I grew up going to a mega-church. Five thousand people every week. We sat on the left side gallery, halfway up. Before I got glasses my pastor was a reassuring beige blur in a blue suit, sharing strong biblical teaching. Sometimes he expressed how much he loved us, his church, and it made me wonder what he meant. I knew he didn’t know me, he never seemed to recognize me when I said hi, even though I had waited in line to be prayed over by him at revival meetings. So how could he say he loved me when he didn’t even know me?

I have heard many other pastors express love for all who are listening in church buildings and online. Which is even more perplexing, how could they love someone they have never even laid eyes on, let alone know? Yet there it is, and somehow I feel like they mean it.

I myself have felt love towards people I have never met. There have been a few occasions where I felt lead to intercede for someone I saw, or heard of, but never met. As I spent time praying, a love grew for them. It was alarming at first, but I realized after a while it was something that wasn’t coming from me and my selfish tendencies when it comes to love. It was Jesus’ love for them growing in the soil of my heart.

Jesus let me in on something He was doing in their life, and as I co-labored in prayer He allowed me to get a glimpse of His perspective for them. Which of course is a perspective of love. There are many church leaders who I have seen speak, or read their books, and I feel the brotherly love John tells us about in his letters. A love that can only be explained by Jesus.

At the end of 1 John 4 it says, “We love because he first loved us. 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. And he has given us this command: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:19-21 NIV)  There is a link between the love we have for/from God and our ability to love others. Seeing who we love seems to have no connection to whether we love or not. Perhaps it is because God is infinite and the love we experience in Him is also without limit.

Earlier in chapter 4, John introduces the ties between love, abiding in God, and the fact that we have not seen God, “No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us. By this we know what we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.” (1 John 4:12-13 NKJV) John basically points out that no one has seen God, but we can see His evidence in our lives through how we love each other. He lives in us by the Holy Spirit, and when we are filled with His Spirit we are filled with His love and it shows. Not a wimpy love, but a perfect love.

I actually wrote a post about this perfect love back in 2018, called Perfection. So if you want to get into some fun Greek word study, I recommend the read.

John reiterates this abiding love as evidence a verse or two later, “And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God is in him.” (1 John 4:15 NKJV) This is after John explains that God sent His Son, Jesus, to be our Savior, and when we affirm that Jesus is the Son of God, “God abides in him, and he in God.” It is through Jesus that the love of God is revealed, and it is through Jesus that the love of God is received.

It is also through Jesus that we are able to carry out the command to love one another. In 1 John 5 we see, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands.” (1 John 5:1-2 NIV) When we believe in Jesus we become a son or daughter of God. A love for our Father in heaven is born in us, but there is also a love for our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ that is born in us. When we love God, we love His children as well.

The way I see it, Christian brotherly love is really just the Holy Spirit recognizing Himself in others and expressing Trinitarian love for Himself that spills over onto the person as well. Since I am filled with His Spirit, I feel this love and join in His expression. Perhaps this is what those pastors are experiencing as well when they tell those listening, “I love you.” It may be the Holy Spirit in them seeing Himself in all those listening and in that recognition we are swept up into that same Trinitarian love.

I can picture the Holy Spirit looking out at the people of God and saying to Himself, “I see Me in you, and I see you and that you are one of my beloved children. I love you and I love me and I love that we are united together through Me, the Holy Spirit.”

Paul references this same union in Ephesians. First he sets the scene, “For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from who the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man.” There is a family that originates from God the Father and Jesus, and the way into this family is Jesus. Paul builds out this idea further, “That Christ may dwell in your hears through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints […] the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:14-19 NKJV) The mark of the family of God is love, a love that is discovered and experienced together.

Later in Ephesians 4 we see how the love of God leads to unity. “Walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love. Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph. 4:1-3 NKJV) He describes what real Christ-like love looks like, and that this love creates unity with the Holy Spirit and each other. The evidence of this bond is peace.

Paul goes onto describe this unity a little more, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” (Eph. 4:4-6 NKJV) God has unity with Himself, He is one. Through Jesus, and being filled with the Holy Spirit we are baptized into that unity, bound to God and one another with the love of God.

So it is by the love of God and the unity of the Spirit that my childhood pastor could look out at a congregation of 5,000, most of whom he did not know personally, and say, “I love you,” and mean it. It is how pastors with online presence can look into a camera, not even the faces of the thousands listening, and say, “I love you,” and mean it. It is how I can intercede for my brothers and sisters in Christ that I don’t know personally and pray with love in my heart.

-Etta Woods