Perception and Affection (4.1-12)
John's affection for his readers could never be doubted. On five occasions (AV) he addressed them as, "Beloved", with three of these instances being within the compass of these few verses. In v.1, because he loved them, it pained him to think that they might be naïve, and so he urged them to be discerning about everything they heard. God's people should never be gullible and swallow all that they hear or read. Modern dangers are the internet sites you might stumble on inadvertently. Hence the warning, "believe not every spirit". John had just referred to the Holy Spirit (3.24), and believers were dependent on His activity in enlightening New Testament prophets and empowering them to communicate their messages to the people (Eph 3.5; 1 Cor 14.29-33). But there were other spirits at work - "seducing spirits" purveying "doctrines of devils" (1 Tim 4.1). As then, so now, these demonic forces control men in promoting issues that are anything but the truth of God. In distinguishing truth from error, we have the advantage of the completed Scriptures, a luxury that first-century believers did not possess.
Hence John appeals to them to be cautious, a similar warning to the one Paul gave to the Thessalonians: "do not lightly esteem prophecies; but prove all things" (1 Thess 5.20-21, JND). How could his readers differentiate between a genuine prophet and a false prophet, between a Spirit-given message and one that was the product of a seducing spirit? The touchstone was a man's attitude to the big theological issue of the day, the denial of the true manhood of the Lord Jesus by the Gnostics. Acceptance or rejection of the fact that "Jesus Christ is come in the flesh" with all the ramifications of that in the atonement, was the acid test of authenticity. Messages that acknowledged that fact were prompted by the Spirit of God; a sermon that denied it gave evidence that its source was "not of God"; it was rather "that spirit of antichrist".
This particular matter may not be of major concern among professing believers today, but there is an important principle here; any question that impacts on Biblical truth about the Lord Jesus is immensely serious and may expose the fact that its exponent is not a genuine believer. A verse from John Newton makes that point:
What think you of Christ? is the test
To try both your state and your scheme;
You cannot be right in the rest
Unless you think rightly of Him.
The fact that John uses the word "overcome" indicates that the antichrists were militant in promoting their error and their onslaughts had to be repelled; people who were "of God", genuine believers, would overcome them just as the young men had overcome "the wicked one" (2.14), and just as our faith overcomes the world (5.4-5).
The ability to overcome the errorists rests in the fact that believers have the indwelling Spirit of God; "greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world" (v.4). We observed in 2.20 that even immature believers have "an anointing from the Holy One" (RV). So we all have a God-given facility to detect error and refute it, thus "overcoming" its exponents.
Antichrists and Apostles (vv.5-6)
John and his associates, "we", are now contrasted with the antichrists, "they". "They are of the world"; "We are of God". Because the antichrists took character from the world, their teaching was from a worldly perspective: "they speak as of the world" (v.5, JND). They communicated worldly concepts applied with worldly human logic and conveyed in worldly language and so worldly men just lapped it up; "the world heareth them". True, it was religion, but the devil has no anxieties about people transferring from sinful worldly pleasures to worldly religion, and in any case, the two can sit comfortably together! Believers need not be envious of cultists who claim to be members of "the fastest growing religion in the world". Worldly hearts are a fertile field for worldly religious notions. "They are of the world…the world heareth them".
By contrast, John and his fellow-apostles were "of God" (v.6), and those who had come to know God savingly would hear them. Their wholesome, accurate teaching was attractive to the spiritual mind, but those who were "not of God" would find such a faithful presentation of truth unappealing. This was another test of the validity of teaching as to whether it came into the category of "the spirit of truth" or "the spirit of error". Being embraced by a body of genuine believers would give it credence as "the spirit of truth".
The Source of Love (vv.7-8)
"Love is of God"; "God is love". Having stated that "God is light" (1.5), an indication of His essential purity and holiness, there is this further revelation of God's character - "God is love". He is fundamentally kind and tender and compassionate, and those who exhibit such character traits are reflecting the nature of God, for "love is of God". Any love that we may express is a reciprocal love (v.19).
Having spoken of a world that is susceptible to the machinations of religious charlatans, John again stresses the need for sincere warm affection among the genuine people of God: "Beloved, let us love one another". The epistle has already emphasised that love is not just empty talk (3.18) and it will again stress that it is not just a vague pious protestation of love for God (4.20). Love that takes character from God's love is practical and demonstrative. People who love like that give proof that they are "born of God", and John now returns to one of his main topics, the evidence of new birth. Like begets like, and if "God is love", then those who are "born of God" will display this family feature. Those who are bereft of such love have never come to know God in a saving way (v.8). It is so challenging. Loving one another would mean that we want to be in each other's company at the gatherings and not be spasmodic in attendance. It involves kindness, consideration, and sacrifice. These are the features of those who are "born of God"; they are absent in those who "(know) not God".
The Manifestation of Love (vv.9-10)
Having spoken of how God is essentially "love", John now moves on to speak of the way in which He has expressed His love "toward us"; it was in sending "his only begotten Son". His only begotten Son was sent, an indication of the immense cost to God. The One who was sent was absolutely unique, having experienced His Father's affection "before the foundation of the world" (Jn 17.24). He was His "darling" (Ps 22.20). This was the One who was "sent"; what boundless love!
Contextually, there are three reasons for His being sent; "that we might live through him" (v.9); "to be the propitiation for our sins" (v.10); "to be the Saviour of the world" (v.14). The central statement provides the legitimacy for the other two. Because He was "the propitiation for our sins", satisfying God's justice and appeasing His wrath, God has justly imparted spiritual life to those who were "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph 2.1). Similarly, that propitiation has made salvation a lawful possibility for a perishing world through Him who is "the Saviour of the world (4.14)".
That love was uninvited and undeserved; "not that we loved God". The fact is that we were hostile to Him, "enemies in (our) mind by wicked works" (Col 1.21); and yet He loved us. The Bible word for it is "grace"!
The Debt of Love (vv.11-12)
God's love for us leaves us indebted - "we ought (owe it) also to love one another". The fact that God was willing to send no less a person than His only begotten Son; the fact that it was to impart life to us; the fact that it involved the shedding of His blood as a propitiation for our sins; all of these things, enshrined in the statement, "God so loved us", leave us with no option but "to love one another". Do we rise to it? Are we discharging the debt? Or could it be that despite being engulfed in divine love, our affection for our fellow-believers is meagre?
The invisible God has been "declared" by His dear Son (Jn 1.18). But the Lord Jesus is back in heaven and is no longer visible to men on earth. However, believers exhibiting true affection are giving men a little glimpse of the character of their Father, the invisible God (v.12). It is an expression of the divine within us, and "his love is perfected in us". In other words, God had an aim in loving us. That goal has been realised when, as His children, His redeemed people love one another. Has God's love been perfected in you and me, or are we far short of His ideal for us?
To be continued.