Abiding in Faith and Love (4:13–5:5) What is love? is a question asked by theologians, philosophers and ethicists; by romantic poets and adolescents; by betrayed spouses and abandoned children; by the hopeful and the hopeless; by the dreamy-eyed and the cynical. Answers to the question are many. And, sadly enough, many of the answers betray a hard-edged cynicism. The familiar folk song “Lemon Tree” has a father giving his son this advice: “Don’t put your faith in love, my boy.… I fear you’ll find that love is like the lovely lemon tree … very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet, but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat.” In short, dream about love, sing about it, write about it—but avoid it, for it does not bring hope and joy, only hopelessness and bitterness.
The author of 1 John has a different view of the matter. Simply and boldly he writes, God is love. Inadvertently this often gets turned around to read “love is God.” If love is God, then it is what we live for, what we serve, the ultimate standard of all. Augustine wrote that, prior to his conversion, “I loved not yet, yet I loved to love.… I sought what I might love, in love with loving” (Confessions 3.1). Love itself was what was sought, cherished, hoped for. Love is, as one pop song of the sixties had it, “all you need.”
But John does not write “love is God,” that love is the final and supreme good. He writes, God is love. If we want to know what love is, then we must let God define it. As Frederick Buechner comments, “To say that love is God is romantic idealism. To say that God is love is either the last straw or the ultimate truth” (1973:54). For John, it is indeed the ultimate truth. God is not hate, anger, bitterness or deceit, but love. Love does not describe the fullness of God, but God defines the fullness of love. In this section of the epistle (4:13–5:5), we are shown that God is the standard of love (4:13–16); the one who encourages us in love (4:17–18); the source of love (4:19–20); and the one who commands us to love (4:21–5:5).
God Is the Standard of Love (4:13–16)* When we say that God is the “standard” for love, we mean that God’s actions reveal to us what love is and how it manifests itself. Earlier John had argued that there is a concrete manifestation of God’s presence and activity in the Christian community in the love of Christians for each other (4:7–12). Now he asserts that God’s love for us is manifested in sending Jesus as the Savior of the world (vv. 15–16). If we have never seen God (vv. 12, 20), we have seen that the Son has been sent for our salvation. The “seeing” referred to here is the sight of faith (Barker 1981:345; Smalley 1984:252; compare Jn 9:37–41). What the eyewitnesses saw (1 Jn 1:1–4) and what all subsequent believers have experienced in Jesus by faith was God’s act of salvation for the world. Some physically saw Jesus; but perceiving that Jesus is the life of the world is not limited to eyewitnesses. As an African proverb has it, “God has no grandchildren.” All believers come to God on the same footing as those who heard and saw and followed Jesus.
The confession of Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the world encapsulates the Johannine understanding of Jesus. First, Jesus is the Son of God. Because Jesus is the Son, he stands in a unique relationship with God; therefore, he mediates salvation (v. 14), the indwelling of God with us (v. 15) and the love of God (v. 16). Second, Jesus is Savior. His life and death mediate salvation or fellowship with God (1:3; 4:2; compare Jn 17:3). Jesus makes God known and takes away sin (2:2; 3:5, 8; 4:10) so that we may indeed have fellowship with God. Third, Jesus is the Savior of the world. This affirmation summarizes the universal scope of Jesus’ work: no one, even the one hostile to God, stands outside the scope of God’s love. Salvation is appropriated by the person who acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God.
All that Jesus is and does testifies to and manifests God’s love. Those who confess Jesus as Son of God and Savior know and rely on the love God has for us. Rely on suggests the trustworthy nature of that in which we put our trust. Christians can count on the steadfastness of God’s love, because they have experienced it in God’s faithfulness to them. They can rely on God. The cynical songwriter who counseled, “Don’t put your faith in love” really meant “don’t put your faith in people.” But John writes that we can trust God’s love, because we can trust God. The evidence of God’s steadfast love is the sending of the Son (1 Jn 3:16; 4:10; Jn 3:16). It is impossible to confess the Son without at the same time understanding him to be the incomparable manifestation of God’s love.
So in verse 16 the Elder moves easily into a reassertion of his earlier thesis that God is love, a statement that is difficult to improve upon, explain or paraphrase. We can say that God’s nature is love, that God’s actions are loving, that God repeatedly demonstrates love for us and others, that God loved even a hostile world and that God sent Jesus to make all of this known to us. That God’s love provides the standard for love means that authentic love is steadfast and constant, that it is directed toward others with life-giving healing, that it seeks out its enemies for good and that it is known pre-eminently in the cross. Human love derives its character and shape from the standard of divine love.
As noted above, we must not turn the affirmation God is love around to read “love is God.” The second part of verse 16 lends itself to such a misreading when it says whoever lives in love lives in God. But the Elder can write whoever lives in love lives in God only because he has first written God is love. In other words, he assumes that those who love live in God—but only because he assumes that those who live in God necessarily love. Love comes from God who is love; hence, those who live in love show that they live in God. Love for others and living in relationship with God are inseparable. The dissidents who claim to live in God, although they do not love the children of God, live neither in love nor in God.
Thompson, M. M. (1992). 1–3 John (1 Jn 4:13). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.