In First John, the Apostle John wrote to counter the wrong doctrine and wrong practice of the Gnostics. The Gnostics claimed a special experiential knowledge (Gk gnosis) of God, yet sadly their lives were more about experiencing sin, as discussed in the previous article covering chapter 3:1-9.

This article covers the remainder of chapter 3 and the first part of chapter 4.

God is Light (1:5) Born of God (2:29)

(God is Life)

God is Love (4:8)
Righteousness and Sin 1:5-2:2 2:29-3:10 5:16-17
Love and Hate 2:3-17 3:10-24 4:7-5:3
Truth and Error 2:18-28 4:1-6 5:4-13

Cain the exemplar of Hate, Christ the exemplar of Love (3:10-18)

This section continues the subject of being “born of God”. However, the theme changes to that of “Love and Hate” (see the table above) and in this regard John now presents the stark contrast of Cain (who showed hate) and Christ (who shows love).

3:10 is a transitional verse. It closes the thoughts of the preceding verses on the theme of Righteousness and Sin, but it also introduces the next part on the theme of Love and Hate.

v10 – “In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother.”

There are only two classes of begettal—“children of God” or “children of the devil”. (The devil refers to the serpent in Eden – see the previous article). The class of begettal to which the Gnostics belong is discerned by what they “do”. It’s a valuable test for us too. Based on our actions, what class of begettal are we?

The table below shows that the structure of this subsection follows the familiar pattern of this epistle: 3 groups of 3 phrases of Error (left side), contrasted with 3 groups of 3 phrases of Truth (right side). This time it is introduced by the key principle (v11) “that we should love one another”. The examples of Cain and Christ are tested against this principle.

v11 – For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.
Error Truth
v12-13 Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him?

Because his own works were evil,

and his brother’s righteous.
(Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you.)

v14 We know that we have passed from death unto life,

because we love the brethren.

He that loveth not his brother abideth in death.

v15 Whosoever hateth his brother

is a murderer:

and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.

v16 Hereby perceive we the love of God,

because he laid down his life for us:

and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.

v17 But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need,

and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him,

how dwelleth the love of God in him?

v18 My little children,

let us not love in word, neither in tongue;

but in deed and in truth.

The contrasts here are quite graphic. Cain hates his brother. Christ shows the love of God to his brethren. Cain murders his brother, Abel. Christ lays down his life for his brethren. Christ passed from death to life. Cain does not have eternal life abiding in him (ie: he passes from life to death).

Cain was in many ways similar to the Gnostics. John doesn’t draw out all the points of comparison, but instead paints enough of the picture that we can fill in the rest ourselves. John refers to Cain slaying Abel, by saying he slew his “brother”. John is going to draw out lessons in the attitude of the Gnostics toward their brethren in the ecclesia.

In Genesis 4:3-4 there is the record of Cain and Abel bringing offerings to Yahweh. Of Abel it says, “he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof”. He brings a lamb from his flock and makes an offering (a blood offering). This is in line with what Yahweh did in the slaying of the lamb for the covering of Adam and Eve’s sin (Gen 3:21). He brought of the firstlings (firstborn) as these belong to Yahweh (Num 18:15-17). Furthermore Hebrews 11:4 says he did this by faith.

What does Cain do? He ignores the pattern of offering established by Yahweh. Instead, he brings of “the fruit of the ground”—a bloodless offering. By which he is saying, “I want to worship God my way”. This is just like the Gnostics. The Gnostics minimised the importance of baptism and instead taught that the mystical anointing of the Gnostics gives a superior enlightenment (gnosis) and superior fellowship with the Father (see the first article).

The attitude of Cain and the Gnostics, to refuse to worship God in the way God has directed, has been the attitude of the flesh ever since. The churches persist in teaching false doctrines like infant baptism, fallen angels, souls going to heaven etc. How careful we must be as Christadelphians to worship God “in spirit and in truth” as Christ tells the Samaritan woman in John 4.

What is loving our brother?

This is now the second instance of the theme of Love and Hate. The first was in 2:3-17, where John showed that claiming to walk in light is incompatible with hating our brother:

  • 2:9 – “he that saith he is in light and hateth his brother is in darkness”
  • 2:11 – “he that hateth his brother is in darkness and walketh in darkness”

Now John ratchets up the pressure on the seriousness of not loving our brother. A place in the kingdom is at stake:

  • 3:14 – “loveth not his brother abideth in death”
  • 3:15 – “whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer…no murderer hath eternal life…”

This has challenging implications for all of us. To hate our brother is to be a murderer, and the result is we do not have eternal life. When we encounter brethren that we do not get on with, or brethren that we may have strong disagreements with, let’s be very careful that the flesh doesn’t take over our thinking so that we hate that brother. It may cost us the kingdom!

Well, what about if we don’t hate that brother that we don’t get on with, but instead we just avoid him? Isn’t that good enough? John says that’s not really good enough. Unless we love our brother, we abide in death (3:14 above). So loving our brother is the only option, if we want to find a place in the kingdom.

Listening to our conscience (3:19-22)

So how can we assess whether we really hate a brother? What if we really do hate our brother and yet try to think that we don’t? How do we really know if we do or don’t hate our brother? John now answers this, and in essence says, “Listen to your conscience”.

v19 – “And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts (conscience) before him.”

