Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is begotten of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. Herein was the love of God manifested in us, that God hath sent his only begotten Son into the world that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (1 John 4:7-11).
John has discussed many themes in the first four chapters of his letter: to do what is right and avoid the wrong (1 John 1:1-2:6, 3:1-10), to avoid those who teach false doctrines– in particular, the growing number of Gnostic teachers (1 John 2:12-29, 4:1-6), and to love one another (1 John 2:7-11, 3:11-24).
Beginning in 1 John 4:7, John returns to the theme of loving one another, and thus begins his treatise on love (1 John 4:7-21). It remains one of the most compelling and beautiful passages of Scripture ever written.
The treatise seems to flow from 1 John 4:5-6 in which John demonstrates that we are of God and we know the spirit of truth. Since we are of God and should know the spirit of truth, it follows that we should love one another.
John gives a compelling reason for why we should love one another in verse 7: love is of God, and those who love are born of God and know God. In verse 8, John makes it clear that those who do not love do not know God, and this is because God is love.
This last statement is justly famous, and we must respect what John says. God is love– it is not, “love is God.” God provides us the definition and manifestation of love. That manifestation, as John makes clear, is that He sent His Son so that we might live through Him and to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:8-9). Such love is not selfishly motivated or seeking one’s own gain but is entirely and thoroughly devoted to the needs of those whom are loved (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8). Furthermore, it is not as if we deserved this love or had acted becomingly– instead, we all were weak, sinful, and thoroughly undeserving of God’s love, mercy, or grace (cf. Romans 5:5-11). This is why love is in “this”– it is not that we have loved God, but in that God has loved us. It makes sense for us to love God, just as it makes sense for children to love parents: God has given us so much, and our love is in response to His gifts. But there is no similar explanation for God’s love toward us.
Therefore, if we seek to understand love, we look to God and see how He has commended His love toward us. He provided us with the creation and the blessings of life (cf. Genesis 1:1-2:4). Even though we sinned, He was willing to suffer the loss necessary for our reconciliation so that we might live toward Him. Everything God has ever done or will ever do flows from His love, be it His love for humans, for justice, or for other godly and wholesome attributes.
It is not surprising, then, for John to uphold love as the most excellent virtue and the ultimate standard (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:13). Love and the knowledge of God are mutually consistent; but if one does not have love, one clearly does not know God, for love undergirds everything for which God stands and represents. Love is of God, because He provides the definition for seeking the best interest of others.
John then sets forth the challenge for all of us in verse 11: if God has so loved us, we should love one another. This is entirely sensible– after all, we seek to be godly people, and if God is love, we must be people marked by love!
Yet the challenge remains. We humans find it easy to love those who love us and who do good for us (cf. Matthew 5:46-47). That is why it is comparatively easy for us to love God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ when we recognize just how much They have done on our behalf and for our good. But it is not enough to just love those who love us. We must also love those who would do us harm and evil (cf. Matthew 5:43-45), just as God loved us when we were most unlovable.
Yes, John says that our love should be for “one another,” and in the most limited sense, that refers to fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. But the same love must be shown to our “neighbor” (cf. Romans 13:8-11), and Jesus makes it clear in Luke 10:25-37 that “our neighbor” ought to be anyone and everyone. We must remember that John is setting God forth as the ultimate demonstration and manifestation of love, and we must pattern our lives after Him. He has loved without partiality, seeking the best for all people according to His righteousness, justice, truth, and mercy (cf. Romans 5:5-11, 6:1-23). Let us seek to do the same, and seek the best interest for everyone in our lives!