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LOVE FINDS THE TRUTH; FEAR TAKES UP WITH ERROR
CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
IN the first three verses the apostle guards his readers against being misled by false pretensions to the possession of the Spirit (see chap. 1 John 2:24).
1 John 4:1. Beloved.—Indicating the affectionate relations in which St. John and his disciples stood. Believe not.—Do not be carried away by loud professions. In all ages of the Church persons have arisen who claimed to possess supernatural powers, or to have received special revelations. St. John does not say that they all are insincere and time-serving; but he reminds us that they may be, and that their claims must always be submitted to careful examination and testing. They may be the delusions of fanatical enthusiasts; they may be the lies of fanatical impostors. Spirit.—That is, persons who pretend to have a spirit. Illustrate by Acts 8:9; Acts 16:16; Acts 21:9. Try the spirits.—R.V. prove. He bids them exercise the χάρισμα of διακρίσεις πνευματων (1 Corinthians 12:4 : see also 1 Corinthians 10:15; 1 Corinthians 11:13; 1 Corinthians 12:10; Ephesians 5:10; 1 Thessalonians 5:21). False prophets.—Teachers, not foretellers. Men who pretend to have received a special revelation, which is out of harmony with that received through Christ and His apostles. Under the old dispensation prophets were to be tested by “the law and the testimony. If they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no truth in them” (Isaiah 8:20). Under the new dispensation all claimants to Divine inspiration must submit to be tested by the inspired words of Christ and His apostles. Whatever proposes to supersede the revelation given us, and whatever is out of harmony with that revelation, must be wrong and untrustworthy. Gone out.—Generally, are spread abroad. It is not meant that they had all once been Christian disciples. Some may have been, perhaps some of the most mischievous ones.
1 John 4:2. Know ye.—Prefer indicative “ye know.” Spirit of God.—That is, a spirit which has been given by God. A man may assume to have the Spirit; a man may have the Spirit: you will know which it is if you estimate aright what the spirit moves the man to say and do. St. John suggests one test as specially applicable to the delusions of his own age. Come in the flesh.—The strongest way of asserting the veritable humanity of Christ. It is important to notice that the heretics of the later apostolic age did not deny the Divinity, but the humanity, of Christ. See the Cerinthian and Docetic doctrines. That spirit of antichrist.—There is no word answering to spirit in the original, but it is necessary to the sense of the passage. Observe that the antichrist is not a person, but a sentiment, influence, point and tone of teaching. The essence of apostolic teaching is loyalty to Christ; the essence of the teaching of deceiving or self-deceived prophets was independence of Christ, or antagonism to Him. If any man wants to improve upon Christ, or teach otherwise than He did, we cannot be wrong in calling him antichrist. And so there are “many antichrists.” Should come.—It cometh.
1 John 4:4. Little children.—As before, conceiving disciples as in the immature, training stage, and therefore specially exposed to evil influences. He that is in you.—The Holy Spirit. In the world.—The spirit of self, or the devil.
1 John 4:6. Knoweth God.—Compare John 17:3. The knowing is that which comes by personal experience, not by merely mental effort. Let a man stand in right relations with God, that man will have right discernment of God’s servants, and be ever ready to receive their messages. Spirit of truth.—Not only the true spirit, but the spirit whose range is truth. Spirit of error.—Not only the false spirit, but the spirit whose range is error.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—1 John 4:1-6
Come in the Flesh—the True man.—Trench says, “Jesus took the name Son of Man, as He who alone realised the idea of man.” Philo calls the Logos, ὁ . It is often shown that the purpose Christ had in view in coming to our world was to reveal the Father; to correct the mistakes into which men had fallen respecting the Divine Being; to convince us that He is no impassive Being, no mere embodiment of abstract justice or impersonation of law, but the Divine Father of spirits. Our Lord Jesus came into this world with one supreme aim—to save us by making the Father-God lovely to us, and lovable by us. But we should give heed to another great meaning and purpose of our Lord’s life on the earth. It was designed to be a revelation of humanity to men—of man to himself. The rays of light shine out from Christ both upwards, and all around. Upwards they pierce to some extent the darkness in which Deity is hidden from mortal eyes. All around they shine into our hearts, and dispel the mistakes that hide our true selves from our own view. Christ is Emmanuel, God and man; God with us, in our own flesh and blood. We cannot be said adequately to know Jesus Christ until we have seen the God that is in Him, and also the man that is in Him. He is come in the flesh. He is the second Adam. He represents ideal humanity, man as God thought him when He gave him breath and being. Over the old Grecian temple they put the words, “Know thyself.” An easy command to give, a most difficult command to obey. And that for one sufficient reason—the true standard of humanity is lost, and we have no one with whom we may safely compare ourselves. To know a picture, or a statue, or a building, we must judge it by the standard; and there are world-standards. But when we would know ourselves, where is our standard? If it ever was here amongst men, it is lost now, and has been lost for ages. That the ideal of humanity is lost is shown in the conceptions alike of old and of modern poets. They declare, in their word-pictures, the universal conviction that there was once a Golden Age. But they all mourn over it as a past and lost time. They do but tell us the Bible story of Eden—its innocency, its grace, its possibilities, and then its sin, its shame, and its desolation. Men have been seeking vainly for the true standard through all the ages since Eden was lost. God purposed, when He saw that the fitting time had come, to show men a man once again, a perfect, ideal, standard man. The fulness of time came, and He sent forth His Son “made of a woman, made under the law,” veritable partaker of our flesh and blood. There is the only perfect flower of manhood that has ever unfolded out of the root of humanity. How soon, and how easily, men can lose fitting and worthy conceptions of God! Give to any nation comparatively clear light on the nature and character and relations of God, and in a generation or two we shall find that the light is faded, and the image is blurred. Men began to worship the sun as if it were the brightness of God; then they thought of the nobler beasts of the earth as images of Him; presently they made symbols of reptiles and creeping things; and at last sunk to making idols which expressed, in their forms and features, the vilest human passions. But men have proved quite as ready to lose the truth about themselves. Indeed, if men will not keep the truth about God, they shall not keep the truth about anything else—at least about anything moral. How men sunk from the standard of humanity St. Paul has described in Romans 1:0. Then God sent forth His Son, the ideal man, the standard man. Other men, lost in their corruptions, shall see amongst them the true man, Christ Jesus. Looking upon Him men know themselves, and are humbled to find how low they have sunk from what they ought to be. Since Jesus came to the world there have been no great men, no standard men. All fall below His excellence. But that life Jesus lived was truly human. There are some things in which we may become true men like Christ.
I. It is possible for man to enjoy consciously near and happy fellowship with God, as Jesus did.—Into the Divine presence He seemed to be always easily going. He breathed in the Divine atmosphere. Carrying the thought of God always with Him, every place became a holy place, all work became holy work, all days holy days. His humanity was no hindrance to Him; it made no mists or cloud-shadows between Him and God. And it is light and hope for us thus to see, in Christ, that the thing which shuts us out from God is not our being men, but our being sinners. Christ was a man, but not a sinner, and so the holy place of communion was to Him as a home. And as we look on Christ, come in the flesh, we see the work of life set before us. We must be wholly freed from sin, and then God Himself shall become the dear love, and near friend, and cherished home of our soul.
