John 1:1-13 & 1 John 4:7-21

Beloved, let us love…

There are about 300 words in our reading from John’s first letter this evening. Nearly 30 of them are the word “love”, or related terms. Just about 10%. It is not difficult to get hold of what John’s main theme is in this section of his letter. John has mentioned love before in the letter. In chapter 2 he talks about the importance of not loving the world, of not giving our hearts to the shiny and glittering distractions of the creation, whilst ignoring the Creator. At the beginning of chapter 3, John points his readers towards the lavish love of God, that has made us God’s children. And then, in verse 16-18 of chapter three, John tells us that we see love in Jesus’ sacrifice for us, and encourages us to follow Jesus’ example by loving not just in words but in sacrificial action. Now, though, in the second half of chapter 4, John really turns up the wick and focusses completely on love.

John is definitely writing about love, and he has some important things to say, but sometimes I find with densely written passages like this, it can be difficult to see clearly the different elements, and get a grasp of the logic and flow of the argument. When I’m trying to get my head around a passage like this, I sometimes get an online version and cut and paste it into a Word document, and then separate out the lines, indent the different phrases, colour code repeated ideas, to help me understand the flow.
It’s probably a bit difficult to visualise, so I’ve printed some copies off for you to have a look at.

There are different ways of doing this, you can do it with highlighters in your paper Bibles, you could handwrite out the passage, spacing it out as you do. Some people find mind maps helpful to visualise the relationships between the different ideas in a Bible passage.

Just a couple of words of explanation before we dive into tonight’s passage. Firstly, this was done using the NIV, rather than the TNIV of the pew Bibles, so there may be some small variations in translation. Secondly, you’ll notice that there are some words in brackets. These in square brackets are alternative translations, and those in curved brackets are words that I’ve added in, that are implicit in the text, but which seem to me to clarify the argument that John is making.

So, let’s dive in.

You’ll notice that the first amendment I’ve made is the addition, in brackets of the word “beloved”. I’ve suggested this, in line with the NRSV, because it matches what John wrote, both here and later in the passage. It’s not critical to the sense, but does lend even more weight to the sense of the whole section being about love. It seems to me, also, that “beloved” is more intimate, more heart felt than dear friends. Before John exhorts his readers to over each other, he assures them that he loves them. He reminds them that they are loved, and then calls them to love one another.

As you can see from the blue highlighting, this is a call that John repeats throughout this section. In fact, I would argue that this is the point of this section. Up until now in his letter John has been addressing divisions in the church he is writing to, and now he is calling his readers back to the foundation of love for each other, and reminding them why this love is important, and where it comes from. It is in the first line, it is in the last line, and it is in the middle of the section – love for each other, for brothers and sisters in the family of God.

This is not the first time that John has used this phrase in his letter. In chapter 3:23 he writes this:

“And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.”

There are a couple of things to note here. The first is that John links belief in Jesus and love for one another. We’ll return to this in a minute. The second is that John is clear that love for each other other is a command of God, not a suggestion. He returns to this at the end of the passage we’re looking at tonight, “he has given us this command”.

This seems to me to be counter cultural in two ways. Firstly, we don’t want to be commanded. We don’t like being told what to do. The rebellion at this kicks in very early in our lives. We want to be our own masters, to be in control of our destinies, to do what we want. One of the earliest Christian professions of faith was, “Jesus is Lord.” It’s so easy to sing, and simple to say, and hard to do. Because it means that we acknowledge that Jesus has the right to tell us what to do, and commit to obey him.

The second way it’s counter cultural is that in this day and age, when there is a sense in much of the surrounding culture that love is a force over which we have very little control – whether it’s in terms of who we fall in love with, or when we stop loving someone – the idea that love can be commanded is a novelty. It’s an idea we have to wrestle with, and work out what it means practically. Fortunately for us, there is plenty of practical stuff to come.

