In Sunday’s reading from 1 John 4:1-6 we are cautioned not to believe every spirit. So what can we believe?
“Test the spirits to see if they are from God.” (1 John 4:1)
Lesson One: not every spirit is of God.
Easy enough. Just because it looks good or feels good, doesn’t mean it is good and holy.
Jesus acknowledged as much, saying, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter” (Matthew 7:21). And, “if someone says to you, ‘Look, here’s the Christ,” or ‘He’s over here,’ don’t believe it. False christs and false prophets will appear, and they will offer great signs and wonders in order to deceive, if possible, even those who God has chosen” (Matthew 24:23-24).
So, we need to test the spirits (images, ideas, claims, etc. about God). But how?
“This is how you know if a spirit comes from God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come as a human is from God.” (1 John 4:2)
Lesson Two: Spirit of truth acknowledges that Jesus came in flesh and blood
Bodies – flesh and blood – matter. Jesus’ body. Your body. My body. Your neighbor’s body. Women’s bodies. Men’s bodies. Migrants’ bodies. Dark-skinned bodies. Fair-skinned bodies. Soldiers’ bodies. Young bodies. Old bodies. Bodies of all kinds. Bodies matter to God, and to us. The Spirit of Truth acknowledges the blessedness and holiness of bodies.
But in the early days of the church there were those who claimed that Jesus was a spirit only, not a real flesh-and-blood person. The early Christians held firm to the belief that Jesus came in the flesh and blood. Why does this matter?
Pinch yourself. Drink a glass of cold water on a warm day. Breathe deeply. Look in a mirror. The body is beautiful. It matters. It matters so much to God that God chose to send the Savior into the world as one of us. In real flesh and blood. To experience what we experience, even to the point of suffering and death. God did this to show us a way of life that reaches beyond what we see and know into the boundless grace of the Kingdom of God.
Yet this promised Kingdom is not matter-less, but instead is deeply tangible and created and material. Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven with flesh and blood (John 20:24-31). The Christian church looks forward to a promised future that is a new heaven and a new earth joined together (Revelation 21), not a disembodied spiritual realm. We look “for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come” (The Nicene Creed).
And, in our world today, we too often act as if certain bodies are more important than others, based on gender, wealth, status, size, ability, age, and so forth. Such prioritization of some bodies over others is a heresy and a denial of Christ, who comes to us in the flesh.
“Every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and is now already in the world.” (1 John 4:3)
Lesson Three: Watch out for that which denies Christ
To deny Christ is to deny the value of the body, of the flesh, of the world that God so loves (John 3:16).
Some deny Christ with their words. They do not share our Christian faith. That alone is not an antichrist.
Instead, an antichrist is anything that substitutes for Christ something that stands in opposition to Christ and his Gospel – such as the spiritualized version of Christ that some early “prophets” were proposing. Other antichrists are those who claim Christ with their lips yet with their actions disregard that which and those whom Jesus highly regarded.
Ultimately I am less interested in labeling any one person as an “antichrist,” for we all are able to be an antichrist (after all, Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts” (Matthew 16:23). Instead, an “antichrist” is anything that devalues that which Jesus valued; hates what Jesus loved; rejects what Jesus embraced.
Perhaps the best rubric for discerning the spirits is this: is the spirit one of love?
Not a form of abuse or a paucity of grace that masquerades as love. But love. Generous, flowing, abundant, limitless love.
“I give you a new commandment: Love each other” (John 13:34).
“God is love” (1 John 4:8).
Indeed, “all the Law and Prophets depend on two commands:” Love God, and love neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40).
Test the spirits with love. Nothing else will do.