The most famous and well-known part of 1 John 4 is the exposition of Deus caritas est in the second part of the chapter. Verses 11-24 of the previous chapter discuss the commandment to love one another. In between these two teachings on love John speaks about testing the spirits, 1 John 4:1-6.[i] By exegeting verse by verse, I wish to establish that these verses fit within the unity of the letter contra Marshall.[ii] To do this I will be operating out the conclusion of Augustine regarding 1 John namely, “See if this entire epistle … commends anything else than this one, charity itself.”[iii]
Brooke sees the testing of the spirits in 1 Jn 4:1 as the carismata[iv] from 1 Corinthians 12:7, 10, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good … to another the ability to distinguish between spirits.” Could there be a consensus in the early Church between Pauline theology and Johannine theology about testing of the spirits? Although, Kruse thinks otherwise[v] I would tend to agree with Brooke. “In the earlier generations the spiritual phenomena which accompanied the growth of Christianity were a cause of grave anxiety to all Christian leaders. It needed a special grace to distinguish between the true and the false.”[vi] John does not speak of the carismata in detail like Paul does. This could be for one of two reasons: 1) the church(es) to which 1 John is directed might not have experienced to the same degree the carismata that the church in Corinth experienced; 2) considering the relative brevity of the letter (as opposed to some of the Pauline letters) it might not have been within the context to deal with all of the carismata, only this particular one. Why then this one in particular? In some way it could be connected to the carisma of prophecy because John follows this clause by warning his audience about false prophets. As Brooke said, there was a need to distinguish between “the spirit of error and the spirit of truth” (1 Jn 4:6). Kruse also agrees that, “‘to test the spirits’ means to evaluate the utterances of such people ‘to see whether they are from God.’”[vii] The prophecy must be tested to see from whom the word originates. There is also patristic evidence for the same.[viii] As for false prophets, they “are attacked in Mt 7:15; 24: 11, 24, and we may compare the reference in v. 3 [spirit of antichrist] to the heretics, or their leaders, not indeed as ‘false Messiahs’ but as ‘anti-Messiahs.’”[ix] These false prophets then speak from the spirit of the antichrist or ‘anti-Messiah.’
Messiah, of course, means anointed one, and John speaks of anointing at the end of the second chapter of the letter. “The anointing which you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you; as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie, just as it has taught you, abide in him” (1 Jn 2:26-27). He who anoints is God. John then urges the community to abide in God. This abiding language is also used in the 1 Jn 4:7-21 discourse on love most notably, “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn 4:16b). One can say, then, that those who are false prophets, antichrists, and anti-Messiahs, do not abide in God who is love. It begins to show the integral connection of this section with the whole of the letter as proclaiming love.
From here, John gives the test, “every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God” (1 Jn 4:2). Setting aside the obvious doctrinal problems of those who confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh but are still heretical, this test is very helpful. John repeats this proof later in the chapter, “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God” (1 Jn 4:15). John seems to compare abiding in God and having the spirit of truth. In fact, “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit” (1 Jn 4:13). When one has the spirit of truth, he has been given the Holy Spirit and confesses that Jesus is the Son of God. Consequently, he abides in God, and is love. “Whoever doesn’t have charity, therefore, denies that Christ has come in the flesh.”[x] Lack of confession equals lack of charity. The confession though is not just with the lips but from actions. “If it were not so, then there would be some heretics, many schismatics and many pseudo-orthodox who would confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh but who would deny that confession by their behavior, for they have no love.”[xi] One could posit though, that the actions language is from James, but it also occurs in a different form in 1 John. “For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, and not be like Cain who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous,” (1 Jn 4:11-12). Lack of love is connected with evil deeds for John urges his audience to love and not be like Cain, who was of the evil one. There is set up this dualism of those without love, without God’s spirit, and those who love, and have God’s Spirit. It is shown through their deeds. The challenge of hypocrites in chapters 1 and 2[xii] gives more weight to this. Their deeds convict them.
