Testing the Spirits, 1-6
4:1 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 4:2 By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses Jesus as the Christ who has come in the flesh is from God, 4:3 but every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God, and this is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming, and now is already in the world.
‘The reference to the Spirit in 1 Jn 3:24 introduces the need to distinguish between the work of two spirits: the spirit of truth and the spirit of deception.’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)
Dear friends – John addresses everyone, not just the church leaders. All are to be involved in the discernment of spirits. Cf. Acts 17:11.
Do not believe every spirit –
What is meant by ‘spirit’ here?
- Some think that this refers to demonic and angelic spirits, cf. 1 Tim 4:1. See comment by J. Stafford Wright, below.
- Others think that it refers to the Holy Spirit and Satan (‘the Spirit of truth’ and ‘the spirit of falsehood’, v6). But v2 implies a myriad of spirits.
- Still others think that it refers to human spirits (of the teachers of truth and falsehood)
- A further option is that ‘spirit’ is ‘a metonymy for the teaching or teacher with “spirit” indicating the source behind the teacher or teaching’ (Derickson). ‘Behind every prophet is a spirit and behind each spirit either God or the devil. Before we can trust any spirits, we must test them. It is their origin that matters’ (Stott). What is to be evaluated, then, is the teacher and his teaching, with the implication that behind this will be some spirit or Spirit. Cf. 1 Cor 14:32; 1 Tim 4:1-3. Derickson adds: ‘Granted, one then recognizes the source, but the evaluation is of the person and his or her teachings, not a search for demons or angels within the congregation. John is also in no way implying these false teachers are demonically possessed. They are as likely to be influenced by the “spirit” of this age (the world’s values, their culture) as they are by servants of Satan.’
Do not believe – Christians are called to disbelieve, as well as believe! ‘There is need for Christian discernment. For many are too gullible, and exhibit a naïve readiness to credit messages and teachings which purport to come from the spirit world. There is such a thing, however, as a misguided tolerance of false doctrine. Unbelief (do not believe every spirit) can be as much a mark of spiritual maturity as belief.’ (Stott)
Test the spirits – ‘The command to ‘try the spirits’ in 1 Jn 4:1-3 shows that there were false prophets in the church who spoke under possession. Since the spiritualists make much of this verse, it should be noted that the Bible never speaks of possession by any good departed spirit or by an angel. The alternatives are either the Holy Spirit or an evil spirit. See also 1 Cor 12:1-3.’ (J. Stafford Wright in NBD) See also 1 Cor 12:10.
As Jackman says, we all have a tendency to be attracted by the novel and the unusual. But we are not to be credulous: not everything that is appealing and exciting is from God.
Jackman reminds us that there are various kinds of falsehood. There is the exaggerated claim that promises more than can be delivered. There is the false reassurance (healing wounds lightly, saying “Peace, peace” when there is no peace). Then there is the deliberate deceit that seeks only personal gain.
John Cotton: ‘The people of God should first try the spirits of their ministers, before they trust them.’ See also 1 Thess 5:19-22, the teaching of which is remarkably similar to John’s. They must try a man’s person, Mt 7:15f; calling, doctrine, and application.
Even when prophecies are supported by miraculous powers we are to test them carefully. ‘False prophets may even produce evidence to ‘prove’ that what they say is real, but that is no guarantee that they are from God. Miraculous powers are no proof in themselves of the truth of those who exercise them. There were magicians in Egypt who could imitate some of the miraculous deeds God did through Moses (Ex. 7:22; 8:7; but see also 8:18–19). There was Simon, the Samaritan sorcerer, who had amazed people for a long time with his magic (Acts 8:11). Such signs are to be tested.’ (Jackman)
‘Every prophet is the mouthpiece or spokesman of some spirit, true prophets of ‘the Spirit of God’ (2), who in verse 6 is called ‘the Spirit of truth’, and false prophets of ‘the spirit of falsehood’ (6b) or ‘the spirit of the antichrist’ (3). So behind every prophet is a spirit, and behind each spirit either God or the devil.’ (Stott)
The true church is characterised by the faithful proclamation of God’s truth. In John’s day there were docetists, who denied the incarnation and the atonement. In other ages, including our own, other cardinal truths, have been denied. Of those who deliberately and systematically repudiate the revealed truth of God we must say, as John said of certain of his contemporaries, “They did not really belong to us,” 1 Jn 2:19.
Just because a prophet claims that his or her message is from God, even when accompanied by some supernatural manifestation, this does not mean that the message is from God.
‘Demons are very cowardly, always anxious about the fire that has been prepared for them. To bolster your courage against them, take this sure sign: When some apparition occurs, do not collapse in terror, But whatever it may be ask first, bravely, “Who are you, and where do you come from?” If it is a divine vision, it will give you assurances and change your fear to joy. If it is some devil, it will immediately be weakened by your formidable spirit.’ (Antony of Egypt)
‘1 Jn 4:1-3 urges the readers to “test the spirits” and provides criteria by which this is to be done. The question is, Does “spirits” stand for the human spirits of prophets; a multiplicity of spirit beings, good and evil; the one Spirit of God versus evil spirits; or spirit-inspired utterances? The “because” (Gk hoti) of 1 Jn 4:1 shows the testing of spirits is necessary due to the activity of “false prophets” who have gone out “into the world.” The false prophets are not activated by or informed by God’s Spirit. They are the “antichrists” of 1 Jn 2:18-19, (cf. 2 Jn 7) the false prophets whom Jesus warned would arise. (Mt 24:11) If they are listened to, they will lead God’s people astray. Nowhere else in the NT does the term spirits, without qualification, refer to people; and the idea is common to all religious groups in the first century that supernatural beings may accompany, inspire and lead people (cf. the “Spirit of Truth” and “Spirit of falsehood” at Qumran, 1QS 4). So John refers in 1 Jn 4:1 to supernatural entities accompanying “prophets” and inspiring their messages. There is only one good Spirit for John, the Holy Spirit, though many evil spirits may exist (Brown, 486, 491-92). Some passages in 1 Corinthians could be read to suggest that for Paul the line between human and divine spirits could be blurred: so G. D. Fee understands that “my spirit” and “in spirit” in 1 Cor 14:14,15 refer to both kinds of spirit simultaneously. Such an understanding might also be suggested for 1 Jn 4:1-3 by the references to the “confession” of “every spirit” (every human spirit of a prophet leaves telltale evidence of how it is inspired). But in light of 1 Jn 4:1, that the testing is whether the spirits are “from God” and considering that it would be odd to refer to the person of the prophets this way (their spirit being sent from God), it is better to understand the references to “every spirit” as vividly individualizing encounters with prophets. Though there is ultimately only one good spirit, the force of the expression (1 Jn 4:2-3) is, “every time you encounter a ‘spirit’ speaking through a prophet which agrees with the truth that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, know that it is from God.” How does one test a “spirit?” Indirectly, by means of what effect it has on people’s conception of Jesus and God (as here, 1 Jn 4:1-3) and by observing how it affects behavior (the test of love, 1 Jn 4:7-21). In the OT also an important test of a prophet was what he said about God. (Deut 13:1-5; 18:15-22) There are false prophets or teachers who travel from one Christian community to another, living off their offerings and claiming to present a message from the Spirit. (2 Jn 7-11) Perhaps for fear of committing the “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,” Christians were loath to publicly question or criticize a prophet. This attitude is illustrated in the Didache: “Do not put to the test, nor try to exercise judgment on any prophet speaking ‘in Spirit,’ ‘for every sin will be forgiven, but this sin will not be forgiven.’ But not everyone speaking ‘in Spirit’ is a prophet, unless that person has the behavior of the Lord. So you will know the false prophet and the true prophet by their lives.” Even though the author of the Didache is aware that the “spirit” speaking through a prophet may not be the Holy Spirit, he cautions his readers not to challenge a prophet. A similar reverence about enthusiastic spiritual manifestations in the Johannine community may have left them open to deception. In support of this the opening command of 1 Jn 4:1 could be translated “Stop putting your faith in every ‘spirit’ that speaks through a prophet!”suggesting the community was already vulnerable to hypocritical swindlers.’ (DLNT)
‘For the world has never been without all sorts of fantastic religious notions and cults, and the truth of God’s revelation has always been counterfeited by false prophets. The explosion of cultic activity and interest recently, especially on the fringes of the church, underlines that our generation is no exception to the rule. There are a few today who claim to be God, the perfect revelation of the deity for this time in history, and some apparently believe them. Within the church there are many who claim to speak directly as, or for, God. Their utterances may be prefaced by the formula ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ or the approach may be less formal: ‘I have a word from the Lord for you.’ There are travelling prophets who claim to speak authoritatively to the nations, or (more often) to the church. There are those who claim the authority of God to direct others’ lives, including decisions about work, or marriage, or where they live, by virtue of their direct communication with God. There are those who claim the power of God to exorcise or heal, or to perform signs and wonders. Any thinking Christian (and to be biblical we must be thinking!) will want to assess these claims to determine whether they are genuine or bogus.’ (Jackman, BST)
As Stott remarks, there are moral tests for prophets 1 Jn 3:10; 4:8; and also doctrinal tests, Deut 13:1-5; Jer 23:9ff. The present passage emphasises the latter, 1 Jn 4:2f.
False prophets – prophets in the sense of those who (purport) to be speaking on behalf of God.
‘Warnings about false prophets operating within the Christian community are found in several places in the NT (Matt 7:15; 24:11, 24; Mark 13:22; Acts 20:28-30; 2 Pet 2:1; 1 John 4:1). By their very nature false prophets appear to be genuine (cf. Matt 7:15: ‘They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves’), and by their false teaching they lead people away from the truth (cf. 2 Pet 2:1: ‘They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them’).’ (Kruse)
Gone out into the world – They have seceded from the community of believers, but are still influencing it. Cf. 1 Jn 2:15-27. But the expression does not only indicate where the false prophets have gone, but also the ethos they have now embraced.
Stott cites Westcott, who thought that John was alluding to ‘the great outbreak of the Gentile pseudo-Christianity which is vaguely spoken of as Gnosticism.’
The two key criteria by which to ‘test the spirits’ are to (a) evaluate their teaching, vv2f; and (b) observe their behaviour, vv4-6.
This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God – As in 4:6 ‘the Spirit’s role is that of witness to the truth about Jesus Christ’ (Kruze). John’s teaching here is equivalent to that of Paul in 1 Cor 2:6-16. The wisdom of the world will always deny, dilute, or distort the truth of the gospel. ‘Only because there is a divine intervention and the darkness is removed can the light of the Gospel be recognized (cf. 4:6)’ (EBC)
Every spirit – According to Derickson, John is continuing the metonymy: the false teacher being identified by the spirit behind the teaching.
That Jesus Christ has come in the flesh – This expression has been variously interpreted:-
- Some think that ‘Jesus Christ has come in the flesh’, or equivalent, is correct. However, it does seem to involve a ‘theological anachronism’. (Findlay, cited by Stott), since he was not called Jesus until after the incarnation. John does not combine ‘Jesus’ with ‘Christ’ elsewhere in this writings.
- Others interpret this to mean: ‘Jesus Christ, come in the flesh’, where the confession is of the incarnate Jesus Christ.
- Others understand this as an acknowledgement ‘that Jesus is Christ come in the flesh’ – in other words, that Jesus is Christ incarnate. Weighing against this is interpretation is the absence of the definite article before ‘Christ’, and the fact that ‘Jesus Christ’ is a ‘fixed expression’ (Schnackenburg) in John’s writings. Moreover, John is perfectly capable of separating ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ (1 Jn 2:22; 5:1) when he wishes to.
As Derickson (who favours the first option) says, the differences between these interpretations are not great. ‘This statement appears to address the teachings of the Docetists, who taught that Jesus, the man, and Christ, the spirit, were two separate beings. Where Jesus had a physical body, the Christ was pure spirit. Rather, this verse is an acknowledgement of the unity of humanity and deity in the one person which is the heart and soul of the incarnation.’
This confession is similar to that referred to in 1 Cor 12:3. The difference is that John’s version more clearly repudiates the docetic heresy.
There may be an allusion to Jn 1:14 here. If so, then this strengthens the implication of Christ’s pre-existence.
As Macleod points out, ‘if the story of the virgin birth were legendary, John, writing thirty or forty years afterwards, would surely have denied it and set the record straight…On the face of things the virgin birth seemed to qualify and limit the humanity of the Lord and thus play into the hands of those heretics who denied that Christ had come in the flesh.’ (The Person of Christ, p30)
The verb ‘has come’ indicate that Christ not only came in the flesh, but continues to be in the flesh. Jesus’ incarnation had a definite beginning, but no ending. He remains fully human and fully divine.
To ‘acknowledge’ that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not only to assent to it intellectually, but also to confess it publicly. The first of these even evil spirits can do (Mark 1:24; 3:11; 5:7–8; cf. Acts 19:15).
‘John’s condemnation of those who denied that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 Jn 4:2-3; 2 Jn 7) was aimed at Docetists, who replaced the Incarnation with the idea that Jesus was a supernatural visitant (not God) who seemed human but was really a kind of phantom, a teacher who did not really die for sins.’ (J.I. Packer, Concise Theology)
‘It is a remarkable fact that the first heresy the church had to face with regard to the Person of Christ was not denial of his deity but denial of his physical humanity. The heresy of Docetism plagued the early church. We even find the Apostle John saying that anti-Christ is the one who denies that Christ came in the flesh. (1 Jn 4:3; 2 Jn 7) The peculiar philosophical position of Docetists was that matter was evil, and it was therefore abhorrent that God should become incarnate in the sense of taking a body. According to this view, the physicalness, the body of Christ, was only a ‘seeming’ (hence the label Docetism, from the Greek dokeo, I seem). It was only an appearance, a phantasm. It was not real, three-dimensional, historical, touchable, visible, woundable flesh and blood. This is why the Apostle John, who is often accused of being interested only in the deity of Christ, is, on the contrary, fascinated by physical and geographical and topographical details. For example, it is he who tells us that when the Lord’s side was pierced on the cross there came out blood and water, (Jn 19:34) something that could never have happened to a spirit or apparition. That is why John’s Gospel can be called “the most earthed of all the Gospels”.’ (McLeod, A Faith To Live By)
Who is Jesus? This is the key question. ‘Who is Jesus Christ? Is Christ merely “an Example,” “a good Man,” or “a wonderful Teacher”; or is He God come in the flesh?’ (Wiersbe)
The question is, Which teacher and teaching is from God? ‘The writer must then repeatedly affirm the secure spiritual standing of his threatened readers (“our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ,” 1:3; “we have come to know him,” 2:3; “we are in him,” 2:5; “you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know,” 2:20; you know the truth, 2:21; “we are the children of God,” 3:2; “we belong to the truth,” 3:19; “you are from God,” 4:4; “we are from God,” 4:6; “we live in him and he in us,” 4:13; “you have eternal life,” 5:13; “we are of God,” 5:19; “we may know him who is true,” 5:20).’ (Johnson)
‘This does not necessarily mean that every one who confessed this was personally a true Christian, for it is clear that a doctrine might be acknowledged to be true, and yet that the heart might not be changed; nor does it mean that the acknowledgment of this truth was all which it was essential to be believed in order that one might be recognised as a Christian; but it means that it was essential that this truth should be admitted by every one who truly came from God.’ (Barnes)
Johnson comments on the ‘intense social conflict’ between John and his community, on the one hand, and the seceders on the other hand, and he suggests that this has fostered a ‘dualistic’ view of the Christian life, as reflected in the following antitheses: ‘light/darkness, truth/error, love/hate, God/world, children of God/world, us/them, Christ/antichrist, life/death, righteous/sinful, God/evil one, of God/of the devil, children of God/children of the devil, from God/not from God, believe/deny, Spirit of truth/spirit of error, true God/idols.’ We think that the conflict was theological before it was social, and that ‘dualistic’ is a slightly misleading term to use in this context. He is right, however, to highlight just how antithetical John’s teaching is. He is not splitting hairs, or engaging in a merely academic dispute.
Spirit – According to Derickson, this, as before, is a metonymy for the teacher behind whom is ‘the spirit of the antichrist’.
Does not acknowledge – possibly a litotes (a weak negative implying a strong positive = ‘denies’). But John may mean exactly what he says: that they fail to affirm the incarnation even though they do not actually deny it. Derickson quotes Hodges: ‘Heretical teaching can mask the full extent of its deviation from the truth by simply failing to affirm some pivotal biblical truth’.
Jesus – in place of this one word, the AV has, ‘that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.’ But the difference between the translations is not critical, since the fuller point has already been made in v2.
‘The contrast between the orthodox and heterodox confessions is what they say about Jesus’ incarnation. This seems to allude, if not directly refer, to the docetic heresy that denied the incarnation while affirming the deity of “the Christ spirit” apart from the human Jesus.’ (Derickson)
‘The apostle John’s black and white contrasts are healthily clear-sighted. Opposing views are not to him “complementary insights” but “truth and error” (cf 1 Jn 2:21, 27). If we claim to enjoy fellowship with God while we walk in darkness, “we lie” (1 Jn 1:6). He who says he knows God but disobeys his commands “is a liar” (pseustes, 1 Jn 2:4). So is the person who claims to love God but hates his brother (1 Jn 4:20). But what shall be said of him who denies that Jesus is the Christ? We must pronounce him “the” liar…the liar par excellence.’ (Stott)
‘If he was not a man, then all that occurred in his life, in Gethsemane, and on the cross, was in appearance only, and was assumed only to delude the senses. There were no real sufferings; there was no shedding of blood; there was no death on the cross; and, of course, there was no atonement. A mere show, an appearance assumed, a vision, could not make atonement for sin; and a denial, therefore, of the doctrine that the Son of God had come in the flesh, was in fact a denial of the doctrine of expiation for sin.’ (Barnes)
As Cotton remarks, a man may fail to acknowledge Jesus not only by teaching error, but also by teaching truth, but not the truth of the saving power of Christ.
The spirit of the antichrist – Cf. 1 Jn 2:18-23. It is consistent with the already/not yet balance of NT teaching generally that the many antichrists of the past and present foreshadow the one great antichrist of the last day.
As Derickson remarks, this is one test of orthodoxy. There are others. For example, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses would agree that Jesus came in the flesh, but would fail other tests of orthodoxy (around Jesus’ deity and eternality, for example).
Even now already in the world – Commentators disagree as to whether ‘world’ here is thought of in a neutral (‘humankind’) or evil sense. Derickson considers that the latter sense would be more consistent with John’s usual usage.
Burge observes: ‘In the first section, having a right relation with the Father leads to a correct view of the Son. In the second, having a right relation with the Spirit leads to a similarly correct view of the Son. In each case the Son is central in all true contacts with God.’
‘The spirit of antichrist is still abroad in the spirit of our age, with its mind set against allowing even for a moment that Christ’s claims could be true. It manifests itself not only in the media boardrooms, but also in the councils of those Christian groups which refuse to affirm the truth of God’s revelation in Scripture and therefore to identify its denial as heresy. Interestingly enough, the battle today is in the same key area, concerning the person of Christ. ‘Who is this Jesus?’ is not only the central question for evangelism, it is by virtue of that fact the central test of Christian orthodoxy. It is not the only test, but it is the most critical.’ (Jackman)
4:4 You are from God, little children, and have conquered them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 4:5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world’s perspective and the world listens to them. 4:6 We are from God; the person who knows God listens to us, but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of deceit.
v4 Note he personal pronouns with which this group of three verses begin: ‘You’ (the readers), v4; ‘they’ (the false prophets), v5; ‘we’ (the apostles), v6.
John turns from the character and message of the teacher, to a consideration of their audience.
You…are from God – ‘To say that people are ‘from God’ means that they are children of God (1 Jn 3:10), or born of God (1 Jn 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18).’ (Kruse)
You…have overcome them – in the sense that they have not been deceived by these false teacher. Hence, they have been ‘obliged to depart’ (Ebrard), 1 Jn 2:19. Cf. Jn 16:3.
The one who is in you – the Spirit of truth, v6. (Most commentators agree that John is referring to the Holy Spirit, although some think it is the Father (cf. 1 Cor 15:57), or Jesus (Jn 14:20, 23; 17:23, 26) or all three members of the Godhead.)
‘You’ is plural, suggesting corporate, rather than personal, victory. ‘Even so, what is true for the body of Christ is equally true for its members. In fact, if it is not true of its members, it will not be true corporately.’ (Derickson)
The one who is in the world – the spirit of falsehood, v6; the evil one (1 Jn 2:14).
It has been noted that whereas the Holy Spirit is ‘in’ the Christian, the evil one is only ‘in’ the world.
‘Here, as in 2:18–27, protection against falsehood and victory over it are ascribed both to an objective standard of doctrine and to the indwelling Spirit who illumines our minds to grasp and apply it, for ‘unless the Spirit of wisdom is present, v19, there is little or no profit in having God’s Word in our hands’ (Calvin).’ (Stott)
John is no dualist. ‘Satan, the spirit of deceit, is not an equal but opposite power to God. Rather, he is the defeated enemy who has likewise been defeated by believers as well.’ (Derickson)
‘Satan’s deceptive cunning is highlighted by Paul’s statement that he becomes an angel of light, disguising evil as good. (2 Cor 11:14) His destructive ferocity comes out in the description of him as a roaring, devouring lion (1 Pet 5:8) and as a dragon. (Rev 12:9) As he was Christ’s sworn foe (Mt 4:1-11; 16:23; Lk 4:13; Jn 14:30; cf. Lk 22:3,53), so now he is the Christian’s, always probing for weaknesses, misdirecting strengths, and undermining faith, hope, and character. (Lk 22:32; 2 Cor 2:11; 11:3-15; Eph 6:16) He should be taken seriously, for malice and cunning make him fearsome; yet not so seriously as to provoke abject terror of him, for he is a beaten enemy. Satan is stronger than we are, but Christ has triumphed over Satan, (Mt 12:29) and Christians will triumph over him too if they resist him with the resources that Christ supplies. (Eph 6:10-13; Jas 4:7; 1 Pet 5:9-10) “The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world”.’ (1 Jn 4:4) (Packer, Concise Theology)
They…speak from the viewpoint of the world – ‘They speak its language…Even so, what is true for the body of Christ is equally true for its members. In fact, if it is not true of its members, it will not be true corporately.’ (Derickson).
Here, then is another test of the false prophets: the world listens to them.
Whoever knows God listens to us – As Stott remarks, this would be the height of arrogance if uttered by a private Christian; but John is writing as a member of the apostolic band. ‘He is carrying a stage further the argument of the first three verses. There the test of doctrine was whether it acknowledged the divine-human person of Jesus Christ; here the test is whether it is accepted by Christians and rejected by non-Christians. There is a certain affinity between God’s Word and God’s people. Jesus had taught that his sheep hear his voice (John 10:4–5, 8, 16, 26–27), that everyone who is on the side of truth listens to his witness to the truth (John 18:37), and that ‘he who belongs to God hears what God says’ (John 8:47). In the same way John asserts that since we are from God (6) and ‘you … are from God’ (4), you listen to us. There is a correspondence between message and hearers. The Spirit who is in you (4) enables you to discern his own voice speaking through us (2). Still today we can recognize God’s Word because God’s people listen to it, just as we can recognize God’s people because they listen to God’s Word. Those who do not listen to apostolic teaching, but prefer to absorb the teaching of the world, not only pass judgment on themselves but thereby also on the message to which they do give attention.’ See also 1 Cor 2:12 – ‘interpreting spiritual truths to spiritual men’ (NIV marg.)
Kruse discusses the question of whether the ‘we’ and ‘us’ of this verse are inclusive or not. If not, John is referring to himself and other accredited teachers within the church. If it is inclusive (as Kruse is inclined to think) then John is including his readers.
