“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, if they are of God because many false prophets are (or, have) gone out into the world. Herein ye know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesseth Jesus Christ come in flesh is of God; and every spirit which confesseth not Jesus15 is not of God; and this is the (spirit or principle) of the antichrist whereof ye have heard that it cometh; and now it is already in the world. Ye are of God, dear children, and have overcome them, because greater is he that [is] in you than he that [is] in the world. They are of the world: for this reason they speak [as] of the world, and the world heareth them. We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God doth not hear us. From this we know the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error” (vers. 1-6).
Before the apostle proceeds with God’s abiding in us, known by the Spirit given to us (1 John 3:24), he turns off to the grave subject before us. Therein he would guard us, against the inroads of the enemy on the foundations of the faith, by the truth of Christ’s person, and by God’s authoritative revelation of Him through the inspired apostles and prophets given by the ascended Lord, and embodied in the Scriptures of the New Testament.
It is not, as in his previous teaching, the tests which sever the real Christian from the spurious or self-deceived. The introduction of the Holy Spirit leads him into a digression, as we have seen his manner to be, of extreme value on what is most fundamental, the divinely given tests of the truth itself. These tests are two: the person of Him who was manifested in flesh; and the revelation of Him through the chosen witnesses in order that, as He was truly divine and perfectly human, we might have a no less divine communication of what is so transcendent a blessing stamped with God’s authority through men inspired for the purpose. He is the One on whose reception depends life eternal with all the privileges of the Christian, and of the church, of which the apostle Paul was the minister beyond all others; He is the One whose rejection entails God’s wrath to abide on all those guilty of it (John 3:35, 36). As He came down from heaven, Himself the truth in sovereign grace, so God took care to give us the surest revelation by man and for man, — whether he hear or refuse, adapted to the conscience and heart of man, but guarded and guided by the God who cannot err.
If God in virtue of redemption was pleased to give the Holy Spirit to the Christian in a measure and way which was not nor could be before Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension, Satan set himself to counterfeit the heavenly gift, and thwart the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. He acts by apostates, the many false prophets who not only mislead others to perdition, but incur themselves vengeance more severely than the guilty Jew or the dark Gentile. Hence the care to present the two-fold criterion of the truth in the simplest and most direct form for the help of every Christian who needs it.
“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits if (or, whether) they are of God.” It is a question of discerning, not Christians, but the real character of those who claimed to speak. in the Spirit. This the enemy simulated; and his power of subtle persuasion has ever been great since man’s first temptation in paradise. “He was a murderer from the beginning, and stood not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh falsehood he speaketh of his own, for he is a liar and its father” (John 8:44). Evil spirits were more than ever at work to oppose the Spirit of truth, as very many unclean spirits in the possessed were cast out by the Holy One of God when here. In the Gospel of the divine Servant of God and man, it is the first miracle recorded; Christ’s word had power to bless man, and expel the demon. And now that the intrepid and unflinching apostle to the uncircumcision was gone, his warning to the elders of the church in Ephesus was being rapidly verified: “I know, that there will come in among you after my departure grievous wolves, not sparing the flock; and. from among your own selves shall arise men speaking perverted things to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29, 30).
This outbreak of evil was aggravated before the eyes of the last apostle. He appeals to every saint on his faith in Christ and in the word of God; and strips the true question of all the gloss of reasoning and sentiment by which the enemy obscured what was at stake. It was really giving up God and His word under pretension of new and higher truth. Some antichrists denied the real humanity of Christ, others His true deity, and others their union in one person. In any of these ways the truth of His person, and of His work consequently, was abandoned and sought to be overthrown. They knew the Father and Jesus Christ whom He sent; and they had the Spirit to help them. Thus they were as simple children of God not only responsible but by grace adequate to prove what sort of spirit wrought in these new lights. They were bound for His sake and for their own souls to sift their novelties, “because many false prophets were gone out into the world.” Were these men such? Christ had given true “apostles and prophets,” who conjointly form the foundation of the church dogmatically. Hence we have Mark and Luke, to say nothing of writers of Epistles, who were not apostles but prophets. Satan imitated this, and availed himself of these unbelievers in going out into the world to lead astray and destroy. There were “many false prophets.”
The first test is as to the Spirit. “Herein we know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesseth Jesus Christ come in flesh is of God.” The common rendering fails to give its real force; for the introduction of “that” and “is” is not only uncalled for, but makes it to be mere confession of a fact; whereas the apostolic word means the confession of His person. Is it true that an evil spirit would deny the historical fact that Jesus Christ is come in flesh? Do not Mohammedans admit this fact without hesitation, if the Jews do not? And assuredly some of the most extreme and pernicious sceptics allow the fact, and eulogise the Lord after their fashion as the best of men.
But there is no true confession of the person of the Lord as here laid down by the apostle save by the Spirit of God. For, few as the words are, they go to the essence of the matter. Many a man was called “Jesus” between the son of Nun and the Son of Mary the virgin. The first, as far as Scripture speaks, was truly but only a type of the Joshua immeasurably greater than himself. Others may have been so named, but quite unworthy, notably he whom the Jews preferred to the Lord of glory, if we attach any credit to some twenty manuscripts which say so. Certainly he was surnamed Barabbas (son of the father), the devil’s counterpart to the true Son of the Father.
