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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary
1 John 4

 

 

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Verse 2

THE INCARNATION AND THE INNER LIFE

‘Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God.’

1 John 4:2

Only too commonly the Incarnation is regarded as a doctrine which faith must accept, but which, except in its issues and results, has no immediate connection with the tenor of daily life. Yet it is plain enough from the text that to confess the Incarnation, in all its blessed fulness and reality of meaning, is to afford a proof of being a very son of God, and a recipient in the fullest measure of the inworking power of the Spirit.

I. Who is He of Whose Incarnation we are speaking?—The immediate and instinctively given answer that each one of us would return would probably be the one word—God. True, most true, most blessedly true, but yet not the suggestive and instructive answer which the Apostle who wrote the words on which we are meditating has enabled us to make. What St. John, under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, plainly reveals to us is this, that He Who was incarnate was He Who was in the beginning, ever with God, and Himself God. And the name that he gives to Him is the Word.

II. Why was this love manifested in a form so startling in its lowliness as that which is revealed to us in the gospel narrative?—Could not the Word have become flesh—could not the Incarnation have been a true and real entry into our humanity and a veritable assumption of our nature, without the humble birth, the slow, silent years of growth, and the gradual increase of wisdom and experience? Though such questions will arise in the soul, there is a kind of presumption in entertaining them, and, to some extent, in endeavouring to answer them. This, however, may with all reverence be said, that, had it been otherwise, the conviction that the Son of God had verily and truly taken our nature upon Him would never have been felt with completeness and fulness in the human heart.

III. Does not the Incarnation with all its attendant circumstances bring home to us the vital truth that if such was the form and manner of the Lord’s assumption of our humanity, communion with Him here and hereafter must be a blessed reality on which the loving and believing soul may rely with the most unchanging confidence. If the dear Lord while here on earth verily did live in blessed union and communion with His chosen ones, as some of that holy number tell us plainly that He did live—if the Incarnation bore with it that boundless blessing to disciples and Apostles, what is there to lead us to doubt that to those that love Him and pray for His abiding presence with them, the Incarnation bears the selfsame privilege and blessing now?

IV. Our dear Lord’s Incarnation was not merely a holy mystery which faith must apprehend, but it carries to the soul convictions of the personal love of Christ toward each fellow-man which make it, what it seems now becoming more and more to us all, the, so to speak, practical doctrine of our own mysteriously moving and eventful times. The Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of man are the two great truths which, year by year, modern religious thought seems more distinctly apprehending and realising; and that each of these great principles rests upon, as its basis, the Incarnation may be regarded as an almost self-evident truth. The revelation of God as our Father was made to us through the Son of His love. Our revelation of the Brotherhood of man can only come through the beloved One, Who made Himself our Elder Brother that He might die for us, and make us His brethren and His own for evermore.

—Bishop Ellicott.


Verse 4

THE TRIUMPH OF GREATNESS

‘Greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world.’

1 John 4:4

St. John points out two currents in the stream of humanity, and he points out that there is a motive power which is controlling in each case the apparently irresponsible movements of the shifting throng. We call these two currents the Church and the world, and St. John shows us the two controlling agents which he calls respectively ‘He that is in you’ and ‘he that is in the world.’ And there is no doubt which is the more popular.

I. Is not greatness the aim of so much of the restlessness in the surging throng that passes us?—Men want to be great, they want to lead, they want to emerge from the ruck. At one time they thought that brute strength was going to do it, and this is not the only age of the world which has been prepared to worship an athlete. They thought riches were going to do it, and rich men have power, as we know full well. They thought the clear brain and wise head were going to do it, and yet there are some things absolutely hid from the wise and prudent. This greatness is a splendid aim; ambition may be the last infirmity of noble minds, but no one can be great without it. We may not sit still and look down on life as if we were the epicurean gods of Olympus, or spectators at a football match, whose interest is the interest of the non-combatant. No, it is St. John who is talking about greatness, sovereignty, strength, and he claims that the preponderance is on our side—that is, on the weaker, less popular, discredited side.

II. St. John would reassure us.—He surely would say that the greatest power in the world is goodness. Certainly among much that tends to disquiet us in things around us it is one of the most cheering signs that God’s presence is still with us, that we are able to appreciate goodness where we see it; nay, more, that the fascination of goodness, and the supremacy of goodness, where it is manifestly displayed, stands unrivalled. Again and again, we see knots unravelled by goodness which have withstood the subtle skill of cleverness or the overwhelming force of coercion. It has been said that ‘hearts will only yield to God.’ Cleverness too often arouses the combativeness of the human heart in the desire to find a suitable retort or to win a dialectical victory. Force provokes antagonism as a matter of course. But when behind the futile blow of a well-meaning partisan men hear, however faintly, the great “I AM,” they go backward in involuntary homage and fall to the ground. Goodness seems to be a power which few recognise but every one feels. And as we gaze out on the jostling throng to-day, those forms, few and insignificant, retiring, even despised, are found to exercise a force out of all proportion to their apparent strength. They are the pillars of society. These are the merciful men, whose righteousness has not been forgotten.

