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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary
1 John 4



Other Authors
Verses 1-21

AMONGST THE WILES of the devil imitation takes a foremost place. In the Old Testament, for instance, we find that when God wrought powerfully through Moses in the presence of Pharaoh, the Egyptian magicians imitated what was done as far as they could, in order to nullify the impressions made on the mind of the king. Again we find that when the sanctuary had been established in Jerusalem with its ordinances of divine service, Jeroboam easily diverted the ten tribes from it by the simple device of establishing an imitation religion connected with Bethel and Dan. The early verses of chapter 4 indicate that very soon after the faith had been delivered to the saints through the chosen apostles, Satan commenced his deceptive imitations.

The Apostle John, the last of the apostolic band, lived long enough to see that, “many false prophets are gone out into the world.” The Apostles whether by word of mouth or in writing, had communicated the inspired Word of God, manifestly moved and borne along by the Holy Spirit. Before long other men rose up. They too spoke as those borne along by the power of a spirit, and consequently their utterances also were inspired.

But what they said was very different from what the apostles had taught, though they claimed that their teachings were just an improvement and amplification of their words. It all sounded rather attractive, and hence was seductive. But was it true ? How could the matter be tested?

We have before remarked upon the way in which all pretension is tested in this epistle, and it is evident that the more we are faced by imitations the more necessary tests become. The question now is a supremely important one. How may we distinguish between “the Spirit of God” and the “spirit of Antichrist;” between “the spirit of truth and the spirit of error”? The spirits have to be tried: but what is the criterion by which we may try them?

In the first place, Christ Himself and the truth concerning Him is the test. Does the spirit confess Jesus Christ, come in flesh? If so, He is of God: if not so, he is not of God. This is a very simple test, and if we meditate thereon a little we shall see that it is a very profound one.

We cannot rightly speak of ourselves as having “come in flesh.” Long ago the Lord had said, “My Spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh” (Genesis 6:3). We are flesh. And even apart from this consideration we should not speak of ourselves as coming in flesh, for we had no previous existence, and we had no option as to how we came. To be of the human race we must be found here in bodies of flesh and blood. Now it was otherwise with Jesus Christ. He had previous existence, and He might have come in other modes. Indeed we believe He did appear in other modes in Old Testament days; as “The Angel of the Lord,” for instance.

The truth is that Jesus Christ—that Person, the eternal Son of God— came in flesh, so that He was a true Man amongst us. The antichristian teachers did not confess this. They were not sound as regards His Deity, as 1 John 2:22 showed us. They were not sound as to His Manhood, as this verse shows. History informs us that one of the first heresies to afflict the early church is that which John is meeting here. It is known as Docetism: the teaching being that, as matter was evil, Christ could not have had a true human body of flesh and blood; it must only have appeared to be such, being in reality a phantasy. Another form of error as to Christ’s humanity also troubled the early church, when men arose who recognized that the seat of sin is found in the spiritual part of man rather than in his material body. These denied the spiritual part of His humanity, while emphasizing the reality of His flesh; but they rose up a century or two later and there is no reference to them here.

Jesus Christ came in flesh of a perfectly holy kind, and hence there was in Him that wonderful manifestation of eternal life, of which the first verse of the epistle speaks. To deny His coming in flesh would mean the denial not only of the possibility of this dear manifestation amongst us, but also of there being in Him the Divine fulness to be manifested. But the matter is put here even more strongly. We need not wait for a flat denial for even non-confession of the truth betrays the spirit of antichrist.

In verse 1 John 4:4 we have the contrast between the saints (the word here is again that for the whole family of God, and not the babes merely) and these false prophets. The one “of God,” the other “of the world.” In 1 John 2:1-29 we saw how the Father and the world are wholly in contrast: here we find that there are two families springing respectively from these two sources; and they are as much in contrast as the sources whence they spring. Moreover there is in each an indwelling power, though the mode of indwelling is doubtless different. There is “He that is in you,” and “he that is in the world.” The children of God have the Anointing of the Spirit of God. As for the world it “lies in the wicked one,” (v. 19. New Trans.)—the wicked one is consequently in it.

