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Bible Commentaries
1 John 4

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

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Verses 1-6




The difference among spirits (1 John 4:1).


The measure (1 John 4:2-3).


The encouragement (1 John 4:4).


The condemnation (1 John 4:5).


Inference and conclusion (1 John 4:6).

The mention of faith in 1 John 3:23 had reminded St. John of the danger of intellectual, as well as of moral error. The mention of God’s Spirit at the conclusion of the last paragraph gave him a form in which to clothe the discussion of truth and falsehood in its human manifestations. By “spirits” he means those tendencies towards good and evil (here especially with regard to thought and opinion) which may be considered as coming from the supreme power of God, on the one hand, and from the inferior power of the devil, on the other. Into the question what these influences are, whether, like the Holy Spirit, they are personal or not, he does not enter. Where one quality, or opinion, shows itself in different individuals, he identifies it and calls it a spirit. Religious fervour might take a form quite antagonistic to the real will and law of God. For Christians there was but one standard by which to measure all claims on their religious allegiance: confession that the man Christ Jesus was the Word. All that demurred to that plain fact, and the loyalty implied by it, belonged to the spirit of antichrist. His hearers, however, if he understood them rightly, need not fear. By virtue of their adherence to the truth, God was in them. In Him they had conquered the spirits of the world, and had but to claim their victory. The false teachers might be known, and must be condemned by the savour of the world that was in their method and their message, and by their popularity with what was opposed to God. The Apostles and those who taught with them could confidently before God put forward the grand claim that theirs was the spirit that came from Him, because they had held undeviatingly to the truth as manifested in Jesus.

(6 a.) (1) Beloved.—Whenever St. John uses this word, he has a strong and earnest exhortation in hand. (Comp. 1 John 3:2-21; 1 John 4:7.)

Try the spirits.—Comp. 1 Corinthians 10:15; 1 Corinthians 11:13; 1 Corinthians 12:10; Ephesians 5:10; 1 Thessalonians 5:21. It is most important to notice that this examination of truth and error is inculcated on all alike, not merely on an ordained and materially separate class.

Prophets, in the New Testament, preach rather than predict. (Comp. 1 Corinthians 14:1-4; 1 Corinthians 14:24; Ephesians 4:11.)

Are gone out into the world, either “from us,” or else “have appeared in order to give their message.” (Comp. John 6:14; John 16:28; John 18:37.)

(6 b.) Comp. 1 Corinthians 12:3. The real humanity of the Saviour is the truth here specially emphasised.

(2) Jesus Christ is taken to imply all His history. (Comp. 1 John 3:23, and 1 John 4:6.)

Come is used of Christ in St. John’s language for His mission and manifestation. (Comp. John 5:43; John 6:14; John 7:28-29; John 8:42; John 16:28; John 18:37.)

(3) Every spirit that confesseth not.—There is a curious old reading mentioned by Socrates, the historian, viz., “every spirit that destroyeth” (or, dissolveth)Jesus Christ.” It is, however, evidently a gloss, written against the Gnostics, which crept into the text. It is clear that this verse presupposes an evangelistic presentation of Christ before refusal to confess His historical person could be made. (Comp. 1 John 2:18.)

(6 c.) This consolation is in the same manner as that in 1 John 2:12, and is introduced by the same endearing phrase. He is sure they have held to the truth, and have the Sonship. (Comp. 1 John 3:1-2; 1 John 3:13-14.) God is in them, and therefore the victory is already theirs. Although they may still have to struggle, they have only to claim Christ’s strength, and they have won. In making their choice between light and darkness, love and hate, good and evil, God and the devil, they became of the victorious party.

(4) Themi.e., the antichrists, the false prophets, the spirits that are not of God. (Comp. 1 John 2:13-14.)

He that is in the worldi.e., “the prince of this world,” the devil.

(6 d.) As usual, a contrast. The reason of their success is at once their distinguishing mark and their condemnation. (Comp. John 8:37; John 8:43; John 8:47; John 18:37.)

(5) Hearing them.—This implies listening with attention and pleasure.

(6 e.) (6) We are of God.—The first side of the antithesis repeated, after St. John’s manner, with a difference, we being substituted for ye, and meaning “the Apostles and those who taught with them.” St. John feels the grave duty, in condemnation of Cerinthus and other opponents, to assert the genuine truth and divine authority of the apostolic gospel. There could be no spiritual pride in this; it was a conscientious obligation. God spoke in them, and their loyalty for bade alike disclaimer and accommodation. (Comp. John 18:37.) When heretics said, “Christ ought to have said this or that,” the Apostles had only to reply, “But He did not say it.”

Hereby know we.—The criterion here is much the same as in 1 John 4:2-3, but regarded from a different point of view: attention to false innovators, or faithful adherence to the Jesus Christ of history.

