02 November 2011

The Johannine Letters (5): I John 4: 1-21

Sunset in the Aegean Sea at Ladies’ Beach in Kusadasi, near Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

Part 1: I John 4: 1-6

1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every 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. 4 Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

1 Ἀγαπητοί, μὴ παντὶ πνεύματι πιστεύετε, ἀλλὰ δοκιμάζετε τὰ πνεύματα εἰ ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐστιν, ὅτι πολλοὶ ψευδοπροφῆται ἐξεληλύθασιν εἰς τὸν κόσμον. 2 ἐν τούτῳ γινώσκετε τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ θεοῦ: πᾶν πνεῦμα ὃ ὁμολογεῖ Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν ἐν σαρκὶ ἐληλυθότα ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐστιν, 3 καὶ πᾶν πνεῦμα ὃ μὴ ὁμολογεῖ τὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐκ ἔστιν: καὶ τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ τοῦ ἀντιχρίστου, ὃ ἀκηκόατε ὅτι ἔρχεται, καὶ νῦν ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ ἐστὶν ἤδη. 4 ὑμεῖς ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐστε, τεκνία, καὶ νενικήκατε αὐτούς, ὅτι μείζων ἐστὶν ὁ ἐν ὑμῖν ἢ ὁ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ. 5 αὐτοὶ ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου εἰσίν: διὰ τοῦτο ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου λαλοῦσιν καὶ ὁ κόσμος αὐτῶν ἀκούει. 6 ἡμεῖς ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐσμεν: ὁ γινώσκων τὸν θεὸν ἀκούει ἡμῶν, ὃς οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐκ ἀκούει ἡμῶν. ἐκ τούτου γινώσκομεν τὸ πνεῦμα τῆς ἀληθείας καὶ τὸ πνεῦμα τῆς πλάνης.


There are two sorts of people that we all meet in parish ministry who take very contrasting attitudes to taking part in the Sunday-by-Sunday, week-by-week worship life of the parish.

On the one hand, there are those who say they love coming to church for the spiritual high they get from the music, the choir, or even, perhaps, the liturgy itself, or for the strong sense of community, and who say that this has a spiritual significance for them, but they do not believe in what the Church teaches about faith and discipleship.

And then there are those people who claim they accept and believe in Christian principles, but who say they do not need to come to Church, on Sundays or the main feast days and festivals, or to receive Holy Communion on a regular basis, because, they claim, they can just as easily worship God at home, in the privacy of their own room, or while they are out walking in the woods or walking the dog in the park.

Is the spiritual experience of the first group really valid? Is the spiritual isolationism and elitism of the second group an expression of Christianity? It appears one group wants the “spiritual high” of Christianity without the love of God, and the other wants the “spiritual high” of Christianity without having to love their fellow Christians and the rest of humanity.

Testing the spirits

This passage in I John comes between two passages on love: love of our neighbour, and the love of God. This section is about testing the Spirits, inviting us to ask questions about the right spirit and about testing the spirits. Chapter 3 ended with us being told: “Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit that he gave us.”

But how do we know the difference between the Holy Spirit and other promptings and leadings. How can we tell whether others who claim to be inspired by the Spirit are true or false in their claims and in the leadership they provide. This is at the heart of the divisions within the Church that are being address in I John, and that are dealt with in this section, described by C.H. Dodd as an “excursus on inspiration, true and false.”

In this epistle, John has already discussed our relationship with God (1: 5-6), with Christ (2: 3-4), with the things in the world (2: 15), with Sin (3: 4-5), and with our brothers and sisters in faith (3: 11). As chapter 4 begins, we find John discussing what our relationship should be to a very real danger: the danger of false prophets (I John 4: 1-6).

In these six verses, the author says that the many false prophets who have gone out into the world speak as from the world and the world listens to them. But how can we tell the difference? How do we know if someone is just professing Christ as Lord but is a false prophet or if that the person is confessing Christ as Lord and is a true prophet?

