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Bible Commentaries
1 John 4

Benson's Commentary of the Old and New TestamentsBenson's Commentary

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A.M. 4094. A.D. 90.

The apostle,

(1,) Cautions the Christian converts against being deceived by seducing spirits, and shows how they might distinguish between the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error, 1 John 4:1-6 .

(2,) Enforces brotherly love as the proper characteristic of a sincere Christian, especially from the love of God and Christ toward us, 1 John 4:7-16 .

(3,) Describes our love to God in its cause, nature, and effects, 1 John 4:17-21 .

Verse 1

1 John 4:1. Because the Gnostics and other heretics, in the first age, to gain the greater credit to their erroneous doctrines, assumed to themselves the character and authority of inspired teachers, John put his disciples in mind, (1 John 2:27,) that they had an unction from the Holy Spirit, by which they were enabled to judge with certainty, both of teachers and of their doctrine. He therefore, in this chapter, commands them not to believe rashly every teacher who pretended to be inspired, but to try the inspiration by which any preacher professed to speak, whether it was from God or from evil spirits; that after trial they might know whom it was their duty to attend to, and whom they ought to disregard and reject. And to secure them, as far as possible, from being deceived, he especially desires them to consider whether the teacher, who came to them, pretending to inspiration, held the great and fundamental doctrines of the gospel, which all the teachers, really inspired of God, regularly and uniformly maintained. His words may be paraphrased as follows: Believe not every spirit By which any teacher is, or professes to be, actuated: or, believe not every teacher who pretends to be inspired by the Spirit of God; but try the spirits Namely, whether they are of God By the rule which God hath given. We are to try all spirits by the written word: To the law and to the testimony! If any man speak not according to these, the spirit which actuates him is not of God. Because many false prophets Or false teachers; are gone forth into the world With an intention to draw disciples after them.

Verse 2

1 John 4:2 . Hereby By the following plain mark; know ye the Spirit of God In a teacher. Every spirit Of a teacher; that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is of God Doddridge, with many other commentators, reads this clause, Every spirit that confesseth Jesus Christ, who is come in the flesh, is of God: that is, that confesseth him to be the Messiah, the Son of God, the Saviour of the world, and that both with heart and voice, sincerely believing him to be such, and behaving to him and confessing him as such, though this might expose them to the loss of all things, even of their property, liberty, and lives. This must be acknowledged to be a perfectly Scriptural and very proper mark of trial, proving those in whom it was found to be possessed of the Spirit of God and of Christ. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged, though the original words, ο ομολογει Ιησουν Χριστον εν σαρκι εληλυθοτα , might bear this rendering, they much more favour the sense given them in our translation, signifying, literally and exactly, that confesseth Jesus Christ hath come in the flesh. This imports two things: 1st, That Jesus is the Christ, whose coming was foretold by the Jewish prophets, in opposition to the unbelieving Jews; a truth which those who confessed, whether in Judea or in the Gentile countries, exposed themselves to the danger of having their goods spoiled, and their bodies imprisoned, if not also tortured and put to death. So that those who voluntarily made this confession, manifested that they preferred Christ and his gospel to all other things whatever. The clause imports, 2d, That this great personage, the Messiah, the Son of God, had really come in the flesh, and had a real human nature, in opposition to a sect which arose very early in the Christian Church, called the Docetæ, who would not allow that Christ had a real body, and that he really suffered, died, and rose again. This sect St. John seems to have had in his eye throughout this epistle. Hence, in the very beginning of it, he speaks of seeing, hearing, and handling Christ; and here, to the fundamental article of Jesus’s being the Messiah, he adds, that he came in the flesh; with which doctrine his atoning for sin by the sacrifice of himself, and his rising from the dead, the first-fruits of them that sleep, were closely and necessarily connected, and therefore the acknowledgment of it was a point of the greatest importance.

