We Have Come to Know God's Love (part 1)
13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because 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 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 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. 17 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. 18 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.
Last week we mentioned John’s emphasis on love. Because God is love, it is no surprise that one of the major plans that God has for the world is to demonstrate to the world his radical, self-sacrificial love. Apart from God we could never know this kind of love. It has been ignored because of our sinful desires that always lead us to love on our own terms rather than on God’s terms.
But because of the new birth, there is hope that God’s love can once again be seen in the world. Last week we saw that it is God’s intention to manifest himself to the world by his love in and through believers in Jesus. When we demonstrate God-like love to our brothers and sisters in Christ and to our neighbors and to our enemies, the invisible God manifests himself. So it is God’s will to work through those of us who have received his love in order to draw others to himself by his love that we pass on to them.
John is not finished, however, with his thoughts on the love of God. There is more here that he wants us to see. The next passage we come to in this little book extends probably down through verse 5 of chapter 5. It is somewhat difficult to see how John is organizing his thought in these several verses. But 19 times in these 14 verses John mentions “love,” so his theme remains the same as in the previous passage.
One of the things we can observe about this passage is that John deals with all three of his “tests” of fellowship with God. This passage, then, is somewhat of a summary of the entire book. The three tests are doctrinal (4:15; 5:1), ethical (5:2-3), and social (4:20-21).
But I don’t think John’s main intention here is to summarize his thoughts. Instead, I think he wants to reflect a bit more on the effect that God’s love has on those who have been born of him. If God’s intention is to manifest himself to the world by his love that he has already shown to believers, then what can we say about how God’s love has affected us who have already benefited from it? What has God’s love done to us?
One reason I think this is what John is wanting us to think about in the next several verses is because of verse 16: “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.” In other words, John wants to remind us about how we know God’s love and why we trust God’s love. What is it about God’s love that is so powerful?
John gives us several answers to this question. God’s love is great, and so it has an amazing effect on those who experience it. John says, that since we have come to know God’s love,
- We have a share in the Holy Spirit (v. 13);
- We acknowledge Jesus as Savior of the world (vv. 14-15);
- We believe in the power of God’s love (v. 16);
- We are no longer afraid of God (vv. 17-18);
- We become lovers of others (vv. 19-5:1);
- We become lovers of God (5:2-5).
This is too much to cover in one week. In two weeks, Lord willing, we will cover these final two results of God’s love for us. Today I want us to think about the first four.
WE HAVE A SHARE IN THE HOLY SPIRIT (v. 13)
Our passage begins with verse 13: “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” The words sound similar to what we found at the end of chapter 3: “And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.” (1 Jn 3:24). In that passage we found that the way the Spirit brings assurance of our fellowship with God was by providing the power necessary to obey God. In other words, we can say that obedience to God’s laws brings assurance and we can say that the Spirit brings assurance because it is the Spirit who enables the believer to obey God.
A similar idea is in view here. John is talking about the Christians’ ability to love as an evidence of the new birth. Once again he reminds us that the new birth is necessary for us to be able to love. So love for one another brings assurance and the Spirit brings assurance because it is the Spirit who enables the believer to love.
It is not John’s intent to give us here a robust theology on the Person of the Holy Spirit, but this verse and the one in 3:24 should be noted for the teaching regarding the Holy Spirit’s role in both empowering us to obey and love as well as in giving us assurance. The apostle Paul also says that it is the particular role of the Holy Spirit to assure the believer of his right standing with God. Romans 8:16 says, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” As subjective as this may sound to the unbeliever, the Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit is a reliable indicator of whether or not we truly belong to God.
Of course, subjective evidences can also be greatly misunderstood. We should not base our assurance solely on subjective feelings. The Spirit’s testimony is accompanied by more objective evidence, too, but verses like these stress that assurance in our spiritual and emotional perception matters as much as our intellectual confidence. And the Holy Spirit is given to all of us as a gift for this very purpose.
WE ACKNOWLEDGE JESUS AS SAVIOR OF THE WORLD (vv. 14-15)
The next thing John says about what has happened to those of us who have experienced the love of God through the new birth is that we acknowledge that Jesus is the Savior of the world. We become his witnesses. So we read in verses 14-15, “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.”
It is the word “and” at the beginning of verse 14 that demands we see this verse as a continuation of John’s topic in verse 13. So John is saying that another way that we know we abide in God is by our confession of who Jesus is. This accords with several other passages in this book where John says that acceptance of orthodox doctrine about Jesus is one test of whether or not we have been born of God (2:22-23; 4:2-3).
Do not let this point pass by you without its implications gripping your soul. When John says “we have seen and testify” he does not mean only the apostolic witnesses of Jesus’ life on earth. In other words, the “seeing” that John refers to here probably should not be taken only to refer to those who literally saw Jesus while he was on earth. The “seeing” and the “testifying” go together. What was seen was what they testified about, namely, “that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.” Hundreds of people literally saw Jesus but did not give make such a confession. John is referring to those who see the meaning of Jesus come as the Son of God. It is a “seeing” of faith that is in reference here. It is a seeing that takes place when God opens your spiritual eyes and gives you a glimpse of who Jesus is. Jesus came for this very purpose, to open the eyes of the spiritually blind (Isa 42:7; Acts 26:18).
Our eyes have to be opened before our mouths can be opened. There is a direct correlation between the number of witnesses for Jesus and the number of people who have seen Jesus with the eyes of faith. The reason why we do not have more witnesses for Jesus is because we do not have enough people who have seen him for who he is. This is why we have so much spiritual apathy in our churches. This is why you and I struggle to find joy in God. We need to beg God to let us see again. We need to come to grips with these words that are pregnant with God-glorifying truth: “The Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.” That is the gospel in a nutshell. The gospel is the good news! It is the best news! If our newspaper editors could see it for what it is, it would be front page every day of the week. It would never grow old, boring, or irrelevant.
