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1 John 4:2 (ESV):

2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,

When I read this verse, my immediate impression is that of the incarnation: that Jesus already existed in a fleshless form before but then decided to take on human flesh at the moment of his incarnation (hence "he came in the flesh" -> from no flesh to in the flesh). Does everyone get the same impression while reading this verse?

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  • As the accepted answer states, this is not (probably) the reason John states the words but I still think the question is valid and that John's words also combat other error, as well as the error arising at the end of the first century that The Messiah came in supposed 'spiritual' form and not in a real humanity. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 26 at 8:24
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I don't have a problem with the idea that Jesus existed in spiritual form pre-mortally--I in fact believe this is supported by other passages (a few examples here and here)--but I don't think that is the message this passage is intended to convey.

False teaching

The context of the preceding & succeeding verses is helpful in showing that John is cautioning against a specific false doctrine:

1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.

2 Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:

3 And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. (1 John 4:1-3)

Note that John again raises this concern in 2 John 7.

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Docetism

What false preaching might be in mind here? This sounds like a pretty clear description of Docetism (see here) which, in an effort to emphasize the inferiority/impurity of matter, denied that Jesus did anything physical.

This of course was very concerning to Christian leaders, since it denied both the incarnation and the resurrection.

The idea of an embodied God has bothered some people in the past and bothers many today. To borrow an effective rhetorical question from Jeffrey Holland:

If the idea of an embodied God is repugnant, why are the central doctrines and singularly most distinguishing characteristics of all Christianity the Incarnation, the Atonement, and the physical Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ? (see here)

I can see why John in particular would be so forceful in denying this doctrine, as one who had been eyewitness to the very real physical life, sufferings, and death of His very real, physical Leader.

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John's Apostolic testimony

That this is the principle John has in mind is driven home by how he starts the letter:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (1 John 1:1)

The physical reality of both the mortal and resurrected Christ was a big deal for John.

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Conclusion

The Gospels teach of an embodied Christ, and his bodily resurrection is their crowning moment. John and others (think Igantius) were very concerned by the efforts of the Docetists to deny these central claims of Christianity, and so they specifically called out the beliefs of Docetism as heretical.


Addendum to address a concern that was raised

This question takes an A=>B logical form (If A then B). I'm suggesting that A=>B is not a correct interpretation of the passage...but in doing so it is necessary to point out that ~(A=>B) does not mean B is false. If I claimed B is false my argument would be fallacious. The first paragraph of my response was intended to guard against this fallacy; I gather that this remained unclear to some readers. Hopefully this addendum provides some clarity.

A is the passage

B is fleshless pre-mortal existence

A = TRUE

(A=>B) = FALSE

B = not answered by this passage

I don't believe it would be in scope to respond to this question with a detailed discussion of my personal beliefs on pre-mortal existence. For those interested in this information, the best I can offer you is a link to my thoughts here.

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  • Curious... in your reply, and also for @Spirit Realm Investigator - in your understanding, what is ‘flesh’?
    – Dave
    Mar 26 at 2:40
  • Hi @Dave, the Greek word derives from σάρξ, which can mean literally "flesh" as in the soft tissue of the body distinct from bone & blood, but more practically it is regularly used in the New Testament to refer to a physical body generally. I think the latter is what 1 John 4:2 has in mind since the focus is not on anatomy, but rather testifying that Jesus came physically. A handy reference for how the word is used can be found here: biblehub.com/greek/4561.htm Mar 26 at 4:21
  • Yes. Agreed. Up-voted +1. Almost certainly the focus of John's words is against the concept that The Messiah came in 'spiritual' form, but not in a real humanity, a shocking heresy. John combats this in the last years of the first century as the error arises. But the question, I would say, is still valid that, as a side issue, John also answers other error by his stated words. Both question and answer up-voted.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 26 at 8:19
  • @HTTR I did NOT find your answer troubling, simply biased and loaded. The quotation from Jeffrey Holland is made irrelevant by this simple consideration: what got incarnated in Jesus is God’s word/_dabar_/_logos_: not a “pre-existent person”, but an essential attribute of God, like His spirit/_ruach_/_pneuma_. Mar 29 at 17:50
  • @MigueldeServet and HoldToTheRod, let me suggest that you might find the space needed to expand on Jesus' preexistence in the following questions: christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/80957/…, christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/55063/… Mar 29 at 18:03
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Does “Jesus has come in the flesh” in 1 John 4:2 imply a fleshless preexistence?

A short answer is "Yes".

Jesus spoke many times of his prehuman heavenly life, he did not begin life on earth.

