Exegetical Exercise – 1 John 4 7-19

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… and those who abide in love abide in God

Notes and questions on I John 4:7-19 (the Uniform Series text for Sunday, March 2, 2017) The text:

(7) Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. (8) Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. (9) God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. (10) In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (11) Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. (12) No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
(13) By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. (14) And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. (15) God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. (16) So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. (17) Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. (18) There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (19) We love because he first loved us.

More questions than notes, really:

I John is part of the “Johannine corpus,” and probably stems from the same community that produced the gospel of John, which seems to have had somewhat different concerns and a distinctly different approach to the pursuit of the Christian life from the community that gave rise to the synoptic gospels and Paul’s letters. There is a tradition that the community was located in and around Ephesus, which the Access Study Bible says “is at least as plausible as any other suggestion.” Probably from around 100 CE, after the gospel of John, which would have been available to the author, traditionally thought to be John the beloved disciple, but according to Raymond Brown “probably not by the one responsible for most of the Gospel,” and he also points out that “I John has none of the features of the letter format.”1

The larger text develops – or, maybe more precisely, spins out – the themes of light and walking in the light (I John 1:5-3:10), of love, loving one another, God’s love, etc. (I John 3:11-5:3) and of life (I John 5); that division is a little artificial, because there is talk of life and love throughout.

The author sticks to a really limited vocabulary. (In seminary, our Greek class used a textbook that was based on I John, probably for this reason – it’s pretty basic Greek, and once you learn a few words, you can read it without looking every single word up in the lexicon.) So, for instance, in this text of 13 verses, the word love (Gk agape), noun or verb, shows up 22 times, not counting the address “Beloved,” which occurs twice. So, love is the important idea here.

It would make more sense to me if verse 7 were punctuated differently: Beloved, let us love one another. Because love is from God, everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. I don’t know whether there is any justification for that. The interesting point in verses 7-8 seems to be that to know God, we need to love, since God is love … so, this seems to be a kind of epistemological claim, that we come to know God as we live in a particular way that matches or is informed by God’s character.

What does it mean to “live through [God’s only Son]”? These days, this might qualify as “church language that doesn’t really signify anything concrete to people” – so when we hear it we think we know what it means, but if we think about it, we realize we can’t say what it means. These are the alternatives I have been able to think of: (1) the source of life is God’s only Son; living “through him” involves receiving life, which originates in him; (2) he is alive, and we live vicariously “through him” (so, something like the way we say “Grandmother is still alive, through her grandchildren”) – this might not be as appealing as (1); (3) it has something to do with the “body of Christ,” so that insofar as we participate in the church, we live “through him” who animates that community; (4) “through” is something like “by means of,” Christ is something like medicine; so living “through him” is something like “better living through chemistry,” we would have been dead, but now we are alive through Christ. That last has the advantage of seeming to fit with the reference to Christ as the atoning sacrifice in v. 10.

The “perfected” love of v. 12, and 17-18, is perfect passive of Gk. teleiō, related to the noun telos and our word “teleological,” all related to the notion of an end or destiny, maybe pre- or naturally determined.

The language of “abiding” connotes “residing” or “dwelling” or “staying.” The medium of this abiding seems to be the Spirit. The confession of Christ as Son of God may be related to the knowledge of God that comes through love: namely, the confession is possible because of the practical knowledge of the love made manifest in Christ’s life.

The contrast of parrhēsia with fear, both having to do with facing judgment, … does this mean that those who have not reached perfection in love recognize their shortcomings, and so fear what they will be held accountable for? Or that they do not recognize the love of God that will shield them from punishment, because they do not know God as fully as they need to? It might come to the same thing in the end … and there may be an element of trust here, too, as an ingredient of love in vv.17-18.

1 Raymond E. Brown, S.S., An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1996) 384, 392.

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