1 John 4:7-21New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
God Is Love
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 Savior 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 judgment, 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[a] 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.
Twice in this passage the authors announce the bold claim of Christian Faith, that God is love. The claim is implicit in many other parts of the Bible but it is only stated so plainly here. Such a plain statement is open to misunderstanding, which may be the reason that other authors avoided it. For love is a slippery word. GReek culture used a variety of words for love: Eros, sexual love; philia, love between equals in family or amongst friends; storge, the love of parents for children; and agape, deep and selfless affection, desiring the good of another.
The New Testament adopts the word agape as its word for the love shown by God to the world, the love of Jesus, and the love believers should have for neighbours and fellow believers.
The authors insist that all agape- love has its origin in God. That is why they can make the scandalous assertion that those who show agape -love know God and those who do not show it do not know God, regardless of stated beliefs about God. It’s easy to see how this statement can be pushed to say that teachings about god and Jesus are irrelevant, because what matters is the true love we either show or fail to show, since God is love.
The authors however are quick to define God’s love; it is not some universal stock of goodwill, but rather a specific action: the sending of God’ son Jesus into the world to be an atoning sacrifice for human sin. In Jesus God’s own self becomes the forgiving victim of evil. This love of God enables human beings to love each other rightly. Yes, people who do love rightly gain a foothold in the love of God, but they need to be regenerated by God’s love in Jesus, so that their love may be true and lasting. This theology admits that knowledge of God is possible for non-believers who show true love, and that it is impossible for believers who do not show true love. But all need to come to the enabling source of true love, the astonishing sacrificial presence of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Human beings are able to love because first of all God loved them as the creating father who completes the process of creation in Jesus Messiah.
In this way the authors bind together truth and love. The truth that God is love means that the unconcealed divine reality is love, which can be known experientially by all who love. But the right shape of human love is found in the true love story of God and his human children, the story of Jesus. There is no room in this theology for arrogant believers to deny to unbelievers the knowledge of God experienced in their agape -love; nor for arrogant unbelievers to deny the need for human love to be rooted in the facts of the Jesus story. That explains the author’s double assertion that God abides both in those who love and in those who confess that Jesus is God’s son. The experience of selfless love and the gospel story of Jesus point to the one reality of God whose love is brought to perfection in the love of human beings.
Bible readers can easily develop a tin ear for the marvels of faith by reading them carelessly too often. Is it not astonishing to claim that God’s love is not perfect in itself, but requires human beings to accept it and transmit it? Advocates of God as the unmoved mover, following Aristotle, may think of God as the object of human love, and of God’s love as appropriately directed to Godself alone. But if love is desiring the good of another, it is incomplete until the other accepts it and cooperates with it. The humility of God is in offering a love which may be given the body swerve by human beings.
The perfection of love also includes the absence of the fear which is one of the traditional responses of worshippers to the holy God. Believers no longer fear the judgment of God because they share the humiliation of Messiah Jesus in this world, which is a sure mark of their oneness with him, giving them confidence before God, who treats them as children of God. We should note that this expulsion of fear undermines any notion that the fatherliness of God is a mirror of human patriarchy which of course has always included a bit of fear.
Again at the end of this passage the authors come back to the simple command that those who love God must love their brothers and sisters. “There is no direct route to God that by-passes our neighbour” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)