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1 John 4

Kretzmann's Popular Commentary of the BibleKretzmann's Commentary

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Verses 1-3

The Attitude of Christians toward False Teachers and toward One Another.

The false prophets:

v. 1. Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world.

v. 2. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God;

v. 3. and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God; and this is that spirit of Anti-Christ, whereof ye have heard that it should come, and even now already is it in the world.

Having emphasized the righteousness of life and the need of brotherly love, the apostle now takes up the matter of anti-Christian seduction once more: Beloved, not every spirit believe, but examine the spirits whether they are of God, for many false prophets are gone out into the world. The words "prophets" and "spirits" are here used as synonyms, both of them signifying preachers. Prophets are preachers. Good prophets are preachers through whom the Spirit of God, the Holy Ghost, teaches and preaches, whether it be by direct inspiration, as in the Old Testament, or whether it be by the teaching of the pure Gospel, as in the case of all true ministers today. In that sense they are spirits. But the Christians are here warned to use all care, to be on the lookout in ceaseless vigilance; for unfortunately not every man that claims to be a true prophet is able to present such credentials as the Word of God demands in such a case. These men, who presume upon the rights and duties of true Christian ministers, go out into the world, they display a remarkable missionary activity, they make the most strenuous attempts to gain adherents for their false tenets. Therefore Christians, as they value their soul's salvation, must examine, test, such spirits and their doctrines, whether they are of God. The mere pretense, the name, the glamour must not hold their attention. It surely does not pay even to listen to the spirits of darkness. Note: The very fact that false prophets come to the houses without invitation and try to insinuate themselves into the good graces of some member of the household, brands these men as outlaws in the Christian Church. They should be turned away without a hearing.

The apostle shows wherein the test of the spirits, of the preachers, consists: In this you recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God; and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus is come in the flesh is not of God; and this is that of Anti-Christ, of whom you have heard that he is coming, and he is even now in the world. The Christians must look for evidences of the Spirit of God, for a proof that He is present in the work of the men that profess to be guided by His wisdom. One of the fundamental facts of Christianity is the doctrine that Jesus Christ came into the world, became flesh. That is the touchstone which enables the believers to distinguish between true and false teachers. For in this doctrine is included the confession that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, who, according to the promise given by God, became man, and by His vicarious suffering and death, and by His victorious resurrection and ascension merited our righteousness and salvation. He that accepts and confesses these truths unequivocally, with all that they imply, may be considered a preacher from God. But every professed teacher in the Church or outside of the Church that denies the incarnation of the eternal Son of God; that denies that Jesus Christ is our only righteousness and salvation; every one that teaches that we, in order to be saved, should not trust in Christ and in His merits alone, but also in our own works: such a man is not of God. Such a one can be put down at once as having the spirit of Anti-Christ in him, for even in those early days of the Church this spirit, which has now reached its culmination in popery and all the related sects, was rearing its head. Truly, the anti-Christian spirit whose working was noticeable even at the end of the first century has made rapid strides forward, and all true Christians cannot be cautioned too strongly against his insidious power.

Verses 4-6

The distinction between the spirit of truth and the spirit of error:

v. 4. Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.

v. 5. They are of the world; therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them.

v. 6. We are of God; he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the Spirit of Truth and the spirit of error.

The spirit which the apostle has above called the spirit of Anti-Christ is here identified with the spirit of this world, with the spirit that works in the children of disobedience, Ephesians 2:2. This is shown by the contrast: You are of God, little children, and you have conquered them, because greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world. The believers belong to God, they are the children of God, having been born again out of the water of Baptism and the Spirit. Therefore they not only have the knowledge necessary to examine and test the spirits, but they also have the ability, the power to withstand their allurements, to conquer them. All anti-Christian temptation is powerless against the strength of God that lives in the believers. For though Satan, the prince of darkness and the father of lies, is in the false teachers, lives in them, actuates them, yet God, who lives in us, who is our Strength and our Refuge, is greater and stronger than the devil with all his evil angels.

