1 John 4:12-21


We have included verse 12. Verses 12-16 speak about God living in the Christian and the Christian in God. Verses 17-21 speak about what perfect love attains. It is not easy to find a single strand of thought running through the Epistle at this point. It is not easy to preach on texts from 1 John because the thoughts are interwoven so much. At the same time, this passage is the "high water-mark" of the thought of the Epistle.

1 John 4:12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

On the first part of the verse, see John 1:18. There we are told that Jesus revealed God to us. Here the thought is different. Mutual love of Christians is evidence that God is present. And not only that. It is evidence that He is in us and that His love has been brought to its goal in us.

AAT: "His love has accomplished in us what He wants."

The thought of this verse is picked up again in verse 20. Verse 12 is saying that Christians' mutual love is evidence of God's living in them and that thus His love has been brought to its highest in them. The mystical use of "in" is peculiar to the Johannine corpus. This thought pattern is not found outside Scripture. It is by Christian faith.

1 John 4:13 We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

The indwelling of God in the Christian was mentioned in verse 12 and will be mentioned again in verses 15 and 16. In all these cases we have what has been called the "mystical" usage of "in."

The Holy Spirit was first mentioned in this Epistle in 3:24. Here, as there, the indwelling of God is tied to the gift of the Spirit. Note Romans 5:5 where "the love of God" means the Gospel. Evidently that is the thought here. God has given us His Spirit through the Gospel. We do not go along with those who claim to find charismatic gifts of the Spirit in the verse.

1 John 4:14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.

This is the only verse in the section 12-16 which does not speak about the indwelling God. But it gives us the main reason why God dwells in us.

"We" is emphatic and obviously refers to the apostles who saw Jesus, compare John 1:14.

The Son is the Savior of the world. "The world" refers to all people, all sinners, just like John 3:16.

Christian certainty rests both on the objective historical fact of the Son's mission, and on the subjective inward experience of the Spirit's witness.

1 John 4:15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.

In our notes on 1:1 to 2:1 we mentioned that the conditional sentences in 1:6-10 are remnants of what was known as present general conditions in classical Greek. It is the axiomatic conditional sentence. We had one above in verse 12: "If ever we love each other, God always remains in us." We have another in this verse: "Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God always remains in him and he in God." There are no exceptions to this rule.

Kretzmann: This fact that the despised Jesus, who died the death of a common criminal on the cross, is nevertheless the true, eternal Son of God, is the basis of Christian faith.

Nowadays the tendency is often to express obedient trust in Jesus, while denying his metaphysical status as the Son of God, or at least being agnostic about it. Many moderns deny the deity of Jesus. They must be told bluntly that God does not dwell in them.

1 John 4:16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.

Here the "we" evidently includes all Christians, not just the apostles. Compare John 6:69 where the very same verbs, even the same tense, are used though they are found in inverted order. The verbs denote lasting results.

Knowledge and faith go together. In John 6:69 the object of the verb was a confession of who Jesus is. Here it's the love which God has for Christians.

Kretzmann: We must keep on believing until we enter into that state where we shall see Him face to face.

The principle of "God is love" is repeated from verse 8. There John states that God proved His love by sending His Son. Here it is used to state that where God's love is, there is God.

In this verse, for the last time, John enunciates the principle of the indwelling God. Love is the theme of practically the entire letter. The historical mission of Jesus tells us not only that God loved, but that God is love.

1 John 4:17 In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him.

Some commentators agree that a new section begins at this point. One says: "In verses 17-21 John reverts to the theme of perfect love, although now he is concerned with the perfection not of God's love in us, but of our love for God."

Here is a good point at which to stop to discuss the several meanings of the word "love." In all cases the love of God is a tie which binds forever. But there is a difference in emphasis among the several uses of this word.

We know from both Testaments (Deuteronomy. 6:5 and Matthew 22:37) that love for God must be with the total heart, soul, and mind. We know too that this love must exceed the love for relatives and spouse, Matthew 10:37. Therefore, it has been observed that love for God is essentially faith and trust in His Word. That is plainly stated in verse 16 of our text.

