Fairview Baptist Church
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Bailey Sadler Class



Study Theme:  The Dark Side

What This Lesson Is About:

Week of:

Lesson Title:

This week’s study-focus is centered on the help we can receive from Christ to help us to discern between what is true and false spiritually and to recognize that He is greater than any evil we will face.


Sept. 03



Sept. 10



Sept. 17

The Paranormal


Sept. 24

Fear Not!


Oct. 01

Battle Armor


Oct. 08

Battle Plan



We don’t need to fear evil forces when we’re in Christ.


1 John 4:1-6




Test The Spirits & Believe Only Those that Hold to the Truth of Jesus (1John 4:1-3)

Christ in Us Is Greater Than & Victorious Over Satan (1 John 4:4-6)


The apostle Paul wrote this letter to the church at Ephesus, a major city in Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey. He wrote the letter probably around AD 60 to announce very clearly the victory of Jesus over all things, whether in heaven or on earth. The victory obtained through Jesus could be experienced by the church, but Paul wanted the church to be sober-minded about what this means. Victory through Jesus’ sacrificial, atoning death on the cross and glorious resurrection also means that the death throes of the old and sinful order of things is a real and ever-present reality. So, Paul instructed the church on how to fight against the powers of darkness through Christ, the Spirit, and prayer.

Jesus came from heaven and invaded earth, revealing that the old order of sin and death would come to an end. The victory He achieved through His life and sacrificial death indicates that heaven will touch earth and all will be renewed under Jesus’ authority. Or, as Paul said, God was pleased to make known the mystery of His will in Jesus “to bring everything together in Christ, both things in heaven and things on earth in him” (Eph. 1:10). But until all things are under Christ fully (as the Book of Revelation indicates), the church has the need to pray for spiritual power and strength, to trust Jesus and live for Him, and to stand against the powers of darkness. Paul reminded the church that she should: “Pay careful attention, then, to how you live—not as unwise people but as wise—making the most of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16). To stand effectively in evil days, the church needs spiritual strength, prayer, and the full armor of God. This is true because the battle between the light of God and the darkness of satanic forces will persist until Jesus comes back for His bride, the church.

SOURCE: Advanced Bible Study; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; One LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.


Orlando, Florida is one of the most visited places on the planet. In the past few years, more than sixty million people have made their pilgrimage to the city. What a number! And what brings them to this central Florida location? They come to see the mouse. More specifically, Orlando is the home of Walt Disney World, and Walt Disney World is the home of Mickey Mouse. For millions of people, Walt Disney World ranks as one of the most incredible places to visit.

It is enormously popular despite (or perhaps, because) it is built on the art of illusion and fantasy. We can usually distinguish between fantasy from reality. When we visit Walt Disney World, we know that the princesses are not actually princesses; they are actresses. And the castles and villages are not actually castles and villages. They are facades. After a workday at the park, we know the actors go to their real homes and the fake villages and castles shut down, because they are fantasy and not really places where people live and sleep. Now, adults know how to tell the difference between reality and fantasy, but just try to convince a little boy or girl visiting for the first time! Part of the fun is to see the wonder in the children’s eyes. Only as they grow older do children mature and learn the skill of discernment.

Discernment helps us distinguish fantasy from reality, but it also helps us distinguish good from bad, right from wrong, and wisdom from foolishness. The focus of this lesson is developing spiritual discernment. Discernment helps us overcome fear when we face choices between right and wrong. The Book of 1 John describes the process of discernment as “testing the spirits.”

SOURCE: Advanced Bible Study; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; One LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.


Test The Spirits & Believe Only Those that Hold to the Truth of Jesus  (1John 4:1-3)

1 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming; even now it is already in the world.








  1.   What causes you the most fear?

  2.   Do you think most people are fearful of something?  Why, or why not?

  3.   What does the heading for above passage tell you?

  4.   What is the setting for this week’s study?

  5.   Why does John identify his readers as friends (v. 1)? (see Adv. comm., pg. 3, “John opened this section  .  .  .  )

  6.   What does John warn believers about in the above passage (v. 1)?  Why the warning?

  7.   What does John mean when he called on believers to “test the spirits” (v.1)? (see Adv. comm., pg. 3, “What did he say? )

  8.   According to verse 2, how is a believer to know the Spirit of God? What is the litmus test?

  9.   What does the word “discernment” mean to you? (see Digging Deeper for in-depth definition, pg. 9)

10.   What are two things believers should remember when practicing the art of discernment? (see Adv. comm., pg. 4, “First, we are not  .  .  .   and “Second, God has  .  .  .  )

11.   What does it mean to “test” in this context? (see Adv. comm., pg. 4, “Whatever the will or  .  .  .  “ ;  also see Acts 17:11.)

12.   When it comes to “discernment,” where did John start for the development of sound discernment? (see Adv. comm., pg. 4, “In setting forth that test,  .  .  .   plus the next two paragraphs and “There are, without doubt,  .  .  .  )

13.   What are some distortions of the nature of Jesus we still hear today?

14.   How did John say we should discern truth from error? (see Adv. comm., pg. 4, “Verses 2-3 reveal  .  .  .  )

15.   What practical steps can you take to discern between false teaching and God’s truth?

16.   When it comes to “discernment,” how important is Bible study for you to develop sound discernment?

17.   Do you devote time each day for Bible study?  If so, how much?  If not, why not?

18.   What or who is the ”antichrist”? (see in-depth definition in Digging Deeper, pg. 7; also see Adv. comm., pg. 5, “What did John meant? )

19.   What these verses in 1 John 2:18-23 tell us regarding the “antichrist” ?

20.   What did John mean when he said some people are of “the spirit of the antichrist” ? (see Adv. comm., pg. 4, “What did John mean?” )


Lasting Lessons in 1 John 4:1-3:

1. To live a life faithful to Jesus we must be able to discern between wolves in sheep clothing and true sheep in the flock of God.

2. John gives us markers of faithful Christians so we can distinguish real from false believers.

3. The full humanity and full divinity of Jesus is essential to understanding the atoning work of Jesus on the cross.

4. The identity of Jesus cannot be reduced to a “good moral teacher.”

5. Those who position themselves against Jesus (antichrists) are already present in the world and in the church, and we must be vigilant to stand against their teaching.



Christ in Us Is Greater Than & Victorious Over Satan (1 John 4:4-6)

4 You are from God, little children, and you have conquered them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5 They are from the world. Therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Anyone who knows God listens to us; anyone who is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of deception.

  1.   What two great truths are we given in John 10:28-29 and Romans 8:38-39?

  2.   Do you think it is important to take these two truths to heart?  If so, why?

  3.   Do you think it is important to remember that “Christ in us is greater than and victorious over Satan?  If so, why?

  4.   How have believers conquered those who have the spirit of antichrist?

  5.   Why did John refer to the believers as “little children” in verse 4?  (see Adv. comm., pg. 5, Notice that John described  .  .  .  )

  6.   What was the real message John gave to the believers? (see Adv. comm., pg. 5, “And his message . . . “ and “Believers in Jesus . . . “ )

  7.   What do you think it means to overcome the world ? (see Adv. comm., pg. 5, “What does it meant to  .  .  .  )

  8.   How are those who are covered by the blood of the Lamb able to overcome Satan’s twisted lies? 

  9.   What important point did John make in verse 6? 

10.   What are some dangers we may face if we do not rightly discern the word we hear preached or read coming from so-called godly people?

11.   What distinguishes those who are from the world from those who are not from the world? (see Adv. comm., pg. 5, Those who are not covered  .  .  .  )

12.   Why does what we (believers) say matters? (see Adv. comm., pg. 5, “What we say matters.” )

13.   How do we overcome the evils of the world? (see Adv. comm., pg. 5, “We learn the art.  .  .  )

14.   How do we discern the truth of God from the lies of the enemy and the world? (see Adv. comm., pg. 5, “We learn to  .  .  .  )

15.   When it comes to rightly discerning the Word, what role does the Holy Spirit play? (see Adv. comm., pg. 5, “The Spirit of  .  .  .  )

16.   If discernment is really important to you, where does it rate in your priority of things?

17.   What are some things believers can do to send out the “truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”?

18.   How would you describe the two opposing spirits in the world today?


Lasting Lessons in 1 John 4:4-6:

1. Because we are from God we are beloved and victorious in Jesus.

2. Jesus is greater than the enemy and false, worldly teaching.

3. How people respond to the message of Jesus reveals whether they’re believing lies.



Doctrinal integrity is often taken too lightly even among regular church goers who profess Christ.  While we may “agree to disagree” over some points of Christian doctrine (how often we observe the Lord’s Supper, for example), some truths are nonnegotiable.  Certainly, one of those nonnegotiables is our understanding of who Jesus is.  He is God’s incarnate Son—fully God, fully man, only Savior.  Every message and every messenger must be measured against that declaration. Any teaching that denies this truth cannot be of God.  Moreover, only in Him can we know ultimate victory over all the forces of evil that would seek to destroy us.  Would you characterize yourself as someone who has spiritual discernment? If so, how would you deal with the following questions? “What are some contemporary messages popular in our culture today that may appear to be Christian but when examined closely do not teach Jesus as the incarnate Son of God?  “What are you doing personally to learn more of the great doctrines of the church so that you are better equipped to stand for Christ and evaluate the messages you hear?  What are some other doctrines for you that you consider nonnegotiable?  How does knowing the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world encourage you in your efforts to rightly discern God’s Word?

Do you experience fear when facing a decision or having to discern something important? Why or why not?

How can knowing that Jesus has overcome the world give you peace and confidence?

What are the implications of these truths for your life?  THE CHOICE IS YOURS, ISN’T IT!

REMEMBER, the safest place for a believer is in the center of God’s will.


Lesson Outline, Introduction, Discussion Questions, and Conclusion adapted from the following sources:

SOURCE: Life Ventures-Bible Studies for Life; Leader Guide; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN.

SOURCE: The Herschel Hobbs Commentary; Family Bible Study; by Robert J. Dean; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; 1 LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.

SOURCE: Advanced Bible Study; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; One LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.



Focal Passage from three different translations of God’s Word:

King James Version:  1 John 4:1-6

1 John 4:1-6 (KJV)

1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. 2 Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: 3 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, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. 4 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. 5 They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them. 6 We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.


