God-Taught Love

Dr. Brian Allison

On different occasions recently, I have been told that Unionville Baptist Church is a loving church; and as a pastor, I find that very gratifying. Many people who have visited this church, or who have come in contact with the people of this church, have gone away with the distinct impression that this is a loving church. There is no greater virtue which is more commendable, with respect to the Church of Christ, than that of love. God is well-pleased, and His heart is delighted, to know that His people are loving.

I was speaking to a business woman this past week. She and her family have just recently moved into the neighbourhood. She said that she and her family were looking for a church, and have visited a number of the churches in the area. She said, "What we are looking for is a church that has some kind of structure to it, but also a church that is caring – a church in which people reach out to one another, and look after one another, and support one another." I think many people are looking for a church just like that. People are thirsting and hungering for 'community' in which there is genuine caring. I was speaking to a Christian woman this past week. We agreed that showing the love of God predominantly involves the spirit and act of caring. Caring has two main aspects. First, there is a genuine interest and concern; second, there is a warm involvement in the life of another. Love is the theme of this message. 1 Thessalonians 4:9,10 reads, "Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more."

Brotherly love

The apostle Paul is preoccupied with the theme of love in 1 Thessalonians. For instance, he writes, "Constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father" (1:3); again, "But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always think kindly of us, longing to see us just as we also long to see you, for this reason, brethren, in all our distress and affliction we were comforted about you through your faith" (3:6,7); again, "And may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all men, just as we also do for you" (3:12); again, "But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation" (5:8); and again, "And that you esteem them [that is, pastors, elders] very highly in love because of their work" (5:13).

So, the apostle Paul is taken up with the theme of love; and we can understand why. When we think of love, we are considering that which characterizes Christian maturity, we are considering that which characterizes a healthy, thriving Church. Now, as we look at 4:9, the apostle writes, "Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you." Paul uses a different word for love in this text than he does in the other places in this epistle. The phrase 'love of the brethren' is only one word in the original Greek. It is the word from which we get the city name Philadelphia – the city of brotherly love. This term can simply be translated 'brotherly love'; and so, Paul says, "Now as to [brotherly love], you have no need for anyone to write to you."

The term 'brotherly love' is found six times in the New Testament. It suggests a special relationship within a family context. It was originally used to describe the love people would show to one another within their natural family context. Paul, of course, uses this term in a spiritual sense; and we see how apropos that is, for when we are born again by the Spirit of God, not only do we come into the kingdom of God, but we also enter into a spiritual family. We receive the adoption as sons and daughters, and we cry out by His Spirit, "Abba, Father" (see Rm. 8:15; Ga. 4:5,6). At our conversion, we enter into a vibrant, dynamic relationship with God; and in doing so, we also enter into a special relationship with others who have also entered into that special relationship with God. We thus sustain an intimate spiritual relationship with others as we together own one Father. In a very real and profound sense (though you have heard it before, but think about it again), we are real brothers and sisters. Christians are brothers and sister, not simply in name, but also in nature. In Christ we are one.

Here are a few references in which the term 'brotherly love' is used. In Romans 12:10, we read, "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love [if there is real brotherly love – spiritual, familial affection – we will be deeply committed to one another]; give preference to one another in honor [brotherly love yields to others; brotherly love shows esteem toward others]." We also read in Hebrews 13:1, "Let love of the brethren [again, 'brotherly love'] continue." Brotherly love should always characterize our interaction with believers. So, Paul says in verse 4:9, "Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you." Are you treating your fellow believers as real brothers and sisters? I was speaking to someone in the congregation a little while ago and that person said something like this, "I feel a part of a family here at the Church more than I do in my natural family. I feel closer to people in the Church than I do to my natural flesh and blood." That is a powerful, exciting statement – that one can feel a deeper connection with other believers than with his or her natural flesh and blood. Is it wrong to expect that we should find, over time, a deeper connection among believers than among our natural siblings, our natural family? These are the people with whom we will be spending all eternity.

