John begins chapter four with a warning, one that is especially pertinent in this hour. There are many conflicting teachings in the church that cannot all be true. I won’t go into all the examples, I invite you to do what John said, test the spirits, for he does tell us how.
1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because 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 of God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. 1 John 4:1-3 (NKJV)
John’s teaching here builds on what he previously taught. He stated that we could experientially know Jesus through the inner witness of the Holy Spirit but goes on to warn his readers not to simply accept the prompting of any spirit. We need to test the spirits. This applies not only to finding out whether or not a certain speaker or teacher confesses that Jesus has come in the flesh. (This was what the Gnostic heretics he was contending against denied, that Jesus had come in the flesh). It also applies to spirits that speak to our mind and heart. We can address them in our mind and “test” them to see if they acknowledge that Jesus came in the flesh. Many believers have been deceived and gone astray because they listened to spirits other than the Holy Spirit and never tested the source. I have personal experience with walking down some wrong rabbit trails but being brought back to truth by the Holy Spirit taking me to the scriptures over and over again.
The term rabbit trails is interesting. I don’t know how many people have ever gone down a literal rabbit trail. I have been walking around the bush all of my life. Where I grew up in northern Alberta I could walk out the end of our vegetable garden, cross a dirt road, and be in the bush. The area was mainly willows and was littered with rabbit trails. When I was younger, and much smaller, I crawled down many of them. The never went straight from point A to point B. They were always filled with twists and turns and you could easily lose your sense of direction because they were at the bottom of the forest, making it difficult to know which direction you were going. False spirits are like that. They may hold some promise but generally lead to nothing or nowhere.
4 You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 5 They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. 6 We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. 1 John 4:4-6 (NKJV)
John, with his shepherd’s heart, goes on to encourage his readers, and by extension us, by saying that we have overcome these false teachers and false spirits because the one who conquered all through the cross is the one who lives in us! This brings us back to abiding in Him because our victory is in the cross and His resurrection. As we rest in Him He gives us discernment and we know what is and is not from the Holy Spirit. Those who are of Christ reflect His nature. Those who are of the world will ultimately produce the fruit of the world.
7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, 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 propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 1 John 4:7-11 (NKJV)
Here John expresses something that challenges our modern day definitions of both love and conversion. John states unequivocally that those who love are born again. This means two things. One, those who are not born again lack the capacity to truly love in the way scriptures defines love. Two, this love must be different than either our sentimental or emotional concepts of love or everyone is born again because any average individual has loved in the generally accepted sense of strong feelings of love/compassion toward another individual.
So how do we understand this? John defines God as love. What he is saying is that love is His nature, character, and essence. What we need to understand is that this is not merely a sentimental love. It is a very passionate and emotional love but it is also a love that expresses itself in discipline and wrath. It is our Father, who is love that commanded the killing of whole nations by Israel. It is our Father, who is love, that will pour out upon the earth the judgments described in the Revelation of Jesus Christ and other prophetic books. It is our Father who is love who will not, and cannot, tolerate sin in His kingdom so will ultimately completely expunge it.
Our Father revealed His love by sending Jesus to die a tortuous death on a cross and to receive the sins of the world upon Himself in our place. This is the greatest act and example of love on the part of Father, Son and Spirit. The Holy Spirit had to endure the same terrible loss and separation as the Father when He departed from Jesus. This is the example set before us that we might choose. The choice is one of loving others with His love and laying down our lives for others, not because we will feel better, but because it is what is best for them. Jesus did not go to the cross because it felt good, but He did go because of love (see Jn. 3:16, for God so loved the world….). He went knowing that ultimately He would experience the joy of seeing many of us set free and being conformed to His image through receiving His nature (Heb. 12:2). We need to do what is best for others so they can come into a relationship with the world’s greatest lover, Jesus. This is what it means to love.
12 No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been 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 testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him. 1 John 4:12-16 (NKJV)
The ‘point’ of this passage is very much to the point! The only opportunity people have to see God is to see Him in His people, us! If we love one another He abides in us because this love is an expression of His nature in and through us. We further abide in the Father by confessing the Son. The Gnostics denied the Son and yet claimed to have the Father. It is impossible to deny the Son and possess the Father. If we confess, not just with our lips, but by our lives, that Jesus is the Saviour, then we abide in love, which means we abide in Him. We know this not by reason of ‘reason’ but through the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. We have the abiding inner witness of the Spirit when we are walking in the light in Him; abiding in love.
17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. 19 We love Him because He first loved us. 20 If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? 21 And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also. 1 John 4:17-21 (NKJV)
John here sums up his previous point. If we are walking in love then we will have confidence on the day we stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ. This is not because we are focused on our deeds but because we are focused on “Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will,” (Eph. 1:11). When we pursue a true love relationship with Him He produces through us that which He delights in here and will honour on that day. As we focus on loving Him we will know Him and His character will be manifested through us in concern for others. Our love for Him is a response to His first loving us. Not a response to His feelings for us but a response to His supreme act of sacrifice on the cross, based on how He felt about us. If we have come to the place of perfect, that is, mature love, we will have no fear of appearing before the Judgment Seat.
In closing this section John is clear that if our love does not lead to action it is not truly love. We cannot love God and hate our brother. They are mutually exclusive attitudes. That is not to say we will never be angry or struggle with these feelings. It says we will exercise our will to draw on His grace and act in love toward our fellow believers no matter how we may feel. Ultimately this will lead to our feelings coming into agreement with our behaviour when our behaviour is based on His written word and agrees with His heart.