New King James Version:  1 John 4:1-6

1 John 4:1-6 (NKJV)

1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. 4 You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 5 They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. 6 We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.  


New International Version:  1 John 4:1-6

1 John 4:1-6 (NIV)

1 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. 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. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. 4 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. 5 They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of 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 recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.  


  (NOTE:  Commentary for the focal passage comes from four sources: “Advanced Bible Study Commentary,” The Pulpit Commentary,Believer's Bible Commentary,” and “The Moody Bible Commentary,” and is provided for your study.)


Lesson Outline — “Fear Not” — 1 John 4:1-6



Test The Spirits for Those that Hold to the Truth of Christ (1John 4:1-3)

Christ in Us Is Greater Than & Victorious Over Satan (1 John 4:4-6)


Advanced Bible Study Commentary:  1 John 4:1-6

I. Test the Spirits and Believe Only Those That Hold to the Truth of Jesus Christ. It’s often difficult to make a good decision. When deciding what to do or say, questions can overwhelm our minds: Which move should we make? When should we go? How should I say a tough word to a good friend? Can I trust this person with my words? The reason why decisions are difficult is because sometimes life is unclear and confusing. And the confusion can paralyze us with fear.

The same was true for the early church in John’s day. The church was growing, even in the face of opposition. The gospel was advancing throughout Palestine and in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and countless people became new followers of Jesus. But in the midst of growth, salvations, and new life, the church also witnessed a number of challenges. One of them was false teaching.

Archaeologists have discovered early texts that come from the time of the early church in the first four centuries after Jesus’ ascension. These texts contain Christian themes and ideas but diverge from the New Testament Scriptures. Apparently, the early church was flooded with the true Scripture and teaching about Jesus (recorded in the New Testament), but a number of other teachers spread alternative stories about Jesus, His life, and the way to salvation. These are found in other “gospel” stories, letters, and tales. But these alternative stories and teachers draw God’s people to a place of discernment. What should the church believe? Which teachers should they trust? How do they decide who to follow?

It is into this context that John wrote. He wrote to encourage believers to make sound and wise decisions in the faith: whom to believe and what to embrace. His firm encouragement was to believe in Jesus Christ and embrace the gospel. Any other teaching was (and is) a lie.

John opened this section by identifying the believers as Dear friends. The Greek word is agapetoi, and some translations render it “beloved.” John clearly identified the believers as those who are loved by God and friends in the faith. He used this term throughout his letter to gain his readers’ attention (see 2:7; 3:2; 4:7,11). John saw these people as friends, co-laborers, and as deeply loved by God. Because he loved them as Christ loved them, he wanted to help them in their faith. He wanted to give them a guide to faithfulness.

What did he say? He warned them: Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God. The word “spirit” and “spirits” come from the same Greek word pneuma. It has a wide range of meanings, but here should be understood as the will and intention of humans, because the spirit is the seat of a human being’s insight and will. The spirit refers to the inner life of man. So, John encouraged the believers to test the will and intentions of other human beings. In other words, they were to practice the art of discernment. When a believer hears others speak about God, he or she must discern whether this teaching is of the Lord or not. It’s an art that needs some further explanation.

First, we are not on our own as we test the will and intention of other people. John had already reminded the church that they have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, and they are governed by the Spirit (1 John 3:24). Those who are of the Lord love like God loves us and follow the Lord’s commands. The Spirit of God helps us identify what is pleasing and true to Christ and what isn’t. First John 3:24 teaches that the Spirit of God enables the church to follow Christ’s commands.

Second, God has not only given the Spirit to help us develop the art of discernment, but also He has given us His Word to help us distinguish truth from error.

Whatever the will or intention of man is, these spirits should be tested. “The verb ‘test’ (dokimazete) means ‘to prove, to examine,’ like coins that are being tested for genuineness and proper weight—something that should be done on a continual basis.”1 Simply believing whatever anyone says about God, who Jesus is, or what the Lord requires is not discerning. It reflects a gullible heart and mind, easily swayed by deception.

The problem is that the church in John’s day faced those who were proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing. They looked like Christians. They acted like Christians. They spoke like Christians. John described them as false prophets. They did the same kinds of things true prophets do, but they were utterly false.

False prophets emerged among the people of God all throughout the story of Scripture. The Lord famously decried false prophets in the Book of Jeremiah: “These prophets are prophesying a lie in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a false vision, worthless divination, the deceit of their own minds” (Jer. 14:14). Six hundred years after the time of Jeremiah, Jesus warned against false prophets as well: “Be on your guard against false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. You’ll recognize them by their fruit” (Matt. 7:15-16). And false prophets emerged in the early church as well. We see it was not one false prophet, but many false prophets. John’s words were test the spirits and many false prophets have gone out into the world.

Just as the gospel advanced throughout the world, false prophets spread throughout the world too. This fact should remind us that there is a great rival power advancing in this world, even now, to deceive people away from faith in Jesus Christ. As the gospel moves into the unreached people groups around the globe, false prophets advance also. It is the responsibility of those who hold to the name of Jesus Christ to discern truth from error and hold fast to the truth.

Verses 2-3 reveal how we are to discern truth from error and hold fast to Jesus. He used the language: This is how you know the Spirit of God. John told us plainly that we can know whether a person is born of God (they have been saved) and hold to the truth. Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God is the test.

In setting forth that test, John described the incarnation of Jesus. That is, God came from heaven and wrapped Himself in human flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus died on the cross. His body actually died. And Jesus literally defeated death and His body was resurrected to new life. All of these elements are important: incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. Apparently, there were those in John’s day who believed that Jesus did not really take on human form. They did not believe He really died on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for our sin. This was an early false teaching among Christians. (We call these false teachings “heresies.”) But if Christ did not appear in human form, then He did not shed His blood on the cross, and He did not make atonement for sins. And if Jesus did not make atonement for sins, then humanity cannot be reconciled to God and there is no peace between God and man. It is essential that Jesus the Messiah came in the flesh as the representative human and representative sacrifice that would bear the sins of the world and through His shed blood cancel the debt of sin.

Some people don’t believe that Jesus came to earth, lived, died, and rose again. Rather, people believe and teach that it was enough that Jesus was a sage, a wise man with good moral teachings.

But the Gospels declare that Jesus is not merely a good moral teacher. He is either the incarnate Son of God who gave His life as a ransom for many or He is a lunatic who died for nothing. Jesus, as C. S. Lewis famously reminds us, has left us no other choice about His identity. He is either a liar who deceived countless people into thinking He was someone who He knew He was not. Or He was a lunatic who actually believed some grand things about Himself, although they were false. Or Jesus was and is the Lord, God in human flesh, who lived a perfect life, died a saving death, and rose again victorious!2 So, John reminded us that those who are of God are those who affirm and proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah and He came in the flesh.

There are, without a doubt, other markers that indicate whether a person is of God. However, for John’s audience, he wanted them to be able to discern without question whether those who spoke actually lived by the Spirit of God or not. Some other things that he mentioned throughout the letter: false prophets do not exhibit love of neighbor (4:8,20); they think or say that they are perfect and without sin (1:8); they live a life marked by sin and darkness (2:11; 3:6,8,15); they deny that Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament (5:9-10); and they deny the importance of Jesus’ atoning death on the cross (5:6).

Although I have identified the characteristics of false prophets, we should remember that John indicated that anyone who exhibits the characteristics mentioned above is not of God. Rather, he said such people are of the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming; even now it is already in the world.

What did John mean? He had already mentioned the antichrist in 1 John 2:8. In the early church, there was a distinction between the great antichrist who is coming (Rev. 13; 1 Thess. 2:3-4) and various people who denied Jesus, whose deception already affected the church. In 1 John 2:18, John said: “Children, it is the last hour. And as you have heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. By this we know that it is the last hour.” John indicated to the church that they didn’t have to wait for the antichrist to come in the future; the forces of evil against Jesus and His church were already there. Anyone who denied Jesus or the work of God the Father through Jesus was against Christ, an “antichrist” (1 John 2:22). John described this position against Jesus as the spirit of the antichrist. He was already in the world, so the church had to be vigilant and exhibit spiritual discernment.

II. Christ in Us Is Greater Than and Victorious Over Satan. After he identified the markers of false prophets and the importance of spiritual discernment in verses 1-3, John reminded the believers of the victory they have in Jesus. Notice that John described the church as little children (teknia). He described the church with this terminology throughout his letter (2:1,12,28; 3:7,18; 4:4; 5:21). Why? He wanted to get their attention so they would carefully listen to what he was about to say. They were a young church,  beloved by God and by John, and he wanted to instruct them on a vital truth.

And his message was this: despite the challenge of discerning truth from lies, and despite the difficulty of false prophets hindering the church and the advancement of the gospel, the church has “conquered” these false teachers because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. Victory is theirs!

Believers in Jesus Christ are not merely from God as verse 4 indicates. They are indwelt by the Holy Spirit (3:24) and the Spirit of God gives His people confidence (4:13). Because of the power of God, the church will overcome. In the Gospel of John, Jesus declared that the disciples can be confident because He has overcome the world (John 16:33).

What does it mean to overcome the world? It means to experience victory over the evil powers that seek to be destructive to life and to the reign of Christ. The world is characterized by darkness, lies, and deceit. We have overcome Satan’s twisting lies by the blood of the Lamb. Because of this, we can walk in victory, distinguishing good from evil, right from wrong, and light from darkness.

Those who are not covered in the blood of Jesus, however, are from the world. This means that their lives are marked and controlled by darkness, lies, and deceit. Their words are from the world and they persuade those with worldly ears to hear them.

John made an important point here. Some people will listen to the lies of the enemy. They will be swayed with persuasive speech that sounds good and Christian, but in fact is from the very pit of hell. It is not a new phenomenon in the life of the church, and it is still a real danger.

What we say matters. If our speech is perfumed with the truth of Jesus Christ, then it will be beautiful. However, if our speech is tainted with lies about Jesus Christ, then it will be as odious as death. John encouraged His readers to listen to words about the truth of Jesus Christ: Anyone who knows God listens to us; anyone who is not from God does not listen to us. As they hear and speak the truth of Christ, falsehood will emerge as clear as light in a dark night.

How do we overcome the evils of the world? How do we discern the truth of God from the lies of the enemy and the world? We learn the art of discernment. We learn to listen to the voice of God. God’s voice is heard in and through Scripture. The Scriptures proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God, come in the flesh.

