WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

by Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson VII) 01/25/22

4:1 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.

Brooke F. Westcott (1825-1901) suggests this outline for the first part of chapter four in the Apostle John’s First Epistle:

1 There are many spiritual influences at work (verse 1)

2 The trial of spirits lies in the witness to the incarnation (verses 2, 3)

3 The test of people lies in recognition of the Truth (verses 4, 5)

The progress of thought here parallels that in 2:18-29, but John’s argument has passed to a new stage. Then, his teaching centered on the Messiahship, the Sonship of Jesus: here, the Incarnation of Jesus the Anointed One. There John insisted on the original message of the Gospel: here, he appears to regard the fuller interpretation of that message. This section, in fact, presents the conflict of our Faith with its counterfeits as a conflict of spiritual powers, unseen and real.

There are many spiritual powers active among humanity, continues Westcott, and our first impulse is to decide whether to believe them or not. Some of these are evil influences belonging to an unseen source that comes to us under false forms of ambition, power, honor, prestige, prosperity, and knowledge, distinguished from bodily passions. All such spirits are partial revelations of the one force of evil which became embodied in humanity after Adam’s fall. They represent that which is unseen but felt. It all adds up to this; we must discern whether their characteristics and power are from God or some other force. John does not detail how this happens; he only recommends that we ascertain if they recognize Jesus of Nazareth as the Anointed One, the Son of God and that He came to us clothed in human flesh.[1]

Mr. Morgan Dix (1827-1908), in speaking about how we know the spirit of truth, and the enthusiasm of error, says that “time” is attitude. The Germans call it Zeit Geist,[2] the character of the age in which we live. What is that energy? It is the world about us, this age of ours, speaking inarticulately to the soul of man. The world lies all around, a varied, splendid scene; vast, rich, fair, full of wealth and beauty. It is like an adorable body without a soul until it can express itself. But it voices itself in the trends of the times and thus talks to our hearts.

Its mediums are manifold and diverse; among them are art and literature; the voices vary greatly, according to race, age, and environment. It is an age of marvels. Here are scholars studying and speculating; inventors planning and contriving; politicians doing their best as architects of their fortunes. Poets, painters, mechanics, and artisans; are grand cities, growing more splendid yearly. Here we have luxury, comfort, delights of all sorts, music, world’s shows, balls, dances, entertainments, with titles, dress, gala, and glory to the full. What is all this? Mere chaos of activities till the Zeit Geist speaks. It gives what is needed, expression and interpretation; as the musician would say, it interprets the world’s psalm of life.[3] For instance, we often refer to the “Roaring Twenties” and the “Free Love Sixties.”

Henry A. Sawtelle (1832-1913) asks, should we take the word of every person who says they have God’s anointing? Is a person’s vow they have God’s Spirit enough for us? Should we accept them just on their word alone? “No,” says the Apostle John, “it is our responsibility not to believe every spirit without testing everyone thoroughly.” Use appropriate tests to determine whether the nature of those who come to you with their religious claims has been truly anointed with God’s Spirit or is under some other influence. John’s command suggests that we carefully examine and prove all who apply for a place in the Anointed One’s Church. Anyone assuming to be a Christian teacher cannot be convinced otherwise, and their work is labeled an ungodly ministry.[4] Remember, we only apply the test John gives us, not make up one ourselves.

John James Lias (1834-1923) says, we know, from the Apostle Paul,[5] that spiritual manifestations were common in the Apostolic Church and that the prophets were supposed to speak under God’s spiritual influence.[6] The Apostle John here means (and the expression “false prophets” confirms this view) that every person speaking under spiritual inspiration is not, therefore, automatically believed. There are false revelations and true ones. John would have people understand that specific objective tests exist whereby a believer distinguishes authentic disclosures from false ones. What those tests were, the Apostle tells us in verse two.[7] Lias goes on to explain that there is Scriptural proof of this.[8] [9]

Greek Word scholar Marvin Vincent (1834-1921) points out that the term “false prophets” is applied in the Final Convent to rivals of true prophets under the First Covenant and rivals of the Apostles under the Gospel economy.[10] In the Book of Revelation “the embodied power of spiritual falsehood.”[11] The prophets support their claims by signs and wonders[12] which can identify false teachers.[13] It is interesting to note that the only word that changes concerning prophets and teachers is “false.” Prophets are better known today as “preachers.”

