WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

By Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson LIX) 04/11/22

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

Judith M. Lieu (1951) believes that by the Apostle John putting verses seven and eight together, he reinforces the non-negotiability of love as the mark of those who claim to relate to God. A relationship is expressed in terms already familiar in the letter: “born of God[1] and “knowing God.”[2] The structure suggests that they may have been influenced by the earlier opposing formulations or have come from a common source:

               Everyone who does justice has been born from him (2:29)

               Everyone who loves has been born from God (4:7)

               Everyone who sins has not seen Him or known Him (3:6)

               The one who does not love does not know God (4:8)

Therefore, says Lieu, these two celebrated verses are embedded within the whole letter’s thought and argument. In order to trace the inspiration or sources behind them, there is no need to look outside the ideas and influences that have shaped the letter so far, the Scriptures and later Jewish thought, as well as some concepts and language shared with other early Christian writings, distinctive to the Johannine tradition.[3]

Ben Witherington III (1951) points out that in Greek literature before the Final Covenant was complied, the verb agapaō had no importance or even implications in the Apostolic writings. How can we explain this rare usage? In its verb form, agápe indicates “be content with,” “like,” “esteem,” and “prefer.” It is a comparatively calm and colorless word. The translators of the First Covenant preferred agápe as a noun to describe God’s love for humanity and mankind’s response. They began to fill it with the unique content for which paganism, even in its highest forms, had no proper expression.

Interestingly, when pagan religious writers speak of a god who loves, they frequently use the Greek word Eros, which usually refers to sexual desire and sexual intercourse. This word has no place in the apostolic writer’s vocabulary in defining God’s love for humanity or His character. From the Jewish point of view, a deity is not a human being with more power and life. The God of the Bible is the creator God, who is wholly other and is not a being who takes His cues from human behavior. God is the definition of what goodness, truth, life, light, love, and holiness mean. God does not conform to human definitions of these things.[4]

Vincent Cheung (1952) states that the LOVE of God is a favorite topic, but it is also one of the most abused and distorted Christian teachings. Although it is said that “God is love,” very few people understand what this means. An adequate exposition of the doctrine will entail corrections to common misunderstandings. Knowledge of God comes from His verbal revelation and not from non-verbal means of religious exercises. Most people who resist theological studies have not thought through these questions. Yet, they perform prayer and worship by assuming the object and manner of these spiritual practices, often without understanding and in error. Still, others might say we get to know God by walking in love. But again, the idea of love remains undefined until there is a theological reflection on the matter. Even the relationship between knowing God and walking in love originates from the Bible, as we see in verses seven and eight.

Without biblical passages like this, says Cheung, a person cannot justify their claim that knowing God is to walk in love or that it is to know God. Also, does John say that we are born of God and know God before we love one another, or that we love one another before we are born and know God? Clearly, we are born of God and know God before we love one another. It is precise because we are born of God that we are able to love, and it is because we know God that we realize what love means. Those who claim to know God by walking in love are doing nothing other than being kind to each other. They only define kindness according to non-Christian norms rather than scriptural principles. They possess only an illusion of knowing God.[5]

Bruce G. Schuchard (1958) notes that John is not speaking to Christians who are uncertain about their failures, sins of weakness, lovelessness, or need to do better. John is not suggesting that being loving is a good sign that someone is born of God. Instead, John focuses again on the problem of “us” (Christians) versus “them” (the secessionists). We need to identify what distinguishes those in the Church from those in and of the world. John speaks once more of the failure, of the lovelessness of those who abandoned their faith and fellowship. Because God shows Himself to be a God of love, to refuse to love – as the secessionists did when they forsook the love of the community of the beloved – “is the very nature of those who do not know Him.”[6]

Marianne Meye Thompson (1964) says it is typical of the Elder Apostle John that, having stated his case in positive terms, he then states it negatively: “Whoever does not love, does not know God. Where there is a lack of love for fellow Christians, there is neither love for nor knowledge of God.” The same is true today; you cannot preach about heaven unless you include hell. It is incomplete to proclaim salvation without pointing out what it means to be drowning in sin. John’s statements about those who do not love are probably directed at the secessionists in their historical context. Although these people undoubtedly claimed to know God, John deems such a claim impossible, for how can one who lacks love for God’s children be said to know the God who is love? Their lack of passion shows that the dissidents are not in touch with the source of love.[7] Furthermore, they do not imitate the model of love given to them on the cross.[8] They have disobeyed the command of Jesus.[9] In short, their claim to know God is hollow.[10]

Peter Pett (1966) says that the next question we must ask is, what is meant by “love?” It is not romantic love. Nor is it mutual affection within the Christian community. It is a special kind of love, as exemplified by the Apostle Paul.[11] It is a noble love. It is an attitude that intends well to its brother or sister, even when they are undeserving. God’s love is a mutual oneness based on being in the light and fellowship with God. It is a holy love. It is agápe Love. We may not like all our fellow believers, they may even annoy us sometimes, but we still love them, direct our thoughts to their good, and bear with them.

