WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

by Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson XII) 02/01/22

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.

Robert W. Yarbrough (1948) notes that the Apostle John again calls his readers “beloved.” This noun of direct address occurs at key junctures in his first epistle:

            2: 7        Beloved, I write to you not an old but a new commandment.

               3: 2        Beloved, we are children of God; it is not yet evident what we will be.

               3: 21      Beloved, we have confidence before God if our hearts do not condemn.

               4: 1        Beloved, do not give credence to every spirit.

               4: 7        Beloved, let us love one another.

               4: 11      Beloved, if God loved us this way, we ought to love each other.

John employs “beloved” primarily to introduce weighty statements of fact. In 4:1, however, as also in 4:7, “beloved” precedes a command. This word implies a close rapport between John and his readers in all occurrences. In 4:1 and 4:7, it gives particular weight to his commands. John writes not as a distant authority figure but as a mentor with personal, loving regard for his addressees.[1]

Colin G. Kruse (1950) sees the Apostle John explaining to his readers that they may know that they have passed from spiritual death to life if they showed love towards fellow believers. However, it is not only those who, like John, remain faithful to the message heard from the beginning and love fellow believers who claim an experience of the Spirit. Many others maintained their belief that God dwelled in them, received His Spirit, and spoke in His name. The secessionists were included among such people and undoubtedly to the forefront in John’s thinking as he wrote. So, at the beginning of this chapter, he warns his readers to exercise discernment when they encounter people claiming to speak in the name of God but have no resemblance of God’s love working through them to others.[2]

Judith M. Lieu (1951) states that the mention of the gift of the spirit, which earlier climaxed the certainty of divine presence,[3] can be unclear. The Apostle John just reminded them of the command to “believe” the name of the Son of God[4] now; he urges them not to “believe” every spirit. The Greek term itself, pneuma, carries a spectrum of meanings, from that which in the modern world might be understood as natural, “wind”; or as biological, “breath,” which denotes life. Some see “spirit” as the psychological, emotional, and creative part of being human that continues after the body decays or as responsible for extraordinary or abnormal behavior; through the powers of the universe. The pneuma may be essential to the constitution of the living human being or may act upon it from outside; it may be a neutral force or actively good or evil. It lacks personality but working in or on human beings; it can acquire personal characteristics. God, too, acts through His spirit; since God is personal.[5]

Ben Witherington III (1951) observes that the Apostle John was not dealing with a minor church split or the departure of a few disgruntled souls. Still, it is unclear whether he is speaking solely about his house churches or a general problem infecting and affecting the early Christian movement, including his portion of it. In other words, it is uncertain whether we should see the “many” as related to the size of Johannine communities or a more extensive number based on all the churches at that time. In any case, these antichrists were leading prophetic teachers, and they seem to have won various members of these congregations over to their point of view about Jesus. Thus, John tries to arm the audience with criteria to detect the true from the false teachers/prophets. It would appear that the phrase “the spirit of the antichrist” refers to the anti-Christian spirit that motivates and inspires the antichrist. However, possibly “antichrist” here is a synonym for “Satan.”[6] [7]

Gary M. Burge (1952) says it is essential to pause and evaluate this disharmony in the early church. House churches were isolated in cities throughout the Roman empire. There were few formal creeds (such as the later Creed of Nicaea) to give doctrinal guidance in the early years, nor were the Scriptures available as we have them today. No one owned a “New Testament,” At best, the early Christians only had random collections of letters from the apostles and compilations of stories about Jesus. Therefore, oral communication was essential. Churches relied on emissaries from their leaders, who relayed information from other communities and taught. Paul sent out Timothy and Silas in this capacity, and John sent out elders as his spokespersons.[8] [9] So we can see how some of those sent out may have verbally altered the original message sent with them, while others substituted their doctrines.

Bruce G. Schuchard (1958) notes that the passage’s first reference to a/the spirit/Spirit, “a source of assurance,[10] now speaks to a spirit’s potential to threaten. For there are true spirits, and there are false spirits. Therefore, the Apostle John must now warn that not everything seems to represent the Spirit of God. Just as John’s appeal not to love the things of the world[11] complements his last appeal to brotherly love,[12] so too his urging the Christian community not to believe in any and every spirit complements his prior exhortation to believe in Jesus through the Spirit that Jesus gives.[13] Instead of John pressing everyone to move on to new and higher spiritual ground, he reminds them of the faith they needed to believe that the Anointed One could redeem and save them from sure punishment.[14]

Marianne Meye Thompson (1964) observes that the Apostle John cautions us that anyone who claims to be inspired by the Holy Spirit can and must be tested. Just because someone suggests that they have the Spirit is not proof that they do. Here “spirit” has been variously taken to refer to (1) the anointing that inspires the prophet, (2) to the person who is inspired, or (3) to the message delivered by the prophet. Obviously, the three are related, in testing a person’s words, one is actually examining whether or not that person speaks by divine guidance. In light of the rest of the passage, two things emerge. First, John believes certain individuals are inspired or led to confess or deny the Anointed One by spirits beyond the human individual. Second, ultimately there are only two spirits: God’s Spirit, also called the Spirit of truth, because it guards and inspires truth; and the spirit of antichrist, which inspires falsehood, and especially false confessions of the Anointed One.[15] [16]

