STUDY SIXTEEN: TEST THE SPIRITS – 1John 4:1 - 6

© Rosemary Bardsley 2022

In 2:18 – 23 John identified the false teachers as ‘antichrist’, and their key error as denying ‘that Jesus is the Christ’ and denying ‘the Father and the Son’. Now John interrupts what he has been saying about loving one another to restate and add to what he said about the false teachers.

Read 4:1 – 6. Answer these questions:
What does John command us to do? (verse 1)

 

Why does he give these two commands? (verse 1)

 

How can you recognize the Spirit of God? (verse 2)

 

How can you recognize a spirit that is not from God? (verse 3)

Where is such a spirit from? (verse 3)

What is already in the world? (verse 3)

How does John describe his readers? (verse 4)

What does he say they have done? (verse 4)

How does he describe the Spirit of God who lives in believers? (verse 4)

 

What three things does John say about the false teachers? (verse 5)

 

What two things does John say about himself and his readers? (verse 6)

Who does not listen to them? (verse 6)

How does John describe the two opposing sources of ‘knowledge’? (verse 6)

 

A. TEST THE SPIRITS – 4:1 – 3

These six verses are not a mini-lesson in how to recognize and deal with ‘demon possession’.

John does not seem to have much interest in ‘demon possession’ and ‘casting out of demons’. Unlike the other gospel writers, he does not include any record of Jesus casting out demons in his gospel. In all of John’s writings he specifically mentions ‘evil spirits’ or ‘demons’ in only three verses (Revelation 16:13, 14 and 18:2). In these texts the focus is on the global impact of their deception and corruption – ‘the kings of the whole world’, ‘all the nations’, ‘the kings of the earth’, ‘the merchants of the earth’. Apart from these references, when he uses the word ‘spirit’ in his gospel and Revelation, and everywhere in his first letter, apart from 4:1 – 6, he is clearly referring either to the Holy Spirit or to a individual person’s ‘spirit’ (inner being).

So we need to ask: what is John writing about in these six verses? What are these ‘spirits’ that he warns us not to believe? Evil spirits do not normally appear visibly, just as the evil one is not normally visible. But we can discern the presence and impact of the evil one because we know what his nature is – he deceives, he accuses, he destroys. We can recognize that he, and the ‘spirits’ that serve him, are present and at work whenever there is any interference with God’s truth – any alteration, corruption or reduction of the Word of God, and that leads us away from the true God to idols of some kind, whether physical or philosophical.

John has been stressing the critical importance of love. Now in these few verses he stresses the importance of truth.

Test #1: Are they from God or not from God? – 4:1
John says ‘do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.’

A ‘prophet’ was a person who claimed to speak the words of God. Their claim to bring messages from God made it very easy for them to deceive people. Just as Christians today tend to accept whatever their pastors teach as true, so it was in biblical times. People who believe in God are easy targets for anyone who claims to have a message from God or to speak the word of God. The ability of some false prophets to perform great miracles made it even more difficult to discern their origin.

Look at these verses. What does God say about people who wrongly claim to speak his words?
Deuteronomy 13:1 – 5

 

Deuteronomy 18:20 – 22

 

Jeremiah 23:9 – 18

 

Jeremiah 23:25 – 32

 

Matthew 7:15 – 23

2Corinthians 11:4, 13 – 15

Galatians 1:6 – 9

2Timothy 4:3 – 4

Revelation 13:11 – 14

From these texts we learn what questions to ask when trying to ‘test the spirits’, when trying to identify the source of the message and the power behind the messengers:

[1] If a message about the future is from God it will come to pass;

[2] However, even if a prediction does come to pass, that prediction and that ‘prophet’ are not from God if the prophet preaches a different ‘god’ from the true God. In the Old Testament this meant luring people away from the true God to idols or into the occult. In the New Testament it means some kind of interference with the truth about Jesus Christ – another ‘Jesus’ other than the Jesus defined and proclaimed by the apostles, and another ‘gospel’ other than the apostolic gospel.

[3] The fact that a ‘prophet’ performs miracles is not to be seen as an automatic proof of the prophet’s integrity. Just because miracles happen does not mean that God is the power behind the miracles or the miracle-worker.

[4] A false messenger and his message are often coercive in some way, creating some kind of bondage that is the very opposite of the gospel.
The presence of such ‘false prophets’ is nothing new. Nor is God’s strong opposition to such people and their messages new. Both God in the Old Testament, and Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament, were very harsh in their condemnation and rejection of them.

Test #2: Do they teach the truth about Jesus Christ? – 4:2, 3
John says ‘This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.’

As we have seen earlier (Section A.2 in Study 12) the Spirit of God is ‘the Spirit of truth’. He teaches the followers of Jesus the truth about Jesus. John spoke of this in 2:20 when he told his readers ‘you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth’, in contrast to those who had denied the truth about Jesus. Anyone speaking from God will speak the truth, because they have been taught by the Spirit of God. Anyone who does not speak the truth about Jesus Christ is not from God and does not have the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit. [Remember that John has just referred to the Holy Spirit as the source of our assurance (3:24).]

So John says in 4:3 that if a person denies the real deity and the real humanity of Jesus Christ, that person and their teaching is not from God. The source of their teaching, rather than being the Holy Spirit, is ‘the spirit of the antichrist’. We have looked at the ‘antichrist’ concept in 1John 2:18 – 23 (Study 11). Both there and here John acknowledges that there is ‘the antichrist’ who is coming, but there were also, already in John’s day, ‘many antichrists’ already in the world, doing the work of ‘the antichrist’ even as John wrote. These contemporary ‘antichrists’ were identified by their denial of the Son, and in denying the Son, their denial of the Father also (2:22, 23). Although not ‘the antichrist’ himself, these people, denying the Son and the Father, displayed the mindset and the values of ‘the antichrist’: his deceptions, his corruption of the truth, his promotion of an alternate ‘truth’, his opposition to God and to the truth about God.

