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.1 John 4:1-6
You have been on my mind a lot over this past week. Thinking through the way that John talks to his audience – little children, beloved – makes me think of the great care he uses when talking to them. As I write to you, Sojourner, I hope you see my heart for you as well – my heart to see you grow closer to Christ through studying His Word and my desire that your relationship with Him become deeper through the process.
In thinking of you this week, I have also been thinking about the assurance that John offered us last week. It is good to be able to know where we stand with Christ and not have to wonder whether we belong to Him because of the hope and truth found in His Word. Part of trusting that the Word we have is true and comes from Him is that we are able to know what does and does not come from Him by how it fits with the Scriptures. This is what John talks about in our passage today – testing the spirits so that we know what comes from God’s Spirit or the spirit of antichrist.
Think back to the way John speaks of the Spirit in verse 3:23 from last week: “And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us”. Today’s passage flows directly out of this, and for good reason. We can be sure that what we are taught through our pastors, Bible teachers, and Christian literature is of God by testing it according to the Word of God and the Spirit of God.
The idea of testing is a little too close to judging for some people’s tastes, but verse 1 here clearly tells us we need to “test the spirits”. The word translated test here means “to try to determine the genuineness of” or “to make trial of [or] put to proof”. Basically, whenever we encounter someone teaching, preaching, or writing about the Bible, we should test it – check its proof/genuineness by what it says about God’s Word. And, before you dismiss this, look at the way that the Berean believers were heralded for doing this very thing in Acts 17:11:
Now these Jews [in Berea] were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the Word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.
Yes, they were eager to hear what was being preached, but not so eager as to take whatever was offered as truth simply because a “preacher” told it to them. I fear that we are not nearly as cautious as we should be.
We have seen warnings like this from John already in 1 John 2:18-27 where he showed us the influx of antichrists – those who are literally against Christ and bring a false gospel to tear up churches and lead people astray. The primary issue with the message of the antichrists was first brought up in 1 John 2 (“Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ?”) and now emphasized more in today’s passage: “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (v. 3). That word translated “confess” there in verse 3 is the same that is used in Romans 10:9 to describe the declaration or profession that Jesus Christ is Lord that accompanies salvation. Basically, these false teachers are professing false gospel and false truth to keep people from being saved. And anything that keeps people from salvation wants to see them kept in bondage to sin and death. This is serious business because they are presenting a false Christ!
Look at the way that Danny Akin puts the issue:
“If [Jesus] is just another enlightened religious teacher, He is permitted and tolerated as one opinion, one option, among many. If, however, He is the very incarnation of God, then the gospel and only the gospel is true and He is the only viable option for salvation amid the multitude of imposters.
Basically, altering the truth of who Jesus is according to the Bible alters the gospel. An altered gospel holds no power – it points away from Christ, away from His life, death, burial, and resurrection. And anyone who preaches “a gospel contrary to the one you received” in the Word of God, that preacher is “accursed” – lost, damned, and devoid of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 1:9).
It is tempting to begin to list some people who I believe are marketing a false gospel here, but I believe it best to let God’s Word and His Spirit handle that Himself. Instead, I want to point you to the Truth – to Christ. Look at how verse 4 tells us “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them”. Christ is already victorious over these false teachers, and, if you are in Christ and have received His Spirit – “He who is in you is greater than He who is in the world” (v. 4). Christ is greater than the false prophets. Christ is greater than the antichrists. Christ is greater than the Antichrist. Christ is greater than Satan. He has won, is winning, and will ultimately reign forevermore over them – “they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with Him are called and chosen and faithful” (Revelation 17:14). The Jesus of the Bible – the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world – is greater.
If you are His, you have nothing to fear from false prophets. But, even though there is nothing to fear, we need to spend more time in the Word of God in order to “rightly [handle] the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) and adequately test the spirits – to know the difference between “the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (v. 6). To help with this, I would like to show you some more warnings in the word of God regarding these antichrists, false prophets, and false gospel preachers:
|Jesus’ Warnings||Matthew 7:15-20: 15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.Matthew 24:11-14: 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.Mark 13:21-23: 21 And then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 23 But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.|
|Paul’s Warning||Acts 20:28-30: 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.|
|Peter’s Warning||2 Peter 2:1-3: 1 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 And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. 3 And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.|
|Jude’s Warning||Jude 4: For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.|
I urge you to take these warnings seriously. There are many voices that try to speak and have influence over you, and we need to be more and more vigilant and guarded over who we let speak truth in our lives. One of the gifts that God has given us is His Church. Our Christian walk is personal between us and our Savior, but it is not meant to happen in solitude. We are made to be members of the body of Christ (Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 12:12, 27; Ephesians 2:19). And God has called pastors to these churches to make His Word known and shepherd the “flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2, Ephesians 4:11). Sitting under the teaching of these pastors – Bible in hand following the example of the Bereans in Acts 11 – we get to hear from God.
If you are not a part of a local church, I urge you to find one where the Bible is preached, and Jesus is proclaimed. As much as I love you and enjoy writing – as much as I hope that these writings help you get closer to Christ, they are no substitute for being a part of a body of believers in a local church who will hold you accountable and walk with you (Hebrews 10:23-25). If you do not have a church family, feel free to contact me, and I would love to help you find one where you live.
 Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 331.