Docetism and 1 John
For many years as a young Christian, the first few versus of 1 John 4 confused me. I thought, “What’s this business about denying Christ came in the flesh?” I knew that there were plenty out there who denied His diety, but I was unaware of any who denied His humanity. I was reminded of this the other evening during our family devotional when I had to explain these passages to my children.
1) Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because any false prophets have gone out into the world.
2) By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God;
3) and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.
4) You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.
5) They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them.
6) We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
(1 John 4:1–6)
A precursor to Gnosticism, Docetism taught that matter was evil. Consequently, those embracing this teaching could not accept that God could take on human flesh. Thus they rejected the doctrine of the Incarnation, and, in its place, taught that Christ’s body and his crucifixion were both illusory. It’s this teaching that John is warning us about in verse 3.
The concern here, though, is much broader than just the teachings of Docetism. Indeed, John's concern extends to all false teachers—for they are all of the spirit of antichrist. Because of these false teachers we are told to “test the spirits,” meaning that we are to test the teachings of men.
But like a father revealing a happy ending to a frightening tale, John does not leave us in fear. In verse 4 he tells us that we have already overcome them (the false teachers) because of the indwelling Spirit—God will not allow His little children to be ravished by wolves. In verse 6 we discover the means of this protection: His Word.
John tells us that “he who knows God listens to us.” “Us” here refers to John and the other men used by God to bring forth the Bible. Those of the spirit of antichrist will not heed the Scriptures—but God’s little children will. “By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.
Those in Berea were daily in God’s Word studying to see if what Paul and Silas were telling them was true. Likewise, the only way we can recognize false teachers is to be grounded in God’s Word—to know the truth. It is there in the Scriptures that, by faith, we’ll meet with the Living God, hear His voice, and learn the truth.
The Bible is something more than a body of revealed truths, a collection of books verbally inspired of God. It is also the living voice of God. The living God speaks through its pages. Therefore, it is not to be valued as a sacred object to be placed on a shelf and neglected, but as holy ground, where people’s hearts and minds may come into vital contact with the living, gracious and disturbing God.