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Bible Commentaries
1 John 4

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New TestamentSchaff's NT Commentary

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Verse 1

Episode on the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error; the test to be applied; and the sure application of it.

1 John 4:1. Beloved introduces an affectionate interlude, in which the apostle passes from the personal assurance of fellowship with God given by the Holy Ghost, to the assurance given by the same Spirit concerning the doctrine on the belief of which that assurance is based. Believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits whether they be of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. The ‘spirits’ and the ‘false prophets’ are one. They are ‘antichrists’ in chap. 2; but the predominant reference to the Holy Ghost in this section gives occasion for the use of these two terms: ‘spirits’ as professing to be His organs, and ‘false prophets’ as professing to be moved by Him. As teachers they are not to be believed until tested: hence we are not to speak here of the gift of ‘discerning spirits’ (1 Corinthians 12:10), but of the universal duty incumbent on every Christian, of trying the doctrine brought concerning the Son of God. Many men professing to be inspired had gone out not as in chap, 2 from the church from the invisible realm, and from the one spirit of the lie into the world: not from the church into the world, but from the world into the church.

Verses 1-21

The ruling idea of the third part is Faith in the Spirit’s testimony concerning the Son of God incarnate. The close of chap. 3 introduces the theme by the first explicit mention of faith and the Spirit. In chap. 1 John 4:1-6 the two opposite confessions, resulting from two opposite hearings of two opposite classes of spirits, are dwelt upon, with the exhortation to apply the test referred to in the second chapter. The remainder of chap. 4 is occupied with the relation between the love of God manifested in the atonement and its perfect reflection in those who received the evangelical witness of that love: the confession of the Son of God being still the leading principle. Down to chap. 1 John 5:5 we have the victory of faith in Jesus as the only source of that love to God in the strength of which we can love our brethren and overcome the world: these two being strictly interwoven. From 1 John 3:6 to 1 John 3:13, the apostle gives his full and final teaching as to the Spirit’s witness to the manifested Christ, and the nature of that witness. The remainder, from 1 John 3:14 to 1 John 3:17, is occupied with the confidence in prayer inspired by this faith.

Verses 2-3

1 John 4:2-3. Hereby ye know the Spirit of God: that is, the voice of the one Holy Ghost in the various ‘spirits’ proclaiming a confession. The personal faith must have its outward avowal; every teacher or ‘spirit’ must teach on the basis of a confession of Jesus. In chap. 2 the test of antichrist was the refusal to believe that ‘Jesus was the Christ’ or ‘the Father and the Son:’ the divinity and Messiahship of our Lord. Here the true faith is that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh: not into the world simply, not simply into the flesh, which might connote its fallen condition, but ‘in flesh’ that is, in a true humanity He appeared who existed before as the Son of God, and so ‘came’ that it may be said as of an abiding presence, He ‘is come.’ The true reading of the antithesis, every spirit that confesseth not Jesus is not of God, is most forcible in its simplicity: the name of Jesus is enough, for the confession of a man as come from God means nothing. With the next words, this is that of antichrist, that ‘matter’ or that ‘spirit’ of antichrist refers back to chap. 2; though ye have heard indicates a well-known doctrine. A remarkable reading of the Vulgate, ‘which annulleth’ or ‘dissolveth Jesus,’ points to the severance of Jesus from the Christ, a Gnostic notion, or the separation of Jesus into two persons, a Nestorian error; but this reading is not confirmed. It can hardly be denied, however, that this confession alluded to the Docetic heresy which denied the reality of the Lord’s human nature; though that was only a temporary form of opposition to an eternal truth, the sum and standard of all truth.

Verses 4-6

1 John 4:4-6. The apostle makes some strong assertions which have for their object to link a sound confession with a true religion. First, with reference to his Christian hearers, he connects their personal victory over the world, through the strength of Him who is greater than he that is in the world, that is, its prince, the spirit who sent the antichrists, with their sound faith. The indwelling God of chap. 1 John 3:24 had given them the victory over all seducers, though they needed still to be warned. Taking up the term ‘world,’ he goes on to show that the same antichristian error which had come into the world is really of the world: doctrines from below which take their fashion from the earthly kingdom of darkness, breathe the spirit of fleshly reasoning, and taught by men whom the world heareth, because it loves its own. The unregenerate have no sympathy with the truth; they only who are born of God can know Him, and understand the things concerning Him. But he that is of God heareth us: the apostles and teachers of the faith are chiefly meant; but the same is true of all who witness a good confession. By this we know, or distinguish, the Spirit of troth, and the spirit of error, or the deceiving spirit. At the outset St. John spoke of the test of the confession of Jesus; now at the close the test is the religious and irreligious character of the teaching. He conjoins himself with his readers. Finally, we here have the answer to every argument against the universality of the testing privilege and duty: every Christian can discern between the true and the false confession of the Incarnate Son; and every Christian has the internal qualification of the indwelling Spirit that separates from the world.

Verses 7-8

The love which this Faith embraces and knows: in its origin; its supreme manifestation; its perfect reflection in us; the whole section being begun, continued, and ended in this.

