The Pulpit Commentary

1 John 4:1-6 (1 John 4:1-6)

Confession of the Incarnation is the assurance that the Spirit of God, who is the Spirit of truth, is working in us, and not the spirit of error. The passage seems clearly to teach that there are two rival influences contending for power over the spirits of men. We must test men's spirits to see whether they are organs of the Spirit of truth or of the spirit of error.

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1 John 4:3 (1 John 4:3)

Every spirit (not so much the personal teacher as the principle or tendency of the doctrine) which confesseth not Jesus. This is the true reading, the words χριστὸν ἐν σαρκὶ ἐληλυθότα being a spurious addition from 1 John 4:1 . As so often, St. John states the ease both negatively and positively for emphasis. There is an ancient variant reading of much interest, probably of Latin origin, which can be traced back to the second century, being known to Tertullian and Iranaeus. For μὴ ὁμολογεῖ τὸν ̓ιησοῦν it gives λύει τὸν ̓ιησοῦν , solvit Jesum. This corruption of the text was evidently aimed at those who distinguished the man Jesus from the Divine Christ, and thus "dissolved" his Personality. The Greek manuscripts are quite unanimous against the reading. Is not of God; and therefore is of the evil one (see on 1 John 3:10 ). These professedly Christian teachers are ever among the most dangerous who treat the Divinity of Jesus Christ as more or less of an open question, or as a matter of indifference. τὸ τοῦ ἀντιχρίστου probably means "the spirit of antichrist," understanding πνεῦμα from the preceding clause rather than (quite vaguely) "the characteristic of antichrist" (see on 1 John 2:18 , to which passage, however, ἀκηκόατε does not refer, (but to Christian teaching in general). And now it is in the world already. This is an independent statement; St. John does not say that they had heard this previously.

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1 John 4:1-3 (1 John 4:1-3)

Tests of true or false prophets.

Connecting link: The apostle had just declared that, in a life of obedience to and of like spirit with God, we had a twofold seal—firstly, that we are of the truth; and secondly, that God abideth in us. But it was not to be supposed that all this would remain unimpugned from without, however clear it might be to the spirit within. At the same time, we are not to be easily moved from our ground. But should any attempt to seduce us from the faith, we are to apply to such a very searching test. Hence our topic— Teachers of novelties to be severely tested. For many an age there have been and will be two classes of men—one, desirous of uttering any new fancy that seizes them, or of disputing any accepted faith which they themselves are not disposed to embrace; and another, equally ready to listen to any novelty in doctrine which may at any time be propounded to them. Even in the age when the Apostle John wrote this letter, "many false prophets" had "gone out into the world." And it is a great blessing for us that the aged apostle took occasion from that fact

I. THE RIGHT OF " TRYING THE SPIRITS " BELONGS TO EVERY CHRISTIAN , AND IS INALIENABLE . A Christian is under no obligation to let any new prophet gain his acceptance without severely testing him.

1 . The Lord Jesus Christ himself had never called for a blind acceptance of his claims. He courted inquiry. He repelled objectors by statements of infinite dignity and power. He appealed to their reason, their candour, and their sense of right. One assertion indeed he made and maintained—that he was the Son of God and the King of men. This was the sole charge which led him to the cross. For the first part of the assertion he was condemned by the Sanhedrin, as if he were against Moses; for the second by the Roman power, as if he were the rival of Caesar. But no fewer than six different lines did he suggest on which the proof of his claims might be tried.

2 . In receiving the Lord Jesus, believers, whether Jew or Gentile, had found their very strongest prepossessions in an opposite direction overborne by the accumulated force of the evidence that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God ( John 20:30 , John 20:31 ).

3 . The reception of Christ as a living and reigning Saviour had been followed by a new and. regenerated social life.

4 . Consequently, it could never be right to consent to imperil all this at the bidding of any new prophet that might arise, until they had submitted that prophet to a scrutiny as severe and as searching as their own Lord and Master had invited when he called for the adhesion of their hearts. The reason was satisfied when the Christ was accepted; and if any further claims arise the reason must still assert its right to examine them, and to be equally satisfied on them before accepting them. So in every age. New critics must be criticized.


