John discusses our love for one another and our belief in the Son as evidences of our salvation. He seeks to assure His readers of their standing before God. He tells them they can know they live in God and God lives in them by the presence of the Spirit in their lives. And they can be sure the Spirit is in their lives because they confess that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world and because they love one another.
Verse 12 begins with a phrase that at first seems almost random. Why does John suddenly decide to mention that no one has seen God at any time? And how does that tie in to the thought that when we love one another God abides in us and His love is perfected in us?
We know that what he says is certainly true. God told Moses at Sinai that he could not see Him fully in His glory and live (Ex 33:17-23). John said in his gospel that no one has seen God (Jn 1:18). Jesus said that no one has seen the Father (Jn 6:46). There is no doubt that God has not been seen and cannot be seen – but what does that have to do with loving one another?
John actually is stating an amazing truth with enormous implications. While God is unseen, His presence is tangible in His people who are in loving fellowship with each other. He once revealed Himself in His Son but now reveals Himself in His people who love one another. His presence is manifested in us when we love. Our love for one another is proof of God’s presence in our lives – proof that God abides in us – because without His presence we could not love as He loves. WE are the proof of God’s presence in the world.
Even more, God’s love is perfected in us. This also is a difficult statement but is a truth to be paused over and meditated on. Our love for others is actually God’s love reproduced in us. And God’s love for us can only be perfected – completed, fulfilled – when we love one another. Read that again – God’s love for us is only completed when we love one another.
If we think through this, it makes sense. If God’s love for us had no effect on our actions toward others or our perception of others, it would be weak and worth very little. Something that did not change our lives would not reflect the power of God. This idea is really the other side of the equation that says when we do not love, we apparently do not have the love of God in us. If the love of God does not replicate itself in our lives as love for others, it cannot be classified as the true love of God. Thus, God’s love for us is completed only when we love others. Without loving others it is incomplete – and God does not love incompletely.
If would be hard to exaggerate the greatness of this conception. God’s love, which originates in Himself (7-8) and was manifested in His Son (9-10), is made complete in His people (12). ‘It is brought to perfection within us’ (NEB). God’s love for us is perfected only when it is reproduced in us or (as it may mean) ‘among us’ in the Christian fellowship. (John Stott, The Letters of John; Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; 75.)
Verse 12, then, becomes the opening statement of assurance in this text. Our love for one another is proof of God’s love in us and that He abides in us. When we love we show that we are His. And when we love others that we could in no wise love on our own accord we have assurance that He is in our lives.
In verse 13 John adds to the thought of 12 and states the basis of assurance that he first discussed in 3:24. We know we abide in Him and He abides in us because of the presence of the Spirit. And it is the Spirit who enables us to love one another and thus perfect God’s love for us. It is through the Spirit that we abide in God and share in His nature. And since His nature is love we love as He loves.
The Spirit is who enabled the apostles to bear witness that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. Jesus said in John 15 (15:26-27) that the Helper would come and bear witness of Him and the apostles likewise would bear witness also. John’s statement that we have beheld can really only refer to the apostles.
John completes the thought of verse 14 in verse 15. Whoever believes the witness of the apostles and confesses that Jesus is the Son of God has God in him and shares in the nature of God. God abides in him, and he in God. It is through the Spirit that we believe (I Cor 12:3).
It is because of the witness of the apostles that John’s readers have come to know about the love of God shown in the sacrifice of His Son. John said in verse 9 that we know about love because God sent His only Son into the world. God did this because He is love – as John already said in verse 8. Since God is love, when we love others we show that we share in His nature – we abide in Him. Our love for others is proof that God abides in us and we abide in Him.
Thus the Spirit’s existence in our lives assures us that we are truly God’s. And our love for others and our belief in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the world are proofs of the Spirit’s existence in our lives. We know that we abide in God and God abides in us when we confess the Son and love one another. Belief and love are evidences of the Spirit’s presence.
