The text that we are looking at this morning, 1 John 4:1-6, is dealing with testing the spirits, that is, discernment between the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 1 John 4:1 ESV
What does John mean here by "spirits"? The Greek word here is pneuma which has a broad range of meanings. Strong’s says of pneuma: "a current of air, that is, breath (blast) or a breeze; by analogy or figuratively a spirit, that is, (human) the rational soul, (by implication) vital principle, mental disposition, etc., or (superhuman) an angel, daemon, or (divine) God." In this text John refers to the Spirit of God and the spirit of antichrist. By "spirits" he is referring to utterances or persons that are inspired either by God or antichrist. John’s readers are called on to test all utterances or persons to see if they are of God or of antichrist.
John characterizes the "false prophets" as the mouthpieces of the spirit that inspired them. The plural here indicates a reference to demonic or evil spirits behind the human prophets which inspire them. John believes that individual persons are inspired or led to confess or deny Christ by spirits--some reality beyond the human individual. What John is referring to here is "spiritual warfare." By "spiritual warfare" I mean battling with "spirit beings" who are non-physical, non-humans. They are supernatural beings.
Paul put it this way:
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Ephesians 6:12 ESV
Paul is saying that their struggle is not with humanity, in other words, it is not with mere human power. So what is the struggle with? Paul says it is "against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." We know what he is saying here. The question is what does he mean? The word "rulers" is from the Greek arche, which has a wide range of meanings: "chief (in various applications of order, time, place or rank): —beginning." The word "authorities" is from exousia, which means: "power, ability, privilege." These titles are used of human and spiritual powers. But notice the rest of the verse: "against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." "Cosmic powers" comes from the Greek kosmokrator, which, according to Strong’s Concordance means: "a world ruler, an epithet of Satan." Thayer's says it means: "lord of the world, prince of this age, the devil and his demons." This is its only use in the New Testament, but it is used of spiritual beings in the Testament of Solomon, a pseudepigraphal work attributed to Solomon. In the Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, kosmokrator means: "lord of the world, world ruler." It occurs in pagan literature as an epithet for gods, rulers, and heavenly bodies. Why would Paul use this word that is used only here in the Bible but was used in other literature for spirit beings if he did not mean spirit beings?
Paul goes on to say, "against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places"—these forces are "spiritual," they are not human, and they are in "heavenly places," which denotes the spiritual realm, the place where Yahweh dwells.
This is speaking about a battle with spiritual forces that are not flesh and blood. When it comes to spirit beings such as Satan, the devil, demons, and unclean spirits there are basically three positions.
(1) Some don't believe in a personal devil or demons; to them there is not, nor ever was, such thing.
(2) Some believe that Satan, demons, and unclean spirits are real beings that are still very active today.
(3) Some believe that Satan, demons, and unclean spirits are real beings, they but were all defeated and destroyed in AD 70 at the return of Christ when judgment took place.
We see the reality of the spirit world in the Gospels.
And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Yeshua of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God." But Yeshua rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. Mark 1:23-26 ESV
This demon obeys the words of Yeshua. Here Mark is demonstrating Yeshua's authority over the fallen spirit world. Yeshua will Himself later point out what this proved. It proved that Satan in his strength was being defeated and that this could only be by the Spirit of God:
But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Matthew 12:28 ESV
In order to really understand how these people would have processed this, you have to understand that in the first century they saw demonic spirits involved in everything bad. If you had a disease, it was a demonic spirit; if you had a tragedy, it was a demonic spirit; if you had a mental illness, it was a demonic spirit. The demons were under every rock. They were responsible for everything. They understood there is nothing they could do about it; they just had to live with it. And it tortured these people.
Just to help you understand how desperate they were, they entered into a practice called "trepanning." Basically that meant that while the person was alive, if he reached a point of torture where he couldn't stand it any longer, he would take a drill and literally drill a hole into his skull hoping that the demonic spirits would escape out of the hole. Now that doesn't sound very pleasant. But it gives you some idea of the level of desperation they lived with.
