1 John 4:1-11


As indicated above, our text is about two subjects. Verses 1-6 treat the subject of true and false spirits. This section is again divided into two paragraphs: 1-3 treat the content of the teaching and 4-6 treat the character of the audience. Then verses 7-10 speak about the love of God which is reflected among Christians. Note that the Nestle Greek text prints this section as poetry. Our text adds verse 11 which gives a find conclusion to verses 6-10. Perhaps verses 1-11 contain too much material for one sermon. The preacher can make a choice of several subjects here.

In this Epistle John has already written about false teachers. See 2:18-27. What he says here in 4:1-6 is an expansion on what he said before. And it is the third time that he speaks about love in this Epistle. See 2:7-11 and 3:11-18. But here he speaks about love as God's very nature and His loving activity toward fallen mankind in Christ Jesus.

1 John 4:1 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

"Dear Friends" occurs again in our text in verses 7 and 11. John practiced what he preached. In 3:23 he used the verb "believe" for the first time. It occurs only once in our text, and then as a prohibition. "Do not" with the present imperfect usually means that the reader should cease doing what he is already doing. Perhaps that is meant here. The word "spirit" occurred for the first time in 3:24 with the meaning of Holy Spirit. In this verse it is used twice.

Marshall: The word 'spirit' here must mean either 'utterance inspired by a spirit' or 'person inspired by a spirit.'

Christians are warned not to be credulous or gullible. "But" means "but rather." Most of our versions render "test." John is saying: "Quit doing this but do do that." 

False prophets are deceivers, teachers who are not what they say they are. Note the perfect verb here. They have gone out with lasting results. True prophets are sent. False prophets merely come on their own. Note Matthew 24:24. The word "world" occurs six times in verses 1-5. Here it means "among men." In verse 3 it means the area inhabited my men. In 4 it's "sinful mankind." In verse 5 it is the sinful principle found in such people.

In this verse all Christians are told to test the teaching of all religious teachers who come to them. That is not a private prerogative of the Papacy, a synod, elders, or a pastor. it is the right and responsibility of every Christian. Some scholars think that John is writing to a situation much like that treated in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. Perhaps that is so. In any case false doctrine is to be spotted by all Christians, not just the pastor.

1 John 4:2 This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,

The phrase "this is" points forward to the colon. All commentators conclude that "recognize" is indicative mood, not imperative mood. NIV rightly translates with "recognize." Here "spirit" denotes the Holy Spirit. John is implying that He testifies in true spirits or teachers. We are reminded here of John 15:26 and 16:13-15. "Every spirit" is, of course, speaking about the true, human teacher. The words after "acknowledges" are taken by all our translations as indirect statement: "That Jesus Christ is come in the flesh." Some commentators are exercised over this. They think it should be translated as direct object: "Who confesses Jesus Christ came in the flesh." Do not worry about this difference. The meaning is abundantly clear.

The word "flesh" is used as in John 1:14. He became a true human being. The perfect "has come" denotes the lasting union of the two natures in Christ, into all eternity. The main clause here is: "Every spirit is of God." All the rest modifies "spirit." 

The true touchstone for distinguishing true from false doctrine is the person of Christ and all that this involves. This covers a variety of false teaching all the way from the Papacy to the tenets of Islam. In John's day it was Cerinthus and his Gnosticism. It taught that Christ became divine at His baptism but gave it up when He died.

1 John 4:3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.

The first half of this verse states the opposite of what was said in verse 2. It seems so self-evident but John states the self-evident. Do not worry about the variant readings. The meaning is clear. "Jesus" is His given name. "Christ" denotes His office. Likely the phrase "is not from God" is a litotes for "is of the devil." 

John is plainly referring back to 2:18 where he said that antiChrist was coming and now many antiChrists have come, which is an indication of the last time of the world. Here we are reminded about what our Confessions say about the antiChrist which reference to 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12. Inasmuch as the Papacy has anathematized the article of justification by faith, Lutherans insist that the Papacy is the very antiChrist. John mentions that "he is already in the world." The antiChrist was working already then. John also refers to antiChrists in 2:18. The denial of the true doctrine of the person and work of Jesus Christ is denied by countless sects and cults. We are reminded that we are living in the last times. We should study and know our Bible and its doctrines well so that we can distinguish the false from the true. That is our privilege and responsibility.

1 John 4:4 You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.

Verses 4-6 comprise a paragraph. Note that verse 4 begins with "you," verse 5 with "they," and verse 6 with "we." Verse 4 is addressed to all Christians. "From" denotes source and identity. They've been born of god and now belong to Him. "Dear children" denotes affectionate address. "And" very likely means "and therefore." Here it is implied that they have strength and power from God. Note the tense of "overcome." With lasting results and decisively they've conquered the false teachers. The causal clause modifies what precedes immediately. The two prepositional phrases are adjectival distinguishing the spirit in the Christians and that in the children of this world. God and Satan (or the antiChrist) are compared as to their power. We think of John 12:21; Luke 10:18; and Hebrews 2:14. God is greater than our conscience (3:20) and greater than Satan.