Before we get to that, though, a bit more foundational stuff. What reason does John give initially that we should love one another?
“for love comes from God…”

and as we skip down a bit:

“…because God is love.”

As John summarises it a bit later “We love because he first loved us.”

Our love for each other should be a natural consequence of the love we have received from God, which itself flows from God’s fundamental nature. I say “should be”, because we know that sometimes this flow of love gets disrupted by our own wounded hearts and contrary natures, that’s why it needs to be commanded. If it happened completely naturally, then there would be no need for the command. Nevertheless, the foundational point holds. We are to love, because we are loved.

You’ll have noticed that I skipped over a bit. In the section I skipped we get the same idea expressed twice. Firstly positively – everyone who loves God has been born of God, and then negatively – whoever does not love does not know God.

So let’s consider this for a moment, “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” This idea is echoed further down “Whoever lives in love, lives in God and God in them.”

This might prompt a question for us. We all know people who love, we might even describe them as living in love, but who aren’t Christians. Might even be strong atheists. So are they included in this “everyone” and “whoever”?

You’ll see that by the side of that verse I’ve made a note to compare this verse with John 1:12-13, which we heard in our gospel reading:

“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”

In these verses, those who are born of God are those who receive Jesus, who believe in his name. A similar emphasis is found in 1 John 3, which we have just looked at, and to which I said we’d return. That command to firstly believe in Jesus and then to love one another.

Bearing this in mind, it seems unlikely to me that John is expressing a universalist sense that separates living in love from a saving belief in Jesus. Having said that, I also believe in the common grace of creation, and that where ever we see love, we do see God, because God is love. Part of our witness is to celebrate true love where we find it, and to point people towards God who is the source and fount of all love, because God is love.

On the flip side, John is clear that those who do not love do not know God. Now, John knows human hearts, and so does God. We all fail to love at all times, or to love completely wholeheartedly at any time. John doesn’t write, “whoever does not love perfectly, does not know God.” Of course, John encourages towards perfection, but he is not setting it as the benchmark. What he’s saying is that if there is no spark or glimmer or evidence of love at all in a life, then that person does not know God.

I said that we would come back to those practical examples of what love looks like, and our next verse starts this process off for us, by telling us how God practically showed his love for us – by sending his Son.

As you can see from the yellow highlighting, John refers three times to God sending his Son, each times as a demonstration of God’s love. If we bring those three references together, we see that John brings out three different facets of Jesus’ mission. What did God send Jesus to achieve?

“that we might live through him”

“as an atoning sacrifice for our sins”

“to be the Saviour of the world.”

Obviously these aren’t three different things, they are all linked, but they do emphasise different aspects of Jesus’ mission.

The first focusses on the life that we find in Jesus. The implication of this statement is that without Jesus there is not life, but death. It is only when we are connected to the one who loves us, the source of our life, that we truly live.

The second focusses on the atoning sacrifice that dealt with the thing that separates us from the source of life, that is our sin. It is our rebellion against the God’s rightful reign over our lives that causes us to turn our backs on the one who loves us and gives us life. The relationship is broken by our shame and hiding from God. We need to be reunited. This is what “atonement” does – it at-ones, it makes us one, unites us with God once again. And so we see two aspects of practical love at work – sacrifice and reconciliation, and of course we know that these aspects are linked. Reconciliation requires hard work and sacrifice.

The third calls Jesus “the Saviour of the World”. This expands the horizon of Jesus’ saving work from humanity to the whole of the created order. As we read in John 3:16

“For God loved the world in this way, that he gave his one and only Son…”

What does it mean for the world to be saved? Well, we know from Genesis that following humanity’s rebellion against God, the ground was cursed, and that the world ever since has suffered the consequences of humanity’s sinfulness and selfishness, from our failure to fulfil our commission to steward creation well. In Romans 8, Paul writes:

“For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

It seems to me, then, that just as humanity’s fall led to the bondage of creation, so Jesus’ sacrifice that restores humanity will also lead to the freedom and restoration of creation.

