WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

By Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson CL) 08/30/22

4:20If anyone says, “I love God,” but keeps hating their spiritual brothers or sisters, they are lying; for if they don’t love their fellow believers right in front of their eyes, how can they love God whom they have never seen?

So, suppose it is your aspiration and your church’s goal to save sinners in this lost and dying world. In that case, it isn’t our music, witnessing, preaching, or altar calls that are the primary power source for the Holy Spirit to draw people to the cross and salvation. Instead, the foremost virtue and characteristic Christians need to develop to make the Gospel attractive is our love for our fellow Christians and citizens.

Michael Eaton (1942-2017) says there is something very crushing in accepting the truth about ourselves and knowing that God still receives us. Yet, it somehow enables us to leave our case and our cause in the hands of God. We become like Jesus, surrender our reputation, our conviction that we are correct, and our passionate desires to have things our way. And we admit that there is something far more critical, the command we have from Him “to love our fellow believers” and those to whom the Holy Spirit sends us.”[1]

William Loader (1944) sees the Apostle John bringing together the aspects: “whoever loves God must love their fellow Christian.” The word “must” shows that loving one’s fellow believer is not something that happens automatically, as if it occurs through a mystical transformation without human effort. The truth is that for John, love is a conscious choice. It is a command. At the same time, love is a choice made possible by the prior expressing affection, which comes from God. Therefore, believers are to make a conscious effort to let such compassion reach its perfection in them.[2]

David Jackman (1947) laments that one of our greatest sins as Christians today is that we talk a lot about loving God. We may try to express it in our worship with great emotion, but what does it mean when we are so critical of other Christians, so ready to jump to negative conclusions about people, so slow to bear their burdens, so unwilling to step into their shoes? Such lovelessness contradicts what we profess and flagrantly disobeys God’s commands. It becomes a major stumbling block to those seeking peace through salvation in the Anointed One. It also renders any attempts at evangelism useless. In many churches and fellowships, we need fresh repentance on this matter, a new humbling before God, an honest confession of our need, and a cry to God for mercy and grace to change us.[3]

John W. (Jack) Carter (1947) summarizes that if we have lived our Christian life on the power of phileo love, shedding its hypocrisy can be difficult.  Phileo establishes a pattern of self-desires, self-will, and hypocrisy that will be hard to break.  However, with God, all things are possible.  The Christian can take this need to God in prayer, asking for a better understanding of the appropriate expression of agápē. With agápē, there will be no limit to how God uses gifts for the kingdom’s purposes.  There is no limit to how God uses us to touch one another with acts of love and charity that strengthen our relationships, encourage one another, and develop a closer relationship with God. Why would we choose the phileo love of this world?  Once we are born again, we replace the worldly phileo that characterized our heart before salvation with God’s agápē that will form the basis of our new nature totally submitted to the Lord.  Let us, even at this time, make a new commitment to love God and one another in the way He has called us to do.[4]

Robert W. Yarbrough (1948) notices that verse twenty begins with a word pair that echoes Jesus’s language in John’s Gospel: “if anyone.” In the Synoptic Gospels, the words occur on Jesus’s lips at only two junctures: when Jesus tells two disciples to go and untie a colt for Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem,[5] and when Jesus foretells the announcement of false Messiahs.[6] In marked contrast, John’s Gospel quotes Jesus to this effect in some ten passages.[7]

Then in verse twenty-one, the Apostle John summarizes and extends his point. The words “from Him” could either mean from God or Jesus but are too dogmatic that John could be referring only to Jesus. The personal reference is significant; John bases his counseling on a relationship with the Father and the Son, not impersonal moralism. John recalls when someone asked Jesus about the “greatest commandment.[8] Or he remembers the First Covenant passage on which Jesus based his answer.[9] The point is the same. The imperative to love others is implicit in the claim to love God. The true lover of God loves His commandments also.[10] [11]

Colin G. Kruse (1950) says that in this verse, the Apostle John repeats a significant theme from what the Lord said at the Last Supper. On that occasion, Jesus stressed that His disciples’ love for Him must express itself in obedience to His command to love one another. For instance, “I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other;”[12]If you love me, obey My commandments.”[13]This is my commandment: Love each other the same way I have loved you.”[14]This is my command: Love each other.”[15] John’s purpose in picking up this theme here is to reassure his readers who did love their fellow believers that they knew God and to show them that the claims of the secessionists to know him were false.[16]

Judith M. Lieu (1951) This is the first time the letter has spoken explicitly of someone loving God, says Lieu, even though John denied that love is determined by “our” love before receiving God’s agápē. Yet, that such love was possible was not rejected. It is characteristic of the biblical tradition that those who love God are those who faithfully respond to God. The fundamental call to Israel, the Shema, is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength.”[17] It is improper to define all love for God in contrast to some other emotion or the absence of any.

