What Does 1 John 4:4 Mean by “Greater is He That Is in Me?”
- Joel Ryan Contributing Writer
- 2022 4 Feb
In the first of his three general epistles (or letters), the apostle John encourages believers to stand firm in sound doctrine and the teaching of the apostles, challenging several prominent heresies that had begun to spread through the early church at that time. Though false teaching often seeks to distort the divine truth of God’s Word, believers should not be discouraged or misled by popular anti-God movements, philosophies, or teachings, for we know that Christ has overcome the world and the Holy Spirit is at work within us to lead us to a knowledge of the truth.
As John writes, “greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4)
What Is the Letter of 1 John About?
Written by the apostle John, the book of 1 John is one of three general epistles written to believers. But unlike many letters written by the apostles, 1 John is addressed to a wider audience of well-established believers, not necessarily a specific church or new converts.
John, of course, was one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus. Along with his brother James, he was the son of a man named Zebedee; and in the gospels, we learn that Jesus even nicknamed him and his brother the “Sons of Thunder” for their outspoken, fervent, and impetuous behavior. However, a life transformed by the love and grace of Jesus had a tempering, tenderizing effect on John so much so that by the end of his life, John would come to be known as the “apostle of love.” We see this heart of love for both God and the church shine through in his writing.
Not only did John go on to pen three letters in 1, 2, and 3 John, he also wrote one of the four gospel accounts and later the book of Revelation. Truth and love are prominent themes in each of these books. Though John never formally identifies himself in his first letter, church tradition holds that his epistle was, in fact, penned by the apostle of love, who carried with him enormous respect as one of the few remaining apostles who had directly witnessed the miracles, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus.
Even in his later years, many sought out the beloved apostle for guidance, knowing that if anyone had the ability and authority to challenge false teaching, correct doctrinal errors, and outline the fundamental, essential truths of the Christian faith, it was John. Tradition also holds that John left Jerusalem around 70 AD and began ministering to the churches in the Roman province of Asia, frequently serving in and around the city of Ephesus. It is quite possible this is where he penned 1 John.
John also refers to his readers in his letter as “my little children”, hinting at the apostle’s advanced age and love for the church. As a pastor cares for his sheep and father looks out for his children, John loved the church and wanted fellow believers to live with proper knowledge of Christ and the Gospel.
John MacArthur lays out in his Bible Commentary on 1 John that, “a proper belief in Jesus produces obedience to His commands; obedience issues in love for God and fellow believers” (1946).
In many ways, this is the way John outlines his first letter to the church. Tonally, John’s writing is often warm and tender, however, he doesn’t mince words when it comes to addressing key doctrinal issues and false teaching. At the time he wrote 1 John, likely sometime before 95 AD, several prominent heresies, namely Gnosticism, had begun to infiltrate and infect the church. As the intellectual epicenter of Asia Minor, Ephesus would have been fertile ground for new ideas and philosophies grounded in human wisdom, not divine truth or apostolic teaching.
Not only did these teachings deny the incarnation of Jesus Christ, that He was fully God and fully man, many false teachers and Gnostics claimed to have an “elevated” or “higher” knowledge about spiritual matters that surpassed Scripture itself. “Instead of divine revelation standing as judge over man’s ideas, man’s ideas judged God’s revelation” (MacArthur 1945).
John, however, had no patience for any teaching that sought to pervert the Gospel or divine truth, which the Gnostics had clearly done. For this reason, he penned 1 John to challenge what had become a dangerous heresy, exhorting believers to return to sound doctrine and the fundamentals of the faith while explaining how Christians can test all teaching to discern if it is of God or men. As one who had seen, heard and touched Jesus, John had the apostolic authority to do this, writing from a position of love with certainty about the things He had witnessed firsthand and been entrusted with.
What Did John Mean by “Greater Is He That Is in Me?”
In 1 John chapter 4, the author lays out several tests that Christians can use to discern whether various forms of teaching are from God or not. Given the rise of Gnosticism and other prominent false teachings, it was important for the elderly apostle to correct false doctrine and return the church to a proper understanding of the Gospel and Jesus Christ.
John begins chapter four by laying out several ways believers can test the spirit at work in all teaching. Not all teaching, he argues, is of God. In fact, the source of nearly all false teaching is demonic. For who benefits more from distortion or perversion of the truth than Satan, the father of lies, the deceiver, and the thief who seeks to kill, steal, and destroy? And what better way to pull believers away from God than by distorting biblical truth and perverting man’s knowledge and understanding of the love and very nature of His Son, Jesus Christ.
