WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

By Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson LVII) 04/07/22

4:8 If a person isn’t loving and kind, it shows that they don’t know God – for God is love.

Harry A. Ironside (1876-1951) tells an interesting story about the theme of verse eight. He says, years ago, a lady who prided herself on belonging to the intelligentsia said to him, “I have no use for the Bible, nor for Christian superstition and religious dogma. It is enough for me to know that God is love.” “Well,” said Ironside, “do you know it?” “Why, of course, I do,” she said; “we all know that, and it is religion enough for me. I do not need the doctrines of the Bible.” “How did you find out that God is love?” Ironside asked. “Why,” she exclaimed, “everybody knows that!”

Do they know it over in India?” Ironside asked. “That poor mother in her distress throwing her little babe into the holy Ganges to be eaten by filthy and repulsive crocodiles as a sacrifice for her sins – does she know that God is love?” “Oh, well, she is ignorant and superstitious,” the lady replied. “Those poor wretched natives in the jungles of Africa, bowing down to gods of wood and stone, and in constant fear of their images, the poor heathen in other countries, do they know that God is love?” “Perhaps not,” she said, “but in a civilized land, we all know it.” “But how is it that we know it? Who told us so? Where did we find it out?” inquired Ironside. “I do not understand what you mean,” she said, “for I’ve always known it.” “Let me tell you this,” Ironside answered; “no one in the world ever knew it until it was revealed from heaven and recorded in the Word of God. It is here and nowhere else. It is not found in all the literature of the ancients.[1]

Charles H. Dodd (1884-1973) states that the Apostle John adds a theological statement of the utmost importance in this eighth verse, which justifies his teaching: for God is love. In this form, this statement might appear to identify God with an abstract principle and imply an impersonal conception of Deity. But it is clear that this is not John’s intention, for, in the context, he speaks of the agápe-love of God and says that love belongs to God and that God loved us. God, therefore, is presented as the personal Subject of the act of love. Yet, the proposition, “God is love,” is intended to go further than the proposal, “God loves us.”

What is its meaning, asks Dodd? Christianity always assumed the Hebrew conception of Deity as the “living God.” In the First Covenant, there is little or no speculation about the nature of God as He is in Himself. In His actions, people recognize God as the Creator of the world, Ruler of mankind, and the Saving King of His people. History is the canvas of His self-revelation, and communion with Him is conditioned by obedience to His commands. Accordingly, the Word of God is not primarily the communication of knowledge about the divine nature; it is the active energy by which the world was made and sustained, by which believers are called into active fellowship with God in carrying out His purpose.

If therefore, notes Dodd, we ask what God is, the answer must speak in terms of what He does. He creates and sustains the universe; He judges the world in righteousness; He helps those in distress; He guides those who submit to His will; He forgives the repentant. Now Christianity takes over this Hebrew conception of the “living God.” It is an idea in the Gospel teaching about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is essentially dynamic, not static. The Kingdom is something that comes as an event in history. Its coming means that God has acted to fulfill His purpose. The Kingdom of God came with the Anointed One. Consequently, the character of His action is to be discovered from the life, teaching, sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Anointed One. If this is to be put in terms defined in the First Covenant as the “Word of God.” Thus, it may be expressed based on “the Word was made flesh” in Jesus the Anointed One. [2]

Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) notes that when it is said of “love” that “it is of God,” then “to be of” characterizes the origin and thus the nature of love, as elsewhere; it is the “way of God.” We can say that the ones loving “are born of God,” corresponding with other expressions.[3] It is told so that love is emphasized as the mark of having been born of God. Again, “and knows God” corresponds to phrases in earlier passages[4] keeping the commandments serves as the mark of knowledge of God; here, it is “love,” which, together with “belief,” is the content of the commandments (or commandment).[5] [6]

Amos N. Wilder (1895-1993) reminds us (a) that Love here is not merely an attribute of God but defines His nature in a practical rather than philosophical sense. God’s nature is not exhausted by the quality of love, but love governs all its aspects and expressions. (b) The Greek term used here for love – agápe – is God’s creation in Christians. Greek-speaking Jews no longer used pagan phrases for love to translate Hebrew words expressing the agápe-love of God and the love of neighbor. Then the church transformed it with meanings understood in the Christian experience, (c) The present verse requires a personal light or spirit, as used in pagan religious teaching. Thus, emphasizing the significance of God, not only for nature and history but for personal religion and ethics, was revolutionary.[7]