Whoever is not from God does not listen to us – ‘He and his readers must not be surprised if they cannot get a hearing for the original gospel from the secessionists, or from others who are not from God. A persistent acceptance of the gospel proclaimed by the author and his community marks those who are from God, and a persistent rejection of their gospel marks those who are not from God.’ (Kruse)
‘Popularity often comes at the expense of obedience. False teachers are popular with the world because, like the false prophets of the Old Testament, they tell people what they want to hear. John warns that Christians who faithfully teach God’s Word will not win any popularity contests. People don’t want to hear their sins denounced; they don’t want to listen to demands that they change their behavior. A false teacher will be well received by non-Christians.’ (HBA)
God is Love, 7-21
4:7 Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been fathered by God and knows God. 4:8 The person who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 4:9 By this the love of God is revealed in us: that God has sent his one and only Son into the world so that we may live through him. 4:10 In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
John has been ringing the changes on three tests of Christian profession: believing the truth about Christ, living in obedience to God’s commands, and demonstrating love for the brethren. And now for the third time, he expounds the test of love, cf 1 Jn 2:7-11 3:11-18. Here, he argues that we ought to love one another because God himself is love, and because God has expressed his love in the gift of the Saviour.
Dear friends, let us love one another – There is a striking assonance in the Gk., more nearly captured in the AV’s ‘beloved, let us love.’ John practices what he preached: while urging them to love each other, he assures them of his love for them. Well, do we love one another? Or do we just love some of our brethren – those who think like us, or talk like us, or act like us?
Love comes from God – This is the first great reason for Christians to love one another, and is repeated in different words in the next verse. If we ask, ‘Where does this love come from, that we are urged to show?’ – the answer is, ‘From God.’ It is from this shoreless ocean that we must all be filled. Cf. Gal 5:22.
Everyone who loves has been born of God – This might be thought to mean that every occurrence of human love is a manifestation of some ‘divine spark’ which is assumed to reside in every person. However, this is not John’s meaning here. He is speaking of a particular kind of love – love for the brethren (see first part of verse) – and of this as evidence that a person has been born again. Moreover, the test of love is not the only test which is to be applied to our Christian profession: John applies the doctrinal test and the practical test also.
And knows God – cf. v8.
Whoever does not love does not know God – If theology is the knowledge of God, then, according to this verse, theology is impossible without love for God.
Thomas H. Groome concludes from this statement that ‘the only way truly to know God is through a loving relationship.’ But this is a non sequitur. See Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, p117.
‘The distinguishing mark of a Christian is his confidence in the love of Christ, and the yielding of his affections to Christ in return. First, faith sets her seal upon the man by enabling the soul to say with the apostle, ‘Christ loved me and gave himself for me.’ Then love gives the countersign, and stamps upon the heart gratitude and love to Jesus in return. ‘We love him because he first loved us.’ In those grand old ages, which are the heroic period of the Christian religion, this double mark was clearly to be seen in all believers in Jesus; they were men who knew the love of Christ, and rested upon it as a man leaneth upon a staff whose trustiness he has tried. The love which they felt towards the Lord was not a quiet emotion which they hid within themselves in the secret chamber of their souls, and which they only spake of in their private assemblies when they met on the first day of the week, and sang hymns in honour of Christ Jesus the crucified, but it was a passion with them of such a vehement and all-consuming energy, that it was visible in all their actions, spoke in their common talk, and looked out of their eyes even in their commonest glances. Love to Jesus was a flame which fed upon the core and heart of their being; and, therefore, from its own force burned its way into the outer man, and shone there. Zeal for the glory of King Jesus was the seal and mark of all genuine Christians. Because of their dependence upon Christ’s love they dared much, and because of their love to Christ they did much, and it is the same now. The children of God are ruled in their inmost powers by love-the love of Christ constraineth them; they rejoice that divine love is set upon them, they feel it shed abroad in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, which is given unto them, and then by force of gratitude they love the Saviour with a pure heart, fervently.’ (C.H. Spurgeon, Morning & evening)
God is love – This has been described as ‘the most daring statement that has ever been made in human language.’ (Emil Brunner)
Think of all the things that pass for ‘love’ in our day. But love is defined by what God is. This is not the only thing to be said of God, for Scripture also says, he is ‘spirit’, Jn 1:5; and he is ‘light’, 1 Jn 1:5. ‘God is Spirit’ describes God in his essence: he is not flesh and blood, and is not limited by time and space as we are. ‘God is light’ describes God’s holy character. Divine love, then, must be spiritual and holy, because that is what God is.
‘The Gnostics believed and taught that God was immaterial spirit and light, but to the truth that God is love they did not attain.’ (Stott)
God is love, not, God is loving. God and love are synonymous. Love is not an attribute of God, it is God; whatever God is, love is. If your conception of love does not agree with justice and judgment and purity and holiness, then your idea of love is wrong. (Oswald Chambers)
Ian Paul points to the necessity of reading this wonderful statement about God in its own context, rather than as merely a slogan:
‘Most deployment of the phrase ‘God is love’ rips this saying from its context. If we want to read this faithfully, then we need to understand it as expressing God’s costly self-giving which is ‘indifferent’ and boundary-crossing—but which is only fully expressed in the transformed of the ones loved as they respond to the love that is offered and are transformed and redeemed by it. The love of God can never leave the loved one unchanged if it is actually received.’
A farmer printed on his weather vane the words “God is love.” Someone asked him if he meant to imply that the love of God was as fickle as the wind. The farmer answered: “No, I mean that whichever way the wind blows, God is love. If it blows cold from the North, or biting from the East, God is still love just as much as when the warm South or gentle West winds refresh our fields and flocks. God is always love.”
He who does not love does not know God – ‘The argument is plain and compelling. For the loveless Christian to profess to know God and to have been born of God is like claiming to be intimate with a foreigner whose language we cannot speak, or to have been born of parents whom we do not in any way resemble. It is to fail to manifest the nature of him who we claim as our Father (born of God) and our Friend (knoweth God).’ (Stott)
vv9-11 Here is John’s second argument for Christians to love each other: we should love one another not only because of what God is, but also because of what God has done. ‘While the origin of love is in the being of God, the manifestation of love is in the coming of Christ.’ (Stott)
God’s love is expressed in many different ways. Some of these are largely hidden from us, especially the intra-trinitarian love which is hinted at but not fully described in Scripture. But the supreme revelation of his love to us is in the sending of his Son into the world.
