Beloved, Do Not Believe Every Spirit
1 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. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. 4 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. 5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 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.
The book of 1 John is about assurance. It is about truth. And certainty. And confidence. The reason why these things are needed is because we live in a world of doubt and lies and error and deceit. The Apostle John wants us to know that the Christian life is supposed to be lived victoriously. But that means we have to do battle. We have to fight.
And we have to fight because we have an enemy. In fact, we have many enemies. And it is important that we know who our enemies are. John’s original readers were probably facing threats and persecution. They had been abandoned by many who had left the church, perhaps leaving them even more vulnerable. But these were not their enemies. In spite of the attacks against them, John wants them to know that people are not the real enemy. There is something much more serious going on here.
THERE ARE MANY FALSE PROPHETS
Chapter three ended with a reference to God’s Spirit given to believers as proof that God himself abides in them. John’s reference to the Spirit was intended to demonstrate that obedience to God’s commandments is not something we can do without God’s help. Christians depend on the presence and power of God’s Spirit to live out the Christian life.
The problem is that God’s Spirit is not the only spirit at work. Those who had left the church (1 John 2:19) did so with the spirit of the antichrist, and now they were going out like Christian missionaries attempting to convert others to their beliefs. The Apostle John took such people very seriously.
For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. (2 John 7-8)
John is obviously concerned that these “antichrists” not succeed in their attempts to deceive. Everything he writes in this letter is part of his attempt to prevent any more in the church from being deceived. He says, “I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you” (1 John 2:26), and “Little children, let no one deceive you” (1 John 3:7). For John, the spirit of the antichrist was a dangerous enemy, and he felt it was necessary to protect the church from its attacks. The spirit of the antichrist was what was behind the “many false prophets” that had “gone out into the world.”
And the spirit of the antichrists is still at work today, so John’s admonition to “not believe” every spirit is just as relevant now as it was in the apostle’s day. But how dangerous are these “spirits”? What can they do to you and me? What happens if we do end up believing them?
In answering such questions let us not be tempted to reduce the level of the threat to something less than John did. The spirit of the antichrist at work in many false prophets is a greater threat to you and me than any terrorist plot stewing in the Middle East. I say this because Osama Bin Laden can only take your life. The spirit of the antichrist is after your soul. I pray that God gives us all unusual perception into the gravity of this situation.
But first we should try to identify these “false prophets” that John speaks about. Who are they? John does not identify them by name because he says there are many of them. Instead he urges us to “test” them to see if “they are from God.”
A TEST FOR DISCERNMENT
A test is given for the purpose of identifying truth and distinguishing it from error. For the Christian, this is important because God is the source of all truth. Because God exists, truth exists. And because truth exists, error also exists. Error is simply the absence of truth.
But how can we tell the difference between the two? Because the spirit of the antichrist attempts to persuade through deception, we cannot assume that their error will always be obvious to us. It may be obvious that differences exist between two ideas, but it is not always easy to know which of the two is true. We need a way to discern, and the Apostle gives us two ways to do so.
Belief about Jesus
In verses 2-3, John gives us the first way that we can test the spirit behind a teaching, idea, or philosophy. “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” The first test, then, centers on the Person of Jesus. What we believe and confess about him is of paramount importance.
The spirit of the antichrist is a spirit of theological error. Therefore, what we believe about God (theology) matters a great deal. This does not mean that we must have everything right theologically, but it means that we must have some things right. Most importantly, we have to be right about who Jesus is. If we get that wrong, it matters little what else we might have right. For the Christian, every belief revolves around our beliefs about Jesus.
John says what we must confess is this: “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” This is not a meaningless slogan. John is not concerned so much with these words as he is with the belief. So we need to unpack this confession. What John wants us to insist upon is that Jesus, the historical person, is the Christ, the promised Messiah, who has appeared in human flesh. The emphasis of the confession lies squarely on the event of the incarnation. But it’s not so much that John wants us to believe that the event happened; rather, he wants us to believe the significance of the event, namely, that the Christ became a man and continues to be so.
