WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

By Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson LXXXII) 05/12/22

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.

From a worldly perspective, says Moody, the Gospel’s message of God’s agápē is quite uncanny and unbelievable, a state of affairs that would not surprise the Apostle John. It belongs to the character of the world not to believe such nonworldly message. Does the news have any basis in perceptible reality? If so, it’s only in mutual human love. Such love becomes a possibility in response to God’s agápē, made manifest in the historical human Jesus. It makes the message of God’s agápē as a credible witness to the world. However, one need not deny the genuineness of human affection apart from the Gospel message and our grateful response to it. Such love is inherently self-interested, but such a charge runs the risk of being rigid and unfair. We do not have to prove the world false so that the Gospel may be true. God’s agápē in Jesus the Anointed One and our responsive love become perceptible and credible. People already know what love means, understand its necessity, and long for its exchange and fulfillment.[1]

Stephen S. Smalley (1931-2018) thinks that because the statement “no one has seen God” is introduced so abruptly, it suggests that it “was somehow misplaced.” But the Apostle John has a reason for making the point now, shortly after speaking against the heretics about how God can be “known.” Perhaps some members of John’s congregation claimed to have “seen’’ God directly and thereby “know” Him. It brings to mind the idea in Jewish apocalyptic writings of the “heavenly journey” of the soul and compares the ascent of Enoch, [2] or the rapture of Elijah, [3] and also the four Rabbis raptured to enter the “Garden of Paradise.”[4] However, the notion in Gnostic thought of the soul’s thrilling journey to heaven, as a form of “divine knowledge,” must have been in John’s mind at this point, so verse twelve is directed against such heretical ideas.[5] It resembles today’s popular doctrine that as soon as a believer dies, they go directly to heaven to see their mansion and dance on the streets of gold, bypassing the resurrection as foretold in Scripture.[6]

Edward J. Malatesta (1932-1998) has the Apostle John introducing the theme of our inability to see God physically.[7] However, our mutual love experience of God being in us and His agápē perfected in us. It is the only way we can “see God” in this life. It means that every time you see a fellow believer showing agápē to another, you see God. Not only that, but when they see you loving others, they see God in you. God is not in you if they do not see any love in you. John expands this theme into verse thirteen when it requires agápē for us, remaining in union with God and He in us. This identifies the source of our knowledge of God and constant communion with Him. Thus, He gave us His Spirit to live in us to keep that fellowship going.[8]

Ian Howard Marshall (1934-2015) tells us that he sees the Apostle John turning his back on mystical experience as the high point in a person’s relationship with God. This, is from a man who had one of the most spectacular revelations during the Final Covenant era. He had no interest in retreating from the world of men into the privacy of a vision of God. On the contrary, when people love their fellow Christians – on a very practical level – they fully experience God’s agápē in their hearts and know the presence of God is with them. This does not mean that Christian duty is summed up in merely loving one another, as some would have us believe. John’s point is that loving one another is indispensable in a religion that longs to have true knowledge of God. We cannot find God by withdrawing from the world and its obligation to love one another, but equally, God cannot be found merely by trying to love one another. True religion comes only through believing in Jesus the Anointed One and accepting His command to love another.[9]

John Painter (1935) The alternative to seeing God ourselves is that when “we love one another,” we see Him in them. In expectation of seeing Jesus as He is the ground of the hope that “we will be like Him.”[10] This is the Johannine version of the vision of God. In the time of Jesus’ ministry, some saw, heard, touched, and handled Him. When He is fully revealed, [11] we will be like Him at His second coming because we will see Him as He is. But here, for the moment, loving one another appears to be an alternative to seeing Him as He is. Even here, it is unclear whether loving one another is God’s abiding with us or whether it is the evidence of that abiding. The latter seems more likely in that it is said that “if we love one another … God’s love is made perfect in us.”[12]

Michael Eaton (1942-2017) remarks that we might respond to the Apostle John by saying: “I do love God, I simply find it difficult to get on with so-and-so.” John exposes this as an excuse. It is too easy to claim to be getting on well with God. He is, after all, invisible. Our relationship with Him is a sacred one but not a secret one, generally speaking. Easy claims about knowing God may cover up the real battle we have with loving people. Maybe we are not far enough on the love’s pathway to appreciate the love given to us by the Holy Spirit.[13] John’s challenge is that we venture further down the road of love. It is the way God wants us to live. If we are born again, we already have the seed of love. So, just let it grow![14]

William Loader (1944) sees what the Apostle John says here as standard theology for Jews and Christians. It reaches back in tradition to the Sinai episode where God says to Moses: “No mortal may see Me and live.”[15] The climax of the prologue of John’s Gospel reads: “No one has ever seen God; God’s only Son, He who is nearest to the Father’s heart, has made Him known.”[16] So, John is not pulling some mystical or new concept about God and mankind out of the bag. It has been long established that God, like the wind, is unseen but easily felt.

