The Expository Files.


Prohibiting Belief

 1 John 4:1-6


Near the end of the third chapter of First John, he makes this statement: "... by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us" (3:24). Notice, John says we know by the Spirit! One primary function of the Holy Spirit is to impart knowledge; we know about Jesus; we know what to do to be saved "by the Spirit" who inspired the writers of Scripture. The Holy Spirit was given to the apostles to guide them into all the truth, and we have that truth in our New Testaments. We know by the Spirit. That thought is developed further in the first six verses of chapter four.

"Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error." (1 Jno. 4:1-6, NKJV).

As soon as we read this text we can see that it deals with a subject many people today might not want to face: False teachers, and the necessity of distinguishing between truth and error. There is a "religiously correct" and deeply ecumenical spirit in religious circles today which seeks to deny, avoid and argue against any kind of controversy. Yet, everywhere in the Bible there is this important distinction between truth and error, between God's Word and the innovations, perversions and creeds of men.

In the Old Testament age there were the prophets of God who revealed divine truth but there were false prophets who taught error. When John the Baptist came he dealt directly with the sins and errors of men, calling upon people to repent, in heart and in action (see Matt. 3:8-11 & Mark 6:18). Jesus drew very clear lines separating truth from error, and He warned about false doctrine, false teachers and disobedience to God (Matt. 7:15; Mark 13:22,23). As the apostles carried out their work in the Great Commission they encountered teachers of error everywhere they went; and the apostles called upon people to see the difference between truth and error (Acts 20:28-30; 2 Pet. 2). The fact that some today find all of this distasteful should not influence me. What must influence me is that Jesus spoke of truth in contrast to error, and John said there is "the spirit of truth and the spirit of error."

The main thrust of this passage is the duty of each individual to try or test the spirits. Whether the world likes this or not, this is about the duty to discern between truth and error based on the basic commitment to hold to God's truth and reject all contradictions.

You can't survive spiritually without doing this. You can't abide in the truth if you don't bother to discriminate truth from error. So John says: "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world."

Over and over, the Bible tells us to believe. Typically, in the Word of God, belief is presented as a positive imperative; something we are commanded to do. For instance, in the previous chapter, verse 23 says, "And this is His commandment; that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ." The Bible usually tells us to believe; believe in God; His Word; His Son, and so forth. We should believe.

But here - in 1 Jno. 4:1 - the Bible says to us, "DO NOT BELIEVE." John is serious about this: "Do not believe every spirit." In our vocabulary, we have the word, "GULLIBLE," and it means: "able to be gulled; easily deceived or duped; credulous." A gullible person will believe just about anything; the gullible person doesn't practice discrimination and objective study; he will believe just about anything. I believe John is saying: DON'T BE GULLIBLE; DON'T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU HEAR! The speaker/writer/preacher may be educated, have a "sound" or "scholarly" reputation, and he may be eloquent, charming and pious. Don't believe anything he says unless he shows it to you in God's Word. Try or test the spirits because many false prophets have gone out into the world. John had said earlier (2:26): "These things I have written to you concerning those who try to deceive you."

"By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God."

If it helps, just read the word "teacher" into this so that it says, "every teacher that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God." Vine's Dictionary says that the word "spirit" is used here "by metonymy, those who claim to be depositories of these gifts..." Goodspeed's translation says: "Every inspired utterance that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in human form, comes from God." So this is about men who were religious teachers; men who claimed to be under the influence of the Spirit (or some spirit). John says we are to "try" these spirits, "whether they are of God," BUT HOW DO WE KNOW ??

This verse says: "By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God!" If the utterance under consideration is that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; if the statement is an acknowledgment of the truth of the incarnation - deity coming in the flesh, THAT'S THE TRUTH! That utterance is "of God!" But, look at verse 3 ...

"...every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is NOT OF GOD..."

If the utterance under consideration says that Jesus Christ has not come in the flesh, that utterance didn't come from God! You see, even without a completed, written revelation, those Christians John wrote to knew the fundamental facts of the gospel and, as we learned back in 2:27, they had an "anointing" that taught them all things; a standard they could use. Well, if something is said that flies in the face of known truth from God, you know that didn't come from God. It doesn't match or agree with what the Spirit has revealed!

Today, we don't have inspired men (with the "anointing," 2:27), but we have a completed volume of revealed truth from God. If something is said that flies in the face of WHAT IS WRITTEN we know that didn't come from God. If that utterance isn't according to what's written, the teacher giving that utterance is wrong!

Let me clarify something. Today, in the absence of inspired men, we must do this testing, on an utterance by utterance basis!! I may teach the truth on one point; I may teach the truth on several points and still be guilty of error on something else! I may confess that Jesus came in the flesh; I may acknowledge the fact of the incarnation, as taught in the New Testament. But then teach error on some other subject! So today - in the absence of inspired men - we must do this testing, on an utterance-by-utterance basis! In John's day many teachers were denying the humanity of Jesus; rejecting the truth of His incarnation. These men, regardless of what they claimed, were not confessing that Jesus came in the flesh. John is saying: You know these men aren't inspired! In fact :"...this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world."