John’s concern with the significance of the incarnation was certainly due to the fact that he was combating proto-gnostic ideas about who Jesus was. Some Gnostics taught that Jesus was the Christ, but that he only appeared to be human. Others taught that the Christ indwelt the human person Jesus only for a temporary period between his baptism and his crucifixion. But John’s confession is that Jesus is the Christ and that he is fully human.
In our day, heretical views about Jesus are usually somewhat different from what John was combating. While the heresy in John’s day sought to protect Christ from Jesus by refusing to accept that the Christ could become human, the lie today seeks to protect Jesus from Christ by refusing to accept that the human Jesus could have been divine. This is exactly what the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons continue to teach about Jesus. What John insists upon is the miracle of the Incarnation. God became a man in the historical person Jesus.
Response to God’s Word
But confessions with the mouth are useless if they do not truly reveal the belief in the heart. In verse 3 John says that the spirit of the antichrist “does not confess Jesus” and so “is not from God.” To confess Jesus means not only to assert one’s loyalty to him but also to accept him as he is: God in the flesh. We have not confessed Jesus if we make him something different than what he is. He was not just a good teacher, moral example, or religious guru. He is God incarnate. And because he is God, we cannot show allegiance to him while refusing to obey him.
That’s why we should not be too surprised at John’s second test for discerning between truth and error. We find it at the end of this passage, in verse 6: “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.”
Now this seems to be a rather bold if not arrogant thing to say. Imagine the offense if I made this kind of claim today: “Those who know the truth, those who really belong to God, will do what I say.” Such assertions are the stuff that cults are made of. But this is exactly what John says!
Actually, he doesn’t say that he alone is the standard that all true believers will follow. He uses the plural “we.” So who is he talking about? He could be talking about himself and the rest in the church. But he also might be referring to himself and the rest of the apostles. In either case, the point is not the superiority of the people but the superiority of the message. In other words, John is emphasizing not the apostles, but the apostle’s teaching. He is not elevating the preacher but the message preached. Those who are from God will pay attention to his Word as it is preached.
One of the identifying practices of the early church was their devotion to “the apostle’s teaching” (Acts 2:42). It is still an indentifying characteristic of the true church today. Our aim in this church is to teach what the apostles taught, insofar as we accurately proclaim their teaching from their writings in Scripture. And those who respond to the word as it is preached give evidence that they, too, are from God. In other words, how one responds to God’s Word is another test, not only for discerning between truth and error in others, but also in helping us who profess Christ assure ourselves of our relationship with God.
So it matters greatly not only what we say we believe, but how we respond to the truth we see in the Bible. How will we respond when we do not like what the Bible says? Will we adjust our lives to match the Bible, or will we adjust the Bible to match our lives? This is where the rubber meets the road and where the Christian life will truly stand out. Can you identify times in your life where the Bible’s teaching has directly altered the way you live your life?
Perhaps some will object: but what if we are not properly interpreting the Bible? Who says that our beliefs are right? John may have been able to say, “whoever listens to us,” because he was an apostle. But now, what gives us the right to say we are proclaiming the truth?
No answer will satisfy everyone who asks, but I do think we have a way to attempt an answer. John himself did not merely say, “just believe what we tell you.” Instead, he repeatedly pointed his readers to recall the things they had “heard from the beginning” (1 John 2:7, 13-14, 24; 3:11). In other words, John appealed to primitive Christian doctrine as the standard. Likewise, it is helpful for us to know the things that Christians have always believed. To be sure, there will be argument over this as well. But it will be important for us to research the history behind our beliefs in trying to discern between truth and error. Suffice it to say for now that when we find ourselves or others going against the grain of orthodox Christianity, we need to proceed with great caution if we care at all about the truth.
At Crosstown we value biblical competency and integrity because we believe that the truth matters. Those of us who teach are always subordinate to the apostle’s teaching. So our teaching must be faithful to the biblical text or it must be rejected. But we all must either accept the teaching or reject it.
May all of us be committed to pursuing the truth and devoted to allowing it to command our belief and behavior. We must know what we believe. And we also have got to know what we do not believe, because our enemy, the spirit of the antichrist, wants to deceive you into believing a lie. So we cannot believe everything. May our belief not be indiscriminate. We must put every belief to the two-fold test that John gives us. You can have confidence in those who affirm both the deity and the humanity of Jesus and who faithfully allow the teaching of the apostles to command their behavior.
