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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible

1 John 4

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-21

Chapter 4

THE PERILS OF THE SURGING LIFE OF THE SPIRIT (1 John 3:24 b-1 John 4:1)

4:1 This is how we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he gave to us. Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if their source is God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

Behind this warning is a situation of which we in the modern church know little or nothing. In the early church there was a surging life of the Spirit which brought its own perils. There were so many and such diverse spiritual manifestations that some kind of test was necessary. Let us try to think ourselves back into that electric atmosphere.

(i) Even in Old Testament times men realized the perils of false prophets who were men of spiritual power. Deuteronomy 13:1-5 demands that the false prophet who sought to lure men away from the true God should be put to death; but it frankly and freely admits that he may promise signs and wonders and perform them. The spiritual power is there, but it is evil and misdirected.

(ii) In the early church the spiritual world was very near. All the world believed in a universe thronged with demons and spirits. Every rock and tree and river and grove and lake and mountain had its spiritual power; and these spiritual powers were always seeking entry into men's bodies and minds. In the time of the early church all men lived in a haunted world and men were never so conscious of being surrounded by spiritual powers.

(iii) That ancient world was very conscious of a personal power of evil. It did not speculate about its source, but it was sure that it was there and that it was seeking for men who might be its instruments. It follows that not only the universe but also the minds of men provided the battleground on which the power of the light and the power of the dark fought out the issue.

(iv) In the early church the coming of the Spirit was a much more visible phenomenon than is common nowadays. It was usually connected with baptism; and when the Spirit came things happened that anyone could see. The man who received the Spirit was visibly affected. When the apostles came down to Samaria, after the preaching of Philip, and conferred the gift of the Spirit on the new converts, the effects were so startling that the local magician, Simon Magus, wished to buy the power to produce them (Acts 8:17-18). The coming of the Spirit on Cornelius and his people was something which anyone could see (Acts 10:44-45). In the early church there was an ecstatic element in the coming of the Spirit whose effects were violent and obvious.

(v) This had its effect in the congregational life of the early church. The best commentary on this passage of John is, in fact, 1 Corinthians 14:1-40 . Because of the power of the Spirit men spoke with tongues. That is to say, they poured out a flood of Spirit-given sounds in no known language, which no one could understand unless there was someone present who had the Spirit-given power to interpret. So extraordinary was this phenomenon that Paul does not hesitate to say that, if a stranger came into a congregation in which it was in action, he would think that he had arrived in an assembly of madmen (1 Corinthians 14:2; 1 Corinthians 14:23; 1 Corinthians 14:27). Even the prophets, who delivered their message in plain language, were a problem. They were so moved by the Spirit that they could not wait for each other to finish and each would leap to his feet determined to shout out his Spirit-given message (1 Corinthians 14:26-27; 1 Corinthians 14:33). A service of worship in an early Christian congregation was very different from the placidity of most modern church services. So diverse were the manifestations of the Spirit that Paul numbers the discerning of spirits among the spiritual gifts which a Christian might possess (1 Corinthians 12:10). We can see what might happen in such a case when Paul speaks of the possibility of a man saying in a spirit that Christ is accursed (1 Corinthians 12:3).

When we come further down in Christian history we find the problem still more acute. The Didache, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, is the first service order book and is to be dated not long after A.D. 100. It has regulations on how to deal with the wandering apostles and prophets who came and went amongst the Christian congregations. "Not every one who speaks in a spirit is a prophet; he is only a prophet if he walks in the ways of the Lord" (Didache 11 and 12). The matter reached its peak and ne plus ultra when, in the third century, Montanus burst upon the Church with the claim that he was nothing less than the promised Paraclete and that he proposed to tell the Church the things which Christ had said his apostles could not at the moment bear.

The early church was full of this surging life of the Spirit. The exuberance of life had not been organized out of the Church. It was a great age; but its very exuberance had its dangers. If there was a personal power of evil, men could be used by him. If there were evil spirits as well as the Holy Spirit, men could be occupied by them. Men could delude themselves into a quite subjective experience in which they thought--quite honestly--that they had a message from the Spirit.

