The beginning of the fourth chapter of the first letter strikes me as odd. Here are the six verses:
1 Beloved, do not trust every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they belong to God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
2This is how you can know the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God,
3 and every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus does not belong to God. This is the spirit of the antichrist that, as you heard, is to come, but in fact is already in the world.
4 You belong to God, children, and you have conquered them, for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.
5 They belong to the world; accordingly, their teaching belongs to the world, and the world listens to them.
6 We belong to God, and anyone who knows God listens to us, while anyone who does not belong to God refuses to hear us. This is how we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of deceit.
Again we get a strong dichotomy, those spirits that acknowledge Jesus and those that don’t. We are told that we need to test the spirits to make sure we are “trusting” a spirit that belongs to God. I don’t have answers but I have a few questions. How do you test these spirits? Does John literally mean spirit or is this a metaphor for inspiration? Are these spirits angels, good and bad angels? How are these spirits different than the Holy Spirit?
This seems to be particularly a warning against Gnosticism, which denied that Christ had a corporeal body. So, the spirit St. John is warning against is the spirit of heresy, which is one of the forms the anti-christ takes to fight against the Church. The way you test someone for the spirit of heresy is by comparing what they say to Church doctrine. And, if spirit can be understood as inspiration, one needs to check others’ or one’s own ideas in light of Catholic theology.
Good points Joseph. I lean to agreeing with you. Where I have trouble is deciding whether he means "spirits" literally or as you suggest, metaphorically.
Interesting you bring up Gnosticism. Was Gnosticism an issue already in the first century? The only false prophet directly identify in the New Testament (that I recall, perhaps I missed someone) was Simon Magus in Acts. He was a magician, so I tend to identify the false prophets as such. Perhaps John does mean those who are in theological error. I'm not sure.
By the way, that's why I'm taking "spirits" as literal. Magicians call up evil spirits.
Hi, Manny! Going off of the School and Church Edition of the NAB’s introduction to the First letter of John, the heresy mentioned here is taken to be either docetism or gnosticism. Gnostic schools of thought began to exist before the Christian Era and started to latch onto Christianity in the first and second centuries according to New Advent’s Encyclopedia. So, that’s why I think that John is warning against Gnosticism, which claimed that Christ was a phantom without a real human nature.
The idea of magic being related to the spirit mentioned here is possible. I would not be surprised to learn that Gnostics dealt in magic, but all I really know about them is their flawed Soteriology.
I’m trying to remember whether Catholic tradition states that Simon Magus really repented of his ways or persevered in using magic.
Thank you Joseph. That is very helpful. I just looked up Simon Magus in Wikipedia and and they cite that some considered him the founder of Gnosticism. But that is disputed. Here is the Wikipedia link:
Thanks! It sounds like Simon Magus probably met a bad end. I did not know of his connection to Gnosticism, but it makes sense that a magician would be connected to a sect boasting of hidden knowledge:
One last point on the first letter. I found this reference to Christ’s coming in the fifth chapter intriguing.
6 This is the one who came through water and blood, Jesus Christ, not by water alone, but by water and blood. The Spirit is the one that testifies, and the Spirit is truth.
7 So there are three that testify,
8 the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and the three are of one accord.
Actually I was baffled by the coming of water, blood, and spirit until I read an explanation. Here is the explanatory note on that passage from the NAB:
* [5:6–12] Water and blood (1 Jn 5:6) refers to Christ’s baptism (Mt 3:16–17) and to the shedding of his blood on the cross (Jn 19:34). The Spirit was present at the baptism (Mt 3:16; Mk 1:10; Lk 3:22; Jn 1:32, 34). The testimony to Christ as the Son of God is confirmed by divine witness (1 Jn 5:7–9), greater by far than the two legally required human witnesses (Dt 17:6). To deny this is to deny God’s truth; cf. Jn 8:17–18. The gist of the divine witness or testimony is that eternal life (1 Jn 5:11–12) is given in Christ and nowhere else. To possess the Son is not acceptance of a doctrine but of a person who lives now and provides life.
Until I read the explanation I thought water and blood referred to His human birth and the spirit to His divine nature. I think that’s still a plausible reading, but defer to the theologians.