Thoughts and Applications
So how do we apply this to our lives? What does I John 4:7-21 (we have not studied 17-21 yet but it is all part of this section on loving one another) mean when we are confronted by the same difficult people doing the same difficult things on Monday morning? What do we do with the truths John relates when our kids leave a mess in the kitchen for the 890th time and then respond incredulously when we ask them to clean it up? How do we apply these concepts to the holidays and the family member who – it seems – was uniquely created to serve as God’s tool to test us?
The truths are wonderful and clear and easy enough to understand on paper. God is love. Out of His nature of love God sent His Son to die for us. This gift was the highest representation of love – there could be no greater act of love by any being. And it was this act that enabled us to know what love is. When we understand God’s love and confess Jesus as the Son of God we become His. When we are His we love others that are His because we actually share in His nature – and His nature is love. We share in His nature – abide in Him – through His Spirit. The Spirit enables us to believe and love. Thus our love for others is evidence of the Spirit in us which in turn is evidence of our belonging to God. Those who belong to God love.
It all makes sense. So why is it so hard? What are we missing when we fail again and again to put this into practice? Or perhaps to put it another way – what are we holding on to when we fail again and again to put this into practice? What are the practical thoughts we must preach to ourselves when faced with situations and people who appear to be in our lives for no other reason than to cause us to fail and to sin?
Things to remember when it is hard to love
- God saved billions of difficult and hard-to-love people. God continues to love and minister to billions of His difficult and hard-to-love children. God’s whole model of love is predicated on loving unlovely people.
- God loves me though I am frustratingly disobedient and unwise as His child. I sin repeatedly and ask God to forgive me repeatedly. I routinely fall to the same sins even though my Father has made His will clear and has laid out a path that promises contentment and great reward. God has shown me the way of wisdom and I walk away from it again and again looking for something better. I am the definition of someone who is hard to love from the vantage point of eternity. There is not a child with a heart of foolishness harder to defend than mine. But God loves me completely and perfectly.
- God placed me in the midst of the people and circumstances that make up my life. God does not regret anything or anyone He has placed there. If God had it to do all over again – and He actually COULD do it all over again since He is God – He would not change one circumstance or one person. God is perfect and God is sovereign.
- God uses people in my life to make me more dependent on Him. God wants me at the end of my rope – as a matter of fact He would like me to drop the rope entirely. It is only when I realize my weakness that I will desperately rely on Him. Hard-to-love people may be in my life simply to make me cry out to God for His strength. And when I give up on my own strength and rely solely on His I will be much stronger and much more able to cope. So difficult people are a blessing when they drive me to God.
- God knows the Christians I have a hard time loving better than I do and yet still chooses to love them.
- God’s command to love has no caveats and no contingencies. So apparently there is no one in my life who is impossible to love and no one God will allow me to exclude.
- God will keep me in circumstances until I learn what He wants me to learn. There is little hope in waiting out God.
- God loves, demands, and hears my prayers. I must pray at every opportunity and every interaction with difficult people. I cannot face the difficult ones without first arming myself with prayer. I must pray for a larger view of God and a smaller view of myself and the faults of others. It is also OK to pray for change in those I struggle to love.
- God hates my pride. And my pride is ultimately at the bottom of my struggle with others. I cannot bring myself to love someone not worthy of me. I cannot sanction behavior that is beneath my standards or that disappoints me (my dislike of others is often a result of my judging them and finding them wanting). I cannot forgive actions against me. I cannot get over the disappointment and rage I feel toward those who have caused my life to be less than it should be (and that I deserve it to be). How much less difficult would people in my life be if my pride were not part of the equation?
- God calls me to see other believers as new creations and to recognize no man according to the flesh (II Cor 5:14-16). I must see others as they would be if they were completely reconciled to Christ – and remember they are in the same process of sanctification as I am.
- God will someday call me to stand before Him and account for how I have treated His people. He says several times in His word that I will be judged with the same mercy I showed to others.
- God has given me His Spirit whose fruit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If I am indwelt by that Spirit I should be marked by that fruit. And I CAN be marked by that fruit.
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.