The Key to Understanding Love
Passage: 1 John 4:7–4:16
The Key to Understanding Love
I John 4:8, 16
August 3rd, 2008
Way of Grace Church
I. Your Reference Point for Love
Where do you look when it comes to love? I'm not talking about where you might look to find love. I am asking, "Where do you look to know how to love?"
We sometimes think that everyone automatically loves as they should; that we're just born that way. But there are too many broken hearts and broken lives out there, and in here, that would take issue with that belief.
We may have an impulse toward love. We may have a capacity to love. But we don't always love as we should. And because of that, we look around in order to learn about love. But what is your reference point when it comes to love?
For many people, mom and/or dad are the reference point for love. We learned to love by watching the way our dad treated our mom, or our mom treated our dad. We learned to love in light of how our parents treated us.
For others of us, the media's images of love, especially romantic love, these are our reference points. We go back to that certain film, we go back to the feelings we're told we should have, we go back to expectations that are shaped by this tabloid or that novel.
For some, our feelings of comfort become our reference point for understanding love. Love is strictly fenced in by what is comfortable for us. This is simply an expression of what Whitney Houston sang about in the 80's, that "learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all".
And still others turn to a religious reference point when it comes to love. They look to this or that religious figure and they think, "I need to be like that person. I need to do the kinds of loving things they do. Giving, serving, acts of mercy...that's real love."
And of course, there are countless other reference points out there. The point is, all of us have learned from and are learning from certain things out there when it comes to how we think about love, how we answer the questions "how should I love" and "what should I love".
If you're human, then this is an important issue, isn't it? Love is such a critical part of what it means to be human. Everything around us simply confirms that.
And so, because that's true, we need to understand what our reference point should be when it comes to love.
Turn with me this morning to I John 4. The Apostle John, a man who walked with Jesus himself, has some incredible things to tell us this morning about this very question. Let's look together at I John 4 with these questions in mind.
II. The Passage: "...Because God is Love" (9:1-10)
We're going to start in verse 7, but before we do we need to understand something about this letter.
We don't know who this letter was written to or when it was written, but we do know that the Christians being addressed here were struggling with the influence of misguided Teachers.
We could say that they were struggling with false ‘reference points'; people who we're trying to tell them that what they had learned from John about love was wrong; that what they had learned about Jesus was wrong; that what they had learned about God was wrong.
And inasmuch as they believed these things, there lives were changed...and not for the better. So let's listen to how John instructs them here.
A. Establishing Our Reference Point (4:7, 8)
Let's look together at verses 7 and 8. Let me read:
7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.
From what John has written here it seems from that these followers of Jesus were not loving each other as they should. Could this have been related to the false ideas, the false ‘reference points' that were being introduced into this church? We're not sure.
But what I want us to see here, what I think is very difficult to miss in these verses is the very simple truth that the reality of love and the reality of God are inseparable. Do you see that?
What John is telling us here is that God should be our ultimate reference point when it comes to love.
In both positive and negative statements John makes it clear that if we know God, if we belong to God, we will love. And, in the same way, if our life is not characterized by love, then, whatever we may believe about our faith, we do not actually know God.
Now that's a pretty bold statement, isn't it? But John can make that kind of assertion because of the monumental truth that he reveals at the end of verse 8.
Our love is in fact a precise barometer of our relationship with God for the simple reason that "God is love". Let me say that again, "God is love."
Now, in one sense, I don't know what to do with that statement. It's too big. As the psalmist put in Psalm 139, "such knowledge is too wonderful for me".
Certainly the OT reveals the fact that God is full of lovingkindness and that His steadfast love endures forever. But what are we to make of this statement: "God IS love"?
Let me tell you first what it does not mean. It does mean that love is God. God is a person, not a virtue. It also does not mean that God is ONLY love. Many people today cannot imagine God as anything but love.
In light of the context here, in light of John's discussion, I think what John means when he says that "God is love" is that we can only truly understand love by looking to God. Love finds its definition in the nature of God. To know God is to know love.
While this might be a poor comparison because of the greatness of what we're talking about, we could say John's statement is like when someone says, "Michael Jordan? Michael Jordan doesn't only play basketball, he is basketball." Now obviously, this doesn't mean that Michael Jordan is a basketball. It means that his skill at playing the game makes him such an embodiment of the game that people, especially people of a certain generation, have a hard time thinking of basketball in all its fullness without thinking of him."
Is the same true for us in terms of God? Do we have a hard time thinking about love without thinking of Him? While other reference points for love may be instructive, they all must be judged in light of the ultimate reference point which is God himself.
Now, let's be clear. This is not simply saying, "Oh, I believe that God is loving". Most people today, no matter their religious affiliations or lack thereof, most people today will describe God as loving. But very often when they say that, there reference point for love is not actually God himself.
Very often, what they are in fact saying is that God is loving according to how they define love. "Well God wouldn't let that happen...He's a loving God. Well God would never send anyone to Hell...He's a loving God. Well God doesn't judge me...he loves me."
But the principle that John is working from here is that love can only be understood in light of who God is. When we know God, we know love. The farther we drift from God, the farther we drift from love.
Is that how you think about love? When you are struggling to love a difficult friend, do you turn to God as your reference point for love? When you are struggling to love a distant spouse, do you turn to God as your reference point for love? When you are struggling to love a defiant child, do you turn to God as your reference point?
In the same way, when you fail to love as you should, do you take that as a sign that you need to go back to God? Our broken relationships and broken marriages and broken dreams all go back to the fact that God is so often NOT our reference point when it comes to love.
Whether we're talking about experiencing love or expressing love, God must be our ultimate reference point.