The apostle adds another reason for carefully examining the claims and for guarding against the evil influence of the false teachers: They are of the world, therefore they talk as of the world, and the world listens to them. No matter what their pretense and their glamour, the false teachers belong to the world, they have the world's manner and mind. This is shown also in their talking, in their teaching and preaching, for its substance is not divine and leading to godliness, but it is inspired by the world, by its manner of thinking and acting. False teachers usually have messages that tickle the itching ears of their hearers. The children of the world will gladly hear them, the world receives their doctrines with enthusiasm. It is an almost unfailing criterion: if a certain preacher is widely advertised and acclaimed as a prophet for our times, he has probably managed to accommodate the old Scriptural language to some of his own philosophy in denying the fundamentals of the Bible. Witness the so-called Christianity of the social gospel.

Of himself and of his co-workers John writes, by way of contrast: We are of God; he that knows God hears us, he that is not of God does not hear us; in this you can recognize the Spirit of Truth and the spirit of error. The apostles were not only converted Christians, true believers, but they were also messengers, ambassadors of God. Thus all true preachers, whose call is from God, are messengers of God, no matter how lowly they may be in the sight of the world. True Christians show their knowledge of God, their faith in Him, by listening to these messengers, by yielding due obedience to the Gospel-message which they bring. They are thereby distinguished from those that know nothing of regeneration and want to know nothing of the Gospel of salvation. The attitude of men toward the true preachers of the Gospel is a reliable indication of their own spiritual state, whether they are still governed by the spirit of error, of falsehood and deceit, or whether they have opened their hearts to the Spirit of Truth and have come to faith.

Verses 7-10

The greatness of God's love:

v. 7. Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God.

v. 8. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is Love.

v. 9. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world that we might live through Him.

v. 10. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. This paragraph is one of the most beautiful and, at the same time, one of the most powerful passages in the entire New Testament.

It opens with an affectionate appeal: Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God, and every one that loves is born of God and knows God. For the third time in this letter St. John is constrained to speak of brotherly love, to plead with all Christians to show that love which was given into their hearts by faith. Such love is a creature of God, it is a reflection of the love of God in the hearts of those that have learned to know His love. It is a part of the new divine disposition and conduct which characterizes the believers. It is a proof of the new birth by the power of God through the Gospel; it is an outgrowth, a fruit, of faith, of the saving knowledge of God. On the other hand: He that does not love does not know God. Where there is no love toward the brethren in the conduct and life of a person, this is a sure and certain sign that he has not yet come to know God as he should, that there is no saving knowledge, no faith toward God in his heart.

That this is true St. John brings out in an uncontrollable burst of ecstasy: For God is Love: herein was manifested the love of God in us, that His only-begotten Son God sent into the world that we might live through Him. The test which St. John suggests is so definite, because it is impossible to know God, to be united with Him in true faith, and yet not to have love in the heart. For God is Himself Love: He is the personification, the embodiment, the source of love. How can anyone be born out of this love, receive a new spiritual nature from this love, be fully acquainted with its divine power, and yet not be inspired with love toward the brethren? For the love of God was manifested, was revealed, appeared to us and in us in such a wonderful way that the very angels were moved to the depths of their being. His only-begotten Son, than whom there was no being in heaven and earth in whom He felt greater pleasure, with whom He was united in a more intimate union, this beloved Son God sent down from heaven, from the abode of everlasting bliss, into this world, this vale of sin and corruption and death, in order that we, lost and condemned sinners that we are in ourselves, might have life, true, spiritual, eternal life, through Him and in Him. There is no message in all the universe more comforting, there is no passage in all literature more powerful than this simple statement of God's love in Jesus Christ, His Son.

And it is a gift of God's free love and mercy that John is speaking of: In this lies love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as propitiation for our sins. Here all merit, all boasting on the part of man is excluded, for this singular example of love is not to be found on the part of men, as though we, of our reason and strength, might have felt love for Him and longed to be united with Him. The very opposite is true. While we were yet sinners, while we were enemies of God, Romans 5:8, God loved us, and it was His love alone which prompted Him to send His only Son into the world to be a propitiation for all our sins, to offer up Himself in vicarious satisfaction for the transgression of all mankind. A perfect atonement has been made, a perfect redemption has been gained for all, and all the blessings of this salvation are ready to be received by faith, we, the believers, having become partakers of them all through the power of God in the Word.

Verses 11-16

Dwelling in God and in His love:

v. 11. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.

v. 12. No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth, in us, and His love is perfected in us.

v. 13. Hereby know we that we dwell in Him, and He in us, because He hath given us of His Spirit.

v. 14. And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.

v. 15. Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him and he in God

v. 16. And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. The love which God showed to us in Christ is the eternal type and pattern of perfect love.