The Spirit of God leads us to the Son and helps us hear the Word of God.

I remember when we were faced with the decision of moving from England back to America. I was afraid of leaving what I had known with my wife and children for four years. I was afraid that God would not take care of us when we moved to a state I had never visited, much less planted my life. I was afraid of what our life would look like. But what I discovered is that as we listen to the Lord and follow Him, Christ’s faithfulness trumps our fears.

There is no worthier goal than to know Christ, listen to His voice, and follow His leading. To do this well, we must commit to denying ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. Only then will we hear His voice and discern the Spirit of God from the spirit of the antichrist.

1.  Daniel L. Akin, 1, 2, 3 John, vol. 38 in The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H, 2001), 170.

2.  C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2000), 52.

SOURCE: Advanced Bible Study; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; One LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.

The Pulpit Commentary:   1 John 4:1-6

The source of son-ship. Possession of the Spirit.

Verses 1-6. Confession of the Incarnation is the assurance that the Spirit of God, who is the Spirit of truth, is working in us, and not the spirit of error. The passage seems clearly to teach that there are two rival influences contending for power over the spirits of men. We must test men's spirits to see whether they are organs of the Spirit of truth or of the spirit of error.

Verse 1. Beloved (as in 1 John 2:28 and 3:18, the apostle again breaks out with a personal appeal into an earnest exhortation suggested by the statement just made), prove the spirits δοκιμάζετε τὰ πνεύματα. “The spirits” are principles and tendencies in religion: these need to be tested, for earnestness and fervour are no guarantee of truth. And to test these principles is the duty of the individual Christian as well as of the Church in its official capacity. Just as every Athenian was subjected to an examination δοκιμασία as to his origin and character before he could hold office, so the spirit of every religious teacher must be examined before his teaching can be accepted. This is no useless precaution; because, as Christ has come forth ἐξελήλυθε from God (John 16:28; comp. John 8:42; 13:3; 16:27), ninny false prophets have come forth ἐζεληύθασι from the spirit of error. But perhaps “have gone forth into the world” means no more than ‘‘ have displayed themselves” in publicum prodierunt. There is probably no reference to the false teachers having “gone forth from us” (1 John 2:19). Besides Cerinthus and other Gnostics, there were the Nicolaitanes, astrologers, professors of magic, and dealers in charms, some of which seem to have had their origin in Ephesus, for they were known as “Ephesian letters.” Apollonius of Tyana was eagerly welcomed at Ephesus, and it is not impossible that his visit took place during St. John's lifetime.

Verse 2. This verso contains the main subject of the section. To confess the Incarnation is to prove that one draws one's inspiration from God through his Spirit. Know ye; or, recognize ye γινώσκετε, may be either imperative, in harmony with “believe” and “prove” (verse 1), or indicative, in harmony with “we know” (1 John 3:16, [19,] 24).

Verse 3. Every spirit (not so much the personal teacher as the principle or tendency of the doctrine) which confesseth not Jesus. This is the true reading, the words Χριστὸν ἐν σαρκὶ ἐληλυθότα being a spurious addition from verse 1. As so often, St. John states the ease both negatively and positively for emphasis. There is an ancient variant reading of much interest, probably of Latin origin, which can be traced back to the second century, being known to Tertullian and Iranaeus. For μὴ ὁμολογεῖ τὸν ̓Ιησοῦν it gives λύει τὸν ̓Ιησοῦν, solvit Jesum. This corruption of the text was evidently aimed at those who distinguished the man Jesus from the Divine Christ, and thus “dissolved” his Personality. The Greek manuscripts are quite unanimous against the reading. Is not of God; and therefore is of the evil one (see on 1 John 3:10). These professedly Christian teachers are ever among the most dangerous who treat the Divinity of Jesus Christ as more or less of an open question, or as a matter of indifference. Τὸ τοῦ ἀντιχρίστου probably means “the spirit of antichrist,” understanding πνεῦμα from the preceding clause rather than (quite vaguely) “the characteristic of antichrist” (see on 1 John 2:18, to which passage, however, ἀκηκόατε does not refer, (but to Christian teaching in general). And now it is in the world already. This is an independent statement; St. John does not say that they had heard this previously.

Verse 4. Ye are of God. The ὑμεῖς is in emphatic opposition to the false teachers (comp. 1 John 2:20). They are on one side, and the apostle's readers on the other, and it is from this standpoint that they are to “prove the spirits.” St. John knows nothing of any neutral position from which the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error can be criticized “with absolute impartiality.” “He that is not with me is against me.” This assumed neutral position is already within the domain of error. Ye have overcome them. “Them” means the false teachers; but in what sense have St. John's “little children” overcome them? He may be speaking by anticipation; confident of the victory, he writes of it as an accomplished fact (comp. John 16:33). But it is better to take the statement literally. By refusing to listen to the false teachers (John 10:8) the sheep have conquered them: the seducers have “gone out” (1 John 2:19), unable to hold their own within the fold. Nor is this wonderful: the one side have God with them, the other Satan. Ο ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ here is equivalent to ὁ ἄρχων τοῦ κόσμου τούτου (Luke 12:31). Just as God is in believers and they in God, so the world is in the evil one (1 John 5:19) and the evil one in it.

Verse 5. The source of their character and their teaching is the world; from it they derive their inspiration; and of course the world listens to them. Once again (see on 1 John 3:23) we have an echo of Christ's last discourses: “If ye were of the world, the world would love its own” (John 15:19).

Verse 6. The opposite ease stated again, but not in the same form as in verse 4. The “we” here is not the same as the “ye” there, with the mere addition of the writer. “We” here seems to mean the apostles. If it is considered “broad enough to include all who have truly received Christ by faith,” it leaves no one to be the hearers. “He that knoweth God heareth us” will mean that we hear ourselves, if “us” means all believers. But St. John's meaning seems rather to be that he who acquires knowledge ὁ γινώσκων of God is ready to listen to further apostolic instruction. From this ἐκ τούτου need not be confined to verse 6; it may apply to the whole passage. For the Spirit of truth, comp. John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13.

Pulpit Commentary, The - The Pulpit Commentary – Volume 22: Peter-Revelation.

SOURCE:  The Pulpit Commentary; Volume 16: Mark & Luke; Database © 2007 WORDsearch Corp.


Believer's Bible Commentary: 1 John 4:1-6

The Need to Discern Between Truth and Error (4:1-6)

4:1.  Having mentioned the Holy Spirit, John is reminded that there are other spirits abroad in the world today, and that the children of God need to be warned against them. Thus he cautions the believer not to trust every spirit. The word spirit here probably refers primarily to teachers but not exclusively so. Just because a man speaks about the Bible, God, and Jesus does not mean that he is a true child of God. We are to test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. These are people who profess to accept Christianity, but teach another gospel altogether.

4:2.  John gives the actual tests by which these men are to be proven. The great test of a teacher is, "What do you think of Christ?" Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God. It is not so much the confession of the historical fact, namely that Jesus was born into the world in a human body, but rather it is the confession of a living Person, Jesus Christ come in the flesh. It is the confession that acknowledges Jesus as the Christ Incarnate. And confessing Him means bowing to Him as Lord of one's life. Now if you ever hear a person presenting the Lord Jesus as the true Christ of God, you will know that he is speaking by the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God calls on men to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and to commit their lives to Him. The Holy Spirit always glorifies Jesus.

4:3.  And every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. This is how you can detect the false teachers. They do not confess the Jesus who was described in the previous verse. This is the spirit of the Antichrist, which has been prophesied and which is now already in the world. There are many today who are willing to say acceptable things about Jesus, but they will not confess Him as God Incarnate. They will say that Christ is "divine," but not that He is God.

4:4.  Humble believers are able to overcome these false teachers because they have the Holy Spirit within them, and this enables them to detect error and to refuse to listen to it.

4:5.  The false teachers are of the world and therefore, the source of all that they speak is the world. The world is the spring of all that they teach, and therefore the world hears them. This reminds us that the approval of the world is not a test as to the truthfulness of one's teachings. If a man simply wants to be popular, all he needs to do is to speak as the world speaks, but if he is to be faithful to God, then he must face the disapproval of the world.

4:6.  In verse 6, John speaks as representing the apostles. He says, "We are of God. He who knows God hears us." This means that all who are really born of God will accept the teaching of the apostles found in the NT. On the other hand, those who are not of God refuse the testimony of the NT, or they seek to add to or adulterate it.

SOURCE: Believer's Bible Commentary; by William MacDonald; Copyright © 1995, 1992, 1990, 1989 by William McDonald. Database © 2014 WORDsearch.

The Moody Bible Commentary: 1 John 4:1-6

The Need for Discernment (4:1-4)

4:1. The apostle prohibited his audience from believing every spirit. This expression refers to a supernatural spiritual being who influences human teachers. The teachers' doctrine must be assessed by other church leaders and teachers who are acknowledged to be fully orthodox. It is their responsibility to see whether they [those who teach] are from God. Such testing is essential because many false prophets are currently disseminating heresy.

4:2-3. This gives one criterion, though not the only one, by which the church can recognize a divinely inspired teacher: He publicly acknowledges that the divine, heavenly Christ came in the flesh in the person of the earthly, human Jesus (v. 2). But every spirit leading a teacher who does not preach Jesus to be the heavenly incarnate Messiah is not sent from God. A teacher's denial of the doctrine of the incarnation is a sufficient enough test to know that he is not divinely inspired and does not preach the truth of God. Worse, this is the very spirit who will animate the future, personal antichrist. That spirit now is already in the world inspiring spurious teachers (v. 3). There is at work in the world a satanic parody of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Jesus was present in body prior to His ascension, and then He sent the Holy Spirit. But the spirit of the antichrist is in the world now, to be followed by the physical presence of the antichrist later.

4:4. A true prophet, with true teaching, also can be identified by the audience that listens to him. John's readers are from God—i.e., are genuine Christians. They have intellectually overcome false teachers by refusing to embrace their heresy, because the Holy Spirit, who is in them, is greater than Satan who is in the world.

