John amplifies the truth that God is love by pointing to what God did as a result. God’s nature of love showed itself in the act of sending His Son into the world to die. That the Son died so we can live proves that God is the source and standard of love, and that if we know God we must be typified by love. And as John noted in 3:16-18, God’s love is always an active love and this has implications for how we are to love one another.
This text is really a complete theology of love in three verses. Just about everything we need to know about love is contained here. Though the text is brief, the depth of what John says and the implications for how we live are enormous.
God showed His love among us by sending His Son into the world to die. God’s nature compelled the ultimate act of love – the Son’s incarnation and atonement. God so loved us that He sent the Son to die for us (Jn 3:16). By this the love of God was shown.
God’s nature of love was manifested in us. God sent His Son into the world. God is love and His love is active and so His love came to us. God does not love us from afar (with apologies to Bette Midler, God did not love us “from a distance”). He showed His love in our world and in our lives. He did not love us in word or tongue only. He acted on His own and pursued us in the world we defiled. He loved us where we live and in our fallen condition. He expressed His love publicly. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14).
God has sent His Son. Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem was not the beginning of His existence. He is eternal and pre-existed the world. God sent Him from paradise to the world. God’s love is so great that He asked His Son to lay aside His glory and go to a world governed by sin sure to reject Him.
God sent His only begotten Son. Jesus is unique in His relationship with the Father. He is God’s one and only Son. He is equal with God, eternally intimate with God, God Himself. He and the Father are one. He is the second person of the Trinity. There is no other like Him. No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him (Jn 1:18). And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power (Heb 1:3). This is who God sent – there can be no higher gift or more costly sacrifice. [As believers, we are all sons of God – but there is only one Son of God.]
God sent the Son that we might live through Him. We are dead if the Son does not come. If we live through Him it presupposes that without Him we do not live at all. We share in His victory over death. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him (Rom 6:8-9). And living through Him results in love for others – We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death (3:14).
If God is love and if God is eternal and omnipotent and perfect, it makes sense that God would show His love in the highest and most perfect way. There is no greater act of love than Jesus Christ becoming flesh and coming into the world to die. This is unsurpassed love. It is perfect love. It is omnipotent love. It is love beyond description and comprehension because it is born of One beyond description and comprehension.
In verse 10 John adds a further element to his description of the great love of God. We did not love God; God loved us and provided His Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. No love originates with us. We could not love God because we were incapable of love – we were dead in our sins (only those who are condemned need an atoning sacrifice). God’s act showed us what love is. We are able to love because He first loved us and provided His Son. We would never love Him or others without His love causing us to love – We love because He first loved us (4:19). Apart from God we hate God and hate righteousness (Eph 2:1-9).
God’s ultimate act of love was for those who were wholly unworthy of it. He did not send His Son to the righteous and loving. He sent His Son to die for those who were lost in their sins. He sent His Son to die for those who were deserving of His wrath – those who were condemned by Him for their rejection of Him. He loved people dead in their sins and completely unable to love Him or obey Him. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8).
God acted. God came to us. God loved us. God sacrificed for us. God did this while we were rebellious and unknowingly dead. We were not passive and unaware, we were actively rebellious and unaware and God in love still acted. God did what only God could do in order that we might live. God showed His perfect love in a way only God could. God is love and God demands glory and the combination resulted in our atonement.
John builds a case for the greatness of God’s love in verses 9 and 10 so we will in turn understand verse 11. If we do not grasp the amazing love described in the first two verses we will never obey the admonition in the third. When we DO grasp and appreciate the scope of God’s love (and this is an ongoing and lifelong process) we will be compelled to love one another.
John said in 3:16 that since Jesus laid down His life for us we ought to lay down our lives for one another. In the same way he says that since God so loved us we ought to love one another. God’s act of redemption gives us life and sets the ultimate example to follow.
Focusing on God’s love expressed in the atonement should have two effects on us. We should be utterly amazed at how much God loves us and so in turn love others and we should be utterly amazed at our own sinfulness and so meekly see others through the lens of that sin. God’s love should make us loving and poor in spirit.
