1 John 4:1
Beloved] See on 1Jn_3:2.
believe not every spirit] This exhortation does not give us the main subject of the section, any more than ‘Marvel not, brethren, if the world hate you’ (1Jn_3:12) gave us the main subject of the last section (1Jn_3:12-24). In both cases the exhortation is introductory and momentary. Having spoken of the Spirit by which we know that God abides in us, the Apostle goes on to speak of other spiritual influences which indubitably exist, and of which every one has experience, but which are not necessarily of God because they are spiritual. “He does not discredit the fact that spiritual influences were widely diffused; he does not monopolize such influences for the Christian Church. How could he discredit this fact? How can we? Are there not myriads of influences about us continually, which do not act upon our senses but upon our spirits, which do not proceed from things which may be seen and handled, but from the spirits of men?” (Maurice). But besides ordinary spiritual influences, S. John probably has in his mind those extraordinary and supernatural powers which at various periods of the Church’s history persons have claimed to possess. Such claims exhibit themselves in professed revelations, prophecies, miracles, and the like. About all such things there are two possibilities which must put us on our guard: (1) they may be unreal; either the delusions of fanatical enthusiasts, or the lies of deliberate impostors: (2) even if real, they need not be of God. Miraculous powers are no absolute guarantee of the possession of truth.
try the spirits] Or, as R. V., prove the spirits. There are two words in N. T. meaning ‘to try, test, prove’; the one which we have here (δοκιμάζειν), and the one which is used where the Jews try or tempt Christ (Mar_8:11; Mar_10:2, &c.), and of the temptations of Satan (Mat_4:1; Mat_4:3, &c.). The former occurs about 20, the latter about 40 times in N. T. Neither are common in S. John’s writings: he nowhere else uses the word which we have here, and the other only 4 times (Joh_6:6; Rev_2:2; Rev_2:10; Rev_3:10). The A. V. is very capricious in its renderings of the former; ‘allow’ (Rom_14:22), ‘approve’ (Rom_2:18), ‘discern’ (Luk_12:56), ‘examine’ (1Co_11:28), ‘like’ (Rom_1:28), ‘prove’ (Luk_14:19), ‘try’ (1Co_3:13); while the latter is rendered ‘examine’ (2Co_13:5), ‘prove’ (Joh_6:6), ‘tempt’ (Mat_22:18), ‘try’ (Rev_2:2). The Revisers have somewhat reduced this variety. In the one case ‘allow’ has been changed to ‘approve’; ‘examine’ and ‘try’ to ‘prove’: in the other case ‘examine’ has been changed to ‘try’. The difference between the two words (which are found together 2Co_13:5 and Psa_26:2) is on the whole this, that the one here used commonly implies a good, if not a friendly object; to prove or test in the hope that what is tried will stand the test: whereas the other often implies a sinister object; to try in the hope that what is tried will be found wanting. The metaphor here is from testing metals. Comp. ‘Prove all things; hold fast that which is good’ (1Th_5:21).
whether they are of God] Whether their origin (ἐκ) is from God: comp. 1Jn_3:2; 1Jn_3:12.
A verse such as this cuts at the root of such pretensions as the Infallibility of the Pope. What room is left for Christians to ‘prove the spirits’, if all they have to do is to ask the opinion of an official? The Apostle’s charge, ‘prove ye the spirits’, may be addressed to Christians singly or to the Church collectively: it cannot be addressed to an individual. Comp. Rom_12:2; Eph_5:10; 1Co_10:15; 1Co_11:13. The verse also shews us in what spirit to judge of such things as the reported miracles at Lourdes and the so-called ‘manifestations’ of Spiritualism. When they have been proved to be real, they must still further be proved to see ‘whether they are of God’. We are not to judge of doctrine by miracles, but of miracles by doctrine. A miracle enforcing what contradicts the teaching of Christ and His Apostles is not ‘of God’ and is no authority for Christians. Comp. Gal_1:8; Deu_13:1-3.
