Everybody loves Love. The virtues of love have been extolled from time immemorial, and love is still recognized today by people the world over as one of the last objectively virtuous virtues. Plato, some 300 years before Christ, paid this tribute to love: “Love is the joy of the good, the wonder of the wise, the amazement of the gods.”
In Love With Love
Love was the theme of bards in the Middle Ages, was embraced by the Romantics of the 18th century, and is still extolled by countless cultures today. Love is the subject of urban graffiti, the slogan of smooth-talking politicians, the motto of every hippie, and the mantra of countless lyricists.
“Love is the key…” contends one songwriter. Another famously observes, “Love is a many splendored thing.” But perhaps the most well-known contemporary homage to love was contributed by John Lennon in 1967. At the height of the Vietnam War, the BBC commissioned The Beatles to write a song for Our World, the first-ever live, international satellite television production. The BBC requested that the song contain a simple message that would be understood by viewers of all nationalities: “All You Need Is Love” was the result.
When the broadcast aired on live television, The Beatles were joined on stage by The Rolling Stones, among others, for this special occasion. The message of the song was true to its prescription if a little redundant:
Love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love.
All you need is love, all you need is love,
All you need is love, love, love is all you need.
What Is Love?
When we consider the timeless attraction of Love to the masses, we are made to ponder exactly what Jesus meant when He spoke of love and commanded it of His disciples. Was He just one more groupie jumping on the bandwagon of Love, just another John Lennon memorializing the merits of love? Or was He—and the disciples who spread His gospel throughout the known world—presenting a radically different message than any philosopher, leader, or songwriter before or since?
As we peruse the teachings of Jesus Christ, we are made quickly cognizant of the fact that His message was fundamentally distinct from the “love” that the world so readily embraces. The love that Christ modeled and the love that Christ commands is infinitely superior in quality and infinitely higher in its object, than any secular concept of love.
The love that Christ—and His penmen in the epistles—repeatedly commands of us is agape love (Matthew 22:36-39; Romans 13:8). This is not a merely erotic love, nor is it even a friendly, warm-and-fuzzy love. Agape is a love that is willing to give itself utterly for the sake of its object.
We see this self-sacrificing, self-crucifying quality of love over and over again in the Scriptures. Christ, of course, exemplified selfless love. To the Galatians, Paul would write: “I have been crucified with Christ … who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). He would exhort the Ephesian husbands to Christ-emulation, because “loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).
I wonder how many wars would cease—among nations and family members—how much good could be done, and how joyful the world would be if we, who claim to be disciples of Christ, all followed in Christ’s footsteps of sacrificial love. The great lie of the devil is that we will be better off pursuing our own good, rather than serving God and others.
The love that Jesus Christ championed was not only superior in quality; it was distinctly different in its end, its object. In fact, this is precisely what sets it forever apart from the world, because the Bible tells us that the world is also practicing agape love, only towards the wrong objects. The ungodly are willing to give themselves utterly for what the world has to offer. Jesus warns that we cannot serve God and riches because “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love [agape] the other” (Matthew 6:24). John informs us that agape for the world is a mark of not having the agape of God within us: “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).
In Love With God
The question, then, is not how much do we love, but what do we love? If we are not careful, we can miss this crucial aspect of the love that Christ speaks of and settle for people-love as our goal. But when we come to the first two verses of 1 John 5, we are made to realize that we are swimming in infinitely deeper waters than the shallow ideals of our day: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this, we know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments” (1 John 5:1-2). Biblical love has a specific context and description. This is a love for others that is bound inseparably to a love for God. We love the children of God when we love God.
This is no mere platitude concerning our societal duty to be benevolent toward others. Neither is it a rerun of the same old program where Love is the star of the show. This love is clearly rooted in the person of Jesus Christ, “the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14), and has God as its first and primary object.
John is reaffirming what Jesus himself taught concerning our duty to love God with our all of everything: “This is the great and first commandment” (Matthew 22:38).
It is apparently impossible to please God with any other expression of love than that which has Him as its first and great object. The second commandment, to love our neighbor, is second still to the first commandment, to love the only true God with all that we are. Loving others before God is not “almost good enough” — it is disobedience.
In Love with Christ
When the Pharisees appealed to God as their father, thereby claiming religious immunity to Jesus’ convicting message, Jesus’ reply to them was, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me” (John 8:42). Conversely, Jesus claimed that “whoever hates me hates my Father also” (John 15:23).
The love then that we have for our fellow man, and especially our brothers and sisters in Christ, is founded firmly in the love that we have for the Savior first and foremost. Where does this love come from, seeing that we are by nature enemies of Christ? John tells us that Christ-love, like all other graces, comes from Christ himself: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Notice the clear cause-and-effect relationship of our love for Christ—His love for us is the cause, and our love for Him is the effect.
It is primarily as God-lovers, then, that we are consequently called to be people-lovers: “This commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:21). A love that loves others before Jesus Christ is not a love that is commanded, nor is it a love that is in anyway pleasing to Him. Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). Clearly a love that puts others in front of Christ is not pleasing to or commended by, Christ. Rather, it is a love that is unworthy of Him. God is love, we learn, but love is not God. It cannot take the place of Christ and still be pleasing to God.
Love is indeed, as Shakespeare put it, “a many splendored thing.” But it is also, in God’s Word, a carefully defined and articulated thing.
In Love with the Children of God
Back in 1 John 5:1, we are told that “everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.” Is this speaking only of a love for Christ, as the Son who came from the Father? Clearly not, as the very next verse clarifies: “By this we know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments.” Although Christ is the only perfect Son of God, there is a sense in which He is also the first among many brethren. Because of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, we can rightly be said to be “children” of God!
And John says that everyone that is begotten by God bears some family resemblance to the “only Son from the Father.” Because God loves his people such that he “gave his only Son” for them, those who are born again into God’s kingdom bear that love for His people as a birthmark upon their souls. Love for others is the natural overflow of our love for Christ.
Has the love from Jesus affected within you a love for him? Does your love for Jesus lead you to love others for his sake? Then rest in the assurance Jesus provides, and labor still in the easy yoke of the commands he gives.
“This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us” (1 John 3:23).
Justin Huffman is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary and pastored churches in the States for over 15 years. He is currently lead pastor of Morningstar Christian Fellowship in Toronto, where he lives with his wife Chau and their four children. Justin is the author of the “Daily Devotion” app, as well as numerous books and articles, including his newest book Behold: an Invitation to Wonder. Connect with him at justinhuffman.org.