1 John 4
Pulpit Commentary
Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.
Verse 1-1 John 5:12. - (2) The source of son-ship. Possession of the Spirit. Verses 1-6. - Confession of the Incarnation is the assurance that the Spirit of God, who is the Spirit of truth, is working in us, and not the spirit of error. The passage seems clearly to teach that there are two rival influences contending for power over the spirits of men. We must test men's spirits to see whether they are organs of the Spirit of truth or of the spirit of error. Verse 1. - Beloved (as in 1 John 2:28 and 1 John 3:18, the apostle again breaks out with a personal appeal into an earnest exhortation suggested by the statement just made), prove the spirits δοκιμάζετε τὰ πνεύματα. "The spirits" are principles and tendencies in religion: these need to be tested, for earnestness and fervour are no guarantee of truth. And to test these principles is the duty of the individual Christian as well as of the Church in its official capacity. Just as every Athenian was subjected to an examination δοκιμασία as to his origin and character before he could hold office, so the spirit of every religious teacher must be examined before his teaching can be accepted. This is no useless precaution; because, as Christ has come forth ἐξελήλυθε from God (John 16:28; comp. John 8:42; John 13:3; John 16:27), ninny false prophets have come forth ἐζεληύθασι from the spirit of error. But perhaps "have gone forth into the world" means no more than " have displayed themselves" in publicum prodierunt. There is probably no reference to the false teachers having "gone forth from us" (1 John 2:19). Besides Cerinthus and other Gnostics, there were the Nicolaitanes, astrologers, professors of magic, and dealers in charms, some of which seem to have had their origin in Ephesus, for they were known as "Ephesian letters." Apollonius of Tyana was eagerly welcomed at Ephesus, and it is not impossible that his visit took place during St. John's lifetime.
Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:
Verse 2. - This verso contains the main subject of the section. To confess the Incarnation is to prove that one draws one's inspiration from God through his Spirit. Know ye; or, recognize ye γινώσκετε, may be either imperative, in harmony with "believe" and "prove" (verse 1), or indicative, in harmony with "we know" (1 John 3:16, [19,] 24).
And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.
Verse 3. - Every spirit (not so much the personal teacher as the principle or tendency of the doctrine) which confesseth not Jesus. This is the true reading, the words Ξριστὸν ἐν σαρκὶ ἐληλυθότα being a spurious addition from verse 1. As so often, St. John states the case both negatively and positively for emphasis. There is an ancient variant reading of much interest, probably of Latin origin, which can be traced back to the second century, being known to Tertullian and Iranaeus. For μὴ ὁμολογεῖ τὸν Ἰησοῦν it gives λύει τὸν Ἰησοῦν, solvit Jesum. This corruption of the text was evidently aimed at those who distinguished the man Jesus from the Divine Christ, and thus "dissolved" his Personality. The Greek manuscripts are quite unanimous against the reading. Is not of God; and therefore is of the evil one (see on 1 John 3:10). These professedly Christian teachers are ever among the most dangerous who treat the Divinity of Jesus Christ as more or less of an open question, or as a matter of indifference. Τὸ τοῦ ἀντιχρίστου probably means "the spirit of antichrist," understanding πνεῦμα from the preceding clause rather than (quite vaguely) "the characteristic of antichrist" (see on 1 John 2:18, to which passage, however, ἀκηκόατε does not refer, (but to Christian teaching in general). And now it is in the world already. This is an independent statement; St. John does not say that they had heard this previously.
Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.
Verse 4. - Ye are of God. The ὑμεῖς is in emphatic opposition to the false teachers (comp. 1 John 2:20). They are on one side, and the apostle's readers on the other, and it is from this standpoint that they are to "prove the spirits." St. John knows nothing of any neutral position from which the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error can be criticized "with absolute impartiality." "He that is not with me is against me." This assumed neutral position is already within the domain of error. Ye have overcome them. "Them" means the false teachers; but in what sense have St. John's "little children" overcome them? He may be speaking by anticipation; confident of the victory, he writes of it as an accomplished fact (comp. John 16:33). But it is better to take the statement literally. By refusing to listen to the false teachers (John 10:8) the sheep have conquered them: the seducers have "gone out" (1 John 2:19), unable to hold their own within the fold. Nor is this wonderful: the one side have God with them, the other Satan. Ο ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ here is equivalent to ὁ ἄρχων τοῦ κόσμου τούτου (Luke 12:31). Just as God is in believers and they in God, so the world is in the evil one (1 John 5:19) and the evil one in it.