Augustus H. Strong (1836-1921) asks, “How could God develop our minds, our power of moral judgment if there were no spirit to be tried, no necessity for discrimination, no discipline of search and challenge and choice?” The blessing of life’s schooling is not knowing the right answer in advance but developing understanding through struggle.[14]

Theodore Zahn (1838-1933) states that the prophets of the apostolic age had to subject themselves to the criticism of their fellow Christians. They were cautioned against over-excitement and the infusion of their thoughts and desires into what was given them by the Spirit. But, on the other hand, every Christian prophet of that time must have been conscious of the contrast between the true and the false prophets who appeared among them, especially with those in their immediate neighborhood.[15] These are, without exception, depicted as immoral individuals, and in some cases, as preachers of false doctrine. But the idea of false prophets involves neither immorality nor false teaching; instead, they falsely pretend to be a prophet receiving divine revelation.[16] They are to be known by their fruits in life and doctrine. First of all, such fruit belongs to the sincerity of their statements and the origin of their preaching. There could be no suspicion of confusion regarding these elemental truths in the early Christian preacher’s or teacher’s case.[17]

Erich Haupt (1841-1926) points out that this trying of the spirits, which the presence of the lying prophets the Apostle John alludes to, was urgently required that all Christians must be aware of and put into practice. John addresses his appeal to the entire Christian community. Indeed, according to the Apostle Paul, there was a “gift of discernment of spirits.”[18] It was related to the charisma (allurement) of the prophets as the interpretation was relayed in spoken language. They presumed that all had the Holy Spirit, negating the possibility that anyone might detect an opposing spirit. John might as well enforce, nevertheless, this testing duty upon all.[19]

Clement Clemance (1845-1886) points out that the confession of the Incarnation was the assurance that the Spirit of God, who is the Spirit of truth, is working in the believer and not the spirit of error. The first six verses teach that two rival influences are contending for power over the souls of humanity. We must test these spirits to see whether they are organs of the Spirit of truth or the spirit of error. The Incarnation of the Son of God as the Anointed One was critical in the Apostle John’s Day because of all the other so-called saviors sent from a higher power. Today, we can see those spirits embodied in the world’s philosophy, psychology, ethics, social customs and traditions, and independence from Christianity in legislation, education, and the judicial system.

Clemence then tells us that “spirits” are principles and tendencies in religion: these need to be tested, for earnestness and enthusiasm are no guarantee of truth. And to test these principles is the duty of the individual Christian as well as the Church in its official capacity. Just as every Athenian was subjected to an examination of their origin and character before they could hold public office, so the spirit of every religious teacher must be examined before their teaching can be accepted.[20] In the early part of the 20th Century, many preachers, teachers, and evangelists claimed the anointing of the Holy Spirit. But as in the Apostle John’s Day, their stand on the role of Jesus the Anointed One as God’s Son in the process of salvation from sin and resurrection to eternal life must be the same now as it was then.


[1] Westcott, Brooke F., The Epistles of St. John, op. cit., pp. 139-140

[2] Zeit Geist means “spirit of the time.”

[3] Dix, Morgan: Biblical Illustrator, Joseph Excell, Ed., op. cit., loc. cit.

[4] Sawtelle, Henry A., An American Commentary, Alvah Hovey Ed., pp. 45-46 

[5] 1 Corinthians 14

[6] Observe in this connection the collocation of prophecy and spiritual agency or influence in 1 Corinthians 12:10, 14:32, 37; and 1 Peter 1:10-12

[7] Lias, John James, Exposition of the First Epistle of John, op. cit., p. 289

[8] We are commanded by more than one Apostle to test the doctrines delivered to us. See 1 Thessalonians 5:21. Also 1 Corinthians 2:10, 14, 15, and 10:15. The foundation of our faith is declared to be such. John 6:45, 14:26, 16:13; Ephesians 2:18, 4:21; 1 Thessalonians 4:9; Hebrews 8:10, 11; 1 John 2:27. Also see Romans 14:6; Colossians 2:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:5

[9] Lias, op. cit., Homiletics, p. 287

[10] Matthew 7:15; 24:11; 24:24; Mark 13:22

[11] Revelation 16:13; 19:20; 20:10

[12] Matthew 24:24; Acts of the Apostles 13:6; Revelation 19:20

[13] Vincent, Marvin R., Word Studies in the New Testament, Vol. II, p. 335

[14] Strong, Augustus H., Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, op. cit., p. 381

[15] See Revelation 2:20; cf. Matthew 7:15-23, 24:11, 24; Luke 6:26; 2 Peter 2:1; Revelation 19:20

[16] Revelation 2:20; Jeremiah 14:14; Deuteronomy 18:20-22

[17] Zahn, Theodor: Introduction to the New Testament, op. cit., pp. 386-387

[18] See 1 Corinthians 12:10

[19] Haupt, Erich: The First Epistle of St. John, op. cit., p. 243

[20] Clemance, Clement: First Epistle of John, Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 22, Exposition, op. cit., p. 102

About drbob76

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