Verses 7-21



Fraternal love the necessary product of the true knowledge of God, because God is love (1 John 4:7-8).


The grand recent historical exhibition of God’s love (1 John 4:9-10).


Our consequent duty (1 John 4:11).


God’s abode in us, the perfecting of His love in us, and the proof of His presence through the Spirit, are the equivalent for seeing Him (1 John 4:12-13).


All this is grounded on the strong, undeniable truth of the Apostolic witness to Christ (1 John 4:14-16).


The fearlessness which is the result of perfect love (1 John 4:17-18).


The cause of our love to God, and the necessary connection of that love with love to our fellows (1 John 4:19-21).

This may be considered the central portion of the second half of the Epistle. Nothing could be more significant of St. John’s teaching. Here many trains of thought which have occurred before are gathered together in one grand treatise on love, divine and human—the complement of the thirteenth chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. The thought of (a) was suggested, though not in so complete and concise a form, in 1 John 3:10-11; 1 John 3:23; 1 John 2:4; 1 John 3:6; that of (b) in 1 John 3:16; 1 John 2:2; that of (c) also in 1 John 3:16; that of (d) in 1 John 2:5; 1 John 3:24; that of (e) in 1 John 1:1-2; that of (f) in 1 John 2:28; that of (g) in 1 John 2:4; 1 John 3:17. The connection with the paragraph on the trial of the spirits is very obvious: “every one that loveth is born of God;” so that the quality and quantity of our affection will be the best gauge whether we have the spirit of truth or of error. The absence of love is ignorance of God, for real knowledge of Him imparts His nature. And if any ask how we know of His love, the answer is that it was seen in His Son. In sending Him, He loved us without any love on our part. Our relation to God reminds us that we must have the same love to each other. The fact that God cannot be seen is an additional reason for mutual affection among us; for brotherly love is the demonstrable proof of His presence, and of the growing completeness of the work wrought by His love in us. The Spirit Himself, through whom our love would come, confirms the reality of God’s indwelling. And these spiritual emotions and developments are not illusory, for they are guaranteed by the ocular and oral evidence of the Apostles to the historical Person of Christ. So the result of all this will be perfect and fearless confidence. To sum up (1 John 4:19): our love to God springs from His to us; hatred of our brother (or the absence of love for him) is the denial of all love for God; and for this duty we rest not on our own deductions only, however true, but on His plain command.

(7 a.) (7) One another.—As God loved the world, so we are to love mankind, not merely Christians. (Comp. 1 John 3:13.)

For love is of God.—He who is truly alive shares the life of God, which is love. All true love is part of His being.

(8) Knoweth not.—Rather, never knew. Real knowledge of God has a convincing practical effect; without such an effect it is not knowledge, but a mere mental deception.

God is love.—In the early part of the Epistle St. John had defined God as light, and the thoughts had been grouped round and in relation to that central idea. It would of course be impossible ever to exhaust all the definitions of God; but just as our nature may be roughly classified as intellectual and moral, mind and heart, thought and emotion, so, when we have thought of God as Light (embracing all such attributes as truth, knowledge, purity, health, power, and justice), we shall not have traversed in outline all that we can know of His nature, or all that concerns us to know, until we have also thought of Him as Love, the author and source of all true affection, kindness, pity, friendliness, rejoicing in the creation of infinite life for the sake of its infinite happiness, and offering eternal bliss to all His human family, that He may be for ever surrounded by inexhaustible illustrations of the joy and glory of perfection.

(7 b.) (9) In this was manifested.—St. John echoes his beloved Lord (from John 3:16).

In us.—(Comp. John 9:3.) “In our case.”

Only begotten.—In contrast to us, His adopted sons.

That we might live.—Human life is regarded as no true living, but a mere existence, until “Christ be formed in the heart” and we become “partakers of the divine nature.”

(10) Herein is love.—What love is this, that, distasteful, uncongenial, unloving, unlovely as we must have been in His sight, He did this great thing for us! (Comp. John 15:16; Romans 5:8; Romans 5:10; Titus 3:4.) On Propitiation, see 1 John 2:2; 1 John 3:16.

(7 c,) (11) Beloved.—An impulse moves St. John’s mind corresponding to that in 1 John 4:7.

We ought.—As God has bestowed his affection so gratuitously on us, and we benefit by it in such an inconceivable degree, and can make Him no return, we can only pay the debt by bestowing our poor equivalent on our fellow men. Although our happiness depends strictly on God, still He has allowed us to be stewards for Him in some small degree for the happiness of those about us.

(7 d.) (12) No man . . .—St. John quotes his Gospel (John 1:18). This is simply the general proposition, “God is invisible,” and has no reference to spiritual sight. (Comp. Exodus 33:20; John 6:46; 1 Timothy 6:16.) The appearances of God to Abraham or Moses would be like the Shechinah in the Temple, but no material glimpse of Him who is a Spirit. St. John mentions the fact as an admission of the limits of human nature and the condition of faith, but only in order to state the richness of the substitute, which is the presence of God within the soul, verified and substantiated by the historical Person of Christ.

