Fear Not!

Week of September 24, 2017

The Point:  We don’t need to fear evil forces when we are in Christ.

Test the Spirits: 1 John 4:1-6.

[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.  [ESV]

“Testing the spirits [4:1-6].  Chapter 3 ended with the conviction that our ultimate assurance as Christians depends on, and is given by, the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit. But this raises another issue in John’s thoughts as he continues his battle with the false teachers for the minds and hearts of the churches of Asia Minor. For many of those who had divided the churches were equally keen to appeal to the witness of the Spirit in support of their false teaching and spurious claims. What is to be done when different theologies are being propounded by those who claim the same authority? John’s answer is test the spirits [1]. For the world has never been without all sorts of fantastic religious notions and cults, and the truth of God’s revelation has always been counterfeited by false prophets. The explosion of cultic activity and interest recently, especially on the fringes of the church, underlines that our generation is no exception to the rule. There are a few today who claim to be the perfect revelation of the deity for this time in history, and some apparently believe them. Within the church there are many who claim to speak directly as, or for, God. Their utterances may be prefaced by the formula ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ or the approach may be less formal: ‘I have a word from the Lord for you.’ There are travelling prophets who claim to speak authoritatively to the nations, or (more often) to the church. There are those who claim the authority of God to direct others’ lives, including decisions about work, or marriage, or where they live, by virtue of their direct communication with God. There are those who claim the power of God to exorcise or heal, or to perform signs and wonders. Any thinking Christian (and to be biblical we must be thinking!) will want to assess these claims to determine whether they are genuine or bogus. We are not called upon to be naïve or gullible, fondly believing all who claim to speak for God. We must follow John’s exhortation to test these phenomena, not cynically but lovingly, by applying the two key criteria laid down in this paragraph.

Examine what they say [1-3].  The imperative of verse 1 to test the spirits is very clear and strong and it is our responsibility to obey it. We are all impressed by the novel or the unusual, and it is tempting to ascribe all such phenomena to the power of God. But John specifically warns us not to believe all that we are told, but to discern its origin, whether it comes from God or not. Because many false prophets have gone out into the world we have to be on guard against the spurious. Such ‘prophecies’ or ‘claims’ may be unreal in the sense of being the delusions of people who are enormously enthusiastic and who really believe what they say. But their claims are false. Or they could be the lies of those who are imposters, deliberately wanting to deceive others for their own personal benefit. False prophets may even produce evidence to ‘prove’ that what they say is real, but that is no guarantee that they are from God. Miraculous powers are no proof in themselves of the truth of those who exercise them. There were magicians in Egypt who could imitate some of the miraculous deeds God did through Moses [Ex. 7:22; 8:7; but see also 8:18-19]. There was Simon, the Samaritan sorcerer, who had amazed people for a long time with his magic [Acts 8:11]. Such signs are to be tested. This is especially true of spoken prophecy which purports to be a word from God, and this is what John is especially concerned about here. It was no new problem for God’s people. Back in Deuteronomy, through Moses, God addresses the same issue: And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’ – when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him [Deut. 18:21-22]. It is a very useful test; but, of course, the problem is that it cannot be applied at the time the message is given. An earlier chapter emphasizes that the content of the message is the all-important factor [Deut. 13:1-5]. Does the message encourage God’s people to worship and obey Him, or does it lead them into idolatry? What the prophet says matters far more than how he says it, or whatever apparently supernatural signs he can produce to support it. The test is not whether it feels right, but whether it is true. And here the plumb-line of God’s revealed truth in the Scriptures must be applied. Every Christian has that solemn responsibility. John addresses all the church members, the beloved, not just the elders or overseers. We have to determine whether the message is from God. In doing this, we can be sure that the God who is eternal truth is not going to be contradicting what He has already said. John will apply God’s word in verse 2, and so must we. Every preacher will want to say often to his congregation, ‘Do not believe it because I say it, but because God says it in his Word.’ He will want to produce a congregation of ‘Bereans’ who examine the Scriptures every day to see if what is said is true [see Acts 17:11]. Any number of miraculous signs which may be adduced to support teaching contrary to the Bible cannot be from God, and therefore have no authority for the Christian. Since it is the great work of the Holy Spirit to testify about Christ and exalt Him [John 16:13-14], the person of the Lord Jesus becomes the touchstone of truth or error. When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he had a very simple test by which the true and false could be distinguished. No one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit [1 Cor. 12:3]. John is making the same point, though it is especially directed towards the denial of the incarnation, which was the cardinal gnostic heresy. As we have seen, they were prepared to believe that the Spirit came upon Jesus in a special way, but denied His pre-existence and therefore His full deity. Such a denial indicates the presence of the spirit of antichrist [3]. So we are not to look for enlightenment or spiritual help from those who deny the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, or His full humanity, whether they are academic theologians or Jehovah’s Witnesses on the doorstep. If we are to be biblically positive about Christ, we have to be negative about error. This is not an incentive to indulge in theological witch-hunts, but to recognize where the Scriptures draw the lines between truth and error, and to draw them there ourselves. The spirit of antichrist is still abroad in the spirit of our age, with its mind set against allowing even for a moment that Christ’s claims are true. It manifests itself not only in the media boardrooms, but also in the councils of those Christian groups which refuse to affirm the truth of God’s revelation in Scripture and therefore to identify its denial as heresy. Interestingly enough, the battle today is in the same key area, concerning the person of Christ. ‘Who is this Jesus?’ is not only the central question for evangelism, it is by virtue of that fact the central test of Christian orthodoxy. It is not the only test, but it is the most critical.

