As you read 1 John, you notice that he cycles through the same themes again and again. John has a Trinitarian view of salvation. In love, the Father purposed the redemption of sinners through sending his only Son to be the atoning sacrifice for their sins. The Father brings sinners into fellowship with Himself, the Son, and one another through the regenerative work of the Spirit. The regenerative work of the Spirit produces a quality of faith and love that obeys God’s commands. Such is the essence of the message of 1 John.
John presents his message in such a way as to highlight the interconnectedness of his themes. So you can’t have the Father without the Son. You can’t have the Father and the Son without the Spirit. You can’t abide in God and God in you without embracing the truth as it is in Jesus. You can’t embrace the truth and love God and one another unless you are born of God.
These truth claims are presented in a cyclical manner that is extended and expanded with each twirl of the Johannine cyclone. John presents his message with two purposes in mind: first, to fortify the faith of the churches against the attack of the defectors and, second, to expose the error of the defectors so that the community is not deceived.
The defectors made every effort to disrupt the community by their claims of having received a higher and subsequent revelation than the apostles had received. They claimed to speak with divine authority and to know the way to God through higher knowledge of emanations of the divine.
John upholds the truth about Jesus and, at the same time, exposes the defectors faulty belief and teaching. The apostolic preaching of Jesus Christ affirmed that He is the eternal life who was with the Father and made manifest to the apostles (1:3); Jesus is the Son of God whose blood cleanses from us all sin (1:7); Jesus Christ is righteous and as such is the only propitiation for our sin and our advocate with the Father (2:1-2); Jesus is the Christ of Scripture and whoever denies Him denies the Father also (2:22-23); He is the Son of God who appeared to destroy the works of the devil (3:8); Jesus Christ is the Son in whose Name we are commanded to believe (3:23); we confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, that is the incarnation of the God the Son (4:9); He is the unique Son whom God sent to be the propitiation for our sins so that we might live through him (4:9-10); He is the Son the Father sent to be the Savior of the world (4:14); We must confess that Jesus is the Son of God (4:15); We must believe that Jesus is the Christ (5:1); We must believe Jesus’s sacrificial death and resurrection is the way to eternal life (5:6,10,11-12); and by believing in the Name of the Son of God, we know we have eternal life (5:13). This is the apostolic gospel. By putting all his statements together, we get a comprehensive view of the gospel John upholds and the defectors deny.
The Christian Church and its faith are always under attack. The devil desires to disrupt its community and distort its teaching. Today is no different. Any distortion of the Gospel as preached by the apostles is teaching that is to be rejected.
John desires to help the churches navigate the confusing maze of truth claims people make by holding up for us the apostolic gospel and the evidences of it in the community of faith.
In community, we must discern the work of the Spirit among us (4:1-6).
John introduced us to the Spirit at the close of the last section (3:24). God abides in us through the Spirit. Faith and love wrought obedience are the peculiar work of the indwelling Spirit of God (3:23-24). When we believe the in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, we know we have the Spirit, and the Spirit has done his saving work in us.
The early church was a dynamic place. Prophetic impressions from the Spirit were part of the ordinary gathering of the community. We don’t want to get our spirits confused here. There are two sorts of spirits in view. Some people were impressed in their spirit by the Holy Spirit. Others were impressed by the spirit of antichrist.
John commands the church, Do not believe every spirit but test the spirits (4:1). You would think in that context, John might say, Don’t prophesy. But that is not what he says. He says, Don’t believe every spirit but test the spirits. He provides the church with two tests, with the second being an extension of the first.
The first test is Christological. That is, what does that spirit confess about Jesus Christ. You know impressions from the Spirit of God by what they confess about Jesus.
The confession that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh uses the perfect tense verb to show that what is true of Jesus in the incarnation will always be true of Jesus. The flesh God the Son assumed in the incarnation has become his permanent possession.i That is Jesus is the incarnate Son of God and remains the incarnate Son of God.
The defectors believed the Christ came on the man Jesus at his baptism and departed before the cross. John says, Not so. The Christ, the Son of God, came in the flesh and has never laid it aside. The eternal divine-human person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, can never be compromised.
The second test is embracing the Apostolic witness (4:5-6). John has the audacity to say, We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error (4:6). We have to realize that those who disagree with Apostolic truth claims are as audacious. The question is, Who will you believe? Are you going to believe the person who says, I was there. I saw him resurrected from the dead. I heard his message. I touched him and spent time with him. And it was not just me. There were others with me? Or, will you believe the guy at the coffee shop who says, I think the message of the church is narrow minded and bigoted. I rather believe that you are your own truth? The defectors’ denial that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh put them in direct opposition to the Apostles’ testimony.
There is a need for Christian discernment. John provides for us a Christological test so that we might discern who or what is from God (4:2-3). The false prophets and the spirit of the antichrist are overcome by the apostolic message of Jesus Christ (4:4) because it is the only message the Spirit of truth endorses. There is pressure on the popular front to conform to group speak. Truth, however, is not determined by popularity (4:5). Just because someone has the applause of the world does not mean they are speaking the truth. Those who are from God embrace the apostolic gospel of the Jesus Christ (4:6).
John knows the community feels the pressure to compromise on the truth claims of Jesus, but they have the Spirit. The Spirit who lives in them is greater than the one at work in opposition to Christ (4:4).
In community, we discern the work of the Spirit of God. Our confession of Jesus Christ is the work of the Spirit of truth among us.
Faith and love in the community arise from the work of the Spirit among us (4:7-5:5).
John has already told us that we know we have the Spirit when we believe in the Name of Jesus Christ and love one another (3:23-24). These are telltale signs of the regenerative work of the spirit. Now John expands on that theme by showing that both faith and love are not the cause but the result of the new birth. You can see this in the parallel construction of 4:7 and 5:1. In 4:7, whoever loves has been born of God; in 5:1, Whoever believes…has been born of God.
Faith and love are part of the new age. The old order is given to unbelief, hatred, and disobedience. The new order into which we have been born is given to faith and love that issues in obedience. These are not natural, innate qualities. They are the work of the Spirit in us.
Love arises from the nature and character of God (4:7-12).
John takes up the topic of love first. Perhaps, the community was struggling in its love for one another. John commands them to love one another because love is from God. Love is a result of the new birth (4:7)
The basis of our love for one another is grounded in the character of God (4:7,8,16).
John grounds our love for one another in the character of God. Love is from God, he says in verse 7, and in verse 8 John says, God is love. He bookends this section on the divine origin of love in verse 16 by asserting again, God is love.
We understand what John means when he says love is from God. God is the source and origin of love. If God did not exist, love would not exist. But what does John mean by God is love (4:8,16)? It is attractive to identify love here as the Spirit, the personification of the love the Father has for the Son and the Son for the Father who flows out from God to and through the people of God. But it is safer to say, love, here, is an attribute of God.
The basis of our love for one another is in the historical demonstration of God’s love for us (4:9-12).
Among attributes, love is a communicable attribute of God, that is, it is an aspect of his nature and character that he shares with us. John is not provoking natural human affection in the community. Rather, John’s is saying God’s communicable attributes are transformative.ii Love is God’s eternal self-giving.iii So God’s eternal self-giving not only compels us to love one another but makes love for one another possible (4:11).
The pattern of the outflow of God’s love, historically, is revealed among us by God sending his only Son into the word, so that we might live through him (4:9). God did not send his Son because we loved God, but because he loved us, he sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (4:10). If that is how God loves us, and in the new birth he communicates to us his nature to love, we should love one another (4:11). God’s love communicated to us finds its primary expression in our love for one another.
Another attribute of God is his invisibility (4:12). Why would John bring up the matter of the invisibility of God in the middle of a discussion of God’s communicating love to us and through us? The reason is our love for one another actualizes the Presence of God. When we love one another, it shows God abides in us, and his love finds its desired outcome in our faith in Christ and love for one another. God’s love to and through the community of faith renders visible the God who cannot be seen.iv
Through faith in the Son we come to know and believe God’s love for us (4:13-21).
