Bibliotheca Sacra 146 (1989) 420-436.

          Copyright © 1989 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.



                                   An Expositional Study of 1 John

                                               Part 7 (of 10 parts):



                 An Exposition of 1 John 4:1-6



                                              D. Edmond Hiebert

                               Professor Emeritus of New Testament

                Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California


            The first six verses of chapter 4 form a unit on the conflict be-

tween two spiritual realms, "the spirit of truth and the spirit of er-

ror" (v. 6). They show no close connection with what follows and are

best viewed as an elaboration on the reference to "the Spirit whom

He has given us" (3:24). The conflict now presented forms the final

aspect of the conflicts of the faith that John had been depicting since

2:18. He had already dealt with the conflict between truth and

falsehood (2:18-28), the conflict between the children of God and the

children of the devil (2:29-3:12), and the conflict between love and

hatred (3:13-24). Now John marked the supernatural character of

this conflict as ultimately involving "the spirit of truth and the

spirit of error."

                 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see

            whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone

            out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that

            confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and ev-

            ery spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; and this is the

            spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and

            now it is already in the world. You are from God, little children, and

            have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who

            is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak as from

            the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God; he who

            knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us.

            By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error (1 John 4:1-6).


            John now showed the importance of the proclamation of a sound

Christology for confidence and victory in the Christian community.





                        An Expositional Study of 1 John 4:1-6                               421


Those who are truly of God must adhere to the apostolic message con-

cerning Jesus Christ, who constitutes the very heart of the Christian

gospel. Those who reject that message thereby reveal their anti-

Christian character.

            John urged his readers to test the spirits to determine their true

identity (v. 1); he gave them criteria for testing the spirits (vv. 2-3);

and then he set forth criteria for identifying the true character of

the human speakers (vv. 4-6).


                                    The Charge to Test the Spirits


            In dealing with this crucial matter, John as a wise pastor again

addressed his readers with the tender designation, "Beloved"

( ]Agaphtoi<; cf. 2:7; 3:2, 21). It expresses his personal, loving concern

for them as they faced the subtle danger of the false spirits. John

charged them to test the spirits to determine their nature (v. 1a) and

added why such testing is needed (v. 1b).



            John formulated his charge to the readers both negatively and

positively. Negatively, his command is, "do not believe every

spirit" (mh> panti> pneu<mati pisteu<ete). John spoke against a gull-

ibility prone to believe "every spirit" claiming to be from God. The

use of the dative (panti> pneu<mati) with the verb warns against an

attitude of acceptance and personal trust in the various spirits

declaring their message through the human messenger. The force of

the original order, placing "every spirit" between the negative (mh>)

and the present tense verb, has been differently understood. Robert-

son held that the negative is to be taken with the immediately fol-

lowing adjective "every"; this connection would negate an uncritical

attitude which accepted every spirit, but would permit acceptance of

some of the spirits as from God.1 Kistemaker thinks the separation

of the negative from the verb gives emphasis to the prohibition.2

The negative with the present imperative generally means "stop be-

lieving." Burdick thinks this prohibition "suggests that the readers

had shown a tendency to give credence to the false teachers."3 It is

possible that some members had been prone uncritically to accept the

claims of the spirits; but it is unwarranted to assume that John now


1   A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Histori-

cal Research, 5th ed. (New York: Richard R. Smith, n.d.), p. 752.

2   Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Epistle of James and the Epistles of John,

New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), p. 324.

3   Donald W. Burdick, The Letters of John the Apostle (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985),

pp. 291-92.

422                 Bibliotheca Sacra / October—December 1989


censured them by commanding them to stop the practice. Rather,

John insisted that they must never yield to such an attitude of

credulity. Let them not "believe" or give credence to every spirit

that claims to be from God. As those who have personally experi-

enced the divine endowment of the Holy Spirit (3:24), they must not

uncritically accept every spirit speaking through some "inspired"

human messenger who claims to be God's prophet.

            The reality of powerful spirits speaking through human indi-

viduals as their mouthpiece was well known in the pagan world of

John'is day. The reality of such false prophets was long known to the

people of Israel as well, and it early manifested itself in the church

(cf. 1 Cor. 12:1-3). It seems clear that John's charge was prompted by

the presence of mighty spiritual powers working through professed

spokesmen of God. Whether various signs and wonders accompanied

their teaching is not indicated. At various periods in the history of

the church individuals have claimed supernatural empowerment

which exhibited itself in professed revelations, prophecies, mira-

cles, and the like. As Plummer observes,

            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 en-

            thusiasts, 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.4


It is a perilous mistake simply to identify the presence of the super-

natural with the divine. Need for a critical assessment of religious

teachers and their pronouncements has always been felt by Spirit-

directed believers. And today, with the sweeping influx of cults and

occultic forces, the need for spiritual discernment is urgent.

