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Bible Commentaries
1 John 4

Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary for Schools and CollegesCambridge Greek Testament Commentary

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Verses 1-99

Chap. 4

The main subject still continues, that God is Love; and that from this truth flows the moral obligation on Christians not only to love God but one another. But, as in Chap. 3, there are subdivisions, each of which has a unity in itself as well as intimate and subtle relations to the whole. These subdivisions are mainly two; The Spirit of Truth and the Spirit of Error (1 6); Love is the Mark of the Children of the God who is Love (7 21). If we are asked as to the relation which this chapter bears to the preceding one, the answer would seem to be something of this kind. Chap. 3 insists upon the necessity of deeds in order to prove our relationship to God (3:3, 7, 10, 16 18, 22); chap. 4 points out the certainty of our relationship to God as attested by our deeds (4:4, 6, 7, 12, 13, 15 17). The one gives us the evidence of our sonship, viz. deeds of righteousness towards God (3:1 10) and deeds of love towards men (3:11 21): the other shews us the source of our sonship, viz. possession of the Spirit as shewn by confession of the Incarnation (4:1 6) and by love of the brethren (4:7 21).

1 6. The Spirit of Truth and the Spirit of Error

1 6. This section is an amplification of the sentence with which the preceding chapter ends. We certainly have the Holy Spirit as an abiding gift from God, for otherwise we could not believe and confess the truth of the Incarnation. As usual, S. John thinks and teaches in antitheses. The test which proves that we have the Spirit of God proves that the antichrists have not this gift but its very opposite. In chap. 2 the antichrists were introduced as evidence of the transitoriness of the world (2:18): here they are introduced as the crucial negative instance which proves that every true believer has the Spirit of God.

Beloved ] See on 3:2.

believe not every spirit ] This exhortation does not give us the main subject of the section, any more than ‘Marvel not, brethren, if the world hate you’ (3:12) gave us the main subject of the last section (3:12 24). In both cases the exhortation is introductory and momentary. Having spoken of the Spirit by which we know that God abides in us, the Apostle goes on to speak of other spiritual influences which indubitably exist, and of which every one has experience, but which are not necessarily of God because they are spiritual. “He does not discredit the fact that spiritual influences were widely diffused; he does not monopolize such influences for the Christian Church. How could he discredit this fact? How can we? Are there not myriads of influences about us continually, which do not act upon our senses but upon our spirits, which do not proceed from things which may be seen and handled, but from the spirits of men?” (Maurice). But besides ordinary spiritual influences, S. John probably has in his mind those extraordinary and supernatural powers which at various periods of the Church’s history persons have claimed to possess. Such claims exhibit themselves in professed revelations, prophecies, miracles, and the like. About all such things there are two possibilities which must put us on our guard: (1) they may be unreal; either the delusions of fanatical enthusiasts, or the lies of deliberate impostors: (2) even if real, they need not be of God. Miraculous powers are no absolute guarantee of the possession of truth.

try the spirits ] Or, as R. V., prove the spirits . There are two words in N. T. meaning ‘to try, test, prove’; the one which we have here ( δοκιμάζειν ), and the one which is used where the Jews try or tempt Christ (Mark 8:11 , Mark 8:10 :2, &c.), and of the temptations of Satan (Matthew 4:1 , Matthew 4:3 , &c.). The former occurs about 20, the latter about 40 times in N. T. Neither are common in S. John’s writings: he nowhere else uses the word which we have here, and the other only 4 times (John 6:6 ; Revelation 2:2 , Revelation 2:10 , Revelation 2:3 :10). The A. V. is very capricious in its renderings of the former; ‘allow’ (Romans 14:22 ), ‘approve’ (Romans 2:18 ), ‘discern’ (Luke 12:56 ), ‘examine’ (1 Corinthians 11:28 ), ‘like’ (Romans 1:28 ), ‘prove’ (Luke 14:19 ), ‘try’ (1 Corinthians 3:13 ); while the latter is rendered ‘examine’ (2 Corinthians 13:5 ), ‘prove’ (John 6:6 ), ‘tempt’ (Matthew 22:18 ), ‘try’ (Revelation 2:2 ). The Revisers have somewhat reduced this variety. In the one case ‘allow’ has been changed to ‘approve’; ‘examine’ and ‘try’ to ‘prove’: in the other case ‘examine’ has been changed to ‘try’. The difference between the two words (which are found together 2 Corinthians 13:5 and Psalms 26:2 ) is on the whole this, that the one here used commonly implies a good, if not a friendly object; to prove or test in the hope that what is tried will stand the test: whereas the other often implies a sinister object; to try in the hope that what is tried will be found wanting. The metaphor here is from testing metals. Comp. ‘ Prove all things; hold fast that which is good’ (1 Thessalonians 5:21 ).

whether they are of God ] Whether their origin ( ἐκ ) is from God: comp. 3:2, 12.

