Synopsis: We all know the Lord’s commandment to love one another, yet some Christians claim that hatred is justified in some cases – such as when people hate us or sin and do not repent. The apostle John believed that love is all that is needed to save the world. Why was love so important to John?
Related post: I wrote the parable No Greater Love to express my view of why God sent Jesus to redeem us. The setting is heaven, and God (Source) and Christ (Life) are having a conversation about how to save souls that are lost.
Scripture: 1 John 4: 7-21
We all know what Jesus taught us: that we should love one another. We call this the “Greatest Commandment” and the “Golden Rule.” Yet many people, including some Christians, believe hatred is justified some cases. Why should we love one another – especially people who don’t live their lives the way we think they should or who don’t love us or who hurt us? Is love really the answer in those cases?
In our scripture reading for today, the apostle John answers these questions. Remember that John wrote this first epistle around 85-90 A.D. By this time, he was an old man and the only living apostle. All the others, including Paul, had been martyred. He wrote this letter to encourage his audience of gentile believers and to counter false teachings.
If there is one thing that John encourages his audience to do the most, it is to love one another. He emphasizes it in chapter 2: 9-11, where he writes, “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light,’ while hating a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates a brother is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.”
He emphasizes it again in chapter 3 verses 15-17, where he writes, “All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”
And John emphasizes loving one another again, heavily, in our scripture reading from chapter 4. So, for three chapters in a row, John emphasizes that whoever loves his brothers and sisters lives in the light, and whoever hates his brothers and sisters lives in darkness – in all cases.
The church father Jerome reported that there was a point at which the apostle John was so weak from old age that he had to be carried into church meetings. At the end of the meeting, they would help him to his feet to give a word of encouragement to the church.
He would consistently say, “Little children, let us love one another.” The believers began to grow tired of the same words time after time, so they finally asked him why he always said the same thing. He replied, “Because it is the Lord’s commandment, and if this only is done, it is enough.”
Why is love so darn important to John?
First, John explains that God is love, so if we say we are united with God in Christ, we must be love as well. Most people believe that love is a feeling – like our romantic love. But God’s Love is not a feeling; it is a choice.
We don’t always feel like loving others, do we? That’s our human side. But we can still choose to demonstrate love even when we don’t feel like it. We can choose to demonstrate love anyway because we realize that love is who we truly are, not this imperfect personal self who may feel hatred and desire vengeance.
So, love is not only a choice but also an action. As we read in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
For millennia, Christians have believed that we must love one another because God is love, and he demonstrated his love by sending his Son to die for our sins.
This is what John teaches, and I understand that it was easier for the gentiles in John’s day and for John himself to relate to Jesus as a sacrificial atonement for sin. In ancient times, human sacrifice to get on the good side of the gods was a common pagan practice, and the Jews themselves practiced the sacrifice of animals to atone for sin.
But I believe that idea is now too ancient for people to relate to. Today, many people ask, why would God, who loves us unconditionally, need his wrath appeased through the death of his own son? It’s no wonder Christianity is failing to inspire the masses today as it had back in ancient times.
Some pastors argue that while God is unconditionally loving, he is also a God of justice, so sin must be punished. I believe that God does not punish us because when we come before him as sinners, his verdict is “not guilty.”
Some might ask, “How is that possible, Pastor Joan? That doesn’t make any sense because clearly, we are guilty of sin.” Well, even in our human justice system, we do not hold people accountable for crimes if it can be proven that the individual was insane when he or she committed the crime, right?
That person is judged to be “not guilty by reason of insanity.” Even in our own human justice system, we know it’s unjust to punish people who commit crimes when they are not in their right mind. When they are not in touch with reality. When they don’t know who they are. When they know not what they do.
In 1 John 3:9-10, John writes, “Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God.” So those who are in Christ cannot sin. Those who are in their right mind, the Mind of Christ, cannot sin. Those who are in touch with reality as God created it cannot sin. Those who know who they are cannot sin because they are fully aware of God’s Law of Love and practice it perfectly.