            Positively, John insisted that believers must "test the spirits to

see whether they are from God." The use of the adversative "but"

(a]lla>) marks the contrast between an attitude of credulity and intel-

ligent discrimination. The present imperative verb "test

(dokima<zete) presents this as a standing duty, while the second per-

son plural lays this duty on all the readers. In 1 Thessalonians 5:21

Paul used this same term in directing his readers, "Examine every-

thing carefully; hold fast to that which is good." In 1 Corinthians

12:10 Paul mentioned this "distinguishing of spirits" as a distinct

gift, but clearly all believers must be alert to this necessity. Church

history shows that in all periods certain Christians have possessed

outstanding ability to discriminate between true and false religious

teachings. But as Clark remarks, "The fact that faithful pastors and


4   A. Plummer, The Epistles of S. John, Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

(1883; reprint, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938), p. 141.

                        An Expositional Study of 1 John 4:1-6                               423


orthodox professors are better able to evaluate does not excuse those

in the pews from doing their own evaluating."5 The ability and the

duty to "test the spirits" is not restricted to any specific ecclesiasti-

cal or educational groups. Palmer remarks that John called his read-

ers "to use their heads and to examine closely the theologies and

doctrines of all their teachers. There, are no benefits to ignorance or

to sloppy thinking."6

            The verb rendered "test" (dokima<zete), which occurs only here in

the Johannine writings, basically means "to put to a test, to exam-

ine," like coins being tested for genuineness or full weight. The verb,

as Plummer notes, “commonly implies a good, if not a friendly object;

to prove or test in the hope that what is tried will stand the test.”7

Another verb used in the New Testament (peira<zw),8 also has the

general meaning of "putting to a test," but generally implies a sinis-

ter purpose, a testing applied with the hope that the object tested

will fail; hence it is commonly rendered "to tempt." Trench notes

that the verb John used here is never used of the work of Satan,

"seeing that he never proves that he may approve, nor tests that he

may accept."9 In testing the spirits believers need to maintain a "bib-

lical balance, avoiding on the one hand the extreme superstition

which believes everything and on the other the extreme suspicion

which believes nothing."10

            The specific point of the test is to determine the source of the

spirits in whose power the speakers present their message, "to see

whether they are from God" (ei] e]k tou? qeou? e]stin). As Barker re-

marks, "The warning is not against those who feign the Spirit's pres-

ence but against genuine evil spirits inspiring the existence of false

prophets."11  Such testing implies the existence of an objective stan-

dard according to which the test is applied, and it has a clear prece-

dent in the Old Testament. As Burdick points out,


5    Gordon H. Clark, First John: A Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian

and Reformed Publishing Co., n. d.), p. 123.

6   Earl F. Palmer, 1, 2, 3 John, Revelation, The Communicator’s Commentary

(Waco, TX: Word Books, Publisher, 1982) pp. 59-60.

7   Plummer, The Epistles of S. John, p. 141.

8   In the Johannine writings peira<zw occurs only in John 6:6; 8:6; Revelation 2:2, 10;


9   Richard Chenevix Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (reprint, Grand

Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1947), p. 281.

10   J. R. W. Stott, The Epistles of John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand

Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964), p. 153.

11   Glenn W. Barker, "1 John," in The Expositor's Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids:

Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 12:340.


424                 Bibliotheca Sacra / October—December 1989


            Moses gave the people criteria by which to test anyone who professed

            to be a prophet (Deut. 18:20-22), namely, (1) what he said must agree

            with what God had previously revealed, (2) he must speak in the name

            of the Lord, and (3) it must come to pass. See also Deuteronomy 13:1-5;

            Jeremiah 23:9-22; 28:9.12


            The test John set forth would reveal whether the prophets were

"from God," whether they derived their message and inspiration

from God. It would inevitably reveal their fundamental nature.



            John set forth the historical situation that made it necessary for

believers aggressively to test the spirits: "because many false

prophets have gone out into the world." It was no mere future dan-

ger; "many false prophets" (polloi> yeudoprofh?tai) were already at

work. The adjective "many," as in 2:18, indicates that these "false

prophets" were numerous. Jesus had explicitly foretold the coming of

such false prophets (Matt. 7:15; 24:11, 24; Mark 13:21-23). Paul (Acts

20:28-30) and Peter (2 Pet. 2:1) had also foretold their coming. The

use of the perfect tense "have gone out" (e]celhlu<qasin) marks their

presence as an abiding reality. The force of the preposition rendered

"out" (e]k in the compound verb) has been variously understood.

Smalley takes it as an echo of the picture in 2:19 of the antichrists

withdrawing from the Christian community.13  But in view of the use

of two prepositions, "out" (e]k) and "into" (ei]j), Westcott suggests

that "out" implies that these false prophets "are gone out on a mis-

sion of evil from their dark home," while "into" denotes their entry

"into the world as the scene of their activity."14  Speaking through

the false prophets, these evil spirits are now making the world of

mankind their lecture hall. Plummer notes that this understanding

of the arrival of the spirits on the scene of human history from the

spiritual world is in accord with John's terminology in his Gospel (cf.

John 3:17; 10:36; 12:47, 49; and esp. 16:28).15 Such a view seems consis-

tent with John's portrayal of the supernatural nature of the spirits

speaking through the false prophets.

