The love of God is the only aspect of God’s character that the world still believes in. This means that we Christians must work harder at thinking about God’s love from the Bible and not just imitate our culture. We must not allow the world to tell us what the love of God looks like. Instead, we must come to the Bible afresh, to learn what it says about God’s love.
It is surprising to see just how much the word ‘love’ is mentioned in the bible. In our passage alone, 1 John 4:7-21, the word ‘love’ is mentioned 27 times. God must value ‘love’ very much. But imagine there was no reference in the Bible to God’s love for his people; what an oppressive god that would be!” Compare the Koran—of the 99 names given to Allah in the Koran, he is never referred to as ‘love’.
Let’s work our way through this passage and see what happens if we really believe that God is love.
1 John 4:7, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God” (NIV).
It is no surprise that ‘the good book’ has ‘the golden rule’. It’s something we have grown to expect the Bible to say. It would be a disappointment if the Bible said, “Dear friends, let us rip one another off, for ripping off comes from God.” We take this for granted, but in many countries that have not had exposure to Biblical Christianity, children are in fact taught to hate. So we must never take for granted the value that our culture still has for ‘love’. But in our own self-obsessed culture, this mindset of love is becoming rarer.
Consider this first example. Many years ago a local woman—not a Christian—left her husband of 35 years because he got seriously sick and she did not want to spend her remaining years caring for him. To make matters worse, she left him for the brother-in-law! But if Christianity isn’t true, and there is no God who will judge, why would you stay? Loving in such an instance makes no sense and is illogical. If when you’re dead, you’re dead, and that’s it, then the command to love is just not enough. There is no reason for such self-giving, self-sacrificial love. But notice that one of the chief marks of being born of God is love. 1 John 4:7-8:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (NIV)
In this letter, John addresses a situation where a group of church members have left the church to follow a different Jesus. And to those that remain, John the apostle offers three marks of those who are born of God, three tests by which you can tell whether a person is a true Christian: first there is the truth test concerning Jesus; second is the obedience test concerning God’s commands; and third is the love test, especially concerning a person’s attitude to others, and particularly to other Christians.
Twice we are told in this passage that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). And a person can’t be in a personal relationship with the God of love and not want to love.
We are most like God when we love one another. To be ‘ungodly’—unlike God—isn’t just to be, for example, a consistent liar, compulsive thief, or serial adulterer. To be ungodly is to be loveless. To be ungodly is to be self-centered and self-loving person rather than an other-person centered and loving person.
We are told that God is love. You wouldn’t get away with saying that any particular person “is love”. You couldn’t say that Ray is love, or Matt is love—you could say ‘loveable’, maybe. But it doesn’t quite fit to say that any human ‘is love’ in the Bible says that “God is love.”
“God is love”: it is only said of God. God and God alone “is love”. And you can’t reverse the statement. It’s not that “love is God”. That would be idolatry. We are not to fall in love with love, but with God who is love.
Movies tend to push falling in love with love. It’s nice, but you just can’t build a marriage on it. When it comes to relationships, most Christians are more shaped by Hollywood than by the holy word.
In contrast with the story above is another one. A young Christian man in a church not far from here got engaged to his fiancé. Soon afterwards, she was diagnosed with ‘MS’—Multiple Sclerosis. She was diagnosed while the man was still free to break off the engagement: he hadn’t yet made those promises to love her in sickness and in health. He decided to stay with her, and they got married. The MS developed so rapidly that she was soon bedridden. He left his job as a chartered accountant, giving up his career prospects to care for her for 10 years, and then she died. It was clear that this young Christian man knew that God is love.
So what does the slippery four letter word “love” means? If you go to the Macquarie Dictionary, it gives five definitions of love. If you close your Bible and go to our world, you are left with these five definitions. Love according to the world is defined as follows:
First, love is “a warm affection, attachment, liking or fondness”. That’s nice, but what happens when the feelings stop? One study found that 80% of couples lost the feeling of romantic love within two years of being married. The feelings alone don’t get you very far.
Second, love is “a sexual affection, passion or desire”. That sounds a lot like lust, doesn’t it? And what happens when your coworker arouses you more than your spouse?
Third, love is “a sweetheart, a delightful person, pretty thing”. But what happens when she stops being pretty and he stops being hunky. What happens when ‘love’ becomes ‘love handles’—stretch marks, excess weight, wrinkles?
Fourth, love is ‘no score’ as in tennis, a ‘nothing’, a ‘nil state of game’ when neither side has yet scored.
Or fifth, “love is a temporary relationship between two people who have fallen in love”. That is indeed exactly the attitude of our world, but what about the marriage promises to forsake all others for as long as we both shall live?
From that definition of love, and if “God is love”, then you would infer that God has warm romantic feelings, is sexually active, is cute, prefers temporary non-committed relationships, and plays tennis on Sundays.