1 . The point to be tested—"whether they are of God."

2 . The one point which will be the test of that—Do they or do they not confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh? i.e., Do they in all their teachings maintain the honour of our Lord. Jesus, as the incarnate Son of God, the Saviour of the world, the Christ, the Lord and King of men? Yes or no! It is a plain issue. And it is manifestly reasonable to compel men to try the whole question at issue, as to the truth or otherwise of any new prophet on a point so distinct and so sharply defined. For:


1 . If he confesses the glory of Christ as the incarnate Son, he is "of' God." He may not "follow with us;" he may be uncertain and inaccurate on minor points, He may come in no line of succession, and have felt the imposition of no priestly hand; still, if he avows "the Christ," he is "of God."

2 . If he disavows the Christ, he is "not of God," however plausible his pretensions or captivating his words. Without the Christ, no Christian truth stands. "In him all things consist" (see Greek); Colossians 1:11 .

There may indeed be—there are—demurs against drawing the division so sharply as yes or no—true or false; and against the applicability of a like test to every age. E.g., it is objected:

1 . It may surely be contended that, through prepossession on the part of the sacred writers, embellishments may have gathered round the history of a true Jesus, without insinuating that either it or he was absolutely false. We reply: The theory of prepossession will not hold; for the supreme testimony of all the New Testament is to the resurrection of Christ: as for the Jew, it was most violently contrary to all his prepossessions that the one whom his own nation hanged on a tree should have riser from the dead; and as for the Gentile, it was equally contrary to his prepossessions to believe in a resurrection at all! It is objected:

2 . We admire Christ extremely; we honour him as the Prince of teachers. In fact, no praise of him can be excessive, if he be but put on the merely human platform. We reply: That intermediate position cannot consistently be held. So strongly was this felt at the outset, that the watchword of the pagan camp was, "Jesus Christ is anathema;" that of the Christian camp, "Jesus Christ is Lord." There is no halting-place between the two. It is asked:

3 . Is there, then, to be no progress in the course of the ages? is all other science to advance and Christian knowledge remain stationary, so that in the nineteenth century the same test of truth applies as at the first? We reply: Yes; there is to be progress in the truth, but not from it. Jesus Christ is what he is. lie is what he claims to i.e., A thousand millions of ages cannot alter that fact. Jesus Christ is "the same yesterday, and today, and for ever." Hence at any point of time, however distant, whoever withholds from him his due, cannot be "of God."


1 . The "trying the spirits," as prophets and teachers, is not by any means to be confounded with all attempt to decide or to sit in judgment upon their spiritual position individually, as in the sight of God. To their own Master they stand or fall. We judge their teachings, not them.

2 . At the same time, any one who comes to teach with a view of displacing Jesus from the throne of our hearts, must be prepared to undergo a scrutinizing ordeal. We can criticize as well as he, and we will.

3 . In repelling attacks on the Christian faith, our wisdom lies in

4 . Our attitude, perpetually, must be this: "We know we have a Saviour, who has saved us, who is saving others by us, and who is perpetually proving what he is by causing the lame to walk, the blind to see, and the dead to live; and you must displace these facts before you attempt to disturb our faith."

- The Pulpit Commentary

1 John 4:1-6 (1 John 4:1-6)

The power of trying the spirits.

In the preceding homily we laid stress on the duty here indicated of "trying the spirits," and also on the test with which we are furnished for applying to them through all time. We moreover there referred almost exclusively to them as ψευδοπροφῆται rather than as πνεύματα . But a close study of all the clauses in these six verses will disclose to us teachings of great vividness and power concerning the false prophets themselves—the point from whence they started, the mission on which they are sent, the region to which they are bound, and the spirit with which they are inspired. In fact, the apostle views their embassy and action as a part of the great mystery of "antichrist," which had been foretold, which had actually made its appearance, and which would have to be fought against and overcome. It is the right and the duty of Christians to "try the spirits" (as we have seen). But they are not left to go to this warfare at their own charges, or without being adequately empowered. To them the right belongs, to them the duty attaches, because to them the power is given. Let us see how, in the paragraph before us, this is shown. Topic— The power of trying the spirits a Divine bestowment.

