6. God Is Love (1 John 4:1-21)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (30:40)

Segna di Bonaventura, St. John the Evangelist (1320s)
Segna di Bonaventura, "St. John the Evangelist" (1320s), tempera on wood, gold ground, 88.9 x 55.9 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

The old apostle writes First John with several goals in mind. First, he must stop the false teaching that has ripped apart the congregations in Asia Minor with the exodus of the antichrist-led heretics. Second, he must ensure that the remaining members of the churches under his care respond in a healthy way. Rather than merely a strict orthodoxy -- as important as right teaching is -- he wants their whole approach to following Christ to be infused with love. So in chapter four, John tackles both issues:

  1. Orthodox Christology: Jesus the Messiah has come in the flesh, and
  2. Character and spirit that reflect Christ: a life of love for one another.

Both are important!

Test Every Spirit (4:1)

In this lesson John first speaks to the church about spiritual discernment:

"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." (4:1)

When he says, "Don't believe every spirit," he's not talking about séances and spiritualism. He is referring to the spirit behind a person, the spirit that motivates a person's teaching and ministry. Some people are led by the Holy Spirit; others have given themselves over to other influences, including the "spirit of the antichrist" (4:3b).

If you've travelled in Christian circles as much as I have, you begin to recognize the underlying motivational forces. Some cults are infected with religious spirits that have led them astray. Some powerful ministries are -- sadly -- motivated by money rather than humility. Some churches are infected with a spirit of legalism, others with a spirit of lawlessness. In others you detect the loving, humble spirit that reflects Jesus shining through.

John teaches us to "test the spirits," so we might detect the false prophets Jesus warned us about (Matthew 7:15-20). The word "test" (NIV, NRSV) or "try" (KJV) is dokimazō, "to make a critical examination of something to determine genuineness, put to the test, examine."1This word was sometimes used in metallurgy to determine the genuineness of metal -- whether a substance was pure gold, silver, copper -- or primarily a cheap alloy.

How do you "test the spirits"? One of the best ways is by listening and asking questions? A person can be fluent in religious jargon, but his heart may be wrong. Listen and pray; pray for discernment. If someone in your congregation has the spiritual gift of "discerning2of spirits" (1 Corinthians 12:10), that can be a big help.

Jesus Christ Has Come in the Flesh (4:2-3)

Not every motivating spirit can be discerned by the same test. Paul's test in 1 Corinthians 12:3 is different than John's, since Paul is dealing with a different heresy than John. In this case, John says:

"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." (4:2-3a)

As mentioned in the Introduction and Lesson 3 at 2:23, the primary heresy John was combating in Ephesus and elsewhere was a serious error in Christology -- who Jesus is. This error stems from a very strong Greek dualism and resulting Docetism which taught that Jesus couldn't have been divine in the flesh. Especially, a divine being couldn't carry the sins of all mankind in his body on the cross.

In Ephesus there was a heretical teacher named Cerinthus (discussed in the Introduction), who lived there at the same time as the Apostle John. Cerinthus acknowledged the piety of Jesus of Nazareth, but distinguished between the human Jesus and the divine Christ spirit that descended upon Jesus for a time.

What John is saying is: To tell what a person or teacher in Ephesus believes about Jesus, ask him if he acknowledges3that Jesus is Christ "in the flesh," that is: Did Christ inhabit human flesh? Is the man Jesus of Nazareth himself the incarnate Christ, the Son of God? This is the basic issue of the doctrine of incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas: Jesus Christ is God in the flesh -- throughout his human life, from the manger to the cross.

In our own day, the discerning question may be different, to help us distinguish a modern-day heresy from true Christianity, but the principle is the same: "Test the spirits!"

Spirit of Antichrist (4:3b)

"This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world." (4:3b)

The particular spirit behind the heresy that had split the Ephesus church was a manifestation of the antichrist. We discussed the antichrist in some detail in Lesson 3 at 2:18. The antichrist will come as an actual historical figure, we believe. He hasn't appeared yet, but his spiritual influence is already4present.

