[Note: This is part 5 in a six-part series looking at the First Epistle of John. Some of the material is adapted from my commentary That You May Know: The First Letter of John. During this series, we won’t necessarily touch on every single verse, but will look at the major messages that 1 John presents.]
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. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life (1 John 4:1-5:12).
Today, we continue our look at 1 John. John has now talked about the marks of the believer, and also given some counter-examples. Like a good teacher, he tells his readers what is needed to pass the test. Then, he proceeds to lay out the tests. That is the subject of this passage. One who understands and applies these tests can not only be assured of salvation for themselves but will also be equipped to spot true and false believers in the fellowship.
Test #1: Test the Spirits (4:1-6)
The first part of the test measures how well a believer can distinguish between the Spirit of God and other spirits. The context seems to suggest that he is referring specifically to so-called prophets (v.1). He tells the believers to “test” (“try,” KJV) the spirits to see whether they be from God. Paul apparently gave a similar instruction to the Christians of Berea concerning his own teaching, since Acts records that they searched the Scriptures to see whether what Paul said was true (Acts 17:11-12).
What is the test? John tells us that any spirit (speaking through a person) that confesses that Jesus has come in the flesh is of God, but any spirit that does not confess Jesus is not of God—indeed is the spirit of antichrist (vv. 2-3). John is not laying out some strict formula here. He is not necessarily advocating that a believer ask the person, “What do you think of Jesus?” The sense, rather, is that the spirit behind the prophet will be obvious in what he teaches about Christ. Nowhere in Scripture is it commanded that we interrogate a spirit or a prophet. The assumption is that a true believer, grounded in the truth, will be able to tell. Verses 5-6 support this, in that the implication is that if a prophet is teaching anything at odds with apostolic teaching, it will be obvious to the congregation (“by this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error,” v. 6).
Test #2: Test of Love (4:7-12)
The second part of the test is one of love. The test is meant to cause the believer to ask, “Do I (or another believer) love others as God loves them?” John reminds us that “God is love” (v. 8b). Because God is love, one who does not love does not know God. Then John reminds us of what looks like: God sent His Son into the world so that we might live through Him (v. 9), and He loved us (before we could even think of loving Him) and sent His Son to pay the penalty for our sins (v. 10).
Test #3: Test of Doctrine (4:13-15)
The third part of the test seems at first glance to be a repeat of the first. It is a test of doctrine. Yet, it is a different question here. The first test sought to test the spirit behind a prophetic utterance. This test seeks to determine the actual belief and commitment of a person claiming to know God. The question is a simple one: “Who do you say that Jesus is?” (As opposed to the first test, in which we said that question may not be appropriate or useful.)
There are two confessions here. First, Jesus is the Son of God. In saying that, one confesses that Jesus is one with God (begotten, not created). Second, Jesus was sent to be the Savior of the world. Note here that He was not sent just to save the Jewish nation, but “the world.” Indeed, Christ testified of that when He gave one of His most well-known statements of all time: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).
Though not stated in the text, the two confessions are inextricably linked, and John says that anyone who confesses Jesus as the Son of God, and thus as his Savior, has God abiding in him. The reverse is also true. Anyone who does not confess Jesus as the Son of God, rejecting His work as Savior, does not have God.
Takeaways: Results of the Test (4:16-5:12)
At first glance, this section seems to be a series of loose repetitions of what John has already taught. In truth, however, it is John showing the results of the tests put forth. We are told what happens when one passes the tests (i.e., is a true believer). Here is what we learn:
First, “we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us” (4:16). In the modern church, there seems to be a serious lack of the understanding of the love of God for the believer. Many suffer from a lack of trust in the Father’s love and goodness. Once someone has come to truly know and believe the love of God and abides in that love, John says His love is perfected in us (made complete).
Second, because the love of God is being perfected in us, we “have confidence for the day of judgment” (v. 17). We have confidence because we are no longer afraid (v. 18). Here John speaks of fear in the sense of terror, not in the sense of the positive “fear of the Lord” that is holy and reverent.
Third, one who has passed the tests loves his brother. John says that it’s impossible for one to claim to love God yet hate his brother (v. 20). His logic is unassailable here. It is much easier to love one we can see and touch. Therefore, if one cannot love the one they can see and touch, how can he claim to love the One who is unseen, the One that we interact with through faith? He further ties all of this together. Keeping the commandments necessarily includes loving God and loving the brethren (5:2).
Before moving on, John reminds us that Christ’s commandments are not “burdensome” (v. 3). That is not to say that the act of love is not difficult at times or that a believer will not struggle. “Burdensome” in this context can be compared to the law which was called a yoke and a burden by other writers such as Peter and Paul. It was a burden because the people did not, in themselves have the power to obey, whereas now the Spirit-indwelt believer, with the new heart, has the power to obey; the law is written on his heart.
Fourth, the one who passes the tests overcomes the world (v. 4). When the New Testament writers speak of overcoming the world, they do so in the sense of the spiritual. That is to say that one who has overcome the world has held steadfast to his faith and has not given in to the lusts and temptations of the world. It is through our faith that we overcome the world. John pointedly remarks that the only one capable of overcoming the world is the one who “believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (v. 5). Finally, John tells us that whoever passes the tests has the very testimony of God within him. This testimony is concerning the One who came by water (referring to Christ’s baptism) and the blood (his death on the cross). Whoever receives the Son of God (i.e., trusts in Him for salvation) has this testimony in himself (v. 10a). But, whoever denies the Son of God does not have the testimony, and also is calling God a liar. The testimony is that God has given His Son to us that we might have eternal life through Him (vv. 11-12).