III. The ambition comes to most of us at some time or another to be of some good in the world, to be known, yes, to be great, to be famous, at least not to have lived in vain. And then there has come the disappointment which has crushed us in upon ourselves. The world is full of claimants for its posts of honour; it has a tendency to get weary of its Admirable Crichtons, and in sheer wilfulness to ostracise Aristides because his reputation for justice has become oppressive. It does not choose that we should elevate ourselves on the ruins of others; it despises jealousy. It does not value our own estimate of ourselves; it spurns vanity. There are few things more capricious and uncertain than fame, and it is a poor thing when we have attained to it. But goodness, the desire to do our piece of work as well as we can, for its own sake, not seeking a reward, is quite another matter. We began wrongly in looking outside ourselves; perfecting the instrument for God is our hope for usefulness. ‘First give thyself wholly to God, and then to the work which God gives thee to do.’ Listen to the words of the Apostle—‘He that is in you.’ ‘Christ in you the hope of glory,’ as St. Paul had said before him. Is not this the blessed truth which the Incarnation brings home to us? That once in the world’s history a Perfect Man stood forth, Whom we now acknowledge to be God, Who showed us what perfect infancy could be, what it is to be a perfect boy, what power there is in a perfect man; Who showed us what a superficial blemish poverty is, and that pain and even death can be worked into the full message of a perfect life. And it has been revealed to us that ‘As many as received Him to them gave He power to become the sons of God.’ Each of us may become, if Christ be in us, a faint imitation of Christ in our lives and actions. ‘He that is in you.’

IV. Here is a greatness within the reach of all—There is no aristocracy in goodness. Living in one room in Spitalfields will not of itself make you bad, neither will living in twenty in Belgravia of itself make you good. There were saints in Cæsar’s household, there were saints among the publicans and sinners, as well as among the sheltered lives of those who had time to think and room to expand. It is no use saying, If I were some one else I might be great; if I had a different nature I might be good. Read God’s records in the times of old, and see how He raises up his deliverers out of the parts most obnoxious to the attacks of the enemy; how He chooses obscure tribes and younger sons, and those whom the world has sent away, as having no sort of value in the common currency of merit. Bethlehem is the rival of Imperial Rome, Nazareth surpasses the wisdom of the Academy. Judæa itself was a strange country to arrest the gaze of the civilised world. It is open to any one here to-day to do a piece of work which shall last, to be a pillar in the House of God, because he has accepted the fulness of meaning which underlies the Apostle’s word, ‘Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.’ He has received Christ in his heart, and He has given him power, yes, the right, to become the son of God. Here is a work which may well fire the ambition of us all. But we cannot shut our eyes to its extreme difficulty. Before Christ can be in us there must be the absolute and entire surrender to Him of body, soul, and spirit.

—Rev. Canon Newbolt.

Illustration

‘What did St. John know about greatness? After all, he was only a Galilean fisherman, little at home even in the Greek language. Where would St. John be now if we put him down in the world of London, and who would listen to him? But St. John did not lie inert and lifeless in a backwater, still and unruffled, of the world’s stream. He was thrown violently across the agents and the genius of that Empire which claimed to be the mistress of the world. He was thought important enough to be banished for his opinions. And while we are seeking to estimate his power of attaining to greatness or of knowing what greatness meant, I would ask you how many in this congregation could tell me a single fact in the life of the Emperor Domitian, supreme ruler at that time of the haughtiest despotism that the world has ever seen, except, perhaps, that he killed flies? Whereas, I suppose, there are few, if any, who could not narrate many incidents in the career of the Apostle John. There is hardly a home in England, unless it be that of the utterly abandoned, where his writings are not to be found, hardly a church in which you will not find some representation of him either in statue, painting, or glass. We seem to hear, while we are thinking about greatness, the despairing cry of a rival heathenism—“O Galilæe vicisti,” “O Galilean, Thou hast conquered.”’


Verse 7

‘LOVE IS OF GOD’

‘Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is begotten of God, and knoweth God.’

1 John 4:7 (R.V.)

This section of the Epistle, 1 John 4:7-21, contains one of those profound truths which are so often expressible in simple words, but which are inexhaustible in their fulness of meaning, God is love.

I. This is the foundation—a foundation great and wide—and therefore we may expect that the edifice to be built up on it will be great and wide also. The foundation is wide as the world. God, Who is love, so loved the world that He gave His Son. We need not, therefore, be surprised if the edifice built up on such a foundation is world-embracing also.

II. St. John expresses his deduction from this foundation fact in a fourfold form.

(a) First, in our text it comes to us in the form of an invitation, ‘Beloved, let us love one another.’

(b) In 1 John 4:11 it is expressed as a binding obligation. It is a debt we ought to pay. We Englishmen pride ourselves on paying our debts. Here is a debt which needs a great deal to clear it. Beloved, if God so loved us—if, that is, we have received so much love—we also ought, we owe it as a debt, to love one another. It is an invitation, it is a binding duty; but St. John has not done yet. In sweeter, more alluring tones he puts it before us in another form. He, as it were, turns the prism once again to show us a yet more beautiful ray of coloured light.

(c) In 1 John 4:12 he shows us the indescribably blessed result which follows from loving one another; it is nothing else than this, the abiding of God within us.

(d) But St. John knew man’s heart; he knew its dulness; he knew how slow we are to respond to an invitation, to regard it even when coming from the King of kings as something to be accepted or refused as we will. The late Dr. Macleod was once invited to preach before Queen Victoria, and in view of some previous engagement he had written a letter to decline Her Majesty’s invitation, when it was pointed out to him that a royal invitation was equivalent to a command. St. John knew we might make a like mistake, perhaps from our all too slight acquaintance with our heavenly Sovereign; he knew, too, that some of us might underestimate the binding duty of paying our dues, that some would find it difficult to rise to the sublime height of appreciating the blessedness of God’s abiding Presence, and therefore, when he reiterates his deduction for the fourth time, he puts it in a form about which there can be no manner of doubt. ‘This commandment have we from him, that he who loveth God love his brother also.’

III. On no point was the closest friend of Jesus Christ more insistent than on this supreme duty of love.—It is as wide as its foundation. It is wide with the width of God’s heaven, for it is as wide as the love of God. Beloved, ‘one another’ includes all the souls whom God the Father created in love, whom God the Son redeemed in love, whom God the Holy Ghost is waiting to sanctify in love.

—Rev. J. A. Wood.

