Getting to the Bottom of Love

Bible Book: 1 John  4 : 7-21
Subject: Love

This week as I studied today’s text it hit me that love is a big deal in my family. I mean, we Adamses are always telling each other, “I love you!” Don’t get the wrong idea. We’re not an overly sappy or emotional family—but whenever we go our separate ways after a family get-together or when we are e-mailing or texting each other or when we are saying good-night to the grandkids—or when someone in the family is going through some difficulty—and tons of OTHER times—we Adamses always find ourselves saying those three words: “I love you!”

I even have a special way to communicate that message to my daughters, Sarah and Becca. It began when they were little.  I would say, “Know what?” and they would say, “Yes, dad we know you love us.”  I still use that “I-love-you-short-hand” with Sarah and Becca to this day. We Adamses communicate love to each other all the time because, as I said, love is a big deal in our family—and I’m sure it is in yours as well. You probably have your own special ways to communicate that love.

I bring this up because in his letter John has constantly reminded us that love is a big deal in GOD’S family. Over and over and over again John tells his readers then and now about the importance of love. I don’t know if you’ve been counting but in his little epistle, John has used some form of the word “love” a total of 51 times.  Our text for this morning is the third time he has addressed different aspects of love.  He’s talked about God’s love for us, our love for God, and especially our love for one another.  In fact, LOVING ONE ANOTHER seems to be John’s favorite “love topic”—probably because of all the church splits that he’d endured thanks to the work of the false teachers we talked about last week.In any case it’s not surprising that John is known as “the apostle of love” because he wrote and preached and talked about love all the time.

But John isn’t the only one in the Bible who stresses the importance of love. Twenty-seven times THROUGHOUT the New Testament Christians are COMMANDED to love.  And do you remember what Jesus said about this?  Our Lord said ALL OF THE LAW is BUILT on love—our love for God and our love for others. Now, why is that so? Why is loving each other—such a big deal to our Heavenly Father? Why couldn’t He just tell us to PUT UP with each other or to TOLERATE each other?  I mean, let’s face it—loving others can be difficult at times. So—why does the Bible stress the importance of loving so much? In our text for this morning John helps us get to the bottom of all this love stuff by citing three reasons loving others is such a vital part of the Christian life.

The first reason he gives is this.

(1)   Loving is important because of Who GOD is.

As John puts it in verses 7 and 8 and 16, “Love COMES FROM God…for God IS love.” In other words, John reminds us that love is a big deal for the Christian because the SOURCE of love is God Himself. In verse 19 he says, “We love because He first loved us!” Someone once put it this way, “Love flows from God as light radiates from the sun.”

Now please note—John doesn’t say: “Love is God,” as if who we believe in doesn’t matter, as long as we love. No—John doesn’t DEIFY love.  Nor does he say, “God is loving” as if it were just one of many divine attributes of God—like His patience, His power, or His wisdom.  No—John simply states, “GOD IS LOVE.” In other words, the very ESSENCE of God’s being is LOVE.  Love pervades and influences all of His attributes and activities. When He creates, He creates in love. When He rules, He rules in love. God even judges in love. Love never is and never can be absent from His being.  John Stott puts it this way: “Love is the most comprehensive and sublime of all Biblical affirmations about God’s being.” Oswald Chambers writes, “God is love, not, God is loving. God and love are synonymous.  If your conception of [God’s] love does not agree with justice and judgment and purity and holiness, then your idea of love is wrong.”

And, speaking of God’s attributes, let’s take His holiness as an example. As Hebrews 7:26 says, God is “…undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens.”  Well, since God is holy it would be perfectly understandable for Him to view all sinners with the utmost of contempt.  But since God is love, His is a holiness that REACHES OUT to sinners with salvation—God’s holiness is the antithesis of aloofness or indifference.