"You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error." (1 Jno. 4:4-6, NKJV).

Notice the pronouns in this section: In verse 4, "you;" and in verse 5, "they," and then in verse 6, "we." It would seem clear that "you" in verse 4 is a reference to the Christians John was writing to. "They" in verse 5 refers to the false teachers; in this case, those who were not confessing the incarnation. That leaves "we" in verse 6, which would be a reference to John and the other apostles who were inspired. Once the pronouns are identified, I believe these verses fall right into place, within the context.

John is saying to his readers (to Christians): "The false teachers shouldn't succeed in deceiving you; you should conquer and overcome deception, BECAUSE GOD IS IN YOUR LIFE, AND GOD IS THE GREATER ONE!" The false teachers - knowingly or unknowingly - are MINISTERS OF SATAN. But, "GOD IS IN YOUR LIFE! You have fellowship with God because you received the message we declared to you." (See 1 John 1:1-4).

"You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world."

We should have mastery over deception because of the presence of God and His Word in our lives. Verse 5 talks about the deceivers; the false teachers; "the spirit of the Anti-christ." "They are of the world, therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them!" These men "are of the world," meaning: they operate in that realm; they live, think and act with the world as their center of influence.

The Christian is "of God." These false teachers were "of the world." And - since these deceivers were "of the world," they had an audience. Since they preached a worldly message, they had plenty of folks to listen to them. "They are of the world. Therefore, they speak as of the world ... and the world hears them."

Verse 6, I believe, pertains to John and the other apostles. Do you see the contrast? The false teachers were preaching a worldly message and the world listened to them. The apostles preached the truth, and those who were spiritual-minded heard them. "We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error." Of course, the size of the audience lends no credibility to the message they are embracing.

Conclusion

One of the great dangers in religion is the indiscriminate confidence people place in religious institutions, teachers and writers. Many do not seem to grasp that true faith in God examines everything presented before reposing confidence in it. John is urging his readers and all of us to apply a test to all human teachers who claim to speak under the good influence of God and His Word.

The comments of John Stott on the text deserve consideration: "Properly understood, a prophet is the mouthpiece of some spirit. True prophets are the mouthpiece of 'the Spirit of God,' (v.2), who in verse 6 is called 'the Spirit of truth'; false prophets are the mouthpiece of 'the spirit of error' (6b) or 'the spirit of antichrist' (3) and thus 'prophets false inspired' (NEB). So behind every prophet is a spirit, and behind each spirit either God or the devil. Before we can trust any spirits, we must try them, whether they are of God. It is their origin that matters. We may note the similar command given by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22. The apostles Paul and John assumed that even the humblest Christian possessed 'the right of private judgment,' as the Reformers properly insisted, and both could and should apply the objective test John is about to give in the next verse. ... Still today there are many voices clamoring for our attention, and many cults gaining widespread popular support. Some of them claim some special revelation or inspiration to authenticate their particular doctrine. There is an urgent need for discernment among Christians. WE are often too gullible, and exhibit a naive readiness to credit messages and teachings which purport to come from the spirit-world. There is such a thing, however, as a misguided charity and tolerance towards false doctrine. Unbelief (believe not ever spirit) can be as much a mark of spiritual maturity as belief." {Stott, p. #153, THE EPISTLES OF JOHN, Tyndale Publishers}.

You cannot tell whether the doctrine presented by a man is true or false by his personality, education or reputation (1 Cor. 1-4). All you can do is see if his teaching is in harmony with the Word of God. This is why, from my youth, I heard preachers speaking of "book, chapter and verse." If a preacher tells you something and gives "book, chapter and verse," you can look it up and see if it teaches what the man has said. You must do this; it is your responsibility as a hearer and I assume this is what Stott describes as "the right of private judgment." This doesn't mean you are free to make up your own doctrine or law, or believe whatever you want. It means you can and must decide if the "book, chapter and verse" really says what the preacher commends for your belief (Acts 17:10,11).

You see, Satan doesn't want you to become a Christian in the first place. After you take that step, he will do everything he can to discourage, deceive and confuse you. He will use religious institutions, denominational dogma, televangelism, your friends and brethren and religious journals to get you to believe that there isn't any way to know what the truth really is. We need the milk of the Word, but Satan will do all he can to fill us with some substitute to poison our spiritual lives and turn us aside from Christ.

We cannot be casual or indifferent about the threat of false teachers. Discernment - as taught in 1 Jno. 4 - is not an option!

 By Warren E. Berkley 
 From Expository Files 3.5; May 1996

 

 

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