the possession of the divine life
You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them. (4:4–5)
In the incarnation, God became a partaker of human nature (Phil. 2:7–8; Heb. 2:14, 17; 4:15). Through regeneration, on the other hand, human beings become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4; cf. 2 Cor. 3:18). John’s statement, You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world, is primarily an affirmation of the believer’s security against the false teachers (cf. 2:20, 24, 27). All true Christians possess an incorruptible seed of eternal life (1 Peter 1:23–25), meaning that no satanic deception can take them out of God’s saving hand (John 10:28–29). Those truly born again have been given not only a supernatural insight into the truth (Luke 10:21) but a love for it as well (Pss. 1:2; 119:97, 113, 159, 167; cf. 2 Thess. 2:10; 1 Peter 1:22) and a discernment that protects them from apostasy (cf. Mark 13:22; Heb. 10:39). As Paul wrote:
Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Cor. 2:12–16)
Believers may be unsure about secondary, peripheral matters, but not about the foundational truths of the gospel, such as the person and work of Christ (cf. John 3:14–16; Rom. 1:16–17; 3:24–26; 5:1; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8–9; 2 Tim. 1:9). They will not be fooled when false teachers invariably devalue the work of Christ by championing some form of salvation by works (cf. Gal. 4:9–11; Col. 2:20–23).
On the other hand, false teachers and their followers cling to worldly ideas (see 2:15–17 and 1 Cor. 2:14) because they are from the world; they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them. Through what they say and how they live, false teachers demonstrate that they are anything but genuine servants of Christ. True believers, however, resist worldly ideas because they have overcome the world (cf. John 16:33).
The Church and the World (vv. 4–6)
At this point the contemporary reader may well feel that the discussion has become somewhat theoretical and even unreal. We are not often confronted today by those who claim to be prophets, he might argue. Our difficulty is rather of knowing on the purely human level whether or not a teacher speaks truly. Can we test those who speak on this level? Can truth be distinguished from error here? The objection is valid, of course, and the questions are good ones. Consequently, we are not surprised to find John turning to deal with the matter on this level in the remaining verses.
The outline to these verses is to be found in the emphasized pronouns that begin verses 4, 5, and 6. With the exception of verse 4 this is preserved even in most of the English versions.
Verse 4 begins with “you.” It is a reference to those who are of God, that is, to Christians. John says two things of these persons. First, he says that they have overcome the false teachers. He is not referring to a physical contest by these words, nor even to a struggle in the area of morality. It is rather an intellectual battle in which the Christians have been victorious. The false teachers had been seeking to deceive these believers, but they had not succeeded. Merely by testing them and refusing to be taken in by their lies, the Christians have conquered. Second, John indicates why the Christians have been victorious. It is not that they were stronger in themselves, for they probably were not. The Gnostics were the ones who were the intellectual giants. Rather, it is that God was in the Christians and that he who was in the Christians is stronger than he who is in the world. This last phrase recalls the statement of Elisha to his young servant when the latter was terrified at the armies of Syria who had surrounded them: “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16). In this case the reference was to the angels of the Lord who had surrounded Elisha.
Verse 5 begins with “they.” This refers to the false teachers who, John says, are of the world because what they say is of the world. It is the world’s philosophy even though it may be dressed in Christian language and be presented by those who claim to be Christian teachers.
The last verse, verse 6, begins with “we.” This “we” is not the same as the “you” who “are from God” in verse 4. In verse 4 the “you” is all Christians. In this verse “we” must refer, not to all Christians, but to the apostles, as the direct counterpart to the false teachers of verse 4. In other words, this “we” is the same as the “we” that begins the letter, which verses insist most strongly upon the apostolic teaching and testimony. What does this mean? It simply means that those who are of God and those who are of the world may be distinguished by their response or lack of response to the apostolic teaching. “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.” If this were a mere individual talking, the claim would be presumptuous. But it is not. This is one of the apostles citing the collective testimony of all the apostles and making that testimony the measure of truth and sound doctrine.
The tragedy of our time is that we do not have enough men and women to proclaim and defend that doctrine. So the truth is not clearly defined, and the way is not clearly illuminated. The doctrine of the apostles, the only true doctrine of the church, illuminates it; and the incarnation of God’s Christ defines and gives a focal point to that doctrine. It is for us to determine whether or not we believe that doctrine and, if we do, to respond to it. There are not three ways, according to the apostle. There are not four, or five, or more. There are only two ways: the way of truth and the way of error, the way of Christ and the way of antichrist. We are called to serve Christ, and those who are truly of God will do so.
