The Apostle John’s First Letter Part 5

Verse by Verse Comments on 1 John

More on Love (3:11-18)

“This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. 12 Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15 Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him. 16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”

Love and Hate

 John ends verse 3:10 with the statement “Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.” That statement concludes his contrast of righteousness and sin. In the next few verses he draws a similar sharp contrast between love and hate. He writes of love/hate, life/death, and murder/self-sacrifice. The Gnostics boasted their secret knowledge led to salvation. John appeals to the original apostolic gospel. This gospel is and always has been public knowledge, not private secret enlightenment. The truth of the gospel does not change. The truth about the person of Jesus Christ and about the conduct required of Christians is unalterable. 

In both doctrine and ethics we should look at what the apostles originally taught. Believers know on the best of authority (from Jesus as repeated by the apostles), that they should love one another. Loving one another is in contrast with the hate of Cain for his brother Abel. Cain’s murder of Abel came not from Abel being wicked but from Cain’s jealousy. His jealousy was not from coveting his brother’s greater gifts, but of resenting his greater righteousness.

Rebellious World System:

Cain is a prototype of the rebellious world system. The world hates believers as Cain hated Abel. Jesus said to those who follow Him that the world will hate them because it hated Him.  

The Pre-eminent Christian Virtue

Love is the great Christian virtue. Love is the first-fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), the sign of reality of faith (Galatians 5:6). Without love, we are nothing (1Corinthians 13:2). Love never fails (1Corinthians 13:8).  Love is the greatest of the three abiding Christian graces – faith, hope, and love (1Corinthians 13:13). Love, light, and life go together. Hatred, darkness, and death go together. The world hates believers, but believers are to love one another and everyone else, even enemies. True followers of Christ hunger for Christian fellowship. They do not give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25).

Love is evidence of life in Christ, and the essence of love is self-sacrifice. Love was perfectly manifested in Christ’s earthly life and love like Christ’s should characterize the lives of his followers. Hate is negative, seeks the other person’s harm, and produces activity against the one hated, even to the point of murder. Love is positive, seeks the other person’s good, even to the point of self-sacrifice. Hate destroys the one who hates. 

Contrast Between the Fruit of Hate and That of Love

Cain’s hatred issued in murder; Christ’s love led to self-sacrifice for sinners’ benefit. Love is revealed in all forms of giving, not only in supreme sacrifice. Love is revealed in a willingness to surrender that which has value in our life in order to improve the life of another – costly self-giving. John says, “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (3:18). Love originates in God; love characterizes the church; love leads to self-sacrifice. Love is evidence of eternal life. Hate originates in Satan and characterizes the unbelieving, rebellious world whose prototype is Cain. In its ultimate form, hate leads to murder. Continuing, enduring hate is evidence of spiritual death.

The Condemning Heart (3:19-24)

“This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence 20 whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24 Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.”

We know that we belong to the truth by the evidence we love (agape) with actions and in truth. At times, our heart needs reassurance. There will be times when our heart condemns us.  That condemnation, the accusations of our conscience may be true. If so, we are to confess, repent, and be forgiven according to God’s promise. Another time, the condemnation we feel may be false, something inspired by “the accuser of our brothers” (Rev 12:10).  In either case, we are to set our hearts at rest in God’s presence, recognizing that He is greater than our hearts, that He knows everything. We belong to the truth. It is the mind’s knowledge of truth that may properly silence the heart’s doubts. What is that knowledge which can soothe a condemning heart?  

Love as Evidence of the Indwelling Holy Spirit

Love as “self-sacrificing actions in truth” is not natural to humans in their fallen state. The presence of such love in a life is evidence of new birth and of the indwelling Spirit. We know the Spirit indwells us when we can see righteous behavior – real things we have done and can point to – not merely things we have professed, or felt, or imagined, or intended. Our God knows everything – including our secret motives and deepest intentions. He will share his wisdom with us when we bring our concerns to him. Knowing that we are loved by God, and that we love as he commands, soothes the condemning heart. A tranquil heart leads to an untroubled conscience. Striving to be obedient yields a heart that does not condemn. This is pleasing to God. Such a person has answers to prayer. Christ is our example of obedience, of pleasing God, of unrestricted communion with God, and of answered prayer. John assures us that there is mutual abiding. God is in us and we are in God. A great blessing!