1 John 4:7-8. Two sentences which exhibit the ‘commandment’ of brotherly love in a stronger light than hitherto shed upon it. The former is positive. Love is of God: love absolutely and in itself, in its own nature and apart from any object, is from the very being of God. This ‘out of’ is said of nothing but love and regeneration: here the loving in the present is evidence of a birth in the past that still continues; and the present knoweth God is the same love discerning and delighting in its source. The latter is negative, and, as usual, still strengthens the thought. All love in man, all love everywhere, is from God; but, more than that, God is love: a word that had never before been spoken since revelation began. It closes and consummates the Biblical testimony concerning God as knowable to man: it must be remembered that it is connected with he that loveth not knoweth not literally, ‘never has come to the knowledge of’ God. Observe that it is not said ‘love is God,’ any more than it was said ‘light is God.’ God is light in His revealing and diffusive holiness; God is love in His diffusive self-impartation: both, however, in His relation to His creatures. His eternal essence is unfathomable and behind both. Love is the bond of His perfections as revealed to the created universe. It is also the bond of the intercommunion of the Three Persons in the adorable Trinity; and in this sense His absolute nature; but this goes beyond our exposition here.

Verses 9-11

1 John 4:9-11. God is love; and in this was the love of God manifested in us: it had its one supreme expression ‘in our case,’ ‘in us’ as its sphere. This explains what follows, in the perfect. That God hath sent as the permanent token of His love his only-begotten Son into the world that we might live through him. Here only is the ‘Only-begotten’ in the Epistle. He was sent as the eternal Son, the mystery of whose filial relation is expressed by this word: introduced here partly to indicate the greatness of the love by the measure of the gift, partly to connect our life with His. In the Gospel the Only-begotten is given as a proof of love to the world; but the life is given to those only who believe.

Here the emphasis is on ‘in us;’ but the life must here include, on account of the next verse, deliverance from condemnation as well as the eternal life itself: hence not ‘in Him,’ but ‘through Him.’ The apostle then gees back from the manifestation to the love itself. Herein is love: its origination is not in or through the mission, but in God Himself. Our response is in his thought throughout; but it is only as response: ‘love is of God.’ Not that we love God, but that he loved us, and sent going back again to the past his Son as the propitiation for our sins: thus impressively does St. John show what he meant by ‘not that we loved.’ He provided and sent what not our love but our sins required. Not ‘to be’ a propitiation; but ‘He sent His Son,’ whose mission dating from heaven was atonement.

Beloved always ‘beloved’ in this connection, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another: not ‘so to love,’ as if the example prescribed the kind of love; but we are bound by the nature of the love common to Him and to us: it has been manifested ‘in us’ to that end.

Verse 12

1 John 4:12. This verse contains three clauses, which are severally dilated on, though in a rather different order, in the seven verses which follow: the invisibility of God as the object of love; His invisible indwelling nevertheless; and the perfect operation of His love in our hearts as the representative of His invisible self.

Verses 13-16

1 John 4:13-16. Remembering that this whole section has to do with faith in Jesus as the root of brotherly love, we need not be surprised that the apostle goes back to the introductory words of it. Those words, however, are amplified, as usual: the gift of the Spirit is the seal and assurance that we abide in him and he in us: our being in Him and His being in us are, so to speak, convertible terms: the Holy Ghost being the common term, common to Him and us. God the invisible is seen and known only by the Spirit’s indwelling. But He abides in us as the seal of a great truth confessed. Hence the apostle, before proceeding, pays his homage again to that truth, his own and his fellow-apostle’s: And we have beheld in His Son the Invisible God ‘whom no man hath beheld at any time,’ and bear witness that the Father hath sent the Son, the Saviour of the world: the apostolic beholding is followed by their special witness; and this, again, by the confession of the whole Church. Here St. John returns back to the Father and the Son of the earlier chapters, and adds what occurs only here as a confession of faith that Jesus is the Saviour of the world: as in chap. 1 John 2:3, so here it is remarkable as introduced in the midst of a special reference to the benefit of believers.

Whosoever has confessed that Jesus is the Son of God this shows that the leading theme of 1 John 4:2 is still in the mind of the apostle,

God abideth in him, and he in God: the indwelling is individual as well as mutual, and answers to the ‘no man hath seen’ and every man who ‘keepeth His commandments abideth in Him and He in him’ (chap. 1 John 3:24); the commandments were faith in Jesus or confession of Him and love: the former is in this verse connected with the abiding, in the next verse the latter. But, instead of proceeding immediately to the love of our obedience, St. John once more as if never weary of it pays his tribute to the love of redemption.

And we have known and believed: this of all believers, answering to ‘And we have beheld and bear witness’ of the apostles. At the basis of the apostolical announcement are beholding and bearing testimony: at the basis of the Church’s confession for the apostle joins the Church in confessing what he had witnessed to the Church are knowing and believing, which in its proper order is, according to John 6:69, believing and knowing: abiding faith confirmed in abiding experience. Once more God is love: the sublimity of this repetition is inexpressible; and the clause that follows is answerable. In the former case, believers received ‘out of’ His fulness love; now the believer that abideth in love abideth in God, and God abideth in him. The triple repetition of ‘abideth’ speaks for itself: the love which God hath in as must have its full meaning; and the sentence as it stands carries the privilege of fellowship with God to its highest point; there is nothing beyond it, scarcely anything equal to it, in all revelation. It leads at once to the word perfection.

