WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

by Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson XI) 01/31/22

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.

Stephen S. Malley (1931-2018) gives his perspective on the many false prophets gone out into the world. Smalley reads it as false prophets who have “defected” to the world. They are, undoubtedly, the dissenting members of John’s congregation who have spearheaded a secession from the community (having lost faith, as well as, membership) and making a direct reference to this “defection.[1] Although it is quite possible, says Smalley, that diverse opinions about Jesus were being spread by docetic teaching by unorthodox members of the Johannine congregations. Therefore, those with this outlook led the breakaway.[2] Such heretics are probably in John’s mind. Thus, he refers to them as “false prophets” here (a term which occurs in the Gospel and letters of John at this point alone).[3] In other words, these false prophets were not trying to get into the church but were already part of the church.

Edward J. Malatesta (1932-1998) compares verses 2:12-18 with 4:1-6 and finds that the Apostle John further interiorizes[4] the contrast between belief and unbelief. The inner battlefield is not the believer’s community but the community’s heart. The Apostle John faced the adverse requirements of false love and a positive element to exercise prudent judgment. The reason for this urgent need for such discernment was the presence of the antichrist spirit in the world. It became a case of one energy judging another nature to see which one was from God. Spirit-filled believers can perceive inner energy’s divine or evil origin through outer ways of acting and speaking. Thus, John wanted his audience to have a spirit-tester, and he had one that worked and was ready to go.[5]

Ian Howard Marshall (1934-2015) says that a statement attributable to inspiration by a spirit did not prove that it was God’s Spirit at work. So, John found it necessary to remind his readers that they should not accept every “spirit” as godly. The word “spirit” here must mean either “utterance inspired by a spirit” or “person inspired by a spirit.” In the latter case, the thought is perhaps of the individual spirit of a prophet, which God or Satan might inspire.[6] Since this is the case, the church members must not believe what is said by every individual claiming to be inspired without first testing whether the anointing spirit is from God. Such prophets were the subject of warnings by Jesus;[7] we have seen how John regarded them as manifestations of the antichrist spirit.[8] The critical question is: how do you test such people?[9] [10]

David Stern (1935) says that after years of having lost touch with the spiritual realm altogether, many people are rediscovering it but have not the discernment to know which spirits “are from God.” Not every inner voice or feeling is from God. Some are merely from ourselves, either consequences of being overtired or stressed or expressions of our wishes and fears. Others are genuinely from a spiritual realm, but, unfortunately, from Satan and his demons, not from God and His angels. By the same token, not every prophet or religious teacher is from God; yet some are.[11] As such, these spirits need testing. Not by our imagination or consulting with others, but by the golden measuring stick – God’s Word.

John Painter (1935) notes that the two commands, negative and positive, are introduced. “Do not believe … but test.” The negative command may imply that the Apostle John thought the readers were inclined to believe every spirit. The positive command is also authoritative. The Apostle Paul says that the discernment of spirits is depicted as one of the gifts of the Spirit.[12] This problem continued to haunt the early church, as evidenced in the treatment of this subject in the teachings of the twelve apostles known as the “Didache.”[13] [14]

Muncia Walls (1937) says it would appear, and many commentators agree; John continues his argument against the Gnostics in this chapter as well. While the Gnostics, like many present-day false teachers, claimed to possess the Spirit – in fact, many claimed – as many do today, that they were more spiritual than John’s readers. Hence, we have the warning from John to prove the spirits.[15] One of these modern-day Gnostics claims is they require experiential evidence, not some pie-in-the-sky faith. But there are ways to counteract this. For instance, ask them if they can see a relative who lives far away in another state with their naked eye. The logical answer is, “No.” But do they believe they are there? Yes, of course. Can they pretend to talk to them without a phone or through the internet? Probably. Have they received any letters or packages from them? Probably. And yet, just because we can’t see God with their physical eyes, and even if we can talk to Him without a phone, have received many letters from Him and blessings that have no other source but His generosity, they call us fools.

James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000) states that here is precisely the problem John was dealing with in his churches. It is the question of who is right. And there is one test – a crucial test – by which true and false prophets may be distinguished: fulfillment. In other words, whose prophecies come true? For instance, the incident in the days of King Ahab, when the prophet Micaiah was pitted against 400 other prophets, the king called for consultation. Will Ahab be killed, or will he not? Will Israel be scattered, or will she return victorious?[16] In this case, Micaiah was vindicated. This is the test that Jeremiah gives: “But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true.[17] Or, to present it from the negative side, it is also the test given to the Israelites: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a sign that Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.”[18] [19]

In a way, this is what the Apostle John was telling his readers. Whenever any of these so-called prophets who claim to be inspired by God’s Spirit speak their message, they find out if it comes true as they said, and does it conflict with any of the words spoken by the true messengers of God who speak under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. If so, disregard what they have said, and do not be afraid of them.

