WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

by Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson V) 01/21/22

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.

Later, Lange notes that when the Apostle John said, “Try,” it is a command! 1) Because of the occasion: it is an order:[1] 2) The importance: whether they are of God; 3) The difficulty: the spirits. Do not be afraid of the majority, but fear the majesty of the truth of God; take care that you do not violate it; the former cannot and must not have any influence in matters of eternal truth and of eternal life. The truth does not come from the masses, but from One, with whom we ought to agree and to whom we ought to approve. Still, although it comes only from one, it is nevertheless designed for all. Therefore, it should be brought to and distributed among the masses through preaching, testimony, and witness.[2]

Johann E. Huther (1807-1880) states that the Apostle John first encourages his readers not to believe every spirit. The idea of spirits connects closely with false prophets. The true prophets spoke, as the Apostle Peter says, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.[3] By this source of the revelations, they proclaim never had its origin in the human will. Prophets, although human, spoke from God as the Holy Spirit carried them along. That means more than just having an idea or imagination, but by the power of God, distinct from their personality, inspiring and determining what is said. Mary, the mother of Jesus, believed the message brought to her by an angel was authentic.[4]

Then Huther writes, as John speaks here of a plurality of spirits, we understand that “spirits” in this passage do not refer to some higher energy different from their human spirit, but some spirit that penetrated and motivated them to prophecy. However, we may speak of this spirit, not only in plurality but also in unity, that is, in a collective sense. The good and bad prophets are animated by unseen energy, whether godly or ungodly. They form together one unity. It is incorrect to understand “spirits” here as a figure of speech. Each prophet believes that what they are saying is God-approved.[5]

John told us there is one sure way to tell the difference, whether or not they confess that Jesus the Anointed One, the Son of God, became a human being to save the world. Our Lord added another test when He said, “Be careful of false prophets. They come to you and look gentle like sheep. But they are dangerous like wolves. You will know these people because of what they do. Good things don’t come from evil people, just as grapes don’t come from thornbushes, and figs don’t come from thorny weeds. In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, and bad trees produce harmful fruit.”[6]

Christopher Wordsworth (1807-1885) notices that the Apostle John begins this Epistle without mentioning himself or those he addressed. John appears to be unconscious of his individuality and that of his readers. He seems absorbed in the contemplation of the Divine Glory and infinite love and humbleness of the Anointed One. His heart is hot within him, and he speaks emotionally to his flock. We find clues to understand this opening, and other doctrinal portion, of John’s Epistles by observing the errors of false teachers, which John refers to as “antichrists[7] who endeavored to seduce his disciples.[8] They denied that Jesus is the Anointed One and rejected that He was manifest in the flesh. To them, He was not God’s Son.[9] [10]

Daniel D. Whedon (1808-1885) examines the Apostle John’s warning, “Believe not every spirit,” and concludes that there are false inspirations and the trustworthiness in the Apostle’s Day of supernatural manifestations. There are demoniac instigations as well as true revelations.[11]

Henry Alford (1810-1871) quotes the Apostle John’s opening word here, “Beloved,”[12] marking a transition to a subject on which the Apostle affectionately asks them for their undivided attention. He warns them not to believe every spirit, which indicates more than one spirit. John explains that truth and error inspire speakers’ spirits as their vessels. The Apostle Paul uses it about prophecy.[13] By the nature of the testimony of the human spirits, we will know whether they are of Spirit or tools of the spirits. Let us observe that this interpretation of “the spirits” and the Apostle’s way of speaking rests on the assumption of One Spirit of Truth, from God, and one spirit of error, from the world. It counters all rationalizing interpretations, such as Italian theologian Faustus Sozzini, aka “Socinus” (1539-1604), who says it doesn’t take much to inspire our senses.[14] It is not the individuals themselves, but their spirits used as vehicles of God’s Spirit or the spirit of antichrist, that is in question.[15]

William E. Jelf (1811-1875) tells us that some take this opening verse equivalent to the spirits speaking spiritual things. It simply implicates false teachers who pretended to speak in the Spirit, that is, to be empowered by the Spirit to teach. It would give a sufficiently good sense and express the Apostle John’s warning with sufficient accuracy. But it would not, I think, provide the exact notion of “spirits.” Our Lord gives a distinct indication that false prophets would work signs and wonders as did authentic teachers.[16] The same idea is recognized as possible by the Apostle Paul.[17] So, there is no reason why there should not have been persons possessing the power of working miracles, who were, though permitted by God to do so, yet were not from Him or of Him.