II. It is possible for man to reach the abiding conquest of sin—of sin both without him and within.—Up to the time of Christ, that possibility was never known, it could never be realised. Man toiled on under the slavery of sin. There had never been seen such a thing as a man free from sin, a man proved through all the temptations of a human life to be mightier than evil. Men had never seen one human tree without some traces of the decaying worm; never seen the building of one human life without some bulgings and disfigurings of failure; never seen one human face without the care-look of a wounded conscience. So men might, with some show of reason, have said, “Sin is a part of humanity; we cannot be rid of it.” But in saying that man would have consummated his ruin; he would have, as it were, reached out his hand to the tree of life, and stamped immortality upon his sin. God would not let him do that. God would guard the tree of life with a flaming sword. God would send His Son into the world as a man without sin, to break the hopeless sameness of the past—as a man, surrounded with evil, attacked by temptations, and yet able to say, “Who convicteth Me of sin?” No stain upon the life, no pollution on the soul, one with men, separate from sinners,—there is hope for us in that. Sin is not man. Sin is not any necessary part of man. Sin may be put away from man. It is a fact now—a man has stood and walked and worked, in a world full of sin, with unsoiled garments, and unspotted soul, always clothed in pure white garments. Man has proved to be mightier than sin. It can no longer raise its head and boast, as if it were an unconquered and unconquerable foe. It is a beaten foe. Christ has beaten it. The shame and weakness of defeat lie on sin now. And our manhood, with God’s help, may renew the victory.
III. It is possible for men to reach the cherished spirit, and the abiding expression, of self-sacrifice.—If we know ourselves, we know this, that outward enemies are easily mastered, but the inward foe of self only with extreme difficulty. But the most marked feature in the life of Christ is His self-sacrifice. He was among us as one that serveth. But on what principle is all this possible to us, to humanity? The success of Christ was not due to any latent force which is in humanity itself, and which Christ alone succeeded in developing. Humanity has no independent energies. As a created thing it is a necessarily dependent thing. It has trailed on the ground, and soiled its flowers, because it tried to grow alone. In the forests of Madagascar may be seen a beautiful climbing-plant, twining itself about the larger trunks and branches, and singing out its strength in bright green leaves, and laughing out its gladness in large, abundant, and exquisite white flowers. It is so strong and so beautiful because it clasps the strong, twines about the strong, and drinks up ever new life from the strong. And so humanity is strong in God, holding a living dependence on Him, and a happy reliance on Him. The triumph which Christ gained was the result of a most near union between the Divine and the human, the man and God. The secret of His life is this—in Him the Spirit of God dwelt above measure. He was, in some wonderful way, God and man. At first that dashes down all our hopes. Then He is altogether other than we are. But if Christ won so perfect a life by having the Spirit above measure, we may win towards it by having the Spirit in measure. We can receive the Holy Ghost, and become temples of the Holy Ghost; in some degree at least, like Christ—men having God with them.
SUGGESTIVE NOTES AND SERMON SKETCHES
1 John 4:1. The Trial of Spiritual Claims by Spiritual Men.—“Prove the spirits.” We have to take full account of the fact that error—false or imperfect presentation of truth—has a similar mission in the sphere of religious thought to that of affliction in the sphere of religious relations. There always has been in the Church testing, tempting, disciplining error, just as there always has been in the Christian experience testing, tempting, disciplining affliction. Had there been no error, the truth would neither have been preserved effective, nor would it have been elaborated, defined, or adapted. So many of the settings of Christian truth, in which the Church now rejoices, are the direct products of times of conflict. Look along the level lines, and error seems to be an unmitigated evil. But look down on it from above, see it with some fitting idea of the Divine over-ruling, and it is but one of the dark angels that are about the Father’s business; it is but as the emery that polishes the sword of truth. If we keep in thought a comparison between “errors” and “afflictions,” we may learn how to deal effectually and wisely with errors. Afflictions are overwhelming woes until their inmost mystery is opened, as it only can be opened, by the spiritually-minded man. And that is equally true of error. That it is error is always detected by the spiritually-minded man, because he can test every setting of truth by two infallible tests:
1. By the sense of its harmony with God, which in Him is most keen.
2. By the tendency of it to work towards righteousness; and of this the spiritual man has a quickened and cultured discernment. The error never lies in any particular form of words by which a side or aspect of truth is expressed. Error lies in the motive that shapes the setting, and in the moral or immoral influence which the setting may exert.
1 John 4:2-3. The Doctrine of Christ’s Humanity a Test Doctrine.—We live in times when the doctrine of Christ’s Divinity is usually made the test doctrine, and when much anxiety is felt lest the doctrine of Christ’s humanity should gain an exaggerated place, and an extravagant, and therefore mischievous, setting. In the early Church, the Divinity of Jesus seems to have been fully recognised. The Arian conflicts belong to a much later age. The union of the Divine and human in Christ is of necessity a mystery that can never gain precise statement in any limited, imperfect, and variable human language. But then that can with equal truth be said of the union of soul and body in man. Men will have a right to demand proof of the Divinity of Christ, when they have found it reasonable to demand proof of the existence of the soul. And it will be found that the arguments on which rest our belief in the one are of the same kind as those on which rest our belief in the other. In the early Church the test of orthodoxy was belief in the veritableness of Christ’s humanity, His real body of flesh and blood. The error of that day was a subtle distinction between a Divine Being and a human body which that Divine Being temporarily used. This made the “Man Christ Jesus” an unreal, unnatural Being—not such a man as we are; and if not, He could be no proper representative of us, to be sacrificed for us. But the error took even a more subtle form. Men taught that what seemed a human body, and could indeed be seen and touched, was in fact no body at all, but only such an appearance of a body as angels had taken for their earth-ministries in Old Testament times. Neither of these can possibly be consistent with the Christian revelation, which declares that Jesus is come in the flesh, and so is a bond-fide man, with body, soul, and spirit like every other man; and so able to be the race representative and Saviour.
1 John 4:3. Spirit of Antichrist.—Man after man, rich in gifts, endowed often with far larger and nobler faculties than the people that oppose him, with indomitable perseverance, a martyr to his error, sets himself up against the truth that is sphered in Jesus Christ; and the great Divine message simply goes on its way, and all the battlement and noise is like so many bats flying against a light, or the wild sea-birds that come sweeping up in the tempest and the night, against the hospitable Pharos that is upon the rock, and smite themselves dead against it.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
1 John 4:4. The True Secret of the Mastery of Error.—“Because greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” Canon Liddon says: “St. John constantly teaches that the Christian’s work in this state of probation is to ‘conquer the world.’ It is, in other words, to fight successfully against that view of life which ignores God, against that complex system of attractive moral evil and specious intellectual falsehood which is organised and marshalled by the great enemy of God, and which permeates and inspires non-Christianised society.” To be “of God” implies that God is in us; dwelling in us as the spiritual presence and power of the Holy Ghost. So our Lord promised and assured His disciples (John 14:16-17; John 14:23). If we may suggest a distinction between our apprehensions of the presences with us of the Son and of the Spirit, we may say—the living Christ is God with us in order that He may be for us; the Holy Ghost is God with us in order that He may be in us, ever at the springs of thought, and feeling, and motive, and action. Then we can fill St. John’s assertion in this text with a double meaning, and so assure our hearts that we have all-sufficing strength unto ever-renewed victory over all forms of moral evil.
I. God with us as the living Christ is greater than all the evil forces that may seek to injure us.—In some such sense as the human Christ was with His apostles, defending, preserving, guiding them—with them in the sphere of their circumstances, shaping, controlling, overruling them, so as to secure for His disciples triumph over all evil—the living Christ is with His people now, with His Church now, “walking amid the candlesticks,” working the safety of His people and His Church, by His control of all their circumstances. He is for them as a living Helper and Friend; for them in the exertion of Divine power.
