At the time of the writing of John, and based on the way that Jesus is presented, it is clear that the high Christology of God in Christ has been worked out quite fully. This would be, in no small part, due to the efforts of men such as the Apostle Paul, whose preaching, teaching, and letters had been a major influence in the development of what could be called Christian orthodoxy. It was the love of God, demonstrated by His grace and mercy while being firmly rooted in His faithfulness to His covenant and His creation, that best explained the whole of the Christ-event (incarnation, ministry, death, Resurrection, ascension).
This said, it is incumbent upon a member of the believing community to ascertain the way in which a disciple of Jesus is to define love, based on the terms on offer in the various John writings, and in accordance with Jesus’ command of the thirteenth chapter to “love one another.” To do so, we can observe the very first use of “love” in the Gospel of John, as it lays the groundwork for the uses of “love” that will follow. Following up on our assertion that God’s faithfulness to His covenant and His creation was foundational for His actions in and through His Christ, it only makes sense that the first use of love, forming the premise of the way in which we are to understand the insisted upon love for one another on John’s own terms (according to Jesus’ directive in the thirteenth chapter), is the well-known sixteenth verse of the third chapter. As this Gospel receives its oral performance, as it would have been presented to a group via an oral telling heard in community rather than as a written text to be consumed in an independent and isolated reading, the very first mention of this foundational element for the Johannine community falls from the lips of Jesus and we hear “For this is the way God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.”
For John then, we learn that giving is foundational for love. However, it is not giving for the sake of giving, but giving that is purposed in the direction of redemption. The concept of redemption provides the context for the tension between perishing and eternal life. The interpretive framework that stands behind the contrast between perishing and eternal life would have been that of exile and exodus. For a Jew of the first century (and we can surmise that the author and the audience of John were primarily Jewish, and if not Jewish by descent, well- instructed in the history of the Jewish people, as it is only in being well versed in the story of God’s covenant and His activities for and through His covenant people that the message of the Gospel of Christ is going to make any sense whatsoever, especially in light of the fact that Christianity is simply a messianic Jewish movement centered upon Jesus), unlike the vast majority of overly Greek-influenced Christendom in the early twenty-first century, perishing would not have produced thoughts concerning an eternity in hell. Likewise, “eternal life” would not have conjured up thoughts of going to heaven when one died. Rather, perishing would have been equated to exile (according to Levitical and Deuteronomic curses, as well as the continued oppression of Israel under foreign powers), whereas eternal life would have been equated with exodus into a promised land. That promised land would have been understood as God’s renewed creation (God’s kingdom come on earth with all things set right), enjoyed by those that have been resurrected to new life with bodies suited for that glorious age.
Therefore, what we see is that the love of God (for John) must be understood in accordance with the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. So immediately we get the sense that the love of one another that will evidence the fact that one is a disciple of Jesus is love that serves as a signal that the kingdom of God has come and is coming. This is reinforced by Jesus’ statement that love between and among His followers would be modeled on His love for them. Since John is operating with a very high Christology in which Jesus’ is presented as God manifest in the flesh from the very outset (John 1:1), the love of Jesus for His disciples can be equated with God’s love for the world. So along those lines, it would not be a stretch to say that love, as desired by Jesus (according to John) must function redemptively. It is this thought that will serve as our guide.
At the same time, though we have detailed the usage of “love” words, it is not necessarily the case that we can then only grasp the Johannine community’s conception of love in conjunction with the use of those words. That is to say, we don’t limit our exploration of what love of one another will look like (again, on John’s terms) to those places in the Johannine texts that use related words. We simply note that the growing use of “love” as a Scriptural and doctrinal motif, to illustrate the ascendancy of the notion of love for one another, now understood to be based on God’s love for the world (for both His image-bearers and His creation) within the context of His redemptive purposes, as something very close to the heart of what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus.