1 John 4:7-21
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1 John 4:7-21 Biblical Commentary
This is a pastoral letter to churches in conflict––written to address the conflict and to prevent its spread. A number of scholars think of this as a sermon in written form.
The problems in the churches were caused by false teachers who had left the church (2:19). These false teachers were haughty and unloving. They denied the Incarnation and the deity of Jesus and claimed not to be sinners. They may have been precursors of the Gnostic heretics who plagued the second century church.
These false teachers remained influential. The danger was that they would persuade neophyte believers to accept their heretical teachings.
1 JOHN 4:7-8. BELOVED, LET US LOVE ONE ANOTHER
7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God, and knows God. 8 He who doesn’t love doesn’t know God, for God is love.
“Beloved (agapetoi), let us love (agapomen) one another” (v. 7a). These words, agapetoi and agapomen, are variants of the verb agape, which is the kind of love that demonstrates concern for the welfare of the other person.
Note the assonance (the repeated sound) between agapetoi and agapomen. Those are the first two words of this verse (the words, “let us,” are part of agapomen), and those two words have a poetic quality that we are likely to miss in the English translation.
This emphasis on loving one another repeats what John said elsewhere (2:7-11; 3:10-18). He will continue this emphasis through verse 21, and will repeat it again in 2 John 1:5.
This emphasis is not original with John. Jesus told his disciples to love one another (John 13:34; 15:12, 17). Paul and Peter make the same emphasis (Romans 12:10; 13:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:9; 1 Peter 1:22).
Elsewhere, Jesus commanded loving one’s enemies (Matthew 5:44) and one’s neighbors (Mark 12:31), but the emphasis in these verses is loving members of the Christian community––brothers and sisters in Christ.
“for love is of (from) God” (v. 7b). God is source of love––the fountain from which love flows. Since we are “from God” (4:4) and “children of God” (John 1:12; 1 John 3:1), it is only fitting that we should love as God loves.
- For one thing, God modeled love, so we can see what looks like by seeing how God treats us.
- Secondly, Jesus modeled love by living among us and dying to save us.
- Thirdly, God loves our brothers and sisters in Christ. How can we claim to love God if we despise those whom God loves? Don’t we break God’s heart when we hate those whom he loves?
“and everyone who loves is born of God, and knows (Greek: ginosko) God” (v. 7c). Jesus told Nicodemus:
“Most certainly, I tell you, unless one is born anew,
he can’t see the Kingdom of God….
That which is born of the flesh is flesh.
That which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Don’t marvel that I said to you,
‘You must be born anew'” (John 3:3, 6-7).
When John says, “everyone who loves…knows God,” “knows” (ginosko) means more than casual acquaintance. The one who knows God has a deep and abiding relationship with him.
“He who doesn’t love doesn’t know God, for God is love” (v. 8). This verse states the other side of the coin––the obverse of verse 7. While the person who loves “is born of God and knows God,” the person who doesn’t love doesn’t know God and has no deep and abiding relationship with God. Love, then, is the acid test of discipleship.
This is true because “God is love.” How can we claim to have a deep and abiding relationship with God if we fail to manifest this most important characteristic of God––agape love.
1 JOHN 4:9-12. GOD SENT HIS ONLY SON
9 By this God’s love was revealed in us, that God has sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God loved us in this way, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God remains in us, and his love has been perfected in us.
“By this God’s love was revealed in us, that God has sent his one and only (Greek: monogene) Son into the world” (Greek: kosmos) (v. 9a). God manifested his love in many ways. He established a covenant with Abram (Genesis 12:1-3) that grew into a covenant with Israel. He led Israel out of slavery in Egypt (Exodus 4ff.)
But the ultimate expression of God’s love was sending his Son––”his one and only Son” (monogene) into the world (kosmos) “that we might live through him.”
The Greek word monogene means “one and only” or “unique” or “one of a kind.” While all believers are children of God, Jesus was the unique Son of God.
The kosmos (world) is a world opposed to God. God loved the kosmos, and sent his Son to save the kosmos (John 3:16-17)––but the people of the kosmos “loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil” (John 3:19).
It might seem odd that God would love the kosmos––and especially that he would send his only Son into the kosmos to save it––but as Jesus said when criticized for eating with sinners and tax collectors, “Those who are healthy have no need for a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mark 2:17).
