1 John 4:16-21 – How is Love Perfected?

The simple statement “God is love” is very complex. What does John mean by this? (4:16b). Love is a “defining characteristic of God” (Jobes, 1, 2, & 3 John, 190). If the father is love, then so too is the son. Those who have been born of God ought to have this same characteristic as their heavenly father.

Hanging JudgeRaymond Brown points out saying “God is love” is not the same as saying “God loves” (Brown, Epistles of John, 515). Since God is love, everything he does is an expression of his love. In this context, John mentions the coming Day of Judgment. Even rendering judgment and punishing those who remain in their sin is an act of love because God can only act in accordance to his loving character.

By abiding him God, his love has been perfected (4:17a). This is another example of John’s subtle use of grammar. He chooses the perfect passive form of τελειόω to emphasize God’s love has already been made perfect in the past and it remains perfect at the time he is writing.

By perfected (ESV), John means something like “brought to completion” or “reaches the intended goal.” This is not at all like the human emotion of love, which ebbs and wanes over the years. God’s love is not an emotional response; it is a real and concrete action based on his loving character to sacrifice everything on behalf of those who do not even recognize his existence or authority.

Because God’s love has been perfected in us, we will have confidence on the Day of Judgment (4:17b-19). The Day of Judgment is eschatological, looking forward to a time when the believer will stand before Jesus as a judge. This sounds as if one is judged on whether they are going to “go to heaven” or now, but that is not what John says. All he says here is when the one who has really grown mature in love or their brother and sister, they can have nothing to be ashamed about standing before the judge. They are “right with God” because God has provided his son as an atoning sacrifice (1 John 4:7-10) and they know that they have this relationship with God because they (in fact) love their brother and sister.

There is no fear of punishment on that day: perfect love casts out fear. This verse is usually taken out of context. Unfortunately there are many people who do have genuine fear because of they have experienced terrible things at the hands of people who claimed to be Christians. This may be judgement because of sin, but too many people have been abused by people claiming to have spiritual authority.

If the church was really doing the love of God as demonstrated in the gracious sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as an atoning sacrifice, then the church would be far more attractive to those who remain in the world. As John says in 4:20-21, one cannot claim to be a Christian if they hate their fellow Christian; how much more if they hate the unsaved?

The only reason we can love others are demonstrate that we abide in God is that God has loved us first and sent his some as savior.

One cannot claim to love God and hate a brother or sister in Christ (4:20-21). Once again John demands concrete action in the real world as evidence for one’s claim to love God. The person who claims to be a Christian and expresses hatred toward others is an impossibility for John.

1 John 4:11-16 – Love One Another

If God so loved as John has described in 1 John 4:7-10, then the  only possible response is to love one another (4:11-12). This is a conditional sentence that assumes the premise is true, something like “since God has loved us by sending his son, then we ought to love one another.”

The only way the world will see God is through behavior of his people. When we demonstrate our love for God by loving one another, we reveal God to the world.

This is challenging since the world does not usually associate love with the organized church. Whether this is the classic cranky nun teaching in a Catholic school or an abusive priest, the puritanical Baptist pastor ranting against sin, preaching hellfire and brimstone on the street corner; the gossiping old women judging the way a younger woman is dressed in church; judging the kid with tattoos and piercings and wearing his ball cap in the church (backwards of course).

The Holy Spirit is evidence we are abiding in God (4:13). Once again John states we “abide in him” and God “abides in us.” Does this plural pronoun mean, God abides in me as an individual, or God abides in the community of believers? This is ambiguous, and it is (perhaps intentionally) unclear whether John intended the reader as an individual to imagine God’s love abiding in them personally or whether John is describing how a local church ought to function as a living community.

Gift of the Holy Spirit promised in John 15. The Holy Spirit is also called the “Spirit of Truth” in the Gospel of John 14:17 and 16:13. Here in 1 John 4:6 (cf. 5:6) John describes the role of the Spirit of God as enabling the believer to discern true teaching from false. In Second Temple Period Judaism, the “spirit of truth” has a similar use of the phrase.

