The story is told of a mouse that peeked through a crack in the wall as the farmer and his wife were opening a package. “I wonder if there’s food inside,” he said to himself only to leap back in fear when he saw what it actually was: a mouse trap! Quickly he retreated to the farmyard, where he warned everybody: “There’s a mouse trap in the house, there’s a mouse trap in the house.” The chicken clucked and scratched and said, “Mr. Mouse, I can tell this is a grave concern to you, but it has nothing to do with me. Please don’t bother me with it.” So he turned to the pig and shouted, “There’s a mouse trap in the house.” “I’m so sorry, Mr. Mouse,” the pig sympathized, “but there’s nothing I can do. I hope you find someone to help.” So next he turned to the cow. “Duh. What’s a mouse trap? the cow replied. So back to the house the mouse headed to face the mouse trap alone.
That very night a sound was heard throughout the house like the sound of a mousetrap snapping on its prey. The farmer’s wife ran to see what was caught. In the darkness, she didn’t notice it was a venomous snake whose tail was caught in the trap. The snake bit her and she was rushed to the hospital where she was given an anti-toxin. But when she returned home, she still had a fever, and since the best remedy for a fever is chicken soup, the farmer headed to the chicken coop with hatchet in hand to bring back the main ingredient. Still his wife failed to get better, so their friends and neighbors came to sit with her and the farmer butchered the pig to feed them. Finally, the farmer’s wife died, and so many people came to the funeral that the farmer had to slaughter his cow as well.
The moral of the story is the next time you hear of a brother or sister in Christ who is in trouble and you think it doesn’t affect you, remember: If even the least among us is suffering, it affects us all. As G.K. Chesterton said, “All of us matter. You matter. I matter. This is the hardest truth in theology to believe.” And yet, it is true!” Jesus said it first: “As you’ve done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.” The Apostle Paul added, “There are many members, yet one body…therefore we should have the same care for one another because if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it.”
That brings us full circle to what we were studying just a few weeks ago. As I mentioned in our last study, John does quite often in his letter. He presents a truth, lets us chew on it a while, and then he comes back and addresses it in even greater detail. And you will see that that’s what he does in this passage if you’ll open your Bible to 1 John chapter 4, starting with verse 7. He returns one more time to the topic of God’s love, not because he’s run out of fresh ideas or because he’s an old man now and is starting to repeat himself! He does it because he is writing by inspiration of the Holy Spirit who knows what we need to hear. So one more time he talks to us about the love of God.
The first time he talked about God’s love, he called it a test of our fellowship with God and a proof that we’re walking in light instead of darkness. The second time he called it a matter of life and death and a proof that we really are the children of God. But here he gets down to the very foundation of love and tells us why it’s impossible to experience the life of God apart from His love. In fact, all you have to do to see how serious he is about it is to count the number of times he uses the word “love” in this chapter. See if I counted right. I counted 27 times he uses the word “love” in this chapter, emphasizing 3 facts about God that should inspire us to love Him and one another in return. The first great fact has to do with—
1. What God Is: God Is Love.
Verse 7 says, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” This is John’s third great pronouncement about God. The first thing he said was, “God is spirit.” Then he said, “God is light.” But now he emphasizes something even more wonderful. He says, “God is love.” And there are two important things to notice about it.
First, notice what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “God is loving.” That’s what we’d say about a finite human being. We’d use the adjective and say: He or she is is a very loving person. But John uses the noun instead and says, “God is love,” emphasizing that God is the very essence of love. He always has been and always will be, for the Bible says He never changes. What He was yesterday, He is today and will be forever, for He is the only complete Being there is who has never had to grow or learn or evolve into something better than He once was, because He is and always has been perfect in all of His attributes, the greatest of which is love.
That is also one of the reasons that Christians have always believed in the Trinity. For in order for love to expressed, how many persons must there be? At least two! In fact, the word John uses for love in our passage is an active and dynamic word demanding that there be a recipient of it. You see, some people assume that the reason God created the world was because He was lonely and needed someone to love, like a childless couple desperately longing for a baby to shower their love on. But that has never been true of God because that would mean at some point He was incomplete, unfulfilled, and less than God, whereas the Bible says He has always been perfect and complete enjoying perfect love within Himself. How is that possible? Because even though God is one Spirit or Essence, contained within that One Spirit is a plurality of persons!
Think back to what Moses said about Adam and Eve, “The two shall become one (echad) flesh?” Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? After all, how can two be one? And yet, that is exactly how God sees a married couple – as two persons sharing one flesh! And Moses used the same Hebrew word (echad) to describe the Oneness of God. He wrote, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God is one LORD.” So, yes, God is one Being or Essence, but contained within that one Essence is a plurality of persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who have shared a perfect, infinite, and completely fulfilling love from eternity past.