The Socinians indeed contend, that to confess Jesus Christ hath come in the flesh, means simply to confess that he was a mere man: and from this they infer that he had no existence before he was conceived of his mother. In proof of their sense of the clause, they cite Hebrews 2:14, where the writer says he partook of our flesh and blood. Now, though it may be true that these words import nothing more than that Christ was a man, like other men, St. John’s words, hath come in the flesh, have evidently a more extensive meaning. For, as Bishop Horsley observes, the sense of a proposition ariseth, not from the meaning of a single word contained in it, but from the union of the whole into one sentence, especially if that union suggests any circumstance by which the sense of the proposition is modified. This is the case of the clause, hath come in the flesh; words which, while they specify the manner of his coming, imply that he might have come in a different manner if he had pleased. Accordingly the apostle hath used the verb to come in that sense 1 John 5:6. This is he who came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by the water and the blood. For his meaning plainly is, that Jesus came attested as the Christ by water and blood jointly, although he might have come attested by either of these separately; and that Jesus existed as the Christ before he came attested by the water and the blood. Thus the clause, hath come in the flesh, implies that he might have come in another manner than in the flesh, namely, in the form of God, as mentioned Philippians 2:6-7. It implies that he existed before he came in the flesh, and chose to come in that manner, rather than in any other; consequently that he is more than a mere man. That Jesus Christ might have come in another manner, was the opinion of Clemens Romanus, one of the apostolical fathers mentioned Philippians 4:3: for in his epistle to the Corinthians, he saith, “The sceptre of the majesty of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, came not in the pride of pomp and arrogance, although he had it in his power; but in humility, as the Holy Spirit spake concerning him.” See Macknight, and Bishop Horsley’s 5th letter to Priestley.

Verse 3

1 John 4:3. Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh That doth not acknowledge him to be the true Messiah, as above observed, and that he came in that particular manner, though he might have come otherwise; is not of Gods “To determine whether the Socinian interpretation of the clause, hath come in the flesh, expresses the apostle’s meaning, let that interpretation be substituted for the expression of which it is the interpretation, and the passages under consideration will run thus: 1 John 4:2, Every spirit, every teacher, calling himself inspired, who confesseth Jesus Christ hath come a mere man, is from God; 1 John 4:3, And every spirit who doth not confess Jesus Christ hath come a mere man, is not from God. Wherefore, as St. John is here giving marks by which true and false teachers were to be distinguished, if the Socinian sense of the phrase, hath come in the flesh, be just, he hath made it the mark of a true teacher, that he confesseth Jesus Christ as a mere man; and the mark of a false teacher, that he doth not confess Jesus Christ as a mere man, but affirmeth that he is more than a mere man; consequently, by so doing, St. John has condemned himself as a false teacher; because, having declared (1 John 4:15; 1Jn 5:5 ) that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, he hath confessed that he is more than a mere man.” And also in his gospel, having told us, (John 1:14,) that the Word (who he had said, 1 John 4:1, was with God and was God) was made flesh and dwelt among us, and they beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, “he hath certainly confessed that Jesus Christ is more than a mere man: for whose glory did the apostles behold, if it was not the glory of the Word made flesh, the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth? Wherefore, John having confessed that Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God, he cannot be supposed to have branded those teachers as deceivers, who did not confess Jesus Christ to be a mere man, but affirmed him to be more than a man; because, by so doing, he would have condemned himself as a false teacher.” And this is that spirit of antichrist which ye have heard, &c. “From this, as well as from John 2:18, it appears that antichrist is not any particular person, nor any particular succession of persons in the church, but a general name for all false teachers in every age, who disseminate doctrines contrary to those taught by the apostles; especially if these doctrines have a tendency to derogate from Christ’s character and actions as the Saviour of the world.” Macknight.

Verses 4-6

1 John 4:4-6. Ye Who abide in the truth taught you from the beginning; are of God, and have overcome them Namely, these seducers, in all their snares and delusions: that is, the doctrine to which you adhere has prevailed against those who deserve the name of antichrist, (as undoubtedly all who oppose the Christian interest in some measure did,) and as you have the true miraculous gifts of the Spirit among you, to which they falsely pretend, it is soon seen that the advantage is clearly on your side. Because greater is he that is in you Namely, the Spirit of Christ; than he The spirit of antichrist; that is in the world The Son of God, who stands at the head of that interest in which you are embarked, and who aids you by the mighty communications of his Spirit, is infinitely too strong for Satan, the great head of the apostacy, and for all his confederates. Thus, the issue of the divine government will be, that truth and virtue shall be finally victorious over error and wickedness, because God, the Patron of truth and virtue, possesseth far greater power and wisdom than the evil spirits who promote error and wickedness. They Those false teachers; are of the world Of the number of those that know not God; therefore speak they of the world From the principle, wisdom, and spirit, that actuate worldly men; and, of consequence, the world heareth them Namely, with approbation. “Lest the faithful should be discouraged by the success which false teachers oftentimes have in spreading their errors, the apostle observes that their success arises generally from their accommodating their doctrines to the prejudices and evil inclinations of the world. Wherefore, from the prevalence of any doctrine no argument can be drawn in favour of its truth.” We Apostles; are of God Immediately taught and sent by him, and have approved ourselves to be so by such irresistible evidence, that I may now venture to say, he who knoweth God And experiences the governing influence of his fear and love, heareth and regardeth us; but he who is not of God heareth not us Neither believes nor obeys our word; but, by rejecting our testimony, attended as it is with such evidence, he proves himself destitute of all true religion. Hereby we know From what is said 1 John 4:2-6; the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error “This mark, by which St. John directed his disciples to judge of teachers, is not to be understood of their hearkening to the apostles personally, but of their receiving their doctrine with that submission which was due to persons inspired by the Spirit of God. Wherefore, though the apostles be all dead, yet as they still speak in their divinely-inspired writings, John, in this passage, declares that their writings are the test by which the disciples of Christ are to judge both of teachers and of their doctrine.”

