WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

By Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson LXXVIII) 05/06/22

4:12 For though we have never seen God, God lives in us when we love each other, and His agápē within us grows stronger.

Our love is imperfect, but God’s agápē is perfect. God poured out His agápē in us when we believe.[1]  It is not our love for God that God perfects, but His agápē perfected in us. His agápē answers to His nature. God’s agápē can reach God’s goal for us in this life. The word “perfected” means achieving a goal and accomplishing a purpose. God can complete His agápē as we mature. When Christians reach out in love to each other, God’s agápē reaches its goal. God’s kind of love can be fully expressed in our lives. God’s agápē is visible through Christians. Believers make God’s incomprehensible agápē comprehensible through loving others.

The reason this is necessary is that no one has ever seen God. Why does the Apostle John introduce this statement here? He is not implying that to love an invisible Being is impossible, but that the only security for genuine and lasting love in such a case is to love that which visibly represents Him. Seeing that God is invisible, His abiding in us can be shown only by His essential character being exhibited in us, namely, by our showing similar self-sacrificial love to others. “His love” can scarcely mean God’s agápē for us, or how can our loving one another make His love or the relationship of love between God and us perfect? But, as is chapter two, verse five, it’s our love for Him. Our love towards God is perfected and brought to maturity by exercising love toward our Christian brothers and sisters.

Nevertheless, while God has only been visible through theophanies (the physical manifestation of God), each theophany was a manifestation of God in the Anointed One. No one can see God, since God is a spirit.[2]  No one can see His Spirit’s essence. Therefore, we did not perceive God’s essence as a phantom or ghost, but only in the Anointed One’s divinity, not His humanity. 

When Christians meet their moral obligation to love other believers, God the Father abides or dwells in them. This is how we see God working. Others observe God by our love. God’s agápē springs from fellowship with God. When God takes up residence in the believer, everyone can see it.  Love is a manifestation of divine habitation. It is the Holy Spirit demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit in the life of the believer. God shines in believers who love other Christians.[3]

Therefore, a direct result of our love for other Christians that manifests God’s agápē. Jesus knew that publicans were considered thieves.[4] If tax collectors can love people who love them, that is no moment. They love their mothers, wives, and children. However, to love those who do not reciprocate, our love is God’s agápē. Such divine love loves whether anyone returns love or not. People with divine love can even love the unlovable.

Thus, we cannot manifest God by showing His essence to people because He is a spirit. They see God best in the act of love. So, love will reach its final destination or end when it reaches out to others. We see God’s love best in Jesus’ sacrifice and our sacrificial love. This sacrificial love makes God discernable. 

COMMENTARY

Tertullian (155-240 AD), an early Christian priest from Asia Minor who lived in Rome, taught in his treatise against Praxeas’[5] heretical tenet that there is no distinction between persons in the Godhead. It was coupled with acknowledging a divine nature in Jesus, which leads logically to the conclusion that the Father was incarnate and suffered. So, Tertullian asks, “How, I repeat, how can all this be?” Unless He is one, who anciently was visible only in a puzzling mystery and became more visible by His incarnation, even the Word who was made flesh.[6] Remember, the Apostle John deals with Jesus being in God and God being in Him. In like manner, it would also involve our being in Jesus and Jesus being in us.

Meanwhile, writes Tertullian, God is the one whom no human has seen at any time, being none other than the Father, even Him to whom the Word belongs? Let us, in short, examine who it is whom the apostles saw. That, says John, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, is the Word of life.[7] Now the Word of life became flesh and was heard, seen, and held because He was flesh who, before He came in the flesh, was the Word at the beginning with God the Father, [8] and not the Father with the Word. Although the Word was God, He was with God because He is God, and being joined to the Father, is with the Father. And we have seen His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father[9] that is, of course, (the glory) of the Son, even Him who was visible and glorified by the invisible Father.[10]