What an immense encouragement it is to know that the Spirit of God is greater than all the power of the adversary. Herein lies the secret of the marvel that the faith of Christ has survived. We have the best authority for the statement that, “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” We are not a wise folk judged by ordinary standards; and that, alas, does not exhaust the story: there has been much unfaithfulness. The greatest and heaviest blows against the faith have been given by those who have professed it. Yet the faith has survived all the blows against it struck by unfaithful believers, as well as all the blows aimed by the wicked one at faithful believers, by reason of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The point here however is that by Him we overcome the seductive teachings of the antichrists. In chapter ii. we saw that we overcome them by the Word of God abiding in us. But then of course it only does abide in us as we are governed by the Spirit of God. The Spirit and the Word go together.

The first five words of verse 1 John 4:5, “They are of the world,” stand in sharp contrast not only with what goes before, “Ye are of God,” but with what follows in the next verse, “We are of God.” The “We” here evidently means the Apostles and Prophets of the New Testament, through whom the Word of God has reached us; since the contrast lies in the utterances of the one and of the other. Those who are of the world speak of the world; that is, the world characterizes both their own origin and their utterances. Those who are of God speak as of God.

This fact presents us with another criterion by which we may test teachings that reach us. The false teachings are “of the world,” for they proceed from worldly principles and bear a worldly stamp. As a result worldly folk enjoy them, understand them and receive them. They are flattered and confirmed in their worldliness, instead of being disturbed and dislodged from it.

The apostolic teaching was of another order altogether. They spoke of and from God, and the power and authority of their utterances was at once recognized by those who were of God and knew God, whilst those not of God did not hear them.

Here we have a third criterion. Do those who come to us as teachers of truth accept the authority of the Apostles, or do they not? If they do not “hear” them, we may safely assume they are not of God.

This test, you observe, is the same as that stated by the Lord as applying to Himself, in John 10:1-42. “My sheep hear My voice,” whereas those who were not His sheep did not believe. When the Lord was on earth those who were of God were marked by hearing Him with the hearing of faith. When the Apostles were here those who were of God were marked by hearing them with the hearing of faith. And now that they are gone, we have the Apostolic writings, the inspired Scriptures; and those who are of God are marked by hearing them with the hearing of faith. The mode of communication may be different, but what is communicated is in each case of equal authority. An earthly king may speak in person, or he may speak through the lips of his duly accredited ministers, or they may commit the message to writing: there is difference as to the mode, but none as to the authority of the message.

It is well to be quite clear on this point for there are not wanting today those who discredit the Apostles and their inspired writings under the specious cry of “Back to Christ!” They begin by claiming that only His direct utterances must be quoted as having full authority; but they do not long stop there. There is no secure foothold in such a position, for every recorded utterance of His has been reported to us through apostolic or prophetic writings. Hence they soon reach the position of only “hearing” so much of His reported teaching as they wish. They end therefore, by believing in their own powers of discrimination and selection, that is to say, in themselves. How exceedingly dull and commonplace is all this high-sounding modern infidelity when subjected to a little analysis.

We may indeed be thankful that God over-ruled the uprising of these early heresies to the giving us of these simple tests, which are still as valid as in the day they were first propounded. Hereby indeed we may know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. If we are wise, when confronted with doubtful teachings, we will at once apply these tests instead of leaning to our own understanding.

With verse 1 John 4:7 we come back again to the main line of the Apostle’s thought. It is necessary now and again to digress in order to guard against evil, but we are mainly concerned with that which is good and of God. Now love is of God, and as children of God our first business is to love one another. Thereby we display the Divine nature, and make it evident that we are born of God and know Him. He who is born of God loves after this divine sort. He who loves after this divine sort is for a certainty born of God. Both statements are true; the only difference being that in the former we reason from the source to the outflow, and in the latter back from the outflow to the source.