John used the expression “hereby we know” before (2:3) to introduce a test that we can apply to ourselves to discern whether we really know God or not. He wrote, “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments”. If we keep God’s commandments we really “know” him, and if we don’t, we don’t really “know” him.

John is now introducing a twofold test that we can apply to ourselves to discern:

  1. Whether “we are (present tense) of the truth” and in fact really loving our brother now, or not.
  2. Whether “we shall (future tense) have our heart assure us” before God (at the judgment seat) that we have been loving our brethren.

The test is simple—if our conscience condemns us, we have a problem. If our conscience doesn’t condemn us, we are fine.

v20 – “For if our heart (conscience) condemn us, God is greater than our heart (conscience), and knoweth all things.”

John is saying, if our conscience tells us we have a problem with loving our brethren, then it is definitely a problem, because God “is greater than our heart”. There is no hiding of our problem before God, and furthermore because he knows more about us than we know about ourselves, God knows that the problem is bigger than we might admit.

v21 – “Beloved, if our heart (conscience) condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God.”

If our conscience is clear, that we really do love the brethren, then we can feel confident about this at the judgment seat too.

In this 3rd chapter, John prods us to look deeply into our hearts and search out our real attitudes. He presents the Truth in such black and white terms that it challenges us to be very honest with ourselves as to whether we are really following Christ, or not. Though it may be painful to delve deeply into our hearts and critically examine our attitudes to our brethren, it provides us with opportunity to fix our faults, before we stand before the judge of all the earth and there is no longer opportunity.

Try the spirits (4:1-6)

The beginning of chapter 4 is a continuation of the subject of being “born of God” (the expression “of God” occurs seven times in six verses). However, the theme now changes to present the contrasts between “Truth and Error” (see table at the beginning of this article).

In chapter 3, John has shown that the Gnostics were like Cain. They wanted to worship God in their own way (doctrinal error) but at the same time indulged in sin and hated their brethren (moral error). So often, doctrinal error leads to moral waywardness. For example, the church doctrine that we are saved by faith and faith alone, so easily results in people thinking that it doesn’t matter if they sin a bit, because they are saved by faith and not by obedience to Christ’s commands.

John has dealt with Truth and Error back in chapter 2:18-28. There he labelled the Gnostics “antichrist”. Now he provides the faithful remnant with ways to assess whether doctrinal ideas presented by the Gnostics, or others, are true or false. The structure of this subsection is shown in the table below and follows the now familiar pattern of three sets of contrasts of Truth and Error. In this instance, there is also an introductory statement before the contrasts, and a concluding statement afterwards.

That this subsection is a continuation of the subject of being born of God, can be seen in the repeated phrase “of God” in the table below. The word for “of” is the Greek word ek. Strong’s says this is “a primary preposition denoting origin”. John makes the simple but profound point—if something is of God (its origins are from God) then it is right. If it is not of God, then it is false. Perhaps, putting it another way, if a doctrinal idea is in accord with God’s righteousness, then it is right. If a doctrinal idea conflicts with a correct understanding of God’s righteousness, then it has to be wrong, no matter how good it appears in other respects. What a simple but effective test.

v1-2a – Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God:
Truth Error
v2b Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh

is of God:

v3 And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh

is not of God: (and this is that spirit of antichrist, … and even now already is it in the world.)

v4 Ye are of God, little children,

and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.

v5 They are of the world:

therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them.

v6a We (the apostles) are of God:

he that knoweth God heareth us;

v6b he that is not of God

heareth not us.

v6c – Hereby know we the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

In verse 1 John writes, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God”. What does he mean by “spirits”? The Greek word for spirit is pneuma and is used in a variety of ways in the New Testament. It is used of the Holy Spirit, of “spirit” in the sense of attitude or teaching or doctrine, of “the spirit” in the sense of the Word of God, or “spirits” that have no physical body. So, what is the meaning here? The answer is in verse 6: “Hereby know we the spirit of truth and the spirit of error”. John is talking about “spirit” as in teaching, or doctrine. Paul uses spirit in the same way when warning Timothy of the seducing spirits of apostacy: “in the latter days some shall depart from the faith giving heed to seducing spirits” (1 Tim 4:1).

John is providing the faithful remnant with a test that can be applied to the spirits (or teachings) of those they were encountering. Do those spirits “confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh”? As discussed in the first article, the Gnostic teaching was that Jesus did not come in the flesh. Hence, based on this simple test, the brethren could easily determine that the Gnostic teaching is the spirit of error.

Holding to the Truth and not tolerating wrong doctrine is vital in every age. John was writing around AD90 and by then there are “many false prophets” (v1). Peter, writing in about AD67, warned of false teachers too: “But there were many false prophets among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord…” (2 Pet 2:1). In the 1900 odd years since, false doctrine has largely overwhelmed correct doctrine within the ranks of Christendom. Like John, we need to be ready to stand up for truth over error too. That’s really tough to do. It often ends up in sharp contention, and genuine brethren much prefer peace and harmony rather than conflict. However, if faithful brethren such as Brother Roberts had not stood firm on doctrine, by now there might be very little of the Truth left in Christadelphia.

Nevertheless, there is great encouragement to contend for the Truth—“greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world” (v4). What a very comforting reminder that God is greater than the foes we encounter in dealing with wrong doctrine. He will give victory to the Truth if we trust in Him.