Formations 09.22.2019: Right Beliefs and Right Actions

Saint Teresa of Calcutta, Manila Cathedral Basilica

1 John 4:1-16

Near the beginning of the first Iron Man movie, arms manufacturer Tony Stark addresses a gathering of military brass as he demonstrates a new missile system. He ponders whether it is better to be feared or respected before finally asking, “Is it too much to ask for both?”

I think about Tony Stark’s question a fair bit—not in terms of fear versus respect, but in terms of the ways our culture often demands we see life as a strict either-or proposition. Is it better to appreciate and learn from other cultures or to be appropriately proud of our own? Is it better to have limited government or a viable social safety net? Is it better to give generously to the needy or to be wary of grifters and con artists? It’s easy to pick one side and demonize the other. It takes courage and creativity to wonder, Is it too much to ask for both?

Here’s another one: Is it better to believe rightly or to act rightly? It’s easy to make a case for right actions, isn’t it? Jesus never got hung up on doctrinal orthodoxy, after all. It’s instinctive—or it ought to be—that “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

But what if we entertained the possibility that, at least some of the time, we act the way we do precisely because we believe the way we do? Mother Teresa spent her life helping the poor of Calcutta because of things she believed. Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, also because of things he believed.

In 1 John, some have separated themselves from the community of faith, and apparently have done so in a haughty and belligerent way, because of things they believe. In response, the Elder urges his reeling flock to stand firm in their faith. This faith, what they have heard from the beginning (1:1), includes not only a set of expected behaviors (love one another, keep the commandments, confess your sins) but a set of commonly treasured beliefs.

Therefore, the Elder exhorts his readers to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (v. 1). He proposes a theological test: those who confess that Jesus came in the flesh are from God while those who deny the incarnation are not. The Elder’s readers are from God and have already overcome those who are from the world. Jesus, the Son of God, is sent from the Father. God’s people testify to this truth.

The Elder is uncompromising in his theology, but even so his concern is grounded in love: “Let us love one another, because love is from God” (v. 7).


• Why was the issue of the incarnation, of Jesus’ having come “in the flesh,” so crucial for the elder?
• What is at stake in failing to confess Christ’s incarnation and his having been sent from the Father?
• What can be learned about Christ and humanity from this confession?
• What is the relationship between right belief and right behavior? What would it look like for us to strive for both?

Reference Shelf

The Spirit of the Antichrist

The Antichrist is an evil individual of apocalyptic eschatology who is to arise in the last days as an opponent of Christ. Whereas the term “antichrist” appears only in four passages in the NT (1 John 2: 18. 22; 4:3; 2 John 7), the concept of an antichrist is present in several NT texts. The Antichrist will appear prior to the return of Christ and will lead a campaign of persecution and deception against Christ’s followers. His power will end when Christ returns to earth and defeats the Antichrist and his forces.

The author of the Johannine Letters has broadened the idea so that he speaks not only of one antichrist, but of many antichrists. Whoever denies the Father and the Son is an antichrist (1 John 2:22), as well as those who “will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh” (2 John 7).

Mitchell G. Reddish, “Antichrist,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 34.

A Critical Process of Sifting

Rather than the religious credulity of accepting every testimony, the writer commends a critical process of sifting prophetic teaching, actually offering a powerful alternative that would empower the local believers. The verb form used (dokimazete) never appears in John and only this once in 1 John. The word does appear in two Lukan parables, the weather signs depicting an eschatological situation requiring discernment (15:6) and the great dinner with the sense of trying out oxen (14:19). The verb con- notes an assortment of related nuances such as test, examine prior to approval, evaluate, or discern, especially as it relates to metals (Prov 8:10; 17:3; 27:21; Wis 3:6; Sir 2:5).

In the Pauline Epistles, one finds the meaning not only of examining oneself as a believer (1 Cor 11:28; 2 Cor 8:8; 13:5; Gal 6:4; cf. 1 Pet. 1:7), but also of assessing other believers (2 Cor 8:8, 22). In Pauline usage it means to test (1 Thess 2:4), examine (1 Cor 11:28; 2 Cor 13:5), determine, or discern (Rom 2:18; Phil 1:10). These latter connotations speak to the meaning of 1 John 4:1, but perhaps the most instructive parallel is 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22. There in a common context of Christian prophets we find the dual advice: do not despise prophets, but test everything. Here, early on Pauline communities faced the necessity of testing and sifting Christian prophecies. At Qumran, testing (discriminating) the spirits of new members of the covenant in regard to insights and deeds (1QS 5:20-21) was common.

The reason, causal clause (hoti, v. 1d), those Johannine Christians may not accept all spirits uncritically lies in the recent reality in the community of numerous defecting prophets. The apostle is concerned to make absolutely clear that the false prophecy does not constitute an isolated phenomenon, and indeed may be a world-wide activity not to be underestimated. Since pseudoprophets are not mentioned in John, one suspects that we are seeing a new development reflected in the community. They represent, however, a common phenomenon in the early church (Matt 7:15; 24:11, 24).

Peter Rhea Jones, 1, 2 & 3 John, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2009), 163–64.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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  1. Fred Dorisse says

    Do each of these formation studies have learners study guides?

    • Katie Cummings says

      These Formations blog posts are additional resources to supplement the lessons covered in the Formations Learner’s and Teaching Guides, as well as the Commentary. You can learn more about the Formations series here. We publish Formations three times a year, with the current volume covering September–December.