The apostle John, writing.


1 John 4:1—21

The recipients of this letter were members of a church in controversy. The trouble-makers who John was dealing with were not worldly pagans, but people who claimed to be Christians. These false teachers were smart and clever; they cloaked their unbiblical teachings in such a way as to lead some believers astray and plant the seeds of doubt in others.

1. Know what is true, 1 John 4:1—6

Without naming it as such, John is about to teach his readers about one of the gifts of the Spirit given to all born again people: the discerning of spirits. Here is how John begins teachings about this spiritual gift:

Dear friends,do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1John4:1)

An interesting point in this verse is John’s use of the word “spirit.” It comes from a Greek word that can mean “wind” or “spirit.” It is the same word of the Holy Spirit. But John’s teachings in this passage are really a profound insight into the spirit-world. Behind every human teacher, false or genuine, is a superhuman force—either the Holy Spirit or an evil spirit, and behind ever spirit is its head—either God or Satan.

a. Test the spirits, verse 1-3

It is the responsibility of individual believers to determine whether or not the person to whom he is listening is teaching something from God or Satan. The Holy Spirit dwells in every true believer, but another spirit lives in the false teachers and John gives two pieces of advice:

  • Do not believe every spirit. Common sense tells us that we are unable to actually see a spirit, but we can certainly hear and understand its teachings. Just because a Bible teacher looks good and uses the right words, that doesn’t mean what he is teaching is from God. This is the first part of the discernment process: listen carefully to the teacher and his teaching; don’t blindly accept it. All teachings must be verified in light of the Word of God (see 1 Thessalonians 2:4 and 5:21).

  • Many false prophets have gone out into the world. False teachers have made the world their classroom; they are literally all over the place, insidiously making themselves a part of churches and denominations. Their goal is to be heard by Christians and to lead as many of them astray as they can.

But Christians don’t have to be gullible; there is a test to determine the origination of the teaching and the teacher.

Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. (verses 2b, 3a)

The test involves a positive confession that hinges on the doctrine of the Incarnation: Jesus Christ came in the flesh. The false teachers of John’s day taught a corrupt version of the Incarnation, denying the lynch pin teaching of the Gospel that the Son of God became the Son of man.

The second part of this test is a negative confession; actively teaching something that is completely contrary to the revealed Word of God that teaches the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Liberal theology involves both of these points. Liberal theologians never accept on faith orthodox Biblical doctrines that Jesus Christ was, is, and will always be the Son of God; that He came from Heaven, assumed the flesh of man in order to save His people; that Herose bodily from the dead, ascended to heaven and that at an appointed time, that same Jesus will return as He left.  Liberal theologians will always seek to rationalize the teachings of Scripture by downplaying the supernatural elements.

b. Live as overcomers, verses 4—6

John’s emphasis shifts now from the content of the false teacher’s message to the character of his readers.

What about God’s people? Positively there are two things to note. First, even if they don’t feel like it, they have already overcome the false prophets. No matter how many false teachers there are or how smart they appear, Christians have overcome them. Second, believers are from God, false teachers are not. We therefore have Him dwelling in us in the Person of the Holy Spirit.

Another important point often overlooked in this group of verses teaches us something about the true message of God and His messengers:

We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. (verse 6)

Whoever knows God listens to the real Word being proclaimed from real messengers. Those who don’t know God are not interested in hearing any genuine teaching. This makes common sense. Christians love to hear God’s Word being taught because that Word carries with it a divine authority. But the world doesn’t want to be under God’s authority, therefore it will always prefer false teaching to the real thing.

Part of having godly character is to live as an overcomer; as one who recognizes false teaching and avoids it.  This victory over false teaching and false teachers has nothing to do with our abilities,but withthe one who is in us.”  This One, is of course, the Holy Spirit.  No matter what spirit is opposing us,the Holy Spirit within us will enable us to live as overcomers.

2. Know God through love, 1 John 4:7—14

If the first group of verses in chapter 4 represents John’s teaching on the gift of discernment, then this next group of verses illustrates just one of the results of having the gifts of the Spirit operating in your life: love for the body of Christ. This section of John’s letter is perhaps the best loved part of any of John’s writings. It is the definitive statement about agape love. It is, also, very difficult to follow.

a. Love starts with God, verses 7—11

Verse 7 marks either an abrupt end to a discussion of false teachers or an abrupt beginning of a new teaching. Actually, it’s a continuation of the idea that genuine Christians are markedly different from the imitation Christians called false teachers. Unlike them, true believers love one another. This may be a fruit of the Holy Spirit, but it is our responsibility.

