The Christmas season scrambles emotions. We feel conflicted. Family gatherings can be complicated. We long for it, we brace for it. We hope for pleasure, but not surprised by pain. But we go back. Always. There is this inextricable draw to be with our own blood. We want to unite again with those we most resemble. Go around the table of last Christmas in your mind: It’s clear where one sister got her smile, or from whom the brother inherited his broad shoulders. The easy-going attitude, irrepressible sense of humor, or the anger that broods just below the surface, family traits are genetic. Whether we like them or not.
Writing to Christians late in the first century A.D., the apostle John had family traits and resemblance on the mind. He wanted his readers to know that they were in the family of God. John wanted them to know exactly where to look for the family marks. He writes,
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love (1 John 3:7–8).
Those who love are part of God’s family. Why is that the case? Because God is love, and whatever is born of God will bear his resemblance. John repeat this just a few verses later. “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 3:16). Love forms the final test from this study.
Test # 3 – The Test of Love
God is love. People need to hear this during Christmas season. Because love is not the first idea that pops into their mind when they think of their family. They need to hear that God is not like their family. He is love.
This passage doesn’t simply say God “has” love. It says God is love. Love is not an unpredictable feeling that momentarily swells within God’s heart, as in, here today and gone tomorrow. Love for God is not even dependent upon the way someone behaves or whether they reciprocate. It’s not something he has to kickstart each day, like the need to exercise. For some people, that kind of love describes their family. But not God. His essence is love. As God is eternal and changeless, so his love is limitless, unchangeable, unquenchable.
God’s Love Displayed
God is love. This statement can feel abstract, maybe a bit theoretical. Yet God defines his love for us specifically in the gospel. He puts, as they say, flesh on the idea. John writes, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 John 3:9).
The cross reveals the essence of God’s love. God sent his Son as the sinless Savior who was then substituted on our behalf. Love was embodied in a person. Love walked among us. Love was then slaughtered for those who were hostile to the claim it would make upon them.
Once a Marine came back from war. After hearing a pastor preach about Jesus, the veteran said, “You know, Jesus dying for others ain’t no big deal. I know a guy who jumped on a grenade just to save his friends in the platoon.” The pastor wisely responded, “Yes, that man was certainly a hero—he gave his life for his friends. But Jesus gave his life for his enemies.”
Paul says, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Behold a different kind of love. It’s a love that moves towards people who don’t love us. And this kind of love is a mark we bear that testifies that we are in God’s family. “Whoever abides in love,” John said, “abides in God” (1 John 3:16).
Different families have different family traits. The prevailing trait that reveals family resemblance for Christians is supposed to be love. Love is our family trait. “By this, all people will know you’re my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Christians reveal that they are part of God’s family when they demonstrate a love for others that overcomes personal dislikes, hostility, ethnic and social boundaries, past hurts, etc. As it happens, God’s love embodied in Christ is put on display through his people. But this love does more than heal human relationships.
God’s Love and Our Fears
This is where it gets really fascinating. John applies the power of love to the reality of two specific fears: the fear of judgment and the fear of punishment. John wants us to enjoy confidence before God. I say this because sometimes people experience these kinds of fears when they gather at Christmas. Will they look down on me because of what I did? Will they only see me by how I failed this year? Will I feel punished by bringing up my past?
John doesn’t want us to go through another Christmas, or for that matter any other season of life, feeling despair, depression, or paralyzed by a fear of judgment or punishment.
There is a lot of fear in the world right now. In one sense, it’s understandable. We’re sorting through the after-effects of a pandemic. There is a major war in Europe. Heck, a hurricane just made landfall in, of all places, Canada! People are haunted by the fear of death and the question of what comes next.
But if you’re Christian who is feeling that way, just consider what Christ’s love accomplished for you upon the cross. He took the judgment you deserve. Did you deserve judgment? Oh, yes, you most certainly did. We all did! But we have a substitute who took our place. At the cross, love absorbed judgement so we could live acquitted and approved. Because of Jesus, love conquered fear.
“There is no fear in love,” John writes, “but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 3:18). There is an expulsive nature to love. It expels fear. It ejects the fear of punishment. It takes the very relationships where we fear pain, or the job where we fear failure, or the people with whom we fear rejection, and it empowers us to spread the love of God through our confession of Jesus Christ. Because we are not afraid of divine punishment but confident of God’s love for us, we are unshackled from the bondage of fear. We can now love others freely.
