Testing the Spirits (1 John 4:1-6)

In the last couple of months I have become more and more aware of the cultural change concerning truth and truth-claims. Yes, I know, that has been around for quite some time (I am originally from Germany and we have struggled with that as a “post-Christian” nation for a long time as well), but it was just in these last months that the force of the cultural shift hit me.
Please do not get me wrong, I think there are some great benefits with postmodernism. There is, for example, the emphasis on diversity and the strong feelings against restrictive and oppressive ideologies. Further, the prominence of story and how we communicate are beautiful developments in the last decades. Not everything is as positive as the above though. With the strong feelings against restrictive and oppressive ideologies comes the thought that nothing should be exclusive. There is not only one right way. There is not only one right way to read and interpret the Bible. Who has not heard the statement: “There is no absolute truth!” [This statement defeats its own purpose…]
Last week we have seen the apostle John talking about the commandment to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and to love one another (1 John 3:23) and at the end (v. 24) he stated that God has given us the Spirit.
This then leads the apostle to talk about the Spirit/spirits. In 3:23 it was stated that we need to believe in the name if his Son Jesus Christ, but this is now (4:1) followed by a negative statement—i.e., a prohibition. We should not believe every spirit. “Not everyone claiming to speak in the name of God actually does so” (Kruse, PNTC, 144). But how they are to test the spirit? This is spelled out in the following verses. The reason, however, as to why spirits need to be tested is given here via a causal clause introduced by “because” or “for”. That is, there is a need to test the spirits, because “many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Other NT teaching on false prophets can be found in Matt 7:15; 24:11, 24; Mark 13:22; 2 Pet 2:1; 1 John 4:1. “By their very nature false prophets appear to be genuine (cf. Matt 7:15: ‘They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves’), and by their false teaching they lead people away from the truth (cf. 2 Pet 2:1: ‘They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them’)” (Kruse, 145). In 2:17-27 the author developed the theme of the secessionists leaving the believing community; here the false prophets “have gone out into the world” which also shows where they belong to (see also 4:5).
John states in 4:2By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” [A Greek Lexicon (Louw-Nida 33.221) defines the term “confess” this way: “to make an emphatic declaration, often public, and at times in response to pressure or an accusation—‘to declare, to assert’.”] We read for example in 1 Tim 3:16 the apostle Paul stating the same: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” The Spirit’s job is to witness to Christ (Kruse, 146) which is also taught in John 15:26. Here then the test is expressed in positive form but will be given in similar terms in the negative (see 4:3a). For an OT background see Deut 13:1-5 as well as the later Didache 11:8 “However, not everyone who speaks in the spirit is a prophet, but only if he exhibits the Lord’s ways. By his conduct, therefore, will the false prophet and the prophet be recognized.”
The positive “test” is to see whether Jesus is confessed as “having come in the flesh.” Kruse (PNTC, 146-147) writes that John is here “indicating that it is Christ’s status as one come in the flesh, rather than simply the historic act of his coming that he had in mind. And it was Christ’s status as one come in the flesh in the person of Jesus that the secessionists denied, that is, they denied the reality of his humanity (and the significance of the atoning work he did in the flesh).”
The readers are addressed as children 7x in the epistle (2:1, 12, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21). This verse serves as an encouragement (“But you my beloved children can be sure that you are from God” AT). That they “are from God” means in 3:10 that they are children of Him and thus are born of Him (3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18). John 16:33 states: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” How did the readers overcome the antichrists/secessionists? By not adhering to their teaching (cf. Kruse, 148). The one which is in them (i.e., the Holy Spirit) is greater than he who is in the world (i.e., the spirit of the antichrist). That God abides in us is the theme of 4:12-15 (as well as 3:24). “The author speaks of the spirit of antichrist operating in the secessionists as ‘the one who is in the world’, suggesting an identification with ‘the prince of this world’ mentioned in the Fourth Gospel (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11)” (Kruse, PNTC, 148). Witherington also points out the change from the neuter word “Spirit” to the masculine pronoun “he” which indicates personhood of the Spirit (525).
In4:5 John writes that “they are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.” The second “from the world” could be rendered as to “speak from the viewpoint of the world” (Kruse, 149; emphasis mine).
Coming to 4:6 we see the apostle affirming that “we are from God” and that those who are in a relationship with god listens to the apostles. His last statement is “By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” Louw-Nida (31.8) renders the last sentence the following way: “‘this is the way we know the difference between the Spirit which leads to truth and the spirit that misleads us’ or ‘… causes us to hold a wrong view’ or ‘… causes us to be mistaken’” (31.8). Kruse writes: “He and his readers must not be surprised if they cannot get a hearing for the original gospel from the secessionists, or from others who are not from God. A persistent acceptance of the gospel proclaimed by the author and his community marks those who are from God, and a persistent rejection of their gospel marks those who are not from God” (PNTC, 149). Verse 6b now rounds up (via inclusio) the discussion of 4:1-6. In the Qumran literature there are also references to two kinds of spirits (1QS 3:18–19, 25).
So what are we to make of these verses? “Dear author, we live in the twenty-first century and we do not “officially” believe in spirits.” Well, that might be true, but I also want to caution to merely see references to supernatural beings in this pericope. Yes, indeed spirits are mentioned, but so are false prophets. Further, those spirits “confess” or do “not confess” certain truths about Jesus Christ which links them closely (if not identifies them with) the human agents. Whatever the case may be—the fascination around the world (and in the West!) with spirituality shows that we actually do believe in some form of the supernatural. But this is not the point here.
The major question we need to ask ourselves is, What is our stand toward this Jesus whom the early Christian and apostles proclaimed? Or stated differently, Who do you say Jesus is? If you have not struggled with those questions, then I would like to invite you to dig deep—deeper even; even if the outcome goes against our “postmodern” sentimental feelings.  

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