How does the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit express itself in love for one another?  In the letter John has already stated Jesus is the messiah and son of God sent in the flesh, Now John expands is view of Jesus to include “savior of the world” (4:14-15).

Would the opponents deny this? It is easy enough to believe a Jewish teacher named Jesus lived in Galilee and gathered some disciples, challenged Jewish Temple aristocracy and was falsely accused as attacking the Roman government, resulting in his crucifixion. But is this knowledge of a historical Jesus enough to be “born of God”? For John, Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God revealed in the flesh, and the Savior of the world. These are not theological points people can pick one or two of and be born of God. This is a full package, all are required to “abide in God.”

It is remarkable Jesus is the savior of the world since in John’s Gospel the world is in active rebellion against God. Yet John 3:16 says God loved the world and sent his son to be an atoning sacrifice for the world. That Jesus “saved the world” is another gracious act in which God extends salvation to people who are in total rebellion against him, unable and unwilling to do anything to reconcile themselves to God.

1 John 4:7-10 – Love is From God

The one who has been born of God loves others (4:7-8). John is expressing the second greatest commandment, love for one’s neighbor. This is drawn from Jesus’s own teaching, but it is also part of Second Temple period Judaism. Love for God and love for one’s neighbor often expresses a summary of the whole law.

Love of GodOnce again John says the one who has been born of God (a perfect passive verb). The order is important: we are born of God, then we have knowledge of God and then we express our knowledge of God through loving acts toward one another.

The love of God is clear when he sent his son into the world (4:9). It is important to clarify at the beginning of this section on God’s love that God’s love is not at all like the human emotion of love. John Peckham asks, “Does God’s love include affection, desire, or enjoyment?” In other words, his is love merely agape love, or can he experience eros, enjoyable love? In order to make this question make sense, Peckham includes a chapter on the meaning of agape and eros in order to avoid confusion caused by popular preaching on God’s love (The Love of God: A Canonical Model (IVP Academic, 2015).

As with most theological ideas, to say God’s actions in sending Jesus as an atoning sacrifice is “love” is to use an analogy so humans can understand something of God’s character. God’s love is something like our love for a spouse or a child, but God’s love is exponentially greater and more complex. In fact, the love of a parent for a child is a better analogy than romantic love between spouses. There are many examples of human parents sacrificing everything so that their children might be safe.

The love of God is demonstrated by God’s gift of his son as a propitiation for our sins (4:10). Sending the son into the world was not a response to humanity’s desire for a relationship with God. John is clear, it is not that we loved God!

John called the death of Jesus an atoning sacrifice in 2:2. A propitiation (ESV) or “atoning sacrifice” (NIV) is a sacrifice which turns away the wrath of a god. The noun (ἱλασμός) and related words are used in the LXX for the Day of Atonement (Lev 25:9) In the Old Testament the word and its cognates almost always refer to appeasing the wrath of God (Lev 1:4, for example).

In the Greco-Roman world, a god might be calmed by human or animal sacrifice, but other rites of purification or prayers were also common. Sometimes ritual dances and games dedicated to the god could please the god and turn aside wrath. What is remarkable about the atoning sacrifice in 1 John is that God himself makes the sacrifice, and God himself is the sacrifice! No god in the ancient world would act on behalf of his worshipers in this way. Rather than vent his wrath on his creation, God demonstrated his love for his creation by turning aside his wrath himself.

John is not far from Paul’s words in Romans 5:6-8. While we were powerless to help ourselves and in a state of enmity with God, Paul says God sent his son to die for us. The ultimate demonstration of God’s love is therefore the ultimate self-sacrifice of his own son in order to provide forgiveness to people who would never know or care that this gracious act even happened!

John tells his readers they ought to love one another, but they cannot begin to love one another until they have accepted God’s gracious gift of forgiveness. By experiencing this gracious act of love from God we then are able to demonstrate that love to others.