II. God with us as the Holy Ghost is greater than all the subtle influences that can act upon us.—What the Holy Ghost was in the early Church as defence against error, taking the most subtle forms against the malign influence of subtle men, spirits, antichrist, that the Holy Spirit is in every age to the believer—the absolutely secure defence against intellectual and moral evil, as Divine wisdom and strength abiding in us.
1 John 4:6. All inspired by God will be in Essential Harmony.—“He that knoweth God heareth us.” The more careful and strict, the more critical, examination of Holy Scripture has brought to view, in a very impressive way, the fact that wherever there is a Divine inspiration there is essential harmony with all other Divine inspiration. Of this we are now so well assured, that we are even prepared to say this—if there is any inspiration of God outside the Scriptures, then that inspiration will certainly be found in essential harmony with all that is in them. But the statements properly occasion surprise and stimulate thought. The Scriptures represent different ages, different types of mind, different social and intellectual conditions; and in the Scriptures is found an ever-refreshing variety in the settings and shapings of truth; and yet take any vital, primary, fundamental verity concerning God, or man, or the relations between God and man, and it is not possible to find anything out of the general harmony. The inspired word of God never contradicts itself. St. John says that what is true of the inspired word is also true of the inspired man. Assume that God is in the teacher, inspiring his words; then it is certain that whenever God is in the hearer, inspiring him for hearing, he will receive the message which the inspired teacher delivers. Safety against the false teacher, the uninspired teacher, is found in the hearer being inspired for hearing. Such an one is in no moral danger. He cannot live and thrive on the uninspired teaching. He finds himself out of harmony with it. But his inspiration brings him into full harmony with everything that is also inspired. It is of course to be understood that the term “inspiration” is here used, not of a precise and limited definition of inspiration, such as may be characteristic of a particular school of thought, but of that general experience of Divine inspiration, which the believer knows as the moving, impelling, directing, restraining influence of the Holy Ghost that dwelleth in him. Inspiration is the proper word for the inward work of God the Holy Ghost.
CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
1 John 4:7.—The previous verses are in some sense an “aside.” The apostle now resumes his proper theme. His main truth is this—Love is the mark of the children of God, who is love. Love to God is a delusion if it does not find expression in love toward one another as brethren. And love of the brethren is a sure test of our having the Spirit of God, for the spirit of antichrist is a self-seeking and self-serving spirit. “Just as it severs the Divine from the human in Christ, so it severs Divine love from human conduct in man.” Love to one another may be recognised as a gift of the Spirit of God, an “effluence from the very being of God.” Born.—Better, “begotten.” Knoweth God.—As one only can know by sharing the same nature.
1 John 4:8. Knoweth not.—Better, “can never have known”; “hath never known.” God is love.—1 John 1:5. Not God loves, which is true, but far short of the truth that John expresses. The very essence of God is His going outside Himself, and living in others, in the service of others.
1 John 4:9. Manifested.—Jesus manifests what God is, and what God does. St. John here speaks of what God does. R.V. renders, “Herein was the love of God manifested in us,” or “in our case.” “Manifested” is one of St. John’s favourite words. It means, “became such that it could be known or apprehended by man.” We see the love in a gift which the love has made. Only begotten.—Though we too are begotten of God, there must be a sense in which Christ’s relationship is unique, and this is expressed by the term “only begotten.” μονογενής as applied to Christ is St. John’s peculiar term. Live through Him.—“Enjoy a blessed fellowship with God, being delivered from that state of estrangement and alienation which is virtually death.” Live applies to the life of the soul, which is the man.
1 John 4:10. Propitiation.—ἱλασμόν (1 John 2:2, and not elsewhere in the New Testament). For the idea St. John had, see the notes on the previous passage.
1 John 4:12. Seen God.—“We cannot contemplate the incomprehensible essence of the Deity by a direct gaze.” God can be seen only in Christ (John 1:18). His love is perfected,—I.e. attains just what it wants to attain. Let that love of God which we apprehend in Christ work its full work, and it will be sure to make us “love the brethren.”
1 John 4:13. Of His Spirit.—Contrasted with those mentioned in the early verses, who professed to have the Spirit, but whose self-seeking tone, and self-glorifying teachings, plainly showed that it was not the Spirit of God.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—1 John 4:7-14
The Fatherly Love carries with it Brotherly Love.—What may possibly have been in St. John’s mind is the error of assuming a difference between the love that we have for God and the love that we have one for another. And that is an error which is often secretly cherished, though it gains no open expression, and would indeed be ashamed to show itself to the light. How often our feeling is this—“We cannot be expected to love other people just as we love God.” But it may properly be maintained that there can be no varieties in love. There can be differences in quality and degree, but not in kind. There must be relation to its object, but love can never be anything but just itself. Whether it go out to God, or go out to our brother, it is just the same thing—love. Even as in family life, there can be nothing but just the family love. It goes out to the father and mother, or to the brothers and sisters, using a variety of signs and expressions, but it can never be anything but itself; and it is not itself if it is limited to the parents, or limited to the brothers. And St. John affirms that love is not love when it is set only upon God the Father, and restrained from our fellow-men, our brothers. “He that loveth not knoweth not God.” The point of connection in St. John’s mind between this and the preceding section may be found in the fact that false doctrine is always self-centred, self-serving, and consequently tends to separate men from their fellows. You cannot love your fellows, if you only want to make a gain of them. False teachers boasted much about love to God, but they wholly failed under the test of love to men. Dr. Plummer says: “The antichristian spirit is a selfish one; it makes self, i.e. one’s own intellect and one’s own interest, the measure of all things. Just as it severs the Divine from the human in Christ, so it severs Divine love from human conduct in man. ‘Beloved, let us do far otherwise. Let us love one another.’ For the third and last time in this epistle the apostle introduces the subject of brotherly love.
1. It was introduced as a consequence and sign of walking in the light (1 John 2:7-11). Next, 2, it was introduced as a special form of righteousness and mark of God’s children (1 John 3:10-18).
3. Here it appears as a gift of the Spirit of God, a contrast to the antichristian spirit, and above all as an effluence from the very being of God.” From a careful examination of the verses we gather, that St. John is endeavouring to impress the truth that profession of love can be of no avail, it must find fitting and adequate expression in the relations of every-day life. Even God’s love must be manifested, in order to be in any sense an effective power on men.
I. Abstract love in God is ineffective.—“God is love.” There the truth stands. It is full and clear to view. It is sublime, but it is unattainable. If that be all, if we only know some absolute and abstract fact concerning the intimate nature of God, then it is really nothing to us. It is high; we cannot attain unto it. If the philosophers can do something with it, we commonplace, every-day men and women cannot.
II. Manifested love is persuasion and power (1 John 4:9-10).—God’s love has found expression in the most persuasive of all ways—by a gift, and a gift which involved an extreme self-sacrifice; and moreover by a gift which so precisely meets our needs that it carries the persuasion of His love right into our hearts. (Propitiation for our sins.) We feel the love through the manifestation and expression, and we can feel it in no other way.
III. Sentimental love in man is worthless, and even mischievous.—This is really the point which St. John is enforcing. (Compare James 2:14-16.) Characteristic of uninspired teaching is fine sentiment about society and brotherhood; and men can be easily carried away by exaggerated and helpless sentiment. They can think themselves good because they have uttered good-sounding phrases.
IV. Practical love towards man alone honours God, and does God’s work.—To express this in the line of St. John’s thoughts. The love must be manifested: it must find its gift; and its gift must carry its self-sacrifice unto the uttermost.
