The Meaning of Love– An Exposition of 1 John 4

In 1 John 4 we learn that “God is love”, which is in fact the second attempt at defining God in this discourse, the first coming at 1.5 where we heard ‘God is light’ and we may also rightly compare Jn. 4.24 where we are told God is spirit, a statement about God’s metaphysical nature, where as the two other predications are about God’s character.

While we might be tempted to think that this phrase means that God is loving, and so defined by his loving activities, and while that is true, it would seem that this phrase means something more. God not merely possesses or expresses love, love is a term which seems to embrace all God is. Yet still God is not really being defined here by an abstraction, nor is it a claim that the reverse of this statement is true (namely that ‘love is God’). What may be meant by ‘God is love’ is in part that “if the characteristic divine activity is that of loving, then God must be personal, for we cannot be loved by an abstraction, or by anything less than a person…But to say ‘God is love’ implies that all his activity is loving activity. If he creates, he creates in love; if he rules, he rules in love; if he judges, he judges in love. All that he does is the expression of his nature, which is— to love.” One more thing—the definition of love proceeds from God and works its way down to us—‘not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent his Son’.

Exhibit A of the loving character of God, paradoxically enough, is that he sent his Son to die for a sinful and ungrateful world. Vss. 9-10 stress first that Jesus was sent so that we might have life through him, and secondly that God sent his Son as a sacrifice of atonement to propitiate divine anger about sin. If God is love, then it is hardly a surprise that God is supremely and righteously angry with our sinning because it destroys the love relationships we have with God and with each other as well. We have here statements that are akin to what we find in Jn. 3.16-17. Love and life are the polar opposites of hate and death, and yet the substitutionary and atoning death of Jesus is the prime example of God’s love for us.

J. Denny long ago put it this way: “ So far from finding any kind of contrast between love and propitiation, the apostle can convey no idea of love to anyone except by pointing to propitiation—love is what is manifested there…For him to say ‘God is love’ is exactly the same as to say “God has in His Son made atonement for the sin of the world.” If the propitiatory death of Jesus is eliminated from the love of God, it might be unfair to say that the love of God is robbed of all meaning, but it is certainly robbed of its apostolic meaning. It has no longer that meaning which goes deeper than sin, sorrow, and death, and which recreates life in the adoring joy, wonder, and purity of the first Epistle of John.”

Again in vs. 10 it is stressed that it is not that we have first generated this love which creates community in Christ, but that God has loved us and so “our loving is a participation in the loving which first came to us and enabled us to love.” Having said all of this, he rounds off this subsection by ending in vs. 11 where he began—with the command to the beloved ones to love one another, only now the context, the content, and the character has been made much clearer having linked it to the character and actions of God, especially God’s actions in and through his Son. Thus this verse is yet another example of amplification for our author has already said this in similar terms in 3.16 and has referred to the sacrifice of Christ there to do so as well. This way of ending this short section on love is something of a surprise as we might have expected the author to say that since God has loved us in this way, we should reciprocate such love to God. But in fact our author is more concerned about the spreading of God’s love throughout the community, intravenously, so to speak and in any case we are meant probably to hear an echo of what Jesus has said in Jn. 13.34 where brotherly and sisterly love is grounded in Jesus’ love for his followers.

Instead of physically seeing the Father our author stresses that if we fulfill the commandment to love one another then we know and experience the presence of God in our midst and God’s love is thereby made complete, or brought to perfect expression or had its full intended effect (cf. 2.5 and 3.17). The circuit of God’s love is brought to completion when we love each other. If we take the several statements about perfect or complete love together (2.5, here and 4.17-18) the net effect is this: “Obedience, active love, confidence, these three point to the same fact. Where the one is the other is. The source of all is the full development of the divine gift of love.”

  • Michael J. Teston

    You gotta love that “corrective” movement toward “loving” others who walk in real bodies in real places on a real earth where the “real” problems are created by the inability to embody the “life” of Christ “substantially.” thanks for the great blog

  • Matthew G. Zatkalik

    The use of J.Denny is unfamiliar to me. Is that J. Denny Miller and what are you quoting from?
    I like the figure of ‘intravenously”! It would be great to have that love pulsing through the veins of Christians rather than for it to have been in vane.
    Sadly, agape appears on the wain along with brotherly love. Eros seems to be have captured front and center stage with little chance of leaving or having the curtain drop on it.
    As usual, Ben, your writing captures the truth and presents it clearly.

  • Michael T

    Matthew I love your image of intravenous. I think scripture was way ahead of its time in its teaching. Too much emphasis on bloody sacrificial thinking in terms of systematics and not enough on the ground bio thinking. Jesus said eat (body) and drink (blood) his “essence” of being. Get his DNA in us his very cells in us to live and love as he did. Like a bone marrow infusion it brings life and health intravenously. I can certainly live with that. What we’ve learned in the field of Medicine and healthcare makes “sense” on the ground as we live out our lives and nourish our lives in Christ and Christ IN us, a real reality. Thanks for the image.

  • Michael

    What lovely insight. Curiously, this was on my mind last night as I reflected on the wide array of responses, even among believers, to the love of God.

    “This way of ending this short section on love is something of a surprise as we might have expected the author to say that since God has loved us in this way, we should reciprocate such love to God.”

    It strikes me that John, with this curious ending, confirms Ben’s insight. . .

    God does not merely express love or do loving things. He is love. God’s call then is for his children, to those who would “carry his DNA,” to be love to others, rather than merely return love to those (in this case, God) who has loved them.

  • Michael

    I’m sorry, I have too much time on my hands this morning, but I am so intrigued by your post. What I was trying to say in the earlier post is this: God, who is love, may be less concerned about us returning love for love and more concerned about us emulating his love. And yet, in emulating his love to others, he receives his love. Full circle. And I’m done. :< )

  • Dmwelch02

    Great summary!

  • patricklmitchell

    Thanks for the post Dr. Ben. One of the more helpful exegetical remarks I’ve heard on this text is to let what God does in the Scriptures flesh out what it means for him to be love rather than project our encultured understanding of love onto God. So similar in sweep to the Dr.’s opening section, for example, God’s judgment and forgiveness are both pointers to his being love.

    What we are left to consider, then, is toward what end does he judge and/or forgive? I believe the answer is so that he would receive his due glory. In other words, that God is love in essence means that God is for himself. The beauty of that truth is that we receive his steadfast love as an expression of God’s being for God. Even in judgment God is acting for his own glory. But because he offers forgiveness and redemption, he is no megalomaniac.

    Just some thoughts should anyone wish to ponder or respond.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com BW3

    Patrick I’m afraid you’ve been listening too much to the pied piper. God is not a narcissist. He doesn’t loive others so that he can praise himself some more or garner more glory. First of all God is a Trinity– the Father makes sacrifices for the Son, and vice versa, and the Spirit does the same. The Father glorifies the Son and the Spirit, and they all three seek the glorification of their creatures– that’s what sanctification is all about. Making those in God’s image more perfect replicas and models and examples of God’s loving character.

  • Ben Witherington

    No its the Scottish theologian J. Denny. BW3

  • http://georgemethdist clive

    I would like to hear peoples views on the command to love God. Can you command someone to love you? What would this kind of love look like?

  • Ben Witherington

    Of course you can, when you understand that love in the Biblical sense is a decision of the will to serve and be compassionate to another, not a feeling.


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