4 Whether or not the Antichrists harbored hard feelings toward John (see comment at 2:19), John cannot allow a peaceful coexistence. In his view, the struggle between true believers and Antichrists is the visible expression of a cosmic, eschatological conflict between good and evil. Those who remain in John’s fellowship may rest assured of victory. In fact, the perfect tense of nikaō indicates that believers “have overcome” the Antichrists already. The next phrase is introduced by hoti, which most translations interpret causally (“because the one who is in you …”) to indicate the reason or means by which victory has been secured (NIV, NASB, NRSV, NEB, NKJV). More likely, John is introducing a saying or community slogan that affirms his claim to conquest. Breaking from a pure dualism, the slogan asserts that real believers must inevitably defeat the Antichrists because the Spirit that drives them is inherently stronger than the spirit of Antichrist.
4:4 / The Elder makes two assertions here about his followers. They are from God, i.e., as those who are born of God and God’s children (2:29–3:2; 3:9–10), they have their origin in God and, therefore, belong to him. Secondly, they have overcome the false teachers who deny Jesus. In 2:13, 14 the “young men” of the community are said to “have overcome the evil one.” Now, the faithful Johannine Christians have defeated the evil one’s representatives, the secessionist teachers, by not accepting their teaching or authority. They have resisted the temptation to accept false doctrine. It may have been this crisis of belief that drove the schismatics from the community (2:19); they rejected both the authority of the Elder and his teaching regarding the full humanity of Jesus.
But this victory over the heretics is ascribed to the power of the Spirit, the one who is in you (cf. John 14:16–17). God is given the glory. Just as in 2:27, where “the anointing” which “remains in you” and which “teaches you,” is the power to defeat “those who are trying to lead you astray” (2:26), so here “the Spirit he gave us” (3:24d), “the Spirit of truth” (4:6d), enables the community to be spiritually victorious over the one who is in the world, “the spirit of falsehood” (4:6d). The author has already said that “the spirit of antichrist” is in the world (4:3), and he will go on to describe the world as the dominion of the evil one (5:19). The devil, the power behind the opponents, has been overcome by God’s Spirit at work in faithful Christians. In moral and spiritual conflict today, it is still true that “greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world,” a strong incentive to rely on the indwelling Spirit of God.
Look at how they live (verses 4–6)
Because we have learned that belief and behaviour are always harnessed together, we are not surprised to find that John expands the way in which his test works out, by looking beyond the content of the false teaching to the effects it produces. Each of these three verses begins with a different pronoun, introducing a different group of people. You (verse 4) refers to all Christians, they (verse 5) to the non-Christian false prophets, and we (verse 6) to the apostles and the true teachers who stand in the true apostolic succession.
At first sight verse 4 seems to be denied by common experience. How can John say that the Christians have overcome the false prophets, when they were proving an increasing threat to the health and existence of the church? Even more is this the case in our day when the mainline denominations are riddled with a radical theology which denies Christ and ridicules those who believe the Bible to be God’s inerrant Word. But John is right, because the false teachers have not won the true believers over to their cause. The apostle himself stood firm and so did many of the believers who were strengthened by this letter. The same is true today. I like the way Gordon Clark puts it, ‘We children of John have conquered the false prophets.… We still believe in the virgin birth, the atonement and the resurrection. We have conquered them. They could not conquer us.’1 By applying the test of truth, Christians remain true; their faith is not destroyed and their saviour is not denied. He himself promised this when he said about his sheep, ‘They will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognise a stranger’s voice’ (Jn. 10:5). The antichristian wolf may come in sheep’s clothing in order to ravage and disperse Christ’s flock, but they cannot be overcome. Verse 4b explains why. The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. Christ’s sheep are united to the shepherd, who is the truth. They have no confidence in themselves, but they know that the cross and the empty tomb have proved their shepherd’s superior power over all his enemies. Moreover, because he is the Truth, those who fight against him fight against the structures of reality, and so they are doomed to fail. Besides this, power is available to each child of God as we remain in him and draw, by faith, upon his limitless resources. ‘We are more than conquerors through him who loved us’ (Rom. 8:37).