I. THOUGH SPIRITS ARE VISIBLE AS SUCH , THEY MAY EMBODY THEMSELVES IN THE FORM OF PROPHETS . Indeed, it is only as "prophets" bring messages of truth or of falsehood—messages which belong to the spiritual realm—that we have any special concern with them; i.e., as we regard them and their message as above and beyond the sphere of the phenomenal, and as representing the noumenal (cf. 1 Kings 22:20-24 ; 2 Peter 1:21 ; 2 Peter 2:1 ; 1 Timothy 4:1 ). Note: It is by clearly apprehending the teachings of the Word of God concerning the spiritual world that we shall host be guarded against the prying and unholy pretensions of a spurious spiritualism (see homily on Deuteronomy 18:1-22 ).

II. THE INRUSH OF FALSE PROPHETS FROM TIME TO TIME IS THE DEVELOPMENT OF ANTICHRIST . "This is that [ spirit ] of antichrist" ( 1 John 4:3 ); see homily on 1 John 2:18 . "This is that whole power and principle of the antichrist" ('Speaker's Commentary,' in loc., where see also a valuable historical note on 1 John 2:1 ).

III. THESE FALSE PROPHETS ARE COME FROM AFAR ON A MISSION TO THIS WORLD . The apostle says of them, they "are gone out into the world"—"on a mission of evil from their dark home" (Westcott). This world is regarded as the sphere in which they are to propagate their negations. This is but one of the many forms in which Scripture sets forth the mysterious conflict between good and evil, of which this world is at once the theatre and the witness. The struggle is between

(1) the serpent and Eve;

IV. THIS ANTICHRISTIAN MISSION TO EARTH IS INSPIRED BY A SPIRIT OF ERROR . And the apostle shows us here, as before (see homily on 1 John 2:18 , ut supra ) , that it is the business of this embassy to deny the truth. The first lie was, "Ye shall not surely die." The supreme lie of antichrist now is, "Jesus is not the Son of God." Wherever that lie flourishes, no saving truth can live. The forms in which it is now put are legion!

V. THESE ERROR - INSPIRED SPIRITS OWE THEIR INSPIRATION TO A PERSONAL LEADER . 1 John 2:4 , ὁ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ . The apostle sets forth here the personality of the evil one, as the one animating leader of the false prophets, just as vividly as our Lord set forth the personality of the devil as the father of lies. Difficult as the doctrine undoubtedly is, it is far less so than any theory of moral evil which represents it as having its seat in no one, and nowhere (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:4 ; Ephesians 2:2 ; John 8:44 ). The fact is, neither the beginnings nor the endings of sin are shown us in the word. We only know what lies within the revealed termini.

VI. GREAT AS IS THE POWER OF EVIL WHICH IS IN THE WORLD , THERE IS A GREATER POWER IN BELIEVERS . ΄είζων ἐστὶν ὁ ἐν ὑμῖν . Satan is mighty, but there is a Mightier. The strong one has been vanquished by a Stronger ( Matthew 12:28 , Matthew 12:29 ; Matthew 4:11 ; John 16:33 ; Colossians 2:15 ; John 12:31 ). The evil one proved no match for Jesus Christ the Righteous when he sought to prevail against him in the desert. By the cross Satan was dethroned and Christ enthroned. And not all the band of hell-taught emissaries with which the world and the Church may be plagued for a while will ever overthrow the Spirit, the army, and the saving work of Christ. "God will bruise Satan under our feet shortly."

VII. THIS GREATER POWER IS " OF GOD ." The Divine Spirit may take possession of the human spirit. He does. The life of God in the soul of man is the great secret of personal religion. As bearing on our present theme, there are four ways in which God's Spirit may influence man's.

1 . By what has been called "prevenient grace;" where the Spirit of God goes beforehand, and predisposes him to hear God's Word. Our Lord spake of this, in words which have never yet been sufficiently laid hold of by the Church ( John 8:47 ).

2 . By regenerating grace. When a man is born of God, that wicked one toucheth him not.

3 . By the unction from above ( 1 John 2:20 ; see homily on 1 John 2:20 , 1 John 2:27 ). This imparts spiritual discernment.