Historians have dug up the cemeteries from the first century and found about five percent of the skulls had a hole drilled in them. This was a significant thing to them. Along comes Yeshua and now there's the solution! Demons gone. End of problem. And they were just stunned with that. Suddenly Yeshua identified Himself as the One who could solve their problems. He was the One who could remove the demonic spirits, the One who could deal with the issues in their lives. Mark says that the word about Yeshua spread immediately.
What about demons today? Do we need to be worrying about demons? I'm sure that you understand that the answer to those questions will be different depending on whom you ask. But the predominate view in churchianity today is that whatever happened in the Gospels and the book of Acts is intended to describe Christianity as it ought to be in every age. But is it normal for us to have problems with demons? I have been a Christian for forty-five years, and I have never encountered a demon--not one. So how normal is it to have problems with demons? Let's talk a little about demon possession. This is a big issue today, and something we need to have a grasp on.
The first thing we need to understand is that most of the New Testament references to demon possession appear in the Gospels and represent the outburst of satanic opposition to Yahweh's work in Christ. We have no reference to demon possession after the book of Acts, and we don't have much reference to it in the latter half of the book of Acts. We encounter occult practices, magicians, and others who dabble in dark power, but we seldom come across an evil spirit that has taken over a life. We have no reference whatsoever to demon possession in the any of the Epistles. We have no reference in the Old Covenant to demon possession either.
Demon possession seems to be something that happened only during the time of Christ and the apostles for the purpose of manifesting the power of Christ over the demonic world.
Therefore, it is my position that Satan and his demons were real spirit beings who opposed Yahweh and His people. But through the ministry of Christ, they were defeated and destroyed in AD 70. The spiritual battle that the first century Christians faced is over, we are not battling spiritual forces today. But as believers we are in a battle. It is a battle for truth. Although as Christians we battle the worldview and regulations of non-believers, we twenty-first century believers are not fighting against powers, against the world forces of this darkness, or against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. That battle was fought and won by our Lord Yeshua two thousand years ago.
With that as an intro, let’s look at our text:
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 1 John 4:1 ESV
Here we find a contrast between two spirits—the spirit of Christ and the spirit of antichrist.
"Beloved"—this is an affectionate address that John uses to get their attention about this important subject.
"Do not believe every spirit"—this is a present imperative with a negative particle which usually means to stop an act already in process. John’s readers were believing the lies of the false teachers. Apparently, the false teachers were claiming (1) to speak for God or (2) to have had a special revelation from God.
This is a word that the American church needs to heed. Sadly, there is today an obvious absence of discernment in the church. Every believer should have enough of a grasp of biblical doctrine to be able to discern between truth and error. But most do not. One of the reasons for many believers’ biblical ignorance is that most Christians do not read their Bibles. Another reason for this lack of understanding is that there are very few pulpits today that engage in the expository, consecutive teaching of God's word. Week and week, in the majority of churches, many get topical sermons from different parts of the Scriptures, and most are plucked out of context.
"But test the spirits to see whether they are from God"—"test the spirits" is a present active imperative. This is a necessity for every believer. But during the first century this was also a spiritual gift:
to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 1 Corinthians 12:10 ESV
It was a spiritual gift, but it was also the responsibility of every believer. It is my contention that all spiritual gifts ended in A.D. 70 with the coming of Christ and the close of the Jewish age. According to the teaching found in Acts 2:16-20, the charismatic gifts of the Spirit were for the last days. The last days began at Pentecost and ended in A.D. 70. The gifts were to continue until the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord. When the Lord returned in judgment upon Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the gifts ended.
There is a lot of confusion today about Spiritual gifts. Why is that? It is because they were for the last days. When the last days ended, so did the gifts. This is why so many believers have no clue as to what their gifts are. They don't have one.
"Test the spirits"—the word "test" here is dokimazō. According to the third edition of the Bauer lexicon, the verb means "to make a critical examination of something, to determine genuineness, put to the test, examine." This word was used in metallurgy where metal was assayed as to its value, silver and gold, or metal was tested as to its strength, put through fire for such evaluation. Dokimazō was also used in a metaphoric sense for testing people before they were assigned to very prominent tasks or put into positions of rulership and responsible leadership.
