WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

by Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson II) January 18, 2022

4:1a Dearly loved friends, don’t always listen to everything a prophet may tell you because they claim their message is from God: test it first to see if it is, for there are many false teachers all around.

COMMENTARY

Didymus the Blind (313-398 AD) believes that just as in ancient Israel, some prophets spoke the word of God under His anointing. Others did not. So, as soon as the apostles appeared, telling of the Anointed One and having the Holy Spirit whom the Lord gave to them, the devil sent many false apostles to counterfeit the teaching of the Gospel. It is essential to have that gift of the Holy Spirit which is called the discernment of spirits, to have the ability to test the spirits, to see which ones to believe and which ones to reject.[1]

John Cassian (360-435 AD), a highly regarded 4th-century Christian scholar, offers his warning: “First we must scrutinize thoroughly anything that appears in our hearts, as well as anything that is said to us. Has it come purified by the divine and heavenly fire of the Holy Spirit? Or does it lean toward Jewish superstition? Is its surface piety something that has come down from bloated worldly philosophy? We must examine all this most carefully, doing as the apostle bids us.”[2]  I would say that God needs to send another message again for the church today. As long as we preach motivational sermons, we will be considered one of many secular and sacred voices. But once the Anointed One, and the cross, and only a born-again experience can give you any hope for heaven, the arrows will begin to fly.

Bede the Venerable (672-735) asks who tests the spirits and how to test them? Our Lord shows this in the Gospels, where he predicted that evil spirits of the kind of which John had experienced would come. Jesus said: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.  You will know these people because of what they do. Good things don’t come from bad people, just as grapes don’t come from thornbushes, and figs don’t come from thorny weeds.”[3] These, therefore, are the fruits by which evil spirits were speaking through false prophets can be discerned. The thorns of schisms and the terrible thistles of heresy sting all those who go anywhere near them.[4]

Walter Hilton (1340-1396) discusses discerning the spirits, whether good or evil. He writes that these two are alike in how we view them outwardly but are entirely different inwardly. Therefore, they are not to be desired, nor entertained lightly, unless a soul can know the good from the evil by the spirit of discretion. That way, they are not enticed to believe. As the Apostle John says here in verse one, “Do not believe everyone who claims to speak by the Spirit. You must test them to see if the spirit they have comes from God. For there are many false prophets in the world.” That tells us that we should tell the good from the evil with just one trial.[5]

The great Bible translator William Tyndale (1494-1536) comments on John’s opening verse by saying that Spirits are taken here for preachers, because of the preaching or doctrine, which, if it is good, then is from God’s Spirit; and if it is evil, of the spirit of the devil. Now, should we believe every person’s doctrine, without advice, or condemn any person’s preaching before we’ve heard and explored its contents. However, it is part of every Christian’s duty to examine, evaluate, and experience it to see whether or not it is from God. The Apostle Paul was quite clear when he said, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good.”[6]

Furthermore, says Tyndale, do not discount God’s spiritual gifts. We must study them to see if they are from God and good for the edifying of His congregation: keep that which is good, and refuse that which is not good. Allow every person with any gift of God’s Spirit to serve Him by using those gifts. Individuals ought to allow these gifts to operate at total capacity in their ministry. So, why shall we examine these doctrines? To be sure, there are many incorrect preachers already promoting non-scriptural teaching. We all know antichrists will come, as our master, the Anointed One, told us they would arrive. And now, we can certify that the antichrist’s kingdom is already active, and his disciples are out preaching his false gospel. That’s why we need to listen carefully to all doctrines. So, how can we evaluate them? The Apostles’ Creed and scriptures are the touchstones: yes, we only have the means and a short time left.[7]

John Calvin (1509-1564) tells us to view “spirit” as a metonym,[8] signifying the person boasting that God endowed them with the gift of the Spirit to perform their office as a preacher or teacher. Because it was not permitted for anyone to verify the truth of their doctrine by vowing its accuracy based on their word alone, nor was credit given to speakers other than that they were the organs of the Holy Spirit. For preachers and teachers to have more authority, God honored them with His name, as though He had separated them from others in general. Those, then, were called “spirits,” who put the revelations of the Holy Spirit into words in a manner that represents Him. In other words, it was not they who spoke but the Holy Spirit speaking through them. They brought nothing of their own, nor did they go out in their name, but the design of this honorable title was that God’s Word should not lose the respect due to it. Hence, for the humble minister, God wanted His Word always to be received in no other way in that it was as if he had just arrived from heaven.[9]

