1 John 4:1 Commentary - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
1 6. The Spirit of Truth and the Spirit of Error
1 6. This section is an amplification of the sentence with which the preceding chapter ends. We certainly have the Holy Spirit as an abiding gift from God, for otherwise we could not believe and confess the truth of the Incarnation. As usual, S. John thinks and teaches in antitheses. The test which proves that we have the Spirit of God proves that the antichrists have not this gift but its very opposite. In chap. 2 the antichrists were introduced as evidence of the transitoriness of the world (1Jn 2:18): here they are introduced as the crucial negative instance which proves that every true believer has the Spirit of God.
Beloved ] See on 1Jn 3:2.
believe not every spirit ] This exhortation does not give us the main subject of the section, any more than ‘Marvel not, brethren, if the world hate you’ (1Jn 3:12) gave us the main subject of the last section (1Jn 3:12-24). In both cases the exhortation is introductory and momentary. Having spoken of the Spirit by which we know that God abides in us, the Apostle goes on to speak of other spiritual influences which indubitably exist, and of which every one has experience, but which are not necessarily of God because they are spiritual. “He does not discredit the fact that spiritual influences were widely diffused; he does not monopolize such influences for the Christian Church. How could he discredit this fact? How can we? Are there not myriads of influences about us continually, which do not act upon our senses but upon our spirits, which do not proceed from things which may be seen and handled, but from the spirits of men?” (Maurice). But besides ordinary spiritual influences, S. John probably has in his mind those extraordinary and supernatural powers which at various periods of the Church’s history persons have claimed to possess. Such claims exhibit themselves in professed revelations, prophecies, miracles, and the like. About all such things there are two possibilities which must put us on our guard: (1) they may be unreal; either the delusions of fanatical enthusiasts, or the lies of deliberate impostors: (2) even if real, they need not be of God. Miraculous powers are no absolute guarantee of the possession of truth.
try the spirits ] Or, as R. V., prove the spirits. There are two words in N. T. meaning ‘to try, test, prove’; the one which we have here ( δοκιμάζειν ), and the one which is used where the Jews try or tempt Christ (Mar 8:11; Mar 10:2, &c.), and of the temptations of Satan (Mat 4:1; Mat 4:3, &c.). The former occurs about 20, the latter about 40 times in N. T. Neither are common in S. John’s writings: he nowhere else uses the word which we have here, and the other only 4 times (Joh 6:6; Rev 2:2; Rev 2:10; Rev 3:10). The A. V. is very capricious in its renderings of the former; ‘allow’ (Rom 14:22), ‘approve’ (Rom 2:18), ‘discern’ (Luk 12:56), ‘examine’ (1Co 11:28), ‘like’ (Rom 1:28), ‘prove’ (Luk 14:19), ‘try’ (1Co 3:13); while the latter is rendered ‘examine’ (2Co 13:5), ‘prove’ (Joh 6:6), ‘tempt’ (Mat 22:18), ‘try’ (Rev 2:2). The Revisers have somewhat reduced this variety. In the one case ‘allow’ has been changed to ‘approve’; ‘examine’ and ‘try’ to ‘prove’: in the other case ‘examine’ has been changed to ‘try’. The difference between the two words (which are found together 2Co 13:5 and Psa 26:2) is on the whole this, that the one here used commonly implies a good, if not a friendly object; to prove or test in the hope that what is tried will stand the test: whereas the other often implies a sinister object; to try in the hope that what is tried will be found wanting. The metaphor here is from testing metals. Comp. ‘ Prove all things; hold fast that which is good’ (1Th 5:21).
A verse such as this cuts at the root of such pretensions as the Infallibility of the Pope. What room is left for Christians to ‘prove the spirits’, if all they have to do is to ask the opinion of an official? The Apostle’s charge, ‘prove ye the spirits’, may be addressed to Christians singly or to the Church collectively: it cannot be addressed to an individual. Comp. Rom 12:2; Eph 5:10; 1Co 10:15; 1Co 11:13. The verse also shews us in what spirit to judge of such things as the reported miracles at Lourdes and the so-called ‘manifestations’ of Spiritualism. When they have been proved to be real, they must still further be proved to see ‘whether they are of God’. We are not to judge of doctrine by miracles, but of miracles by doctrine. A miracle enforcing what contradicts the teaching of Christ and His Apostles is not ‘of God’ and is no authority for Christians. Comp. Gal 1:8; Deu 13:1-3.
because many false prophets ] The caution is against no imaginary or merely possible danger; it already exists. Warnings respecting the coming of such had been given by Christ, S. Paul, S. Peter, and S. Jude; and now S. John tells his readers that these prophecies have been fulfilled. These ‘false prophets’ include the antichrists of 1Jn 2:18, and what is here said of them seems to indicate that like Mahomet, Swedenborg, the Irvingites, and others, they put forth their new doctrine as a revelation.
are gone out into the world ] This probably has no reference to their ‘going out from us’ (1Jn 2:19). Possibly it means no more than that they have appeared in public; but it perhaps includes the notion of their having a mission from the power that sent them: comp. Joh 3:17; Joh 6:14; Joh 10:36; Joh 11:27; Joh 12:47; Joh 12:49, and especially Joh 16:28. We need not confine these ‘many false prophets’ to the antichrists who had left the Christian communion. There would be others who, like Apollonius of Tyana, had never been Christians at all: and others even more dangerous who still professed to be members of the Church. The difficulties in the Church of Corinth caused by the unrestrained ‘speaking with tongues’ point to dangers of this kind.
There seems to be no serious break in the Epistle from this point onwards until we reach the concluding verses which form a sort of summary (1Jn 5:13-21). The key-word ‘love’ is distributed, and not very unevenly, over the whole, from 1Jn 3:1 to 1Jn 5:3. Subdivisions, however, exist and will be pointed out as they occur. The next two subdivisions may be marked thus; The Children of God and the Children of the Devil (1Jn 2:29 to 1Jn 3:12); Love and Hate (1Jn 3:13-24). The two, as we shall find, are closely linked together, and might be placed under one heading, thus; The Righteousness of the Children of God in their relation to the Hate of the World.
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The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges is a biblical commentary set published in parts by Cambridge University Press from 1882 onwards. Anglican bishop John Perowne was the general editor. The first section published was written by theologian Thomas Kelly Cheyne and covered the Book of Micah.
Perowne exercised limited editorial control over the writers of individual commentaries: his aim was "to leave each contributor to the unfettered exercise of his own judgment".