By contrast, the false teachers are tied to this world (verse 5), the world which is passing away (2:17). The world is their origin and their audience. That is why so many of their heresies include the building of a new world order, a new government or a new system, usually with their leader as messiah at its head. The world of mankind in rebellion against God is attracted by the false prophets and their cults because fundamentally they have the same desires and inclinations. They will always get a hearing. When such ‘prophets’, political or religious, proclaim the glory of man and the fulfilment of human desires, at whatever cost and by any sort of behaviour, people will jump at the idea. We human beings want to be assured that we are basically all right, and that any ideas about sin and judgment or accountability to a creator God are outdated and unnecessary. There is an attraction in re-stating the Christian gospel in terms of an ethic, in changing the message from one of submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ to one of following his splendid example, or asking him to touch us up in those areas of our lives that need a fresh coat of paint. It is all governed by this world and the desire to make it a more comfortable place where you can enjoy yourself more. It has nothing to say on the issues of eternity. It has no dynamic by which lives can be changed and offers no ultimate significance beyond the grave.
But the true apostles, equally, are known by what they teach (verse 6). Their origin is God himself and their audience consists of those who know God. Now this of course is precisely what Cerinthus and his followers claimed for themselves—that they knew God. But John’s point is that they indicate the emptiness of their claim by refusing to listen to the word of God in the apostolic teaching. The only way in which man can come to know God is by God choosing to reveal himself, perhaps by actions, but necessarily by words, by verbal propositions. The apostolic doctrine claims to be just such a revelation, and our attitude to it indicates whether we are governed by the Spirit of truth or the spirit of falsehood. The niv translation gives a capital to the ‘Spirit of truth’, perhaps on the grounds that this title is given to the Holy Spirit in John’s gospel (14:17; 15:26; 16:13), but this does not seem necessary in the light of the plural ‘spirits’ in verse 1. It would be meaningless to talk about testing whether the Holy Spirit is from God. John’s concern is with people who are active in the church, with how to distinguish pseudo-prophets from true teachers. We do not try to see into their hearts. That would be as impossible as it is unnecessary. We need to listen to what they say, what they are confessing about Christ, and then to observe who their followers are.
In our relativistic age, we constantly need to be reminded that some things are always true and others always false. Truth is not just the present consensus of opinion; it is defined by the character of God. Today’s false prophets are just as persuasive and just as lethal as those of the first century. They will say the Bible has authority, but is not the supreme authority. They will affirm belief in the resurrection, but not that the body of Christ was actually raised on the third day. The spirit of falsehood is a spirit of deceit. It is only by receiving the apostles’ teaching and living a life that accords with this truth that we can know God. We are not to accept substitutes.
4:4–6. Warnings might make us question if we have listened to false teachers and become Antichrist. No! You have overcome the antichrists, for you have successfully resisted the lure of the false prophets. The one who is in you (the Holy Spirit; Rom. 8:9) is greater than the one who is in the world (Satan; 1 John 5:19), who is called “the prince of this world” (John 12:31).
The antichrists and false prophets are cut out of the same piece of cloth as the world. As a result, they speak to the same values as the world, so the world listens to them. They are from the world, but we are from God. So when the apostles (and possibly other true witnesses) speak from God, those who are born of God listen to them. The Holy Spirit convicts of sin (John 16:8), calls to righteousness (John 16:8), and illumines the mind to the truth of Scripture (1 Cor. 2:12–14).
The world does not listen to the things of God. The person without the Spirit “does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 12:14). The ministry of the Holy Spirit lets us discern the spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. Therefore, prayer, meditation, and spiritual sensitivity are the primary factors that protect us from being deceived by false doctrine—not raw intelligence or academic learning.
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.
The contrast in these two verses is obvious. As their spiritual father, John tenderly addresses the readers and says, “dear children.” The pronoun you stands first to give it emphasis in the sentence. The writer wants to tell the Christians: “You, yes you, are from God.” That is, the readers ought never to forget their divine heritage. They are not only special people, born of God and called “children of God” (2:29; 3:1, 9, 10); they are also different from those people who belong to the world.