David Jackman (1947) says that loving one another is not just an extra ingredient that we might add to our discipleship, but only if we feel especially moved to do so. We owe it to the loving Father not to further slander His name by denying His love in our human relationships. If we have been cleansed through the blood of the Anointed One, our new lives must be clean, like His, as we mix with others in God’s family. Let us appreciate the infinite price paid for our redemption, for a moment. We will quickly discern how vital it is that we do not continue to indulge ourselves in following our sinful tendencies. There is a new constraint within us that longs to live differently.[17] So the Christian church should be a community of love, unlike any other society. The Church indeed exists for those who are not yet members, but it is also true that the love among her members should be one of her most powerful magnets.[18]

Robert W. Yarbrough (1948) notes that among major emphases earlier in the discourse is the need for readers to “abide” or “remain” in what they have been taught and in union with the Anointed One.[19] The Apostle John has also stressed the perfecting or making complete of God’s love in believers through obedience to God’s Word.[20] In verse twelve, John sees the merging of these two strands, “abiding” and “perfecting,” as closely tied with the expression of love among believers.

The additional consideration is John’s categorical observation that “no one has ever seen God.” The invisibility of God is a consequence of the conviction that God is Spirit, not a being possessing material properties.[21] A First Covenant thought that spills directly over into the Final Covenant, God is a personal being, but he is not a human,

Numbers 23:19         “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that he should

                                      Change his mind.[22]

                                                     Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?

1 Chronicles 21: 13  David said to Gad, “I am in deep distress. Let me fall into the hands of the Lord, for                                          his mercy is very great; but do not let me fall into the hands of men.”

Job 9: 32                     He is not a man like me that I might answer Him, that we might confront each                                         other in court.”

Job 33:12                    ”But I tell you, in this you are not right, for God is greater than man.”

Psalm 50: 21              “These things you have done and I kept silent; you thought I was altogether like                                              you. But I will rebuke you and accuse you to your face.”

Hosea 11: 9                I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. For I                                    am God, and not man – the Holy One among you”.

Perfected” here in verse twelve is unlikely to refer to a state of sinless perfection in believers, which John has already rejected. Nor is John suggesting that there is something imperfect in God’s love that believers loving brings to perfection or fulfills. The root of the Greek perfect participle means “to finish, complete, or bring to the desired outcome.”[23] John speaks here not of perfect people but of God’s already pristine love finding its fullest possible earthly expression as people respond to the message of the Anointed One and reach out to one another as a result.[24]


[1] Smith, D. Moody. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, op. cit., pp. 106, 111-112

[2] 1 Enoch 71; 2 Enoch, Ch. 44:7-8

[3] 2 Kings 2:11

[4] Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, Hagigah, folio 14b

[5] Smalley, Stephen S., Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 51, op. cit., p. 246

[6] 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17

[7] See 1 John 4:20; cf. 1-3; 3:2, 6

[8] Malatesta, Edward J., Interiority and Covenant, op. cit., p. 295

[9] Marshall, I. Howard. The Epistles of John (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), op. cit., pp. 217-218)

[10] 1 John 3:2

[11] Ibid. 2:28

[12] Painter, John. Sacra Pagina: 1, 2, and 3 John: Vol. 18, loc. cit.

[13] Romans 5:5

[14] Eaton, Michael: Focus on the Bible, 1,2,3 John, op. cit., pp. 152-153

[15] Exodus 33:20

[16] John 1:18

[17] Romans 5:5

[18] Jackman, David: The Message of John’s Letters, op. cit., p. 122

[19] 1 John 2:6, 10, 14, 17, 24, 27-28

[20] Ibid. 2:5

[21] Cf. John 4:24

[22] Numbers 23:19

[23] Cf. John 4: 34; 5: 36; 17: 4

[24] Yarbrough, Robert W., 1-3 John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), op. cit., pp. 243-245

About drbob76

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