Illustrations

(1) ‘On the east wall of the Church of the Ascension, in the Bayswater Road, London, the artist, Mr. F. Shields, who is decorating that old mortuary chapel with a most wonderful series of pictures of our Lord’s life, has painted a panel embodying his conception of what love means. Love is a beautiful female figure, with a face strong as well as tender, a face which bears witness to suffering endured. On Love’s lap is a little European child, by Love’s side stands a little African child, one little foot still fettered, the other freed by Love. At Love’s feet a little Chinese and a little Indian child are playing together. Both the little hands of the white babe on Love’s lap are outstretched to draw to itself the little black boy’s face and impress upon it a kiss. To the artist the embodiment of love knows no distinction of race or language or colour. He interprets the “one another” of our text with a world-wide meaning.’

(2) ‘A short while ago there went to Burma from a Leicestershire vicarage a young missionary. A year of work, and then to that stricken home went the sad news of his death from fever. But to Bishop Montgomery flashed back from the bereaved parents this inspiring answer: “We have another son to send.” Love counts no gift too great to give to the God who is Love.’


Verse 8

‘GOD IS LOVE’

‘God is love.’

1 John 4:8

This Epistle was an Epistle General, that is, it was not directed to any local Church. St. John was now a very old man. St. Peter, St. James, and St. Paul had all gone ‘to be with Christ,’ and St. John survived them all. The beginning of the Epistle is much the same as the beginning of St. John’s Gospel.

‘God is love.’ That is one of the golden sentences only to be found in the Book of God. It is ‘an ocean of thought in a drop of language.’ Bengel says, ‘This brief sentence gave St. John, even during the mere time he took to write it, more delight than the whole world can impart.’ They were written by him who at the Last Supper lay on his Master’s breast.

I. Here is the source of salvation.

(a) God sent His Son. That was love.

(b) Christ came. That was love.

(c) The Holy Spirit sheds abroad the love of God in the heart (Romans 5:5). That is love.

So every soul that is saved is saved by love.

II. Here is the fountain of comfort.—‘How refreshing to be able to fall back upon this truth in a world in which there is so much to make us welcome it—tears, difficulties, anxieties, burdens, clouds, heart-achings, heart-breakings, sick-beds, death-beds, graves—but “God is love.”’ Every believer may say—

Not a single shaft can hit,

Till the God of Love sees fit.

III. Here is our hope for the future.

(a) Heaven is rest.

(b) Heaven is light. ‘Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’

(c) But above all, heaven is love, for ‘God is Love.’

Rev. F. Harper.

Illustration

‘We feel almost under a moral compulsion not to leave Advent, Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Whitsuntide, Trinity, till we have placed upon all its own proper crown. The whole subject grows up so naturally to its grand, simple apex, that every thought can find expression in no other words but these, “God is love.” Therefore, in part, for this very reason, this little, inimitable, most eloquent sentence was reserved for almost the last book in the Bible. We do not find it in the Old Testament; nor till the whole scheme of our salvation was finished and revealed; and then, on the entire temple of truth, this was placed as the top-stone—“God is love.” And it was only right his hand should set it up who had been admitted into the closest intimacy with that dear Saviour Who had brought that “love” to us, and Whose whole life was only its embodiment; and therefore it was reserved for St. John to lay the pinnacle, “God is love.”’

(SECOND OUTLINE)

DIFFICULTIES ANSWERED

‘God is love.’ Doubtless there are difficulties. The brightest lights throw the deepest shadows. But the mists which cloud the summer morning are only made to melt into the sweeter noonday brightness.

I. ‘Was it love,’ a man says, ‘to make man, and then to let him fall into sin and misery?’—The answer is twofold.

(a) First, man was made a free agent. This was a first principle in the creation of this world. It was a necessity. Why we are not informed. But man could not be a free agent without the capability of falling.

(b) Secondly, and by far the best answer, man, the whole race of man, is better for the fall. Had man not fallen, Christ would not have come to this world; and if Christ had not come, there would have been no heaven for man. As much therefore, as the heaven we have gained is better than the paradise we have lost, by so much are we the better and the happier for Adam’s fall. ‘God is love.’

II. But another objects:—‘See all the suffering and wretchedness there is now in this world. How is that consistent with the Divine government of love?’

(a) First, all the suffering, in the main, is man’s own fault. The suffering is the result, directly or indirectly, of voluntary sin, which might have been avoided. Man is responsible for it, not God.

(b) But secondly, this world, having fallen, is now passing under discipline and training for another and a better world; and the suffering is the discipline essential to the educating processes of the present life.

(c) Thirdly, if there are degrees in glory, the degree of the glory must depend on the degree of the grace; and, to a great extent, the degree of the grace is dependent on the degree of the schooling. And thus it may be that the more suffering for a little while the more happiness for ever and ever. And so the suffering all turns to reward, and the compensation is abundant! My own experience of dying beds would lead me to say that many in their sickness and last days regret their too sunny prosperity in the world; none regret their trials and sorrows in life in the retrospect. Take away all suffering, and you have very nearly emptied heaven! What a proportion of the saints owe all their happiness to suffering! ‘God is Love!’

III. But I hear it said again: ‘Why has God left such a vast proportion of the inhabitants of this earth ignorant of Christ and of the way of salvation?’

(a) God has not left them ignorant. He willed and provided that ‘all should know Him.’ He commanded His people from the very first to ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.’

(b) Had the Church done her part, the earth would by this time have been enlightened. But we have not done it. The Church is responsible.

—Rev. James Vaughan.

