Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot[a] love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. — 1 John 4:7-21
The Apostle John teaches that the love of God is not some abstract concept. To know God is to experience His love expressed in Christ – a rugged commitment God makes to His people bound by the blood of Jesus. John focuses on a love that has divine origins, the love that originates with a God who IS love, a God who sent His son into the world as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:10).
Once we have encountered this divine love, the followers of Jesus reciprocate it by living sacrificially. There is an “ought” associated with this kind of love, because God’s love makes certain claims upon us. So if we’ve been loved, we ought to love in return. We are called to preach and live the message of the cross in our own lives. The life-giving love we’ve experienced in Christ is too wonderful to keep to ourselves. This is what John says in v11: Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
In these verses, John speaks of a “mature” love. In some translations, the word is rendered “perfect” or “complete.” The NLT reads, his love is brought to full completion in us. But the idea is the same. God desires for us a mature love.
John speaks of this mature kind of love in three places in his letter:
- 1 John 2:5, But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. The completeness of God’s love is expressed in obedience to His Word. To love God is to obey Him. Mature love is obedient love.
- 1 John 4:12, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. The completeness of God’s love is expressed when we love one another, when God lives in us through love. Mature love is a one-another kind of love.
- 1 John 4:17-18, This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: 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. God’s love completes its work when we live without fear and when we are like Jesus in the world. Mature love is fearless love.
When our love is mature like this, John says that in this world we are like Jesus. John is not saying that Christians are omnipotent or omniscient or morally perfect. We know better than that. He’s saying that because God lives in us, we embody God’s love for the world. We are not gods, but we are God’s. Just as God’s love was made incarnate in Christ, so too is God’s love is made incarnate in us and through us.
Again, this is mature Christian love: a love that is obedient to the Word of God; a love expressed one to another; and love that looks like Jesus, free of fear.
How mature is your love for God?
Where do you need to continue to mature in God’s love?
One of the fundamental aspects of this teaching is that love has work to do in us. Where does love need to work in you?
Is it in obedience? It’s one thing to love God for fear of eternal damnation. That’s all well and good. Both Peter and Paul affirm in the NT that Jesus is the judge of the living and the dead. It’s something else entirely to subject yourself to the lordship of Jesus and to live in obedience to Him. But this is an essential relationship w/ Jesus. Many people want a Savior; far fewer want a Lord. But these titles aren’t optional with Jesus. It’s all or nothing. Perhaps love has some work to do in you with regard to your obedience to Jesus. In some senses, we’re all here, aren’t we? As we said a few weeks ago, LOVE FIRST is a strong word about the importance of obedience; I hope we’ll think about the areas of our lives we need to surrender to the lordship of Jesus. Is love’s work in you to produce greater obedience to Jesus as the one and only Lord of your life?
Maybe love’s work in you has more to do with a greater capacity to love your neighbor. Is there someone in your life who is difficult to love? Do you struggle with feelings of resentment and bitterness toward them, perhaps even feelings of hate? Are these feelings crowding out the love you know you should have for them? John has some tough words in this letter, but they’re words many of us need to hear. 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, (1 John 4:20). It’s not enough for those who know God to preach love. Those who know God must practice love. John says that when we love one another, God lives in us. So it is our call to know the God who is love and to make God’s love known.
Recall the words to the old devotional song: “They’ll know we are Christians by our love…” Does someone in your life need to know your love?
Maybe the work love has to do in you has more to do with fear. I’ve come to believe that fear is the great opponent to love. Fear is Satan’s pesticide to keep the fruit of the Spirit from growing in us. And the fear machine is alive and well in our culture today. The North American media machine preys upon our fears. In fact, you could make the argument that fear is the primary export of the news outlets these days. The left fears the right and the right fears the left in our culture of demonization politics. My point isn’t to tell you which side is right or wrong, only to point out that this kind of fear mongering inevitably impacts the church today. Too often, we choose to play by the same rules in our churches. We’ll demonize somebody who happens to take a position on an issue that differs from our own. Even though the issue might not be a matter of eternal consequence, you’d never know it by the way we skewer each other.