Truth and Error (4:1-6)

“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. 4 You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5 They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.”

Source of Supernatural Activity

Is all supernatural activity divine in origin? If there is supernatural activity that is not divine in origin, how do we distinguish one from the other? How do we test the validity of an utterance, particularly one claiming to be inspired? These are questions that John answers in this section of the letter. Verses 4:1-3 deal with the content of a teaching, while 4:4-6 deal with the character of those who hear and believe a teaching.

The present tense of the command “do not believe every spirit” suggests that John’s readers tended to be credulous, accepting every teaching that claimed to be inspired. It is a natural and proper inclination for Christians to look for and be excited by evidence of God’s activity in our lives and in the world around us. But, we must not be gullible. Uncritical acceptance of everything that claims to be from God is dangerous. 

By Their Fruit You will Recognize Them

Behind every prophet is either God or Satan. Before trusting a prophet, put them to the test. 1Corinthians 12:3 tells us, “Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”  Many false prophets are active in the world claiming to have inspired revelation that authenticates their particular story. Christians are called to be discerning – distinguishing truth from error in belief and love. Neither love nor belief is to be indiscriminate. In other words, discern and then act according to the principles of Scripture. The need to critically assess the validity of religious teachers has always been recognized. Jesus gave us the test “… by their fruit you will recognize them”(Matthew 7:20).  We find in Deuteronomy 18:22, 13:1-5; Jeremiah 28:9 some Old Testament tests to applied to prophets.  

How to Recognize That Which is From the Spirit of God

How do we separate that which is from the Spirit of God from things that have other sources? Verses 4:2-3 say, “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God:  Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.” The fundamental fact of Judaism is “God is One.” The additional foundational fact of Christianity is the incarnation. Nothing that denies that God is One, Christ’s position in the eternal Godhead, or His historical humanity can be accepted as true.  

Safety in Hearing and Believing

Much about the nature of a teaching can be discerned from the character of those who listen and believe. Error is overcome through applying objective standards and through the illumination of the Spirit who enables our minds to grasp and apply truth. The world system recognizes its own and listens to their message – a message originating in the world and reflecting the world’s perspective. The apostles were teachers from God. Their message is consistent with God’s principles and is from God for God’s people to hear and to apply to their lives. Jesus taught that his sheep hear His voice (John 10:4-5, 8, 16, 26-27); everyone who is on the side of truth listens to His witness to the truth (John 18:37); he who belongs to God hears what God says (John 8:47).

There is correspondence between the character of a message and those hearers of the message who believe it. The Spirit in believers enables them to discern Christ’s voice speaking through the apostles. Safety from error is found in loyalty to apostolic teaching. To test the spirits behind a teaching – test the content of the message against Scripture, and the character and behavior of the teacher against the principles of righteous behavior. To deliberately, knowingly deny that Jesus Christ is God come in the flesh demonstrates that one is not a true believer.

God’s Love and Our Love (4:7-21)

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. 13 We know that we live 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 his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. 17 In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”


Relationships define meaning in our lives – relationship with God, family, others, and self. The earthly life of our Lord Jesus provides true example of right relationships. John relates the love that should be in us to the true light that is already shining (2:7-11), and to the eternal life of which such love is evidence (3:11-18). In the present passage he relates the love God requires of us to God’s nature and to his loving activity in Christ and in us.  