This love we are to have for members of the body of Christ is agape love; this kind of love does not depend on the quality of its object. If we have fellowship with God, if we are born of God, if we walk in the light, we will love others becauselove is of God.

Love, then, is another test of a person’s relationship with God. John does NOT say that everyone who is born of God manifests love, but rather he says this:

Every one who loves has been born of God and knows God. (verse7b)

But this is not a sentimental or emotional love John is referring to. There is a distinction betweennatural loveandChristian love.”  Natural love, the love a man has for a women or parents for children, comes from within the person himself, but it is conditioned by some quality in the other person. But agape love has nothing to do with anything in the other person. Agape love is the kind of love God has for human beings. His love for us is not a response to our love. The response is ours. This is the kind of love we are to have for others, particularly for members of the Body of Christ, but not just for them, for all people.

b.God’s Spirit lives in believers, verses1216

Verse 12 seems like a statement out of place, but it might have reference to the false teachers who claimed to have supernatural visions of God. John’s response to their grandiose claims is: No one has ever seen God. This is John’s way of saying something Paul said to the Corinthians:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13:1)

A false teacher can make all kinds of big claims, but if they don’t have God’s love in them, God is not in them. Three times in this paragraph John writes about the indwelling of God in the true believer—see verses 13, 15, and 16. Each time, he cites an evidence of this indwelling. Here is another test to see if the Holy Spirit is in a person:

  • The evidence:...he has given us of his Spirit.(verse13). How is this an evidence?  While we can’t see the Spirit, we can see His fruit. The following two pieces of evidence build on this.

  • The evidence: If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God… (verse15) Any body can claim to believe in God, but faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God is evidence that a person is a true believer.

  • The evidence: Whoever lives in love.. . (verse16) The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is really the indwelling of love.  John Stott comments: The natural man can neither believe nor love.  In his fallen and unredeemed state he is both blind and selfish. It is only by the grace of the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth and whose first- fruit is love, that man ever comes to believe in Christ and to love others.

3. Know you abide in God, 1 John 4:15—21

a. Confident in the love of God, verses 15—18

The people Jesus saves are the the people who acknowledge the divine sonship of Jesus Christ. Those who make the confession have the God dwelling in them. Of course, that confession is not enough. The phrase, “Jesus is the Son of God” should not be viewed as a mere confessional statement. Knowing and believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ means having complete faith and confidence in Him and in God’s love.

And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. (verse16)

This verse teaches us something of the nature of saving faith. It involves the intellect: knowing and relying go together. The growth of knowledge results in the growth of faith and they feed off of each other. When it comes to faith, ignorance is not bliss. One of the reasons why so many believers live in disappointment, often feeling neglected by God and being disappointed in God, is because their knowledge of God and how God works is so lacking. These kind of believers have expectations of God not based in His reality.

However, the more we learn about God in His Word, the more we understand His ways, the more our faith and confidence in Him grows because we have realistic expectations of God and we pray prayers that get answered because we pray according to His will.

John’s point is that no believer should ever live in fear because God is dwelling in them. God is love, and perfect love pushes away all fear.

b. Divinely enabled to love, verses 19—21

We love because he first loved us.(verse19)

This is an odd sentence because it is incomplete. We love what or whom? What was on John’s mind when he wrote the words “we love?” Do we love God? Or do we love each other? Perhaps John had both options in mind. No human being can claim that his love for God existed before God’s love for Him! And at the same time, no human being can claim to love everybody on his own! The fact is, our love for God and our love for all people is a copy of God’s love for us. He is the very nature of love and we follow His example.

And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother. (verse21)

John ends his discussion on love by summarizing the law which his readers knew so well. Jesus also brought together the first and greatest commandment (Deuteronomy 6:5) and the second commandment (Leviticus 19:18). Throughout the New Testament, the notion of loving one’s neighbor is stressed. Why is that? We are called to love those around us because to varying degrees they bear the image of God and God has commanded us to love them. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we are able to do just that.

I. Howard Marshall wrote:

The more we realize how much God loved us, the more we shall realize our obligation to love Him in return. It is therefore good for us to constantly renew our knowledge of God’s love as we read of it in the Bible, as we hear it proclaimed in the worship of the church, and as we consider the ways in which our whole life has been molded by experiences of God’s love and care for us.

God’s great love for us allows us to love others the way He loves them. The one who abides in God will obey His commands, and the two greatest commands are to love God and to love others. The two are inseparable.

(c)  2011 WitzEnd


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