Saturday Series: 1 John 4:7-5:4

1 John 4:7-5:4

In the previous studies on 1 John 4:1-6, the focus was on the theme of trust in Jesus; now it shifts to the theme of Christian love. This reflects the two components of the dual “great command” (3:23-24), and the body of the letter, especially in its second half, alternates between the two. The first section on love was 3:11-24, with verse 11 stating the love-command as a summary of the Gospel message. The so-called love-command derives from Jesus’ own teaching and the Gospel tradition (Mark 12:30-33 par; Matt 5:43ff; John 13:34-35); by the middle of the first century (c. 50-60 A.D.) the principle was well-established that the Old Testament Law was effectively summarized and fulfilled (for Christians) by this one command (Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14; James 2:8ff, etc).

It can be difficult to get a clear sense of what love (agáp¢, vb agapáœ) entails in First John. In the Gospel, in the great Last Discourse, which otherwise so resembles the language and style of the letter, it is defined in terms of Jesus’ own sacrificial death, and of his disciples’ willingness to follow his example, in giving of their lives for others (15:13, and the symbolism of the foot-washing, 13:1, 5-20). This point of emphasis is generally followed in 1 John (3:16-17), though not so much in our section 4:7ff. In spite of the beauty and power of this passage, it seems rather repetitive in nature, with “love” referred to in the most general sense. This, however, belies a very careful structure, in which thematic relationships are developed and expounded. Ultimately it reveals the true sense of what love means for the author, in the context of his writing, but it takes some pointed study and effort on our part to see it clearly. This is another example of how the message (and theology) of a passage can be elucidated by an examination of its literary style and structure—referred to as literary criticism.

1 John 4:7-16

There would seem to be four main parts to this section. The first two (vv. 7-10, 11-16a) make up a dual instruction which builds upon—and expounds—the earlier two-fold instruction in 3:11-22. Here these two parts each begin with an address to the readers as “loved (one)s”, agap¢toí—the adjective agap¢tós, related to agáp¢. Thus, the emphasis on love is built into the very address. In fact, these sections have a parallel outline and thematic structure:

    • Initial address (“loved ones…”) and exhortation to love, obeying the love-command (v. 7a, 11)
    • Statement on love as an essential and identifying characteristic of the true believer (v. 7b-8, 12)
    • Christological statement, beginning with the phrase “In this…” (en toútœ…) (v. 9, 13-14)
    • Definition of love, by way of a Christological statement (v. 10, 15-16a)
Verse 7a, 11

The initial address and exhortation, in each section, is virtually identical, differing only in the order of the phrases, and specific wording and emphasis:

    • “Loved (one)s [agap¢toí], we should love [agapœ¡men] each other,
      (in) that [i.e. because] love [agáp¢] is out of [ek] God” (v. 7a)
    • “Loved (one)s [agap¢toí], if God loved [agáp¢sen] us this (way),
      (then) we ought to love [agapán] each other” (v. 11)

In each instance, the obligation or duty placed on believers is based on the love that God showed. In v. 11 this is stated in terms that closely echo the famous declaration in John 3:16, using the same demonstrative adverb (hoútœs). “This” refers to the love God showed by sending His Son to earth, as a human being; here it serves as a foreshadowing of the Christological statement in verse 9. In verse 7a, the same idea is expressed by way of the preposition ek, used in the distinctive Johannine sense of coming out of God—that is, being born out of God, the way Jesus as the Son “comes to be (born)” out of the Father. Believers, too, are similarly born “out of” God.

Verses 7b-8, 12

According to the outline above, these verses represent the essential identification, so important in the letter, of true believers as those who fulfill the great command—that is, here, the command to love one another. In the first section (vv. 7b-8), this is framed by way of a dualistic contrast, such as is used so frequently in the Johannine Writings (Gospel and Letters):

    • “and every (one) loving has come to be (born) out of God,
      (but) the (one) not loving (has) not known God, (in) that [i.e. because] God is love.”

It is a contrast between the believer and non-believer—or, more appropriately to the purpose of the letter, between the true believer and the false, with believers defined by the distinct Johannine motifs of being born out of God, and knowing God. Actually this statement joins with the prior address/exhortation in v. 7a to form a single chiastic declaration:

    • “love is [estin] out of God”
      • “every (one) loving has come to be (born) out of God” (true believer)
      • “the (one) not loving (has) not known God” (false believer)
    • “God is [estin] love”

Love comes “out of” God because He, in His very nature, is love, and believers who are born “out of” God must similarly have love at their core. A different point of emphasis is made in verse 12:

    • “No one has looked at God at any time; (but) if we would love each other, (then) God remains in us, and His love is (there) having been completed in us.”