God teaches brotherly love

Paul says, in effect, "As to this brotherly love I have no need to teach you." These believers already knew about love. It comprised part of the a-b-c's, the basics, of their Christian training. Incidentally, we never grow beyond the basics, we simply continue to grow in the basics; and the three fundamental characteristics that ought to characterize our lives as believers are faith, hope, and love. So, Paul says that it was superfluous for him to write to these believers about love. This is somewhat ironical because the apostle Paul writes so much about it in this epistle. Don't you find that interesting? He says, in effect, "I really do not have to tell you about it, but I will anyway." Why? Because we cannot hear enough about love. Even though we know that we are to love, we must continually be reminded to love because we continually fail to do it. Thus, in hearing again the command to love, or in again reading something about the necessity to love, we are again challenged and inspired so that we might love more. But why was it superfluous for Paul to write to these believers about the need to love their fellow-believers? Because they were taught by God to love, which meant that all other teachers were (and are) inferior, and, at times, useless. Someone may instruct us what love looks like and how we can love (and, realistically speaking, we need to be taught by others), but that is nothing in comparison to the instruction that we, as believers, receive from our heavenly Father. God teaches us how to love. It is good to hear the pastor or teacher say, "Care for one another." It is good to be reminded of these things, but unless you are taught by God to love, you will not make the spiritual grade.

So, it is self-evident that we have no better teacher than God Himself Who is love. Is God teaching you to love? If you are a true child of God, then He will teach you. You will not ultimately be defeated by hateful feelings. You will not wrestle with, and be conquered by, unjustifiable anger. You will not be overcome with, and controlled by, resentment. You will not be filled with, and destroyed by, bitterness. Why? God always guarantees that His pupils pass. Every true child of God will make the grade. God never fails in His teaching to reach the spiritual goal for which He desires and aims. If you are really taught by God to love, then you will most definitely love; and you will not simply be coerced to love, but you will have no choice but to love because of the reality of God's love in you. You will freely choose to love. Is God teaching you to love? What is going on in your heart?

Now, the natural question is this: How does God teach us to love? Obviously it is a heart affair. God, as the Scriptures teach, guides our hearts into the experience of His own love. 2 Thessalonians 3:5 reads, "And may the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the steadfastness of Christ;" again, 3:12 reads, "And may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all men, just as we also do for you." It is in God's very presence that we can love. It is being in spiritual union with Him that we are able to love. God is pleased to reveal Himself in our hearts, and thus enable us to love.

In teaching us to love, and how to love, God directly and spiritually communicates to our hearts. True Christian experience entails a right mysticism. We do not believe in a God Who is far off, Who is distant; a God who created and wound up the world, and then seceded. No, we believe in a God Who is actively involved in the world, and not only in the world, but in our lives; a God Who is in direct and personal relationship with us; a God Who reveals His will to our spirits; a God with Whom we walk every day, a God with Whom we fellowship every day, a God Who intimately knows us and speaks with us, and in Whose speaking we are changed. 1 John 4:7 reads, "Beloved, let us love one another [why?], for love is from God [love finds its source, its origin, in God, we cannot love unless we are spiritually rooted in Him]; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God." Love is the fruit of being born again of the Spirit, of being brought into the divine, spiritual family and into a living, dynamic relationship with God the Father. Everyone who demonstrates the reality that he has been born of God, by loving, knows God as God. Notice 1 John 4:12, "No one has beheld God [with the physical eye] at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us [what John seems to be implying is this: if we love one another, we are beholding God, we know Him; there is constant fellowship because we experience and enjoy the indwelling presence of God], and His love is perfected in us." We can have God's own love because His person indwells us and is one with our spirits. Love flows from His heart to our hearts, and that is possible because we are one with Him; and through God, we become perfected in that love. Now, it does not say that love may be perfected; it says that love is perfected. That must be true of every child of God. Further, 1 John 4:13 reads, "By this we know that we abide in Him [here is the proof of whether we are sustaining a living relationship with God] and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit." It is God's Spirit Who makes spiritual union and fellowship possible. Further, 1 John 4:16 reads, "And we have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love [that is, His character], and the one who abides in love abides in God [these two truths go hand in hand], and God abides in him." So, because God abides in us, He is able to teach us to love one another, because He Himself is love.

The lessons of brotherly love

Now specifically, what does it mean that God teaches us to love? We have established the simple principle that God does teach us because we are in a spiritual union with Him; His life is manifested in us. But how does God actually teach us to love? Well, John's epistle provides us with understanding. First, God teaches us to love one another by softening or humbling our hearts in order that we might sacrificially give to another. He breaks our will, He destroys our pride, He crushes our arrogance and our haughtiness. Thus, 1 John 3:16 reads, "We know love by this [here is the demonstration of love], that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren." We are to deny our selfish desires; we are to deny our fleshly self-interests, in order to be a self-donation for another. If you are a child of God, at some point, God will confront you, and He will smash your pride, He will destroy your arrogance, He will bring you low that you might sacrificially give to another. True love necessitates humility. Do you feel proud or superior against any Christian brother or sister? Maybe you do not think that his or her company is good enough for you? Maybe you do not think that he or she deserves the time of day? If you are a child of God, He will humble your heart, and He will put you in a situation where you will deny yourself and give.

Second, God is pleased to teach us to love by filling us with compassion so that we really might feel for someone else in need, and not be detached. 1 John 3:17, "But whoever has the world's goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?" If you are unmoved at the needy situation of your brothers and sisters in Christ, then you must question whether you are even saved. If the love of God really abides in you, then you will be filled with compassion, you will want to minister to another's misery. When you hear of a brother or sister out of work, for instance, and God has blessed you with much, what is your response?

Third, God teaches us to love by convicting and constraining us to keep His Word, to hear His voice to do good to others, to do what is right toward others. 1 John 2:5 reads, "But whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him;" and 1 John 5:2 reads, "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments." So, God teaches us to love one another by convicting us to obey His Word in order that we might do good or do what is right toward others. Let me give you a personal example. I was scheduled to have a meeting this past week with a number of brethren, and I was not sure how the meeting would go; and I know that when I am tired, or when I have not been seeking the Lord, I have a tendency to be somewhat defensive and reactive. Accordingly, I was meditating on the Scriptures the morning of the scheduled meeting, and my eyes fell upon Deuteronomy 17:19,20 (now though these words were uttered in a different context and setting, the Spirit took these words and gave current power to them and made personal application to my heart), "And it shall be with him [that is, the king], and he shall read it [that is, the book of the Law] all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, by carefully observing all the words of this law and these statutes, [why?] that his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen [his brethren] and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or the left; in order that he and his sons may continue long in his kingdom in the midst of Israel." And as I thought on verse 20 – "That his heart might not be lifted up above his [brethren]," God spoke in my spirit in preparation for that scheduled meeting. God 'said' to me, "Do not become proud toward your brethren. Do not be defensive or reactive." In responding to the voice of God, I subsequently performed the good toward my brethren. That was love. Are you hearing the voice of God when He comes with conviction, when He constrains your spirit to move in a certain direction, when the Word is impressed upon your heart and conscience? In so far as you listen, you are loving; and as you continue to listen and obey, you are being perfected in love.

Brotherly love demonstrated

Paul affirmed the fact that these Thessalonian believers were loving (because they had been God-taught) – "for indeed you do practice it [love] toward all the brethren [not simply some of the brethren] who are in all Macedonia" (4:10). Again, the direct, spiritual teaching of God never fails. If you are taught by God, you will love. I suspect that these particular believers showed love to all the brethren by sharing out of their wealth, out of their material possessions, ministering to the various needs and caring for the poor.

Now, having said, "I do not have to write to you to love because you are being taught by God to love," Paul says, "But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more" (4:10b). What is Paul saying? He says, in effect, "Where you are at now, with respect to love, is just not good enough. You may think that you are doing well, and that you are being really kind, sacrificial, giving, humble, and affectionate, but that is not good enough. You still have a long way to go." Why? The love of God is inexhaustible, it is infinite, and you will never be able to plumb the depths and fully, and completely, express that love. For all eternity, we will be growing in love, for we will be growing in God, experiencing and enjoying more of the heart of, and fellowship with, God. The love of God ought to be like an unending river flowing from your soul, in progressive and increasing proportions over time, because the love of God has no bounds or end. Wonder of wonders that God is pleased to make us vehicles of His matchless love.

Now, even though God has to bring about this love, let us keep in mind that we have a responsibility to reveal and demonstrate that love. God does not bypass our wills. Jude 21 reads, "Keep yourselves in the love of God." That is our responsibility in revealing the character and image of Christ. We should never stop loving; and we should never come to the point where we think that we have loved enough. There is no end. Ephesians 3:14ff. reads, "For this reason I bow my knees before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you according to the riches of His glory to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man [it is the Spirit at work revealing His power], so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, and that you being rooted and grounded in love may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth [the four dimensional reality of this love] , and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge [What does it mean to experience the infinite, inexhaustible reality and supply of God's love?] that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God." It is when we know the breadth, and the length, and the height, and the depth of the love of Christ, it is at that very point (and this is staggering), that we will be filled up with the fullness of God. We will experience the wonderful life of God Who Himself is love. I do not know how that is possible, but that is the teaching of Scripture. Those who are born of the Spirit of God can love as God loves. That is our calling and our end.