A verse such as this cuts at the root of such pretensions as the Infallibility of the Pope. What room is left for Christians to ‘prove the spirits’, if all they have to do is to ask the opinion of an official? The Apostle’s charge, ‘prove ye the spirits’, may be addressed to Christians singly or to the Church collectively: it cannot be addressed to an individual. Comp. Romans 12:2 ; Ephesians 5:10 ; 1 Corinthians 10:15 , 1 Corinthians 11:13 . The verse also shews us in what spirit to judge of such things as the reported miracles at Lourdes and the so-called ‘manifestations’ of Spiritualism. When they have been proved to be real, they must still further be proved to see ‘whether they are of God’. We are not to judge of doctrine by miracles, but of miracles by doctrine. A miracle enforcing what contradicts the teaching of Christ and His Apostles is not ‘of God’ and is no authority for Christians. Comp. Galatians 1:8 ; Deuteronomy 13:1-3 .

because many false prophets ] The caution is against no imaginary or merely possible danger; it already exists. Warnings respecting the coming of such had been given by Christ, S. Paul, S. Peter, and S. Jude; and now S. John tells his readers that these prophecies have been fulfilled. These ‘false prophets’ include the antichrists of 2:18, and what is here said of them seems to indicate that like Mahomet, Swedenborg, the Irvingites, and others, they put forth their new doctrine as a revelation .

are gone out into the world ] This probably has no reference to their ‘going out from us’ (2:19). Possibly it means no more than that they have appeared in public; but it perhaps includes the notion of their having a mission from the power that sent them: comp. John 3:17 , John 3:6 :14, John 3:10 :36, John 3:11 :27, John 3:12 :47, 49, and especially 16:28. We need not confine these ‘many false prophets’ to the antichrists who had left the Christian communion. There would be others who, like Apollonius of Tyana, had never been Christians at all: and others even more dangerous who still professed to be members of the Church. The difficulties in the Church of Corinth caused by the unrestrained ‘speaking with tongues’ point to dangers of this kind.

2. Hereby know ye ] Or, Herein ye know : the verb may be either indicative or imperative (comp. 2:27, 29). The indicative is preferable, in spite of the imperatives in v. 1: comp. 3:16, 19, 24, which are very closely parallel to this. ‘Ye know’ is literally ‘ye come to know, perceive, recognise’: ‘herein’ refers to what follows: see on 3:19.

every spirit that confesseth ] This idea of ‘confessing’ one’s belief is specially frequent in S. John: 2:23, 4:15; 2 John 1:7 ; John 9:22 , John 9:12 :42; comp. Romans 10:9 .

that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh ] See on 2 John 1:7 . This is the crucial test, and one which would at once expose ‘the spirits’ of Cerinthian and Docetic teachers. We are not to suppose that all other articles of faith are unimportant; or that to deny this truth is the worst of all denials (see on 2:22); or that such denial involves every kind of doctrinal error. But against the errors prevalent in that age this was the great safeguard. The confession must of course be not with the tongue only but in truth, and in deed as well as in word (3:18): non lingua sed factis, non sonando sed amando (Bede).

The sentence may be taken in more ways than one: (1) as both A. V. and R. V.; (2) more accurately, and with some difference of meaning; confesseth Jesus Christ as come in the flesh ; (3) confesseth that Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh . Remark that S. John does not say ‘come into the flesh’, but ‘ in the flesh’: Christ did not descend (as Cerinthus said) into an already existing man, but He came in human nature; He ‘ became flesh’. Moreover he does not say that the confession is to be of a Christ who came ( ἐλθόντα ), but of a Christ who is come ( ἐληλυθότα ). This ‘coming’ is not an exhausted fact: He is come and abides in the flesh.

S. Paul gives almost exactly the same test: ‘I give you to understand that no man speaking in the Spirit of God saith, Jesus is anathema; and no man can say, Jesus is Lord, but in the Holy Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 12:3 ).

is of God ] Proceeds from Him as its source: comp. 3:10. “To confess that Jesus the anointed is come in the flesh, is to confess that there is a medium of spiritual communications between the visible and the invisible world, between earth and heaven. It is to confess that there is one Mediator for all men” (Maurice).

3. confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh ] On overwhelming evidence (AB, Coptic, Aethiopic, Vulgate, &c.) we must omit the words ‘that Christ is come in the flesh’, retaining only confesseth not Jesus : the additional words are an obvious interpolation by one who wished to make the two sides of the antithesis exactly equal. But, as we have repeatedly seen (1:5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 2:10, 22, 23, &c.), this is rarely the case in S. John’s oppositions.

There is yet another very ancient and very interesting difference of reading here: every spirit which severeth Jesus , or, unmaketh Jesus , or, destroyeth Jesus , or, as the margin of R. V., which annulleth Jesus ( ὃ λύει , qui solvit ), the verb which in 3:8 is used for ‘to destroy’. This reading appears to have been known to Tertullian (a.d. 210), who quotes S. John as speaking of “the forerunners of Antichrist denying that Christ has come in the flesh and severing ( solventes ) Jesus” ( Adv. Marcion V. xvi.), and to Irenaeus (a.d. 180), who quotes the whole passage, and in this place has “every spirit which severeth ( qui solvit ) Jesus” [ Haer. III. xvi. 8). But it can scarcely be genuine, for it is not found in a single Greek MS., nor in any version except the Vulgate. And we have no certain knowledge that any Greek Father had this reading. ‘Qui solvit’ in Irenaeus may be interpretation rather than literal translation. Socrates the historian (a.d. 440) charges the Nestorians with tampering with the text and ignoring the reading ‘which severeth Jesus’; just as Tertullian accuses the Valentinians of falsifying the text of John 1:13 , and S. Ambrose the Arians of mutilating John 1:6 . In all these cases the supposed heretical reading is the right one.

