Perfect Love and the Coming of Christ
By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (4:9–11)
Jesus Christ is the preeminent manifestation of God’s love (John 1:14; cf. Rom. 5:8); He is God’s only begotten (unique) Son (Heb. 1:5), who came to earth in the flesh (Luke 2:7–14; John 1:14, 18; Heb. 5:5). The incarnation was the supreme demonstration of a divine love that was and is sovereign and seeking; it was not that [believers] loved God, but that He loved [them] and sent His Son to be the propitiation for [their] sins. The term propitiation refers to a covering for sin (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17), and is a form of the same word (hilasmos) used in 2:2 (for a more detailed explanation of this important word and its background, see chapter 4 of this volume). Hundreds of years before Christ, the prophet Isaiah foresaw His propitiatory sacrifice:
Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. (Isa. 53:4–6; cf. 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13; 1 Peter 3:18)
By this the perfect love of God was manifested in [believers], John wrote, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that [believers] might live through Him. The apostle’s point is that since God, in sovereign mercy, graciously displayed His love in sending Christ, the saints should surely follow His example and love others with sacrificial, Christlike love (Eph. 4:32). The Father not only gave His children a perfect love when He redeemed them (Rom. 5:5), but He also gave them the ultimate model in Christ of how that love functions in selfless sacrifice. The cross of Christ compels believers to such love. Thus John exhorted his readers: Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (cf. John 15:13). The apostle really just restated his admonition from 3:16, “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” No one who has ever savingly believed in Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and thus been granted eternal life, can return permanently to a self-centered lifestyle. Instead such persons will obey Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians to “be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Eph. 5:1–2; cf. 1 Peter 1:15–16).
11. Beloved. Now the Apostle accommodates to his own purpose what he has just taught us respecting the love of God; for he exhorts us by God’s example to brotherly love; as also Paul sets before us Christ, who offered himself to the Father a sacrifice of pleasant fragrance, that every one of us might labour to benefit his neighbours. (Eph. 5:2.) And John reminds us, that our love ought not to be mercenary, when he bids us to love our neighbours as God has loved us; for we ought to remember this, that we have been loved freely. And doubtless when we regard our own advantage, or return good offices to friends, it is self-love, and not love to others.
11 With this verse, John begins to develop the ethical implications of the incarnation. Those who, unlike the Antichrists, accept God’s love as expressed in the sending of the Son ought to love one another (cf. 1 Jn 3:16). The logic of this conclusion is similar to that underlying John 13:12–17. After washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus instructs them that they should do the same for one another because, if “I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet” (13:14). If Jesus served the disciples in a sacrificial way, they should follow his example by serving one another sacrificially. Similarly, if God has defined perfect love by sending his Son as a sacrifice, we should love other believers the way God does.
4:11 / Now the Elder draws the ethical consequences from God’s great act of love, of which he has been writing since v. 7. Dear friends (lit., “Beloved,” agapētoi) reminds the readers that they are loved, not just by the author but by God. Since is the correct translation of ei, not “if”; the case has been demonstrated in vv. 9–10. God loved: the aorist tense indicates the absolute and definitive quality of God’s love. As above, us is, for the Elder, primarily “we” who have come to know God’s love, without forgetting that God does love the whole world. The little word so (houtōs) deserves special attention. It can mean both “in this way” (as seen in God’s love in the previous verses) or “so much, excessively.” Both are true and make good sense in the present context. God’s love, not human love, is the model of authentic love (v. 10), and God’s gift of his only Son is an extreme act of love. God so loved us, both as to manner and as to intensity. This verse closely resembles John 3:16, and the entire passage (vv. 7–11) may be read as a commentary on it (Brown, Epistles, p. 519).
With God’s manifested (v. 9) love as the model and motivation, the community’s mandate is clear: we also ought to love one another. This resumes the thought of v. 7 and applies the lesson of vv. 7–10 to the relationships expected among God’s people. While those who have not experienced God’s love in Christ cannot be expected to love, we, the believing community, can and are. The verb ought (opheilomen) emphasizes love as our Christian obligation; we owe it as a debt (Rom. 13:8).