SUGGESTIVE NOTES AND SERMON SKETCHES
1 John 4:7. To love is the Sign of the New Birth.—“And every one that loveth is begotten of God, and knoweth God.” There is physical or natural life; there is moral life; and there is spiritual or Divine life. The sign of physical life is movement. There is a sign indicating the existence of a moral being, a being who can come into relations with other beings. There is a sign of moral life. It is the power to love, to go outside oneself and take on our own heart the concern of another. And there is a sign of the yet higher, spiritual life; and since that life is kin with the moral life the sign is the same for it. It is love; but it is the going outside ourselves to lose ourselves in God. You may know that a man is begotten to the higher, spiritual, Divine life, if you can see that the supreme, the master principle and persuasion of his life is love to God. And it may further be said that the love gauges the life. The fuller the life, the intenser the love, the more ennobling and sanctifying the power of the love.
Love implies Insight of the Highest Spiritual Things.—“And knoweth God.” Knowing depends on two things—on the thing known, and on the person knowing. We know different things in different ways. Things are different to different persons. There is a particular way in which God alone can be known, and in which alone high, spiritual things can be known. They cannot be known by any effort of the intellect alone. And the intellect by itself is not the man. They can be known only through the affections, and their use of the intellectual powers. God, and everything kin with Him, is “spiritually discerned.” And it is not everybody who can know God; only the man whose affections, being spiritually quickened, in a natural way turn to God, and are fully open and receptive to the manifestations and evidences of Himself that God may be pleased to give.
Born of God.—Theologians and others have, I think, assumed that the doctrine of the birth from above is more inscrutably mysterious than it is, and have therefore unwarrantably obscured Christ’s truth. It is, I admit, under any view of it, a “great mystery of godliness”; yet it is not altogether without its parallel in every-day life. Every good son is born again. A child is first, by no choice of his own, born into the family of a good man. So far he is a son by nature only; he may grow up to be dissatisfied with his father’s mode of life, and with the law of his father’s house. He may also adopt a course of action so widely divergent from the father’s, that the natural bond between them shall serve only to reveal the vast and widening gulf of character that separates them, and similarity of feature shall only serve to give painful emphasis to the utter dissimilarity of disposition. The son is now a son in form only—in all things else a foreigner. To become truly a son he must be born again—must of his own choice accept as his father the parent Nature gave him, and must by his own love and conduct make the house in which Providence placed him a home. No parent is truly and fully a father till he is adopted by his own child. To be fully “born of God” is for the soul, being filled with the Holy Spirit, to acknowledge God’s fatherly authority, accept God’s law, live His life, do His work; or, in one word, to love God—“He that loveth is born of God.” God is not fully “our Father” till we love Him as He loves us; and when a heart is won to love, there is joy in the presence of the angels for another holy child born into the great family of God.—J. Morgan Gibbon.
1 John 4:8. The Truth of Truths.—No two persons ever see the same picture; the image is modified by the personality of him who sees it. No two persons have the same idea of God. He reveals Himself with a separate revelation to each individual soul. There have been two great and dominant ideas of God—one moral and the other physical.
1. The moral. The first great revelation of God was the revelation of Him as the moral governor. The Hebrew prophets lifted Him out of mere locality into a larger sphere; they preached Him as God of the whole earth, the God of righteousness.
2. The physical. This conception came from the Greeks. To them God was the underlying ground and cause of all things; He was power, being; He was infinite and eternal, without passion and without change.
I. Each of these conceptions of God is profoundly true; and each must have its place in our thoughts.—He controls this vast sphere of physical action by laws which cannot be broken, and which are perfectly good. “Of Him are all things, and in Him are all things.” The conception of God as a moral governor has on the one hand been pressed as though it exhausted all that we know about Him; on the other hand, it has been darkened by analogies from human laws, until this supreme conception of a God of righteousness has been transmuted into a conception of One who curses where even men would bless, and who punishes where even men would pardon.
II. The loftier, more Christian idea of God.—The simplest conceptions are always the deepest. In three short words we are told that in the awful Maker of all things seen and unseen, the Infinite, the Absolute, the Eternal, there is something like that which draws the mother to the son and the sister to the brother. This is one of the most practical truths, and one of the most necessary. It is not a formless and impassive spirit that is close to us, but the infinitely holy, infinitely true, infinitely kind. This gives the thought of God a place in practical life.
III. Here is the most practical of truths, and the most necessary.—It is a special truth for our time. It contains the gospel we need; it comes to our sadness as a gospel of consolation; it comes to our restlessness as a gospel of repose. For material want there is material alleviation. Something beyond material relief. I speak of social unrest. To you who feel most of all the strain and stir of life, this revelation of God as love comes with a singular power, for it is the gospel of repose. When tired with noises and stir and strife, tired of the factiousness of political party feeling, with the meanness of social ambition, the chicanery of commerce, just for a moment or two rise, as the spirit can, and rest in the eternal Father who loves you.
IV The supreme manifestation of the love of God in sending His only begotten Son into the world that we might live through Him.—Let our thoughts rest on this one of the innumerable ways in which God’s love has shown itself. To the truth of truths the text calls us. About other truths we may differ; in this, at least, we agree. Into some other truths there may enter elements of doubt which weaken their force as motives of conduct; but here is a sublime revelation. Let it be a sublime inspiration, a constraining motive. Let it be for us the supreme repose to know that the Father Himself loveth us, for “God is love.”—Edwin Hatch, D.D.
Love to God.—Love is the highest, purest, holiest motive from which we can act. Faith makes us strong by keeping before us the great truths and realities of the world unseen. Hope helps us on our way by filling our souls with the longing expectation of the blessedness in store for us. But faith is cold, and hope is selfish, without love. Love is the going forth of the soul towards another, tender and glowing, generous and unselfish. Love will do all things, it will bear all things, for one it loves. And so we read that “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” For, if we love God, we shall fulfil all our duty to God; and if we love man, we shall fulfil all our duty to man. And so to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and our neighbour as ourselves, takes in all we have to do. There would be no need for any other law, if we all obeyed perfectly the law of love. But think specially of love to God. As love is the best motive for our actions, so love to God is the best sort of love. For, when we love God, we are loving that which is perfect, loving Him who is alone perfectly worthy to be loved. And if we love God truly, we are quite sure to love His creatures also. So that the love of God is the fountain of all goodness. Now there are different ways in which we may love God. First, we may love Him for our own sakes, or because we love ourselves; that is, because of all His goodness to us. Another word for this sort of love is gratitude. And it is a right and good thing—only not the best. In this way we may love God for all the blessings we enjoy in this life, and this is the easiest sort of love to gain; or, better still, we may love Him for His spiritual mercies, for the gift of a blessed Redeemer, for the aid of His Holy Spirit, and for the hope of eternal happiness. But a higher and purer way of loving God is to love Him for His own sake, to love Him because He is so lovable—because our hearts are drawn to His infinite perfections—because He is so good in Himself, so fit to win His creatures’ love. This is to love Him as the angels love Him. Perhaps man, while in this world, may never be able to love God entirely with this sort of love. Perhaps none can love quite in this way, except those who see face to face. When that time comes, oh, may we be filled with this pure, childlike, unselfish, angelic love! But, meanwhile, it is very hard to love One so exalted, so far above us in His nature, and so different from us, as God is. And God knew this. How thankful then should we be that, in pity to our weakness, God was pleased to take upon Himself the form and nature of man, so that we have One like ourselves to love—One who can, and does, feel for us and with us, and yet who is God. Those who might find it hard to love an infinite, almighty God, of whom they could form to themselves no image or likeness, will not find it so hard to love the meek, and gentle, and lowly, and loving Man Jesus Christ. How shall we gain more love? Like other Christian graces, it grows by degrees; and, like them, it is the gift of God. So, first of all, we must pray God for this gift of love. It is His Holy Spirit which must make us love Him better; we can, indeed, only love Him by Himself, who “is love,” dwelling within us. We must ask Him to give us of Himself, to come and fill our hearts, that they may be filled with love.
