The nature and range of divine love
In this section John’s evident concern is not only that we should love, but that we should love with divine love, and not with merely natural human love.
There is a world to be overcome (5:4) and this task is no easy one. How is it to be accomplished? Divine love in us, springing from the life we have through Christ, results in faith. It is these two, love and faith in action together, that secure for us our position of victory over the world. When divine love is the resource, and faith its indispensable support, victory over the world is what results.
But our professed love for God has been subjected to test and so also must our love for the brethren, lest we be deprived of our victory over the world. If indeed we love our brethren with the love of God, will we not always welcome them as brethren? It is love for the brethren that proves our love for God. This was the point reached at the end of chapter four.
There exists for us here a danger in our interpretation of the scriptures. Our poor hearts and minds are inclined to narrow down the word “brethren” to embrace those whom we accept, but to exclude those from whom we tend to differ. We love the brethren who are pleasing to us, but have reservations about others. But the love spoken of here is universal and must be exercised towards all believers, for “whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is begotten of God” (5:1). The reality of our love for the brethren is proved by our delight in seeing them honoured and advanced. It is proved, too, by the concern we have and the help we give when a brother is overtaken in a fault.
The gracious ministry of love
Peter reminds us that love covers (1 Pet. 4:8). Not one of us is perfect; yet do we not, all too often, delight in exposing the mistakes of our brethren? Let us ask ourselves: Are we active in broadcasting their weaknesses and failures, or do we display the love that covers?
In the holy place where the candlestick burned continually, the snuffers were always at hand. These were clearly not for extinguishing the light altogether, but rather to ensure that it was maintained and burned more brightly. The wicks must be trimmed, but the charred ends, the trimmings, were not to be dropped about all over the Sanctuary. The golden snuffers were to prevent this. Aseach wick was trimmed, the charred end fell into the little golden receptacle which was part of the snuffers, and was there hidden and borne away out of the sanctuary and out of sight. For us, the trimmings represent everything that offends and hinders effective testimony. What the snuffers did for the wicks, divine love in us does for our brothers if they should fail or need correction.
Our love for the children of God must be tested. “Hereby we know we love the children of God, when we love God, and do his commandments; for this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments; and his commandments are not grievous” (5:2, 3). How thoroughly this sacred theme is handled by John. The point underlined here is the need to love the brethren because they are children of God. There is a great deal of difference between my loving your son just because he is your son, and my loving him for his own sake. The latter can be a very selfish kind of love and can exclude you; it can be very subtle and deceptive. Do we love the brethren because they are God’s children? That is the emphasis here. If God has His right place in my heart, then my concern will be that I shall love all His children in a way that is well-pleasing to Him. If I love them because they are His, then I cannot condone wrong-doing, or agree for the sake of peace to their taking a course contrary to His will.
John reminds us that “this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” (5:3). When we put the will of God first, and seek to manifest our love for the brethren by leading them in the path of obedience to that will, then this is true Christian love. When on the other hand we walk with the brethren in disobedience to the Father, seeking to please them in the face of their Father’s disapproval, then our love is a selfish love, a love for them in themselves and not as children of God. It is a love that excludes their Father.
To walk in disobedience with God’s children on the pretext of showing them brotherly love is to give evidence that our love for God is not real but false. If we love the Father, we do not encourage His children in disobedience to His commandments.
The faith that overcomes
Having said this, John adds: “And his commandments are not grievous” (5:3). Yet do they not often seem grievous to us? Why should this be? What is this thing that so influences us that we hesitate to embrace the will of God as good and perfect and acceptable? John names it in the next two verses. It is the world. “For whatsoever is begotten of God overcometh the world; and this is the victory that hath overcome the world, even our faith” (5:4, 5). The world is the great obstacle to obedience. In chapter two, verses 15-17, as we saw, John concisely analyses the world. We do not readily realise how much of what He there shows to be in the world, influences our thoughts and conduct. Its fascinations, its pleasures, its delights pursue and act upon the man who is walking according to the flesh. He is susceptible to them and must yield. But the pull of the world and the commandments of God are mutually opposed, and the good news is this, that “Whatsoever is begotten of God overcometh the world” (5:4). Why does John say here ‘whatsoever’ and not ‘whosoever’? It is because he refers not so much to the believer as to what the believer possesses. When the new-born believer himself is in view it is ‘whosoever’. Here however it is “whatsoever is born of God” that “overcometh the world”, and we have to go only a little further in the verse to see that what is being referred to is our faith. Our faith is the outcome of His unfailing faithfulness. His word, supported by His deeds, has begotten in us faith in His unchangeableness. Faith sees the unseen and handles the fact of things still hidden.
Overcoming the world is no easy matter, even for us, His children. Its fascination is strong and its hold persistent, and we do not very easily escape from its grasp. We may not always be aware of its strength, for sometimes its voice is only a whisper: “Spare yourself; take it easy; be less extreme; why not be as others are?” and so on, and thus the world would quietly incite us to self-indulgence—a self-indulgence that so easily stands in the way of obedience.
It is true, in one sense, that every believer will be an overcomer at the last. It was rather like that with Jacob. He has a place in the list of heroes in Hebrews 11, but the faith that overcomes the world only seems to have been his as he neared the end of his life. We know what a chequered career he had, and he only got into smooth waters at the end. The faith that overcomes is the faith that handles and knows the reality of things unseen, and this faith is seen much earlier in the lives of others mentioned in Hebrews 11—in Noah and Abraham, David and Samuel. But all these men teach us the meaning of faith. Faith knows the unseen to be real and it is this knowledge that has such a mighty effect upon our lives. As we walk by faith in God, and yield ourselves to the instincts of the divine life within, so we are set free from the world. As water in a cistern rises to the level of its source, so the new life within rises up to God and finds its delight in His acceptable and perfect will.
The next verse carries us a step further in order to clinch the matter. “And who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God” (5:5). The world has rejected the Son and put Him to death. If however Jesus is the Son of God to me, then the world which rejected and crucified Him has lost its attraction for me. If I ever had any confidence in the world, if I was ever influenced by its opinions and standards, then its one major blunder of rejecting the Son of God has permanently destroyed that confidence and delivered me from its influence, for any blunder of such magnitude must rightly shake my faith in the one who makes it. Instead my confidence is now wholly in the Son of God Himself.
It is our faith in Him—our believing that Jesus is the Son of God—that overcomes the world. In the light of who He is, we are now found in such full sympathy and loving yieldedness to Him that the world’s influence and attraction for us have been finally broken. Thus it is that the children of God, disentangled from the world and free to work upon the principles we have outlined, are bold to do His will and to display the love of God in fullness.