Verses 7-8

1 John 4:7-8. Let us love one another From the doctrine he has just been defending, he draws this exhortation: as if he had said, Think it not enough speculatively to admit the Christian doctrine, but let it be your great care to acknowledge it practically, and especially with respect to that most important article, brotherly love. The frequency and earnestness with which the apostle, in the present epistle, inculcates this love, is very remarkable. The greatest part of this chapter, and of chapter 3., is employed in pressing this duty. See also 1 John 2:8-11. For love is of God Is from him as its source, and particularly enjoined by him as a duty of the greatest importance, and of absolute necessity, in order to our pleasing and imitating him. And every one that loveth is born of God Every one, in whose heart this divine principle reigns, and conquers the selfish and contrary passions, shows by it that he is regenerated and transformed into the divine image; and that he knoweth God By the teaching of his Holy Spirit, as the God of love, infinitely amiable in himself, and infinitely loving to his people. On the other hand, he that loveth not, whatever he may pretend, knoweth not God Has no experimental and saving knowledge of him; for God is love Its great fountain and exemplar. He enjoins it by his law, and produces and cherishes it by the influences of his Spirit; and the due contemplation of him will naturally inflame our hearts with love to his divine majesty, and to our fellow-creatures for his sake, whose creatures they are, and especially to his children, who love him, bear his image, and are peculiarly dear to him. This little sentence, God is love, brought St. John more sweetness, even in the time he was writing it, says Bengelius, than the whole world can bring. God is often styled holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom, in the abstract, as he is said to be love: intimating that this is his darling, his reigning attribute; the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections.

Verse 9

1 John 4:9. In this was manifested the love of God Namely, most eminently above all other instances thereof; because that God sent his only-begotten Son into the world That is, evidently, sent him, who was his only-begotten Son before he was sent. “This,” as Macknight justly observes. “is an allusion to our Lord’s words, John 3:16, God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, &c. Christ is called God’s only-begotten Son, to distinguish him from all others, who in Scripture are called the sons of God; and to heighten our idea of God’s love to us, in giving a person of such dignity, and so beloved of God, to die for us. It is supposed, that by giving Christ the title of God’s only-begotten Son in this passage, the apostle intended to overturn the error of Ebion and Cerinthus, who affirmed that Christ was not God’s Son by nature, but that, like other good men, he was honoured with the title of God’s Son on account of his virtues; in which opinion these heresiarchs have been followed by some in modern times. They, however, who hold this opinion ought to show a reason why the epithet of the only begotten is appropriated to Christ.” That we might live through him That the sentence of condemnation to the second death, to which we were obnoxious, might be reversed, and that being justified by living faith, and regenerated by the quickening Spirit of God, we might live a spiritual life in the divine favour, and in union with Christ here, and might be conducted to eternal life hereafter.

Verses 10-12

1 John 4:10-12. Herein is love Worthy of our highest admiration; not that we loved God First; for we were, on the contrary, in a state of enmity to him, in which, if we had remained unsolicited and untouched by his love and grace, we should have persisted and perished; but that he loved us First, (1 John 4:19,) without any merit or motive in us to induce him to do it; and, in his boundless compassion to our necessities and miseries; sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins That is, to make atonement to his injured justice for them by offering himself as a sacrifice, and so to introduce us into his favour on honourable terms. If God so loved us With such a transcendent, free, and inconceivable love; we ought also to love one another In imitation of his divine example, from a sense of the happy state into which we are brought, and in gratitude to him for so inestimable a favour. And it is of the greater importance that we should do this, because it is absolutely necessary in order to our having fellowship with him. For no man hath seen God at any time Nor indeed can see him, since he is in his own nature invisible; nor can any one have any knowledge of him, or intercourse with him by his senses, or any information concerning his will and the way of pleasing him by any visible appearance of him, or converse with him; yet, from what his only-begotten Son hath taught us, we know that if we love one another In consequence of first loving him; God dwelleth μενει , abideth, in us This is treated of 1 John 4:13-16; and his love is perfected Has its full effect; in us This is treated of 1 John 4:17-19.

