Where Does Love Come From?
Does it seem strange to you, that John exhorts his readers to "love one another"(v.7)? Does it not go without saying that we should love one another?
The apostle John, I suspect, admonishes us to love one another for a specific reason. John admonishes us to love one another in order to clarify for us the precise origin and meaning of love.
In the Greek language there are different words that can be translated into the English word "love". One of the Greek words for love means to have a brotherly love towards someone. Another one of the Greek words means to have a passionate love towards someone.
But the word used by John here, agapao (from the word agape), means something quite different. In some translations, agape is actually translated as "charity". Agape then, can be described as self-giving love. It is this self-giving love that John is calling us to.
F.F. Bruce provides an excellent definition of agape love when he writes that it "involves a consuming passion for the well-being of others"(Bruce, The Epistles of John, 107). This is an important distinction because humanity is predisposed to love in a self-centred fashion.
We are prone to love those who are loveable. We are prone to love those who are able to provide us with pleasure and satisfaction. I like to call this 'transactional love'--most of us are only willing to love if we get something in return. Most of us fit into the 'I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine' mentality. But this is not the love John is commanding us to practice.
The love that John is commanding us to practice is a love that "involves a consuming passion for the well-being of others".
How are we going to pull this off? If human nature is prone to love in a self-centred fashion, how are we to have, self-giving, agape, love towards one another?
The key to practicing agape love is closely tied to where agape love comes from. John tells us in verse 7 that agape love "is from God". John goes on to say that "everyone who loves is born of God and knows God". It is safe to say that the reverse is also true, 'everyone who is born of God loves'. Our ability to demonstrate agape love, John tells us, is a direct consequence of our status as God's children.
The type of love John is calling us to here is critical. It is critical because this is not the way we normally love. We love those who love us. We love those who are good to us. But do you remember what Jesus says about this kind of love? In Luke 6:32, 33, Jesus asks rhetorically, "What credit is it to you if you love those who love you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same."
When John commands us to "love one another" then, he is commanding us to love without any regard to merit. He is commanding us to love those who have mistreated us. Why is John requiring that we love one another in this manner? Because this is the way God loves. John actually takes this one step further when he states in verse 8 that "God is love".
The origin of true love is in the nature of God. And because true love is bound up in the very essence of God, we, as human beings, are incapable of fabricating this on our own. This is why John can say that those who practice agape love are born of God, while those who do not practice agape love demonstrate that they are not born of God(v.7, 20).
As we might expect, the example of agape love that John cites is the cross: "9By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the atonement for our sins."
How is the cross an example of agape love? Were we, the recipients of God's love, deserving? No! The apostle Paul says that we were "enemies (of God)"(Rom. 5:10). Far from deserving or meriting God's love, Paul says that we "all have sinned"(Rom. 3:23), and that, "the wages of sin is death"(Rom. 6:23). This is not a transaction. Salvation is "the free gift of God" given to undeserving sinners(Rom. 6:23).
So when we read that "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son"(Jn. 3:16), we must not infer that we were lovable to God. There is no sense in which our nature was lovable to God before He saved us.
The good news is, however, is that God's love makes us lovable. God's love makes us capable of loving others. This is why John can say, "11Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another." God's unconditional love for us is the basis for our unconditional love for others.
John's next point, in verse 12, "12No one has seen God at any time", I admit, seems unrelated to our topic of love, but in fact it is quite relevant to our discussion. Though God, throughout history, has manifested Himself to humans in various ways, John is reminding us that no human being has actually seen God in all His glory.
What does this have to do with love? Well, John says that "God is love", and at the same time, he says that "No one has seen God". How then, can we see what love looks like? How is God's love manifested? It was manifested in life and death of Jesus Christ, of course. But where is Christ now? Now that the Son has returned to the Father, how is God's love to be revealed?
This is John's answer: "if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us." How is God's love to be revealed? It is to be revealed in us. It is to be revealed as we demonstrate agape love towards one another. John says that when we do this, "(God's) love is perfected in us".
This statement begs the question: How is God's love less than perfect? The word for "perfect" here, teleioo (tel-i-o), also means "to complete". This, I would argue, is a better translation because we know that God's love is perfect in nature. God does not need us to perfect His love. How then, can it be said that "(God's) love is completed in us"? What is God's love lacking?
God's love is lacking a body. God's love is lacking a body, and so by abiding in us, by giving us "His Spirit"(v.13), God is able to testify through us that He "has sent (His) Son to be the Savior of the world." F.F. Bruce describes this as "the strongest apologetic that God has in the world"(Bruce, The Epistles of John, 109).
As the communities of Beeton and Tottenham continue to grow, so does the number of non-Christians in our community. The question is, how are we going to communicate the gospel to them? Do we share the gospel as individuals, using clever theological arguments? Sure. Do we invite these people to our church and hope that they will be impressed with the music and the preaching? Now there's an idea.
But personally, I agree with F.F. Bruce. And I think F.F. Bruce is simply agreeing with the apostle John. And I suspect the apostle John is simply agreeing with the words of his Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another"(Jn. 13:35).
The greatest apologetic for the God revealed in Jesus Christ, is the love of God displayed in His people.
And God's love is wholly different than the world's love. God loves the unlovable. God loves the undeserving. God's love is sacrificial in nature. To love in any other way is to simply love as the world loves. Not that this is altogether bad, but as long as we love no differently than the rest of society we will not convince people of the reality of Christ's love.
If we are to expect the people of our community to come to know Christ, we must love them, and we must love each other, with a love that can only come from God. Amen.