“that we might live (Greek: zao) through him” (v. 9b). This was God’s purpose in sending his Son into the world––that we might live.
The Greek word zao has several meanings. It can mean:
- Physical life, to include longevity.
- Eternal life.
- A blessed life––a life where, regardless of physical circumstances, we feel content.
In this context, John probably means both eternal life and a blessed life.
But longevity can also be part of the blessing that we receive as believers. While people of faith do suffer what Hamlet called the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” our faith assures us that God is with us both in life and in death. That assurance reduces anxiety and the health issues associated with anxiety. Our faith also helps us to avoid self-destructive behaviors, such as drug and spouse abuse. That isn’t true in all cases, of course, but it is often true.
“In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved (egapesen––from agapao) us” (v. 10a). If we want to know what love looks like, we have only to note the example of God’s love. God didn’t love us in response to our love for him––or because we are inherently lovable. God took the love-initiative even when anyone else would have walked away, because “God is love” (v. 8).
The verb egapesen is aorist tense, indicating a singular, undivided, and decisive event.
“and sent his Son as the atoning sacrifice (Greek: hilasmon) for our sins” (v. 10b). Jewish law required the sacrifice of animals as a way of atoning for the sins of the person offering the sacrifice. Blood was required––The sacrifice of life was required––but the one offering the sacrifice was allowed to substitute the blood/life of the sacrificial animal for his own blood/life. Thus the one offering the sacrifice was allowed to live––cleansed from sin.
Hilasmon (atoning sacrifice) can mean (1) propitiate (2) expiate or (3) atone:
- Propitiate means to regain God’s favor by offering a pleasing sacrifice. Some people go a step further by defining it as appeasing the wrath of God by offering a sacrifice.
- Expiate means the removal of sin––the forgiveness of sin.
- Atone means making amends for sins or repairing the spiritual damage caused by sins––restoring the relationship that we enjoyed with God prior to the introduction of sin into the world.
Many Christians today favor the words expiate or atone rather than propitiate, because they don’t believe that God’s wrath requires appeasement.
“Beloved” (Greek: agapetos) (v. 11a). The word agapetos means “beloved” or “dear.” In the New Testament it always means one or more of the following:
- Beloved fellow believers.
- Those beloved by God.
- The beloved Son of God.
John personally loves these believers. However, “beloved” in this verse is ambiguous, and could also mean “beloved by God.” John is surely aware of this ambiguity, and probably wants these believers to remember that God loves them––and that John’s love for them is an outgrown of God’s love.
“if God loved us in this way, we also ought to love one another” (v. 11b). We have received unselfish love from God. Now God wants us to give unselfish love to one another. It is only right that we should do so.
“No one has seen God at any time” (v. 12a). John used these exact words in John 1:1-18 (see also 1 John 4:20; John 5:37; 6:46). It is only through Jesus that we can see the face of God (John 1:18). Jesus told Philip, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
When Moses asked to see Yahweh’s glory, Yahweh replied, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, …but you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). The idea is that humans are not equipped to see God’s face, any more than we are equipped to touch a high-voltage electrical line.
This will no longer be true in the new Jerusalem (Revelation 22:4), but is true for the present.
John is writing to challenge the false teachers, who have claimed spiritual superiority. This “no one” would apply to them. They have not seen God at any time.
“If we love one another, God remains (Greek: meno) in us” (v. 12b). Even though we have not seen God, he remains (meno) in us. The Greek word meno means dwelling in a particular place––remaining there––abiding there. When used of relationships, as it is here, meno suggests steadfast relationship––heart and soul unity. When we love each other with agape love (selfless love), then we have a heart and soul unity with God.
“and his love has been perfected (Greek: teleioo) in us” (v. 12c). The word teleioo means has been completed or accomplished or perfected. When we love each other with agape love, God’s love takes root within our being. A reciprocal action begins––a kind of perpetual motion. We love our brothers and sisters in Christ, and they love us. It just goes on and on.
1 JOHN 4:13-16. HE HAS GIVEN US HIS SPIRIT
13 By this we know that we remain in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as the Savior of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him,
and he in God. 16 We know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and he who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him.
“By this we know that we remain (meno––abide) in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (v. 13). The false teachers have tried to undermine the faith of these new Christians, so they need reassurance that their relationship with God is valid and real. John reassures them that they have received God’s Spirit––God’s Spirit has taken up residence in their lives. Knowing that, they can be reassured that their relationship with God is real and vital.