Once, while riding in the country, Charles Haddon Spurgeon saw a weather vane on a farmer’s barn and the words: “God is Love” were inscribed on the arrow. He turned in at the gate and asked the farmer, “What do you mean by that? Do you think God’s love is changeable? Do you think it veers about as that arrow turns in the wind?”  The farmer said, “Oh, no! I mean that whichever way the wind blows, God is STILL love.” And the farmer was correct. Our Holy God IS love—ALWAYS is love.

But to fully understand this fact we need to realize that God’s love is special. It’s unique—different from any other form of love found in our world. In fact, this is one reason we struggle to comprehend God’s great love. It is so unlike our human love. You see, our love tends to be characterized with “ifs,” “maybes,” and “becauses.”  Henri Nouwen writes, “The world says, ‘Yes, I love you IF you are good looking, intelligent, and wealthy. I love you IF you have a good education, a good job, and good connections. I love you IF you produce much, sell much, and buy much.’ The world’s love is and always will be conditional” In contrast God loves us because that’s the kind of Being He is. Period. Nothing in us prompts or causes Him to love us. His love is truly unconditional. When God says, “I love you” —as He does over and over again in the Bible—He does not say, “I love you IF…” or “I love you because…” He just says, “I love you!” John Ortberg writes, “Nothing you will ever do could make God love you more than He does right now: not greater achievement, not greater beauty, not wider recognition, not even greater levels of spirituality and obedience. Nothing you have ever done could make God love you any less: not any sin, not any failure, not any guilt, not any regret.”

And this is a good thing because we are sinners—each and every one of us. I mean, I don’t want to pop your bubble but the fact is thanks to sin you are not a naturally lovable person and neither am I. All of us can be difficult to love. Sin has infected our lives so much that it has distorted even the parts we think are beautiful. Look at it this way, sin UGLIFIES everything it touches and it touches every part of each and every one of us.  So there is no reason for our Holy, sinless God to love us except this: That’s the way He is. In spite of our sin and rebellion against His loving laws, God loves you and me. God’s love is not motivated by who we are—but rather by Who He is. God is love. Matthew Henry put it this way, “The great God not only loves us, but He loves to love us.”

The unique caliber of God’s love is seen in the word for love that John uses when He says “God is love.” The word for love that he uses is the Greek word “agape.” I know you’ve heard this word before. We hear it all the time. It’s NOT rare in most churches these days but it was VERY rare in the first century. I mean, Aristotle didn’t use it in his writings. Neither did Hippocrates. It was a Greek word that was almost never used—that is until Jesus came. People like John took this word and used it because they discovered that God’s love is an entirely different kind of love than humanity was accustomed to. It’s a love that gives and gives and then gives some more—never asking for anything in return. No other Greek word communicated a love like this. I mean, “eros” — a physical, sexual love—doesn’t give and give without seeking something for itself. Of course not—EROS is a love that wants something in return.“Storge” —or family love—is better but it gives because it knows that it will be benefited by its family. So it wouldn’t work. John crossed it off his list.“Phileo”—or “friendship love”—doesn’t just give unconditionally either for it is a love of common interests. No—the only word that worked was “agape” because it is a love that gives without ulterior motives—gives without seeking something in return.

Plus, it’s a love that is not based on emotions or feelings. It is a love of CHOICE—the choice to ACT in love for the benefit of the one who is loved. I mean, God’s love is not static. It’s a love of action and this leads me to the next reason John says loving others is such a big deal.

(2)   It is important because of What God has DONE.

God’s love prompted Him to send Jesus to die in our place. Look at verses 9 and 10. John writes, “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

Now, instead of the phrase “atoning sacrifice” some versions use the word “propitiation” — a word that means “to appease someone’s wrath.” In ancient Greek mythology the gods were capricious and easily angered by humans so humans looked for ways to appease that anger by offering sacrifices to these mythical gods.