Illustration

‘The Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ is contained in the truth that God is love. Love is self-sacrifice, and the death of Calvary is the self-sacrifice of God. Take away the Divinity of Christ, and it cannot be maintained that God is love; because there is wanting to His nature, so far as we know it, and there is absent from the manifestations of Himself which He has made, love in its highest form, in its most wonderful character. Men say that by the Divinity of Christ, and by His death considered as an atonement for sin, we destroy this aspect of the Divine nature. But it may surely be replied that to deny the Divinity of Christ, and to deny that the sacrifice of the Cross was God’s own act as man and for man, is also to deny that God is love; because thereby love of the highest kind is excluded from the Divine nature and the Divine manifestation.’


Verse 9

LOVE MANIFESTED

‘In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him.’

1 John 4:9

Of the reality of God’s love St. John had no doubt; neither need we have any, though some do doubt it, thinking that God’s justice and hatred of sin interfere with His love. But justice does not interfere with love in God. Justice and love are compatible in man, and much more so in God. The Cross of Christ reveals and establishes the harmony between righteousness and mercy. There justice gets its own, and love has its way, and God is a ‘just God and a Saviour,’ and ‘grace reigns through righteousness.’ Christ’s Cross is not the cause but the consequence of God’s love. The text asserts God’s love before He sent Christ; affirms Christ’s mission to be the manifestation of God’s love. There need be no doubt, then, as to the fact that God loves us, has loved us. But more than this, the text not only implies that God is loving and loves us, but asserts that He is love. Love is the sum and harmony of all His attributes, His essence.

I. The manifestation of God’s love.—God’s love is manifested in creation, in preservation, and in all the blessings of this life, but above all in redemption.

(a) God sent His Son.—He did not merely allow or consent to His coming. He Himself sent His Son, gave Him His commission and authority.

(b) God sent His only begotten Son. He Who was sent by God as a gift of love was no less than His only begotten Son. Then God’s love is as great as the Divine glory of His Son. God sends no servant, no archangel, but His equal and co-eternal Son, Who, as His only begotten, and sharing that nature which is love, could best manifest God’s love.

(c) God sent His Son into the world. The destination of the Son, His being sent into a fallen and sinful world, a world disordered and corrupt, a world which during thousands of years had not grown better but worse, manifested God’s love. Christ’s personal history and experience in the world manifested how great was the love of God that sent Him to such a world and to such treatment in it.

(d) God sent His Son … that we might live through Him. The purpose of Christ’s mission, involving His death as a sacrifice for sin, His giving His life to redeem ours, manifested God’s love. They for whom He sent His Son were sinners, guilty, helpless, unloving.

II. Some thoughts which emerge.

(a) Here is the spring and motive of love to God, and the love to man which is its evidence.

(b) If God has given His only begotten Son for our life, with Him also He shall freely give us all things.

(c) How precious is the soul of man! It is the subject of God’s love, and Christ was sent to give it true life.

(d) We must become sons of God, born sons, if we are to manifest His love.

(e) To reject God’s love thus manifested must be the greatest sin and misery, and it is self-inflicted misery as it is wilful sin.

(SECOND OUTLINE)

THE INCARNATION

It may help us to love God more and to adore God Incarnate with more definite and intelligent acts of worship if we carry in our minds clear ideas respecting the facts and the results of the Incarnation.

I. The facts of the Incarnation are these.—God the Son was from all eternity, is now, and will be for ever, ‘equal to the Father as touching His Godhead.’ In all the ages of time that preceded the days of the Cross the Son of God existed, even, according to His own words, ‘Before Abraham was, I AM’; and in all the ages of eternity—if we may speak of ‘ages’ in a period of unmeasurable duration—He also had existed; according to the words of the Holy Ghost, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ The unmeasurable eternity passed on, and there came a ‘beginning’ which marked the first boundary of time; and in that ‘beginning God created the heaven and the earth,’ and in that creation God the Son, the Eternal Word, took part, for ‘all things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made.’ He, then, Who was sent into the word by the Eternal Father and Creator, was the Eternal Son and Creator. It is He of Whom St. John writes, ‘And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’; of Whom the Angel Gabriel said to Joseph respecting Mary, ‘That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a Son, and thou shalt call His name Jesus; for He shall save His people from their sins’; of whom St. Luke writes, ‘And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn’; Who, at the end of His humiliation and sufferings, ‘cried with a loud voice’ and said, ‘Father, into Thy hands I commend My Spirit; and having said this, gave up the ghost’; and Who, having ‘shewed Himself alive after His Passion by many infallible proofs,’ was ‘carried up into “that” heaven’ in human nature where He had been in Divine nature from all eternity.

Most wonderful facts, and yet attested beyond all rational contradiction in the Gospels, that ‘perfect God,’ the Son of God in all the qualities of Divine nature, thus became ‘perfect man,’ the Son of Man in all the qualities of human nature; and that, after thirty-three years of life on earth as a babe, a holy child, a working, teaching, suffering man, He ascended to heaven to reign there with His Divine and human nature inseparably united for ever.

II. The results of this Incarnation.—‘In this was manifested the love of God towards us, because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him.’ The summing up of the results of the fall is contained in the words ‘death through sin,’ and the summing up of the results of the Incarnation is contained in the words ‘life through holiness.’

(a) It was said of Jesus before He came into the world, ‘That Holy Thing Which shall be born of Thee shall be called the Son of God.’ It was the holiness of His origin which made Christ a New Man and a Second Adam. In Him our human nature was re-created in purity and sinlessness, as it had been originally created in the First Adam, but as it was never inherited from him by his descendants. The Creator did not again build up a human body out of the dust of the ground and inspire it with the breath of life, but He provided a pure Virgin, that she might, by a miracle, become a Holy Virgin Mother; and that thus the human nature of God Incarnate might be inherited from a human parent and formed of her human substance, and yet so inherited that it should be uncontaminated by that which all other human beings inherit—the taint of original sin. Thus the Holy Child Jesus came into the world with the nature of man unfallen, and His soul and body were both untouched by original sin from His cradle to His Cross.

