WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

by Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson IV) January 20, 2022

4:1a Dearly loved friends, don’t always believe everything you hear simply because someone says it is a message from God: test it first to see if it actually is, for there are many false teachers all around.

Catholic priest George Haydock (1778-1862) interprets what the Apostle John says here by quoting Roman Catholic Bible Scholar Robert Witham (1667-1738), President of the English College at Douay, France,[1] that every doctrine that you hear: for now, are many false teachers, false doctors, and false prophets, by examining whether their teaching is agreeable to the Catholic faith’s rule and the Church’s doctrines. For, he says, as the Apostle John said, “He that knoweth God, heareth us: (the pastors of the Church) . . . by this we know the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.”[2] Then Haydock quotes Richard Challoner (1691-1781), English Roman Catholic bishop – “The Church only, not every individual has to prove and discern the spirits.”[3] It appears that Haydock did not have any personal views, and after reading Witham and Challoner, that is understandable. Whether Catholic or Protestant, no church should claim exclusive rights to interpreting the Bible.

Wilhelm Leberecht De Wette (1780-1849) addresses the Apostle John’s epistle in a critical tone. He says there are no certain marks of the date of this Epistle. If we accept the references and suggestions some have offered on John’s Gospel, he wrote his epistles later. That its tone betrays the great age of its author is an unproven idea of some particular scholar’s conclusion. There is no reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple or against false Christians and false teachers (Antichrists), first in general,[4] then more specifically.[5] John’s epistles is supposed by some;[6] to be morally indifferent regarding the Law. Perhaps this was a peculiarity of the Docetæ,[7] who were spreading false doctrines at the time, is uncertain. All the other supposed leanings are improbable, especially those concerning apostate Jewish Christians and John’s disciples.[8]

It isn’t that De Wette attempts to dismiss this epistle as being written by the Apostle John; he simply wants us to recognize that we should not overemphasize historical presumptions and make it part of our teaching. I’m sure that some of the early church scholars who were closer to John’s time here on earth, and some who even knew him and who state clearly that this was John’s letter, must be respected and accepted as genuine. Hence, the Council of Trent approved this epistle as part of the Final Covenant on facts, not fiction. De Wette’s point reminds me of the modern manger scene where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are surrounded by the Shepherds and Three Wise men, when these three Magi did not possibly arrive until almost two years after Jesus was born.

Augustus Neander (1789-1850) notices that enthusiasm for the truth is often made counterfeit by enthusiasm for error. Such delusion and fanaticism had their prophets in the Apostle John’s Day. False prophets mingled with the true. Error in doctrine, proclaimed with all the passion of pretending inspiration, brought on by the influence of that enthusiasm is more powerful than what they are saying. Hence, Christians need some decisive test whereby they might be secured against the impact of this deception and be enabled to distinguish between true and false inspiration. It is furnished by the Apostle John telling them to try the spirits whether they are of God. That’s how we’ll recognize the Spirit of God. Every spirit that confesses that Jesus the Anointed One has come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is of God is the spirit of Antichrist they heard was coming and even now was in the world.[9]

In speaking about the distinguishing influences in revival, Charles Finney (1792-1875) taught the Apostle John says: “Try the spirits” by the Bible. People are sometimes led away by strange fantasies and crazy impulses. If you compare them faithfully with the Bible, you never need to be led astray. You can always know whether the Spirit’s influences produce your feelings by comparing your desires with the spirit and temper of religion, as described in the Bible. The Bible commands you to “try the spirits.” As John states, we should try every spirit to determine whether they are of God.[10] [11]

Later on, Finney lectures on for whom does the Spirit intercede? He asks, why do you suppose we do not stress the influences of the Spirit in prayer? Do you hear a lot about His impact in conversion? This subject exposes the problematic underpinning felt by many on the Prayer of Faith. Some suppose that the Apostle Paul prayed unsuccessfully in faith to remove the thorn in the flesh. But they cannot prove that Paul prayed in faith. In praying for an object, it is necessary to persevere till you obtain it.