The Spirit in Matt. 1 gives us His interpretation of the name: “Thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.” Joshua led Israel into Canaan in the face of enemies which swarmed there; but the Antitype alone could save His people from their sins. He was Jah, Jehovah, the Eternal absolutely, the Eternal relatively and historically; and as they were His people, He it was that should save them from their sins, as none but He could who was also Immanuel, God with us; and who but He could claim this title as Himself 2 If His people reject Him to their own loss for awhile, His grace turns to the besotted nations, to such of them at least as hear His voice. To Gentiles, as we were, this salvation was sent meanwhile; but the Gentile, puffed up in unbelief and pride, must be cut off, as in part the Jews were to let us in. At length, turning to their crucified Messiah, then exalted and lifted up and very high, and cleared of all inward fear as well as of outward, “So all Israel shall be saved.” His love had waited long, unexhausted and faithful till they will have got to the bottom of their evil and their sufferings; His mercy endures for ever, as His gifts and calling admit no change of mind.
This is the “Jesus Christ” whom every spirit that is of God confesses. Only He is now known in Christianity far more profoundly as well as more intimately than when presented to Israel, who shall know Him in the visible glories of the coming kingdom. He who came in flesh was Jah the Saviour, as He was also God’s Anointed or Christ. It is He whom the Spirit of truth honours, as the spirit of error hates Him. For there is the dark side: “Every spirit which confesseth not Jesus is not of God.” What confirms the shorter reading here is the article before “Jesus” in the latter clause. It is in its common usage of reference, and can hardly be expressed in English translation. But the explanation is clear and sure: “Every spirit which confesseth not (the) Jesus (already described).” It supposes no repetition of the words here omitted, yet implies that predication as true.
The name of Jesus is the expression of all that He is as revealed of God; and as we need, so we have it all to our everlasting joy. Nor does it avail only for the supreme excellency of all that is in Him and through Him: He and He only gives us the truth of every one and thing as it really is; and thus He proves Himself to be the truth objectively, as the Spirit is the truth in the inward power of giving us to realise and enjoy what is in and by Christ (1 John 5:6). He alone leads into any adequate knowledge of God. He shows us the Father. He makes known to us, as not to the world, the Holy Spirit. He reveals the Trinity. In Christ we know light and life and love, as of God, and nowhere else. In Him we know obedience, righteousness, holiness, reverence, dependence, faithfulness, humility, meekness, absolutely and in all perfection. In Him is displayed man the worthy object of God’s delight; and man under Satan’s power in his enmity to God, the truth of man naturally as he is. So through Him we know what Satan is in hatred as well as deceit. Without Christ we have only the shadow of redemption and propitiation, of sacrifice and offering, of priest and sanctuary. He only is the substance and fulness, setting everything in its true character and true relation to God, Himself the centre of all. Do you doubt as to the truth of anything? Bring Christ into the difficulty, apply Him to the question; and you will find the truth in each and every case. Is not He manifestly and justly the criterion of the truth?
Thus it is that, while the reasoning soul loses itself in the labyrinth of speculation in quest of the truth which eludes the strongest natural mind, grace provides the truth in Christ to the simplest believer who looks to Him as his all. For there is the solution; Christ is the truth objectively, as the Spirit is in power to his spirit. Those self-seeking and self-vaunting “false prophets” may tell “the little child” that he cannot do without them, and that they alone have “the spirit,” he no more than “the letter.” The believer knows that he has Christ, the Son manifested in flesh, and refuses to let go what was “heard from the beginning” and is now in the written word of God. He does not pretend to have all realised; but he knows that having Christ the truth, he has it all perfectly in Him, and counts on the unction of the Spirit for application as the need arises. He therefore feels the all-importance that what was heard from the beginning should abide in him, that he too should abide in the Son and in the Father. If Christ thus revealed is given up, Christianity is gone. And when the enemy was undermining Christ under pretence of higher truth, the Spirit of God recalls to Him Who was and is the truth. He therefore admits of no development, which is no more than the lie of Satan, and has no truth, but betrays itself by denying known life eternal as His present gift. The lie offers only “ideas.”
Grace then furnishes a sure criterion to know when it is the Spirit of God teaching the truth, or when an evil spirit insinuates the great lie. The Holy Spirit glorifies Jesus; the evil spirit cries up the world, being the instrument of the devil to deceive as far as he can. If he cannot deceive the elect, he accuses them, and makes them appear narrow, morose, and bigoted; because they are not misled by the fine colours with which Satan invests his evil doings. They believe God concerning His Son. This is quite a different thing from confounding with faith credulity, which is but believing man. But no link with God is formed save in believing God; and this is by His word, and since the apostle passed away, His written word. The Holy Spirit bore witness to the Lord as the incarnate Son of God. One accordingly believes on the Lord Jesus Christ at God’s word for life eternal. A fact about Him, however true and important, is not believing on and confessing Himself. Life is in His Son. And He came in flesh; for this was essentially “Jesus,” the marvel of divine grace, the test of divine truth. Confessing Him means that one owns the truth of His person thus come in flesh. The difference is not only important but vital. It is not the fact of His birth, but His person so born to confess.
