Passage 1: 1 John 4.7-21 (RSV) Click ‘full post’ for text and commentary.
7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.
10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.
12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.
14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world.
15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.
16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world.
18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.
19 We love because he first loved us.
20 Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.
21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
Why is this a favourite passage?
This was the passage that articulated my new understanding of the world after my foundational religious experience (see here), and I still see it as the manifesto for Christian faith. It functions as a description of the grammar of Christian faith, in other words, it describes what it means when Christians talk about God, about love, and how that is shown through life.
Verse 7: the passage begins with the call to love, which is, in my view, the primary Christian call. Jesus’ ministry begins with the call to repentance, which I see as closely related, but the word ‘repentance’ carries many moralistic connotations in our present day, as if Christianity was all about becoming morally respectable. We are called to love people, and that is it.
Verses 7&8: it’s not a content-free call, for the passage goes on to spell out what is meant by this call to love. The first and most primary element is the equation of God with love, and the truth that it is in loving that we know who God is, and that in loving we become children of God. The love that is shared on earth is a reflection or participation in the love of God himself, and as we know and experience what it is to truly love one another, we begin to discern what it is to share the love of God and to know Him.
Verse 9: what was the point of Jesus’ life? That we might live through him. Sometimes the emphasis there is on the through him and Jesus becomes this exclusive burden laid upon people’s backs. I read the emphasis differently: Jesus came that we might live; God’s eternal intention is for us to enjoy abundance of life. It’s a finger and moon situation – the Hebrews have got stuck on the finger, and are taking pride in the finger, so God sends his Son to point back at the moon again; but now it seems that “Jesus” has become just another finger. Instead of Jesus being the vehicle (the way, the truth and the life) Jesus has ended up being yet another barrier. The point of Jesus (the logos of Jesus) has been missed. It’s the equivalent of saying that we must all become first-century Jews in order to be saved.
Verse 10a: two very important things in this verse. The first (and most important) is about divine initiative. Love does not begin with us. We are not the source of love, we are called to be channels of the love. More than that, God’s love is being poured out all the time, eternally, and our role is simply to fall in with that constant outpouring of love. Sometimes we get snagged by thinking that there isn’t enough love to go around (there’s a good Duffy song on this theme by the way) – and that is surpassingly foolish. I love Rowan Williams’ image for this – trying to safeguard the love is like standing beneath Niagara Falls with a bucket, we simply cannot contain it. We are called to simply be vessels.
Verse 10b: The second part of this verse is one of the few that raises a concern in me, the grim shade of penal substitution. I read the language of expiation as ‘God reconciling the world to himself’ – not through being appeased but by removing the powers that destroy our capacity to live. So I read this text as: In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to [heal us from all that afflicts us]. In other words I don’t see any desire to punish in God. (I go into more detail in how I understand God’s wrath here.)
Verse 11: I tend to be suspicious of ‘ought’ and ‘should’ language – I see it as worldly, in the sense of ‘of the devil’ but the point here is a straightforward appeal to respond to what God has done.
Verse 12: the first part is explicated further in a few verses, and the second part is a reiteration of the theme of this paragraph: that we know what God is like because of the love that can be shared between human beings. Note especially the point that ‘his love is perfected in us’. I read this as meaning that when we love then God’s purpose in creation is fulfilled, is brought to completion. The Word has not proceeded fruitless but is accomplishing its purpose.
Verse 13: developing the theme by now talking about the Holy Spirit. This is how we are to understand the language of the Holy Spirit – when we love as Christ loved us, then we share in the Spirit – the Spirit is the sharing of love. There might be other things associated with that sharing, other spiritual phenomena, but those are extraneous and non-essential. The essential part of Spirit-filled worship is the love that is shared between human beings.
Verse 14: personal testimony. This is not a theory, a nice sounding speculation that is all heavenly minded but no earthly good. This is a response to a particular human being who was known directly and personally.
Verse 15: a grammatical point, which cannot be understood apart from the context. This is not a magical incantation like saying ‘Abracadabra’ to open a hidden door; it has a specific meaning in terms of what this confession commits the person to in the situation at the time. In particular it entails: i) an acceptance of the resurrection, and therefore ii) an acceptance that Jesus has been vindicated by God, and therefore iii) a commitment to the truth embodied in Jesus which is iv) the love-sharing life being explored by the Christian community. To confess that Jesus is the Son of God IS to be committed to the life of love.
Verse 16: the teaching is grounded in further experience – it is believed because it is known – and it is followed by another reiteration of the main teaching of the whole passage.
Verses 17-19: A very important aspect of the central teaching, which further develops the ‘grammar’ of what it means to love, which is that fear is banished. The context is divine judgment and the assurance given from knowing the character of God as love; in other words (and this is why I interpret verse 10b in the way I do) there is no desire for punishment in God. The primary and basic truth is that God loves us, he desires us to flourish with abundant life, and he sent his Son in order to achieve this. We leave behind the game of spiritual achievement with all the attendant neuroses of heaven and hell and simply allow God’s love to be experienced in the here and now. That gives the blessed assurance which is the spiritual fuel enabling the sharing of love in the present.
Verses 20,21: A renewed emphasis upon the link with love in the present context. Christian love is not abstract and ephemeral, it has real, concrete consequences. It is impossible to say that God is loved when the neighbour is not loved – in this situation, to use Wittgenstein’s terms, the surface grammar is being respected but not the depth grammar; we are back with fingers and not with moons. The passage finishes with a renewed appeal to follow the commandment, for that is the nature of Christian discipleship.
I see this passage as the mission statement of the faith; it captures what I see as the core element of a lived Christianity. There is a lot of doctrine embedded in it, but the emphasis is upon the difference that the doctrine makes in the life of the believer. Where the doctrine does not make a difference, or, worse, where it leads to a less-loving life, then we can be certain that the Spirit is not present. To love God is to love our neighbour, and when we love then God lives in us: we know God, and we have no need to be afraid.
(A Lenten resolution, inspired by my therapy.)