Bible Commentaries
1 John 4

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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"The warning against the antichrists or, as we have called them, the Revisionists, is now finished. The apostle’s burden has been to affirm the high spiritual caliber of his readership and to urge them to continue to live the ’abiding’ life, which they are currently doing. In the face of the false teaching of the Revisionists, they are to cling to the truth they have heard from the beginning and to allow that truth to shape them inwardly. To go the direction of the antichrists is to forfeit all the rich experience which abiding in the Son and in the Father makes possible.

"But what exactly is the abiding experience like: Although John has already pointed out that it involves a Christlike walk (1 John 2:6), he has said little about its exact character. Yet it is already clear that it involves obedience to the command to love one another (cf. 1 John 2:7-11). Beginning at this point in the epistle, love becomes a controlling and overriding theme." [Note: Hodges, The Epistles . . ., p. 123.]

The section before us (1 John 2:28 to 1 John 4:19) constitutes the body of the letter. That it is a unit is clear from the structural inclusio. Note the statements in 1 John 2:28 "that . . . we may have confidence . . . at His coming" and in 1 John 4:17 "that we may have confidence in the day of judgment" that bracket the unit.

D. Learning to See the God of Love 3:24-4:16

Another inclusio helps us identify the theme of this section: God abiding in believers (1 John 3:24; 1 John 4:16). God abiding in us, as well as we abiding in Him, is essential to our having boldness as we anticipate the judgment seat of Christ (1 John 2:28; 1 John 4:17-18). Having boldness as we anticipate the judgment seat of Christ is the subject of the body of this epistle (1 John 2:28 to 1 John 4:19).

Verses 1-3

John wrote, "Stop believing." Evidently some of his first readers where believing false teaching.

"Credulity means gullibility and some believers fall easy victims to the latest fads in spiritualistic humbuggery." [Note: Robertson, 6:229.]

It is necessary to distinguish the Spirit of God from false spirits (i.e., spirits advocating falsehood) because many false prophets have gone out into the world. False spirits (utterances or persons inspired by a spirit opposed to Christ) produce false teaching.

"To ’test the spirits’ is to make a choice from among competing claims." [Note: Yarbrough, p. 192.]

John’s test question whereby one can determine whether the Spirit of God or a spirit of falsehood possesses a person was this. What does the person believe about Jesus Christ? If a person denies the incarnation of Jesus Christ-a heresy false teachers were promoting among John’s original readers-he has the spirit of antichrist (cf. 1 John 2:18-27). That is, a denial of the doctrine of Christ as the apostles taught it, deviation from orthodox Christology, evidences a spirit opposed to Jesus Christ.

"The test of the presence of the Divine Spirit is the confession of the Incarnation, or, more exactly, of the Incarnate Saviour. The Gospel centres in a Person and not in any truth, even the greatest, about the Person." [Note: Westcott, p. 140.]

Notice that John did not say we can tell false spirits by their works. He said we can identify that they are false spirits by their message. This was the acid test of a false prophet under the Old Covenant as well (Deuteronomy 13:1-5).

"According to the Lord Jesus, false prophets were to be tested ’by their fruits’ (cf. Matthew 7:16-20). Contrary to popular interpretation, this does not mean that they were to be tested by their works. On the contrary, as Matthew 12:33-37 proves, their fruits are their words! Indeed, as the Lord Himself said, they ’come to you in sheep’s clothing’ so that they look like sheep when in reality they are ’ravenous wolves’ (Matthew 7:15). Their behavior does not set them apart from the sheep, but their message does!" [Note: Hodges, The Epistles . . ., p. 176.]

John did not say that every spirit that denies Jesus, but every spirit that does not confess Jesus (1 John 4:3). Often heretical teaching masks its deviations from the truth by simply failing to affirm important biblical truth. Rather than proclaiming, "Jesus is not the Christ," they fail to affirm that He is the Christ.

Verses 1-6

2. God’s Spirit Recognized 4:1-6

The mention of the Holy Spirit in 1 John 3:24 caused John to pause briefly to sound a warning. God’s Spirit is not the only spirit manifest in the world. Some people naively think that any manifestation of a spiritual presence is indication of the Holy Spirit. The apostle explained how to distinguish the Holy Spirit from other spirits at work in the world.

