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1 John 4:1-6

Context
Testing the Spirits

4:1 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, 1  but test 2  the spirits 3  to determine 4  if they are from God, because many false prophets 5  have gone out into the world. 4:2 By this 6  you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses 7  Jesus as the Christ 8  who has come in the flesh is from God, 4:3 but 9  every spirit that does not confess 10  Jesus 11  is not from God, and this is the spirit 12  of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming, and now is already in the world.

4:4 You are from God, little children, and have conquered them, 13  because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 4:5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world’s perspective and the world listens to them. 4:6 We are from God; the person who knows God listens to us, but 14  whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this 15  we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of deceit. 16 

1 sn 1 John 4:1-6. These verses form one of three units within 1 John that almost all interpreters consider a single unit and do not divide up (the other two are 2:12-14 and 15-17). The subject matter is so clearly different from the surrounding context that these clearly constitute separate units of thought. Since the Holy Spirit is not the only spirit active in the world, the author needs to qualify for the recipients how to tell if a spirit comes from God. The “test” is the confession in 4:2.

2 tn According to BDAG 255 s.v. δοκιμάζω 1 the verb means “to make a critical examination of someth. to determine genuineness, put to the test, examine.”

3 sn Test the spirits. Since in the second half of the present verse the author mentions “false prophets” who have “gone out into the world,” it appears highly probable that his concept of testing the spirits is drawn from the OT concept of testing a prophet to see whether he is a false prophet or a true one. The procedure for testing a prophet is found in Deut 13:2-6 and 18:15-22. An OT prophet was to be tested on the basis of (a) whether or not his predictive prophecies came true (Deut 18:22) and (b) whether or not he advocated idolatry (Deut 13:1-3). In the latter case the people of Israel are warned that even if the prophet should perform an authenticating sign or wonder, his truth or falsity is still to be judged on the basis of his claims, that is, whether or not he advocates idolatry. Here in 1 John the idea of “testing the spirits” comes closer to the second OT example of “testing the prophets” mentioned above. According to 1 John 4:2-3, the spirits are to be tested on the basis of their christological confession: The person motivated by the Spirit of God will confess Jesus as the Christ who has come in the flesh, while the person motivated by the spirit of deceit will not confess Jesus and is therefore not from God. This comes close to the idea expressed by Paul in 1 Cor 12:3 where the person speaking charismatic utterances is also to be judged on the basis of his christological confession: “So I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus is cursed,’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”

4 tn The phrase “to determine” is not in the Greek text, but is supplied for clarity.

5 tn “False prophets” refers to the secessionist opponents (compare 2:19).

6 tn There is no subordinating conjunction following the ἐν τούτῳ (en toutw) here in 4:2, so the phrase could refer either (1) to what precedes or (2) to what follows. Contextually the phrase refers to what follows, because the following clause in 4:2b-3a (πᾶν πνεῦμα ὃ ὁμολογεῖ ᾿Ιησοῦν Χριστὸνἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐστιν, καὶ πᾶν πνεῦμα ὃ μὴ ὁμολογεῖ τὸν ᾿Ιησοῦν ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐκ ἔστιν), while not introduced by a subordinating conjunction, does explain the preceding clause beginning with ἐν τούτῳ. In other words, the following clause in 4:2b-3a is analogous to a subordinate clause introduced by an epexegetical ἵνα (Jina) or ὅτι (Joti), and the relationship can be represented in the English translation by a colon, “By this you know the Spirit of God: Every Spirit that confesses Jesus as the Christ who has come in the flesh is from God, but every Spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.”

7 tn Or “acknowledges.”

