I John 4:19 instructs us, “We love him, because he first loved us.” This is such a simple phrase from Scripture that is overflowing with meaning. All of the love we show in our lives hinges on these few words. The reason we can love God is that he loved us first, and the way we can show our love for God is to love those around us. In turn, we do not truly love God unless we have this brotherly love. We cannot truly love God unless we keep his commandments. When we keep his commandments, we are showing love to our neighbor. When we love our neighbor we are showing love to God. Do you see how this all comes full circle? You cannot have one aspect of love unless you have them all.
By truly loving God we reflect his glorious image in us with no glory to ourselves. We can do this only by his working in us through the Holy Spirit. “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:6–7).
There is great emphasis placed on love throughout the whole of Scripture. The law of God is based on love, as is seen in the summary of the law given by Jesus in Matthew 22:37–40. “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Truly loving God and our neighbor is upholding all ten of the commandments of the law.
Paul also stresses the great importance of love: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” (I Corinthians 13:1–3)
We may be gifted in many areas of life, we may have so great a faith as to perform miracles, we may sell all that we have and give to the poor, but if all of this does not proceed from a true love for God and our neighbor it is worthless! John Calvin in his commentary on I Corinthians has a good explanation of this thought:
“. . . that everything be regulated according to the rule of love. This, then, is the most excellent way, when love is the regulating principle of all our actions. And, in the outset, he proceeds upon this – that all excellencies are of no value without love; for nothing is so excellent or estimable as not to be vitiated [corrupted or faulty] in the sight of God, if love is wanting. . . It is not then to be wondered, if all our deeds are estimated by this test—their appearing to proceed from love. It is also not to be wondered, if gifts, otherwise excellent, come to have their true value only when they are made subservient to love” (Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 20, 418–19).
We now consider a few different ways love is shown: God’s love for us, our love for God’s children, and our love for our enemies.
God’s Love for Us
Think of someone or something you love in your life. It means something to you. In your eyes, it is beautiful. It is something to be cherished and protected. God loves us. He thinks we are beautiful. In light of what his Son has accomplished on the cross, we are beautiful in the sight of God. We as his church are what he cherishes and protects. He has protected us through all of time, from the very beginning. Adam was created in the image of God and was perfect and holy. He was sinless and therefore guiltless. But by sinning, Adam lost the image of God. The image of God in man was not just gone. It was twisted the opposite way into wickedness. The Canons of Dordrecht state: “. . . revolting from God by instigation of the devil and abusing the freedom of his own will, he forfeited these excellent gifts, and on the contrary entailed on himself blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, and perverseness of judgment, became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections” (Canons 3, 4.1). But God, “in his admirable wisdom and goodness, seeing that man had thus thrown himself into temporal and spiritual death, and made himself wholly miserable, was pleased to seek and comfort him . . . promising him that he would give His Son” (Belgic Confession, Art. 17; my emphasis). God so loved us that he did indeed fulfill the covenant he made in the Garden. When man fell, God cursed the seed of the serpent and promised Eve that her seed would have the victory. He kept his covenant even when the church was down to just the eight souls of Noah and his family. He kept that covenant when he gave Abraham and Sarah a son in their old age. He kept that covenant when he led Israel out of the bondage of Egypt and into the land of Canaan. He kept that covenant even through a host of wicked kings ruling over his chosen people. He kept that covenant when he sent his Son to die the cursed death of the cross to pay for all our sins. By this redemptive work on the cross, he sees us as beautiful! Even as sinfully ugly as we are, he still sees us as beautiful.
Our Love for God’s Children
We love God by keeping his commandments. “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous” (I John 5:2, 3).
Our love for God cannot exist if we do not love our brethren. “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (I John 4:20). We are called to brotherly love. God has deemed our brother or sister in Christ as perfect through Christ. Do you see how the contradiction can arise? We cannot say we love God and then hate someone who is in the image of God. By the instigation of the devil through the workings of the old man of sin in us, we by nature hate God and our neighbor. But God commands us to look at our brethren just as he looks at us. We already have seen how God views us through Christ’s redemptive work on the cross. Blameless! Guiltless! Under the shadow of the cross, we have no sin. This is how we are commanded to look at our brothers and sisters in the church.
Now let’s put this in the perspective of our day-to-day dealings with our brethren. How are we dealing with our friends and families? Here is a passage we should read often. “Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all. Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye” (Col. 3:11–13). We need to stop ourselves when we are holding a grudge against someone, or when we are about to backbite someone, or when we think to ourselves, “but they did this to me!” No, it’s not about what they did to us; it’s about our attitude towards them. Then we must refer again to those verses in Colossians.
According to John 13, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Even as Jesus did, so also ought we to wash the feet of our brethren not because they are dirty in the sight of God and we must make it our calling to wash them. But we wash them in the humbleness of our hearts. We wash their feet by building them up, by seeking their well-being, and by striving to help them in whatever ways we can. We are called to go out of our way to help them. We need to realize that our lives are not to consist of me, Me, ME! We must live our lives as a sacrifice for those around us.
Our Love for Our Enemies
Jesus in Matthew 5:44 instructs us this way: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” A few verses preceding these words, Jesus says “. . . whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” This implies not seeking revenge against our enemies when they attack us. By loving our enemies we are putting in their sight, plainly and unavoidably, an example of the love we have for God.
One remarkable example of a love of one’s enemies was the martyr, Stephen. Stephen’s final words before he was stoned to death by his enemies were, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60). Would our last words be those of forgiveness to the ones who in such hatred would put us to death? The verse goes on: “And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” As soon as he had said the words, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” he died. From this we can gather that it was not before the mob stoned him that he forgave them, but it was as the stones were hitting his body that he said these words. What an outstanding example of faith and confidence in God! You may be sure that his prayer to God in that moment had a lasting effect on those present. We can confidently say this because of one person who was present. Scripture tells us a young man named Saul was there. This Saul was the later converted apostle Paul, stopped like a dead man in his tracks by Christ on the road to Damascus. You can imagine in the days following his conversion, that if it did not before, Stephen’s final prayer along with Paul’s other persecutions of the church struck his heart.
Consider now the parable of the good Samaritan. A Jewish man on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem is attacked by bandits. He is robbed of everything he has, even the clothes on his back. He is beaten to the point of near death and left on the side of the road to die. A priest happens upon the man, but passes by. The same happens with a Levite man whose business apparently was far too important to help the brother in need. Finally, a Samaritan passing by stops to help the man. In order to understand fully the magnitude of a Samaritan helping a Jew, you must understand the history of these two peoples. They were constantly at each others’ throats. There was constant strife between the two nationalities, so much so that it would have been unheard of for one to help the other, even in the smallest way. Nevertheless, this Samaritan cleans the man’s wounds, puts him on his own donkey, and brings him to the nearest town. Not only does he buy a room in an inn, but he cares for the man overnight at his own expense. The Samaritan man sacrificed his own money and time to care for the Jewish man. The self-sacrifice this man had for his enemy is outstanding, and something that we must take to heart when dealing with our neighbors, whether they be Christian or not.
What can we say then except thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift! He freely gave his only Son in order to pay for our sins. He established a covenant with our fathers and has upheld it and will do so forever. So great is his eternal love towards us! What a selfless act of love for the church. This is what we must strive to reflect in our lives. By the love of God for us and in us, we are enabled to love him and our neighbor. We must do this. We are commanded to do this. We can do this, not of any will or power in ourselves, but only by way of the one who loved us first!