Love One Another (4:7-12)

Why is love for one another the clear duty of Christians?  John gives three reasons.(1.) God has revealed Himself to us in Christ as self-sacrificial love. (2.) God loves both in and through us to bring love to completion. (3.) God is love in His intrinsic nature – and we are of God. Each of John’s statements is linked to one of the persons of the Trinity. In 4:7-8 it is God the Father, in 4:9-11 it is primarily God the Son, and in 4:12 God the Holy Spirit. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (4:10).  To profess to know God, to have been born of God, and yet to not manifest love – is to fail to manifest the nature of Him who is claimed as Father (believers are born of God) and Friend (believers know God).  

Love and Right Belief (4:13-16)

 There is an inevitable connection between right belief and true Christian love. The sequence of ideas is that we know that we live in God and God in us “because he has given us of his Spirit” (4:13). We know that He has given us of His Spirit because we have come to “acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God” (4:15), and to live “in love” (4:16).  It is by the Spirit that we come to acknowledge the incarnation of the Son (4:1-3, 1Corinthians 12:3), and by the same Spirit that we are enabled to love (4:12-13, 3:23-24). In our fallen, unredeemed state we were both spiritually blind (unable to believe) and selfish (unable to love).  It is only by the grace of the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Truth and whose first-fruit is love, that we ever come to believe in Christ and to love (agape) others.

These verses have a double interweaving of themes.  First, combining believing with loving (the right belief and relationship tests) and then the Son’s mission with the witness of the Holy Spirit (He who makes both believing and loving possible). There is objective historical evidence in the sending of the Son – the evidence of His unique person (attested by the apostles, 4:14), and of His Father’s love (which we know and rely on, 4:16).  But objective knowledge is not sufficient by itself. Without the Holy Spirit our minds are dark, and our hearts are cold. Only the Spirit can enlighten our minds to believe in Jesus and warm our hearts to love God and each other. Right belief and agape love are together evidence that God’s Spirit is at work within us. In 4:12 the apostle declares that if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.  

Love’s Perfection (4:17-21)

In 4:13-15 John elaborates on the divine indwelling, and in 4:17-21 he returns to the theme of complete love looking at the completion of our love for God.  Not that any Christian’s love could in this life be flawlessly perfect, but rather that it should develop maturely and increasingly pure. Two marks of mature love are confidence before God, and loving concern for our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our confidence (like our obedience in 2:5) is a sign that our love has been made complete. Our confidence is grounded in the fact that, as our love matures, we are in an essential way becoming like Christ. We are not yet fully like Him in character, but God has declared us justified before Him. We can share in the confidence that our Lord and Savior enjoys before God.

We are to approach God in love and reverence. It is not possible to approach Him in love and, at the same time, hide from Him in fear. In this instance, fear is a feeling of alarm or disquiet caused by the expectation of danger, pain, disaster, or the like. This kind of fear of God arises from believing we deserve to be punished. We also use the word “fear” to indicate reverence and respect, and in that sense we are always to fear God.

We love because God first loved us. God’s love is primary.  Human love is our response.  Love for God and love for our brother and tied together in one single command (3:23). Our Lord united Deuteronomy 6:4 with Leviticus 19:18, and declared that all the Law and Prophets hung upon these two commandments (Matthew 22:37-40). If we love God we shall keep His commands (2:5, 5:3). He commands that we love our neighbor as ourselves. It is not possible to love God and at the same time to hate our brother. 

God hates all workers of inequity (Psalm 5:5). Since all have sinned, the meaning seems to be that God hates those who continue in rebellion and are never redeemed. All sin (1John 1:8, Titus 3:3, Romans 3:9-12, 22-23) but some are justified (Romans 5:8, John 3:16). When a believer falls into sin, God hates that sin but continues to love the believer. God intends believers to hate evil, but we are to exhibit agape love to all people. Hate evil – Romans 12:9, Amos 5:14-15, Proverbs 8:13, Psalm 101:3-4; 97:10. Love your neighbor – Matthew 33:34-40, Luke 10:30-37, Romans 13:8-10.  Love everyone – 1Thessalonians 3:12.  

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