1 John 4:1-6
There is a shift in the letter of 1 John, beginning in chapter 4. Previously, the theme of love for one another was emphasized in chaps. 2-3; now, that of faith in Christ comes more clearly into view. These represent the two aspects of the two-fold “command” defined in 3:23 (for more on this, cf. the previous note). This shift is marked by the sudden and striking wording in 4:1:
“Loved (one)s, you must not trust every spirit, but consider the spirits (carefully)—if they are out of [i.e. from] God (or not)—(in) that [i.e. because] many false foretellers [i.e. prophets] have gone out into the world.”
This use of the word pneu=ma (“spirit”) follows upon the closing words of the previous section (3:24): “…out of the Spirit which he gave to us”. Thus there is a clear contrast between the Spirit (of God and Christ) given to believers, and other “spirits” in the world. Are these to be understood as spiritual beings or in a more abstract sense, i.e. representing generally views, ideas, teachings, etc, which are contrary to God and the truth? Most likely, the author has the former in mind. The reference to “false foretellers [i.e. prophets]” suggests that these other “spirits” are entities which inspire the false prophets just as the Spirit of God inspires and teaches believers in Christ. If so, then this marks the only portion of either the Gospel or Letters of John where the word pneu=ma refers to false or evil “spirits”.
The context indicates that these “false prophets” are people who claim to be Christians, speaking in the name of Christ and in the Spirit, but who are not true believers and actually speak against Christ and thus speak from a different “spirit”. This section (4:1-6) must be read in light of the earlier passage in 2:18-25, where the word an)ti/xristo$ is introduced, which literally means “against (the) Anointed”, and which has been preserved as a transliteration in the English “Antichrist”. We are accustomed to think of “Antichrist” as a grandiose end-time ruler, based on passages such as 2 Thess 2:1-12 and Rev 13-17; notably, however, the word an)ti/xristo$ does not appear in such passages, but only in the letters of John, where it has a quite different denotation.
It is clear in 1 Jn 2:18ff that the “antichrists” are to be identified with supposed believers who have “gone out from us”—i.e., from the Community/congregations (of true, faithful believers) with whom the author considers himself to belong. This identification with the Community is clearly stated in verse 19 (note the wordplay involving the preposition e)k, “out of”):
“They went out of [i.e. away from] us, but they were not out of [i.e. belonging to] us; for if they (had) been out of [i.e. belonging to] us, they would have remained with us, but (they left so) that it might be made to shine forth [i.e. be revealed] that they all are not out [i.e. belonging to] us.”
In conventional religious terminology, we would say that these were separatist Christians—i.e., those who separated from the ‘mainstream’ Johannine congregations, and, we may assume, had a somewhat different theological (and Christological) outlook. The false (“lying”) message referenced in 2:21-22 and 4:1ff is described as a)nti/xristo$ (“against the Anointed”, 2:18, 22; 4:3, also 2 Jn 7). As such, it clearly relates to Jesus’ own identity as “the Anointed (One)”, which, in the Gospel tradition, at a very early point, was closely connected with the title “Son of God”. These two titles, taken together, were part of a confessional statement among Johannine believers, as indicated by passages such as Jn 1:34; 11:27; 20:31, and 1 Jn 1:3; 3:23; 5:20, etc. It is noteworthy that they are part of the foundational “command” in 3:23: “…that we should trust in the name of His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed” (cf. the previous note). Consider the way the names/titles are combined:
- His Son [i.e. Son of God]
- The Anointed One
- His Son [i.e. Son of God]
The titles are clearly parallel, and, in many ways, equivalent. But what, exactly, was meant by them? The history of Christology provides countless examples of how believers can declare Jesus to be the “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ) or “Son of God”, and yet each mean something slightly different. For the author of 1 John, the “antichrists” and “false prophets”, who separated from the Community, declare a different view of Jesus than he (and his Community) holds. This is stated in both of the passages under consideration:
- “Who is the false (speaker) if not the (one) denying that Yeshua is the Anointed (One)? This is the (one who is) against the Anointed [a)nti/xristo$], the (one) denying the Father and the Son.” (2:22)
- “Every spirit which gives account as one [i.e. confesses together] (that) Yeshua (the) Anointed has come in the flesh is out of [i.e. from] God.
And every spirit which does not give (this) account as one [i.e. confess together] (about) Yeshua is not out of [i.e. from] God—and this is the (spirit) th(at is) against the Anointed [a)nti/xristo$]…” (4:2-3, cf. the similar statement in 2 Jn 7)
The implication would seem to be that the one who speaks falsely about Jesus’ identity is inspired by a false/lying spirit—and that both speaker and spirit are characterized as “against the Anointed” (a)nti/xristo$). Two distinct “false” statements regarding Jesus’ identity are indicated:
- Jesus is not the Anointed One
- Jesus, the Anointed One, has not come in the flesh
It is possible that these could represent the purported views of different groups or leaders. The second statement is much more precise, and suggests a kind of “docetic” view of Christ—that he did not come to earth as a true flesh-and-blood human being, or that his humanity needs to be qualified in some way. Yet, as there is a wide range of such views in early Christianity, we cannot be certain just what Christological belief these Johannine opponents or “separatists” held. Greater clarity can perhaps be provided from 5:6-12, which will be discussed in an upcoming note. The famous variant reading in 4:3 could conceivably shed light on the context; I discuss this in a separate note.
Regardless of the specific Christological view characterized as “against the Anointed”, it is clear that the author (and the congregations he represents) identifies himself, along with all true believers, as possessing the Spirit of God (and Christ), rather than the false/lying spirit(s) of the ‘separatists’, as indicated in verse 6:
“We are out of [i.e. from] God, (and) the (one) knowing God hears us, (while) the (one) who is not out of [i.e. from] God does not hear us. Out of [i.e. from] this we know the Spirit of Truth and the spirit of error [lit. straying].”
According to tradition, the author of the letter is the Apostle John, one of Jesus’ close disciples, and, we must assume, among those addressed in the Last Discourse (Jn 13:31-16:33; chap. 17) and in the commission of Jn 20:21-23. This would give added weight to the idea of other believers hearing an Apostolic voice who represents Jesus for the congregations under his leadership. However, even if the traditional identification of authorship is not correct, the same authority would apply to the Community as a whole (i.e. “hearing us“)—all true believers who possessed the Spirit of God and Christ. According to the view of the author, one who separates from the Community of (true) believers, and proclaims a different (i.e. “false”) message regarding Jesus Christ, possesses a different “spirit”. Here in verse 6, the second occurrence of the word pneu=ma seems to be used in a more abstract sense—i.e., “the spirit of straying” (to\ pneu=ma th=$ pla/nh$). It could still refer to a spiritual entity, an evil/sinning spirit who leads would-be believers away from the true path. A pla/no$ is one who wanders about, straying from a path; figuratively, it can refer to one who is deceived/deluded or who misleads others. For the expression “Spirit of Truth” as a title for the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God and Christ, cf. John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13, and 1 Jn 5:6. There is a similar dualistic distinction between the “spirit of truth” and “spirit of falsehood” in the “Two Spirits” section of the Qumran ‘Community Rule’ text (1QS 3:13-4:26).