            While the designation "false prophets" ("pseudo-prophets")

might denote individuals falsely claiming to be prophets, the term

here clearly means individuals who proclaim a false message. The


12   Burdick, The Letters of John the Apostle, p. 293.

13   Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 51 (Waco, TX:

Word Books, Publisher, 1984), p. 219.

14   Brooke Foss Westcott, The Epistles of St John (1892; reprint, Grand Rapids: Wm.

B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1950), p. 140.

15   Plummer, The Epistles of S. John, p. 142.


         An Expositional Study of 1 John 4:1-6                               425


term "is applied to the rivals of the true prophets under the old dis-

pensation (Luke vi. 26; 2 Pet. ii. 1); and to the rivals of the apostles

under the new dispensation (Matt. vii. 15, xxiv. 23, f.; Acts xiii. 6)."16

They were not merely teachers with an erroneous message but spoke

under the inspiration of evil spirits characterized in 1 John 4:3 as be-

ing "the spirit of antichrist." As spiritual counterfeits of the New

Testament office of prophets, they were a subtle and serious danger;

the urgent need was to expose and repudiate them.

            Some interpreters simply equate these "many false prophets"

with the "many antichrists" in 2:18-19 who arose within the Chris-

tian community but separated themselves. The reference here to

"many false prophets" will include the antichrists in 2:18, but the

scene now is broader; it may include the representatives of the vari-

ous cults that claim to be Christian as well as other religious move-

ments that are distinctly non-Christian in their teaching and im-

pact. The present sweeping inroads of occultic forces through the

agency of mystical oriental leaders with their fantastic teachings

and dynamic appeal certainly constitute a ringing challenge today to

God's people to "test the spirits to see whether they are from God."17


                        The Criteria for Testing the Spirits


            In verses 2-3 John presented the fundamental test in determining

the identity of the spirits. In verse 2 the test is stated positively,

indicating the assured presence of the Spirit of God; in verse 3 the

test is stated negatively, revealing the spirit of antichrist.



            The words "By this you know the Spirit of God" look forward to

the test as formulated in verse 2. The verb rendered "you know"

(ginw<skete) may be either imperative or indicative. Some inter-

preters take it as a command, corresponding to the imperatives in

verse 1 ("do not believe . . . but test").18  It is more probable that the

mood is now indicative, "appealing to his orthodox readers' knowl-

edge and experience here, as so often in this letter (cf. 2:29; 4:6)."19


16   Westcott, The Epistles of St John, p. 140.

17   See Dave Hunt, America: The Sorcerer's New Apprentice (Irvine, CA: Harvest

House Publishers, 1988); Dave Hunt and T. A. McMahon, The Seduction of Christian-

ity: Spiritual Discernment in the Last Days (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers,

1985); F. LaGard Smith, Out on a Broken Limb (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publish-

ers, 1986); Ronald Enroth, The Lure of the Cults and New Religions (Downers Grove,

IL: Int:erVarsity Press, 1987).

18   So Robert Law, The Tests of Life: A Study of the First Epistle of St. John

(Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1909), p. 396; Clark, First John: A Commentary, p. 123.

19   Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, p. 220.


426                 Bibliotheca Sacra / October—December 1989


The use of the plural, rather than the abstract singular, "it is

known," involves his readers directly in the application of the test.

The knowledge gained involves a mental deduction—carefully not-

ing the content of the spirit's confession concerning Jesus Christ and

then drawing the conclusion.

            The decisive test is that "every spirit that confesses that Jesus

Christ has come in the flesh is from God." "Every spirit" (pa?n pneu?-

ma) marks the comprehensiveness of this test; all are either ap-

proved or rejected by its application. Every spirit approved "con-

fesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh." The verb "confesses"

(o[mologei?, literally, "says the same thing") denotes not mere verbal

acknowledgment but an open and forthright declaration of the mes-

sage as one's own position. The present tense marks it as an ongoing

acknowledgment. Such a,confession is crucial for a vital Christian

faith (Rom. 10:9-10; 1 John 2:23; 4:15).

            The determinative confession is "that Jesus Christ has come in

the flesh" ( ]Ihsou?n Xristo>n e]n sarki> e]lhluqo<ta, literally, "Jesus

Christ in flesh having come"). The insertion of "that," which is not

in the original, makes it a confession of a doctrinal truth about what

Jesus Christ has done. The expression, which is in the accusative

case as the object of the verb "confesses," sets forth the Person being

confessed, "Jesus Christ in flesh having come." Bultmann takes

"Jesus" as the direct object and "Christ in flesh having come" as a

predicate accusative. Moffatt represents this view in his transla-

tion, "every spirit which confesses Jesus as the Christ incarnate."20

But such a separation of the double name in the accusative case is not

certain. Kistemaker remarks,

            The combination Jesus Christ occurs eight times in John's epistles (1:3;

            2:1; 3:23; 4:2; 5:6, 20; 2 John 3, 7). In two places John clearly separates the

            names by writing "Jesus is the Christ" (2:22; 5:1). Therefore when the

            names appear together they need to be translated as such.21


            Keeping the two names together best represents John's insistence

that in the historical Person "Jesus Christ" is the abiding union of

the human and the divine in the Incarnation. This is indicated in

the added words "has come in the flesh." In saying "in flesh" (e]n

sarki>), rather than "into flesh" (ei]j sarki>), John repudiated Ceren-

thian Gnosticism. Cerenthus (ca. A.D. 100), a late contemporary of

John at Ephesus, separated Jesus from Christ. He taught that the

Christ spirit came on the man Jesus, the son of Joseph and Mary, at

His baptism and empowered His ministry, but left Him before His


20    James Moffatt, The New Testament: A New Translation, rev. ed. (New York:

Hodder & Stoughton, n.d.).