Three distinctly Johannine theological motifs are present here, known from both the Gospel Discourses and the First Letter, namely—(1) the idea of seeing God the Father, which only occurs through seeing (i.e. trust in) the Son; (2) use of the verb ménœ (“remain”) as signifying the abiding presence of God (Father and Son) in believers, through the Spirit, and of believers in the Son (and Father) through the same Spirit; and (3) the verb teleióœ (“[make] complete”), specifically in relation to Jesus (the Son) completing the work given to him by the Father, which results in believers being made complete. Here, the presence of the Son and Father (i.e. the Spirit) is also identified specifically as love.

Verses 9, 13-14

We now come to the central Christological statement in each section. This is of vital importance, since it demonstrates clearly that the author’s understanding of love (agáp¢) is fundamentally Christological. The statement in the first section is virtually a quotation of John 3:16:

    • In this [en toútœ] the love of God was made to shine forth in us, (in) that [i.e. because] God se(n)t forth His Son, the only one coming to be [monogen¢¡s], into the world (so) that we would live through him.” (v. 9)
    • “For God loved the world this (way) [hoútœs]—even so (that) He gave (His) only Son coming to be [monogen¢¡s], (so) that every one trusting in him should not go away to ruin, but would hold life…. that the world would be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)

Love is defined specifically as God sending/giving His Son to the people on earth (spec. the elect/believers), so that they, through his sacrificial death, would be saved from the power of sin/evil in the world and have (eternal) life. This corresponds to the earlier (two-fold) Christological declaration in 3:5, 8a:

    • “and you have seen that this (one) was made to shine forth, (so) that he would take away sin, and sin is not in him.” (3:5)
    • “unto this [i.e. for this purpose] was the Son of God made to shine forth, (so) that he would loose [i.e. dissolve] the works of the Diabólos. ” (3:8)

In both statements, the same verb is used as here in v. 9phaneróœ (“shine forth”, passive “made to shine forth”). It is a verb that epitomizes and encompasses the entire Johannine Christology. The Eternal Light (the Son) “shines forth” onto earth, i.e. appears on earth as a flesh and blood human being (Jesus). This manifestation covers his entire life and work on earth, culminating in his sacrificial death—his atoning work which brings life to all believers in the world. The same is summarized, though with different terminology, in the Christological statement here in the second section (vv. 13-14); it, too, begins with the expression “in this” [en toútœ]:

    • In this [en toútœ] we know that we remain in him and he in us, (in) that [i.e. because] he has given to us out of His Spirit, and we have looked at (it) and give witness to (it), that the Father has se(n)t forth His Son as Savior of the world.”

In sentences such as vv. 9 and 13f, beginning with en toútœ (“in this”), it can sometimes be difficult to know if the expression refers back to something stated before, or ahead to what follows. Here both statements relate primarily to what follows, namely the hóti-clause (“[in] that, because…”). We, as believers, know that we have this union with the God the Father—He remaining in us, and we in Him—because of what He has given to us from out of His Spirit. The Johannine use of the preposition ek (“out of”) again refers to being “born” out of God and belonging to Him. This occurs through the Spirit—and it is the Spirit which allows believers to recognize and proclaim the truth of Jesus as the Son of God and Savior. In Johannine terms, this refers to the first component of the great command—trust in Jesus as the Son of God and Anointed One. As we discussed in the previous studies, those who separated from the Community, and, apparently, held a false/incorrect view of Jesus, were sinning by violating this fundamental command (which no true believer could transgress). Not surprisingly, this first part of the command is closely related, by the author, to the second (love).

Verses 10, 15-16a

The final element of these two sections is a definition of love which is set clearly in the context of the prior Christological statement:

    • “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and se(n)t forth His Son (as a) way of gaining acceptance (from Him) over our sins.” (v. 10)
    • “Whoever would give account as one (with us) that Yeshua is the Son of God, God remains in him and he in God; and we have known and trusted the love that God holds in us.” (vv. 15-16a)

In detail these are very different statements, but they reflect the specific wording and points of emphasis in the two sections as a whole (see above). If one were to put both statements together, it would then give a most interesting, and thorough, exposition of Christian love, from the Johannine viewpoint:

    • “This is love…” (definition of love)
      • Our love is based on God’s love toward us…
        • sending His Son (Jesus) to save us from the power of sin and have life
          • [giving account of this—i.e. trust in Jesus as mark of the true believer]
        • Jesus as the Son of God—union with God and His abiding presence in us
      • …the love God holds in us (which is the basis for our love)

In the next study, we will examine this further, as we consider the following sections in 4:16b-19 and 4:20-5:4. Read through these passages, thinking about how they relate to the two prior sections (discussed above). What is the precise relationship between trust in Jesus and Christian love, and how does this relate to the historical situation addressed in the letter and its overall purpose and message?

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