because many false prophets] The caution is against no imaginary or merely possible danger; it already exists. Warnings respecting the coming of such had been given by Christ, S. Paul, S. Peter, and S. Jude; and now S. John tells his readers that these prophecies have been fulfilled. These ‘false prophets’ include the antichrists of 1Jn_2:18, and what is here said of them seems to indicate that like Mahomet, Swedenborg, the Irvingites, and others, they put forth their new doctrine as a revelation.
are gone out into the world] This probably has no reference to their ‘going out from us’ (1Jn_2:19). Possibly it means no more than that they have appeared in public; but it perhaps includes the notion of their having a mission from the power that sent them: comp. Joh_3:17; Joh_6:14; Joh_10:36; Joh_11:27; Joh_12:47; Joh_12:49, and especially Joh_16:28. We need not confine these ‘many false prophets’ to the antichrists who had left the Christian communion. There would be others who, like Apollonius of Tyana, had never been Christians at all: and others even more dangerous who still professed to be members of the Church. The difficulties in the Church of Corinth caused by the unrestrained ‘speaking with tongues’ point to dangers of this kind.
1 John 4:2
Hereby know ye] Or, Herein ye know: the verb may be either indicative or imperative (comp. 1Jn_2:27; 1Jn_2:29). The indicative is preferable, in spite of the imperatives in 1Jn_4:1: comp. 1Jn_3:16; 1Jn_3:19; 1Jn_3:24, which are very closely parallel to this. ‘Ye know’ is literally ‘ye come to know, perceive, recognise’: ‘herein’ refers to what follows: see on 1Jn_3:19.
every spirit that confesseth] This idea of ‘confessing’ one’s belief is specially frequent in S. John: Joh_2:23; Joh_4:15; 2Jn_1:7; Joh_9:22; Joh_12:42; comp. Rom_10:9.
that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh] See on 2Jn_1:7. This is the crucial test, and one which would at once expose ‘the spirits’ of Cerinthian and Docetic teachers. We are not to suppose that all other articles of faith are unimportant; or that to deny this truth is the worst of all denials (see on 1Jn_2:22); or that such denial involves every kind of doctrinal error. But against the errors prevalent in that age this was the great safeguard. The confession must of course be not with the tongue only but in truth, and in deed as well as in word (1Jn_3:18): non lingua sed factis, non sonando sed amando (Bede).
The sentence may be taken in more ways than one: (1) as both A. V. and R. V.; (2) more accurately, and with some difference of meaning; confesseth Jesus Christ as come in the flesh; (3) confesseth that Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh. Remark that S. John does not say ‘come into the flesh’, but ‘in the flesh’: Christ did not descend (as Cerinthus said) into an already existing man, but He came in human nature; He ‘became flesh’. Moreover he does not say that the confession is to be of a Christ who came (ἐλθόντα), but of a Christ who is come (ἐληλυθότα). This ‘coming’ is not an exhausted fact: He is come and abides in the flesh.
S. Paul gives almost exactly the same test: ‘I give you to understand that no man speaking in the Spirit of God saith, Jesus is anathema; and no man can say, Jesus is Lord, but in the Holy Spirit’ (1Co_12:3).
is of God] Proceeds from Him as its source: comp. 1Jn_3:10. “To confess that Jesus the anointed is come in the flesh, is to confess that there is a medium of spiritual communications between the visible and the invisible world, between earth and heaven. It is to confess that there is one Mediator for all men” (Maurice).
1 John 4:3
confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh] On overwhelming evidence (AB, Coptic, Aethiopic, Vulgate, &c.) we must omit the words ‘that Christ is come in the flesh’, retaining only confesseth not Jesus: the additional words are an obvious interpolation by one who wished to make the two sides of the antithesis exactly equal. But, as we have repeatedly seen (1Jn_1:5-8; 1Jn_1:10, 1Jn_2:10; 1Jn_2:22-23, &c.), this is rarely the case in S. John’s oppositions.