4 . By the ardour and courage of a holy combativeness ( Ephesians 6:10-17 ).

VIII. WHERESOEVER THIS DIVINE POWER IS GIVEN , THE POWER OF ANTICHRIST IS GONE . νενικήκατε αὐτούς . "Them." All of them. "Ye have overcome them." You have already gained the victory! Your Lord's triumph is yours. On those who have in them the Spirit of God, antichrist can have no hold. So Paul ( 1 Corinthians 12:3 ). All depends on men being filled with the Spirit. If a man has not the Spirit of God, he will not say, "Jesus is Lord." If a man has the Spirit of God, he will not say, "Jesus is anathema." Against antichrist he will have an effectual guard. How will this be? Thus, by the teaching and power of the Spirit, he will be enabled

He will be enabled


1 . It is an unspeakable mercy to have the Spirit dwelling within us; by virtue of his unction, light, and might we shall have an inward and effective guard against the heresies of this and of every age. The possession of spiritual religion will be, as the late Rev. J.A. James expressed it, the surest preservative against the snares of infidelity and the seductions of a false philosophy.

2 . It is by means of the conflict that the believer is himself confirmed in the truth. We do not envy the man who shrinks from open conflict against error on the behalf of Christian truth. Such timidity argues either little faith in the power of the truth, or else small trust in the power of his Saviour. Let him in Christ's strength go forth to war, and when he is more than conqueror through him who loved him, he will have learnt a lesson of priceless worth in the power of Christ and the impotence of antichrist!

- The Pulpit Commentary

1 John 4:1-6 (1 John 4:1-6)

The spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

I. NEED FOR TESTING . "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world." Again, at the thought of danger, his heart warms toward his readers as his beloved. It is necessary to bear in mind the circumstances in which they were placed. They had the help of true prophets. The apostolic age had not come to an end. John was still living; and there were others who had inspired utterance. They had that for which some minds still crave—infallible guidance on the spot. But they were not placed beyond danger, as minds never are in this world. Many false prophets had gone out into the world, and were in their neighbourhood, as they are in all neighbourhoods where Christ's truth is published and finding acceptance. The false prophets are Satan's counterpoise to the true prophets, and, as the true prophets were really under Divine inspiration, the false prophets claimed to be under Divine inspiration too. For that lie best succeeds which is made to bear the closest resemblance to the truth that is active. Christianity was at that time wonderfully active in many places. How was it to be counteracted? We can understand that forming the subject of evil counsel. One way was to incorporate Judaism with Christianity. Another way was to incorporate Gentile philosophy with Christianity, to which the name of Gnosticism is given. The general drift of Gnosticism is to substitute, for the plain facts of the gospel, philosophic myths. Cerinthus, who was a contemporary of John in proconsular Asia, is described by Neander as "the intermediate link between the Judaizing and the Gnostic sects." "As a Judaizer, Cerinthus held, with the Ebionites, that Jesus was only the son of Joseph and Mary, born in the natural way. As a Gnostic, he maintained that the Christ first descended, in the form of a dove, on the carpenter's son at his baptism; that he revealed to him the unknown Father, and worked miracles through him; and that at length he took his flight, and left him, so that Jesus alone suffered and rose, while the Christ remained impassible." There is reason for believing that this was the particular danger, or something not unlike it, which beset the circle or circles to which John writes in this Epistle. There therefore arose a necessity for discriminating between the true prophets and the false prophets, that the one class might be followed and the others shunned. How was this necessity to be met? Only by the action of the Christians themselves. The duty of discrimination is here laid upon them. For this they were not specially inspired; but they had the ordinary assistance of the Holy Spirit. Observe the language in which the duty is described. "Believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world." They were not enjoined to sit in judgment upon the prophets as individuals, but in respect of their prophetic teachings, which they claimed to have received from God. There were spirits of God to whom afterward is attributed the confessing of Christ; and there were spirits not of God to whom afterward is attributed the refusal to confess Christ, the organs of the latter being the false prophets. How are we to understand this plurality of spirits? Are we to think of the spirits of the prophets as objectified? or are we to think of spirits as connected with separate movements, finding their organs in prophets true or false? The latter view is not excluded by the language; but we know very little of the sphere in question. The practical thing is that there are true teachers and false teachers, between whom a discrimination has to be made. The Christian ministry should be in the service of truth; but it would be vain to think that the teaching from every Christian pulpit is true. There are times when many go forth from our theological halls with rationalistic tendencies. What are Christian people to do? They are not to believe every spirit. Whoever the Christian teacher is, the influence resting upon him and giving character to his utterances must be tested, to see whether it is of God. There are teachers rising up from time to time of commanding ability. They are, or seem to be, burdened with a message for their age. Their influence extends beyond the readers of their books or listeners to their orations. It is soon to be found in novels, in magazines, in newspapers, in conversation. What are Christian people to do. They are to discriminate, they are not to believe every spirit; they are to satisfy themselves that the influence present in the teaching is of God before they yield themselves to it. If they are not satisfied, then they must do what they can to make themselves impervious to, or vigorously to counteract, the influence. For very much depends on what teaching we receive through all channels, it being either for our spiritual advancement or for our spiritual deterioration.