By the way, that also underscores how different the God of the Bible is from the god of Islam. Allah, by contrast, is a lonely, distant deity who knows nothing of love because He’s never had anyone to share it with. In fact, the very notion of God having a son is repugnant to Muslims. But not for us who love Christ! The God we love is and always has been a Father who radiates and enjoys perfect love with His Son who shares His essence and all of His divine attributes.
One more point to make about John’s statement before we move on, and that’s that vice versa isn’t true. Some people read the statement, “God is love,” and try to turn it around saying, “Love is God,” thereby eliminating the personal nature of God and making a god out of their feelings. I know of one well-known spiritual teacher who does that. He says love is the most powerful force in the universe, and that’s what people are actually tapping into when they talk about God. In other words, God is not a person; he is a force, which not only eliminates our accountability to Him as our Creator; it also eliminates the possibility of being loved by Him, because forces don’t love; only persons do.
You will also be glad to know that the Greek language does not allow for that interpretation. So let’s stick with what John says. God is love, and if we belong to God, that will be be our natural inclination as well. Like a compass which always points north because of how it’s constructed to respond to the Earth’s magnet field, in the same way we love because love is the nature of God and we are His children. The second great fact about God involves—
2. What God Did: God Sent His Son.
Verse 9 continues, “In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this 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.” Notice again that God’s love is not passive, but active leading Him to do the one thing we needed most. What was that? He sent us His only begotten Son—the One who has always shared His life. Why did we need that?
The first reason John gives is that “we might live through Him.” Do you remember what it felt like to be spiritually dead and cut off from the life of God with no assurance that He cared about you? I do. I was lost; I was lonely; and I was tormented knowing that if something didn’t change, I was going to wind up in hell. So I prayed without any faith at all, hoping there was something better than the sinful life I was living. And God answered. He sent several Christians into my life to tell me about the love of Jesus. And one day by the grace of God, I opened my heart to His Spirit, and suddenly I had new life, new hope, and a new assurance that He will be with me no matter what the future holds.
The second reason John says we needed Him was “to be the propitiation for our sins.” What’s a propitiation? It’s a sacrificial offering that brings peace between two parties that need reconciliation. The story of “Peace Child” illustrates it beautifully. It is the story of Don and Carol Richardson who in 1962 risked their lives to share Christ’s love with the Sawi people of New Guinea. But they found it hard-going because the highest value of these cannibal tribes was not love, but treachery. Richardson, for example, was sickened to watch one Sawi tribe take months to build a friendship with a few men from another tribe only to attack them one night, murder them, and feast on their bodies. This was just one crime in a long history of treachery and murder between the tribes. In fact, Richardson was all but ready to give up on them when he told them the story of Jesus for who did they think was the hero of the story? Not Jesus, but Judas. They howled with laughter when he told them how Judas betrayed our Savior.
So how did they finally get them to understand the love of God? Richardson learned that there was one act of sacrifice that could bring peace between the tribes. If a father from one tribe gave his baby boy to a father from another tribe to raise, that gesture of peace could be trusted. Furthermore, whoever laid his hand on that baby was promised protection from harm as long as the child lived. On the other hand, anyone who harmed that child would lose his life. Right away, Richardson knew, “This is the key we’ve been praying for.” So they shared with the Sawis the truth that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” And when they heard it, the Sawis immediately recognized it as the truth of God and not only believed in Jesus, they also put an end to their treacherous ways. For “beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
That’s the message John shares in this letter again and again. In fact, according to Saint Jerome, an early church father, that was his message to the day of his death. After his release from prison on the Isle of Patmos, John served as an elder in the church of Ephesus into his late 90’s, but due to his age, he had to be carried to church by his disciples. Rather than give a long message, all he had strength to say were these words again and again: “Teknia mou, agapomen allelus,” which translated means, “Little children, let us love one another.” Some of the disciples grew tired of hearing the same message again and again. So they asked him, “Master, why must you always say the same thing to us?” His reply: “It is the Lord’s command, and if this alone is done, it is enough.”
So we love one another, first, because God is love; and second, because of how He demonstrated His love for us—He sent His only Son to be the propitiation for our sins. And one more fact John emphasizes in our passage—
3. What God Is Doing: He Lives In Us.
Verse 12 continues, “No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”
John is reminding us of the invisibility of God—”No one has seen God at any time.” He also says the same thing in his gospel: “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” John is saying that God the Father, from whom all things come, cannot be seen with human eyes for, as Jesus explained to the woman at the well, “God is Spirit and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” You say, “How can I ever hope to know Him if I can’t see Him?” The secret is: Look to Jesus who is God clothed in human flesh and the perfect image of the unseen God! That’s why Jesus said what He did to Philip in John 14:9. Philip had said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” To which Jesus replied, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”
That is who walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden, appeared to Abraham announcing the birth of his son, and kept Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego safe in the burning, fiery furnace? It was Jesus who is the exact image of the unseen God and in whom all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form. (See Col. 1:15 and 2:9. That is also why God the Father forbade any graven images of Himself in the Old Testament. He was preparing to reveal Himself in the Person of His Son and He did not want anything to distort His holy image.
