Beyond the Lectionary Text: 1 John 4:1-6
by Kory Plockmeyer
I once had a conversation with a colleague about the incarnation. “The incarnation,” she claimed, “is at the center of the Gospel to me. The Good News is that Jesus came into the world at all.”
This conversation has stuck with me. While I may not necessarily place the incarnation at the center of the Gospel, it pointed out to me the ways that I often pass over this part of Christian theology. In many formulations of the Gospel with which I was familiar, the life of Jesus is little more than the necessary precursor in order for Jesus to die on the cross. My own (Reformed) tradition suggests that the primary importance of the incarnation is that only a human being can pay the debt of our sins.
This conversation comes back to me particularly when I come across passages like this one in 1 John 4. “Every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” vss. 2-3).
When we encounter the idea of false prophets in the New Testament, we do well to remember the setting of the earliest church. Relatively small gatherings of Christians met in individual homes. The New Testament was not yet clearly defined. Church structure is still in flux. Much of what later becomes “orthodoxy” is still being defined (the so-called Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is an example of one such process at work). Itinerant preachers were common – individuals who would travel from city to city, stay for a while supported by the church, and then move on to another town to continue teaching and preaching. Against this backdrop, false prophets are not obvious individuals out to derail the church but itinerant preachers whose teaching may sound an awful lot like the Good News of Jesus Christ. John’s admonition in chapter 4 is not just intellectual banter but an important and necessary guideline for the church in separating spiritual wheat and chaff.
John is concerned here with one particular brand of false prophets – those who teach something other than Jesus Christ coming in the flesh. This most likely is a form of proto-Docetism, a heresy that would crop up in fuller form later in the life of the church. Docetism, from the Greek word dokeo, taught that Jesus did not actually suffer and die, but rather only appeared to do so. Jesus, in this case, was not actually fully human, but rather only pretended to be.
On first glance, this seems to be a way of thinking that has gone extinct in the church. Many are willing to say that Jesus was a good and wise teacher, maybe even a prophet, but are not willing to call him the Son of God. Few would say the opposite – that Jesus was the divine Son of God but not an actual person.
On deeper inspection, though, we find that this way of thinking is still alive and well in big ways and small.
Some such thinking is fairly innocuous. The classic Christmas carol “Away in a Manger” is a favorite target for many. “The cattle are lowing the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes,” as though the act of a baby’s crying is somehow sinful in and of itself, rather than the natural and important means by which a child communicates to his mother that he needs nourishment. Our images of the peace and calm on Christmas night are one of the places where such docetistic ideas still have a bit of a stronghold in our thought.
Is this that big of a deal? Yes and no. On the one hand, maybe it’s not a big deal – they are beloved Christmas carols and there is something so powerful about gathering in a candlelit sanctuary to sing of the peace that came upon a midnight clear (as though Jesus couldn’t possibly have been born on a partially cloudy night!). At the same time, the myriad of nativity scenes that have entered into our commercialized celebration of the birth of Jesus create such a sanitized version of the mystery of the incarnation that it can be challenging for us to connect with the gritty reality that Jesus was a real flesh-and-blood human being who ate, drank, and got dirty in an actual place and time. I suspect that for every person who has looked into the eyes of a crèche of the baby Jesus and found peace there is someone else who looked at the serenity of the scene and thought, “This has nothing to do with the reality of my life.”
Such docetic thought enters our theology in other ways, too. The reality of the incarnation means that there is meaning and purpose to our experience in this life. While we know that our hope is not for this life alone (1 Corinthians 15:19), we also recognize that the time we spend on this earth has value beyond simply accepting or rejecting Jesus. Much of modern Christianity treats Jesus as nothing more than a “Get out of Hell free” card. Yes, we certainly celebrate that the good news of Jesus invites us into life eternal with God, but we also recognize the power of the word only in 1 Corinthians 15:19: “If our hope is only for this life…” implies that our hope is also not only for the next life. There is hope for this life as well.
When we emphasize our hope for the next life at the complete expense of our hope for this life, we run the risk of denying Jesus as coming in the flesh. When we are concerned only with the spiritual needs of those around us but not at all with their physical needs, we run the risk of preaching a disembodied Jesus whose body only mattered as a vehicle to accomplish the spiritual work of opening a way to heaven for us. When the Gospel message we preach has no transformative impact on our communities, we run the risk of preaching a truncated Gospel that misses the full life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Messiah Jesus.
Docetism rears its ugly head when we treat Jesus as little more than a “magic wand” to fix our problems. Sometimes this takes the form of a health and wealth Gospel – Jesus is the means to an end. When we treat Jesus as our magic wand, we ignore the reality of his life – the reality that he was a man who spent much of his time with the outcasts of society, rejected by most (though not all) of the powers-that-be in his world. When we expect Jesus to magically fix everything and set everything the way we want it to be, we forget that Jesus told us that “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). When we treat Jesus as a magic wand, we forget that our call is to be like Jesus, who tells us, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me” (John 6:38). Teaching Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh takes seriously the life of Jesus spent following the will of the Father and living a life of tangible love to the lowest of society.
There’s a tremendous irony in the logic of 1 John 4. When we acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh we have within us the one who is greater than the one who is in the world. The ability to recognize and celebrate the life and physicality of Jesus is a gift from the Holy Spirit.
The concept of the antichrist is of particular interest to many congregants. Many have opposing viewpoints and understandings of the antichrist. Possible interpretations include: one ultimate enemy who will rise at the end times and must be defeated in the final battle between God and the Enemy (such as Nicolae Carpathia in the Left Behind series); multiple antichrists who are deliberately sent out by the Enemy; any number of “antichrists” in the sense of any person who opposes the work of the Gospel could be called an “antichrist”; “antichrist” refers to more of a concept than people – anything that runs contrary to the Gospel could be labeled as “antichrist.”
The Greek of 1 John 4:3 does not necessarily preclude any of these. The first is challenged by the next phrase, that the antichrist is already in the world. The word antichristos shows up only five times in the New Testament, all in the Johannine letters, four in 1 John. The definite article in 1 John 2:22 (“this person is the antichrist”) suggests that we should conceive of the antichrist in personal terms and 2:18 explicitly says that there are many antichrists. While there is still significant room for interpretation regarding the idea of “antichrists,” this gives us a better framework to understand its use in 4:3.
Joy Carroll Wallis wrote a piece for Sojourners in 2004 reflecting on the place of Herod in Christmas. She argues that we have sanitized the Christmas story too much: “We tend to lose interest in the parts of the story that are not so comfortable. We smile at the warm cozy nativity scene, but have you ever spent a night in a barn? Or given birth in a barn? The reality is very different. Most scholars suggest that in Luke’s account it’s not just that the inns were full but that Mary and Joseph were forced to take the barn because their family had rejected them. Joseph has relatives or friends of relatives in Bethlehem. So rather than being received hospitably by family or friends, Joseph and Mary have been shunned. Family and neighbors are declaring their moral outrage at the fact that Joseph would show up on their doorsteps with his pregnant girlfriend.” The reality of the incarnation is much messier than our sanitized nativity scenes.
Rev. Kory Plockmeyer is the pastor of Westend Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, MI.