Most of us are not there yet. Most of us are still susceptible to moments of spiritual insanity, so when we do sin in those moments, we are judged by God as “not guilty by reason of spiritual insanity.”
That doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. We still experience the natural consequences of the sin we commit. That is the Law of Karma, but it isn’t meant to punish us. It is meant to teach us. People learn better from the natural consequences of their bad behavior than they do from some authority figure imposing a random punishment that often doesn’t fit the crime.
There are those who would then ask, “Pastor Joan, what about those who aren’t sorry for their sin? Who don’t seek forgiveness? Does God forgive them too?”
I believe God does forgive them too. I think about it this way. Does an insane person realize he or she is insane? No – that’s the problem – and the chances of them figuring it out are pretty slim especially if they are around a lot of people who are just as insane as they are. Most people in this world are spiritually insane – more or less. I like to call Earth the Asylum for the Spiritually Insane.
We are here in this asylum to help heal these people: To help restore their spiritual sanity as ours has been restored. And aren’t we glad for that! Aren’t we grateful?
That is why it is so important for us to shine our light – to show people what spiritual sanity looks like – so that those who are spiritually insane can look at our behavior and say, “Wow – look at how rationally he behaves. My behavior is ludicrous compared to his. What’s wrong with me? Wow – look at the peace and joy she always has. Why am I so miserable?”
Some might ask, what’s the point of asking for forgiveness then, Pastor Joan? Well, it’s not to appease God and avoid punishment. That’s childish, right? Does the child really know that he or she has done wrong in that case? No – only that he or she wants not to get punished.
The spiritually mature point of asking for forgiveness is a recognition on our part. We can’t stop sinning until we realize that a behavior is sinful and that we and/or others are suffering because of it. That recognition makes us feel sorry and to want to end the suffering caused by our sins. Seeking God’s forgiveness should be a cry for help to change our ways, not simply a tactic to avoid his punishment.
John writes in verses 18-19, “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. We love because he first loved us.”
What does God’s love look like? Jesus answered this question perfectly in the Parable of the Prodigal Son found in Luke chapter 15. In the parable, the son sinned against the father by asking for his inheritance before his father died and then leaving the home and squandering his inheritance on corrupt living.
The consequences for his sinful behavior didn’t come from his father; they came naturally. He ended up feeding pigs during a famine, where there was so little food available that he wasn’t even allowed to eat the pigs’ food. To be around pigs much less to be treated as less important than one would have been extremely humiliating to a Jew.
As a result of experiencing the natural consequences for his sin, the son realized that he had sinned, was sorry, and returned to his father’s house, where he expected his father to punish him by at least by stripping him of his sonship and treating him like a hired hand.
But that isn’t what happened at all. When the father saw him coming, he ran toward him and embraced him, forgave him completely, and restored his sonship. Then he threw a party to celebrate his son’s return. That is how God loves us and how we should love one another.
But many act like the other son – the other son wasn’t happy to see how his father treated his prodigal brother. He believed his prodigal brother should be punished, and he himself should be the one for whom a party is thrown since he had always been with his father. He refused to attend his prodigal brother’s return party.
This is the attitude that many people, including Christians, have toward those who have sinned. By choosing not to attend the return party, they step out of the light and into the darkness. John writes in verses 20-21, “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. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
Christ came down to earth and lived and died through the man Jesus not to appease an angry God but to point to and demonstrate the true savior of the world – Love.
When all of humanity cares about one another like that – enough to take the risk to love in a world where it’s not popular – it will be the end of sin and the end of suffering. The Kingdom of Heaven will arrive. Love is all that’s needed. That is why love was so darn important to John, and why it should be just as important to us.
Let’s pray together: Father, we know that you love us, for you sent Jesus to save us. In gratitude for the love you extended to us through him, we vow to love our brothers and sisters so that they too may awaken to the saving knowledge of who you are and who they are in Christ. Amen.
Cole, Steven J. “Lesson 19: Why We Must Love (1 John 4:7-11).” Bible.org, bible.org/seriespage/lesson-19-why-we-must-love-1-john-47-11.
Life Application Study Bible. Zondervan, 2011.