The Pulpit Commentary

1 John 4:7-21 (1 John 4:7-21)

God is Love, and love is the surest test of birth from God. From 1 John 3:11 , 1 John 3:12 St. John renews his exhortations to love, this time at greater length and in closer connexion with the other great subject of this second half of the Epistle, the birth from God.

- The Pulpit Commentary

1 John 4:8 (1 John 4:8)

In giving the opposite, St. John again varies the thought, this time very remarkably. Instead of "love is of God" (verse 7), we have "God is Love"—a far deeper thought; and instead of "knoweth not God," we have "knew not God," or, as we should say in English, "hath not known" or "never knew God." The man's not loving his brother shows that in no real sense has he ever in the past known God: he is of the world ( John 3:1 ), not of God. We must beware of watering down "God is Love" into "God is loving," or even "God of all beings is the most loving." Love is not a mere attribute of God; like light, it is his very nature. As "God is Light" sums up the Being of God intellectually considered, so "God is Love" sums up the same on the moral side. Only when this strong meaning is given to the statement does St. John's argument hold, that "he that loveth not knoweth not God." A man who has no idea of any one of the attributes of God, as order, or beauty, or power, or justice, has an imperfect knowledge of God. But he who has no idea of love has no knowledge of God, for love is himself. God alone loves in the fullest and highest sense of the word; for he alone loves with perfect disinterestedness. It is love which alone can explain creation. Why should a Being perfectly blessed in himself create other beings, but to bestow a blessing upon them?

- The Pulpit Commentary

1 John 4:7-12 (1 John 4:7-12)


Connecting link: The apostle here seems to begin a new paragraph; yet it is one by no means disconnected from that which precedes. If antichrist plies its seductive arts without, it is for those who are "of God" to cleave closer together; knit by the bonds of a holy love, which is of itself born of him who is love. Topic— Love's fount, channel, stream, and outlet. We have more than once had occasion to remark that both the matter and the style of the Apostle John are peculiarly his own. The matter, for it gathers round a few key-words—"light," "life," "love." The style, for it is not like Paul's, cumulative; it is rather radiative. We have no specimens of prolonged and closely connective argument; but a series of rich and beautiful teachings throughout a paragraph, on one of his key-words. Here the keyword is—love. Respecting it we have eight distinct assertions. £

I. GOD IS LOVE . In John 4:24 we have "God is Spirit." In John 1:5 "God is Light." Here "God is Love." The first indicates the substance of the Divine nature—personal, conscious, intelligent Spirit. The second declares the perfection of that nature in knowledge and in purity. The third shows the benevolence of the Divine nature in its regard for those who are the creatures of his power and the subjects of his grace. These three words contain more information about God than all the sacred books of the East put together. They are a revelation. We are taught how to think about God, and if we keep within the lines marked out by these three words, we cannot go far wrong. Note: This light thrown on God's nature gives us the clue to the meaning of his works and ways in nature, providence, and grace. The three spheres give us the triple unfolding of infinite love, and nothing else.

II. THAT LOVE HAS BEEN MANIFESTED TO OUR RACE . ( John 1:9 , John 1:10 .) Through whom? "His only begotten Son." How? "A Propitiation." For what? "For our sins." With what intent? That we might live through him. No true life of peace, joy, and fellowship with God was possible for us until sin was put away. No one could do this but One in and of the race, yet over it—One who by his humanity could represent earth, and who yet as the eternal Son could represent the Father; he alone could take this place, and by offering himself to the Father, for us, on account of our sin, he revealed how sin burdened the heart of God, and gave by his own sacrifice such an expression to man of the Divine holiness and rectitude, that, on the ground thereof, the infinitely Pure One might receive the penitent lovingly to his embrace, yet make no compromise with sin. £

III. SUCH A PROPITIATION REVEALS A LOVE ALTOGETHER UNIQUE . ( John 1:9 , John 1:10 .) "In this," etc. "Herein is love ;" as if it were seen nowhere ease. All other love fades away in comparison herewith. This will appear as we study:

1 . Its origin. God's own love, self originated and sustained, unbought, spontaneous.

2 . Its method. The bestowment of the greatest possible gift, and that as a sacrifice.

3 . Its objects. lie loved us sinners, traitors, alienated ones.

4 . Its extent. "The whole world;" i.e., all the race on the globe through all time!

5 . Its intent. That we might live. That all who believe might be made heirs of glory.

