Saturday Series: 1 John 4:1-6

This study continues our series examining how conflicts within the early Christianity shaped the theology and religious worldview of the New Testament. The initial set of studies has focused on the Letters of John (see the prior studies on 2 John 4-11 and 1 John 2:18-27, as well as the previous study exploring the central section of 1 John). We will be looking at 1 John 4:1-6, focusing on several important Johannine themes, which the author has adapted, as a way of confronting and addressing the conflict involving the “antichrist” opponents. In so doing, we will also consider briefly some of the themes and points emphasized in the central section (2:28-3:24).

1 John 4:1-6

This passage must be considered in the context of the entire central bloc of material spanning 2:18-4:6. In 2:18-27 and 4:1-6, the author deals directly with the conflict involving a group of ‘opponents’ whom he refers to as antíchristoi, people “against [antí] the Anointed [Christós]” (i.e., against Christ)—2:18, 22; 4:3 (see also 2 John 7). These two “antichrist” sections flank the central division of the treatise (2:28-3:24), which expounds the author’s central theme: the contrast between the true and false believer.

By all accounts, the opponents, no less that the author and his adherents, were Johannine Christians who were rooted in the Johannine Tradition. Both groups likely knew (and used) some version of the Gospel of John, and would have shared a common religious tradition, theological vocabulary, and mode of expression. For this reason, in order to combat what the author regards as the false teaching (and example) of the opponents, it was necessary for the author to develop, adapt, and apply certain aspects of the Johannine Tradition. I wish to examine several of these here.

1. “The Spirit of Truth”

In both the Gospel and 1 John there is a strong emphasis on truth. The noun al¢¡theia occurs quite frequently in the Johannine writings (45 out of 109 NT occurrences); it occurs 25 times in the Johannine Gospel, compared with just 7 in the Synoptic Gospels. Also the related adjectives al¢th¢¡s and al¢thinós occur with some frequency—17 out of 26 for al¢th¢¡s, and 13 out of 28 for al¢thinós (23 out of 28 if one includes the book of Revelation as Johannine). Truth, of course, is a fundamental attribute and characteristic of God, and naturally applies to the Son (Jesus) and his teaching, etc, as well. However, in the Johannine writings, there is also a distinctive association with the Spirit. The expression “the Spirit of truth” (to pneúma t¢¡s al¢theías) occurs three times in the Gospel (in the Paraclete-sayings of the Last Discourse), 14:17; 15:26; 16:13, and also here in 1 John 4:6 (see below). A close association between the Spirit and truth, as a fundamental Divine attribute, is expressed famously in Jn 4:23-24, and the author of 1 John goes so far as to identify the Spirit with truth itself (5:6; compare a similar identification of the Son [Jesus] with truth in Jn 14:6).

According to the Johannine theology, which is rooted in the broader early Christian tradition, believers in Christ receive the Spirit of God (Jn 4:10ff/7:37-39; 6:63; 20:22; 1 Jn 3:24; 4:13), and are also born of God’s Spirit (Jn 3:3-8). It is through the Spirit that believers, as God’s offspring, are united with both the Son of God (Jesus) and God the Father. That is to say, our abiding union as believers, in the Son and in the Father, is realized through the Spirit. As a theological point, this is not stated explicitly in the Johannine writings, but it may be plainly inferred from a number of passages. First, since God is Spirit (Jn 4:24), any union with Him must take place in a spiritual manner, at the level of the Spirit. Secondly, there are the statements regarding the Spirit-Paraclete by Jesus in the Last Discourse (14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26-27; 16:8-15) where it is clear that, even after his departure back to the Father, the Son (Jesus) will continue to be present in and among believers through the Spirit. The context of these statements, in the Last Discourse, and also the Discourse-Prayer of chapter 17, well establishes the principle that the abiding union of believers with the Son and the Father is realized through the Spirit. This theology is confirmed by the author’s words in 3:24 and 4:13 as well.

Through the Spirit, Jesus continues to be present within believers—all believers—and continues to teach them the truth of God. In light of this role of the Spirit, as it is described in the Paraclete-sayings, there would seem to have been a notable spiritualistic emphasis, or tendency, within the Johannine congregations. The teaching that comes through the internal witness of the Spirit takes priority over the external teaching (by other human beings), since this witness of the Spirit is that of God Himself (and His Son, Jesus).

Such an emphasis on the teaching of the Spirit was a basic component of early Christian identity, rooted in Old Testament prophetic and eschatological tradition. The early Christians viewed their experience (of receiving the Spirit) as the fulfillment of a number of key prophecies (Joel 2:28-32; Isa 32:15; 44:3; Ezek 36:26-27; 39:29, etc) regarding the restoration of God’s people in the New Age. God will ‘pour out’ His Spirit upon His people in a new way, with the result that the Instruction (Torah) of God will be written within, on their hearts (cp. 2 Corinthians 3:6-18). Of particular importance is the “new covenant” prophecy in Jeremiah 31:31-34, which indicates that, in the New Age, God’s people will no longer need to be taught the Torah, because it will be written in their hearts.

