Saturday Series: 1 John 4:1-6

This week, in our series of studies on the Johannine Letters, we will be examining 1 John 4:1-6. The stated purpose of these Saturday Studies is to introduce readers to the principles and methods of a critical study of the Scriptures (i.e. Biblical Criticism), and how these may apply in practice. In looking at 1 John 4:1-6, we will be focusing primarily on historical criticism—that is, on establishing the historical background and context of the passage. However, on at least one point of interpretation, a major text-critical issue will have to be addressed. Also, in considering the place of 4:1-6 in the structure of the work, we will be touching on aspects of literary criticism as well.

1 John 4:1-6

When considering the structure of First John, from a conceptual standpoint, we may note the way that certain themes alternate throughout as a point of emphasis. The main thrust of the letter involves sin (hamartía) and the “commands” (entolaí) of God. This was the focus of 2:28-3:10, which we examined closely in the previous two studies (last week and the week prior). The entolaí of God are actually reduceable to a single two-fold command, defined in 3:23-24: (1) trust in Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God, and (2) love for fellow believers according to Jesus’ own teaching and example. Each of these two components of the command for believers is given particular emphasis in different parts of the letter.

As far as the letter itself is concerned, we may fairly divide the body of it into two main divisions, each of which begins with the declaration “this is the message which (we heard)…” (haút¢ estin h¢ angelía h¢n…):

    • Part 1: “this is the message which have heard from (the beginning)” (1:5-3:10) – Main theme: Light vs. Darkness
    • Part 2: “this is the message which we heard from the beginning” (3:11-5:12) – Main theme: Love as the great Command

Part 1 is framed by a discussion of sin and the believer, sin in relation to the “commands” of God:

    • 1:6-2:2: Sin and the identity of the Believer: Jesus’ work cleanses us from sin
    • 2:3-11: The Believer’s identity in terms of the “commands” of God, with special emphasis on love
    • 2:12-17: “Children [teknía]…”: Exhortation for Believers to live/act according to their identity, and not like the world (which is in darkness)
    • 2:18-27: “Children [paidía]…”: Warning of “antichrist”- Identity of Believers is marked by true belief/trust in Jesus
    • 2:28-3:10: “Children [teknía]…”: Sin and the identity of the Believer – restated in a dual instruction.

Part 2 essentially functions as an exposition of the “commands”, i.e. the two-fold command:

    • 3:12-24: Love characterizes the believer (vs. those who “hate”)
      • Exhortation (“Children [teknía]…”), vv. 18-22
      • Declaration on the “commands”, vv. 23-24
    • 4:1-6: Trust in Jesus characterizes the believer (vs. those who have false trust/belief)
      • Exhortation (“Children [teknía]…”), vv. 4-6
    • 4:7-5:4: Love characterizes the believer – restatement in a dual instruction
      • Exhortation & Declaration on the “commands”, 5:1-4
    • 5:5-12: Trust in Jesus characterizes the believer – restatement in a two-part instruction

Thus the teaching in 4:1-6 ( on trust/belief in Jesus) runs parallel to that on love in 3:12-24, with a doctrinal/theological statement or argument (vv. 1-3) followed by an exhortation (vv. 4-6). We will examine the doctrinal argument first.

1 John 4:1

“Loved (one)s, you must not trust every spirit, but you must (instead) consider the spirits (closely)—if (one) is out of [i.e. from] God (or not)—(in) that [i.e. because] many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

The first occurrence of the noun pneúma (“spirit”) was at the conclusion of the previous verse (3:24), making explicit what had otherwise been implied in the letter: that the abiding presence of Jesus (and God the Father) in and among believers is through the Spirit. Now the author contrasts the Spirit of God (and Christ) with other “spirits” (pl. pneúmata). This underscores an aspect of early Christian thought that is rather foreign to us today. It was believed that people (especially gifted persons and leaders, etc) spoke and acted more or less under the guidance and influence of a “spirit”. For Christian ministers, and believers in general, they were guided by the Holy Spirit; and, by the same token, if it was not the Holy Spirit at work, then it must be another (that is, an evil, false or deceiving) spirit. In this regard, the first-century Christian congregations were largely charismatic in orientation, with ministers, leaders, speakers operating under the direct inspiration of the Spirit. Paul’s letters (especially 1 Corinthians) offer a fairly detailed portrait of how such early congregations would have functioned.

An obvious question is exactly how one could determine and be sure that a minister or speaker was genuinely operating under the guidance of the Spirit. How was this to be tested? Here the author of 1 John provides instruction similar in some ways to that offered by Paul in 1 Cor 12:3. It has to do with a true confession of faith in Jesus Christ.

You may recall in an earlier study (on 2:18-27), we established that, in large part, the letter appears to have been written to warn the congregations against certain persons who had separated from the wider Community (“they went out of us”, v. 19a). These same persons are surely in view here as well, characterized as “false prophets” (pseudoproph¢¡tai). I normally translate the noun proph¢¡t¢s as “foreteller”, rather than using the English transliteration “prophet”. However, it is important to understand the term in its early Christian context, based on its fundamental meaning, as someone who “says/shows (something) before [pró]”, either in the sense of saying something beforehand (i.e. before it happens), or in front of (i.e. in the presence of) others. The latter meaning more properly corresponds to both the Hebrew word n¹»î°, and to the general Christian usage. The proph¢¡t¢s serves as God’s spokesperson, declaring and making known the word and will of God to others. As such it was one of the highest gifts that could be given (by the Spirit), available to all believers, but especially to chosen ministers (Acts 2:16-18; 1 Cor 12:28; 14:1ff; Rom 12:6; Eph 2:20). This may indicate that those who separated from the Community (some of them, at any rate) were ministers or other prominent figures who functioned as “prophets”. That they are “false” means that, according to the author, they do not speak under the guidance of the Spirit, but of another “spirit” —i.e., an evil spirit.