21    Kistemaker,  Exposition of the Epistle of James and the Epistles of John, p. 327.

                        An Expositional Study of 1 John 4:1-6                               427


crucifixion; only the man Jesus died and rose again. Cerenthus thus

rejected the doctrine of the Incarnation and obliterated the Chris-

tian teaching of the atonement.

            The perfect tense, “has come in the flesh,” makes clear that

when Jesus Christ came into this world to carry out His messianic

mission, He took on Himself a real human body, not just a phantom

appearance as a man, as Docetic Gnosticism maintained. The perfect

tense also marks the Incarnation as an abiding reality. This perma-

nent union of the divine and the human now qualifies Him to be the

Mediator between God and men (1 Tim. 2:5). The apostolic teaching

on the incarnate Christ "gathers within its total significance the

other great doctrinal truths such as the Virgin Birth, the Crucifix-

ion, and the Resurrection. The Incarnation is the essential creed of

Christianity; on this doctrine all else which calls itself Christian

stands or falls."22 Every spirit that freely confesses the apostolic

message concerning the Person of Jesus Christ reveals that it "is from

God" (e]k tou? qeou? e]stin), that it proceeds from God who has re-

vealed Himself through the incarnate Son. John related the spirit

that inspires the speaker to proclaim this message so intimately

with the human messenger that he represented the spirit as making

the confession. The indwelling Holy Spirit gives and molds the mes-

sage of His ministers (1 Cor. 12:8) and so provides the instruction

needed by God's people (Rev. 2:7, 11).



            The adversative "and" (kai>) presents the negative aspect of

testing spirits. For a complete picture of the spirits, this negative is

essential. Failure to recognize this part of the test would expose

believers to serious deception. John stated this negative aspect as

the spirit's failure to confess Jesus (v. 3a), identified the spirit as of

antichrist (v. 3b), and pointed out the fulfillment of prophecy (v. 3c).

            The failure to confess Jesus (v. 3a). The negative aspect of the

test is stated inclusively: "every spirit that does not confess Jesus is

not from God." In again saying "every spirit" (pa?n pneu?ma) John al-

lowed no intermediate position between the spirit that confesses Je-

sus Christ and the spirit that fails to confess Him. Smalley notes,

"John is not discussing the contrast between faith and unbelief; he is

condemning those heretical beliefs, within and beyond his commu-

nity, which amount to a determined and anti-Christian rebellion

against God (v. 3b)."23


22   Harvey J. S. Blaney, "The First Epistle of John," in Beacon Bible Commentary

(Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 1967), 10:388.

23    Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, p. 223.


428                 Bibliotheca Sacra / October—December 1989


            John's negative statement abbreviated the fuller positive

statement in verse 2. The crucial point of the test is the spirit's fail-

ure to confess Jesus, as set forth in the preceding verse. It is possible

to talk glowingly about the Man Jesus and yet refuse to accept the

apostolic teaching that the historical Jesus of Nazareth was indeed

God incarnate. Marshall remarks, "If a person claims to believe in

Jesus, it is proper to ask, 'Is your Jesus the real Jesus?"'24

            This negative statement of the test is beset with textual vari-

ants. Various manuscripts of the Old Latin, the Vulgate, and some

Latin church fathers have readings that assume the Greek read lu<ei,

"looses, destroys, annuls," rather than mh> o[mologei?, "not confesses."

Some scholars have favored this reading as probably original,25 but

the overwhelming manuscript evidence is decidedly against it. It is

the reading of no Greek manuscript;26 it is found in the margin of mi-

nuscule 1739, dating from the 10th century. The Latin variants ap-

parently arose from the second-century polemic against the Gnostics

who made a sharp distinction between the earthly Jesus and the

heavenly Christ. The longer reading in the King James Version,

"every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the

flesh," follows the Textus Receptus and is one of five variant read-

ings.27 It seems clear that these arose as scribal efforts to explain the

shorter and more difficult reading "the Jesus" (to>n  ]Ihsou?n).

            John's use of the negative mh>, rather than the more usual of,

with the indicative verb "confess" has also evoked comment. Blass

and DeBrunner, who accept lu<ei as the original reading, simply

stamp the negative as "a spurious reading."28 David Smith feels

that the negative mh> "makes the statement hypothetical: 'every

spirit, if such there be, which does not confess.’”29 But clearly John

had no question as to the reality of such spirits. Robertson remarks


24   I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, New International Commentary (Grand

Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), p. 207.