This is why John goes on the offensive in 1 John to refute those teachings that had attempted to deny the basic, fundamental truths of God’s Word and Christ’s incarnate nature. John argues that the easiest way to tell if the spirit of any teaching is of God is by testing it. He writes, “every spirit that does not confess Jesus Christ is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming and now it is already in the world.” (1 John 4:3)
That being said, John did not want his readers to be discouraged by false teaching, no matter how popular or influential they may have become. In every generation, prominent heresies, distortions of the truth, and anti-God philosophies will emerge, some becoming immensely popular, even within the church. They may challenge sound doctrine and seek to pervert biblical truth; many believers fear they will not be able to discern divine truth from falsehood or stand against the power of popular antichrist teaching when it emerges. However, John encourages his readers with several essential truths summarized by 1 John 4:4:
“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.”
1. As Children of God, Christians Have the Holy Spirit as a Check Against False Teaching
It is true that many false teachings have infiltrated the church over the years, confusing and distorting the believer’s understanding of God. However, John reminds his readers that those who are in Christ have been given the Holy Spirit as a guide and check against false teaching. God doesn’t want His followers to be confused or blind to the truth. Those who love the Lord seek the Lord. They are obedient to His Word. And as evidence of their salvation, the Holy Spirit leads them into sound doctrine and knowledge of the truth. This is why John states, “greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.”
It is a reminder to believers of all generations to keep a proper perspective of the scope of their salvation. Once justified, we belong to Christ and have the Holy Spirit at work within us to help us discern biblical truth from Satan’s lies. Christians have little to fear, therefore, from Satan’s hosts or the perversions of false teachers. As we often sing, “no power of hell, no scheme of man, could ever pluck me from His hand” (“In Christ Alone” Stuart Townsend). It is this knowledge that should daily fill the believer’s heart with unspeakable joy.
2. Christians Have Been Given the Authoritative Word of God to Test All Teaching
In a pluralistic society, where individuals are left to define truth for themselves, the emergence of false teachers and the proliferation of mass confusion and despair are only to be expected. This, however, is not God’s plan for His church. God gave His Word to be the ultimate guide and standard of divine, absolute truth. Therefore, in matters of doctrine and Christian living, we are not to “lean on our own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5-6) or rely on the wisdom of others, but rather, we must stand in the Word of God which “stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8).
Our experience cannot shape our understanding of God; a proper understanding of God derived from sound doctrine and biblical truth must guide our experience. When it comes to biblical teaching, Christians should develop a healthy skepticism and test everything they hear or read against the Word of God (1 Thessalonians 5:20-22). As the Bereans examined the Scriptures daily to see if what the apostles were saying was true (Acts 17:10-11), so will believers who hold to sound doctrine and biblical truth be able to know what is true, identify what is true, and expose what is not true in a world of competing ideologies and false teaching.
3. A Lack of Fellowship and Love for the Church Often Exposes False Teachers
Just because a teaching is popular does not mean it is sound or even biblical. In fact, John would go on to write that, “they (false teachers/prophets) are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them” (1 John 4:5). The world loves its own, and sometimes popular teachers, writers, or preachers are esteemed, not because they communicate biblical truth, but because they tell those who are blind to the truth what they want to hear. They are, as Scripture says, the “blind leading the blind.”
Those who stand firm in sound doctrine and biblical truth, however, are often hated by the world because they do not belong to the world; they belong to Christ and are therein freed from Satan’s lies. How can we know the difference? Again, this is why testing all teaching against the Word of God is essential. John also reminds believers that “the children of God and children of the devil are obvious.” (1 John 4:10). No one who is born of God continues to live in sin. Those who love God love His commands and seek to obey them (1 John 5:1-3). Furthermore, John writes that, “the one who loves God should love his brother also” (1 John 4:21).
False teachers rarely obey Christ’s commands and rarely maintain fellowship with the church to avoid being exposed or held accountable. In fact, a lack of love for God’s people is often a defining mark of false teachers, who value influence and obedience to their doctrine above God, above biblical truth, and above the spiritual health of those they influence. For this reason, John, the apostle of truth and love, writes 1 John to promote fellowship, challenge false teaching, and encourage believers of all generations to be confident in their salvation and the authority of Scripture.
Despite the proliferation of false teaching and antichrist ideology in the world even today, believers must find hope in the simple truth: “greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
Photo credit: Unsplash/kiwihug
Joel Ryan is a children’s book author, writing professor, and contributing writer for Crosswalk, Christianity.com, Stand Firm Men’s Magazine, and others. He is passionate about telling great stories, defending biblical truth, and helping writers of all ages develop their craft. Joel discusses, analyzes, and appreciates the great writings of the past and present on his website, Perspectives off the Page.