Many think that here it is only the fact of His incarnation. Assuredly the incarnation is pressed, because it is a cardinal truth of Christianity, of rich grace; and there were some then that denied it and reduced it to a mere semblance. A little book of great antiquity was discovered recently called the Gospel of Peter, not only spurious but utterly heterodox, evidencing deadly error in early days; a most sorrowful thing that it should ever have been written. For it was as false in itself as it was a vile imposture, no more coming from a Christian than from Peter. But Peter was a marked favourite because of his fervour; and many who could not fully take in Paul’s teaching exceedingly enjoyed Peter’s preaching. The wicked forger took advantage of the apostle’s repute (probably after his death) to gain acceptance for his own Gnostic legend. For its purport is to represent that Christ did not come in flesh so as to die on the cross, that He merely took flesh as one lives in a house; that flesh did not really form part of His person; that, after living in the body for a time, on coming to the cross He left it and went up to heaven.
It seems like the doctrine of the Moslems, who imagine that, at the critical moment, God, by an exercise of His power and retributive justice, substituted Judas Iscariot for the Lord Jesus, and took Him up on high. In short this class of Gnostics and the Mahomedans held that the Lord did not die on the cross. Indeed the Mahomedans believe that the Lord will come again to judge the world, and that He will find all the world then in an apostate state. There are ignorant men preaching worse everywhere in Christendom, who look for a state of growing perfection for man on the earth without Christ. Is it not humbling to think that a kingdom without the King is the idea of vast numbers, alike Nationalist and Dissenting? Some, no doubt, look for another and greater outpouring of the Spirit to bring it about. But He will thus be poured out again in honour of Christ’s reign over the earth. The Mahomedans, blind as they are, own that in the coming crisis they themselves will have given up their Koran (their sacred book, as they call it), that the Jews will have given up the Old Testament, and that the Christians will have given up the New Testament. To such an apostasy Scripture shows that Christendom is rapidly hastening; and the strongest force toward it is in the sceptical theories which deny true inspiration, so prevalent in Christendom even now.
But here is the test, the touchstone of truth. “Every spirit which confesseth Jesus Christ come in flesh is of God.” This is the simple and proper way to render the words. The true spirit confesses Christ’s person. It is of all moment to understand this, because laying the stress on “coming in flesh” may overlook Who came thus. Undoubtedly His coming in flesh is very important, yet far more momentous is He who thus came. Who was He that came in flesh? persons in their senses would not say that you or I came in the flesh. Take the mightiest monarchs that founded world-powers — Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Alexander, Caesar. Take the greatest names in letters, philosophy, oratory, science, and what not. Nobody could with propriety speak of their coming in flesh. The reason is because we could not appear at all unless we came in flesh. The wonder, the truth, the infinite grace, is that He came in flesh. It was a divine person, the Son of God, the Creator. That He came in flesh is a most glorious thing morally for God and for man. Nothing in eternity past can compare with it save His death on the cross; nothing in eternity future.
Evidently the grand point is not merely what He became, but Who He is that thus came. Surely He might have come otherwise. He might have come in His own glory, He might have come in angelic glory (as in this guise He had often appeared for a little). He was pleased to come in flesh to glorify the Father, to vindicate God as such, to bless those who believe, to judge those who dishonour Him, to restore creation, and to destroy the devil and his works. All turns on His eternal being and divine glory. This is the doctrine of John all through the Epistle as well as the Gospel, and prophetically in the Book of Revelation; and here it is comprised in the criterion of God’s Spirit distinguished from the spirit of error.
No evil spirit will ever confess Him. They have the most awful dread of the Lord Jesus; and this natural dread is because they never doubt that He is a divine person, and that He is the appointed One not only to judge the world but in particular to punish them as the constant, active, and subtle instruments of antagonism to God and of endless mischief to man. Hence, whenever they were in the presence of the Lord, they showed the utmost terror. As the Epistle of James puts it, “The demons also believe and shudder.” Alas! this is what man does not; he neither believes nor shudders; but the day is coming when he must.
Therein we have the first test. It is the glorious person of Him that came in flesh. The truth of Jesus Christ runs from the first chapter to the last of this Epistle. It is here presented in few and plain words as the test of the Spirit of truth who is come down to glorify Christ.
Next we have the counterpart. “And every spirit that confesseth not Jesus”; such is the shorter and, as I believe, the true reading, in which the best critics agree. The acceptance of this text confirms the genuine sense of what precedes, and makes it perfectly plain that it is the confession, not of a mere fact, but of the person. For in the detection of the evil spirit there is nothing expressed as to Christ’s coming in the flesh, though implied of course. It is simply “Jesus,” while here the article appears, “the” Jesus of whom more had just been said. “Every spirit that confesseth not (the) Jesus is not of God.” He is adequate to detect every evil spirit. It is not only that He came, was truly man, and will come again. The Mahomedans believe all this; yet they themselves are, what they call others, unbelievers. For they do not believe in the glory of His person. Their unbelief makes them hate Christians, and join with the Jews in a measure against Christians. They only look at Him as a prophet, a wonderful man, excellent beyond all the sons of men, and the appointed Judge of the world when he comes to reign for seven years! But they do not believe in His divine nature, or that He put aside His divine glory to manifest God’s grace.