On the contrary, he who does not love after this divine sort does not know God; for the simple reason that God is love. At the outset of the epistle we heard that God is light. That fact lies at the very basis of all that has come to light in Christ. In our chapter we get twice over the companion fact that God is love. On the surface there may seem to be a clash between the two. Sin was introduced by the devil in order that there might be a clash between light and love in God. The whole of Scripture may be regarded as the working out of the answer of God to the challenge—the story of the wonderful way in which both light and love move harmoniously to the establishment of His glory and our blessing.

God is love. This is indeed a dogmatic statement; and if men seek confirmation of this dogma, in the sinful and disordered world that surrounds them, they will fail to find it. We must look in the right direction. There has been a perfect manifestation of God’s love, but only in one direction, as verses 1 John 4:9-10 so plainly state. The sending of the Son, and all that was therein involved, completely manifested it. The Son was sent into the world, where we lay under the weight of our sins spiritually dead. He came with the object that we might live through Him, and to this end He made propitiation for our sins. Life was the objective, but if we were to live propitiation was a necessity.

Life and propitiation—two immense things! When just converted the second mainly engages our thoughts. We have been convicted of our sins and know how we needed forgiveness; and how great has been the relief of discovering the propitiation wrought by the Son, who was sent into the world as the gift of God’s love. Then presently we begin to realize that propitiation has opened the door to life for us, and that God’s purpose is that we should live through His Sent One.

Here the great fact is stated in a general way: we live through Him, for He has brought it to pass. In the next chapter we find that the life we have is in

Him: it is because we are in Him that we have it. In Galatians 2:1-21 we find that in a practical way our life is by Him, for He is the object of it. In 1 Thessalonians 5:10, we learn that our life is to be with Him for ever. We may well be filled with praise and thanksgiving that He came into the world that we might live through Him; especially when we consider what His coming involved both to Him and to the God who sent Him. It was love indeed!

This marvellous love imposes upon us an obligation. The word which indicates obligation is, “ought.” It is not that we may, or even that we do, but that we ought to love one another as having received such great love. Let us not shirk the thought of obligation. It is not legal obligation; something which must be, if we are to establish our standing before God.

It is an obligation based upon grace, and upon the nature which is ours as born of God. As children of God it is our nature to love, but that does not alter the fact that we ought to do it.

We ought to love one another because, as verse 1 John 4:12 says, the love of God is thereby perfected as regards us. The love has flowed forth upon us, and its end is completely, or perfectly, reached when it flows out through each saint to all the rest. Then indeed God dwells or abides in us—for He is love—and He can be seen as reflected in His children. This verse should be compared with John 1:18. Both verses begin in the same way. In the Gospel, God is declared in the Son. In the Epistle, He is to be seen as dwelling in His children. That is clearly inferred in this verse.

If God dwells in us He will certainly be seen in us, but our knowledge of His dwelling is by the Spirit which He has given us. Compare verse 1 John 4:13 with the last verse of the previous chapter. There it was His abiding in us. Here it is our abiding in Him and He in us. But in both cases our knowing these great realities is said to be by the Spirit having been given to us. Being born of Him, we have His nature which is love; but in addition to this He has given us of His Spirit; and by this anointing we know that we abide in Him and He in us.

Moreover the Spirit is the power for testimony, and hence that which is the characteristic testimony of the children of God comes before us in verse 14. The “we” of this verse may again be, primarily at least, the Apostles. They had seen Him as the Saviour of the world in a way that the rest of us have not. But in a secondary sense we can all say it. We know that the

Father sent the Son with no smaller design in view than that. It has often been pointed out how the Gospel of John leads our thoughts away from everything that was limited to the Jew to the larger designs connected with the world.

In John 1:1-51, for instance, He is announced not as the Deliverer of Israel, but as the One who “taketh away the sin of the world.” In John 4:1-54 the Samaritans hear Him for themselves and discover Him to be “the Christ, the Saviour of the world.” Now, what they discovered we all have discovered and having made the discovery, it has become the theme of our testimony.