1 John 4:2-3 – The Spirit that Does Not Confess Jesus

John began the Gospel by declaring the Word was God in the beginning (1:1), but the Word became flesh (1:14). This balances the divinity of Jesus with his real human flesh.

What are the opponents teaching about Jesus? The usual suggestions include Docetism (Jesus only appeared to have real flesh since human flesh is by nature evil), Cerenthus (the earthly Jesus is different than heavenly Jesus), or even a teaching that Jesus was flesh, but his flesh was important for our salvation (Von Wahlde, Epistles of John, 142-43). The problem is the later descriptions of these classic Christological heresies fit what John says. Perhaps it is better to take this false teaching about Jesus John is concerned about as similar to these later rejected Christologies.

For John, the test is not that someone should confess Jesus was really human, but that they confess Jesus Christ, the one who has come in the flesh. In some ways, this is shorthand for “Jesus as presented in my previous book the Gospel of John, especially in the prologue, John 1:1-18.” Obviously John would not refer to his book in this modern form of citation, but if one were to ask John “what do you mean by when you sat Jesus Christ,” he would respond with the content of John 1:1-18.

Based on the content of 1 John, it is likely the opponents were denying Jesus was fully human and also that he was the Jewish messiah (the Christ). Based on John 20:30-31 the purpose of the whole Gospel of John was to convince the reader to believe that Jesus is the Messiah and that by believing in him to have life in his name; that name is Jesus Christ.

To read this as simply a confession that was a human would mean anyone who thought Jesus really existed historically could be speaking the truth and therefore acceptable as a teacher in John’s churches. This is obviously not the case, since someone could announce they believe in the historical Jesus but not that he was the son of God or that he was crucified and raised from the dead.

The spirit which does not confess Jesus Christ came in the flesh is antichrist. This recalls the beginning of this portion of the letter, recalling 2:18. In 4:5 John says these false teachers are speaking from viewpoint of the world and are therefore speaking in the “spirit of falsehood.”

John’s warning is clear, do not believe everyone who claims to be a Spirit led teacher because not everyone is speaking the truth. John’s readers do not need to fear these false teachers since God is greater than anyone in the world.

1 John 4:1 – There are Many False Prophets in the World

John commanded his readers to “test the spirits” in order to avoid a teacher who is not speaking from the spirit of God. He then focuses on those who are speaking from a different spirit, false teachers. This refers to those who left John’s churches, those who have already been called antichrist and sons of the devil. How is it that these people can speak God’s word in the Spirit?

It is quite possible these people are not actually Christians and are under the inspiration of demonic forces to appear to be from God, or they are faking the ecstatic speech in order to give their teaching the appearance of spiritual authority. They may not even be aware their activity is false; ecstatic speech can be learned and a person could be fooling themselves into thinking their speech is from God.

Who Is the Antichrist?It is also possible the opponents are well-meaning Christians who are genuinely trying to teach accurately about Jesus, but they sincerely disagree with John about who Jesus was. In the Gospels themselves it is clear even the disciples were not exactly clear on who Jesus was or what he came to do. When Peter finally confesses Jesus as messiah, Jesus tells Peter the purpose of the messiah is to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Peter rebukes Jesus since this is not what he expected messiah to do! When the false prophets “go out into the world” they have demonstrated their rebellion from God. In John’s Gospel the world is a place of darkness and it is the domain of Satan.

There are many warnings to not believe every teacher who claims to be teaching the truth about Jesus in the New Testament. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter into the Kingdom of God (Matt 7:21-23). These people will claim to have prophesied in the name of Jesus, cast out demons and other miracles in the name of Jesus. Jesus says he will “tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.’”

In the Olivet Discourse Jesus says many false prophets will compete with the Gospel until he returns to establish his kingdom (Matt 24:22). In Matthew 24:24, the false messiahs will do “great signs and wonders in order to deceive.” In the final three parables in Matthew 25 there are a series of people who think they ought to be in the kingdom at the time of the final judgment yet are left on the outside, in the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. In 25:11, the foolish virgins say “Lord, Lord” yet remain in the darkness; in 25:30 the foolish servant is cast out into the darkness, and the ones who failed to help “the least of these brothers of mine” will be sent off to the hell prepared for the devil and his angels (25:41; 46).

