1 John 4 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Discerning the Spirits
My husband and I are birdwatchers. No serious "birder" would be without a good field guide or two. A field guide is simply a book with pictures and descriptions of birds and their chief identifying characteristics, including size, coloration, voice, range, habitat and so on. With a field guide and a little practice, one can become adept at identifying literally hundreds of birds.
What this passage gives us is in its own way a "field guide" to iden tifying or discerning "spirits." Specifically, it calls attention to two distinct "field marks" of various spirits: first, what they say or teach; second, who hears or accepts their teaching. That seems straightforward enough. With this knowledge in mind, we ought to be able to venture forth to spot and identify a variety of spirits, simply by checking each species against our guide. Why, then, does it seem that so many people cannot see the spirits for what they are and fall prey to all varieties of heresies, misin terpretations of Scripture, cults and fads? And even when we can discern truth from error and determine that a particular teaching, person or group is wrong, what are we to do? Is it enough not to follow that teaching? Are we, as individuals or as a church, to do something more than resist perversions of the truth, as important as that is? Such questions are not easily answered. After a look at the content of the passage under consideration, we will suggest some guidelines--and call attention to some of the difficulties--in this matter of discerning the spirits.
To understand John's instruction to test the Spirits, we need to place it in the context of Johannine church life. People met in houses in groups of about twenty to thirty people, for worship and fellowship (compare 2 Jn 10). These scattered communities did not have immediate access to authoritative figures like the Elder, and communication with them was not always easy. Apparently the Elder sent emissaries to communicate with the churches (3 John 5-8), sometimes carrying letters such as these epistles. These congregations had been glad to welcome the Elder's traveling ambassadors. But now there were also "false prophets" who, like the emissaries of the Elder, would have claimed to speak the truth under the inspiration of the Spirit. And, finally, there were also various itinerant philosophers who traveled in hopes of a hearing and a place to stay. In light of this complex situation, John is anxious to provide his readers with criteria against which claims to truth and inspiration could be tested.
Clearly the claim to be inspired by the Spirit can and must be tested, for the claim to have the Spirit is not proof that one does. Here spirit has been variously taken to refer to the spirit that inspires the prophet, to the person who is inspired or to the message delivered by the prophet. Obviously the three are related, for in testing a person's words one is actually testing whether or not that person speaks by divine guidance. In light of the rest of the passage two things emerge: First, the author believes that individual persons are inspired or led to confess or deny Christ by spirits, some reality beyond the human individual. Second, ultimately there are only two spirits: God's Spirit, also called the Spirit of truth because it guards and inspires truth (4:2, 6); and the spirit of antichrist, which inspires falsehood, and especially false confession of Christ (vv. 3, 6). The Elder's readers are not to believe every claim to be divinely inspired or to have a prophetic message, but are rather to test the spirits, to discern whether a message is the truth that comes from God.
Such testing is necessary because many false prophets have gone out into the world. While "prophet" in the Pauline literature refers to a specific function within the church (Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 12:10; 14:1-5, 29-33; Eph 4:11), the Johannine epistles refer more broadly to all of those who left the church as false prophets, because they carry with them testimony that claims to be spirit-inspired. That is exactly the point: all persons speak by the inspiration of one spirit or another (Brown 1982:489). Now it falls to the community to discern which spirit guides the teaching of the various individuals whom they encounter. The church must exercise dis cernment, then as now, for truth and error are not always easily distin guished. They do not exist disembodied, but come to us in the shape of real persons with whom we share a variety of relationships. Precisely because "testing the spirits" entails dealing with other persons, perhaps even professed Christians, who claim to be guided by the Spirit, we must exercise care and humility in discerning the truth.
The Elder now offers one test by which the Spirit's inspiration may be discerned, and that is the test of the substance of one's teaching; specifically, one's teaching about Jesus Christ (vv. 2-3). The emphasis on true confession indicates that John is not talking about demon possession or ecstatic utterances or prediction of the future but about accepting the affirmations about Jesus that have been handed down in the community. This is not a new test, nor does the author expect the church to do anything new in exercising discernment. But he reminds them that the stakes are high. In the balance hang truth and error about the first commandment and the ultimate question of faith: knowledge and worship of the one true God. For denial of Jesus would be tantamount to worshiping a false god, since only through Christ is knowledge of the true God mediated (5:21).
