The Heart of the Life That is Real (preaching resource for Easter 5, 4/28/24)

This post exegetes 1 John 4:7-21, providing context for the 4/28/24 (Easter 5) RCL Epistle reading. This exegesis draws on commentary from Warren Wiersbe ("Bible Expository Commentary"), Stephen Smalley ("Word Biblical Commentary") and Leon Morris ("New Bible Commentary").

"The Master's Touch" by Greg Olsen (used with artist's permission)


1 John 4:7-21 directs our attention to the heart of the life that is real. That heart is none other than God’s love. And God’s love is the intimate communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—a communion we share in union with Jesus. John takes us straight to the nature of this love, beginning by pointing out three profound truths: love is what God is, love is what God did, and love is what God is now doing. 

Love is what God is (1 John 4:7–8)

7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

“God is love” (v8b) is a profound statement with huge implications.  It speaks first to God’s own nature. God is a loving communion of three divine persons: Father, Son and Spirit. And because God is love in his being, he expresses love in all his doing. God loves his creation, including all people, not because he finds us worthy of his love, but because it is God’s nature to love. His love for us depends not on what we are, but on what he is. He loves us because he is that kind of God.  

And God, who is love, is the source of all love (“love comes from God,” v7b). When believers and nonbelievers express selfless love, they are sharing in God’s own love. However, John points out that loving God and loving people is a defining characteristic of believers—those who have been “born of God”(v7c).  Though all people (believers and nonbelievers alike) are God’s children; believers, through faith in Jesus have “passed from death to life”(1 John 3:14)—they, through the Spirit, deeply experience the new birth that Jesus accomplished for all humanity through his representative (vicarious) life, death, resurrection and ascension.  

A believer is also one who “knows God” (v7c). For John, to know is not mere intellectual recognition—it is intimate participation in God’s own triune love.  Stated negatively, “Whoever does not love does not know God” (v8). Though nonbelievers experience and express something of God’s love (all humans have their life and being in God who is love, see Acts 17:28), believers, because they are abiding in Christ, deeply and continuously experience and express God’s love. Their born-again experience with God is a daily experience of knowing God (relating to God) at ever-deepening levels. 

So, love is what God is. But there is more…

Love is what God did (1 John 4:9–11)

9 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. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

God loves because he is love. And God’s love is active—expressed to humankind in many ways.  First, God gave humankind a perfect creation in which to experience loving relationships with God and with people. Sadly, the fall horribly distorted those relationships. But in love, God began to work to restore relationships and the environment. That ongoing work included the loving way he dealt with Israel: “The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery” (Deut 7:7–8). 

And then, at just the right time, God moved to express his love in the greatest way of all: he sent his Son to be our Savior. Paul said it this way: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). The word demonstrates means “to come out in the open, to be made public.” Under the Old Covenant, God was hidden behind the shadows of ritual and ceremony (Heb 10:1); but in Jesus, “the life… which was with the Father…has appeared to us” (1 John 1:2). “Anyone who has seen me” said Jesus, “has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Jesus made God’s love visible. And through his work of love Jesus took away our sins (1 John 3:5) and destroyed the devil’s work (1John 3:8) so that so that “we might live through him” (1 John 4:9b). 

Through the incarnation, which included his death for us on the cross, Jesus was our “atoning sacrifice” for our sins (1 John 4:10b). “God is love,” and therefore he wants to forgive and save sinners. For us to be forgiven, the claim of sin against us had to be dealt with, and God did just that out of his love, by sending his Son. The incarnation of the Son of God is God’s atonement for our sin.  Jesus himself is our representative and substitute. In and through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, all humanity is recreated—all humanity (and indeed all creation) is reconciled to God; included in God’s own life. 

It is on this basis, that John again exhorts us to “love one another” (1 John 4:11). This exhortation is God’s command to us (1 John 4:7). The basis of this command is not an external law, but God’s own triune nature. “God is love; we know God; therefore, we should love one another” is John’s logic. And to love others is both a privilege and a responsibility: “Since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11). Because we experience God’s love for us, we are to participate in God’s loving of other people. 

