17 In this is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgement; because as He is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear: because fear has torment. He that fears is not made perfect in love. 19 We love Him, because He first loved us. 20 If a man say, “I love God”, but hates his brother, he is a liar. For he who loves not his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? 21 And this is the commandment which we have from Him: he who loves God must also love his brother.1 John 4:17-21
God dwelling with us, by the Spirit, and we dwelling in Him by the gracious love of Christ (v16) brings us to our designed end. This perfect love is a perfecting love. His perfect love works upon us to bring about in us the perfecting of our likeness to Christ. This chapter opened by describing the true test of union with God: belief & confession that Jesus is come in the flesh (4:2). John has shown that this faith brings us up into the great and wondrous love of God. This love grants us the boldness of sons (Cf. Heb. 10:19).
This boldness is set in the context of looming judgement. As an aside, I take this as a hint that this epistle was written before Jerusalem fell. Take that for what it is, free of charge. That said, notice that this boldness in the face of disastrous judgement is coupled with our union with Christ. He is victorious on high, and we are victors here below in Him.
And so, this love which flows from being bound fast to Christ casts out fear. The greek word for “cast out” is a vivid one. It carries the idea of throwing out dung/trash. A more folksy rendering might be ”Perfect love trashes fear.” The love which God has shown us in Christ brings us to treat our fear like rubbish to be tossed who cares where. Fear has torment. The idea here is the torment inflicted as punishment on slaves. One expositor put it wonderfully, “The portion of slaves is punishment (κόλασιν) and their spirit fear; the portion of sons is chastisement (παιδεία) and their spirit boldness (παρρησίαν).”1 Carrying a slavish fear reveals a deficiency in understanding the love which God has shown in Christ.
And so, to once more assure timid hearts, John gives one of the most savory lines in all the Bible. God’s love has come to us, before we ever loved Him or others. This is love which we did not earn by being loving or lovely ourselves. Love, rich and free.
Which leads to a warning and a practical application. The warning is in a familiar Johanine if/then. You can’t say you love God, and hate your brother. Pretending to be able to do so makes you a liar (Cf. 1 Jn. 1:6). John then kneecaps any gnostic notions of love. Love is personal. It isn’t just some grand, platonic idea. It is something between persons. We see this in the trinity (which John is about to describe in chapter 5), and if we love this God who loves us, our love will be embodied and relational, not imaginary and ethereal.
The practical application sews up a theme introduced back in chapter 2:7-11. The commandment which Christ gives His disciples is that if they love God, the must love their brother. This isn’t an option or a matter of preference. This whole argument (from 3:1) up to this passage has been helping us to see that God has lavished gracious love upon us, and this love brings us up into God’s life, and converts us into His likeness. This then can be seen in how we love one another. In the following chapter John will lay out as close to a systematic theology as we might find in Scripture (touching on the doctrines of the Trinity, Christology, soteriology, ordo solutis, etc.). But notice that these deep oceans of doctrine are to be sailed in the vessel of the Father’s great love for us in Christ, which we partake in by the Spirit which dwells in us.
1 Smith, David. The Expositors Greek Testament. Edited by W. Robertson Nicoll. Vol. Five. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979. Pg 192
- 1 John 5:1-5 | Swept Up Into Victory
- 1 John 4:17-21 | Bold Sons & Fearful Slaves
- 1 John 4:11-16 | The Offensive Love of God
- 1 John 4:7-10 | God is Love
- 1 John 4:4-6 | Overcoming Swarms of Devils
- 1 John 4:1-3 | Stranger Danger
- 1 John 3:23-24 | The Nail in Timidity’s Coffin
- 1 John 3:19-22 | God is Greater than Our Hearts
- 1 John 3:13-18 | The World Hates You
- 1 John 3:10-12 | Children of God, Children of the Devil