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The Epistles of John (Part 43): 1 John 4:20–21

by Stephen Hebert on Sunday - 19 July 2009

in Biblical Studies, New Testament

This is the 43rd part in an ongoing series on the epistles of John.

English Standard Version Nestle-Aland 27
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. ἐάν τις εἴπῃ ὅτι ἀγαπῶ τὸν θεὸν καὶ τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ μισῇ, ψεύστης ἐστίν· ὁ γὰρ μὴ ἀγαπῶν τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ ὃν ἑώρακεν, τὸν θεὸν ὃν οὐχ ἑώρακεν οὐ δύναται ἀγαπᾶν. καὶ ταύτην τὴν ἐντολὴν ἔχομεν ἀπ᾿ αὐτοῦ, ἵνα ὁ ἀγαπῶν τὸν θεὸν ἀγαπᾷ καὶ τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ.

Again the author is stressing the importance of love. It is by the love that we show to our “brothers” that we will be recognized — not by words, but by the love that we have, the love that we share.

This leads me to two questions:

  • What is meant by “brother” in this passage?
  • What is this type of love that we are talking about?

Brother

Brother, of course, can refer to a familial relation — a person with the same mother and father as me. However, additionally, in the parlance of early Christianity, “brother” becomes a term of endearment for believers. Paul frequently refers to his “brothers” (not literal brothers, but spiritual/figurative brothers), and there is no reason to think that this usage of the term was not common across many early Christian groups.

So, here I think John is using this broader sense of the term. The question is this: How broad? Can “brother” mean more than just other believers? Can brother mean simply a fellow member of the human race?

That is a far more difficult question and one that I’m not sure we can easily answer. If this is the case, if “brother” refers to other humans (the broadest sense possible), then the implications for this particular verse become quite grand. Now we are called to love all humans, not just family members or fellow believers.

I tend to think that it’s best to consider “brother” in the super-broad sense here. Some may ask, “Why?” I would of course respond with: “Why not?” Why restrict the recipients of our love merely to those who believe as we believe. Did Christ not love all? Shouldn’t we do the same?

Brotherly Love

So, what does this love of brothers, love of fellow humans, entail? What does it mean? How do we practice it? How do we go about fulfilling this command?

The answer is devilishly simple in words, but ridiculously difficult in practice.

Deny self.

That’s the supreme rule here. The ultimate paradigm for this is the Cross, of course. Jesus’ self-denial, to the point of death, was the greatest act of love. Using it as a guide, we should seek to love others with the kind of love that places their needs before ours. At every turn we should be looking to crucify our selfishness, to deny our own desires/wants/needs, in favor of filling the needs of others.

I know — that is super-simple. Then why do we suck at it? Maybe I shouldn’t speak for the everyone. Maybe I should only speak for myself. Why do I suck at it?

That’s an easy answer too:

Sin.

There is something inside of me that yearns for pleasure, yearns to feel good, yearns to seize the moment for itself. That’s Sin. Fighting that is the most difficult fight any of us can possibly face. It’s a lifelong fight. An arduous, knockdown, drag-out, bloody brawl that we only occasionally have control over.

So many pieces of early Christian literature deal with ascetisicm, encratism, self-discipline, etc. All of those notions play in to this. I’m not saying that we need to practice self-flagellation or do anything extreme like that. I’m just saying that we need to master the self.

If I really knew how to do that, I’d be quite the guru. I don’t. I believe that’s an individual journey that each of us takes with God. At various times throughout my life I have seen glimpses of what that life looks like. I’m hoping to see more and more of those glimpses as I grow.

Article Series - The Epistles of John

  1. The Epistles of John (Part 1): 1 John 1:1–4
  2. The Epistles of John (Part 2): 1 John 1:5
  3. The Epistles of John (Part 3): 1 John 1:6–7
  4. The Epistles of John (Part 4): 1 John 1:8–10
  5. The Epistles of John (Part 5): 1 John 2:1
  6. The Epistles of John (Part 6): 1 John 2:2
  7. The Epistles of John (Part 7): 1 John 2:3–6
  8. The Epistles of John (Part 8): 1 John 2:7–8
  9. The Epistles of John (Part 9): 1 John 2:9–11
  10. The Epistles of John (Part 10): 1 John 2:12
  11. The Epistles of John (Part 11): 1 John 2:13
  12. The Epistles of John (Part 12): 1 John 2:14
  13. The Epistles of John (Part 13): 1 John 2:15
  14. The Epistles of John (Part 14): 1 John 2:16
  15. The Epistles of John (Part 15): 1 John 2:17
  16. The Epistles of John (Part 16): 1 John 2:18
  17. The Epistles of John (Part 17): 1 John 2:19
  18. The Epistles of John (Part 18): 1 John 2:20
  19. The Epistles of John (Part 19): 1 John 2:21
  20. The Epistles of John (Part 20): 1 John 2:22
  21. The Epistles of John (Part 21): 1 John 2:23–25
  22. The Epistles of John (Part 22): 1 John 2:26–27
  23. The Epistles of John (Part 23): 1 John 2:28
  24. The Epistles of John (Part 24): 1 John 2:29
  25. The Epistles of John (Part 25): 1 John 3:1–3
  26. The Epistles of John (Part 26): 1 John 3:4–6
  27. The Epistles of John (Part 27): 1 John 3:7–10
  28. The Epistles of John (Part 28): 1 John 3:11–12
  29. The Epistles of John (Part 29): 1 John 3:13
  30. The Epistles of John (Part 30): 1 John 3:14-18
  31. The Epistles of John (Part 31): 1 John 3:19–22
  32. The Epistles of John (Part 32): 1 John 3:23–24
  33. The Epistles of John (Part 33): 1 John 4:1–3
  34. The Epistles of John (Part 34): 1 John 4:4–6
  35. The Epistles of John (Part 35): 1 John 4:7-8
  36. The Epistles of John (Part 36): 1 John 4:9
  37. The Epistles of John (Part 37): 1 John 4:10
  38. The Epistles of John (Part 38): 1 John 4:11-12
  39. The Epistles of John (Part 39): 1 John 4:13–14
  40. The Epistles of John (Part 40): 1 John 4:15
  41. The Epistles of John (Part 41): 1 John 4:16–17
  42. The Epistles of John (Part 42): 1 John 4:18–19
  43. The Epistles of John (Part 43): 1 John 4:20–21
  44. The Epistles of John (Part 44): 1 John 5:1
  45. The Epistles of John (Part 45): 1 John 5:2-3

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