The Spirit of Truth

In this passage, John gives absolutely vital guidance on three issues. One, true spiritual experience can be tested as to its genuineness. This is necessary because only two sources of experience exist—one is from the spirit of antichrist (manifest in an abundance of ways from venues presently operating within his domain) and the other is from God. Two, the test centers on the spiritual and cognitive grasp one has of Jesus and his work as the incarnate Son of God. Three, the only source of truth in conducting this test is the infallible apostolic witness to the person and work of Christ and all the blessings flowing from that historical event.

I. Verse 1 – Do not be Deceived by Religious talk

A. When John wrote, “Do not believe every spirit,” he indicated that much religious talk that seems to appeal to human spirituality is erroneous. “Do not believe” he warned, unless some principles of verification warrant believing.

B. “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” The revelation of God has certain definite demarcations that provided a means of testing truth claims from other sources. The Christian faith is no mindless, spineless blob of spiritual junk talk focused on inner feelings or an unverifiable metaphysics. It is from God and has both historical demonstrability (1:1-4) and revelatory consistency. The messages of all other claimants to religious insight may be tested by clearly demonstrable principles.

C.. John recognized that religion would be big business and would be a means by which many a celebrity hungry charlatan (“many false prophets”) could draw a crowd and establish a following. The Gnostic teachers were gathering large groups and were infiltrating the church with falsehood seeking to draw away professed believers (2:18, 19). Simon Magus sought ostentation and the appearance of power when he saw the Holy Spirit’s operations through the apostles (Acts 8:18-24).

II. Verse 2 –  By what criterion do we discern a true messenger? John gives a definite and condensed doctrinal test by which one can test the spirits and discern if a messenger speaks in harmony with the office of the Holy Spirit in his witness to Christ.

A. “Every spirit” – John is interacting with the religious climate of the day in which a variety of claims were made about the interaction of the spirit world with the world of matter and the minds of men. All world views distinct from the revelation of God in Christ would offer alternatives to the proclamation of the Christian gospel. Every spirit, therefore, includes the supposed revelatory source of the claims as well as the human minds seeking to express the truth claim. In his opposition to God, Satan encourages by a multiplicity of means a destruction of the message by which sinners embrace a new obedience to God and press toward living to his glory.

B. He expresses the truth positively in giving what a true message harmonious with the witness of the Holy Spirit would be: “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.”

1. The message must include the affirmation that the Son of God, eternally with the Father, has come to dwell among men and has taken their nature in order to accomplish his purpose. If one confesses the full humanity of Christ while also maintaining his eternal relation with the Father as Son, this is a true witness.

2. This includes the work that Jesus came to do in the flesh which could not be done had he not assumed our flesh and our rational nature. The incarnation, as astoundingly miraculous and important as it is in itself, took place in order to work redemption and remove the curse (Hebrews 2:9-11).

He lived in the flesh as a human, subject to the law of God and subject to the temptations from Satan, common to the original unfallen man in the state of testing. Jesus was not drawn away by internal corruptions, but was placed under the scrutiny  and within the reach of the most powerful operations of Satan (Mark 1:12, 13). The perfection he achieved in his obedience must be achieved for us, as our covenant head, and, therefore, in his human nature.

He died in the human nature bearing in his body our sins. His death was in full recognition of the justice of God in threatening death to Adam as the penalty for disobedience. He came that he might die, and in dying fulfill the penalty of death, to give warrant for restoration to God of those that trust him (1 Peter 2:24, 25; 3:18).

He rose from the dead in his human body to accomplish a full restoration of his covenant people to the state of incorruption consequent upon perfect obedience (1 Corinthians 15:20-22, 53-55).

III. Verse 3 – The spirit of antichrist avoids incarnational truth.

A. Again, “every spirit” means every rational being capable of making an assertion.  Spirits, whether human, angelic, or divine will fall into one of these two camps, those that do confess Christ has come in the flesh or those that do not confess “Jesus.” On this issue no spirit escapes inclusion.

B. Those that do not confess Jesus are not from God. The human name is used to emphasize to reality of the fact that salvation has come in the person and work of the man born of Mary, in the family of Joseph, and named Jesus. Every point of our restoration to God through redemption was accomplished by none other than Jesus.