All this is in John's mind; and it is in face of that surging atmosphere of pulsating spiritual life that he sets out his criteria to judge between the true and the false. We, for our part, may well feel that with all its perils, the exuberant vitality of the early church was a far better thing than the apathetic placidity of so much of the life of the modern church. It was surely better that men should expect the Spirit everywhere than that they should expect him nowhere.

A Note on the Translation of 1 John 4:1-7

There is a recurring Greek phrase in this passage which is by no means easy to translate. It is the phrase which the Revised Standard Version consistently renders of God. Its occurrences are as follows:

1 John 4:1 : Test the spirits to see whether they are of God.

1 John 4:2 : Every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God.

1 John 4:3 : Every spirit which does not confess Jesus Christ is not of God.

1 John 4:4 : Little children, you are of God.

1 John 4:6 : We are of God.... He who is not of God does not listen to us.

1 John 4:7 : Love is of God.

The difficulty can be seen in the expedients to which various translators are driven.

Moffatt, in 1 John 4:1-3, translates comes from God; and in 1 John 4:4; 1 John 4:6-7 belongs to God.

Weymouth, in 1 John 4:1-3, translates is from God. In 1 John 4:4 he translates: You are God's children. In 1 John 4:6 he translates: We are God's children.... He who is not a child of God does not listen to us. In 1 John 4:7 he has: Love has its origin in God.

In every case, except 1 John 4:7, Kingsley Williams translates from God; in 1 John 4:7 he has of God.

The difficulty is easy to see; and yet it is of the first importance to be able to attach a precise meaning to this phrase. The Greek is ek (Greek #1537) tou (Greek #3599) theou (Greek #2316). Ho (Greek #3588) theos (Greek #2316) means God, and tou (Greek #3588) theou (Greek #2316) is the genitive case after the preposition ek (Greek #1537). Ek (Greek #1537) is one of the most common Greek prepositions and means "out of" or "from." To say that a man came ek (Greek #1537) tes (Greek #3588) poleos (Greek #4172) would mean that he came either out of or from the city. What then does it mean that a person, or a spirit, or a quality is ek (Greek #1537) tou (Greek #5120) theou (Greek #2316)? The simplest translation is "from God." But what does "from" mean in that phrase? Quite certainly it means that the person, the spirit or the quality has its origin in God. It comes "from" God in the sense that it takes its origin in Him and its life from Him. So John, for instance, bids his people to test the spirits to see whether they really have their source in God. Love, he says, has its origin in God.

THE ULTIMATE HERESY (1 John 4:2-3)

4:2-3 This is how you recognize the spirit whose source is God. Every spirit which openly acknowledges that Jesus has come in the flesh and is Christ has its origin in God. And every spirit which is such that it does not make this confession about Jesus has not its source in God; and this is the spirit of Antichrist, about which you heard that it was to come and which is now here present in the world.

For John Christian belief could be summed up in one great sentence: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). Any spirit which denied the reality of the Incarnation was not of God. John lays down two tests of belief.

(i) To be of God a spirit must acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. As John saw it, to deny that is to deny three things about Jesus. (a) It is to deny that he is the centre of history, the one for whom all previous history had been a preparation. (b) It is to deny that he is the fulfilment of the promises of God. All through their struggles and their defeats, the Jews had clung to the promises of God. To deny that Jesus is the promised Messiah is to deny that these promises were true. (c) It is to deny his Kingship. Jesus came, not only to sacrifice, but to reign; and to deny his Messiahship is to leave out his essential kingliness.

(ii) To be of God a spirit must acknowledge that Jesus has come in the flesh. It was precisely this that the Gnostics could never accept. Since, in their view, matter was altogether evil, a real incarnation was an impossibility, for God could never take flesh upon himself. Augustine was later to say that in the pagan philosophers he could find parallels for everything in the New Testament except for one saying--"The Word became flesh." As John saw it, to deny the complete manhood of Jesus Christ was to strike at the very roots of the Christian faith.

To deny the reality of the incarnation has certain definite consequences.