Well, why does there need to be propitiation for our sins? Didn’t that kind of thing go out of fashion with Greek mythology? Plus God is not some capricious mythical being. He’s the real deal. He doesn’t change. He’s always holy and perfect—and as we said He is love. So, why doesn’t God just wave His hand and forgive all our sin? Let me answer my question with another question.  Why didn’t the judge in the state of Colorado just wave his hand and forgive James Holmes for murdering 12 people and wounding 58 others in a theater in Aurora a couple years back? Of course to even ASK this question is to ANSWER it. It would be an egregious violation of JUSTICE to simply forgive something like that. Well, the same is true of our sins. For God just to wave them away would be a denial of the seriousness of sin and a gross violation of justice. Sin violates His perfect law a law that demands that justice be done. God is just so He must punish sin. But God is also merciful so He sent Jesus. Jesus took the punishment for our sins on Himself so, as John says, we need not fear the judgment. God’s perfect love has driven out that fear. No punishment awaits us because of the love of God in sending Jesus to die in our place—taking OUR punishment on Himself.

If you’ve read the book The Hunger Games or seen the movie you know the plot revolves around a horrible contest fought between young representatives of twelve futuristic districts. The winner of the Hunger Games is the last one standing as the contestants are forced to kill each other to stay alive.  When the authorities come to choose the contestants—one boy and one girl—from District 12 for the 74th annual Hunger Games, the name of Primrose (or Prim) Everdeen is plucked from a large bowl containing all the children’s names. As the authorities lead Primrose away, her older sister Katniss suddenly intervenes and shouts Prim’s name. The guards stop Katniss from approaching Prim, but Katniss shouts, “No! I volunteer! I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute!” So Katniss takes Prim’s place and becomes the representative for District 12.

Well, Katniss provides a moving example of courage and sacrificial love. After all, she voluntarily substitutes herself for another human being. But it’s also an understandable substitution isn’t it? After all, she does it for her little sister. I mean, it’s admirable, but it’s the kind of thing we hope we’d all do for our younger siblings or our children or our spouses. But Jesus’ substitution—His propitiation—doesn’t work like that because whose place does Jesus take? He takes the place of people like the cowardly disciples, the scheming religious leaders, and spineless politicians.  He takes the place of people like the blood-stained Barabbas and the cursing criminal and every other sinner down through the ages including people like Hitler and Ben Laden—evil people who committed the most heinous of acts. I mean, the remarkable thing about God’s love is that He extends it to people who aren’t even  interested in it, people who, in fact, want nothing to do with God. Jesus died—He was the propitiation for—SINNERS—all of them. As John writes, “Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”(1st John 2:2) God loves ALL people—and send His Son as the propitiation for the SIN of ALL people.

Ty Cobb was one of the all-time greats in the game of baseball. He had a .367 lifetime batting average, with 4191 hits and 892 stolen bases. He won nine straight batting titles. But Ty Cobb was also the meanest man in baseball. He was not a good man. Known for stopping at nothing to win, he would insult, humiliate, and even injure other players in his quest for victory. His own teammates once rooted against him when he was in a tight race one season for the batting title.

He was known to make unprovoked racial slurs.  He had three wives, all of whom he verbally and physically abused. He was constantly involved in fistfights, arguments, and tirades against fans and players.  He once pistol-whipped a would-be mugger so badly that the face of the corpse could not be identified. Some players, like the famous Ted Williams, tried to help Cobb, but to no avail. Cobb was worth millions because of his early investment in Coco-cola.  When he died, he had in his possession millions in stocks, bonds, and cash and yet it would be hard to find a more apt specimen of total depravity.

But the story does not end there. Not long before he died, Cobb was visited by a Presbyterian minister named John Richardson.  Cobb curtly told the preacher to leave. Two days later he returned. This time Cobb listened as Richardson explained to him the plan of salvation. Hearing of Christ’s love for sinners and how he had come to die for the likes of Ty Cobb, “the Georgia Peach” was overcome with emotion. Richardson continued to explain the necessity of repentance of sin and faith in Jesus as the only way of salvation.  Cobb responded by telling the preacher he was ready to put his complete trust in Jesus as his Savior and he did. Two days before he died, Ty Cobb told Richardson, “I feel the strong arms of God underneath me.” And I know God’s loving arms were there because that’s Who God is. God is love and that’s what God’s love does—HAS DONE. It prompted Jesus to die for sinners like Ty Cobb—sinners like you and me.

