Sometimes I wonder if I am too sensitive about some things. Then I think that when it comes to scripture, it may be good to be sensitive. For instance, when I hear a song that says, “Greater is he living in me than he that is in the world,” I wonder if there is more wrong with that than merely changing the pronouns. It the writer is willing to change “you” to “me,” might they also take the scripture out of context?
The scripture in question is 1 John 4:4, that is, in the King James Version and some other translations, rendered as “greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.” Others go gender-neutral with “the one” in place of “he.” A literal rendering of the Greek leaves the pronouns vague, reading in English, “greater is in you than in the world.” The context, then would determine who is in you and who is in the world. And there is where most people may be off in their interpretation. Even if you supply the “he” or “the one,” the question is who those two are.
Even the context may not help. Without it, however, there is no way to even determine the meaning of the sentence. So what is the context?
Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: 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. Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world. (1 Jn 4:1-4)
Most people seem to take this final sentence, by itself, to mean “greater is he [Christ] that is in you, than he [the devil] that is in the world.” Some might even believe that it carries the idea that greater is Christ in you than those people who are in the world; nobody in the world is greater than the Christ. It could even be read that Jesus is greater while in you than he was while in the world. While all of these may be true, that doesn’t appear to be what the scripture is saying.
Perhaps the New Living Translation (which is no longer new and has never been a translation) is the one version that got it right. Instead of “he,” or even “the one,” this version uses “the Spirit” (with and without the capital).
The context of the passage is the testing of spirits. The contrast is between the Spirit of God and the spirit of antichrist. John concludes the section by saying that you will conquer because the Spirit in you is greater than the spirit in the world.
So what is the spirit in the world? It is the spirit of antichrist. Note specifically that John does not speak of “THE Antichrist” as a specific person; rather it is an attitude held by many people in the world. It may be a spirit that originates from the devil, but not necessarily. It is a spirit that may originate instead from the choices men are given about where they put their faith.
Ultimately, those who confess that Jesus came in the flesh are greater than those who deny that. If Jesus was not of the same flesh as we, then his death is meaningless; he is not a valid sacrifice for our sin. Even those (Gnostics) who said he did not come in the flesh still believed Jesus was the son of God. They just lacked faith in the efficacy of his sacrifice. If he did not have the capacity to sin, then his death was no more effective against sin than that of bulls and goats. In this the spirit in them was inferior to that in those who trusted in the power of the blood of Jesus to save.
A text taken out of context becomes a pretext. In this case it may express a very valid point, but there would be better scriptures to use. If we use texts out of context, even for truths, we open the door for those who would use such texts as pretexts for almost anything. After all, that is just what the Gnostics that John was arguing against did. That was why he had to say this in the first place.