The passage in S. Polycarp’s Epistle already alluded to (see on 2:18) is against the reading advocated by Socrates: ‘For every one who confesseth not that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is an Antichrist; and whosoever confesseth not the witness of the Cross is of the devil’ ( Phil. VII.). The expressions ‘confess’, ‘come in the flesh’, ‘Antichrist’, ‘is of the devil’, place S. Polycarp’s knowledge of his master’s First Epistle beyond all reasonable doubt. This is very early testimony (a.d. 140 155) to the existence of the First Epistle.

The variations as regards reading are testimony to the same effect. Such things take time to arise and spread. If a corrupt reading is known to Tertullian in Africa, and (apparently) adopted by Irenaeus in Gaul, before the end of the second century, then the original document written in Asia Minor cannot be much later than the end of the first century, at which time S. John was still living.

is not of God ] S. John gives two tests, one for trying human conduct, and one for trying spiritual claims: ‘Every one that doeth not righteousness is not of God , neither he that loveth not his brother’ (3:10); and ‘Every spirit which confesseth not Jesus is not of God .’

and this is that spirit of Antichrist ] ‘That’ should rather be ‘the’, as in R. V. The word ‘spirit’ is not expressed in the Greek, but is rightly understood from the context. The similar Greek expressions in Matthew 21:21 ; 1 Corinthians 10:24 ; James 4:14 ; 2 Peter 2:22 are not quite parallel.

that it should come ] Better, with R. V., that it cometh. Wiclif and the Rhemish have ‘that he cometh ’. Most English Versions before 1611 have ‘he’ for ‘it’; as also has Luther. This is due to the Vulgate, which has ‘Antichrist’ for ‘the (spirit) of Antichrist’. ‘It’ is certainly right. Not Antichrist, but the antichristian nature is affirmed to be now in the world already . The spirit of antagonism to Christ has passed from “the invisible world of spiritual wickedness” to the visible world of human action. The addition of ‘already’ hints that something more may be expected to follow. Comp. ‘The mystery of lawlessness doth already work’ (2 Thessalonians 2:7 ).

4. Ye are of God ] As in 2:20 the Apostle passes abruptly from the false teachers to his true children with an emphatic pronoun, made still more emphatic here by the asyndeton. Ye , in marked contrast to them, are of God .

and have overcome them ] By withstanding the seducers they have proved their superiority. In the masculine ‘them’ ( αὐτούς ) the Apostle passes from the antichristian spirits to the false prophets who are their mouth-pieces. Comp. ‘And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him; for they know not the voice of strangers’ (John 10:5 ): thus the stranger is defeated.

because greater is He that is in you ] Not in their own strength has the victory been won, but in His whose word abideth in them (2:14). It is precisely for this reason that they may have confidence against all spiritual enemies: it is not confidence in themselves (1 Corinthians 15:57 especially Ephesians 6:10-17 ).

he that is in the world ] ‘The ruler of this world’ (John 12:31 ), the devil, the father of these lying teachers (3:10; John 8:44 ), whose works Christ came to destroy (3:8). By saying ‘in the world’ rather than ‘in them’, the Apostle indicates that they belong to ‘the world’. “S. John constantly teaches that the Christian’s work in this state of probation is to conquer ‘the world’. It is, in other words, to fight successfully against that view of life which ignores God, against that complex system of attractive moral evil and specious intellectual falsehood which is organized and marshalled by the great enemy of God, and which permeates and inspires non-Christianized society” (Liddon).

5. They are of the world ] This follows, though it has not yet been stated, from their not being ‘of us’ (2:19): for there is no middle position. The verse is another reminiscence of the Lord’s farewell discourses: ‘If ye were of the world, the world would love its own’ (John 15:19 ; comp. 17:14).

therefore speak they of the world ] Or, therefore of the world they speak : as in John 3:31 , the Greek order is impressive and worth preserving. (See on 3:1; but here διὰ τοῦτο is not followed by ὅτι .) The impressive repetition of ‘the world’ is very characteristic of S. John’s style; e.g. John 1:10 , John 3:17 , John 15:19 , John 17:14 . Comp. ‘He that is of the earth, of the earth he is, and of the earth he speaketh’ (3:31): where, however, ‘to speak of the earth ’ or ‘ earthly things ’ is to speak of God’s work on earth; whereas ‘to speak of the world ’ is to speak what is alien from God’s work and opposed to it. ‘To speak of ’ ( λαλεῖν ἐκ ) is not the same as ‘to speak concerning ’ ( λέγειν περί ) 5:16; John 1:22 , John 1:47 , John 1:2 :21, &c. ‘To speak of the world’ is to have the world as the source of one’s words, so that one’s inspiration flows from it: and of course the world ‘heareth’, i.e. loves to hear, the wisdom derived from itself.