2. The Source of Heresy (4:5-6)

4:5-6. Heretics are a part of, and influenced by, the unbelieving world. So what they speak and teach is derived not from God but from the world. And these spurious prophets can be identified by the unregenerate people of the world who listen to them (v. 5). Orthodox teachers are from God. John and those like him are dispatched by heaven. Anyone who knows God listens to us (i.e., to orthodox teachers). That audience not from God does not listen to us. That is, unbelievers do not want to hear the truth of God preached, and they refuse to accept and live by it.

SOURCE: The Moody Bible Commentary; by Michael Rydelnik and Michael Vanlaningham; © 2014 by The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Database © 2015 WORDsearch.



Antichrist (v. 3)—Antichrist refers either to a person who rejects biblical teaching about Jesus and attempts to mislead believers or to the end-times opponent of Jesus and His church.

SOURCE: Life Ventures-Bible Studies for Life; Leader Guide; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN.

ANTICHRIST—(ἀντίχριστος, antíchristos): The word "antichrist" occurs only in 1 John 2:18, 22; 1 John 4:3; 2 John 1:7, but the idea which the word conveys appears frequently in Scripture.

I. In the Old Testament.

Antichrist in the Old Testament: As in the Old Testament the doctrine concerning Christ was only suggested, not developed, so is it with the doctrine of the Antichrist. That the Messiah should be the divine Logos, the only adequate expression of God, was merely hinted at, not stated: so Antichrist was exhibited as the opponent of God rather than of His anointed. In the historical books of the Old Testament we find "Belial" used as if a personal opponent of Yahweh; thus the scandalously wicked are called in the King James Version "sons of Belial" (Judges 19:22; Judges 20:13), "daughter of Belial" (1 Samuel 1:16), etc. The the Revised Version (British and American) translates the expression in an abstract sense, "base fellows," "wicked woman." In Daniel 7:7-8 there is the description of a great heathen empire, represented by a beast with ten horns: its full antagonism to God is expressed in a little eleventh horn which had "a mouth speaking great things" and "made war with the saints" (Daniel 7:8, 21). Him the `Ancient of Days' was to destroy, and his kingdom was to be given to a `Son of Man' (Daniel 7:9-14). Similar but yet differing in many points is the description of Antiochus Epiphanes in Daniel 8:9-12, 23-25.

II. In the New Testament.

1. The Gospels: In the Gospels the activity of Satan is regarded as specially directed against Christ. In the Temptation (Matthew 4:1-10; Luke 4:1-13) the Devil claims the right to dispose of "all the kingdoms of the world," and has his claim admitted. The temptation is a struggle between the Christ and the Antichrist. In the parable of the Tares and the Wheat, while He that sowed the good seed is the Son of Man, he that sowed the tares is the Devil, who is thus Antichrist (Matthew 13:37-39) our Lord felt it the keenest of insults that His miracles should be attributed to Satanic assistance (Matthew 12:24-32). In John 14:30 there is reference to the "Prince of the World" who "hath nothing" in Christ.

2. Pauline Epistles: The Pauline epistles present a more developed form of the doctrine. In the spiritual sphere Paul identifies Antichrist with Belial. "What concord hath Christ with Belial?" (2 Cor. 6:15). 2 Thessalonians, written early, affords evidence of a considerably developed doctrine being commonly accepted among believers. The exposition of 2 Thes. 2:3-9, in which Paul exhibits his teaching on the `Man of Sin,' is very difficult, as may be seen from the number of conflicting attempts at its interpretation. Here we would only indicate what seems to us the most plausible view of the Pauline doctrine. It had been revealed to the apostle by the Spirit that the church was to be exposed to a more tremendous assault than any it had yet witnessed. Some twelve years before the epistle was penned, the Roman world had seen in Caligula the portent of a mad emperor. Caligula had claimed to be worshipped as a god, and had a temple erected to him in Rome. He went farther, and demanded that his own statue should be set up in the temple at Jerusalem to be worshipped. As similar causes might be expected to produce similar effects, Paul, interpreting "what the Spirit that was in him did signify," may have thought of a youth, one reared in the purple, who, raised to the awful, isolating dignity of emperor, might, like Caligula, be struck with madness, might, like him, demand Divine honors, and might be possessed with a thirst for blood as insatiable as his. The fury of such an enthroned maniac would, with too great probability, be directed against those who, like the Christians, would refuse as obstinately as the Jews to give him Divine honor, but were not numerous enough to make Roman officials pause before proceeding to extremities. So long as Claudius lived, the Antichrist manifestation of this "lawless one" was restrained; when, however, the aged emperor should pass away, or God's time should appoint, that "lawless one" would be revealed, whom the Lord would "slay with the breath of his mouth" (2 Thes. 2:8).

3. Johannine Epistles: Although many of the features of the "Man of Sin" were exhibited by Nero, yet the Messianic kingdom did not come, nor did Christ return to His people at Nero's death. Writing after Nero had fallen, the apostle John, who, as above remarked, alone of the New Testament writers uses the term, presents us with another view of Antichrist (1 John 2:18, 22; 1 John 4:3; 2 John 1:7). From the first of these passages ("as ye have heard that antichrist cometh"), it is evident that the coming of Antichrist was an event generally anticipated by the Christian community, but it is also clear that the apostle shared to but a limited extent in this popular expectation. He thought the attention of believers needed rather to be directed to the antichristian forces that were at work among and around them ("even now have .... arisen many antichrists"). From 1 John 2:22; 1 John 4:3; 2 John 1:7 we see that the apostle regards erroneous views of the person of Christ as the real Antichrist. To him the Docetism (i.e. the doctrine that Christ's body was only a seeming one) which portended Gnosticism, and the elements of Ebionism (Christ was only a man), were more seriously to be dreaded than persecution.

4. Book of Revelation: In the Book of Revelation the doctrine of Antichrist receives a further development. If the traditional date of the Apocalypse is to be accepted, it was written when the lull which followed the Neronian persecution had given place to that under Domitian—"the bald Nero." The apostle now feels the whole imperial system to be an incarnation of the spirit of Satan; indeed from the identity of the symbols, seven heads and ten horns, applied both to the dragon (James 12:3) and to the Beast (Rev. 13:1), he appears to have regarded the raison d`etre of the Roman Empire to be found in its incarnation of Satan. The ten horns are borrowed from Daniel 7, but the seven heads point, as seen from Rev. 17:9, to the "seven hills" on which Rome sat. There is, however, not only the Beast, but also the "image of the beast" to be considered (Rev. 13:14-15). Possibly this symbolizes the cult of Rome, the city being regarded as a goddess, and worshipped with temples and statues all over the empire. From the fact that the seer endows the Beast that comes out of the earth with "two horns like unto a lamb" (Rev. 13:11), the apostle must have had in his mind some system of teaching that resembled Christianity; its relationship to Satan is shown by its speaking "as a dragon" (Rev. 13:11). The number 666 given to the Beast (Rev. 13:18), though presumably readily understood by the writer's immediate public, has proved a riddle capable of too many solutions to be now readily soluble at all. The favorite explanation Neron Qecar (Nero Caesar), which suits numerically, becomes absurd when it implies the attribution of seven heads and ten horns. There is no necessity to make the calculation in Hebrew; the corresponding arithmogram in the Sib Or, 1 32830, in which 888 stands for Iesous, is interpreted in Greek. On this hypothesis Lateinos, a suggestion preserved by Irenaeus (Codex Venetus, 30) would suit. If we follow the analogy of Daniel, which has influenced the Apocalyptist so much, the Johannine Antichrist must be regarded as not a person but a kingdom. In this case it must be the Roman Empire that is meant.

III. In Apocalyptic Writings.

Antichrist in the Apocalyptic Writings: Although from their eschatological bias one would expect that the Jewish Apocalyptic Writings would be full of the subject, mention of the Antichrist occurs only in a few of the apocalypses. The earliest certain notice is found in the Sibylline books (1 167). We are there told that "Beliar shall come and work wonders," and "that he shall spring from the Sebasteni (Augusti)" a statement which, taken with other indications, inclines one to the belief that the mad demands of Caligula, were, when this was written, threatening the Jews. There are references to Beliar in the XII the Priestly Code (P), which, if the date ascribed to them by Dr. Charles, i.e. the reign of John Hyrcanus I, be assumed as correct, are earlier. Personally we doubt the accuracy of this conclusion. Further, as Dr. Charles admits the presence of many interpolations, even though one might assent to his opinions as to the nucleus of the XII the Priestly Code (P), yet these Beliar passages might be due to the interpolator. Only in one passage is "Beliar" antíchristos as distinguished from antítheos; Daniel 5:10-11 (Charles' translation), "And there shall rise unto you from the tribe of Judah and of Levi the salvation of the Lord, and he shall make war against Beliar, and execute everlasting vengeance on our enemies, and the captivity shall he take from Beliar and turn disobedient hearts unto the Lord." Dr. Charles thinks he finds an echo of this last clause in Luke 1:17; but may the case not be the converse?

The fullest exposition of the ideas associated with the antichrist in the early decades of Christian history is to be found in the Ascension of Isaiah. In this we are told that "Beliar" (Belial) would enter into "the matricide king" (Nero), who would work great wonders, and do much evil. After the termination of 1,332 days during which he has persecuted the plant which the twelve apostles of the Beloved have planted, "the Lord will come with his angels and with armies of his holy ones from the seventh heaven, with the glory of the seventh heaven, and he will drag Beliar into Gehenna and also his armies" (Daniel 4:3, 13, Charles' translation). If the date at which Beliar was supposed to enter into Nero was the night on which the great fire in Rome began, then the space of power given to him is too short by 89 days. From the burning of Rome till Nero's death was 1,421 days. It is to be noted that there are no signs of the writer having been influenced either by Paul or the Apocalypse. As he expected the coming of the Lord to be the immediate cause of the death of Nero, we date the writing some months before that event. It seems thus to afford contemporary and independent evidence of the views entertained by the Christian community as to Antichrist.

