Exegesis of “love” in 1 John 4.7-12

1 John 4:7-12

7Beloved ones, we should love one another, because love is from God and everyone who loves has been begotten from God and knows God. 8The one who does not love does not know God because God is love. 9In this, the love of God was revealed in us, because God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, in order that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as expiation concerning our sins. 11Beloved ones, thus if God loved us we ought to love each other. 12No one has seen God at any time. If we might love each other, God remains in us and His love in us is completed.

1 John 4.7-12 has a clear theme of love, given through the continuation of using words in the αγαπη (agape) word family fifteen times in five verses. The deliberate usage of this word family begs the question, “What is this love and why does God loving us mean we should love each other?”

There are three Greek words for love which all designate different aspects: ἐρᾶν (eran), φιλία (filia), and ἀγαπᾶν (agapan). The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) explains that ἐρᾶν is “is passionate love which desires the other for itself.” It is a self-serving love epitomized in the Greek god, ἔρως (Eros). Plato considered ἐρᾶν to be the “epitome of the uttermost fulfillment and elevation of life.[1]

The second type of love is φιλία (filia), which is a love that embraces everything bearing a human countenance; it is “the solicitous love of gods for men, or friends for friends.” The TDNT clarifies that it is not “an impulse or intoxication which overcomes man, but an order or task which he may evade.”[2]

Lastly, ἀγαπᾶν (agapan) relates mostly to the love of God, to the “love of the higher lifting up the lower, elevating the lower above others… it is a giving, active love on the other’s behalf.According to the TDNT, the reference to this type of love is almost completely lacking in pre-biblical Greek. Its most common usage was in the substantive form, ἀγαπητός (Beloved One),[3] which was used above all in reference to a beloved child.

 Yet, it is ἀγαπη (agape) which the author of 1 John defines as the identity of the One True God (1 John 4.8). Dr. Stephen Smalley explains that the knowledge of the Source of ἀγαπη draws the believer into a real relationship which then transforms the believer into one likewise characterized by ἀγαπη.[4] As Kruse concludes, knowing the Source of ἀγαπη leads to an overflowing of that Source which is exhibited in love for one another.[5]

The fact that ἐρᾶν (eran) was the predominant understanding of love in the Greco-Roman world highlights the contrast of believers in Jesus who live with an ἀγαπη lifestyle mentality. In a world which is characterized by the self-serving indulgence of ἐρᾶν, a God and His practitioners who clothe themselves in the self-forgetting service of ἀγαπη would stand out with glaring consistency. Actions fueled by ἀγαπη shine brightly against a self-serving world, and in of themselves, proclaim the truth of the Creator, the one whom John says is Himself Αγαπη.

God showed His ἀγαπη by sending His Son to die for the redemption of His earthly children, that they might know Him (1 John 4.9). Through this knowledge of Αγαπη, His children are likewise obligated to show Αγαπη through their actions toward each other. As Jesus said in John 13.35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Let us go forth with Αγαπη.


[1] Quell, G., & Stauffer, E. (1964–). ἀγαπάω, ἀγάπη, ἀγαπητός. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 1, p. 36). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., pp. 5–7). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[4] Stephen S. Smalley. 1, 2, 3, John, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 51, Dallas: Word, Incorporated (1984). 227.

[5] C. G. Kruse, (2000). The letters of John. Grand Rapids, MI; W.B. Eerdmans Pub.; Apollos.

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