1 John 4:11
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
The Story: “Beloved” is literally “loved ones” (agapatoi from agape). They were John’s beloved little children, but more important, they were God’s beloved little children. They had, along with John, already received God’s generous, committed, initiating, and sacrificial love in Jesus Christ. And those God loves, John taught, would one day see Him face-to-face and be like Him (3:2). In a world that is passing away, they had eternal life (2:17) and were secure in His hands (5:13). As those who were lavished with such great and generous love (3:1), it was only reasonable, John wrote, to lavish that love on others. Not to love others with the same generous, committed, initiating, sacrificial love would indicate that there was something very wrong.
The Structure: To say that the world is filled with people who are hard to love is an understatement. It’s also an understatement to say that the Church is filled with people who are hard to love. Thus has it always been and shall it always be until Jesus returns. In our era, the problem is exacerbated by the lack of manners and what used to be called common courtesy. Many people don’t even pretend to be kind, gracious, or even rational. People simply say and do as they wish with the justification that they’re being authentic—no matter who it harms. In the face of that, God does not ask us to do anything He has not already done: He asks us to love even the rude, unpleasant, ungrateful, and unlovable, beginning with the people in our own home. The reason we find that difficult is that we either never really understood or have lost track of the love God has for us.
How is your love for those around you—in your family, in your Church, among your coworkers and neighbors—generous, committed, initiating, and sacrificial? What do you need to grow in that kind of God-like love?
Revelation 12:10a, 11-12
And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying . . . “And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”
The Story: Today is All Saints Day, a celebration of those who have gone before us in the Christian walk. In 1 John 4:9-10, John presented God’s love as generous, committed, initiating, and sacrificial. This is the high and heroic love manifest in Jesus’ incarnation, life, and death for sins. In Revelation we see that it is also the high and heroic love manifest in the lives the men and women who have preceded us. The saints and martyrs conquered Satan shouted “a loud voice in heaven” by the power of the cross (“the blood of the Lamb”), by speaking God’s truth (“their testimony”), and by loving God and His life in them more than this world and life in the here and now. John, writing the Revelation, knew that times of trial were ahead for Christians who were the targets of the devil’s desperate wrath. At the same time, he could point to those whose faith had already conquered, thus encouraging his readers: In Christ they conquered, and in Christ you can conquer as well.
The Structure: We are not the first generation faced with the challenges and difficulties that attend the Christian faith lived in a world where “the devil has come down . . . in great wrath.” Rather we are, as the writer to the Hebrews put it, surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), a vast array of those whose holy lives can inspire and encourage our own. The great saints begin with the heroes of the Old Testament (see Hebrews 11) and the apostles of whom only John was spared a martyr’s death—though he suffered exile, trials, and forced labor because of his faith (Revelation 1:9). Beyond that we can include the martyrs, bishops, and theologians of the early Church. Great scholars such as Athanasius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and John Paul II. Preachers from John Chrysostom and Basil the Great to D. L. Moody, Fulton Sheen, and Billy Graham. And martyrs from Cyprian who was killed in North Africa in 258, to the 21 Coptic fishermen killed in North Africa in 2015. The need to remember and celebrate such men and women has perhaps never been more urgent than it is today.
Who are your heroes and heroines from Christian history? Spend time reflecting on their lives, thanking God for them. (If you can’t think of any heroes, plan to read a good volume of Church history soon.)
1 John 4:9-10
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
The Story: John wrote a great deal about love, and here makes his definition of love clear. If you want to see the love of God, he told his readers, look at Jesus. He is the definitive manifestation of what it means to love. Bound up in this understanding of love we find God’s generosity, commitment, initiation, and sacrifice. For our sake, God didn’t send an angel or a holy human or an alien or. . . . God generously sent His Son. God committed Himself to give His people life through His Son, that is, life with God forever. And God is the initiator. In sending His Son, as Paul wrote, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Finally, both John and Paul made clear that God’s love is a sacrificial love that takes on the sin of sinners and nails it to the cross.
The Structure: In their book “The Meaning of Marriage,” Tim and Kathy Keller reflect the teaching of this text when they write that, contrary to the notion of love that prevails in our culture, “When the Bible speaks of love, it measures it primarily not by how much you want to receive but by how much you are willing to give of yourself to someone.” The Kellers’ topic is marriage, and how many marriages do you know that have ended in divorce because one or both spouses with a transactional and ultimately commercial view of love felt they were getting the raw end of the deal? Dissatisfied that their expectations of receiving went unmet, they packed up and left. This is the polar opposite of the love John saw manifest in Christ—love that was generous, committed, initiating, and sacrificial. And such love is Christ’s gift to us.