For those who have the spiritual eyes to see the beauty of the Son, sent by the Father, to be the Savior of the world, they will thereby enjoy the fellowship with God that John so desperately wants them to have (1:3). It is the confession of the heart that Jesus is the Son of God that leads to mutual abiding with God.
WE BELIEVE IN THE POWER OF GOD’S LOVE (v. 16)
The third thing that happens to us when we experience God’s love for us is that we become believers in the power of that love. John draws somewhat of a conclusion in verse 16 to the previous three verses. “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.” In other words, there is a progression of thought in the way God’s love has impacted us.
Here’s what John adds to the progression. Having become spiritually aware of who Jesus is, we confess him to be the Son of God (vv. 14-15). That leads to mutual fellowship with God (v. 15). And the fellowship with God that the Christian enjoys causes him to know and to believe the love of God even more. It is very important to come to this mature assurance of the love of God. It guides you when you face suffering and tragedy and defeat. It gives an answer to the question of evil and injustice in the world. For if God loved us so much that he sent his only Son to be our Savior, then surely his love continues when hurricanes strike and jobs are lost and loved ones die. When we ask, “How can a good God allow such suffering?” we can answer one way for sure: it is not because he does not love us.
The language John uses in verse 16 emphasizes this mature understanding of the love of God. The Christian does not know and believe God’s love hypothetically. He “has come to know it and believe it.” Christians have been personal recipients of this love. It has changed them. They now become those who “abide in love” themselves. We saw last week why this happens, but the point is re-stated in verse 16 with the familiar words “God is love” (cf. 4:8). Those who are in fellowship with God find themselves also abiding in love. They become lovers themselves!
In fact, John may be deliberately referring to the love that Christians show to one another in the first part of verse 16. Notice he says, “we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.” These final two words, “for us,” are also found in 4:9, where they are translated “among us” and in 4:12 where they are translated “in us.” Literally, then, John is saying, “we have come to know and to believe the love that God has in or among us. He is referring once again to God’s love expressed in believers’ love toward others. It is God’s love, to be sure, but it is also “perfected” love. It is what God’s love aims to do.
WE ARE NO LONGER AFRAID OF GOD (vv. 17-18)
God’s love is powerful. It makes dead souls come alive. And those who have experienced it possess God’s Spirit, confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and become radical, God-like lovers. In verses 17-18 John adds another truth about what God’s love has done to believers: “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.” John says that perfect love makes the believer confident and not fearful in the day of judgment.
So John is saying that the result (“so that”) of perfect love for the believer is “confidence for the day of judgment.” If we have been following John’s reasoning, then this should come as no surprise. If the goal of God’s love for us is to make us people through whom God can show his love to others, and if knowing God in this way means we abide with him in love, then it stands to reason that when we face God in judgment there should no longer be any reason to fear this God with whom we have a relationship of love.
But John does not make us come to this conclusion on our own. He explicitly says that this is the result of God’s love being perfected in us. And then he says that the reason why we will have confidence on the day of judgment is “because as he is so also are we in this world.” Putting these ideas together we conclude that the result of God’s love being perfected in us is that we are as Jesus is, and therefore we can have confidence on the day of judgment.
We have already concluded what John means by love being “perfected” in us. He means that the love of God has come full circle, reaching its goal of making us into God-like lovers. So the love that God has for us has the aim of causing us to love like he does. But what does John mean when he says that “as he is so also are we in this world”? First, the grammar clearly indicates that the pronoun “he” refers to Jesus. As Jesus is, so also are we. John is not saying that when love is perfected in us we become exactly like Jesus. He has already told us in 3:2 that we will become like him “when he appears.” So, the question is, in what sense are we like Jesus is now?
The answer is that when love comes full circle, we can thereby be assured that we are in fellowship with the Father just like Jesus is in fellowship with the Father. Notice the words “in this world” at the end of verse 17. I think those words are intended to contrast our situation with Jesus’s situation. He is in heaven, with the Father. We are still in this world. Yet in spite of our different settings, we have one very important thing in common. Fellowship with the Father. Insofar as we live in communion with the Father, we are imitating the relationship that Jesus himself has with the Father. We are like him now, though we will have to await his return to enjoy the unending fellowship with God that he enjoys in heaven (John 17:11).
Those who enjoy fellowship with God will be able to approach God at “the day of judgment” with confidence. Those who do not maintain fellowship with God will experience fear. This is also what John said previously in 1 John 2:28: “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.” There are only two possible types of responses John envisions us having when we come face-to-face with God. Confidence or shame. Now he says confidence or fear.
This means that if you are not in fellowship with the Father, you have no reason not to fear. God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29). His righteous wrath is as much an attribute of God as his self-sacrificial love. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31). John tells us in the middle of verse 19 that fear is an appropriate response to have toward God if you are not in fellowship with him, because “fear has to do with punishment.” The idea is that fear is an anticipation of future punishment and even a foretaste of it.
But John also says in verse 18 that those who have been “perfected in love” have no reason to fear because “perfect love casts out fear.” As true as it is that the one who is out of fellowship with God has every reason to fear, the believer who enjoys consistent fellowship with God has no reason to fear. In the same way that one out of fellowship with God gets a foretaste of God’s wrath by his fear, the believer gets a foretaste of eternal communion with God by his love. When we have a loving relationship with someone, we are not afraid of them in the sense of there being any intentional pain from that person. So a loving relationship with God now brings assurance that we will continue in that relationship with him in eternity.
 Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker (Dallas: Word Books, 1984), 252.