Peter Pett (1966) says that the Apostle John’s epistle readers certainly knew of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth. However, John also speaks of the spirit of error,[17] although possibly not having any specific “spirit” in mind. In the light of what has been said elsewhere, it is possible that we might see this spirit of error as hinting at the devil[18] or possibly some of his demons. These are the “evil spirits” of the Gospels, who speak through the antichrists.[19] But then, we might instead have expected him to talk of the “spirit of deception.” The idea of the spirit of error may simply, therefore, be of any “spirit,” whether the inner spirit of the prophet or an external spirit which possesses him, which prophesies error. At certain times, it might well be just a vivid imagination that was at work. Many things can lead to mistakes.[20] In line with Dr. Pett’s reasoning, it is good that John gave his readers some tests to see which indwelling spirits were in harmony with the Bible and which were not.

As a Unitarian, Duncan Heaster (1967) views this opening verse and says that there were other tests of these prophets – if they didn’t accept that Jesus was Lord, they didn’t have the Spirit.[21] If they held false teaching about whether Jesus came in the flesh and discriminated against other Christians, they also were to be rejected.[22] When Paul says that God and the Holy Spirit witness to the truth of what John is writing, he presumably refers to how those with the gift of discerning spirits had tested and approved what he was saying.[23] All this means is that as soon as a genuine prophet gave an anointed prophecy, it was immediately recognized as such because of all these methods of “testing the spirit.”[24] It is curious that Heaster conveniently left out the fact that the spirits were tested to see if they were from God. This could be considered a case of self-incrimination as a Gnostic.

Karen H. Jobes (1968) thinks that the Apostle John wants his readers to recognize that there are other forces at work than the Holy Spirit for professing Christians, and he refers to those forces as “spirits.” They must be tested by the gold standard, not of human experience or opinion, but sound Christology. The association of Jesus, the Spirit, and the Gospel message is very much the Apostle Paul’s point.[25] John’s readers need to understand that not everything said or done by someone who professes to have the Holy Spirit is of God because many false prophets can be found worldwide. John’s necessity of testing the spirits confirms that he uses the Greek word pneuma (“spirit”) to refer to the activating impulse of human behavior, which may be of the Spirit or the world. False prophets are not speaking the truth about God and His work through Jesus the Anointed One regardless of their thoughts.[26] [27] So, beware of those organizations that use the catchphrases, “Church, Christian, Christ,” etc., in their titles.[28]


[1] Yarbrough, Robert W., 1-3 John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), op. cit., pp. 219-220

[2] Kruse, Colin G., The Letters of John (The Pillar New Testament Commentary (PNTC), op. cit., loc. cit., Kindle Edition

[3] 1 John 3:24

[4] Ibid. 3:23

[5] Lieu, Judith: The New Testament Library, op. cit., pp.162-163

[6] Although the Apostle John is not talking about miracles, it does not eliminate them as possible factors in the ministry of those who left the community. In either case, judgment should not rest on doctrines built upon miracles, but of miracles by doctrines of the Word. Any miracle enforcing what contradicts the Anointed One and His Apostles’ teaching is not “of God” and offers no authority for Christians. In other words, a miracle may be real and yet not of God, just as a word may be inspired and yet not of God. Cf. Deuteronomy 13:1-2; Matthew 24:24; 2 Thessalonians 2:9; Revelation 16:14

[7] Ben Witherington III. Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, op. cit., loc. cit., (Kindle Locations 7072-7077)

[8] 3 John 1:5

[9] Burge, Gary M., The Letters of John (The NIV Application Commentary), op. cit., p. 173

[10] 1 John 3:24

[11] Ibid. 2:15

[12] Ibid. 2:

[13] Ibid. 3:23-24

[14] Schuchard, Bruce G., Concordia Commentary, op. cit., p. 417

[15] 1 John 4:2-3, 6

[16] Thompson, Marianne M., The IVP New Testament Commentary, op. cit., p. 112

[17] Cf. Ibid. 4:6

[18] Ibid. 2:13; 3:8, 10; 5:19

[19] Ibid. 2:18-19; 2:22

[20] Pett, Peter: Commentary on the Bible, PDF, loc cit.

[21] 1 Corinthians 12:3

[22] 1 John 4:1-10

[23] Romans 1:9; 9:1; cf. 2 Corinthians 11:31; Galatians 1:20; 1 Timothy 2:7

[24] Heaster, Duncan: New European Commentary, First John, op. cit., p. 29

[25] 2 Corinthians 11:4; cf. 1 Corinthians 12:3

[26] Cf. 1 Timothy 4:1; Revelation 16:13–14

[27] Jobes, Karen H., 1, 2, and 3 John (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament, Book 18, p. 177

[28] For instance: The Church of Jesus the Anointed One of Latter-Day Saints – Mormons; Worldwide Church of God; Church of the Anointed One, Scientist; Church of Scientology; Seventh Day Church of God; United Pentecostal Church; Christadelphians, etc.

About drbob76

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