IV. In Patristic Writings.

Patristic References to Antichrist: Of the patristic writers, Polycarp is the only one of the Apostolic Fathers who refers directly to Antichrist. He quotes John's words, "Whosoever doth not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is Antichrist" (7), and regards Docetism as Antichrist in the only practical sense. Barnabas, although not using the term, implies that the fourth empire of Daniel is Antichrist; this he seems to identify with the Roman Empire (Daniel 4:5). Irenaeus is the first-known writer to occupy himself with the number of the Beast. While looking with some favor on Lateinos, he himself prefers Teitan as the name intended (Daniel 5:30). His view is interesting as showing the belief that the arithmogram was to be interpreted by the Greek values of the letters. More particulars as to the views prevailing can be gleaned from Hippolytus, who has a special work on the subject, in which he exhibits the points of resemblance between Christ and Antichrist (On Christ and Antichrist, 4.14.15. 19.25). In this work we find the assertion that Antichrist springs from the terms of Jacob's blessing to Dan. Among other references, the idea of Commodian (250 AD) that Nero risen from the dead was to be Antichrist has to be noticed. In the commentary on Revelation attributed to Victorinus of Petau there is, inserted by a later hand, an identification of Genseric with the "Beast" of that book. It is evident that little light is to be gained on the subject from patristic sources.

V. Medieval Views.

Much time need not be spent on the medieval views of Antichrist in either of the two streams in which it flowed, Christian and Jewish.

1. Christian: The Christian was mainly occupied in finding methods of transforming the names of those whom monkish writers abhorred into a shape that would admit of their being reckoned 666. The favorite name for this species of torture was naturally Maometis (Mohammed). Gregory IX found no difficulty in accommodating the name of Frederic II so as to enable him to identify his great antagonist with "the beast coming up out of the sea": this identification the emperor retorted on the pope. Rabanus Maurus gives a full account of what Antichrist was to do, but without any attempt to label any contemporary with the title. He was to work miracles and to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. The view afterward so generally held by Protestants that the papacy was Antichrist had its representatives among the sects denounced by the hierarchy as heretical, as the Kathari. In various periods the rumor was spread that Antichrist had been already born. Sometimes his birthplace was said to be Babylon, sometimes this distinction was accorded to the mystical Babylon, Rome.

2. Jewish: The Jewish views had little effect on Christian speculation. With the Talmudists Antichrist was named Armilus, a variation of Romulus. Rome is evidently primarily intended, but Antichrist became endowed with personal attributes. He makes war on Messiah, son of Joseph, and slays him, but is in turn destroyed by Messiah, Son of David.

VI. Post-Reformation Views.

Post-Reformation Theories of Antichrist: In immediately post-Reformation times the divines of the Romish church saw in Luther and the Reformed churches the Antichrist and Beast of Revelation. On the other hand the Protestants identified the papacy and the Roman church with these, and with the Pauline Man of Sin. The latter view had a certain plausibility, not only from the many undeniably antichristian features in the developed Roman system, but from the relation in which the Romish church stood to the city of Rome and to the imperial idea. The fact that the Beast which came out of the earth (Rev. 13:11) had the horns of a lamb points to some relation to the lamb which had been slain (Rev. 5:6). Futurist interpreters have sought the Antichrist in historical persons, as Napoleon III. These persons, however, did not live to realize the expectations formed of them. The consensus of critical opinion is that Nero is intended by the Beast of the Apocalypse, but this, on many grounds, as seen before, is not satisfactory. Some future development of evil may more exactly fulfill the conditions of the problem.

SOURCE: International Standard Bible Encyclopedia; James Orr, M.A., D. D., General Editor; Parsons Technology, Inc.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

DISCERN—Five Hebrew words are thus translated: bīn, yādhaʿ, nākhar, ʾāh and shāmaʿ. It may simply mean "observe" (bīn), "I discerned among the youths" (Proverbs 7:7); or discriminating knowlege, "A wise man's heart discerneth time and judgment" (Eccles. 8:5, yādhaʿ); "He discerned him not, because his hands," etc. (Genesis 27:23, nākhar); "Then shall ye return and discern between the righteous and the wicked" (Malachi 3:18, ʾāh); "So is my lord the king to discern good," etc. (2 Samuel 14:17, shāmaʿ). In the New Testament the words anakrínō, diakrínō and dokimázō are thus translated, expressing close and distinct acquaintance with or a critical knowledge of things. Used in 1 Cor. 2:14 the King James Version of "the things of the spirit of God"; in 1 Cor. 11:29 of "the (Lord's) body" in the sacrament; in Matthew 16:3 of "the face of the heaven"; in Hebrews 5:14 of a clear knowledge of good and evil as the prerogative of a full-grown man.

DISCERNINGS OF SPIRITS—(διακρίσεις πνευμάτων, diakríseis pneumátōn), "judicial estimation," "through judgment or separation"): Occurs in 1 Cor. 12:10 as being one of the gifts of the Spirit. The Greek word occurs in Hebrews 5:14; and Romans 14:1: "But him that is weak in faith receive ye, yet not for decision of scruples." This translation scarcely expresses the meaning, which Thayer has freely rendered, "not for the purpose of passing judgment on opinions, as to which one is to be preferred as the more correct." Taking these three passages together it is evident that the Greek term which is rendered "discerning" means a distinguishing or discriminating between things that are under consideration; hence, the one who possessed the gift of "discernings of spirits" was able to make distinction between the one who spoke by the Spirit of God and the one who was moved by a false spirit. This gift seems to have been exercised chiefly upon those who assumed the role of teachers, and it was especially important in those days, because there were many false teachers abroad (see 2 John 1:7; Acts 20:29-30).

SOURCE: International Standard Bible Encyclopedia; James Orr, M.A., D. D., General Editor; Parsons Technology, Inc.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa.



“SPIRIT” in John’s Writings

By Robert E. Jones

Robert E. Jones is pastor of Euclid Avenue Baptist Church in Bristol, Virginia.


 STUDY OF THE HOLY SPIRIT in John’s writings must center on John 14—16.   Nowhere else in the New Testament do we find the insight into the Holy Spirit’s ministry that we do in these chapters.  However, we must begin by examining John’s use of the Greek word pneuma  with specific reference to the Holy Spirit.

Pneuma, meaning “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit,” occurs 31 times in John’s Gospel, 1 John, and Revelation referring to the Holy Spirit.  Our first encounter with the Holy Spirit in John’s Gospel is in 1:32-33.  In this passage John the Baptist gave his personal testimony of watching the Holy Spirit descend from heaven like a dove and resting on Jesus after His baptism.  The next occurrences of pneuma  are in John 3:5-8.  Detailing Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, John pictured the Holy Spirit as the medium of regeneration.  This same emphasis occurs later when Jesus described the Holy Spirit as the One who give life (John 6:63) and as the source of life within (7:37-38).  Also John 7:39 indicates the Spirit had not yet been received because Jesus had not experienced His glorification through His death and resurrection (20:22).  Finally, pneuma  is in John 3:34 where Jesus said the Father “gives the Spirit without measure,” a theme echoed in John 14—16.

Holy Spirit as the Paraclete

This brings us to the places in John 14—16 where the apostle John painted a portrait of the Holy Spirit’s person and work as the “Paraclete.”  In the Greek New Testament, the word parakletos  is unique to John’s writings.  The term means “one who is called to someone’s aid,” or “one who appears in another’s behalf,” such as a mediator, intercessor, or helper.1 The word can also denote “a legal assistant, a counsel for the defense” in a court of law.  In this sense, the parakletos  is “one who pleads another’s cause, an intercessor, advocate.”2 As the Paraclete, then, the Holy Spirit is the believer’s Helper, Comforter, Intercessor, and Advocate.

By emphasizing these unique features of the Paraclete, John added two distinctives to the Holy Spirit’s person.  First, as the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit becomes more personal than in other New Testament passages where He appears more as a force or power.  In fact, so personal is the Paraclete that He is the personal presence of Jesus in believers while Jesus is with the Father.  This thought leads directly to the Holy Spirit’s second distinctive—the resemblance of the Spirit to Jesus.  Much of what John said about the Paraclete, he also said about Jesus.  For example, John said the Father would send the Paraclete (14:26).  But John also said the Father sent Jesus (3:17).  This identification of the Paraclete to Jesus led the New Testament scholar Raymond Brown to conclude that John presents the Holy Spirit as the second Paraclete, with Jesus as the first One.3 John 14:16 supports this view.  Here Jesus said the Father would give the disciples “another Counselor,” suggesting Jesus was the first Counselor.  Also in 1 John 2:1, the apostle applied parakletos  to Jesus as the believer’s Advocate.  And since the Paraclete would not come until Jesus departed, the Paraclete would become the presence of Jesus with His disciples after His ascension.

The Paraclete’s Distinct Roles

The apostle John also identified in John 14—16 some unique characteristics of the Paraclete’s ministry and relationships.4 The first of these is the relationship of the Paraclete to the Father and the Son.  In John 15:26, Jesus said He would send the Paraclete to the disciples, but also the Paraclete would proceed from the Father.  Again, in John 16:7, Jesus said He would send the Paraclete, but He also said that the Father would send the Spirit at Jesus’ request (14:16; see also 1 John 3:24; 4:13).  An undeniable relationship then exists between the Paraclete, the Father, and the Son.  Furthermore, John made an explicit identification of the Paraclete with the Holy Spirit when he quoted Jesus: “He is the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17, HCSB; see also 1 John 5:6).  In the Greek, this sentence can be translated either as “the Holy Spirit is truth’ or “the Holy Spirit communicates truth.”  Either way, the Holy Spirit clearly is the One who would guide all believers to truth.

Next John identified several distinct roles the Paraclete would carry out in His relationship to Jesus’ disciples.  First, the Paraclete, as the Spirit of truth, would be with Jesus’ disciples forever and would remain with them (John 14:16-17).  The Holy Spirit would fulfill this promise by His invisible indwelling presence within Jesus’ followers.  In this way Jesus would never leave His disciples alone (v. 18) even though He would be separated from them physically.  Furthermore, John tied in the promise of the Spirit’s permanent indwelling presence with Jesus’ promise that His disciples will keep His commandments (v. 15).  By dwelling with and in Christ’s followers, the Holy Spirit enables believers to express their love for Jesus through obedience to Him.

The Paraclete also will teach the disciples all things (v. 26; 16:14).  This function of teacher relates directly to Jesus’ own teaching.  Jesus reminded the disciples that He had spoken many things to them while He was with them (14:25).  Additionally, Jesus said He had many other things to teach the disciples, but they were unable to receive them (16:12).  However, when the Paraclete would come, He would not only remind the disciples of the Lord’s teachings (14:16), but He would also reveal truths from the Father to them (16:14-15).