C. The denial of this is the particular scheme of the Antichrist. His tactic is embraced with each denial of the incarnation (that God the Son took our flesh in the miraculous conception in Mary), the true sufferings and temptations of Christ, the substitutionary death of Christ as a propitiatory sacrifice for human sin, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and his bodily ascension into the presence of God the Father where he now occupies a place of power and privilege for the sake of his people (Revelation 5:7-10).

D. Any disbelief of the gospel, attack on the gospel, system of thought that occupies the mind instead of the gospel is part of the system of antichrist which “now is in the world already.”

IV. Verse 4 – True believers will not be finally deceived

A. They are from God and will be preserved according to his eternal purpose.

B. The forces in the world that oppose the redemptive purpose of God have been overcome. The system of antichrist will not swallow up the true believer for he has been effectually redeemed from sin and from the power of the god of this age. He has been taught the truth by the Spirit of God and cannot be convinced otherwise.

C. The Holy Spirit (“He who is in you”), the Anointer (2:20), applies the work of Christ, indwells the believer, teaches him all things, and gives persevering faithfulness.

D. “He who is in the World” refers to the present activities of Satan and the other fallen angels that are in league with him. He uses this present order of the cosmos in its corruptible state and the present age in its morally fallen state to mount an attack on the purpose of God. His war has been lost though he still for the time of this age is allowed to “prowl like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.” The people given to the Son in the eternal covenant of redemption are safe in the hands of the Father by the finished work of redemption and the securing operation of the Holy Spirit.

V. verse 5 –  The verifying evidence of one’s security in Christ is in his attitude toward the apostolic witness.

A. Many voices clamor for attention, affection, loyalty, and adherence. The apostolic witness is to them an irritating irrelevancy, an antiquated moralistic system of thought built on fable and a superstitious adherence to the supernatural. They are from the world and those of the world gravitate to them because of the worldly values they promote.

B. They may articulate the syllables of Scriptural language and duplicate the names of scriptural characters, but they sidestep the content and purpose of biblical truth and twist it into a justification for worldliness. Joel Osteen closed a chapter on “excellence” as a trait of winners with this exhortation:

“If you’ll have this spirit of excellence, God will breathe in your direction and cause you to stand out. You’ll look up and be more creative, more skilled, more talented, and wiser with more ideas. I believe and declare that like Daniel, you will outperform, you will outclass, and you will outshine, and God will promote you and set you in a place of honor. You can, you will.”

This is a glorification of the “pride of life” as an outworking of the purpose of Christ’s coming. Though it may not contain the words, “I deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh,” it sets forth a substitute for the gospel and interprets Christ’s value in those purely worldly terms.

VI. Verse 6 – The apostolic message is the truth – all else is error

A. We are from God” –John, having been commissioned by Christ and given the promise of the Spirit for revelatory knowledge and proclamation (John 14:26), knew that his word was indeed the word of truth and that not to listen to him meant that one was not called of God to salvation.

B. “Whoever knows God listens to us” – All the apostles shared this same confidence (1 Corinthians 14:37, 38; Galatians 1:8, 9; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 4:8; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; Hebrews 2:1-4; 1 Peter 1:12, 25; 2 Peter 3:1, 2, 15, 16)

1. Paul warned the church to discount any supposed prophet that would not be guided by apostolic instruction.

2. Paul anathematized angels and any other messenger that would present a gospel other than the one that he had preached in Galatia ( and everywhere).

3. Paul claimed that both his preached word and his written word were the very word of God.

4. The writer of Hebrews argues for the divine verification of the apostolic message as a true presentation of the message of Christ (2:1-4) 

5. This writer also conducts himself in his writing as if he too, as an immediate associate in the apostolic company [13:22-25] (probably a prophet in a local church), were under divine inspiration to give authoritative instruction in the doctrine of Christ’s person and work.

6. Peter claimed that his preached words and written words were to be received as Scripture, as was the written message of the apostle Paul.

C. “Whoever is not from God does not listen to us” – John pointed out that Diotrephes in opposing his message was an evil man who had not seen God (3 John 9-11). He also assumed that the church would know that his personal testimony about a matter was true (3 John 12).

D. One may discern the Spirit of truth from the spirit of error by their conformity or resistance to the apostolic message of the gospel of Christ.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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