This leads me to mention one other reason love is a big deal in God’s family.

(3)   Loving others is important because of who WE are.

We are GOD’S CHILDREN! As Christians we are part of God’s family. I mean, since God IS the source of all love—since God showed that love by sending Jesus to die in our place—then it follows that people who have experienced that love personally will then act in love toward others. They will love others in a Godly way. And, as God’s children when we love in an AGAPE way, people see His resemblance in us. I mean, with God as Father of course loving is a big deal for those who belong to His family. Look back at verses 7 and 8. John says, “Everyone who loves is born of God and Knows God. The one who does not love does not know God.”  In other words, a stranger to love is a stranger to God but those who know God personally are known for the way they love—love like HE loves.

Mark Buchanan points out that in verse 12 John shows us this principle from a different angle. He takes us a little deeper and says, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and His love is MADE COMPLETE in us” (4:12). Now to help us fully understand what John is saying here I want to take you to something else he wrote. It’s in John’s GOSPEL, right at the beginning of John 1, verses 17–18.  John writes: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”  And listen to this next phrase: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, Who is Himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, HAS MADE HIM KNOWN.”  Now if you combine John 1 and 1st John 4, you get this:  “No one has ever seen God. But Jesus came and he made God known, and then He went up to Heaven to stand at the right hand of God. If we love like God loves, WE make him known.”  Do you get my drift? When we love others we actually complete something—something that’s unfinished.  In our loving we make the God WE know through faith in Jesus KNOWN TO OTHERS.

Now that word “make known” is fascinating. The word in Greek is “exēgesatō.” We transliterate it to make our word “exegete.”If you’ve ever studied Hebrew or Greek you know that word because exegesis is part of studying a passage of Scripture in those languages.When you exegete a phrase or a word from the Bible, you do not impose your own interpretation on it. No—you work with the original language.You research the context of that word historically and culturally to try to discover the original meaning.  You look to find all the ways that phrase or word was used.When you are finished you better understand that word or phrase. Its meaning is MADE KNOWN to you.

Well, what John is saying here is that in His life, death, and resurrection Jesus exegeted the original purpose of God. Jesus made God known.  He removed all misinterpretations that we might bring—our worldly interpretations, imposing the way we see things—and Jesus peeled all of that back and gave us a clear picture of God. And then John says that as Christians, you and I get to “exegete” God by loving others. We have experienced God’s unconditional love personally. We know that while we were yet sinners God showed us His love by sending Jesus to be the propitiation for our sins…and now as we love others unconditionally, we exegete God. We MAKE HIM KNOWN to others because we are never more like God than when we love.

Now, as you know, the religious people in Jesus’ day absolutely hated Jesus and the way He exegeted God. After all they were trained in and focused on THE LAW of Moses. They thought that by teaching the Law, practicing the Law from their legalistic perspective, they were exegeting God. They thought that with all their legalism THEY were showing the true purpose—the real character of God.  The Pharisees had taught and practiced that God was a nitpicker—that God was a stickler for the rules. In their mind that was the heartbeat of God. And then Jesus came along and exegeted God in a whole new way. The God He made known was—IS—full of grace and truth. His laws were prompted by His love and grace. And then to further exegete God’s true nature, Jesus told stories about what God is like. You know some of those stories.  I mean, with stories like the widow turning over furniture to find the lost coin and the shepherd leaving his flock to scour the hillsides to find his lost sheep Jesus made God known as a SEEKER of lost people. With these stories Jesus said God loved sinners and longed to forgive them. Of course that brings to mind Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son. Remember? It’s a story about a rebellious son who breaks ALL the rules. And when he realizes his mistake and comes home you would think it was time for comeuppance—time for consequences—time for the boom to be lowered. The humbled son thinks, “Maybe, maybe, maybe I can get a crust of bread and maybe, maybe, maybe my father will hire me as a day laborer.”  As he comes straggling home after having squandered—after having rudely taken his father’s wealth, the father doesn’t give him bread, he doesn’t give him a day job; no, he gives him prime rib. He throws a welcome home party and restores him to the fullness of his sonship. And then he starts handing out his own stuff to this prodigal—his robe and signet ring and his sandals.  Well, stories like this frustrated the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. They didn’t like the way He exegeted the true nature of our God. I love how Eugene Peterson captures this in The Message.  In the beginning of Luke 15 he writes: “A lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religious scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, ‘He takes in sinners and eats meals with them treating them like old friends.’”  That’s what God is like. Yes, He hates sin—but He LOVES sinners and Jesus made this known. Look at verses 10 and 11, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved usand sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends,since God so loved us,we also ought to love one another [in that same AGAPE way.]”