How were they to test the spirits? They were to test everything by the teaching of the Apostolic circle. We are to test them by the Word of God. The most important thing that a church can do is proclaim the truth. That is its calling:
if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. 1 Timothy 3:15 ESV
The idea is that the Church's mission is to hold up the truth of God for all men to see. The Church is to support and display the truth of God. We are not the source of truth— the Bible is. But we are to support and display it. The Bible is God's Word, and the Church is to support and display that truth. I don't believe that the Church's mission has changed. We are always to be the pillar and support of the truth. This is done through faithfully expounding the truth of God's Word.
The Church’s job is to support and display that truth. As a believer, your job is to be like the noble Bereans and search the Scriptures to see if what is being taught is so. R.B. Theme, a preacher out of Texas, said, "The Bereans were jackasses, they had no business checking up on the preacher." Why would he say that? Were the Bereans out of line to go to the Scripture to check up on the message that Paul was preaching? No, they were not. Why did Theme say this about the Bereans? He said it because he wanted his people to blindly believe whatever he said. It was a form of psychological manipulation. False teachers do not want you checking up on them.
"For many false prophets have gone out into the world"— John especially had in mind the false teachers who had left the church and were drawing others after them:
Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us. 1 John 2:18-19 NASB
The false prophets are described as having "gone out into the world." This appears to be a direct reference to the secession of the opponents in 2:19 since the same verb exerchomai, "to go out, to depart," is used in both places. Additionally, the same verb also occurs in John 13:30 as a description of the departure of Judas Iscariot.
Warnings about false prophets operating within the Christian community are found in several places in the New Testament. Yeshua warned of false prophets:
"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. Matthew 7:15 ESV
In this text, "sheep's clothing" is not talking about a wolf with a sheepskin over him so that he looks like a sheep. That picture comes from Aesop's Fable where a hungry wolf came upon a sheep's fleece lying on the ground in a field. The wolf realized that if it wore the fleece, it would look like a sheep from a distance. When the shepherd watched the flocks on the hillside, his garment was a sheepskin, worn with the skin outside and the fleece inside. This sheepskin mantle became the uniform of the prophets, just as the Greek philosophers had worn the philosopher's robe. It was by that mantle that the prophet could be distinguished from other men. But sometimes that clothing was worn by those who had no right to wear it. There were those who were not prophets of God, but they wore the prophet's clothing. They were false prophets.
Like Yeshua and John, Paul emphasized the demonic aspect of false teachers:
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 1 Timothy 4:1 ESV
Paul warned that these men disguised themselves as apostles of Christ and servants of righteousness. Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light, not darkness:
For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 ESV
Paul warned the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:
I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Acts 20:29-30 ESV
Peter also warned of false prophets:
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. 2 Peter 2:1 ESV
To understand John's instruction to test the spirits, we need to place it in the context of Johannine church life. People met in houses for worship and fellowship:
If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, 2 John 1:10 ESV
These scattered communities did not have immediate access to authoritative figures such as John or the Apostles. Communication with them was not always easy. Apparently John sent emissaries to communicate with the churches (3 John 5-8) who would sometimes carry letters such as these epistles. These congregations had been glad to welcome John’s traveling ambassadors. But there were also "false prophets" who, like the emissaries of John, claimed to speak the truth under the inspiration of the Spirit.
Ray Stedman has an interesting comment here: "It is significant that this warning comes in the midst of John’s discourse about love, because false spirits tend to make a great deal of the subject of love. Every cult, every deviant group, every false movement makes its appeal in the name of love." [Expository Studies in 1 John (Word), p. 296]
Believers, we need to test the spirits because there is a lot false teaching out there from the New Age Movement to the Masons and the Mormons—often under the umbrella of Christendom. Within the church there is a great variety of opinions. There are the liberals who deny the supernatural and the miracles. There are the ecumenists that want us all to join together even though we have grave and fundamental differences. There are also the Charismatics who want to add to the Bible their new revelations. Who is right? How can we find know? How do you go about establishing who is right and who is wrong? Is there a test? Yes, there is. John gives it to us in the next verse:
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Yeshua the Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Yeshua is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. 1 John 4:2-3 ESV
What does John give his readers as the test? The test which he gives to his readers relates to what the secessionists taught. It is a doctrinal test. Notice that John did not say that we can tell false spirits by their works. He said we can identify them as false spirits by their message. This was the acid test of a false prophet under the Old Covenant as well (Deut. 13:1-5).