But in contrast to John's statement in verse 8, all of us will certainly say that we do love. We may not love everyone and we may not love perfectly all the time, but we do love. Parents love children. A brother loves a sister. A wife loves her husband. A friend loves a friend. And the Bible recognizes this fact that regardless of a person's relationship with God, love can be present.
But what we need to understand here is that John is not talking about just any kind of love, about just any kind of reference point. He is talking about the fullness of love that only God can give.
So what does this fullness of love look like? What is love according to the definition that God's own nature provides? Well that's where John goes next.
B. Embodying Our Reference Point (4:9-14)
Look at verses 9-14. John writes:
9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us [Hear that? This fullness of love, this God-defined love was revealed to us...how...listen..."In this the love of God was made manifest among us], that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us [that is, if God loved us like this], we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides 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 testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.
What we see here is that John knows that he cannot simply leave love undefined. If he did, each of us would come and pour our own ideas about love into that word. That's why John is sure to point out in verse 10, "in this is love, NOT that we have loved God". This is not about us as the reference point for love.
No, he directs us to the ultimate expression of God's love, the clearest picture we have of God-defined love: the giving over of Jesus Christ, God's only Son, to death, in order to pay the penalty for our wrongs.
You see, the cross of Jesus shows us that God's love is more than words. God acted. And he acted not in order to do what was easiest or least costly. No, he gave what was most precious to him: His Son. And he gave His Son, not to those who deserved it, to those he considered his friends. No, he gave his son on behalf of his enemies, those who had sinned against him. And he did all this, not simply to provide for our wants, but to meet our greatest need: our need to be reconciled to Him.
That is what we saw happen at the cross, through the death of Jesus Christ. That is love. Now I've used this before, but I want to give you a definition that I think sums up what we see here:
Love is a passionate concern that labors without limit to see God's best accomplished in another's life.
We may love others, but do we love like this. Do we do whatever is necessary...for whoever God brings...with our eyes on what God desires? We can only do that when God is our reference point for love.
This why Paul can say in his letter to the Ephesian church: Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (5:1, 2)
So not only does God's own nature establish the reference point for genuine love, but God's own work through Jesus Christ embodies that reference point for all to see.
C. Experiencing Our Reference Point (4:15, 16)
But how is that people like us can experience and express this love that comes from God himself. God is love, but I know that I'm not. When I look at the perfect picture of love that God has provided in the cross of Jesus, I know how far I fall short. You may feel the same.
I recognize that not only did Jesus die because of my sins, my failure to make God my ultimate reference point in everything, but I also see how my love pales in comparison to His.
It's not enough for us to simply learn about God's love through words on a page. We cannot simply know about God's love. We have to know God's love. We have to know God.
And the path to knowing God is what John touches on in the next two verses. Look at verses 15 and 16:
15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
Notice that we've come back to where the section began in verse 8. We've come back to the truth that "God is love".
But what we also find here in verse 16 is the fact that we can both know and believe the love God has for us. John's reminds his readers that this is true in their case. The verbs "know" and "believe" here are in the perfect tense in the original Greek of this letter, which means that John has in mind something that happened in the past, but has ongoing effects right up into the present.
If we take these verbs together, in the sense that they are expressing one idea, we see that John has in mind here more than a mental knowledge of God's love. He's talking about an experience of love that comes from our trust in the truth of who God is and what God's done.
And when we believe, we discover that we enter into a very unique relationship with God. As John puts it, "God abides in [us] and [we] in God." And because as verse 13 indicates, this abiding involves the gift of God's own Spirit, because His Spirit dwells in us, the nature of God will be worked out through us...like a sponge filled with water will bring forth water when it's squeezed.
Again, that's precisely why John can say in verse 8: Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. It is both the nature of God and the nature of our relationship with God that makes that true.
But how can we have that relationship? Look again at verse 15:
Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.
It all comes down to what we believe about Jesus Christ, what we will confess about Jesus. John put it this way in his longer work about the life of Jesus. In describing his purpose for the book, he writes, "but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." (John 20:31)
You see, this is not simply about what we say we believe. It is about that belief that drives us to speak, that faith that causes us to publicly state our allegiances, no matter the cost.
The Apostle Paul expressed the same thought this way: "because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Romans 10:9)
We've established that our ultimate reference point for love is God and God alone. And we've been given the clearest picture of that love at the cross of Christ when Jesus embodied that reference point for us. But if we want to experience that reference point, and consequently express this God-defined love, we need to place our faith in Jesus Christ as our only hope.
We have not loved as we should. We have not loved God, or anyone else for that matter, in the way God originally created men and women to love. But if we are honest about our own failures, and if we genuinely confront our true condition, then how sweet is the sound of that same truth we've been talking about: "God is love".
It's not just an intellectual proposition, is it? It's incredible news. It is hope for people like us. The ultimate love that we all seek is not far away. It has come near to us. It is being offered to us.
The sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the supreme act of love, is our pathway back to the love of God. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.
What have we seen this morning? We've seen that we desperately need God as our reference point when it comes to love, because we cannot ultimately understand love apart from Him. For God is love.
And I think we can express this need in two ways:
First, we need to know the love of God in order to love as God loves.
And second, we need to know the love of God in order to love what God loves.
In the coming weeks, we are going deeper into this subject. We are going to learn more about the love of God.
But as I already mentioned, this has to be about more than simply the acquisition of knowledge. This needs to be, ultimately, about your embrace of God's love through faith in Jesus Christ. If we leave this study, this series with only a bigger head about God's love, we'll miss the reality that matters most.
The great teacher and preacher A.W. Tozer said this about God's love:
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.
If we have not received God's love, if we do not abide in Him, He cannot be our reference point. And if He is not our reference point when it comes to love, we will continue to struggle with that which is only a shadow of love. What's casting the shadow? As Paul put it in Colossians 2: "the substance...the substance belongs to Christ".