WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

by Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson VIII) 01/26/22

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.

Aaron M. Hills (1848-1911) says that we should be aware that the devil may, when given the opportunity, counterfeit emotional feelings in the likeness of what an anointed message may accomplish, for just as a good minister comes with light, so can the devil.[1] And as he can do this in matters of seeing, he can do it in the other issues. Christians who have felt both can quickly tell which were good or evil. But anyone who has never felt either, or perhaps one of them, may easily be deceived. These two may be alike in external feelings. Still, they are different internally. Therefore, they should not desire nor be entertained lightly unless the soul can know the difference to escape being fooled by the spirit of discretion. As the Apostle John tells us: “Trust not every spirit.” That way, by one trial, says Hill, I believe you’ll know the good from the evil.[2]

It starts with the philosophical theory of an incompatible resentment between matter and spirit. David Smith (1866-1932) notes that the Apostle John has just said that the Spirit implants the assurance that God abides in us. And this suggests a warning. The Cerinthian heresy also had much to say about “the spirit.” It boasted a more critical spirituality. As such, they denied the possibility of the Incarnation and distinguished Jesus the Man and Jesus the Anointed One. Their spirit was not “the Spirit of Truth” but “a spirit of error,” and that gave rise to a “proving the spirits” of “verifying” or “testing” as they do paper currency to see if it is fake or counterfeit. If it stood the test, it is approved;[3] if not, it was determined to be worthless.[4] [5]

Albert Barnes (1872-1951) hears the Apostle John cautioning his readers not to take what a person who professes to be under the influences of the Holy Spirit tells you as being factual.[6] The true and the false teachers of religion alike claimed to be under the power of the Spirit of God. It was of importance that believers examine all such pretensions. It was not to be acknowledged just because someone claimed to have been sent by God, as though that was a proven fact. Christians should subject all such claims to the proper proof before acceptance. All pretensions to Divine inspiration, or to being authorized teachers of Christianity, were to be examined by the appropriate tests because many false and delusive teachers went around in the world making such claims.[7] The same is still valid and necessary today.

Harry A. Ironside (1876-1951) states that the Apostle John’s appeal is of tremendous importance today. There are still multitudes who profess to interpret God’s message to humanity and claim to be under the controlling power of the Holy Spirit, who in reality are controlled by evil spirits. They teach things for which they have no Scriptural basis, claiming to have a special revelation from God.  Even God’s Word says it is only money these leaders are after; they’ll self-destruct in no time. Lust for money brings trouble and nothing but trouble. Going down that path, some lose their footing in the faith altogether and live to regret it bitterly ever after.[8] These false teachers can predict the future or arrive with a message from others and say it is from God.[9] A true prophet, says the Apostle Paul, prophesies, strengthens others, encourages them, and comforts them. So, when someone comes professing to be a messenger from God, they must be tested by the Word of God.[10] Most of these charlatans do not have any revelation directly from God, so what they say or prophesy is opinion or supposition.

Charles H. Dodd (1884-1973) believes that the Apostle John is pointing to heretical teachers. They were nominal members of the Church. But, says John, they can never have been loyal members, or else they would have never separated themselves from it.[11] No, their spiritual home is the heathen world; the sources of their teaching are pagan, so they find ready acceptance in the agnostic world.[12] The description would fit the “Gnostics” whose teachings we know, for we must conclude that the pagan element is the fundamental basis in most of them, and the Christian feature is just for show. Some of them (not all) no doubt intended, by “reinterpreting” Christianity in Gnostic terms, were recommending the Gospel to the pagan world. Evidence suggests that their missionary activities made a broad appeal for a time and seriously rivaled orthodox Christianity, with its conservatism and inflexibility to become part of this new version of Christianity.

There was more evidence that the two had separated by the end of the second century, notes Dodd. The Church was almost “out of the woods,” so to speak. Still, behind this lies a period in which central or traditional Christianity had its back to the wall and saw the increasing success of these compromising systems. Unfortunately, very little documentation survived that period. So, this present passage represents this conflict in its early stages.[13] However, there is plenty of evidence that this new version of Christianity is alive and growing today.

Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) points to the Apostle John’s instructions to “test the spirits.” Apparently, there were several of these seductive powers, and it is necessary to test them to see “whether they are of God.” Does that mean there are “spirits” among those to be tried in which one could have faith? In support of an affirmative answer, one could appeal to what the Apostle Paul said, “Test everything that you hear and hold on to what is good.”[14] But, according to John, there is only one “Spirit of God,” also called the “Spirit of Truth.” He is opposed to the “spirit of error” or “antichrist spirit.” It is essential to recognize this. When the warning refers to “spirits” in the plural, it is undoubtedly because the “spirit of error” is operative in a plurality of seducers. Accordingly, John provides a warning with a closing clause as its premise: “for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”[15] With this, we can see the possibility that John was not necessarily referring to “many spirits,” but “many with the same spirit.”

Greville P. Lewis (1891-1976) says that the mention of the Spirit reminds the Apostle John that one of the gifts of the Spirit is inspiration. It was what the heretics supposedly took with them when they resigned their membership and “went out into the world.”[16] Some regarded them as inspired “prophets” in the Asia Minor churches. In the first century, the Apostles were the supreme doctrinal authority, for they could bear witness to hearing the prewritten Gospel. Subordinate to them were the “prophets,”[17] those under the Holy Spirit’s influence[18] who interpreted these facts and declared their significance in each developing situation.

But, as Paul discovered, notes Lewis, this prophetic liberty must always be disciplined by the fundamental truths of the Gospel, and John knows that this discipline is urgently needed in his day. It seems that the heretics claimed that their superior knowledge had been imparted to them by God’s Spirit – probably in vision-like experiences and that this particular revelation made John and the Apostle’s primitive faith out-of-date and inadequate.  But, says John, “Don’t believe every spirit.” Prophets may be inspired, not by the Holy Spirit, but by an evil antichrist spirit, and, therefore, producing “fake prophets.”[19] [20]

Amos N. Wilder (1895-1993) says that many have not noticed that the Apostle John’s First Epistle comes in verse form. If one reads this letter with attention to its style, they find recurrent features of balanced phrasing. We may note several examples which we would hardly admit as poetry. We come upon one instance immediately in the opening verse:

That which was from the beginning,

   which we have heard,

   which we have seen with our eyes,

   which we have looked upon

   and touched with our hands.[21]

These are enough evidence to suggest that this letter rests on a poetic source that it continually cites and to which the writer adds his comments and applications. Rudolf Bultmann finds such a source here and through parts of John’s Gospel of John. If this material is not poetry in the sense that the Psalms and Song of Solomon are poetry, it is nevertheless not prose. It is formal rhetoric of a rhythmic character used in the Christian meetings and had its Hellenistic and Hellenistic-Jewish liturgy background.[22] Wilder suggests that the person John selected to write this epistle for him in Greek, no doubt, took his dictation from the Apostle, not in an office secretarial setting, but while listening to John preach or teach this message. Whoever this ghostwriter was, they must have had familiarity with the poetic writing style of the Jews and Greeks. It takes nothing away from the power and truth of what John was teaching. But knowing that Greeks might read it, John wanted it presented in a way that would attract their curiosity and attention. This thinking is speculation and must be taken as theory, not enlightenment from the Holy Spirit. Also, it applies only to portions of the Epistle, not the whole text.


[1] 2 Corinthians 11:14

[2] Hill, Aaron M., The Scale of Perfection, op. cit., Bk. 1, Part 1, p. 41

[3] 2 Corinthians 10:18;

[4] 2 Corinthians 13:5; Cf. Jeremiah 6:30

[5] Smith, David: Expositors New Testament, op. cit., p. 189

[6] Cf. Matthew 24:4-5

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

[8] 1 Timothy 6:9-10 – The Message

[9] See 1 Corinthians 14:3

[10] Ironside, Harry A., The Epistles of John and Jude, op. cit., p. 125

[11] 1 John 2:18-19

[12] Ibid. 4:5

[13] Dodd, Charles H., Moffett Commentary, Johannine Epistles, op. cit., p. 98

[14] 1 Thessalonians 5:21

[15] Bultmann, Rudolf, Hermeneia, A Critical and Historical Commentary, op. cit., pp. 61-62

[16] 1 John 2:19

[17] 1 Corinthians 12:28; 14L1-5; Ephesians 4:11

[18] John 16:13

[19] See Deuteronomy 13:1-2; Jeremiah 14:14; Mark 13:22

[20] Lewis, Greville P., The Johannine Epistles, Epworth Preacher’s Commentary, loc. cit., pp. 93-94

[21] Cf. 1 John 2:9-11, 12-14; 4:2-3, 5-6; 5:1

[22] Wilder, Amos N., Early Christian Rhetoric, op. cit., pp. 114-115

About drbob76

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