Three times in this passage in 1 John we read that God dwells in us and we in him (4.13, 15, 16).
God in us
What an awesome reality! It is almost unbelievable that the almighty God with all his glory, holiness and love should make his home in us. When we lived and served as missionaries in the small town of Kabanjahe in North Sumatra, Indonesia, one or two people commented on their surprise that someone from England would actually chose to come and live in their relatively simple little town. But how much more amazing that God himself should take up residence in people like us! What grace! What love! What a spirit of committed service and care! He has come down to us as the saviour of the world – not only for our sake, but through us for “the world” (4.14).
If God truly lives in us, his character should be being formed in us. His love and grace abide in us, so we should be becoming increasingly like him in love and grace. Likewise his absolute holiness and purity reside in us, making us holy and pure in our innermost being. With God’s heavenly power within us we cannot remain the same. No wonder John in his writings underlines the glorious truth that through our faith in Jesus we have new life, abundant life.
With the individualism of western cultures, the fact of ‘God in us‘ tends to be interpreted as God living in each one of us individually and personally. The ‘us’ thus refers to each individual Christian within the fellowship of God’s people. And how wonderfully true it is that God has actually chosen to make his home in each one of us as believers in his Son, Jesus Christ! This individualistic application may be supported by the singular “anyone” in 4.15 and “in him” in 4.16. But this passage more often uses the plural “we/us”. Other more group-conscious cultures around the world may therefore rightly underline the fact that God resides in the loving fellowship of his church and people. In communal worship too we need to emphasize the glorious reality of God living in us as a church or fellowship together, not just in each of us individually. The fact that God lives in us as a body of believers must inject his abundant life into our life and relationships as his church.
We in Him
Where do we feel at home? In the world or in God? Because God first loved us and came into us to make his home in us, we should respond by living in him. Our whole lives in every detail, in all we are and do, should reflect the fact that he is now the context in which we live. Total commitment to him becomes entirely natural to us.
When Elizabeth and I first went to live and work in Indonesia, her elderly ex-missionary father wrote to remind her that we were “in Christ”, secure and safe within the Lord himself. Being in God we cannot be reached by Satan or his demonic powers. In his letter Elizabeth’s father developed the meaning of living in God. God is our ceiling, our floor and our four walls. We are entirely surrounded by God himself. He is like a wall of fire around us, so we have nothing to fear. No wonder John goes on to point out that “there is no fear in love” (4.18). We live within God who is love and who loves us. Love and fear cannot coexist. God’s perfect love “drives out fear”.
How can we be sure?
These great words about God living in us and we in him can sound like spiritual hyperbole which remains way beyond any possibility of us experiencing it in our ordinary everyday lives as Christians. How then can we know the reality of it all? John explains that “we know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (4.13). And “we have known and trusted/believed the love which God has in/among us” (4.16).
Already in 3.24 John has affirmed that we know God lives in us “by/from the Spirit he gave us”. Now again in 4.13 we have that assurance “by/from the Spirit he gave us”. Although it remains impossible to see the Holy Spirit with our mortal eyes, we recognize the consequences of his working on our behalf. We notice how he produces the fruit of the Spirit in us (Galatians 5.22/23), how he gives us a real love for our sisters and brothers who share our faith in Jesus, how he also gives us his gifts so that we can serve his church more effectively. We therefore observe the Spirit at work in us and for us, so we can have the assurance that it is God who lives in us and that it is in him that we now find our home.
Because we already experience the love of God who lives in us, we have confidence/boldness (Greek parrhesia) “on the day of judgment” (4.17). By the working of the Spirit in us, we already have become “like him in this world”. Although we still live physically “in this world”, we find our true home living in him. Already we are halfway there! So death is merely the gateway into the completion of God’s work when we become fully “like him”, and we fully live in him and he in us. So why should we fear death and the day of judgment? In Jesus through faith we have eternal life. Rejoice! God loves us!
Linked immediately with our experience of the Spirit (4.13) John proceeds to state that “we have known and we testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the saviour of the world” (4.14). All the rich blessings of God as our Saviour stem from our knowledge and faith in Jesus. He has been sent by the Father into the world to bring his life-giving salvation to all who believe in him. The Spirit gives us such a sure faith in Jesus that we “testify/witness”. Our world desperately needs the life and love of Jesus. So the call comes to us by his Spirit to share the good news of Jesus. We are his witnesses in the world today.
This chapter comes to its conclusion with strong teaching on the absolute necessity of us loving our sisters and brothers in Christ. Love and fellowship among us as Christians occupies a central place in John’s heart. So he comes back to it again and again in this letter. He never seems to put it to one side. Right at the start of the letter he declares that his aim in proclaiming the message of Jesus is that “you may have fellowship with us” (1.3). Then in the ensuing chapters he returns several times to the theme – loving fellowship among believers lies at the very heart of the Christian life. It also forms the basis for our witness to the world. God is love. God loves his people who are one with his much-loved Son. Let our love shine out into our world where loneliness and broken relationships so often prevail! Love and mission belong together.