But when God revealed this masterpiece of grace – His only begotten Son – it was in a stable smelling of manure in Bethlehem amidst the surroundings of poverty. But the question is, who has believed that love? Many have heard about it, but it makes a vast difference when believed. Rainsford then tells us that one day he stood by the death bed of a young man; his wife was beside him, and some friends were in the adjoining room. Rainsford was there speaking with them. And one earnest young man said, “Sir, can you understand why God allows such sorrow as that?” And Rainsford said, “Honestly, I don’t understand it either; but I know that God loves us and knows what is best for us.” Then Rainsford asks, supposing you have a friend in trouble, and you loan him £20,000. Do you think you should watch him starve for the lack of a sandwich? Well, then, if God loves us so much that He gives His Son, let us trust Him for the rest, though we cannot understand it.[8]

Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) points out that love is one of the things emphasized more than anything else in the Final Covenant. At the end of His ministry, our blessed Lord Himself kept repeating this same thing – “love one another.” He constantly told them that the world would be against them and that they would have tribulation. “But,” he kept saying, “love one another, and that is how the world will know that you are my disciples.”[9] It is how You can demonstrate more clearly than anything else that you are God’s faithful followers and that you are God’s children. You will find this standing out in an exceptional way if you read John’s Gospel, chapters 13-17. But it is indeed a great theme running right through the Gospels and the Epistles.[10] So, why then is there so much emphasis on loving God and not loving each other?

John R. W. Stott (1921-2011) notes that verses seven and eight should be read as one. It completes the Apostle John’s thought on the pros and cons of love. Not only is God the source of all true love; He is love in His innermost being. There are three other statements in the Final Covenant concerning what God is in substance and nature: He is “spirit,”[11] He is “light,”[12] and He is “a consuming fire.”[13] The Gnostics believed that God is immaterial spirit and light, but they never taught that God is love.[14]

John Phillips (1927-2010) says that the Apostle John tells us why we should love in verse eight. At last, the ultimate revelation about God – “God is love!” The truth has always been there, woven into the tapestry of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. The Mosaic Law, for all its great principles, precepts, and penalties, is quite unable to hide the loving-kindness of God. Throughout the Psalms and prophecies, the dark skies of judgment are unable to conceal His love’s rainbow. It was manifest in the flesh in everything Jesus was and did and said, shining out in the Epistles in many a pragmatic demand that we love the Lord and love the lost and love the Lord’s people. Now John writes it down without quibble or qualification – “God is love.”

Raymond E. Brown (1928-1998) reminds us of the other two Johannine descriptions, God is Spirit, [15] God is Light, [16] and now, God is love.[17] The Apostle John does not simply say, “God loves,” loving is not just another act of God, like reproduction. Instead, all God’s activity is love in action. Nor does John say, “Love is God,” for he is interested in a visible person’s loving activity, not some abstract image they only imagine because He is invisible. This verse requires a personal view of God we see in others.[18]

In verse eight, David E. Hiebert (1928-1995) points out that the Apostle John presents the opposite picture of what he said in verse seven. The negative with the present tense views one who is unloving in attitude and practice. The absence of love in their life proves that they “do not know God” and that they have never come to know what God is like personally. Because John uses the aorist tense in “does not,” he has them looking back to the time of their professed conversion. Not knowing love shows that they are still a stranger to God. As Bible scholar Edward McDowell remarks, “Ignorance of God and, we may deduce, misinterpretations and misrepresentations of God, are traceable to the absence of love in men’s hearts.”[19] The reason for this is that it’s God’s agápe-love.[20]


[1] Ironside, Harry A., The Epistles of John and Jude, op. cit., pp. 137-138

[2] Dodd, Charles H., Moffett Commentary, Johannine Epistles, op. cit., pp.107-108

[3] 1 John 2:29; 3:9

[4] Ibid. 2:3ff

[5] Ibid. 1 John 4:21; 2:10; 3:23

[6] Bultmann, Rudolf: Hermeneia, Critical and Historical Commentary, op. cit., pp. 66-67

[7] Wilder, Amos N., The Interpreter’s Bible, op. cit., 1 John, Exposition, pp. 279-280

[8] Rainsford, Marcus: The Biblical Illustrator, op. cit., 1 John 4, p. 69

[9] John 13:35

[10] Lloyd-Jones, Martyn: Life in the Anointed One, op. cit., p. 420

[11] John 4:24

[12] 1 John 1:5

[13] Hebrews 12:29, cf. Deuteronomy 4:24

[14] Stott, John. The Letters of John (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), op. cit., p. 161

[15] John 4:24

[16] 1 John 1:5

[17] Ibid. 4:8

[18] Brown, Raymond E., The Anchor Bible, op. cit., Vol. 30, p. 515

[19] McDowell, Edward A., 1-2-3 John, in The Broadman Bible Commentary, Broadman Press, Nashville 12:216

[20] Hiebert, David E., Bibliotheca Sacra, op. cit., January-March 1990, p. 72

About drbob76

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