I John 4:7-12, 19-21
I would like to make a confession this morning. I like knowledge and truth. It is important to me that Scriptural interpretation be accurate. It is important to me that people know God’s truth. I have discovered, however, that there is a danger in knowledge and truth. It can come across as cold and calculating and can lack love. In my search for Biblical truth, however, there is one thing that has been impressed upon me powerfully. It is a clear and deep truth of Scripture that I can’t ignore and that is that above all, God wants us to love one another. I have had to realize that truth and knowledge must be held in a heart that is first of all filled with love. Learning love has been a hard lesson for me, but there is no way that I can ignore that I must love. It is so profoundly and deeply a part of Scripture that we can’t ignore it.
The command to love is found throughout Scripture. One simple phrase, “love one another,” is found ten times in the Bible. It is found 5 times in I John and 3 times in the section we will look at. In order to learn how significant and important it is that we love one another, let us take a look at I John 4:7-12, 19-21. read text.
When we visited the Grand Canyon quite a number of years ago, we enjoyed its beauty. We spent several hours on the south rim and as the day went by, the angle of the sun changed and with each passing hour, the view we had also changed. We spoke with my step father who was there with us. He had spent many hours at the Grand Canyon and told us that the more time you spend the more you will see it under different light conditions and you get a different view of its beauty all the time. Each different light condition gives a different perspective.
As we look at love from this passage in I John, that is what we want to do. We want to look at the simple command to love and shed different angles of light on it in order to see it from different perspectives. As we do so, I trust that this command that we are familiar with will go deeply into our heart.
What we have in this passage is a word about love.
The word about love is, first of all, an appeal. In vs. 7 the apostle says, “let us love one another.”
The commonly held author of this letter is the apostle John, who is known as the beloved disciple. Of course, Jesus loved all of his disciples, but there seemed to be a special relationship between Jesus and John. Twice in the gospel of John, we find the phrase, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” At the last supper, it was John who was closest to Jesus. John 13:23 says, “One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him.” He was the disciple to whom Jesus committed the care of his mother, while He was hanging on the cross. John 19:26 says, “When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son…”
This disciple, who was loved by Jesus, also loved those to whom he wrote. He calls them “dear friends” or as some translations put it, “beloved.”
It seems significant to me that this disciple who knew a special relationship with Jesus and was called the beloved disciple makes his appeal to love one another out of that love relationship for all other disciples. It seems that he is saying, “my dear friends, this is important, please, let us do it.” This aspect of the call to love comes from the heart of one who knew how much he was loved and who also loved those to whom he spoke. He made the appeal as a mutual call to love when he said, “let us.”
Have you ever watched kids skateboard? They scoot along standing up, jump on things, flip their boards and do all kinds of other amazing things. I have tried, but the thing keeps rolling out from under me. Without being dressed like the Michelin man, and doing it on a mattress, I don’t think I would try it. In fact, the ability to do it is not in me. I lack the balance and familiarity to do it.
Perhaps you feel about loving like I do about trying to skateboard. It is easy for us to think, “I just can’t love,” but that is not true. A second aspect of the call to love is to recognize that such love is possible.
In verse 7, we are told, “Love comes from God” and we are told, “everyone who loves has been born of God.”
What this tells us is that love is only possible by a new birth. Therefore, love is possible for us because we have experienced that new birth from God. God has changed our hearts and so we can love.
When people are hard to get along with, we think that love is not possible. However, it is possible because God has put his love in us. It is possible because we have a new nature. We no longer function at the merely human level, but at the level of a changed heart. It is possible because of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
In fact, not only is it possible, it is natural. Verse 7 says, “everyone who loves has been born of God.”
We were out at the lake last Monday, trying to start a canoe trip. We sat inside waiting for it to stop raining. While we were sitting there trying to keep dry, we saw a duck swimming along happily in the rain with her brood. You have probably heard the saying, “Like a duck to water.” We saw it. Mama and her little ducklings naturally swimming along, happy in the water.
That is how natural loving is to us. Since God is love, and since we belong to God, and since God has changed our heart, the most natural thing in the world for us, if we are walking in Christ is to love.
Love is natural because it is the nature of God to love. Because of the new birth, and the Holy Spirit who has been given to indwell us, we have the love of God within us.