Q1. (1 John 4:1-3) Why is believing that Jesus was God in the flesh so important? Why doesn't Satan want us to believe that? What are the implications of the fact that Jesus could live out his divine life in a human body like ours? What significance does it bring to the crucifixion and to the resurrection? What is the significance for your Christian life?

Greater Is the One Who Is in You (4:4)

As powerful as the spirit of the antichrist and the false prophets might be, we Christians have the upper hand, asserts John:

"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." (4:4)

The action verb here is "overcome" (NIV, KJV), "conquered" (NRSV), which we already saw in 2:13-14, and will see once again in 5:4. The verb is nikaō, "to overcome someone, vanquish."5It meant to prevail in battle, in the games, or in any contest. Except for a couple of verses in Paul's letters, the word is found exclusively in John's writings -- in the Gospel, the Letters, and especially in Revelation, where the final victory against evil is won. We may seem weak in ourselves, says John. But in us lives the mighty Spirit of God whose power so far surpasses the enemy that there is no comparison. The Spirit of God is greater!6

Q2. (1 John 4:4) What in us is greater than false prophets and even Satan? In what sense have we overcome them? In what way will we overcome them in the future? How should this truth affect fear in our lives?




Whom Does the World Listen To? (4:5-6a)

Though the Holy Spirit's power resides on our side -- and will ultimately prevail -- the false prophets and heretics attract attention in the community.

"5 They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint7of 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 recognize8the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood." (4:5-6)

"They" refers to the false teachers; "we" refers to the true teachers, namely, the apostles. John is saying that the way you can recognize true believers is if they listen to and accept the apostolic teaching. He goes beyond this to mention the spiritual basis of a person's position. "The Spirit of truth," of course, is the Holy Spirit (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13), who dwells within all those who are born of God. "The Spirit of falsehood" (NIV) or "error" (NRSV, KJV) translates planē, "wandering from the path of truth, error, delusion, deceit, deception."9In English we often use the word "spirit" in the sense of an "attitude," but you don't find this definition in Greek. Rather "spirit" (pneuma) refers to an "an independent non-corporeal being, in contrast to a being that can be perceived by the physical senses," in this case, "an activating spirit that is not from God."10There is an actual spiritual being behind truth and behind error, as discussed in verses 2-3. I'm not saying that people in error are necessarily demon possessed, but they are certainly influenced by a demonic spirit.

God Is Love (4:7-8)

Now John shifts gears to the second topic in our lesson -- love. Love is not characteristic of either John's opponents or of the "world."

"7 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." (4:7-8)

In these key verses, John exhorts his readers to love "one another," that is, our Christian brothers and sisters. Then he supports it with two primary assertions:

  1. Love comes from God, that is, everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God and vice versa.
  2. God is love.

The first assertion John has been developing throughout the letter. But the second is unique: "God is love." In fact, "God is love" (seen both here and in 4:16) is one of the high points of revelation about God anywhere in the Bible.

What does this mean that God is love? It certainly isn't limiting, stating that love is all that God is. God is certainly just, righteous, holy, omniscient, etc. But it means that in all his actions he acts with love: justice with love, holiness with love, predestination with love, etc. It also means than unless we understand this about God, we can't really understand him at all. Certainly, the Christian understanding of God as love is unique among all the world religions. Only in Christianity is love elevated to the highest level of God's essential character.

God is love also means that unless we learn to love and forgive, rather than hate, hold grudges, and be self-centered, we can't really know or understand God. John isn't talking about a theoretical understanding of God, but an experiential and practical understanding of God.

Q3. (1 John 4:7-8) Why is the statement, "God is love," so important? What does it say about God's nature? How does love being the essence of God's nature affect us? If we were created in God's image of love, but fell, what does this say about the road to healing in our lives? Why does love demand a willingness to forgive?




True Love: God Sending His Son (4:9-10)

As a way of defining what he means by the statement, "God is love," John offers the most compelling example of God's loving acts -- sending Jesus:

"9 This is how God showed11 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 sacrifice12 for our sins." (4:9-10)

Paul had said this another way:

"But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8)

Love isn't defined by our poor human imitation of love: "Not that we loved God, but that he loved us." Love in action is defined by God; our love mirrors and reflects his love.