That’s why, says Finney, the fear of being led by impulses has done significant injury by not being duly considered. Some spiritual ignis fatuus[12] may mislead a person’s mind. But we are wrong if we let the fear of impulses lead us to resist the good instincts of the Holy Spirit. There has been a great deal written on the subject of unguarded fanaticism that causes many minds to reject the leadings of God’s Spirit. The Apostle Paul makes that clear “those who the Spirit of God leads are the children of God.”[13] And we must “test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”[14] We should insist on scrutiny and accurate discernment. There must be such a thing as being led by the Spirit. And when convinced it is of God; we should be sure to follow on, with complete confidence that He will not lead us wrong.[15]

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) found what the Apostle John urges here in verse one an inspiration to express his frustration with the “spirits” of his day. John states that many unenlightened people had various deities imposed on them. Then, they heard the authorities menacingly and confusingly charge them, “worship or be damned!” What should they do? The majority of these spirits, current in public worship, whether canonized or not, are prominent religious officials who act stupidly as beatified saints. Not only that, but some of them, who are articulate speakers, are devil-inspired instead of God anointed. To force any misguided individuals looking for salvation from praying to these false idols and icons, whether they are divine or not, is a terrible consequence and lays an awful burden upon each person pressured to do so, however. At their risk, they must comply. And among their neighbors, all but a select portion of them, a segment not generally ordained or sanctioned, can be of little help. Instead, they will continually hinder them from finding salvation as things go.[16]

It is an old British way of saying that anyone seeking God for help or salvation should never allow anything to get in between them and God, whether it be a highly respected individual or a sacred icon. There is no confession booth or baptismal pool, or christening font ascribed in the Bible before confessing one’s sins and asking God’s forgiveness in Jesus’ name. Jesus asked the Father to send a comforter and confessor to do this work – the Holy Spirit.

Albert Barnes (1798-1870) agrees that we should not confide implicitly in everyone who professes to be under the influences of the Holy Spirit.[17] Those in the early Christian church had the gift of “discerning spirits,” but it is not sure that the Apostle John refers here to any such supernatural power. As he addresses this command to Christians in general, it is more probable that he refers to doing this by comparing the doctrines they professed to hold with what was revealed and by the fruits of their principles in their lives. If they taught what God inspired in His Word, and their lives corresponded with His requirements, and their doctrines agreed with what had been taught by those identified as true apostles,[18] they were to receive them as what they professed to be. If not, they were to reject them and hold them to be impostors. “You don’t have to wait,” says John, “there are many of them already out there in the world.”[19]

Heinrich A. W. Meyer (1800-1873) notes that the Apostle John first urges them not to believe every spirit. The idea of “spirit” is closely connected with “pseudo-prophecy” or false prophets. The true prophets spoke by the power of the Holy Spirit because, like John, the Apostle Peter tells us, “Prophecy never had its origin in the human will.”[20][21]

Johann P. Lange (1802- 1884) says that the Apostle John cautions believers who believe in the name of the Son of God in the Holy Spirit’s power[22] given to them and bearing witness to their spirit that they are the children of God.[23] They must not believe the same Spirit inspires every prophet (preacher). It references various influences, not of the same kind, but different attitudes. Therefore, we must understand the expression of the spirits of men to whom the witness of the Spirit. Human nature has its peculiarity, unique gifts, views, mode of expression, which the anointing Spirit does not change or make uniform. Other than God’s Spirit, many a spirit might secure our approval, sympathy, and attention. Hence the warning, to which, because of its great importance, John quickly attaches this appeal – “try such spirits to see if God influences them.”[24] But John does not leave it hanging there; he will go on to explain how to test these spirits.


[1] Witham, Robert: Annotations on the New Testament of Jesus the Anointed One

[2] 1 John 4:6 – Roman Catholic Douay Version

[3] Haydock, George: Catholic Bible Commentary, op. cit., loc. cit.

[4] 1 John 2:18-26

[5] Ibid. 4:1-6

[6] Ibid. 3:4

[7] Docetæ was an ancient sect of heretics who held that the Anointed One’s body was merely a phantom or appearance.

[8] Der Wette, Wilhelm Martin Leberecht: Historical-Critical Introduction, op. cit., pp. 358-359

[9] Neander, Augustus: First Epistle of John, op. cit., pp. 237-238

[10] 1 John 4:1

[11] Finney, Charles, Lectures on Revival, Lecture 6, The Spirit of Prayer, p. 89

[12] Ignis fatuus is a light that sometimes appears in the night over marshy ground and is often attributable to the combustion of gas from decomposed organic matter.

[13] Romans 8:14

[14] 1 John 4:1

[15] Finney, Charles: Lectures on Revival, op. cit., Lecture 6, The Spirit of Prayer, p. 95

[16] Thomas Carlyle: Latter-Day Pamphlets, Chapman and Hall, London, 1850, No. VIII, Jesuitism, p. 293

[17] Cf. Matthew 24:4-5

[18] See 1 John 4:6

[19] Barnes, Albert: New Testament Notes, op. cit., p. 4858

[20] 2 Peter 1:21

[21] Meyer, Heinrich A. W., Critical Commentary on 1 John, Vol. 13, op. cit., p. 579

[22] Ibid. 3:24

[23] Cf. Romans 8:16

[24] Lange, Johann: Exegetical Commentary, op. cit., pp. 132-133

About drbob76

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