1 John 4:19-21 | He Loved First

Horse FlyOn the Moose River we declared war.

The summer sun was high and we had hours of paddling ahead of us when the torment of these demoniac blood-sucking flies reached their peak. (It’s no surprise to me that another name for the Devil is Beelzebub—the “Lord of Flies”!)

If you’ve never had the privilege of being bitten by a Northern Ontario horse fly the size of a quarter, count yourself lucky. Shane (my paddling partner) and I made a sport of killing them and mounting their squashed bodies on the gunnels of our canoe as a warning to the rest of their kind—it didn’t work. Nothing worked. They attack when you least expect it, feasting on a bit of exposed ankle or neck with a bite that feels like a wasp sting.

Many people think about camping in romantic terms—they love the idea of camping. They think about postcard-worthy vistas and laughs around the campfire. Real camping is a different story. The breath-taking vista only appears after a lung-busting portage. Laughs around the campfire come with liberal doses of ibuprofen and exhaustion. The Moose River is plagued by Beelzebub!

There’s a difference between loving camping and loving the idea of camping. In today’s passage (1 John 4:19-21) we’ll see how this relates to God. There’s a difference between loving God and loving the idea God.


My two boys have an ongoing contest every time we eat. Whoever gets to the table first brags, “I was here first!” We’ve tried to tell them that it doesn’t matter who gets to the table first as long as they both come when they’re called. They took this advice and incorporated it into their new mantra. “I was at the table first even though it doesn’t matter,” the victor cries!

When it comes to love, God was first—and it does matter. It matters in a number of ways:

  1. God’s self-giving love motivates us to love Him in return.
  2. God’s self-giving love demonstrates to us what real love looks like.
  3. God’s self-giving love empowers us to respond in love.

If God didn’t show us his love first, we would be incapable of love. We wouldn’t even know where to begin. Fortunately for us:

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8 ESV)

Loving an Abstraction

So because of God’s prevenient love for us, we are able to love him in return. Now what does our answering love look like?

For many in the evangelical tradition, loving God evokes images of raised hands in a worship service. As the carefully crafted melody of the latest CCLI-registered worship song flows over us, we close our eyes and tell God how much we love him. While I don’t want to discount the importance of modern worship (after all, I’ve been a worship leader my whole life), John reminds us that that our love for God consists of more than a mere emotional response.

It’s relatively easy to say that we love God, because God easily becomes an abstraction—an idea we become enamoured with rather than a person we respond to. To say, “I love God,” demands nothing of us in the same way that to say “I love camping” demands nothing. It may confirm our illusive self-identity: “I am a Christian,” or “I am a camper,” but it doesn’t change us.

For John, to say “I love God” is only true when we love our brother and sister. Bultmann said it well:

Love of God becomes actual only in love of brother. (76)

John makes the point that we cannot see God, but we can see our neighbour. Consider what John Calvin had to say about this:

It is a false boast when anyone says that he loves God but neglects His image which is before his eyes. (in Stott 173)

We can only respond to God’s prevenient love toward us by reflecting, echoing, embodying that love to our neighbour. In the same way that you cannot paddle the Moose River without horse flies, you cannot love God without sacrificing something of yourself in the service of your neighbour. Anything less than this makes a liar out of us!

What God has Joined Together …

The commandment that we have from Jesus was repeated a number of times in John’s gospel:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. (John 13:34 ESV)

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:12 ESV)

These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (John 15:17 ESV)

The context is important: Jesus repeated this command over and over again on the eve of his death. If there was one thing he wanted to drill into the minds and lives of his disciples, it was this: love each other!

This is more than something that Jesus came up with on death row—it was the theme of his life. In a traditional wedding ceremony, the officiant often quotes Jesus’ instructions on marriage from Mark 10:9, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (ESV).

The central crux of Jesus’ teaching joined together two Old Testament scriptures and endued them with deep significance for Christian living. The first is found in the Shema:

You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:5 ESV)

The second is found in Leviticus:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:18 ESV)

This was Jesus’ Creed, his two-fold teaching upon which all the law and the prophets depend (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28).

As is often the case with 1 John, the teaching is easy to understand but hard to live. If we want to live in truth, our confession of love for God must reflect the self-giving love of God by becoming actual in love for our brothers and sisters.

< 1 John 4:17-18 | Perfect Love

1 John 5:1-3 | Jesus is the Christ >

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