6. We are of God ] ‘We’ with great emphasis, like ‘ye’ in v. 4, in contrast to the false prophets. ‘We’ is probably not equivalent to ‘ye’, viz. all true believers: ‘we’ means the Apostles. See on v. 14 and on 1:4. The opposition here is not between true and false Christians , but between true and false teachers . Comp. 1 Corinthians 14:37 .

he that knoweth God heareth us ] We might render, ‘He that increaseth in the knowledge of God’ ( ὁ γινώσκεν τὸν Θεόν ). Here once more we have that magisterial tone of Apostolic authority which is so conspicuous in the Prologue (1:1 4). It underlies the whole Epistle, as it does the whole of the Fourth Gospel, but here and there comes to the surface. It is the quiet confidence of conscious strength. Comp. ‘He that is of God heareth the words of God; for this cause ye hear them not because ye are not of God’; and, ‘Every one that is of the Truth heareth My voice’ (John 8:47 , John 18:37 ). For ordinary Christians to adopt this language is presumptuous sectarianism.

Note that, as usual, the antithesis is not exact: ‘he that knoweth God’ is balanced by ‘he that is not of God’; indicating that it is the child of God who comes by experience to know Him.

Hereby know we ] Literally, From this . A fresh sentence should begin here. It is not certain whether ‘from this’ refers to the whole section (1 6), or to the latter half (4 6), or only to the first half of v. 6. In any case the meaning is, not that those who hear the Apostle have the Spirit of truth, while those who refuse to hear have the spirit of error; but that the Apostles have the Spirit of truth because God’s children hear them, while the false prophets have the spirit of error because the world hears them.

the spirit of truth ] The Holy Spirit; John 14:17 , John 15:26 , John 16:13 : comp. 1 Corinthians 2:12 , where the whole passage is very similar to this. It is not easy to determine whether the genitive ‘of truth’ expresses the character of the Spirit, as in ‘the Holy Spirit of promise’ (Ephesians 1:13 ), ‘the Spirit of grace (Hebrews 10:29 ), or the source , as in ‘the Spirit of God’ and ‘the Spirit of Christ’ (Romans 8:9 , Romans 8:11 ). The Spirit is the Truth (5:7), proceeds from Him who is the Truth (John 14:6 , John 14:26 ), communicates and interprets the Truth (John 16:13 , John 16:14 ).

7 21. Love is the Mark of the Children of the God who is Love

7. Beloved, let us love one another ] See on 3:2. The transition seems abrupt, as if the Apostle had summarily dismissed an unwelcome subject. But the connexions of thought in S. John’s writings are often so subtle, that it is rash to assert anywhere that two consecutive verses or sections are entirely without connecting links. Two such links may be found here. 1. The power to love one another, no less than the power to confess the Incarnation, is the gift of the Spirit ( vv. 2, 12, 13). And faith and love mutually aid one another. This is the case even between man and man. Faith and trust soon pass into love. 2. The antichristian spirit is a selfish one; it makes self, i.e. one’s own intellect and one’s own interest, the measure of all things. Just as it severs the Divine from the human in Christ, so it severs Divine love from human conduct in man. ‘Beloved, let us do far otherwise. Let us love one another’.

For the third and last time in this Epistle the Apostle introduces the subject of brotherly love. First it was introduced as a consequence and sign of walking in the light (2:7 11). Next it was introduced as a special form of righteousness and mark of God’s children (3:10 18). Here it appears as a gift of the Spirit of God, a contrast to the antichristian spirit, and above all as an effluence from the very Being of God.

‘Love one another’ here, as in 3:11, applies primarily to the mutual love of Christians . The love of Christians to unbelievers is not expressly excluded, but it is not definitely before the Apostle’s mind.

love is of God ] And ‘we are of God’ ( v. 6), and ‘ye are of God’ ( v. 4); therefore there should be the family bond of love between us.

every one that loveth is born of God ] This follows from the preceding statement. If God is the source of all love, then whatever love a man has in him comes from God; and this part of his moral nature is of Divine origin. Of ‘ every one that loveth’ is this true, whether he be heathen or Christian: there is no limitation. If a Socrates or a Marcus Aurelius loves his fellow-men, it is by the grace of God that he does so. See concluding note on 3:4.

knoweth God ] He comes by experience to know Him by thus sharing the Divine nature.

8. knoweth not God ] Literally, knew not God , i.e. never attained to a knowledge of Him. This is a remarkable instance of S. John’s habit of not making the second part of an antithesis the exact counterpart of the first, but an advance beyond it. Instead of saying ‘is not born of God’ he says ‘never knew God’, which is much stronger. Not to have known love is not, to have known God.