Non-loving actions convict the false prophets. They confess with their whole being that Jesus is not of God, who is love. It is by this that one of John’s little children can see these false prophets are not of God. They exhibit not the Spirit of God, by loving, but they exhibit the spirit of antichrist, by non-loving action. There is connection with false prophecy and non-loving action. This is how one can recognize a false prophet for “Evil reveals itself in false teaching.”[xiii] They set themselves against Christ, hence, the name of their guiding spirit.
They have been overcome. God, as love, was revealed by Jesus Christ. “For it was the love of God toward us which induced his Son to come in the flesh. God showed his love to us not in word but in deeds, not by talking but by loving.”[xiv] Christ said this to his disciples, “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world,” (Jn 16:33). Because those who confess by loving have the Spirit of God, they have been saved by Jesus, who is “the Savior of the world,” (1 Jn 4:14). By abiding in him, they overcome the world him. “If they are true to themselves the readers have nothing to fear from the activities of the Antichristian spirits at work in the world. In virtue of the new birth, which as Christians they have experienced, they have gained the victory over the false prophets.”[xv] Whether Brooke realized the depth of this statement, I do not know, but “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear,” (1 Jn 4:18). Abiding in love, there is no need to fear those who have convicted themselves of being antichristian.
Verse 5 furthers the Johannine language of those who are antichristian. “‘World’ thus means both mankind united in opposition to God and the evil attitude characteristic of such people. Those who deny Christ thus show that they belong to this evil world and are not from God.”[xvi] The false prophets have gone out into the world as v.1 says. There they would find willing ears, ears that are not ready to hear because “if any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him” (1 Jn 2:15). Love for the world, which John says is the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not love of God. The non-loving of the antichristian spirit can now be identified in these specific categories. Because they do not love, they are children of the devil, and therefore, they are of the same family and wish to hear the same things, namely lies. Hence, the world listens to false prophets. The father of the world is the father of lies.
It is seems obvious that those who abide in the love God will listen to his word through his prophets. They have been given the tools and the means to discern between true prophets inspired by the spirit of truth and false prophets inspired by the spirit of error. “A man is said to be ‘of God,’ ‘of the Devil,’ who draws all his inspiration, all that dominated and regulates his thought and action, from the sources out of which he is said to be.”[xvii] One recognizes the prophets inspired by the spirit of error by his/her actions, which display the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, or the pride of life. By their actions they deny that Jesus is from God, for he came to free them from the bondage of sin and did so in the love of the cross. The discernment is one of love. The spirit of truth can be discerned in the man by his love. The spirit of error can be discerned in the man by his lack of love. “If any one 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” (1 Jn 4:20). “By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:6).
Through all of this, one can discern that 1 John 4:1-6 is an integral part of the letter. It uses phrases and language consistent with the whole of the letter. It only exhibits the letter’s main themes in different language. The discernment of spirits is intimately connected to love of the Father and one’s neighbor.
[i] “Beloved, do no believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already. Little children, you are of God, and have overcome them; for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world, therefore what they say is of the world, and the world listens to them. We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” (1 John 4:1-6)
[ii] “The present section, verses 1-6, is a self-contained unity, clearly separate from what follows.” I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, The New International Commentary on The New Testament, ed. F.F. Bruce, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1978), 203.
[iii] Augustine of Hippo, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, Vol. 14, introduction, translation and notes by Boniface Ramsey (Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2008), 104.
[iv] A.E. Brooke, The Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, The International Critical Commentary, ed. Samuel Driver, Alfred Plummer, and Charles Briggs (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), 107.
[v] Colin Kruse, The Letters of John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Leicester, England: Apollos, 2000), 144.
[viii] Ed. Gerald Bay, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. XI, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarstity, 2000), 209.
[ix] J.L. Houlden, A Commentary on the Johannine Epistles (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1973), 109.