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Today’s post continues with an examination of the letters — epistles — of St John, also the author of the gospel of the same name and the Book of Revelation.

Most of John’s epistles are not included in the three-year Lectionary, which make them ideal additions to my ongoing series Forbidden Bible Verses, also essential to our understanding of the Bible.

Today’s reading is taken from the King James Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

1 John 4:7-13

7Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.

 8He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.

 9In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.

 10Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

 11Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.

 12No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.

 13Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit.


In last week’s entry concerning the first six verses of this chapter, John reiterated how his believers could distinguish their fellow Christians from unbelievers.

Today, he develops this further, continuing on the theme of love and how God manifests Himself in the fruits of our faith. If occasional readers are thinking, ‘Haven’t we been reading this over and over the past few weeks?’ they would be correct. John revisits the same themes using similar language again and again in order to impress the point.

His epistles reveal why many Christians refer to him as the ‘Apostle of love’.

In verse 7, John emphasises the importance of Christian love towards one another.  Those who truly love are God’s children and they know Him through this manifested love.

By contrast, those who do not or cannot love have no knowledge of God the Father (verse 8). True love is not a kind gesture here and there on a capricious whim but a constant, genuine love.

He reminds them that God’s love is so perfect that He sent His only begotten Son Jesus Christ to Earth that we would know Him and believe in Him (verse 9).

In verse 10, John says that God loved us before we ever loved Him — so much so that He sent Christ to die in sacrifice — propitiation — for our sins.

Some will say, ‘So what?’ Matthew Henry explains further (emphases mine):

This is argued from the display and demonstration that he hath given of it; as, 1. That he hath loved us, such as we are: In this was manifest the love of God towards us (v. 9), towards us mortals, us ungrateful rebels. God commandeth his love towards us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, Rom. 5:8. Strange that God should love impure, vain, vile, dust and ashes! 2. That he has loved us at such a rate, at such an incomparable value as he has given for us; he has given his own, only-beloved, blessed Son for us: Because that God sent his only-begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him, v. 9. This person is in some peculiar distinguishing way the Son of God; he is the only-begotten. Should we suppose him begotten as a creature or created being, he is not the only-begotten. Should we suppose him a natural necessary eradication from the Father’s glory or glorious essence, or substance, he must be the only-begotten: and then it will be a mystery and miracle of divine love that such a Son should be sent into our world for us! It may well be said, So (wonderfully, so amazingly, so incredibly) God loved the world. 3. That God loved us first, and in the circumstances in which we lay: Herein is love (unusual unprecedented love), not that we loved God, but that he loved us, v. 10. He loved us, when we had no love for him, when we lay in our guilt, misery, and blood, when we were undeserving, ill-deserving, polluted, and unclean, and wanted to be washed from our sins in sacred blood. 4. That he gave us his Son for such service and such an end. (1.) For such service, to be the propitiation for our sins; consequently to die for us, to die under the law and curse of God, to bear our sins in his own body, to be crucified, to be wounded in his soul, and pierced in his side, to be dead and buried for us (v. 10); and then, (2.) For such an end, for such a good and beneficial end to us-that we might live through him (v. 9), might live for ever through him, might live in heaven, live with God, and live in eternal glory and blessedness with him and through him

Now onto the word ‘propitiation’, which Anglicans will recognise from the Comfortable Words read out during the Book of Common Prayer Communion liturgy. They come from 1 John 2:1-2. Here are the first three verses of that chapter to put it in better context:

 1My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous:

 2And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.

 3And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.

This means everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord. Lineage, language and location are immaterial.

In 2003, John MacArthur preached on these verses:

What he’s saying here is, you’ve not only been given the love, you’ve been given the model of how that love functions in selfless sacrifice.

Now we could go through all the details of the doctrines of salvation, but you’re familiar with them. Go with me, for a moment, to the word “propitiation,” in verse 10 …We already made a rather extensive study of that word. If you want to dig a little deeper, you can get the tape on that message. This is an interesting and important term.