God is love ] This is the third of S. John’s great statements respecting the Nature of God: ‘God is Spirit’ (John 4:24 ); ‘God is light’ (1 John 1:5 ), and ‘God is love’. See on 1:5. Here, as in the other cases, the predicate has no article, and expresses not a quality which He possesses , but one which embraces all that He is . This is clear from S. John’s argument. It does not follow, because God is full of love, that one who does not love cannot have known God: all that follows from this is that his knowledge of God is very incomplete. Only if God is love, i.e. if love is Himself, is the statement true, that to have no personal knowledge of love is to have no personal knowledge of God. And here we may remark that to attain by experience to a knowledge of God ( γινώσκειν τὸν Θεόν ) is a very different thing from knowing something about Him ( εἰδέναι τι περὶ αὐτοῦ ). The Gnostics knew a good deal about God, but they did not know Him, for instead of loving those brethren who did not share their intellectual attainments, they had an arrogant contempt for them. They had recognised that ‘God is spirit’, and to some extent that ‘God is light’; for they knew Him to be an immaterial Being and the highest Intelligence: but they had wholly failed to appreciate that ‘God is love’. And yet of the three great truths this is the chief. The other two are incomplete without it. The first, ‘God is spirit’, is almost more negative than positive: God is not material; He ‘dwelleth not in temples made with hands’. The second might seem in making our idea of Him more definite to remove Him further away from us: God is perfect intelligence, perfect purity, perfect holiness. The third not only makes His Nature far more clearly known, but brings Him very close to us. The spirit is shewn to be personal, the light to have warmth and life.

If no previous religion, not even the Jewish, had attained to the truth that ‘God is light’, still less had any attained to the truth that ‘God is love’. To the heathen world God is a powerful, a terrible, and often a cruel being; one whose fierce wrath needs to be deprecated and whose ill-will needs to be propitiated, rather than one on whose love men may rely. To the Jews He was a just and a jealous, if also a merciful God, of whose inmost being all that was known was I AM THAT I AM. To the Christian alone He is known as LOVE.

As already stated, this truth, God is love, dominates the second main division of the Epistle. In no Book in N. T. does the substantive ‘love’ ( ἀγάπη ) occur so often as in these two and a half chapters (3:1 5:12); and in no Book in N. T., excepting the Fourth Gospel, does the verb ‘to love’ ( ἀγαπᾷν ) occur half so many times as here. No wonder that the writer of this Epistle has been known in the Church as ‘the Apostle of Love’. “If nothing were said in praise of love throughout the pages of this Epistle, if nothing whatever throughout the other pages of the Scriptures, and this one thing only were all we were told by the voice of the Spirit of God, For God is Love; nothing more ought we to require” (S. Augustine).

9. In this was manifested ] Or, for the sake of uniformity with vv. 10, 13, 17, Herein was manifested: we have the same Greek in all four verses. ‘Herein’ plainly refers to what follows: comp. 3:16 and see on 3:19. For ‘manifest’ see on 1:2. This is a second reason for our loving one another. We must do this (1) because love is the very Being of Him whose children we are; (2) because of the transcendent way in which His love was manifested. The context shews that ‘the love of God’, which usually in this Epistle means our love to God, here means His love to us: comp. 3:16.

towards us ] Rather, in us: we are the sphere in which God’s love is exhibited: comp. v. 16 and John 9:3 , which is very parallel. The latter passage tends to shew that ‘in us’ is to be joined with ‘manifested’ rather than with ‘the love of God’: Herein was the love of God manifested in us . The rendering ‘in our case’ (R. V. margin) is improbable: comp. v. 12.

because that God sent ] Better, because God hath sent: we do not need both ‘because’ and ‘that’; and the verb is a perfect, indicating the permanent result of Christ’s mission. In the next verse we have aorists, speaking of past acts without reference to the present.

his only begotten Son ] Literally, His Son, His only begotten : comp. John 3:16 . As in ‘the life, the eternal life’ (1:2), the repetition of the article makes both ideas, ‘son’ and ‘only-begotten’, prominent and distinct. Comp. 1:3, 2:7, 8; 2 John 1:11 , 2 John 1:13 . His Son was much to send, but it was also His only Son. The word for ‘only begotten’ ( μονογενὴς ) as applied to Christ is peculiar to S. John; it occurs four times in the Gospel (1:14, 18, 3:16, 18) and here. ‘Only-born’ would be a more accurate rendering: Christ is the only born Son as distinct from the many who have become sons. The word occurs in LXX. to translate a Hebrew word ( yachid ), which is elsewhere rendered ‘beloved’ or ‘darling’ ( ἀγαπητός ): and oddly enough where the Greek has ‘only’ the A. V. has ‘darling’ and vice versâ . Contrast Genesis 22:2 , Genesis 22:12 , Genesis 22:16 with Psalms 22:21 , Psalms 35:17 . The Vulgate has unigenitus and unicus . Comp. Romans 5:8 , Romans 8:32 .

that we might live through him ] These are the important words, setting forth that in which God’s love is so conspicuous and so unique. The only Son has been sent for this purpose ( ἵνα ), that we may live, and not die, as we should otherwise have done: comp. 3:14, 5:11; John 3:16 , John 3:17 , John 3:36 .