Kretzmann: They not only have the knowledge necessary to examine and test the spirits, but they also have the ability, the power to withstand their allurements, to conquer them.
Lenski: Their efforts against you have left you firmer than ever.

Correct. Anyone who battles in the name of the Lord becomes stronger, not weaker.

Marshall: They have their source in God (look at 3:10), and consequently they have the inner power of the truth to enable them to withstand error. In this sense they can be said to have 'overcome' the upholders of false teaching . . . They have proved victorious over the temptation to accept false doctrine.

1 John 4:5 They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them.

"They" has the same antecedent as "they" in verse 4; the false spirits and teachers. Note that the word "world" occurs three times. It stresses the false and sinful principle found in the unbelieving world. Twice we have "from" denoting source. "They are of the world" is the main clause.

John gives us his conclusion. Two things result from this principle. The translations are interesting. TEV: "They speak about matters of the world and the world listens to them because they belong to the world." JB: "They speak the language of the world and the world listens to them." We think of several proverbs: "Birds of a feather flock together." "Water cannot rise above its own level." We shake our heads over the stupidity of many people who flock to messages which are nothing but stupidity. Human beings are so easily led astray by false doctrine. They are of the world.

1 John 4:6 We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.

What is the antecedent of "we"? Some scholars think that it must be limited to the apostles but that can hardly be in view of what was said in verses 1, 2, and 4. The only difference between 4a and 6a is that John now includes himself with all Christians. The difference is that in verse 4 he spoke of victory which results from belonging to God, whereas here he speaks of the audience which listens to children of God.

"Knows" denotes the intimate acquaintance of believer and God. Jesus speaks of this "knowing" at John 10:27. Paul spoke of this "knowing" at Galatians 4:9 where he plainly says that God caused this knowledge. John says without abashment: "The one who knows God listens to us." That is not sinful pride. It is conviction based on what God has revealed to the believer. Then, to make sure that he is not misunderstood, John states the opposite truth too. He uses a slightly different construction simply for the sake of variety.

Now follows the final sentence in this verse. The antecedent of "this is" is the listening or not listening to us. Here "know" has a different meaning. Its first occurrence in this verse meant "know." Here is means "recognize." TEV has "tell the difference." The word "spirit" used twice here denotes the teaching. Some versions capitalize the first occurrence of "spirit." Evidently they feel that it means the Holy Spirit. The genitives are adjectival, distinguishing the genuine and erroneous teachings.

Kretzmann: The attitude of men toward the true preachers of the Gospel is a reliable indication of their own spiritual state.

Before we leave this section we refer to the Preface to The Book of Concord where we read the following: "Just as while the holy apostles were still alive, it happened that false teachers insinuated perverted teachings into the churches in which the apostles themselves had planted the pure, unadulterated Word of God, so such false teachers were also inflicted on our churches because of our own and the ungrateful world's impenitence and sin." 

Times have not changed very much.

1 John 4:7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.

For the second time "Dear friends." In Greek there is a similar sound with "let us love." The verb means: "Let us keep on loving each other" which implies that there are times when we don't. God does not ask us to like each other. he does ask us to love each other in the sense that He loves us, forgiving our sins, providing for us, overlooking our weaknesses. Read Ephesians 5:25-32. It's an application of "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." We never hold grudges against ourselves. We provide for ourselves. We fight for ourselves. We comfort ourselves. We are reminded here of John 3:16.

Now comes the reason. "Love" has the article with it not only because it is an abstract noun but also because love begins only with God. It is unique. God is the source of all love. That is worth pondering. If it weren't for God, there would be no love.

Now we go on to lines 3 and 4. Here "from" denotes agent. God caused the rebirth of the person who loves. I can forgive, provide, comfort, overlook shortcomings only because of my rebirth. True, the world can imitate this but even the world's love, though not of the Gospel, is possible only because of God. Popular ballads and songs very often leave us with the impression that love comes from humans, but even their imperfect and selfish "love" would not be possible outside of God.

The final "and" in this verse means "and therefore." Here "know" has the same meaning as the first one in verse 6. It is the intimate knowledge caused by rebirth through the Gospel. Look at John 17:3. It's an eternal knowing of the Trinity.

1 John 4:8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

As in verses 3 and 6 John states the opposite of a statement just made. "Has not come to know God." He hasn't even begun. Evidently John wants us to examine ourselves in this matter and also to warn Christians who are not practicing mutual love as they ought. In verse 7 and 8 we have causal clauses. We were told that we must love each other because love is a gift of God. Here we are told that the loveless person is not acquainted with God because God's attribute is love. John states the same principle again in verse 16. God is the sum of all of His attributes. Love is an attribute of God. We thank of two passages here: John 3:16 and Romans 8:28. The first tells us that love is an active attribute. It redeemed all men. The second tells us that where love exists between God and a person, everything eventually works for good.

