WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

By Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson LII) 03/31/22

4:8       Those who do not love one another do not understand God because God is love.

EXPOSITION

Moses found this out when he pleaded with God to do something to help him understand more about Him. When God responded by passing in front of Moses, instead of appearing in brilliance, light, flashing, glory, magnificence, etc., God asked him to remember, “Yahweh, the Lord, is a kind, merciful God, slow to become angry, and full of great love. He can be trusted. He shows His faithful love to thousands of people, forgives people for their wrongdoings, but does not forget to punish the guilty.”[1]  David must have remembered this as he prayed: “My Lord, you are good and merciful. You love all those who call to you for help … My Lord, you are a kind and merciful God. You are patient, loyal, and full of love.”[2]

This phrase “manifested” refers to what follows. John shows how the nature of God’s agápe-love exhibits itself. In fact, God’s agápe-love was manifested [aorist tense – a continuing effect from the past] toward us, God’s agápe-love for His Son eternally existed, but He manifested His agápe-love for us by sending His Son as a Messenger of Good News. That’s how God demonstrated His agápe-love by sending His Son to die for our sins.  God’s agápe-love is not motivated by any worthiness in us, [3] but God “sent” His Son into the world in keeping with His character. The word “sent” carries the idea of being ordained for a mission. God dispatched His Son on a special assignment to pay for the world’s sins.[4] Therefore, God sending His Son into the world was no passing act of sentimentality. This phrase does not imply that Jesus was reluctant to come into the world to die. On the contrary, He was willing to come.[5] The standard of God’s agápe-love then is complete voluntary sacrifice.

John does not state the object of love but the fact of love’s existence. The issue is whether it’s Christian love or not. Lack of love shows that a believer does not have an intimate fellowship with God. This is the point where the believer is not in union with God. This person may be a Christian in name only because they are unconnected with the nature of God’s agápe-love. In other words, they are not filled with the Spirit. God accepts that anyone who knows Him will love. 

 “God is love” only occurs in the Bible here and in verse sixteen. This phrase affirms a condition about the nature of God; all that God does is love. If He provides, He provides in love; judges in love. Love is inherent in God’s nature; it is at the heart of all God is. It is impossible to reverse “God is love” to “love is God.”[6] Love cannot be God, as though His essence and character revolve around love. Agápe-love does not exist without God; it is His essence and nature. In addition to love, God is also truth, justice, righteousness, and patience. True love comes from capturing an understanding of the nature of God’s unilateral and unconditional love. Therefore, God loves us individually. The only way we can share God’s love is to be a part of the family of God. We receive God’s love by accepting God’s plan of salvation through Jesus the Anointed One. His death fully and sufficiently paid for our sins. 

COMMENTARY

Clement of Alexandria (150-216 AD) spoke about how love affects every aspect of our lives and how agápe-love transforms into goodness.[7] God’s agápe-love does not harm a neighbor, neither does it seek to do any injury nor revenge, but, in a word, doing good to all according to the image of God. Love is, then, the fulfilling of the law;[8] just like the Anointed One, that is the presence of the Lord who loves us; and our loving teaches us and disciplines us according to the Anointed One’s words. By love, then, the commands not to commit adultery and not lust for a neighbor’s wife are fulfilled, [these sins being] formerly prohibited by fear.[9] 

Lactantius (260-325 AD) was an early church author who became an advisor to Roman Emperor Constantine I, guiding his Christian religious policy in its initial stages, and a tutor to his son Crispus. But possibly, someone may ask us the same question Quintus Hortensius (BC 114-50AD)[10] asks in Cicero’s, On the Nature of the Gods: “If God is one only?”[11] At first glance, this might not have any relevance to verse eight. But when put into context, it should be no surprise that Christianity burst on the scene when Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian, and Pagan gods were lining the streets of cities and villages throughout the Middle East. But the one big difference between them and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was that YaHWeH said we must love others in order to worship Him. That’s why, says John, they don’t understand God.