II. THE TEST TO BE APPLIED . "Hereby know ye the Spirit of God."

1 . Positive. "Every spirit which confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God." Teaching is to be judged in relation to Christ. It is due to Christ that there should be an open declaration in his favour. The object of confession is (strictly) Jesus Christ come in the flesh. It is to be borne in mind that Jesus is the historical name. It is admitted on all sides that "one Jesus" lived about nineteen hundred years ago, and that his influence has extended far and wide. What account is to be given of this Personage? The right teaching is that which confesses him to be the Christ. This is in agreement with 1 John 2:22 . Cerinthus taught that the Christ had a temporary abode in Jesus; the Christian teacher declares Jesus to be the Christ. But the Christ refers us to Divinity, eternal Sonship, with which we associate ideas of immateriality, invisibility, impassibility, exemption from death. This was virtually the understanding of Cerinthus, and his way of accounting for the ordinary manifestations of humanity in Jesus was that he was only apparently the Christ. This was the usual solution of the difficulty by the Gnostics. The right teaching is that Jesus is Christ come in the flesh. That is to say, the true solution is the Incarnation. Christ is Divine, and as such we can think of him as essentially immaterial, invisible, impassible, undying; and. yet he is human, and as such there could be connected with him materiality, visibility, suffering, death. The Incarnation is well worthy of being made the great object of confession. For it proclaims the wonderful and indissoluble union between God and man with a view to human redemption, which sometimes tends to repel by its strangeness. It proclaims a new and unexpected outlet for Divine love, transcending all finite power of thought, to be estimated adequately only by him in whose heart the love burned. In this view we obtain facts which are rich in meaning. We first stand in presence of his birth, when the mysterious union commenced. We are amazed as we contemplate him growing up to manhood. We behold him setting himself to his work, and proving himself in a threefold encounter with the tempter. We are overwhelmed with awe to think of him, in death, passing under the eclipse of the Father's countenance. We are profoundly interested to behold him rising from the dead, and to think of him as passing into the heavens in our glorified nature. That is the right kind of teaching which deals with these facts, puts them forward for the grasp of faith, uses them for the clearing of thought and the stirring up of love.