What follows are excerpts of a transcript of that sermon:

… I daresay you’ve lived your entire life and no conversation have you ever had with anybody in the secular world in which he used, or she used, the word propitiation. It is a word that is isolated singularly to the Bible. Nobody ever uses it. It doesn’t belong in our culture. It did belong in ancient cultures. It belonged in cultures way back in Old Testament times. It belonged in cultures in the New Testament era. It does belong in some cultures around the world, even today where there is a need for propitiation. Let me tell you what it means. It is a Greek word hilasmos, it simply means an appeasement

… this is placation, this is satisfaction

Now there are related words to hilasmos, a verb hilaskomai means to make satisfaction for someone … It’s used in Luke 18:13 and it means exactly that, to make satisfaction, to satisfy some just requirement. It’s also used in Hebrews chapter 2 verse 17 in the same sense.

There is another word, hilasterion, and that means a sacrifice of atonement…a sacrifice of atonement. How does that connect? Well a sacrifice was required to satisfy God, to appease God, to placate God’s wrath. Hilasterion, that related word meaning a sacrifice of atonement used in Romans 3:25, is also used of the Old Testament Mercy Seat. Now follow very carefully. When God gave instructions for the building of the tabernacle and later for the temple, inside the large courtyard of the temple there was a holy place and inside the holy place was a Holy of Holies which was the place where God met with His people, it was a place where no one could go but a high priest once a year on the Day of Atonement and it represented the Holy of Holies, the dwelling place of God which was not available or open or accessible to any sinful human being. The high priest could only go once a year to placate God, to satisfy God, to appease God’s wrath by the sprinkling of the blood of a dead animal, the sacrifice on the Mercy Seat. Inside the Holy of Holies was a box, the box was called the Ark of the Covenant. An Ark was simply a word for a container. Inside there was the Covenant. What Covenant? The Covenant of Moses, the Law, the Sinaitic Covenant was in the box, the Law of God was there inside the box. On top…the box was made out of gold, by the way, and you can read all about its dimensions, its proportions, and its features in the twenty-fifth chapter of Exodus, it was made out of gold. It had a lid on the top made out of gold, that lid on the top of the Ark, or the top of the box, became known as the Mercy Seat, as the hilasterion, the place where appeasement took place. On each end of the little box there was a cherub, a cherub made out of one piece of solid gold with its wings going across the lid. Cherub were angels whose particular purpose was to guard, to be guardians of the holiness of God. And so they emphasized the holiness of God. Above the Ark was the Shekinah glory of God. Inside the Ark was the Law. And on the lid on the Day of Atonement was the blood sprinkled.

Now what is going on here is this. The Ark contains the Law. The Law is regularly by every human being, every day broken. The Covenant that God has made is violated. God is violated. His holy, just and good Law is violated. So inside the box is the broken Law. Above the box is the Shekinah glory of God in all His majesty and holiness, accented and enhanced by the presence of the Cherubim who are the guardians of that holiness. How can then holy God be reconciled with violators of His Law? How can holy God be appeased for the violation of His Law? God determined that there would be a Mercy Seat, a place where appeasement could be made between the broken Law and holy God. And it was on that Mercy Seat that the blood was splattered on the Day of Atonement …

The animal blood did not appease God. But it symbolized and represented a sacrifice that would satisfy God. The whole sacrificial system prescribed in the Old Testament by God didn’t satisfy Him. It didn’t satisfy Him. If it satisfied Him, wouldn’t have to keep doing it. The sacrifice of Yom Kippur, every year, every year, every year, year after year after year after year, all the sacrifices beyond that, all of the burnt offerings, all of the sin offerings, all of the trespass offerings, all of the other offerings offered millions of times through history never satisfied God. And listen to this, none of those sacrifices every paid for one single solitary sin. They just all pointed to the sacrifice that would. The nature then of propitiation, you understand. It is a sacrifice that satisfies God ...

