1 John 4:1-6
This is the second of the two “antichrist” sections in 1 John (cf. the prior study on the first, 2:18-27); in between the two sections is the major unit of 2:28-3:24 (cf. the previous study), the central section of the work. In the “antichrist” sections, the focus is on the false believers (i.e. the opponents), while the central section deals primarily with the nature and characteristics of true believers (i.e., the author and those who agree with his position). This distinction between the true and false believer is a principal theme of 1 John.
While the role of the Spirit was emphasized in the first “antichrist” section, this spiritual (and spiritualistic) aspect of the author’s teaching is made more explicit in the second section—the actual word “spirit” (pneu=ma) occurring for the first time at the climax of the central section (3:24; cf. the discussion in the previous study).
Because of the author’s understanding, regarding the role of the Spirit, in 2:18-27—viz., that believers are taught (directly) by the indwelling Spirit (referred to as the “anointing,” xri=sma, vv. 20-21, 27)—it is of particular importance the way he begins the section here:
“Loved (ones), you must not trust every spirit, but consider the spirits, (to see) if (the spirit) is out of [i.e. from] God, (for it is) that many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (v. 1)
The author’s use of the plural pneu/mata (“spirits”), along with the expression “every spirit” (pa=n pneu=ma), suggests that he has in mind the existence (and activity) of many different spirit-beings—both good and bad—such as we find attested in a number of the Qumran texts. However, while the author presumably did accept the reality of multiple evil spirits, such a belief is almost certainly not his emphasis here. Rather, as becomes clear in vv. 2-6, there are really only two “spirits,” which are opposed to each other, and only one of them comes from God (being His holy Spirit, the “Spirit of Truth,” 4:6; 5:6).
Every person is influenced and inspired by one or the other of these two spirits, being dominated by it, much as we see, for example, in the “Treatise of the Two Spirits” portion (3:13-4:26) of the Community Rule text (1QS) from Qumran. That text essentially juxtaposes the same two “spirits” as our author does here in 1 Jn 4:6: “the Spirit of truth [a)lh/qeia]” vs. “the Spirit of going astray [pla/nh]”. The noun pla/nh here (as elsewhere in the New Testament) is used primarily in a causative sense, i.e., leading people astray, and connotes the idea of deception. Cf. the author’s use of the related verb plana/w in 2:26 (also 1:8; 3:7). In the Qumran “Two Spirits” treatise (1QS 3:18-19), the corresponding Hebrew expressions are tm#a$h^ j^Wr (“the spirit of truth”) and lw#u*h^ j^Wr (“the spirit of injustice”).
God’s holy Spirit leads believers into truth (cf. Jn 16:13), while the evil spirit (of injustice) leads other people into falsehood and error. This role of the Spirit within believers is emphasized by the author in 2:20-21, 27, echoing, it seems, the Paraclete-saying of Jesus in Jn 16:13 (cf. the earlier study and note on this saying). The point applies, of course, only to true believers; the false believer is not taught by God’s Spirit, but, rather, is influenced by the evil spirit that leads people astray (pla/nh, vb plana/w).
In verse 1, the author specifically refers to the opponents as “false prophets” (yeudoprofh=tai), drawing rather clearly upon the eschatological tradition that deceiving false prophets will be increasingly active (and prevalent) during the end-time period of distress. This is expressed, for example, in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse of Jesus (Mk 13:6, 22; par Matt 24:11, 24); cf. also Matt 7:15; 2 Pet 2:1; Rev 16:13; 19:20; 20:10. The noun pla/nh and verb plana/w are used in similar eschatological contexts in Mark 13:5-6 par; 2 Thess 2:11; 2 Tim 3:13; 2 Pet 2:15; 3:17; Jude 11; Rev 2:20; 12:9; 13:14; 18:23; 19:20; 20:3, 8, 10.