Note in 5:1 how "faith" and "love" are set side by side, denoting the same person. We love and give glory to God by believing Him. The love for human beings is of a different sort. 1 Corinthians 13 covers all aspects of Christian love toward other human beings. That chapter covers love for the enemy which means to return good for evil. It covers love of the husband for wife which means to live in forgiveness of sins and sacrifice for the spouse. But it all begins with the Gospel.

Now we come to the exposition of verse 17. Limitation of space does not allow quoting the various translations of this verse. They are interesting. The verse means that God's love toward us reaches its highest point in that it prepares us for Judgment Day, that great day when we must stand before God, the Judge.

During the Middle Ages the best-known hymn was "Day of Wrath, O Day of Mourning!" This indicates that people lived in dread of Judgment Day. The Reformation changed that. The Gospel caused people to lose their dread of Judgment Day. What is the meaning of the causal clause in this verse? Very simply, just as Jesus is in the right relationship to the Father, so are we, by faith in Jesus. He is no longer in this world. We are. But He gives us the confidence to live without fear and dread of the coming judgment. John 3:18 tells us that the one who believes in Christ is not judged.

Another way of putting it would be to say that we believe in Him of whom the Father said: "This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." The Father is well pleased also with the believe in Jesus Christ.

The final sentence of the verse reads: "There is not fear in this love." The Gospel does not cause fear. The Gospel brings love, the love of God in Christ for miserable and fearful sinners.

1 John 4:18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

"The perfect love" could better be translated as "the finest love." John is speaking of the highest type of love. What is that? It is nothing else but true faith in Jesus.

This highest love eliminates fear. "The fear has to do with punishment." It refers to the specific fear of Judgment Day, the greatest fear of all. "The one who fears has not been perfected in this love."

John is speaking of the specific love (faith and trust) of the Christian which eliminates the specific fear of judgment.

Kretzmann: The Christian has no dread of wrath and damnation . . . the punishment has been borne.

Exactly. Christ has already been punished in his stead. It is wrong for a Christian to fear that which has already been solved.

1 John 4:19 We love because he first loved us.

Perhaps at this point the reader or listener is saying to himself that he is not as fearless as he ought to be. That is a common observation. Compare Isaiah 6:5; Daniel 9:4-19; 1 Timothy 1:15. Jesus came to deliver us so that we might serve Him without fear, Luke 1:74. And we constantly need to hear the words: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you." Isaiah 43:1.

We do fear when we begin to trust in ourselves. But help is only and always solely in God Himself. That's the point of verse 19.

We love both God and man because He first loved us. How did He first love us? John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 5:19; Romans 5:19.

 The Apology  (Tappert 126.141): It is impossible to separate faith from love for God, be it ever so small. For through Christ we come to the Father; and having received the forgiveness of sins, we become sure that we have a gracious God who cares about us, we call upon him, give thanks to him, fear and love him. So John teaches in 1 John 4:19: 'We love because he first loved us.' that is, because he gave his Son for us and forgave us our sins. So he indicates that faith precedes while love follows.
Kretzmann: 'His wonderful love in Christ conquered our unwilling hearts and changed us from enemies to friends.' He is my constant Refuge and Shield. Without Him I fall into uncertainty and fear.

1 John 4:20 If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.

Here is another present general condition. It is axiomatic.

"Anyone" means that God is no respecter of persons.

The words show that love for God and love for brother are inseparable. They stand or fall together.

The rest of this verse makes this point clear and is really an allusion to verse 12. This verse clearly tells us that the criterion for love toward God is love toward the brother. This verse reminds us of 3:14-15. They are frightening words! Here we have stern second use of the Law. Our immediate reaction is confession of sins of hatred and dislike toward our brother.

1 John 4:21 And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.

John is making love toward God and brother inseparable. See Matthew 22:37-39.

Kretzmann: This is a clear command of our Lord Jesus Christ, Matthew 22:37-40. The one commandment cannot be without the other, for the Law of God is a unit, His will is only one. To transgress the precept regarding brotherly love is to transgress the commandment to love God.
 I shall not die, but live,
And declare the works of the Lord.
Psalm 118:17


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series B, Festival Season Sundays Epistle Texts, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1987, pp. 109-112. Used with permission.

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