Kretzmann: This paragraph is one of the most beautiful and, at the same time, one of the most powerful passages in the entire New Testament.

Perhaps we could say that John summarizes verses 7-8 with the thought that the very nature of God is love. A godly person has the nature of God. The godless person has not the nature of God. On Judgment Day God will say to the godless person: "I never knew you." (Matthew 7:23)

1 John 4:9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.

"This is" points forward to the following clause. "Among us" is also translated "toward us." Forms of "showed" appear at 1:2; 2:28; 3:2,5,8. In all cases, in one way or another, they have to do with Jesus. Lenski mentions that the word "God" occurs eleven times in verses 7-12. Note how all these passages exude the thought of love.

Stott: John bases his second argument (9-11) for mutual love not on God's eternal nature, but on His historical gift.

Verse 9 reminds us immediately of John 3:16. Note the parallels at John 3:16. KJV, NKJV, NASB, and AAT render "only begotten Son," whereas the others have "His own Son" or words to that effect. We have the same "problem" at John 3:16. The word "only begotten" is found only in the writings of John, only here in this Epistle and four times in the Gospel (1:14,18;3:16.18) We think that these passages denote the eternal generation of the Son from the Father. We understand it as "only begotten Son." 

God sent Jesus with a commission for lasting results. "World" reminds us again of John 3:16. It means the world of men, of all human beings. The grand purpose is our eternal life.

1 John 4:10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

"This" denotes that all other possibilities are excluded. There is no other love than this one. It's the one in which not we but He took the initiative. His Son was a propitiation. In our Notes on 2:2 (Easter III) we discussed the meaning of "atoning sacrifice." The versions reflect the debate about this word. KJV, NKJV, and NASB have "propitiation." Only RSV has "expiation." For some years scholars were insisting that "propitiation" was reflecting pagan sacrifices and therefore they rendered this word "expiation." But it has now been proved from Old Testament usage that the word means that God's love assuaged His own anger by the sacrifice of Jesus. Therefore, "propitiation" is again in order. The more recent versions avoid the use of these nouns in order to avoid the debate. TEV reads: "To be the means by which our sins are forgiven." NIV has: "An atoning sacrifice." JB reads: "The sacrifice that takes our sins away." And AAT: "To pay for our sins." The word is found here and at 1 John 2:2. Its cognate is found at Romans 3:25. Verse 10 of our text teaches the universal atonement as do John 1:29; 3:16; Romans 5:19; and 2 Corinthians 5:19. Love always begins with the forgiveness of sins. Forget that not. Neither divine nor reflected human love is possible without the forgiveness of sins.

1 John 4:11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

Verse 7 began with "Dear friends" and an exhortation to mutual and reciprocal love. Verse 11 begins with "Dear friends" and a fact condition which informs us that mutual and reciprocal love is an obligation. This is what we call the third use of the Law. We are free from the condemnation of the Law since Christ died for us. But we are not free from its obligation to do God's will. See also Romans 13:8.

Between exhortation in verse 7 and obligation of verse 11 we have two main points:

  1. Love is the very nature of God;
  2. This love manifested itself in His sending Jesus as the propitiation for our sins.

The fact condition in this verse does not denote doubt but emphasis: "If, as is the case, God loved us so much, also we ought constantly love each other." How do we love each other? Always keep forgiveness of sins in mind, both your own and those of your neighbor. All are forgiven. Don't act as if this is not true. With reference to the matter of obligation we quote a passage from The Formula of Concord (Tappert 553.14):

It is evident that in discussing the question whether goods works are necessary or free, both the Augsburg Confession and its Apology often employ formulas like these: 'good works are necessary'; again, 'It is necessary to do good works because they necessarily follow faith and reconciliation'; again, 'We should and must of necessity do good works that God has commanded.' Likewise, Holy Scripture itself uses words like 'necessity,' 'necessary,' 'needful,' 'should,' and 'must' to indicate what we are bound to do because of God's ordinance, commandment, and will (Romans 13:5,6,9; 1 Corinthians 9:9; Acts 5:29; John 15:12; 1 John 4:11.

The passive adjective "love" occurs six times in the Epistle. Three of them are found in our pericope: verses 1, 7 and 11. John assures his readers, via this word, that God loves them and he loves them. They need this assurance when they are told to distinguish false from true doctrine, when they are told to love each other and, when they are told that love is an obligation. Why? No person can do these things in his own strength. God is always assuring us that He stands behind us through His Son, Jesus Christ.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series B, Festival Season Sundays Epistle Texts, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1987, pp. 104-108. Used with permission.

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