Some commentators have thought that the author has a special prophetic gifting in mind, such as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 11–14; cf. also Acts 11:27; 13:1; 15:32; 21:9-10; Eph 4:11. However, I do not think that this is the case. While it is possible that the opponents (or at least some of their leaders/teachers) may have claimed special inspiration (cp. Rev 2:20), I feel the author has something more basic in mind, which is very much related, as I see it, to the spiritualistic tendencies within the Johannine Community.
The implicit logic of the author goes something like this: All (true) believers are taught and led by the indwelling Spirit, which is the Spirit of truth, and which thus cannot teach anything that is false. Thus if any supposed believer speaks something that is false, and claims (or takes for granted) that it was derived from the Spirit’s teaching, such a person is, in fact, a false believer. He/she speaks, not from God’s holy Spirit, but from an evil and deceiving spirit. Every true believer, possessing the Spirit, functions as a prophet (cf. Joel 2:28-29 in Acts 2:17-18; cp. 1 Jn 2:27, in light of Jer 31:34, cf. also Jn 6:45 [Isa 54:13]), which means the false believer is, by definition, a false prophet. The opponents are false prophets because they are taught and speak by a false/deceiving spirit, rather than by the Spirit of God.
Yet how can one discern between the true believer, speaking from the Holy Spirit (2:20-21, 27), and the false believer speaking from another spirit? The author provides at least one clear test in verse 2:
“In this you (can) know the Spirit of God: every spirit that gives account as one [o(mologei=] (of) Yeshua (the) Anointed having come in (the) flesh is out of [i.e. from] God…”
Evidence of the false/lying spirit, by contrast, is given in v. 3:
“…and every spirit that does not give account as one (of) Yeshua is not out of [i.e. from] God”
The test is Christological, regarding a one’s public confession regarding the person of Jesus Christ (“Yeshua [the] Anointed”). I have discussed verses 2-3 at length in a recent set of exegetical notes, which are supplemental to this article; for a detailed study of the many critical and exegetical issues in these verses, you should consult those notes. The verb o(mologe/w, which literally means “give account as one”, here refers to being in agreement with (and publicly affirming/confessing) a particular statement—viz., that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (“Yeshua [the] Anointed having come in [the] flesh”). According to the author, the opponents denied or refused to affirm this statement (v. 3).
The precise Christology of the opponents has been much debated over the years, and there is as yet no consensus among commentators; a particular problem complicating the interpretation is how the confessional statement in 4:2f relates to the earlier one in 2:22f. I have discussed the matter at length in recent supplemental notes on each passage—i.e., on the opponents’ view as expressed in 2:22f (Pts 1, 2 & 3) and 4:2f (Pts 1, 2 & 3), respectively.
The main point for our study here is that the opponents’ false view of Jesus is a sign that they do not possess the Spirit of truth, but speak from a false/deceiving spirit, and are thus false believers. In verse 3b, the author again refers to them by the term a)nti/xristo$ (antíchristos), which literally means “against [a)nti/] the Anointed [Xristo/$]”. This term, used earlier in 2:18, 22 (cf. also 2 Jn 7), draws upon the eschatological tradition of false Messiahs who will appear at the end-time (Mk 13:6, 21-22 par; cf. 2 Thess 2:1-12); on the tradition of end-time false prophets, cf. above. For a detailed study on the significance and background of the term a)nti/xristo$, cf. my earlier article “The Antichrist Tradition” (Pt 1, 2, 3). Here, as in 2:18-27, the description “against the Anointed” is particularly appropriate, since the false view of Jesus by the opponents, according to the author, truly is “against Christ”. Moreover, it is inspired by the spirit of Antichrist:
“…and this is the (spirit) of (the one) against the Anointed, (of) which you (have) heard that it comes, and now is already in the world.” (v. 3b)
This echoes what the author said earlier in 2:18, and indicates that, from the author’s standpoint, the presence and activity of these false believers is a particular sign that the end is near (“it is [the] last hour”). The word “spirit” (pneu=ma) is not actually used here in v. 3b, but the neuter noun is implied by the neuter article to/, and can be glossed in translation (i.e., “the [spirit] of…”).