Just as Jesus did not speak His own words but spoke the Father’s words (14:24), so the Spirit would also speak the Father’s words (vv. 13-15).  In doing so, the Paraclete would guide the Lord’s disciples into a way of living that conforms to Jesus’ life and teachings.  In a sense, then, we might say the Paraclete’s mission would be to complete Jesus’ mission by unfolding the meaning of Jesus for all people.  By doing so, the Paraclete will glorify Christ (v. 14).

This leads us to the Paraclete’s role in relationship to the world.  Jesus said the Spirit of truth would testify about Him (15:26; see also 1 John 5:6-8).  The world chose to reject the truth about Jesus’ words and works.  The Holy Spirit, though, would declare that Jesus Christ is God’s supreme revelation of Himself to all people.  But how would the Spirit do so?  The answer is through Christ’s followers.  Since the Holy Spirit is invisible in the world, the way His witness can be heard is through the witness of His disciples.  So, Jesus affirmed that the Paraclete would testify about Him, and that His disciples, who had been with Him from the beginning and who would possess the Paraclete within them, would testify about Him as well (John 15:26-27).  The Paraclete would testify in and through the disciples.  Augustine said it like this: “Because he will speak, you will also speak—he in your hearts, you in words—he by inspiration, you by sounds.”5

The final Paraclete passage describes specifically how the Paraclete would testify against the world (16:7-11).  Jesus said the world is unable to receive the Spirit of truth because it cannot see Him or know Him (14:17).  This resulted not in indifference to the Spirit’s witness, but in the same hostility that characterized the world’s reaction to Jesus.  Nevertheless, this hostility will not stop the Paraclete from condemning the world.  The Holy Spirit will do so first by convicting the world “about sin, righteousness, and judgment” (v. 8, HCSB).  The Paraclete will show that by rejecting Jesus, the world is guilty of sin, and each succeeding generation will feel the Spirit’s convicting power.  But the Paraclete’s condemnation of the world also will declare Jesus’ righteousness (v. 10) and will prove that in condemning Jesus, the world itself has been condemned because Jesus has won the victory over the ruler of this world (v. 11).

Paraclete and John’s Readers

A concluding question we should ask is, “Why did John emphasize the Holy Spirit’s person and work, especially as the Paraclete?”  We need to remember that John probably produced his writings near the end of the first Christian century.  The Spirit’s role to believers and in the world may have helped to answer a perplexing problem for John’s readers—the death of the apostolic witnesses.  John’s readers would have viewed the apostles as a living link connecting Jesus to the church.  They may have wondered how the church could survive without this link.  The Holy Spirit was the answer.  The witness of the Paraclete was the witness of the apostles.  Through the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence, this witness would continue through Christ’s followers until His return.                     

1.  [parakletos; mediator, intercessor, helper] in William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 623.

2.  W. E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Tarrytown, NY: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1981), 1:208.

3.  Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, xiii-xxi  (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1970), 1140.

4.  Brown, 1135-36.  Brown uses four categories to describe the Paraclete’s roles.

5.  Brown, 700.

SOURCE: Biblical Illustrator; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234; Vol. 37, No. 1; Fall 2010.

The WORLD as a New Testament Concept

By Randall L. Adkisson

Randall L. Adkisson is senior pastor, First Baptist Church, Cookeville, Tennessee.


“WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE YOU DOING?” “Welcome to my world.” “That’s out of this world.”  “The third world.”  “The new world order.”  “He is in a world of his own.”  “She is a woman of the world.”  “You and me against the world.”  “It’s a small world.”  The Arab world.”  He is in a world of hurt.”


UCH STATEMENTS remind us that words carry different meanings or nuances of meaning depending on the context of their use.  In English the meaning of “world” changes depending on the term’s social, scientific , or personal context.  As in modern English, so too biblical words express different meanings depending on the context of their usage in a historical period, cultural setting, or literary phrase.

The English New Testament translates several Greek words into “world.”  As with Old Testament terms for “world,” each New Testament term can present differing nuances of meaning depending on its context.

Ge—Physical World

Ge, one of the Greek worlds for “world,” primarily designated the physical earth, much as the Hebrew erets.1 Used extensively in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, where 120 of its 250 occurrences are found, the term focuses on the world as a landmass.  Almost every New Testament writer made use of the term in this way.

New Testament authors used ge as the common term to designate the earthly sphere.  So in Acts 1:8 the gospel moves to the ends of the earth.  In Matthew 5:35, the world is the footstool of God.  But ge  may also designate any size area of the earth from a national landmass to the small piece of land on which a seed may fall.  Thus, in Matthew 10:15 it designates Sodom and Gomorrah, but in the parable of the sower, it represents the singular spot of soil on which a seed is planted (Matt. 13:8; Luke 8:8).  This term is morally neutral, designating the world neither as evil nor virtuous, but ge does designate a place of corruption that will ultimately pass-away (Matt.6:19).

Oikoumene—Inhabited World

Oikoumene, a cognate of the Greek term oikos  meaning “house” or “dwelling,” speaks of the world as it is inhabited, the dwelling place of man and by expansion, mankind who dwells upon the earth.2 Luke was particularly fond of the term, employing it in his Gospel and Acts 8 times out of its 15 usages.  But in the Book of Revelation, the term reveals its distinction most clearly.  Here, God judges the oikoumene, John specifically using this term to indicate the judgment of mankind.  Thus, the hour of testing will come upon the whole world (Rev. 3:10).  Satan deceives the entire world, that is all of mankind (12:9).  And the kings of the whole world are gathered for judgment (16:14).  In every case the term designates the inhabitants of the world, not its landmass.

In exaggerated speech oikoumene  may designate a subsection of mankind but as if the designated subsection were the only important part.  So Luke said that a census was taken of the “world,” but clearly meant only the Roman world or the jurisdiction of Caesar (Luke 2:1).  Such usage was common when speaking of the Roman Empire.

Aion—Age or Era

Aion, another Greek word for “world,” is indicative of a cultural environment.  Often translated as “age,” this word denotes the political, cultural, even religious atmosphere of an epoch of time.3 The period may be as extensive as the period between Jesus’ advent and return (Matt. 13:40).  Or it can designate the general period in which the reader lives, thus the “worries of this age” choke out the efficacy of the Word of God (Mark 4:19, HCSB).  Even so, the riches of the present world (aion) may cause a believer to trust in his or her financial resources instead of God (1 Tim. 6:17).

Kosmos—The World

Kosmos, familiar to the English reader because of its frequent transliteration and familiar cognates cosmos, cosmic, cosmology, and even cosmonaut, may refer to the world with the many varying shades of meaning often attributed to the English term “world.”  Thus it may designate the sum of all things that man perceives in the created order, or merely the physical earth, or mankind, or the place of human habitation as opposed to the abode of God and supernatural creatures.  The term can also designate a political or religious culture.  Because of its plentiful and varying usage, this term is the most significant for the study of John’s Gospel.

Although John used kosmos  throughout his Gospel, Epistles, and the Revelation, the interpreter must take care because the apostle often varied its nuance of meaning within close textual proximity.  Kosmos  may be morally neutral in one verse but then designate non-believing, even evilly motivated mankind in a nearby verse.4 Great error and complete misunderstanding result when a reader demands the term carry the same meaning throughout John’s writings or throughout the New Testament.

In and Out of this “World”

Because of its multiple nuances of meaning, the “world” of the New Testament text is at one place to be loved and at another to be loathed depending on its contextual usage.  Although Paul developed the concept of kosmos  some in this writings, the most extensive use of the term is in the Johannine writings, particularly in John’s Gospel.  In fact, John used the term 105 of the 186 times  it appears in the New Testament.

The relative lack of usage of the term in the Synoptic Gospels, only 15 times, seems to reflect the Hebraic style of designating the created order with the phrase “heaven and earth.”  This is paralleled closely by usage in the Old Testament where the concept of “all created things” is so designated (see Gen. 2:1-2; Matt. 24:35).

The wide divergence of meanings of the term kosmos  should remind the biblical student to be sensitive to the importance of context when reading.  In John, God so loved the world that He initiated the incarnation even before He laid the world’s foundation (John 3:16-18; 10:36; 17:24; 1 John 2:2).  Yet, John called believers to hate the world, not allowing its touch to stain their sanctification (1 John 2:15-16).  In one Gospel context, Jesus created and entered the world, but in another He would not even pray for it (John 1:9-10; 17:9).  Variously, John used the term to designate all people, the tangible things of creation, the fallen social order, and the determined antagonistic forces of opposition to God’s rule.

In John 17 the reader will do well to thoughtfully consider each use of the term.  John’s first use speaks of creation, pairing kosmos  with ge  (17:4,5).  Yet, almost immediately the “world” becomes the sum of all mankind who refuse to believe in Jesus as Messiah (vv. 6,9).  Still again, the “world” is the seductive trappings of life lying in wait for the unsuspecting disciple (v. 15).

The modern reader should not consider John as muddled in his thinking, rather remember that modern usage of the term “world” also carries many different nuances.  Just as the sense of the term is easily determined in modern cultural and literary contexts without thorough examination, the biblical usage is generally simple to comprehend even when different nuances of meaning are used within close proximity to one another.  Yet a purposeful pause to consider the exact nuance of meaning will add great strength to one’s biblical understanding.                                                                                                                                                                                BI

1.  Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Biggs Hebrew and English Lexicon  (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), 75-76; Victor P. Hamilton, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 1:75.

2.  Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, trans. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, 2nd ed., rev. F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 561.

3.  Bauer, 27-28.

4.  William Mark Tew, “Judgment as Present and Future in the Gospel of John” (Th.D. dissertation, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 1988), 36-43.  Tew notes a clear distinction between believers and non-believers, convincingly arguing that John does not recognize a category of unbelief, as if one could not believe, but only that of non-belief where on confronted with evidence refuses to believe in spite of its convincing nature.

SOURCE: Biblical Illustrator; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234; Vol. 35, No. 2; Winter 2008-09.

My Little Children

By Bennie R. Crockett

Bennie R. Crockett, Jr., is associate professor of religion and philosophy, William Carey College, Hattiesburg, Mississippi.


N THE GOSPEL OF JOHN, 13 JOHN, AND THE REVELATION (the Johannine literature), the phrases “my little children,” “little children,” and “children” appear quite frequently.  The Greek word tekna [tek-NAH] is translated “children,” while the diminutive form teknia [tek-NEE-ah] is translated “little children.”  Another Greek word used in the Johannine literature as a general synonym for both tekna and teknia is paidia [pie-DEE-ah].  The term paidia occurs frequently in Jesus’ sayings in the Synoptic Gospels, but tekna and teknia are favorite terms of John.