(i) It is to deny that Jesus can ever be our example. If he was not in any real sense a man, living under the same conditions as men, he cannot show men how to live.

(ii) It is to deny that Jesus can be the High Priest who opens the way to God. The true High Priest, as the writer to the Hebrews saw, must be like us in all things, knowing our infirmities and our temptations (Hebrews 4:14-15). To lead men to God the High Priest must be a man, or else he will be pointing them to a road which it is impossible for them to take.

(iii) It is to deny that Jesus can in any real sense be Saviour. To save men he had to identify himself with the men he came to save.

(iv) It is to deny the salvation of the body. Christian teaching is quite clear that salvation is the salvation of the whole man. The body as well as the soul is saved. To deny the incarnation is to deny the possibility that the body can ever become the temple of the Holy Spirit.

(v) By far the most serious and terrible thing is that it is to deny that there can ever be any real union between God and man. If spirit is altogether good and the body is altogether evil, God and man can never meet, so long as man is man. They might meet when man has sloughed off the body and become a disembodied spirit. But the great truth of the incarnation is that here and now there can be real communion between God and man.

Nothing in Christianity is more central than the reality of the manhood of Jesus Christ.

THE CLEAVAGE BETWEEN THE WORLD AND GOD (1 John 4:4-6)

4:4-6 You have your origin in God, dear children, and you have won the victory over them, because that power which is in you is greater than the power which is in the world. This is why the source of their speaking is the world, and is the reason why the world listens to them. Our source is God. He who knows God listens to us. He who has not his source in God does not listen to us. This is how we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

John lays down a great truth and faces a great problem.

(i) The Christian need not fear the heretic. In Christ the victory over all the powers of evil was won. The powers of evil did their worst to him, even to killing him on a Cross, and in the end he emerged victorious. That victory belongs to the Christian. Whatever things may look like, the powers of evil are fighting a losing battle. As the Latin proverb has it: "Great is the truth, and in the end it will prevail." All that the Christian has to do is remember the truth he already knows and cling to it. The truth is that by which men live; error is ultimately that by which men die.

(ii) The problem remains that the false teachers will neither listen to, nor accept, the truth which the true Christian offers. How is that to be explained? John returns to his favourite antithesis, the opposition between the world and God. The world, as we have seen before, is human nature apart from, and in opposition to, God. The man whose source is God will welcome the truth; the man whose source is the world will reject it.

When we come to think of it, that is an obvious truth. How can a man whose watchword is competition even begin to understand an ethic whose key-note is service? How can a man whose aim is the exaltation of the self and who holds that the weakest must go to the wall, even begin to understand a teaching whose principle for living is love? How can a man who believes that this is the only world and that, therefore, material things are the only ones which matter, even begin to understand life lived in the light of eternity, where the unseen things are the greatest values? A man can hear only what he has fitted himself to hear and he can utterly unfit himself to hear the Christian message.

That is what John is saying. We have seen again and again that it is characteristic of him to see things in terms of black and white. His thinking does not deal in shades. On the one side there is the man whose source and origin is God and who can hear the truth; on the other side there is the man whose source and origin is the world and who is incapable of hearing the truth. There emerges a problem, which very likely John did not even think of. Are there people to whom all preaching is quite useless? Are there people whose defences can never be penetrated, whose deafness can never hear, and whose minds are for ever shut to the invitation and command of Jesus Christ?

The answer must be that there are no limits to the grace of God and that there is such a person as the Holy Spirit. It is the lesson of life that the love of God can break every barrier down. It is true that a man can resist; it is, maybe, true that a man can resist even to the end. But what is also true is that Christ is always knocking at the door of every heart, and it is possible for any man to hear the voice of Christ, even above the many voices of the world.

