1 John 4 – Love and Fear

This week we are reading through 1 John 4:13-21. In this reading, John continues to explore what it means that “God is Love.”

Love Triangles:

Within Christian theology, one of the fifty-cent words is hypostatic union. The term refers to the coming together of the divine and human substance (or “hypostases”) in the person of Jesus Christ. The hypostatic union, i.e the Incarnation, is John’s primary theological message. John 1:14, 1 John 4:2. In vv.13-16 and 19-21, John writes of how the hypostatic union not only is present in Jesus but joins together two love triangles – one divine and one human.

The divine love triangle is the Trinity. Within these verses, John writes of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. At its most basic definition, all love has three parts – the Lover, the Beloved, and the Love that flows between them. In his work, On the Trinity, this is one of the ways that St. Augustine urges us to understand the Trinity. If we begin with “God is Love,” then we should find that the Trinity – the loving Father, the Beloved Son, and the binding Spirit – naturally flows from this understanding of God.

Within this discourse on Love, John also has in mind a human love triangle. John writes of us abiding in God’s love through the love of others. This love also forms a triangle (albeit slightly different) of ourselves, our neighbors, and our God. The source of the Love is God, and through this binding love, we love our beloved neighbor. Therefore, when we abide in God, we abide in this love triangle, and when we abide in this love triangle with our neighbor we are abiding in God.

For John, the connection between these two love triangles is Jesus and our confession that Jesus is the Son of God who has been sent by the Father as the savior of the whole world. The Incarnation joins these two love triangles. And through our confession of the hypostatic union, we also enter into this hypostatic union of this divine love.

Fear Not!

Throughout the Scriptures, a common refrain from God while acting within this world is “fear not.” From the banks of the Red Sea (Ex. 14:13) to the Babylonian Captivity (Isa. 41:10) and from the Annunciation (Luke 1:30) to the Resurrection (Matt. 28:5), God’s message to his people in times of trouble and despair is “do not be afraid.” For John, love and fear cannot co-exist. “There is no fear in love, for love casts out fear. Fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.” v.18. God is love and because he loved us first, how can we fear God?

Think of the difference between a gospel proclamation based on love and one based on fear. A fear-based proclamation will urge us, through the threat of punishment, to act better, live better, pray better, or believe better. A fear-based exhortation leads either to despair (for who can obtain the perfection that requires) or a pharisaical self-righteousness in the false belief that we have obtained divine perfection. Ultimately, a fear-based proclamation is one where God’s love is wholly contingent. God only loves us when we are good enough, believe sufficiently and correctly enough, repeat enough of the correct magic words, or love God enough. Because this love is contingent upon us, we are always in danger of failing God and losing God’s love. All that we do is not performed out of love but out of a fear of retribution. I take care of my neighbor, not out of love, but because otherwise God will come and get me. (Personally, this is the message of every summer camp I ever went to as a child and young adult.)

Alternatively, a love-based proclamation communicates the essential nature of God and is the only effective means of communicating the abundant and eternal life in Christ. In a love-based proclamation, God’s love is noncontingent. We can proclaim that the world was created by love (Gen 1:1) and in love we live, and move, and have our being (Acts 17:28). If God is love, then we proclaim that God is patient and kind, not irritable or resentful, and bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things on behalf of us. Therefore, we proclaim that the very purpose of creation, existence, and the Incarnation is Love.

Day of Judgment

In our readings for tonight, John writes about the “day of judgment.” v.17. In Jewish thought (John is Jewish), the New Year’s festival of Rosh Ha-Shanah is called the Day of Judgment. It is on this day, that Judaism teaches that we all pass before God to be judged. The next ten days are days of repentance which end in Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. This is probably the underlying situation that John has in mind when he is writing.

The fear that love overcomes is the fear of punishment. v.17. Think through the difference between a judgment based on love and judgment based on punishment. In the latter, judgment is about vengeance and retribution. It is a quid pro quo – the perpetrator did wrong and therefore must be punished so that the law may be avenged. A wrongdoer lives in fear of that punishment. Alternatively, a judgment based on love seeks healing and restoration for the wrongdoers. This does not mean forgiveness without any chastisement or penance, but the goal is different. A good discussion of the difference is HERE.

Perfected Love

When John writes about love and fear he uses the term “perfected love.” v.18. The Greek word for perfection is teleos which means “to reach completion.” An acorn’s teleos is to become an oak tree, whereas our teleos, according to John, is to become Love. To become and fully abide in love, is to become like God.

John’s understanding of perfected love has its origin in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:43-48, we find Jesus teaching on the necessity that we must “love our enemies.” As Jesus points out, everyone loves those that love them back. We, however, are called to love those who do not love us back, but rather love even those that persecute us and seek to do us harm. Our love is measured by how well we love our enemies. Jesus ends this teaching with the statement that “You, therefore, must be perfect (teleos) as your heavenly Father is perfect. Perfected love will be only found in the unreciprocated love of our enemies.

Dinner is at 6:30. The menu is Mediterranean chicken with sweet potatoes and tabouli salad. Discussion about 7:30. Hope to see you here!

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.

1 John 4:18

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