The Only-Begotten Son (4:9)

We need to take a side path from love for a moment to examine a word in verse 9b:

"He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him." (4:9)

"One and only" (NIV), "only" (NRSV), "only begotten" (KJV) is the adjective monogenēs, "unique (in kind)," of something that is the only example of its category.13This is a compound word from monos, "alone (without a companion)" + genos, "descendant, offspring." In classical Greek the word is "used of only sons or daughters (viewed in relation to their parents)."14Several times it is used of "only sons" and "only daughters" in the New Testament (Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38; Hebrews 11:17). This word is used to describe Jesus five times in the New Testament, each time by the Apostle John himself. Note that in each case, the relationship of Son to the Father is present:

"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14)

"No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known." (John 1:18)

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son...." (John 3:16)

"... he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son." (John 3:18)

"He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him." (1 John 4:9)

This designation sets Jesus'relationship to the Father apart from anyone else's. Jesus is in a class by himself. John speaks of us as "children of God" (teknon, 3:1-2; 5:2) and as "born of God" (gennaō, John 1:13; 3:3-7; 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18). But he speaks with a different vocabulary and in an entirely different sense of Jesus'relationship as Son (huios) to the Father. In particular, Jesus is the "only begotten Son" or "one and only Son." In the face of third century heresies that denied the full divinity of Jesus, the Nicene Fathers spelled this out even more precisely to distinguish it from the errors of their time (and ours) in the Nicene Creed:

"We believe ... in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father."15

I love this section of the Nicene Creed and find myself occasionally repeating it devotionally in worship of Jesus.

God's Love Perfected in Us (4:11-13)

We've finished our detour to explore the meaning of "one and only" or "only-begotten." Now let's return to the main road -- explaining what real love consists of and how it should manifest itself in our lives.

"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." (4:11-13)

The implication of (1) the revelation that "God is love" and (2) the example of God's love in sending Jesus, is that we, too, ought to love each other, that is, love our Christian brothers and sisters. Of course, our love will extend beyond the Christian community, but it starts there and must be manifest there first (4:20).

This phrase "love one another" is found in Jesus'initial command in John 13:34, then echoed throughout the New Testament.16I believe in love, you might say, but I can't stand church people. Oops. We must love our Christian family. We must! As John has instructed us, we can't hate our brother and still say we are Christians.

"No one has ever seen God" (4:12), says John, echoing the words of Jesus (John 1:18; 6:46). God the Father has revealed himself in bodily form on occasion, and especially in the person of Jesus Christ (John 14:9). But since God is essentially Spirit, not physical, no human being has seen God's essential nature.17But as we love, God's essential nature lives18in us and is perfected in us.

The phrase "made complete" (NIV), "is perfected" (NRSV, KJV) is teleioō, "to overcome or supplant an imperfect state of things by one that is free from objection, bring to an end, bring to its goal/accomplishment," specifically, "to make perfect."19Here, and in verses 17 and 18, the idea is, that, as we practice loving one another, God's style of love finds an increasingly mature expression in our character.

Our assurance of God's presence is the Holy Spirit:

"We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit." (4:13)

We discussed what this means in Lesson 5 with the parallel passage in 3:24.

Witness to the Son and Savior (4:14-15)

Now John returns to Jesus'unique role as the incarnate Son of God, a role denied by John's opponents.

"14 And we have seen20and 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." (4:14-15)

Both here and in 1:1, John emphasizes that he has personally seen Jesus. He is an eyewitness who can testify authoritatively from his own knowledge and experience.

I want to pause for a moment to meditate on the title that John gives Jesus here: "Savior of the world." "Savior" is sōtēr, "one who rescues, savior, deliverer, preserver."21We speak of Jesus as Savior so often that we no longer think about what the word means. The best modern equivalent I know is "Rescuer."

Jesus is the Rescuer of the world -- and a dangerous and costly rescue it was. The divine Son of God took on our humanness to identify deeply with us. Then he took our sins upon himself and bore them away as the Lamb of God (John 1:29). We love Jesus, for he is our Rescuer. Now he has drawn us to the Father and poured out his Spirit in our hearts so that we might abide with God always. Praise the Lord!

