In a previous post I looked at how 1 John shows that Trinitarian joy is made complete in the Christian community. In this post we look at how Trinitarian love is also made complete in the Christian community.
1 John 2:3 says: ‘We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands.’ John has in mind a specific command here. In verses 7-8 he talks about an old command that is a new command. He has in mind Jesus’ words: ‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.’ (John 13:34) It’s the old command to love, but Jesus has given it a new quality or a new standard. So throughout this section obeying the commands of Jesus and living like Jesus are just different ways of saying loving like Jesus.
As in chapter one, John lists three false claims (2:4, 6, 9). They’re the claims of people who say they know God, but don’t love their Christian brothers and sisters. Today people calling themselves Christians are condemning the Bible’s teaching on hell, on sexuality, on the uniqueness of Christ. And they hate true Christians. They denounce us for holding to biblical truths. Verse 4 says: ‘Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands’ – that is, his command to love the Christian community – ‘is a liar, and the truth is not in that person.’
That’s the negative. But with each false claim John goes on to give us a positive encouragement. So verse 5 says: ‘But if anyone obeys his word’ – to love the Christian community – ‘love for God is truly made complete in them.’
Back in 1:4 divine joy is made complete in the Christian community as it proclaims the word of Christ. Now divine love is made complete in the Christian community as we love one another. That means our love for God reaches its goal. Love for God finds fulfilment in love for our brothers and sisters. Love for one another is the proper way to love God.
So you can’t love God on your own! Love for God only becomes complete when you love other people. You’ve got to be part of a Christian community. That’s what it means to know Jesus, obey Jesus and live like Jesus (2:3-6).
We enjoy God when we receive love
In 4:12-13 John says: ‘No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.’ John’s point is this. People can’t see God. but they can see us. So people see the love of the invisible God in the love of the Christian community. God’s love becomes a reality that be seen and heard and touched in the love of the Christian community.
And brotherly love is not a poor substitute for the real thing, for divine love. For brotherly love is divine love. God loves us through the love of other Christians.
The brother who speaks a word of comfort to you, the sister who bakes a cake for you, the family who welcome you into their home – they are the hands and feet of God. When a brother hugs you, Christ is hugging you. When a sister sits by your hospital bed, Christ is sitting by your bedside. When a friend weeps with you, Christ is weeping you.
The love of Jesus was the overflow of the love within the Trinity. God’s love spilled over to us in Christ. It was generated from within, out of sheer grace. In the same way, Christian love is the overflow of God’s love to us. ‘Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God … Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.’ (4:7, 11)
We enjoy God when we give love
Did you notice what John says about why he writes in 1:4? ‘We write this to make our joy complete.’ You might expect him to say, ‘to make your joy complete.’ (And it seems some early copyists thought that’s what it should have been so they changed it.) It’s clear he does write to bring his reader joy. So why does he say ‘our joy’? The point is that ‘your joy’ is ‘our joy’. What John enjoys is seeing other Christians experience joy. There’s nothing he likes more than people having joy in Christ. That’s complete joy.
Pursing my joy in Christ can be self-defeating. If it’s a selfish, self-centred exercise in self-fulfilment then joy will elude you – even joy in Christ. But if we pursue one another’s joy then our joy is made complete and our love for God is made complete. So if you want to have joy stop looking for joy and instead start working for the joy of other people. The strange thing is that you’ll never really be happy while you’re pursuing your own happiness.
Recently my wife said: ‘You’re weary, you sigh when people ask you do things and you’re not being intentional in discipleship.’ Wham! She was right. Everything I had to do felt like a burden. So I was trying to do what makes me happy, but it wasn’t working. Her words flicked a switch. I started being intentional about serving others and, as it happens, I felt so much better as a result. Nothing has changed and everything has changed because I’m seeking to serve others more.
To give is to gain in the economy of Christ. I don’t mean this in the sense that is touted by the prosperity gospel. I’m not suggesting that giving money will lead to a full bank account. That lie suggests you give up earthly treasures to gain more earthly treasures. It reinforces the selfishness that robs us of true joy.
But it is true that we find ourselves by giving ourselves. Our problem is that too often we want to be radical Christians leading comfortable lives. We want to give everything for Christ and have everything this life offers. We want to tell the world about Christ and we want to be liked by our peers. We want to grow more like Jesus and enjoy the pleasures of this world. But this double-mindedness doesn’t work. Pleasure-seekers are world-weary. High achievers are insecure. Jesus said
‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?’ (Mark 8:34-36)
To gain a life that it rich and full, a life into which eternity has begun to shine (2:10), we need show the sacrificial love of the cross and lose ourselves.
If you simply hang out with a group of peers – people of your age or people you find fun or people with your interests – you’re not loving like Christ. It’s self-interest. By all means have a good time. But don’t call it Christian love because you’re not doing anything different from the world around us. What’s distinctive about christlike love is that the way it crosses personality divides, ethnic divides, generational divides, social divides, singles and married, young and old.
So love the people in your church. Spend time with them. Build community with them. I realise that spending time with your peers offers a quick reward – it’s fun. But loving your Christian community will bring deep and lasting rewards.
Verse 8 says: ‘I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and you …’ The distinctive character of Christian love that it is seen in Jesus is also seen in you. Your church may have all lots of problems and failings. It’s all too ordinary. But see beyond that for a moment. Look at your community as John sees it. He sees the new age taking shape in your community. We are the prototype of the new creation. We are the proof of concept. The future has broken into history and can be seen in your Christian community. Our cities and towns are places in spiritual darkness. But every time we plant a church or missional community it’s as if God switches on a light. Light shines through Christian love.
Let me leave you with one practical thing to do. Have a meal. Invite some round for food or out for a drink. That’s the best first step for living in community.