His love is perfected in us.—Its operation in us has full scope and sway.

(13) Hereby know we.—Comp. 1 John 3:24.

(7 e.) A second antithesis to the opening words of 1 John 4:12. The Apostolic witness to the person of Christ is again and again insisted on as the foundation of Christian theology. (Comp. 1 John 1:1-3; John 1:14; Acts 4:20; Acts 22:15; Acts 26:16.)

(14) Saviour of the world.—Comp. 1 John 2:2.

(15) Whosoever shall confessi.e., receives the Apostolic witness as beyond dispute. (Comp. 1 John 2:23, and 1 John 4:6; Romans 10:9.) The noble width of this declaration is most remarkable, in opposition to human inventions of narrow and sectarian communions.

Son of God, in the sense of “only begotten,” as in 1 John 4:9.

(16) And we have known and believed.—This has the effect of a reflective repetition of 1 John 4:14, “Yes. we have known and believed.” This time, however, the “we” includes those who have heard and accepted the testimony of the eye-witnesses.

God is love.—In this meditative recapitulation St. John cannot help summing up everything again in the boundless formula of 1 John 4:8. Knowledge is here the process that leads to conviction; belief, the result of conviction.

He that dwelleth in love.—St. John’s whole purpose is none other than to raise man to his highest possible development by demonstrating the reality and nature of fellowship with the Divine. Here he arrives at the very central position of all: that as God is Love itself, so he that allows nothing to trouble that atmosphere of pure love (here neither specially towards God or man) which God would enable him to breathe, if his own wilfulness did not turn him away from it, will be bathed in the light of God, animated with His life, and one with Him. It is a combination of 1 John 4:8; 1 John 4:15.

Us has the same width as 1 John 4:15.

(7 f.) (17) Herein is our love made perfect.—Rather, In this love is perfected with us. “Love,” as in 1 John 4:16, is the disposition to be attracted towards what is worthy of sympathy, whether it be God or man.

That we may have boldness.—The day of judgment, whether near or remote, is regarded as so certain that it is a present fact influencing our conduct. Love will be more or less perfect in us in proportion as it gives us more or less just and reasonable grounds for confidence were we suddenly placed before the great white throne. (Comp. 1 John 2:28.)

Because as he is, so are we in this world.—If we live in this serene atmosphere of pure sympathy with God and man, Christ is in us and we in Him, because God is Love itself. Sharing His nature, therefore, we must be like Him, and the more completely we allow this Divine love towards our Father and our brothers to transform our whole being, the more we shall be like our Judge, and the less cause we shall have for dread.

In this world merely indicates our present place of habitation.

(18) There is no fear.—The more perfect this disposition of serene sympathy becomes, the less share can any form of anxiety have in it. Even if regarded as directed to an earthly object, if it be pure and divine in its character, not even want of reciprocity can disturb its equanimity. Where it is a well-grounded sympathy with a perfect being, its serenity is all the more complete in proportion to its sincerity. When love is perfect, fear dwindles to nothing, is absolutely expelled. Love, seeking to be perfect, and finding fear alongside of it, will diligently seek out the cause of the fear, perfect itself by getting rid of the cause, and so get rid of the fear. Fear in such a connection implies some ground for alarm, and suffers punishment (not “torment”) by anticipation. The presence of such a ground for alarm would imply a proportionate imperfection of love. (Comp. 1 John 3:19-21.)

(7 g.) The cause of our love to God, and the necessary connection of that love with love to our fellows (1 John 4:19-21).

(19) We love him, because he first loved us.—God’s loving us made it possible for us to love Him: otherwise we should not have known Him, or had the faculty of loving Him even had we known Him. To suppose that St. John is putting a mere case of gratitude is to rob him of the dignity and depth of his meaning.

(20) These last three verses are a recapitulation in a vivid form, of the truth and the duty contained in 1 John 4:10-11. God made it possible for us to love Him, and the very first result of our feeling this power within us, and allowing it to put itself into force will be seen in pure and devout sympathy for all whom we can help. As usual, hating, and not loving, are put as interchangeable members of the class of malevolence. St. John argues on the ground that it is much easier for human nature to be interested by what comes before its eyes than by that about which it has to think. Gregory the Great says, “In love the eyes are guides;” and Œcumenius, “Sight leads on to love.” (Comp. 1 John 2:4; 1 John 3:17; and 1 John 4:12.)

(21) However this may be, there is a still stronger position: the simple command of God in Christ. (Comp. Luke 10:27; John 13:34-35; John 14:21; John 15:9-10; John 15:12.)

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 John 4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/1-john-4.html. 1905.
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