“because he has given us of his Spirit” (v. 13b). We have not somehow earned God’s Spirit or appropriated it through some personal initiative. The Spirit is a gift of God.
“We have seen (Greek: theaomai) and testify” (Greek: martureo) (v. 14). The Greek word theaomai means to see or behold attentively or with a sense of wonder. It is certainly appropriate to view God’s sending his Son with a sense of wonder. How could it be that God would stoop to our level––but he did and does.
When John uses the word “we” here, he is probably referring to the apostles and others who saw the risen Christ with their own eyes––who heard him speak and watched him eat and saw him ascend into heaven.
Martureo (testify) is one of several similar Greek words from which we get our word martyr. Martureo actually means witness or to bear witness, but those who bear witness to Christ often pay a high price for their faithfulness––sometimes even martyrdom.
“that the Father has sent the Son as the Savior of the world” (kosmos) (v. 14b). This is the object of the apostolic testimony. God not only gave us his Spirit (v. 13). He also gave us his Son (see John 3:16).
For the meaning of kosmos, see the comments on verse 9a above.
“Whoever confesses (Greek: homologeo) that Jesus is the Son of God” (v. 15a). The word homologeo (confess) is a combination of homou (together with) and lego (to say). It can mean either a confession of sin or a confession of faith, but in this verse it means a confession of faith.
Homologeo is aorist tense in this verse, so it is referring to a one-time event––a public profession of faith. If it were present tense, it would refer to an ongoing, continuous profession. Both are appropriate to the Christian, of course, but this verse emphasizes the value of the one-time decisive confession of faith.
The confession/profession/agreement is “that Jesus is the Son of God”––the unique Son of God sent into the world “as the Savior of the world” (v. 14b).
The false teachers can affirm the idea of a spiritual Christ, but not a Christ in human form. They reject the idea that Jesus could be the Son of God, because they believe that the spiritual is good but the material (such as the human body) is bad. Thus they cannot accept the Incarnation (that word literally means “in flesh)––God dwelling among us in human form.
“God remains (Greek: meno––remains or abides) in him, and he in God” (v. 15b). As noted in the comments on verse 12b above, when used of relationships as it is here, meno suggests steadfast relationship––heart and soul unity.
“We know and have believed the love which God has for us” (v. 16a). Both “know” and “have believed” are perfect tense, indicating a completed action in the past––”have come to know” and “have come to believe.”
John is telling these fledgling Christians that they have already experienced something momentous and decisive––knowing and believing that God loves them. He needs to remind them of that, because they are in danger of wavering under the onslaught of the false teachers. If they can only remember that God loves them, they can face those onslaughts with confidence.
“God is love” (Greek: agape––self-giving love) (v. 16b). God loves, because it his nature to love.
When something is in our nature, it is relatively unchangeable. I have brown eyes, so no amount of wishing is going to change my eyes to blue. I have a certain IQ––while I can improve my competence by diligent study, I will never be a genius. Alcoholics have a vulnerability to alcohol that goes beyond what others experience. Tone-deaf people will never become great musicians.
So when John says that God is love, he is saying that love is embedded in God’s nature. Therefore, they can depend on God to love them.
The love with which God loves us is agape––self-giving love––love that is concerned with the welfare of the other. That is reflected in the great love verse, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16; see also Romans 5:5, 8; 1 John 3:1).
“and he who remains (Greek: meno––remain or abide) in love remains (meno) in God, and God remains (meno) in him” (v. 16c). We might think of love as the ocean in which God abides. When we also abide in that ocean of love, then we have a deep and abiding relationship with God.
These fledgling believers can find comfort and confidence in that reality. They are, in fact, swimming in God’s ocean of love––and have a deep and abiding relationship with God. John is reassuring them that they are (mixing metaphors) standing on solid ground and have no need to feel threatened by the false teachers.
1 JOHN 4:17-18. PERFECT LOVE CASTS OUT FEAR
17 In this love has been made perfect among us, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment, because as he is, even so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear has punishment. He who fears is not made perfect in love.