He sent his one and only Son into the world – This statement presupposes, of course, the doctrine of Christ’s pre-existence. The expression ‘one and only’ (‘monogenes’) affirms Christ’s uniqueness: he is ‘the Son’. No greater gift could have been given; this (as Stott points out) is God’s ‘unspeakable’ gift, 2 Cor 9:15; cf. Jn 3:16 Rom 8:32.
This is love – and note carefully how love is to be defined. ‘Upon undogmatic, undenominational religion no Church can live. With mere spirituality the Church has not much directly to do; it is but a subjective thing; and its favour with many may be but another phase of the uncomprehending popular reverence (not to say superstition) for the recluse religionist, the mysterious ecstatic, and the ascetic pietist. What Christian faith and the Christian Church have to do with is holy spirituality – the spirituality of the Holy Spirit of our Redemption. The Christian revelation is not “God is a spirit,” nor is it “God is love.” Each of these great words is now much used to discredit the more positive faith from whose midst John wrote them down. Herein is love, not in affection but in propitiation. (1 Jn 4:10) Would Paul ever have written 1 Cor 13 if it had been revealed to him that it was going to be turned against Rom 3:25? And what would his language have been to those who abused that chapter so? Christian faith is neither spirituality nor charity. Its revelation is the holiness in judgment of the spiritual and loving God. Love is only divine as it is holy; and spirituality is Christian only as it meets the conditions of Holy Love in the way the Cross did, as the crisis of holy judgment and holy grace. If the Cross is not simply a manner of religion but the object of our religion and the site of revelation, then it stands there above all to effect God’s holiness, and not to concentrate man’s self-sacrifice. And except in the Cross we have no guarantee for the supreme thing, the divine thing, in God, which is the changeless reality and irresistible sovereignty of his Holy Love.’ (P.T. Forsyth, The Work of Christ)
God’s love is uncaused, spontaneous, and free. Ours is but a reflection of it and a response to it. Yes, we do love God – he is infinitely lovable, and grants us the inestimable honour of becoming his affectionate friends.
‘Why does the apostle so magnify this gift in saying, “Herein is love,” as if there were love in nothing else! May we not say, that to have a being, a being among the rational creatures, therein is love? To have our life carried so many years like a taper in the hand of Providence, through so many dangers, and not yet put out in obscurity, therein is love? To have food and raiment, convenient for us, beds to lie on, relations to comfort us, in all these is love? Yea, but if you speak comparatively, in all these there is no love, to the love expressed in sending or giving Christ for us: These are great mercies in themselves, but compared to this mercy, they are all swallowed up, as the light of candles when brought into the sun-shine. No, no, herein is love, that God gave Christ for us.’ (Flavel, The Fountain of Life))
Love is here defined as ‘the seeking of another’s positive good at one’s own cost.’ (Stott) God’s love is measured not just by Christ’s birth, but by his death; not just the incarnation, but the atonement. And the richness of this love is apparent when we remember that it was given for undeserving sinners. Love gives and forgives, whatever the cost to itself.
He loved us – Ponder each of these words. ‘He’ – the God of heaven and earth. ‘Loved’ – with pity, and with benevolence. ‘It has often made me rise from my seat to think that God loves me! I could not sit still and hear the thrilling truth…It is sweet to be loved even by a dog; it is sweet to be loved by a babe; it is sweet to be loved by a friend; it is sweet to be loved by God’s people; but, oh! to be loved of God, and to know it! – this is paradise. Would a man want any other heaven than to know for certain that he enjoyed the love of God?’ (Spurgeon) ‘Us’ – What am I in comparison to the population of this city; what is the population of this city in comparison to the population of the world; what is this world in comparison to the whole universe? Yet God loved us, frail, insignificant, creatures of a moment. He loved us when we were far away from him. He loved us even as his wrath burned against us.
…and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice – God’s love is a costly love. The greatest sign of love is a bloody cross. The word here is ‘hilasmos’, propitiation. ‘Love finds the means by which just and righteous wrath can be satisfied and so turned away, in order that forgiveness may be offered and reconciliation achieved. The only way was at infinite cost to the one who loves. “The depth of God’s love is to be seen precisely in the way in which it bears the wounds inflicted on it by mankind and offers full and free pardon.” It is no help to our understanding to pretend that a loving God would not require an atoning sacrifice, because he would not punish sin. This would be to destroy the truth that God is light and to remove all grounds of morality. The nobler, biblical way is to magnify the love of God by seeing at what tremendous cost the atonement was made, and therefore of what amazing length, devotion and scope this love is capable.’ (Jackman, quoting IH. Marshall)
…for our sins – God’s love is for the unlovely. ‘To see what love means we must see ourselves as sinners, and thus as the objects of God’s wrath, and yet as those for whom Christ died. ‘So far from finding any kind of contrast between love and propitiation, the apostle can convey no idea of love to anyone except by pointing to the propitiation’ (J. Denney, The Death of Christ). It is one of the NT’s resounding paradoxes that it is God’s love that averts God’s wrath from us, and indeed that it is precisely in this averting of wrath that we see what real love is.’ (L. Morris, NBC)
4:11 Dear friends, if God so loved us, then we also ought to love one another. 4:12 No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God resides in us, and his love is perfected in us. 4:13 By this we know that we reside in God and he in us: in that he has given us of his Spirit. 4:14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.
Since God so love us – So wonderfully, so amazingly, so incredibly, so actively, so generously, so sacrificially.
‘The gift of God’s Son not only assures us of God’s love for us, but lays upon us an obligation. No-one who has been to the cross and seen God’s immeasurable and unmerited love displayed there can go back to a life of selfishness.’ (Stott)
We might argue: ‘We love our fellow-Christians because we love God.’ But our love for God might grow tired and cold. So here is a yet more powerful motive: ‘We love others because God loves us.’ And God’s love never wanes nor fades.