It is being born of God that makes it not only possible, but natural.
As we look a little further in the text, we read in 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.” This is a curious writing. First of all we are told, “No one has seen God.” Earlier in the book, this idea was followed by the phrase, “the only begotten Son…has declared him.” This makes sense to us. We have not seen God, but we see God when we see Jesus. But that is not how the verse ends here. Instead, it says, “if we love one another, God lives in us.” In other word. God is seen not only in Jesus, but also in our love. One writer says, “the unseen God, who was once revealed in His Son, is now revealed in His people if and when they love one another.” So it is significant to notice that love ought to be part of us because it is a natural expression of what God has done in our hearts.
It is also an expression of gratitude. Several years ago we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. It was a wonderful time of being thankful for being loved. Realizing that we are loved we revelled in returning love to the ones who love us. Last Sunday, we examined the idea that we are beloved - people who are deeply loved by God. This is a truth that we need to know and understand. How do we express gratitude to God for this great love for us? We express gratitude by loving others. Verse 10 says, “this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us.”
When we grasp the wonder of the change that God has made in our hearts, and when we know that God has loved us first, and has loved us sacrificially, then it is in gratitude to God that we respond to his love with a love for others.
If you are thankful that you are loved by God, then in thanksgiving you must love others.
Have you ever addressed someone and they didn’t respond? It is a strange feeling. Sometimes there is a good reason - they didn’t see you or hear you. But if they don’t respond on purpose and deliberately ignore you, it feels strange.
Verse 11 goes on to say, “ since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” In this facet, the emphasis goes on the word “since” and “ought.” Not to respond to God’s love for us, is rude to say the least. The way in which we respond to God’s love is to love Him by loving others.
Children have their heroes and are quick to imitate them. Little children do so by dressing up as people they admire. In my day it was cowboys and I still remember that I wanted chaps, a cowboy hat and guns. Today it might be - a fireman, doctor or superhero. Ephesians 5:1 says, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children.”
Another facet of this call to love is that we ought to do it in imitation of God. Verse 11 says, “since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” Here the emphasis is on “also” which intimates imitation.
God provides the example of what love is. Since the essential nature of God is love, and since we are loved, then imitating him also involves loving. We imitate God when we love others.
Imitating the love of God not only involves the fact that we love, but also the way in which we love. In Ephesians 5:25 we read “husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her.” Here the imitation of Christ’s love means that husbands are to love their wives with the same kind of love that Christ has expressed for his church. Since Christ offered his life for the church, husbands are to imitate that love by giving their lives for their wives. Since we are called to imitate the love of Christ, I do not think it is out of place to suggest that our imitation of Christ’s love means to love in the same manner as He loved and that is to love with a self giving love. One writer says, that “also” means “in like manner and to a like degree of self sacrifice.”
Can you tell the difference between oats and wild oats? I’m not sure I could, but I am sure that there are some pretty clearly distinguishing characteristics. If a plant appears to be oats and does not have these characteristics, it is not oats.
This text is pretty blunt and gives a further perspective which ought to convince us of the critical importance of love. Verse 8 says, “Whoever does not love does not know God.” Verse 20 is even stronger when it says, “if anyone says I love God, yet hates his brother he is a liar.”
This line of logic is so strong that it is not saying too much to say that when we do not love, it is a total contradiction of who we are. It is like claiming to know someone well whose language we cannot speak and whom we spend no time with, or to have been born of parents whose DNA we do not share.”
If we were asked the question: “do you love God?” The test proving that we do is the love we have for others. If there is anyone we know whom we do not love, that is proof that we do not love God. The reason why it is a contradiction is because when we don’t love we live opposite to the nature of the one whose life has been poured into us. Verse 8 tells us that God is love. If we are Christians, the life of God has been put into our lives. If we do not love, it is obvious that the life of God has not been put into our life, which means that we are not Christians. One writer says, “Our love for one another is evidence of God’s indwelling presence.”
This is so troubling that if we find that we do not love, the answer is not that we ought to try harder to love, but that we must first of all speak to God to see if the life of God is even in us and to seek God and His renewing presence.
