With all the advice gurus and celebrity experts out there, you’d think we really would know what love is. Everybody seems to have an opinion or definition. But there really is only One True Authority on love and that is the author of love Himself. “God is love” writes the apostle John in 1 John 4:8. And while many of us like to quote that passage we are vaguely aware of what surrounds it (1 Jn. 4:7-11). Those passages clearly define love in relationship to God Himself. It is not only the love He demonstrates towards us. It is the same love we are to demonstrate toward one another.
This concept of love is deeply embedded in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word for this love is hesed. While it is often translated as loving-kindness, there really is no single English equivalent for the word. It is easier to describe it. Hesed is extending oneself to another in friendship when they are in need whether or not those actions will be returned. And more importantly, whether they are a friend or not. The classic passage illustrating this word is Psalm 136 where it is used 26 times to proclaim that God’s kindness and love is eternal. Hesed serves as the foundation for both God’s character and His actions. It underlies His goodness (v. 1). It is why He is without dispute the Sovereign Lord (vv. 2-3), the basis for His creation (vv. 4-9), redemption (vv. 10-15), guidance (v. 16), the reason He defeated Israel’s enemies and gave them the land (vv. 17-22), and more. Imitating God’s love (1 Jn. 4:11) is also not limited to the New Testament. We read in the Old Testament that in view of God’s hesed His people were also to display His kindness and faithfulness to each other (1 Sam. 20:13-15; Prov. 19:22) and especially toward the poor, weak, and needy (Jer. 22:3; Mic. 6:8). God was always looking for people who would demonstrate this kind of piety, faithfulness and kindness (Dt. 10:12-19; 2 Chr. 35:26; Amos 5:21-24) and desired this behavior above ritualistic adherence to the Law (Is. 1:11-17; Hos. 6:6; 1 Sam. 15:22).
John writes that the love we show toward one another is actually evidence that God is at work and living in us. He states that “everyone who loves is born of God” (1 Jn. 4:7). When we demonstrate love to others it is similar to the way children resemble their parents. The love we are able to demonstrate comes from our “Spiritual Father”. John also says that everyone who demonstrates love “knows God”. This verb means both to know in a beginning sense (to gain or receive knowledge) or in a completed sense (that is to have knowledge or have learned it). John is saying that our ability to love only comes from having learned it from God.
How do we learn what love really is? John tells us it is by recognizing how God loves us. God’s love is visible and conspicuous (v. 9); shown in the act of sending His Son into the world so that we might live through Him. This life is in contrast to something that is dead. In other words, the life that comes to us through God’s love is active and lively, literally on-going. It appears in several word pictures throughout the New Testament: we are to be a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1), living stones (1 Pet. 2:4-5), partake of the living water (Jn. 4:10), and read the Living Word (Heb. 4:12). When we love others we are visibly and conspicuously demonstrating the same love we recognize that God has given and continues to give to us.
This love is even more tightly connected to hesed than we may at first recognize. In the same way that hospitality or help would be extended to anyone in need (Dt. 24:17-22; Prov. 19:17) because of the many times God extended help to Israel when the nation really needed it (Ps. 78:15-16, 23-29), God has exceeded this by sending His Son to save us from sin when we did not deserve it (Rom. 5:8; 1 Jn. 4:10).
It is easy to love people who love us back. It is not easy to love people who hurt us or respond with indifference. The popular culture of today even considers cutting people down or mocking their short-comings and faults as acceptable. It saddens me to hear and see Christians fall into this trap. How will the world know there is anything different about God’s love if we are imitating them more often than we are imitating Him? This is what John writes to us, “You who are loved by God, if you know that God has loved you in this way, you should be acting in the same way toward each other” (v.11). So, are you?
Ann H. LeFevre , M. Div.
Week of 2-14-2016