God's Love for Us (4:16-17)

John recounts to his readers their blessings: The Holy Spirit is with them. Jesus is our Savior. These facts cause us to realize the immense love God has for us.

"16 And so we know and rely on22the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives23in 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 like24him." (4:16-17)

Because we've experienced God's rich love -- and are loving one another in such a way that Christ's love is maturing ("being made perfect") in us -- we aren't terrified by the impending judgment that will take place at Christ's coming. This is because we are living our lives following Jesus'pattern. There isn't a big disconnect between our faith and our lives.

Perfect Love Drives Out Fear (4:18)

Impending judgment should instill fear in sinners and those who aren't walking closely with God. But for us, says John, fear has been displaced by love:

"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." (4:18)

"Fear" (Greek phobos) is a common word in the New Testament. It often refers to "reverence, respect, awe" in the presence of God, but not here. In this verse it refers to "the product of an intimidating/alarming force," the passive sense, "a fear, alarm, fright," specifically here, of a "slavish fear."25

Preachers of a previous generation were quite creative in portraying the imagery of the punishment26in the fires of hell -- so creative that they taught fear rather than confidence to the believers themselves. Fear is good for the unbeliever. But a maturing believer should begin to grasp the amazing love and forgiveness of God. Rather than wanting to put off Christ's Coming and the Day of Judgment, mature believers look forward to this "blessed hope" (Titus 2:18; cf. 2 Peter 3:12) and "love his appearing" (2 Timothy 4:18).

Q4. (1 John 4:11-18) What kind of fear should we have towards God? What kind of fear is extinguished by his love perfected in us? What kind of attitude should we have towards future judgment?




He First Loved Us (4:19)

As John explains perfect love, he pauses to offer us a concise gem:

"We love because he first loved us." (4:19)

Our love for God is based on two elements: (1) gratitude for forgiveness and (2) following the example set before us by God, who "so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son...." (John 3:16).

Sometimes I hear people say that the punishment of hell is unloving. While I don't fully understand hell and judgment, I do know this: We who are new and unskilled at love are in no position to lecture God on whether or not he is loving. "We love because he first loved us" (4:19). God is the first lover, and we are his disciples, not his judges.

How to Spot a Liar, a False Prophet (4:20-21)

"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." (4:20-21)

John uses two strong words in verse 20: "hate" and "liar." We examined "hate" in Lesson 2 when we studied a very similar verse:

"Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness." (2:9)

"Liar" is pseustēs, "liar, cheat,"27which occurs five times in this letter. Jesus called Satan "a liar and the father of lies" (John 8:44). Each time John uses the word "liar" in this letter, he challenges the claims of the false teachers one after another:


Claim not to have sinned.


Claim that keeping Jesus'commands is unimportant.


Claim that the human Jesus was not the divine Christ.


Claim to love God while hating a brother.


Claim that belief in Jesus is not necessary.

Discipleship Lessons from John's Letters, e-book or paperback book
The study is available as a free e-mail Bible study, or as an e-book or paperback book at a modest cost.

Who are the true Christians? The answer is found not in what the person says about his faith. The false teachers are liars, asserts John. Jesus had taught his disciples how to spot a false prophet:

"Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them." (Matthew 7:15-16a)

The key fruit to watch for, John teaches his own followers, is love. It's not what a person says, but how he lives it out in love. Loving one's brothers and sisters, says John, is the chief thing, the chief test of God living within a person.

When you step back, this lesson on 1 John 4 is pretty simple:

  1. There is a spiritual enemy in the world, but the Spirit of Christ in you is greater than any enemy.
  2. God is love, and seeks to perfect his love in us human followers. In fact, he insists upon it. We must love, because God loves.


Father, thank you for your love that started it all. Praise you! Remove from us the fear that has gripped us, Lord -- fear of Satan and fear of judgment. And replace it with love, genuine love for you and for our Christian brothers and sisters. Purify us from all the clutter, but give us this one thing: love. In Jesus'name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"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." (1 John 4:4)

"Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love." (1 John 4:7-8)

"This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins." (1 John 4:10)

"We love because he first loved us." (1 John 4:19)


1. Dokimazō, BDAG 255, 1.

2. "Discerning/discernment" (KJV, NRSV), "distinguishing" (NIV) is diakrisis,  "the ability to distinguish and evaluate, distinguishing, differentiation" (BDAG 233, 1). The basic idea of the word is "separation, dissolution," with usages such as, "segregation," "discrimination," "differentiation" (Liddell-Scott).