But God gives his own definition for love in 1 John 4:9:
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. (NIV)
God’s love is seen in his ultimate gift—God’s one and only Son. Where do you see God’s love? You see it in creation, when God sends the rain on both the just and the unjust alike. You see it in the love of a mother for her baby. You see it in the sacrificial love for the poor and sick.
But climactically, in its purest and ultimate sense, you see it in Jesus, who was sent into this world so that we might live. Jesus left his home of heaven to come to this wretched earth and then tasted hell so that we could share heaven with him. Jesus forfeited the privileges of his perfect relationship with his Father so that we would share eternity with him.
Love does not begin with us. We are not born with love in our hearts. Love begins with God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And love begins not with a warm feeling, but with a heart-wrenching act on the part of God. 1 John 4:10:
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (NIV)
God wanted us to live with him so much that he was prepared to have his Son die for us.
Alan Jones the AM radio presenter years ago was talking about the sadness of a prison guard who was jabbed with a blood filled syringe by a prisoner. The prisoner who did it was HIV positive and had filled the syringe with his own blood, and died several years ago. The prison guard, who was just doing his duty when he was injured, also died of AIDS. He was only 25 years old when he died. Before he died, the young prison officer expressed his wish to live, and his desire to get married and have children. Alan Jones remarked, “This may be a Christian country but not one of us would want to take his place.”
Alan Jones was wrong on two counts. First, this is not a Christian country. We are a country with some Christian people in it and a Christian heritage that is fading away. And second, yes, there was someone prepared to take his place—the one who bears the name ‘Jesus Christ’. But it’s true that it was no Aussie who was prepared to do it. For it is not in modern day post-Christian Australia that God provided a substitute for sin, but two thousand years ago on a grubby Judean cross.
Notice what’s not being said. It doesn’t say, “Love one another and maybe God will love you”. It doesn’t say, “Love God and maybe God will love you back.” 1 John 4:10 says this:
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (NIV)
The seventeenth century philosopher Spinoza wrongly said, “He that loves God does not demand that God should love us in return”. How wrong is that! We only love God because he first loved us. I love only because he first loved me.
When Jesus the Son of God atoned for our sins, he broke all the rules. He loved us, his enemies, and he died not for his sins but for ours. He incurred on the cross the penalty for our sins. Jesus took our punishment so that he can forgive us and give us life.
Six times John calls us his beloved. We are the loved ones.
As Protestants we rightly talk about Christ’s death ‘once and for all’. When it comes to paying for all our sins, the price has been paid in full at the cross. Jesus’ payment for our sins by his atoning death is now finished. But God’s love has not finished its job until two things happen. The first is that we have confidence on the day of judgement. 1 John 4:17-18:
This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgement: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (NIV)
God’s love has not completed its work until every person in Christ has no fear of punishment. God not only wants to save us, but he wants us to know we are saved. The love of God in Jesus’ death finds its conclusion in our assurance. The world hears the word of a coming judgement day and trembles or is offended. We hear the word judgement day and rejoice. We see it as a positive thing because we know how the verdict will go.
In December, judgement day is coming for every HSC student. Many live in fear because this judgement is based on their performance. But we are looking forward to God’s judgement day because Jesus has already sat the exam in our place. He did this by his obedient life, death, and resurrection. We got top marks, 100%, because he did! We have nothing to fear.
When John says that “the one who fears is not made perfect in love”, he is saying that the one who fears has not let God’s love finish off its work in them. God is committed to flushing out every fear in your soul. Let God love you and set you free. Once you rely on that love, it cries out for you to love others. 1 John 4:19-21:
We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (NIV)
Jesus said there are only two great commandments: that we love God with all our heart and that we love our neighbours as ourselves. There could have been only one great commandment. That is, God could have kept all the love for himself. God could have required all the love to be vertical, towards him. But he didn’t. Or alternatively, God could have expected you to love others without first being loved. God could have required love of us without telling us of his love for us. But he didn’t do this either. God wanted the vertical ‘top-down’ love to empower the horizontal, ‘us-outward’ love. What God did was to tie your love for others with your love for him. “Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.”
And, it must be said, we must not just love our brothers and sister in Christ, but our neighbor who may not be our brother or sister, or even our enemies.
Love is the greatest argument for Jesus. A Christian teacher who works in a state school tells this story: she was known to be Christian, and a gay teacher in her English department said to her, “the moment I knew you were a Christian I started building a wall between us.” But as she got to know her, things changed. The way this Christian spoke of Jesus in personal categories, and while the Christian woman still held her ground, the way she spoke in a loving and gentle way, produced a true friendship with the gay teacher. The result was that the lesbian teacher said to her, “Does your church have a class to explain Christianity. I would like to come.” So in the midst of a heated national debate on marriage, a woman in a same-sex relationship wants to know about Jesus. Why? Because the love of God in Christ Jesus not only saved a Christian sister but also transformed her to be like her God in the way she spoke and loved.