But if the critical text be certain, it makes no difference at bottom to the text on the negative side as compared with the positive, yet it confirms in the strongest way that the confession which the Spirit of God requires is not of tiny mere fact but of the person of our Lord, for in the negative case only the person is named, though the fuller expression is implied. It may be of interest to know that manuscripts are not wanting which departed from the right text in ver. 2 and made it to express simply a fact, and that the Latin Vulgate followed that error, with a few early fathers Greek and Latin. But no editor of the slightest weight follows their mistake.
This terminates the first test of the Spirit of God. It is the confession of the truth, Jesus Christ come in flesh. Every spirit which confesseth Him is of God: every spirit which confesseth Him not is not of God. “This is that [spirit, or, principle] of the antichrist whereof ye have heard that it cometh, and now it is in the world already.” It was not men only who were active but evil spirits; and the apostle speaks in real love but peremptorily. If a divine person in love to man deigned to be born of woman, how could it be an open question? Not to confess Him is to fight against God.
Thus closely connected with the first test we have the second test of the truth communicated to the Christian. Undoubtedly He personally is the truth (John 14:6), the Word become flesh who tabernacled among us. But God has given a fresh revelation of which He is the centre; and this is His word and the truth. It is this which is taken up here. It is the Father’s word, and it makes known the Father and the Son by the Holy Spirit. Do you ask where? It is what is commonly called the New Testament, the collected teaching of His holy apostles and prophets. Even then the false prophets claimed to have the fuller light of God. They did not admit that “the doctrine of the apostles” was God’s word. It was all well as a beginning: they alone had the truth. They were like the Quakers, who are fond of testifying; but it is their own thoughts and talk. Others too are not wanting, down to such as lay more stress on a dream to show them Christ, or their duty is Christians, than on the written word of God. Now we have the rationalistic school, who deny that Scripture is the word, although some allow there may be words of God in it. But they all deny it as a whole to be God’s word. Yet this unbelief unsettles everything in Scripture; for who then is to decide? Who is to say what is the word and what is not, if you are thrown on uncertain writings? This the sceptic likes, because he dreads the authority of Scripture, and the peril of which it warns all who do not bow to God. If it is the word of God, what an insult to God, and to the Holy Spirit especially whom the Lord declares it is unpardonable to blaspheme!
Those who are addressed no doubt felt the seriousness of what he had already said. He immediately adds another criterion of a kindred sort: the new word of God, His final communication, founded on Jesus the Lord and His work of redemption accomplished and accepted of God. “Ye are of God, dear children.” It seems preferable to render this term
τεκνία generally “dear children.” For
τέκνα all translate as “children” and “little children” (
παιδία) is appropriated in 1 John 2:13 and 18 to the third class of the “dear children” or tekniva, which is the general designation of all the three classes, and so runs through the Epistle. Hence “children” in 1 John 3:1, 2 includes all the family. We are all called “children of God,” and we are so now; and it is a mistake to say “sons” of God, though we are also His sons. But here it is expressly “children” of God, not sons adopted but born of God, and so His children. But
τεκνία is a diminutive term closely connected with “children “; and the reason for its use is as an expression of affection; as when a parent, not content to say to his little one “my dear,” calls it “my dearie.” It is meant for fondness of expression. This illustrates its force here; and therefore it seems best to say “dear children,” in order to distinguish from “children” (
τέκνα) on the one hand, and the little children or babes (
παιδία) on the other.
“Ye are of God, dear children,” is the address to the whole family. It is also the emphatic “ye.” The false prophets said they were the reliable guides. No, he means, they are enemies of Christ, emissaries of Satan. “Ye” are God’s children, in contrast with these pretentious and false guides that despise the dear children. God in Christ is to you the source of every blessing, life eternal, forgiveness, relation to Himself as Father, and the gift of His indwelling Spirit. “Ye are of God, dear children, and have overcome them,” that is, the false prophets. But it was not because you have anything to boast of your own wisdom or power or holiness; but “because greater is he that is in you.” The Christian’s source of power is the Spirit of God abiding in him. God Himself abides in him; and this He makes good by His indwelling Spirit. Therefore he can say “because greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world;” or as in 1 John 5:19, “The whole world lieth in the wicked one.” Here it is clearly the devil working by these evil spirits.
Thus the emphasis on “Ye” is exceedingly cheering and establishing: to be told that they distinctively were “of God” in the sense of His being the source of all their blessing. Also, if God is the giver of the blessing, He does not change. The gifts of God are without change of mind on His part. When it is not a gift or a calling of God, He may repent. So He repented of creation (Gen. 6:6), as we are told; and He destroyed it. That was not a gift; but simply an act however immense. But when in sovereign love He calls to Himself poor guilty men to make them His own, when He makes a gift of eternal life, for instance, or forgiveness of our sins, or the place of a child, such boons are the gifts and calling of God; and they are without repentance. Here His mind never changes. The children may be too often foolish and sadly wrong, but He does not change.
What the apostle says here has great force without doubt. It is not only that they had received all these blessings from God, but “Ye (emphatically) are of God.” They were born of God, loved as such by Him, and so abode as their new being. And if they “have overcome them,” the instruments of Satan’s deceit, it was “because greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world,” albeit its prince and god. These false prophets go boldly on with their spiritual wickedness, but “ye have overcome them.” Christians were not attracted to them but held aloof; they heard the voice of the good Shepherd and followed Him. They knew that only He could give life, liberty, and food (John 10:9), and that He had come and was sent of the Father on this errand of God’s love, and of His own love to them. Only the Son of God could utter such words; as only He laid down His life for them in atonement. They believed on Him who calls His own sheep by name, and they follow because they know His voice; they do not know the voice of strangers, but flee from them, and will not follow such. And now, as resting on Christ’s redemption, God Himself was in them by His Spirit and abiding in them.
