Fifth Sunday of Easter

The struggle to love is real

Peaches on a branch
Photo by Ian Baldwin on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

April 28, 2024

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 John 4:7-21

Today’s passage contains some of the most moving and profound teachings on love in the New Testament. The depth and power of the three words “God is love” are often lost on us because of the abundance of contradicting conceptions of love all around us. We tend to make gods out of love and equate all love with God.

First John, however, speaks of love in a specific, distinctly Christian way. Love is not God, but God is love, meaning that believers are to understand love on God’s terms and according to God’s character. The author intertwines theology and ethics in such a way that he describes Christian confession as inextricable from Christian conduct. Those who know God show God through their love for others. Divine love manifested most perfectly through the love of God in Christ is a reality that God desires us to know, see, inhabit, and share.

To appreciate the flow of 1 John 4:7–21, it is helpful to follow the passage’s three movements that focus on the source of perfect love (4:7–10), the experience of perfect love (4:11–16a), and the confidence of perfect love (4:16b–21).1

The source of perfect love

The author connects being “born of God” with knowing God’s character in 4:7. God’s children have an intimate relationship with God and thus are deeply acquainted with God’s love. In saying that “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God,” the author implies that God’s children cannot help but love because they are so intimately in fellowship with God.

However, the author’s use of the first-person plural subjunctive “let us love,” along with his repeated exhortations to love throughout the letter, suggests that the struggle to love is real. Rather than rebuke his audience, however, 1 John directs their attention to the source of love to encourage them to be conduits of God’s love to others in the community.

In 4:8, the author again connects knowing God with loving others but this time in the negative: “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (see 3:10). To know God is to know something of God’s character. That “God is love” means that everything God does emanates from his loving nature. Love, while not an exhaustive description of God, is a defining characteristic. People can be described as loving, but only God can be equated with love.

Divine love is not obscure or abstract but has a special and specific meaning and expression. God defined and demonstrated his perfect love when he “sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (4:9; 3:16). In 4:10, “only Son” (monogenēs) emphasizes Christ’s unparalleled uniqueness both in his nature and in the life-giving impact of his atoning death for us (see also John 1:1; 3:16; 17:3).

The author of 1 John emphasizes the initiative of God’s love when he says, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us” (4:10). The prepositional phrase “in this” refers to the revelation of God’s love in the life and death of Jesus Christ. Our love for God is not the condition or basis for God’s love for us (“not that we loved God”), nor do our actions make us right with God. Only “Jesus Christ the righteous” (2:1) could demonstrate God’s love so palpably and perfectly on the cross.

Thus, our love for others demonstrates our fitting and grateful response to God’s immeasurable love for us: “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (4:11).

The experience of perfect love

The phrase “since God loved us so much” in 4:11 resumes the emphasis in 4:7 and marks a transition between 4:7–11 and 4:12–16a by explaining not why we “ought to love” but how we experience God’s perfect love. Christ’s incarnation and death have revealed that God is love and made it possible for those redeemed by God’s love in Christ to love one another.

However, we still cannot see God because only Jesus the Son has seen the Father (4:12; see also John 1:18; 5:37; 6:46). There will be a day when “we will see him as he is” (3:2). But until then, the invisible God makes himself visible in Christian love. When we love in response to God’s love for us, “his love is perfected in us” (4:12).

As a struggling perfectionist myself, I find this idea that God’s love is made perfect in us somewhat perplexing. What does it mean that God’s love is perfected in us? It does not mean that Christians love perfectly, since the author tells us that “God abides in those who confess (homologeō) that Jesus is the Son of God” (4:15). When we confess the truth about Jesus, who is “faithful and just,” we also confess (homologeō) the truth about ourselves: that we need Jesus to “forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1:9).

When God perfects his love in us, it means that God’s intended purpose for loving us is fulfilled when we extend the love to others. The use of the prepositional phrase en hēmin (“in us”) in 4:9 is significant because it emphasizes how God reveals his love not only “for us” by sending his Son, but also “in us” by giving us his Spirit (see also 3:24; 4:12, 13). The Spirit makes it possible for God to inhabit us, and for us to inhabit God. Also, the Spirit only confesses the truth about God (4:2; 5:6) and thus empowers us to integrate our christological confession “that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world” (4:14) with our loving conduct done in Christ’s name (3:23).

The confidence of perfect love

In 4:16b–21, the author brings to a climax his teaching on the source, nature, and purpose of love. God is love, and everything God does is an expression of his perfect, unconditional love. We do not have to love perfectly for God’s love to be perfected in us. Interpersonal acts and expressions of love arise out of God’s perfect love revealed in Jesus. The telos or goal of love is that all life should flourish (1 John 4:9; John 15:9–16). God’s perfect love dwells in our midst! Christian reality is defined by this love and characterized by life-giving relationships centered on the confession of Christ as “Savior of the world” (4:15; John 4:42) and expressed “in truth and action” (3:18).

God’s love achieves its goal also by producing confidence in us on the day of judgment (4:17; see 2:28–3:3). Popular notions of love resist accepting the idea that love involves demands, consequences, and judgments. But for 1 John, to say “God is love” (4:16b) also means that God’s judging activity arises from his loving nature.

God’s perfecting love helps us love one another despite our sinful nature, so we need not be afraid to love, however imperfectly. By showing up again and again to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, we demonstrate that God is inhabiting us in such a way that his way of love becomes our habitus, or our internalized second nature—something we were born of God to do.

While 1 John’s focus is not on loving those outside the Christian community, his logic flows from the same source. How can we say we love the God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16) if we do not love our brothers and sisters dwelling right in our midst? We cannot. But we can continue to love one another in messy ways, confident that our actions speak louder than words and find their source in the inexhaustible, perfect love of God.


  1. R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel and the Letters of John, IBT (Nashville: Abington, 1998), 269.
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Festival of Homiletics 2024

May 13-16 | Pittsburgh (or digitally from anywhere)

The 2024 Festival of Homiletics is an invitation to lean into a little self-love. Hear from some of the voices of our time, including Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Neichelle Guidry, Brian McLaren, and Angela Dienhart Hancock, and more! Experience inspiring worship along with time for reflection, renewal, and remembering – to recall once again the why for what we do.