There is yet another very ancient and very interesting difference of reading here: every spirit which severeth Jesus, or, unmaketh Jesus, or, destroyeth Jesus, or, as the margin of R. V., which annulleth Jesus (ὃ λύει, qui solvit), the verb which in 1Jn_3:8 is used for ‘to destroy’. This reading appears to have been known to Tertullian (a.d. 210), who quotes S. John as speaking of “the forerunners of Antichrist denying that Christ has come in the flesh and severing (solventes) Jesus” (Adv. Marcion V. xvi.), and to Irenaeus (a.d. 180), who quotes the whole passage, and in this place has “every spirit which severeth (qui solvit) Jesus” [Haer. III. xvi. 8). But it can scarcely be genuine, for it is not found in a single Greek MS., nor in any version except the Vulgate. And we have no certain knowledge that any Greek Father had this reading. ‘Qui solvit’ in Irenaeus may be interpretation rather than literal translation. Socrates the historian (a.d. 440) charges the Nestorians with tampering with the text and ignoring the reading ‘which severeth Jesus’; just as Tertullian accuses the Valentinians of falsifying the text of Joh_1:13, and S. Ambrose the Arians of mutilating Joh_1:6. In all these cases the supposed heretical reading is the right one.
The passage in S. Polycarp’s Epistle already alluded to (see on 1Jn_2:18) is against the reading advocated by Socrates: ‘For every one who confesseth not that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is an Antichrist; and whosoever confesseth not the witness of the Cross is of the devil’ (Phil. VII.). The expressions ‘confess’, ‘come in the flesh’, ‘Antichrist’, ‘is of the devil’, place S. Polycarp’s knowledge of his master’s First Epistle beyond all reasonable doubt. This is very early testimony (a.d. 140–155) to the existence of the First Epistle.
The variations as regards reading are testimony to the same effect. Such things take time to arise and spread. If a corrupt reading is known to Tertullian in Africa, and (apparently) adopted by Irenaeus in Gaul, before the end of the second century, then the original document written in Asia Minor cannot be much later than the end of the first century, at which time S. John was still living.
is not of God] S. John gives two tests, one for trying human conduct, and one for trying spiritual claims: ‘Every one that doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother’ (1Jn_3:10); and ‘Every spirit which confesseth not Jesus is not of God.’
and this is that spirit of Antichrist] ‘That’ should rather be ‘the’, as in R. V. The word ‘spirit’ is not expressed in the Greek, but is rightly understood from the context. The similar Greek expressions in Mat_21:21; 1Co_10:24; Jas_4:14; 2Pe_2:22 are not quite parallel.
that it should come] Better, with R. V., that it cometh. Wiclif and the Rhemish have ‘that he cometh’. Most English Versions before 1611 have ‘he’ for ‘it’; as also has Luther. This is due to the Vulgate, which has ‘Antichrist’ for ‘the (spirit) of Antichrist’. ‘It’ is certainly right. Not Antichrist, but the antichristian nature is affirmed to be now in the world already. The spirit of antagonism to Christ has passed from “the invisible world of spiritual wickedness” to the visible world of human action. The addition of ‘already’ hints that something more may be expected to follow. Comp. ‘The mystery of lawlessness doth already work’ (2Th_2:7).
1 John 4:4
Ye are of God] As in 1Jn_2:20 the Apostle passes abruptly from the false teachers to his true children with an emphatic pronoun, made still more emphatic here by the asyndeton. Ye, in marked contrast to them, are of God.
and have overcome them] By withstanding the seducers they have proved their superiority. In the masculine ‘them’ (αὐτούς) the Apostle passes from the antichristian spirits to the false prophets who are their mouth-pieces. Comp. ‘And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him; for they know not the voice of strangers’ (Joh_10:5): thus the stranger is defeated.
because greater is He that is in you] Not in their own strength has the victory been won, but in His whose word abideth in them (1Jn_2:14). It is precisely for this reason that they may have confidence against all spiritual enemies: it is not confidence in themselves (1Co_15:57 especially Eph_6:10-17).
he that is in the world] ‘The ruler of this world’ (Joh_12:31), the devil, the father of these lying teachers (1Jn_3:10; Joh_8:44), whose works Christ came to destroy (1Jn_3:8). By saying ‘in the world’ rather than ‘in them’, the Apostle indicates that they belong to ‘the world’. “S. John constantly teaches that the Christian’s work in this state of probation is to conquer ‘the world’. It is, in other words, to fight successfully against that view of life which ignores God, against that complex system of attractive moral evil and specious intellectual falsehood which is organized and marshalled by the great enemy of God, and which permeates and inspires non-Christianized society” (Liddon).
