WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

By Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson LXXIX) 05/09/22

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

John Trapp (1601-1669) comments on the Apostle John’s reiteration of what was said long ago, “No man has seen God.” If we read that none has looked at Him, we must understand that they saw Him in what the Jewish Rabbis call mercabah velo harocheb (Chariot mysticism). So, it may be read in the prophet Ezekiel.[1] Rabbi Moses Maimonides speaks on this matter:

  The mysteries included in the description of the Divine chariot have been orally transmitted from generation to generation. Still, as a consequence of the dispersion of the Jews, the chain of tradition was broken, and the knowledge of these mysteries vanished. Whatever Ezekiel knew of those mysteries, he owed exclusively to his intellectual faculties; he, therefore, could not reconcile himself to the idea that his knowledge should die with him. Accordingly, he committed his exposition of the ma‘aseh mercabah [Work of the Chariot] and the ma‘aseh bereshit [Following Genesis 1] to writing but did not divest it of its original mysterious character; so that the explanation was fully intelligible to the initiated— that is to say, to the philosopher— but to the ordinary reader it was a mere paraphrase of the Biblical text.[2]  

Trapp points out that even with Maimonides attempted explanation, whether Ezekiel saw God is still in the area of speculation. Nevertheless, we know that God’s agápē is perfected in us, either actively or demonstrated in its excellence. Or else, the agápē that God brings to us is abundantly declared perfect, in that He implants such a gracious inclination in us. And in an excellence sense helps us understand the Apostle’s message of love made perfect.[3]

Matthew Poole (1624-1679) reminds us that God’s existence is invisible to our physical eyes and incomprehensible to our minds. But by yielding ourselves to the power of His agápē and being transformed by it, we become familiar with the exercise of mutual love. We also get to know Him by the most intelligible effects of experiencing His indwelling vital presence and influences, whereby He is daily perfecting His likeness and image in us. This is the most desirable way of knowing God when, though we cannot see Him at a distance, we can feel Him close to us.[4]

John Howe (1630-1705), an English Puritan theologian, says it is necessary and, therefore, must be insisted upon so that we understand how essential it is to know there is another and a better Spirit than our spirit that makes us capable of loving God, whom we have not seen. If that doesn’t happen, we will never be able to love beyond what we can see. This is so extraordinary, since such circumstances speak for themselves, and the Holy Scriptures often declare that no one seems to understand this. But, if there is no necessity to love our unseen God, why was it taught to us?[5]

Leonard Howard (1699-1767) believes the reason for the Apostle John bringing up the fact that no one has ever seen God is evident that the Almighty God is not visible in our human and material world. Therefore, the only method left is to experience Him through our spirit with His Spirit. We should not try to get Him to love us through all the good works we do, nor in the formal manner of praying, praise, and worship. Instead, we should connect with Him by loving each other, whom we can see by the indwelling Holy Spirit.[6] 

James Macknight (1721-1800) says it is challenging to discover the connection between these words about no one having ever seen God, either with what the Apostle says before or what follows, quoting the words of the John the Baptizer.[7] If the Apostle John intended that his readers should keep in view what the Baptizer says next is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us. His meaning probably was this: Though no one has any knowledge of God by their human senses. Yet from what the only begotten Son declared about Himself, “But if we love one another, God lives in us, and His agápē is made complete in us,” and on that account, God’s agápē to us is made perfect; He loves us with great affection. That is something we must pass on to others.[8]

John Brown of Haddington (1722-1787) says that since our affection for God cannot be effective unless we are able to see Him, let us manifest it in loving our fellow saints. They, too, are visible representations of Him because He dwells in all of us. Therefore, if we cherish one another who bears His image, it is our way of loving Him, and that He lives in us by His Spirit to produce this agápē, and that way His agápē for us is exceedingly and effectually manifested; and ours to Him, blossoms in proper form and exceptionally exercised and proven to be sincere.[9]

Richard Rothe (1799-1867) finds the natural inference that God loved us much to give His Son for our salvation would be that we should also love Him with service in praise and honor for His gift. It might not occur to the ordinary Christian that this includes loving one another. Perhaps the Apostle John suspected that this might naturally occur to the reader, and the present verse seeks to remove it. Here John says it is impossible for us to offer our grateful responsive love directly to God, for He is invisible to us. However, the fact is that by loving one another, our responsive love reaches Him. This agápē for one another is how we manifest our love for Him.[10] There is a necessary connection between faith in God’s agápē to us and other believers’ confidence in our love for them.[11]