A debated, yet significant historical and hermeneutical issue regarding all of these words is the author’s intended purpose for using these words.  What do these terms “children,” “little children,” and “my little children” mean, and further, how do the terms possibly identify he first readers of these documents, specifically 1 John?  Do these terms and phrases infer intimacy or endearment, spiritual maturity, or agreement with the author’s theological and ethical perspectives?  These questions and their potential answers will be treated in this article, but first, some technical issues will be summarized.

The use of the Greek words discussed above varies within the Johannine literature.  Only in 1 John 2:1 does the phrase “my little children” (teknia mou) appear in the Johannine literature; however, “my children” (ema tekna) does appear in 3 John 4 (cf. Gal. 4:19). Comparatively, “little children” (teknia) appears several times (John 13:33; 1 John 2:12,28; 3:7,18; 4:4; 5:21), while “children” (tekna) occurs on other occasions (John 1:12; 8:39; 11:52; 1 John 3:1,2,10; 5:2; 2 John 1,4,13; Rev. 2:23).  The plural term paidia appears only in John 21:5 and 1 John 2:14,18 in the Johannine literature.

An interesting fact about the appearance of these terms in the ancient Greek manuscripts for 1 John 2:12 and 3:7 is the seeming interchangeable nature of teknia and paidia.  The manuscript evidence is divided between the two terms for both 1 John 2:12 and 1 John 3:7, and modern editors of the Greek text for these verses have placed teknia in the text with paidia in the footnotes.  Additionally, one manuscript of 1 John 2:12 adds “my” (mou) to “little children” (teknia), whereas in 1 John 3:18 “my” (mou) is added to “little children” (teknia) in several manuscripts.  Probably, the addition of “my” to “little children” in 1 John 2:12, 3:18 occurred because of the use of “my little children” in 1 John 2:1.  These textual variations seem not to play a part in identifying the author’s addressees.1

The translation of teknia, and paidia varies in some of the translations.  In the King James Version, teknia and paidia are translated “little children,” in John 13:33 and in 1 John 2:1,12,14,18,28; 3:7,18; 4:4; 5:21, but in John 21:5, the KJV translates paidia as “children.”  Conversely, the RSV, the NRSV, and the NASB include the translation “children” for both tekna and paidia, but “little children” for teknia.  On the other hand, the NIV and the TEV vary in their treatment of these Greek terms within the  Johannine literature.  The NIV includes “dear children” as the translation for both teknia  and paidia (1 John 2:1,12,14,18,28; 3:7,18; 4:4; 5:21); however, in John 13:33 the NIV translates teknia as “my children.” rather than “dear children” as teknia is translated in 1 John.  Also, in John 21:5 the NIV translates paidia as “friends.”  The TEV in 1 John 2:1,12:28; 3:7,18; 4:4; 5:21; and John 13:33 treats the diminutive form teknia in the same manner as it treats tekna and paidia: “my children.”  In John 21:5, however, TEV translates paidia as “young men.”  It seems apparent from the English translations alone that there are significant differences of opinion as to the referential meaning of these various Greek terms for “children” or “little children.”

The most general theological references to “children” in the Johannine literature appear in John 1:12; 11:52; and 1 John 3:1-2.  These texts refer to persons who have become the children of God.  A distinguishing Johannine characteristic for these people is that the world does not recognize their identity as God’s own, or that the world rejects them because of their identity as God’s own.  In 1John 3:1-2 the author identified himself and the other participants as “children of God”; that is, those people who hav the hope of Jesus’ appearance and are pure (1John 3:2b-3).  Alternatively, 1John 3:10 may be understood as another general reference of contrast between those who are of love (“children of God”) and those who are of unrighteousness (“children of the devil”), a negative text about those persons who left John’s church (1John 2:19).

A more specific use of “children” in John’s letters occurs in 2John 1,4.  In these two texts, the term “children” is applied to those persons who are Christians within another church (“elect lady”) with which the author is familiar.  Seemingly, in 2John 13 the author used “children” similarly to refer to Christians who send greetings to the “elect lady And her children,” which is a feminine personification for the addressees in 2John 1.

Omitting the textual variations in 1 John 2:12 and 3:18, the only reference to “my little children” appears in 1John 2:1.  A common interpretation of the phrase “my little children” is to take the reference as a phrase of general intimacy or endearment between the author and the addressees, or a phrase that the author used to refer to his spiritual children.2  Whether “little children” is a phrase of intimacy, endearment, spiritual descendence, or a reference to a particular age group among the recipients seems not to be the most significant issue related to John’s use of the term.  The key issue is that “my little children” and “little children” probably identify the author and the addressees as Christians within a common church tradition as opposed to a group of separatists outside that tradition (1John 2:19; 2John 1,4,13).3

In light of this view, most of the appearances of “children” or “little children” (1John2:1,12,14,18,28; 3:7,10,18; 4:4; 5:2,21) refer to the author’s and the addressees’ similar religious experience within the same church community.  The author’s identification of the recipients as children of God or “my little children: indicates a religious and social separation of the author/addressees from a second group of persons who evidently had left the church because of Christological and ethical differences (1John 2:19; 2 John 7).  The separatist group denied Jesus’ humanity and left the larger church community because the separatists misconstrued the Gospel’s assertion of Jesus’ eternal divinity as a denial of Jesus’ humanity.4  Those separatists who had left the church are identified pejoratively in 1John as “blind” (2:11), “antichrists” who deny Jesus’ humanity (2:18; cf 2John 7), “liars” and those persons who deny the messiahship of Jesus and the fatherhood of God (1:10; 2:22), “deceivers” (2:26; cf. 2John 7), “children of the devil” (3:10), those persons who hate their Christian brothers and sisters (3:15), “murderers” (3:15), and “false prophets” (4:1).  This separatist group seems to have been a group of docetic gnostics, those who denied Jesus’ humanity and messiahship, and who also denied their ethical responsibilities to the needy in the Christian community.

Conversely, “my little children” and “children” are phrases and terms in 1John that the author used to identify those persons who are faithful to Jesus and to Jesus’ exemplary lifestyle.  These faithful people confess that Jesus came in the flesh (4:2; cf. 2John 7) as the Son of God and the Messiah (3:23; 4:15; 5:1).  Of equal significance to that verbal confession was the ethical practice of loving those who were in physical or spiritual need (3:17,18,24; 4:11,21).

In summary, the faith practiced by “my little children” would be characterized by those persons who do or know the truth (1:6; 2:20), walk in the light (1:7), confess sins (1:9), keep Jesus’ or God’s commandments (2:3; 3:11,22; 5:2,3), love their Christian brothers and sisters in deed (2:11; 3:14,17-18,23), have been forgiven and know the Father (2:12,14), have an anointing of the spirit (2:20,27), have confidence upon Jesus’ appearance (2:28), are righteous and have been born of God (3:7,9), have passed from death into life (3:14), have overcome the world (4:4; 5:4), and finally, have eternal life (5:12,20).

1.  For these textual variations see Novum Testamentum Graece, 26th ed., ed. E. Nestle, E. Nestle, K. Aland (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelstiftung, 1979), 617, 619-20.

2.  B.F. Westcott, The Epistles of St. John, (1883; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1966), 58, 105; E.A. McDowell, “1-2-3 John” in The Broadman Bible Commentary, vol. 12 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1972), 193,199; A.N. Wilder, “The First, Second, and Third Epistles of John” in The Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. 12 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1957), 226).

3.  The view that the separatists from John’s church provoked the Johannine letters has been popularized by R.E. Brown in The Community of the Beloved Disciple (New York: Paulist Press, 1979) and The Epistles of John in The Anchor Bible, vol. 30 (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1982).

4.  On the contrary, Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3.11.1) in ca.AD 185 noted that John wrote the Gospel to refute the Gnostics who followed Cerinthus in believing that Jesus was not totally divine from birth to death.

SOURCE: Biblical Illustrator; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234; Summer 1993.



By James A. Brooks

Dr. Brooks is professor of New Testament, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.


NOSIS is a Greek word meaning “knowledge.”  The word gnosticism  refers to dependence on a special kind of knowledge for the salvation of the soul.  Theodotus (three-uh-DOE-tuhs), a second-century Gnostic, defined gnosis  as “knowledge of who we were, what we have become, where we were, where we have been cast, where we are hastening, from what we are being redeemed, what is birth, and what is rebirth.”1 Gnosis therefore is not rational knowledge, but self-knowledge, knowledge of the divine element within and how to effect it’s redemption.

Until 1945 most of what was known about gnosticism came from the Christian writers of the second through the fifth centuries who wrote against heresies.  Scholars naturally questioned the accuracy of such biased accounts. In that year, however, twelve ancient books containing fifty-two gnostic works were discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt.  The books were written in Coptic, the native language of ancient Egypt.  Nag Hammadi, the modern name, is ancient Chenoboskion, the site of the famous monastery of Pachomius.  Now, for the first time, scholars have a large quantity of primary (first-hand, or prime witness) source materials for the study of gnosticism.  All of these books now have been published in English translation.2 For the most part, the Nag Hammadi documents have confirmed the accounts of the early Christian writers.

Even with the new material, most of what is known about gnosticism still is knowledge of a Christian heresy which began about the middle of the first century, attained maturity during the second and third centuries, and thereafter slowly declined.  The word Gnosticism  (capitalized) properly refers to this heresy described below.  It threatened the very existence of apostolic Christianity and was refuted by such champions of orthodoxy as Irenaeus of Lyons in Gaul (the southern part of modern France) about 180, Tertullian of Carthage in North Africa about 210, Hippolytus of Rome about 230, and Epiphanius of Salamis in Cyprus about 390.

Nevertheless, twentieth-century scholars have come to realize that the gnostic movement was much more widespread than this Christian heresy, that there were Jewish and pagan forms of it as well, and that these other forms may even be pre-Christian in their origin.  To say the least, many of the individual elements which later combined to produce the various gnostic systems were pre-Christian.  The preceding statement introduces a very important element in the understanding of gnosticism.  Gnosticism is the result of syncretism, that is, the mixing of many different religious and philosophical ideas.  Of course, many different combinations and emphases were possible, and that is why we find so mach variety in gnosticism.  Gnosticism not only was the result of syncretism; it was the ultimate in syncretism.