Verses 4ff emphasize the opposition (indicated by the prefix a)nti-, “against”) between the true and false believers. It is reflected specifically by the conflict and crisis involving these ‘opponents’ who have separated, according to the author, from the Community (of true believers). This conflict is very much part of the end-time period of distress which believers face (cf. Mk 13:9-13 par, etc); in particular, there is the real danger that even believers may be led astray by these “false prophets” (2:26; cf. Matt 24:24). In spite of this danger, the author assures his readers that the Spirit within them (believers) is greater than the false/lying spirit(s) at work in the world:
“You are of [e)k] God, (my) dear offspring, and have been victorious (over) them, (in) that [i.e. because] greater is the (One) in you than the (one) in the world.” (v. 4)
In the Johannine writings, the pronouns and verbal subjects are often ambiguous or unspecified, as is the case here. We may thus ask to whom precisely does the first relative pronoun o% (“the [one] who”) refer? The context of our passage, which contrasts the Spirit of God with the spirit of Antichrist strongly suggests that God (the Father) is the principal reference. However, from the Johannine theological standpoint, God the Father is present in believers through the Son (Jesus), and the Son, in turn, is present through the Spirit. Thus God, who is Spirit (Jn 4:24), is present in believers (“in you” [e)n u(mi=n]) through the Spirit (cf. 3:24). By contrast, the one “in the world” is Antichrist, and, specifically, the false/lying spirit of Antichrist (“that is now already in the world,” v. 3). That the false believers have gone out “into the world” (v. 1) is an indication of the evil spirit at work “in the world”.
The “world” (o( ko/smo$), in the Johannine writings, fundamentally represents the domain of darkness and evil that is opposed to God. Jesus was sent “into” the world, but does not belong to (i.e. is not “of”) the world; the same is true of believers; on this important theme, see especially the chapter 17 Prayer-Discourse in the Gospel (vv. 6, 9-11, 13-16, 18, 20-21, 23-25), also 15:18-19; 18:36-37. The Johannine writings regularly use the pronoun e)k (“out of”) with a special dual-significance: (a) origin, i.e., born out of [i.e. from]; and (b) belonging, i.e. being of someone/something. Thus, when the author here says that his readers (as true believers) are “out of [e)k] God” it means that they belong to God, and have come to be born (vb genna/w) from Him, as His offspring (te/kna); on the latter, cf. Jn 1:13; 3:3-8; 1 Jn 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18. They belong to God, not to the world; it also means they belong to the truth (Jn 18:37; 1 Jn 3:19), since they have been born of the Spirit (Jn 3:5-6, 8; cf. 4:24) who is the truth (1 Jn 5:6).
By saying that the opponents have gone out “into the world”, the author means this in a double-sense. First, as “false prophets,” they are engaged in a missionary effort, which is a false and antithetical version of the mission of believers (and of Jesus himself), cf. above. Based on the information in 2 Jn 7-11, we can say that the conflict between the opponents and the author’s circle reflects, in an early Christian milieu, the missionary work (of visits and letters) involved in sustaining a unified network of congregations over a geographical region. Second, by leaving the Community (of true believers), the opponents have truly gone into the world, in the decidedly negative (Johannine) meaning of the term ko/smo$ (cf. above). The departure of Judas in the Gospel narrative (13:21-30, see esp. verse 30) may be said to symbolize false believers such as the opponents. As false believers, they belong to the world, not to God; cf. how the author explains this in 2:19.