10. Herein is love ] ‘Herein’ again refers to what follows: Love in Its full perfection is seen, not in man’s love to God, but in His to man, which reached a climax in His sending His Son to save us from our sins. The superiority of God’s love does not lie merely in the fact of its being Divine. It is first in order of time and therefore necessarily spontaneous: ours is at best only love in return for love. His love is absolutely disinterested; ours cannot easily be so. Comp. Titus 3:4 . ‘For propitiation’ and ‘for our sins’ see on 2:2. ‘To be the propitiation’ is literally ‘as a propitiation’; it is parallel to ‘that we might live through Him’ in the previous verse; but at the same time is an expansion of it. It states the manner in which life is won for us.

11. Beloved ] For the sixth and last time the Apostle uses this appropriate address: see on 3:2. No address of any kind occurs again until the last verse of the Epistle.

if God so loved us ] As in 3:13, 5:9, the fact is stated gently, but without any doubt ( εἰ with the indicative): here ‘if’ is almost equivalent to ‘since’; ‘If, as is manifest, to this extent God loved us’. Comp. ‘If I then, the Lord and the Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet’ (John 13:14 ). ‘So’ refers to what is said in vv. 9, 10.

we ought also ] Better, as R. V. we also ought : ‘also’ belongs to ‘we’; we as well as God. In the spiritual family also noblesse oblige . As children of God we must exhibit His nature, and we must follow His example, and we must love those whom He loves. Nor is this the only way in which the Atonement forms part of the foundation of Christian Ethics. It is only when we have learned something of the infinite price paid to redeem us from sin, that we rightly estimate the moral enormity of sin, and the strength of the obligation which lies upon us to free ourselves from its pollution. And it was precisely those false teachers who denied the Atonement who taught that idolatry and every abominable sin were matters of no moral significance.

12. No man hath seen God at any time ] Better, as R. V., No man hath beheld God at any time : a different verb ( τεθέαται ) is used here from that used in v. 20 and in John 1:18 ( ἑώρακαν ) where we have exactly the same statement. The verb used here implies something of gazing and contemplation: our word ‘theatre’ comes from it. Comp. ‘Whom no man hath seen, nor can see’ (1 Timothy 6:16 ).

Once more (see on v. 7) the connecting lines of thought are not on the surface, and cannot be affirmed with certainty. What follows seems to give the clue to what otherwise looks like an abrupt transition. ‘I say we must love one another, for by so doing we have proof of the presence of the invisible God. No amount of contemplation ever yet enabled any one to detect God’s presence. Let us love one another, and then we are sure, not only that He is with us but in us, and not merely is, but abides’. Here, as in John 1:18 , ‘God’ stands first for emphasis: God no one hath ever yet beheld .

God dwelleth in us ] Better, as R. V., God abideth in us (see on 2:24): He is not a momentary visitant but a permanent friend and guest.

his love is perfected in us ] Or, the love of Him is perfected in us . ‘His love’ to us can scarcely be meant; for in what sense would our loving one another perfect that? Moreover, as already noticed, ‘the love of God’ in this Epistle commonly means man’s love to Him, not His to man (2:5, 3:17, 5:3). ‘His love’ might possibly mean the love which characterizes Him, or the love which He has implanted in us; but the other is simpler. Our love to God is developed and perfected by our loving one another. We practise and strengthen our love of the Unseen by shewing love to the seen. See on 2:5.

13. This should be compared with 3:24, to which it is closely parallel. There, as here, the gift of the Spirit is the proof of God’s abiding presence: but there this is connected with keeping His commandments; here it is connected with the special duty of brotherly love.

he hath given us of his Spirit ] We receive ‘ of His Spirit’ ( ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος ): of Christ alone was it said in the fullest sense ‘not by measure’ is the Spirit given to him (John 3:34 ). Christians are sometimes said to receive the Spirit (Galatians 3:2 , Galatians 3:3 , Galatians 3:5 , Galatians 3:4 :6), sometimes of the Spirit (see on 3:24): only the former is true of Christ. See on 2 John 1:4 .

14. And we have seen and do testify ] Better, as R. V., And we have beheld and bear witness: see on v. 12 and 1:2. ‘We’ is emphatic, and, as in the Prologue, means S. John and the other Apostles. See on 1:4. With their own eyes they saw the Son working out His mission as the Saviour of the world. ‘Beheld’ points back to v. 12: ‘God Himself no one hath ever yet beheld; but we have beheld His Son’.

sent the Son ] Better, hath sent the Son ; as in v. 9. ‘Of the world’ is important; not of the Jews only, or of the ‘enlightened’ Gnostics only, but of all. There is no limit but the willingness of men to accept salvation by believing on the Saviour. ‘For God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through Him’ (John 3:17 ). See on 2:2.

15. Whosoever shall confess ] This was what the false prophets refused to do: see on vv. 2 and 3: also on 5:1.

dwelleth in him ] Better, abideth in him : see on 2:24.

and he in God ] The communion is of the closest description: comp. 3:24; John 6:56 , John 14:20 , John 15:5 . Even Apostles, who have beheld and borne witness, can have no more than this Divine fellowship, which is open to every believer.

