In his commentary on the Epistles of John, John Stott, an Anglican cleric renowned for his leadership of the Evangelical movement, cites an early Church Father, St Jerome, as saying that when the apostle John was in his extreme old age, he was so weak that he had to be carried into the church meetings. At the end of the meeting he would be helped to his feet to give a word of exhortation to the church. Invariably, he would repeat, “Little children, let us love one another.” His disciples began to grow weary of the same words every time, and they finally asked him why he always said the same thing over and over. He replied, “Because it is the Lord’s commandment, and if this only is done, it is enough”
John has already emphasized the importance of love in verses in chapters 2 and 3 of this letter, so it would be easy to say, “Okay, brother, we’ve got that now. Let’s move on to something else.” But John wants to make sure that we understand that love is not an optional virtue for the believer. It is to be the distinguishing mark of the church in the world. John goes so far as to say that if you do not love others, you do not know God. So we all need to examine our own lives by this supreme standard.
Yet, note that while love is the inevitable result of being born of God, it is not the automatic result. John states…“everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” The implication is that when we know God in our lives His love manifests itself in love for others. If we are children of the One whose very nature is love, then we will be like our Father. But at the same time, John commands, “Beloved, if God so loves us, we also ought to love one another.” It is not automatic or effortless! There is always room for growth in love.
Note also that truth is an important aspect of that love. John has just spent six verses warning us not to believe every spirit, but to test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. He did not say, “Let’s just set aside those points of doctrine where we disagree and come together where we do agree, loving those who differ on these matters.” Because these men denied essential truth about Jesus, John calls them false prophets. Love does not mean that we set aside the truth for the sake of unity. We have to exercise wise discernment. Some doctrinal differences are not essential to the gospel, and we do need to love others who differ with us on these matters. But some of these doctrines are important for how we live our Christian lives, where believing or rejecting them will make a difference to our faith. On these issues, we must never compromise truth for the sake of love. To deny what Christ did for us by his death and resurrection or that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ, apart from our works, would be to deny the gospel. To deny the Trinitarian nature of God, or the divinity of Christ or His perfect humanity, would be to deny the gospel. We do not practice God’s love if we set aside such important truths for the sake of unity.
The connection between what John says in verses1-6 and his abrupt change of subject in verse 7 stems from what he said in chapter 3 verse 23 “This is His commandment that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us.” In verses1-6, John explains the first part of that commandment, namely, believing in the name of His Son Jesus Christ. Now, he turns to the second part of the commandment, the need to love one another.
He points us to the supreme illustration of love, the Father’s love in sending His Son to die for our sins. Then he restates the commandment in light of God’s great love.
Our culture uses the word “love” in many different ways: “I love pizza!” “I love the mountains!” “I love my children.” We often think that love is a sentimental, syrupy feeling. So we need to remember the biblical definition of love. A definition could be that Biblical love is a self-sacrificing, caring commitment that shows itself in seeking the highest good of the one loved.
At its heart, biblical love is a commitment, and thus it may be commanded. But it is not a commitment without feeling, but a caring commitment. In other words, biblical love involves delight, not just duty. Also, this caring commitment is not just an attitude, but an action: it shows itself in deeds. Those deeds often require self-sacrifice, seen supremely in Jesus going to the cross. The goal of this commitment is the highest good of the one loved, which is that the person be saved, and `conformed to the image of Jesus. John states that, “love is from God,” and then he goes farther and states, that, “God is love.”
Of course, even unbelievers may demonstrate sacrificial love for others. Unbelieving parents often sacrificially love their children or their partners. Unbelieving soldiers may lay down their lives for their comrades. These loving deeds stem from God’s common grace and while such love is caring and self-sacrificing, it never can be genuinely biblical, because unbelievers cannot seek the highest good of the one loved, namely, that the other person may come to saving faith and conformity to Christ. John wants us to know that whenever we see genuine biblical love, it did not originate with the person. It came from God.
To say that God’s love is unconditional is true but as Christians we need to understand that we abide in God’s love only when we obey God.
So, the seemingly simple statement, “God is love,” is not quite so simple after all! But John wants us to know that the foundation for our love for one another is God, who is the source of love and whose very nature is love.
If everyone were easy to love, we wouldn’t need this powerful example of God’s love or this strong exhortation to love one another. The world loves those that love them. But Jesus commands us to love even our enemies
Implicit in what John is saying here is that we must love those who may not be especially lovable or easy to love. There may be people in this church whom you do not love. John says, “Beloved, if God so loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” even that difficult person. It is in these difficult situations that God’s amazing love in Christ shines forth in us. If you’re having trouble loving someone, remember that God loved you while you much less than perfect. If you are His child, then you must be the channel for His love to flow to those who may not be very lovable.
I spend a lot of my working week with men in HMP Winchester who it can be very difficult to love or believe have any redeeming features. In such an environment it is that commandment to love one another that is the driving force to keep trying to show God’s love is for everyone and that there is hope and redemption with God’s grace.
I recently read an amazing story that came out of the Korean War. A young Communist officer ordered the execution of a Christian civilian. When he learned that his prisoner was in charge of an orphanage and was doing much good in caring for small children, he decided to spare his life, but kill his son instead. The 19-year-old boy was shot in the presence of his father.
Later, when the tide of events changed, this same officer was captured, tried, and condemned to death for war crimes. But before the sentence could be carried out, the Christian father pleaded for the life of this Communist who had killed his son. He admitted that if justice were followed, this man should be executed. But since he was so young and blindly idealistic, he probably thought that his actions were right. “Give him to me,” he said, “and I’ll teach him about Jesus.”
They granted the request. That father took the murderer of his son into his own home. As a result of his self-sacrificing love, that Communist became a Christian pastor.
Thankfully, most of us will never have to go through that kind of ordeal But if God so loved us, shouldn’t we work at loving one another in our homes and in this church in our community and our world, even when it is difficult?
“Little children let us love one another” It is the Lord’s commandment and if this only is done it is enough. Amen