1. We must try to deepen our feeling of love by deepening our feeling of God’s goodness.
2. We must seek to gain more love through faith in Jesus Christ. By looking steadfastly to Him, by realising (that is, making real to us) all He is to us, and all He has done for us, we shall best learn to love Him as He should be loved.—W. Walsham How, D.D.
Gnostic Ideas of God.—The Gnostics knew a good deal about God, but they did not know Him; for instead of loving those brethren who did not share their intellectual attainments, they had an arrogant contempt for them.
1 John 4:9. God’s Love-gift.—There are two ways of treating the records of Christ’s birth into the world:
(1) we may dwell on the incidents; or
(2) we may ponder over the meanings, as Mary, the mother of Jesus, did. We may ask—Who sent Him? Why did He come? And what did He come to do? The apostle John is the person above all others who can worthily answer our questions.
I. The secret of Christ’s coming is God’s love to us.—The Babe is a sent one, and this is the message He carries. The absolute truth about God is this, “God is love.” And that is the primary truth of the Christian revelation. By itself, however, as something only to think, it would be of little interest to us. We could never find any help in elaborate arguments to prove concerning our mother that “she is love.” Love always wants to find expression—to make the loved one happy, to satisfy itself in what it can do for those on whom its love is set.
II. The further secret of Christ’s coming is this—God wanted to show His love to us.—Love finds expression in gifts. Two things about gifts:
1. Love finds what will best express itself. It really gives itself in the gift. God loved the world, and wanted to give it something that would really be giving it Himself. Would any mere thing do? Nay, He would give His Son, who was Himself in the sphere of our human life, Himself in our humanity.
2. Love finds what will best satisfy those it loves. We ask what the loved one most needs. We find that, and we try to meet that. God asks what His creatures most need. There was something they needed which they hardly knew they needed—a Saviour from sin. God gave that. And God gave that as a babe, because He would save men from sin through love. Just what a babe can do is win love, constrain hearts, deliver from self, and so ennoble. What the infant Jesus did for Mary is the type of what Jesus does for us all. We have salvation in having the Saviour. Take God’s love-gift into the heart, and let Him do His work there, and we are saved.
The Only Begotten Son.—“His Son, His only begottton” (μονογενής). The term is peculiar to St. John, and it means “only born,” distinguishing between Him who was born a son, a son in such a way as can only be figured by a human generation, and those who are made sons, constituted such by an act of creation, which decided the being they should have, and the relations in which they should stand. Matthew Henry says: “This person is in some peculiar distinguishing way the Son of God; He is the only begotten. Should we suppose Him begotten as a creature or created being, He is not the only begotten. Should we suppose Him a natural necessary irradiation from the Father’s glory, or glorious essence, or substance, He must be the only begotten; and then it will be a mystery and miracle of Divine love that such a Son should be sent into our world for us.” In Hebrews 1:6 the expression appears as “first-begotten.” What has to be discovered, and what is so difficult to discover, is the precise reason St. John had for speaking of Christ in this particular way. The term is indeed exclusively used by St. John, and the associations of the similar terms, “first-begotten,” and “first-begotten from the dead,” and “first-born,” are altogether different. On four occasions in his gospel St. John mentions the “only begotten”: once it is “only begotten of the Father”; three times it is “only begotten Son” (John 1:14; John 1:18; John 3:16; John 3:18). In 1 John 5:1 we have, “Him that is begotten of Him.” In 1 John 5:18, “He that is begotten of God.” But this last verse is somewhat confusing, because it applies the word “begotten” to believers, and we think it must be kept exclusively for Christ. In Revelation 1:5 Christ is spoken of as the “first-begotten of the dead.” It cannot therefore be said that by St. John the idea of a relation to God which can only be represented by human generation is exclusively kept. But he certainly did conceive of a unity between God and Christ differing from the relation subsisting between God and Christ’s people.
1 John 4:9-10. Love’s Highest Manifestation.—The text is one of the loveliest gems of gospel truth, and the context forms an appropriately beautiful setting. Love is of God, yea, is of the very essence of His being; to be loveless is to be godless, while to love is to be a “partaker of the Divine nature.”
I. The feeling manifested.—Not mere goodness or benevolence, but love. “I have loved thee with an everlasting love.” “Like as a father.” “Thy Maker is thine husband” (Isaiah 49:15-16). It is love that “passeth knowledge,” for it is an attribute of the infinite Being.
II. Toward whom manifested.—Consider:
1. Our insignificance. “What is man, that Thou shouldst magnify him, and that Thou shouldst set Thine heart upon him?”
2. Our depravity and guilt. “God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Titus 3:3-6).
3. Our indifference and hostility. “Herein is love, not that we loved God,” etc. “When we were enemies, we were reconciled unto God by the death of His Son.”
III. How manifested.—
1. “Sent His only begotten Son.” Consieler:
(1) The greatness of Christ. “God over all, blessed for ever.” Same in substance with Father, equal in power and glory.
(2) His nearness and dearness to the Father. “Only begotten, well beloved”; “His dear Son.” Our children are endeared to us because they are our own flesh and blood, resemble us, have been long associated with us, and have shown fidelity and affection. Christ “and the Father are one”; He is “the brightness of the Father’s glory, and the express image of His person”; “was in the beginning with God”; and is ever faithful and loving. “I delight to do Thy will; yea, Thy law is within My heart.” (See 2 Peter 1:17.)
2. “Sent into the world”—a world alienated from God, averse to holiness, and hostile toward holy characters. Parable of the wicked husband-men (Matthew 21:34-38). Incarnate Virtue appeared on earth, and instead of worshipping Him the people crucified Him between two thieves. God sent Him with full knowledge of His future sufferings and shame—saw Him recoiling from loathsome touch of tempter, agonising in Gethsemane with piteous appeal to His Father, and heard Him cry in desertion of soul upon the cross, “My God, My God!” And not only with foreknowledge, but predetermination. The very conditions of the Incarnation necessitated the Crucifixion; the path from Bethlehem to Calvary was a straight one marked out by God Himself. “God sent forth His Son, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law.” But Christ could only “redeem us from the curse of the law” by “being made a curse for us.” The Father therefore deliberately “laid on Him the iniquity of us all,” and delivered Him over to punitive justice (Acts 2:23; Romans 8:32).
IV. For what purpose manifested.—
1. “To be the propitiation for our sins” (Romans 3:23-26; Colossians 1:20-22).
2. “That we might live through Him” (John 3:16; John 10:10).—Agape.
1 John 4:10. The Propitiation.—The greater anything is, the more sides and aspects it will present to view; the less will it be revealed to any one view, the more necessary it becomes to observe it from every possible standpoint. A dwelling-house can be comprehended after a few minutes’ examination; but a cathedral discloses ever new parts, new relations, new proportions, and new adornments to the man who can be patient, can look at it from every angle, and under every variety of circumstance,—when the sunshine, streaming in through the coloured windows, makes a glory round every pillar and floods the pavement with tints; or when the shadowy twilight makes a saintly gloom hang over the arches; or when the full cold moonlight seems to people aisle and choir with ghostly shapes; or when sounds of holy music rise from the worshippers and circle round, and swell high, going up to God; or when all is still, no human voice is heard, the buried saints alone seem to fill the place, and in the stillness the soul can almost catch the echoes of the heavenly song. And God’s truth is a great whole that is, for us, many-sided, and can never be perfectly known by any one of us. And that particular part of truth which concerns the recovery and salvation of men is one of these great and many-sided things. We may all get our own best positions for examining the great cathedral of the redemption truth, and be thankful for the fitnesses and beauties which we can for ourselves discover. St. Paul helps us to understand the meaning of this expression in the text, “the propitiation for sins,” when he writes in this way of the Lord Jesus Christ, “Whom God hath set forth a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God” (Romans 3:25). By making “propitiation for the sin of the world,” let us then understand this little part or piece of the great whole of redeeming truth—the righteousness of God is seen in His justifying freely, as an act of infinite grace, all who, having sinned, believe the message of forgiveness brought to them by Jesus Christ, and sealed to them in His blood. But how does Christ, set forth, declare the righteousness of God in the forgiveness of sin?
