1 John 4:2-3 and the Opponents in 1 John (Pt 1)

1 John 4:2-3, concluded

In the final note of this set on 1 John 4:2-3, I will be surveying the major interpretive theories regarding the Christological view of the Johannine opponents, combining together the evidence from 2:22-23 and 4:2-3. It is worth keeping clearly in view the error of the opponents, as described in each passage:

    • 2:22-23: Jesus is not the Christ
      “Yeshua is not the Anointed (One)”
    • 4:2-3: Jesus Christ has not come in the flesh
      “Yeshua (the) Anointed (as) {not} having come in (the) flesh” (cp. 2 Jn 7)

The author describes each of these denials by the term a)nti/xristo$ (“against the Anointed”) [2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 Jn 7]. But how are the statements related, to what extent do they accurately represent the opponents’ view of Jesus, and how should they be understood precisely? To facilitate discussion and further study on the matter, I present below the major lines of interpretation; the number assigned to each approach is for convenience of reference, and does not in itself indicate any preference on my part.

1. The statement in 4:2-3 is an elaboration of that in 2:22-23, a statement which should be taken at face value, according to the accepted meaning of the title o( Xristo/$, (“the Anointed One”, Heb j^uyv!m*h^) among Jews and Christians in the 1st-century A.D. That is to say, the opponents were Jewish Christians who have rejected their faith in Jesus as the Messiah, returning to the fold of non-Christian Judaism. The controversy surrounding the opponents is thus little different than the conflict-point in the Gospel—viz., regarding Jews who are unwilling or unable ultimately to accept Jesus as the Messiah. According to this view, which I dub the “Jewish Hypothesis”, the statement regarding Jesus Christ “having come in the flesh” in 4:2-3, simply means that the “Anointed One” has truly appeared on earth in the person of Jesus.

2. In a variation of the Jewish Hypothesis (1.), the point at issue in 2:22-23 is, in fact, acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah (expected by Israelites and Jews), but from a different perspective. The opponents were Johannine Christians (presumably non-Jewish/Gentile believers), who fully accepted Jesus as the Divine (and pre-existent) Son, but would not accept or admit his identity as the (Jewish) Messiah. They accepted the title “Son of God” for Jesus, but denied the title “Anointed One” (Xristo/$, Christ). Along with this denial, 4:2-3 indicates that they may also have denied the importance or significance of Jesus’ earthly life, or even denied that the Son truly appeared in human “flesh” at all. Cf. 4a and 4b, below.

3. 2:22-23 reflects a separationist Christology. That is, the man Jesus and the Divine Christ (Son of God) were two separate entities. The Divine Christ joined with Jesus (through the Spirit) at his baptism (Jn 1:32-33), and then separated again at the moment of his death (19:30). There are several possible variations or nuances to this approach; cf. 4c below. On the association of Cerinthus, representative of an early separationist Christology, with the apostle John (and thus possibly with the Johannine churches), cf. the previous note.

4. The statement in 2:22-23 (“Jesus is not the Christ”) must be understood in light of the statement in 4:2-3. The formulation in 2:22-23 is the author’s way of saying that, because the opponents deny Jesus Christ “(as) having come in the flesh”, they do not have true faith/trust in Jesus. Thus they essentially (and effectively) deny Jesus as both the “Anointed One” and “Son of God” (3:23; cf. also the fundamental confessional statements in Jn 11:27 and 20:31). There are several further (specific) interpretations within this general approach:

4a) 4:2-3 reflects a docetic Christology—Jesus Christ (the Divine Christ and Son of God) was not incarnate as a real flesh-and-blood human being, but only seemed or appeared (vb doke/w to be human). Cf. my discussion of the docetic Christology opposed by Ignatius of Antioch, not many years after 1 John was written, in the previous note. In a variation of this approach, the opponents were docetists in the narrower sense that they fundamentally denied that Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, truly died—including the idea that, in his dying, he genuinely suffered and shed real blood. In this respect, the meaning of 4:2-3 is informed by 5:5-8.

4b) The opponents did not deny the incarnation, or Jesus’ humanity, per se, but, rather, they denied the importance of his earthly life and ministry. This emphasis was likely influenced by the high (pre-existence) Christology of the Johannine Gospel (and theology), but also (perhaps) by Johannine spiritualism. If Jesus’ identity (as the Divine Son) is fundamentally spiritual in nature (Jn 4:24, etc), and if he is now continually present, in and among believers, through the Spirit, teaching us “all things” (cf. 2:20, 27; Jn 14:26), then of what importance is his limited earthly life and teaching, by comparison?

4c) The opponents were (Jewish) Christians who accepted the idea that the Spirit (and Divine Logos) came upon Jesus at his baptism. Jesus was further able, as God’s Anointed representative (o( Xristo/$), to communicate the Spirit (and all the things given to him by God) to believers. The pre-existent/eternal Logos (and Son) of God, however, was not incarnate in the person of Jesus.

4d) The opponents accepted Jesus as both the “Anointed One” and “Son of God”, but only in terms of the exaltation Christology held by all first-century believers. This Christology understood Jesus’ status and position as God’s Son as being the transformative result of his resurrection and exaltation (to God’s ‘right hand’ in heaven). They rejected the Johannine pre-existence Christology, and, with it, the idea of Jesus as the earthly incarnation of the eternal Son (“Jesus Christ [the Son of God] having come in the flesh”).

In the second part of this supplemental note, I will evaluate each of the approaches summarized above, and will also present some concluding comments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *