When I was a child, I learned a song that was as memorable for the peculiarity of singing the scriptural citation—First John Four Seven and Eight–as for the poetry of its King James prose—and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. Decades later, as a Mennonite Mission Network worker in South Africa, I made 1 John 4:7–12 the centerpiece of our Bible school's course on "salvation."
In doing so, I was exposing my own Anabaptist-Mennonite theological formation. In his classic study Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr inscribed Mennonites as representative of his "Christ against culture" type. In contrast to Christian traditions that had enough positive regard for the world in order to engage it, Mennonites were content to forsake the world for a closed community of mutual care. Niebuhr linked Mennonites to the alleged theology of 1 John, in which God's love for "us" compels community members to "love one another"—not the world outside the church (4:11).
Stereotypes are potent because they contain truth, and Mennonites—and any who cherish close-knit religious community—might still find motivation in Niebuhr's critique to move beyond mere maintenance to mission. Even so, a deeper exploration of 1 John might be enough to inspire that movement from the church to the world.
1 John 4:7–12 describes love in four dimensions: its source, purpose, means, and arena. The text clearly identifies God as the source. As "love is from God," so those who love are "born of God" (v. 7). Moreover, "God's love was revealed among us," and this revelation is "not that we loved God, but that God loved us" (vv. 9, 10).
As God is the source, so God is the purpose. God demonstrated God's love "so that we might live through him" (v. 9). Love's goal is life through God.
The text becomes very specific when it comes to the means and the arena. Parallel statements describe love in action as God's "sending" or God's "mission." "God's love was revealed" when God "sent his Son" (vv. 9, 10).
To speak of the arena is to define more precisely its means. Since sending implies movement from someplace to somewhere, the text brings into focus "the world" as the location—the arena—in which God performs the drama of love. "God sent his Son into the world" (v. 9). Elaborating on "the world," the text states that God "sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins" (v. 10). Jesus came into the world as the gift that makes us at-one with God (at-one-ment).
"Atoning sacrifice" translates hilasmos, a Greek word used to translate the ritual action of the high priest of ancient Israel once a year on the Day of Atonement. Entering the sanctuary in the temple, the priest sprinkled the blood of bulls and goats before and upon the "cover" or "mercy seat" of the ark of the covenant, hidden behind the curtain (Leviticus 16:2, 14-15). The ritual signified the renewal of Israel's commitment to turn from sin to walk in newness of life with God.
Consequently, when the text speaks of "the atoning sacrifice," it applies what happened in the temple to what occurred on the cross. It signals that the arena of God's grace extends from the cover of holiness to the cross of humiliation, from the sanctified seat to the site of sin and shame. It rends the curtain to reveal that the performance of God's salvation is in and for the world. It shows that God's sanctuary is in the world, and that the world is God's sanctuary. It suggests that our life inside and our life outside are one—that the authenticity of our worship and the integrity of our mission flow together.
As I think on it, my Mennonite upbringing provided multiple avenues for singing the theology of 1 John.
O tell to earth's remotest bounds, God is love
In Christ we have redemption found, God is love
His blood has washed our sins away, his Spirit turned our night to day
And now we can rejoice to say that God is love
Sound his praises, Jesus who bore our sorrows
Love unbounded, wonderful, deep, and strong
. . . so loved he the world that he gave us his Son
who yielded his life an atonement for sin
And opened the life-gate that all may go in
Perhaps we have always known that in Christ "love one another" calls us beyond ourselves.