But here’s the problem. Jesus has now ascended to heaven where He’s shepherding the churches, overruling the nations, answering our prayers, and preparing to return as our King. So without Him here in visible form, how are people to believe and experience His love? You know the answer to that. For though they cannot see Him with their eyes right now, John says, they can see His love perfected in us, and that’s how they experience His love. For “if we love one another,” John says, “God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.”
So the question to ask at this point is simply: Is that what they see when they look at us? Do they see the love of Jesus in us and at work among us, or are we letting our pride, our preferences, and lack of love block their view of Him?
Mahatma Gandhi said that was his reason for not believing in Jesus. While attending university in London, he almost became convinced that Christianity was the one true, supernatural religion of the world. In fact, after graduating, he said he went looking for evidence to believe in Christ. At at one point he even accepted a job in East Africa where he lived for seven months in the home of an evangelical Christian family. But as the months passed and he witnessed their lack of love and warmth, his interest turned to skepticism: “This is not the one true religion I hoped for. It is a good religion, but only one of many religions.” So, because he didn’t see more of Jesus in those of us who claim to be His followers, he concluded: “I cannot give to Jesus a solitary throne.”
Obviously, you and I are not responsible for what Gandhi saw in East Africa, but we are responsible for what people see in our homes and this spiritual family. So let me ask you: If you weren’t a believer yet, would you conclude from the love shared in your family and your church that Jesus is the Savior of the world?
Someone has likened us to Christmas tree lights that are wired in a series. The electricity flows into the wire from the outlet and proceeds to the first bulb and its filament and then back into the line and the next bulb until the entire chain fills the room with light unless one of the bulbs comes loose or its filament breaks. Then it receives power but it doesn’t pass it on to the others, and the rest of the string remains dark. And that’s how God has wired us. He’s wired us to receive His love but unless we pass it on, the world around us remains dark and desperate for the life of Christ. We don’t want that to happen here but it easily can if we aren’t alert to the needs of those around us.
So let me take a moment to list a few of the people who are easy to overlook but need our love. The first are the ill, the infirm, and the disabled. Do you how hard it is to live with chronic pain, to cope with the loneliness of being homebound, or waiting to be wheeled into the sterile setting of an operating room and how much your brief visit or short prayer over the phone can help to relieve the fear and loneliness they feel? Another person to watch for is the confused and struggling young person and his parents trying to figure out how to live the Christian life in this very un-Christian culture. Grandparents aren’t always available to lend the loving support that’s needed. But you could. How I thank the Lord for the older couples who gave us their support when our girls were growing up! And there are many others I could mention: the recovering addict, the recently divorced, the newly unemployed, the person suffering from depression.
But there is one more group the Bible mandates us to love, and that’s the grieving person who is easy to overlook because his pain is often silent. C.S. Lewis said this about his grief: “No one ever told me how much grief feels like fear—the fluttering stomach, the nightmare reality, the wallowed-in tears. In grief, nothing stays put. One keeps emerging from a phase but it always recurs, round and round. Am I going in circles or dare I hope I’m on a spiral? But if a spiral, am I going up or down?” So, as James tells us to do, we visit and care for widows and widowers and orphans in their time of need.
I finish with the story of Eeyore the Donkey floating downstream on his back when Pooh suddenly spots him from the riverbank? “Did you fall in the river, Eeyore?” “Yes, silly of me, wasn’t it?” Pooh asks, “Is the river uncomfortable this morning?” “Well, yes, the dampness, you know.” Pooh adds, “You really ought to be more careful!” “Thanks for the advice, Pooh.” “Eeyore, I think you’re sinking,” Pooh warns. “Yes, if it isn’t too much trouble, would you mind rescuing me?” As he’s being pulled out of the river, Eeyore says: “I’m sorry to be such a bother.” Pooh: “Don’t be silly! You should have said something sooner.”
That is what happens too often in Christian circles. Someone’s in need, and we’re willing to help, but we’re so busy with other things that we fail to notice. Let’s not let that happen. Remember: If even the least of us is in need, we’re all in need. For as Chesterton put it, “We all matter. You matter. I matter. We all matter. This is the hardest truth in theology to believe. Nevertheless it’s true!”