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Karen Jobes on How Love for Others Expresses Love for God (1 John 4:17 – 5:3) — An Excerpt from "1, 2, & 3 John (ZECNT)"

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9780310244165For the past few years the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series has been my go-to source for Sunday morning sermon preparation. Its balance of exegetical insights and theological depth and application make the series an ideal, automatic first read at the start of my preparation rhythm.

So I was thrilled to see Karen H. Jobes release a volume in the series on 1, 2, 3, John. The excerpt on 1 John 4:17–5:3 below provides a good example of how Jobes handles the varying components of exegesis that compete for our attention.

After outlining the main idea, that love for others expresses love for God, she moves into an explanation of the pericope's structure, focusing on original linguistic meaning; connecting it to the previous pericope; rooting the passage in the broader Johannine ethic of love; exploring the theological depth of God's act of love; and how this passage particularly applies within our pluralistic context.

The chorus of a new worship song by David Crowder explodes with "Oh great love of God; Who takes away the sin of all of us; Gone forever," reflects the majesty of John's exposition of God's love in the cross of Christ. Using this excerpt, meditate upon that great love, a love that removes fear of judgment and activates us in loving our neighbor as God first loved us in Christ.

-Jeremy Bouma, Th.M. (@bouma)


Literary Context

This pericope continues the discussion that began in 4:7 on how love for others expresses love for God. It provides a theological basis for this argument and ties the topic to eschatology by (1) pointing to the believer’s confidence to face the coming day of judgment without fear (4:17 – 18), (2) explaining that it is impossible to love God without loving fellow believers (4:19 – 21), and (3) showing how having been born of God through faith in Christ entails the command to love others who have also been reborn (5:1 – 2).

Main Idea

John presents the theological basis for the command that Christians are to love one another by building on his argument in 4:9 – 10 that God’s love for us is best displayed in the atonement of the cross of his Son, Jesus Christ. When God’s atoning love has fully reached its goal in a believer’s life, it produces two results: (1) they will rest in the assurance that they have nothing to fear in the coming judgment; (2) God’s transforming love enables believers to love others, which fulfills the command to love God. Being reborn through faith in Christ entails loving others who share such faith.


This passage is composed of three parts, 4:17 – 18; 4:19 – 21; and 5:1 – 3. John first explains the goal of God’s ongoing love in the believer’s life with respect to the future judgment; he then goes on to explain that love for God entails love for others. The prepositional phrase in 4:17, “in this way” (ἐν τούτῳ), links this pericope to the previous statement in 4:16, that the one who remains in God’s love remains in God and therefore has eternal life. “In this way,” by remaining in God’s love, which is centered on the atoning death of Jesus, we” have confidence to face the coming day of judgment without fear.

The second part of the passage shows that Christian love for others is derived from God’s love, and that it is impossible to love God genuinely without loving other believers. 

At first glance it may seem that John has moved to a new topic of faith and new birth in 5:1, especially since the discussion of faith continues in 5:3 and following. But the second part of 5:1 concerns love for those born of God and brings the discussion of love begun in 4:7 to its conclusion. This is a good example of how tightly braided John’s topics are, such that janus verses like this stand between two related topics.

Free from Fear

Reassurance of eternal life is based on God’s love, which is most clearly expressed on the cross, and that love when properly understood frees us from fear of God’s coming day of judgment (vv. 17 – 18). Perhaps a primary reason that so many people have a difficult time trusting God’s love is that society at large, and even the church to some extent, has let go of the idea that we will be judged by a holy and righteous God after this life. Consequently, the gracious atonement for our sin is not viewed as the greatest gift of love but as an irrelevant and outdated belief of primitive religion.

Instead of pondering the cross of Jesus Christ, fallen creatures seek God’s love and goodness elsewhere in a fallen creation. Horrible things such as the untimely death of innocents, gruesome violence, cataclysmic natural calamities, and “man’s inhumanity to man” seem to weigh heavily against God’s goodness (or his omnipotence), all of which cause many to doubt God’s love for us. If there is no sin and no judgment of sin, then Jesus’ death was a horrible farce. 

But John and all the other NT writers argue that there is no greater expression of God’s love than the cross of Jesus, and to accept God’s love and continue in it means embracing the gospel of Jesus Christ by acknowledging our sin, repenting of it, and living in Christ. John underscores that apart from this gospel, there is no assurance of eternal life. John further teaches that there is no genuine love for God apart from embracing the gospel of Jesus Christ and continuing in it (see The Theology of John’s Letters). 

The cross of Jesus delivers us from the coming judgment and frees us to live and love as God created us to do. The NT is full of ethical and moral principles, but John’s writings are strangely void of anything other than the command to love one another. In fact, John says, a person is self-deceived who claims to love God but is indifferent toward his church. So many in our modern society see themselves as spiritual, but have disdain for the church and organized religion. While churches and denominations certainly have their flaws and problems, it is an oxymoron to think that one can love and worship God in splendid isolation from the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is only in community with others who have received God’s atoning love in the cross of Christ that one can truly love God. It is only in the ups and downs of relationships with other believers that one has the opportunities to love. 

Love Takes a Community

John repeatedly points to Jesus’ new command that his followers must love one another. But is this really a useful principle of Christian ethics since the command is

so broad and vague and depends so much on how “love” is defined….The command to love one another seems too broad to be of practical value in guiding specific behavior, and it seems focused on the Johannine community to the exclusion of those outside.

Johannine Ethics

So John does present an ethical grounding for Christian life, which, as Kostenberger points out, “is a call to evangelistic mission that is grounded in God’s love for the world and undergirded by communal love and unity.”  In fact, one could argue that without John’s moral vision centered in the cross, all ethical behavior would be just going through the motions. It is good to feed hungry people, but if those same people are heading toward their judgment without Christ, is it loving to give them bread but not the Bread of Life? Is it loving to affirm Christian brothers and sisters

in their sin rather than call them to live as God has revealed in Scripture? John does expect his readers to care for others in need (3:17 – 18), but the real and present danger of that moment was that his readers might be led astray and not continue in genuine faith in Jesus Christ (2:19; 3:7; 4:1 – 3; 2 John 7 – 11)…

In a religiously pluralistic society (as we live in today), the greatest act of love— the sharing of God’s love in Christ — is increasingly perceived as a self-righteous power play that is taboo in polite company. Jesus was sent into such a world, and as he was returning to the Father he said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). This call to continue to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in a pluralistic society increasingly hostile to the idea of exclusive spiritual truth will be the church’s greatest challenge in the years to come. (pgs. 200-213)

Old Testament Today, 2nd Edition

1, 2, 3 John (ZECNT)

By Karen H. Jobes

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