Studies in 1 John: Spiral 3 (Part 1)

1johndesign“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,through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared” (1 Timothy 4:1-2). The apostle Paul warns his young protégé about the reality of deceptive spirituality. John similarly warns the church of false spirituality. For John being able to discern truth from error is a significant feature of true believers. True believers are spiritual discerning.

The first six verses of chapter four outline the process of “testing the spirits to see whether they are from God” (v. 1). It’s important for true believers not to be deceived. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit,” he says. For, he reminds them, not every spirit is actually from God. “Many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Paul likewise warned the church at Ephesus of the importance of being discerning. If they are not discerning, he says, they will be “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:14). True believers must be ready to test the spirits, to be discerning about theology and spirituality. They must be ones who are critical and willing to do their homework. They must be ready to study, to look to the Scriptures to investigate claims. They must wrestle with doctrines, theologies, and spiritualties, seeking always to be discerning of truth and falsehood.

John outlines, then, three tests by which we can discern the spirits. First, he establishes the Confessional test. He states, simply, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (v. 2). Those who refuse to “confess Christ” John says are really the spirit of the antichrist. It’s not entirely clear what John has in mind by the expression “has come in the flesh.” Andreas Konstenberger proposes two possible explanations; he writes:

This may refer to a failure to acknowledge the full humanity of Jesus or may merely constitute a shorthand for Jesus being the Messiah. One can only speculate as to what motivated such a denial. If the former, behind the denial may be some form of Greek dualism, which held that matter was inferior to spirit and hence that it was incompatible with the divine to be incarnated in human flesh. If the latter, there would be continuity between the purpose of John’s gospel (John 20:30-31) and the false teaching combated in 1 John. (A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters, 269).

Either way, confession of Jesus is a significant marker of authenticity.

John turns, then, to the Possesional test. As we test the spirits we ought to test also those who claim to speak for these spirits. Here John indicates the difference between those motivated by the spirit of the antichrist and those motivated by the true Spirit of God. John MacArthur notes:

John’s statement, “You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He wo is in you than he who is in the world,” is primarily an affirmation of the believer’s security against the false teachers…Believers may be unsure about secondary, peripheral matters, but not about the foundational truths of the gospel, such as the person and work of Christ. They will not be fooled when false teachers invariably devalue the work of Christ by championing some form of salvation by works. (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1-3 John, 158-159)

True believers, can, then, test the spirits by evaluation those who speak on their behalf. Particularly, John says, false teachers gain an audience with the world. “They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them” (v. 5). Those who attempt to pass of worldly ideas as godly ideas are motivated by the Spirit of the antichrist.

Finally, John gives his readers the obedience test. John again alludes to the character of the prophets, saying those who are from the Lord heed His Word, those who are not do not. He states:

We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us (v. 6)

We test the Spirits by evaluating the obedience of those who speak for them. Do these prophets obey God’s Word? Do they listen to His apostles? “By this we know,” John says, “the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”

Test the Spirits, friends. True believers seek to be discerning. There are lots of false teachers, false prophets, and particularly false spirits at work in our world. Those who follow Christ have been given the tools, by the Spirit and the Word, to be discerning. We can know true spirituality and false spirituality, and by being discerning we can better gauge our own spiritual state.

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