(b) But as Jesus was entirely free from original sin, so also He passed through the probation of His earthly life without ever falling into actual sin. No assaults of the Tempter could make Him disobey His Father as they had made the first Adam do. In the wilderness He withstood all the array of temptations to which human nature is liable through the infirmities of the flesh, the seductions of the world, and the wiles of the devil; in the garden of Gethsemane He resisted the temptation to separate His Will from the Will of His Father by choosing some other way than that of the Cross; at the Cross itself He bore trials of His body and soul such as had never fallen to the lot of man before, yet none of these things could move Him from the pathway of perfect holiness.

(c) By that perfect holiness, therefore, which could thus withstand all assaults of the enemy of God and man, Jesus was qualified to become an offering for the sin of the world, living over again under its greatest trials and difficulties the probational life of human nature, and living it until He had carrried that human nature in His own person beyond the range of the Tempter’s power. Free from the sin of nature and free from the sin of act, He could be the Representative of all sinners and stay the penalty of sin, as Adam had represented all sinners incurring that penalty; and thus in the words of St. Paul, ‘As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.’ It was a result of the Incarnation of the Son of God that His death should vanquish the power of death, and that though men must still die before they can live, yet shall the purpose of God in sending His Son into the world be fulfilled, ‘that we might live through Him.’


Verse 11

REFLECTED LOVE

‘Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.’

1 John 4:11

Thus St. John has summed up his argument, and this is ‘the conclusion of the whole matter.’

Whom are we to ‘love’? ‘One another.’ St. John is not writing about family affections, or private friendships, parents and children, brothers and sisters, or a few intimacies. He is writing to ‘the Church.’ Whom, then, ought we to love? Who are the ‘one another’? All in the Great Brotherhoood; in the Family of God; ‘the Church.’ All the Baptized; that is practically, with us, all with whom we have to do every day.

‘If God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.’ There is our copy.

I. God’s love was an originating love.—He loved us long before we loved Him. He completely took the initiative. We should do the same—not wait to be loved; but look around to some one whom we might love and be kind to, who does not love us, whom we ought to love; and at once do something, say a kind word, do a kind thing, to that person. Do we not all err in this? We expect somebody else to begin. We only think of loving where we are loved. It is a very happy thing for us that God did not act with us on that principle!

II. God’s love is a wise and thoughtful love.—O how wise! how thoughtful! Our love is often very unwise and unthoughtful. We take no pains about it. It is a mere passion. It has no distinct aim. There is no real principle in it. And then it is not appropriate. It does not fit the person we love. There is very little mind in it; no consideration; therefore our love often does harm where it is meant to do good. But that is exactly the contrary of God’s love. His love is so carefully, so exquisitely adjusted. It is so very wise.

III. God’s love is always faithful.—God can give pain. He does give pain. So far as reproof is faithful, God’s love is faithful. Be you faithful in your affections. Do not exaggerate your affections. Do not overstate your affections. See faithfully. Speak of faults. Do it opportunely; very gently, very hopefully, very sympathisingly, very tenderly. But when you do speak, speak uncompromisingly; not beating about the bush. Be faithful. An unfaithful love is worse than hatred; and I may say very unlike God’s!

IV. God’s love is a self-sacrificing love.—What sacrifice, I do not say of life, but what real sacrifice of time, or of money, or of comfort, are we making for any one? Even if we do it in our own families, or for a few friends, are we doing it outside? are we doing it beyond the circle of our relations? are we doing it as fellow-Christians, as fellow-men? are we doing it to ‘one another’? Does not our love just stop short of sacrifice?

V. God’s love is never capricious.—It is never a thing to be taken up and laid down again. It is never light. It is constant. It never changes, except to deepen. ‘Having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them to the end.’ He never leaves; He never fails; He is never tired of a friend. Is your love so?

Now these five things must all go to make the copy of the Divine love. And nothing is really love which is not a copy of the love of God.


Verse 16

LOVE’S CROWN

‘God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.’

1 John 4:16

It is a distinction between Christians and all others, that whereas the heathen and unbelieving world knows not or heeds not the Gospel, they who are Christ’s know and believe the love of God, rejoice in its manifestations, and reap its benefits.

I. The fact of God’s love to us.—Our Father in heaven is not only good, bountiful, forbearing, but He is loving.

(a) A wonderful fact. It appears such when we consider how great and holy God is, and when we consider how unworthy we are of the love of such a Being.

(b) A revealed fact. Revelation is largely occupied with the declaration of this fact. There has been revelation in words, in the dispensations which Divine wisdom has established, in the interpositions which Divine grace has effected on behalf of men.

(c) A proved fact. Deeds confirm declarations. Love, as an emotion, is in the heart of God; but it has been evidenced supremely in the gift of His only and beloved Son. No proof so convincing as this could possibly have been given. He who believes the Gospel cannot doubt the love of God.

II. The experimental knowledge of this love.—The love is a fact; but to know and believe this fact is the distinguishing privilege of the Christian.

(a) Observe the terms in which this experimental acquaintance with Divine love is described. ‘Knowledge’ and ‘belief’ are terms which indicate the personal appropriation and appreciation of this incomparable love of God.

(b) Observe who are the possessors of this knowledge. ‘We’ in this passage must be understood to signify not simply the Apostles and their colleagues, but all who are taught by the Spirit and truly receive the good tidings concerning the Lord Jesus.

III. The fruits and evidences of such acquaintance with the love of God.—Such experience cannot be without influence upon the heart and life.

(a) Love is the great response to love. ‘We love Him because He first loved us.’

(b) Obedience is the most convincing proof of love. In fact, God has revealed His love in order to impart to men the highest and purest motive to accept and obey His law.