John 6:38 (NASB)

38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.

John 3:13 (NASB)

13 No one has ascended into heaven, except He who descended

Thus being born as a human he was no longer a spirit, he did not merely assume a fleshy body, as angels had done in the past (genesis 18:1-3) is attested by apostle John who says that one is antichrist who denies that Jesus Christ came inthe flesh.

1 John 4:2-3 (NET Bible)

2 By this[a] you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses[b] Jesus as the Christ[c] who has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but[d] every spirit that refuses to confess[e] Jesus,[f] that spirit[g] is not from God, and this is the spirit[h] of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming, and now is already in the world.

In order to provide the ransom for mankind the Word became flesh, born of the Jewish virgin woman Mary, he was all human, no incarnation. The Bible tells us this: "14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise shared in their humanity, so that through death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil), 15 and set free those who were held in slavery all their lives by their fear of death. 16 For surely his concern is not for angels, but he is concerned for Abraham’s descendants." (Hebrews 2:14-16 NET)

His earthly sojourn was spoken of as “the days of his flesh.” (Hebrews 5:7)

Hebrews 5:7 (YLT)

7 who in "the days of his flesh" both prayers and supplications unto Him who was able to save him from death -- with strong crying and tears -- having offered up, and having been heard in respect to that which he feared,

Conclusion:

God’s Son. God’s “only-begotten son,” the Word, was a spirit person like his Father, hence “existing in God’s form” (Philippians 2:5-8), but later “became flesh,” residing among mankind as the man Jesus.

John 1:14 (NASB)

The Word Made Flesh

14 And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us; and we saw His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

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  • Although I am not sure what form God took prior to Jesus incarnation, certain His earthly mission was human. I think when Jesus calls Himself the Son of Man, we can believe it to mean very much Human. I am not sure God is spirit, because one of the Godhead already is the entity The Holy Spirit. In any case +1 from me.
    – Adam
    Mar 31 at 20:14
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Does "Jesus has come in the flesh" in 1 John 4:2 imply a fleshless pre-existence?

No. If anything, without a pre-supposed idea that it might, it rather says the opposite.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; 3and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming, and now it is already in the world. 1John 4:1-2

It starts out with a warning! Of what? Don't believe all the spirits. Especially the ones that say Jesus didn't come in the flesh. If he was not 'in the flesh', what could he be? Somehow also God too - which tradition teaches - that Jesus is flesh but also God!

  • So there is tendency to rewrite the scripture to what we want to read. It's not well regarded to just read the bible without interjecting new ideas into the text. By rewrite, I mean add words, change words, even add a whole verse about another God and another Jesus.

  • Speaking of Jesus - there is no need to disbelieve the abundantly supplied information regarding Jesus' beginning. Obviously, many do. They would rather believe a bunch of men 100's of years after the actual church fathers - the Apostles. These men have devised a whole other story about a tri-part God and a Saviour with two natures - neither of which was taught by the Apostles and their extensive writings. Everyone agrees that the Apostles were inspired by God and we have a relatively good record of what they wrote when we use a reputable translation and not one of the more imaginative versions. The other guys cannot be so inspired if they disregard what the Apostles wrote and what Jesus himself has said.

  • Let's start with the incarnation. Not mentioned anywhere by anyone - about God who became a man. There are no verses - just inferences. An unbiblical idea that has spawned confusion ever since. WHY is this most vital information totally lacking from God's revelation? WHY would God leave it to us to make up our own version of events and about the person of His holy son? We have 4 Gospels that each has a unique but united view of events and persons involved. We have the epistles which look back to this event also and yet still nothing about God becoming a man.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; 3and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming, and now it is already in the world. 1John 4:1-2

It's readily easy to grasp - every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God

  • If he has come in the flesh - he cannot be God. That is the whole point - if we think otherwise we are heeding the wrong spirits! No verse saying God is, or can be, flesh. If we try to make Jesus more than flesh - i.e. a God/man with two natures, who only 1/2 died, then we are refusing the very test God has given.
  • Only by inference can one say, because he 'has come' it must be from somewhere other than here or some time other than then - his birth and ministry.

But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His son, born of a woman, born under the law Gal 4:4

So we either make up more stuff about God the Son born of a woman! (another unbiblical idea and character) Or, a God the Son who cannot die but now has a human 'fall-guy' called Jesus - who can die, is the only way to resolve it.