Paul warns the Corinthian church about “false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (2 Cor 11:13-14). He draws a parallel to Satan who disguises himself as an angel of light. Although Paul does not specifically mention it 2 Corinthians, it is quite likely these “super apostles” did the same kinds of signs which accompanied the Twelve Apostles in order to authenticate their message. In fact, Paul included “lying signs and wonders” in his description of the coming man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2.

The book of Revelation has much to say about deceptive signs and wonders. The Lord comments the church at Ephesus for testing the who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false” (2:2). This is important since 1 John was written to the churches in Ephesus at the same time Revelation was written. In the church at Thyatira there was a false teacher John calls Jezebel who calls herself a prophetess and deceives people (2:20). During the tribulation period itself the false prophet will do great signs which will deceive the people of the earth and convince them to worship the image of the beast (13:11-15).

John is therefore consistent with the rest of the New Testament when he tells his congregation to “test the spirits” by not believing everyone who claims to be a Spirit inspired prophet. In this context he gives only criterion for testing a teacher, “what do they confess about Jesus?”

1 John 4:1 – Not Every Spirit Speaks the Truth

John tells his readers to not believe everything they hear, but test the spirits (4:1a). The “spirits” in this context refers to individuals in a local church who teach or preach as they are led by the Holy Spirit.

This may be a local pastor or elder, an individual in the church, or a traveling teacher who may (or may not) be authorized by John to teach. If there were perhaps a dozen small congregations in the greater urban area of Ephesus, then John may have sent a person on a pastoral tour of the churches to deliver a message and help with any issues which the church may have had. On the other hand, the opponents may have done the same thing, so that a local church could have a visiting teacher who was not strictly orthodox from John’s perspective.

Wolf in Sheep's ClothingIn either case, these traveling teachers would have had limited access to Scripture. It is unlikely any of these small congregations would have even small portions of the Old Testament in Greek. They may have had limited copies of some of Paul’s letters and perhaps other communiques from John. These traveling teachers would therefore rely upon the Holy Spirit to call to mind Scripture which they had memorized and their teaching was done “in the Spirit.”

It is difficult to know how these teachers functioned as Holy Spirit led preachers, but it is important to realize this may have included the gift of prophecy (properly defined as a powerful Spirit led exposition of Scripture to a current situation). But if a teacher arrived in a local church and claimed to his message was from the Holy Spirit and they had a manifestation of tongues or some ecstatic prophecy, then the local congregation might be swayed to believe them!

Testing refers to a critical examination of something in order to determine the quality of something. The verb (δοκιμάζω) can be used for testing gold, but also testing one’s character. In LXX Jer 6:27 testing gold is used as a metaphor for testing one’s character. Compare Psalm 66:10 (LXX Ps 65:10), the Lord has tested us like silver. Proverbs 17:3, the Lord tests the heart like someone might test gold and silver in a crucible. This is the sense of the verb in 1 Peter 1:7, the trials a Christian faces is like “a refiner’s fire.”

In 1 Corinthians 16:3 Paul used the word for approving men to be sent with Pau to deliver the collection of money for the poor in Jerusalem. Secular Greek might use this word for approving or ratifying a law or examining the character of a person to determine if they are worthy to hold office. In 1 Timothy 3:10 Paul tells Timothy deacons ought to be examined (tested) before they are permitted to serve as deacons. It is also the word used in 2 Tim 2:15, Timothy ought to strive to be an approved workman who has been tested.

In the context of 1 John 4, how does the church “test a spirit”? The content of any teacher ought to be examined closely in order to determine if it is from God.

In the original setting of this letter, this likely refers to the activity of a traveling preacher or teacher. Third John concerns hospitality towards traveling teachers sent out by John, it is likely the opponents have also been sending out trained teachers who might visit a church and try to sway a local community toward their theological and practical false teaching.