IV. SUCH A LOVE , SO MANIFESTED , CREATES A NEW DUTY OF LOVE ON OUR PART . £ ( John 1:11 .) Nothing ever threw so much light on the value of man in God's eye as the work of the Lord Jesus Christ on his behalf. Nothing else ever disclosed what God meant to do with us. But, it once being shown how great are the possibilities opening up to man through Christ, all the relations between man and man come to be invested with new meaning; and the self-evidencing force of the appeal of John 1:11 ought to be irresistibly felt.

V. GOD 'S AMAZING LOVE TO MAN IS ATTENDED WITH A NEW CREATIVE POWER . ( John 1:7 .) "Every one that loveth is born of God." £ "It should never be forgotten," says Trench, "that ἀγάπη is a word born within the bosom of revealed religion; it occurs in the LXX , but there is no example of its use in any heathen writer whatever." The pure and holy parental love, the love of children as we understand it, the fondest ,and purest affections of husband and wife, are the birth of Christianity, i.e., of Divine love as revealed in Christ. Men cannot know how truly and how largely this is the case till they examine into the state of the pagan world at the time of Christ. The apostle himself declares, "We love, because he first loved us."

VI. WHEN BEING BORN OF GOD , WE LOVE LIKE HIM , WE ARE BROUGHT INTO FELLOWSHIP WITH HIM . ( John 1:12 , John 1:13 .) When God hath given us of his own Spirit of love, so that we in our measure come to love like God, then we know that "we dwell in him, and he in us." There is a loving and abiding intercommunion. We, being in full sympathy with God, must needs yearn to pour forth ourselves to others, as God hath given himself to us. And this outgoing of ourselves to our brother is a sure pledge of God being in us, and we in him. £

VII. IN PROPORTION AS THIS IS THE CASE , WE KNOW GOD . ( John 1:12 .) The first and second clauses of this verse are very closely connected together. "No man hath seen God at any time, [but] if we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us;" and so we come to know God, though no one hath ever seen him. We know him through love whom we cannot behold by the sight (cf. Matthew 5:8 ). Only love can possibly read love. A cold heart can never understand a warm one, but one warm heart can read another. So we come to know God through learning from him to love as he loves. And the more complete our devotion to man for God's sake, the fuller and richer will be our knowledge of God's infinite love.

VIII. THE HEART THAT LOVETH NOT CANNOT KNOW GOD . ( John 1:8 .) The love of God is so vast that it embraceth "a great multitude which no man can number." It is so minute that it yearns for "one sinner" to repent. It is so active that it sent its noblest embassy to invite the wanderers to return. It is so tender that it would not that "one of these little ones should perish." How can, a man who does not love understand all that? It is not that God closes his heart against the man; it is the man that steels his heart against God. And until the warmth of Divine love melts the thick-ribbed ice of his frozen soul, no stream of love will ever flow from him to gladden and fertilize a world.

Note: See what it is will estrange a man for ever from his God, and will shut him up in hopeless ignorance of God— unlovingness; simply this. Objection: But are you not reasoning in a circle? You say man does not love till God's love kindles his, and yet that he cannot know God till he loves! Which is first? Surely here is vicious circle. No; not at all. God's love goes out first. That love is manifested in the work of Christ. When we were yet sinners Christ died for us. "He that would be warm must keep near the fire," said Matthew Henry. Even so, let the cold frozen heart stay near the cross, till, fueling the warmth of love there, it is set aglow. Then, being set aglow by learning of the love of God, he will at once begin to understand the God of love!

- The Pulpit Commentary

1 John 4:7-21 (1 John 4:7-21)

Threefold recommendation of the duty of loving one another.

I. THE DUTY RECOMMENDED , FROM LOVE HAVING ITS ORIGIN IN GOD . The duty enjoined. "Beloved, let us love one another." John has a winning way of urging duty, addressing his readers as objects of his affection, and desiring himself to be stirred up to duty. He has in view the "absolute type of love" (Westcott) in the Christian circle. There are considerations adduced which go beyond brotherly love, which suggest rather compassionate love. But it is to be remembered that love to child, to friend, to sinner, is intended to have its outcome and complete satisfaction within the, Christian circle.

1 . Divine origin of love.

