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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 – Hold To The Rod 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_. – Miguel de Servet 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/… – Spirit Realm Investigator 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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