Verse 4

John’s readers had so far overcome these opponents of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit who indwelt them ("He who is in you;" cf. 1 John 3:24; 1 John 4:2; 1 John 4:13). The Holy Spirit is stronger than Satan ("he who is in the world"). We overcome Satan, his agents, and his influence as we resist his temptations to doubt, deny, disregard, and disobey the Word of God (1 Peter 5:9; cf. Genesis 3; Matthew 4). "You are from God" is the center of a chiasm that embraces 1 John 4:2-6. [Note: Smalley, p. 216.]

Verse 5

The antichrists’ teachings have an appeal to worldly minds because they come from the world and share the viewpoint of the world (cf. John 3:31). Heterodoxy has a greater appeal than orthodoxy because many religious movements are composed mainly of unsaved people who find false doctrine appealing.

"How can a man whose watchword is competition even begin to understand an ethic whose key-note is service?" [Note: Barclay, p. 113.]

"The term ’world’ (kosmos) is probably to be understood in two ways: as a system of thought antithetical to Christian belief and as a description of those members of the community who were led astray by the false teachers. That some members of the community were easily persuaded to forsake the truth of the gospel should not bewilder the faithful." [Note: Barker, p. 341.]

"The word ’world’ has several nuances of meaning; in 1 John 4:3 it means more the area inhabited by men, but in 1 John 4:4 it refers rather to sinful mankind, while in 1 John 4:5 the stress is more on the sinful principle found in such people" [Note: Marshall, p. 209, footnote 18.]

Verse 6

"We" probably refers to the apostolic eyewitnesses, as in 1 John 1:1-4, but it probably also includes all the faithful. Those believers who "know" God intimately respond positively to the teaching of the apostles. By apostolic doctrine we know whether any teaching is truth or error, namely, having its source in the Holy Spirit or Satan, the motivating spirit of the world. The way to distinguish truth from error is to compare it with what the Scriptures teach.

"When people confess that Jesus came in the flesh, when they hear God speak to them in the gospel of his Son and are obedient to it, then the ’Spirit of truth’ has been present and active. When people deny the gospel, when they will not hear it as God’s Word and will not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, then ’the spirit of falsehood’ has been at work." [Note: Barker, p. 341.]

"Since John issues warnings to his readers against being taken in by the false teachers (1 John 2:24; 2 John 1:7-11), he appears to have reckoned with the possibility of true believers going astray." [Note: Marshall, p. 210.]

Verse 7

Love, as well as faith (i.e., acknowledging the true doctrine of Christ, 1 John 4:1-6), is a product of God’s Spirit. The believer (one "born of God") who also "knows" God (i.e., has intimate fellowship with Him) loves (cf. 1 John 2:3-5).

"The love which the New Testament enjoins involves a consuming passion for the well-being of others, and this love has its wellspring in God." [Note: Bruce, p. 107.]

This verse is a concise summary of the argument of this whole epistle.

Verses 7-10

The source of love 4:7-10

Verses 7-16

3. God’s Indwelling Recognized 4:7-16

John now left behind his warning about false spirits that his readers might mistake as the Holy Spirit, spirits that lure believers onto worldly paths. He returned to one of his central themes, namely, love for the brethren. As 1 Corinthians 13 contains Paul’s great statement on God’s love, so 1 John 4:7-16 contains John’s.

". . . the present section spells out precisely the nature of the love which is demanded from every believer, and may thus be viewed as an extension of the teaching contained in 1 John 2:3-11 and 1 John 3:10-24. Earlier, John has related the love command to the ’real light’ which is already shining (1 John 2:8; 1 John 2:10), and to the ’eternal life’ of which love is the evidence (1 John 3:14-15). Now he relates the requirement of Christian love to the very nature of God himself. We are to love as a response to God’s own love, and to his loving activity in Christ and in the Church." [Note: Smalley, p. 235.]

This pericope contains a comprehensive treatment of the nature of true love.

"There is considerable pastoral wisdom in John’s summons to mutual love immediately after a warning to be on the alert against deceiving spirits. He knows he must anticipate possibly deleterious effects of his own counsel as readers take it to heart." [Note: Yarbrough, p. 234.]

