Have you ever been in conversation with a spirit and asked “spirit, do you confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh?”
No, neither have I. What is John talking about then when he says “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God,” then goes on to give us the test?:
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.1 John 4:1-3 (NRSV)
At first glance we might think we are to be asking spirit beings to clarify their theological positions for us. Perhaps in thinking through these verses we may hope to learn more about angels and demons. While I believe such exist, we won’t be talking about them here. Why? Because John is not talking about them here.
What is John talking about?
John is continuing to talk about what he has already been talking about in this letter, namely, the false teachers who were trying to influence the early Christian communities. Let us read what John has written again, and as we do so, let us recognise that he is not changing topics when he moves from ‘spirits’ to ‘prophets’:
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.1 John 4:1-3 (NRSV emphasis added)
John was giving the recipients of his letter a simple test, a question they could ask to discern if a someone was one of those false teachers who had hijacked Jesus to promote a more gnostic way of thinking. In this way of thinking, anything spiritual is good, anything material is bad. Therefore the false teachers would have claimed that Jesus is from God, yes, but he just seemed to be in the flesh. Surely God would not become flesh and dwell among us, right? From a gnostic way of thinking, God certainly would not. But John knew better.
John knew better because John knew Jesus. He spent time with him, and knew he was no phantom ghost, no mere spirit being. John saw Jesus die, in the flesh. John knew Jesus raised from the dead with a resurrection body. That resurrection body seemed to be a different kind of body, but was no mere spirit. John knew Jesus and could say,
. . . the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.John 1:14 (NRSV)
Therefore in telling the early Christians to test the spirits, John was encouraging them to stick with what they had learned from the apostles who were with Jesus, including John himself. They should stay away from the false teachers who had the “spirit of error” (1 John 4:6).
So, what does this have to do with us now?
I can think of three things.
First, it gives us a foundation stone which is part of a robust foundation for our Christian thinking and belief.
If you think that Jesus was a spirit, and not a man, as many false teachers in John’s day thought, then you are lacking a key foundation stone for Christian thinking and belief. You are missing what John, and the other apostles who spent time with Jesus, knew about him. They knew that in Jesus “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
However, if you think, as is more common in our day, that Jesus was just a moral teacher, and nothing more, then you are lacking a key foundation stone for Christian thinking and belief. You are missing what John, and the other apostles who spent time with Jesus, knew about him. They knew that in Jesus “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
We are reminded of this foundation stone when we participate in The Lord’s Table. His flesh was broken for us, his blood shed for the forgiveness of our sins. He was no mere spirit being as the gnostic teachers were claiming. But neither was he a mere teacher of morality as is more commonly held in our day, but rather Saviour, and Lord. The bread and the cup remind us of these things.
Second, it helps us sort out the foundation stones from the wallpaper, it helps us understand how to read the Bible.
As you read through 1st John 4:1-3 and following, you may hope to learn something about angels and demons, or even the antichrist. John mentions these, but not to satisfy our curiosity about them. Rather he mentions them to make a point. John is not really talking about spirits and demons here. He is speaking about Jesus, and an important fact about Jesus the false teachers were getting wrong.
As we read the Bible, let us not attempt to force it to answer our questions, to satisfy our curiosity. Let us allow the Bible writers to speak what needed to be said in their day. Let us wrestle with what it means for us in ours.
Third, we remember the importance of reading more than just a few verses of the Bible.
When we read 1st John 4:1-3 in the context of the entire letter of First John, the entire New Testament, and the entire Bible, we will realise that it just gives us just one foundation stone for Christian thinking and belief. Immediately before, and immediately after, we have another foundation stone, the life of love patterned after God’s love.
Recently the bodies of 215 children have been discovered in a residential school set up to educate indigenous children. These are not just unmarked graves, these have been unknown graves. How many others are there? What happened, and how? Who could have allowed this to happen? As we ask these questions, let us remember that this was not just a Canadian school, but a school representing Christianity.
If we could go back and ask those who were responsible if they believed that Jesus is the Messiah come in the flesh, they would likely have passed that test. That foudation stone was probably in place. But was the foundation stone of love in place? From where we stand, it sounds like “love” was not the word of the day, but “colonialism.”
Would we have done better if we were there at that time?
We must do better now. Being able to pass a theological exam from a few verses of the Bible is not enough.