Because true believers belong to God, and abide in Him through the Spirit, being children of God, in union with Jesus the Son, they are victorious over the world, and need not be led astray by those who belong to the world (i.e., the opponents). The verb nika/w (“be victorious [over someone/something”) is practically a Johannine keyword; of the 28 NT occurrences, all but 4 are in the traditional Johannine writings—once in the Gospel (16:33), 6 in 1 John, and 17 in the book of Revelation. The use of the perfect tense here (nenikh/kate, “you have been victorious [over]”) reflects the earlier use in 2:13-14: “you have been victorious (over) the evil”. The object to\n ponhro/n, as a substantive (“the evil”), is understood by most commentators in a personal sense—the evil one, i.e., the Satan/Devil, referred to elsewhere in the Gospel as “the chief/ruler of this world” (o( a&rxwn tou= ko/smou tou/tou), 12:31; 14:30; 16:11. If this reading is correct, then in 2:13-14, the author is effectively saying that the (true) believers have been victorious over the world and its “chief” (i.e., the Devil). This reflects precisely the wording of Jesus at the climactic moment of the Last Discourse (16:33):
“In the world you have distress, but take courage—I have been victorious (over) the world [e)gw\ neni/khka to\n ko/smon]!”
The perfect tense typically refers to a past action (or condition), the effect of which continues into the present. In this context, the past action is the mission of Jesus (spec. his sacrificial death) and believers’ trust in it. Through his death and exaltation, the power of the “chief of this world” was overcome and destroyed (Jn 12:31; 16:11; 1 Jn 3:8); the effect of this continues in the present because of believers’ union with Jesus through the Spirit. The life-giving power and efficacy of Jesus’ death is communicated to us spiritually, through the Spirit (cf. 1:7; and the context of Jn 6:51-58, 63; 19:30, 34). However, this victory is realized only for true believers, who have a true and genuine trust in Jesus Christ. This emphasis, with regard to the occurrence of the verb nika/w, in 5:4-5, will be discussed in the next article in this series.
Here, in verse 5, the author makes clear again that the opponents (as false believers) do not belong to God, but to the world:
“(But) they are of [e)k] the world, (and) through this [i.e. for this reason] they speak out of [e)k, i.e. from] the world, and the world hears them.”
This wording very much resembles Jesus’ statement to Pilate in Jn 18:37, where he summarizes his mission, which is also essentially the mission of believers:
“Unto this [i.e. for this purpose] I have come to be (born), and unto this I have come into the world: that I should give witness to the truth; every (one) being [i.e. who is] of [e)k] the truth hears my voice.”
Cf. also the theological propositions in Jn 3:31, 34:
“…The (one) being of [e)k] the earth is out of [e)k, i.e. belongs to] the earth and speaks out of [e)k, i.e. from] the earth.”
“For the (one) whom God sent forth speaks the words of God.”
The same kind of language features prominently in the Sukkot Discourse (chaps. 7–8); cf. especially 8:47:
“The (one) being of [e)k] God hears the words of God; (and) through this [i.e. for this reason] you do not hear, (in) that [i.e. because] you are not of [e)k] God.”
True believers both hear and speak the truth, which comes from God and His Spirit (which is the truth, 5:6); the false believers who belong to the world (and not to God) do not hear/speak the truth, but only the false/deceiving word, which is opposed to the truth and comes from the world. According to the author’s reasoning, the true believer will accept the truth as spoken by other true believers, which comes from the teaching of the Spirit. The author, in his rhetorical strategy, has positioned both himself and his audience as true believers, with the implicit assumption that they, as true believers, will agree with his view (of Jesus Christ), rather than that of the opponents:
“We are of [e)k] God, (and) the (one) knowing God hears us, (but) the (one) that is not of [e)k] God does not hear us. Out of [i.e. from] this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of going/leading astray [pla/nh].” (v. 6)
The author’s view of Jesus, as he presents it, corresponds with the earliest Gospel tradition, going back to the first disciples and the time of Jesus himself (cf. the prologue, 1:1-4). An important principle in his line of argument is that the inner teaching of the Spirit will, and must, correspond with the truth of this historical tradition (as preserved in the Gospel). If we read between the lines, we can see that, in the author’s view, the opponents have departed from this established tradition—regarding the reality, and the significance, of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. Their Christological understanding thus cannot be true, and cannot represent the teaching of the Spirit.
In the next article, on 5:5-12, we will develop this interpretation further, considering in more detail how Christology and pneumatology are related for the author of 1 John. It is my contention that, for the author, the opponents not only have an erroneous Christology, but have distorted the Johannine spiritualism as well.