But in contrast to allegiance to some other deity, says Lieu, it is evident that to love God is to serve God and obey God’s commands.[18] Given this biblical background, it is improbable that there were people presently or previously associated with the readers who were in danger of separating an emotional response to God from an obedient commitment. It is also unlikely that anyone would have understood such love along the lines of later developments in Christian thought, where God’s agápē comes to mean a profoundly personal, inner spiritual experience. Yet the Apostle John does envision a danger of separating response to God from response to one’s fellow believer.[19]

Ben Witherington III (1951) does not want anyone to become too narrow-minded in this discussion of the matter; it serves us well to remember that Jews were equally insistent that we love our fellow human beings. Rabbi Hillel once said, “Be of the disciples of Aaron – a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves the creatures and draws them close to Torah.”[20] The love commandment did not distinguish the early Jewish community from the Christian one; what distinguished them was the Anointed One’s influence and model of love in the Christian community.[21]

Gary M. Burge (1952) points out that the Apostle John closes this section with an appeal. He has been describing two dimensions in our experience: (1) the love we share with God (expressed through Jesus the Anointed One), and (2) the love we share in the community (viewed as a by-product of God’s agápē). To be sure, it is easier to love people we see rather than an invisible God. But, in the last two verses, John does not say that we should practice human love to grow into divine love. Nor is he saying that human love is the only way we love God. The absence of love for one another betrays a lack of love for God. Those who live with this duplicity, saying that they love God but, in their hearts, hate some human being, are (in John’s unyielding words) “liars.”

This final appeal, says Burge, does not rely on experience to fuel our love. Instead, for those whose lives require a more potent stimulus, the Apostle John ushers a divine command: “Whoever loves God must also love their brother and sister in the Lord.” Similar words have occurred elsewhere in this letter.[22] The point bears emphasis since John’s community was undoubtedly struggling with impulses to hate their opponents.[23]

Bruce G. Schuchard (1958) now asks, “What is love?” it is a question asked by theologians, philosophers, and ethicists; by romantic poets and adolescents; by betrayed spouses and abandoned children; by the hopeful and the hopeless; by the dreamy-eyed and the cynical. But they want to know about human love. So, in contrast, the Apostle John suggests that agápē happens when inspired by grace through faith in the God who loved us first. We are also encouraged by the personal sacrificial work of God’s Son, in whom we live according to His example among fellow believers, or our living and loving have no actual meaning.[24]


[1] Eaton, Michael: Focus on the Bible, 1,2,3, John, op. cit., p. 171

[2] Loader, William: Epworth Commentary, op. cit., p. 58

[3] Jackman, David: The Message of John’s Letters, op. cit., pp. 131-132

[4] Carter, Dr. John W. (Jack). 1,2,3, John & Jude: Holding to the Truth in Love (The Disciple’s Bible Commentary Book 48), pp. 111-112

[5] Matthew 21:3; Mark 11:3; Luke 19:31

[6] Matthew 24:23; Mark 13:21

[7] John 6:51; 7:17, 37; 8:51 (cf. 8:52); 10:9; 11:9; 12:26-27; 14:23

[8] Matthew 22:36

[9] Deuteronomy 6:5

[10] Psalm 119

[11] Yarbrough, Robert W., 1-3 John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), op. cit., pp. 263-265

[12] John 13:34

[13] Ibid. 14:15

[14] Ibid. 15:12

[15] Ibid. 15:17

[16] Kruse, Colin G., The Letters of John (The Pillar New Testament Commentary (PNTC)), op. cit., loc. cit., Kindle Edition

[17] Deuteronomy 6:5; Cf. Isaiah 56:6

[18] Ibid. 30:19-20

[19] Lieu, Judith: The New Testament Commentary, op. cit., p. 198

[20] Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), 1:12

[21] Ben Witherington III. Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians: op. cit., loc. cit., (Kindle Locations 7297-7300)

[22] 1 John 2:9; 3:10, 23

[23] Burge, Gary M., The Letters of John (The NIV Application Commentary), op. cit., p. 191

[24] Schuchard, Bruce G., Concordia Commentary, op. cit., p. 495

About drbob76

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