Regarding 1 John 4:2,3
By Fred Pruitt
(From several years ago, from a minister in Australia)
Q: My query centres around 1 Jn.4:3. John has mentioned the ‘false prophets’ and then says that the test of a right spirit is to confess ‘Jesus Christ is come in the flesh’. This spirit, he says, ‘is of God’. It seemed to me, in the light of the truth as it is being revealed to me in latter days, that John is referring to Christ in my flesh, as the substance in the container/vessel I am, or the branch of the Vine – as per all those lovely figures NPG has so clearly drawn from Scripture.
I discussed this with a fellow Christian of orthodox evangelical persuasion, who sees that John is speaking of the Incarnation, nothing more. The same as I was taught in College days by learned teachers training me for the ministry, and which I have read ever since by commentators of accepted renown; that this was John joining in battle with the Gnostics, etc. etc. Could you comment on this? …..
A: When folks tell you that the meaning of that verse is the incarnation of Jesus, and John’s struggle against false teaching of that time, which some identify as gnosticism, I don’t think that is wrong or incorrect. I would only go further, and understand how the incarnation of Jesus is personal to me. The “incarnation” is something that I don’t really relate to, if the only human person who is a participant in the incarnation, is Jesus of Nazareth, so that he stands humanly apart and humanly different from me. He becomes then some sort of “outer” God, apart from us, and humanly I can’t relate to Him.
Philippians says he emptied himself of deity, and became a man. Except for sin, he was the same as us in his basic humanity.
The reason why this is important, is that since by HIS humanity we see God manifest, even in the same way by the Cross God is now manifest, in OUR humanity — Father, Son, Holy Spirit have come to live in us. Not in any sense that “we” have become God or something silly like that, but that we are earthen vessels who are filled with the Treasure which is the Living God. That was the “promise of the Father” that Jesus continually told them was coming. When God would fill His sons with Himself, which has been the Plan all along.
Going on then with the importance of God becoming man in Jesus, what happened is that through Jesus, by all that He accomplished, the same incarnation is then enacted in us His sons when God by His mercy and grace reveals “the Son” in us, as He did in Paul. This is the work of the Spirit in us, Who is sent to testify of Christ, first to us, then in us, and finally as us, as we then begin to reproduce Christ in others. God in Christ is incarnate again, in and as each of us in whom He lives. That is why the religious idea of the incarnation, i.e., “how God became man in Jesus Christ,” becomes much more than a Sunday School concept to us as we see the same life miraculously unfolding out of our lives.
We all start out, however, looking only to outer things. It’s the only way God can touch us, since through the fall we’ve all been dead to the life of God’s Spirit — it is invisible and nonsensical to mortal flesh — and we have been unknowingly alive to the spirit of error, the source and power of self for self. So the Spirit’s first testimony to us of Christ, even before we know the Lord, is through the story and life of Jesus. We can only see and know him in an outer way –as a character in history, a good man, religious leader, or even a charlatan. But one way or another the Spirit makes Jesus inescapable to those who are drawn to him. At least that is how it was with me.
Our first inklings of heavenly Life begin when by a miracle it starts to dawn in our consciousness that Jesus is not any of those preconceived labels we had put on him, but we very surprisingly find God inexplicably pouring out of him. God uses some means in our lives to drop scales from our eyes and we see we had been blind! Suddenly, “the incarnation” is more than a theological concept we heard in Sunday School or at Christmas. The incarnation becomes in our sight and sense a miracle that we witness! Somehow this Jesus of Nazareth fills everything and becomes the answer to everything! “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world,” says the voice in the wilderness, and we hear with the same ears we’d heard with before, but this time our hearing heard, and we somehow know “this is the Christ of God.” We don’t even know what that means, “Christ of God,” because we have in an instant become little children, overtaken with a love that we never imagined existed or that we could possibly deserve.
We just know that God in Jesus Christ has somehow come in and done something in our lives — “He has come into us” they told us — and we know we’ve been touched and somehow made new. And it has all been through this man Jesus, who becomes the main object of our new love. And there’s no explaining that, because we ourselves had always before that been our own main love object. But now, by an absolute miracle we have been transformed and a love greater than our own begins flowing out of us.
So we begin this love life with Jesus as the object, and for many of us we have a season of studying the gospels and the epistles, as the Spirit more and more witnesses to us the validity of Jesus as the Christ, and we begin our school days in which the Spirit trains us in the life of faith.
At first most of us see Jesus in a purely outer way, and our focus is on Jesus in Palestine, and we fall in love with him as God reveals Him there. And we believe in Him in that first seeing (because even though we haven’t yet come to understand life in the Spirit, still “in the Spirit” is where we have transacted with God, and where His life has come alive in us.)
Likewise, our understanding of the scriptures changes over time, as our focus reorients from temporal and outer to eternal and inner. As the Spirit brought us into Christ in our love, He is also revealing Christ to us through the scriptures so that we begin to grow in knowledge and understanding as well. Since we can only think “this world” because we have not yet come to know the inner and who we really are, the only way we can grasp the things of God is through the things of this world, so the Spirit’s teachings of us in our earliest days have to do with outer things. In everything He is revealing and testifying of Christ in us, though for a long time we may not know that.
So “Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” and John’s warnings against false spirits we first see after the same manner. In my mind it conjured up an image of groups of false teachers going around, with the litmus test to prove the true from the false being their confession about Jesus Christ. And it is seemingly one of those “proof texts” that nail down things like Jesus’ divinity in a good apologetics session, supposed ammunition against heretical groups, should we ever get into a tiff with one of them. And back in my early days, I used to make a point of it.
But you have hit on the key I think. Yes, the folks are right who say it is about Jesus Christ who has come to us in the flesh as no one ever has. But the key you have hit on is that this reality of Christ in the flesh has now been reenacted in you and me. This is what John 1:12 really means: “But as many as received him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.”
The beginning of John’s epistle says the most interesting thing. In 1 Jn 1:3 he says, “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye may have fellowship with us …” Let’s stop with this phrase a moment. John is telling his readers what is personal to him. It is something he has witnessed in the most intimate way. By this declaration, anyone who hears is brought into fellowship, first with John, “with us,” he says. John himself is now the embodiment of the fellowship, which, he then goes on to say, “is fellowship with the Father and the Son.” This isn’t some static information he’s giving here. John is BOLD to say, that when you enter my fellowship, fellowship with me, John, through what I have told you, you are entering into the fellowship of the Father and Son Jesus Christ as well. How can that be? Because this same miracle that occurred in Jesus, in that God became man, has now been made reality in John, so that as Jesus was one with the Father, so also is John one with the Father, and going further, in his declaration and our hearing of it, we now join in that same oneness, the same incarnation now continuing in us.
And that’s what we come to realize in this furtherance of our understanding of 1 Jn 4:2,3. Jesus has become internalized in us. We no longer see him “after the flesh,” as Paul said. “My” flesh is now where the life of God is manifest. “Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” now becomes not some static truth but an ongoing reality, as daily He shines through my earth with His Treasure. And this is the ongoing revelation of our lives. Every day we walk and every day Christ is revealed. To us, in us, as us.