This theme of testing the spirits to see whether they are from God is a Johannine theme that we will return to again when we look at the Revelation of John: “I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false” (Revelation 2: 2).

Here in these six verses in I John we are told of the need to test the spirits and to determine whether they are from God. At first glance this passage may appear to say that anyone who professes that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. But that is not what it is being said, and the next few verses go on to say it is a little bit more complicated than that.

The writer is saying that right belief and right behaviour go hand-in-hand. There has to be a direct connection between orthodoxy and orthopraxis. There are those who profess Jesus with their mouths but deny him in their deeds and in their failures in love and in action.

Verse 1:

This section opens with a typical Johannine greeting and term of endearment:

Ἀγαπητοί (Agapetoí, Beloved, dearly beloved, from the Greek ἀγαπητός, beloved, esteemed, dear, favourite, one worthy of love).

To repeat a story I may have told last week, there was a notice in the lift in my hotel in Thessaloniki last month that began: “Αγαπητοί επισκέπτες …” These words are commonly translated in Greek notices into English as: “Dear Guests …” But in Greek, these words truly say: “Beloved guests …”

There is a difference in the grade of affection and intimacy here. Could you imagine a hotel receptionist greeting you as: “My beloved …”?

Could you imagine someone greeting at the church door with the words: “My beloved …”?

But this is the very level of affection that is being talked about in I John, including in this verse.

Note too the use of phrases such as “all the spirits” or “the spirits” in this verse, which are supernatural powers claimed by the false spirits, and, in verse 2, the Spirit of God, or the Holy Spirit, which inspires the true confession about Christ.

The expression “to test the spirits” also occurs in the Dead Sea Scrolls, where it is used in reference to new members of the community. Not everyone who wants to join the community necessarily holds to the beliefs and values of the community, and they need to be tested.

Verse 2:

The Greek verb translated as “to confess” in verse 2 is ὁμολογέω (homologeo), from homos, “the same,” and lego, “to speak.” In other words, it means to say the same thing as another, to agree with, to assent, to concede, to promise, to profess, to confess, to declare, to confess or to admit or to declare oneself guilty of what one is accused of, to declare openly, to speak out freely, to profess oneself the worshipper of one, to praise, celebrate or to say the same thing as another, to agree with or assent, to declare openly, to speak out freely, to “speak the same thing as another.”

The mark of the spirit or the Spirit of God is belief that Jesus Christ is the Messiah or Christ incarnate. To confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is to be moved by the Holy Spirit to say the same thing that God himself says about the person and work of Christ, and to say same the same as other, fellow, true believers say. This is deeper than mere intellectual assent; this is confession that comes from the heart and that agrees both with God and with other believers.

Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, but false propagandists destroy his claims by denying and neglecting his human career.

Verse 3:

Verses 2-3 are best understood in light of the Gnostic-like errors that were threatening the Johannine community in Ephesus at the time. Those who accepted these errors included some who denied that Jesus Christ actually came in the flesh (see II John 7), and those whose doctrine was leading many astray, those false teachers who claimed they were inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Those who would teach such falsehood are not led by the Spirit of God, but possess the spirit of the Antichrist (see II John 7).

Jesus too addressed questions about those who claimed to be his disciples but who did not really confess him. In Matthew 7: 21-23, he says: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers’.”

The false prophets Jesus is speaking about also professed him as Lord, but they did not abide by the Word of God or do his Father’s will. Instead they did evil.

Verses 4-5:

Little children (τεκνία, teknía): you will remember when we were looking at the poetic section in I John 2: 12-14, the members of the Johannine community were addressed in three ways: as fathers, young people, and little children (2: 12) or children (2: 14), whose sins are forgiven on account of his name (2: 12), and who know the Father (2: 14).

This term, “little children,” is used throughout this letter for the whole community. In I John 3: 1, we are told that in God’s love we are called his children (3: 1), we are God’s children (3: 2), God’s little children, and we should let no-one deceive us (3: 7), and the children of God are contrasted with the children of the devil (3: 10). Later on, John tells them: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action (3: 17).