Next he describes these false prophets in the most trenchant terms, and lays another and awful emphasis on them. “They are of the world.” The source of all their teaching as of all their conduct and aims was not God, but the world which is enmity against Him. It is therefore all under Satan’s instigation, who is at the bottom of all the lies which pretend to be the truth. “For this reason they speak out of the world,” as it literally runs: “(as) of the world” would be our idiom. The world which cast out God in Christ, and crucified Him was the spring of all they taught. The sense is not that they spoke “about” the world, and it was in order to distinguish from this that it has been paraphrased in the way just expressed. The world is the source, not the subject-matter, out of which they spoke. “And the world heareth them.” The world loves its own; and therefore the world, having no knowledge of God, nor of sin which needs His intervention in the Lord Jesus in both life eternal and everlasting redemption, is content with the grandiloquent speculations of the blind, which leave out God and exalt man as he is. They never truly heard the voice of the Son of God. They are dead; and things of death are their realities.
Then he turns to another emphasis. “We are of God” is another and distinct thing from “Ye.” “Ye” means the body of Christians, and real ones only. Besides what “we” share with “you,” God is the source of the divine power which makes us the mouthpieces of His word, so that you hear Him in hearing us. “We” means apostles and prophets sent of Christ, and given for the blessing of His saints. They were inspired of God, and so taught the truth as it is in Jesus. The New Testament consists of these divine communications in a permanent form. As they taught, so the inspired wrote; and as they wrote; so they gave out orally. As the New Testament consists of a number of pieces which were gradually added together, and all was not completely gathered into a single volume as now, there might have been a difficulty for some. The Lord’s authority was the end of controversy for the Old Testament to all men of faith. It might have been urged in early clays that the new words were so different from the Old Testament, so comparatively simple here and so profound there, that it was hard to say of all the little books then in circulation, the Gospels and the Epistles, that they were certainly inspired of God. It is then of this new word of God that the apostle treats, embodied in the so-called New Testament. This is the further criterion. What the apostles and prophets testified in the Holy Spirit of the Father and the Son in due time contributed this new deposit of inspiration; and the apostle refers to their testimony as being the truth as well as Christ. Christ, is the truth personally. The New Testament, giving the oral testimony of these chosen witnesses, is the truth in the written form. Therefore of these he says, “We are of God.” We have in the Holy Spirit set out to you the truth of Christ from first to last; we are of God in and for this work: “He that knoweth God heareth us.”
It seems a portentous mistake to apply the like to every Christian that preaches, no matter how truly, or to every teacher of the truth, no matter how well instructed he himself may be. What evangelist or teacher could claim such a place? Far be it from such so to exalt any gift the Lord may give today; nor have I ever known any true servant claiming such language for himself. It belongs only to inspired men. Consider seriously what the apostle says, “He that knoweth God heareth us.” Could any minister on earth expect this absolutely? It is not only that in the divided state of Christendom no man could look for such a hearing, but it never was true beyond the apostles and prophets. The apostle speaks only of those who shared a position like his own in those days when the foundation of Christianity was laid down. It was right and necessary that believers henceforth should know the divine authority which God insists on for the apostolic teaching. But it is restricted to the inspired of the New Testament as it had been to those of the Old Testament. There is now, as there was then, gracious guidance in the Spirit to every one that preached or taught the truth; but inspiration has the special character of exemption from error in what was given as the rule of faith.
Further, though they are gone, God took care that we should have their Spirit-taught words, not only their testimony but in the very words which the Holy Spirit gave them to utter, that what they were as of God then should never be lost, while a Christian remains to profit by them. This Epistle for instance we have as truly as those to whom it was written, and we have the same Spirit of God who abides for ever. But here it was for the inspired to lay the foundation. No such category of God’s servants is on earth now. But we have the work done by inspired writers. It is the written standard of Christianity and the church. He simply speaks of what they gave out, and the saints heard. It was for the most part written then, though somewhat remained for himself to add. But he hesitated not to say that “he that knoweth God (that is, every Christian) heareth us.” He rejected the false prophets as of Satan, and not of God. “He heareth us” as the men exclusively raised up of God to give the truth, now contained in the New Testament.
His words are as important as of the deepest interest. Men have dared to say there is nothing in the New Testament that claims the authority of God for itself. It is only their ignorance that has blinded their eyes to what God does say there. Nor is this the only witness to the same truth; for there are several more in the New Testament. The first of those scriptures we may look at is 1 Cor. 11. For demons had been at work even in those early days, and the apostle took pains in 1 Cor. 12 to guard them from any spirit which refused to call Jesus Lord. But 1 Cor. 11:13 comes to us from God, “revealing” by the Spirit things hidden of old even from the prophets of early days. The time had come, for the Son of God had come, to reveal to us by the Spirit even “the depths of God.” Next, he adds their inspiration, or communication to the believers: “Which things also we speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit.” It is not that the Spirit only conveyed the ideas, for by this notion even many undermine inspiration. They assume that the thoughts came from the Spirit of God; but that for the good men were left to do the best they could. No wonder, if so, that men fall into mistakes. But this notion of theirs is exactly what is false. He says here that the things revealed they also speak; and this in words Spirit-taught, instead of being left to human infirmity. In short the Spirit who revealed the truths was equally careful to safeguard the words, “expounding (or, communicating) spiritual things in spiritual [words].” The medium of conveyance, the words were Spirit-taught, not left to feeble man. Thus the passage expressly tells us that the words were inspired, and not the thoughts only.