This prophecy had enormous influence on early Christians, but it seems to have been taken particularly seriously by the Johannine Community. There is an allusion to Jer 31:33-34 (by way of Isa 54:13) in Jn 6:45, and I believe that it informs the Paraclete-sayings as well (see above on the teaching role of the Spirit). The priority of the internal witness of the Spirit is also expressed in 1 John, featuring prominently in all three sections—2:18-27, 4:1-6, and 5:4b-12—that deal most directly with the “antichrist” opponents. Particularly in 2:21ff and 27, the author emphasizes that believers are taught by the Spirit; I take the references to “the anointing” as referring to the Spirit, though not all commentators agree on this point. The witness of the Spirit is sufficient; believers do not need any other human being to teach them regarding the truth—specifically the truth of who Jesus is (Messiah and Son of God), and what was accomplished through his earthly ministry.

But this creates a problem. If all believers are taught the truth by the Spirit, how can Christians such as the opponents espouse a false view of Jesus? Indeed, from the author’s standpoint, these opponents have a false belief in Jesus, and thus cannot be true believers at all; rather, they are false believers, and also false prophets. This is how the author characterizes them in 4:1: “…many false prophets [pseudoproph¢¡tai] have gone out into the world”. The noun proph¢¡t¢s means “foreteller”, but this does not always mean telling the future (i.e., beforehand); rather, the corresponding Hebrew term n¹»î° properly means a “speaker” (spokesperson), one who speaks as God’s representative, communicating His word and will to others. According to the early Christian ideal, all believers function as prophets in this way, and the Johannine churches seem particularly to have emphasized an egalitarian approach to prophecy.

If the opponents (as “false prophets”) are speaking a false word regarding Jesus, then they cannot be inspired by the Spirit of God (the Spirit of truth); instead, they must be speaking from a different spirit. Throughout 4:1-6, the author contrasts this ‘spirit’ with the Spirit of God, beginning here in verse 1:

“Loved (one)s, you must not trust every spirit; but (instead) examine the spirits, (to see) if it is of God.”

There is, of course, only one Spirit that is from God; however, the plural here refers to the idea that each person, who would speak about God, as a prophet, speaks under the influence of a spirit. If they are not inspired by God’s Spirit, then they speak by a different spirit that is not from God. The author puts forward a test, by which believers may examine the prophetic word, and this test is Christological (vv. 2-3). More to the point, the Christological significance is related to the controversy surrounding the opponents (and their understanding of the person of Christ). Unfortunately, from our standpoint, the defining phrase “having come in (the) flesh” does not tell us as much about the opponents’ Christology as we might like to know. Did they deny the reality of the incarnation, holding to an early docetic view of Christ? Or did they, in some way, deny or minimize the importance of the life and ministry of Jesus? The parallel confessional statement in 5:6 suggests that it was the death of Jesus, and/or its significance, that was particularly at issue. For further discussion on the opponents’ view of Jesus Christ, see my earlier notes and articles on the subject, especially the sets of notes on 2:22 and 4:2-3.

Two Johannine themes are thus brought together here in 4:1-6, in an attempt to combat the views of the opponents: (1) the Johannine principle of the internal witness of the Spirit (in teaching the truth), and (2) the eschatological aspect of prophecy (and false prophecy). The opponents are false prophets of the end-time; their view of Jesus, which they speak and teach, being false, does not come from the Spirit of God, but from a different spirit—a false and deceiving spirit. It is a spirit that is opposed to God, and is “against Christ” (antichrist). Indeed, the spirit that does not confess the truth of Jesus Christ “having come in the flesh” (v. 2), is a “spirit of antichrist” (v. 3), a deceiving spirit of false prophecy that is at work in the world. It is a spirit that belongs to “the world” (in the thoroughly negative Johannine sense of the term kósmos); those who speak from this spirit (i.e., the opponents) belong to the world, and only others who belong to the world (i.e., false believers) will listen to and accept what they say (v. 5).

The true believer, however, belongs to God (as His offspring), and not to the world. The Spirit of God dwells within every true believer, and this Spirit is far greater than the false/deceiving spirit of “antichrist” that is in the world (v. 4). Because the Son (Jesus) was victorious over the world (Jn 16:33), believers, who are united with him, share this same victory (2:13-14; 4:4; 5:4-5). In this immediate context, “victory” (vb nikáœ) refers specifically to rejecting the false teaching of the opponents and resisting their influence. The true believer should not—and will not—let himself/herself be led astray by the false teaching and example of the opponents. Here again, the author draws upon early Christian eschatological tradition, regarding the ‘false prophets’ of the end-time who lead people astray (vb planáœ)—see Mark 13:6, 22 par; 2 Tim 3:13; 2 Pet 2:15; Rev 2:20; 12:9; 13:14, etc).

The author offers an exhortation (and warning) to his readers not to be led astray by these particular “false prophets” (2:26; cf. also 1:8; 3:7). At the close of this section (v. 6), the author establishes a stark contrast, between “the Spirit of truth” and “the spirit of going/leading astray [plán¢]”. The noun plán¢ is derived from the verb planáœ, and carries the same eschatological significance—see 2 Thess 2:11; 2 Pet 2:18; 3:17; Jude 11. True believers possess the Spirit of truth, are guided and taught by it, and speak from it; false believers, by contrast, are guided by a false spirit, being led astray by it, and also leading others astray. Just as the true believer will not listen to the false spirit, so the false believer cannot (and will not) hear the Spirit of truth. Note the way that the author frames this in terms of “us” (i.e., true believers) vs. “them” (false believers, viz. the opponents):

“We are of God, (and) the (one) knowing God hears us, (but) the (one) who is not of God does not hear us. Out of this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of going/leading astray.” (v. 6)

Next week, we shall examine several other Johannine themes, which the author employs in his effort to deal with the conflict surrounding the opponents.