There are likely two levels of meaning to the statement that these “false prophets” have gone “out into the world”. First, “into the world” is essentially the same as “out of us” in 2:19, since the “world” (kósmos) in Johannine usage tends to signify the realm of evil and darkness that is opposed to the realm of light (God, Christ, and true believers). These persons have departed from the Community of true believers, showing themselves to be false and not genuine believers at all. Secondly, going out “into the world” could suggest that they are functioning as itinerant, traveling ministers. It is hard for readers today to appreciate how prevalent, and potentially problematic, this dynamic was for Christians in the first two centuries. In an age of slow communication, and without an established collection of authoritative Christian writings, authority in the 1st-century Church largely depended on two factors: (1) the personal pedigree of ministers, and (2) manifestation of Spirit-inspired gifts and abilities. Determining the reliability of traveling ministers could be difficult on both counts. We will discuss this point further when we come to the study of 2 and 3 John.

1 John 4:2

“In this you (can) know the Spirit of God: every spirit that gives account as one (with us) of Yeshua (the) Anointed having come in flesh is out of [i.e. from] God;”

Here the word “spirit” (pneúma) is used two different, but interconnected, ways: the spirit of the person speaking, and the Spirit which guides/inspires the speech. To say that there are many different “spirits” means that there are many distinct people who may speak and act. However, for the author, it is probably better to think of just two Spirits—the Spirit of Truth (which is the Holy Spirit of God) and the Spirit of Falsehood/Deceit. This is fully in accord with the dualism of the Johannine Writings (both Gospel and Letters), and the same sort of dualism is also found in other Jewish writings of the period (such as the Qumran texts, see especially the Community Rule [1QS 3:17-21, etc]). The Spirit of Falsehood is also that of the Evil One (or Satan) who is the effective Ruler of the dark realm of the “world”. What distinguishes the True from the False is ultimately centered on the truth of Jesus—who he is and what he has done. This Christological framework of of truth vs. falsehood, is, from the standpoint of the Johannine writings, also the same as the fundamental definition of sin (on this point, see the previous studies on 2:28-3:10).

In 2:18ff, the false view of Jesus was simply described as failing/refusing to affirm (vb arnéomai) that Jesus is the Anointed One (Christós), characterizing it fundamentally as antíchristos (“against the Anointed”), vv. 22-23. In the context of the Johannine congregations, this wording seems peculiar, since, presumably, all believers (and supposed believers) would have affirmed that Jesus was both the Anointed One and the Son of God. But what is precisely meant by such an affirmation? Here, in 4:2-3, we have clearer sense of what the issue was for the author of 1 John. It involves giving a “common account” (vb. homologéœ) of, i.e. acknowledging together with all other true believers, Jesus Christ having coming in the flesh (en sarkí el¢lýthota). Some commentators would identify this ‘false’ view of Jesus as docetic. Docetism (from Greek dokéœ) is a rather obscure term that refers to the idea that Jesus as the Son of God only appeared or seemed to be a flesh-and-blood human being. It is usually associated with certain so-called “Gnostic” groups and writings of the second and third centuries. Unfortunately, based on this statement alone, it is impossible to determine the exact nature of the Christology that is opposed by the author of 1 John. It requires a careful study of the remainder of the letter, which we are doing here inductively, assembling the available information piece by piece.

1 John 4:3

“and every spirit that does not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua is not out of [i.e. from] God—and this is the (spirit) th(at is) against the Anointed [antíchristos], of which you have heard that it comes, and is now already in the world.”

The declaration in v. 3b confirms that we are dealing with the same situation as earlier in 2:18-27. The false view of Jesus, held and proclaimed (apparently) by those who separated from the Community, is called antíchristos (“against the Anointed”). Both here and in 2:18, the author appears to be drawing upon an early version of the Antichrist tradition, derived from earlier Jewish sources (the book of Daniel, and other writings), but given a special significance within Christian eschatology. Even so, we do not know precisely what is in mind, other than that “antichrist” is something (or someone) who will appear in the last days prior to the end. Clearly the author believes he and his readers are living in the last days (“last hour”, 2:18). This eschatological tradition is being re-interpreted and applied by the author to the specific situation facing the Johannine congregations at the time of his writing. These “false prophets” who separated from the Community are inspired by the Spirit of “Antichrist”, and are a functioning embodiment of that evil power. The presence of false prophets and false/deceiving spirits were thought to be a distinctive marker of the last days (1 Tim 4:1; Mark 13:5ff, 21-22 par; 2 Thess 2:9-11; Revelation 2:20; 13:11ff; 16:13-14; 19:20).

And what is it about their view of Jesus that marks these people as “antichrist”? Unfortunately, the matter is not so clear at this point, since there are two forms of the text of v. 3a—one which uses the verb homologéœ (as in v. 2), and one which instead has the verb lýœ (“loose[n]”, i.e. “dissolve”). Here are the two forms:

    • “every spirit that does not give account as one (with us) of Yeshua” (pán pneúma hó m¢ homologeí ton I¢soún)
    • “every spirit that looses [i.e. dissolves] Yeshua” (pán pneúma hó lýei ton I¢soún)

I would ask you to give consideration as to what the second version (with the verb lýœ) might mean here in the context of 1 John. In our next study, we will continue the discussion of this passage, looking at the text-critical question in v. 3 in more detail, as well as examining the remaining verses (vv. 4-6). In addition, we will explore briefly how the instruction in both 3:11-24 and 4:1-6 is expounded in the following sections of the letter (4:7-5:12).

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