The term “little children” is used once again here to address the whole community.

In the midst of these warnings to test the spirits, John provides the whole community with some comforting words in verses 4-5. By being children of God, because they have heeded the words of the apostles – in other words, because they have loved in truth and in action – they can overcome the false prophets, for the One who is in them is greater than “the one who is in the world.”

We should not be surprised to see the world following false prophets, for those false prophets are of the world and they speak in a way that appeals to the world. But we should not be deterred by the “apparent success” of the false teachers – for we know that size and numbers are not the proper measures of truth.

Verse 6:

“Whoever knows God listens to us …”

At the end of this section, I John comes to the ultimate test of truth and deceit – the ability “to listen to us” or conformity to the teaching within the Johannine school.

When the writer uses the first person plural here, this not a majestic we, but calling on the witness of all true Christian teachers.

Whoever knows God discriminates between truth and error. Verse 6 reveals how we can distinguish between “the spirit of truth” and “the spirit of error”: those who truly know God listen to the apostolic teachers, while those who are not of God will reject them.

True love is more than heart-shaped chocolates

Part 2: I John 4: 7-21

7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

7 Ἀγαπητοί, ἀγαπῶμεν ἀλλήλους, ὅτι ἡ ἀγάπη ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐστιν, καὶ πᾶς ὁ ἀγαπῶν ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ γεγέννηται καὶ γινώσκει τὸν θεόν. 8 ὁ μὴ ἀγαπῶν οὐκ ἔγνω τὸν θεόν, ὅτι ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν. 9 ἐν τούτῳ ἐφανερώθη ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν, ὅτι τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ ἀπέσταλκεν ὁ θεὸς εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα ζήσωμεν δι' αὐτοῦ. 10 ἐν τούτῳ ἐστὶν ἡ ἀγάπη, οὐχ ὅτι ἡμεῖς ἠγαπήκαμεν τὸν θεόν, ἀλλ' ὅτι αὐτὸς ἠγάπησεν ἡμᾶς καὶ ἀπέστειλεν τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ ἱλασμὸν περὶ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν. 11 Ἀγαπητοί, εἰ οὕτως ὁ θεὸς ἠγάπησεν ἡμᾶς, καὶ ἡμεῖς ὀφείλομεν ἀλλήλους ἀγαπᾶν. 12 θεὸν οὐδεὶς πώποτε τεθέαται: ἐὰν ἀγαπῶμεν ἀλλήλους, ὁ θεὸς ἐν ἡμῖν μένει καὶ ἡ ἀγάπη αὐτοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν τετελειωμένη ἐστιν.

13 Ἐν τούτῳ γινώσκομεν ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ μένομεν καὶ αὐτὸς ἐν ἡμῖν, ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος αὐτοῦ δέδωκεν ἡμῖν. 14 καὶ ἡμεῖς τεθεάμεθα καὶ μαρτυροῦμεν ὅτι ὁ πατὴρ ἀπέσταλκεν τὸν υἱὸν σωτῆρα τοῦ κόσμου. 15 ὃς ἐὰν ὁμολογήσῃ ὅτι Ἰησοῦς ἐστιν ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ, ὁ θεὸς ἐν αὐτῷ μένει καὶ αὐτὸς ἐν τῷ θεῷ. 16 καὶ ἡμεῖς ἐγνώκαμεν καὶ πεπιστεύκαμεν τὴν ἀγάπην ἣν ἔχει ὁ θεὸς ἐν ἡμῖν.

Ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν, καὶ ὁ μένων ἐν τῇ ἀγάπῃ ἐν τῷ θεῷ μένει καὶ ὁ θεὸς ἐν αὐτῷ μένει. 17 ἐν τούτῳ τετελείωται ἡ ἀγάπη μεθ' ἡμῶν, ἵνα παρρησίαν ἔχωμεν ἐν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῆς κρίσεως, ὅτι καθὼς ἐκεῖνός ἐστιν καὶ ἡμεῖς ἐσμεν ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ τούτῳ. 18 φόβος οὐκ ἔστιν ἐν τῇ ἀγάπῃ, ἀλλ' ἡ τελεία ἀγάπη ἔξω βάλλει τὸν φόβον, ὅτι ὁ φόβος κόλασιν ἔχει, ὁ δὲ φοβούμενος οὐ τετελείωται ἐν τῇ ἀγάπῃ. 19 ἡμεῖς ἀγαπῶμεν, ὅτι αὐτὸς πρῶτος ἠγάπησεν ἡμᾶς. 20 ἐάν τις εἴπῃ ὅτι Ἀγαπῶ τὸν θεόν, καὶ τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ μισῇ, ψεύστης ἐστίν: ὁ γὰρ μὴ ἀγαπῶν τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ ὃν ἑώρακεν, τὸν θεὸν ὃν οὐχ ἑώρακεν οὐ δύναται ἀγαπᾶν. 21 καὶ ταύτην τὴν ἐντολὴν ἔχομεν ἀπ' αὐτοῦ, ἵνα ὁ ἀγαπῶν τὸν θεὸν ἀγαπᾷ καὶ τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ.

In this section of I John, the author returns once again to the theme of our love for one another, and how this not only reflects God’s love for us but reflects God himself. Love characterises God’s way of relating to us – we come closer to God through love than through knowledge, and when we love one another we are icons of God.

Verses 7-10:

God is love, and this is seen in God sending his Son.

Romantic art and literature from the 19th century on, has conditioned us to think of love as a feeling, a heart-felt feeling associated with desire and intimacy. But this is often self-centred, and effectively selfish: what do I want? Who do I want to be with? Who can meet my needs and desires and support my ambitions?

John is talking here about a more profound type of love – a love that is not expressed in Valentine’s cards or in romantic rhymes and songs, in a box of heart-shaped chocolates, a love that is not a mere inner disposition of emotions, but love that is expressed in choice and action, love that is total self-giving. In the incarnation we see God’s total self-giving and self-emptying.

Self-giving love means identifying with people. There is a well-known joke that an Irish way of proposing is to ask: Would you like to be buried with my people? But behind the humour is the truth that love involves complete identification of the lover with the loved. God totally identifies with us to the point that Christ is born among us, lives and dies among us, is buried with us ... and then the triumph of his love is found in the Resurrection.

God totally identifies with us in the incarnation. And the response we are asked to make to the giving of God’s love is love others.

The author of I John vigorously defends the claims of the incarnation against the gnostic teachings of the separatists in Ephesus. Christ is neither an illusion, an appearance or a manifestation, nor is he a great teacher or prophet, but he is the incarnate, only-begotten Son of God. But, by obeying Christ’s command to love one another, we too become the adopted children of God.

Verses 11-12:

The only way anyone can see that we know God is when they see how we love. Our love for others is as close as we can come on earth to union with the God we cannot see.

The group who had broken away from the Johannine community in Ephesus claimed special knowledge (gnosis) and visions of God, and their failure to love the other members of the community showed that they did not love God.

Verses 13-18:

The Holy Spirit testifies that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, has revealed his Father as love. When his love is perfected or matured in us, there is no need for fear any more, and all fear is dismissed and cast aside. The gift of the Holy Spirit is our pledge of union with God.

Returning to the supreme example of love, the author of I John testifies to the reality of the sending of the Son as Saviour.

Verses 19-21:

Love originates in God. A failure to love is the visible evidence of a breach with the unseen God, and a violation of his commandments.

Verse 21, which concludes this section, repeats once again the very foundation of the Christian emphasis on the role of love in the spiritual life: if we love God then we must love one another.

Next: I John 5: 1-21

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on Wednesday 2 November 2011.

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