25   See Marshall, The Epistles of John, for a listing of these scholars and the argu-

ments for and against this reading, pp. 207-8, n. 11.

26   For the textual evidence see United Bible Societies, The Greek New Testament, 3d

ed. (New York: American Bible Society, 1975). On a scale of A to D the editors rate

the reading mh> o[mologei? as a B.

27   For these variant readings and the manuscript evidence for each see United Bible

Societies, The Greek New Testament. The editors rate the reading to>n  ]Ihsou?n  as B.

28   F. Blass and A. DeBrunner, A Creek Grammar of the New Testament and Other

Early Christian Literature, trans. and rev. Robert W. Funk (Chicago: University of

Chicago Press, 1961), p. 221.

29   David Smith, "The Epistles of St. John," in The Expositor's Greek Testament, 5

vols. (reprint, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., n.d.), 5:189.


      An Expositional Study of 1 John 4:1-6                               429


that "there is a certain aloofness about m e here."30 Most probable

seems the suggestion of Law that the use of the negative expressed

"the subjective conviction of the writer that there are no exceptions

to the statement he is making."31

            John's negative statement, "every spirit that does not confess Je-

sus," is broader in scope than the positive, "every spirit that denies

Jesus," would have been. An open denial of "Jesus" stamps such a

spirit as "not from God" (e]k tou? qeou?), not coming from or proclaim-

ing God's truth. But John's negative statement also comprehends any

spirit speaking through a false prophet that sought to hide its true

identity by avoiding discussion of the decisive issue. John knew that

what such a spirit did not say about Jesus in speaking of Him was

also significant. In this epistle John never spoke about Jesus without

adding some term to show that He is more than a mere man.

            The spirit of antichrist (v. 3b). The failure of the spirit to con-

fess the full truth concerning "Jesus" establishes its positive identity:

"and this is the spirit of the antichrist" (kai> tou?to< e]stin to> tou?

a]ntixri<stou). "And" (kai>) joins this positive with the preceding neg-

ative statement. Since John did not write "spirit" here, some take

the neuter demonstrative pronoun "this" (tou?to<) to refer back to the

spirit's refusal to confess the true nature of Jesus. But it is more natu-

ral to take the demonstrative as closely united with the neuter arti-

cle (to>), with "spirit" rightly supplied from the context. John

pointed out that "this spirit" by its refusal reveals the spirit "of the

antichrist." Westcott suggests that the omission of the word "spirit"

(pneu?ma) "gives greater breadth to the thought, so that the words in-

clude the many spirits, the many forces, which reveal the action of

antichrist."32 Over against the work of the Holy Spirit inspiring

the message of the true prophets of God are the many evil spirits

carrying on the deadly assault against the truth as revealed in Jesus

Christ. Marshall well remarks, "John is in no doubt that denial of

the apostolic confession about Jesus Christ is not merely intellectual

error, still less 'advanced theology'; it represents the very spirit of

rebellion against God and can only be condemned."33 They already

manifest the great rebellion against God which will find full expres-

sion in the eschatological Antichrist; in character; they belong to the

same realm.


30   Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Re-

search, p. 1169.

31   Law, The Tests of Life, p. 396.

32   Westcott, The Epistles of St John, p. 143.

33   Marshall, The Epistles of John, p. 208.


430                 Bibliotheca Sacra l October—December 1989


            The fulfillment of prophecy (v. 3c). John immediately reminded

his readers that the operation of such evil spirits should not surprise

them, since it is in accord with the prophetic warning they had re-

ceived. Their operation is a matter "of which you have heard that

it is coming" (o{ a]khko<ate o!ti e@rxetai). In 2:18 John reminded them

that they had been warned that the Antichrist was coming; now he

reminded them that they knew that the spirit of the antichrist also

was coming. The perfect tense "you have heard" (a]khko<ate) indi-

cates that these realities were part of the regular Christian teach-

ing concerning the future. The verb "coming" is frequently used of the

historical coming of Jesus Christ; the coming of the spirit of an-

tichrist, operating through these many antichrists, is likewise a

historical reality.

            The added words, "and now it is already in the world" (kai> nu?n

e]n t&? ko<sm& e]sti>n h@dh), are a firm declaration that the spirit of

antichrist was active on the scene of human history. But the term

"the world" recognizes that this spirit operates in a "world" that is

estranged from and antagonistic to God and His truth. The use of

"now" (nu?n) at the beginning of the statement underlines the presence

of this evil power as he writes (cf. 2 Thess. 2:7, "the mystery of law-

lessness is already at work"), manifesting its presence through insid-

ious and often violent action against the church. The added

"already" (h@dh) at the end suggests, as Westcptt notes, that "the

prophecy had found fulfillment before the Church had looked for

it."34 It also implies that a fuller and more vicious manifestation of

this spirit of rebellion against Christ awaits the coming of the es-

chatological Antichrist (Rev. 13; 2 Thess. 2:7-12). At the head of

this rebellion is Satan himself.


                        The Criteria for Testing the Prophets


            Having set forth the criteria for testing the spirits (1 John 4:2-

3), John now stated the criteria For testing those through whom they

speak. In verses 4-5 he indicated the criteria to determine their true

origin. In verse 6a he pointed to the reaction to their message as a

further criterion. The last half of verse 6 summarizes the discussion.



            In verse 4 John reminded his readers of the identity of the true

people of God; in verse 5 he pointed out the identity of the false


            Those who are of God (v. 4). With genuine pastoral concern John


34   Westcott, The Epistles of St John, p. 143.


                   An Expositional Study of 1 John 4:1-6                               431


assured his readers, "You are from from God, little children, and

have overcome them." The initial "you" (u[mei?j) is emphatic, con-

trasting his readers with the deluded world. In the words of

Wilder, "The distinction between the two kinds of spirits is carried

over now into one between two kinds of men, those of God and those of

the world."35 As true believers, they "are from God" (e]k tou? qeou?

e]ste), have their origin in God and carry on His warfare against evil

in the world. They have a personal relationship with God that the

false teachers lack.

            The affectionate address, "little children" (tekni<a; cf. 2:1), ex-

presses their birth-relationship; they are members of God's family.

John had no fear that they would be deceived by the false teachers,

but his Fatherly heart reminded them of who they were. His read-

ers, like believers today, confronted by the increasing forces of allur-

ing evil, ought never to forget their divine heritage.

            The added assertion, "and have overcome them" (kai>

nenikh<kate au]tou<j), gives evidence of their true identity. The mas-

culine plural pronoun "them" marks the passing from the anti-Chris-

tian spirits to the false teachers who are their mouthpieces. John's

readers had detected and rejected their false message. By applying

the criteria in verses 2-3 they had "overcome." The perfect tense

"have overcome" denotes a definite time when they faced the temp-

tation to accept their alluring message, but having tested it they re-

jected it and were victorious. As Gunther remarks, "The battle has

thus been decided, even if it is not yet over. By faith Christians par-

ticipate in this victory and are thus placed in a position to overcome

the world for themselves."36 Their victory is grounded in the victory

Christ won on Calvary (John 12:32; 14:30; 16:11). But to maintain

their victory believers need to continue to adhere to the truth (Eph.


            In adding "because greater is He who is in you than he who is in

the world" John reminded his readers of the true secret of their vic-

tory. While their understanding of and adherence to the apostolic

truth was involved, the victory was produced by the divine in-

dwelling, "He who is in you" (e]sti<n o[ e]n u[mi?n). The reference

clearly is to one of the Persons of the Godhead, but characteristi-

cally John did not explicitly identify the indwelling Enabler. Gen-

erally interpreters prefer simply to say "God."37 Westcott suggested


35   Amos N. Wilder, "The First, Second, and Third Epistles of John," in The Inter-

preter's Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1957), 12:276 (italics his).

36   The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, s.v. "nika<w," by

W. Gunther, 1:651.

37   So Henry Alford, The New Testament for English Readers (reprint, Chicago:


432                 Bibliotheca Sacra / October—December 1989


that the reference was to "God in Christ,"38 while Smalley holds

that the reference "combines an allusion to God as Father, 'Son and

Spirit" and in support appeals to "the trinitarian character of John's

theology in this section."39  Still others understand it as a reference

to the indwelling Holy Spirit.40 This view has in its favor the ex-

plicit statement concerning the Holy Spirit in 3:24. Burdick further

notes, "In verses 2 and 3 John has been contrasting the Spirit of God

with the spirit of antichrist, and he again refers to these two spirits

in verse 6. In 2:27 the anointing (Holy Spirit) is said to dwell in be-

lievers."41 This view is fully in accord with New Testament teach-

ing concerning the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit in believers

(Rom. 5:5; 8:9; 2 Cor. 1:22; 3:18; Gal. 4:6; Eph. 3:16-19; Titus 3:5-6).

            John stressed not the identity but the superior greatness of this

divine Enabler: "greater is He who is in you than he who is in the

world" (mei<zwn e]sti>n o[ e]n u[mi?n h} o[ e]n t&? ko<sm&). The masculine

articles make clear that the contrast is between two personal powers,

while the comparative adjective "greater" stresses the superior au-

thority and power of the One in believers. Their opponent, the one in

the world, is the devil, "the ruler of this world" (John 12:31), whose

work the Son of God came to destroy (1 John 3:8). Clearly John "does

not subscribe to a dualist system in which the universe is the battle-

field of two essentially equally powerful spiritual forces."42 The su-

perior rank and power of the indwelling Holy Spirit assures Christ's

victory over the devil in the lives of believers.

            Having assured his readers that this greater One was "in you,"

John might have been expected to refer to this personal evil opponent

as being "in them," that is, the anti-Christian false teachers. In-

stead he presented the devil and his minions as being "in the world."

The term "the world" here has a strong moral quality, denoting the


Moody Press, n.d.), p. 1737; Rudolf Bultmann, The Johannine Epistles, Hermeneia se-

ries (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), p. 63; R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of

the Epistles of St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude (1945; reprint, Minneapolis: Augsburg

Publishing House, 1966), p. 490; Marshall, The Epistles of John, p. 208; Smith, "The

Epistles of St. John," p. 190.

