Completing God’s Work in the World: A Missional Reading of First John
WCIU Journal: Worldview Topic
May 16, 2019
by Lizette M. Acosta
Editor’s Note: This short article is excerpted from the author’s dissertation, “A Missional Reading of 1 John: Understanding the Dual Love-Command.”
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:7-12).
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” ((1 John 3:16-18).
Love is a quality that defines the very nature of God and all God does. Love is not expressed in word or speech alone, but also in deed and in truth (1 John 3:18). Whenever God’s love is mentioned, it is always accompanied by an action that demonstrates that love. In 3:16, the author presents Jesus as the perfect model of love: “In this we know love: that One gave his life for us.” God’s act of sending his unique Son is the supreme evidence of God's love (1 John 4:9).
There is no mention of God’s love in 1 John without a correlating deed to demonstrate that love. The depth of love that God feels is so profound that it needs outward expression. As lofty a truth as is the statement, “God is love,” for the author of Frist John, it is equally important that his audience understand how God’s love can be known, felt, and experienced.
How God’s Love Can Be Known and Experienced: 1 John 4:7-11
The text begins with an exhortation: let us love one another. The statement reflects how the author wants to persuade his audience to live. The fundamental reason for the exhortation is that God is love. Two implications are mentioned: love is from God; all who love have been born of God and know God. A contrary claim is presented: the one who does not love has not known God because God is love. This is followed by the ultimate example of love, God sending his Son into the world. The conclusion of this argument is that since God is love and demonstrates love, God’s children must love. Thus far, the argumentative texture in vv. 7-11 is as follows:
· Claim – let us love one another (7a).
· Rationale – God is love; we are born of God (7b).
· Confirmation – God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him (9).
· Counter-claim – the one who does not love has not known God because God is love (8).
· Example – God’s love was revealed in the Sending of his unique Son (10).
· Conclusion – We ought to love one another (11).
The argument makes several assumptions. First, the rationale that God is love assumes that we must not act contrary to the One from whom we come. The one born of God reflects God’s character. Everyone who proceeds from God carries God’s seed of love (3:9). Just as one cannot plant lemon seeds and expect to grow oranges, one cannot possess God’s seed and not express God’s love. The statement “we are born of God,” then, is a critical premise of this argument because the child cannot act contrary to the Father. Love is a quality embedded in the character of God’s children.
A second assumption is that God is personal. Love is an activity, quality, and emotion that assumes a being. We do not expect a thing to love another. Therefore, if God is love, God is personal, and is not a distant deity, “for we cannot be loved by an abstraction, or by anything less than a person” (Dodd 1946, 110).
Third, if sending the Son is an expression of God’s love, it is assumed that this action was not coerced. Otherwise, the act of sending is self-serving and not sacrificial. There was nothing that obligated God to act this way. God’s own initiative sets his plan into motion.
Fourth, that the sending of the Son is the ultimate revelation of God’s love assumes that this as a benevolent act that resulted in the benefit of others. For this reason, the author adds that God’s action benefitted humanity in two ways: It resulted in life for us, and in the expiation of our sins. First John 2:2 states that Christ is this expiation is “not only for our sins, but for the sins of the whole world.” Thus, for the author, the result of God sending his Son is for the benefit of all of humanity.
One last assumption is that our love as God’s children ought to be in like manner as God’s love for us. This concluding claim carries colossal ethical expectations. God’s action not only demands mutual love, but it also defines how we express that love.
Ethics of Imitation
Therefore, we who are God’s children must express our love accordingly–in word and speech as well as in deed and in truth (3:18). Every instance of an exhortation to love God is followed by a concrete expression of that love. The evidence of love, both in God and in God’s children, is in actions. If we love God, we must love one another. If we love God, we must keep God’s word or command. And what is that command? That we love God and love one another. It is not enough to state a claim without the outward expression of that claim. Loving one another is the outward expression of loving God.
In these verses we can assume that our love as God’s children ought to be in like manner as God’s love for us. This claim carries colossal ethical expectations. God loved in such an intense way that it “demands a response or imitation” (Brown 1982, 519). The emphatic “we also” corroborates this claim: because God loved in such a way, we also must love in such a way.
In these verses, the author conveys an ethical standard that precludes a disinterested attitude toward the world. In 1 John 4:9 and 10, God’s love is described as radically sacrificial, evidenced in sending his unique Son. The world is the beneficiary of God’s action (4:9, 14). The author turns God’s action into the model of love, for he urges his audience, with the expression, “we ought,” to love in the same manner and to the same extent as God loved (4:11). Though the text specifies “one another,” since God's love is universal and inclusive, it is unlikely that the author intended “one another” to convey exclusivity. By means of mutual love, believers testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world (1 John 4:12, 14). In so doing, God’s love is brought to completion. His purpose is fulfilled. Therefore, the intention of the dual command to love God and to love “one another,” ultimately is missional.
Insights and Conclusion
The implications of God’s love for how God’s children are to live are radical. God’s love always results in action, and always on behalf of others. To love as God loves is revolutionary, as was the life of Christ. Ultimately, the world is the beneficiary of God sending his Son (2:2; 4:14; cf. John 3:16, 17). God intends to be known in the world and believers join God in this mission. Since the world is the object of God’s love, it ought to also be the object of our love (Snodderly 2008, 67).
The children of God are to be in the world as Jesus is. This statement has immeasurable consequences for how believers are to live in relation to one another and to the world. God’s love is brought to completion in the believers’ mutual love, for in their love, God’s love is revealed to the world, thus fulfilling God’s intended purpose of making known his love for humanity. Believers have a mission, as they are “entrusted and charged with carrying out the purposes of God in revealing divine love to the world and in the world” (Rensberger 2014, 252-53).
Because God cannot be seen, God chooses various means to make himself known because he desires to be known. As God’s own unique Son, Jesus was God’s perfect Revealer. He did so with his own life, death, and resurrection. While in the Gospel, Jesus makes God known to the world by bringing God’s works to completion, in the Epistle, it is the believers that bring God’s work to completion in their mutual love.
First John’s message is deeply relevant to the Church today. If God’s children, who claim to love and obey God, do not re-present the love of God to others, what chance does the world have of knowing its Savior? The world is watching.
Brown, Raymond E. The Epistles of John. Anchor Bible Series 30. Garden City: Doubleday, 1982.
Dodd, Charles H. 1946. The Johannine Epistles. New York: Harper & Brothers.
Rensberger, David. 2014. Completed Love: 1 John 4:11-18 and the Mission of the New Testament Church. In Communities in Dispute: Current Scholarship on the Johannine Epistles, edited by R. Allan Culpepper and Paul Anderson, 237-73. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.
Snodderly, Beth. 2008. “A Socio-Rhetorical Investigation of the Johannine Understanding of ‘the Works of the Devil’ in 1 John 3:8.” Ph.D. diss., University of South Africa.