The Nature of God
In the writings of John, we find three remarkable equations that provide finite beings like us with the fullest definition of God we can comprehend.
First, God is a Spirit (John 4:24). The first equation tells us what God is. Exactly what it means to be a spirit touches facts beyond our experience, of course, but we can draw from this truth that God is not any sort of material being. He is not a being of flesh and blood. He exists beyond the physical universe.
Second, God is light (1 John 1:5). Light was first in the order of things created (Gen. 1:3 ), and thanks to modern physics, we now understand that everything in our universe is made of light in a general sense, taking in all forms of radiant energy. The assertion that the everlasting God is Himself light is therefore a claim that He is the source of all else that exists. In other words, the second equation tells us what God does. He creates. The concept of light has an even broader meaning, however. It is an appropriate metaphor for truth, since the seeing of either one is an avenue to knowledge. Light introduces us to the world around us, whereas truth reveals the mind of God. Therefore when John speaks of believing the truth, he often describes it as coming to the light (John 12:46; 3:21). Because the result of believing the truth is life eternal, John expands the concept of light still further by treating it as the source of life (John 8:12; 1:4). All these ideas can be combined in the single idea that everything worthwhile comes from God. He is the author of our life, our knowledge, and even our existence. Thus, the equation, "God is light," summarizes God’s activity on our behalf.
Third, God is love (1 John 4:8). This equation tells us why God does what He does. The motive behind all His work is love. Love compelled Him to create the universe out of nothing, then to fashion us from its elements and to place us in a world marvelously designed for our needs and enjoyment. Except for love, He would never have rescued us from sin and damnation at the supreme cost of His own Son. His love also shapes our future stretching without limit into coming time, for He prepares us a home in heaven where we will live with Him in never-ceasing fellowship.
If God is love, it is obvious why we must educate ourselves in what love means and why we must give priority to improving our practice of love. The topic of love is the most important we can discuss. As we consider further what love requires, let us therefore make sure that we are doers of the word and not hearers only (James 1:21-22).
The love we are required to have for our brothers in Christ is no different in quantity or kind than the love we should show to all men. But the Bible, recognizing that our social life will center on the church, gives special attention to brotherly love, offering much practical counsel on how to maintain a loving atmosphere among believers. From this counsel we learn that six expressions of brotherly love are especially important.
- Friendliness. It was customary in the early church for the saints to greet each other with a kiss (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Pet. 5:14). This was called a "holy kiss," to distinguish it from a kiss of carnal affection. Exactly what kind of kiss it was, we are not sure, although doubtless it was the same kind that served as a customary greeting throughout the Greco-Roman world. We are fairly certain that men kissed only men and women kissed only women. The number of times that New Testament writers urge a kiss of greeting underscores its importance. Paul was especially concerned that the custom not be neglected in the Corinthian church, which was torn by factional feuding. Yet any attempt to revive the custom today, at least in non-Mediterranean cultures, probably would not succeed. The cultural difference is too great. But the commandment remains in force. How can we satisfy it if we decline to kiss each other? The only way is to share greetings that are no less warm and affectionate. The minimum acceptable is a cheerful hello. To make greetings a tool of some personal agenda—for showing who stands in favor and who stands out of favor, for instance—is inappropriate and offensive.
- Courtesy. The Greek word for "courteous" in the Received Text of 1 Peter 3:8 has much the same meaning as the English word. Its roots suggest the translation "friendly minded." To treat a brother with courtesy means to yield in his favor (Rom. 12:10). "Preferring one another" could be rendered "deferring to one another"—by letting a brother go first in line or take the better seat or go first through a door, for example. Courtesy means also to use the conventions of polite speech, such as "please," "thank you," "pardon me," "sir," and "ma'am." And it means to be a good listener (Jas. 1:19). To be always monopolizing the conversation is rude and self-centered.
- Hospitality. Brotherly love should not stop at the church door. A conversation at church rarely extends beyond a few minutes. Outings and retreats allow more interaction with others, but generally within a fairly large group. Your relationship with a brother will never reach below the surface until you have one-on-one fellowship with him. For this, you must visit him at home or, even better, invite him to your home. The New Testament marks hospitality as a special obligation of anyone who wishes to exercise leadership in the church (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8). By implication, inviting guests into the home is an important tool of ministry that church leaders cannot afford to neglect. Yet hospitality is the duty of other believers also (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pet. 4:9). When Peter says "without grudging," he means that we should not grudge all the work necessary to be a good host or hostess. When was the last time you entertained someone in your home—someone besides your best friends?
