1 John is a book that sets out some of the most fundamental characteristics of who God is and what being a Christian, part of His family, looks like.
And John’s quite blunt really. He sets it out quite clearly that God is holy, we are sinful and Jesus is our only hope.
Then he says that if you say you keep God’s commands, and don’t, then there’s a problem. And he says that if you’re more in love with the world than you are with God, then there’s a problem there too.
So we end up with an ideal of what we should be aiming for. John tells us about the need for right doctrines, right lifestyles and right relationships. It’s almost as though there’s something of a tick box exercise happening – tick all the boxes and well be called children of God and we’ll be like Him. If we live in Him then we won’t sin any more because Jesus has destroyed the work of the devil. So we should love one another and when we do that we know we’ve qualified for eternal life.
Sounds straightforward – the Eye-Spy of Christianity. An easy reference guide against which we can mark ourselves and score those around us.
Thankfully God isn’t sitting on a cloud waiting to smite us for cocking up but is desperate for a relationship with us that isn’t about legalism and transactionality.
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 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. 10This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 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. 18 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.
19 We love because he first loved us. 20 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. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
27 times in 14 verses. That’s how often John mentions love. And it’s not the first time this crops up in the book. John, one of the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry was pretty clear that love is central.
Not exactly a groundbreaking revelation – a cursory glance at Jesus’ ministry would endorse that position. In John 13:35 he spoke about the way we should treat one another ‘by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’.
Perhaps most obvious is Matthew 22:37-40 where Jesus was asked about the Greatest Commandment and he answered: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and will all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’
But it isn’t just a cosy and comforting love. That isn’t a request for us to demonstrate it towards people like us. Jesus’ use of the word neighbour prompts someone to ask who he means by that – your neighbour, He replies, is the person you like the least (that’s the parable of the Good Samaritan).
The questioner shouldn’t have been surprised. One of the earliest highlights of Jesus’ ministry was the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 where He taught on loving enemies:
‘you have heard that it was said, “love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven’
As Christians we’re pretty good at talking about that. We know that Jesus said the Greatest Commandment was to love God with all our heart, mind and soul and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
And that’s probably something most people recognise about Christianity – our love for others. But something that a lot of people identify with us is hypocrisy because we’ve been held to a higher standard of love and have failed to show it.
So it would be the easiest thing in the world to talk about love. We’re supposed to do it, sermons are supposed to talk about it, end of story I’ll just dive into the passage and talk glibly about the simplicity of love. But theory is great, the nitty-gritty practical reality is often different.
Even though John has been talking about love for a while he obviously recognises the difficulty because it’s almost as though this passage takes a step back, just to make sure that we’ve got it into our heads.
First of all John points to God’s nature. He says in verse 7 that love is from God and then again in verse 8 that God is love. Becoming a Christian means sharing in the nature of God. So we don’t have a choice in the matter – we will start to reflect God and that means love.
But it’s not just restricted to a knowledge of the character of God in some vague way. How do we know that God’s character is love? Because of the tangible and very real expression of His love in sending Jesus. Again, it’s something he says twice – in verses 9 and 10. Love isn’t something we do, it’s a reflection of what God did when he sent Jesus.
John’s clear about the nature of that love. It wasn’t just a chummy holiday for Jesus to come and shoot the breeze, eat with some tax collectors, heal some blind people, produce some wine out of water and conjure up 12 baskets of left over food from 5 fish.
He was sent by God to demonstrate God’s love for us by laying down his life as the price for right relationship with God.
It’s important to know that love involves sacrifice. And that means it’s more than a feeling, it’s an action. It’s something you do. We have a societal emphasis on how love makes us feel – when you’re in love you feel good.
There’s no question that there’s truth in that – it does feel good to be in a loving relationship with your friends, your family, your spouse and so on. But there’s more to it than that. Our goal is not just to feel love; our goal is to show love to the people in our lives – our neighbours, our family members, our spouses, and our enemies.
Love is a choice. With the idea that love is all about the feeling comes a position that you fall in and out of love, that if someone gets too hard to love then that’s OK. Pack it in, turn around and walk out.
Look at the Bible as a whole book, from beginning to end it’s the story of God choosing to do something completely different – verse 20 encapsulates it ‘we love because he first loved us’. Can’t have been easy, given the amount of abuse we’d given Him.
Love is hard, and it requires a conscious decision to say ‘I love you. And I love you, because I love you. Because I love you’.
God loved us first in a unilateral act, it wasn’t a response to something we did.
The starting point for love doesn’t come from us but love is, and starts with, God. But then John says since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another and that sounds awfully like gift giving is about reciprocity; it’s about doing something out of obligation.
But that’s not what John is saying. He’s saying our nature, our lives are now images of God, and God’s character is love so we look the same. Love is not an obligation, it’s just part of who we are and what we do.
Brilliant, that’s easy isn’t it? God is love, we are Christians, we will be love too as a straight forward matter of course. You could read a passage that contains more than the average mentions of the word ‘love’ and say I’ll go and do it. And be quite blasé about the need to love people when they hack us off. And call on us all to love sacrificially and be generous with everything we have.
