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Bible Commentaries

Caton's Commentary on the Minor Epistles

1 John 4


Believe not false teachers that urge the acceptance of their false doctrines upon you, for such are in the world. First try them. Here is a certain test. If they do not confess that Jesus Christ came to earth in the flesh, they are antichrist, and are of the world and speak for the world. We apostles are of God, and speak for God. This is the plain and certain test between the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. Love is of God, and we shall know that we are begotten of God if we have love one for another. God declared his love for us in sending his Son into the world, that we might live through him; and if God so loved us, we ought to love one another. While it is true that no man has seen God, yet it is equally true that if we love one another, God dwells with us, and by this we know that we dwell in him, because we have this spirit of love, which is his. One that confesses that Jesus is God's son, dwells with God, and God with him, and while we do all his commandments, including his command-ment to love one another, our love is made complete, and we will have assurance of acceptance at the day of judgment. With such an one no fear of rejection will be present; love being complete, such fear is banished. We love God because he first loved us, and no one can say that he loves God while at the same time he hates his brother, for in so saying he is a liar. The reasoning is plain; we see our brother, and yet hate him. How can we love God whom we have not seen ? Loving the unseen, we must love the seen, for the unseen whom we love has commanded it.

Verse 1

Verse 1. Beloved, believe not every spirit.

Here a solemn injunction is laid upon the brethren to whom this epistle is addressed. We must first understand just what is exacted of us before we can comply with the injunction. What is it to believe but to have faith in? We are not to believe what? Every spirit is the answer. But spirits exhibit their presence by acts. Cain exhibited the spirit of a murderer. Hence it is that we must watch the exhibitions of those we come in contact with, and, until known to be good, we must not have faith in them. The apostle says, try the spirits, and the reason is given, making all things plain. False prophets have gone out in the world. These may make loud pretensions of piety. In them we must not place our faith until tried.

Verse 2

Verse 2. Hereby know ye the spirit of God.

There is, then, a spirit which is of God, and a spirit not of God. The former only are we to place faith in, and the latter reject. That we may know assuredly the spirit which is of God, this shall be the criterion, the crucial test the spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is of God. None other is, and none other is to be believed.

Verse 3

Verse 3. And every spirit that confesseth not.

The crucial test being given, and the spirit tried by this test refusing to confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, you may know, beyond question, is not of God, but is of antichrist. It was not only foretold that antichrist would come, but be it known, such are already in the world. As it was in he days of John, so it is now in our age. Some of these false teachers claim to be inspired. They did then, and they do now.

Verse 4

Verse 4. Ye are of God, little children.

These, here called little children, were the servants of God, had received God's spirit, were enabled to detect and refute these false teachers, because they believed in and relied upon God. The spirit that was in them was greater and mightier, being from God, than the spirit in the false prophets, which was from the wicked one.

Verse 5

Verse 5. They are of the world.

These false teachers are of the world. They belong to the world, and, speaking only from the principles of the world, all of their own kind, the wicked in the world, listen to and receive their utterances with pleasure.

Verse 6

Verse 6. We are of God.

Here, I think, the writer, by the word "we," means the apostles. They were clothed with miraculous or God-given powers, by which they could demonstrate that their message was from God. Now, a teacher who knows God, will hear us apostles and acknowledge our authority. A teacher that will not hear us as God's messengers is not of God.

Hereby know we the spirit of truth.

By this mark we can know whether the teachers that come among us are inspired by the spirit of God, or the spirit of the devil.

Verse 7

Verse 7. Beloved, let us love one another.

We must not in any manner imitate the false teachers, for they would lead us astray, but be governed by the example and spirit of our Master. We show, as he did, by doing the will of God, our love of God. His command, repeated over and over again, is that we love one another, and we are assured that it is a certain evidence that we are begotten of God and that we know him, when we exhibit love, for love comes from God. Its source is in the Infinite One.

Verse 8

Verse 8. He that loveth not, knoweth not God.

We may pretend what we please, and yet if we do not love our brother, we do not know God aright, for

God is love.

God is essentially love. Here there is no mixture of malevolence whatever. As he is infinite in his other attri-butes, so in this God is infinite in love.

Verse 9

Verse 9. In this was manifested the love of God.

The highest and grandest possible demonstration God could give to the world of his love is the sending of his Son his only begotten Son that through him the world might be saved might have life. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" ( Joh_3:16 ).

Verse 10

Verse 10. Herein is love.

The highest and grandest exhibition of love ever known, or that can be known in the universe, God manifested to man. While man loved not while man was an enemy to God God sent his Son into the world to die for man, that thereby a way might be opened up by which man the enemy of God might attain eternal life. Poets' loftiest strains afford but feeble conceptions of the divine love. The voice of description is hushed into eternal silence. Mortals can only hear, learn and adore.