Verses 13-14

1 John 4:13-14. Hereby Εν τουτω , by this, we know Have full proof; that we dwell, μενομεν , we abide in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit In the enlightening, quickening, renewing, and comforting influences thereof. Some commentators understand the apostle as speaking here of the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit; but surely these gifts, of whatever kind they might be, never were to any man a certain evidence of his possessing real piety and union with God, as is manifest from our Lord’s words, (Matthew 7:22,) Many will say to me in that day of final judgment, We have prophesied in thy name, &c.; then will I profess unto them, I never knew you, &c. And St. Paul ( 1Co 13:2 ) declares, that though a man had such a measure of miracle-working faith, that he could remove mountains, yet if he had not love to God and mankind, it would profit him nothing. The ordinary graces of the Spirit, such as are enumerated Galatians 5:22-23; Ephesians 5:9; Colossians 3:12-17; Romans 12:9-21, are certain evidences of a person’s being a child of God; but the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit are not, inasmuch as they sometimes have been and still may be possessed by persons destitute of true religion. And we have seen Or known; by undoubted evidence, ourselves; and therefore do boldly testify to others; that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world And that it is in and by him alone, how proudly soever the unbelieving and carnal world may reject and disdain him, that present and eternal salvation can be obtained. These things are the foundation and the criteria of our abiding in God and God in us, namely, the communion of the Spirit, spoken of 1 John 4:13, and the confession of the Son, 1 John 4:15.

Verses 15-17

1 John 4:15-17. Whosoever shall From a principle of loving faith, openly confess In the face of all opposition and danger, maintaining this profession with resolution and zeal, and acting in conformity to it; that Jesus is the Son of God The Christ, the Saviour of the world; God abideth in him, and he in God There is a blessed union between God and his soul, so that it is, in the language of Scripture, the habitation of God; who, as it were, lives and walks in him, Eph 2:22 ; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 2 Corinthians 6:18. And we have known and believed By the influence of the same Spirit; the love that God hath to us And hath manifested, not only by giving his Son to die for us, (1 John 4:9-10,) but by making us his children in and through his Son, 1 John 3:1. God is love The apostle repeats what he had declared 1 John 4:8, where see the note; and he that abideth in love Namely, in love to God, his people, and all mankind; abideth in God, and God in him His union and communion with God are hereby continued and increased. Herein Or hereby, that is, by the continuance of this communion with God; is our love made perfect We are brought to love him with all our hearts, and our neighbour as ourselves; that we may have That is, so that we shall have; boldness in the day of judgment When all the stout-hearted shall tremble; because as he, Christ, is, so are we Who are fathers in Christ; in this world Even while we live on earth, so far as the imperfections of this mortal life, to which we are here confined, will admit.

Verses 18-19

1 John 4:18-19. There is no fear in love No slavish or tormenting fear, diffidence, or distrust, can be where love reigns; but perfect, mature love casteth out such fear, because such fear hath torment And so is inconsistent with the happiness of love. He that feareth is not made perfect in love In the sense above explained. Study therefore to increase more and more in that noble affection of love to God, and you will find your happiness increasing in proportion to it. Observe, reader, a mere natural man has neither the fear nor love of God; one that is awakened and convinced of sin, has fear without love; a babe in Christ, love and fear; a father in Christ, love without fear. We love him, because he first loved us This is the sum of all religion, the genuine model of Christianity. None can say more; why should any one say less, or speak less intelligibly?

Verses 20-21

1 John 4:20-21. If any man say, I love God And even say it with the utmost confidence; and hateth his brother Which he will do more or less, if he do not love him; he is a liar He affirms what is false, although, perhaps, he may not know it to be so; for he that loveth not his brother, whom he hath seen Who is daily presented to his senses to raise his esteem, or move his kindness or compassion toward him; how can he love God, whom he hath not seen? Whose excellences are not the objects of his senses, but are discovered imperfectly from his works of creation, providence, and grace, or from the declarations and promises of his word; his invisible nature being an obstacle to our loving him, which our weak and carnal minds cannot be expected easily to conquer. Indeed, we never could love him unless, as the apostle observes, his love were shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost given to us. And this commandment have we from him Both from God and Christ; that he who loveth God, love his brother in Christ also That is, every one, whatever his opinions or modes of worship may be, purely because he is the child and bears the image of God. Bigotry is properly the want of this pure and universal love. A bigot only loves those who embrace his opinions, and he loves them for that, not for Christ’s sake.

Bibliographical Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on 1 John 4". Benson's Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/rbc/1-john-4.html. 1857.
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