One of the surprising themes in the New Testament is how love for God is shown by love for His people. Oftentimes, we limit our ideas of what it means to love God to privatized experiences: longer quiet times, giving more money, an emotional rush during worship singing, etc… Now, these things all certainly can be aspects of true affection for God. But the Bible presents to us a much more tangible, corporate picture of what it means to love God:
If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. – 1 John 4:20
God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. – Heb. 6:10
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ – Matt. 25:40
We also see this theme repeated throughout the New Testament in all the “one another” commands. Our love for Christ is reflected in our obedience to His commands (John 14:15) and His command is that we love one another. We love God by loving His people. Which is why it makes sense that when Paul was persecuting Christians, Christ asked him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
What is striking in these verses, however, is that their message goes against any popular notions of Christianity. The world is comfortable with a Christianity that advocates a general love for all people. It is not comfortable with a Christianity that promotes a specific love for God’s people. The most fundamental reason for this is that it implies that there is such a body as “God’s people” and those who are not in this body are not “God’s people”. This strikes at the root of the inclusivism, relativism, and pluralism of our age.
Of course, this does not mean that we have no obligation to love non-Christians (Matt. 5:43-48). However, it does mean that the evidence of a heart transformed to love God will be our love for other Christians (1 John 4:20). It means that the way we persevere in faith is by showing love to other Christians (Heb. 6:10). It means that what will distinguish Christian love from general philanthropy is our special care and concern for persecuted Christians (Matt. 25:40).
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. – 1 John 4:11