They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them.
Verse 5. - The source of their character and their teaching is the world; from it they derive their inspiration; and of course the world listens to them. Once again (see on 1 John 3:23) we have an echo of Christ's last discourses: "If ye were of the world, the world would love its own" (John 15:19).
We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.
Verse 6. - The opposite case stated again, but not in the same form as in verse 4. The "we" here is not the same as the "ye" there, with the mere addition of the writer. "We" here seems to mean the apostles. If it is considered "broad enough to include all who have truly received Christ by faith," it leaves no one to be the hearers. "He that knoweth God heareth us" will mean that we hear ourselves, if "us" means all believers. But St. John's meaning seems rather to be that he who acquires knowledge ὁ γινώσκων of God is ready to listen to further apostolic instruction. From this ἐκ τούτου need not be confined to verse 6; it may apply to the whole passage. For the Spirit of truth, comp. John 14:17; John 15:26; John 16:13.
Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.
Verses 7-21. - God is Love, and love is the surest test of birth from God. From 1 John 3:11, 12 St. John renews his exhortations to love, this time at greater length and in closer connexion with the other great subject of this second half of the Epistle, the birth from God. Verse 7. - Beloved (see on verse 1) The address is specially suitable where the subject is love. As before, we must not look for the chief purport of the section in the exhortation with which it opens. Just as "prove the spirits" is subordinate to "every spirit which confesseth," etc., so "let us love one another" is subordinate to "God is Love." (For the history and meaning of the specially Christian term ἀγάπη, see Trench's 'Synonyms of New Testament.')
He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.
Verse 8. - In giving the opposite, St. John again varies the thought, this time very remarkably. Instead of "love is of God" (verse 7), we have "God is Love" - a far deeper thought; and instead of "knoweth not God," we have "knew not God," or, as we should say in English, "hath not known" or "never knew God." The man's not loving his brother shows that in no real sense has he ever in the past known God: he is of the world (chapter 3:1), not of God. We must beware of watering down "God is Love" into "God is loving," or even "God of all beings is the most loving." Love is not a mere attribute of God; like light, it is his very nature. As "God is Light" sums up the Being of God intellectually considered, so "God is Love" sums up the same on the moral side. Only when this strong meaning is given to the statement does St. John's argument hold, that "he that loveth not knoweth not God." A man who has no idea of any one of the attributes of God, as order, or beauty, or power, or justice, has an imperfect knowledge of God. But he who has no idea of love has no knowledge of God, for love is himself. God alone loves in the fullest and highest sense of the word; for he alone loves with perfect disinterestedness. It is love which alone can explain creation. Why should a Being perfectly blessed in himself create other beings, but to bestow a blessing upon them?
In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.
Verse 9. - The verse is very similar to chapter 1 John 3:16, "in this" referring to what follows, and introducing a concrete and crucial example of love. Beware of the inadequate and misleading rendering "towards us" for ἐν ἡμῖν. It means in us, and belongs to "manifested," as John 9:3 plainly shows. We must not connect together "the love of God in us," still less "the love of God toward us," as one idea. "In us" means "in our case," and the whole may be paraphrased: "A transcendent manifestation of the love of God has been made in regard to us, in that he hath sent," etc. The verse might serve as a summary of St. John's Gospel. The word μονογενής as applied to Christ is peculiar to St. John; it and ζήσωμεν are the key-words of the passage. "This is love indeed; it is his only Son whom he has sent, and he has sent him to give us life." Note the double article - "his Son, yes, his Only Begotten."
Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Verse 10. - Let no man think that any higher manifestation of love than this can be found. It is not in any love of man to his Maker, but in his Maker's love to him, that the real nature of love can be perceived. Note the change from perfect to aorist; ἀπέσταλκεν in verse 9 expresses the permanent results of the mission; ἀπέστειλεν here states the mission as an accomplished fact complete in itself. (For ἱλασμός, see on 1 John 2:2.)
Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.
Verse 11. - Beloved introduces a solemn exhortation, as in verses 1, 7. The "if" implies no uncertainty (see on 1 John 5:9); it puts the fact more gently, but not more doubtfully, than "since." The "so" οὕτως covers both the quality and the quantity of the love. Καὶ belongs solely to ἡμεῖς: "we also on our part ought to love one another." We should have expected as the apodosis, "we also ought to love God." But this link in the thought the apostle omits as self-evident, and passes on to state what necessarily follows from it. In verse 12 he shows how loving God involves loving one's fellow-men (comp. 1 John 2:5 for a similar passage over an intermediate link).
No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.
Verse 12. - No one hath ever yet beheld God. Θεόν stands first for emphasis. and without the article, as meaning the Divine Being rather than the Father in particular: "With regard to God - no one hath ever yet beheld him" τεθεάται, stronger than ἑώρακεν. Why does St. John introduce this statement here? Not, of course, as implying that to love an invisible Being is impossible; but that the only security for genuine and lasting love in such a case is to love that which visibly represents him. Seeing that God is invisible, his abiding in us can be shown only by his essential characteristic being exhibited in us, i.e., by our showing similar self-sacrificing love Ἡ ἀγάπη αὐτοῦ can scarcely mean God's love for us; for how can our loving one another make his love perfect? Nor yet vaguely, "the relation of love between us and God;" but, as in 1 John 2:5, our love for him. Our love towards God is perfected and brought to maturity by the exercise of love towards our brethren in him.
Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit.
Verse 13. - Almost identical with 1 John 3:24. In verses 1-7 the apostle says that confession of the Incarnation proves possession of the Spirit; and in verse 12 that love of the brethren proves the indwelling of God. He now (verse 13) goes on to say that possession of the Spirit proves the indwelling of God; and (verse 15) that confession of the Incarnation proves the same. So that these four facts - confession of the Incarnation, possession of the Spirit, love of our fellow-men, and indwelling of God - mutually involve one another. St. John does not say, "He has given us his Spirit," but "of his Spirit ἐκ τοῦ Πνεύματος αὐτοῦ." It is impossible for us to receive more than a portion; the fullness of the Spirit is possessed by Christ alone. In John 1:16 we have a similar use of ἐκ (comp. John 12:3).
And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world.
Verse 14. - And we have beheld, and do bear witness. The emphatic ἡμεῖς clearly means "we apostles;" and "beheld" τεθέαμεθα implies contemplation with bodily eyes, as in verse 12. The invisible God can be only "invisibly seen" by the pure heart. But the incarnate Son has been visibly contemplated; and to bear witness of this fact was the very office of an apostle (John 15:27; Acts 1:8). The language of this verse, as of chapter 1 John 1:1, 3, would be strained and rather unreal in one who had not seen the Christ in the flesh. Note that σωτῆρα has no article, and is not in mere apposition, but is a second predicate: "The Father hath sent [see on verse 10] the Son as Saviour," i.e., to be such. "The world," as commonly in St. John's writings, is specially the unregenerate among the human race.
Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God.
Verse 15. - Whosoever confesseth ο{ς α}ν ὁμολογήση. This rendering seems preferable to "whosoever shall confess" or "shall have confessed." The exact meaning is, "Whosoever has once for all taken up the position of confessing." Verse 14 gave the case of the apostles; this gives that of those who accept their witness. In the next verse we have that of both together.
And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.
Verse 16. - And we have come to know and believe. Both perfects are virtually presents, expressing the present continuance of a condition begun in the past: "We know and continue to believe." Experience and faith are intimately connected; and sometimes the one precedes, sometimes the other (John 6:69). As in verse 9 ἐν ἡμῖν should be rendered in us, not "to us" or "toward us;" and here also the interpretation, "in our case," is certainly possible, and perhaps safer. But the meaning may be that the object of our knowledge and faith is that portion of his own love which God has in us. It is "in us," and is exercised towards him and our brethren, but in reality it is his - it is himself abiding in us. In either case love is the object of our faith. Thus love is not only the true note of the Church (John 13:35), it is also the Church's creed. The second half of the verse restates the main proposition of this section with a view to further development.
Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world.