16. And we have known and believed ] Literally, And we have come to know and have believed . This is the natural order; progressive knowledge leads up to faith. But sometimes faith precedes knowledge (John 6:69 ). In either case each completes the other. Sound faith is intelligent; sound knowledge is believing. We must be ‘ready always to give answer to every man that asketh a reason concerning the hope that is in us’ (1 Peter 3:15 ). This verse is a fulfilment of the conclusion of Christ’s High-Priestly prayer; ‘I made known unto them Thy name, and will make it known; that the love wherewith Thou lovedst Me may be in them, and I in them’ (John 17:26 ).

God hath to us ] Rather, God hath in us , as in v. 9; see note there.

he that dwelleth , &c.] Better, as R. V., he that abideth in love , abideth in God, and God abideth in him : see on 2:24. In the true text ( א BKL) the characteristic word ‘abide’ occurs characteristically three times: comp. v. 5, where ‘the world’ occurs three times.

17. Herein is our love made perfect ] Better, as the margin, Herein is love with us made perfect ; or, as R. V., Herein is love made perfect with us . Most earlier English Versions agree with the latter collocation. The meaning seems to be that love, which is of God ( v. 7), takes up its abode with us and is developed until it is perfected. ‘Love’ here evidently means our love towards God: His love towards us can have no fear about it ( v. 18). ‘Herein’ may refer to either of the two clauses which follow. ‘Herein … that’ ( ἵνα ) occurs possibly in John 15:8 , and ‘Herein … because’ ( ὅτι ) occurs 1 John 3:16 , 1 John 3:4 :9, 1 John 3:10 . But it is perhaps best to make ‘Herein’ refer to what precedes; to our abiding in God and God in us. This avoids the awkwardness of making perfection of love in the present depend upon our attitude at the Judgment, which though near (2:18) according to S. John’s view, is still future . In this way we can give its full meaning to ‘that’ ( ἵνα ): by close union with God our love is made perfect, in order that we may have boldness in the day of judgment. For ‘boldness’ see on 2:28.

the day of judgment ] The full phrase here used, ‘ the day of the judgment’ occurs nowhere else: the usual form is ‘day of judgment’ (Matthew 10:15 , Matthew 10:11 :22, Matthew 10:24 , Matthew 10:12 :36; 2 Peter 2:9 , 2 Peter 3:7 ). S. John elsewhere calls it ‘the last day’ (John 6:39 , John 6:40 , John 6:44 , John 6:54 ), or ‘the great day’ (Revelation 6:17 ; comp. 16:14). Other Scriptural phrases are ‘the day of the Lord’, ‘the day of God’, ‘day of Christ’, ‘that day’, ‘the day’.

as he is, so are we in this world ] ‘He’ ( ἐκεῖνος ) almost certainly is Christ, as probably always in this Epistle (2:6, 3:3, 5, 7, 16). Our assurance with regard to the future Judgment is not presumption, because in this world we are in character like Christ. The resemblance is marked as close, ‘ even so are we’ ( καθώς ); comp. 2:6, 3:3, 7. In what does this close resemblance specially consist? In love: the whole context points to this. He need not fear the judgment of Christ who by loving has become like Christ.

18. Proof of the preceding statement that perfect love will give us boldness, by shewing the mutually exclusive nature of love and fear. Love moves towards others in the spirit of self-sacrifice: fear shrinks from others in the spirit of self-preservation. The two are to be understood quite generally; neither love of God nor fear of God is specially meant. In all relations whatever, perfect love excludes fear, and fear prevents love from being perfect. And the two vary inversely: the more perfect the love, the less possibility of fear, and the more the fear, the less perfect the love. But, though as certain as any physical law, the principle, that perfect love excludes all fear, is an ideal that has never been verified in fact. Like the first law of motion, it is verified by the approximations made to it. No believer’s love has ever been so perfect as entirely to banish fear; but every believer experiences that as his love increases his fear diminishes. It is worthy of note that S. John here abandons his antithetic method. He does not go on to state anything about him that feareth not . And rightly, for the absence of fear proves nothing: it may be the result of ignorance, or presumption, or indifference, or unbelief, or inveterate wickedness.

Tertullian quotes this verse in insisting on the duty of suffering martyrdom, adding “What fear would it be better to understand than that which gives rise to denial (of Christ)? What love does he assert to be perfect, but that which puts fear to flight, and gives courage to confess (Christ)? What penalty will he appoint as the punishment of fear, but that which he who denies is to pay, who has to be slain, body and soul, in hell” ( Scorp. xii.). Simon Magus is said to have “freed his disciples from the danger of death” by martyrdom, “by teaching them to regard idolatry as a matter of indifference” (Origen c. Celsum VI. xi).

because fear hath torment ] Better, as R. V., because fear hath punishment . The word for ‘punishment’ ( κόλασις ) occurs nowhere else in N. T., excepting Matthew 25:46 , but it is not uncommon in LXX. nor in classical Greek. Its radical signification is ‘pruning’, and hence it gets the notions of ‘checking, correcting, punishing’. ‘Torment’ as distinct from ‘punishment’ is expressed by a different word ( βάσανος ), which occurs Matthew 4:24 ; Luke 16:23 , Luke 16:28 . Both words are found together in Wisd. 19:4; ‘That they might fulfil the punishment which was wanting to their torments .’ Wiclif has ‘peyne’ representing poena in the Vulgate: other English Versions have ‘painfulness’. ‘Fear hath punishment’ is true in two ways; (1) fear involves the idea of punishment; (2) fear is a foretaste of punishment.