I. Christ is the Ambassador of the act of grace.—As Ambassador His credentials were abundant, and in every way satisfactory. His life itself is the great proof that He was the Son of God. His words were Divine words; His miracles were exhibitions of Divine power. Who has ever doubted the righteousness of those messages which Moses and the prophets delivered for God, and concerning Him? Because we are sure that they were men sent from God, we are sure that their message was a righteous message. Then if Jesus Christ was the very highest of all ambassadors, the message He brought was a righteous message, a faithful expression of that eternal righteousness which belongs to Him who is “light,” and in whom is no darkness at all. What then did Jesus tell us concerning God? He preached, on God’s behalf, the forgiveness of sins. He Himself forgave sin. We never can think of Jesus as acting unrighteously when He said to the paralytic, “Thy sins are forgiven thee”; or to the woman whom everybody knew as a sinner, “Thy sins, which are many, are all forgiven thee.” But in those cases Jesus was only showing us God, and telling His message to men. Jesus commanded men to forgive one another freely, so that they might be children of their heavenly Father, who forgave freely. He sent out His disciples into the world to preach everywhere His message for the remission of sins. And on His very cross He prayed for His murderers, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” His very presence here among men was an act of grace. It seemed to say—God has not forsaken even His sinful world. He pities His lost creatures. He will even sacrifice His best if He may save the lost. And the character of Jesus—His perfect righteousness—seems to guarantee the righteousness of His work. He was, all through His life, showing us God; and none ever dwelt among men who showed, as He has shown, the infinite holiness, the spotless righteousness, of God. None of us can think that the gospel which the righteous Jesus brought in any sense limits the perfections of God. Let Christ then preach us His God-honouring gospel. It is the free forgiveness of sins. It is the announcement of God’s gracious act of pardon. Christ came to bring that message to earth, and in order to make us believe it, He sealed it with His own blood. God is not merely willing to forgive; He has once for all forgiven every one who will believe His word. “He pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent, and unfeignedly believe His holy gospel” of full and free forgiveness.
II. Christ demands and works such a moral change in men as declares His righteousness in granting forgiveness.—The apostle Paul explains to us that “propitiation is through faith in His blood.” But his language is very careful. He does not say, “a propitiation through His blood”; or, “a propitiation by His blood”; but he distinctly and precisely says, “a propitiation through faith,” the object of the faith being “the blood.” Faith is the thing set so prominently before us—our justification by faith, our forgiveness upon faith, our acceptance on the ground of faith. Evidently this faith is something belonging to men, and it implies some great moral change wrought in men. When the king announces to his rebellious subjects his free pardon of all their offences, and sends that pardon by the hands of his messenger, who is it that needs to be propitiated? Plainly enough, it is not the king. He is propitiated, or he would not send that message of pardon. There is no enmity in him. It is that rebel nation that needs to be appeased. They have taken up an ill-will against their king. It is the work of the king’s messenger to appease men’s anger, and sooth down their ill-feeling toward their king, and so induce them to lay down their arms, and accept his sovereign mercy. What hinders rebels from receiving the forgiveness offered them? Surely nothing but their rebellion. As long as that spirit of rebellion lasts, they cannot have the pardon, though it is proclaimed. How can a man have the king’s pardon while he grasps his weapons? By that continued act he really refuses the pardon. But let his mind be changed, let him throw down those weapons; and then the proclaimed forgiveness covers even him beneath its shadow; then there has been propitiation between the king and his rebellious subjects; then the king’s messenger has become the propitiator, or propitiatory, the mercy-seat where the separated ones have met in reconciliation. This is the truth to which our attention should be most anxiously given—Man needs to be propitiated; man’s enmity against God needs to be appeased. We need that Jesus Christ should be a propitiator to us, and change our hearts towards God. That is the very work entrusted to the Messenger and Ambassador, Jesus Christ. He is sent into the world, that by His life, by His teachings, by His deeds, by His moral influence, by the holy persuasions of His sacrifice, He might get a redeeming power on the hearts of men—breaking down middle walls of partition, changing pride for humility, replacing hard-heartedness with repentance, and hatred of God for love to Him. The great aim of our Lord’s work is, so to bear persuasions on the hearts of men, that they should be willing to accept salvation by grace. How Christ works that change in men’s hearts can only be briefly suggested. It is done partly by that most attractive view of God which Jesus brings: partly, as Jesus shows us what a real son of God is, and so what we should be; partly, by a most extraordinary proof of love; God’s own Son is willing to sacrifice Himself, even in a most painful and shameful death, in order to convince us that God does love us with an everlasting love, and does want to save us. Whosoever believes becomes another man by believing.
1 John 4:13. “Of His Spirit.”—It would be precisely in accordance with St. John’s teaching here if we read “spirit,” or disposition. What God gives to those who are in vital relations with Him is, the spirit of His own love, which inspires them also to self-sacrifice.
ILLUSTRATIONS TO CHAPTER 4
1 John 4:8. The Love of God.—“God is love.” This single announcement of the beloved disciple, contradicted by so many appearances, yet carrying its own evidence—in the world around us met by many a No and many a murmur, and from the caverns of despair fetching up a fiendish laughter, and yet countersigned by Jehovah’s handwriting on the ruined tablets of the heart, and in trumpet tones reverberated from the hills of immortality—this shortest of sentences, and most summary of gospels, which a breath can utter, and which a signet ring can contain—is the truth which, shining bright at the Advent, will overspread the world in the millennium’s mild lustre. It is a truth on which no man has mused too much, even although he has pondered it all his days, and to which no anthem can do justice, except that in which golden harps mingle, and in which the redeemed from among men are helped by the seraphim.—Dr. James Hamilton.
The Heart of God.—History’s noblest deed and record of love is in the self-devotion of the generous heathen Pylades, who forfeited his life to save his friend; but “God commendeth His love to us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” “You have not seen,” says a great writer and profound thinker, “the greatest gift of all—the heart of God, the love of His heart, the heart of His love. And will He in very deed show us that? Yes, unveil that cross, and see. It was His only mode of showing us His heart. It is infinite love labouring to reveal itself—agonising to utter the fulness of infinite love. Apart from that act, a boundless ocean of love would have remained for ever shut up and concealed in the heart of God; but now it has found an ocean-channel. Beyond this He cannot go. Once and for ever the proof has been given, ‘God is love.’ ”
Our Love comes from God.—As the rays come from the sun, and yet are not the sun, even so our love and pity, though they are not God, but merely a poor, weak image and reflection of Him, yet from Him alone they come. If there is mercy in our hearts, it comes from the fountain of mercy. If there is the light of love in us, it is a ray from the full sun of. His love.—Rev. C. Kingsley.