So, love is what God is and what God did. But there it more…

Love is what God is now doing (1 John 4:12–16)

12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. 13 We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.

In these verses we see the whole story—the full sweep of God’s great plan for us. To begin with, we learn that God’s desire is not simply to tell us that he loves us or to even show us that he loves us. No, his great desire is to indwell us—so that we might fully and personally share in his love. It’s interesting to trace God’s dwelling places as recorded in the Bible. In the beginning, God had fellowship with man in a personal, direct way (Gen 3:8), but sin broke that fellowship and God began to work to restore humankind to fellowship with him.  He began working with a few individuals who “walked” with God: Enoch (Gen 5:22), Noah (Gen 6:9), and Abraham (Gen 17:1). Then through Israel, God began to “dwell” with a whole nation of people, Israel:  "Have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them” (Ex 25:8). When Moses dedicated the tabernacle, God’s glory moved in (Ex 40:33–35).  God dwelt among them, but, with only a few exceptions, not in them. But Israel rejected God and his glory departed (1Sam 4:21). Then God used Samuel and David to restore the nation; and Solomon built God a magnificent temple. When the temple was dedicated, once again God’s glory came to dwell among them (1Kings 8:1–11).  But history repeated itself, and Israel again rejected God and was taken into captivity and the temple was destroyed. Again, God’s glory departed from Israel (Ezek 11:22–23). 

But then at just the right time, the fullness of God’s glory came not merely to dwell among us, but to dwell with us, as one of us, through the incarnation of God’s Son, Jesus: “And the Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us, and we beheld his glory” (John 1:14, literal translation). The glory of God now came to earth personally—visibly. But wicked men crucified “the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8). However, this was all part of God’s plan, and Jesus rose from the dead, ascended to heaven as our High Priest—a human like us, now glorified. And from heaven Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to dwell in us. This is a permanent indwelling: Jesus promised that the Spirit will abide in us forever (John 14:16). 

With this background, we better understand what 1 John 4:12–16 is saying. God is invisible (1 Tim 1:17), and no man can see him in his essence. Jesus is to us and for us, “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). By becoming human, Jesus revealed God in his fullness. But Jesus in his glorified human body, is no longer on earth. How, then, does God now reveal himself to us? In many ways, but principal among them is through the visible example of his children. People cannot visibly see God, but they see us. As we abide (“live”) in Christ, and love one another, our love for one another reveals God’s love. 

The world experiences God’s love as it is expressed through us because God (who is love) lives in us. The important word “live” (“meno” in Greek) is used six times in 1 John 4:12–16; note the NASB translation, which uses the more descriptive word abide:

12 No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. 13 By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. 14 We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.

“Abide” speaks to personal fellowship with the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. To abide with God means to participate actively in the new birth he has forged for us in Jesus. All humans have union with God through Jesus, but those who “abide” in that union, have communion with God. This abiding is made possible by the indwelling Holy Spirit (1John 4:13). 

Imagine the wonder and the privilege of having God abide in you! The Old Testament Israelite would look with wonder at the tabernacle or temple, because the presence of God was in that building. No man would dare enter the holy of holies, where God was enthroned in glory! But we have God’s Spirit living in us! As we abide in his love, we experience the abiding of God in us. Note Jesus’ promise: "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). God’s love is proclaimed in Scripture (“God is love”) and was proved at the cross. But here we have the ongoing manifestation of that love: God’s love is perfected in the believer. Believers are now the tabernacle on earth in which God actively dwells, and actively reveals his love. The life of a Christian who abides in God’s love is a potent witness for God and his love to this world. Men cannot see God, but they can see his love moving us to deeds of helpfulness and kindness. 

As we abide in God, with Jesus, in the Spirit, we abide in God’s self-giving love—participating with him as he loves other people. As we do, we experience in our own hearts the truth that we truly are God’s children. Love, knowledge and faith are thus related: The more we share in God’s love, the more we will understand the love of God. And the more we understand his love, the easier it is for us to trust him. And, indeed, this is our experience as a growing Christian with God. As we abide in God, spending time in fellowship with him, we come to love God and people more and more.  