Because they are in the Light as we are, says Pett, we still seek their sanctification. They are our fellow travelers on the way to perfected Love, our fellow workers in the purposes of God, our fellow citizens of Heaven with whom we will spend eternity.[12] It is the same kind of love described in the commandment, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” yet it goes deeper because it is between God’s children. But it is not necessarily deep affection, but a proper attitude of heart and mind. Although in the case of loving one’s neighbor, this agápe-love reaches out beyond our Christian community.[13]

Duncan Heaster (1967) reflects that to know God in the Hebraic sense of having a relationship with Him will focus on love – His unique, self-sacrificial love, which led to the events of the cross as their pinnacle. To “see” or “know” both the Father and Son are to become like them; beholding their glory results in the glory of their person and Name shining off from our faces.[14] So a litmus test of false brethren is whether they have love. And so often, those who appear the most conservative in their teaching fail the agápe test. To experience God is to know Him. So often, the Hebrew prophets speak of “knowing God” as meaning “to experience God intimately.”[15] Because God is love, to love is to know God. How deeply we have loved shows the depth of our comprehension of God – and vice versa. And that love is worked out in the very earthliness and worldliness of human life in practice.[16]

David Legge (1969) addresses the subject of love. He points out that one of the signs of Christian fellowship, and take assurance as children of God that we belong to the Lord, is that the love of God is in our hearts and outflows from our hearts to others who are our brothers and sisters in union with the Anointed One. John adds that “if we do not have God’s love, we are probably not God’s children,” for this is their chief characteristic. But now he’s bringing us to the point of flinging open the throne room doors to let us see that we are to have love and show love because our God is love! Then, of course, we found out that this love that John describes is not a sentimental love that the world has, it is not erotic love, it is not just an emotional friendship love, it is not even a family love – but it is what the Greeks call, agápe love, God’s love. It is not something we can make or try to imitate, but actually, allow God to love others through us.

Therefore, says Legge, we must know why we should love one another, the source and the signs of this Christian love. John gives us the first reason in verses seven and eight: it is simply God’s nature. Now notice John doesn’t say “God has love,” of course, God loves. John is talking about the origin and the source of this agápe love. But that’s not his chief thought here; he’s telling us that God’s essence is love. John repeats this in verse sixteen. So, John is not now saying that love is a gift from God or love is even an attribute of God, but love in its essence. We see this most clearly in the Apostle Paul’s statement that the fruit of our reborn spirit begins with love that influences its expressions, such as Joy, Peace, and Goodness.[17]


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

[2] Cf. Ibid. 2:3-4; 3:1-6

[3] Lieu, Judith, The New Testament Commentary, op. cit., pp. 177-178

[4] Witherington III, Ben: Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians: op. cit., loc. cit., (Kindle Locations 7145-7155)

[5] Cheung, Vincent. Systematic Theology, op. cit., (Kindle Locations 223, 1723)

[6] Schuchard, Bruce G., Concordia Commentary, op. cit., pp. 444-445

[7] 1 John 4:8, 16

[8] Ibid. 3:16; 4:10

[9] Ibid. 2:7; 4:21; John 13-34-35; 15:12, 17

[10] Thompson, Marianne M., The IVP New Testament Commentary, op. cit., p. 121

[11] 1 Corinthians 13

[12] Philippians 3:20

[13] Pett, Peter: Commentary on the Bible, op. cit., PDF, loc. cit.

[14] See 2 Corinthians 3:18

[15] Jeremiah 9:11-13, 23-24; 31:33-34; Daniel 11:32

[16] Heaster, Duncan: New European Commentary, op. cit., 1 John, pp. 31-32

[17] Legge, David: 1,2,3 John, Preach the Word, “Christian Love: Its Source and Sign,” op. cit., Part 13

About drbob76

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