I personally believe that the Apostle John wrote the epistles that are ascribed to him in the New Testament—not just because of their content, but because they read as though they were written by an elderly man. If you scan over them quickly, they seem to ramble, but if you read them carefully, you find they contain tightly packed wisdom.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God: and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
—1 John 4:7, NIV
Now this idea that everyone who loves God is born of God generally gives people mild doctrinal heartburn, so they pass over it, thinking it trite. After all, we know that the only people who truly know God are those who have become Christians. Some of you might say that the people who truly know God are the people who have received the Lord Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior and have made Him the center of their lives, or words to that effect. Others of you might add either baptism, or church affiliation, or adherence to apostolic tradition, or holy living as an additional criterion, reasoning that sentiment, however pious, must find some concrete expression to be genuine. I’m sure there are many other views. Well, I am not going to moderate an argument over this point, though I can find much that is agreeable in each one.
Debates like that remind me of my childhood. Sometimes when we were making a long trip by car and we ran out of songs to sing and were tired of watching license plates or counting Volkswagens, we’d start to debate about who we were and how important we were. My little sister had a well-developed fantasy that she was really a Queen of a faraway ‘Queendom’ and that her subjects were loyal and loving. I countered this by bragging about my imaginary exploits on Venus and Mars. Finally, the whole thing degenerated into who Mommy loved best and why. Because I was older and more articulate, the debate usually ended with my sister in tears.
Finally, parental authority would intervene and announce in no uncertain terms who had the authority to determine who loved whom and by how much. Then we would be scolded. Where did we learn such awful behavior? Our parents never argued over which one of them we loved best!
We Christians often degenerate into the same sort of unseemly intramural debate, which superficially involves apostolic succession and the primitive church, restorations, reformations, excesses, aberrations, and who persecuted whom the worst; but it all reduces down to “Mommy loves me best.”
However, John reminds us that children bear a family resemblance to their parents. If we are truly the children of the God of love, then we will also bear the marks of love. Our first reaction to each other will be concern and support, our first reaction to sinners will be compassion and help, our first reaction to strangers will be as to long-lost friends. Maybe our doctrine isn’t complex enough to explain every case, but people who bear a strong family resemblance to God must bear a resemblance to each other as well. We must allow God to be greater than our theology.
We love, because He first loved us
—1 John 4:19, NIV
Most religious systems provide you with a method of attaining something, whether it be a release from endless chains of reincarnation, or heaven, or even physical and monetary comfort in this life. Most people even think of Christianity as a means of obtaining things, such as love, comfort, and freedom from pain; but it does not work that way. Christianity offers all the benefits up front as a gift, which anyone with faith may have just for the asking. Christian living is not a means for attaining something, but a means of thanking God for what we’ve already received. We do not live a Christian life as if by doing so we could make God love us; we live a Christian life because we are grateful that He loved us first.
At one point or the other in our childhood, we all witnessed a situation in which one kid hit another, the victim retaliated, and friends got involved until there was a general melee that an adult had to break up. We do it as adults, too, but with insulting words and spiteful acts instead of fisticuffs, until we become paranoid and dread our neighbors. Now imagine it the other way around: someone does a good deed, the beneficiary, not knowing who did it, retaliates by doing a good deed for someone else, then before long everyone gets involved until we are all living in a community of love and goodwill. Shouldn’t we as regenerate Christians seek to be part of the second kind of chain reaction, which Jesus began at the cross? Or through our lack of participation, have we let Jesus die in vain?
As Christians, we live our entire lives in grateful reaction to God’s love. We have compassion for sinners, because God had compassion on us when we were sinners. We sacrifice ourselves for others, because He sacrificed Himself for us. We feed others and give them drink, because He fed us and gave us Living Water. We give good gifts to the undeserving, because while we were undeserving, He gave us the greatest gift of all. Our deeds earn us nothing, because there is no way that we could ever through our conduct exceed the goodness that He has given us. Nevertheless, we do these deeds, not because we seek to earn His favor, but because we cannot contain our gratitude.
Conversely, whoever is not grateful must not have received a gift. Whichever tree bears no apples must not be an apple tree, and whichever person has no love and no works of obedience must not have the inner transformation of the Holy Spirit.
If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.
—1 John 4:20-21
One thing I learned from my teenage years is that whoever loves a person also loves all the things that person loves. Haven’t you noticed that? When you moved to a new neighborhood and started attending a different school, you fell in with new friends. Before long, you started to like the foods they ate, the television shows they watched, and the music they listened to—even if initially you didn’t like those things. Sometimes this can get downright weird: I remember my next-door neighbor whose girlfriend was so infatuated with him that she used to go to his house and sniff his dirty socks!
Sock-sniffing aside, in general, it is true: if you like someone, you grow to like everything about them and all the things they like. And so it is with God. If you really are great friends with Jesus, you’ll gradually start hanging out with His crowd, and you’ll develop a taste for the things He likes. (Fortunately for us, so far as anyone knows, Jesus didn’t wear socks.)
This world is also filled with dreadful people, who are filled with sin and immorality of every kind—and don’t forget that you are one of them! Jesus loved those people so much that He was willing to die for them, even though they hated and reviled Him at the time He did it. If you truly love Jesus and hang out with Him a lot, shouldn’t this sacrificial love and all-encompassing compassion rub off on you at least a little bit?
If you like someone, you will become like that person. If you love God, you will become like God. If God loves the people around you, you will grow to love them too. You won’t be any more finicky than God about who you associate with, either. If you say that you love God, but have no concern for people around you, then we’ve caught you in a fib, haven’t we?