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Wolves in Sheep's Clothing (1 John 4:1-6)

Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing
1 John 4:1-6

Minister’s Summary:
The Spirit of God not only gives assurance to the community of faith but gives it the power of discernment between truth and error. The doctrines of the antichrists (i.e., false teachers, secessionists) must be put to the test against an orthodox confession of Jesus Christ as God who has come in the flesh.

Exegetical Notes

The previous section's emphasis on knowledge and certainty leads naturally to a discussion of spiritual discernment. Assurance is based partly on faith in Jesus Christ, but faith in Jesus Christ has a specific content. Spiritual claims must be tested against this content. Indeed, the “by this we know" of 3:16, 19, and 24 is also found in 4:2 though here it is "by this you know." It is part of the testing of legitimate assurance.

Structurally, 4:1-6 is problematic. It is clearly digressive from the main point. So, why is this teaching on discernment set between two sections on love? What is the link? I think it fits well as a digression that reminds the readers of two significant points in relation to the secessionists. For all their claims of love, their Christology and their community do not reflect the "spirit of truth" and "the Spirit of God." Consequently, while talking about love, John offers yet another warning about the secessionists. They appear to exalt love, but they do not have the love of God's heart or the Spirit of God's life in their community.

The Presence of False Prophets (4:1)

The use of the word "prophet" and the claims of "anointing" may point us to the charismatic character of the secessionist group already identified in 2:18-23. Apparently, there was much talk about "spirit" and prophetic word. The question is, to whom will you listen and who listens to whom (cf. 4:5-6)? Every spirit is not credible and we should not believe every spirit. Rather, we should only listen to the "spirits" that are from God. How, then, do we discern whether a spirit is from God or not? John provides two tests, and both fit into John's dualistic vision of the reality. This dualism is the means by which one identifies the "false prophets."

GodEvil One
Confesses JesusDenies Jesus
Spirit of GodSpirit of the Antichrist
The One In YouThe One in the World
From GodFrom the World
Listens to UsListens to the World
Spirit of TruthSpirit of Falsehood

Two Tests (4:2-6)

The two tests are identified by the dual use of "know" in 4:2 and 4:6 which also serve as structural bookends to this section: (1) “by this (en touto) you know the Spirit of God” and (2) “out of this (ek toutou) we know the Spirit of truth.”

First Test: Christological Confession (4:2-3). The first test is what one says about Jesus. Burge summaries what it means to confess Jesus as: "(1) that the man Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the Divine Word of God; (2) that Jesus Christ was and is fully divine as well as fully human; and (3) that Jesus is the sole source of eternal life since he alone reveals the Father to us and atones for our sins" (Burge, 174-75). This three-fold picture seeks to integrate the specific statement of 4:2-3 with the surrounding context (4:7-21) and the frame of the book itself (prologue and epilogue). I agree that we cannot take this confession in isolation but we must see it as a contextually meaningful confession in the situation of John's community.

The particular statement by John, "that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh," speaks to the unity of Jesus and Christ, the reality of the incarnation and the abiding significance of that incarnational event. It is abbreviated as "confessing Jesus" in 4:3. The whole of John's Christology is involved here. Whoever will not confess that reality and its significance is not from God. It is allegiance to a person who reveals God and brings God's communion into the world. It is a loyalty to the definitive revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

Second Test: Communal Commitment (4:4-6). The second test is communal in character. To which community do you belong and to whom do you listen? How does the world treat you? With whom are you aligned and what is the effect of this alignment?

False prophets are lined up with the spirit of the Antichrist and with the world. The world listens to them and likes them, but they do not listen to God. They no longer share the community of the disciple (they do not listen to "us"). Notice the significance of the first person plurals in this section. It is "they" vs. "we" in verses 5-6.

The spirit within the believer must be in harmony with the Spirit that testifies to Jesus Christ and the Spirit that generates community. The leadings of the spirit must be discerned in relation to Jesus Christ and the community. These are objective tests for believing the voice of any spirit.

Theological Perspectives

Discernment is a necessary dimension of communal life. The community does not believe everything it hears. Rather, it discerns the difference between the Spirit of God and the spirit of the world? Christians are neither gullible nor pluralistic. They have a test for “truth.” It is the confession that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.

What is the theological point of the confession of Jesus? This distinguishes what is from God and what is from the world; it distinguishes truth (reality) and falsehood (deception). The specific data that John articulates is that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” But what exactly is the point?

As mentioned above, this is not an isolated confession. Rather, John’s language here is informed and contextualized by his whole letter. It involves an understand of Jesus that lies at the heart of his letter. Jesus, as the Son of God, reveals in the flesh (incarnationally) the eternal life and love of God. He is the one who atones for the sins of the world and reveals the fullness of God’s life and love in the flesh. He thus unites God and humanity as the Eternal Life in the flesh. He is the criterion of authentic revelation and the one through whom we possess life. Jesus is unique as the incarnate one who is eternal life and brings the message that God is light and love.

The experience of the Spirit is Christologically grounded, that is, no one can claim to have the Spirit of God if they deny that God came in Jesus Christ or that God is revealed in Jesus Christ through the flesh. Any claim of an experience of the Spirit that undermines the uniqueness of God’s revelation of himself in Jesus is a false and deceptive claim.

But this Christological experience of the Spirit is found in community—in a shared message, shared love and shared life. Consequently, we know who to listen to. We have a sense of identity that comes from belonging to this Christological community. We recognize a difference between the world and the community of God. He listen to each other within community, but we do not listen to the world (that is, we do not listen to them in the sense that we draw our values from that quarter).

Teaching Particulars

Test the Spirits (4:1-6)

Function of Text: Assurance entails spiritual discernment and an understanding that there are competing claims in the marketplace of ideas.

Theology: The Spirit of God is at work in God's community testifying to the reality of the incarnation in Jesus Christ and forming a community of people grounded in that testimony.

Application: You must test the claims of spiritualists since the marketplace is full of false claims and pseudo-communities.

Teaching Outline: Don't Believe Everything You Hear

1. Urban legends abound with the rise of e-mail. You have heard some of them: flashing lights and gangs, virus bugs, etc. You have heard the many rumors surrounding Y2K. There are also many competing claims in the religious marketplace, even within "Christian" circles.

2. We must recognize that there is a difference between the Spirit of Truth and the spirit of error. There are antichrists who clothe themselves in the dress of christs. They confess Jesus but they do not confess Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who has come in the flesh. The community of God is rooted in the truth of that confession.

3. John offers two tests for spiritual discernment. One is Christological and the other is Pneumatological (Spirit) which creates community on the ground of the work of Jesus Christ.

4. Today is a time that calls for spiritual discernment and the unqualified confession of Jesus Christ as the one who truly reveals God. We must not permit the values of pluralism and toleration to undermine the Christian confession and community.

Questions for Discussion:

1. How does this text run counter to the spirit of our age where pluralism, toleration, and relativity dominate?

2. What is the nature of “truth” in this text? Is it meanly cognitive? Is it experiential? Is it communal?

3. In what ways does our culture (world) reflect the “spirit of the antichrist” and the “spirit of falsehood”? What does John provide here that helps you discern the “false prophets”?

4. In what ways do we “listen to the world”? Is there a positive sense in which we should “listen to the world”? What does John mean by “listen” here?

5. How does community help discernment? How does community function in the task of discernment? To what extent does listening to each other help distinguish the spirit of truth from the spirit of falsehood?


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