Dear readers: yes, it’s a blog post from Doug. You may have forgotten you subscribed, but I hope you’ll stick around.
It’s amazing, really, how much John packs into this chapter as we look at 1 John 4. He opens with the need to test the “spirits,” moves through the spirit of the antichrist, and then passes through to the importance of love for the family of God. It’s a well-packed chapter. 1 John has five of those, honestly, which make it one of the better “read this first!” sections of the New Testament. In fact, that’s usually my guidance to a new believer: start with 1 John. The Gospels give us the events of the life of Christ, the miracles and teachings that are key to understanding who Jesus is. 1 John, though, distills much of the Gospel and has deep truth for the long-time disciple of Jesus while still presenting great first step points for the new disciples.
The chapter breaks down into three major sections, each one opening with John’s preferred address for the church: “Beloved.” The first section challenges the church to test the spirits, because there are false prophets in the world. He then gives a basic test, and it’s a doctrinal one: is this spirit in agreement with the truth that Jesus has come in the flesh? (1 John 1:1) If not, then it is a false spirit. The real test of spirituality is right doctrine: you do not get closer to God through wrong-headedness about the person of Jesus.
The second “Beloved” section addresses God’s love for people, and features one of the top five most misquoted, context-removed segments of Scripture: “God is love.” That definition only works when you let God’s Word define love. It doesn’t work with a cultural love, a Hollywood love, or a personal quest kind of love. This love includes Jesus coming as the propitiation for sins: the sacrifice necessary to appease the wrath of God. Love, then, is seen in sacrifice. Connected with the first section, where we saw the importance of acknowledging Jesus came in the flesh, here we see that right doctrine also includes knowing Jesus came to die for our sins, and that the further test of spirituality is right love: your right doctrine is required and must be acted out in surrender to Jesus and His love shown on the cross.
The third “Beloved” section delves deeper into the love for one another that comes as a result of God’s love for us: we love one another because the love of God is in us. Right doctrine and right love for God results in a full love for God’s people. If you love God but cannot find a love that is sacrificial for His people, you are missing something.
In focus, though, let us look at 1 John 4:15: whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God abides in him, and he in God. If you have confessed Jesus is the Son of God, surrendered to Him as Lord and Saviour, then you are not simply “on your way” to God’s presence or hopefully traveling—you are there. You abide in God and God abides in you. Now, we will not attempt to resolve this issue right here and right now. I would say it falls under the wondrous mystery of how God works. But God is with you, right there, in whatever situation you are in, fellow believers. You are not abandoned, even if all the church has failed you, even if your closest loves have failed you. God abides in you, and you abide in Him. It’s a state of reality.
What do we do about it, then?
1. Learn to trust this as reality. Just like kids learning to walk, following Jesus is a learning to walk type of exercise. You need to remind yourself, daily, that you are in God and that God has not abandoned you. The best way to do that is to read your Bible, pray, and make a few notes about how God is at work in your life.
2. Because you are secure in God, take a chance or two in life. Love those who seem unlovable. Share what God has done in you and what He has taught you—love one another sacrificing your self-image and your pride; love one another by surrendering what you hold tightly inside so that others can see Jesus in you.
3. And since you are secure in the God who abides in you, stop chasing after every nut who claims to be spiritual. Test the spirits and see if God has really spoken through them—if they change the focus off the truth of the Incarnation of Jesus, that Jesus came, really, in the flesh, died for sinners, and rose again, move on. They’re either false or a useless distraction.
1. The “Beloved”s are all in the vocative case in Greek. If you want to be really particular, they are substantive adjectives in the vocative case, plural in number, masculine in gender. The vocative is used primarily as direct address, like calling someone’s name. You could translate the single word Ἀγαπητοί as “Beloved ones that I am speaking to” or some other extended phrase, but this fits. Which is part of the nerd note here: what’s a “literal” translation? :) Further, what’s a “thought-process” translation? Greek is a gendered language, each word is masculine, neuter, or feminine, and that cannot be changed for modern understandings, so we have this reality: a group of anything but all women will be referred to with a masculine term. This masculine word is inclusive…unless, of course, one assumes that the early church was deliberately gender-segregated and the letters were only to the men in the church. Which, in turn, reads a culture onto the text that may or not be there.
How, then, do you translate it? Here, NASB, ESV, and KJV get it simplest: “Beloved” brings across the sense of the word. CSB and NLT’s “Dear friends” works for this word, but I think it loses a bit of the love repetition that John uses through the book (he uses words rooted in αγαπαω more than 25 times in 1 John).
2. Antichrist. We have to deal with this sometime: this word only appears in Christian writings, it may have been a word created by John—it only shows up in 1 and 2 John. (That’s right, the Greek word for “antichrist” is not in Revelation.) When you are trying to understand a word in Biblical studies (or any language, really), your first key to meaning is the pre-existing semantic range of the term: What did it mean when the author used it? You see the problem here, I am sure: there is no semantic range prior to the New Testament usage. Same with checking usage outside of the author in question: John is the only one who uses the term. That leaves two other good factors: context of the word and, if it’s a compound word (made up of known parts), looking at the individual parts to see what you have (this can lead us in questionable direction: take the English word “butterfly” as an example; the ‘butter’ part needs some research, though the thing does ‘fly,’ it’s not exactly a ‘fly’). The context gives us the idea that we are looking at a personal agent, and then the term parts are “anti” and “Christ.” Now, we have to remember that we need the Greek meaning of “anti” and not the English, so….generally, it means “opposite” or “in place of.” If you take the word “antichrist” apart and get its components, it means “something or someone opposed to or in place of Christ [the Anointed One].” I think the term “Christ” is definitely a personal title for Jesus in almost of all of its usage in the New Testament, so that’s what an “antichrist” is against, opposite, or in place of: the person of Jesus.