1 John 4:20-21

20 If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? 21 And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.

To whom does "brother" refer to here in this verse?

  • 1
    I think the answer is straight forward. Brother still means your neighbour. Anybody that comes your way. Loving God is not by mouth, it is by deed
    – tunmise fashipe
    Aug 27, 2012 at 13:40
  • This question appears to be going two ways, and each way is better addrssed by a different StackExchange site. One way is to deal with the text and exactly how to interpret the word in it's context. For this I will move your question to Biblical Hermeneutics. In doing so, I'm going to edit out the other parts. The second direction you are going requires a doctrinal answer. You might consider asking another question here about what Christian traditions consider their "brothers" to be.
    – Caleb
    Sep 18, 2012 at 15:20

4 Answers 4


Let's quote the passage from a more-modern English translation:

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. We love because he first loved us. 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.—1st John 4:18-21 (ESV)

The highlighted section seems to refer back to something Jesus said:

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”—Luke 10:25-29 (ESV)

Other times, it's Jesus who explains that loving God and loving our neighbor are tied together. But in Luke, we get Jesus' explanation of who our neighbor is: it is anyone, even our enemies. The Samaritan, who shows mercy to a victim of highway robbery, illustrates that we ought to love even our enemies.

But in the context of 1st John, "brother" has a more local definition according to the NET Bible notes:

Grk “his brother.” Here the term “brother” means “fellow believer” or “fellow Christian” (cf. BDAG 18 s.v. ἀδελφός 2.a). In the repeated uses of this form of address throughout the letter, it is important to remember that sometimes it refers (1) to genuine Christians (those who have remained faithful to the apostolic eyewitness testimony about who Jesus is, as outlined in the Prologue to the letter, 1:1-4; an example of this usage is 2:10; 3:14, 16), but often it refers (2) to the secessionist opponents whose views the author rejects (examples are found here at 2:9, as well as 2:11; 3:10; 3:15; 3:17; 4:20). Of course, to be technically accurate, in the latter case the reference is really to a “fellow member of the community”; the use of the term “fellow Christian” in the translation no more implies that such an individual is genuinely saved than the literal term “brother” which the author uses for such people. But a translation like “fellow member of the community” or “fellow member of the congregation” is extremely awkward and simply cannot be employed consistently throughout.


John emphases that Jesus called his followers to love even their enemies. Therefore, the sign of a genuine Christian is that they continue to show love even to people who are opponents to the church. That doesn't mean to treat our enemies equal to our true brothers, however.


This verse clearly states that "to love God" is something more than just acknowledging that God is good. The true love of God according to christianity is the struggle to fullfill His will in one's life. Thus someone who says "I love God" but breaks the commandment of loving his neighbour is called a liar. He states that he loves God, but knows better about the love of other man.


Brother here is referring to a fellow Christian.

See 1 John 3:13 (ESV), "Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you." If the word brothers there implied the whole world, then this statement would make no sense.

In 1 John 3:14 and 16, John uses the term "the brothers". You would never add the word "the" if it implied the whole world.

1 John 5:1b, "... and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him." Here, it's explicitly limited to the those who are born of God. Christians are born of God. Those who are not Christians are not born of God.

1 John 5:2 is an exact mirror of 1 John 4:21. Compare them:

1 John 5:2 "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments."

1 John 4:21 "And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother."

Note that chapter 4 and chapter 5 flow together. The chapter divisions weren't in the original. The point is that if we love God, we obey his commandments, which is loving other Christians (i.e. brother, children of God).

Now, I am not advocating that we not love our neighbor who is not a Christian. Other texts make it obvious we must love everyone, but 1 John is crystal clear in focusing that we must love fellow Christians.

Paul also echoes this in Galatians 6:10. "So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith." We ought to do good (and love) everyone, but to especially love believers with a special love is appropriate.

Why is that appropriate? Because Jesus did the same thing. See 1 John 3:16, John 10:11. He laid down his life for the sheep, not for the wolves. So Jesus has a special love for his own. And just as Jesus laid down his life for the sheep (fellow Christians), so we ought to lay down our life for the brothers (fellow Christians).


The answer surprises many, because scholarship of First John is what you might call a niche pursuit, so that the conclusions of critical scholars have not become well known. Because we often try to read 1 John in terms of modern faith concepts, it seems to be a confusing epistle with no easy answers to questions like this.

W. Hall Harris III ('3. The Author’s Opponents and Their Teaching in 1 John') says the epistle provides good reason for thinking that a split has taken place in the Johannine community and the author’s opponents now constitute a community of their own, just as thoroughly committed as the author’s to spreading their understanding of who Jesus is. In this polemic, 'brothers' are those who remained in the community, loyal to the 'elder' who writes these epistles. This is most clearly evident in 1 John 2:19:

1 John 2:19: They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.

The context for 1 John 4:20-21 is provided by Burton L. Mack, in Who Wrote the New Testament, pages 215-218, where he says that First John is a polemic against this author's erstwhile compatriots. First (1 John 4:19), he says we (the community) love God, then he accuses his erstwhile brothers and sisters of hating those who remain with the elder, and therefore both of being liars and of not loving God.

In 4:20a, we are told the elder's opponents are liars because they say they love God, but this can not be if they hate the brothers who remain behind in the community: "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar". Once again in verse 4:21, where he insists that he who loves God loves his brother, the reference is simply to the brethren remaining in the community. Throughout the epistle, the invective is such that the elder clearly does not love those who left, but the elder sees no irony in not loving those brothers.

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