LOVE HUMAN AND DIVINE (1 John 4:7-21)

4:7-21 Beloved, let us love one another, because love has its source in God, and everyone who loves has God as the source of his birth and knows God. He who does not love has not come to know God. In this God's love is displayed within us, that God sent his only Son into the world that through him we might live. In this is love, not that we love God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Brothers, if God so loved us, we too ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. If we love each other God dwells in us and his love is perfected in us. It is by this that we know that we dwell in him and he in us, because he has given us a share of his Spirit. We have seen and we testify that the Father sent the Son as the Saviour of the world. Whoever openly acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwells in him and he in God. We have come to know and to put our trust in the love which God has within us. God is love and he who dwells in love dwells in God and God dwells in him. With us love finds its peak in this, that we should have confidence in the day of judgment because, even as he is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, for fear is connected with punishment and he who fears has not reached love's perfect state. We love because he first loved us. If any one says, "I love God" and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. It is this command that we have from him, that he who loves God, loves his brother also.

This passage is so closely interwoven that we are better to read it as a whole and then bit by bit to draw out its teaching. First of all, then, let us look at its teaching on love.

(i) Love has its origin in God (1 John 4:7). It is from the God who is love that all love takes its source. As A. E. Brooke puts it: "Human love is a reflection of something in the divine nature itself." We are never nearer to God than when we love. Clement of Alexandria said in a startling phrase that the real Christian "practises being God." He who dwells in love dwells in God (1 John 4:16). Man is made in the image and the likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). God is love and, therefore, to be like God and be what he was meant to be, man must also love.

(ii) Love has a double relationship to God. It is only by knowing God that we learn to love and it is only by loving that we learn to know God (1 John 4:7-8). Love comes from God, and love leads to God.

(iii) It is by love that God is known (1 John 4:12). We cannot see God, because he is spirit; what we can see is his effect. We cannot see the wind, but we can see what it can do. We cannot see electricity, but we can see the effect it produces. The effect of God is love. It is when God comes into a man that he is clothed with the love of God and the love of men. God is known by his effect on that man. It has been said, "A saint is a man in whom Christ lives again" and the best demonstration of God comes not from argument but from a life of love.

(iv) God's love is demonstrated in Jesus Christ (1 John 4:9). When we look at Jesus we see two things about the love of God. (a) It is a love which holds nothing back. God was prepared to give his only Son and make a sacrifice beyond which no sacrifice can possibly go in his love for men. (b) It is a totally undeserved love. It would be no wonder if we loved God, when we remember all the gifts he has given to us, even apart from Jesus Christ; the wonder is that he loves poor and disobedient creatures like us.

How thou canst think so well of us,

And be the God thou art,

Is darkness to my intellect,

But sunshine to my heart.

(v) Human love is a response to divine love (1Jn 1:19). We love because God loved us. It is the sight of his love which wakens in us the desire to love him as he first loved us and to love our fellow-men as he loves them.

(vi) When love comes, fear goes (1 John 4:17-18). Fear is the characteristic emotion of someone who expects to be punished. So long as we regard God as the Judge, the King, the Law-giver, there can be nothing in our heart but fear for in face of such a God we can expect nothing but punishment. But once we know God's true nature, fear is swallowed up in love. The fear that remains is the fear of grieving his love for us.

(vii) Love of God and love of man are indissolubly connected (1 John 4:7; 1 John 4:11; 1 John 4:20-21). As C. H. Dodd finely puts it: "The energy of love discharges itself along lines which form a triangle, whose points are God, self, and neighbour." If God loves us, we are bound to love each other, because it is our destiny to reproduce the life of God in humanity and the life of eternity in time. John says, with almost crude bluntness, that a man who claims to love God and hates his brother is nothing other than a liar. The only way to prove that we love God is to love the men whom God loves. The only way to prove that God is within our hearts is constantly to show the love of men within our lives.

GOD IS LOVE (1 John 4:7-21 continued)

In this passage there occurs what is probably the greatest single statement about God in the whole Bible, that God is love. It is amazing how many doors that single statement unlocks and how many questions it answers.

(i) It is the explanation of creation. Sometimes we are bound to wonder why God created this world. The disobedience, and the lack of response in men is a continual grief to him. Why should he create a world which was to bring him nothing but trouble? The answer is that creation was essential to his very nature. If God is love, he cannot exist in lonely isolation. Love must have someone to love and someone to love it.