According to the Lord Yeshua, false prophets were to be tested "by their fruits":
"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. Matthew 7:15-20 ESV
Contrary to popular interpretation, this does not mean that they were to be tested by their works. Notice what Yeshua says about fruit later in this Gospel:
"Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned." Matthew 12:33-37 ESV
This text proves that their fruits are their words. In other words, it is not what they do but what they say! Their behavior does not set them apart from the sheep, but their message does!
"Every spirit that confesses that Yeshua the Christ has come in the flesh is from God"—"every spirit that confesses" is a present active indicative which points to a continuing profession and not a past affirmation of faith. The Greek term "confess" is homologeō, which is a compound from "the same" and "to speak," meaning "to say the same thing." The "same thing" under consideration is that Yeshua the Christ is God in the flesh. This was the teaching of the Apostolic circle which later made its way into the written Word of God. Therefore, everyone who claims the same thing about this Apostolic and biblical truth, is, therefore, confessing a truth that is taught by the Holy Spirit.
This is the essential doctrinal test for the false teachers whom John was combating in this book. What do you think of Yeshua the Christ? That is a criterion that eliminates a host of heresies. When John states "Yeshua the Christ has come in the flesh," he is referring not only to His true deity but also to His true humanity. The Docetists taught that matter is evil; thus Yeshua was only a spirit-being who seemed to be a real man. The Cerinthian Gnostics, whom John was probably combating, taught that Yeshua was a mere man. "The Christ" was a divine emanation that came upon Him at His baptism and left just before His crucifixion. Yeshua was not literally the Christ and the Son of God. They believed that it was a sort of "phantom" affair. He only appeared to be God's Son in the flesh, but He was not literally so. But right away we see that this eradicates the truth that Christ came in the flesh. John is clear that anyone who does not believe this truth is not of God.
"Yeshua the Christ has come in the flesh"—the perfect tense affirms that Yeshua’s humanity was not temporary; it was permanent. This was not a minor issue. Yeshua is truly one with humanity and one with God. "Has come" implies His preexistence as the eternal Son of God. Yeshua stated His own preexistence when He told the Jews,
Yeshua said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am." John 8:58 ESV
Or, as John begins his gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1 ESV
So, the first test that you want to have for any teacher is their Christology—their doctrine of Christ which presupposes the doctrine of the Trinity. Anyone who denies the Trinity has a serious problem because Yeshua cannot be God come in the flesh and the second person of the Trinity in the fullness of what the New Testament teaches about Him if in fact there is not a Trinity. Notice what John says in his second epistle:
Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Yeshua the Christ the Father's Son, in truth and love. 2 John 1:3 ESV
For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Yeshua the Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. 2 John 1:7 ESV
Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 2 John 1:9 ESV
To believe in the wrong Christ is to perish! Denying that the man Yeshua was also the Christ, that He came from the Father and was the pre-existent Son, that He took upon Himself human flesh apart from sin, and that He died on the cross is to deny the faith because in so doing, one denies Incarnation. By denying the incarnation, one denies the atonement because it had to be flesh and blood that died and atoned for our sin. You deny the resurrection which gives us new life, because it was not a physical resurrection if Christ did not come in the flesh.
To deny that Yeshua is true God and at the same time true man is to deny the Christian faith. To deny either Yeshua’s deity or His humanity is to deny that He is our Savior. If He were not God, He would have been a sinner and His death on the cross could not have atoned for anything beyond His own sins. If He were not man, He could not have assumed our sins on the cross (Heb 2:14-17). Thus, faith in Him to save from sin would be worthless. Thus, any teaching that denies that Yeshua is true God and true man, that as the second person of the trinity, Yeshua took on human flesh in the incarnation, is a doctrine of antichrist.
