“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. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 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. 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. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 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
False Prophets are in the World
Do Not Believe Every Spirit
John ended chapter three talking about the Spirit whom God has given us and who abides in us as we abide in him. He now begins chapter four talking about testing the Spirits. This is very thorough and pastoral of John, not desiring his little children to fall off either side of the track. Essentially he is getting into the question that would arise from 3:24, “How do I know that the spirit abiding in me is from God?” This is an absolutely critical question – especially in our day in age when many claim to have and know the Holy Spirit, yet do not.
Just because something calls itself Christian, does not mean that it is. We cannot just assume that because something uses Christian lingo, or looks to be Christian, that it is Christian. In fact, that is one of the strategies of the spirit of antichrist – to masquerade as an angel of light. This is the very reason why we are not to believe every spirit, even if it calls itself Christian.
Test the spirits
This is a command, to test the spirits to see whether they are from God. Throughout this letter we’ve been given different tests that we are to use in self examination to test ourselves. But now we are told here that we are also to test the spirits. Or in other words, test the teachings that we hear. In one sense we could say that this is the test of testing. Do we test the spirits to see if they are of God? If you refuse to test the spirits because you’d rather just hold hands with every teacher who claims to be a Christian, you are being disobedient to God and putting your soul in jeopardy. This doesn’t mean that we go around with a negative eye, looking for any and every little thing to criticize about other ministries and Christians. There are certainly discernment ministries and individuals out there who are anything but edifying and who slander true brethren. But we don’t want to over correct from a reaction to either extreme. We are commanded to use wisdom and discernment from God’s Word to test the spirits and the teaching that we hear, to see whether it is from God.
Christianity is a thinking religion. We do not ask you to empty your mind. We do not ask you to follow subjective feelings. We do not ask you to blindly follow leaders like a cult. But rather think, and think hard, testing everything according to God’s Word.
If you notice, this passage we are looking at today is very similar to chapter 2:18-24, that we looked at weeks ago now. So why is John telling us about all the false prophets in the world and how we must test them? Because it serves the purpose of the overarching themes of this letter. Remember, John’s purpose in writing this is so that our joy may be made complete, and that we may know that we have come to know Him, and that we may have fellowship with God and one another. None of those things can happen if we just believe any and every spirit of teaching that comes along. We cannot have joy, assurance, or fellowship with God and one another if we do not test the spirits to see whether they are from God. We cannot have joy in falsehood. We cannot know that we know him if we are believing lies. And we cannot have fellowship with the light if we are fellowship-ing with the darkness. John isn’t writing this so that we might become negative and overly critical Christians, he is writing this so that we might have joy, assurance, and fellowship. This is one of the most loving things that John is writing here. If he leaves out sections like this, then it doesn’t matter how much he writes about joy, assurance, and fellowship – because we can’t have those things without the testing of the spirits. Do you want to know God? Do you want to have joy? Test the spirits.
What is our standard for testing the spirits? Our personal opinion? Our subjective feelings? Our perceptions? No. The never-changing, all-authoritative Word of God – the Scriptures. That is our rule and our guide through life as we discern and test the spirits between truth and error. It is a great task that we have been given, but we have the key to it all, so that we can do it with certainty.
False Prophets Deny Christ
John now tells us the main characteristic of the spirit of the antichrist: it denies Christ.
Now, it doesn’t necessarily do this outright, although it does that too. But the deceitful and dangerous thing about false prophets and the spirit of the antichrist is that it denies Jesus Christ while claiming the name of Jesus. They may give all the lip service in the world to the name of Jesus, and it might sound oh so good, but when you ask the question, “What Jesus?” That is where they deny him. The Jesus they profess is a Jesus of their imagination, not the Jesus of the Bible that saves sinners.
The question of “who is Jesus?” is the most important question we have to answer. The whole of theology turns on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Heresy hinges on what you say about Christ. John Calvin, in his commentary on 1 John says, “…as Christ is the object at which faith aims, so he is the stone at which all heretics stumble.” You see, Christ is the center of all things, and he is the center of theology. He is either the centerpiece of your faith and hope, or he is the center of your stumbling and rejection.
Let’s look now at the specifics as to what John says makes the difference between a spirit from God, or a spirit of the antichrist.
