“Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate a brother or sister are liars, for those who do not love a brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”
(1 John 4:7:20, NRSV)
1 John is a pastoral letter written to a church experiencing conflict whose author hoped to contain the damage done by false teachers who had already left the church but continued to stir things up. The rabble-rousers were arrogant and unloving, considering themselves without sin. They denied the deity of Jesus because they believed that God would never stoop to becoming a human. This perspective indicates they may have been early adherents to the heresy later known as Gnosticism in the 2nd Century. The well-established Christians in the church weren’t buying into their heresies; however, there was concern these bold, energetic, and outspoken teachers might influence some of the newer believers who were still learning about Jesus.
The most basic argument against these troublemakers was that they were unloving. The only way for the pastor/leader to counter their influence with any unsuspecting converts was to point to the importance of God’s love as a vital characteristic of those who follow Jesus Christ. The only definition of love that matters is the definition provided to us by God himself, who modeled self-giving love in giving us himself through his Son, Jesus Christ. Then Jesus brought an even higher definition by living among human beings and humbly dying on the cross so that we might have eternal life. Finally, we find evidence of God’s love in his love for us and his love for all people. To deny love to our brothers and sisters, as these false teachers frequently did, is to deny God himself. We can’t love God and fail to love our brothers and sisters.
If we’re like the lawyer who approached Jesus in Luke 10:29 and asked him to define “neighbor,” we may want Jesus to qualify for us who counts as our “brothers” and “sisters?” I’m sure he would give us the same answer he gave to the lawyer—the issue for the lawyer wasn’t who his neighbor was—the problem was who he was willing to be a neighbor to—and the standard is to be a neighbor to everyone. For us, then, we must decide who we’re willing to love as brothers and sisters.
As I often say, I don’t pretend that this commandment from God to love everyone is easy to live out—but that’s why it’s so important. If God is love, and those who follow Jesus are not loving, the world will see our hypocrisy and won’t be interested in what we offer. 1 John says they’ll miss out on learning about God’s love because we’ve refused to be an example. Our love for one another makes the invisible God visible. It’s that simple. Let us love one another so that the light of God’s love shines through us to a world in dark despair.
— Rev. Dale Cohen