1 John 4:2-3, continued
In considering the opponents described by the author of 1 John (in 4:1-6), and, in particular, regarding the Christology of the opponents (addressed in vv. 2-3), the earliest interpretative information we have comes from the letters of Ignatius of Antioch. These letters likely were written not many years after 1 John. Moreover, Ignatius was writing to Christians in cities of Asia Minor (Smyrna, Philadelphia, Tralles, Magnesia), in a region centered around Ephesus. This is the same area traditionally identified as the geographical location for the Johannine churches (cf. Rev 1:4; chaps. 2-3); and many commentators would accept this identification. If correct, it raises the likelihood that the opponents with whom Ignatius is dealing (in his letters) may be related to the opponents of 1-2 John.
“(For it is) that many pla/noi (have) gone out into the world—the (one)s not giving account as one (of) [i.e. not confessing/acknowledging] Yeshua (the) Anointed (as) coming in (the) flesh—this is the pla/no$ and the (one who is) against the Anointed [a)nti/xristo$].”
The noun pla/no$ is related to the verb plana/w (1 Jn 2:26; cf. 3:7) and the noun pla/nh (4:6); it refers to a person who goes astray—or, in the causative sense, makes people go astray, i.e., leads them astray (by deceiving them, etc). Here the noun pla/no$ captures the meaning of the verb in 2:26 (cp. Mark 13:5-6 par, and in the book of Revelation, 2:20; 12:9; 13:14; 18:23; 19:20; 20:3, 8, 10); the noun pla/nh (in 4:6) refers to the same end-time dynamic—viz. of false prophets and evil spirits leading people astray (cf. 2 Thess 2:11; also 2 Pet 3:17; Jude 11). The opponents are thus characterized as end-time “false prophets” capable of leading even believers astray (2:26; cf. Matt 24:24). They do this primarily through their view (and teaching) regarding the person of Jesus Christ, a view which the author regards as false and inspired by an evil/lying spirit; they are thus said to be “against the Anointed (One)” (a)nti/xristo$), i.e. “against Christ”.
But what exactly was the opponents’ Christological error? In 4:2-3 and 2 Jn 7 it is summarized as denying (or refusing to confess) that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (“Yeshua [the] Anointed [as] having come in [the] flesh”). But what does this mean precisely? Some light on the question may be found by Ignatius’ use of 4:2-3, and the views of the opponents whom he combats.
In his letter to the Christians of Smyrna (5:2), Ignatius seems to refer to v. 2, describing certain people who do not confess/affirm that Jesus had real human flesh: “not giving account as one [mh\ o(mologw=n] (of) him (as) bearing flesh”. The adjective sarkofo/ro$ (“flesh-bearing”) is used instead of the participial phrase “having come in the flesh”; otherwise, the use of mh/ + the verb o(mologe/w makes it all but certain that Ignatius has 1 Jn 4:2-3 and/or 2 Jn 7 in mind.
At a number of points in his letters, Ignatius is combatting what is commonly referred to as a docetic view of Jesus Christ. The term docetism derives from the Greek verb doke/w (dokéœ), meaning “think, consider,” sometimes in the semi-passive sense of how something seems or appears to be (or how a person imagines it to be). When applied in a Christological context, to the person of Jesus Christ, it refers to a belief that Christ only seemed/appeared to be a real flesh-and-blood human being (i.e., the man Jesus). As a manifestation of the Divine Son/Christ, Jesus’ humanity was essentially a visual illusion.
Ignatius addresses such a view of Jesus, treating it as a dangerous error, from the very beginning of his letter to the Smyrneans (1:1-2). He emphasizes that Christian faith has its basis in both flesh and the Spirit, affirming that Jesus was “truly” (a)lhqw=$)
- of the genealogical line of David “according to the flesh” (kata\ sarka/, cf. Rom 1:3)
- born of a virgin and baptized by John
- nailed to the cross “in the flesh” (e)n sarki/)
In emphasizing the real suffering and death of Jesus, Ignatius specifically mentions certain ‘false’ believers (lit. [those] without trust, a&pistoi) who say that Jesus only seemed [vb doke/w] to suffer (2:1-2; cf. also Trallians 10:1). The specific use of term sa/rc (“flesh”) has particular significance for Ignatius, even as it does for the author of 1 John, since it represents the reality of Jesus’ existence and life (and death) as a human being. He stresses how even after the resurrection, Jesus still had tangible flesh (3:1-2; cf. the Johannine evidence, 19:34ff; 20:17, 20, 25-29; 21:10-13). Again, Ignatius warns his readers against the dangerous false believers (“wild beasts in human form”) who teach that Jesus only seemed [dokei=n] to live and act as a human being (4:1-2; 5:1f [cf. above]; Trallians 9:1-2).
There are other points of similarity between the opponents of Ignatius and those in 1 John. He also emphasizes the opponents’ lack of true love for other believers (6:1-2; 7:1). Their abstaining from the Lord’s Supper rite (6:2) is tied to their denial of Christ’s real human flesh (cf. above), but it may also be related to an exaggerated form of Johannine-style spiritualism (cf. Jn 4:23-24 and 6:63, in connection with 6:51-58). Indeed, it is quite possible that the Johannine opponents would have seen little value in the physical partaking of the Lord’s Supper rite.
Elsewhere in his letters (e.g., Ephesians 7:2; 20:1; Romans 6:1; Trallians 9-11), Ignatius emphasizes the suffering and death of Jesus; in all likelihood, he has the same opponents (referenced in Smyrneans) in mind. Their denial of Jesus’ true humanity (“flesh”), and especially the reality of his death, certainly seems, on the whole, to correspond with the opponents’ view of Jesus in 1-2 John. Writing some years later, Polycarp (bishop of Smyrna), references similar opponents (with a docetic view of Jesus) in his letter to the Christians of Philippi. In 7:1, he quotes 1 John 4:2-3 (and/or 2 Jn 7), in a slight paraphrase:
“For, every (one), who should not give account as one (of) Yeshua (the) Anointed to have come in (the) flesh, is against-the-Anointed [antichrist].”
Pa=$ ga/r o%$ a&n mh\ o(mologh=| Ihsou=n Xristo\n e)n sarki/ e)lhluqe/nai a)nti/xristo$ e)stin
Polycarp was a younger contemporary of Ignatius, and a correspondent with him (cf. Ignatius’ letter to Polycarp; Ephesians 21:1; Magnesians 15:1). On the connection between the churches of Smyrna and the collection of Ignatius’ letters, cf. Philippians 13.
According to Irenaeus, writing no more than 20 years after Polycarp’s death, Polycarp had been a disciple of John the apostle (trad. author of the Johannine Letters). In one famous anecdote (Against Heresies III.3.4), Polycarp tells of John’s encounter with Cerinthus at a bath-house in Ephesus. By the time of Irenaeus, Cerinthus was regarded as an arch-heretic, but one who held, not a docetic view of Jesus Christ, but a separationist view—viz., that the man Jesus and the Divine Christ were two separate entities, who were joined together at Jesus’ baptism and then separated again at the moment of his death (cf. Against Heresies I.26).
This is significant, because there are some commentators who identify the opponents in 1-2 John as early separationists, though this is established more readily from the Christological statement in 1 Jn 2:22-23, rather than the one in 4:2-3. In this regard, the colorful anecdote of the confrontation between John and Cerinthus has been taken as symbolic of the crisis surrounding the Johannine opponents in 1-2 John.