For that reason St. John asks us to become imitators of it: Beloved, if thus. God loved us, we also ought to love one another. If thus, if so greatly, with such a Wonderful love God loved us, if we have received the benefit of His unmerited favor in such rich measure, then it cannot fail, His love must inspire us, we must feel the obligation of passing on some of His love to the brethren, at least by way of reflection. We should never cease to learn from Him what pure, unselfish love really consists in, and how it becomes and remains active, an element that propels the Christian forward and to whose leadership he joyfully yields all his powers.

The apostle brings forward another argument: God, no man has ever seen Him; if we love one another. God remains in us and His love is complete in us. That no man, no human being, has ever seen God face to face was stated by God Himself, Exodus 33:20, and by John, John 1:18. This is a bliss which is being reserved for eternal life. But although we cannot see Him, yet we have evidence of His presence in us, by the brotherly love which we feel in our hearts. For it would be impossible for us to have this love and to give practical proof of its presence in us, if it were not for the fact that God has chosen us for His abode and that His love, which wrought the new spiritual life in us, has come to perfection in us, has made its home in our hearts.

All this is not a mere conjecture on our part: In this we recognize that we remain in Him and He in us, because of His Spirit He has given us. If it had not been for this fact, that God imparted to us of His Spirit, gave us some of His life and power, thus enabling us also to feel true brotherly love toward one another, then we could not be sure of our state as Christians. But our confidence rests upon the work of the Spirit in the Word; in this way we have gained the knowledge that we remain in God and God in us. The brotherly love which we feel is a strong bit of evidence for the fact that God has made His abode in us and that we have communication and fellowship with God. Thus we are recompensed, at least to some extent, for the fact that we cannot see God as long as we are in the flesh.

At the same time we have another source of encouragement: And we have beheld and do testify that the Father has sent the Son as the Savior of the world. St. John was not passing on to his readers what he had gotten merely by hearsay. He and his fellow-apostles had had abundant opportunity to behold the work of Christ in His ministry from every angle, to satisfy themselves as to the identity of Jesus of Nazareth and as to His work for the world. They beheld His glory, a glory as of the Only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, John 1:14. They all confessed as their heart's conviction that Jesus was the Christ, the promised Messiah, Matthew 16:17. John knew that there could be no mistake, that his testimony could not be questioned: Jesus of Nazareth was and is truly the Savior of the whole world, there is not one sinner excepted from His gracious salvation.

And another truth John wants to emphasize: Whosoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God is in him and he in God. It is necessary that the believers join in the confession of John, that they accept his testimony concerning Christ without doubt. This fact, that the despised Jesus, who died the death of a common criminal on the cross, is nevertheless the true, eternal Son of God, is the basis of Christian faith. No Christian can be sure of his salvation unless these facts are known to him. But where this belief is firmly established in the heart of a man, there that wonderful fellowship obtains whose glory John is continually setting forth, there God makes His abode in the heart, there the believer is in God, united with his heavenly Father by the bonds of such a perfect union as is unknown anywhere else. The apostle and all Christians are such people, for it is of them that John writes: And we have recognized and believed the love which God has in us. This glorious knowledge and certainty came to us by faith in Christ Jesus. We have realized, at least to some extent, what that love means which God has shown us in our Redeemer. Note: This love is a matter of experience, and yet also of belief, for it is so great and wonderful that it is impossible for any man fully to comprehend how much it comprises. We must keep on believing until we enter into that state where we shall see Him face to face and know Him even as we are known.

Verses 16-21

Perfection in brotherly love:

v. 16. God is Love; and he that dwelleth in. love dwelleth in God, and God in him.

v. 17. Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the Day of Judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world.

v. 18. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out fear; because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.

v. 19. We love Him because He first loved us.

v. 20. If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar; for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can be love God whom he hath not seen?

v. 21. And this commandment have we from Him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.

Love is the theme of practically the entire letter, but it stands out with peculiar force in this paragraph. John again holds before our eyes the strongest motive of brotherly love: God is Love, and he that remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him. Love, nothing but immeasurable, incomprehensible love: that is the essence of God. This love was shown us in His Son, in the redemption by which He delivered us from everlasting damnation. In this love we must remain by placing our full confidence upon it in faith, by making it the only basis of our righteousness before God, of our salvation. If this faith is found in our hearts, then God will also enter into them and make them His temple, where he lives and rules with the fullness of His love. What a blessed fellowship of love with God!