38   Westcott, The Epistles of St John, p. 144.

39   Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, p. 227 (italics his).

40   So Barker, "1 John," p. 341; F. F. Bruce, The Epistles of John (Old Tappan, NJ:

Fleming H. Revell Co., 1970), p. 106; Zane C. Hodges, "1 John," in The Bible Knowl-

edge Commentary, New Testament, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton,

IL: Victor Books, 1983), p. 898; Kistemaker, Exposition of the Epistle of James and the

Epistles of John, p. 328; and Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Real (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books,

1972), p. 135.

41   Burdick, The Letters of John the Apostle, pp. 201-2.

42   J. L. Houlden, A Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, Harper's New Testament

Commentaries (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1973), p. 110.

                     An Expositional Study of 1 John 4:1-6                               433


organized world of humanity in its hostility to God and His king-

om. Left to their own power, believers could only experience defeat

by such a foe, but God's provision and power offers them continuing

ictory in their daily encounter with the world, the flesh, and the

devil. But believers need to appropriate that victory personally.

            Those who are of the world (v. 5). "They are from the world"

(au]toi> e]k tou? ko<smou ei]si<n) marks the difference between the false

teachers and true believers (v. 4). For John there was no middle

ground between the two. In verse 3 John identified the anti-Chris-

tian spirits as being "not from God"; now he stressed that the false

teachers are "from the world," marking their source and essential

character. The triple use of "world" in verse 5 underlines this rela-

tionship. They belong to the godless world-system of which Satan is

the prince.

            John pointed out the evidence: "therefore they speak as from

the world, and the world listens to them." What they are is re-

vealed by their message as well as the followers they draw.

            The content of their message establishes that the false teachers

are "of the world"; "therefore they speak as from the world" (dia>

tou?to e]k tou? ko<smou lalou?sin, more literally, "because of this out

of the world they are speaking"). Because their being is rooted in

the world, their message reveals what they are. They draw the sub-

stance of their teaching from the philosophy of the godless world,

revealing that they have no connection with the divine fountain of

revealed truth. The present tense verb "they speak" portrays them

as continually presenting their message from the viewpoint of the

world. They confirm the words of Jesus in John 3:31: "He who is of

the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth." In adjusting

and restating the content of their message to conform to the spirit and

philosophy of the world, they distort and deform the message of

God. As Bruce observes, 'There is no form of 'worldliness' so inimical

to Christianity as this kind of 're-statement."'43

            The added comment, "and the world listens to them" (kai> o[

ko<smoj au]tw?n a]kou<ei),44 further confirms their nature from the fact

that their message appeals to the world. It seems that these false

teachers had experienced a measure of success outside the apostolic

churches. The world had given them a ready hearing, since the

world listens to those who speak its own language. John held that


43   Bruce, The Epistles of John, p. 106.

44   The classical rule for akouein [to hear] is: the person whose words are heard

stands in the genitive, the thing about which (or whom) one hears in the accusative"

(Blass and DeBrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early

Christian Literature, p. 95). "Akouein takes acc. of the thing heard, genit. of the per-

son from whom it is heard" (Smith, "The Epistles of St. John," p. 190).


434                 Bibliotheca Sacra / October—December 1989


success with the pagan public revealed a fundamental affinity be-

tween the false teachers and paganism. Of course the fact that a

person draws large crowds does not necessarily mean he is a false

teacher. It is a fact of history that under the power of the Holy

Spirit large crowds are being drawn to faith in Christ under the

faithful preaching and ministry of godly messengers. As Dodd points

out, a negative response to the Christian message "may often be due

to a defect in the preacher's presentation of the message, or to his

failure to understand' sympathetically the people to whom he ap-




            The world's response to the false teachers led John to formulate

another criterion: The character of the messenger is established by

the response of the hearers. He stated this criterion by pointing out

the twofold response to the apostolic messengers.

            The assertion, "We are from God" (h[mei?j e]k tou? qeou? e]smen),

emphatically marks the contrast between the false teachers (v. 5)

and the apostolic messengers (v. 6a). Some understand the intended

scope of the emphatic "we" as a reference to the Christian commu-

nity, or to John and his readers.46 But the context suggests that the

intended contrast is between the false teachers of verse 5 and John

and his fellow apostles in verse 6a.47  Plummer asserts, "The opposi-

tion here is not between true and false Christians, but between true

and false teachers. "48 The assured expression, "We are from God,"

reflects the consciousness of certainty and authority manifested by

Christ's chosen and commissioned messengers. In the words of Plum-

mer, "Here once more we have that magisterial tone of Apostolic au-

thority which is so conspicuous in the Prologue (i. 1-4). It underlies

the whole Epistle, as it does the whole of the Fourth Gospel. . . . It

is the quiet confidence of conscious strength."49


45   C. H. Dodd, The Johannnine Epistles, Moffatt New Testament Commentary (New

York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1946), p. 1(11.