Also has the force of ‘so’ – as God has demonstrated his love for us, in a similar manner and degree we ought to demonstrate our love for each other.
‘Christians should love, not because all those they meet are attractive people, but because the love of God has transformed them and made them loving people. They should love now not because attractiveness in other people compels their love, but because, as Christians, it is their nature to love.’ (L. Morris, NBC)
One another – Just as God has a general love towards the world, so should we, Mt 5:45. And just as he has a special love towards his own people, the church, so should we.
Do we love as God loves?
No one has ever seen God – Cf Jn 1:18. God is spirit, Jn 4:24, and is invisible, 1 Tim 1:17; 6:16. No one could see God and survive the experience, Ex 33:20. The OT theophanies were God ‘in disguise’, not God as he is in himself. That vision of God lies in the yet future, 1 Jn 3:2. God ‘has been made known’ in the coming of Christ, Jn 1:18. But he is also revealed in his people when they love one another.
God lives in us – by his Spirit, v13. God is doing something in us! We are not just readers of an old book or admirers of some historical figure or some spectators of some event: we are participants in the drama of divine love! We who love our brothers and sisters in Christ are the temples of God; the divine majesty takes up residence in our hearts. ‘There is no work so high and excellent; for there is no work wherein God doth so much communicate himself, and wherein the mere creature hath, in so high a sense a participation of God; so that it is expressed in Scripture by the saints ‘being made partakers of the divine nature’, – 2 Pet 1:4, and ‘having God dwelling in them, and they in God’, – 1 Jn 4:12,15,16, and 3:21; ‘and having Christ in them’, – Jn 17:21,Rom 8:10; – being the temples of the living God,- 2 Cor 6:16; – living by Christ’s life,- Gal 2:20; -being made partakers of God’s holiness,- Heb 12:10; -having Christ’s love dwelling in them,- Jn 17:26; ‘having his joy fulfilled in them,- Jn 17:13; -seeing light in God’s light, and being made to drink of the river of God’s pleasures,- Ps 36:8,9; ‘having fellowship with God, or communicating and partaking with him (as the word signifies),- 1 Jn 1:3. Not that the saints are made partakers of the essence of God, and so are godded with God, and christed with Christ, according to the abominable and blasphemous language and notions of some heretics: but, to use the Scripture phrase, they are made partakers of God’s fullness, Eph 3:17,18,19,Jn 1:16, that is, of God’s spiritual beauty and happiness, according to the measure and capacity of a creature; for so it is evident the word fullness signifies in Scripture language.’ (Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections)
His love is made complete in us – God’s love is proclaimed in the word, proved at the Cross, but perfected in the believer. How carefully, how energetically, we should love our fellow-Christians, when God considers his own love incomplete without ours!
Summary of vv8-12 – we should love one another, because God is love, because God love us, and because in loving one another God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
John has just mentioned God’s living in us, and his love being made complete in us, and these two themes are now taken up again (vv 13-16; 17-21 respectively).
The train of thought in vv13-16 is: we know that we love in God and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit; we know he has given us of his Spirit because we acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God, v15, and because we dwell in love, v16.
We know that we live in him and he is us – What in v12 was God dwelling in us now becomes reciprocal. ‘Certainly this mutual inhabitation is something more noble and great than we are well acquainted with or can declare. One would think that to speak of God dwelling in us, and we in him, were to use words too high for mortals, had not God gone before us therein…What it fully is must be left to the revelation of the blessed world. But this mutual inhabitation we know, says the apostle, because he has given us of his Spirit.’ (M. Henry). Cf 2 Tim 1:7.
“Do you want a house for your soul? Do you ask, ‘What is the purchase?’ It is something less than proud human nature will like to give. It is without money and without price. Ah! you would like to pay a respectable rent! You would love to do something to win Christ? Then you cannot have the house, for it is ‘without price.’ Will you take my Masters house on a lease for all eternity, with nothing to pay for it, nothing but the ground-rent of loving and serving him for ever? Will you take Jesus and ‘dwell in him?’ See, this house is furnished with all you want, it is filled with riches more than you will spend as long as you live. Here you can have intimate communion with Christ and feast on his love; here are tables well-stored with food for you to live on for ever; in it, when weary, you can find rest with Jesus; and from it you can look out and see heaven itself. Will you have the house? Ah! if you are houseless, you will say, _I should like to have the house; but may I have it?’ Yes; there is the key-the key is, ‘Come to Jesus.’ ‘But,’ you say, ‘I am too shabby for such a house.’ Never mind; there are garments inside. If you feel guilty and condemned, come; and though the house is too good for you, Christ will make you good enough for the house by-and-by. He will wash you and cleanse you, and you will yet be able to sing, ‘We dwell in him.’ Believer: thrice happy art thou to have such a dwelling-place! Greatly privileged thou art, for thou hast a strong habitation in which thou art ever safe. And dwelling in him, thou hast not only a perfect and secure house, but an everlasting one. When this world shall have melted like a dream, our house shall live, and stand more imperishable than marble, more solid than granite, self-existent as God, for it is God himself – ‘We dwell in him.’ (C.H. Spurgeon, Morning & Evening)
We know…because he has given us of his Spirit – It is by the Spirit that confess the deity of Christ, cf 1 Cor 12:3, and by the same Spirit that we are enabled to love. The man without the Spirit, on the other hand, neither believes nor loves: he is blind and selfish. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, and love is the first fruit of the Spirit, Gal 5:22.
We have seen – Even though we have not seen God, we have seen the Son whom God has sent to be the world’s Saviour. The expression refers to the apostolic testimony to Christ’s coming to earth. This cropped up right at the beginning of the letter, and will become increasingly important towards the conclusion of the letter.
Notice the trinitarian shape of vv13-14: God has sent his Son into the world as Saviour, and his Spirit into our hearts as witness. ‘Christian certainty rests both on the objective historical fact of the Son’s mission and on the subjective inward experience of the Spirit’s witness.’ (Stott)
In the matter of salvation, equal honour is due to all three members of the divine Trinity, for they are all equally engaged in it, from the Manger to Calvary and beyond. There was as much love in the Father sending, as in the Son being willing to be sent. What the Father wills, and what the Son works, are one.