2 . The love of God was manifested in the Incarnation. "Herein was the love of God manifested in us, that God hath sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him." There is the full satisfaction of love within Godhead; and yet there was a movement of love with an object beyond Godhead. It was love that moved God to create—the desire to communicate of the riches of his own Being. It can be said that, even from eternity, we lay in the thoughts of God, with the clearness of the Divine intentions and the kindling of the Divine affection around us. And so the place of all beings and of all things in his world lay before him, as that in which, anticipatively, he took delight. When angels were brought into being, it was love that was operating, and, there being none other, God himself rejoiced over them. When the foundations of the earth were fastened, and the cornerstones thereof laid, it was love that was operating; and "the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy." "Herein was the love of God manifested." Creation, in all its lines, has been drawn by love, and so it is essentially a glad study, calling forth, from the students of its many parts, the symphonious song, and the common shout of joy. But it is not to this manifestation that John calls attention. His mind has been filled, from the beginning of his letter, with that which is the manifestation of love by pre-eminence. It is the Incarnation that he cannot leave out of sight. "Herein was the love of God manifested." The manifestation is said to be in us, i.e., in believers; for it is in them that the Incarnation reaches its end. The Incarnation is described as God sending his only begotten Son into the world. We start from the thought of his dignity as the only begotten Son of God, besides whom the Father had none in whom the Father's love found an adequate object. He found the condition appointed for him in the world. That is, without ceasing to be the only begotten Son, he became a man among men, even sharing the evil of their condition, yea, suffering death at the hands of sinners. What was the meaning of this strange manifestation? It was not that God took delight in the evil condition of his Son. But it was love going out toward men. We were in a dead state, in relation to the vindication of Law, and in relation to our true life; and we had not yet come to the worst. God did not blot out the fair page of creation, he did not part with one son out of many; but he parted with his only begotten Son—the most glorious of all beings, perfectly reflecting his own majesty, that we might live through him. He made the sacrifice in which his feelings were the most deeply involved, that our interests might be advanced to the highest point. "Herein was the love of God manifested."

3 . The Incarnation is proof that love was not first in us, but in God. "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the Propitiation for our sins." Whence has love sprung? Was it first in our hearts, and then, by contact with love in our hearts, was it kindled in the Divine heart? Ah! no; love has its eternal dwelling-place in God. It was not that we loved God; any movement of love in us was necessarily subsequent to the movement of the Divine love in creating us. It was not that we loved God; we were not actually lovers of God in our characters. We were laden with sins, those sins being all love of self and want of love toward God. It was that he loved us; and he created us that he might make us sharers with him in his bliss. It was that he loved us; and, when we had frustrated the end of his love, he did not leave us in our sins. He acted without prompting from without, he acted with absolute spontaneity, he acted out of the infinite freedom of his own will; and what did he do. He sent his Son to be the Propitiation for our sins; i.e., sent him into our nature to remove all the obstacles that our sins presented to our enjoying the blessings of Divine fellowship. Love is free, and yet it has an inner law of righteousness. Our sins could not be removed in any way, they could not be removed by Divine fiat, they could not be removed without adequate satisfaction. And, when righteousness demanded that the satisfaction should be given in our nature, Divine love proved equal to the emergency. The Son, breathing forth the Father's love, did not eschew our nature, and, in it dying, made infinite satisfaction for our sins. Such is love, in all the glory of its freedom and of its power.

II. THE DUTY RECOMMENDED FROM LOVE BEING NECESSARY TO FELLOWSHIP WITH GOD . The duty inferred from the Incarnation. "Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another." John again adopts the affectionate form of address. He proceeds on the manner of love brought out in the preceding verse. "If so [the emphatic position] God loved us." It is implied that we have been brought into the position of God's children, and should act as God does. The conclusion then follows, that we should love one another. As for the manner of our love, it should be love that can go the length of sacrifice, and love that can conquer obstacles of sin. But as for the object of our love, why is it loving one another? It is to this point that John directs himself.

1 . To love one another is the way to have fellowship with the invisible God. "No man hath beheld God at any time: if we love one another, God abideth in us, and his love is perfected in us." The fact of the invisibility of God is also stated in John 1:18 , "No man hath seen God at any time." The verb is different here, conveying the idea of seeing intently, seeing so as to image to the mind what God is through the sense of sight. In John 1:18 the invisibility of God is regarded as relieved by the Incarnation. Here the invisibility of God is regarded in connection with fellowship with God, and there is brought into view, not the visible Mediator, but our visible brethren. How are we to have (not to prove that we have) fellowship with the invisible God? The way is to have visible objects for our love, especially to love one another in the Christian circle. Loving one another, on the one hand, "God abideth in us," so as to be nearer to us for fellowship, than if we beheld him. Loving one another, on the other hand, his love, i.e., our love to him, is perfected. It cannot be brought to perfection unless with the help of love to the brethren. This thought receives further expression at the close of this chapter.