Verse 17. - This verse raises various questions which can scarcely be answered with certainty. Does "herein" ἐν τούτῳ look back to verse 16? or forwards to "that" ἵνα? or forwards to "because" ὅτι? Again, does "with us" μεθ ἡμῶν belong to "is made perfect" τετελείωται? or to "love" ἡ ἀγάπη? John 15:8 inclines us to refer "herein" to "that" ἵνα; and "with us" or "among us" goes better with the verb than with the subject: "Herein has love reached its perfection among us Christians, i.e., in the Church, that we have confidence in the day of judgment." This is the perfection of love to have no fear. The ὅτι, introduces the reason for this confidence: its basis is our likeness to Christ. especially in being united to the Father (John 17:21, 23, 26). Compare "even as he is pure" (1 John 3:3), and "even as he is righteous" (1 John 3:7): καθὼς ἐκεῖνος in all three cases.
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.
Verse 18. - Love implies attraction, fear repulsion; therefore fear exists not in love. Love here means the principle of love in general; it must not be limited to God's love to us, or our love to God, or our love of the brethren. Love and fear coexist only where love is not yet perfect. Perfect love will absolutely exclude fear as surely as perfect union excludes all separation. It is self-interested love that fears; pure and unselfish love has no fear. Yet nothing but perfect love must be allowed to cast out fear. Otherwise this text might be made an excuse for taking the most unwarrantable liberties with Almighty God. To cease to fear without attaining to perfect love is to be irreverent and presumptuous. Hence the apostle is once more pointing out an ideal to which Christians must aspire, but to which no one attains in this life. There is a fear, as Bede points out, which prepares the way for love, and which comes only to depart again when its work is done. Because fear hath punishment. Κόλασις must not be rendered indefinitely "suffering" or "torment" (Matthew 25:46; Ezekiel 43:11; Wisd. 11:14; 2 Macc. 4:38). But κόλασιν ἔχει does not mean "deserves" or "will receive punishment," but quite literally "has it." It is the day of judgment and fear in reference to that day that is under consideration; and fear of punishment is in itself punishment by anticipation. Note the ἀλλά and the δέ, introducing a contrary and then a contrast back again: "There is no fear in love; nay, perfect love casteth out fear: but he that habitually feareth [present participle] is not made perfect in love." The dread of punishment may deter men from sin; but it cannot lead them to righteousness. For that we need either the sense of duty or the feeling of love.
We love him, because he first loved us.
Verse 19. - We love. The αὐτόν is spurious, and is not to be understood: the love is again quite general. "We have this principle of love." To take ἀγαπῶμεν as subjunctive in the sense "let us love" is less forcible. St. John states as a fact what ought to be a fact. "We Christians do not fear, but love. Yet this is no credit to us. After God's love in giving his Son for us it would be monstrous not to love."
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?
Verse 20. - Ebrard and others make a new section begin here; but verses 21, 22 are in intimate connexion with what precedes. What is this love of which the apostle has been speaking? Is it the love of' God or of our fellow-men? Both; love of our brethren is organically bound up with love of God. To love God and hate one's brother is impossible. Sight, though not necessary to affection, aids it; and it is therefore easier to love men than God. If a man fails in the easier, will he succeed in the harder? Moreover, to hate one's brother is to hate God. "Whoso rejecteth you rejecteth me, and whoso rejecteth me rejecteth him that sent me." Note the negative, μή not οὐ. St. John has no definite person in view as ὁ οὐκ ἀγαπῶν, but any one who may happen to be of such a character, ὁ μὴ ἀγαπην. As before, ὁ μὴ ἀγαπῶν and ὁ μισῶν are treated as equivalent; there is no neutral term between "love" and "hate."
And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.
Verse 21. - That he who loveth God love his brother also. This is the great commandment, on which hang all the Law and the prophets (Matthew 22:37, 39; Luke 10:27; John 13:34), and, whatever we may think of the relation between seeing and loving, there is the Divine command to love, not only the invisible God, but the visible brother in whom the invisible God dwells. Sight may hinder as well as help; it is hard to love what is squalid and hideous. In such cases let us remember the Divine command; let us remember the Divinity which even the most debased humanity contains.

Pulpit Commentary


1 John 3
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