1 John 4 – From being astray to loving your neighbour

Erkki Koskenniemi
Reija Becks

We have proceeded to the fourth chapter of John’s first epistle. This chapter is part of a wider section (chapters 4-5), in which the topic is right doctrine leading to right life. In the fourth chapter, first there is a warning against false doctrines and then discussion on loving your neighbour.

4:1-3: Do not believe every preacher!

At the time the epistle was written, there were many tough false doctrines at work. That is why there was good reason to warn God’s people that every preacher is not necessarily on God’s business. The listeners are given a yardstick with which to discern between the right spirit and the wrong one. Anyone who does not confess that Jesus is Christ and has come in the flesh is a false spirit, and who does confess it, is from God.

Usually it is quite difficult to define the false teachers whom the authors of the New Testament criticize, because all we can know about them are the warnings that we read. In this instance, the false doctrine, which was influencing the early church and which was disapproved of, is known rather well. There were those who taught that Jesus was a spirit being, not a real human being. They claimed that as he was not a real human being, he did not suffer either, or by any means die. And as he did not die, neither did he pay a price for our sins nor carry out the Atonement. They taught that Jesus was like a flash of light who showed all people the right way to light. This doctrine was a weed, and the early church had a lot of work in taking it out.

When applying these verses to our own time, we first notice that it is not inappropriate or nasty to keep observing the preachers. On the contrary, the word of God expressly encourages us to do it. A false doctrine is a dangerous thing and offends God’s holiness. We must not consent to listening to it.

Secondly, we discover that the world has not changed at all: the same false doctrine is even now at work among us. In our day, it is Anthroposophy by Rudolf Steiner (or, closely related to it, theosophy or christosophia). Those same doctrines form the basis of these heresies. This that makes the Steiner schools problematic from the Christian point of view.

Heresies are overcome by rejecting them 4:4-6

The recipients of the epistle had not welcomed false doctrines but had rejected them. They had thus overcome the temptation of the false doctrine. It was not their own wisdom that had kept them safe but God’s love. God had protected his own. And even though the instruction pushed by the teachers of heresy suited very well with people’s thinking – of course instruction inspired by the will of the world suits the world – there was still a group of God’s children who had been safe from stumbling. The apostolic word is God’s word: those to whom God opens it, hear the apostles. Those who deny God, deny also the apostolic word. The limit is as clear-cut and simple as that.

Again, we learn many things about heresies. People may well find a heresy, unlike the word of God, to their liking. A false preacher may be greatly honoured among us, because right doctrine is often very offensive to our sinful nature. It would be easier to give in and abandon the biblical doctrine – but then God himself would be thrown aside! What is at stake is very concrete: whoever rejects the apostolic word rejects God also and is in the power of a deceiving spirit.

Love one another! 4:7-12

The apostle once again returns to the topic of right Christian life which results from right doctrine and faith. The verses 7-12, in particular, are like hymn, very beautiful talk about the love of God and about the love of a Christian person. The word ‘love’ comes up again and again. Here we have, in a sense, a counterpart for the famous “Hymn of Love” written by the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 13).

We should note the right order in this section: there is very emphatic talk about the love of Christ and after that, conclusions are made from it. When talking about love, there is, in fact, good reason to first point to the real, solid, and fervent love. It is for everyone to see in the cross of Christ on Mount Golgotha. God gave his only Son into the world. His blood produced the Atonement for our sins. Our relationship with God is put right, because God put it right. The true love is not in our hearts but in the heart of God the Father. Our hearts warm up but grow cold again. God’s grace is unchangeable. Whoever understands this has found a solid foundation that will stand in all storms. It is for the Christian to draw conclusions from God’s love. Because God loved us, it is for us to love our neighbor. Like this, God’s goodness is given room in our lives. A river of blessings will flow through Christians into this cold and evil world. Instead of hatred there will be forgiveness, instead of intimidation and revenge there will be blessing. Like this, God’s Kingdom will take form even in this world, albeit only in part, but even so, the first fruits brought about by God’s love are gathered even in this present time, and we give thanks to our good Father God for them.

As if in passing, John says the words that have puzzled many Bible readers. Why does John state that no one has ever seen God? What about Abraham? Or Moses? Or Isaiah? Or Ezekiel? There is a long history of Jewish faith in the background. The Gentile peoples made images of gods and worshipped them. For God’s people in the Old Testament it was an absolute fact that no human being may or is allowed to make an image of God. He is not in human form in the way the craftsman of gods thinks. The Lord is quite something else. For this reason, the later Jewish teaching on the issue is very cautious and did not want to give any chance of misunderstanding the Old Testament in any way. That is why it was explained that the saints in the Old Testament did not actually see God but only God’s glory. We can understand this by glancing at the sun; we do not actually see the sun itself but its dazzling brightness.

4:13-21 Love and assurance of salvation

How can we stay in the faith until the end? John’s answer is that this matter is the job of God’s Holy Spirit. Those who endure until the end are the ones who believe in the Son of God. God will keep them until the day of judgment. We ought to live loving our neighbour, because it is like this that God will work through us. Confident assurance in God casts out fear and gives us peace. Whoever is afraid of eternal destruction and God’s wrath has not yet been perfected in love and has not yet fully learnt to know the depth of God’s love. On the other hand, those who reject loving their neighbour inevitably reject God at the same time.

Again, we learn many things from this short section. ‘Love’ in John’s epistles does not mean a feeling but action. No one can say that they love their neighbour and yet, at the same time, leave the neighbour starving. Neither can they say that they love God and yet keep consciously living contrary to God’s word. The faith, right doctrine, and love all belong together. There cannot be one without the others, nor the others without one. If we set doctrine and life against each other, which is often done, we are on a totally wrong path. These two belong together inevitably and inseparably.

Furthermore, we can see what assurance of salvation is. It is to know the love of Christ, and it is secure confidence in God’s grace. This assurance is not found in us ourselves, nor in our faith. It is in Christ and his love. When a sinner has confidence in the Lord of the cross, the flames of hell are extinguished, and the peace of God will give us already a foretaste of the joy of heaven. We are not able to believe or understand it right, and the reason for this is that we are slow of heart to believe the word of the Bible. It seems incredible that I could, just as I am, be a child of God. But it is true, because this is just what the Bible teaches us!