But Tertullian wasn’t the only one in the early church dealing with this issue. Novatian (200-258 AD) was a scholar, priest, theologian, and antipope in the early church. He mentions that in one passage, Moses says that “God appeared to Abraham.”[11] And yet, the same Moses hears from God that no man can see Him and live.[12] How are we supposed to see Him if God cannot be seen? Or if He appeared, why? The Apostle John repeats the idea of an invisible God.[13]  So, also, the Apostle Paul mentions what God said to Moses.[14] But assuredly, Holy Scripture does not lie; God was visible. We are led to understand that it was not the heavenly Father no one ever had a glimpse of because His Son, who descended to earth, said to His disciple Philip, “By looking at me, you’re staring at my Father.”[15]  Paul put it this way, for Jesus is “the image of the invisible God.[16]  He said this so that weak and frail human nature might become accustomed to seeing, in Him – who is the Image of God, that is, in the Son of God, God the Father.[17]

Didymus the Blind (313-398 AD) states that since God is invisible, nobody has ever observed Him since we cannot view things without physical bodies. When we compare this statement to the Apostle Philip’s request: “Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Jesus’s answer is sufficient: “Anyone who has looked at Me has seen the Father.”[18] So, we must take it that Didymus is trying to say that no human has viewed God the Father[19] because He has no body; He is Spirit.[20]

But there are some heretics, laments Didymus, who say that the First Covenant speaks of a visible God because occasionally people are said to have seen Him. In contrast, the Final Covenant makes Him completely invisible. So, we have to ask what substance He is supposed to have which would make Him visible. They would have to answer, unless they are out of their minds, that God is a body, even though it is not made of any perceivable substance. But, if that is what they think, they ought to consider how strange and full of ungodliness their beliefs are. How can there be a body if there is no way of defining it?[21]

Bede the Venerable (672-735 AD) admits that this verse causes a problem when we remember that the Lord promises that those pure in heart will see God[22] and tells the saints that their angels are constantly gazing at the face of God in heaven.[23] John repeats this phrase in his Gospel, where he adds that the only begotten Son has sighted the Father and made Him known to us.[24] Ambrose (340-397 AD) expounded as follows: “No one has ever seen God because no one has ever comprehended the fullness of the divinity which dwells in them, either in their mind or eye. For the verb see implies both physical and mental perception.” Therefore, it is clear that here we are not talking about physical sight so much as mental perception, and our minds are incapable of ever grasping the fullness of God’s being.[25]

John Calvin (1509-1564) focuses on the Apostle John’s statement that as no person has ever seen God by saying that the exact words are found in the first chapter of John’s Gospel. John the Baptist had the same thing in mind.[26] He meant only that God could not be otherwise known, but as He has revealed Himself in the Anointed One. The Apostle here extends the same truth further that the power of God is comprehended by us by faith and love, for us to know that we are His children and that He dwells in us. John speaks, however, first of love when he says that God lives in us if we love one another, as perfected or proven to be in us. Then His agápē, is in agreement with what John said elsewhere in this epistle, [27] God shows Himself as being present when He forms our hearts so that they entertain brotherly love by His Spirit. For the same purpose, John repeats what he already said, that we know by the Spirit whom He (God) has given us that He (God) dwells in us. It confirms what the Apostle said in a former sentence because love is the effect or fruit of the Spirit.[28]


[1] Romans 5:5

[2] John 4:24; 1 Timothy 1:17; 6:16

[3] Cf. Matthew 5:16

[4] Ibid. 5:46

[5] Praxeas, a priest from Asia Minor, in Rome about 206 and was opposed by Tertullian in the tract Adversus Praxean (c. 213 AS), an important contribution to the doctrine of the Trinity.

[6] Tertullian Against Praxeas, Ch. 15

[7] 1 John 1:1

[8] John 1:1-2

[9] 1 John 1:14

[10] Tertullian Against Praxeas, Ch. 15

[11] Genesis 12:7

[12] Exodus 33:20

[13] 1 John 4:12

[14] 1 Timothy 6:16

[15] John 14:9

[16] Colossians 1:15

[17] Novatian: The Treatise of Novatian on the Trinity, Trans. Herbert Moore, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 1919, Ch. 18, pp. 80-81

[18] John 14:8

[19] Cf. Isaiah 6:1 where the prophet saw the Lord in a vision with spiritual eyes, not physical eyes.

[20] See John 4:24

[21] Didymus the Blind: (Bray Ed.), James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, op. cit., loc. cit.

[22] Matthew 5:8

[23] Ibid. 18:10

[24] John 1:18

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

[26] John 1:15-18

[27] 1 John 4:11-16

[28] 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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