8 tn This forms part of the author’s christological confession which serves as a test of the spirits. Many interpreters have speculated that the author of 1 John is here correcting or adapting a slogan of the secessionist opponents, but there is no concrete evidence for this in the text. Such a possibility is mere conjecture (see R. E. Brown, Epistles of John [AB], 492). The phrase may be understood in a number of different ways, however: (1) the entire phrase “Jesus Christ come in the flesh” may be considered the single object of the verb ὁμολογεῖ (Jomologei; so B. F. Westcott, A. Brooke, J. Bonsirven, R. E. Brown, S. Smalley, and others); (2) the verb ὁμολογεῖ may be followed by a double accusative, so that both “Jesus Christ” and “come in the flesh” are objects of the verb; the meaning would be “confess Jesus Christ as come in the flesh” (so B. Weiss, J. Chaine, and others). (3) Another possibility is to see the verb as followed by a double accusative as in (2), but in this case the first object is “Jesus” and the second is “the Christ come in the flesh,” so that what is being confessed is “Jesus as the Christ come in the flesh” (so N. Alexander, J. Stott, J. Houlden, and others). All three options are grammatically possible, although not equally probable. Option (1) has a number of points in its favor: (a) the parallel in 2 John 7 suggests to some that the phrase should be understood as a single object; (b) option (2) makes “Jesus Christ” the name of the preincarnate second Person of the Trinity, and this would be the only place in the Johannine literature where such a designation for the preincarnate Λόγος (Logos) occurs; and (c) option (3) would have been much clearer if Χριστόν (Criston) were accompanied by the article (ὁμολογεῖ ᾿Ιησοῦν τὸν Χριστόν, Jomologei Ihsoun ton Criston). Nevertheless option (3) is preferred on the basis of the overall context involving the secessionist opponents: Their christological views would allow the confession of the Christ come in the flesh (perhaps in the sense of the Spirit indwelling believers, although this is hard to prove), but they would have trouble confessing that Jesus was (exclusively) the Christ incarnate. The author’s failure to repeat the qualifying phrases (Χριστὸν ἐν σαρκὶ ἐληλυθότα, Criston en sarki elhluqota) in the negative repetition in 4:3a actually suggests that the stress is on Jesus as the confession the opponents could not or would not make. It is difficult to see how the parallel in 2 John 7 favors option (1), although R. E. Brown (Epistles of John [AB], 492) thinks it does. The related or parallel construction in John 9:22 (ἐάν τις αὐτὸν ὁμολογήσῃ Χριστόν, ean ti" auton Jomologhsh Criston) provides further support for option (3). This is discounted by R. E. Brown because the verb in John 9:22 occurs between the two accusative objects rather than preceding both as here (Epistles of John [AB], 493 – although Brown does mention Rom 10:9 as another parallel closer in grammatical structure to 1 John 4:2). Brown does not mention the textual variants in John 9:22, however: Both Ì66 and Ì75 (along with K, Ë13 and others) read ὁμολογήσῃ αὐτὸν Χριστόν (Jomologhsh auton Criston). This structure exactly parallels 1 John 4:2, and a case can be made that this is actually the preferred reading in John 9:22; furthermore, it is clear from the context in John 9:22 that Χριστόν is the complement (what is predicated of the first accusative) since the object (the first accusative) is αὐτόν rather than the proper name ᾿Ιησοῦν. The parallel in John 9:22 thus appears to be clearer than either 1 John 4:2 or 2 John 7, and thus to prove useful in understanding both the latter constructions.

9 tn The καί (kai) which begins 4:3 introduces the “negative side” of the test by which the spirits might be known in 4:2-3. Thus it is adversative in force: “every spirit that confesses Jesus as Christ who has come in the flesh is from God, but every Spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.”

10 tn Or “does not acknowledge.”

11 tc A number of variants are generated from the simple τὸν ᾿Ιησοῦν (ton Ihsoun), some of which turn the expression into an explicit object-complement construction. ᾿Ιησοῦν κύριον (Ihsoun kurion, “Jesus as Lord”) is found in א, τὸν ᾿Ιησοῦν Χριστόν (ton Ihsoun Criston, “Jesus as Christ”) is read by the Byzantine minuscules, τὸν Χριστόν (“the Christ”) is the reading of 1846, and ᾿Ιησοῦν without the article is found in 1881 2464. But τὸν ᾿Ιησοῦν is well supported by A B Ψ 33 81 1739 al, and internally best explains the rise of the others. It is thus preferred on both external and internal grounds.

12 tn “Spirit” is not in the Greek text but is implied.

13 sn Them refers to the secessionist opponents, called “false prophets” in 4:1 (compare 2:19).

14 tn “But” supplied here to bring out the context. The conjunction is omitted in the Greek text (asyndeton).

15 tn The phrase ἐκ τούτου (ek toutou) in 4:6, which bears obvious similarity to the much more common phrase ἐν τούτῳ (en toutw), must refer to what precedes, since there is nothing in the following context for it to relate to, and 4:1-6 is recognized by almost everyone as a discrete unit. There is still a question, however, of what in the preceding context the phrase refers to. Interpreters have suggested a reference (1) only to 4:6; (2) to 4:4-6; or (3) to all of 4:1-6. The last is most likely, because the present phrase forms an inclusion with the phrase ἐν τούτῳ in 3:24 which introduces the present section. Thus “by this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of deceit” refers to all of 4:1-6 with its “test” of the spirits by the christological confession made by their adherents in 4:1-3 and with its emphasis on the authoritative (apostolic) eyewitness testimony to the significance of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry in 4:4-6.

16 sn Who or what is the Spirit of truth and the spirit of deceit in 1 John 4:6? (1) Some interpreters regard the “spirits” in 4:6 as human spirits. Although 4:1a is ambiguous and might refer either to human spirits or spiritual beings who influence people, it is clear in the context that (2) the author sees behind the secessionist opponents with their false Christology the spirit of the Antichrist, that is, Satan (4:3b), and behind the true believers of the community to which he is writing, the Spirit of God (4:2). This is made clear in 4:4 by the reference to the respective spirits as the One who is in you and the one who is in the world.



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