But people are annoying. And people upset us. People cause us hurt. And people make it difficult for us to love them.
Thankfully, we get to live as part of God’s new creation and we get to taste something of what it is to follow Christ and reflect love. But we can only do that if we love like love won.
Love is powerful. And that’s because the dynamic of loving the loveless is real. This sort of love flows from relationship with God and not from ourselves. In verses 17 and 18 John says
‘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.’
John is saying that our relationship with God is a relationship of love, not a relationship of fear.
People of faith throughout history, whatever their shape and structure have often had their chief deity as someone violent and quick to anger. And sometimes we have this idea of God. There are verses such as Proverbs 1:7 that say ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge’ and in other parts of the Bible are calls for us to fear God.
So how can John say our relationship isn’t about fear? Well it’s really about two types of fear. One kind is a holy respect. The other type of fear is more like terror.
Holy respect is a fear that’s informed by God’s goodness but to be terrified of God misunderstands his nature. God doesn’t do tantrums, he doesn’t fly off the handle at the drop of a hat. God is loving, He is merciful. God is tender, He is compassionate. Our relationship is not based on fear, it’s based on love. Because of that, we have security in Him. Our security is not based on our own goodness, but on His goodness.
This is the kind of love we need to show to others – the kind of love that says ‘my love isn’t conditional and it’s not temporary. My love won’t be here today and gone tomorrow; you can count on me’.
So, to be a loving community it helps to know what it is we’re meant to look like. The love God has given to us – and our love for the world – is a love that is willing to sacrifice, a love that empowers people to do right, and a love that offers the security of permanence.
But there’s little point in our trying to love beyond ourselves on our own. We simply can’t do this without God. How can we share God’s love unless we understand and know it for ourselves? And the only way we can do that is through the free gift of grace. God’s love is something you will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever earn or deserve. It is available in one format: as a free gift – never as a payback for your goodness, never as a reward for your hard work, but only as a gift.
As Paul said – ‘for it is by grace you have been saved, through fiath – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast’ (Ephesians 2:8-9).
So understand this: God loves you so much that he sacrificed His son in order to make things right, in order to offer us the forgiveness for our sin. God loves you so much that he sent His son into the world so that you might have the power to live through Him. God loves you so much that He has removed all fear of judgement and condemnation, and He has given you the kind of love that casts out all fear.
Let’s hear from Paul again ‘Therefore, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1)
So, we need to understand love, and we need to receive love but we have to show that love to others. Back to verse 12 – ‘no one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us’.
His love is made complete in us when we show His love to others. The more we show His love, the more we grow in His love.
So, how do we do it? We do it by doing the same things He showed us:
- we make sacrifices
- we do what we can to empower others
- we build relationships with others based on security
God sacrificed His son so that we could be reconciled to Him. In the same way, there will be times when you must sacrifice in order to be reconciled to others.
When God saw that we were lost and alone and dying without him, he sent his Son into the world so we could live through Him. In the same way, we need to love others in such a way that we empower them to live – we need to be their source of strength, their source of encouragement, their source of hope.
And God loved us so much that He removed our fears of judgement and our fears of abandonment. Instead he gave us immovable security in his love that’s not based on a whim, or an obligation, or a feeling.
Do you want to change the world? You do it by loving others.
Do you want Conversations to change York? We, together, have to do it by loving others.
And why does it change the world? Because it already has. Because all we’re doing is unlocking what God has already provided.
That’s what we believe. If this passage does anything it points us back to Jesus and back to the cross. There’s a lot of beautiful language in the passage about the origins of love and the interplay between God and ourselves but at its heart is Jesus bridging the gap between us and God and saying I love them, and no matter what happens we are going to have a relationship together.
And in pursuit of that victory Jesus had everything thrown at him. And at no point did he give up. He didn’t bottle it when his best friends deserted him in the Garden of Gethsemane. He didn’t round on the second thief on the cross after the first had mocked him. He didn’t forget about his mother as she stood waiting at the foot of the cross for him to die. And on His return He made breakfast for the disciples who had given up on everything he’s been teaching and gone back to their fishing.
Jesus’ love when we was on the cross was about forgiveness, invitation and caring. It wasn’t about retribution or anger or pain. He doesn’t pile up anger on top of evil. I’m sure he was tempted but he didn’t give in and because he didn’t give in He changed everything.
Love wins because of what it makes possible. Our response to bad things could be anger, resentment and revenge but that spits in Jesus’ face.
By dying on the cross Jesus changes everything for everyone for ever.
So when we see injustice we know that’s just a skirmish. When we see intolerance that’s not dominant. When we feel pain and hurt they’re the residual pains of a broken world.
The world is restored and we have healing.
We know that the Cross is God’s way of demonstrating that whatever you’re feeling, however you’re hurting, no matter what you find yourself in the midst of he is saying ‘I was there and I know what’s like’.
But don’t turn a blind eye. Don’t cheapen the cross. Get stuck in and live like love won.