(ii) It is the explanation of free-will. Unless love is a free response it is not love. Had God been only law he could have created a world in which men moved like automata, having no more choice than a machine. But, if God had made men like that, there would have been no possibility of a personal relationship between him and them. Love is of necessity the free response of the heart; and, therefore, God, by a deliberate act of self-limitation, had to endow men with free will.

(iii) It is the explanation of providence. Had God been simply mind and order and law, he might, so to speak, have created the universe, wound it up, set it going and left it. There are articles and machines which we are urged to buy because we can fit them and forget them; their most attractive quality is that they can be left to run themselves. But, because God is love, his creating act is followed by his constant care.

(iv) It is the explanation of redemption. If God had been only law and justice, he would simply have left men to the consequences of their sin. The moral law would operate; the soul that sinned would die; and the eternal justice would inexorably hand out its punishments. But the very fact that God is love meant that he had to seek and save that which was lost. He had to find a remedy for sin.

(v) It is the explanation of the life beyond. If God were simply creator, men might live their brief span and die for ever. The life which ended early would be only another flower which the frost of death had withered too soon. But the fact that God is love makes it certain that the chances and changes of life have not the last word and that his love will readjust the balance of this life.

SON OF GOD AND SAVIOUR OF MEN (1 John 4:7-21 continued)

Before we leave this passage we must note that it has also great things to say about Jesus Christ.

(i) It tells us that Jesus is the bringer of life. God sent him that through him we might have life (1 John 4:9). There is a world of difference between existence and life. All men have existence but all do not have life. The very eagerness with which men seek pleasure shows that there is something missing in their lives. A famous doctor once said that men would find a cure for cancer more quickly than they would find a cure for boredom. Jesus gives a man an object for which to live; he gives him strength by which to live; and he gives him peace in which to live. Living with Christ turns mere existence into fullness of life.

(ii) It tells us that Jesus is the restorer of the lost relationship with God. God sent him to be the atoning sacrifice for sin (1 John 4:10). We do not move in a world of thought in which animal sacrifice is a reality. But we can fully understand what sacrifice meant. When a man sinned, his relationship with God was broken; and sacrifice was an expression of penitence, designed to restore the lost relationship. Jesus, by his life and death, made it possible for man to enter into a new relationship of peace and friendship with God. He bridged the awful gulf between man and God.

(iii) It tells us that Jesus is the Saviour of the world (1 John 4:14). When he came into the world, men were conscious of nothing so much as their own weakness and helplessness. Men, said Seneca, were looking ad salutem, for salvation. They were desperately conscious of "their weakness in necessary things." They wanted "a hand let down to lift them up." It would be quite inadequate to think of salvation as mere deliverance from the punishment of hell. Men need to be saved from themselves; they need to be saved from the habits which have become their fetters; they need to be saved from their temptations; they need to be saved from their fears and their anxieties; they need to be saved from their follies and mistakes. In every case Jesus offers men salvation; he brings that which enables them to face time and to meet eternity.

(iv) It tells us that Jesus is the Son of God (1 John 4:15). Whatever that may mean, it certainly means that Jesus Christ is in a relationship to God in which no other person ever stood or ever will stand. He alone can show men what God is like; he alone can bring to men God's grace, love, forgiveness and strength.

One other thing emerges in this passage. It has taught us of God and it has taught us of Jesus; and it teaches us of the Spirit. In 1 John 4:13 John says it is because we have a share of the Spirit that we know that we dwell in God. It is the work of the Spirit that in the beginning makes us seek God at all; it is the work of the Spirit that makes us aware of God's presence; and it is the work of the Spirit that gives us the certainty that we are truly at peace with God. It is the Spirit in our hearts which makes us dare to address God as Father (Romans 8:15-16). The Spirit is the inner witness who, as C. H. Dodd puts it, gives us the "immediate, spontaneous, unanalysable awareness of a divine presence in our lives."

"And his that gentle voice we hear,

Soft as the breath of even,

That checks each fault, that calms each fear,

And speaks of heaven.

And every virtue we possess,

And every victory won,

And every thought of holiness,

Are his alone."

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on 1 John 4:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/1-john-4.html. 1956-1959.

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