Let me say it another way. All the holy attributes of God once arrayed against us in wrath give way to all the holy attributes of God now arrayed for us in mercy. And God can’t be changed from a God of wrath to a God of mercy unless He is placated, propitiated and satisfied …

John MacArthur knows as do I that this will upset people. But put your Christian writers’ books down for a moment and delve into the Bible:

The reality of propitiation is clear in Scripture. The nature of propitiation is clear in the terms that I’ve been giving to you. And the necessity of propitiation is also clear in Scripture. It is because of sin … In John 3:36, there’s no mistaking this. “He who believes in the Son has eternal life, he who doesn’t obey the Son shall not see life but the wrath of God abides on him.” The wrath of God abides on the one who rejects Christ. That’s right because if you reject Christ then the only way that God can be propitiated for your sin is to punish you eternally. Romans 3 familiar words, verse 23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Having all sinned, we have all come, in the words of Romans 1:18, under the wrath of God. And Romans 6:23, “The wages of that sin is death.” First Thessalonians 1:10 says, “Christ has come to deliver us from the wrath to come.” As I said, in Psalm 7:11 it says, “God is angry with the wicked every day.” And the same verse says, “He is a just God.” In Ezekiel 18 verse 4, and I think it’s down to verse 20, it says, “The soul that sins, it shall die.”

Just a little footnote here. There’s another word that sometimes you hear in connection with this subject and that’s the word expiation … Ex…out of, expiation means to have something removed from us, guilt. It’s a man-ward look. We do need expiation. We do need guilt removed from us. But there never can be expiation, guilt removed from us until there is propitiation, satisfaction brought before God. God has to be propitiated before we can be expiated. Satisfaction has to be brought to God before our sins can be removed from us …

Let’s go to the … agent of propitiation. Verse 2, “He Himself is the propitiation,” He Himself goes back to the end of verse 1, Jesus Christ the righteous one … He is the perfect Lamb without blemish and without spot. He is the perfect sacrifice. He is, again, 1 Thessalonians 1:10, “Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” He is Himself the propitiation. I love that. He doesn’t make propitiation, He IS the propitiation. He couldn’t be our Advocate if He wasn’t our propitiation

Isaiah 53:5 and 6, “He was pierced through for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The chastening for our well-being, or our peace, fell on Him. By His scourgings we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each one of us has turned to his own way, but the Lord…and here’s the great statement…has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” Christ was punished for the sins we commit. Verse 8, “He was cut off out of the land of the living.” Why? “For the transgression of My people.” He was punished for other people’s sins though He was innocent. In verse 9 it says of Isaiah 53, “He’s done no violence, neither was there any deceit in His mouth.” Verse 10, “Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him. He has put Him to grief, made His soul an offering for sin” …

Many years ago I preached a message entitled, “Christ died for God.” And it stirred no small controversy at the time, just when people saw the title … Ephesians 5:2 puts it this way, “Christ offered Himself for us an offering and sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savor.” Second Corinthians 5:21, “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us.” First Peter 2:24, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” First Peter 3:18, “Christ also died for sins, once for all the just dying for the unjust.” And then 1 John 2:2, “He is Himself the propitiation for our sins.”

With that in mind — and John’s followers would have also been familiar with those verses by word of mouth — we should feel willingness to pass that same love on generously and genuinely to others (verse 11).

This is why it is so important to know the Bible. Know it, understand it, love it. Read it alongside a good commentary so that you can understand what it’s really saying. Our favourite authors pick and choose what to focus on, and we follow suit when we don’t have a holistic understanding of it.  Receiving the sacraments and going to church are only part of the story of redemption.

In verse 12, John says that although no one has seen God, Christians who truly love each other manifest God through that love.  Those genuine acts of love — mercy, charity, giving of self — reveal the unseen God.

In verse 13, John says that true Christians belong to God. They dwell in Him and He also dwells within us.  Henry explains:

he has lodged the image and fruit of his Spirit in our hearts (v. 13), and the Spirit that he hath given us appears to be his, or of him, since it is the Spirit of power, of zeal and magnanimity for God, of love to God and man, and of a sound mind, of an understanding well instructed in the affairs of God and religion, and his kingdom among men, 2 Tim. 1:7.

Note that Henry also mentions being ‘of a sound mind’ and ‘well instructed’ in doctrine and faith. He’s not talking about ecstatic experiences or supposed ‘prophecies’.  We could do a much better job of evangelising if we reflected on such verses rather than going off on works-based tangents or exciting religious experiences.

Let us pray that the Holy Spirit leads us away from expressing the carnal towards manifesting love worthy of the Lord instead.

Next week: 1 John 4:14-21

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