Syncretism was encouraged by the breakdown of ancient religions and philosophies.  As a result, a religious vacuum was created.  Gnosticism was one of several attempts to fill that vacuum and meet the religious and intellectual needs of the day.  The mystery religions, most of which were imported from the East and whose rites of initiation were kept secret, were other attempts.  Christianity was still another, and in the end it proved best able to provide the satisfaction which men craved.

The following picture does not describe any one gnostic system but is a composite of many.  To describe only one would give an inadequate view of gnostic teachings, and it is not necessary for present purposes to describe each system individually.

At the root of all forms of gnosticism was a dualistid  philosophy; that is, everything of a spiritual nature is good but everything of a material or physical nature is evil.  The true god is pure spirit and therefore is infinitely good.  Likewise the soul or spirit of man is good.  The world and the physical body, however, are evil beyond all hope of redemption.  No positive relationship can exist between the spiritual and the material.  As a result the gnostic, who thought he had discovered his true spiritual nature, felt alienated from the world.

The gnostics were much concerned to explain the origin and nature of the gods on the one hand and man and the world on the other.  At the top of the gnostic hierarchy was the supreme Father who is so far removed from the world that to conceive of him is difficult, even more to describe him.  From him has emanated (come out of) in male and female pairs several lesser deities, from them still lesser deities, and so with each succeeding emanation being one step further removed from the supreme Father.  Most gnostic systems have about thirty such deities, which are called *aeons, and which together constitute the Fullness, or the totality, of the godhead.

So much then for the gods—or at least the good ones.  What about man and the world?  Of course the supreme God, being pure spirit, could not have created either man or the world.  The material and physical creation was the result of the “sin” of one of the least of the above deities, who most strangely was called Wisdom.  She was not content with her position, aspired to see the Father from whom she was so far removed, but instead conceived matter.  As a result she “fell” from the Fullness and directly or indirectly created the world, man, and the archons.  The archons are hostile deities or demons who inhabit the planets and the space between the world and the highest heaven, the Fullness.

In some gnostic systems Wisdom was assisted by a demiurge, an inferior creator god.  Some gnostics identified this demiurge with Yahweh, the creator God of the Jews, the God of the Old Testament.  Note well therefore that gnostics made a radical distinction between the supreme God—the good God—and the inferior, evil, creator god.  Indeed, the obvious purpose of all the emanations was to remove the one pure spirit as far as possible from the material creation.  Of course, a negative attitude toward the God of the Old Testament carried with it a negative attitude toward the Old Testament itself.  Some gnostics made heroes of the villains of the Old Testament such as the serpent, Cain, Korah, and the Sodomites.

In the gnostic scheme the dominant element in human nature is the physical, which is destined to perish. There is in some  persons at least—some gnostic systems would say in all  persons—a spiritual (good) element which adhered to Wisdom (bad) when she fell and which was transmitted by her to mankind.  This spiritual element, although imprisoned in the body, is the true self and the subject of salvation.

Salvation for the gnostic consists of the soul gaining its freedom from the body, ascending past the hostile archons, and being reabsorbed in the Fullness which is its place of origin.  This salvation can come about only if a person had the necessary knowledge.  Such knowledge consists of learning about the spiritual nature within how to liberate the spiritual and suppress the physical, and the necessary formulas to get past the archons.  Such knowledge can come only through revelation,  and it is at this point that Christian Gnosticism emerges.

The Christians Gnostics taught that the Father sent the highest of the *aeons, one variously known as Mind, Word, and Christ, into the world to teach men what they needed to know to be saved.  The divine Christ, however, being a spirit, could not have a physical body and could not suffer.  Some Gnostics therefore claimed that the Christ only seemed to have a body, that he was a phantom.  Others explained that eh divine Christ came upon the human Jesus at his baptism and left him before his crucifixion.  In such case there was no incarnation, and it was only the man Jesus who suffered.  Still others claimed that the Christ tricked Simon of Cyrene into switching places with him and that it was Simon who died.

In order to explain the differences in their doctrines and those of orthodox Christianity, Christian Gnostics claimed to possess secret traditions.  They claimed that the Christ taught his disciples privately as well as publicly, that the public teaching is contained in the New Testament, but that the private teaching is contained only in secretive books possessed by the Gnostics themselves.  For example, the Gospel of Thomas, one of the Nag Hammadi works, begins with the statement, “These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke.”3 Rejection of the Old Testament and reliance upon secret traditions is but one of many instances where gnostics divorced themselves from history.

Gnostic ethics took two radically different directions, yet both started from the basic premise that the body is evil.  One group abused the body and practiced asceticism.  The other went to the opposite extreme and indulged the body in what orthodox Christians would call immorality (libertinism or antinomianism).  The latter claimed that inasmuch as the body is totally evil, it cannot be made more so by indulgence.  Some even went so far as to claim that one could never fully appreciate the good things of the Spirit unless he had personally experienced the evil things of the flesh!

If one may be permitted in an article of this nature to omit consideration of radical theories that parts of John’s Gospel and Paul’s epistles are actually gnostic, there still remains the fact that portions of the New Testament appear to have been written to combat a primitive form of Gnosticism.  Some of Paul’s opponents at Corinth may have had gnostic tendencies.  Note the references to those who claimed perfection (1 Cor. 4:8), who claimed that they could do anything (6:12-20), and who denied the resurrection of the body (15:12-22).  And note how Paul depreciates knowledge as such (8:1; 13:8,12).

The false teachers at Colossae had certainly started down a gnostic path.  Because they had a very low view of Jesus, Paul felt impelled to emphasize Christ’s greatness (Col. 1:15-19).  They worshiped angels (2:18), which is probably a reference to the *aeons.  The thrones, dominions, principalities, and authorities (1:15; 2:10,15) may be the *aeons or the archons or both.  Paul makes it clear that Christ, not such beings, constitutes the Fullness (1:19; 2:9).  The false teachers exhibited an attitude of exclusiveness typical of gnostics (1:20,28; 2:18; and 3:11), and therefore Paul emphasized that Christ is for all men.  And they practiced asceticism (2:18-23).

Likewise, the heretics who are opposed in the Pastoral Epistles practiced asceticism (1 Tim. 2:18).  Furthermore, they were preoccupied with myths, genealogies, and speculations (1 Tim. 1:4,6-7; 2 Tim. 4:4; Titus 1:14; 3:9).  It is evident that the heresy reflected in the Pastorals had a Jewish element (see especially Titus 1:14), but as indicated above this Jewishness creates no problem in identifying it as gnostic.  Of special significance Paul condemned “what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim. 6:20, RSV).

Second Peter and Jude should probably be understood against a background of an emerging Gnosticism whose ethic was of the antinomian or libertine variety (2 Pet. 2:2,7,10,13-14,18; Jude 4,7,16).  Jude 4 indicates that the false teachers had a defective view of Christ, whereas verse 8 shows that their doctrine was the product of their imagination.

Perhaps the clearest refutation in the New Testament of gnostic teaching is in 1 and 2 John.  The repeated emphasis in 1 John on the necessity of love for fellow Christians reflects the gnostic contempt for all but their own.  Likewise, the frequent insistence upon keeping God’s commandments indicates that there were some who saw no value in such obedience.  Most revealing is the repeated condemnation of those who deny that the man Jesus was the Christ (1 John 2:22-23; 4:2-3; 2 John7; compare 1 John 4:13-14; 5:5-8).  John’s opponents believed that the divine Christ had come into the world, but they did not identify him with the human Jesus.  In other words they denied the humanity of Christ, something John described as an intolerable heresy.

Can the Gnosticism opposed in 1 and 2 John be identified more precisely?  Irenaeus states that John wrote his Gospel to refute the Gnostic Cerinthus.4 He also relates the amusing account of how “John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming: ‘Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.’”5 Elsewhere he describes the teaching of Cerinthus:

Cerinthus . . . taught that the world was not made by the primary God, but by a certain Power far separated from him. . . . He represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary . . . while he nevertheless was more righteous, prudent, and wise than other men.  Moreover, after his baptism, Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles.  But at last Christ departed from Jesus, and that then Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained impassible, inasmuch as he was a spiritual being.6

It is true that John nowhere opposes the cosmogonical (having to do with creation) speculations of Cerinthus, and it is also true that certain aspects of the heresy opposed in 1 John are not found in the brief descriptions of Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Eusebius, and Epiphanius.  These considerations, however, are not sufficient to invalidate the tradition that John opposed Cerinthus.  John no doubt concentrated on what to him, a contemporary, appeared to be the most dangerous aspects of the heresy.  Of course, he may have been opposing other false teachers as well.

*Aeon ē´on: This word originally meant “duration,” “dispensation.” in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle the word is αἰώνaiō̇n, from which this word is transliterated. In the Gnostic philosophy it has a special meaning and is there used to solve the problem of the world order. In the infinite separation between God and the world, it was taught, there must of necessity be mediating powers. These powers are the eons and are the successive emanations from God from eternity. They are spiritual, existing as distinct entities. They constituted the Divine fullness or the Divine Pleroma. The name was applied to these beings for two reasons: because they were thought to partake of the eternal existence of God and because they were supposed to govern the various ages. The idea of the eons in various forms may be found in nearly all oriental philosophy that attempted to deal with the problem of the world order. It appears in the writings of Philo, in Shintoism, in the old Zoroastrian religion. 

1.  Cited by Clement of Alexandria, Excerpts from Theodotus  78. 2. Translation by the author of this article.

2.  James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library  (New York: Harper & Roe, 1977).

3.  Ibid., p. 118.

4.  Against Heresies  3. 11. 1; translated in Ante-Nicene Fathers  1:426.

5.  Against Heresies  3. 3. 4; cited from Ante-Nicene Fathers  1:416.

6.  Ibid., 1. 26. 1; 1:351.

SOURCE: Biblical Illustrator; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234; Fall 1982.




(09, 155)  What is the Answer To & Where in The Bible is This Week’s Trivia Question Found: What nation did God say would have its towns and fields cursed because of disobedience?   Answer Next Week:  

Last Week’s Question: What seer of weird visions beheld a throne like a sapphire?  Answer: Ezekiel; Ezekiel 1:26.