4:15 If anyone confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God resides in him and he in God. 4:16 And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has in us. God is love, and the one who resides in love resides in God, and God resides in him. 4:17 By this love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment, because just as Jesus is, so also are we in this world. 4:18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears punishment has not been perfected in love. 4:19 We love because he loved us first.
God is love; and Christ’s atoning work is sufficient for the needs of the whole world. But the experience of it demands a confession concerning the person of Christ. Throughout this epistle, John has been concerned with the doctrinal, social, and ethical tests of our Christian profession. The doctrinal test comes to the fore in this verse. One acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God on the basis of the apostolic testimony, but this in itself does not command assent; it must be accompanied by the indwelling, witnessing Spirit of God.
We…rely on is perhaps better rendered ‘we have believed on’ (so Morris).
John returns to the theme of love, this time dwelling on the perfecting of our love for God. It is not a question of our love being perfect in any absolute sense, but of a development, a maturity, and a consistency. The two marks of our love for God are described: confidence in God and love for other believers.
Confidence – cf. 1 Jn 2:28; 3:21-22. The day of judgement will follow our Lord’s return. For the wicked, it will be a day of terror, but not for the redeemed. Our confidence, like our obedience (1 Jn 2:5) is a sign that our love is made complete.
In this world we are like him – we are like Christ in being God’s children, the objects of his favour. Therefore, we can share Christ’s confidence towards the Father.
‘To “accept Christ” is to know the meaning of the words “as he is, so are we in this world.” We accept his friends as our friends, his enemies as our enemies, his ways as our ways, his rejection as our rejection, his cross as our cross, his life as our life and his future as our future.’ (A.W. Tozer)
There is no fear in love – There is referential awe, but not servile fear, cf Heb 5:7. Fear shrinks back and seeks to hide; love approaches with confidence, Rom 8:14-15; 2 Tim 1:7. Indeed, the one expels the other – perfect love drives out fear.
‘We can love and reverence God simultaneously (cf. Heb. 5:7), but we cannot approach him in love and hide from him in fear at the same time (cf. Rom. 8:14–15; 2 Tim. 1:7).’ (Stott)
Perfect love drives out fear – ‘In the present context φόβος means servile, self-regarding fear (as in Rom 8:15; cf. John 19:38; 20:19). Such “fear” has no part with love; so that the Christian who lives in God’s love can anticipate the judgment day confidently, and not with terror. Human relationships provide a parallel…Sin leads to fear, but love to confidence.’ (Smalley)
Fear has to do with punishment – Not only that fear is caused by an apprehension of future punishment, but that to fear is to suffer punishment already.
‘Often the problem is that we transfer the model of parenthood derived from our experience as children directly on to God. If our parents withheld love as a means of conditioning or disciplining us, or if we never had the security of knowing that nothing could shake their love, we can easily regard God with a mixture of fear and gratitude, always wondering when the blow will fall. But that is not love. How many Christians are caught up in this web of fear! Often they are the most sensitive and lonely people, but they live in the anticipation of some calamity being visited upon them as judgment for their past sins, or retribution for not making more progress in holy living. The result is usually paralysis.’ (Jackman)
‘John points out that fear implicitly entails a fear of punishment or suffering related to the object of fear. A fear of water implies a fear of drowning. A fear of fire implies a fear of being burned. A fear of God’s judgment implies a fear of punishment. Note that the only other occurrence of “punishment” (κόλασιν) is found in the eschatological context of Matt 25:46, where the Master condemns the goats to “eternal punishment [κόλασιν].” But if God so loved the world that he sent his unique Son to deliver the world from perishing (cf. John 3:16), the punishment has already been meted out to Jesus Christ on our behalf.’ (Jobes)
‘We love in the sense of specifically Christian love, the love of the unworthy which proceeds from the nature of the lover and not the worth of the loved one, only because he first loved us.’ (L. Morris)
‘Love is like an echo, it returneth what it receiveth.’ (Thomas Manton)
‘It is but right that our hearts should be on God, when the heart of God is so much on us.’ Richard Baxter)
‘Our love to him is the fair offspring of his love to us. Cold admiration, when studying the works of God, anyone may have, but the warmth of love can only be kindled in the heart by Gods Spirit.’ (C.H. Spurgeon, Morning & Evening)
4:20 If anyone says “I love God” and yet hates his fellow Christian, he is a liar, because the one who does not love his fellow Christian whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 4:21 And the commandment we have from him is this: that the one who loves God should love his fellow Christian too.
Love for God is demonstrated not only by an attitude of confidence towards God, but also by an attitude of love towards our Christian brethren. ‘The perfect love that casts out fear, casts our hatred also.’ (Stott) If what I do contradicts what I say, then I am a liar.
John applies all three of his tests of Christian profession in similar ways: if we claim to have fellowship with God yet walk in darkness, then we are liars, 1 Jn 1:6; 2:4. If we claim to possess the Father yet deny the deity of the Son, then we are liars, 1 Jn 2:22-23. And now, if we claim to love God yet hate our fellow-Christians, then we are liars. ‘Only holiness, faith, and love can prove the truth of our claim to know, possess and love God.’ (Stott)
‘It is a false boast when anyone says that he loves God but neglects his image which is before his eyes.’ (Calvin) Such a person cannot love God, not so much in the sense that he is incapable of doing so, but in the sense that he proves that he does not in fact do so.
‘Love for God is shown by love for people; if the latter is lacking then so is the former.’ (L. Morris)
Notice that real love is not trite or sentimental – it is perfectly consistent with the kind of plain speaking we see in this verse.
Love is not optional – it is commanded. It is completely inconsistent to hate our neighbour while claiming to love God, since love for God and neighbour form one single command, cf 1 Jn 3:23. It was Jesus himself who gave us this twofold command, Mt 22:37-40, by uniting Deut 6:4 with Lev 19:18. What God has joined let not man put asunder.