2 . Participation in the Spirit is the sign of fellowship with God. "Hereby know we that we abide in him, and be in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit." The thought is similar in 1 John 3:24 . Loving one another leads to mutual abiding. But how is this to be discovered? It is by the distribution to us of the Spirit. He cannot be communicated to us in the full flood of his influence, but only according to our nature and disposition. It is evident that the Spirit is the common element on which our fellowship with God proceeds. But another question at once arises—How do we know that we participate in the Spirit? The answer, given in what follows, is, our appreciation of the Incarnation.

3 . There can be no fellowship with God apart from the Incarnation.

4 . Experience of love in which there is fellowship with God.

For the dear God who loveth us,

He made and loveth all."

Another bearing of it is that God cannot love feebly. Even in his reserve there is strength. He rests in his love ( Zephaniah 3:17 ); but it is because he is conscious of his strength. He had infinite repose in view of the entrance of sin into the world; but it was because he was conscious of his power to defeat it for his own glory on the cross. And we must think of him as having infinite repose in view of the final issue of things. That he is Love means this to us—that all means will be used to overcome the evil of our hearts.


1 . Consummation. "Herein is love made perfect with us, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as he [that One] is, even so are we in this world." It is a most solemn thought that there is before us all the day of judgment. "It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this cometh judgment." There is a final and authoritative judgment to be pronounced on the value of our life. What has there been in it of obedience to God? How far have we received Christ into it? Upon that the sentence must turn. Love is now with us; i.e., joined to us as an influence in our life. What is the greatest thing that it can do for our future? It is this, to inspire us with boldness that day when we stand before the judgment-seat of Christ. The ground of our present confidence is likeness to Christ. That One who is to be on the judgment-seat was once in this world in bodily form; he is still in the world in spirit, loving those who are his people, and seeking to embrace all others within the number of his people. According as we are in sympathy with the movements of his love—love his people, and seek to embrace others within the number of his people—can we assure our hearts in view of the day of judgment.

2 . Imperfection on the way to the consummation. "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear, because fear hath punishment; add he that feareth is not made perfect in love." The opposite of boldness is fear: this is excluded from love. It is of the nature of fear to shrink back from a person; it is of the nature of love to be attracted toward a person. There is naturally fear in us to be cast out. According as love takes possession of us does it cast out fear. Men may have a certain fear of each other on first acquaintance; but let love be drawn out, and fear is gradually expelled. So we have a feeling of fear toward God, while our relations to him are not satisfactorily determined, while we have not satisfactorily discovered his feelings toward us. We are startled when we think of our sin, when we think of the Divine indignation against sin. But when we think of God as in infinite compassion making provision for us as sinners, we are emboldened. "He is near that justifieth me; who is he that will contend with me?" And as we realize more of the greatness of redeeming love, there is less room left for fear. There is a punitive office fulfilled by fear. It is God in a painful manner dealing with us for our imperfect love, and telling us that we must love better.

