The theme of this first issue is “Christian love”. The word “Christian” means “of Christ” or “related to Christ”. Therefore, if we are to know anything about Christian love, we have to begin with the love that has come to us from Christ. Every worker learns his trade by copying a master. The apprentice mechanic is taught by another mechanic. The learning fundi wa nguo watches a skilled tailor at work. Boys playing football learn new tricks by watching their heroes on the television. A Christian can only learn how to love from the Master – Jesus Christ.
This verse from John (1 John 4:19) is very short, but also very deep. If we dig down into it, we will find treasure! There are four things which we shall think about as we consider it. Firstly, we are reminded that the love of Christ is eternal. The verse reminds us that Jesus “first loved us”. When, then, did this love begin? Where can we trace it back to, we ask? The Bible’s answer to this question is very clear. God loved us before we ever existed; before there ever was a world; before time itself had begun. When nothing else existed apart from God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, we who believe were in God’s heart. Paul writes, “he has chosen us in Christ, before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), “that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.”
God’s love does not come to us because we have earned it. It is not after much trouble and effort that the Father then says “I love you”. The Bible tells us very simply that God had already set his desires upon us before we had done anything at all. He drew us to himself in Christ because he had chosen us long before – “Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn you” (Jeremiah 31:3). All our weakness and all our mistakes can never take away God’s love from us. What God has decided in eternity, he will not allow the events of time to undo. He is not a God who makes a purpose, and later becomes wiser when events unfold.
This truth, of God’s eternal love, should give great stability and strength to Christians. All your friends might reject you – but God’s love will never change. Your family might turn against you for being a Christian, but God cannot. You could lose your job and be locked out of your home – but you will remain in God’s heart. God’s love is stronger, older and more permanent than the mountains of the Rift Valley. It had no beginning, and will have no end. God’s love to us is eternal.
God’s love has not remained in eternity alone. The apostle John especially wants us to remember how that love has been made known to us. There is a place where that love was particularly shown. There was a time when that love reached out to us in our sins, plucked us out of hell, and gave us a new place amongst God’s people. That place is Calvary, and the cross on which Jesus died.
We ask John, “Where do we find God’s love?” His answer is, “Here is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). God did not only love us by speaking nice words. His love took action to save us from our terrible situation. His love saw that we would perish because of our sins, and so he sent his Son. A “propitiation” is a sacrifice which has been offered to God. In particular, it is a sacrifice which takes away anger and wrath. That anger is God’s, who we have offended with our sins. Our sins have challenged the ruler of all the world, and left us exposed to his just punishment. In justice, we deserve hell forever, where the whole universe could look upon us and see what disobeying God deserves.
In his immense love, God has spared us this punishment by sending his own Son. If you saw a murderer being taken from court to be hung, would you step in? Would you ask if you could be punished instead, even though you had never killed anyone? Would you offer your one and only son, who you deeply loved, to take the place of the criminal, because you had decided to love that criminal? This is what God did, when he gave Jesus to the cross for us. The terrible anger of God’s holy justice all fell on God’s beloved – and all this because of God’s love.
When we ask, “How do we know that God loves us?”, the Bible has a consistent answer. It always takes us to the cross and asks us to look at Jesus. We are not meant to look at our problems of today. It is not your successful job, or your good health, or your many friends that prove that God will always love me. It is not because there have been good rains, or success in trading. It is what he did when he offered up Jesus. “But God commends his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “In this we see the love of God, because he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). In the same way, all the problems of this life cannot prove that God has forgotten us. The question “does God still love me?” can always be answered by the believer in the same way. You must look back to Jesus’ death, and then say “Yes, he loves me – even to death. God’s love is not uncertain or useless – it is there on the cross.” God first loved us – not just by words, but by giving the greatest thing he had.
We love him
God’s love, John says, is what causes our love. Firstly, that love must be there if our faith is genuine. A man fathers a son, and that son will look like him, or think like him, or behave like him. If God has loved us, then he will also make us to love him. Love to God, who has shown himself to us in Jesus, is the essential mark of a true Christian. It is the first and greatest commandment (Mark 12:28-30). Everything that is good or lovely is found perfectly in God. If we know anything about him at all, and if we have seen anything of him, and if there is any spiritual life in us, we have to love God. John does not tell us that because he loved us, therefore we go to church. He does not say that because of God’s love, we give away all our money or become preachers, or some other great work. Some people may do these things, but there is something deeper and more basic. The first thing that God’s love produces in us, is love to him. Do you love God? It is one thing to say that you want to be saved. It is quite easy to want to escape hell, or to join a church and put money in the offering. John, though, says that true Christians love God. Do you? Does the idea of not loving God seem terrible to you? When Paul says, “If any man does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed” (1 Corinthians 16:22), does your heart say, “Amen”?
Because he first loved us
If you do love God, then John tells us why. It is because he first loved us. All the praise goes to him. When you first came to Christ, you did not know what was drawing you to him. You did not realise that there was an invisible hand leading you on. You might not have known that he had sent his Spirit to change your heart. But now John tells us what was happening even though it was not seen. It was not because we were very clever that we believed the gospel. It is not because we were less sinful than other people that we came to Christ. It is because God had first loved us, and that love gave birth to our love for him.
All true Christian love comes down from Christ. If one believer truly loves another person and does a good deed to help him, it is because Christ is working in that believer’s life. We cannot take the credit. Naturally, we are selfish and hateful (Titus 3:3). It is only because God is pouring out his love into our hearts that the church can be a place of love. Nothing can come out of a man that is not inside him first. If true love is to come out of him, then he must first come to know the love of Christ. If we do anything in love, it is only a tiny reflection of what he has done for us. No love can ever be like his. If we truly want to love others as Christians, we must remember this. The only place to start is here. “We love him, because he first loved us.”