Passage: I John 4:1-6 (read online)
Notes for Interpretation:
- There are two issues at work in this passage. The first is a specific concern facing the congregation to whom John was writing. The second issue deals with how to evaluate whether or not someone’s position is based on sound, Biblical theology.
- The specific issue facing John’s congregation was a philosophy called Gnosticism. The word in Greek for knowledge is “gnosis” and Gnosticism essentially taught that salvation involved having the right knowledge. Basically, Gnostics taught that the flesh/physical world was evil, the highest aim for humanity was to escape the physical world – the only good was the spiritual. The role of Jesus was to teach disciples the spiritual knowledge that would awaken within them the spark of spirituality within them. It taught that since the physical was evil, Jesus could not have been flesh and blood, but was only spirit and merely appeared to be flesh and blood.
- John wrote to oppose the doctrine of Gnosticism that was slipping into his congregations. He implored them to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God,” (4:10), i.e., not everyone who comes claiming to speak in the spirit is speaking in the Spirit of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. The “test” for their teaching is whether or not that they “confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” (4:2) Gnosticism teaches the opposite of what is taught in the doctrine of the incarnation.
- The early church continued to combat Gnosticism and took a stand against it in the first council of the church, the Council of Nicaea, in opposition to a form of Gnostic teaching that claimed Jesus was only half human and half spirit. The Nicene Creed, that was adopted by the council, affirmed that in Jesus Christ there was joined full humanity and full divinity: “We believe… in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made; who for us, and for our salvation, came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man…”
- At the heart of all this is our salvation. Only one who was fully human, could experience the full weight of the punishment that Jesus took on to atone for the sins of humankind (if he was only half-human it would have been incomplete, see Hebrews 2:10; 4:15). Only one who was fully God would have the power and authority to forgive sins. Salvation is not a matter of having the right knowledge, it is having the right relationship – acceptance of Jesus Christ as our Savior.
- Gnosticism was also a denial of the role of God as Creator of heaven and earth, a creation God called good. It was a denial of the ministry of healing and feeding of Jesus, the call to be involved in care of the physical and not only the spiritual. It was a denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, it ignored the resurrection accounts of Jesus with a body that could be touched, a body that ate with disciples.
I John 4 is a call to believers to know what they believe, to test new teachings to see if they are consistent the truth of the gospel. It specially calls into question the teaching of the Gnostics, but more broadly it draws us back to the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John. At the last supper Jesus spoke to prepare his disciples for life after his ascension, “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:25, 26). A question to ask before every new teaching: IS THIS CONSISTENT WITH THE LIFE AND TEACHINGS OF JESUS CHRIST?
Questions for Reflection:
- How does Gnosticism still appear today, how might we be in danger of imbalance between the spiritual and physical?
- How are you struck by the position of the denomination, formed in the Confederate states when Presbyterians withdrew from northern Presbyterians during the time of the Civil War, which advocated that the church was only a spiritual assembly, that the church should only comment on “those areas which are manifestly spiritual” (Presbyterians: Their History and Beliefs, Lingle and Kuykendall, p. 81)? What is the role of the church in addressing the physically world?
- How do you “test the spirits”?
- What other issues are raised for you by this passage?