Take another witness to the same effect from the last Epistle that the apostle Paul ever wrote, his Second Epistle to Timothy. He shows that, in the perilous times of the last days, the main safeguard lies not in uncertain traditions of unknown source, but in abiding in the truth which we have learnt with full conviction, knowing their source, and now in the written word. Consider the persons that speak and how they stand in their ways, their conversation, their life. He says therefore, “But thou hast fully known my doctrine” — in contrast with these bad men, whom he calls impostors, comparing them to the magicians in Egypt. “But thou hast fully known my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, long-suffering, charity” — or love — “patience, persecutions” — not popularity — “persecutions, afflictions which came unto me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra; what persecutions I endured; but out of them all the Lord delivered me. Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” Such is the great mark of the real Christian now as it has always been. “But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived. But continue thou,” he says to Timothy, “in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them.” Their character, you see, being sustained with the truth is of all moment; for no matter what a man may say, however clever or smooth or with fine sentiments, it is all worthless unless he lives the truth now to the conscience of God’s elect.
“From a child thou hast known the sacred letters,” the Old Testament so described in ver. 15, “which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ, Jesus” But next in ver. 16 he comes to “Every scripture” — not exactly “all,” but “every scripture, is given by inspiration of God” (or, God-breathed). This is meant beyond doubt to cover the New Testament; and therefore purposely “every,” because some part — at least John’s writings — was not yet written. If he had said “all scripture,” it would have meant “all that is already written but when he says “every scripture,” the door is left open for any thing yet to be inspired. “Every scripture” is therefore the correct phrase, if any additions should be made to the Canon. Nor is it only that the men were inspired. What the apostle says here is that every thing coming under the character of Scripture is inspired. Here again it is not merely the ideas but what they wrote; Scripture necessarily means their words. The words were inspired just as much as the truth intended. Nor could anything be satisfactory unless it were so.
Let those who will compromise, so as to allow inspiration along with errors and inconsistencies, we who believe that God’s inspiration excludes such failures are exhorted to cast away theory and accept the facts. But we deny that their objections are well-founded, though we do not overlook the difficulties (many of them from the copyists, and therefore apart from inspiration).
Assuredly too of all these theories, none is so inconsistent and irreverent as their view of a divine inspiration with error and discrepancy pervading what is so vital a part — the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. How call so motley a product as this carry with it the authority of God, or be entitled to the name of God’s word? In fact the apparent discrepancies can be shown to flow from the distinct purpose of God by each of His instruments, each fitted specifically by grace for His work, and altogether effecting the more richly their combined testimony to the glory of the Lord Jesus beyond the thoughts of the writers themselves, but extant there for Christian use when required. But to admit that God inspired the various writers for His purpose of glorifying Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, and then to argue that they were allowed to make not a few mistakes (some of them gross and puerile) is surely of all theories the most unsatisfactory and the least defeasible even logically, not to say that it is wholly unworthy of the Holy Spirit as well as of Him who is the truth. For this halfway theory, like all compromises in divine things, cannot approve itself to any but its inventors, and in all probability not to them. We all know that the Lord promised the power of the Spirit to teach the apostles all things, and to recall to their remembrance all the things He said to them. This halting hypothesis is that the Spirit only brought them to their memory in a way or measure which exposed them to these alleged defects. The believer, without pretending ability to clear up every difficulty, is assured that what He promised the Holy Spirit performed, and that every scripture is worthy, not of the writers merely but of God, its real Author.
Clearly then if “he that knoweth God heareth us,” every Christian accepts the New Testament as of God; and again he who does not is no real Christian but a sceptic. For hearing the apostles and prophets of the New Testament is inseparable from knowing God now. This, the second test of the truth, goes farther than whether a man be a Christian. To profess Christ and reject plenary inspiration indicates the work of evil spirits. Infidelity as the rule begins with the Old Testament, but it will surely attack and reject the New Testament also. Singular to say, a gentleman who had filled a very important position with the world’s honour, active in Sunday School work, and regarded as a devoted Christian, suddenly disclosed one day when we talked together, that, although he fully believed in the Old Testament, he did not believe in the New! The avowal could not but wound a believer beyond measure. To kill another with a revolver seems to me a far less sin against God. Is it not awful to think of such audacious infidelity in one accepted as a Christian teacher? “Herein know we the Spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.”