- Kindness. Brotherly love is notable for its concern to please others and respect their feelings. The New Testament uses various terms to express this dimension of love, such as eusplanchnos ("tenderhearted" in Eph. 4:32), chrestos ("kind" in the same text), and chresteuomai ("kind" in 1 Cor. 13:4). Kindness requires empathy, which is both to understand how others feel and to care how they feel. Another term for empathy is "sensitivity." A sensitive heart full of love will try to help others feel better. It will use thoughtful words and gestures to relieve their burdens and increase their joy.
- Sympathy. If we love our brothers in Christ, we will show concern when they are going through trials. The Bible urges us to visit the sick (Matt. 25:34-36), bear one another's burdens (Gal. 6:2), and share the sorrow of those who are grieving (Rom. 12:15). Moreover, the example it chooses to illustrate the brotherly love found in true religion is "to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction" (Jas. 1:27). No doubt the phrase is referring mainly to visits for the purpose of taking them material assistance. (Widows in James's world depended on family support, but many had stingy relatives.) Yet also within the compass of this phrase are visits for the purpose of showing sympathy and relieving loneliness.
- Help. If we look through the texts commanding us to supply the needs of a poor brother, we find that charity of this kind is the most basic and indispensable obligation of brotherly love (Jas. 2:15-6; Acts 20:35; Rom. 12:13; Eph. 4:28; Heb. 13:16; Matt. 5:42; Lev. 25:35). We also discover that such charity is a special obligation of the rich (1 Tim. 6:17-8) and that brothers in Christ have first claim upon it (Gal. 6:10).
Jesus said, "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another" (John 13:35). The love that worldlings see in the church should be so distinctive and superior that they will recognize it as coming from God. Yet there are non-Christians who are friendly and courteous, who entertain freely in their homes, who perform good deeds, and who have caring and sympathetic hearts. How then is Christian love special? In four respects Christian love can excel all other kinds of love.
- Impartiality. Wherever people assemble outside the church, they form special interest groups and cliques. It is sad that cliques also spring up in the church. But God intends the church to be a place where all manner of people can mix together and yet no one becomes marginal, much less a misfit or an outcast; where there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female (Gal. 3:28); where any random selection of people is as happy in each other's company as any other random selection. With the help of the Holy Spirit, many churches have fulfilled God's plan, thereby showing the world that Christian love is supernatural.
It is certainly appropriate for a church to offer activities designed especially for the young or for seniors, but the different age groups should not be so segregated that they never mingle and talk to each other. The worst specimen of a church is one divided along lines of social class, with the rich hanging out together and ignoring everybody else. Paul cautions us not to hobnob with the wealthy and important, but to give as much attention to people of low estate (Rom. 12:16). James declares that it is a serious breach of love to offer a more enthusiastic welcome to the rich than to the poor (Jas. 2:1-9). Our model of impartiality is God, who is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34).
We must see the infinite potential of everyone who walks through the front door of the church. It does not matter what they look like now. We must imagine what they will look like as God’s children in eternity, when they will have all the beauty and breathtaking power and radiant holiness of an immortal being. No man or woman alive has any less potential.
- Fervency. When fully realized, Christian love is unique simply in its intensity of feeling (1 Pet. 1:22; 4:8). It emulates the boundless love that God has for His children (Jer. 31:3). Love between lovers or between close relatives or friends may reach such a high pitch of intensity that we would call it fervent. But to love someone fervently who just happens to come to the same church would be humanly impossible. Nothing approaching fervent love ordinarily appears within a club, a team, or any other social group similar to a church. It appears within a church by a miracle of God, showing the world that believers are His authorized representatives on the earth.
- Forgiveness. There are many nice people outside the church. But if you step on their toes hard enough, they will not easily forgive you. They will likely carry a grudge. The ability to forgive is one of the distinctive marks of a true Christian and sets Christian love apart from any natural love. Our example is Christ, who prayed that God would forgive the men crucifying Him (Luke 23:34). As the saying goes, "To err is human; to forgive, divine."
- Self-sacrifice. Many natural loves are sacrificial. A mother will risk her own life to save her children. A lover will go through dark peril to save his beloved. But Christian love is greater than all others, because it accepts pain and loss to help those who give no love in return. A missionary takes the gospel to a foreign land, knowing that he may meet rejection, persecution, and death. Yet he goes because he loves the lost and wants to save them from hell. Paul declared that he was willing to "spend and be spent" for the Corinthians, even though the more he loved them, the less they loved him (2 Cor. 12:15). Love of this kind, after the pattern of God's sacrificial love for our unworthy race, exists only among those who know God. Because its existence would be impossible without a divine craftsman molding their hearts, it is a powerful testimony to the truth of Christianity.