Our Love Applied
Our grasp of the gospel–our grasp of God’s love– is seen by how we relate to people we might have feared. It is displayed by how we relate to the family member who doesn’t agree with us. Or the one who isn’t walking with Christ and doing the opposite of what the family might prefer for them. Or the person in small group who offended you. Love is seen by how we relate to the guy who sits two rows behind you at church who voted differently in this last election. Or by how we approach the neighbor who won’t stop playing loud music late at night. The resemblance we bear to our God is put on display when facing the unloving actions of other people.
You see, love is not truly measured by how well we love those we like. It’s not measured by how well we love those who are like us, those who agree with us, or those who prefer the same things we do. Love is measured by how we move toward those whom we dislike, those whom we fear, or those people who might hurt us (see Matthew 5:46–47).
It’s funny, but the gospel-vision of love doesn’t really nurture our desire for emotional safety. I’m not suggesting we should never draw boundaries. I co-authored a book on the topic of rugged love to help ensure people avoided that mistake. But when the concept of “emotional safety” is wedded to a psychologized soul, love becomes an act of convenience. It’s emptied of risk and cost.
That is not how John defines love. John connects love to God and displays it through the sacrificial work of Christ. In so doing, love becomes endowed with sacrifice and risk. Love costs. To truly love, in the biblical sense, we must be willing to put ourselves at risk. We must look to our Savior’s sacrifice, then pick up the cross and follow him.
Once I was invited to write a book with another person. I wrote my chapters, they did not. When it became apparent they would not produce their share, I appealed to our agreement. They felt justified by their busyness. More discussion did not help. There would be no reasonable explanation, no apology. And Providence had fixed us in a place where we remained together.
What do you do when someone you care about does not treat you in a caring way? What options are left when your perspectives are wildly different but you share the same Savior?
We have love. But make no mistake: there’s nothing safe about biblical love.
If you’re married, you understand this. Marital love can be lethal. It’s an intimate relationship where another person gets to know you so well that they are positioned to inflict great pain. Sometimes they do. You do too. There’s nothing safe about family or community either. Life in the home or village supplies opportunities for hurt to abound. And it is here that our understanding of God’s love, and the extent of our resemblance to him, are truly revealed.
Can You Love This Christmas?
God is love. His love is robust and rugged. It’s the kind of love that doesn’t shrink from rejection, shame, and hurt. It doesn’t shrink from the cross. That’s the kind of love John is preaching in 1 John 4. It’s a risky love. It’s a love without fear. It’s a love that doesn’t withdraw because someone else disappointed you or because someone failed you. It’s the enemy-reconciling kind of love that we have received from God. That’s the kind of love that is supposed to mark us as believers. It’s our genetic trait. It reveals that we’re in God’s family.
It is this kind of love that will give you the freedom this Christmas to be a light to those family members and friends who rub you the wrong way. Or who are antagonistic to your faith. Or who never liked your spouse. It is this kind of love that frees you to respond out of kindness rather than judgment. It frees you from the misguided need for excessive self-preservation. It is this kind of love that leads you to pray for your enemies or seek reconciliation. It is this kind of love that leads you to forgive once again, and again, and again. It is this kind of love that reflects a Savior who was born in a stable and died at the hands of those who hated him. Yet by displaying God’s love this Christmas, you not only testify to the power of the gospel, but you also confirm that you bear a striking resemblance to your loving, gracious, reconciling God.
- Think of the person in your life whom you find most difficult to love. How does understanding that God displayed his love in the sending of his Son affect how you might go about interacting with that individual?
- Read Matthew 22:34–40. In what ways does John’s teaching about God’s love and ours in 1 John 4 reflect Jesus’s teaching about the two greatest commandments in Matthew 22?
- Explain in your own terms why “perfect love casts out fear” of judgment and punishment (1 John 4:17–18).
- Does how and whom you love to reveal to the world that you bear a resemblance to the God who loved you? Take a few minutes to pray, asking the Holy Spirit to bring this about in your life. Then pray the same thing for your family and for your church.