It is well here to observe how far goes the principle here stated peremptorily: “He that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God doth not hear us.” It cheers the Christian, who finds his richest spiritual food not in the Old Testament though just as truly inspired, but in the New Testament where Christ is no longer veiled or distant, but manifested in all the fulness of His glory and His grace, in the majesty of God and the meek tenderness of the lowliest Man that ever trod the earth. We hear God speaking in the prophets His servants, but as Father in the Son, His Father and our Father, His God and our God. This judges man, religious no less than profane; this gives Him His place, and puts me in mine. As unbelieving it condemns pious superstition as thoroughly as profane infidelity, and every one of the many shades of unbelief in not hearing the voice of God in the words of the inspired, and here of Christ’s apostles and prophets in particular. And we may notice by the way that the apostle Paul claims for himself not a whit less than the apostle John for them all. “If anyone thinketh himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him recognise the things which I write to you, that they are the Lord’s commandment. But if anyone is ignorant, let him be ignorant” (1 Cor. 14:37, 38). What a reproof to vain Christians like those Corinthians — who enter on ground so slippery without knowing it!
“For the word of God is living and energetic, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and capable of judging thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is not a creature unmanifest in his sight; but all things are naked and laid bare to his eyes with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:12, 13). Do we need the church to tell us that the sword of the Spirit is God’s word when it pierces us through as nothing else? And as our Lord said in His last discourse to the unbelieving Jews, “If any man hear my sayings and keep them not, I am not judging him; for I came not that I might judge the world but that I might save the world. He that rejecteth me and receiveth not my sayings hath one that judgeth him: the word which I spoke, that shall judge him in the last day” (John 12:47, 48). And here in 1 John 4:6 the Holy Spirit inspired our apostle to assert the equivalent of the word that came through the apostles and prophets. Does one need the church to tell me that he spoke the truth of God to the blessing of the believer, to the ruin of the false prophets, and of all that despise what God authenticates? The inspired were servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries; but the word they spoke, or wrote, was no less God’s than if He had uttered it audibly to each that heard.
The church, the individual Christian, is directly addressed by His word. This is evident from the Epistles of the New Testament on their face. They were with a slight exception written to the general mass of the faithful, save the very few and short letters to fellow-labourers for work of which the faithful are not capable, but only such as had adequate authority. They remain for the faithful now as really as then; and if they find difficulties as the early Christians did, they have the same living Interpreter as their brethren of old. But the essential principle for faith is to have God speaking to His children immediately in His word. To interpose church or clergy between His word and His children is rebellion against God. It is false ground (too common among Protestants) to plead man’s right to hear His written word it is thoroughly true to assert His right to address, instruct, console or rebuke His own family; yea, more, to speak to the conscience of any and every man, as the Lord did and His apostles, and indeed His servants in general.
Nor is there a falser principle than that which has lately overspread the country through the Oxford revival of popery without the pope. They may base it on a saying of the famous Augustine bishop of Hippo; but it was unworthy of his piety. For it robs God of His due, to say that he would not believe the gospel, if the authority of the catholic church did not move him to it. Great a man as he was, here he did not realise what he said; for if one does not believe God’s word because He says it through the inspired, one does not truly believe God but rather His vouchers: a real and manifest insult to God. Believing God Himself makes my faith to be of divine source and character. No other faith is acceptable to God. Even to believe on Christ because of the signs He wrought and they beheld was human faith, and unacceptable: “Jesus himself did not trust himself to them” (John 2:24). To look for, or allow any one or body to accredit God’s word is a grievous sin against God and a deep injury to man; yea, it would be fatal unless it were a blunder, and the man had really better than such humanly grounded faith.
If any resort to the subterfuge that the apostle speaks only of the oral word, let them know that they are wholly and ungratefully in error when they thus slight the written word. The Lord Himself has ruled that, as bearing authority, Scripture is superior to anything merely spoken, even if He was the speaker who spoke as none else ever spoke. Therefore said He to the reasoning Jews, “Think not that I will accuse you to the Father: there is one that accuseth you, Moses on whom ye have your hope. For if ye believed Moses, ye would believe me, for he wrote of me. But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my sayings?” Both were the unimpeachable word of God, one spoken and the other written in the Holy Spirit; but as God’s authority to man, the Lord undeniably gives the highest place to the written word, the permanent witness of the divine mind, which allows of meditation and consideration before God as no oral words could. With this we may compare the apostle’s statement in Rom. 16:26, which is wrongly translated by the Revisers like others “the scriptures of the prophets,” in flat contradiction of now manifested “just before, and of “made known unto all the nations,” as well as of its own anarthrous form, “prophetic scriptures” (in contrast with Rom. 1:2). The phrase really applies to New Testament scriptures which had begun to appear in the widest known Gentile tongue, and were going forth as the gospel did to all the nations.
These words close the subject; and they are an admirable close. Whether it was the confession of Christ as He really is, the truth of His person, or whether the authority of the word that revealed Him, here we have in the simplest form the truth in Himself, and the truth that flowed from Him. This is the Spirit of truth. But there is the spirit of error also. The devil is its active source in its deadliest form. It is natural that those who believe not in the gracious presence of God’s Spirit should be no less incredulous of the immense part Satan takes in all the mischief of the world on a great scale generally; in the miseries of men individually as well is of nations, and of the savage races. But the worst part of the devil’s evil is what he does in Christendom; what he insinuates against Christ and the revealed truth of God. There it is called not exactly the spirit of malice, but “the spirit of error”; and this is the most dangerous. It is not gross corruption, nor sanguinary violence, but outwardly plausible and subtle inwardly, with a little truth in front of a great lie, openness to will but no room for conscience, Jesus not confessed but perverted, and the Father unknown. Such is the working of the spirit of error. Thence will be the apostasy and the man of sin.
