The Defining Characteristic (1 John 3:11-18, 4:7-21)
Big Idea: Love is the defining characteristic of God and his people.
Let’s play a little association game today. I’ll show you some words and images, and you tell me what comes to mind.
- New York Yankees
I find that interesting. For most of us, certain images are tied to certain things. But when most of us think of church and God, most people tend to think of things like religion, sovereignty, holiness, and more.
Today I want to look at the defining characteristic of both God and his people. For some reason, when people think of God it’s not what they think about. And it’s certainly not what people think about when they think of church. Why is this, and what can we do about it?
For the past few weeks we’ve been looking at 1 John, a letter written by one of Jesus’ closest friends to the Ephesian church. We’ve seen that John has given three qualities that define what Christianity is all about:
- the truth test — we must believe certain things about God
- the obedience test — our lives must be characterized by obedience rather than sin
- the love test — we must love because of Christ
The truth test is simple: Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God — that God became an actual man who died for our sins? Jesus is fully God and fully human. He is the only solution to our sin problem. Some in Ephesus didn’t believe this, but we must. One of the most important questions you will ever answer is this: Who is Jesus Christ? Your answer to this question determines everything. We must hold to this truth if we want to follow Jesus.
The obedience test is also simple, but a little intimidating. Do you obey the commandments of God? If you have faith, it will result in a change in how you live. God is light, and if know him then we’ll live in the light too. John isn’t saying that we’ll be perfect. Nobody is perfect. He is saying that our lives will lean in one direction or the other. They will be characterized either by obedience or disobedience.
Those are two of the three characteristics. Today, though, let’s focus on the third characteristic: love. Why is love so important? Because love is the defining characteristic of God and his people.
Love Is the Defining Characteristic of God
John makes two statements about God in this book that are profound and that shape everything else that he says: God is light, and God is love.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)
This has huge implications for us. John spends a large part of this book or sermon showing what this means for us. If God is light, and we’re his followers, then we can’t walk in darkness. We’ll walk in the light just like he’s in the light. We can’t follow God who is light if we’re not prepared to walk in the light ourselves.
But then there’s the second statement that John makes about God that also shapes everything:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7-8)
God is light, and God is love. These two statements shape a lot in this book. If God is love, then that’s also going to shape how we live. John doesn’t waste any time spelling it out. If we follow God who is love, then we are going to love as well.
What does it mean that God is love? There’s so much to unpack here, because we’re likely to misunderstand what love is, as well as what John’s statement is.
If you search for an image for love, you will come up with a picture like what’s on the screen right now:
We tend to think of love as an involuntary, strong emotion toward another person. We think of romantic love, or the love of a mother for her newborn. So when we hear that God is love, it’s almost like hearing that God is like Cupid, and that we should have mushy feelings for each other. This does a couple of things. First: it frustrates us, because that’s pretty hard for us to manufacture. It also causes a lot of us to check out, because frankly we don’t want to have mushy feelings for too many people in the church!
So what kind of love is John talking about? The word that he used for love was one that was not commonly used back then. Whatever it means, it’s important for us to understand, because it gets at the heart of who God is and who we should be as a result.
So what does it mean that God is love? I like this definition by Wayne Grudem: “God’s love means that God eternally gives of himself to others.” If there is anyone who did not have to give of himself to others, it is God. God owes nothing to us and we owe everything to him. And yet God is so generous. His very nature is to give. “It is part of his nature to give of himself in order to bring about blessing or good for others” (Grudem).
I want you to think about this. At the center of the universe is love. I love these words by two great Christian thinkers that describe ultimate reality:
The Father… Son… and Holy Spirit glorify each other…. At the center of the universe, self-giving love is the dynamic currency of the Trinitarian life of God. The persons within God exalt, commune with, and defer to one another. (Cornelius Plantinga)
In Christianity God is not an impersonal thing nor a static thing— not even just one person— but a dynamic pulsating activity, a life, a kind of drama, almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance … [The] pattern of this three-personal life is… the great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality. (C.S. Lewis)
At the center of the universe is divine, self-giving love.