I still remember teaching our children how to ride a bicycle. At first, it seemed so hard. I ran after them for hours trying to teach them to have balance. Eventually they learned and after a while, they even become better than me. This is certainly true for our oldest son who has raced bicycle and done some pretty technical riding down mountains.
Sometimes when we realize that we ought to love and when we know our own unloving attitudes and actions, it seems like those first days of learning to ride a bicycle. We wonder if we will ever learn. But God is gracious! In verse 12 it says, “his love is made complete in us.” The verb tense is continuous which tells us that learning love is a growing process and God is running behind us teaching us how to love. If we choose to love and if God lives in us, he continues to work in us and make His love complete in us.
So we see all these different angles from which we can look at love. However, just in case we are tempted to ignore all of this reasoning, which is tight and wonderful and logical, let us remember that it is also commanded.
Even though it is natural, possible, a response of gratitude, an imitation of God and all of that, we can’t just leave it to God to grow His love in us. Obedience to the commandment is also required. In verse 21 we read “he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
This teaches us what is probably one of the most important lessons about love and that is that love is not a feeling or an emotion, it is a choice to be obeyed. When our emotions are screaming in anger at someone who has just wronged us and we want with every fibre of our being to make a fist and plow them in the face and if in that moment we choose to smile and walk away, leaving it in God’s hands, that is love. If while still sensing deep feelings of anger, we choose to do a kindness for someone who does not deserve it, then we have loved. If while feeling no love for a person and if we still would probably clap if they got hurt, but if we answer them gently, we are acting in love. To love like that is to obey the command.
Love is not easy. It is not for the faint hearted, it is not for those whose highest value is justice now. It is for those who trust God and who have been changed by God. It is for those who allow God to continue to change them and who choose to obey Him, no matter how difficult.
As difficult as this is, the powerful teaching on love throughout Scripture and the many perspectives from which we have looked at it today leave us with no excuse. We, as those who are loved by God in just such a way, must love!
What does that mean for us as members of the Rosenort Evangelical Mennonite Church? Let me take a risk by suggesting some practical things that we need to learn. Since beginning the Healthy Church Survey, loving relationships comes up again and again as one of our lowest items. We need to think about it and make decisions about it.
We live in a community in which we know each other very well. We trust each other significantly, because we know that as Christians nothing really serious will happen. It is a close, safe community and a wonderful place to live. But just as every strength has a weakness so does the strength of a close Christian community in which many people are related. We do things that show a lack of love and I suspect we don’t even always know that we are doing these things.
For example, gossip is common. We think that we have a right to speak about anyone and to criticize others. Sometimes, we may even do it under the guise of concern, but it is an unloving act and we need to stop it.
When we observe a problem with another person, we are willing to talk to others about the problem behind the persons back. We don’t want to hurt them and not confronting them appears to be a loving thing to do, but when we talk to others, we are not loving. It is unloving to talk and criticize behind a person’s back. The loving thing to do would be to confront someone if we have a problem. It is not unloving to be kindly honest with one another and to listen to the other perspective. It is also not unloving to overlook things and bear with one another.
Because of long relationships, it is also possible to fail to forgive. We have a long history and people have hurt each other and we don’t forget.
Sometimes, people who are not a part of this community are looked at as “them” - perhaps total strangers or people from nearby communities. In some ways, this attitude is one of fear, because we don’t know how to relate to people who are different. However, it comes across as a lack of love. We need to find ways of welcoming the stranger, understanding the stranger and loving the stranger whether we meet them elsewhere or in our community.
Because we have a close fellowship with so many good friends and families, we do not need more relationships. Any person can only handle a limited number of relationship circles to any degree of depth. That is natural. We have a full plate of relationships. Occasionally people move into the community and because they are not a part of these circles, they are outsiders. Since there are few of them, they never fully belong to any circle and they remain outsiders for a long time. Love means finding a way of making spaces in our life for new people.
If I have been too blunt or inaccurate in these assessments, I am sorry. I struggle with loving relationships as much as anyone, but God’s Word has so powerfully impacted me that I know I need to learn to love, I need to choose to love and I need to allow God’s loving presence within me to grow. To talk about this on the level of the theoretical would not help us grow and so I have taken the risk of being a little honestly today.
Above all, I want to make the same appeal that John made. Out of love for God and love for you, I want to appeal to all of us to follow God’s strong call to love.