The First Epistle of John - Part 6
Ken Totton, Cambridge, England
(UNLESS OTHERWISE STATED, ALL QUOTATIONS OF SCRIPTURE ARE FROM THE NEW KING JAMES VERSION)
1 John chapter 4
Children of God: Test – the Person of Christ, 4. 1-6
This section completes the second cycle of the letter, in which John issues a clear call for discernment. Christians must not be gullible, accepting without question every teaching and teacher who comes along. Even if a person seems highly gifted, we must enquire what spirit is motivating him. He may even demonstrate mysterious powers, but there is a crucial distinction to be drawn between the supernatural and the divine.1 Satan can produce ‘lying wonders’, 2 Thess. 2. 9; supernatural indeed, but certainly not divine! In chapter 3, the central issue in relation to the family is origin – the origin of the child of God, and the origin of the man of the world. This final section keeps the focus on the origin of the spirits animating the prophets and teachers, thus the true are ‘from God’, vv. 1, 2, 4 ESV; the false teachers are ‘not from God’, vv. 3, 6 ESV.2
Warning: false prophets active in the world
1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
Test: their doctrine of Christ
2 By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.
Resource: the divine Indwelling
4 You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 5 They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. 6 We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, v. 1. John continues his loving appeal, this time emphasizing that the Christian needs to be marked by wariness, especially in relation to teaching. We must not be naive, even when faced with miracles. Some might think it unspiritual to ‘test the spirits’, but the New Testament directs, ‘Test all things; hold fast what is good’, 1 Thess. 5. 21. The reason is that many false prophets have gone out into the world. ‘Prophets’ suggests that they present their teachings as new revelations. The Holy Spirit graciously invites us to test Him; He welcomes our examination of His ministry, and has nothing to fear!
How are ordinary believers to identify what is wholesome, deriving from the Spirit of God? Here is the test we should apply:3 Every spirit4 that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God. The focus is on the reality of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. False teachers speculated that the man Jesus had somehow become temporarily linked to ‘the Christ’ – considered to be some spirit being. But deity and humanity have become forever united in Jesus Christ. So the test for the prophets is clear: ask them whether Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. This test exposes the heresies of Docetism and Cerinthus.
Verse 3. For good measure, John also states the negative, for there can be no room for ambiguity on this vital matter. Those who deny the true and permanent humanity of Jesus5 are displaying the spirit of Antichrist. In chapter 3 verse 10 such people were exposed by their conduct, here it is their spiritual claims that identify them.
There is no need for discouragement, however, for the believer enjoys the indwelling of the Spirit of God. Further, teachers of error can be identified by the type of people who listen to them. To the men and women of the world, the ideas of sceptics seem completely reasonable because they are influenced by the same spirit, they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. How readily people who reject the true gospel flock to hear perversions of it! We are of God. John writes as an apostle, carrying the authority of Christ Himself, Matt. 10. 40. He who knows God hears us. The genuine believer will always treasure the teaching of the apostles, the very foundation of the church, Eph. 2. 20.
So, just as Cycle 1 ended with warnings against antichrists, Cycle 2 here closes with the exposure of the spirit of Antichrist.
Cycle 3 - Revelation of the love of God, 4. 7 – 5. 1
The third Cycle of the letter is again concerned with revelation, this time the surpassing revelation of the love of God. John first identifies the source of love in God, vv. 7-13. He gives us a doctrinal test, 4. 15. Up to this point in the Letter, love has been presented as a duty based on the example of Christ, 3. 16, but now we find a deeper motive – to love is to express God’s nature.
Love of God: its Source, 4. 7-13
God is invisible, 4. 12, so how can human beings get to know what God is like? The answer is that God dwells in all believers, and as a result of that indwelling we love. Thus, the nature of the unseen God can be seen in the lives of Christians. John begins with an exhortation to love, v. 7, and identifies the source of love in God. Verses 9 and 10 spell out the supreme revelation of the love of God in the mission and sacrifice of the Son of God. Verse 11 repeats the exhortation, and verses 12 and 13 explain what really is happening when we love one another.
7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us. 13 By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.
Love is of (‘from’ ESV) God. Note the great emphasis on God in these verses; John traces all displays of love by believers to the prior and perfect love of God. God is here identified as the inexhaustible resource of love. Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God means that we are equipped to love by the new birth, and sharing the very nature of God. And if, at times, we find it difficult to love some people, we acknowledge our deficiency and gladly remember that God delights to pour out His love in our hearts, Rom. 5. 5, and indeed love others through us. Recall that ‘love’ is not mere natural fondness, such as an unbeliever might feel towards a friend. The exercise of love is not an ‘optional extra’ for the Christian, for he who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
In this (i.e., what follows) the love of God was manifested toward us, v. 9. The love of God has been made visible and real in history by the mission of the Son: God has sent His only begotten Son into the world. The initiative is entirely God’s, not confined to a prophetic message, but God has sent His own one and only Son, His Beloved, cp. Mark 12. 6. The verb ‘has sent’ beautifully underscores the continuing love of God’s heart towards a perishing world. The wonderful objective is that we might live through Him. Yet, difficulties and challenges confronted that mission. We did not love God; our sins posed an impassable barrier to acceptance by the God who is holy. The greatness of God’s love is seen in (1) the One who loved – God (2) the uniqueness of the One sent – His Son (3) the purpose of the mission, and (4) the vast sacrificial cost of achieving it.
In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins, v. 10. God’s love is first and spontaneous. We discover here the infinite cost to God in loving us. Christ experienced bitter dereliction in suffering the wrath of God, in order that God could righteously enter into fellowship with us, cp. Rom. 3. 24-26.
Beloved, v. 11. This is the sixth and final time this term is used. What John has been describing is no mere motivational talk, it carries for us the weightiest obligations:6 if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. We might well doubt our ability to respond worthily to such mighty love, but happily the following verses point to the sublime reality of God indwelling us by His Spirit. Verses 12 and 13 explain what is really happening when we love one another.
No one has seen (beheld RV) God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, v. 12. The God, whom no one by gazing or contemplating has ever seen, is permanently resident in those who love. The thought of permanence – ‘abiding’ – is prominent in verses 12 to 16.
Moreover, His love has been perfected in us. ‘Perfected’ in this context means that God’s distinctive love, vv. 8-9, has now reached its goal, come to full growth and expression in our hearts and towards others – a most significant result.7
By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit, v. 13. The instinct imparted by the Spirit to love one another, is how we know that we are abiding in Him. Our union with God is two-way: we in Him and He is us, sealed by the gift of His Spirit, cp. 3. 24b; Rev. 3. 20.
Love of God: Test
14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Saviour of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.
Love of God: its perfecting in us
17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. 19 We love Him because He first loved us.
Love of God: Test – love for the children of God
20 If someone says, ‘I love God’, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? 21 And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.
Verse 14 shows how the result in verse 13 has come about: we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Saviour of the world. In contrast to the statement of verse 12, John has come to see (or behold, contemplate) what the invisible God is like, ultimately at Calvary, as expressed by the apostle Paul in Galatians chapter 2, verse 20; therefore, it is the focus of his witness. But the blessing is not limited to apostolic eyewitnesses, for whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. But it is not enough to know these things, one must believe and confess Christ as Saviour and Son of God, cp. Rom. 10. 9. Thus, verses 14-16 contain a vital test, this time doctrinal: false teachers were denying Christ’s Sonship and Saviourhood.
And we have known and believed the love that God has for us, v. 16. ‘Sound faith is intelligent, sound knowledge is believing’, Plummer. Jesus prayed, ‘that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them’, John 17. 26; here is its glorious answer. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God (add ‘abides’ ESV) in him. John repeats the great statement ‘God is love’,8 cp. v. 8, and puts impressive emphasis on His abiding union with us.