How wonderful is the sequence of all that we have been considering. God is love. His love was manifested in the sending of the Son. We live through Him. The Spirit is given to us. We dwell in God. God dwells in us. We love one another. God, who is invisible, is reflected by us before men. We testify to men that the Father has sent the Son as the Saviour of the world. All hinges upon love—Divine love—made known to us and now operative in us.

And the more love is operative in us, the more effective will be our testimony to the Saviour of the world.

When John wrote his epistle it was a matter of common knowledge that a man—Jesus of Nazareth—had appeared in the world and died on the cross. There was no particular need to testify as to that. The testimony that had to be rendered concerned the truth as to who He really was and what He came to do. Hence we declare that He was the Son, sent of the Father, with the salvation of the world in view. All those who receive the Christian witness believe on Jesus as the Son of God, and confess Him as such. Now, whosoever does so confess Him, “God dwelleth in him, and he in God.”

We have before remarked how this word—variously translated as, abide, dwell, remain, continue—characterizes the epistle. In 1 John 2:1-29, from verse 1 John 4:6 onwards, we have four references to our abiding in Him. There is a fifth reference to this in 1 John 3:6, and a sixth in 1 John 3:24. But in this sixth reference the corresponding fact of His abiding in us is introduced: and we know that He does abide in us by the Spirit who is given to us.

In chapter 4 this second thought of His abiding in us comes into prominence—verses 1 John 4:12, 1 John 4:13, 1 John 4:15, 1 John 4:16. It is not disconnected from our abiding in Him, but evidently it is the truth now emphasized. But the order observed is c]ear and instructive. We must first be established as to our abiding in Him, and then, as flowing out of that, He abides in us. In these four verses His abiding in us is connected with (1) our loving one another; (2) the gift to us of His Spirit; (3) the confession of Jesus as Son of God; (4) our abiding in love, God Himself being love. He abides in us in order that His character, His love, His truth, may be manifested through us.

We may observe in passing how all this runs parallel with the teaching of the Apostle Paul. We read the opening chapters of the Epistle to the Ephesians, and find, “in Christ” to be that which characterizes everything. We are in Him. Turning to the Epistle to the Colossians, “Christ in you,” is the theme. We are in Christ in order that Christ may be in us. There is this difference however: with Paul it is more a question of our standing and our state; with John it is more a question of life and nature.

Another thing worthy of note in our epistle is that when we read of “abiding in Him,” the “Him” refers sometimes to Christ and sometimes to God. For instance, in 1 John 2:6, 1 John 2:28, 1 John 3:6, the reference pretty clearly is to Christ. In 1 John 3:24, 1 John 4:13, 1 John 4:15, 1 John 4:16, it is to God. In 1 John 2:24, it is abiding “in the Son and in the Father.” In 1 John 2:27, it would be difficult to say which is in view. The whole treatment of this matter here is surely intended to teach us how truly the Son is one with the Father, so that we cannot be in the Son without being in the Father, and we can only be in the Father by being in the Son. For that reason the Son comes first in 1 John 2:24.

But in our verse it is God who is in question. We abide in Him, and He is to abide in us. In the Epistle to the Colossians we are seen as the body of Christ, and He is to be manifested in us. Here we are the children of God, forming His family, deriving from Him our life and nature, hence He who is Father is to abide in us, and be displayed. God is love, and he who dwells in love is dwelling in God, and the God who is love will be seen as abiding in him.

A wonderful thing this—to be abiding in love! Any kind of vessel, flung into the ocean, and remaining in the ocean, is full of ocean: so the child of God, immersed in the love of God, is filled with it. Depend upon it, this is the thing that is needed if our testimony as to the Father sending the Son is to be effectual. That we testify by word of mouth is necessary and good; but when in addition to this God, in the fulness of His love, is seen as abiding in His children, then the testimony is bound to have effect. A Christian full of the love of God wields a power, which though unconscious is most effective.