Verses 17-19

1 John 4:17-19. Here enters the second point of 1 John 4:12: ‘His love is perfected in us.’ The ‘His’ is omitted; herein is love made perfect with us, that is, in all that concerns our estate. Love is once more absolute and without object specified. ‘Herein,’ in our living and moving and having our being permanently in love, and in God, is our love ‘made perfect:’ before we had ‘perfected,’ now ‘made perfect,’ afterwards ‘perfect.’ This is the design of the indwelling Spirit, in order that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: the same ‘in order that’ and the same ‘confidence’ as in chap. 1 John 2:29, but ‘His appearing’ is now ‘the day of judgment.’

Because as he is, even so are we in this world: this also goes back to chap. 1 John 2:29, and its sequel: from the last day the apostle returns to our life ‘in this world,’ not without emphasis on the wonder that we should be made through faith in Him working by love pure ‘as He is,’ and righteous ‘as He is,’ even in the midst of this present evil world. The next words are doubly linked with the preceding: first, they are the negative perfection of which being like Christ is the positive; and secondly, they refer to the great essential for confidence in the final day.

There is Do fear in love: this is true of the nature of love generally.

But admitting that ‘the heart may accuse’ even lovers of God

perfect love casteth out fear. This is the only instance of ‘perfect love,’ without any qualification or abatement. And the apostle’s condensed argument shows that he is speaking of its present triumph in the economy of grace. Because fear hath punishment: that pain of which it is said that ‘these shall go away into everlasting punishment’ is already inherent in fear; and he that feareth hath not been made perfect in love: then he may ‘in this world’ be ‘as He is’ in holiness, and therefore without the least lingering vestige of fear to meet Him. Observe the change of phrase: as love is perfected in man, so he is perfected in love. The Holy Ghost, ‘working by love,’ brings the believer ‘we have known and believed,’ chap. 1 John 4:16 to that permanent abode in the atmosphere of love to God and man from which fear is excluded because sin, the cause of fear, is excluded. Going back to ‘in this world,’ and remembering that ‘boldness in the day of judgment’ means confidence in the expectation of His appearing (chap. 1 John 2:29), and further that it is not said of the heavenly city, ‘there shall be no more sin,’ as if only there sin is absent, we are bound to understand St. John’s last testimony on this subject for he uses the word no more in its highest meaning.

Verse 19

1 John 4:19. we love because he first loved us. Looking back, this sublimely shows the possibility that our love here once more absolute or without object, our ‘perfect love’ may become supreme: the argument of ‘because’ is almost equal to ‘even as,’ which is, however, not said. But the words look forward to the next verse, and that again looks back to the first of the three points in 1 John 4:12, which has been in suspense during the interim.

Verse 20

1 John 4:20. If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar. All the words here point, as we have seen before, to an utterly spurious Christianity, which knows nothing of the revelation of the unseen God in His Son: the first phrase and the last are used only of such false religion, the ‘hating’ of chap. 1 John 2:9 became ‘not loving’ in chap. 1 John 3:10; they are united as synonymous in this passage alone.

For he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, cannot love God whom he hath not seen. There are two condensed arguments here. First, recalling 1 John 4:10, that the invisible God perfects His love in us by the Spirit through our brotherly love, it is simply a strong repetition: the invisible Fountain of love abides in us, and has its perfect operation in our love to its visible objects, embracing all our fellow-regenerate (chap. 1 John 5:1). But we have always noted that St. John’s repetitions include something more, and here something is added which the former passage did not contain; that is, the inverted argument from the easier demonstration of love to objects before our eyes. Some copies read, ‘How can he?’ which would be only a more vivid form of the argument: not ‘how or in what way can he love the unseen save as He is represented by visible objects?’ for it is the glory of religion that God can be loved in Himself; but ‘it may be merely inferred that he who, supposed to be regenerate, loves not the first and most obvious claimants of his charity, cannot be a lover of the supreme source of all love.’ He proves himself to be unre-generate. The more general truth that practical charity is in no case absolutely dependent upon seeing its object is not involved here, nor must the apostle’s simple apostrophe be embarrassed by the consideration of it.

Verse 21

The victory of Faith in Jesus as the victory of Love.

1 John 4:21. And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also. The three points of chap. 1 John 3:12 having been discussed, a new subject begins. That is the precept of love given by ‘Him,’ that is, Christ, whose name needs not to be mentioned, as the second part of the theme of chap. 1 John 3:23: ‘And thy neighbour as thyself’ is the primitive commandment; but the next verse answers the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ as our Lord does, by inverting the order.

Bibliographical Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on 1 John 4". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/scn/1-john-4.html. 1879-90.
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