When John says that God is love, he’s not saying that God is literally love. It’s not a metaphysical statement. It’s like saying that Colonel Sanders is chicken. Nobody would think that Colonel Sanders is in fact a chicken. We know that he was a man. We’re saying that he is so closely associated with chicken that it’s really the most remarkable thing about him. It’s the same with God. Love is the defining characteristic of God. There are so many things that are remarkable about God, but John is saying that out of all of these, one could argue that love is the most remarkable.
John gives us the most compelling example of God’s love for us in verses 8 to 10:
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 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. (1 John 4:8-10)
Love is not only God’s eternal nature, but it’s also a historical fact. God expressed his love by sending Jesus who died in our place. “While the origin of love is in the being of God, the manifestation of love is in the coming of Christ” (John Stott). Love is at the very heart of the universe in the nature of God, and the most powerful demonstration of that love is the cross of Jesus Christ.
This is the best news you’ll hear, not just today or even this year but forever. God eternally gives himself to others. He’s so giving that he didn’t even spare his own Son. This isn’t just news to be heard. It’s news to be believed and celebrated. Receive this self-giving love by trusting what Jesus has done for you.
But there’s something else that’s important to notice. At the very heart of our problem as humans is the belief that we’re not sure that we can really trust God. We somehow worry that God may not have our best interests at heart. We even seem to think that we could probably manage things better than God if we were in his place.
What John says here can free us from thinking we have to hold back as if we’re not quite sure we can trust God. There is nobody who will ever love you more than God. There is no one who cares for you more or who will give you more. We can trust him even when we don’t understand him. Love is the defining characteristic of God. We can trust him. We can serve him.
Love Is the Defining Characteristic of His People
Because love is the defining characteristic of God, it must also be the defining characteristic of his people.
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18)
We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:19-21)
What John is saying is this: love is at the very heart of God, and now we’re part of that fellowship of the Trinity. The self-giving love that’s the dynamic currency of the Trinity now becomes our currency too.
John doesn’t leave this at the abstract level. Remember: God’s love is that he gives himself eternally to others. Guess what our love is supposed to look like? So in chapter 3 he gets very practical. How do we know what love looks like? It means following the example of the one who laid down his life for us. “We ought to lay down our lives for the brothers,” he says.
Whoah. That’s a pretty high standard. Jesus actually died for us. The bar has been set pretty high. Are we being called to actually die for others?
Well, maybe. But usually it will look a lot more ordinary than that. John translates what this means in more ordinary but costly terms:
But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:17-18)
Laying down our lives is not just about the few who will run into burning buildings or be involved in dramatic rescues. It will look like more ordinary things.
You’ve probably heard of the butterfly effect. It’s the theory that small things — like the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil — can set a tornado off in Texas.
The Bible often describes a similar “butterfly effect” for the spiritual life. According to Jesus, the spiritual butterfly effect occurs when we do small things—making a meal, visiting the sick, befriending the lonely, opening our home to a guest, praying with a friend—for “insignificant” people, which makes a huge difference in God’s eyes. But according to Jesus, there’s also a reverse butterfly effect: consistently failing to display small acts of kindness (i.e. living an unkind lifestyle) has a profound loss of opportunity in the spiritual realm. (Kenneth Chang)
That’s what love looks like: laying down our lives for others by meeting the practical needs of others. It begins with seeing how Jesus has given himself for us. It continues with noticing the needs of others. It then leads to performing actual deeds that meet the practical needs of others in small and large ways.
This, according to John, is how we know that we belong to God. If we really know God, our lives will look a little like Jesus. Love is the defining characteristic of God and his people.
So let’s finish with a prayer by William Sloane Coffin:
We have taken advantage of Your great and unqualified love. We have presumed upon Your patience to do less than we might have done, to have been timid where we should have shown courage, to have been careful where we should have been reckless, not counting the cost.
We pray now, O Father, to be used roughly. Stamp on our selfishness.
We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.