How well do you understand God’s generous, committed, initiating, and sacrificial love for you? What do you need to understand it better?
1 John 4:5-6
They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
The Story: John’s letter hearkened back yet again to the words he and the others heard from Jesus in the Upper Room. Jesus promised “another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth.” He is the One “whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him,” but who abides in believers (John 14:16-17). Without the Spirit of truth, those in the world are led into error. But Jesus promised that the Spirit of truth Who would dwell in His followers “will teach you all things” (John 14:26). So John could confidently assure his readers that they could know the truth and at the same time avoid—even be repulsed by—error. It was a bold claim. Yet John felt confident that same Spirit of truth would superintend both his writing and his little children’s reading and hearing, convincing them of the truth that is in Jesus.
The Structure: In 1978, cult leader Jim Jones told his followers that it was God’s will that they drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, resulting in a mass suicide. “Whoever knows God listens to us” can be and has been used to subjugate, control, and destroy. After all, what could be more frightening than, “God told me, so I’m telling you (and so you better listen up)”? The difference between the cult leader and the faithful teacher is submission to the truth. When Jude wrote against the work of false teachers, he urged his readers “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” against those who “deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 3-4). Faithful teachers will never contradict “the faith once and for all delivered” by making up their own. This means that in order to avoid being misled or misleading others, we must know that faith, we must become experts in Christian orthodoxy. If we speak the truth of Scripture, those who know God will, in fact, listen to us.
How well do you know “the faith once and for all delivered”? How can you improve your grasp on orthodox Christian theology?
1 John 4:4
Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.
The Story: The thought that there are spirits abroad that are not from God, but are demonic, is a bit frightening. John realized that, and made sure his readers understood that while these spirits had power and could mislead, theirs was not the last word. False prophets, lying spirits, even Satan himself (“he who is in the world”) could be recognized and overcome, not by human power and authority, but by God’s power and authority. They may have been “little children,” but it was to little children that Jesus promised to reveal Himself. Jesus “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” and thanked God that He had “hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children” (Luke 10:21). John’s little children were confronted with falsehoods about God and about Jesus (verses 2-3), but since God lived in them (3:23-24), they had nothing to fear. In Christ, they were overcomers.
The Structure: No era is without its share of threats—physical, material, and spiritual. Therefore no era is without its share of worry and anxiety. The economy is uncertain. Religious liberty is under assault. And Election Day is less than two weeks away. Need I say more? Often we feel like little children surrounded by wild and ravenous animals. But we don’t despair, because, like John’s original readers, if we abide in Christ by believing in Him and loving His family, we too are overcomers. While the world, the flesh, or the devil can throw things we are incapable of handling, there is nothing beyond God’s ability. We can be as certain as Paul was when he wrote, “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
What about this world causes you anxiety? How does your identity as God’s little child encourage you and ease your burden?
1 John 4:2-3
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
The Story: John’s criteria for determining whether a spirit is the Spirit of God or the spirit of the antichrist comes directly from Jesus’ words in John 6:28-29. When a group of people asked Jesus, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” He responded, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” For John, belief in the incarnation—“that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh”—divides spirits from God and spirits of the antichrist, that is, demons from Hell. Jesus is God—the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity—who became man. Jesus the Eternal One was the baby in Bethlehem, the rabbi in Galilee, the derelict on the cross, and the risen Savior. Any spirit and any teacher who proclaims something else, John wrote, should not be trusted. That spirit misrepresented the truth and cannot possibly be from God.
The Structure: In a recent BreakPoint, Eric Metaxas cited a survey of American Christians indicating that, “Sixty-one percent correctly say Jesus is both human and divine, but half think that He’s also ‘the first and greatest being created by God,’ rather than existing eternally, as Scripture and the ancient creeds of the faith teach.” It is not an overstatement to call this an enormous and debilitating theological disaster. Whether this is the result of bad teaching or no teaching or no respect for teaching or everyone believing whatever is right in his or her own eyes (Judges 17:6; 21:25) makes no difference. What’s important is that this belief is not only wrong, but also, according to John, it is inspired by false and lying spirits. For too long theological precision in the Church has taken a backseat to attempts to be “relevant,” “user friendly,” or just plain entertaining. That has to stop. Error must be corrected for the good of the individual caught in the error, for the good of other believers, and for the glory of God. The Truth, beginning with the truth about Jesus Christ “come in the flesh from God,” is to be proclaimed as a non-negotiable for all who would call themselves Christians.
How willing are you to correct theological error in those around you? If the answer is, “Quite willing,” how gracious are you? If the answer is “unwilling,” what needs to change?