How great the grace of God, in face of the declension of the Christian profession and the revealed utter ruin and judgment without one promise of recovery, to provide for the safety and joy of the faithful, however tried: Jesus truly confessed and believed on; the word of God; and both by the Spirit of truth. This is the substance of the solemn parenthesis now before us.
There is a cry often raised among those who rest for security and guidance on outward ordinances and on official position, not on the words “hear the church.” But it is striking to observe that they never think of applying these words of our Lord in Matt. 18:17 as He directs. It is His prescribed discipline where one brother sins against another, and it would seem on an individual matter between the two, at first unknown to others, which at length comes out through the offender’s refractoriness, so that the assembly or church becomes the last resort. Is this ever the way with those who cite it for what the Lord contemplates neither here nor anywhere else? As everyone knows, “hear the church,” in the right case as well as the wrong, means in their lips to hear the priest, or the priests collectively, or, among the extreme, the arch-priest, the Pope. But this is either sheer error or fraud, if they know they are without doubt misapplying His words.
Scripture however goes much farther, and shows that before the last apostle passed away declension had set in so decidedly that the Lord told John in the Spirit to write to the seven churches selected for the last letters to such on earth. They begin with that in Ephesus, so bright in earlier days, — but here threatened with the removal of its lampstand, and end with spuing that in Laodicea out of His mouth as intolerably nauseous. The Lord is not seen ministering in grace but judging in the midst, and therefore as Son of Man with garment flowing to the feet, not tucked up or taken off to do service. Now to every one of these churches chosen to set forth as a mystery the church on earth before it is seen no more here below, the Lord’s final word is (with a promise before or after), “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.” Since the apostle’s day the Lord has a grave controversy with the churches. Even then they were veering to ruin as assemblies, and He menaces at last with repudiation. The prophecy in the very next chapter shows the outer frame no longer an object of His communications; and the overcomers are seen glorified in heaven around a throne of divine judgment on Jews and Gentiles, with spared remnants from “both: no church more is apparent on earth, but strokes of displeasure on the nations. These are the things which are about to, and must, take place after “the things which are” (the church period).
Now such a message from the Lord “to him that hath an ear,” is of unspeakably solemn power. It negatives the perverted cry “hear the church.” It calls on every faithful soul to “hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.” The church never was a standard of truth, but God’s word only. Assuredly the church (not Israel, nor Mohamedanism, nor the heathen) is the responsible witness of the truth by fidelity to it in word and deed. No where, and no when, but in the church was testified “the mystery of godliness,” great as it is; the church is not the truth but its pillar and pedestal. Christ is the truth objectively, and the Spirit the power to work inwardly and bring it home. But when decay and heterodoxy set in, the outward professing church ceased to be even a reliable witness. And the Lord commands him that has the obedient ear to hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
The authority of the truth lies in Him whose words are divine; not so the pillar and pedestal which once hold them up to be seen and heard (1 Tim. 3). The pillar may be injured or defaced, but the truth remains for ever in Christ, the Spirit and the word. Yet 2 Tim. 3 speaks of men having a form of godliness but denying the power, and enjoins turning away from them. Ere long rival churches began, and not this only but also anathematising each other. This compelled all but the heedless to see the necessity of knowing the truth, in order to judge which of the two was the true church, or it might be neither. Thus the sevenfold call of the Lord to hear what the Spirit says to the churches, always true but now applied judicially and individually, became of increasing value. Assuredly it did not lose its need of application after the Reformation, when not only kings and nations claimed title to set up their own churches as distinctive religious corporations, but leading men asserted a similar right for their societies. Thus the very notion of the church got lost for most in the chaos of Christendom.
Nor can one be surprised that, having long ceased to believe in the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the assembly, they lost along with that the authority of the word, not only in practice but in principle, so far as to deny its self-evidencing light to the conscience of man, and to assert the need of the feeble falling church to make its authority valid But their crookedness in this is as clear as their presumption; for they avail themselves of every semblance of misunderstood Scripture to accredit their own systems. But the principle of using the church to authenticate God’s word is infidel, and convicts those who deliberately affirm it of departure from God’s authority. On the very day of Pentecost the apostle Peter vindicated the gift of the Spirit by the word of God. It never occurred to him nor any other apostle to appeal to the church. God’s word needs no vindication. To pretend that it does verges on blasphemy. The apostle Paul puts honour on the Old Testament in praising Berean Jews, not only for receiving the word with all readiness of mind, but also for searching the Scriptures if these things were so. They knew the old oracles to be of God, and did well to test the oral preaching of one whom they did not know, whose testimony they found by constant research corroborated by those Scriptures. The old written word was the standard which led them all the more to receive the new word with in readiness of mind.
15 On ample ground of external witness, backed up by internal considerations, almost all the later critics seem to be right in dropping the words here omitted, which were probably inserted from the clause before. The MSS. differ much as usual in such cases. — There is a reading, alluded to by ancient writers
ὃ λύει instead of
ὃ μὴ ὁμολογεῖ. But it is authenticated by neither ancient MS. nor Version, save the Vulgate’s “qui solvit.”