Commentary on 1 John 4:7-21
This pericope seems to be a review of what we have heard from 1 John over the previous two weeks.
Here again, we find the call to love one another, woven together with that love’s foundation in God’s prior action for us in the Son. Confession of faith and love for one’s brothers and sisters in the church are again inseparably joined, as they were in the previous Sunday’s reading. Here again are words about abiding in God and God abiding in us.
So, what’s new here? With this pericope replaying the themes of chapter 3, the preacher may have difficulty if she’s preaching a series on these readings from 1 John. However, perhaps that sense of déjà vu is a point that one might explore. We never get beyond God’s love for us in Christ and how that is lived out in love for one another. We are always drawn back to that central, and centering, claim. We know God’s love, first and foremost, in the Son; and we know God’s love because we have witnessed it in love for one another. This text may serve as a reminder that we never grow beyond our need to hear again the gospel of God’s love in Christ.
Verse 7 immediately grounds the call to mutual love in the claim that love comes from God, and that those who love are God’s children and know God. There may be theological room here to suggest that all genuine love is a sign of God’s gracious activity and presence, even apart from Christian faith, but this is not the author’s interest or focus. God’s love for us has been made known in a specific person, in the Son who was sent by God (verse 9).
It is this insistent rooting in the sending of the Son (repeated in verses 10, 14) that gives this love a particular character quite different from the sentimental or self-serving content that we otherwise might use to define what “love” means. This is the sense in which we must say that “God is love” (verse 16). We cannot reverse the elements of that claim and say “love is God.” We would then remake God in the image of an attitude, or ideal, or emotion. God is love because God has been made known in the act of sending and giving the Son for us, the action that is perfect and eternal love. Verse 10 insists that when we talk or think about what love is, we must begin with God’s action (as verse 19 also makes clear so eloquently).
Verse 11 makes a move that by this point in 1 John should come as no surprise: from the certainty of God’s love for us comes the call to love one another. One new element here is that this mutual love answers the impossibility of seeing God (verse 12). The incarnation meant that the grace, glory, and love of God had been made visible (see 1:1-4). With the incarnation no longer visibly available to us (i.e., on this side of Easter), the author points to the love of the church as the place where God’s own love may be seen. God’s loving intent is completed (“perfected” in verses 12 and 17) only when that love is lived out in relation to the rest of the church. For those who look for some demonstration of the reality of God and of the gospel, the church should be able to point to its mutual love and say, “come and see.”
The insistence on the confession of Jesus as the Son of God in verses 14-15 leads immediately to the claim that we have come to know and believe in God’s love (verse 16a). What NRSV translates in verse 16 as love “for us” is in fact the same construction translated in verse 9 as “among us,” and that would be an appropriate translation here as well (see also verse 17a).1 The meaning is not primarily that we each believe that God loves us individually. There are ways in which singing “Jesus loves me, this I know” can become heretical in its self-focus. God’s love reaches its intended goal only when it creates a community of continuing love, when it becomes “God’s love among us.”
The love that God shows toward each is certainly distinguishable from, but in the end not separable from, the love lived within the church. Verse 16 claims that we recognize and believe that God’s love is active and known in the mutual love of the church, a confession that too often is contradicted by the shallow or absent love that may in fact characterize the church. 1 John would excuse none of that. Failure to love one’s brothers or sisters is a sure sign that one does not truly know or love God (verses 8, 20).
Much of the anger that erupts within the church under the banner of loving God and defending God’s truth often seems to grow instead from love of self and of the power that comes from winning the argument, even at the expense of the church’s unity in love. The gospel of God’s love for us in the Son sets us free from such loveless (and fearful, verse 18) pursuits. Though the author, in talking about those who fail to love (verse 20), probably has in mind those who had left the community, the text also serves as a warning to the readers against excusing loveless practice in the name of theological rectitude. This author will not allow the sacrifice of love for the sake of truth (as though they could be separated), and continually brings us back to the only place where we can learn how to love faithfully: the prior love of God for us in the sending of the Son.
1See Judith M. Lieu, I, II, & III John. The New Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 184, 192.