The beauty of the love of God in us has a further splendid result: In this is the love perfected in us, that we have boldness in the Day of Judgment, because just as He is, we also are in this world. If we have actually embraced the love of God by faith, then this love will work in us day after day, always gaining in power and fervency, always giving greater strength to our faith. Thus the final result will be that, when the Day of Judgment comes, all fear will be removed from our hearts and we shall calmly and cheerfully appear before the Throne of Judgment. We have such cheerful confidence because we rely altogether upon the love of God in Christ Jesus. See Romans 8:35-39. This trust is strengthened also by the fact that even as Christ is, so also we His disciples, are in this world. As Christ now, as our exalted Champion, is in His glory, at the right hand of God, so we, too, are with Him in spirit, even though, according to our body, we are still in this vale of sorrows. By faith we are partakers of the glory, the life, the salvation which Christ has earned for us. Our citizenship is in heaven. The Day of Judgment means for us only the entrance into our eternal inheritance.

The thought that true faith is invariably followed by cheerful trust and confidence is repeated by the apostle: Fear is not in love; rather, perfect love casts out fear, since fear deals with punishment; but he that is in fear is not perfected in love. St. John had stated above that the believers will appear before the judgment-seat of the Lord with boldness. This is here substantiated. Fear, slavish fear and dread of punishment, is never connected with love. Every Christian that knows in faith that God loves him has no dread of wrath and damnation, since he knows that all his sins are forgiven for the sake of Jesus Christ. Thus the love of God, as it becomes perfect in our hearts, casts out all such slavish dread, since it proves to us that we no longer have any punishment to fear. The punishment has been borne, and therefore fear simply cannot exist any longer. It is true, of course, that we shall not reach this state of perfect confidence, of an entire absence of fear, as long as we dwell in this mortal frame. But the last vestige of the old fear of the Law will be removed from our hearts on the great day of the Lord's return. Then we shall be perfect and without the slightest flaw in our love, enjoying the boundless love of God without the slightest twinge or qualm of conscience.

The admonition of John at this point comes with peculiar force: Let us show love because He first loved us. We, who have experienced the great love of God, who are remaining in His love, cannot but feel the obligation to return love for love, love toward all men. This feeling is prompted all the more in us because He first loved us, because His wonderful love in Christ conquered our unwilling hearts and changed us from enemies to friends. The more complete and perfect the love of God is in our hearts, the more cheerfully our faith takes hold on it, the stronger and more fervent will be our love toward God, Psalms 73:25-26.

But the apostle finds it necessary also to include a warning: If anyone says, "I love God," and he hates his brother, he is a liar; for he that does not love his brother, whom he sees, cannot love God, whom he does not see. The apostle here speaks in the same way as in chap. 3:14-15, and has in mind especially such as are Christians in name only or have left the fervor of their first love. There is many a person that piously protests love for the brethren. But his entire behavior indicates that he is altogether indifferent toward their welfare, both temporal and spiritual. Such a person is frankly given the name liar. And John substantiates his apparently harsh criticism by arguing from the smaller to the larger. It is a comparatively easy matter to love people whom we see. If we therefore do not love or are indifferent toward someone whom we ought to love, namely, all our brethren, then all our pious protestations regarding our love toward God are vain, and we are deceiving ourselves.

The main reason why love toward God cannot exist without love toward the brethren is given in the words: And this command have we from Him, that he who loves God should love also his brother. This is a clear command of our Lord Jesus Christ, Matthew 22:37-40. The one commandment cannot be without the other, for the Law of God is a unit, His will is only one. To transgress the precept regarding brotherly love is to transgress the commandment to love God. He that does not show brotherly love cannot say that he loves God, for he is transgressing the commandment of God. Thus true love toward God and the right love toward the brethren is closely connected, and our obligation is clear.

Summary. The apostle depicts the attitude of the Christians toward false teachers and toward one another by characterizing the false prophets and distinguishing between the Spirit of Truth and the spirit of error, showing the wonderful greatness of God's love, and insisting upon perfection in brotherly love.

Bibliographical Information
Kretzmann, Paul E. Ph. D., D. D. "Commentary on 1 John 4". "Kretzmann's Popular Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kpc/1-john-4.html. 1921-23.
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