WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

By Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson CXXXI) 08/11/22

4:20If anyone says “I love God” but keeps hating their brother or sister, they are lying; if they don’t love their brother or sister who is right in front of them, how can they love God whom they have never seen?

It makes little difference what a person claims about loving God. The fact is, they are lying about loving God if they do not love others. It is irresistible logic. The greater implies, the lesser. Conversely, avoidance of the lesser denotes the impossibility of the greater. One side of the coin cannot be a valid currency if the other side is false. We do not love God if we do not love Christians.

The word “liar” occurs five times in John’s epistle,[1] more than in any other book in the Bible. A “liar” is someone who attempts to deceive by conveying disinformation. Calling someone a “liar” is a harsh term intended to get attention. To claim fellowship with the Light and walk in darkness is a lie.[2] To claim belief in the Father and yet deny the Son is a lie.[3] Finally, it is also a lie if they claim to love God and do not love Christians. These three lies constitute a spiritual lie, a doctrinal lie, and a relational lie. Notice that John uses “brother” twice in this verse and ten other times in this epistle.[4] 

COMMENTARY

Cyprian (210-258 AD), bishop of Carthage, again addresses the Jews by pointing out what their Scriptures say about their falling under God’s severe wrath because they have forsaken Him to worship idols. He recalls what he told the Jews earlier about God’s children and the devil’s brood. He then quotes John: “Everyone who hates their brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life.”[5] Again Cyprian repeats what he said to the Jews before about those who say they love God but hate their brother are liars. If you can’t love the one you see, how can you love the one you can’t see?[6] This will only label them liars who think they are walking in the Light of truth but instead are stumbling around in the darkness of deceit.[7]

It brings up a pertinent question, one asked by Augustine (354-430): “Why does man not see God?” He chooses to answer right away instead of going into a long discourse. He says: “Because he has no love.”  And the proof that he has no love and cannot see God is because “He does not love his spiritual brothers and sisters.”   Since God not only lives in you but also lives in your spiritual brother and sister, not to love them is therefore not to love God. So, there is no use in wanting to see God, to love Him when we can’t even love our spiritual brother or sister who we do see.[8]

Someone asked Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) whether or not the ten commandments were placed in proper order because loving one’s neighbor came before receiving God’s agápē. Is it because our neighbor is better known to us than God? According to the Apostle John, “If we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?”[9] Consequently, in the ten commandments, the first three belong to our love for God, while the other seven pertain to our love of neighbor. Therefore, the precepts of the decalogue are not set in proper order.

Aquinas says, “I totally disagree!” The Ten Commandments are as sufficient as the mind is ready to grasp what they say. Hence, the commandments needed to direct people to God; since to do the opposite is confusing. Thus also, in an army that is as committed to the commander as to the objective, it is first necessary for the soldier to be subject to the commander. Secondly, they must be in coordination with the other soldiers.[10] The same goes for our loyalty to God and His commandments.

John Trapp (1601-1669) tells us that if a person says, I love God, they don’t need to say it out loud as though they were bragging. The Apostle Paul clarified this when he wrote, “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful, or proud.”[11] The Anointed One loves it when we do things privately.[12] Those who love Him are not ashamed to show it in their actions. Trapp tells that when Master Bartlet Green (1529-1556),[13] after being beaten and afflicted with rods by Bishop Edmund Bonner (1500-1569),[14] greatly rejoiced. Yet he would never mention anything about it lest he perceived it as glorifying himself too much.[15]

Trapp then quotes Plato, who stated that ““An empty vessel makes the loudest sound, so they that have the least wit are the greatest babblers.”[16] This pokes at those who brag about their external Christianity but have little inside. Trapp also takes a saying from the Roman poet Juvenal,[17] who wondered how he could love someone he’d never seen. So, how can he love God? That is, says Dr. John Rainolds (or Reynolds) (1549-1607),[18] they who cannot endure taking a glimpse and ray of holiness in a Christian brother or sister will much less be able to abide the Light of the Sun of righteousness, and the most ornate, spotless, and vast holiness that is in Him?[19]

John Owen (1616-1682) tells us what John says here in verse twenty; as he sees it, God has endowed our nature with a faculty and ability to concentrate on ourselves. Therefore, many understand nothing of love but the obedience of their minds and souls to things visible and sensible, capable of present natural enjoyment. For things unseen, especially those that are eternal and infinite, they supposedly worship with respect and adoration. Still, they cannot understand the purpose. And John does grant that there is more difficulty in loving things invisible than those that are always visibly present.[20] However, this divine love has more attention and prevalence in the minds of humankind than any other kind of love whatsoever.

Matthew Poole (1624-1679) states that knowing God is the love fountain, ours is but a stream: His agápē is the stimulus, the pattern, and the practical resource for our love: His is the first love, ours is out of respect and reverence for Him. But, says Poole, the great difficulty implied here is that our present dependence upon our sense of a loving and invisible God must be just as significant as those we see and converse with daily. Therefore, let us consider the comprehensiveness of these two things, God’s agápē and our fellow believers, that they are the roots of all that service we owe to God and humanity, which fulfills the whole law.[21] He helps us see the falsehood and absurdity of so-called believers with their pretending to have reached the renowned level of devotion and sanctity, who neglect the duties of others.[22]

John Howe (1630-1705)  says that the Apostle John’s purpose at present is not to use words in verse twenty, either of love to God, or our brethren, either together or one at a time: but comparatively only, according to that connection which they have with one another; and the difference of the one from the other respecting their objects, as the object of the one is somewhat visible, and of the other relatively invisible.

Nevertheless, there is one thing necessary to be introduced in this intended discourse concerning the acceptance of love here, and it is this; that the Apostle John, in this little account about love, as this epistle may do, for the most part, be the Epistle of Love. It is not designed to treat love as a philosopher, that is, to give us a precise formal notion of it, but to speak of it with a sense of freedom. We should not exclude the traditional idea of love as it is seated in the inner person but comprehend its apt expressions and characterizations. And therefore, speaking of love for God, John tells us, “Anyone obeys His word, love for God is truly made complete in them.”[23] [24]

Daniel Whitby (1638-1726) states that if we have more opportunities to share God’s agápē, and perform it with little difficulty, then how will we perform what is more difficult? Now let’s look at our Christian brothers and sisters. Since they are the object of our senses, we daily converse with them; their wants and miseries being apparent, it should naturally move us to compassion. But, on the other hand, it is less challenging to express their love to them we see than to God. Who else can be present in our minds to motivate us to be more involved, something that does not naturally occur to us and which we cannot endure that makes it more difficult to love Him than to love our fellow believers?[25]

William Burkitt (1650-1703) says that the Apostle John, in these words, prevents an objection. Some might be ready to ask, “Who is it that does not love God? Is there any living who do not love Him?” The apostle replies, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar.” It is impossible to love God and not to do what God commands: and if we do not exercise love to our brethren, whom we daily see and converse with, how can it be imagined that we love God, whom we never saw?[26]

Leonard Howard (1699-1767) says convincingly, let no one pretend to love God and the Anointed One but will have nothing to do with their fellow Christians. Those who neglect such opportunities to express their love to others and those whose communication with those they see is based on just trying to be nice are far from discharging their obligation to God, whom they cannot see. This is the greatest pretention of love. Those who continue to do so are not only unkind but insincere.[27]    


[1] Ibid. 1:10; 2:4, 22; 4:20; 5:10

[2] Ibid. 1:6; 2:4

[3] Ibid. 2:22, 23

[4] Ibid. 2:9, 10, 11; 3:10, 12, 14, 15, 17, 21; 5:16

[5] Ibid. 3:15

[6] Ibid. 4:20

[7] Cyprian: Treatise XII, Three Books of Testimonies Against the Jews, Bk. III ⁋3

[8] Augustine: Ten Homilies on 1 John Homily 9, 1 John 4:17

[9] 1 John 4:20

[10] Aquinas, Thomas: Summa Theologica, op. cit., Part 2, Question 100, Article 6, pp. 1126-1127

[11] 1 Corinthians 13:4

[12] See Song of Solomon 2:14

[13] Bartholomew [Bartlet] Green was a wealthy Roman Catholic who converted to Protestantism

[14] Edmund Bonner was the bishop of London who supported King Henry VIII’s antipapal measures but rejected the imposition of Protestant doctrine and worship during the reigns of King Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth I. For centuries Bonner was characterized as a monster who enjoyed burning Protestants at the stake during the reign of the Roman Catholic Mary I.

[15] See Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, published by the John C. Winston Co., (no date), Ch. XIII, p. 235

[16] One of Plato’s quotes, no part of his writings

[17] Juvenal, Satires

[18] John Rainolds was president of Corpus Christi College, and dean of Lincoln College, Oxford

[19] Trapp, John: Commentary upon all books of New Testament (1647), op. cit., p. 478

[20] 1 John 1:20

[21] Matthew 22:37-39

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

[23] 1 John 2:5

[24] Howe, John: op. cit., (Kindle Locations 19-27)

[25] Whitby, Daniel: op. cit., p. 468

[26] Burkitt, William: Notes on N.T., op. cit., p. 733

[27] Howard, Leonard: The Royal Bible, 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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