Augustus Neander (1789-1850) says that in connection with the declaration that God is love, the Apostle John presents the importance of love as the bond of fellowship between God and humanity. The words, “no one has seen God,” must contain why it is only through love we can be sure of His dwelling in us. “Us,” we, may be regarded as referring to the whole body of the Anointed One – the Church. “Seen” may at first take in the sense of bodily sight. We become conscious of the presence of a discernable being by seeing Him among us. But the invisible God cannot be so united with us. He cannot dwell visibly among us; there can be no vise manifestation of deity, as was expected by the Jews and was once desired by Philip.[12] What John would say, therefore, is this: No one has ever seen God by the bodily sense; a denial which, in John’s mode of expression, involves the assertion that He is invisible to the human eye.

Neander says that it follows, therefore, that the Church can only be in union with the invisible God by a spiritual bond and thereby can have the assurance that He abides with and in them, that He dwells in continued fellowship with them. And this spiritual bond is Love. Therefore, as God is love, and all love radiates from Him, so must the Church’s fellowship with Him be manifested so that He works in them as the spirit of love and that Love rules in them as the animating principle of their spiritual life.[13]

Gottfried C. F. Lücke (1791-1855) says that here the interpretation is controverted. He mentions that Johann Gottlob Carpzov (1679-1767), German Old Testament scholar, preacher, and theologian, compared verse twelve (“No one has ever seen God”) with verse fourteen (“We have seen and testify”) as if the Apostle John had written “No man has seen God” when “we only looked upon Him.”[14] His meaning is as follows: This can be understood in that God, indeed, has the power to behold the nature of the invisible when no one can much less comprehend it.[15] [16]

But German theologian Johann Peter Lange (1802-1884) has justly rejected this interpretation. From the beginning of verse twelve to verse fourteen, the middle proposal is too long, but its substance is too essential and belongs to the leading train of ideas to be considered a parenthesis. Nor is there any conjunctive particle indicating a mutual relation between the two propositions of verses twelve and fourteen, even in the remotest degree.

Lastly, and this is most important, the proposition that no one has seen God is so firmly expressed that (in the absence of intermediate proposals respecting the visibility, or rather recognizability of God in the Anointed One, as defined in John’s Gospel), [17] can by no means be considered as its limitation. The correct interpretation of the passage appears to be this: Granted, human love without a visible, immediately present object is not easily sparked or supported, as explained why John did not say that since God loved us, let us adore Him all the more. Instead, since God loved us so passionately, we must also love one another!

Yet, we all know that humankind cannot immediately return to the invisible God, the love they have shown to their visible brothers and sisters. But when we love our visible fellow believers, then God remains in us. He is present with His favor, showing our love for the invisible.[18]

Albert Barnes (1798-1870) says that when the Apostle John says that God’s agápē is perfected in us, it means His agápē was carried out to completion. Therefore, our love for each other is the proper exponent of love to Him reigning in our hearts. The idea here is not that we are perfect, or even that our love is perfect, whatever may be true on those points, but that this agápē to others is the proper carrying out of our love towards Him; that is, without this, our love to Him would not have accomplished what it was adapted and designed to do. Unless it produced this effect, it would be defective or incomplete.[19]


[1] Ezekiel 1: 1-28; see 7:2

[2] Maimonides, Moses. A Guide for the Perplexed, Part I, (p. 75). Veritatis Splendor Publications. Kindle Edition; see also Part III, Ch. 7

[3] 1 John 4:17

[4] Poole, Matthew: op. cit., loc. cit.

[5] Howe, John: The Whole Works of the Reverend John Howe, Published by F. Westley, London (Kindle Locations 644-648

[6] Howard, Leonard: The Royal Bible, op. cit., loc. cit.

[7] John 1:18

[8] Macknight, James: Literal Paraphrase, op. cit., p. 92

[9] Brown, John of Haddington: Self-Interpreting Bible, op. cit., p. 1328

[10] 1 John 4:20ff

[11] Rothe, Richard: The Expository Times, op. cit., February 1894, p. 233

[12] John 14:8

[13] Neander, Augustus: First Epistle of John, op. cit., Chapters IV, V, pp. 262-263

[14] 1 John 1:1

[15] John 14:9

[16] Lücke, Gottlieb: Biblical Cabinet, op. cit., Section Eight

[17] John 14:9

[18] Lücke, Gottfried: Commentary on First John, op. cit., Eighth Section, verse 12

[19] Barnes, Albert: Notes on the N. T., op. cit., p. 4866

About drbob76

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