Verse 8

Absence of love shows that a person does not have intimate fellowship with God. It does not necessarily show that he was never born of God. Because God is light those who abide in Him walk in His light (1 John 1:5; 1 John 1:7). Because God is righteous those who abide in Him practice righteousness (1 John 2:29). Just so, God is love and those who abide in Him manifest His loving character. God is also light (1 John 1:5), spirit (John 4:24), and fire (Hebrews 12:29). These are all metaphors that emphasize certain characteristics of God.

"All His activity is loving activity. If He creates, He creates in love; if He rules, He rules in love; if He judges, He judges in love. All that He does is the expression of His nature, is-to love." [Note: Dodd, p. 110.]

"’God is love’ is rightly recognized as one of the high peaks of divine revelation in this Epistle. Logically the statement stands parallel with ’God is light’ (1 John 1:5) and ’God is spirit’ (John 4:24) as one of the three great Johannine expression of the nature of God. . . . ’God is spirit’ describes his metaphysical nature, while ’God is light’ and ’God is love’ deal with his character, especially as he has revealed himself to men." [Note: Marshall, p. 212.]

"The absence of the article (God is the love) indicates that love is not simply a quality which God possesses, but love is that which he is by his very nature. Further, because God is love, love which he shows is occasioned by himself only and not by any outside cause. The word God is preceded by an article, which means that the statement is not reversible; it cannot read, ’Love is God.’" [Note: Ryrie, "The First . . .," p. 1475.]

"John does not say that love is God, but only that God is love." [Note: Robertson, 6:232.]

Verse 9

The proof of God’s love for people is that He sent His only begotten Son (lit. only born one) to provide eternal life for us (cf. John 1:14; John 1:18; John 3:16). [Note: For a good explanation of why a loving God allows people to go to hell, see Hodges, The Epistles . . ., p. 184.]

Verse 10

This was not a response to man’s love for God. God took the initiative in reaching out to us (1 John 4:10). Jesus Christ became "an atoning sacrifice" (NIV) for our sins.

Verse 11

That demonstration of love by God is our model for showing love to others. As God manifested love in (among) us then by sending Jesus Christ, so He manifests His love among us now as we love one another (1 John 4:12-13).

"Since no one in all humanity is beyond the reach of our Savior’s sacrificial death, no brother or sister should be beyond our sacrificial love." [Note: Ibid., p. 187.]

Verses 11-16

The inspiration of love 4:11-16

Verse 12

No one has seen God in His pure essence without some kind of filter (cf. John 1:18). Instances in which the biblical writers said that people saw God were theophanies, manifestations of God in human or angelic form (e.g., Genesis 18:1-22; Exodus 33:18-23; et al.). [Note: See Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, s.v. "Theophany," by Wick Broomall.] Whenever we love one another we make it possible for God to "abide" in close fellowship with us. Furthermore God’s love reaches a fullness and depth in us that is possible only when we love one another. It attains its full flower (1 John 4:19).

There are three stages of God’s love in 1 John. These stages are love manifested to the world (1 John 4:9), love given to the family of God (1 John 3:1), and love perfected in a smaller group within this family (i.e., those who abide in God, 1 John 4:12). The love of God does not reach perfection until it finds objects of love beyond itself. When it does, God, whom no one has seen, will be visible in this manifestation of love.

"God’s love for us is perfected only when it is reproduced in us or (as it may mean) ’among us’ in the Christian fellowship." [Note: Stott, p. 164. Cf. Westcott, p. 152.]

The same phenomenon occurs in human families. When a child says or does something just like one of his or her parents, we see the parent in the child’s behavior (cf. 1 John 3:9).

"The love of God displayed in His people is the strongest apologetic that God has in the world." [Note: Bruce, p. 109.]

Verse 13

A believer’s abiding in God and God’s abiding in him or her become evident by the demonstration of love that comes "of" (lit. "out of") God’s Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the source of the abiding believer’s love just as He is the source of our obedience (cf. 1 John 3:23-24).

Verse 14

God’s presence is observable in the midst of Christians who love each other. God produces that love. Most of John’s readers had not, and all of us have not, seen Jesus Christ in the flesh as the apostles did. However, we can see God too and can bear witness with the apostles that God sent Jesus Christ into the world. We can share the apostles’ experience that John said was his goal in writing this epistle (1 John 1:3-4). We can see God both in the manifestation of His love and in God’s life behind that love as we observe Christians loving one another. This verse then is a high point in John’s argument.

This is the only place in John’s epistles where he used the term "savior." It also appears only once in his Gospel (John 4:42).

The Church has no more effective way to testify to the world about the Saviorhood of Jesus than by the re-display of the Savior’s love in the fellowship of His disciples." [Note: Hodges, The Epistles . . ., p. 192.]

Verse 15

Confessing that Jesus is God’s Son is not the only condition for abiding in God. It is one evidence that one is abiding. One not abiding may or may not make this confession. Confession is the last step, the step of bearing witness (cf. 1 John 1:9; 1 John 2:23; 1 John 4:3; Romans 10:9-10).

"The notion of God ’abiding’ in someone has rich associations with John’s Gospel, where meno occurs more than three dozen times. The word can mean simply to dwell somewhere; one’s domicile is where one ’abides’ (John 1:38-39 a; John 2:12; John 4:40 [2x]; John 7:9; John 8:35 [2x]; John 10:40; John 11:6; John 11:54). But there is a fuller sense. God’s Spirit descended and ’remained’ on Jesus, according to John the Baptist (John 1:32-33). The Spirit was Jesus’s constant companion. To ’remain’ or ’abide’ in Jesus’s teaching is to be his true disciple (John 8:31). A disciple will be informed and steered by all that Jesus commanded and taught. God the Father ’remained’ or ’abode’ with Jesus during his earthly days (John 14:10). The Father was the source of the very words he spoke, and Jesus ’remained’ continually in the Father’s love (John 15:10 b. ’Abiding’ describes a reality involving father, Son, and Spirit." [Note: Yarbrough, p. 252.]

Verse 16

This verse summarizes this section (1 John 3:24 to 1 John 4:16; cf. John 6:69). John was speaking of intimate knowledge ("come to know") and intimate fellowship ("abides"). "We" includes the readers with the apostles. "For us" should be "among us," as in 1 John 4:9.

"No body of believers will really be any stronger than the extent to which they manifest God’s love by loving one another." [Note: Hodges, The Epistles . . ., p. 197.]

"The stages in John’s thought at this point have now emerged clearly. Faith (acknowledging Jesus as God’s Son, 1 John 4:15; and trusting in the love which God has for us, 1 John 4:16 a) leads to mutual indwelling between God and the believer. Such a personal relationship is consequently expressed in and perpetuated by ’living in love’ (1 John 4:16 b). The believer’s love, for God and for other people (or for God in other people, cf. 1 John 4:12), is to be active and sustained." [Note: Smalley, p. 256.]

John’s point was that his readers had seen God in a sense similar to the sense in which the apostles had seen Him. The apostles had seen God in that they had seen Him in His Son, Jesus Christ. God had revealed His love to the apostles through Jesus Christ. The readers had seen God in that they had seen Him in His Spirit-indwelt abiding believers who loved one another. Consequently John’s readers could bear witness to the truth as the apostles did, and they could enjoy the same intimate fellowship with God that the apostles did.

"Too much ’witnessing’ today is a mere mouthing of words. People need an expression of love." [Note: Wiersbe, p. 520.]

Verse 17

Our love becomes complete in the sense that we can now have confidence as we anticipate our day of judgment (i.e., the evaluation of our works at Christ’s judgment seat; 1 Corinthians 3:12-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:10-12). The characteristic of God and Christians in view here is our love. We do not need to fear the judgment seat of Christ if we have demonstrated love to others. By loving we become like Jesus Christ our Judge. Therefore to give love is to gain boldness (confidence).

Here John said God’s love reaches perfection "with us" (Gr. meth hamon) whereas in 1 John 4:12 he wrote that His love reaches perfection "in us" (Gr. en hamin). When it reaches perfection in us, a proper relationship to other people exists, namely, no hate. When it reaches perfection with us, a proper relationship to God exists, namely, no fear.

As Jesus abode in His Father and consequently had confidence in the face of trials and death, so we can abide in Christ and have confidence in spite of the world’s hostility. Abiding in God gave Jesus confidence, and it gives us confidence too.

Verses 17-19

E. Having Boldness at Christ’s Judgment Seat 4:17-19

John drew a conclusion from what he had written about the importance of believers abiding in God. It is the conclusion that he introduced in the theme verse of the body of the epistle: "And now, little children, abide in Him, so that whenever He should appear, we may have confidence and not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming" (1 John 2:28).