Any system that denies the deity of Christ, anything from Christian Science to Islam, denies the true nature of Yeshua the Christ and is the spirit of error. Many of the cults deny that the fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily in the Lord Yeshua in all of His deity. For example, the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Oneness group all deny some aspect of the personality of the Godhead—either an aspect in Yeshua’s personality, or the Godhead's three personalities. Then there are the liberals, many of which are saying in theological circles and seminaries and even in Bible colleges, that Christ was not God and did not even claim to be God or act as God—nor was He the one mediator between God and men. They teach that there are other ways that can bring us to God.
and every spirit that does not confess Yeshua is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. 1 John 4:3 ESV
John clearly taught that every spirit that denied the true nature of Yeshua was not from God. But he also taught that every spirit that did not "confess" Yeshua was not from God. Often a heretical teaching masks its deviations from the truth by simply failing to affirm important biblical truth. Rather than proclaiming, "Yeshua is not the Christ," they fail to affirm that He is the Christ.
Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 1 John 4:4 ESV
"Overcome" is from the Greek nikaō which according to Strong’s means "to subdue (literally or figuratively): - conquer, overcome, prevail, get the victory." He uses nikaō 6 times in 1 John (cf. 2:13,14; 4:4; 5:4,5), 11 times in the Revelation, and once in the Gospel (cf. 16:33). By "overcome them," John means that his hearers have resisted the false teaching.
The Spirit protects us through God’s Word, be it oral to them or written to us, which reveals the truth about the person and work of Christ. The Word is the measure by which we test the spirits. We need to diligently study God’s Word in dependence on the Holy Spirit for understanding. Then we will be able to overcome false teachers.
"For he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world"—this is an emphasis on indwelling Deity. The phrase "he who is in the world" refers to Satan (cf. John 12:31; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2) and his followers.
Since John issues warnings to his readers against being taken in by the false teachers (2:24; 2 Jn. 7-11), he appears to have believed that it was possible for true believers to go astray.
They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 1 John 4:5 ESV
Those who are from the world will be heard and accepted by others who likewise dwell within the sphere of the world. But those who are from God are heard by those who know God. These verses echo the sentiments of John 15:18-23, that is, the response of the world to Yeshua’s disciples mirrors its response to Yeshua. In the final analysis, it reflects the world’s response to God.
While the secessionists are from the world and are listened to by the world, the author and his community are from God. Those who truly know God will listen to them and not to the secessionists.
We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. 1 John 4:6 ESV
Most English translations reflect the Greek text which begins verses 4, 5, and 6 with emphatic pronouns: You—They—We. Three distinct groups are intended. "You" refers to the readers, "They" refers to the secessionists, and "We" refers to the same group designated as "we" in the Prologue. Some understand the "we" of verse 6 to refer to all believers. But it stands in antithesis to the "they" of verse 5, and so it is better to interpret it as referring to the apostolic circle. "We [the apostolic circle] are from God; the one who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us."
Now when John speaks of "us" collectively in verse 6, he is representing the apostolic circle. What he means is this: all who "know God" will accept the teaching of the apostolic circle found in the New Testament, and those who are not of God will reject and refuse the testimony of the apostles and the apostles' doctrine in the New Testament scriptures.
John Stott (p. 158) points out that John’s claim, "whoever knows God listens to us," would be the height of arrogance if he were speaking as an individual. But the apostles were entrusted with the special authority to lay the foundation of the church through their witness and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 16:16-18; John 14:26; Eph. 2:22; 2 Cor. 10:8). We have the apostolic teaching preserved in the New Testament. Thus the standard by which to judge anyone’s (including our own) spiritual discernment is: ‘What is the person’s response to the apostolic teaching about Jesus Christ as found in the New Testament?’"
"By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error"—this reference to the two spirits is reminiscent of teaching about "the spirits of truth and falsehood" in the Qumran literature (1QS 3:18–19, 25), indicating that the author was using a well-known concept here.
Believers understand this. None of us will listen to the message of Christ unless the Holy Spirit overcomes our resistance and gives us ears to hear:
One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. Acts 16:14 ESV
Every believer owes his orthodoxy to the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. If we stand with Christ, listening receptively and confessing loyally, it is because the Holy Spirit is greater than all other forces in the world and has made us to conquer the blindness and hardness of our own hearts and the deception of false prophets.
So, how do we believers living today test the spirits? We test everything by the Word of God. Believers, get familiar with your Bible—read it, study it, and be at home in it.