WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

By Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson CXXXIII) 08/12/22

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?

Bishop Arthur Temple Lyttelton (1852-1903), Suffragan Bishop of Southampton, states: We cannot love Him whom we do not see, and to comprehend the tremendous invisible influence in which we live and move and have our being, to appreciate the person who is watching over and directing us and directing all this complicated scheme of things, is more complex and harder to do. And the world comes close around us and absorbs us. If that is our difficulty, we may take verse twenty as teaching us that there is training in God’s agápē.

So, offers Lyttelton, if we accept that love of others is training for God’s agápē; for, though it is hard to grasp the invisible, we have the visible. We have people; we have a love for others, which is natural to us, and easy for us in a sense. And I think that is what the Apostle implies as training for God’s agápē – the love of our brother and sister whom we see; this familiar friend, who is with us at every turn of our life, with whom we are continually in contact. And in our natural life in the world, this familiar friend is the means to train and draw out this excellent talent in us – the love of our friend and our fellowman. So we are to train and exercise ourselves in God’s agápē. And that simple, natural human affection we feel for our friends is the same faculty as that required for God’s agápē.

We must not think of this agápē as something extraordinary, says Lyttelton, some new and unknown faculty to be given to us. No doubt all love of God is a gift: but all love is similar to the same affection. It is essentially going out of ourselves, loving another, and living for another. And whether that other be a fellowman, or God Himself, still the impulse is the same – the putting aside of all selfish motivations and living in and for God or men. That is love. So, the love of others is, as I said, training for God’s agápē because it is the same faculty that is needed for both. And in our weakness, when we cannot rise to God’s agápē, let us remember that we have our Lord’s warrant that whatsoever “we do to the least of these His brethren we do unto Him.” [1] And when we love our brethren, it is the first step to God’s agápē. We cannot pass it over; we cannot rise to God’s agápē; we cannot see unless we love “our brethren whom we have seen.” [2]

James Macknight (1721-1800) cautions that we should let no one deceive us concerning the love people owe to God. If anyone says, of course, I love God and yet hate Christians, they are liars; They are deceivers if they are a teacher; or, if they are private individuals, they are hypocrites. For those who do not love their brother or sister, whose good qualities and various distress they have seen, how can they love God, whose excellencies are not detected by physical senses but by human reasoning based on their good works?[3] This is what Luther, Calvin, John Wesley, and other Reformers found objectional in the doctrine and practices of the Roman church. If you cannot work your way into God’s agápē, you cannot work your way into God’s heaven.

John Brown of Haddington (1722-1787) claims that our unbeatable love for God is connected with a sincere love for all His children. To pretend to love God and yet to indulge in an unkind, incompatible, and hateful attitude toward our fellow Christians is to expose us as lying about our profession, the Anointed One as our Savior, and to all the declarations in the Scripture concerning true love to Him. For if we do not show love to our fellow believers in the faith and fellowship of the Gospel, we can see and in whom we discern the image of God, how can we ever love an invisible God?[4]  

Augustus Neander (1789-1850) feels that to impress on Christians the obligation of brotherly love, the Apostle John again reminds them that through God’s agápē to them, their love was first kindled; and then goes on to show that devotion to God necessarily involves love to our fellow man. John makes it clear that our love for Him comes from His loving us first. If anyone says “I love God” but keeps on hating their brother or sister, they are telling a lie, for if they don’t love their brother or sister who is right there in front of them, how can they love God whom they have never seen?[5]

Albert Barnes (1798-1870) says it is unnecessary to correctly interpret this passage to suppose that someone[6] not loving their brother or sister but still contending that they love God is intentionally deceiving anyone. The sense is that this must be a false profession. It is more reasonable to expect that we should love someone we have seen and know personally than someone we have not seen. The Apostle John is arguing about human nature as it is, and everyone feels that we are more likely to love one with whom we are familiar than a stranger. If a professed Christian, therefore, does not love one who bears the Divine image, whom they see and know, how can they claim to love the unseen God in whose image they were created?

Richard Rothe (1799-1867) says that now the Apostle John calls our attention to the self-deception into which we are apt to fall concerning our love. Because between Him and us, there is such a vast space. The coldness of our love measures the greatness of the distance. Therefore, when we regard love for God as something which must be essentially different from ordinary love, we readily agree on the simplest form of showing our love for God. We admit the rationality of the summons to love God but conclude that it does not require any special effort on our part other than just to tell Him we love Him. That way, it is not such a burden to us.

