As you read 1 John it is clear that John was profoundly marked by Jesus’ commandment in the upper room to love one another. He grasped that this was more than a pragmatic suggestion, but that it went to the very heart of what it was to be a disciple of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.
At one level it is hardly high theology. I imagine most people in most churches could complete the sentence: “Love one . . . ?” But sometimes the love that we settle for is less than the distinguishing characteristic of God Himself. Sometimes the love that we share in church is not qualitatively different than the love we might experience at the Rotary Club, or the Golf Club, or the knitting circle. Call it love if you like, but perhaps it would be better described as cordiality, politeness, niceness.
I wonder if you have experienced cordiality when you needed love? Perhaps fears from job insecurity, or the hurt of broken relationship. If you dare to share something that isn’t superficial, only to receive cordiality in return, it can really hurt. Plastic niceness never feels life-giving. Hurting in a community marked by plastic cordiality can be a terribly lonely experience.
In his epistle, John keeps reiterating the importance of genuinely loving one another, in line with how God has loved us. He writes of the Father loving us and sending His Son as a sacrifice for our sin. He writes of the Son laying down His life for us. He writes of the Father giving not only His Son, but also His Spirit to assure us of our union with Him. The love of God is so essential to who God is that he twice writes that God is love.
With God Himself as the definition of love, not only in His Trinitarian fellowship, but in His self-giving, self-sacrificing love toward the undeserving, John urges his readers to continue to love one another.
After one of these calls, in 3:11, he zeroes in on the murder of Abel way back in Genesis 4. He ties that to the hatred his readers would feel from the world. Why the connection? Because love is not only central to who God is, but also it was central to how we were created. The Fall in Genesis 3 did not simply lead to some lawlessness on an otherwise neutral or positive planet. The Fall turned God’s love-driven creation into an upside-down world of self-love and competitive hatred of others. Adam and Eve used fig leaves to try to hide their shame and fear, but their son went all out and murdered his brother in a competitive rage.
So in a hate-filled competitive world saturated, steeped and soaked in the vinegar of self-love, how can sinners like us even know what love is? “By this we know love, that Jesus laid down his life for us.” The cross not only addressed the wrath that we deserved, it also functioned as a wake-up call to us in our self-obsession. We have seen the purest and most potent demonstration of true love, God’s love, and our hearts that were dead toward God have thus been made alive!
John immediately follows the description of Christ’s love with a reminder that we ought to therefore lay down our lives for our brothers. It makes sense. If that kind of self-sacrificial love defines our God, then it should define those who respond to it and are united to Him in a mutually abiding relationship.
In theory, I am onboard. Yes, indeed: loved like that, I should now love like that.
But . . . two problems.
First, although loved like that, I still seem to be soaked to the core in self-love, so that plastic niceness seems to be all I can muster in my efforts to love others while continuing to prioritise protecting myself. I think that is part of the reason church exposure is not always as life-giving as it should be. Nearer the end of the fourth chapter, John addresses the role of the Spirit who gradually transforms our fearful hearts by God’s perfect love.
Second, in theory I am fine with laying down my life for my Christian brothers and sisters. I’m not quite so keen to turn theory into experience. Don’t miss where John goes immediately in 3:17.
After calling believers to lay down their lives, he immediately becomes eminently practical. He doesn’t just, or even primarily, mean substitutionary and vicarious martyrdom. He also means laying down possessiveness to provide for each other. He means practical love, not just theoretical talk.
Pondering that kind of practical laying down, I thought about five possible practical means of loving one another . . .
- Laying down possessiveness to give away our time, resources and energy for the good of another.
- Laying down prideful masks to show vulnerability and weakness to support another.
- Laying down position on the pecking order, to esteem and celebrate the way God made others.
- Laying down personal preferences, to prefer the interests and needs of another.
- Laying down past pains and our record of wrongs, to release from grudges and lingering debts that maintain distance from another.
This past week our family suffered a heart-breaking loss. I praise God for a community of believers who have laid down so much to love us and care for us. Plastic niceness and cordiality would have been crushing. In the midst of grief, to be genuinely loved by brothers and sisters in Christ is indescribably life giving.