In verse 1 John 4:17, “our love” is literally “love with us” as the margin shows. Love has been perfected with us: that is to say, the love of God as regards ourselves has been carried to its full end and climax. And it has been perfected “herein,” or “in this,” referring no doubt to what has just been stated. He who dwells in God because dwelling in love, and in whom consequently God dwells, must of necessity have boldness in the day of judgment. Indeed he will have boldness as to the day of judgment before it arrives—at the present moment.

It is a most wonderful thing that the love of God should shine upon us at all: but that we should be brought to dwell in it, so that God, who is love, should dwell in us, carries us to the very climax of the story. It means this, that “as He is so are we in this world.” This short statement composed of nine monosyllables is very profound in its meaning. It is perfectly true if we read it in connection with our standing and acceptance before God. But that is an application of it, and not the interpretation of it in its context. When the Son became incarnate, there was found the perfect Man, who dwelt in God and in whom God dwelt, whether in His sojourn here, or in His present glory above. And now again we have to say, “Which thing is true in Him and in you” (1 John 2:8). Here are the children of God, and 1 John dwell in God and God in them. They are as He is, and they are that now.

Very marvellous, this climax of love! If we apprehend it, though only in a very small degree, we shall certainly have boldness in the day of judgment. Though that day means the terror of the Lord to those-that know not God, it can have no terror for the heart of the one who at the present moment and in this world is dwelling in God, and God dwelling in Him.

This is what verse 1 John 4:18 tells us. There is in truth “no fear in love.” This perfect love on God’s side—for all proceeds from Him—must of necessity cast out fear with all its torment. It is contemplated however, that there may be found some who entertain fears, whether in regard to the day of judgment or anything else. Such are not made perfect in love. On God’s side love has been perfected in regard to us: on our side we may not be made perfect in regard to it. We may quite believe that God loves us, and yet not be so consciously abiding in love that fear finds no place in our hearts.

The love of God, known and enjoyed by us, not only casts all fear out of our hearts but also produces love by way of a response to itself. We have no capacity for love of a divine sort apart from the inflow of the love of God. In this matter we are only like tiny cisterns. He is the ever-flowing Fountain. Brought into connection with the Fountain it is possible for love to flow forth from us.

We are warned by John, in verse 1 John 4:20, that we must be practical in this matter. A man may say, “I love God,” a general sort of way. He may even say it in a highly elaborated style: he may address God as though in the spirit of worship, expressing beautiful thoughts and using endearing words. Still, it must all be tested; for God is unseen, and to some active minds beautiful thoughts and words come easily and cheaply. What will test the genuineness of such a profession as this?

Why, there is the brother who can be seen! If I myself am born of God, every other who is also born of God is a brother to me. The God whom I cannot see is presented to me in the one who is begotten of Him, this brother whom I can see. That being so, the test propounded by John’s question is quite irresistible— “He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” The same test is stated in a positive and dogmatic way in the first verse of the next chapter, “Every one that loveth Him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of Him.”

This is the third time in this comparatively short epistle that this matter of the believer’s attitude towards his brother has come up. In 1 John 2:9-11 were occupied with it; in 1 John 3:10-23. So it is evidently a matter of very great importance. We deduce this not only from the amount of space that is given to it, but from the fact that again in verse 1 John 4:21 of our chapter it is spoken of as a commandment. That we should love one another as brethren is not only the message “that ye heard from the beginning,” (1 John 3:11), but “His [God’s] commandment,... as He [His Son Jesus Christ] gave us commandment,” (1 John 3:23). It is the commandment of the Lord Jesus ratified and endorsed by God. A commandment therefore of the utmost solemnity.

The sad history of the church shows how much it has been needed. Far more dishonour to the Name of God, and disaster to the saints, has been brought about by dissension, and even hatred, within the Christian circle than by all the opposition, and even-persecution, from the world without. Had love been in active exercise with us, we should not have escaped difficulties but we should have met them in a different spirit, and instead of being defeated by them we should have prevailed. Are we not told elsewhere that “Love never faileth”?


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Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on 1 John 4:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". 1947.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, November 28th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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