Tuesday, July 13, 2021

A Deeper Look at 1 John 4: Love Perfected

Can we be honest? Sometimes when we read 1 John, it feels condemning. One example? “Anyone who does not love does not know God” (4:8).  

Yikes! We can read that and think, wellI’ve sure had plenty of ‘unloving’ moments, so I guess I don’t know God.  

Sigh. Grumble. Grumble. Cry.  


But to read and study 1 John, we have to first understand John as a person. He considered himself Jesus’s favorite and repeatedly refers to himself in the book of John as ‘the one Jesus loved.’ Seems pretty bold, huh? 

Actually, John just had a deep, deep, DEEP understanding of who he is in Christ. He is, I think, one of the best pictures of a disciple walking in his identity in Christ. And so yeah, he comes across a little arrogant sometimes, a little over-confident, but if we read his words in the context of his full and complete confidence in who he is in Christ, then we can see why he makes the bold statements that he makes.  

And the more I study him, the more I can see his style of writing, where what feels like a super bold (and condemning) statement is usually explained in more context if we continue reading and also if we make connections from earlier statements to later statements. And always those statements are rooted in an understanding of either who God is or who we are in Christ, as believers with His spirit and new nature.  

I’ve been meditating on chapter 4, specifically verses 16 through 18 because I have been consumed with quite a bit of fear and anxiety lately. It started with verse 18—and again, we can read this and think, gosh, I’m fearful. I guess God’s love is not perfected in me. Sigh. Sigh. Grumble. Grumble. Cry.  

First, we need context. Let’s start in verse 12. It says, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”  

It feels like this means love is perfected in us, if/when we love one another.  

We love >> then God abides >> then love is perfected  

But keep reading... 

Paul explains how we know that we abide in Him and He in us: we have his Spirit (v. 13), we have the gospel testimony (v. 14), and we confess Jesus as the son of God (v. 15).  

Now we get to what I’ve been meditating on—verses 16 through 18: 

“So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love, abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment because as He is so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”  

After we know that we abide in Him (i.e. we have his Spirit, we believe the gospel testimony, we confess Jesus as the son of God—in other words, we’re born-again believers), THEN we have come to know and to believe the love God has for us (v. 16).  

Now we see that God is love and to abide in love is to abide in God and to have God abide in us.  

THEN is love perfected—“by this...” (v. 17).  

So when Paul says (v. 18), whoever fears has not been perfected in love, it means he who is fearing/fearful is not abiding in God nor God in Him. There’s a disconnect.  

When we disconnect, we fear. When we fear, we expect punishment. When we expect punishment, we have forgotten the love of God—what we first came to know and believe.  

The more deeply we’re rooted in our identity in Christ, the more fully we accept His love for us, the less likely we will be to walk in fear.  


I’m a grammar nerd, so let’s look at some of these verbs.  

In the Greek, both the verbs for know and believe in verse 16 are in the perfect indicative, which indicates an action that took place in the past, whose results continue to the present.  

In other words, this is one who already knows and believes the love God has for us.  

And to get just a little more nerdy, the Greek word for know is experiential knowledge, and the word for believe is a mental persuasion.  

So we’ve already, in the past, known and believed God, meaning we have experienced Him and are mentally convinced of who He says He is—and that past action of knowing and believing carries results to the present (perfect indicative).  

Let’s look at the word for abide. This verb is a present participle, which indicates a continuous action: one who is abiding.   

What does it mean to abide? The Greek word here means to stay in a given state, place, relation, or expectancy. This sometimes gets translated as ‘to remain,’ and it’s the same word John uses in John 15 to describe God as the vine and us as the branches.  

So we abide when we stay, when we remain in relationship with God, in the same mental state of knowing and believing (who He is, who we are in Him), in the same metaphorical place, let’s say, of being in his family, connected as one of his branches, and in the same expectancy that both He never changes and He always keeps His word.  

What are we abiding in? In God but also in his love because we’re told God is love (v. 16).  

And this word for love is important. It’s agape love in the Greek that’s used in all of these verses (12 – 18). Throughout the Bible, this word describes the benevolent love that God has for us. Zodhiates describes it as benevolent in that God loves us by giving mankind what we need the most, not always what we desire.  

The verb for perfected in verses 12, 17, and 18 is perfect indicative passive. So the same definition for perfect indicative applies (a past action whose results carry to the present), but it’s also passive voice, meaning the subject is receiving the action, not doing it.  

In other words, we don’t perfect ourselves in love. It’s something that happens to us—namely by what we learned above: abiding in God and He in us. Keeping that connection is central to being perfected in love, which is central to not being fearful.  

One more word to look atwhat’s translated ‘whoever fears’ is better translated as ‘he that feareth (v. 18). This is a single verb that’s a present passive/middle participle (in this case, the participle is an adjectival modifier, a verb in form but not in function) 

English doesn’t have middle voice, so it’s more challenging to understand, but Zodhiates describes it as “the subject is in some way acting upon himself or concerning himself.”  

So think of this as “he who feareth” means, the person that is bringing fear upon himself.  

So what have we learned—and why do we care about all these verb meanings?  

These actions—knowing and believing—have happened in the past at our moment of salvation, but they’re actions with results that carry into the future as well.  

This is different from our action of abiding, which is continuous and on-going, and it might be easy to think, well, I don’t always feel like I know God’s love, so I must not know and believe him—an action I must not have made in the past.  

But, my friend, if you are a born-again believer, then YES, you have known and believed. Nothing speaks of His agape love more than the gospel message and the glorious exchange that took place because of Jesus’s work on the cross.  

So we have known and believed—and we now choose to abide, an on-going continuous choice and action.  

And finally, let’s contrast ‘he that feareth’ with ‘being perfected.’ It’s worth considering the language here because it reminds me that being fearful is a choice—and it’s a choice that I put on myself (middle voice)

Whereas, being perfected is an action that I receive (passive voice) 

At the root of John’s message here is who God is and whether we know and believe it. When we know Him, we know His love. When we know His love, we abide in Him and He in us. And remember, when we stay abiding, remaining connected to our source, His love is perfected and casts out fear. 

If you feel fearful today, my friend, if you feel anxious as I have lately, then be encouraged: we can choose not to fear; we can choose to receive his perfect love.  

How? By believing who He says He is, by abiding in Him (in our mental state, in our metaphorical place, in our relationship, in expectancy), and by trusting in His agape love—that He love us benevolently, giving us what we need most, with our best interest in mind.  


 *Greek references are from The Complete Word Study New Testament, edited by Spiros Zodhiates. 

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