First, a false prophet will deny either the person or work of Jesus Christ. When the Bible says “Jesus Christ” there is much more theology loaded there than simply a name. It refers to his person and work. “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name, but it is the New Testament way of saying Messiah. This refers to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah. He is the promised one. He is the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15. He is the savior who has come to save his people from their sins. Is the very deity or the very humanity of Jesus Christ denied? Then it is a false spirit. Does the teaching deny that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, second person of the holy trinity, took on human flesh in being born of the virgin Mary? If that is denied, it is a false spirit. Is the perfect obedience and perfect sinless life of Christ denied? Then it is a false spirit. Is the substitutionary, sacrificial, price-paying, wrath-taking, sin-atoning, death of Jesus on the cross denied? Then it is a false spirit, not from God. Is the resurrection, ascension, and intercession of Christ denied? Then it is a false spirit, not from God. And so we have this test of the person and work of Jesus that we are to put to the spirits, to see whether they are from God.
But John doesn’t stop there. He says that if a spirit is from God then it confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. So it is not just the person and work of Christ in terms of theological beliefs and teachings that matters. But does the spirit confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh – that he is real and he came in real history in time and space and accomplished all of these theological truths? We see here, as we’ve discussed before, that John is specifically refuting some of the false teachings of different branches of gnosticism that they were facing at that time. So Jesus not only came and accomplished these things, but he did so in real time and history and space, because we are real sinners in time and history and space who need a real savior to save us from our real sins, because there is a real hell and a real heaven, and a real death and and real judgment coming. There are those who will say, “yes, yes!” to the fact that Jesus died for sinners and took the wrath of God – but they will say that his death was only symbolic of that, not that it actually happened – that spirit is not of God! There are those who say that yes, Jesus rose from the dead…metaphorically – that spirit is not of God!
These denials of Jesus, are the antichrist attempts to take away from Jesus – to subtract from Christ. These are attempts to take away what belongs to Jesus. And those who depreciate Christ are of the antichrist! A denial of any aspect of Christ is a denial of his sufficiency. These false spirits seek to subtract from the Lord Jesus Christ because they hate him and they wish him to be something that he is not. These are not friends, but enemies of Jesus.
False Prophets have been Overcome
The fact that there are many false spirits of the antichrist in the world, can be a frightening thing to think about. There are so many false teachings out there seeking to deceive anyone and everyone! How are we ever going to know the truth and be certain about it!? False prophets are in the world, and they deny Christ, but they have been overcome.
Last week we saw how the Holy Spirit can overcome the enemy within. God is greater than our hearts when our hearts condemn and accuse us before God – God is greater and he can overcome our hearts – the enemy within. But now, in our passage today, John has transitioned from the enemy within, to the enemy without – false spirits. He showed us last week how God has overcome the enemy within, and he shows us this week how God has overcome the enemy without!
The spirits of the antichrist is a conquered enemy, a defeated foe, and we don’t have to fear them, because the very Spirit of God who has conquered them abides within the true believer. He conquers the enemy without from within. Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world! Christ is not only a forgiver of sins, but he is the judge of all and king of all, and he has conquered and subdued all of his enemies. And notice the tense in which John states it: “and you are from God and have overcome them.” Yes, they are active in the world, but their demise is so secured that we can talk about it in the past tense. The analogy will fall short in many ways, but in one sense it’s like when you spray a little poison chemical on bugs. The bug is infected with that chemical, and he will die, yet he still crawls around for a little bit because he hasn’t died yet, but he has already been conquered, though it has not been consummated in his death, his conquering has already happened, his death is imminent, never in doubt. Those enemies of Christ in the world, are but little powerless bugs, and the blood of Christ is their poison, and that blood has been spilt, and you, Christian, are covered in it. You cannot lose! You cannot be defeated! Not because you are strong and mighty within yourself, but because Christ has done it all, and you are one with him! His victory is your victory! His life is your life! And His Spirit is in you. “…we can no more be conquered than God himself…” as John Calvin puts it! The day that Christ can be overcome is the day that we can be overcome, and that day will never come.
“Why, should we, who have Christ the conqueror on our side fear the conquered world?” – Thomas Brooks