(c) Testimony to that love will be the natural expression of grateful affection. The Christian regards it as his privilege, and feels it to be the impulse of the Spirit of Love within him, to bear witness to the love which God hath, and which He revealed through His Son.

Illustration

‘Only think for a moment what it is to have this indwelling of God in your own hearts. What a fountain is within us of holiness and happiness and strength. What an exceeding thing it is—what an assurance of our election—what a warrant of prayer—what a pleasant foretaste of eternal life and happiness! To carry God not only with you but within you, wherever you go; to feel and know that He is there; to be sure of it by the feeling of your conscience, which is working there to make you love everybody and everything as His child—what more could you wish? It is the insignia of the child of the King of kings—the royalty of heaven—the crown! And because it is the badge of Sonship, and the Father’s likeness, therefore it makes you so love that all else is a nonentity.’


Verse 18

LOVE AND FEAR

‘Perfect love casteth out fear.’

1 John 4:18

This principle, that ‘perfect love casteth out fear,’ is a universal principle, and belongs to all human things. It is shown most completely in religious matters; but it is also true that, wherever love rules, there fear has no place; that we do not fear or suspect those whom we love; and that this is true of us just in proportion as our love is true and strong.

I. Trust in God, and confidence in Him, is really worship, even although we do not say a word or do any action, because it is an acknowledgment of His goodness and kindness; an expression of the soul’s feeling of safety when under His care.

II. Think how sweet this confidence in God is; how it sheds a new light and a new glory over the weary duties we have in this world; how much more firmly we can plant our feet in difficult times of trial. This life is a very weary thing at times to us all. There is so much hardness in the world, so much meanness and dishonesty, so much suffering—and to express all that I mean in one word, so much sin—that even the most contented is tempted sometimes to murmur, to ask what good he is doing in the world, and what he has to look to when he leaves it. And unless we have a thorough confidence and belief in God’s care for us, and His power and wisdom in so caring for us; unless we can always fall back, in times of trial, upon the sure belief that God has brought us into the world for our good and His own glory; that He is guiding us through the world for the same good and wise reasons, we cannot be wholly at rest.

III. And yet few persons know how little and how weakly they trust in God.—Most Christians take it so much for granted that they have a sure trust and confidence in Him that they never even ask themselves the question. But delay no longer to do so. Put off no longer a thing so important. Look into the depth of your own feelings, and consider what feelings you have towards God; whether you look to Him with trust and confidence—with that boundless and perfect affection which swallows up and destroys any fear for yourself—any fears arising from the past—any dim apprehensions for the future; whether, like a happy child, your souls dwell in faith and trust on what little we know of God; whether it is so with you—or otherwise; whether you think of Him with disquiet; whether you turn away from the idea as unwelcome of one day being brought face to face with Him; whether like a thundercloud in a calm sky the thought of God and of a judgment to come flits by your mind before you can banish it. And you will be very unwise if you simply turn away from the question I am speaking of—if you decline to question yourself thus. Remember it is a matter that will not be always put off. It is a question that waits an answer—but not for ever; that suffers itself to be put aside—but only for a time; and the longer that time the more difficult will it be when you come to answer at last—as answer you must!


Verse 19

GOD’S LOVE AND MAN’S RESPONSE

‘We love Him, because He first loved us.’

1 John 4:19

God’s love and man’s response—that is the meaning of our life as Christians. And it is God’s love, the kindness of God our Saviour, that comes first.

I. We are surrounded, enwrapped in God’s love.—It is so close, it envelops us so completely, that for many of us it takes a long while to discern it; and when we do it comes with all the force of a discovery, just because it was ‘closer than breathing, nearer than hands or feet.’ He seems so far above, and we are so little, that we cannot believe it. Have you not sometimes had a friend in some one far removed from you—some one above you in station, your employer or chief; some one above you in age and knowledge, your teacher or your master; or some one of like age and standing, but above you in gifts, perhaps attractions? You have admired them very much and perhaps learnt from them. Then one day something done or said has revealed the truth, and you have found that they care, just care for you; that you are not merely a case, or a hand, or an item in their work, but that you, as a person, you being yourself and no one else, with all your faults and your insignificance, that you matter to them; that they care about that. Has it not made a world of difference? It makes you yourself a better person, for nothing individualises like love. And has not this knowledge made things easy which before were hard, and enabled you to do and bear a great deal more? And then comes another thought. You are anxious to show them something in return, and please them; if the thought were not absurd, you would like to help them. But they are too far above you, and you cannot do that, you know. You can love them, and that is all. But that is not all with God. We can love Him and help Him too. That is the wonderful thing; the strange truth that makes one almost shudder with joy. Not only does God let us love Him, but He will let us help Him, give Him something; give, too, not a little, but the best we have, all made better by the giving; more, too, give not only what we have, but what we are, ‘ourselves, our souls and bodies, a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice,’ and so make God happier. Has it ever occurred to you what it means—you can make God, make Jesus, happier? We are often told that our sins, our pride and wilfulness make Him miserable once more; that we renew for Him Gethsemane and dig those nails deeper. We do. But also we can make Him glad, can help Him, make it easier for Him to do His work, His never-ceasing work of saving the world, and bring a fresh note of joy even among the angels in heaven.

II. We must love God.—We cannot help it, because He loves us. If some gracious and attractive nature shows love to us we must love Him back; as soon as we realise the fact we cannot help ourselves. For a long while, indeed, through pride and wilful ignorance, we may not know that He cares, and so live as if He did not, or one may fail to see how beautiful He is and not care whether He loves or not. So long as a person is unattractive or indifferent to you, you do not mind, as you put it, whether he likes or dislikes you—you do not know and you do not care; he is nothing to you. But once you have caught the attraction, once you have seen his beauty of spirit, or gifts, or power, or whatever it is has held you, he is no more indifferent, and you would be glad to know that he takes an interest in you. That is what God does: He takes an interest in us, and all our life is aflame with the fact. How it happens that when we know this and love Him too we can shame Him, as we do so often by our pride and lust, by our greed and cowardice, or by mere forgetfulness and distrust, I do not know. But we do. Yet even that He puts out of sight, because His love is an everlasting love and knows no bounds.