1 John 4:5
They are of the world] This follows, though it has not yet been stated, from their not being ‘of us’ (1Jn_2:19): for there is no middle position. The verse is another reminiscence of the Lord’s farewell discourses: ‘If ye were of the world, the world would love its own’ (Joh_15:19; comp. Joh_17:14).
therefore speak they of the world] Or, therefore of the world they speak: as in Joh_3:31, the Greek order is impressive and worth preserving. (See on 1Jn_3:1; but here διὰ τοῦτο is not followed by ὅτι.) The impressive repetition of ‘the world’ is very characteristic of S. John’s style; e.g. Joh_1:10; Joh_3:17; Joh_15:19; Joh_17:14. Comp. ‘He that is of the earth, of the earth he is, and of the earth he speaketh’ (Joh_3:31): where, however, ‘to speak of the earth’ or ‘earthly things’ is to speak of God’s work on earth; whereas ‘to speak of the world’ is to speak what is alien from God’s work and opposed to it. ‘To speak of’ (λαλεῖν ἐκ) is not the same as ‘to speak concerning’ (λέγειν περί) 1Jn_5:16; Joh_1:22; Joh_1:47; Joh_2:21, &c. ‘To speak of the world’ is to have the world as the source of one’s words, so that one’s inspiration flows from it: and of course the world ‘heareth’, i.e. loves to hear, the wisdom derived from itself.
1 John 4:6
We are of God] ‘We’ with great emphasis, like ‘ye’ in 1Jn_4:4, in contrast to the false prophets. ‘We’ is probably not equivalent to ‘ye’, viz. all true believers: ‘we’ means the Apostles. See on 1Jn_4:14 and on 1Jn_1:4. The opposition here is not between true and false Christians, but between true and false teachers. Comp. 1Co_14:37.
he that knoweth God heareth us] We might render, ‘He that increaseth in the knowledge of God’ (ὁ γινώσκεν τὸν Θεόν). Here once more we have that magisterial tone of Apostolic authority which is so conspicuous in the Prologue (1Jn_1:1-4). It underlies the whole Epistle, as it does the whole of the Fourth Gospel, but here and there comes to the surface. It is the quiet confidence of conscious strength. Comp. ‘He that is of God heareth the words of God; for this cause ye hear them not because ye are not of God’; and, ‘Every one that is of the Truth heareth My voice’ (Joh_8:47; Joh_18:37). For ordinary Christians to adopt this language is presumptuous sectarianism.
Note that, as usual, the antithesis is not exact: ‘he that knoweth God’ is balanced by ‘he that is not of God’; indicating that it is the child of God who comes by experience to know Him.
Hereby know we] Literally, From this. A fresh sentence should begin here. It is not certain whether ‘from this’ refers to the whole section (1–6), or to the latter half (4–6), or only to the first half of 1Jn_4:6. In any case the meaning is, not that those who hear the Apostle have the Spirit of truth, while those who refuse to hear have the spirit of error; but that the Apostles have the Spirit of truth because God’s children hear them, while the false prophets have the spirit of error because the world hears them.
the spirit of truth] The Holy Spirit; Joh_14:17; Joh_15:26; Joh_16:13: comp. 1Co_2:12, where the whole passage is very similar to this. It is not easy to determine whether the genitive ‘of truth’ expresses the character of the Spirit, as in ‘the Holy Spirit of promise’ (Eph_1:13), ‘the Spirit of grace (Heb_10:29), or the source, as in ‘the Spirit of God’ and ‘the Spirit of Christ’ (Rom_8:9; Rom_8:11). The Spirit is the Truth (1Jn_5:7), proceeds from Him who is the Truth (Joh_14:6; Joh_14:26), communicates and interprets the Truth (Joh_16:13-14).