" here takes us back to 4:21--it is the command to love each other. This is not burdensome because it is the heart of God himself, that is, God is love. If we love God, then we will love others and so God's love is perfected in us. But the non-burdensomeness of the command is rooted not only in the character of the command (to love as God's love has been given to us), but also in the assured moral victory (we have overcome the world). Thus, the command is not a burden because we are able to keep it by the work of Jesus Christ in the world to overcome the Evil One. When the love of God fills our hearts, the command to love each other is not burdensome, but natural. When we love with the love of God, loving each other is easy.

Theological Perspectives:

When the love of God is perfected “in” us, it will be experience and perfected “with” us (or, NIV has “among us”). Ultimately, the love of God—as experience with the divine community of Father, Son and Spirit—is experienced in community as believers love God and each other. Christianity is a fellowship with the divine community and the human believing community. It is not a “lone ranger” adventure, but an adventure in community sharing life with the divine community. The perfection of the love of God is experiential—both subjectively (within our own hearts) and objectively (within the community).

The subjective and objective dimensions of this love—as experienced in community—is perfected love, that is, it is a genuine experience of the love of God. This perfected love casts out fear. Fear is dispelled because love is the genuine experience of God himself, and there is no fear in God.

This communal experience is evidenced in our relationship with each other. There the love of God becomes concrete. It is no longer the private experience of the believer (“I love you in my heart”), nor merely a vertical relation to God (“I love God”). Rather, it is the pragmatic and practical relation of loving each other in action rather than merely in word.

How do we know we know God? When we love God and keep his commands (e.g., when we love each other). The command we are to keep arises out of our faith in Jesus and is located in the act of loving each other. When we love God and the brothers, we keep the commands of God. Loving God involves obedience, and this obedience is supremely expressed in loving each other.

When this command seems burdensome, then it may be the result of several factors. We may think of the “commands” as a list of rules, a kind of yoke to bear. But it is not a list of rules, but the rule—love each other. Yet, even loving each other can seem burdensome, but only when we lose sight of God’s love and how our experience of that love enables us to love each other. To love each other is not burdensome when it arises out our own experience of God’s love. When we try to love without our own resources, it is difficult to love the community of believers, but when we love with God’s love (that is, when we love with “the stuff” we have experienced in our own relationship with God), then it is not burdensome. We must learn to love each other out our own experience of God’s love in our lives.

Teaching Particulars

The Love of God Experienced (4:16b-5:4a)

Function of Text: Because God is love, God expects his people to experience that love in a community of believers.

Theology: Through faith God has fathered a community of children who now are called to live in familial love toward each other as obedient children. The love between the Father and Son (the divine community) is perfected when that love is experienced in community among his children.

Application: You only truly experience the love of God when you love the family of God. You cannot love God and live in disobedience to the command to love each other.

Teaching Outline: An Easy Command

1. Some people fail to see the love of God because they have been spiritually raped by others who claim to act in the love of God or act as a representative of God. Often the church has failed to testify to the love of God in its community.

2. The love of God must be perfected in community if there is to be a real testimony to the love of God in the darkness of the world. The love of God must not only be perfected "in" us but also "among" us.

3. When this love is experienced in community, then fear, doubt and suspicion dissipate. When this love is experienced in community, then eschatological hope can live.

4. Because God is love, this command to love each other is not burdensome--it becomes the easiest load in the world when the love of God is perfected in our hearts and within community. It is because we love with God's love.

5. Yet, at the same time, we think of loving each other as the most difficult of tasks. But John will have none of this moral defeatism--we have the victory already. Faith means that we bear witness to the love of God in Jesus, the work of Jesus to destroy the devil and his work, and the power of the Spirit who lives within us. Faith is the victory. We can love each other because the God who is love lives within us and has overcome the world. We have overcome the world through him. We love because he is love.

Questions for Discussion:

1. What kind of fear is John describing? How has this fear been part of your life in the past or present? What is the resolution of that fear? How have you experienced that resolution?

2. How does fear relate to loving the community? If we fear, we are not perfected in love, and if we are perfected in love, we do not love the brothers. Does fear keep us from authentically and fully loving our community? How does fear hinder love in community?

3. Have you ever felt the commands of God were burdensome? Why did you feel that way? What did that feel like? If you have not, why have you not?

4. Is Christianity best defined as faith in Christ, loving God and loving each other? Why do so many resist such a “simple” definition of the Christian faith?


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