46   So Bultmann, The Johannine Epistles, p. 64, n. 15; Lenski, The Interpretation of the

Epistles of St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude, p. 491; Marshall, The Epistles of John, p.


47   So Alford, The New Testament for English Readers, p. 1738; James Montgomery

Boice, The Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979), p. 137;

R. W. Orr, "The Letters of John," in A New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids:

Zondervan Publishing House, 1969), p. 617; Alexander Ross, The Epistles of James and

John, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B.

Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1954), pp. 198-99; Stott, The Epistles of John, p. 158.

48   Plummer, The Epistles of S. John, p. 145 (italics his).

49   Ibid.


           An Expositional Study of 1 John 4:1-6                               435


            In setting forth this criterion John echoed the words of Jesus, "He

who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear

them, because you are not of God" (John 8:47; cf. 10:4-5, 26-27). Both

positively and negatively the response to God's Word reveals the

nature of the hearers.

            Positively, "he who knows God listens to us" (o[ ginw<skwn to>n

qeo>n a]kou<ei h[mw?n) characterizes one who has a continuing and grow-

ing acquaintance with the true God that draws him to the true mes-

senger of God. His relationship with God is "no mere intellectual

knowing but a living apprehension with full effect on mind, heart,

and life."50 Such an individual "listens to us" (a]kou<ei h[mw?n),51  re-

sponds approvingly to the message and the messenger. The result is,

as Westcott observes, "The hearer discerns the true message. The

teacher discovers the true disciple. And this concurrence of experi-

ence brings fresh assurance and deeper knowledge."52

            The negative reaction to the apostolic message is also signifi-

cant: "he who is not from God does not listen to us." His rejection of

that message establishes that he is "not from God" (ou]k e@stin e]k

tou? qeou?). Instead of saying such a person "does not know God," John

characterized him as being "not from God," lacking that inner spiri-

tual relationship with God imparted through the new birth. Only

one who has been born of God is attentive to the Word of God. The

ministry of preaching not only confirms the true nature of the speaker

but also serves to lay bare the spiritual state of the hearers.



            John concluded this discussion with a summary comment: "By

this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error." "By this"

(e]k tou<tou) looks back to the preceding discussion, but it is not clear

whether "this" refers to the whole section (vv. 1-6), or to the last

half (vv. 4-6), or only to the first half of verse 6. Burdick holds that

"this'' "refers back to the positive and negative statement of the test

in the first part of the verse-to the established fact that like lis-

tens to like."53 Smalley holds that the reference is "in the first

place to the criterion mentioned in v. 6 itself (whether or not atten-

tion is paid to the apostolic proclamation)" but agrees with, those

who hold that "an allusion to the earlier test (a proper acknowl-


50   Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistles of St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude, p. 491.

51   See note 44.

52   Westcott, The Epistles of St John, p. 145.

53   Burdick, The Letters of John the Apostle, p. 304.


436                 Bibliotheca Sacra / October—December 1989


edgment of Jesus, vv. 2-3) is almost certainly in view as well."54 This

broader reference, including both tests John mentioned, is essential

for full certainty in testing the spirits.

            The plural "we know" (ginw<skomen) ascribes to all true believers

this ability to recognize or distinguish the true nature of the spirits,

not just to the apostles or the official leaders of the church.

            Conditions then, as now, demanded that believers be alert to

distinguish between "the spirit of truth and the spirit of error." The

two spirits represent two distinct moral realms competing for control

over the lives of human beings.  English translations generally par-

allel the two instances of the word "spirit"; but the NIV and the

Good News Bible55 capitalize the first occurrence of the word to indi-

cate that the reference is to the Holy Spirit, already referred to in

verse 2 as "the Spirit of God." The designation "the Spirit of truth"

denotes the Holy Spirit in John 14:17; 15:26; and 16:13. The genitive

"of truth" seems best understood as descriptive, setting forth the

essence of the Spirit as actively communicating and interpreting

God's truth (cf. John 14:6). Those who proclaim the truth of God do so

under the leading of the Spirit of truth.

            Opposed to the work of the Spirit of truth is "the spirit of error"

(to> pneu?ma th?j pla<nhj), a phrase occurring only here in the New

Testament. The genitive "of error" is descriptive of the relentless ac-

tivities of the devil and his cohorts. The articular noun rendered

"error" (th?j pla<nhj) may be either active or passive in meaning. Ac-

tively it means "the leading astray, deceit," while passively it sig-

nifies "the being led astray, error, delusion." The context clearly

supports the active meaning here. The reference to the "false

prophets" in 1 John 4:1 involves the concept of active deception; and

in 2:26 John used the cognate verb to warn his readers against "those

who are trying to deceive you" (cf. also 3:7). Satan and his demonic

forces are engaged in a relentless effort to lead believers astray,

working in and through their human agents. This warfare between

the Spirit of truth and the spirit of deception is indeed the climactic

aspect of the conflicts in the Christian life.


54   Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, p. 230.

55   The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Bible Pub-

lishers, 1978); Good News for Modern Man (New York: American Bible Society, 1966).



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