3. "Acknowledges" (NIV), "confesses" (NRSV, KJV) is homologeō, "confess," specifically here, "to acknowledge something, ordinarily in public, claim, profess, praise," here, a profession of allegiance. (BDAG 708, 4b).

4. "Already" is ēdē, "a point of time prior to another point of time, with implication of completion, now, already, by this time" (BDAG 434, 1a).

5. Nikaō, BDAG 673, 2a.

6. "Greater" is meizōn, the comparative of megas, "great," here, "pertaining to being relatively superior in importance" (BDAG 624, 4a).

7. The actual word "viewpoint" (NIV) isn't in the Greek text. The NRSV and KJV have a more literal translation, "from" or "of the world."

8. "Recognize" (NIV), "know" (NRSV, KJV) in 4:6b is the same common verb that is found in the first part of the verse: ginōskō, "to know," which can have a variety of nuances, depending upon the context.

9. Planē, BDAG 822.

10. Pneuma, BDAG 833, 4c  or 7.

11. Phaneroō, passive, "to become public knowledge, be disclosed, become known" (BDAG 104, 2aβ).

12. "Atoning sacrifice" (NIV, NRSV), "propitiation" (KJV) is hilasmos, which we discussed in some detail in Lesson 1 under 2:2.

13. Monogenēs, BDAG 658, 2.

14. Monogenēs, Thayer.

15. The Nicene Creed we commonly use today is actually from the Council of Constantinople (381 AD), which modified slightly the original creed adopted at the Council of Nicea (325 AD).

16. John 15:12, 17; Romans 13:8; Galatians 5:13; Ephesians 4:2, 32; Colossians 3:13; 1 Thessalonians 4:9; 1 Peter 1:22; 1 John 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11-12; 2 John 5.

17. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints asserts that God the Father indeed does have a physical body: "The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man's" (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22).

18. "Lives" (NIV, NRSV), "dwelleth" (KJV) in verses 12, 13, 15, and 16 is menō, "abide, continue," that we studied in Lesson 3 in 2:24-25.

19. Teleioō, BDAG 2eα and β. The verbs here are in the perfect tense, passive voice. This idea of love being made complete or perfect occurs four times in 1 John (2:5; 4:12, 17, 18), three of these occurrences in the passage we're studying in this lesson.

20. "Seen" (NIV) is theaomai, "to have an intent look at something, to take something in with one's eyes, with implication that one is especially impressed, see, look at, behold." The meaning can also shade into, "to perceive something above and beyond what is merely seen with the eye, see, behold, perceive" (BDAG 445, 1 and 3a).

21. Sōtēr, BDAG 985. The word occurs occasionally in the Gospels (Luke 1:47; 2:11; John 4:42) and Acts (5:31; 13:23). But Paul and other epistle writers use it many times. In 2 Peter it is used five times as part of Jesus'title: "our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (1:1, 11; 2:20; 3:2, 18).

22. "Rely on" (NIV), "believe" (NRSV, KJV) is pisteuō, "believe, have faith in." Both the words "know" and "rely on" are in the perfect tense in Greek, which emphasizes that the effect of a past action still continues to the present, brought out best in the KJV translation, "And we have known and believed...."

23. "Lives" (NIV), "abides" (NRSV), "dwelleth" (KJV) is menō, "continue, abide."

24. "Like" (NIV) isn't really in the text. The NRSV is more literal: "Because as he is, so are we in this world."

25. Phobos, BDAG 106, 2aβ.

26. Kolasis has the basic meaning of "infliction of suffering or pain in chastisement, punishment," here of "transcendent retribution" (BDAG 555, 2).

27. Pseustēs, Liddell-Scott. "One who breaks faith, 'a false or faithless man'" (Thayer), from pseudos, "lie, falsehood," from which we get our prefix "pseudo-."

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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