Commentary on 1 John 4:7-21
This section of 1 John is centered on the theme of “love” (agape) and “loving” (agapan).
Although much ink has been spilt over the definition of these words — especially how they may (or may not) contrast with the synonyms philos (noun) and philein (verb) — 1 John is consistent with its preference for agape and agapan. Rather than seeing the root of this in some sort of significant contrast between these synonyms it is better to trace the connection back to Jesus’ own teachings in the Gospel of John, particularly from excerpts of the “Farewell Discourse” in John 13:31-17:26. In these chapters, Jesus comforts his disciples before his coming departure — his crucifixion, resurrection, and return to the Father.
In addition to promising the Holy Spirit, who will be “another Advocate” for them, Jesus also gives his disciples (and later believers) a “new commandment.”
A new commandment I am giving to you: that you should love one another just as I loved you so that also you should love one another. In this everyone will know that you are my disciples: if you should have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)
My translation highlights the repetitions that occur in these few verses — and hopefully bring out some other connections with 1 John. All the verbs for “love” are forms of agapan, and the phrases resonate with 1 John’s sermonic admonitions: “a new commandment” (1 John 2:7-8), “love one another” (1 John 3:11, 23; 4:7, 12), “in this everyone will know” (1 John 2:3, 5; 3:16, 19, 24; 4:2, 13; 5:2), the use of subjunctive verbs with hina– and ean, as well as the grounding comparison to Jesus, who provides the model love to be imitated — just as (kathos) I loved you (see also 1 John 3:16). Jesus’ own preference for agapan in the Johannine tradition could be explained by the use of this verb (rather than philein) in the crucial passages of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:8b.
First John, then, uses the agape and agapan words because these are the words attributed to Jesus in their tradition. By repeating these words in the sermon, the preacher of 1 John takes on the voice of Jesus, speaking by means of the same breath (or Spirit, pneuma) to show continuity with his teaching in contrast to the “teaching” of those who have “gone out” from the community mentioned in 1 John 2:18-27. First John 4:7-21 is the crescendo of the sermon. It brings together a number of themes that the preacher has already mentioned, tying them all into the admonition to “love” that Jesus commanded in John 13:34-35 (see also 15:12-14) and that he demonstrated in his own life, death, resurrection, and return to the Father.
The importance of this passage is reinforced by the parallelism that appears within it. In fact, in some Bibles 1 John 4:7-10 is set off as though it is a poem (see also 1 John 2:12-14). Verse 11 could be added to the “poem” since it completes the parallelism with verse 7. The structure of the clauses encourages this separation, although we cannot prove whether or not it was actually a poem. What is clear is that the structure of these verses would have made them easier to remember and poignant — perhaps similar to the way that quoting or singing a hymn in the middle of a sermon might today. In 1 John 4:7-11 the preacher “sings”:
7Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God.
And each one who loves has been begotten from God and knows God.
8The one who does not love did not know God because God is love.
9In this, the love of God was revealed to us:
His Son, the Unique-One, God has sent into the world so that we might live through him.
10In this, love is:
Not that we ourselves have loved God, but that he himself loved us and sent his Son, a means of forgiveness concerning our sins.
11Beloved, if thusly God loved us also we ourselves ought to love one another.
The balanced refrain contains two couplets (1John 4:7b-8, 9-10) and parallelisms that cannot be explored in detail here, but that unite the passage and underscore its importance. This is the heart of the preacher’s message.
These words also help us to understand better the sometimes baffling information concerning “fear” and “the one who fears” in 1 John 4:18. We run into trouble if we divorce these words from their context. The preacher has waited until almost the end of the sermon to come to this topic, only after the preacher has repeatedly affirmed the identity of the audience as God’s children and beloved (see also 1 John 3:1-2; 4:7-16). The sermon, therefore, is not primarily about fear over the community’s salvation. Instead, it is primarily about encouragement for the community to realize the life they already have. The preacher calls on them to “remain” or “abide” in Jesus’ teaching and, therefore, in the family of God.
First John 4:18, therefore, should not be read as a condemnation of the one who experiences fear. We all feel fear at various times in our lives, and various biblical passages even encourage a certain type of “fear”: fear of the Lord (Proverbs 1:7). Instead, 1 John 4:18 works with the rest of the sermon to encourage the audience that God, whose love is demonstrated to perfection by Jesus (and his disciples), is casting out fear, and creating a time when all might experience confidence rather than shame (see also 1 John 2:28-29).
After all, when we spend our lives loving in the same way that Jesus loved, we do not focus on condemning others (or even ourselves) for experiencing fear. Rather, we focus on loving people through those fears and thereby revealing the true victory of God, the One who is Love, in spite of the chaos around us. In this way, 1 John 4:18 again brings us back to the main point of the sermon: Beloved, let us love one another because God loves us!