The Ocean of Divine Love.—In that great ocean of the Divine love we live, and move, and have our being, floating in it like some sea-flower which spreads its filmy beauty, and waves its long tresses, in the depths of mid-ocean. The sound of its waters is ever in our ears, and above, beneath, around us its mighty currents run evermore.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
1 John 4:15. Son of God.—St. John was jealous of the double truth of the person of Jesus—His Divinity and His humanity.
1 John 4:17. Made perfect.—Or reaches its purpose and end. The sign of its being fully developed in us will be the removal of fear in relation to the “day of judgment.” We shall no more fear it than Jesus did. Enter into sonship, and all thought of judgment day passes away from us. Children are not afraid of their father.
1 John 4:20-21.—A recapitulation, in a vivid form, of the truth and the duty contained in 1 John 4:10-11. The love of our neighbour cannot be separated from the love of God, of which it is a distinguishing and essential mark. Sight is the great provocative of love. The difficulty of our loving God as an unseen being is met by the manifestation of God in His Son. This commandment.—Matthew 22:37-39.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—1 John 4:15-21
The Triumphs of the Perfect Love.—There is considerable repetition of statement in this epistle, the repetition of a man who has a few main truths which he holds tightly, and loves to brood over. He delights in the sound of them, and so goes over them again and again. The additional thought here is, that when our love—our love to God, and to our brother—has grown into such strength that it can fairly be called “perfect,” that is, perfect within the measures of the human, it proves to have a splendid power in our lives, elevating us to meet all occasions, freeing us from all fear, giving us grand inspirations, and even making us bold to meet the testings of the judgment day. Then, as if it were to him an absolutely essential point, he urges again on attention that the love he means is only that love which comes by the conviction and persuasion of God’s love in Christ to us, and finds its natural and befitting expression in self-sacrificing love to the brethren. 1 John 4:18 is “proof of the preceding statement that perfect love will give us boldness, by showing the mutually exclusive nature of love and fear. Love moves towards others in the spirit of self-sacrifice; fear shrinks from others in the spirit of self-preservation. The two are to be understood quite generally; neither love of God nor fear of God is specially meant. In all relations whatever, perfect love excludes fear, and fear prevents love from being perfect. And the two vary inversely: the more perfect the love, the less possibility of fear; and the more the fear, the less perfect the love. But though as certain as any physical law, the principle, that perfect love excludes all fear, is an ideal that has never been verified in fact. Like the first law of motion, it is verified by the approximations made to it. No believer’s love has ever been so perfect as entirely to banish fear; but every believer experiences that as his love increases his fear diminishes” (A. Plummer, D.D.).
I. Love’s triumph in the judgment day.—What can there possibly be to condemn in a life ruled and toned by love? That can be answered by asking another question—What was there to condemn in that human life which was lived by the Lord Jesus, and was ruled and toned by love? It is inconceivable that the Lord Jesus could fear any attempt to appraise, or test, or judge His human life. Then, in the degree in which we have the perfect love, it can be said of us, “As He is, so are we in this world,” and therefore we need fear judgment no more that He did.
II. Love’s triumph over the inward distress of fear.—“Perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment.” It worries us, causes fretting and anxiety, because it keeps our thoughts circling round self and self-interests. There is no fear in love, because it takes us out of ourselves, and makes us spend ourselves in the service of others. And anxiety about them is altogether different from fear, which concerns ourselves. “If we live in this serene atmosphere of pure sympathy with God and man, Christ is in us, and we in Him, because God is love itself. Sharing His nature, therefore, we must be like Him; and the more completely we allow this Divine love towards our Father and our brothers to transform our whole being, the more we shall be like our Judge, and the less cause we shall have for dread.” “The more perfect this disposition of serene sympathy becomes, the less share can any form of anxiety have in it. Where it is a well-grounded sympathy with a perfect being, its serenity is all the more complete in proportion to its sincerity.”
SUGGESTIVE NOTES AND SERMON SKETCHES
1 John 4:15. The Divinity of Christ a Test Doctrine.—“Jesus is the Son of God.” Compare 1 John 4:2, which demands the confession that “Jesus Christ is come in the flesh,” or took upon Himself a veritable human body. But this comparison brings to view a distinction not always recognised. Belief in the humanity of Christ is absolutely demanded as a condition of being a Christian at all; but no such absolute demand is made in relation to belief in Christ’s Divinity. What is said about that is that it is essential to the higher Christian life, it belongs to the higher experiences; the man who can see in Christ the Son of God enters into the more advanced privileges; God dwelleth in him, and he in God. When this distinction is set before us, we remember that our Lord’s disciples had Him first in a human fellowship, and apprehended Him, and believed in Him as the Messiah-man Christ Jesus. It even appears that they only very slowly grew into the idea of His Divine Sonship. St. Peter was manifestly in advance of them all with his confession. But none of them entered into the higher life of relations with Christ until they did fully grasp the truth of the Divine Sonship. To be saved men must believe in the human Saviour, in Christ “come in the flesh.” To be sanctified, to attain the higher life, men must believe that “Jesus is the Son of God.” So the test of the regenerate life was—and perhaps, if we stated things aright, we should see that it still is—believing that Christ is “come in the flesh.” And the test of Christian attainment is the sign of the cultured soul-power that can grip the truth, that “Jesus is the Son of God.”
1 John 4:16. God is Love.—There is one form of worship that is universal and involuntary, and that is the resemblance which the deity and the devotee are certain to bear to one another. They who worship an idol are like to the idol in the beginning, for they fashion it after the model of something in themselves; but they grow more and more like to it afterwards, by sharing and copying the qualities with which they fancy the false god to be endowed. No man is better than what he burns incense to, but every man takes on more and more of the character of his favourite divinity. How came human parents by their love? Through the being made in the image and likeness of God. Parental love is a valuable salvage from the wreck of the Fall. This is our subject—the divinity of Love, and the love of Divinity.
I. The strong representation, “God is love.”—There is a most vital difference betwixt the conduct of any being and the character of any being; and there is a yet further distinction between character and essence. This emphatic language—the calling the Being the attribute—is a dignity reserved for this one attribute alone. I read that “with God is terrible majesty,” but I have no recollection of being told that “God is majesty.” (See, however, the expression “God is light.”) How could love have been embodied so richly as it was in the Seeker and Saviour of the lost, the Friend of little children, the Companion of sorrowful women, the Comforter of penitent outcasts, the Refuge of publicans and sinners, and the Sacrifice in body and blood for the world of the ungodly? Surely, herein is love. This text is Immanuel in print. We want both the “love” and the “God.” Call Christ “God,” or call Christ “Love,” as you need Him at the moment, for He is both. Being both makes Him the Mediator.
II. The extraordinary language touching the relation of the Christian with Christ.—We are, first, the inhabitants, with Christ for a dwelling, and then we are the houses, in which Christ makes a home. Two very different ideas, but both equally beautiful and equally instructive.—Henry Christopherson.
1 John 4:18-21. Perfect Love casteth out Fear.—(This outline is given as an illustration of the evangelistic method of dealing with the passage.)
I. The state of an awakened soul.—“Fear hath torment.” There are two kinds of fear mentioned in the Bible. The one is the atmosphere of heaven, the other of hell.
1. There is the fear of love.
2. There is the fear of terror. Deal with the latter, and explain its rise in the soul.
(1) A natural man casteth off fear, and restrains prayer before God.
(2) When the Spirit of God opens the eyes, He makes the sinner tremble.
(3) The Spirit makes him feel the greatness of sin, the exceeding sinfulness of it.
(4) Then the sense of corruption working in the heart torments the soul.
(5) The Spirit also convinces the soul of his inability to help himself.
(6) And then the man fears he shall never be in Christ.
II. The change on believing.—The love here spoken of is not our love to God, but His to us; for it is called perfect love.