  • What do we do with the bit about Jesus - 'the logos became flesh'? Where IS the 'God the Son' in this narrative? Nowhere to be seen or heard of - ever! When the logos became flesh, what is God the Son doing?? Biblical silence on this suggests, nothing!
  • Then there's the whole thing about the logos is a person. We are not told this - it is an assumption. Being 'with' God helps us grasp that it isn't God, but at least Godly. 1John 1:1-2 shows this logos as a 'which' or a 'what' and not a person at all. So if the logos as a person is the key premise for Jesus' pre-existence, it's a poor foundation.
  • The "before Abraham" thing? Jesus was known to be the descendant of Abraham, Paul reminds us in Gal 3:16. Of course Jesus was before Abraham in pre-eminence! Jesus is the Corner Stone - Abraham just a brick! Jesus was going to be the Saviour of all long before Abraham turned up because that's how God's plan was going to work.

having been foreknown indeed before the foundation of the world, but having been revealed in the last times for the sake of you 1Pet 1:20

We have several texts mentioning believers 'chosen before time began' etc. No one seriously believes we pre-existed - except in the mind of God who had a plan for salvation well before the first sod was turned. This plan included sin, a Saviour, his saved, the church and a lot of other stuff to go with all that - finally reaching the new heavens and new earth after some resurrections, another death, and some trumpets!

He has saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works, but by His own purpose and by the grace He granted us in Christ Jesus before time began. 2Tim 1:9

No need to infer anything here either. The grace is what is granted - that's a given if we know what kind of God He is - revealed in Christ. No need to ignore the Gospels and devise another beginning for Jesus. The official one works perfectly... why do we need a God/man if none is explicitly provided?

…it seemed fitting to me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in an orderly sequence, most excellent Theophilus; 4 so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught Luke 1:3

the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and you shall name him Jesus - He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. v30-32

An "exact truth"! Apparently, not good enough for many who want to rewrite this with their own God/man construct instead of the 'flesh' one God promised and even warned about - recognising imposters!

God, having spoken long ago to our fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, 2 in these last days has spoken to us in His son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the ages, 3who, being the radiance of His glory and the exact expression of His substance Heb 1:1-3

Yes God is in full view here - He is doing the 'talking', the 'appointing', the 'making', Jesus is the recipient. (correctly noting the 'ages' and not 'world' or 'universe' which are falsely supplied to promote the unbiblical, Jesus the creator idea. The plainly spoken verse matches with others that speak of the human Jesus who 'represented' God, died and was raised by his God and was taken to the heavens to sit next to - his God, and made heir of all God's stuff. Making Jesus a God here is not of the spirit God is sending to reveal the truth about His son of flesh.

As Jesus IS the logos made flesh and is the one through whom God speaks 'in these last days', who was He speaking through earlier? Clearly from this - not Jesus, but the prophets. Probably b/c Jesus wasn't born yet.

But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His son, born of a woman Gal 4:4

Another answer provided, the Word, was a spirit person like his Father, hence “existing in God’s form” (Philippians 2:5-8), but later “became flesh,

  • there's another assumption here. Some seem to consider that Jesus was in God's form before he was flesh - and then took the form of a servant on earth. Jesus came to reveal the Father. To be His image, His form, His representative. How could he do this if he left the 'form of God' in heaven as he became flesh? This too is an idea forced on the scriptures. Jesus was the form of God and the servant at the same time - that was the whole point!

If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13And no one has gone up into heaven except the one having come down out of heaven, the Son of Man. 14And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, thus it behooves the Son of Man to be lifted up, 15so that everyone believing in Him may have eternal life.

16For God so loved the world that He gave the only begotten son, so that everyone believing in him should not perish, but should have eternal life. 17For God did not send His son into the world that he might judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. John 3:12-17

What did God do? He instigated heavenly things for Jesus to speak, He sent Jesus who also is a heavenly person - not because he literally came from heaven, but because he is of God and not the world - being God's image etc. God gave His only son from where? Where does God do everything from? Heaven. "Our Father in heaven..." All God gives is from heaven. Jesus too is heavenly!

Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. James 1:17

By applying the same logic to Jesus literally descending / coming down, is to imagine a beam of light from the sky with wrapped gifts and blessings coming down to earth to the recipients of God's grace!

As noted here, every verse with reference (>6) to Jesus 'returning' or 'going back' to the Father has had these words added. What is so important that the word of God is brazenly modified to push the agenda of another gospel, another Jesus?

Again, No, 1 John 4:2 verse does not say anything about Jesus' supposed pre-existence. To consider such an abstract idea from this and other texts that plainly say something else is to avoid the intended meaning - like the Gospels and their plain talking about Jesus' beginning, and desire a more complicated version not of the bible.

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