John now brings together faith and love. It is through faith in the Son that we come to know and believe God’s love for us. I don’t think it is natural for us to believe God loves us. It is much more natural for us to fear the displeasure of God. And we have much opportunity to do so. No matter how charmed our lives may have been, disappointment comes to all of us. Perhaps we lose a loved one, our family falls apart, our health declines, or we fall on financial hard times, and we feel that either God does not know or care, and perhaps enjoys torturing us.
It takes a supernatural work of the Spirit of God for us to know and believe God loves us (4:13). John again appeals to the Apostolic testimony that the Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world (4:14). Have seen and testify point back to 1:2, the Apostolic witness to the gospel. Whoever confesses Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him through the agency of the Spirit (4:15 cf, 4:13) and he abides in God. The Apostles came to know and believe the love that God has for them the same way we come to know and believe the love that God has for us—through embracing the ultimate demonstration of God’s love for us, the sending of His Son to be our Savior.
The experience and believing of God’s love for us, through receiving the Son of God’s atoning work in our behalf, is the only way that we have confidence that God is for us and not against us (4:17a). John’s language is astounding. God’s love has reached its goal in us when we realize that we are like the Son, even though we are still in the world (4:17b). The Son of God has no fear of judgment. He knows the Father’s love for him. By faith we are united with the Son is such way that love does its work in us and removes any fear of condemnation (4:18).
So, it is God’s love for us, communicated to us, that enables us to love (4:19). We cannot claim to love God and hate our brother (4:20). As John has argued, love for God is most clearly expressed in loving our brother. You can’t have the one without the other. Besides, John argues from the lesser to the greater. If you can’t love your brother whom you see, you cannot love God whom you have not seen.
In our individualistic culture, relationship with God is viewed as personal and private. So many of us, perhaps, have a relationship worked out in our heads where God approves of us and we approve of him. This relationship is not in concert with the church and takes little if any consideration of the church. That sort of thing is foreign to the Scripture because we have this commandment, Whoever loves God must also love his brother (4:21).
When you know and believe God’s love for you, you are free to love others. No longer is love based on desert or worthiness or safety. Love no long calculates risks. God loved us, undeserving and unworthy as were are, and sent his Son as the propitiation for our sins, so that His love might be perfected in us, that is, might flow to us and do its work in us.
Faith and Love are the result of the new birth (5:1-5).
John is not writing to unbelievers to convince them to believe. He is writing to the churches to tell them what happened to them in the new birth, so that they may draw on the resources of the age to come, which they now experience in part.
You can think, I don’t have the capacity to believe less off the capability to love people. How can I love a church family when I don’t even know most of the people around me? How can I love them to the point that I assume the best about each one of them and not the worst?
The reality is that in yourself you can’t. It is simply not part of natural human resources in a fallen world to believe the gospel and love the church. John is not appealing to natural human resources. He is, in fact, saying you don’t have the capacity to believe and love. Yet, something real and powerful and transformative has taken place in you in the new birth.
Suddenly, we have the capacity to believe that Jesus is the Christ and love the community of faith (5:1). Flowing from faith is a tsunami of affection for God and the family of God.
How do I know my love for the family of God is genuine? When your love for God removes the burden of obedience, you know your love for the community of faith is genuine (5:2-3). This is how know you have been infused with love that you cannot manufacture, but it is a compelling in your soul. Love for God finds its expression in love for the church.
Faith in the Son of God is the result of the new birth that frees you from the tactics of the world (5:4-5). You overcome the world through faith. No longer need you rely on manipulation, dishonesty, or self-protection techniques like sabotaging relationships. These are the things of the old life where you were a victim not a conqueror. But now you are a conqueror! As a conqueror, the tactics of the old age are things you identify and fight. You have the standing to fight—you’re part of the family of God, and you have the weapon to fight, faith producing love. Faith and love are the result of being born of God.
As a community, we must pay close attention to the work of the Spirit among us. Faith and love are the result of his work among us. As we come to the table, we have a visible, tangible reminder of God’s love for us demonstrated in history when he sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
i Stott, 1 John, TNTC, 155.
ii Yarbrough, BECNT.
iii Grudem, Systematic Theology, 199.