by Will Powell
What do you think of when someone says, “Well, that’s his hallmark?” We use this expression to describe the most striking characteristic of a person—or of what they do. For example, “That had the hallmark of a world champion.” But word “hallmark” has its origins in identifying objects—particularly made of gold or silver—and whether they really were genuine. From AD 350 until today, hallmarks are used to stamp or laser inscribe these metals to indicate their purity. It is the assayer who is able to assess whether it is genuine. Why were hallmarks necessary? Basically for consumer protection. To assure any buyer, guilds in medieval times needed a way to prove items from their goldsmiths were genuine. So when we talk about someone’s characteristics as a “hallmark,” we are saying that this observable trait is a true, genuine representation of that person’s character, achievement, etc.
Why did I talk about hallmarks? Because 1 John 4 is about discerning which characteristics are genuine. He gives tests for those characteristics in two specific areas: the spiritual realm and in the context of the Church (love).
Let’s re-read the last verses of Chapter 3: “And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us” (John 3:23-24)
As so often in John’s writing, this new aspect of the Spirit is the new theme as we start Chapter 4.
Discerning Spiritual Truth and Error (vv. 1-6)
Let’s not forget what is on John’s heart: he loves the people he’s writing to and so he often addresses them as “Dear Friends” (or “Dear Children”). This way of addressing them is frequently followed by an exhortation (almost a command—both here in v. 1 and again in v. 7) to love one another.
In verse 1, his command is both a “do” and a “don’t.” First, don’t believe everything you hear and then do test the spirits. For us that expression may sound strange, but the clarification comes quickly. He means, at least in part, test what people say. It may not be clear on the surface if someone is claiming to speak or prophesy “by the Spirit of God” whether that is really true or not. John wants those whom he loves to be aware that they may be duped. He explicitly states that “many false prophets have gone out into the world.” In many ways this is nothing new. The Jews of the Old Testament knew false prophets well enough, too. But John wants to be specific: he gives a hint at how to recognise a fake. For these “Dear Children,” he needs them to understand the “special knowledge” or “enlightenment” claimed by the Gnostics cannot be true, because the words they impart include the denial that Jesus Christ came in human flesh (v. 2). This denial is anathema to John. He goes as far as explaining they have the spirit of the anti-Christ. He sets this in contrast to the spirit from God which acknowledges Jesus came in the flesh.
John seeks to assure, not accuse and addresses them again, this time as “Dear Children.” Verses 4-6 are largely about the contrast between God and the world. The assurance for his readers is that they are indeed from God which he contrasts with the Gnostics as being from the world. John indicates the key difference between the two: God is living in believers, but in case of the Gnostics, they are still speaking from the viewpoint of the world. John asserts that that is why the Gnostics’ listeners also view the world as their centre. John is keen that his “children” recognise the Spirit of truth by ensuring God is at the centre of their worldview.
And having God as your centre has its implications.
Love Each Other (vv. 7-8 and 11-12)
The implications are explained from verse 7 to the end of the chapter— and these are the most relevant also for us.
Again, “Dear Friends” comes with a command – love one another. But he now gives a reason for our minds: because love comes from God. John has already claimed his readers are from God, now he goes one step further, explaining love comes from God. John’s reasoning is based on his view that everyone who loves has been “born of God.” What does that mean?
John is reminding us of what he wrote about Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus in John 3:1-21. There, Nicodemus says Jesus is “from God” and Jesus declares no-one can see then kingdom of God unless he is “born again.’” As we studied this on Tuesday in Bible study, we were reminded that “born again” may also be “born from above.” I’m still not sure I understand this completely, but looking here in 1 John 4, it seems that the process of being “born from above” is to be “born of God”—a phrase John uses again at the beginning of Chapter 5. “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God…” (1 Jn. 5:1). But what is the result of this “new birth?” It gives us God’s perspective —because we know God (perhaps even in a more special way than the Gnostics) due to the fact he now lives in us (we’ll look at that concept later in verse 12.
Of course, John can’t resist mentioning the lack of knowledge of God for those who do not love (again aimed at the Gnostics). But John wants his readers to know that God’s love somehow becomes complete when we love each other (v. 12).
I’ve thought about this a bit and I think there is a kind of “love geometry” involved: God’s love is freely given to us, and if we are living according to his will, we are freely loving those around us. The point at which our love (which comes from God) hits those who know and love God around us somehow gets back to God. This is what makes it a “complete love”—the circle is closed, the glory displayed in each of us who believes in Jesus can go back to God. This is my understanding of how and why God wants to build his Church— for his own glory of propagating his love.
But John’s concern in his “love each other sandwich” is to look at the meat: at his claim that “God is love” (v. 8).
God’s Love – and its Hallmarks (Verses 9-10)
God’s love is perfect and genuine and as we are moulded to be more and more like him, he refines our love in his fire.
So what are the characteristics—the hallmarks of God’s love?
Let’s take the second point John makes first: that God is the Initiator. He always takes the initiative in love—he owes us nothing, but we owe him everything, because he was able to take us, in our sin and sort out the problem which separated us from him.
His second point is, of course, that God’s love was big enough—it was strong enough to send his Son, his beloved Son, who demonstrated this love to us in human form. A love so strong, it held him through his life and ultimately to death.
But this death was not in vain: it is God’s salvation plan, which enables us to experience his love at all. When we start to recognise just what effects this salvation plan has for us, it transforms us. We become his children, able to become more like him, and love, at least, a little bit as he does. And that hallmark of God’s love is imprinted in us the moment we confess Jesus as our Lord.
Living God’s Love (Verses 13-18)
Sometimes, we have difficulty in understanding what John means with his “live in him and he in us.” I think the first part is about choosing to live according to God’s love: if we stay in his way, we are able to demonstrate his love. The second part is necessary for the first even to be possible: as we already learned, we need to be born from above—to be born with God at our centre is what is needed to know and understand his love, only then allowing us to live it out in our lives. This kind of “symbiosis” is the healthy state for us as human beings. Something is missing, we don’t work properly if we don’t have God in us.
Another result of being children of God—living in him—is that we can be confident in the face of judgement. Not because of what we have done or not done, but because of our identity—who we are: the hallmark imprinted on us and that identity is visible in our characteristics of love, which knows no fear.
Discerning God’s Love in Others (Verses 19-21)
Finally, John exhorts his readers to test those who claim to love God. He is just as keen for them to use the test of love as the test of doctrine to uncover a fake. What is the test? To see whether those claiming to know God love their brother. Why is this test so telling? Because surely it is easier to love someone who is able to be seen than someone who remains unseen. John goes as far as condemning as liars those who say they know God yet cannot love their brother. In this, we must also be careful: we claim to know God, and want to follow him, but if we are not able to love our brother, we also make ourselves into liars.
So where do we need to be able to discern between the real thing and a fake in our Christian lives?
One area is surely recognising errant sects. Often, it may not be the theology which is wrong, but it is how that theology affects lives. And this is much more likely to be the kind of tests we need to exercise not only on those claiming to be Christians around us in other churches, but also in our own fellowship—and, indeed, keeping ourselves in check.
Our church gives us a unique opportunity to demonstrate God’s love working in us by how we treat each other and those outside it. Sometimes, it is the individual opportunities we have – a chat after the service one-to-one, or even a considerate email which builds up our fellow believers. One thing which works well in Starnberg Fellowship, both demonstrating love within but also outside, is the coffee mornings.
Let us work out together how love for each other helps to complete God’s love and helps proliferate the Real Thing. We need to be genuine, not just so that what we say and how we live are consistent with each other—but also consistent with our identity as children of God.
Let our hallmarks be those of Jesus as we go about our business over the summer.