Do you see the point I’m making? As God’s children we are to continue this EXEGESIS of God. We are to continue to make God known by loving others in an AGAPE—-God-like way. And understand people LONG for this kind of love—long not to just be TOLD they are loved but to be SHOWN by sacrificial acts that they are loved. As you know, last fall we were in Paris and we toured the Louv’re—one of the largest art museums in the world. It was a wonderful experience but I have to say, I wasn’t that impressed with art like the Venus de Milo or the Mona Lisa. I didn’t get into pictures or sculptures of people just standing there or sitting there.  But I DID like the large canvases or sculptures that showed something happening. I liked the art that showed ACTION. For example, I enjoyed examining the one that depicted the battle in which the men of early Rome abducted women from the Sabines. Every inch of that huge canvas was full of action. As another example, I don’t like looking at a portrait of George Washington near as much as that painting of him crossing the Delaware. And I’m not alone in this. People like to see things happening—especially when it comes to love. They are not moved by our saying we love them. They are moved by our acting like we do—because this is how God loves. As John says in verse 9 “God SHOWED His love.” A love of action—a doing love—a sacrificial love—makes people pay attention. It points them to God Himself.

This week I read about the situation in the Central African Republic where armed bands of alleged Christian militiamen surrounded a group of 800 Muslims, demanding that they leave the country, or die at the hands of a machete-wielding mob.  But the fleeing Muslim families have found an unusual refuge from the militia known as the anti-Balaka—a church. A small band of armed Christian peacekeepers is protecting the building, where the local priest, Rev. Justin Nary, is risking his life in the face of death threats to give shelter and sanctuary to the Muslim refugees.  An article in the National Post says: “A Muslim man named, Mahmoud and his friends laugh when asked if they ever thought they would live at a church. However, they recognize the gravity of the situation that now faces them. ‘If it weren’t for the church and the peacekeepers, we’d all be dead.’” I don’t know if any of these Muslims have become Christians—but I DO know that by SEEING the love of God in the actions of Pastor Nary and his congregation seeing this example of the fact that unconditional agape love is a big deal in God’s family has surely made it more likely that this will happen.

So, to review the answers we’ve found to our question: Love is a big deal to God—because of Who He is. God is love, because of what He has done. His love prompted Him to send Jesus to die for us, and because of who we are. We are children of God and it’s our job to share God’s love every chance we get.

This morning I don’t want to end without emphasizing the fact that God loves each and every one of YOU. I like something I came across this week in the writings of A. W. Tozer. “The love of God is one of the great realities of the universe, a pillar upon which the hope of the world rests. But it is a PERSONAL, intimate thing too. God does not love populations. He loves people. He loves not masses, but men.  He loves us all with a mighty love that has no beginning and can have no end.” Do you get Tozer’s emphasis here? God loves YOU as an individual. He always has. He always will.  He loves YOU with this unconditional agape love we’ve been talking about. As Augustine put it, “God loves you as though you are the only person in the world, and He loves everyone the way He loves you.”