Love of God: its perfecting in us, 4. 17-19
Love has been perfected among us in this, v. 17: John goes on to specify the purpose and result of our love: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment. The maturing of God’s love in us instils confidence in the believer in view of the coming day of judgement.9 The believer who knows the reality of the love of God has no need to fear the approach of that day, but ‘shall not come into judgment’, John 5. 24. How can we be so bold? Because as He (Christ) is, so are we in this world. As He is the risen Son of God, so we too are God’s beloved children. God sees us in association with Christ, accepted in the Beloved One, cp. Eph. 1. 6. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear. Fear10 and love exclude each other: the more of the one, the less of the other. There is a reverential fear (or ‘awe’) of God which is entirely appropriate, 1 Pet. 1. 17, but not the unnerving fear referred to here. Peace of mind, rather than fear and torment, should mark the Christian, because fear involves torment. Love moves us towards others in a spirit of self-sacrifice; fear holds us back in uncertainty and self-preservation: he who fears has not been made perfect in love.
We love11 because He first loved us, v. 19. Our love, whether to God or man, is possible only because of His prior love to us. Indeed, our love owes its very origin to God, v. 7. If we withhold love to our fellows for fear that it may not be returned, we can be emboldened by remembering that God’s love to us knew no such restriction!12
Love of God: (Social test) love for the children of God, 4. 20-21
Verse 20. The exercise of love towards our brothers provides a robust social test of Christian profession: If someone13 says, ‘I love God’, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? The brother whom he has seen is there before his very eyes, perhaps in a state of visible need: to refuse compassion and tenderness to him completely contradicts profession. Sadly, eloquent expressions of devotion to God have been known to coexist with remarkably unloving attitudes towards His people, something which we may be sure He will not overlook, cp. Acts 9. 2-4!
And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also, v. 21. John clinches his argument for the exercise of brotherly14 love: it is a matter of obedience to God’s binding commandment, reaffirmed by our Lord, John 13. 34. In the Old Testament, love to God and love to one’s fellow man were two sides of the same coin, Deut. 6. 5; Lev. 19. 18; cp. Luke 10. 27.
- ‘To equate the supernatural with the divine is folly, a grievous error’, G. G. Findlay.
- This is a further pointed example of opposites, see Chapter 1 endnote 12.
- It is necessarily a doctrinal test because it tests a message.
- Spirit’ means here one in whom a spirit is manifest or embodied, hence one actuated by a spirit, either divine or demoniacal, J. Thayer.
- The shorter form of the text is to be preferred here, ‘and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already’ ESV.
- In addition to 4. 11, John identifies the following obligations: ‘He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked’, 2. 6; ‘By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren’, 3. 16; ‘We therefore ought to receive such, that we may become fellow workers for the truth’, 3 John 8.
- This does not means that we will always feel loving; we surely know in practice that we don’t love as we ought! The old corrupt nature in the believer is sadly capable of all manner of negative feelings towards others. But John maintains that the very fact that we have the impulse to love one another is an objective proof of the fruition of God’s love in our experience.
- This is not to be misconstrued that God is only love, and used to dismiss the reality that He is also a God of justice and holiness. Rather, we see the full extent and depth of His love in that it is fully compatible with, and comprehends, all other aspects of His nature.
- For the term ‘day of judgment’, see Matt. 10. 15; 11. 22, 24; 12. 36; 2 Pet. 2. 9; 3. 7
- This type of fear is not to be confused with the wholesome fear of God commended frequently in scripture, Deut. 10. 12; 1 Pet. 1. 17; 2. 17, 18; 3. 2, 15. It should be noted that the English word ‘fear’ has undergone change over the centuries, and its significance is more restricted in modern usage than in the seventeenth century. ‘Reverence’ would often be a closer modern equivalent when describing the proper attitude to God.
- ‘Him’ is to be omitted on textual grounds, see e.g., ESV, RSV, as unduly narrowing the scope. ‘It is a later addition of scribes or editors who felt that an explicit object was necessary’, F. F. Bruce.
- As Augustine (4th Cent.) described Christ’s love for His church, ‘He loved her foul, that He might make her fair’.
- Cp. ‘if a man say’, see 1 John 1. 6, 8, 10; 2. 4, 6, 9.
- Love of fellow Christians does not of course exhaust the Christian’s obligation to love! Paul wrote, ‘Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all [my italics], especially to those who are of the household of faith’, Gal 6. 10. In response to a lawyer’s question, ‘And who is my neighbour?’, Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan teaches that our love should embrace all those who stand in need of assistance, Luke 10. 30-37.