A WARNING TO HEED
At the beginning of this message I asked the question, “What happens if we do end up believing the lie of a spirit of error?” In other words, what threat do such spirits of deception have on us? I want us to see in this passage two wrong thoughts we must guard against.
Thoughts of Carelessness
The first mistake we make is to reason that since I am a child of God, I do not need to concern myself with the “spirit of error.” The assumption is that even if I succumb to such lies, it will never really have any damaging effect on me, at least not to the point that I should pay any attention to such matters now. Thousands of professing Christians feel this way. They go about their lives caring very little about theology. They read the Bible with little expectation that anything in their life needs to be changed by what they read or hear preached.
John would be very concerned about such people. He does not waste ink in this passage on trivial matters. He wants them to be alert spiritually to the deceitful attacks on their faith. Their encounters with the false prophets are spiritual battles whether they realize it or not. The false prophets were evidently quite persuasive, and they, too, claim the authority of inspiration for their teaching, as many cults do today. And John does not deny that their teachings are inspired; he merely denies that the inspiring spirit is God’s spirit. And this is what makes doctrinal deviations so dangerous. They are not harmless deviations; they are deadly deviations.
The purpose of 1 John is to help those in the church be assured of their fellowship with God by helping them to continue in their faith. The apostle does not conclude that since true believers will persevere in the faith, there is no need urging them to do so. He believes that perseverance is needed precisely because the battle still rages. Accordingly, those of us who are still in the church need to be aware of the attacks being planned against us, lest we listen to the spirit of deceit, succumb to its lies, and end up proving that we really are not from God.
Thoughts of Fear
There is a second wrong thought that John does not want us to entertain. It is the thought of fear, the fear that I will not be able to stand against the deceit of the enemy and I will be overrun by error. It is an understandable fear to have when you have observed others fall. I have been surprised by some who turn their backs on God. As I’ve thought about them, I’ve often wondered, maybe I’ll be next.
But John does not want us to think that way. We skipped one verse in our passage, and it is an important one, coming right in the middle of our text: “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). The apostle wants them to have confidence that they will prevail in the end.
In fact, he says they already “have overcome them.” The fact that you still have faith in Jesus right now suggests that you have already had some level of victory over the spirit of the antichrist. Perhaps you’ve gone through great temptations of doubt and have come out still believing in the message of Jesus. Those are great experiences to bank on for the future periods of temptation and doubt.
But don’t think for a moment that your victory so far is because of your greater intellectual ability, or your ability to discern between truth and error. John says the reason why you have overcome is because you are “from God” and so have on your side one who is greater than your enemy in the world. In 1 John 2:20 John expressed confidence in the church’s ability to stand against the false prophets because of their “anointing” from the Holy One. The Christian’s ability to stand against error is due entirely to the presence of God’s Spirit within them who teaches them the truth and enables them to persevere in their faith (1 John 2:27).
That means that we can be confident in our ability to reject the deceitful errors of the spirit of the antichrist. We need not be afraid of things that initially are a challenge to our faith. We do not have to be ashamed that we do not know all the answers. We do not have to agree with the intellectual atheist just because we cannot understand (much less satisfy) his philosophical arguments. We should do the best we can, and we should learn and think and debate, but at the end of the day it is God in you that enables you to persevere. God in you will keep you from believing a lie.
GOD IS GREATER
I want to close by making one last observation. In last week’s passage as well as this week’s we find an emphasis on the superiority of God. In 1 John 2:21, we were reminded that God is greater than our heart that can condemn us with doubt. And in 1 John 3:4 John reminds us that God who is in the Christian is greater than he who is in the world. God is greater! The Christian’s ability to live in joyous fellowship with God is not by denying our sin that condemns us or by ignoring questions to our faith that threaten us. God is greater than all of that, and our certainty rests ultimately on the fact that God is sovereign and supreme and that he will see us through the most pressing issues and doubts that come against us.
With that truth impressed upon our minds, let us live with discernment. Let us strive to know what we believe and what we do not believe. And let us anticipate the need to adjust our lives when we hear the Word of God.