Here the bottom line is: is this person and their teaching affirming or denying that the real, flesh-and-blood, human Jesus is also ‘the Christ, the Son of God’? Is this person affirming the Jesus taught by the apostles in the gospels, in Acts and in their letters? Or are they teaching a different Jesus?

And here John’s statement about love in 3:18 is also relevant to truth: ‘let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.’ It is easy enough to say ‘Lord, Lord’ to Jesus, and even to do miracles in his name (as Jesus pointed out in the Matthew 7 reference above), but those words and those miracles do not validate themselves. They are validated by actions – ‘by their fruits you will know them’, ‘... only he who does the will of my Father’ (Matthew 7:16, 21).

 

B. ASSURANCE AND ENCOURAGEMENT – 4:4 , 5

John now gives his readers, and us, assurance and encouragement. It can be unsettling to know that we are in the middle of a massive conflict, the conflict between truth and error, the conflict between Jesus Christ and ‘the antichrist’, the conflict between God and the evil one. It can also be unsettling, even frightening, to be faced with the heavy necessity of discerning between the two: of assessing what people teach, and even the people themselves. Such assessment seems to be contrary to the love and unity that we are taught to pursue. Biblical unity, however, is not unity at the expense of truth, but unity grounded on the truth – we are ‘all one in Christ Jesus’: we are not expected to be one with those who are not ‘in Christ’, with those who actually deny the real Christ.

So John assures us:

B.1 ‘you ... are from God ... we are from God’ – 4:4, 6
This is in contrast to the false teachers who are ‘not from God’ (4:3). John has already referred to this truth in previous verses, and will do so again later. He refers to believers as ‘born of’ God (2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18). In John 3:8 Jesus called this regeneration being ‘born of the Spirit’. Our existence as people of faith, and the people of God, is the work of God. From the point of this new birth onwards two significant truths distinguish the children of God from ‘the world’:

[1] that the truth of God lives in us – 2:14;
[2] God himself lives in us – 2:24.

We are ‘from God’, not only in the sense that God has given us new life, but also in the sense that John refers to in 3:9 where he says ‘God’s seed remains in’ those who are born of God – his truth and his Spirit do not bring us to new birth and then abandon us; rather, God, by his word and his Spirit, lives in us. We belong to God, not to the world. We are his children, recreated by him, given new life from him. He has taken up residence in us.

B.2 ‘you have overcome them’ – 4:4
We saw this truth earlier in 2:13, 14. There John said ‘you have overcome the evil one’. Here John says ‘you have overcome them’, the ‘them’ being the false prophets (and the ‘spirits’ that influenced them) who did not acknowledge Jesus, and who were not from God. Both in 2:13, 14 and here the verb ‘overcome’ is in the Perfect Tense. This indicates an action completed in the past, the results of which are still in effect in the present. So John is telling us: you overcame them, in a permanent way, and that is still your position. You are in the position of victory, the position of conquerors.

B.3 ‘because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world’ – 4:4
In this assuring word, John pulls several truths together:

We are from God.
God is in us. His truth is in us.
They are from the world.
God, who is in us, is greater than the one who is in them.
We have overcome them.

In 4:5 John refers to the false prophets as being ‘from the world’. In 5:4, 5 he says that ‘everyone who is born of God overcomes the world’, and that our faith ‘is the victory that has overcome the world’. He then asks ‘Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.’

In knowing and acknowledging the true truth about Jesus Christ we have already ‘overcome them’ – the false prophets, and the antichrist, and the world that has been and is being deceived by the antichrist, and the evil one himself. We have overcome them, not because of any personal ability, but because of God – by his word and by his Spirit – living in us.

B.4 ‘They are from the world’ – 4:5
Because they are not from God but ‘from the world’ what they say and teach is ‘from the viewpoint of the world’. It is impossible for them to see reality and truth as God sees it.

Read these verses. What do they say about the inability of the world to see the truth?
Matthew 11:27

John 3:3

2Corinthians 4:4

About these people John says: ‘the world listens to them.’ False teaching has a certain attraction to ‘the world’ because it shares a common foundation and source.

 

C. A FINAL TEST – 4:6

John now returns to his commands to ‘not believe every spirit’ and to ‘test the spirits’, and gives us a third test by which to know whether or not a person claiming to speak the words of God actually is from God.

The test is: do these people listen to the apostles and to their message (in the sense of acknowledging and accepting that message as the truth)? or do they not listen to them?

The apostles, who were eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ, and who were appointed by Christ to go and preach the gospel, proclaimed the truth about Jesus Christ. Any person who acknowledged that truth is, John says, ‘from God’. Any person who refused to acknowledge the truth taught by the apostles, ‘is not from God’.

It is not that they are ‘not from God’ as a result of not listening to the message; rather the fact that they are ‘not from God’ is the cause of their not listening to the message. Their basic orientation, their controlling mindset, is that they are ‘not from God’. For this reason, even if they actually talk about Jesus Christ, or even claim to know Christ, their rejection of the apostles’ truth about Christ, is a rejection of the real Jesus, which, in turn is a rejection of God. Regardless of any claims they might make, God has not sent them. God does not authorize their twisted version of the truth. It comes not from God, but from the evil one.

This, says John, is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.

The importance of holding to the true truth about Jesus Christ is something that John has been stressing right through this letter. He also refers to the importance of remaining faithful to the truth in his second and third letters.