Most of you will know that a couple of years ago I got a tattoos on my forearms. The reason I did is that each one captures a concept about God that is important to me, and of which I need reminding. On my left arm I have the words “abiding fidelity”, and on the other, in Greek, the word, “tetelestai”

Why do I bring this up now? Because of verse 12.

“if we love one another,
God lives in us
and his love is made complete [fulfilled] in us.”

Now, the eagle eyed amongst you might have noticed that I have highlighted most of the occurrences of the word “live” or “lives” green, but I missed one, the one earlier on, which I have already talked about in relation to Jesus mission. This is because that is a very different word in Greek. That word is the word for living in the sense of not dying – the driving force that keeps us moving and active, sentient and breathing. However, where ever I’ve highlighted it green it is the word for “abiding” – living in the sense of living in a place or situation. It’s the word that Jesus uses in his final teaching to his followers on the night before he died, related by John in John 15 – “abide in me”, and then in John 15:9 Jesus says,

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now abide in my love.”

I happen to have “abiding fidelity” on my arm, which blends the idea of God’s steadfast love with God’s faithfulness, but I could have had “abiding love.” That concept of abiding – of living with, of staying with, of sharing life with, is so important, both in the sense of God’s relationship to us, and of our relationship to God.

So that deals with the connection of verse 12 to my left arm, but what about my right, and that Greek word “tetelestai”?

I had that inked into my skin because of what it says in John 19:30:
“When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

It is the last recorded word of Jesus on the cross. The reason I have it in Greek is that it is difficult to translate into English in one word or phrase. It has the sense of “everything that has to be done, has been done, the work is over, it is complete, it is finished.” As Jesus died he proclaimed the finality of his victory over sin and death. I don’t have to do anything, I can’t do anything, Jesus has done it all.

Guess what the word translated “made complete” in verse 12 is? It’s not tetelestai, but it is the same verb in the same tense, it carries the same ideas, and I believe is a clear reference to Jesus’ cry on the cross. God’s love is completely fulfilled in Jesus death on the cross, and the outworking of that is seen in the way in which it returns us to life and changes our lives.

John returns to this idea of love making things complete a couple of verses later, when he is talking about judgement and fear. He makes the astonishing claim that in this world we are like Jesus. Just stop and think about that for a minute. We are like Jesus. Do you feel like Jesus? Do you believe that you are like Jesus? John says that you are. How are we like Jesus? We are like Jesus in that we are innocent in the sight of God, and therefore need have no fear of judgement or punishment. We are not innocent in the sight of God because we have never sinned, but because Jesus died, in complete innocence, so that we could be forgiven, and counted as innocent before God. And this is the work of love. This is the completion of love. We don’t need to be afraid, we can have confidence before God’s throne, not in ourselves, but in the love of God.

I love the way that John weaves together challenge and grace in the same concepts. First he sets the bar high – we are to love as God loves us. And then, as we realise that we can’t do it, he reassures that we don’t need to fear failure, because God loves us. It’s not that we’ve got to grit our teeth and try really hard to love other people, because we’re afraid that God will hit us with a big stick if we don’t.

We love because God first loved us. If everything were perfect, it would be a natural, unforced flow, and on our good days that is the way it is. But not everyday is a good day, and sometimes it takes hard decisions and discipline to choose to keep loving. Sometimes we fail. But when we acknowledge that, and come back to our Father, and seek his forgiveness, he is delighted to give it to us, and refresh us with his love and life.
So, finally, let’s review the practical aspects of love that we’ve discovered in the way that God loves us, aspects that we are called to put into practice as we show true, godly love.

We’ve seen that love involves being sent, it is life giving, sacrificial, reconciling, universal, abiding, complete, and unafraid. I wonder which of these has particularly resonated with you this evening, which you are being called to explore as you experience God’s love for you more deeply, and show that love to others more completely.

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