God is Love
Commentary on 1 John 4:7
Now we turn to the section in the Epistle that has its most often quoted words: “God is love.” Not surprisingly, this statement is of such importance for John that he expresses it twice: first in verse 8, and then again in verse 16. These words are certainly at the heart of the entire passage; and the passage itself is the heart of the entire Epistle.
There are other themes that have appeared repeatedly throughout the Epistle—themes such as abiding, light, obeying the commandments, etc. But all of these are trumped by the theme of love. Indeed, the word “love”—both as a verb and as a noun—and derivatives such as “beloved”— appears 52 times in the Epistle, thus showing its importance. But of those 52 times, 29 appear in the section we are now studying: four in verse 7; two in verse 8; one in verse 9; three in verse 10; three in verse 11; two in verse 12; none in verses 13-15; and then again three in verse 16; one in verse 17; three in verse 18; two in verse 19; three in verse 20; and two in verse 21. It should also be noted that many interpreters have shown the parallelism between much of what is said here and Jesus’ words in John 3:16, “for God so loved the world that … ”
The beginning of this passage surprises us, for in the previous section John has written some rather harsh words about those whom he considers a threat to the Christian community. Usually, as we have seen, John threads one passage with another by means of common themes which often appear at the end of a section and then again at the beginning of the next. Here, however, there is no such transition or connection—at least, not obviously, for when we look at the passage more closely, and consider it in the context of the entire Epistle we see that there is indeed a connection.
One connection is in the theme of being “from God.” In the previous section, John has contrasted those who are “from God” with those who are “from the world.” Now he invites his readers—whom he calls “beloved”—to love, and to do this because “love is from God.” This is so much the case, that John surprises us by declaring that “anyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” At first sight, this might seem to be a declaration that any love, no matter its object or its form, is from God, and that anyone who loves something or someone, no matter whom or how, knows God.
There are those today who hold that anyone who feels or expresses any sort of love is expressing the equivalent of the Christian love of which John speaks here. There were in John’s time religions that held that their gods were to be found and served in acts of eroticism such as temple prostitution and the like. This is certainly not what John means. He has earlier spoken of love for the world as an evil.
Like every other word, “love” can be twisted to mean just about anything. John has made it abundantly clear that the love to which he is referring is indissolubly connected with God’s love in Jesus Christ, and with obeying his commandments. John is addressing a Christian community, and therefore is speaking of Christian love—love born, as he will say in a moment, out of God’s love for us.
To expand the meaning of his words, as if all love of any kind were of God, is to twist his meaning. (Even so, apparently there were copyists who feared that John would be misunderstood, and therefore amended the phrase in verse 7, “everyone who loves is born of God,” to “everyone who loves God is born of God.” Such an amendment is not necessary if we remember the insistence of the entire Epistle on the connection between love of God and obedience to the commandments.) Naturally, this is not to say that the natural love within families, the love of parents for children, the love between spouses, the love between friends, is evil. It is to say that, at its best, it is a reflection of the love of God, which is the love that was “in the beginning.”