What is being tested? Both doctrine (what they say about Jesus) and behavior (what is the content of their character). Both are important as we apply try to find appropriate application of this teaching to contemporary church problems. There may be teachers who have good doctrine but their character is questionable (in the ministry for the money, dictatorial and abusive, etc.) But there are other teachers who have very good character but teach clear false doctrine (perhaps a very moral person, good family values, but heretical on Jesus).

1 John 3:4-6 – Sin is Lawlessness

In contrast to the one who is pure, the one who makes a practice of sinning is practicing lawlessness (3:4). The word lawless evokes memories of the old west, people living without restraint and making their own rules. The old west bad guy might “make it a habit to be bad.”

In the Greek Old Testament, the word ἀνομία meant far more than breaking the Mosaic Law. It has the sense of disdain for the Law. In classical Greek the noun had the connotation of the denial of a law (Brill DAG). Those who are lawless believe they are not under the authority of the law.  For example, when the state of Michigan passed the seatbelt law, many people simply ignored it and lived as if that law did not apply to them. They lived in denial of the clear command of the state government (until the police started writing tickets for not wearing your seatbelt).

Applied to a theological idea like Jesus is the Messiah, the opponents certainly know this is what John has said in his Gospel, but they deny that it is valid and they reject that teaching as having any impact for their lives. I might read an essay on the importance of going to confession and doing penance in the Catholic tradition. I can hear the words and understand what they are saying, but I will deny that it has anything to do with me as a Protestant.

The opponents seem to say that since Jesus has died on the cross and fulfilled God’s Law, God’s Law no longer any authority over them. If (as Paul says) we are free from the Law, then what the Law said was sin is no longer sin. If a kid who is a day short of his twenty-first birthday buys cigarettes and alcohol, then they are breaking the law. But if they wait a day and buy it after their birthday, that law no longer has any authority over them and they are free to drink and smoke legally. The opponents are simply saying if the Law is fulfilled in Jesus, then the old laws do not apply anymore. They can “drink and smoke” all they want since they are not under those old laws.

Karen Jobes points to Leviticus 26:43 as an example of the use of the world in the Septuagint. To be lawless is to have disdain for the Law of God, to knowingly suppress the clear revelation of God and do what he has said “ought not be done” (1, 2, & 3 John, 143). This is not far from Paul’s description of the human race in Romans 1:18-32.

In the context of eschatological judgment, it is possible John knew the teaching of Jesus in the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:21). When the many who did miracles in the name of Jesus come before the Son of Man at the judgement at the time of the second coming, Jesus will send them away into the darkness where there is gnashing of teeth, saying “I never knew you, away from men you evildoers (ἀνομία).

Is this a reference to the opponents who have gone out from John’s churches? Likely, they are denying the clear revelation of God’s word through the witness, the last of the Apostles, John. They know what John has said about Jesus and they are simply denying it as valid for them.

Since Jesus has dealt with sin, the one who remains in Jesus does not make a practice of sinning (3:5-6). This is the second “appearing” of Jesus in this section of 1 John. In 2:28, the word refers to the future appearing of Jesus in judgment. Here the word refers to the incarnation, he appeared to take away sin.

Since Jesus has no sin, the one who is abiding in him should not keep on sinning. In the context of these verses, John is making a contrast with the ones who are lawless, who deny that God’s clear revelation has any authority over their lives. For the one who is remaining in Christ, it is impossible to think God’s revelation has no authority over them!

The grammar is once again very important for understanding the practical theology of this verse. The Greek phrase καὶ οὐ δύναται ἁμαρτάνειν can be understood as “he is not able to sin,” of “and he cannot sin” (KJV). This sounds like the opponents as I suggested above. But the present tense verbs are usually taken here as continuous, so that most modern translations say no one who abides/remains in Jesus will “keep on sinning” (as in the NIV, ESV).

The argument John makes is also based on the nature of Jesus: he took sin away and he himself had no sin, so those who are so closely associated with Jesus that they can be called the children of God (as he is the son of God) ought to live a life without sin.