But the problem that the author has to deal with is not a blatant rejection of Jesus; it is a distortion of the acknowledgment that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. Exactly what is at stake in that acknowledg ment has been the source of much debate (see the footnote for discus sion of options). The formulation found here clearly echoes traditional language, such as that of the statement of John 1:14, "The Word became flesh." This affirmation was central to the Johannine community's under standing of Jesus, and it may well be that "Jesus Christ Incarnate" had become virtually a credal way of speaking about Jesus. Several ideas would be bound up in that confession. First, in Jesus, people came to know not just a rabbi from Nazareth but the Word of God. Second, Jesus was a human being of flesh and blood. Third, this human being, the Word made flesh, revealed God to us. Finally, the one who "comes down from heaven and gives life to the world" (Jn 6:33) did so by giving his "flesh" in death (Jn 6:51).
What is difficult to determine is what aspect of this confession--if any--was being denied by the schismatics. Did they reject this whole formulation? Did they question the deity of the Word? Did they perhaps challenge the true humanity of the Incarnate One? Could most of those who left the church have given a clear accounting of the difference between the Elder's Christology and their own?
We find two clues to answering these questions in other passages in the epistle and from the mere fact that these false prophets have left the church. First, other passages in the epistle stress the importance of Jesus' death and the atonement that it makes for sin (1:7; 2:1-2; 4:9-10, 14). Only through the Son does God give life (5:11-12). In other words, while the Elder is concerned that his readers understand who Jesus is, he also wants to remind them of the salvation that is theirs as they profess commitment to Jesus. Second, we know that some people have deserted the Elder's congregation. To leave the fellowship that Jesus called into being is to put oneself outside of the sphere of light, life and truth. To reject the necessity of his atonement for sin likewise manifests that one remains in darkness. In the end, to do either is to "deny Jesus." Thus while the confession "Jesus Christ Incarnate" encapsulates John's under standing of Jesus, in the present context it may be used to remind the readers of the salvation that comes through Jesus and to exhort them to faithfulness to him.
And so John paraphrases the longer statement that one must acknowledge that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (4:2) with the simpler formula that one must acknowledge Jesus (v. 3). Such a restatement makes it clear that what John ultimately seeks is faith in a person, the Incarnate Christ, and not faith in a doctrine, even the doctrine of the Incarnation (Smalley 1984:223). "Acknowledg ment" (NIV) or "confession" (RSV) of Jesus means allegiance to him. It is personal, for it is a person's commitment to Jesus Christ. In this light, the prophets who apparently deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh manifest the spirit of the antichrist, because they deny Jesus. They have left the fellowship he calls together; they have ignored his atoning death; they failed to preserve the Johannine teaching about him; and they have violated his commandments. In short, they have failed to align them selves with him. In John's dualistically oriented world view, such a failure can be stated in its harshest terms as the opposition of the end time, expected in the antichrist (v. 3; 2:18-19). The defectors have the spirit of antichrist, a spirit opposed to the Spirit of God because it ranges itself against the Son of God, Jesus Christ, and what he calls people to be and do (3:23).
All who deny Jesus are called the world (4:3-5). They belong to that sphere of existence opposed to or ignorant of God's spirit and ways (2:15-17). By way of reassurance, the Elder contrasts his readers with the secessionists: they are of the world, but you, dear children, are from God. They can be sure of their relation ship with God because they have overcome them, the false prophets (4:1). The word overcome (nikao) implies a conflict in which one party emerges victorious (compare 1 Jn 2:13-14; 5:4-5; Jn 16:33). The victo rious party is the Johannine Christians, and their victory is their faithful ness to Jesus Christ. Victory in this instance is virtually equivalent to resisting false teaching and to holding to the truth.
Even though the Elder writes that you . . . have overcome, it is clear that the victory won by believers is neither the product of their own effort nor the result of their own merits. Victory comes from God, who is greater than the one who is in the world, the "prince of this world" (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), also known in Johannine thought as the evil one (2:13-14). The assertions about victory in verse 4 have several implica tions: First, the conflict between the Johannine community and the dis sidents is but a reflection of a greater struggle between truth and error, between the Spirit of truth and the spirit of antichrist. But John does not see this struggle played out in a world far above and beyond human beings. Hence this is also a human struggle, a conflict between the commitments of one group of people with those of another group. Our faith is itself our victory (5:4). Moreover, those who have overcome have done so by remaining faithful to the God who overcomes all evil. The Johannine Christians can test their allegiance and reassure themselves of their status as children of God by their steadfastness. Above all, these words are designed to bring assurance to believers.
Here the Elder adduces a sec ond way by which one may test the spirits, by evaluating the response that the speaker receives. Those who are from the world will be heard and accepted by others who likewise dwell within the sphere of the world. But those who are from God are heard by those who know God. These verses echo the sentiments of John 15:18-23, that the response of the world to Jesus' disciples mirrors its response to Jesus and, in the final analysis, to God. Reversing this chain of response, John can also say that those who have responded to God positively also respond to Jesus and to his disciples by listening to them. Listening means far more than simply giving them a hearing; it implies agreement with what is heard. After all, Jesus promised his followers the Spirit of truth who would "teach [them] all things" (14:26) and "guide [them] into all truth" (16:13). The Spirit inspires both teaching and understanding of the truth. Similarly, Paul expects that the Holy Spirit inspires those who speak in tongues and those who interpret them, and that the Spirit inspires prophets and those who discern the truth of prophecy (1 Cor 2:11; 12:7-11, 29-31; 14:28-33).
Looking back over the entire section (4:1-6), the Elder ends the sec tion by writing, this is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. He has offered two explicit "tests": the content of christo logical confession and the reception that the message receives. Both confession and response are inspired by the Spirit who inspires and guards the truth of the word of life.
It might now seem that we have a definitive "field guide" to discerning the spirits. We are given two clear tests by which we may be able to tell truth from error, divine inspiration from delusion and deception. And not only do we have the tests, we have an exhortation to put them to use. How then are we to go about testing the Spirits? In what circum stances is such testing important and even necessary? If "testing the Spirits" implies rejecting what is false, are we to reject both the teaching and the teacher? We may suggest three guidelines as to how we can test the Spirits with discernment, that is, with wisdom, care and humility.
1. We are called on as a corporate community to test the spirits. The spirits that are in view are the teachings and practices that threaten the church's mission and teaching. In John's view, whatever denies the cen trality of Christ and his work in mediating knowledge of God would be detrimental to the health of the church and would compromise its mis sion. Together with other faithful members of the community, we are called on to wrestle with the difficult and complex issue of discerning how we are to understand and formulate the word of life so that it is heard as life-giving for people today.
2. It is also crucial to remember what we are called on to test. We are not called to test every single belief and practice of every individual who claims to be a Christian. In context, 1 John is dealing with the beliefs that the Christian community ought to hold in order to maintain its continuity with the affirmations of the apostles and eyewitnesses. The Elder is arguing for what the church must believe and guard in order to interpret faithfully the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Therefore, it follows that those in positions of authority and leadership have the charge to interpret and teach God's truth responsibly. We can require of them a standard of theological understanding and faithfulness that we might not ask of all church members. On the other hand, that does not mean that the church may simply allow its members to believe and do whatever they want. It is the church's responsibility to nurture and nour ish its members, to teach, encourage, exhort and reprove them, to bring them into conformity with what it understands to be the truth. "Discern ing the spirits" is not simply an end in itself.
3. We are called on to discern what is central to Christian faith and doctrine. Within the life of the church, some issues are more central than others, and few if any are more central than Christology (the doctrine of Christ) and soteriology (how we receive salvation). The confession of "Jesus Christ Incarnate" provides a test for how we are to understand Jesus. It would not be acceptable for a church to say that it does not matter how we understand Jesus, or that we may abandon John's affir mation that in Jesus we encounter God's revelatory word and so come to salvation in knowing God. But we must remember that the epistle does not give us a detailed explanation of exactly what "Jesus Christ Incarnate" means, nor does it address such issues as the manner of the Incarnation, the relationship of the "two natures" of Jesus and so on. We must be careful, then, on insisting that others believe exactly as we do when the Scriptures are silent or difficult to interpret with certainty. Typically this is where disagreements arise. There is nothing wrong with the guide, but those who use it are not always skilled in doing so. Even an infallible guide can be misused, for it is always used by fallible people.
In sum, two extremes are to be avoided. On the one hand, we ought not to rush to judgment on others. But, on the other hand, the church cannot avoid its task to teach and nurture people in the Christian faith. And to do so responsibly it must in every age and generation test the spirits, that is, approve and cherish that which is true because it comes from God's own Spirit of truth.