He that feareth ] With Wiclif we must prefix ‘but’, or with Genevan, Rhemish, and R. V. ‘and’, to represent the Greek conjunction: and he that feareth ( ὁ δὲ φοβούμενος ). The main sentence is here resumed, ‘but perfect love … punishment’ being parenthetical. The present tense indicates a constant condition: the habitual fearer is necessarily imperfect in his love.

S. Paul teaches the same doctrine; ‘Ye received not the spirit of bondage again unto fear ; but ye received the spirit of adoption , whereby we cry, Abba, Father ’ (Romans 8:15 ). The servile fear, which perfect love excludes, is therefore altogether different from the childlike awe, which is a necessary element in the creature’s love for its Creator. Even servile fear is necessary as a preparation for perfect love. ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’; and it is also the beginning of love. The sinner must begin by fearing the God against whom he has sinned. Bengel gives the various stages thus: ‘neither love nor fear; fear without love; both fear and love; love without fear’. Fear is the child of bondage; love of freedom. In this case also the bondwoman and her son must be cast out (Galatians 4:30 ).

19. We love him ] Omit ‘Him’, which is a later addition to the true text: some authorities for ‘Him’ add ‘God’, and some have ‘God’ for ‘He’ in the next clause. No accusative is expressed, and none, whether ‘God’ or ‘one another’, is to be understood: Christian love of every kind is meant. Authorities are much divided between ‘we love’ and ‘let us love’; for the Greek ( ἀγαπῶμεν ) may be either indicative or hortative subjunctive. The former is better. The Peschito and Vulgate render ‘let us love’ and with Codex A insert ‘therefore’: nos ergo diligamus .

because he first loved us ] We shall narrow the Apostle’s meaning if we limit this to the idea of gratitude evoking love. The ‘first’, which is the important word, means much more than that. 1. Our love owes its very origin to God’s love, from which it is an effluence ( v. 7). 2. Love is checked by fear when it is doubtful whether it is returned. Our love has no such check; for it knows that God’s love has been beforehand with it. Bede compares ‘Ye did not choose Me, but I chose you’ (John 15:16 ).

20. If a man say ] We return to the form of statement which was so common at the beginning of the Epistle (1:6, 8, 10). The case here contemplated is one form of the man that feareth not . His freedom from fear is caused, however, not by the perfection of love, but by presumption. He is either morally blind or a conscious hypocrite. Comp. 2:4, 9.

loveth not ] As we have seen already (3:14, 15), S. John treats not loving as equivalent to hating.

whom he hath seen ] S. John does not say ‘whom he can see’, but ‘whom he has continually before his eyes’. The perfect tense, as so often, expresses a permanent state continuing from the past. His brother has been and remains in sight, God has been and remains out of sight. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ is a saying which holds good in morals and religion as well as in society. And if a man fails in duties which are ever before his eyes and are easy, how can we credit him with performing duties which require an effort to bear in mind and are difficult? And in this case the seen would necessarily suggest the unseen: for the brother on earth implies the Father in heaven. If therefore even the seen is not loved, what must we infer as to the unseen? The seen brother and the unseen God are put in striking juxtaposition in the Greek; ‘He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, the God whom he hath not seen cannot love’. But in English this would be misunderstood.

how can he love ] With א B against AKL we should probably read cannot love : the ‘how’ is perhaps a reminiscence of 3:17; comp. John 3:4 , John 3:9 , John 3:5 :44, John 3:6 :52, John 3:9 :16, John 3:14 :5. In a similar spirit Philo says parents may be regarded as ‘visible gods’, and ‘it is impossible that the Invisible should be revered by those who have no reverence for the visible’.

21. And this commandment have we ] The Apostle drives home his arguments for the practice of brotherly love by the fact that God has commanded all who love Him to love their brethren. Some take ‘Him’ to mean Christ. But this is unlikely, as Christ has not been mentioned for several verses: although it must be admitted that S. John is so full of the truth that ‘I and My Father are one’, that he makes the transition from the Father to the Son and from the Son to the Father almost unconsciously. Where has God given this commandment? In the whole Law, which is summed up in loving God with all one’s heart and one’s neighbour as oneself (Deuteronomy 6:5 ; Leviticus 19:18 ; Luke 10:27 ). The Apostle thus anticipates a possible objection. A man may say ‘I can love God without loving my brother, and I can prove my love by keeping His commandments’ (John 14:15 ). ‘Nay’, says S. John, ‘your own argument shews your error: you cannot keep His commandments without loving your brother’. Thus then we have two revelations of God: our brother, who is His image; and His commandment, which is His will. Not to love our brother is a flagrant violation of both. As Pascal puts it, we must know men in order to love them, but we must love God in order to know Him.

that he who loveth God love his brother also ] “The final particle ( ἵνα ) gives more than the simple contents of the commandment. It marks the injunction as directed to an aim” (Westcott). See on 1:9.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on 1 John 4". "Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cgt/1-john-4.html. 1896.
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