“In this love has been made perfect among us, that we may have boldness (Greek: parresia––boldness or confidence) in the day of judgment” (v. 17a). The Day of Judgment is a frightening prospect for many people. Jesus portrays that day in Matthew 25:31-46, where he sits on a throne, surrounded by all the angels, with all the nations assembled before him. He says that he will separate the sheep from the goats, directing the sheep to his right hand (the favored hand) and the goats to his left hand (the disfavored hand). Then he will bless the sheep and pronounce a curse on the goats. The difference will between blessed and cursed be determined by the way they have treated the vulnerable people in their midst: The hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner.
It is no wonder, then, that people worry about how Christ will judge them. Will he embrace them or reject them––bless them or curse them? Everything hangs in the balance, because that moment will determine their eternal destiny.
What John has to say in this verse coincides with what Jesus said in Matthew 25. When we abide in love, we remain in God and God remains in us (v. 16)––and love is made complete (perfect) in us. Therefore we can approach Christ’s throne with confidence on the Day of Judgment, knowing that God loves us and has made provision for us through eternity.
“because as he is, even so are we in this world” (v. 17b). This is difficult to understand, but I’ll offer this possibility. If “he” refers to Jesus, then this could mean that, just as Jesus was the Son of God, we are also children of God, the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16).
“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear has punishment. He who fears is not made perfect in love” (v. 18). This verse states the other side of the coin––the obverse of verse 17. Love makes us bold––gives us confidence (v. 17)––and it also casts out fear (v. 18). As noted in the comments on verse 17a above, people are often afraid when they contemplate the possibility that God will judge them harshly.
But “perfect love casts out fear.” Is John speaking of our love for God or God’s love for us? Almost certainly the former. However, our love for God is rooted in our faith that God loves us. If we can accept that, everything else will fall into place.
Paul dealt with this same issue in his letter to the Roman church, saying:
“For as many as are led by the Spirit of God,
these are children of God.
For you didn’t receive the spirit of bondage again to fear,
but you received the Spirit of adoption,
by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”
The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit
that we are children of God;
and if children, then heirs; heirs of God,
and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:14-17a).
And again in his second letter to Timothy:
“For God didn’t give us a spirit of fear,
but of power, love, and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7).
1 JOHN 4:19-21. WE LOVE HIM, BECAUSE HE FIRST LOVED US
19 We love him, because he first loved us. 20 If a man says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who doesn’t love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? 21 This commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should also love his brother.
“We love him, because he first loved us” (v. 19). Our love for God is our response to God’s love for us.
“If a man says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who doesn’t love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (v. 20). Also, our love for our Christian brother or sister is our response to God’s love for us.
As noted above, God loves our brothers and sisters in Christ. How can we claim to love God if we despise those whom God loves? Don’t we break God’s heart when we hate those whom he loves?
John suggests that it is more natural to love our Christian brother or sister than it is to love God, because we can see our brothers and sisters––rub elbows with them––share a table with them––give them assistance and receive assistance from them as needed. It can be harder to love God, whom we have not seen with our eyes, but have experienced only through the eyes of faith.
Furthermore, John says that the person who hates his brother or sister but claims to love God is a liar. You can’t have one (love for God) without the other (love for brother and sister).
However, there is another side that we must consider. When we look around at our brothers and sisters in the pews, we will likely find several people whom we don’t really love––and one or two who make things miserable for us and the rest of the church. It is often easier to love our Christian brothers and sisters in foreign lands where we have never set foot than to love the person sitting next to us in the pew. The person whom we have never met has never offended us. That isn’t always true for those whom we have met.
“This commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should also love his brother” (v. 21). Earlier, John said:
“This is his commandment,
that we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ,
AND LOVE ONE ANOTHER, even as he commanded.
He who keeps his commandments remains in him, and he in him.
By this we know that he remains in us,
by the Spirit which he gave us” (3:23-24).
When a scribe asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the greatest of all?” Jesus answered:
“The greatest is, ‘Hear, Israel, the Lord our God,
the Lord is one:
you shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart, and with all your soul,
and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’
This is the first commandment.
“The second is like this,
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
There is no other commandment greater than these.”
(Mark 12:29-31; see also John 13:34; 15:12, 17)
Neither of these commandments were original with Jesus, of course. The commandment to love God came from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, which the Jews knew as the Shema––and which they recited in their synagogue worship and daily prayers.
The commandment to love neighbor comes from Leviticus 19:18, which says:
“You shall not take vengeance,
nor bear any grudge against the children of your people;
but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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