WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

By Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson CXXXIX) 08/15/22

4:20If anyone says, “I love God,” but keeps hating their brother or sister, they are lying; for 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?

Johannes H. A. Ebrard (1818-1888) notes that by a subtle distinction, the Apostle John writes in the former half of this verse “love” but in the latter “loving.” [1] In the former case, he would describe the actual position of one who says they love God and nevertheless blunders so far as to allow themselves to hate their fellow citizen. That’s no doubt why John felt it was necessary to illuminate the sharp contrast and, therefore, to show the furthest point to which an error-prone conscience may be misled. The Apostle speaks in the presence of the experienced fact that a person sometimes does utter their assurance that they love God while nourishing hatred against their neighbor. But in the latter case, where the Apostle is laying down a doctrinal position that merely not-hating is insufficient, he must enforce the positive requirement that Christians should love their brothers and sisters. Hence, he writes: “The person that does not love their fellow believer, etc.” [2]

Charles Ellicott (1819-1904) says that these last three verses summarize the truth, and the duty in verses ten and eleven is vivid. God made it possible for us to love Him, and the first result of our feeling this power within us and allowing it to put itself into force will be seen in pure and devout care for all whom we can help. As usual, hating and not loving are interchangeable members of the class of misbehavior. John argues on the ground that it is much easier for human nature to be interested in what comes before its eyes than the things it imagines.” [3] 

This is so true of Jesus. We would be able to love Him more if we could see Him than simply imagine Him as He sits in heaven. But our Lord told us, “You believe because you have seen Me. So blessed are those who believe without seeing Me.” [4] In other words, the Anointed One could say, “O yes, you’ll love Me as long as you can see me being with you in person, but those who will love Me even after I’m gone are the ones who will receive My blessing.”

William Kelly (1822-1888), we see here in verse twenty, we have the last of the false professions, as individualized in chapter two, as liars. Such language and conduct betray delusion, and the Apostle John does not hesitate to stigmatize that person as a liar. Our feeling toward a brother tests the truth or falsehood of our profession Godward. It is a present and tangible case. Here is my brother at my door, endowed with life in the Anointed One, and cleansed from their sins by the Anointed One’s blood; and do I allow on any pretext hatred in the heart and talk of loving the unseen God? It is a falsehood: Satan has closed our eyes.

If living faith exists, says Kelly, life would attract, and God’s agápē draw out love from us. Nor does the Holy Spirit of God abide in the saint for nothing; and where the heart treats Him as nothing in another, is it not the plain evidence that He cannot be there to give the enjoyment of fellowship one with another through the Son, by whom all the blessing comes? If “liar” is a character most embarrassing among humans, what is it in the mouth of an Apostle John and the eternal things of God? Thus, the only wise God in the evil day provides means that His children should not be deceived. For the more blessed is the love that is inspired by divine grace, the more critical it is that we should not be imposed on by what is untrue. It is a part of God’s moral government of His children that they are tried here below in various ways. But the love that is of God confides in God, abides in love whether others do or not, and has the Spirit’s enduring power to make God’s presence in our souls so that we may be calm and subject to whatever happens.[5]

William Burt Pope (1822-1903) points out two condensed arguments here. First, recalling verse ten that the invisible God perfects His agápē in us by the Spirit through our brotherly love, it is simply an intense repetition: the invisible Fountain of Love abides in us. It has its perfect operation in our devotion to its visible objects, embracing all our fellow-regenerate brothers and sisters. This is carried over into the next chapter, verse one, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Anointed One has become a child of God. And everyone who loves the Father loves His children, too.” [6]

Brooke F. Westcott (1825-1901) makes it clear that the claim to God’s knowledge without obedience and the claim to God’s agápē without action involves not only the denial of what is known to be accurate but the falseness of a believer’s character.[7] Sight is taken as a sign of limitation, which brings objects within the range of our present powers. It is necessarily easier to love that which is like our finite selves than that infinite form we cannot grasp. And the title “brother” brings out the idea of that which is godlike in mankind to which love can be directed. They, therefore, who fail to recognize God as He reveals Himself through the Anointed One dwelling in His people [8] cannot love God. They have refused God’s help for the expression of love in action.

The other day I saw a video of a man stepping onto a manual treadmill to walk for exercise. He stood there for a while, then grabbed the handles, but the tread did not move. So, he asked a friend standing close by, “How do I turn this thing on?” His friend replied in a monotone, “Start walking.” It’s the same with God’s agápē placed in our hearts. It doesn’t do a thing until we start using it. It’s the difference between love in mind and love in action.

Henry A. Sawtelle (1832-1913) sees “hating” as opposing “loving.” In other words, unlike darkness, which is the absence of light, hate is an ever-present enemy of loving. However, like light and darkness, hate and love cannot exist together in one heart. When one moves in, the other moves out. So, in not loving, there is the condition of hating when the occasion comes. Sawtelle also points out that those who do not believe this and claim otherwise falsely profess and deny love’s very nature. That’s why the Apostle John calls them “liars.” Our love is the production (verse nineteen) of God’s agápē. But God’s agápē goes out to us to the brotherhood. Therefore, our love must embrace the same company. If it does not, it is not true love from God.[9]

Erich Haupt (1841-1910) says that the Apostle John has now unfolded that God’s agápē without the love of the brethren is impossible. Up to this point, John has not spoken a word about our love for God, only of the divine love infused into us and must approve itself as brotherly love. That we must love God enters here as a new thought, which, however, is so self-explanatory that it is introduced simply as a matter taken for granted. The emphasis lies only on the evidence that we cannot conceive of having God’s agápē without loving our family of believers. The form of the exposition has been made familiar to us in chapters one and two, but here in verse twenty, we have “if a man says” there it was “if we say;” [10] we may also compare “If one of you say,” [11] and “Some man will say,” [12] So, by saying that those who claim to love God but hate their brother or sister is a “liar,” it does not violate apostolical doctrine, but asserts that they have made a deceptive assertion of being in the actual state of God’s agápē.[13]

Alfred Plummer (1841-1926) points out that the Apostle John does not say “whom he can see” but “whom he has continually before his eyes.” The perfect tense, as so often, expresses a permanent state continuing from the past. So, his brother has been and remains in sight; God has been and stays out of sight. “Out of sight, out of mind” is an old saying that holds good in morals, religion, and society. And if a person fails to carry out easy duties before their eyes, how can we trust them to perform tasks that require an effort to remember and are difficult? And in this case, the seen would necessarily suggest the unseen: the child on earth implies the Father in heaven.

If, therefore, notes Plummer, if the ones we see are not loved, what must we think about those we cannot see? The visible brother or sister and the invisible God are put in striking juxtaposition. When we read what John says here in verse twenty, “For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen,” when read in Greek goes; “For the one not loving his brother, whom he has seen, God whom he has not seen how is he able to love?” would be misunderstood in English if left that way.[14]

William Lincoln (1841-1926) observes that two Final Covenant commands are put in the opposite order from what they were in chapter three, where it says. “We love Him because He loved us first.” That is balanced: “If a man says, I love God, and hate his brother, he is a liar; if he doesn’t love his brother whom he can see, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” And we have this commandment from Him, that he who loves God, loves His brother also. We have it already as a command in the third chapter. Then in the two first verses of the fifth chapter, the sentiment is put in a two-fold form, as is frequent in Holy Scripture. What I mean is this, if a man says he loves God, God says, you will love My people then; or if a man says, he loves His people, God says, you will love Me then.[15] In other words, don’t even think about loving God until you love your fellow man because that is the way to love Him. After all, He has already put His agápē into our hearts so we can use it for that purpose.[16]


[1] See 1 John 4:20-21 – Berean Literal Bible (BLB); Young’s Literal Translation (YLT); Smith’s Literal Translation (SLT); and Godbey New Testament (GNT)

[2] Ebrard, Johannes: Biblical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. John, op. cit., p. 309

[3] Cf. 1 John 2:4; 3:17; 4:12

[4] John 20:29

[5] Kelly, William: An Exposition of the Epistles of John the Apostle, op. cit., Logos, loc. cit.

[6] Pope, William B., Popular Commentary, op. cit., p. 316

[7] See also John 8:44, 55; and 1 John 2:22

[8] Matthew 25:49

[9] Sawtelle, Henry A., An American Commentary, Alvah Hovey Ed., op. cit., p. 53

[10] 1 John 1:6, 8

[11] James 2:16

[12] 1 Corinthians 15:35

[13] Haupt, Erich: The First Epistle of John, op. cit., pp. 281-282

[14] Plummer, Alfred: Cambridge Commentary, op. cit., pp. 153-154

[15] Lincoln, William: Lectures on 1 John, op. cit., Lecture VIII, pp 136-137

[16] See Romans 5:5

About drbob76

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