3 . Love that is operative is caused by anticipative love. "We love, because he first loved us." There is an affirmation here, and an explanation. The affirmation is, "We love" (without definition of object), There are multitudes who, without untruthfulness and without presumption, can say, "We love." Can we say this? The love of parents to their children is acknowledged to be real. We are not long in a home before we see that love is, in no feigned manner, operating. The parents cannot suffer their children to he long out of their sight. They have doubts and fears about them in many ways. And they are always planning for their well-being. Do we love all round in the same way? Would we be conscious of a great blank in our existence if we had not a God to love? Would the light of our eye, the joy of our heart, be gone? Do we delight in fellowship with God? Do we form plans for advancing the glory of God? Does love, too, operate toward our brethren? Have we a real interest in them, rejoicing with them when they rejoice, and weeping with them when they weep? Does our love operate toward those who are not yet brethren, leading us to make sacrifices for them, and to form plans for their being brought into the fold of the Redeemer? But there is also an explanation. "We love, because he first loved us." What is the origin of love in us? It is God exercising influence over us; but in what way? Not by the manifestations of his power, not by the manifestations of his wisdom, not by the manifestations of his righteousness; but by the manifestations of his love. Like produces like. God loved us before we had the opportunity of loving. He loved us in creating us, in putting it into the hearts of parents to care for us in infancy and childhood. He thus anticipated us with goodness. And then he was ready with a scheme of mercy for our coming into the world. We are not long in the world before we learn that we have got evil hearts, that we are in the midst of sin and misery; and sometimes the prospect seems dreary enough. But, on the other hand, it is true that God has made the world warm for our coming into it. There is love in it as well as sin; and thus God has been beforehand with us. He did not wait until we sinners returned to him. That was impossible by an act of our own will, even by an act of the Divine will, as sheer force. It needed some powerful influence to bear upon our hearts; and that was found in the anticipative love of God in redemption. It is the greater love that event comes first. Two persons have a quarrel. The one comes to the other, and desires a reconciliation; the other is overcome, and loves in return. That was the greater love which took the initiative, and broke down the alienation. So God's love is the greater, for he speaks the first word of reconciliation. And what makes it all the greater is that the fault was entirely on our side. We had wronged him; he regarded our sin with the utmost displeasure; and yet he loved us. The love with which he anticipated us was greater than any of which we were capable; great as his own nature. That love has received ample manifestation. There was once a poor Man in this world. He was brought up in an insignificant little town. He received no education but what that little town could afford him. He at first worked as a carpenter, eating his bread in the sweat of his brow. Then he began to work miracles as with Divine power, and to teach as with Divine wisdom. His public career was, however, cut short; for men did not like his teaching, and plotted his death. He was crucified as a malefactor at the age of thirty-three. This poor Man was none other than the Son of God. What was the meaning of this humiliation? It was anticipative love. "God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Of this love we can give no account, no explanation; it is a mystery, before which we must bow. But our love is capable of explanation. "We love, because he first loved us." Let the pressure of anticipative love upon us be evermore felt.

4 . Love that is operative rises from the seen to the unseen. "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, cannot love God whom he hath not seen. And this commandment have we from him, that he who loveth God love his brother also." It is declared in the most emphatic manner that love to God cannot exist apart from love to our brother, on the ground that there is a close connection between loving the seen and loving the unseen, and further, on the ground that this connection is embodied in a positive Divine command. A first noticeable thing is that love should form the subject of a command. It seems strange that we should be commanded to love. Love is supposed to have a freedom, an immunity of its own. And yet it must be with the affections as with other parts of our nature. They must be placed under government and discipline. There must, in the first instance, be the voice of God, the voice of conscience, authoritatively prescribing their course, directing them to proper objects, and keeping them in just harmony. This would be necessary, even if the affections were naturally pure. The authority of conscience would need to be exercised over them in order to give them character. It is, therefore, all the more necessary, seeing their most fine gold has become changed. They are not naturally Christian. Christ is the very last Person round whom they would center. For "he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him." And how hard it is to Christianize the affections, to give them the genuine, unmistakable Christian stamp and temper; to give them Christ's steadiness, and tenderness, and fervour, and catholicity! How hard for us, who are beset with sin, to reach to that! A first love, a youthful enthusiasm, is beautiful, as youth always is. But it is not true to Christ, as the needle to the pole; it is notoriously erratic. Neither is it strong and enduring, as the feeling of him who has been accustomed to the storm; it soon waxes faint. And when youth is past, how dull and sluggish the affections, how unexcitable even before the cross, and in presence of human sin and sorrow! how unseemly, and perhaps malicious, when they come unexpectedly out in the conflict of opinion and interest! They need to be treated with severity; they need to be dragged at the heels of duty. It is only by superintendence and watchfulness and chastening that they can be brought into loving obedience to Christ Jesus, the altogether Lovely. A commandment, then, is reasonable; it is urgently needed, and shall be needed until love is the law of our being—until love shall perform every function in the body of Christ, with all the quickness and all the regularity of an instinct. A second noticeable thing is the manner in which John issues the command. There were two com mands from him, i.e., from God. The first and great commandment is that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind. It might seem, then, that we should not love others at all. But Christ, going beyond the lawyer's question, brings into view the second commandment, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself," connecting it by declaring it to be like unto the first. John, in the line of the Master's thought, brings the two more closely together, calling them one commandment. The broad principle here is this—that the love of our brother man, whom we see, is a help to the love of our Father-God, whom we do not see.

- The Pulpit Commentary