Studying 1 John 4 and 5

We will be thinking about testing the spirits and overcoming the world this week, as we are studying some verses from 1 John 4 (specifically vv 2-3 & 13-17) and 1 John 5 (specifically vv 4-5) for Sunday, August 22. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on this text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: As we might recall from a couple of earlier studies (1 John 3:11-24, 1 John 4:7-19), the larger text of 1 John is considered one of the “catholic” or “general epistles.” That is, it’s not addressed to a specifically named audience. Nevertheless, it’s not really an “epistle” at all – in form it is more like a homily or a spiritual instruction. The purpose of the instruction seems to be to stay true to the true teaching – that is, the author’s teaching – about Jesus, the Son of God in the flesh.

Commentators take this as evidence of a doctrinal fight that was occurring in the early Christian community to which the author belonged. [I don’t know whether it’s more encouraging, or more discouraging, to realize that the early church had doctrinal fights at least as serious as the ones that today’s Christians have.] The thought is that the schismatics were advocating an early version of what came to be called Docetism – that is, the notion that Jesus Christ was not fully or authentically human, but merely appeared to be human.

This idea made it easier for the ancients to believe that Jesus was God in human form. The ancient Greek world’s negative view of the human body made it inconceivable that God would take on actual humanity. Too intrinsically incompatible. Too much something a “spiritual” person wants to escape, not abide in, or resurrect. But this easier-to-believe Jesus was not the Jesus that was God With Us, who embodied God’s love for the actual humans we are. Nor was it the God With Us who defeated death by dying a real human death and rising from the dead to new (and real, and human, and eternal) life.

The text of 1 John supports this hypothesis about its purpose well. The author – according to tradition, “the disciple that Jesus loved” and the author of John’s gospel, whichever John that was – offers tests of sound teaching: that Jesus Christ has come “in the flesh,” and that we love our [actual human] brothers and sisters in action. Both are incarnational tests. According to commentator John Painter,

A three-fold reworking of two tests to reveal those who are of the truth provides the substance of 1 John. The two tests concern the true confession of faith and the ethical evidence of the lives of the children of God (376).

For Painter, these two tests are the key to the text’s organization. A different view of the organization of the text is presented by the commentators at the Bible Project. The two views are not exactly incompatible, but they suggest that there’s not a single way of reading the structure of the text.

However we outline the text, the verses we are focusing on this week (4:2-3, 13-17, and 5:4-5) come in the last part of the book. They are not exactly a climax, or a conclusion, as the book doesn’t build that way from start to finish. And yet they are part of the author’s emphatic affirmation of the love of God fully expressed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and the vital importance of that authentic faith.

1 John 4:7-21 is in the lectionary for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (B). 1 John 5:1-6 is in the lectionary for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (B). So it’s possible regular churchgoers might recognize these verses.

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CLOSER READING: If we were writing teachers, we would probably find natural paragraphs in the text around 4:1-6, 4:13-15 and then 4:15-21, and 5:1-5.

4:1-6 deals with “testing the spirits.” We might well ask ourselves what the author means by “spirits.” Most commentators seem to interpret this as meaning testing the spirit that moves some particular teaching or claim. The idea is that there’s a “spirit” behind or in every teaching, or behind or in every teacher. “Testing the spirits” means to discern this “spirit” behind or in the words people use, the claims they make.

It is not clear why so few readers suggest the author is talking about the kind of spirits other New Testament authors seem to have in mind (Ephesians 2:2, Colossians 2:8). Maybe because the focus in 1 John seems to be on teaching. But people thought prophecy was inspired by spirits, too – whether the spirit of YHWH, or other spirits (e.g., recall the story of the prophet Micaiah in 1 Kings 22). People also seem to have thought those spirits could confer power on people – and the question of what’s truly powerful also seems to be involved in this text.

The confession word we have seen in recent weeks – the “same speaking” kind of confession – repeats in verses 2-3, and echoes in the references to saying and listening in verses 5-6. Right confession is also overcoming – victory.

The criterion of or for truth advanced in verses 5 & 6 will raise red flags for readers who know about confirmation bias and closed systems. But ultimately, the criterion is direct experience (see 1 John 1:1), and the concrete results of loving one another in truth and action – that is, the empirical fruit of new life.

In verses 13-16, the author makes an appeal to the persuasive evidence of the experience of God’s Spirit, which communicates the experience of God’s love. This is linked to the confession (again, in v15) that Jesus is the Son of God, which is in turn linked to God abiding with “us.” This is a “confession,” then, that springs from concrete experience and that reinforces it. We should probably recognize here a reference to something qualitatively different from a formal recitation of a verbal formula. The author seems to be using “confession” as evidence of something deeper, something more like understanding born of experience.

We should probably notice, as well, that this line of argument once again concludes (vv 20-21) with the empirical test of how people respond to their brothers and sisters in need. Love for concrete flesh-and-blood humans is the evidence that the children of God “know” God’s love, and have it abiding in them. And that knowledge of abiding love is what energizes the confession of Jesus as the Son of God – that is, as the embodiment of God’s love (v16).

In verses 4-5 of chapter 5, the word victory or overcoming or conquering occurs four times. The victory here seems to be, again, the ability to see and know things entirely differently from “the world.”

We need to read the entire paragraph here to make sense of these verses. It begins with the assertion that whoever believes – accepts – Jesus Christ as Son of God is “born of God.” Loving God – the God of self-giving love in Jesus Christ – leads to loving Jesus. And, leads to obeying God’s commandments. That is, the commandment to love God, and to love one another as Christ loved us. And this commandment is “not burdensome” – which it would totally be if we were attached to everything “the world” considers desirable, to worldly comfort and success – because we have conquered, overcome “the world.”

How have we done that? We have already conquered, overcome the world in the very act of embracing Jesus Christ, the embodiment of divinely self-giving love, as the truth about God. Because “the world” – which values and trusts power and prestige and pleasure – does not have any faith in a God like this. It wants a “winner” God. It’s disgusted by the idea of a God who is open to humanity, to real humanity. A God who thereby exposes Himself to limitation, physicality, suffering, death – weakness, loss, the cross. So faith in Jesus Christ as Son of God, the true God of self-giving love, just IS, already, victory. Victory over the unenlightened, unloving, “worldly” way of thinking and living.

Victory over what is less a way of living than a way of dying. Because as this author reminds us, the world and all its desires are passing away (1 John 2:17).

So no one in their right mind would want what “the world” considers victory. That kind of “winning” is actually “losing.” Anyone who knows the truth will want the victory over the world that comes with faith in Jesus Christ, in the flesh, and with God’s love abiding in us and empowering us to love one another as Christ loved us.

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Painter, John. “1 John” introduction. The Access Bible. Gail R. O’Day and David Peterson, General Editors. Oxford University Press. 1999.

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Image: “Nike at Ephesus,” by Blcksprt, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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