Verse 11

Verse 11. Beloved, if God so loved us.

Now, if God so loved us while we were sinners, we at least ought to show our gratitude for his matchless mercy by imitating his example in loving one another.

Verse 12

Verse 12. No man bath seen God at any time.

By our mortal eyes we can not see God. He has not been so seen by any one at any time. He is invisible. We, however, may have a sense of his presence in us, and this we know when we are assured that we love the brethren, for this is of God. His nature abides in us. We partake of his nature as we follow his will, and become more and more like him as we carry out the virtues enjoined upon us to perfection.

Verse 13

Verse 13. Hereby know we that we dwell in him.

The term "we," it would appear, more particularly applies to the apostles than to believers generally. I so conclude from the statement "he hath given to us of his Spirit." It is true, all believers have the Spirit, but when the next verse is consulted you discover the same "we" had special need for the gift of the Spirit in a different degree. Yet it is true that we know that God dwells in us, by the Spirit which is given to us, one of the fruits of this Spirit being that of love. "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long - suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, tem-perance: against such there is no law" ( Gal_5:22-23 ).

Verse 14

Verse 14. And we have seen and do testify.

This is certainly personal. By the "we" John means himself and fellow apostles. They saw the Son when he was here on earth saw his miracles; heard his teaching; saw him die. Saw him, and heard him, and handled him after his resurrection. Received from him power from on high, enabling them to testify with infallible accuracy, and "we do testify to all these things" ; and they were further authorized to say, that there is "none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved."

Verse 15

Verse 15. Whosoever shall confess,

This is largely a repetition of verse 2 ; the only difference being that in verse 2, one coming and confessing that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh would be proof that the one so confessing did not possess the spirit of a false prophet ; whereas, in the verse before us, the confession that Jesus is the Son of God is evidence to us that the one so confessing has God dwelling in him and he in God. God dwelling in us and our abiding in him is, I take it, practically the same thing.

Verse 16

Verse 16.--And we have known and believed.

Whether we love God or not is a matter of knowledge. That God loved us we believed when we heard the message of love his inspired apostles brought to us. And keeping the divine model before, and observing all God's requirements, increase our confidence to such an extent that it is exalted in us to the height of personal knowledge. God being love, and loving God, that love binds us to God. So of a truth we dwell in God and he in us.

Verse 17

Verse 17. Herein is our love made perfect.

By the operation of God's love in our hearts we are enabled to love our brethren and our neighbor, exhibiting the fruits of our love all around us, and so perfecting our love that when the great day of judgment shall come, we shall stand before him in all confidence.


Want of fear; having observed his will by obeying his command to love, we shall have no fears in his presence, because as he is, so we are ; for so we conducted ourselves while in the world.

Verse 18

Verse 18. There is no fear in love.

The word fear is here used in the sense of terror. Now, this kind of fear is banished when love appears. There may be, and there is, and there ought to be the fear of reverence.

Perfect love casteth out fear.

Where one truly loves God and his fellow-man all fear is expelled. Where that sort of love exists, no fear of the judgment is present. Fear only exists where there is peril or danger of punishment. This is the torment mentioned herein. Now, where this fear exists, it is proof conclusive that love is not perfect; that is, that he does not truly love God and his fellow-man.

Verse 19

Verse 19. We love him, because he first loved us.

Love begets love. God's wonderful love, exhibited through Christ, fills every redeemed soul with love, and we show our love and gratitude to God by loving our brethren.

Verse 20

Verse 20. If a man say, I love God.

How can any one say he loves the unseen One, and yet hates his brother, whom he sees and knows. Such a claim is mere pretense. The one so claiming, the apostle says, is a liar. Here, then, we need not be deceived. Should one claiming to be a teacher, claim that he loved God and hated his brother, that teacher is a deceiver, an antichrist ; should he be a private person, he is simply a hypocrite. The brother we see, and know by our natural senses all his excellencies of character ; he is God's image; him we hate. Now, how can it be said, while we hate him, we love the unseen God, whom we know only by the manifestations of himself that he has seen fit to give ?

Verse 21

Verse 21. And this commandment have we from him.

Besides, we all have God's will, expressed in a command given by him, that every one who loves God must love his brother also. This is the end of the matter. No command can be obeyed in part. A rejection of a part is the rejection of the whole, and is at the same time a rejection of the authority of the law-giver, and subjects the offender to his displeasure.

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Bibliographical Information
Caton, Nathan Thomas. "Commentary on 1 John 4". Caton's Commentary on the Minor Epistles. 1916.