III. We have to help God to give Him presents.—You know how it is if you do not care about people and you have to give them a wedding present. It bores you; it seems such waste of money. On the other hand, nothing seems good enough for any one you greatly care for. Cannot we be a little more extravagant in our gifts to God? I am not talking about money, though for many people that is a very good test of reality. But every day, every hour almost, we can be giving something to Jesus. Make Him a present—some pleasure, personal and selfish, we give up; some sorrow or humiliation you can turn into joy and strength for His sake; some evil thought we put away we give to Him, just because He loves us and does not like it; some hard piece of work we do just to serve Him; some brave discipline, some bad fight we face, because we are His friends. I know it is all very hard, and perhaps we shall fail. We may have enough pluck to go into the fight, and then past sins or a fresh fall may give the victory to the other side. We are not all intended to give Him success; we are all intended to give Him our efforts. Perhaps the only thing we can say is, ‘Lord, I have failed; I did my best in vain, but I did try. I have been beaten, but it was for Thee.’ Give Jesus success, if it comes to you; high sacrifice and great results, if you win them. But if not that, if you have only scorn and humiliation and grief and self-contempt, you can give Him that. Which was it, failure or success, He Himself gave His Father on Calvary?

—Rev. Dr. J. Neville Figgis.

Illustration

‘This is what makes the difference—what separates us from other men, and unites us, if we only realise it, by a bond that is deeper than all the barriers, real though they be, which are set up by race and social training, by breeding or virtue, and by intellect and education—the last and the hardest barrier of all. We Christians are men who love. In other religions you can find men who worship; in some of them in the East quite a number who make prayer their life. Under many different moral systems there are those who sacrifice all, and shame us by the depth of their renunciation. Often do we meet outside the Christian Church men of virtue, of high standards and noble integrity. In ours alone is there this rare aroma, that we are lovers of a living Lord; friends in the beautiful name of a sect that did much to restore tenderness to an age full of religion and empty of love. Friendship—that is the quality, the meaning of our religion; and all our Church system, and all our elaboration of services, all our sacramental life, the grace of Holy Baptism, the beauty of the Eucharist, the tenderness of penitence, the courage of Confirmation, and the joy and strength of priestly office are but so many symbols of this one fact, so many facets “of the diamond heart unstained and clear, and the whole world’s crowning jewel,” the friendship between man and God.’

(SECOND OUTLINE)

THE CHRISTIAN REVELATION

Of all revelations that is the most Christian that you ever listened to. If there is no love in your heart at all for God, look at what God has done for you in the person of His beloved Son.

I. We love Him because He first loved us.—I often wonder why it was not made a question, or rather why a mark of interrogation was not put after ‘we love Him.’ Do we love Him? It is a question which indeed we must answer. There is no doubt about the second part, He did love us. God grant that you may realise how much He loved you, and then, if you will but realise it in ever so small a degree, there is some hope that you will love Him because He has first loved you.

II. Contrast fear and love.—Fear in its way is a very wholesome feeling. It has its good points, but do you know the difference between fear and love? It is this, that unless fear merges into love, fear never lasts. Even a small child will get accustomed to a terror. You cry bogey very often and at last the child will laugh, and it is not well for us ministers of the Word to be always trying to frighten you with views of hell, at which I know quite well you are only inclined to smile. No fear will ever convert a soul; only love will do that. Fear only torments, fear makes a man, as it were, to tremble, but it will never bring him to God. But love hath peace. Oh, what a beautiful picture in contrast is the Gospel according to St. John! What a beautiful contrast are these Epistles of his! Is he afraid of God? He looks up into the face of God the Father and sees that face wreathed with smiles. What does He hear? ‘The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin.’ ‘Herein is our life made perfect, that we may have boldness in the great day of judgment.’ He faces death, the great unknown, but is not afraid because he knows of the love of God.

III. Would it not be a blessed thing for you in the middle of trouble—and God knows how much trouble there is in the world—to be able under the almighty hand of God to say from the ground of the heart, ‘Thy will be done, O Lord’? How is it to be done? St. John points the way. He shows you that salvation is of Jesus Christ. He tells you that the peace of Jesus Christ is to be had in Jesus Christ’s way, in the worship of His blessed Church, in the blessed sacrament, in prayer, in worship. Have you found that peace now? Have you found that peace which passeth all understanding, and have you the desire to be in a place where no one says, ‘I am afraid of Him,’ but where all joyfully acknowledge and unite in uttering with one voice the words of the blessed Apostle, ‘We love Him, because he first loved us’?

Rev. J. Jenkins.

Illustration

‘Perhaps you have heard or read of the love of the two friends Damon and Pythias for each other. When Damon was condemned by the tyrant Dionysius to die, he asked permission to visit his wife and children, that he might bid them farewell; and his faithful friend Pythias gave himself up as a pledge, promising to die in his friend’s place if he did not come back at the appointed time. But Damon was hindered, and could not return at the time he intended. Then Dionysius the tyrant visited Pythias in prison, and said to him, “How foolish you were ever to think that your friend would come back again to die.” But he replied, “I would rather suffer a thousand deaths than his word and honour should fail. But it will not fail; he will come back.” He then prayed that his friend might be hindered from coming back until he himself had died in his place, that so Damon might be spared to his family and to his people. The scaffold was then prepared, and Pythias took his place upon it to die for his friend. Suddenly the sound of a galloping horse was heard. “Stop! stop!” cried the crowd. It was, indeed, Damon come back. In a moment he sprang from his horse, mounted the scaffold, and was clasped in the arms of his friend. Pythias appeared much disappointed that his friend had not come a few minutes later, and said that now that he could not die for his friend he would die with him. But when the tyrant Dionysius saw the love of these two friends, he wept and said to them both, “Live! live! ye incomparable pair! Live happy! live revered! and as you have invited me by your example, form me by your precept to participate worthily of a friendship so Divine.”’