"How can a believer know that his love for the Father is being perfected? This paragraph of 1 John [1 John 4:17 to 1 John 5:5] suggests four evidences [namely, confidence (1 John 4:17-19), honesty (1 John 4:20-21), joyful obedience (1 John 5:1-3), and victory (1 John 5:4-5)]." [Note: Ibid., p. 521.]

Verse 18

When we love others we have no basis for fear as we anticipate the judgment seat of Christ (cf. Romans 8:15; Hebrews 2:15). The person who loves is, of course, the person over whom God is exercising His controlling influence (i.e., an abiding Christian). A believer who does not love others feels guilty and fears meeting his Judge, perhaps subconsciously if not consciously. This fear is a punishment. His guilty conscience punishes him. A Christian who loves others may have other fears, but he need not fear the judgment seat of Christ. The fact that he loves others demonstrates that his relationship with God is essentially what it should be.

John was using love for God and other people here as he did elsewhere in this epistle (e.g., 1 John 2:3-11). He meant that it is the most important manifestation of a proper relationship with God, not the only manifestation.

On the human level only total acceptance of another person will remove the fear in love. For example, in marriage a love relationship that is free of fear is one in which there is a commitment to demonstrate total acceptance of the mate. Total forgiveness is also necessary for a transparent relationship (Ephesians 4:31-32).

Verse 19

Our ability to love and our practice of love come from God’s love for us. We need not fear standing before our Judge because we love Him and He loves us. This verse is the climax of the body of this epistle.

"The ultimate ground of Christian assurance (including confidence on the judgment day, 1 John 4:17) is not to be found in our loving, however ’complete’ (1 John 4:18), but in God’s prior love for us . . ." [Note: Smalley, p. 261. Cf. Dodd, pp. 122-23.]

"God always makes the first move in the game of love." [Note: G. S. Sloyan, Walking in the Truth, p. 49.]

Confidence is one of the great consequences of having intimate fellowship with God. We can have confidence now and confidence to meet Jesus Christ when He returns for us or when we die (1 John 2:28). Moreover we can have confidence in prayer (1 John 3:21-22) and confidence when we stand before His judgment seat to give account of our stewardship (1 John 4:17-19).

A. The Meaning of Brotherly Love 4:20-5:3a

John proceeded to clarify how to love our brethren. In the process, he dealt with potential excuses for not loving them.


"John no doubt intended his letter to be read publicly to all the members of each congregation-even if the addressed readers of First John were the elders, or leaders, of the church or churches to which this letter went. This public reading would have a twofold effect. First, it would buttress the authority of the local leadership so that they could stand more effectively against the Revisionists. Since the author was an apostle, his endorsement both of their doctrine and personal qualifications (cf. 1 John 2:12-14) was vital. But second, it would make the letter a teaching vehicle to all the Christians who heard it, and later to untold millions who would read, study, and hear it preached.

"Since the apostle John was unquestionably one of the greatest teachers the church has ever had, he must have known perfectly well that the level of experience he described might seem hard to some of the less mature in his audience. In the final segment of his epistle, which serves as a conclusion to all that has gone before, the writer addresses the practical concerns that his teaching on Christian experience might raise." [Note: Hodges, The Epistles . . ., p. 209.]

Verse 20

A claim to love God is a poor substitute for genuine love of the brethren. 1 John 4:19 left open the possibility of such a claim. John therefore clarified that a claim to love God is not a true demonstration of love. In John’s hyperbolic parlance, failing to love is to hate. Love for the unseen God will find expression in love for our brethren whom we can see. It is easier to love someone we can see than it is to love someone we cannot see.

Verse 21

Furthermore, God commanded us to love both Himself and our brothers, not just Himself (1 John 2:3; 1 John 3:23-24; 1 John 5:3). Here is another false claim (cf. 1 John 1:6; 1 John 1:8; 1 John 1:10; 1 John 2:4; 1 John 2:6; 1 John 2:9; 1 John 2:22; 1 John 5:10).

"Much verbal expression of devotion for the person of Christ can co-exist with remarkably un-Christian attitudes toward the people of Christ . . ." [Note: Bruce, p. 115.]

"It is easy to have a kind of love for God which does not recognize the obligation to love one another. Such love for God falls short of being real love for him, since it fails to obey his commandments." [Note: Marshall, p. 226.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 John 4". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.