Participating in God's loving (1 John 4:17-21)

To abide (live) in God, is to participate as God’s dear children in a divine-human communion of love. John urges his readers us to grow in that participation by which God’s “love is made complete” (1 John 4:17), meaning given full expression. Note that John is defining Christian maturity not as adherence to external rules or rituals, or to the possession of esoteric knowledge; but as growth in loving communion with God.  What does that growth look like?  John helps us understand by highlighting the four-fold fruit of Christian maturity: confidence, integrity, joyful obedience, and victory. Let’s look at each one and embrace the growth in love that is ours as God’s children living in communion with God.

1. Confidence (1 John 4:17–19)

17 In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.

To relate to God in fearfulness is a mark of spiritual immaturity. However, a mature Christian knows (experiences) that God truly is love—they relate to the Father in the way that Jesus relates to the Father (“in this world, we are like him [Jesus]” v17b). This assurance gives us confidence in God and in his love—a confidence that drives out paralyzing fear concerning the future, the past and the present: 

  • Because God is love, we need not fear the future—particularly the coming judgment.  Jesus assures us: “Truly, truly I say to you, he who hears my word, and believes him who sent me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24, NASB). And Paul makes a similar point: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1, NASB). A believer does not fear judgment (condemnation), because they know that their sins have been judged already in Jesus who assumed our fallen nature, lived our life in the flesh, stood in for us at the cross, and rose victorious in our flesh in his resurrection and ascension. Our record of sin will never be brought against us. And thus we do not fear the future.
  • Because God is love, we need not fear the past. Fear concerning past mistakes haunts and even paralyzes many people. But this need not be, for God reassures us that his love toward us is not diminished by our past—indeed, it was “while we were [God’s] enemies” that, “we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Rom 5:10). Even while we were living as children of Satan, God was relating to us as who he recreated us in Christ to be: his dearly loved children. Our past is no problem for God, and need not be for us.
  • Because God is love, we need not fear the present. John says that, “perfect (mature) love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). As we mature in God’s love, we cease to be fearful of what God is doing in our lives. Of course there is a proper “fear of God,” in the sense of respect and reverence, but we need not fear that God is angry at us and out to punish us (1 John 4:18).  God has given us every reason to have a spirit of confidence as his children. 

Rejoice! Nothing future, past or present can come between us and God’s love! Awakening to this stunning truth typically comes in stages. When we were lost, most of us lived in fear and knew nothing of God’s love. After we trusted Christ, we began to experience a mixture of fear and love in our hearts. But as we continue to abide in God’s love, gradually fear vanishes and our hearts are controlled by his love alone. Mature Christians find rest in God’s unconditional love.

Confidence is the fruit of growth in God’s love. And there is a another…

2. Integrity (1 John 4:20–21)

20 If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.  21 And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.

To have all our relationships grounded in God’s love is to experience integrity (truth) in our lives. Sadly, because of sin, our lives are pulled apart and fragmented—we live without integrity; we live a lie—we live in disobedience to God’s great commandment of love (cf. 1 John 2:7-8; 3:23). But as we participate in God’s love for us and for others, integrity is restored—our lives are put back together; aligned with the will of God. What a joy it is to have all aspects of our lives come under the grace of God’s transforming truth! As this happens, we experience God’s love more deeply and express it more fully and honestly—with greater integrity—toward God and toward people. Our doing is now aligning more fully with our being in Christ. 

Love and truth go together. Because we know that God loves and accepts us (even with all our faults), we have no need to pretend—no need to be self-protective (the opposite of outgoing love); we have no need to lie to ourselves, to God and to others. This opens us up to God’s love in every nook and cranny of our lives and gives us the freedom to participate more fully in his love for others who are imperfect like we are. 

Confidence and integrity are fruit of growth in God’s love.


We have learned now from John that love is what God is, what God did, and what God is now doing. “God is love,” is not simply a profound biblical statement. It is the basis for our relationship with God and with people. Because God is love, and because we abide in the Father’s love with Jesus, and thus participate, by the Spirit, in that love, we experience and express love. As we do so, we grow in Christian maturity. This is the heart of the life that is real!