2 . Negative. "And every spirit which confesseth not Jesus is not of God: and this is the spirit of the antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it cometh; and now it is in the world already." The true confession has been defined; this is its contradiction. There is implied a certain knowledge of Christianity. The news has gone forth that God has become incarnate for human salvation. It is news which is fitted to arrest, and leaves no excuse for want of inquiry into the question of fact. Every teacher especially should have his mind made up with regard to it. The apostle lays it down as the test of a true confession. By this Cerinthus and other Gnostic teachers were to be condemned. They found a way of avoiding the Incarnation, and thus took away the impression of the great love of God manifested toward men. The same thing is done by the Unitarians now. They withhold acknowledgment from Jesus. Many of their teachers plead for warmth of feeling toward Christ. "Without the passions which move incessantly, like glittering and intense fire, around the Person of Christ, religious teaching will not make men's hearts so to burn within them as to bring them in crowds to hear and to obey, and to be impelled to become teachers in turn" (Stepford Brooke). They do not, however, leave room for the calling forth of such love, inasmuch as they represent Christ as a mere man, only transcending other men in excellence of character. They do not accept the Incarnation; it is not credible to them; it takes away from the simplicity of the faith. Their declaration must go forward to judgment; a Higher than man will one day pronounce upon its worth. It is an important consideration for our guidance that Unitarianism stands clearly condemned by the apostolic test. It confesses not Jesus, admits not the higher view of his Person and work. There are teachers of great eminence "who occupy rather a negative and undefined position in relation to Christ and Christianity. They have written upon almost every subject of human thought—upon government and the Church, upon history and biography, upon morals and destiny. They have gone round the world to find heroes and representative men, and have said many true and striking things about them; but, strange to say, they have never clearly informed the world as to what they think of Christ. They are unaccountably reticent upon a subject that is the most important of all. They allow a painful silence to brood over a Name that is above every name. What can be the meaning of this? Is it because they have no faith in Christ, but do not think it prudent or necessary to profess their unbelief? Can they have faith without professing it? The fact remains that they have thought it their business to act as guides to the world, and have thought it necessary to publish many volumes of their opinions, and. yet have never directly told the world what they think of Christ. That fact remains; and alongside of it the truth remains, 'Every spirit which confesseth not Jesus is not of God'" (F. Ferguson). Of the Corinthian Gnosticism, which set aside the Incarnation, John says that it was the presence of antichrist. So early had the announced opposition to Christ commenced; it still exists under other specious forms. The most radical opposition is that which is directed against the central fact of the Incarnation, which would reduce Christ to the position of a mere human teacher.


1 . The fact of victory. "Ye are of God, my little children, and have overcome them." This is another occasion on which the apostle is so affectionate as to call them his little children. He thinks of something which was greatly to their honour. They had overcome the false prophets. We are not told the wiles which were used by these prophets. They pretended to be under Divine inspiration. Very probably they pretended to work miracles. We do not know that they held out the inducement of false pleasures. Whatever the wiles were, in vain were they tried on those to whom John is now writing. They held tenaciously to the fact of the Incarnation, and to its blessed import. Nay, we can understand that they succeeded in separating from their communion all who were not in sympathy with the Incarnation, who for the fact put some fanciful idea. "They went out from us," it is said of these prophets in John 2:19 , which, taken in connection with what is said here, gives us an impression of their moral defeat. There needed to be no recourse to the disciplinary power of excommunication; they went out when they could no longer endure the power of the truth.

2 . The ground of victory. "Because greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world." The Divine Person is left undefined. We naturally think of Christ in the Spirit. For the victory lies in discrimination; and John's conception of their qualification is their having an anointing from the Holy One. As qualified in the same way, Christ had to fight. He was brought into conflict with him that is in the world. All attempts were made to delude him, to lead him to abandon the Father's cause; but he conquered. "Now is the judgment of this world; now shall the prince of this world be cast out." As the hour approaches, he announces his victory for the encouragement of his followers: "Be of good cheer; I have conquered the world." John's friends conquered too, because greater was he that was in them than he that was in the false prophets, and in the world to which properly these belonged, though they had once been connected with the communion of Christians. Christ is in us by his Spirit, to unmask all designs on us, to expose all fallacies, to disclose all the beauties of truth. He that is in the world has great power of delusion; but we can think of it as vanquished, and we can think of the victory as sure for us in the power of his Spirit which is within us as our equipment. Therefore let us be of good cheer.

3 . The manner of victory.

(1) Discrimination in respect of the false prophets. "They are of the world: therefore speak they as of the world, and the world heareth them." How are false prophets to be known? They are the birth of a worldly state of society, they give utterance to worldly sentiment, they gain worldly applause. As for the Incarnation, it is remote from their thoughts; it is too high for their low origin; it is too self-abasing, too self-restraining. Let a field be sought where looser sentiment may be uttered, or where there may be a grim handling of abuses and unrealities and failings, and, if there is only sufficient vis in the teacher, certain men will loudly applaud.

- The Pulpit Commentary