1 John 4:1-6Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)
4 Dear friends, don’t trust every spirit. On the contrary, test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 Here is how you recognize the Spirit of God: every spirit which acknowledges that Yeshua the Messiah came as a human being is from God, 3 and every spirit which does not acknowledge Yeshua is not from God — in fact, this is the spirit of the Anti-Messiah. You have heard that he is coming. Well, he’s here now, in the world already!
4 You, children, are from God and have overcome the false prophets, because he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore, they speak from the world’s viewpoint; and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God doesn’t listen to us. This is how we distinguish the Spirit of truth from the spirit of error.
Verse 6 here is a key illustration of what arouses my suspicion of this letter, that it has begun to identify the doctrine of a particular community as the truth of God, and any other doctrine as a) wrong and b) evil. You think, it must be very comforting to be able to say, “Whoever knows Gos listens to us.”
But of course, this would be a complete misjudgment of the situation of the authors and their community: they are not a powerful group asserting hegemony over others, but a small, young and obscure faith community trying to maintain its identity in a cosmopolitan empire of many competing religions and philosophies. They know that their fierce adherence to the truth of an executed criminal and his command of love seems nonsense to most people in their world. It’s not the kind of entrepreneurial ideology that would get you places in the Roman Empire, nor the kind of exotic religiosity that would sit attractively in the vast supermarket of religions. It was too communal for go-getters and too sober for spiritual seekers.
The authors are encouraging their community to be resolute in the face of the dismissal of their faith by worldly people. In the biblical literature connncted with the name of John, the Greek word kosmos (world) is used negatively. Although it is famously said that God so loved the world that he gave his son, the world is viewed as being under the power of the evil one who deceives people with his lies. This leads to a sharp distinction between those who are “from the world” and those who are “from God.” The preposition “from” represents where a person is coming from, that is, in the language of the authors, where they “dwell.” Those who are from the world, are in thrall to the lies of the world, to the carefully constructed narratives that favour those who hold power or wealth. From that perspective the narrative of Jesus the downwardly mobile Son of God, seems nonsensical – why would anyone follow such an example?
If we are inclined to be critical of these authors, we should look at how our “world” views the Christian gospel from the perspective of its own power narratives. It sees Jesus as nonsense unless his story is doctored to make it more acceptable. Perhaps one could turn it into an idyll of upper class English village life, or a story of personal salvation through faith in Jesus with no moral strings attached, or an ethic of warm soupy communitarianism in a harsh world; any of these might gain converts. But the sober story of a man who preached love for neighbour so sharply that it got him crucified, that won’t do.
That’s how we ought to understand the people who denied that Jesus Messiah had existed truly in flesh and blood. No, no, that was all an appearance designed to fool evil spirits into imagining that he was vulnerable, by means of which he had tricked them into engaging with his overwhelming divine power, which could now be accessed by the believer who used his name. Now that narrative might appeal to the “world.”
In face of such teaching, the authors hold firmly to the truth of the word of life, that it has been made available as a human being who could be seen, and heard and touched and killed; and who commanded his followers to lay down their lives for their brothers and sisters. Why can’t people understand the truth of this story? The authors think it is because those who dwell in the world are deceived by its lies about power and wealth. Against this vast deception genuine followers of Jesus can only trust that they dwell in truth while worldly people dwell in lies.
The worldliness of so many Christian churches today, that is, their uncritical acceptance of the societal norms of capitalism, means that the distinctions made in this passage are only directed against people who disturb comfortable Christians, the poor, the foreigners, the Muslim, the disabled, the gay – the sort of people with whom Jesus used to associate. The challenge issued by genuine churches is that the all -powerful world of which we are part, should re-assess its priorities in the light of God’s priorities revealed in the story of Jesus. The stark language and theology of these authors, which exposes the world as an enemy of God’s truth, is a useful tool for believers who want to be genuine.