As quickly as it came it went. Christmas holidays, I mean. For the second time in my short career as a Bible teacher with YWAM, I got the privilege of teaching the first book back after the break. The only real downside is having to find time in your holidays to study. The upside is that all the students and most of our staff were away, allowing me to have lots of quiet space to work in. Well, that would be an upside for someone who is more of an internal processor, but nevertheless, I made it work.
The book: 1 John. Helen did an amazing job teaching it last year, so I felt the bar was definitely a high one. As I am learning on this journey of teaching the Bible, however, God always has something new to reveal to me when I come to study a text. As I took my first few reads through the book, re-familiarizing myself with it, I quickly discovered that there were a lot of words and phrases in 1 John that I had heard people use in the Christian culture in which I grew up. Despite my recollection of these words, I had this uneasy feeling that the way I had heard them used was different from the way John intended them to be understood, or how the readers of his letter would have understood them. The challenge to search out where my preconceived notions affect my understanding of Scripture is one of the great privileges of studying the Bible, so I went about looking up each word of which I felt I might have a skewed understanding. I used Word Studies, Bible Dictionaries and commentaries to guide me to a better understanding of the original meanings of the words. When I was done, I went back to the text and read it again and added the new meanings to the words in the context of the words I properly understood. The effect of understanding more along the heart of the original meaning helped to bring a greater practicality to the text, particularly in the repeated theme of loving one another.
Here’s the thing about love: I think no other word in the English language could be more significant and yet so vague. I asked my students to describe love for themselves, and then showed them different definitions from the internet. There were some similar thoughts, but at the same time, such a range of expressions of what love means. This points to how difficult it can be to come to a book where the word “love” shows up 36 times. As I tried to understand what John meant when he used the word “love,” something new came to mind.
Now I am not a Greek scholar. The best I can do is read books by people who are Greek scholars, and try to make the best of it. There are some interesting things about the original Greek word for “love,” however. Anyone who has grown up in church culture has likely heard the word “agape.” This is the Greek word translated “love” in John’s letter. It was not a word commonly used in the Greek of John’s day. Actually, as I looked at books like Zodhiates Complete Word Study of the New Testament, I saw that it was because of early Christian writings that this word came in to common use. In John’s letter, this type of love is not exemplified by great romantic poets or close friendships, but by Jesus, in His life, but particularly in His death and resurrection:
“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have 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”(1 John 4:9-11).
The love John sees in Jesus is a love that is active. It is not stated in words, but is shown in action. The action also is not one that meets the desires of those Jesus loves, but it meets what they need. In our sinful desires, we were not looking for salvation. If Jesus wanted to gain our affections, He could have made a way for our sinful state to be okay. Instead, knowing what we needed, He instead did what was necessary. In this we see His love for us. Likewise then, I need to love actively and in a way that meets the needs of those I am called to love.
Additionally, Jesus’ expression of love is impartial. In his gospel, John tells us that God so loved the world that He sent Jesus. I can do that which shows love to my friends or to Helen. I know them and I know their needs, but if I am going to be impartial in my love, I need to seek to know how to meet the needs of not only my friends, but all whom God puts before to me to love, which might include enemies. This is the challenge of a Christ-like love.
The challenge of the “so-now-what?” of this realization is that I can never know people’s needs as well as God can. He can love perfectly because He knows perfectly. I know imperfectly at best. This is where my prayer life comes into play. I might only know imperfectly, but I can boldly ask the God who does know perfectly what I can do. This means making my prayer life about someone other than me. It also means being willing to do what God tells me. As you can imagine, I have some growing to do in this on account of both of these realities. I want to grow. I want the testimony of my life to be that I loved well. I think John saw after all his long years, that when you boil down the Christian life, it is about loving well – loving as Jesus did.