Verse 20

LOVE TO MEN

‘He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God Whom he hath not seen?’

1 John 4:20

We cannot love Him Whom we do not realise, and to realise the great invisible Influence in which we live and move and have our being, to realise the Person Who is watching over and directing us and directing all this complicated scheme of things, is harder and harder to do. And the world comes close around us and absorbs us. If that is our difficulty we may take the verse which we have read, and we may say that it teaches us that there is a training in the love of God.

I. Love of man is a training for the love of God; for, though it is hard to realise the Invisible, we have the visible. We have men; we have the love of men, which is natural to us, and easy for us in a sense. And I think that is what the Apostle means us to take as a training for the love of God—the love of our brother whom we have seen; this familiar friend, who is with us at every turn of our life, with whom we are continually thrown in contact. And in our natural life in the world this familiar friend is the means which is to train and draw out this great faculty in us—the love of our friend and of our brother-man. We are to train and exercise ourselves in the love of God by this means. And that simple, natural human affection which we feel for our brother—that is the very same faculty as that which is required for the love of God. We must not think of this love as something extraordinary, some fresh and unknown faculty which is to be given to us. No doubt all love is of God, is a gift: but all love is alike, the same affection. It is really in its essence the going out of ourselves and loving another and living for another. And whether that other be a fellow-man, or whether it be God Himself, still the impulse is the same—the putting aside of all selfish impulses, and living in and for God or men. That is love. So the love of man is, as I said, a training for the love of God, because it is the same faculty that is needed for both. And in our weakness, when we cannot rise to the love of God, let us remember that we have our Lord’s own warrant that whatsoever ‘we do unto the least of these His brethren we do unto Him.’ And when we love our brethren, it is the first step to the love of God. We cannot pass it over; we cannot rise to the love of God unless we love ‘our brethren whom we have seen.’

II. But there is a caution required.—This lesson on which I have been laying stress is too congenial to our aims, if anything. We are inclined to rest in the love of man, as if that were all our duty. We are apt to think that it is all comprised in loving man, and we forget that it is intended to lead us on to the love of God: that it is training. Our age is nothing if not philanthropic. Universal love is its ideal; its test of religions is, ‘Does it teach the love of man?’ Its test of a man’s own life is as to whether he has shown himself beneficent, benevolent, kindly, loving; and the danger in all that is lest we should forget that to which we are intended to rise—the love of God. And I think that the cause of the danger is this, that our love of man is not perfect, our love of man is limited to one side of man’s nature; for if we are to learn the love of God through the love of man, we must love that which is God-like in man. If we are to love the invisible eternal God, and to learn it by our love for our brethren, we must love the invisible and eternal in our brethren—that which is godly, that in which he was created in the image of God.

III. What is the case in our own affections?

(a) Take that general affection of philanthropy.

(b) Take friendship which links men together.

(c) Take the case of our children—is our love concerned only with their worldly welfare?

In all these respects we must have regard to God-like characteristics.

—Bishop A. T. Lyttelton.


Verse 21

GOD’S LOVE FOR THE INDIVIDUAL SOUL

‘And this commandment have we from Him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.’

1 John 4:21

It does not need, in order to call’s God’s attention, that a whole nation or an entire Church should turn from sin and set itself to serve Almighty God. There is joy in heaven for one sinner that repenteth.

I. Let us think of this individual love of God for a man’s soul.—It is revealed most plainly to us by our Blessed Lord Himself in His work and in His teaching on earth. Again and again we must be struck as we read the Gospels by seeing how our Lord thought it worth while to give Himself wholly to, to concentrate His entire attention for the time on, one individual—some particular sufferer, it might be, in soul, in mind, or in body. And so, though it is true that at times our Blessed Lord preached to the great multitudes—that He would work His miracles before thousands—yet we know that the souls which our Lord saved were saved one by one with infinite love, with tender care, with wonderful patience. Of all who stood round Calvary we are only told of one who was saved, and that was he upon whom our Lord in the extremity of His suffering turned the whole of His thought and love and care.

II. The Church and the individual.—And the Church which was left by our Lord to carry on His great work has ever sought to work on those same principles. She has tried to bring into the fold those from outside, not in great masses, but one by one. One by one you and I were brought to the font and united to our Lord. One by one we received into our souls the indwelling gift of the Holy Spirit at our confirmation. One by one we received from God’s minister the blessed Body and Blood of our Lord. Can we be thankful enough for these proofs of the love of God for man’s soul?

III. An extension of the principle.—But the Church’s mission in working on our Lord’s principles for the salvation of souls is not confined to the souls of men. It applies to our bodies as well. Just as our Lord would listen to every detail of bodily and mental suffering, so the Church has tried, as she has been able, to help the bodies of her members as well as their souls. And here again shall we not try to work out the same principle? It is very good that we should interest ourselves with great problems for helping large masses—I mean questions like better housing, or the provision of open spaces that will benefit a whole neighbourhood. But surely we shall not exhaust our compassion for our fellow-men in forwarding wide movements of that sort. The text tells us that if we love God we shall love our brother also. I must try and get down to the individual, the separate man and woman. They are all so different, and need such different kinds of help. What are you doing to help your brother?

 


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on 1 John 4:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cpc/1-john-4.html. 1876.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, October 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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