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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.