James Arminius (1560-1609) tells us that it is no less proper that the doctrines once received in the Church should be subjected to examination, however great the fear may be. It will help avoid “disturbances that might ensue, and evil-disposed persons make revisions that become the object of derision, defamation or denunciation.” Nor should it turn to their advantage [by using it to induce persuasion] so “that those who are not sufficiently enlightened in their faith propose such examination.” At the same time, says Arminius, the Apostle John is offering one of God’s commands, “search and try the spirits whether they be of God.”[10]

If the negative thoughts such as these ideas had operated as the back of Luther, Zwingli, and others’ minds, they would never have pried into the doctrines coming out of the Vatican or have subjected it to a scrutinizing examination.[11] I would say the same thing about the founders of our denominations. They were influenced in their interpretation of Scripture by their skills in Hebrew and Greek, plus resources for research and scholarly peer review.

John Trapp (1601-1669) says that the Apostle John challenged these false prophets not only in his church back then but in ours today.

John Owen (1616-1663) says that what we have learned from the discussions about testing the spirits (meaning false preachers) that have gone abroad has busied themselves, at certain intervals, since the ascension of the Anointed One. We now see that the past generations that refuse to conform to God’s Word we see now pass and away because of the curse of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.[12] But God cannot be touched by them, so they act, presuming that everything is fine. It’s all designed by Satan since he is the god of this world. It is nothing but pride that will not overcome God’s wisdom. He transforms himself into an angel of light, and he will also pretend to be a Spirit.

Owen continues by pointing out: there are “seducing spirits.” We are “commanded not to believe every spirit, but try the spirits.[13] The reason for this is, “Because many false prophets are gone out into the world;”[14] – that is, men pretending to have a new revelation of new doctrines by the Spirit; whose deceits in the first church were hinted at by the Apostle Paul. But the Apostle tells them not to become quickly “unsettled or alarmed.”[15] The truth is, the spirits of these days are so uncultured that a person can easily discern and expose them. Yet, their delusion is so strong that it deceived many Christian communities. It is one thing that is obvious to everyone. So, with his outrageous plans and fantasies, Satan has run into an extreme case of people acting worse than he did as an actor.[16]

Daniel Whitby (1638-1726) paraphrases verse one that reads: “Beloved, believe not every (pretender to the) Spirit (of God), but try the spirits whether they be of God (or not): because many false prophets are gone out into the world.”[17] So, we can see that as early as the 1600s, Bible scholars realized that the translation from Greek to English was only word-for-word, not the implications of essential words.

William Burkitt (1650-1703) notes that from the last verse in chapter three, which mentions God’s Spirit abiding in the souls of believers, the Apostle John now issues a warning. He did not want the Christians to whom he wrote to be deceived by those who might pretend to be inspired by the Holy Spirit when indeed they were not. So John opens this chapter to caution and counsel all Christians to heed being seduced by such antichrists. Instead, don’t believe every spirit – including every teacher pretending to be inspired and every doctrine that claims to have divine revelation. Instead, test these professors; that is, examine their principles by the rule of God’s Word, and inquire as to who ordained them, was it the Spirit of God or Satan. So, what can we learn from this: There are people from the beginning of Christianity who have, and still do, falsely pretend they have God’s anointing.[18]


[1] Didymus the Blind, Bray (Ed.), James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, op. cit. loc. cit.

[2] John Cassian: The Conferences 1.20

[3] Matthew 7:15-16

[4] Bede the Venerable, Ancient Christian Commentary, Vol. XI, Bray, G. (Ed.), James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John

[5] Hilton, Walter: The Scale of Perfection, Bk. 1, Part 1, 10, p. 41

[6] 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21

[7] Tyndale, William: Expositions and Notes on Sundry Portions of the Holy Scriptures, together with The Practice of Prelates, Published by The University Press, Cambridge, 1859, p. 195

[8] Meaning as a symbol, emblem, or as an allegory

[9] Calvin, John: Commentary on Catholic Epistles, (1509) op. cit., loc. cit.

[10] 1 John 4:1

[11] The Works of James Arminius, Vol. 1, A Declaration of the Sentiments of Arminius, The Revision of the Dutch Confession, and the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 234

[12] Cf. Mark 3:22-29

[13] 1 Timothy 4:1

[14] 1 John 4:1

[15] 2 Thessalonians 2:2

[16] Owen, John: On Communion with God, op. cit., Part 3, Ch. 5, p. 340

[17] Whitby, Daniel: A Paraphrase with Annotations, p. 466

[18] Burkitt, William: Expository Notes on N.T., op. cit., p. 729

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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