Look at how they live [4-6].  Because we have learned that belief and behavior are always harnessed together, we are not surprised to find that John expands the way in which his test works out, by looking beyond the content of the false teaching to the effects it produces. Each of these three verses begins with a different pronoun, introducing a different group of people. You [4] refers to all Christians, they [5] to the non-Christian false prophets, and we [6] to the apostles and the true teachers who stand in the true apostolic succession. At first sight verse 4 seems to be denied by common experience. How can John say that the Christians have overcome the false prophets, when they were proving an increasing threat to the health and existence of the church? But John is right, because the false teachers have not won the true believers over to their cause. The apostle himself stood firm and so did many of the believers who were strengthened by this letter. By applying the test of truth, Christians remain true; their faith is not destroyed and their savior is not denied. He himself promised this when He said about His sheep, A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers [John 10:5]. The antichristian wolf may come in sheep’s clothing in order to ravage and disperse Christ’s flock, but they cannot be overcome. Verse 4b explains why. For he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. Christ’s sheep are united to the shepherd, who is the truth. They have no confidence in themselves, but they know that the cross and the empty tomb have proved their shepherd’s superior power over all His enemies. Moreover, because He is the Truth, those who fight against Him fight against the structures of reality, and so they are doomed to fail. Besides this, power is available to each child of God as we remain in Him and draw, by faith, upon His limitless resources. We are more than conquerors through him who loved us [Rom. 8:37]. By contrast, the false teachers are tied to this world [5], the world which is passing away [2:17]. The world is their origin and their audience. This is why so many of their heresies include the building of a new world order, a new government or a new system, usually with their leader as messiah at its head. The world of mankind in rebellion against God is attracted by the false prophets and their cults because fundamentally they have the same desires and inclinations. They will always get a hearing. When such ‘prophets’, political or religious, proclaim the glory of man and the fulfilment of human desires, at whatever cost and by any sort of behavior, people will jump at the idea. We human beings want to be assured that we are basically all right, and that any ideas about sin and judgment or accountability to a creator God are outdated and unnecessary. There is an attraction in re-stating the Christian gospel in terms of an ethic, in changing the message from one of submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ to one of following His splendid example, or asking Him to touch us up in those areas of our lives that need a fresh coat of paint. It is all governed by this world and the desire to make it a more comfortable place where you can enjoy yourself more. It has nothing to say on the issues of eternity. It has no dynamic by which lives can be changed and offers no ultimate significance beyond the grave. But the true apostles, equally, are known by what they teach [6]. Their origin is God Himself and their audience consists of those who know God. Now this of course is precisely what Cerinthus and his followers claimed for themselves – that they knew God. But John’s point is that they indicate the emptiness of their claim by refusing to listen to the word of God in the apostolic teaching. The only way in which man can come to know God is by God choosing to reveal Himself, perhaps by actions, but necessarily by words, by verbal propositions. The apostolic doctrine claims to be just such a revelation, and our attitude to it indicates whether we are governed by the Spirit of truth or the spirit of error. John’s concern is with people who are active in the church, with how to distinguish pseudo-prophets from true teachers. We do not try to see into their hearts. That would be as impossible as it is unnecessary. We need to listen to what they say, what they are confessing about Christ, and then to observe who their followers are. In our relativistic age, we constantly need to be reminded that some things are always true and others always false. Truth is not just the present consensus of opinion; it is defined by the character of God. Today’s false prophets are just as persuasive and just as lethal as those of the first century. They will say the Bible has authority, but is not the supreme authority. They will affirm belief in the resurrection, but not that the body of Christ was actually raised on the third day. The spirit of falsehood is a spirit of deceit. It is only by receiving the apostles’ teaching and living a life that accords with this truth that we can know God. We are not to accept substitutes.”  [Jackman, pp. 110-116].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. We are surrounded by false teaching in the world in which we live. How does John in 4:1-6 tell us to test all teaching in order to determine if it is true or false? What two key criteria does John give us in these verses? Why are belief and behavior always harnessed together in God’s Word? What does John mean by confess Jesus [see also 1 John 2:22-23]?
  2. In what sense have John’s readers overcome the false teachers? How can 4:4 be an encouragement to you as you deal with false teaching or other temptation?
  3. Why does the world listen to false teaching [see also 1 John 2:15-17]? What evidence of false teaching do you see in the world today? How can you apply John’s two key criteria to this false teaching?


The Message of John’s Letters, David Jackman, Inter Varsity.

The Letters of John, Colin Kruse, Pillar, Eerdmans.

The Epistles of John, John Stott, Eerdmans.

1-3 John, Robert Yarbrough, BENT, Baker.

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