No man hath beheld God at any time: if we love one another, God abideth in us, and his love is perfected in us: hereby we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit. And we have beheld and bear witness that the Father hath sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God abideth in him, and he in God. And we know and have believed the love which God hath in us. God is love; and he that abideth in love abideth in God, and God abideth in him (1 John 4:12-16).
John is justly known as the Apostle of love, and 1 John 4:7-21 represents his grand treatise on love. He begins to demonstrate the power and the necessity of love in 1 John 4:7-11. He establishes that we ought to love one another since love is of God and God is love. This love is demonstrated through the sacrifice of Jesus so that we could live to God. Our love for God is based in His love for us, and we should respond by loving one another.
John then continues with what may seem to be an unrelated statement: no one has seen God at any time (1 John 4:12). He has made such a statement in John 1:18 and will take it in a different direction in 1 John 4:20, but what is it doing here in the middle of a treatise on love?
Many questions could be raised. Who did Moses then see on the mountain? With whom did Jacob really fight? What did Isaiah or Ezekiel see? It would seem that on the basis of John’s statement that these men all saw manifestations or representations of God, not God in His true spiritual form (cf. John 4:24). Nevertheless, John’s purpose here is not to delve into the mysteries of how God appears to humans. He wants to emphasize the true nature of our relationship with God. God is love, after all (1 John 4:8), and therefore if we love one another, God abides in us (1 John 4:12). When we love one another, God’s love is perfected, or completed, within us, for we are able to treat our fellow man as God has treated all of us (1 John 4:12).
We then are told of a further confirmation that God abides in us– He has given us of His Spirit (1 John 4:13). John has already indicated as much in 1 John 3:24; why must he mention it again? There may be some who doubt or are unsure that they are loving as God loves, and may question whether they are of God. It is more likely that the gift of the Spirit is a further demonstration of the love of God and a reason for confidence in Him.
This confidence is also inspired by the testimony of John in verse 14: he has seen and bears witness to the fact that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. Those who confess this truth– that Jesus is the Son of God– abide in God and God abides in him (1 John 4:15).
The assurance that God abides in/with the believer is a consistent theme throughout 1 John. John has previously spoken of such things to make the contrast between true believers in God and those who have gone astray into false doctrine, especially those following the Gnostic belief systems (1 John 2:24-29, 3:19-24). As before, so also here: it would be foolish to turn John’s statements into absolutes and believe that as long as someone confesses with their lips that Jesus is the Son of God that God definitively abides in them. More is required than just saying that Jesus is the Son of God– one must also keep the commandments (1 John 2:3-6)!
We have seen previously that God abides with those who have heard His Gospel and have His anointing (1 John 2:24, 27), who do not sin (1 John 3:6), and those who keep His commandments (1 John 3:24). To this we now add that God abides with those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God (1 John 4:15) and also those who abide in love (1 John 4:16).
This returns us to the theme of love. True believers come to know and believe deeply in the love that God has for us and that is present within us (1 John 4:16). Those who do not believe the truths of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection cannot truly understand or trust in that love. Only sacrificial love could motivate God to take on flesh and dwell among us (John 1:14). Only sacrificial love can explain why God would die on the cross for our reconciliation to Him (1 John 4:10). When we begin to understand the great love which God has for us, we will be motivated to believe in the message of the Gospel, declare that belief before others, do what He says, and thus to show the same type of love to others. When we have that kind of love toward our fellow man we demonstrate that even though our eyes may not have seen God, we abide in Him, and He in us. Do we abide in love?