Did John caution against Gnosticism per se? The spirit of the Antichrist, 1 John 4: 2-3.
Why would confessing Jesus as BORN IN THE FLESH be a standard by which to judge the spirit working within a prophet? And today?
In 1 John 4: 2 – 3 we find a small variation of paramount importance! The words in uppercase in the KJV are not present in the NIV: “Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not THAT JESUS CHRIST IS COME IN THE FLESH is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.
1. External Criteria
This version is supported by Codex Sinaiticus (±350 A.D) and 5 codices after 750 A.D. as well as 17 minuscule manuscripts after 850 A.D. and 2 Syrias and an Aramaic Translation.
Modern translations have a shorter version, like the NIV:
1 John 4:2 – 3: “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.”
Supported by Vaticanus (±350 A.D) and Alexandrinus (±350 A.D) and 5 minuscules after 850 A.D. as well as 11 Ancient translations dating from 250 A.D. and spread out from Egypt, Ethiopia, and Europe up to Rome.
According to the Greek manuscripts available the two versions have very equal support. The great geographic distribution of the Ancient Translations lets the pendulum swing more towards the NIV-version.
2. Internal Criteria.
How could the origin of this variation be explained? 1) Jumping of the eye, either dittography or haplography by which the phrase could be duplicated or left out. Both are equally possible. 2) Duplicating the description of Jesus by memory. This is possible, giving preference to the shorter version. 3.) Deliberately removing this descriptive phrase of Jesus at this crucial point. For such a corruption to be done there must be good reason. In this specific verse a scribe following the Gnostic heresy of the Docetism could indeed have done this!
The internal criteria brings us no further to a definite choice.
3. Intrinsic Criteria.
By studying the context we try to discern what the function of this clause is in this part of John’s epistle. Why would the confession that “JESUS IS COME OF THE FLESH” be a criterion by which to indicate the spirit of the Antichrist?
In 1 John 4:1 we read: “Do not believe every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God …” In the time of John the Docetism as a Gnostic heresy had already been active. They renounced the human nature of Jesus. As Son of God he supposedly was only a spiritual being, so divine that He could not have been human. Since God lacked a material body, even so Jesus only appeared to be a flesh-and-blood man; his body was only a phantasm, which therefore could not physically suffer.
According to them, the history of Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension into heaven had been constructed by the disciples to incorporate the atonement sacrifice of the Old Testament. This heresy not only nullifies Jesus’ atonement, it denies Jesus’ human nature.
In this sentence John uses the participle of the verb that emphasizes the ongoing effect of something that happened in the past. John does not say that Jesus only came in the flesh, but that “He is come in the flesh” meaning that his human nature has ongoing effect in the present! And this John says, is a standard by which to evaluate the spirit working within a prophet, or leader coming to them in the name of Christ. Who spiritualizes everything and denies the two natures of Christ, the divine as well as the mortal, is not filled with the Holy Spirit, but indeed the spirit of the Antichrist.
John gives a criterion by which to judge someone who is coming in the name of Christ therefore already “acknowledging Christ” as in the NIV-version. But how he acknowledges Christ is the criterion. That is confessing his HUMAN NATURE as in the KJV-version!
An open question: In our modern age we often find a diminishing of physical deeds directly commanded or directly forbidden in the Word of God, by replacing them with “spiritual” criteria. Are we not re-enacting the very essence of Docetism in a modern guise? Compare for instance the long list in Romans 1. How often we “not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practise them.”
In Greek different tenses of the verb are used to express specific meaning. If I want to express something that happened in the past, but wanted to stress its effect in the present, I use the a participle.
As an example, I do not merely want to state that “the cup fell and was broken”, but the effect it has in the present: “I wanted to pour myself a cup of coffee, but the cup fell and was broken.” This is the tense John uses when he stated that “Jesus is come in the flesh.”
The fact that Jesus came in the flesh and accepted a fully human body has effect until the present day. The atonement sacrifice on the cross, the resurrection and ascension and being seated at the right hand of God are not merely historical facts, but has ongoing effect. Who spiritualizes everything and denies the two natures of Christ, the divine and the mortal is not filled with the Holy Spirit, but indeed the spirit of the Antichrist.
Prof. Francois Malan (emeritus) explains it as follows: “ ‘Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God’ – is a test whether the person that comes to you, is confessing the truth concerning Jesus; That Jesus Christ came from God and in reality became a human being. (Literally in the flesh, as in John 1:14 and 6:51 – 55 his flesh eat and his blood drink – that He really became a weak human being). This is confessed against the Greeks who would not believe that Jesus fully became human and the Jews who could not accept his divinity. The coming of Jesus in the past has effect in the present. The Son of God fully stepped into history as mediator between us and the Father. It is not merely a confessional article, but indicates a true personal relationship with God through Jesus and the consequence on how we live.
Both the short and the long variations convey this same message.
In the short version there is however another difference found in the English translations. Grammatically both are equal.
Some translations, like the NIV states: “every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.”
Here the translator puts the emphasis on Jesus as Person. That would include both natures the divine as well as the human.
Other translations have another interpretation,
Like the BBE: “And every spirit which does not say this is not from God:”
And the CEV: “But when someone doesn’t say this about Jesus,”
Now the translation is referring back to the statement in the preceding sentence, and on the acknowledgement of the human nature of Jesus, which is the test in the struggle against the Docetism.
Looking at all the facts above, the short variation as we find in the modern versions, seems to render that which John had written down under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Even the choice between the two possibilities in the short version accentuates the delicate choices the translator is often confronted with.
In our time it is not the human nature of Jesus that is attacked. It is His divine nature. The translation with “Who does not confess Jesus” emphasizes both natures of Jesus. Therefore I personally prefer this version. “Every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.” And in our day those who do not acknowledge Jesus, are very active. We should take note and not allow them to undermine our faith! “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”