2. But where does this love fall? On Jesus Christ.
III. His love gives boldness in the day of judgment—Because then—
1. Christ shall be our Judges 2:0. The Father Himself loves us.
IV. The consequences of being in the love of God—
1. We love Him.
2. We love our brother.—R. M. McCheyne.
1 John 4:18. Two Kinds of Fear.—The Bible speaks of two kinds of fear. One is terror, fright, dread,—the lively apprehension of evil to come; the crouching and crying of the dog in anticipation of the lash whose whistle in the air he already hears. The other is reverence, respect, adoration,—the awe that fills the mind as it stands in the presence of errorless Wisdom; the instinctive tribute that weakness pays to Omnipotence; the admiration that human frailty cannot conceal, or suppress, when God’s flawless goodness rises before it; tho impression of the Divine on the human; the worshipful stoop of the soul before God, not because it is frightened, not because God has thunder-bolts in His hands, and legions of heaven-bright warriors, with swords that turn every way around Him, but because He is altogether lovely, because He has mercy for thousands, because He is holy and good, because He is God—because He is Love.—J. Morgan Gibbon.
Love and Fear.—In the epistles of the apostle of love comes out most broadly, most sternly, the principle that all mankind are divided into two great classes,—the one, those that are of God; and the other, those that are of the world and of the devil. Whatever is not of light is darkness. There are only two motives, St. John says, that rule men in regard to God—only two emotions: either love or fear.
I. The universal dominion of fear.—Wherever there is not the presence of active love. This rests on the universal consciousness of sin. All men everywhere have some more or less active or torpid working of conscience. It is not made doubtful by the fact, that the ordinary condition of men is not one of active dread of God. Man has a strange power of refusing to think of a subject, because he knows that to think of it would be torture and terror. The fear which springs from the conviction of God as righteous, and the consciousness of individual sinfulness, varies in energy with the varying strength of these two convictions, and it assumes various forms. Sometimes it appears as a straining after forgetfulness—that is fear wearing the mask of godlessness. Sometimes it assumes the very opposite shape, and becomes the underlying basis of vast and complicated systems of rigorous, joyless worship—that is fear wearing the mask of godliness. Sometimes this fear takes the understanding into its pay, and appears as enlightened disbelief in God and immortality. Sometimes it takes the shape of vehement efforts to get rid of unwelcome thought by fierce plunging into business, or into wild riot. Whatever form it take, the fear which hath torment lies like a sleeping serpent in the hearts of all who think of God, and who cannot say, “We have known and believed the love which God hath to us.”
II. The fearlessness of perfect love.—Love is no weak thing, no mere sentiment. The manliness of Christian love, and the putting away from ourselves of all fear, because we are “perfected in love,” is one of the highest lessons that the gospel teaches us, and one of the greatest things which the gospel gives us. Love and fear exclude each other. Fear is based upon a consideration of some possible personal evil consequence coming down upon me from that clear sky above me. Love is based upon the forgetfulness of self altogether. The love of God, entering a man’s heart, destroys all fear of Him. All the attributes of God come to be on our side. The love which casts out fear rises in the heart as a consequence of knowing and believing the love which God hath to us. This love to God, which is built upon God’s love to us, is the all-powerful motive for every good thing. If you would grow in power, holiness, blessedness, remember this, “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” Perfect love is perfect man. And love, which destroys fear, heightens reverence and deepens self-distrust.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
1 John 4:19. The Genesis of Christian Love.—“We love, because He first loved us.” Spontaneous love, loving just because He is love, and must give out Himself, may be predicated of God, but it can be predicated of none else. Yet even the love of God can do nothing until it finds an object to spend itself upon. All love other than God’s is kindled by love. It is like life—it cannot exist save by the contact of love. Nobody on earth ever loves unless he is loved. The love may be that of some one who loves us, or it may be the love of some one whom we love. In any and every case we love because somebody loves us. And St. John does not simply say that we love God because He loves us; but he urges the larger and altogether more searching truth, that the love of God to us cannot have its right influence on us unless it makes us loving—loving to the brethren, loving to everybody. The Christian love is precisely that feeling a man can alone have when he “knows and believes the love that God hath unto him.”
Love the Cause of Love.
I. The love of God to us as sinners is the “sole” cause of our love to Him.—To make this fully appear, we may specify those other sources from which this disposition might be supposed to proceed.
1. Our love to God might be supposed to be the result of a superior discernment of the Divine character. But as that character is an object of dislike to all men in their natural, fallen state, it is obvious that this repugnance is not to be overcome by the exhibition of that character in a clearer light. An object of terror or dislike, so long as it is viewed as such, cannot be loved; and the more distinctly such an object appears, the more intensely will it be hated. The antipathy to it can only be removed by means of some new discovery, which shall place that object in an attractive light.
2. It might be thought that love to God, where it exists, is the result of some predisposition in the sinner’s heart towards God. Such partialities and predilections operate very generally among men. But since the heart of every man, by nature, is at enmity to God, our love to Him cannot be attributed to this source. If in any heart it might have originated thus, we should expect to find it in the amiable John. But he himself is no exception.
3. It might be supposed, again, that the principle of love to God is directly planted in the heart by the hand of God. But true love cannot be forced; it withers under the breath and touch of violence. No other source but the Divine compassion to us as sinners can give birth to this heavenly principle.
II. This love of God is the “sufficient” cause of our love to Him.—The stoutest rebel must relent and love a Being whose mercy and compassion he has been brought to feel extends to himself.—Anon.
1 John 4:20. Keeping with Brethren.—To separate ourselves from our brethren is to lose power. Half-dead brands heaped close will kindle one another, and flame will sparkle beneath the film of white ashes on their edges. Fling them apart, and they go out. Rake them together, and they glow. Let us try not to be little, feeble tapers, stuck in separate sockets, and each twinkling struggling rays over some inch or so of space; but draw near to our brethren, and be workers together with them, that there may rise a glorious flame from our summed and collective brightness which shall be a guide and hospitable call to many a wandering and weary spirit.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
ILLUSTRATIONS TO CHAPTER 4
1 John 4:17. Perfect Love.—We are along way yet from perfect love; it is too Divine a thing to be speedily fulfilled in the creature. But we are coming to it; and then, when we do come to it, we shall know more fully how great and blessed it is as the best wine, creation’s endless festival, by reviewing the ages upon ages of division and strife through which we have struggled on to the unity of love in Christ. The labours of God, the labours of the angels, the labours of the Church, the groans and contentions of all creatures and all elements, will go on, and never cease, until the redemption of mankind; for the perfect individual is essential to the perfection of love.—Pulsford.
1 John 4:18. Love casting out Fear.—The literal sense of this verse is as follows: (Slavish) fear exists not in this love, but perfect love (such as this) casts aside fear; for (such) fear carries with it terror (which is inconsistent with love), since he who feareth is not perfected in love, does not love perfectly and sincerely. φόβος, “fear,” here signifies a fear, not of displeasing God, but of incurring His punishment, which conscience raises. “Casteth out fear” refers to the previous verse, and is contrasted with a joyful confidence in the mercy of God—Bloomfield.
1 John 4:19. Love-won Love.—Have you seen a broad, straight path of silver brightness lying by night upon a smooth sea, and stretching from your feet away until it was lost in the distance—a path that seemed to have been trodden by the feet of all the saints who have ever passed through a shifting world to the eternal home? Oh, that silver path by night across the sea, it glittered much; but it was not its brightness that lighted up the moon in the sky, neither was it the love to Jesus, trembling in a believer’s heart, that kindled forgiving love in Him! The love that makes bright a forgiven sinner’s path across the world was kindled by the light of life in the face of Jesus.—W. Arnot.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on 1 John 4". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25