As we move into chapter four of 1 John, in verses 1-6 John teaches us how to test the spirits. In this paragraph we see John return to his theme of truth versus error. In the first verse he makes it clear that we are responsible to test the spirits. To test the spirits means to distinguish between spirits. As John says we cannot believe every spirit. Some are from God, and some are not.
Of course, the Holy Spirit is from God. And angels are from God. On the other hand, the devil and demons are not from God. But I believe John had in mind a broader definition. Notice the last part of the verse: “for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” He was thinking not only of spirits from the spirit world. He also had in mind human spirits that seek to serve either God or the devil.
In the last essay in this series we saw John tell us that the witness of the Holy Spirit within us is to give us confidence in relation to God and in prayer. But that won’t work if we aren’t sure that it is the Holy Spirit who is witnessing within us. Satan has fooled more than a few Christians into believing that God was behind something that actually was of the devil.
A recent TV news magazine, I believe it was 20/20, had a segment on a small cult that claims it is the only genuine branch of Roman Catholicism. Of course for them that means that no one outside the cult is saved. And like all cults, it does some strange things. The report focused on a seventy-eight year old mother of, I believe it was, five children and lots of grandchildren. She left her family and joined the cult 13 years earlier, and had absolutely no contact with them during the intervening 13 years. When she left, she wrote a note saying that she was leaving to save her soul. They didn’t even know she was alive, let alone where she was.
Then they learned from a person who had left the cult that their mother was indeed alive and where she was located. So they arranged to “rescue” her from the cult. But she resisted, and by the time they got her home, it was clear that she didn’t want to be rescued. Indeed she was irate about the whole thing. And in an interview with the 20/20 people, she not only indicated that she was returning to the cult, but she said she would press kidnapping charges against her children. Obviously, that mother was unable to distinguish between the spirits. Now to distinguish between the spirits sometimes may require a supernatural gift of discernment. But many times we have to make the judgment without any supernatural help.
Now John’s human opponents, the false teachers and prophets of his day, claimed spiritual inspiration. Like the cult portrayed on 20/20, they believed themselves inspired by God. And the Christians to whom John was writing had to be able to test the spirits so that they would not be deceived.
Look first at the very last sentence, in verse six. “From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” This sentence confirms that John’s main concern in the paragraph was the false teachers, the human beings who were claiming they were inspired by God but were not. John clearly had returned to the theme of truth versus error. He felt compelled to remind his readers that not every “spirit” could be believed. They must “test the spirits” in order to discern whether any particular “spirit” was from God or not.
Of course the big question is how one tests the spirits, how one determines whether or not a person who claims to be inspired by God actually is. There are three tests, three ways of making the distinction. In these verses John reveals two of them. The first test John mentions is a test of doctrine in verse two and three.
John is pointing to a significant doctrinal truth here. There are certain orthodox doctrines that are at the heart of our faith. They are clearly revealed in God’s Word, and we don’t need a supernatural gift to discern false teachings in these areas. The particular, essential, orthodox doctrine that concerned John was threatened by the teachings of the false teachers of his day. They were teaching that Christ had not come in the flesh. In other words they were denying the incarnation of Christ.
Now early false teachers denied the incarnation in a variety of ways. Some early Jewish believers (Ebionites) couldn’t accept a divine Jesus, because in their minds that made two Gods. So they taught that Jesus was simply a human being whom God chose to be the Christ. They believed that God gave Jesus an unmeasured fullness of the Spirit at his baptism, which constituted him the Messiah; but he certainly was not God. And of course that was a denial of the incarnation. Many liberal thinkers today have similar views.
Some early Gnostic believers also taught that Jesus was simply a human being, but they put a different wrinkle on it. They made a distinction between the divine Christ and the human Jesus. Thus they taught that the divine Christ came on the human Jesus at his baptism and left him when Jesus was on the cross. Once again that was a denial of the incarnation. And again some liberal scholars today make a similar distinction between the divine Christ and the human Jesus.
Still other Gnostics taught that Jesus was indeed the divine Son of God, but he didn’t really become a human being. He merely pretended to be human. It appeared that Jesus had a real human body, but he didn’t. His body was not real. Fortunately, I don’t know of any scholars today who hold this view.
Now we do not know precisely how the false teachers of John’s day were denying the incarnation. But it is clear they taught that Jesus was not God come in the flesh. Now in a case of false teaching like that today, we must test the spirits the same way John did, doctrinally.
Notice in verse three that John labeled this kind of false teaching as “the spirit of antichrist.” Those who were teaching such false doctrines were the antichrists that already had come (2:19). He saw their teachings as a sign of an end-time type rebellion against Jesus. And he condemned it. And that kind of rebellion has to be condemned by us as well.
In verse 4 John confidently asserts his belief that the recipients of the letter have not been taken in by the false teachers. They have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them. Therefore they have overcome the false teachers, because the one who is in them is greater than the one who is in the world.
Then John continues in verses 5-6 to make a distinction between those who are of the world and those who are not. Those who are of the world respond favorably to the false teachings; but those who are not, those who have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, respond favorably to the teaching of the apostles. The false teachers and people who are of the world have the spirit of error; but the apostles and true believes have the spirit of truth.
All right, the first way to test the spirits that John mentioned was a doctrinal test. The second way to test the spirits, seen in verse six, is a test of proper authority. For the people to whom John was writing, John and the other apostles were the proper authority. Since John was an apostle, they should have obeyed him. For us, the proper authority is the Bible, which contains the apostolic teaching. And we should obey it.
Now then, there is a third way to test the spirits that John doesn’t give here, but I believe we must mention it. It is the supernatural gift of discernment of spirits that I mentioned in passing earlier in the lesson. The apostle Paul mentions this gift of the Spirit in 1 Cor. 12:10. Sometimes we face situations where doctrine isn’t the issue, and where our authority, the Bible, can’t help us. An example would be when faced with demonic possession or oppression. In cases like that the Bible cannot tell us kind of spirit we are dealing with. We must depend on the indwelling Holy Spirit to reveal to us what kind of spirit it is.
Obviously we are not without ability when face with false teachings or an unknown spirit. We have the test of doctrine, the test of biblical authority, and the supernatural gift of discernment to help us deal with false teachings and antichristian spirits. Because we have this ability to discern among spirits, we need have no fear of false teachers. And we must never forget what verse four tells us, “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”