Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so 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 atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
The three letters of John, like the letters of 2 Peter and Jude, were probably written as the first century AD gave way to the second. As those who had been eyewitnesses to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection began to die out, new problems faced the embryonic church. One of the most dangerous of those was the attempted synthesis of Gnostic with Christian ideas. Gnosticism is dualistic: spirit is wholly good while matter is wholly evil. Christianity is incarnational; as John asserts in his gospel: “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”. According to Gnostic teaching, God would never have lowered himself so far as to take human form, much less allowed himself to be crucified; therefore Jesus only appeared to be human. Because it was only the spirit trapped in a person’s body that mattered, you could do whatever you wanted with your body, and that might take the form of either extreme asceticism or extreme “anything goes” hedonism. Such behavior is almost always self-centered, which puts it in direct contrast to the other-centered, self-giving life of Jesus.
John directly confronts their mistaken ideas: “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”, even going so far as to say the Gnostic preachers were antichrists. Like James, John says that stated beliefs mean nothing without corresponding actions to back them up. “Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar… whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.” I don’t think John was talking about commandments in the legalistic sense of the Pharisees, who “tithed mint and dill and cumin but neglected the weightier matters of the law”, but in the sense of the principles identified in Matthew:36-40, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” and John 13:34, “a new commandment I give you, that you love one another“ Jesus tells his followers to do many things, particularly in the collection of his teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount, but the principle behind all of them is love.
It is love that John talks about most in his letters, the love God has for us and the love we ought to demonstrate for our fellow human beings. The very nature of God is self-giving love, love that he extended to us when we were doing everything we could to distance ourselves from him, love that knew no limits. That is the kind of love we are to show to others “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another… Whoever does not love abides in death…We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” The only way we can truthfully say we love God is by acting in love toward others. “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
When I read what John has to say about knowing and loving God, I am reminded of a poem I had to memorize when I was much younger, “Abou Ben Adhem”. Here it is:
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
“What writest thou?”The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“And is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay, not so,”
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said, “I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blest,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.
The concept of God is not easy to grasp. As John says, we can’t see God, so how can we say we know him, much less love him? We come to know him through Jesus, whose whole life was love. We come to love him through loving our fellow human beings. God is love, and we were created to be expressions of that love.
And that’s good news to me.