And what’s lost in the transaction? Apart from human decency and civility, we lose sight of the command to love one another by giving those fears a foothold. Rather than love driving out fear, our fears drive out love.
The Word says there is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. Most scholars agree that John is primarily speaking about believers having confidence to face the Day of Judgment. John knows the invasive nature of fear. Fear of the future (judgment) calls to mind our fears from the past (sin, shame, guilt) and produces fear in the present (robbing us of peace, joy, etc.).
During my college years, I spent my summers working at various churches as a youth intern. One of my fellow interns was a young man who wanted to be a preacher. I taught a lesson to the teens about heaven and I commented about how much we should look forward to being in God’s presence for eternity. Afterward, my fellow intern approached me and very gently told me that he didn’t think I ought to talk about heaven. He said, “I don’t know where I’ll spend eternity. I hope I’ll go to heaven. But I don’t know.” While I understood his desire to leave judgment to the Lord, my heart also hurt for him. And I’ve met many Christians like him over the years, believers who place a lot of “faith” in their sinfulness (which they readily admit) but not enough faith in the One who promises to cleanse us from our sin. We sing Blessed Assurance all the time; if we don’t believe it, we don’t need to sing it.
Brothers and sisters, I don’t believe God wants us to be prideful or arrogant about our salvation. But neither does He want us to live in fear. The mature love that John speaks of drives out fear. God’s declaration of love at the cross was a public affair. God has loved you completely in Christ. He has held nothing back.
Eusebius lived in the 4th century; known as the “Father of Church History.” He records the following story about the Apostle John, not a biblical story with chapter and verse, but one passed down in the early church. Eusebius says, “Listen to a tale, which is not a mere tale but a narrative concerning John the Apostle, which has been handed down and treasured up in memory.”
According to this tradition, John comes to a small town to preach the Gospel and he takes particular concern for the spiritual welfare of one young man, a recent convert. Before he leaves town, John says to one of the local church leaders, “This one I commit to you in all earnestness in the presence of the Church and with Christ as witness.” John leaves town to continue preaching.
Years later, John returns to the church and asks the church leader about the young man. The church leader begins to cry and says of the young man, “He is dead, dead to God.” He explains that the young man has left the faith, fallen in with a group of thieves and that he currently lives in the mountains with this gang of robbers.
According to Eusebius, John tears his cloak as a sign of mourning and says, “Get me a horse.” And John sets off immediately for the robber’s outpost. As he approaches, he is taken prisoner by the gang’s lookouts. John doesn’t resist capture but only demands to meet with their leaders.
The young man is standing nearby fully armed when they bring John before the leaders. When he recognizes the Apostle, the young man turns “in shame to flee.” Though John is quite old when this story supposedly took place, Eusebius says the Apostle “forgets his age, pursues him with all his might.”
And John calls out to the young man, “Why do you flee from me, an old man unarmed? Fear not, you still have the hope of life.” And John says, “If need be, I will willingly endure death as the Lord suffered death for us. For you I will give up my life. Stand, believe; Christ has sent me.”
The young man throws his weapons down and begins to weep bitterly. As John embraces him, the young man confesses his sins. And as Eusebius poetically puts it, the young man is baptized a second time, this time w/ his tears. And John did not leave him until this young man was restored to the church, “furnishing a great example of true repentance and a great proof of regeneration, a trophy of a visible resurrection.”
It was the fearless love of an Apostle patterned after the fearless love of the Savior that made all the difference in this young man’s life.
Is there someone in your life in need of this kind of fearless love?
I can’t tell you for sure that this story is true. But I know this: this story parallels the One True Story of a God whose very essence is love. This God pursues us with a relentless and fearless love, a love He demonstrated once and for all at the cross. And He calls us to know His love and to make His love known.
For God is love.