Michael Eaton (1942-2017) notes that there are prophecies that come from the Holy Spirit of God. But some prophecies come from the person’s mind, a “deceit of the heart.”[20] Worse still, there are “deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons.”[21] So, what kind of tests did John have in mind? The next verse specifies one, but he may have had others. There are five more I want to suggest, says Eaton. (1) Νοn-fulfilment. Often prophecies have an element. If the prediction does not come true, was it a false revelation? (2) Influence good or evil. A true revelation will lead to holy living. (3) Fundamental. Moses warned of prophets who encouraged people to go after a god other than the LORD God of Israel.[22] (4) Motivation. Prophesying can be a financially rewarding business. The Apostle Paul warned against “peddling” the Word of God for money.[23] (5) Eccentricity. Bizarre and eccentric claims to revelations are to be viewed with caution. For example, Satan urges Jesus to turn stones into bread and suggests a suicide-leap from the pinnacle of the temple. It is worth mentioning, says Eaton, what is not a test of true prophecy are “Signs and wonders.” Moses warned about a prophet who would come “and gives you a sign or a wonder.”[24] Even if the sign or the wonder happens, the prophecy is not to be received if it is against fundamental teaching and orthodox living.[25]

William Loader (1944) says that by encouraging the readers not to trust every spirit but to test the spirits, the Apostle John uses spirit to refer to the power or energy that inspires a particular utterance on a specific occasion. Paul writes, “It is for prophets to control prophetic inspiration;”[26] literally, “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.” The Apostles Paul and John share the same world of thought. From this point of view, even when speaking of the activity of the Spirit of God, people used the word spirit in two ways. It generally referred to the Holy Spirit; it was not unusual for people to use the word spirit to refer to the inspiring force behind any such event and speak. They also used the plural “spirits” even when they were sure it was one spirit by which each prophet spoke.[27] So, by testing what was being said with the Gospel and the character of each speaker, allowed them to determine whether they were anointed by the Holy Spirit or a Satanic spirit. The prophets were all vessels of communication; it was a matter of discerning which spirit was operating through them. By so doing, they focused on the message instead of the messenger.


[1] Cf. 1 John 2:18-19

[2] Cf. 1 John 4:2 and 2 John 1:7

[3] Smalley, Stephen S., Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 51, op. cit., p. 219

[4]Interiority” is a character’s thoughts, feelings, reactions, and inner struggles. The moment in question can be big or small, the reaction can be casual or life-changing.

[5] Malatesta, Edward J., Interiority and Covenant, op. cit., p. 283

[6] The plural “spirits” does not refer to a multiplicity of divine spirits or even evil spirits but to a multiplicity of human beings who may be inspired in their spirit by the Spirit of God or the spirit of falsehood.

[7] Matthew 7:15; Mark 13:22

[8] 1 John 2:18

[9] See 1 Thessalonians 5:21; Didache 11:11; 12:1; Hermas, Mandate 11:7; 1 Clement 42:4

[10] Marshall, I. Howard. The Epistles of John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, op. cit., p. 204

[11] Stern, David H., Jewish New Testament Commentary, op. cit., Kindle Edition

[12] 1 Corinthians 12:10

[13] Didache 11:5; 12:1

[14] Painter, John. Sacra Pagina: 1, 2, and 3 John: Vol. 18

[15] Walls, Muncia: Epistles of John & Jude, op. cit., p.67

[16] 1 Kings 22:5-28

[17] Jeremiah 28:9

[18] Deuteronomy 18:22

[19] Boice, James Montgomery: The Epistles of John, op. cit., p. 107-108

[20] Jeremiah 14:14

[21] 1 Timothy 4:1

[22] Deuteronomy 13:1-3

[23] 2 Corinthians 2:17

[24] Deuteronomy 13:1

[25] Eaton, Michael, Focus on the Bible, 1,2,3 John, op. cit., pp. 131-133

[26] 1 Corinthians 14:32

[27] Loader, William: Epworth Commentary, op. cit., pp. 47-48

About drbob76

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