Early Church preacher Chrysostom (347-407 AD) asks a crucial question: “What kind of love are we talking about here?” It is true love and not simply what people use it to mean. It comes from our attitude and knowledge and must proceed from a pure heart, for there is also a love of evil things. Robbers love other robbers, and murderers love each other too, not out of love which comes from a good conscience but from a bad one.[12]

And there are other voices from early church scholars who speak on this subject; Augustine (354-430 AD) states: “If God is love, it makes sense then that the more who join us in the faith through the new birth, in addition to ourselves, the more demonstrative will be the love in which we rejoice, since it is the possession of His agápe-love which is presented.”[13] But Augustine also says that love is so much the gift of God that it is called God.[14] Therefore, although your course of action is different from others, shared love has made both methods necessary for our brother’s and sister’s salvation; for one, God has done it all, and God is love.[15] So then, Isaac the Syrian (613-700 AD)[16] writes, “God is love. Wherefore, the man who lives in love reaps the fruit of life from God, and while yet in this world, he even now breathes the air of the resurrection.”[17] 

Bede the Venerable (672-735 AD) also joins in this concept of love by saying: “Let no one say that when they sin, they sin against other people but not against God, for how can you not be sinning against God when you are sinning against love?”[18] So it’s another way of saying that life flows out of love, and since God is love, and He is in us, then His life is in us; therefore, we are already breathing the life that goes beyond the grave. In fact, the Cabalistic Jews[19] refer to the Shekinah glory of God as “love.”[20]

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) says that he calls love undefined because it never keeps back anything of itself. When a man boasts of nothing as his own, surely all he has is God’s; and what is God’s cannot be unclean. The undefiled law of the Lord is that love which bids men seek not their own, but every man another’s wealth. It is the law of the Lord because they live in accordance with it. After all, no one has it except by gift from Him. Nor is it improper to say that even God lives by law when that law is the law of love. For what preserves the glorious and ineffable Unity of the blessed Trinity, except love? Charity, the law of the Lord, joins the Three Persons into the unity of the Godhead and unites the Holy Trinity in the bond of peace.

Do not suppose that I am implying that charity exists as an accidental quality of Deity, says Bernard, for whatever could be conceived of as wanting in the divine Nature is not God. No, it is the very substance of the Godhead; and my assertion is neither novel nor extraordinary, since the Apostle John says, “God is love.” Therefore, one may accurately say that love is at once God and the gift of God. It is the essence of love, imparting the quality of love. Where it refers to the Giver, it is the name of His very being; where the gift is meant, it is the name of quality. Love is the eternal law whereby the universe was created and is ruled. Since all things are ordered in measure and number and weight, and nothing is left outside the realm of law, that universal law cannot itself be without a law, which is itself. So, love, though it did not create itself, does indeed govern itself by its decree.[21]

John Calvin (1509-1564) sees the Apostle John emphasizing that there is no knowledge of God where there is no love. And he takes it for granted as a general principle or truth that God is love. That is, that His divine nature is to love people. I know that many analyze more logically, and that the ancients especially perverted this passage to prove the Spirit’s divinity. But the meaning of the Apostle is simply this: as God is the fountain of love, this flows from Him and is dispersed wherever he goes. That’s why John called Him Light at the beginning of this epistle. There is nothing dark in Him, but on the contrary, He illuminates all things by His brightness. Here, then, John does not speak of the essence of God but only shows what He is found to be.

But two things in the Apostle’s words ought to be noticed – that the proper knowledge of God is that which regenerates and renews us so that we become new creatures; and that it cannot be anything other than that it conforms us to the image of God. Away, then, with that foolish marginal thinking respecting formless faith. For when anyone tries to separate faith from love, it is the same as though they attempt to take away heat from the sun.[22]


[1] Exodus 34:6-7

[2] Psalm 86:5, 15

[3] Romans 5:5-9

[4] John 3:17, 34; 5:36-37; 7:29; 8:42; 10:36; 17:3, 18; 20:21

[5] Romans 5:8; Galatians 5:22-23

[6] I saw “Love is God” on a taxi bumper sticker in Tamil Nadu, India. I pointed this out to my Indian pastor friend, Wellesley Solomon, and asked him if that was true. “No! No!” he said, “It’s the other way around.”

[7] 1 John 4:8

[8] Romans 13:10

[9] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Bk. IV, Ch. 18

[10] Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, Roman Orator and politician

[11] Lactantius Divine Institutes: On the Nature of the Gods, Ch. 7

[12] Chrysostom: Catena

[13] Sermons of Augustine, Sermon 260c.1

[14] Letters of Augustine, Letter 186

[15] Ibid. Letter 219

[16] Isaac the Syrian (aka Isaac of Nineveh), was a monk who became a bishop and theologian

[17] Isaac the Syrian: Ascetical Homilies 46

[18] Bede the Venerable, Ancient Christian Commentary, Vol. XI, Bray, G. (Ed.), James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John

[19] Cabalistic Jews are those who look for mystical interpretations in Jewish theology, especially those pertaining to the Messiah

[20] Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah, folio 15a

[21] Bernard of Clairvaux: On Loving God, Eremitical Press, 2010, Ch. 12, pp. 81-82

[22] Calvin, John: Commentary on the Catholic Epistles, op. cit., loc. cit.

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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