1 John 4:1-3 | Testing the Spirits

This passage evokes images from movies and really bad fundamentalist Christian videos. When I read it, I imagine an exorcism scene where the sweat-stained minister has his hands wrapped around the head of some poor soul writhing in agony from the demon inside her.

“Do you confess that Jesus is Lord?” asks the minister as little bits of spittle fly from the corner of his mouth?

“Nooooooooo. Neverrrrr!” the girl shrieks in an unearthly tone.

I could continue, but I think you get the picture. Speaking of picture, do you like the old icon of Jesus casting the demon out of the man and into pigs? It’s clear that our culture—along with centuries of Christendom—have done a lot of damage to what scriptures like this really mean. This week I want to explain what is meant by “every spirit” and take the text in a more practical direction.

There is a lot of talk of “spirits” in this section:

  • Don’t believe every spirit
  • Test the spirits
  • Here’s how you know the spirit of God
  • Every spirit that confesses
  • Every spirit that does not confess
  • Spirit of the antichrist
  • This is how we know the spirit of truth
  • This is how we know the spirit of error

The word for Spirit is pneuma (fun fact: in Greek, the “p” is never silent. Pronunce it pu-noo-mah). It can mean the human spirit, the Holy Spirit, breath, or even wind. Context tells you what is intended. It’s to context that we turn now.

When you boil down all the references to Spirit in this passage you’re left with two spirits:

  1. The Spirit of truth: confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is from God
  2. The Spirit of error: does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is the spirit of the antichrist

There’s one more important clue to the meaning of “spirit” in this section. In the first verse, spirits that are from God are contrasted with “false prophets”. In a very real sense, false prophets are led by the spirit of error—all that is anti-Christ.

John spoke of testing the “spirits” (plural), because the spirit of error (singular) takes on many forms. When it’s all boiled down, however, all teaching in the church finds its source in one of two places. John Stott (as usual) said it well:

Every prophet is the mouthpiece or spokesman of some spirit, true prophets of “the Spirit of God” (2), who in verse 6 is called “the Spirit of truth”, and false prophets of “the spirit of falsehood” (6b) or “the spirit of the antichrist” (3). So behind every prophet is a spirit, and behind each spirit either God or the devil. (The Letters of John 156)

. . .

John’s church struggled with a false teaching called docetism. This is clear from the specific nature of the test John offered: “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” (v. 2 ESV, emphasis mine). In a nutshell, the various forms of docetism believed that the universe consisted of spirit and matter. Matter is all around us. It consists of everything we see, smell, taste, touch, or hear. Spirit, on the other hand, is much more important.

In terms of Christian theology, then, how on earth could God (pure Spirit) condescend and be made out of mere matter? There must be some mistake. Christian docetists believed that Jesus only appeared to be human—he never actually consisted of matter.

John 1:14 immediately springs to my mind:

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (ESV)

The whole point of the gospel is that Jesus did actually condescend. He left the side of his father and put on materiality. Or, as Paul said in Philippians 2:6-7 (ESV):

[Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

 . . .

Lest we start to think that docetism is an old heresy that’s been completely put to bed, let’s consider our worldview for a moment. It’s popular today to understand “spirituality” as unconcerned with materiality. We still tend to cling to the false idea that spirit is good, while matter is bad. The goal of the mystic, in many of our churches, is to transcend time and materiality to contemplate the heavenly realms in all their immaterial bliss. This runs counter to the entire witness of Scripture.

God created matter. He called it good. God created humans out of dirt. He called us very good. Jesus took on materiality, thereby sanctifying it. The last picture we have in the Bible is not disembodied bliss, but a new heaven and new earth coming down to meet us. Matter in all its messiness is God-created beauty.

Eugene Peterson was the first person to shift my thinking in this direction. Sure, I can experience God in a canoe in the wilderness (and I often do). But if I can’t see the face of God in the snot-stained child that wants a hug or the foul-breathed loud-talker, what good is my wilderness experience?

We’re closer to docitism today than we think. We may not be tempted to believe that Jesus somehow avoided coming in the flesh—but we long to escape it!

. . .

A healthy spirituality is grounded in the world while reflecting the glory of Christ. After all, it’s pretty hard to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed if all you want to do is escape their world.

< 1 John 3:23-24 | To Sum This Up …

1 John 4:4-6 | He Who Is In You >

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