These would be called spirits, as the power to accomplish outward works, yet essentially claims to be, the same as the Spirit whereby the Apostle’s performed their miracles. Therefore, the workers of signs and wonders would then be called spirits, and the power whereby they worked would be called Holy Spirit. John is simply warning the disciples not to trust every such exhibition of power as arguing the presence and sanction of God’s Spirit, but to test them. As to the continuance of these miracles worked by an authority other than God, it may suffice to say that it is most reasonable to suppose that they would terminate when miraculous powers ceased in the Church. The critical thing to bear in mind is that even if today’s miracles can be confirmed, they are to be tested by doctrines existing from the beginning in the Church. They are unacceptable as the authority for any fresh revelation novelties unknown to the Apostles. It is the very point against which John is warning the Church.[18]

Richard H Tuck (1817-1868) notes that the Apostle John guards his readers against being misled by false pretensions to the possession of the Spirit in the first three verses.[19] It was his way of telling believers to beware and not be carried away by boastful professions. During all Church ages, persons have claimed to possess supernatural powers or received special revelations. John does not say that they all are insincere and wasting time, but he reminds us that they may be, so we need to verify all their claims by submitting them to careful examination and testing by the Word of God. They may be the delusions of extreme enthusiasts; they may be the lies of impulsive impostors. That is, persons who pretend to have a divine spirit speaking through them.[20] He bids them exercise the charisma of discerning the spirits.[21]

The false prophets were teachers, not fortunetellers, remarks Tuck. People who pretend to receive special revelations cannot be out of harmony with that obtained through the Anointed One and His apostles. Under the First Covenant, prophets were tested by “the law and the testimony.” If they do not speak in line with God’s Word, there is no truth in them.[22] And if no one can testify to experiencing what they claim can happen, they are a farce. Under the Final Covenant, all claimants to Divine inspiration must submit to be tested by the inspired words of the Anointed One and His apostles. Whatever proposes to supersede the revelation given us, says John, and whatever is not in accord with that revelation, must be unethical and untrustworthy. There is no sense in waiting for them, says John; there are already out there spreading their false teachings. It doesn’t mean they had all once been Christian disciples. Some may have been, perhaps, some of the most mischievous ones.[23] We see this done today by the Jehovah’s Witness movement, Mormons, Moonies, Christian Science, and others.

John Stock (1817-1884) calls this a lament and will serve as a lamentation that fearful spirits, yea, even damnable spirits, have been and are in the world. All humans do not have in the Anointed One. The Gospel of the grace of God is disgusting to them. They hate the light of truth because they commit their deeds in the darkness of ignorance. In self-defense, they invent lies, and others who do not share their obnoxious sense of humor, nevertheless, love them when made and find them comforting, false prophets exist and have their disciples. They take shortcuts that lead off the straight and narrow way. Although it is only a footpath, it leads to everlasting life.

The god of this world delights in these devastating falsehoods. Even if a lie is not directly from him, he still agrees with it anyhow. That’s why our Lord called him a liar and a murderer from the beginning. He hides the light of truth and leaves the mind in darkness. The Apostle Paul expressly says so: “If they conceal the Good News, it is hidden only from those who are lost. The ruler of this world has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They cannot see the light of the Good News – the message about the divine greatness of the Anointed One is the one who is exactly like God.”


[1] 1 John 4:1

[2] Lange, Johann: Exegetical Commentary, op. cit., Homiletical, p. 137

[3] 1 Peter 1:21

[4] Luke 1:35

[5] Huther, Matthew: First Epistle of John, op. cit., pp. 579-580

[6] Matthew 7:15-17

[7] 1 John 2:18

[8] Ibid. 2:26; cf. 3:7

[9] Ibid. 2:22

[10] Wordsworth, Christopher: NT of our Lord and Savior, op. cit., #641

[11] Whedon, Daniel: Commentary on the Bible, op. cit., p.272

[12] Cf. 1 John 3:2 3:21; 4:7

[13] 1 Corinthians 14:32

[14] Socinus, Faustus: Italian theologian whose anti-Trinitarian theology was later influential in the development of Unitarian theology. A nephew of the anti-Trinitarian theologian Laelius Socinus, Faustus had no systematic education but early began to reject orthodox Roman Catholic religious doctrines in his Doctrine of the Trinity.

[15] Alford, Henry: Critical and Exegetical Commentary, op. cit., p. 483

[16] Matthew 24:24

[17] 2 Thessalonians 2:9

[18] Jelf, William E., First Epistle of St. John, op. cit., p. 55

[19] See 1 John 2:24

[20] Cf. Acts of the Apostles 8:9; 16:16; 21:9

[21] Cf. 1 Corinthians 12: 4: see also 1 Corinthians 10:15, 11:18, 12:10; Ephesians 5:10; 1 Thessalonians 5:21

[22] Isaiah 8:20

[23] Tuck, Richard H., Preacher’s Complete Homiletical Commentary, op. cit., p. 301

About drbob76

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