Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 28, 2024

1 John 4:7-21 Commentary

The New Testament uses some form of the Greek word agape (“love”) more than 140 times to describe both God and humans’ actions. But in few places does the Spirit inspire its writers to link God’s love to God’s people’s love more closely than in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson.

God’s dearly beloved people can hardly hear 1 John 4’s message about love without remembering what were among Jesus’ final words to his fearful disciples. “A new commandment I give to you,” he tells his friends in John 13:34-35, “Love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

1 John 4:7-21’s echo of those words begins with “Dear friends [agapetoi]*, let us love one another [agapomen allelous], for love [agape] comes from God. Everyone who loves [agapon] has been born of [gegennetai] God, and knows [ginoskei] God” (7). While the apostle repeatedly calls his readers to love each other, here he reminds us that our love begins with God’s love. Before this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson says anything else about love – and, let’s face it, it’s a lot else – it insists that love comes from God. Any love that God’s dearly beloved people show is rooted in produced by God.

In fact, in verse 10 the apostle insists, “This is love: not that we loved [egapekamen] God, but that he loved us.” In verse 19 he even goes on to assert that “We [Hemeis] love [agapomen] because [hoti] he first [protos] loved [egapesen] us.” God, in other words, didn’t respond to our love for God by loving us. In fact, the Scriptures insist that God’s dearly beloved people weren’t even interested in, much less seeking God’s love. God loves us first, even when we aren’t naturally particularly lovable.

Yet while we sometimes confuse human love with some kind of attraction, John insists that God’s love is very concrete. God, after all, showed God’s love for us by sending God’s “one and only [monogene] Son into the world [kosmon] that we might live through him … He loved [agape] us and sent [apestellen] his Son as an atoning sacrifice [hilasmon] for our sins [hamartion]” (9-10).

We might say, then, that God’s love is as visible as the wood of a manger and as audible as cries of abandonment. God’s love smells like a soiled diaper and feels like the scars left by nails. God’s love tastes like fish roasted on a campfire. God’s concrete love for God’s people is a feast for the senses.

Yet God’s love which originates in God and is made manifest by God is, in turn, also echoed in God’s adopted sons and daughters. “Dear friends [Agapetoi],” John (again!) writes in verse 11, “Since God so loved [egapesen] us, we also ought to love [agapan] one another [allelous].”

Jesus’ friends love not just because God first loved us, but also because God lovingly offered us an example to imitate. God’s love in Christ doesn’t just rescue us from destruction. It also provides us with a model to, by the power and work of the Holy Spirit, emulate.

In fact, John goes on to insist that while “No one has seen [tetheatai] God … if we love [agapomen] one another, God lives [menei] in us and his love is made complete [teteleiomene] in us.” The apostle uses similar language in verse 17 when he insist that “love is made complete [teteleiotai] among us.”

Here again the apostle insists that God’s love plays a central role in God’s people’s love. Yet Jesus’ followers may wonder how John can insist that God’s love is “made complete in us” when we love each other. After all, God’s love is complete on its own. Even God’s dearly beloved people can’t make it more complete or perfect.

So maybe John is saying little more than this: when God’s people love each other, God doesn’t just graciously live in us. The recipients of our love also experience God’s love even more fully and concretely. When, for example we love people who have sinned against us by forgiving them, they experience God’s love for them in tangible ways.

What’s more, John at least implies in verse 17, when Christians love each other, we experience God’s love for us more fully. It’s as if the apostle asserts that our acts of love toward each other somehow help deepen our sense of God’s love for us. That, in turn, adds John, gives us “confidence [parresian] on the day of judgment [hemera tes kriseos].”

Things happen to God’s adopted sons and daughters that sometimes make us wonder if God really loves us. We’re always tempted to respond by rummaging around in the “closets” of our faith and obedience in search of signs of God’s ongoing love for us.

John’s approach to our search for assurance about God’s love for us is quite different. In fact, the equation he offers seems almost too simple to be true: our awareness of God’s love for us grows as we love our neighbor. Our confidence about a future in which God continues to love us is deepened as we do concrete things to show each other our love. So we might say that God’s love for us + our love for God and each other = a deepened trust in God’s gracious goodness.

However, God’s love is so rich and multifaceted that God’s people shouldn’t be surprised that both it and John’s descriptions of it have mysterious elements. Among those elements is the apostle’s assertion that “God is [estin] love [agape]” (16b).

As I noted in an earlier commentary on this passage, by insisting that God is love, John implies that everything God does, including even judging, is loving. “God’s posture in regard to all that God creates, including creatures who have made themselves God’s enemies is,” as I noted there, “that of love.”

What’s more, “there is,” as the apostle adds in verse 18, “no fear [Phobos ouk] in love [agape]. But perfect love [teleia agape] drives out [ballei] fear … The one who fears [phoboumenos] is not made perfect [teteleiotai] in love.” This, of course, follows closely on the heels of John’s assertion in verse 17 “love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment.” So perhaps the “fear” for which love leaves no room is our fear God’s wrath. Those whom the Spirit equips to love don’t have to be afraid of Jesus’ return. After all, the Judge before whom we will all appear is our loving Savior.

It is in that fearless love that God’s adopted children can lovingly deal with our adopted siblings in Christ. “If [Ean] anyone says, ‘I love [Agapo] God,’ yet hates his brother [adelphon], he is a liar [pseustes]. For anyone who does not love [agapon] his brother, whom he has seen [heoraken], cannot love God, whom he has not seen … Whoever loves God must love his brother” (19-21).

There are a number of remarkable things about these assertions. Among them is the frequency of John’s use of a form of what we translate as “love.” After all, the apostle embeds the word we generally translate as “brother” [adelphon] in it. So it’s almost as if he says, “If you don’t love your beloved, you can’t claim that you love the Divine Beloved.

What’s more, “seeing” [heoraken] plays a huge role in John’s evaluation of love. We see our brothers and sisters who have various needs (and/or quirks). John suggests that this offers us the opportunity to love them in very concrete ways. When, however, we withhold our love from the beloved whom we can see, we have no right to claim to love the Beloved whom we can’t see.

*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.


Few stories point to the complexity of the intertwining of God’s love with ours than Chris Kyle’s. My colleague Stan Mast cited part of it in an earlier commentary . In his best-selling autobiography, American Sniper, Kyle looks back on his bloody past (over 160 sniper kills) and says this: “I am a strong Christian. Not a perfect one—not close.

“But I strongly believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible. When I die, I believe God is going to hold me accountable for everything I’ve done on earth. He may hold me back until last and run everybody else through the line, because it will take so long to go over my sins. ‘Mr. Kyle, let’s go into the backroom.’

Honestly, I don’t know what will really happen on Judgment Day.  But what I lean toward is that you know all your sins and God knows them all, and shame comes over you at the reality that he knows.  I believe that the fact that I’ve accepted Jesus as my Savior will be my salvation.

But in that backroom or whatever it is when God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them.  Everyone I shot was evil.  I had good cause on every shot.  They all deserved to die.”


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