So why did God love us? Not because of us, but because of His nature. God IS LOVE so He loves. And because He loves absolutely and perfectly and ultimately, He sent the ultimate and perfect and highest gift to show His love. He could not give us anything higher or more costly than His only begotten Son. Since He IS love and always loves perfectly, the only outcome for that love was His Son’s entrance into the world and His death for sinners. But it was/is a love not based on us but based on Him. He loves because of His nature. And since we are to love as He loves we must base our love on Him. We must first love Him and then love others. Our love for Him and our understanding of His love for us cause us to love others – but not because others are worthy of love. We love because of Him.
Thoughts and Applications
There is no higher use of our time than to meditate on God’s love. As said above, without appreciating the love of God it is impossible to follow the admonition of verse 11 and love one another. The one who does not love is the one who has no grasp of God’s love. We must continually and unceasingly focus on God’s amazing love and let the scope of that love humble us before Him and before others. We must think and meditate and thank God for His love and let our appreciation of it grow and let that appreciation manifest itself in love for others. With so great a love bestowed on us, how can we not love one another? With such an awesome example of love before us, how can we not in turn practice love on our brothers? Our first thought of every day should be, “Amazing Love, how can it be that You my King should die for me?”
God by His act of redemption showed us what true love is. God loved the unlovely. God loved those who are the hardest to love. And true love shows itself when it is bestowed on those who least deserve it – when it is bestowed on those who even deserve the opposite. When God commands us to love one another He means we must love ALL “one anothers.” And those who are the toughest to love are the very ones God’s love compels us to love. When we look at and understand our redemption we have no excuse to exclude anyone from our love.
God enabled us to love by His ultimate act of love and He showed us HOW to love. God did not love us because of us. He based His love for us on Himself. God loved us because He IS love. We thank God that He loved within the Trinity because without that love we would have no understanding of love and would not be redeemed. But we have to understand that we must love in the same way – we must base our love for one another on Him as well. We must look at God and love others. If we look at others we will not find many who warrant our love (from our sinful perspective). It is only when we fill our perspective with God and focus on His love that we can love one another. If our love is based on Him and not the worth of those around us we will love as He loves and fulfill the admonition of verse 11.
Looking at Him first presupposes another key element in loving others. We must meet our needs in Him. One of the reasons God can love perfectly is that He does not need – He is completely satisfied within Himself (within the Trinity). We, on the other hand, do have needs – it is how we were created. And our needs often keep us from loving effectively because we seek to have our needs met in the ones we love – and they can never ultimately meet all of them. Thus, part of loving others as God loves is to do what God does – have our needs met in Him alone. If my need for love, appreciation, encouragement, worth, and security is fully met in God, then I am free to love others without demand. I am free to love others who do not treat me well. Free to love others who disappoint me or irritate me. Since my love is not predicated on their actions or on what they do for or to me, I can love them without condition and without concern for what is fair or just. My focus is on Him and my worth is in Him so my love can be to them. Think about how freeing this is. Having received all the kindness and tender-heartedness and forgiveness we need from God, we become free to give to others without risk, because our deepest needs have already been fully met in Christ. For example, while I may enjoy kindness from my wife, I don’t “need” it. In Jesus I receive all the kindness I need. This enables me to be kind to her without fear that she might not return the favor. I get to revel in her enjoyment of my kindness without needing that kindness to be reciprocated. I get kindness from Christ so that I can give kindness to her. (Tullian Tchividjian, Unfashionable; 52.)
We are commanded to love. We must love. And we WILL love. But only when our minds are filled with God’s love for us and our love for Him.
How could any of us look at all this and believe it and not be lost in love to God? How can we contemplate these things and not be utterly broken down? How can any hatred remain in us? How can we do anything but love one another as we contemplate such amazing love? How can we look at these things and believe them and not feel utterly unworthy and ashamed of ourselves and feel that we owe all and everything to Him and that our whole lives must be given to express our gratitude, our praise, and our thanksgiving? Oh, let us resolve together to meditate more and more every day upon this amazing love. Look at it in terms of yourself, in terms of God, what God has done, what Christ has done. Go over these things; study them; read the Bible about them; examine them. Go on looking at them; contemplate them until your heart is broken and you feel the love of God possessing you wholly. ‘Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.’
(D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ; 130.)
He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace—
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?