Thus, we are inclined to regard them as distant requirements rather than those near at hand because there seems to be no immediate need to fulfill them, and they are presented to us only as an idea.[7] In other words, we accept that when we see someone suffering without a home, clothing, or food, we pity them. But for heaven’s sake, don’t ask us to find shelter, clothing, or food for them. Especially if it’s our home, our clothing we must give, or food we must prepare and then feed them.[8] For some, that’s taking love too far.

Irish pastor of the Fisherwick Presbyterian Church, Belfast, Dr. James Morgan (1799-1873), points out that several text clauses are constructed to light up their meaning. “A person may say, ‘I love God.'” They may say it and think it and yet not do it. In that case, they are playing a game with themselves. On the other hand, they may say it and not think it. In such a case, they are hypocrites. In the middle of such self-deception or hypocritical profession, a person “may hate their Christian brother or sister.” The person who so speaks and acts that way is to be pronounced as “a liar.” There is a total inconsistency between what they say and do. Their conduct towards others contradicts their profession of being in God and He in them.

An argument, says Morgan, is next used to prove the inconsistency of professing love to God while others are treated with hate. This is the Apostle John’s message here in verse twenty. This is assumed to be an impossibility. And it should be. Their brother and sister are God’s children. Can anyone love a person and hate their child? Our brothers and sisters are representatives of God, and in hating them, we hate God. For John to confirm the argument, he adds, “God gave us this command: “If we love God, we must also love each other as brothers and sisters.” [9] We say we love God. Of that love, the great proof is that “we keep His commandments.” But one of His commandments is that we love one another. [10]

William E. Jelf (1811-1875) states that the form of the question in the Greek text pōs dynamai, “how can” a person love God whom they have not seen, refers to the reader’s reasons. It is absurd to suppose that they could do so. As the love of the invisible God requires more incredible mental energy than the love of the visible creature, it is contrary to reason that an individual would claim the firmer mental energy while the easier is still out of their reach. It doesn’t matter if it’s because of their will or their power, for the force depends on the choice and the will up to a certain point of control. God’s agápē is indeed the source and necessary condition of a Christian’s love for others, and yet this has its basis in the natural tendency of human-to-human love, though this being stifled by sin and requires God’s agápē to develop and perfect it.

No person can rise to God’s agápē, insists Jelf, unless they first have such agápē for their fellowman, but this does not rise to the dignity and purity of Christian grace until it is elevated and purified by the former. A person with no affection towards those they see can have no fondness for one they have not seen. There are two reasons why the absence of God’s agápē argues the lack of love for others. 1. The love of others is the foundation, the root of God’s agápē; therefore, the latter cannot exist without the former. 2. Mankind’s love flows from God’s agápē; therefore, if the former does not exist, neither does the latter.[11]

John Stock (1817-1884) urges Christians to love one another; in this agápē stands the sign that they have passed from death unto life.[12] The more this agápē abounds, the clearer is the manifestation that we believers are not predestined to God’s harsh judgment but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus the Anointed One[13] for His sake only and not for our most imperfect love. We are of the Father of all mercies and the God of all comfort,[14] accredited as being right in God’s eyes and having eternal life.[15]


[1] Matthew 25:40, 45

[2] Lyttelton, Arthur Temple: The Church Pulpit Commentary, op. cit., Vol. 12, Love to Men, pp. 308-310

[3] Macknight, James: Literal Paraphrase, op. cit., p. 97

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

[5] Neander, William: First Epistle of John, op. cit., Chapters IV, V, p. 272

[6] Barnes, Albert: Notes on the N.T., op. cit., p. 4870

[7] Rothe, Richard: The Expository Times, op. cit., November 1894, p. 87

[8] See Matthew 25:36-40

[9] 1 John 4:21

[10] Morgan, James: An Exposition of the First Epistle of John, Second Edition, T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1866. 375

[11] Jelf, William E., First Epistle of St. John, op. cit., pp. 67-68

[12] 1 John 3:14

[13] 1 Thessalonians 5:9

[14] 2 Corinthians 1:3

[15] Stock, John: Exposition of First Epistle of John, op. cit., p. 392

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s