Moreover, John makes an additional claim: “You … have overcome them” (compare 2:13, 14; 5:4, 5). The use of the plural them is a reference to the false teachers mentioned in the preceding paragraph. John writes the perfect tense, “you have overcome.” In other words, they have already done so by obeying God’s commands and honoring the teaching of his Word.
God’s children can never boast in themselves but always in the Lord (see Jer. 9:24; 1 Cor. 1:31). It is the Lord Jesus Christ who has overcome the world (John 16:33) and has set his people free (Heb. 2:15). “The battle has thus been decided, even if it is not yet over. By faith Christians participate in this victory and are thus placed in a position to overcome the world for themselves.”
Reassuringly John writes, “The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” There are two forces that oppose one another: the Holy Spirit opposes the spirit of the antichrist. Through his Spirit, God lives with his children and is greater than the evil one. He keeps them in the truth of his Word and strengthens them to overcome temptations (compare 3:9).
The word world is significant, because it appears three times in this verse (v. 5). It differs in meaning from its use in the preceding paragraph (vv. 1, 3), where it has the broad connotation of a place of human life. Here it means a world of people who are hostile to God (see 3:1, 13).
The false prophets “are from the world.” They derive their principles, zeal, goals, and existence from the world of hostility in which Satan rules as prince (John 12:31). Furthermore, their teachings, opinions, and values are atheistic and antichristian. John refrains from revealing the content of their speech; he mentions only the act of speaking. What the false prophets say, however, is persuasive, for “the world listens to them.” The world agrees with the teachings of the false teachers and thus participates in opposing God.
Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world (4:4–6). At the entrance to the temple of Domitian in Ephesus is a large carving of the goddess Nike. (Nikē in Greek means “victory.”) In Greek mythology this winged deity was drawn into assisting Zeus in the battle against the Titans, but the use of its image here reminded subjects of the empire that they were conquered by the “divine emperor.” Amidst other reminders of Roman domination, the author here assures his audience that “greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world” (4:4 KJV). The worldly origin of the adversaries explains why the worldly listen to them, but the elder contrasts himself and his audience with the antichrists and their cohorts. Claiming to be from God, those who heed the elder show themselves also to be knowers of God; conversely, those who are not rooted in God turn a deaf ear to the Johannine leadership. The parallel to the interpretive reflection on the reception of Jesus here is clear. Just as the response of Jesus’s audiences to him and his message exposed the degree to which they were “of the truth” and “knowers of God,” the same measure is now extended to the elder’s audiences. The spirit of truth and the spirit of error are distinguished, from the elder’s perspective, in the telling response to his corrective word (4:6). Those who do not heed his word do not know God; the responsive ones, however, do.
The victory of John’s readers (verse 4). The aim of verse 4 was to hearten the readers so that “they might courageously and boldly resist impostors” (Calvin, p. 234). The apostle accomplishes this, first, by assuring them of their divine origin. Ye are of God, little children. That is to say, you, rather than the false prophets, derive your spiritual life from God and are His true people. “Therefore,” John seems to say, “don’t be afraid of those who oppose you.”
John further encourages his readers by reminding them of their victory in the conflict with error: Ye … have overcome them (cf. 2:14). The “overcoming” perhaps refers both to a personal victory and a church victory. Personally, John’s readers had resisted the seductive teaching of their opponents and had refused to be taken in by their deceptions. As a congregation, they had refuted their arguments and had been successful in keeping them from corrupting the church.
Everything in this epistle implies that though the initial battle had been won by those who were “valiant for truth,” the conquest over error was not complete. Yet the verb (“have overcome”) is a perfect tense, suggesting that the victory has been won and its results abide. Alford remarks that “there need not be any evading or softening of this perfect.… It is faith outrunning sight: the victory is certain” (p. 1737). The neb conveys the sense: “you have the mastery.”
The reason for their victory is stated in the last part of verse 4: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world. The language suggests that the victory, in the truest sense, was God’s. Calvin comments: “We can no more be conquered than God himself, who has armed us with his own power to the end of the world” (p. 234).
“He that is in you” is the Spirit of God (cf. 3:24). “He that is in the world” is Satan. (Note that “the world” is practically identified with the false prophets. The next verse brings out the close relationship existing between them.)
The entire verse is an echo of the words spoken by Christ on the night of His arrest: “Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
 Jackman, D. (1988). The message of John’s letters: living in the love of God (pp. 114–116). Leicester, England; Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.