“Test The Spirits”
1 John 4:1-6 [Audio]
Doug Hayes, September 16, 2012 [Outline]
3:23And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment.
24Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.
1Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, 3and 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. 4You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.
5They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. 6We 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.
Father, we thank you for loving us so much that you sent your only begotten Son to be our advocate, to be the propitiation for our sins, and not only ours, but also for the whole world. Not only so, we know ourselves to be blessed by you, for we have an anointing from the Holy One that abides in us and teaches us concerning all things. Enable us, this Lord’s Day, to hear you speak to us through your word, and to be empowered to believe anew on the name of your Son Jesus Christ and to love one another – so that we are assured that you abide in us, and we in you. In whose name we pray. Amen
‘Do not believe every spirit, but Test the spirits.’ What does this mean?
When I was younger I read books and took a class in Spiritual Warfare, where I was taught that this text means that we are to do battle with demons, testing them, knowing them and casting them out. 5 minutes of Googling and I ran across this [long quote], which I want to share with you as an example of how the text is often taken:
“There are scriptural keys to disarming Satanic power. Years ago, in a dream, the Holy Spirit revealed to me this truth — If you can call the demon spirit by name, you weaken its power…in the Scriptures certain strongholds are called by name and others are clearly identified. Satan moves against us through strongholds (fortresses set up in our lives), imaginations, and thoughts. 2 Corinthians 10:4 says, “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God, to the pulling down of strongholds, casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought.” [sounds biblical – but maybe we should test this.]
Some of these strongholds, are easily identifiable. Others, require scriptural testing and trying of the spirit. The supernatural gift of discerning of spirits is given by the Holy Spirit [now we have a new gift of the HS – but maybe we should test this]. It enables the believer [presumably those given the supernatural gift – but maybe we should test this.] to determine, not only demonic spirits, but angel spirits, human spirits, and the Spirit of God as well. We need an understanding of the spiritual realm to properly and effectively wage an overcoming war. “Beloved believe not every spirit, but try the spirits…” (1 John 4:1,2).”
Let’s look at some of these areas of strongholds and entering in of demonic fortresses. [What follows are some of the names of demons which we should know and name:]
spirit of divination
spirit of heaviness
spirit of whoredoms
spirit of infirmity
deaf and dumb spirit
spirit of bondage
spirit of fear
spirit of antiChrist – 1 Jn 4:3
spirit of error – 1 John 4:6
As you can see from the Scripture, many other related demonic spirits join themselves to these and others to form the bastion of satanic power in one’s life.”
The question is: Is this what John wrote to his children in the faith about? I think not. It’s important when looking at a particular passage to make sure that we are taking into account the whole of what the Apostle is trying to communicate to his readers.
I. Knowing & Abiding In Him
John begins this letter by asserting that they, the Apostles who personally heard and saw and touched the Lord Jesus, delivered the message of the word of life – and that continued fellowship with the apostles was the way to truly having fellowship with God the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. The rest of the book is written to provide them with an understanding of those who do not have fellowship with them – and therefore, do not have fellowship with God.
Clearly, the Christians to whom John wrote were struggling mightily with knowing that they are truly “of God,” as opposed to those who claimed to be of God but were not teaching & believing & living the same ways that John and the other Apostles taught – and were, especially, not loving the brothers. The exhortation to test the spirits in our text today is embedded within the wider argument of John to stay faithful to the apostolic message about who Jesus is, what He did to accomplish our salvation and what He commanded – love one another. 3:23-24 says that the commandments are to believe in the name of Jesus and to love one another – those who do this can know with certainty that they abide in Him and He in them.
To be “Of God” is a major theme in this book, as contrasted with being “not of God,” and is connected almost synonymously with “abiding” with or in Him and He with us. This is what he wants them to know with assurance – that they are abiding with and in Him.
Outline: To “know” (i.e. to be assured of, or experiencing fully): 2:3, 4, 5, 11, 18, 20, 21, 29; 3:1, 2, 5, 14, 15, 16, 19, 20, 24; 4:2, 6, 7, 8, 13; 5:2, 13, 18, 19, 20. To “abide” (i.e. remain in place – intimate fellowship with God, communion “shared life”): 2:6, 10, 14, 17, 24, 27, 28; 3:6, 14, 15, 17, 24; 4:12, 13, 15, 16.
How can we have such assurance that we can say that we know for sure that we are abiding in Him? By the [Holy] Spirit whom He has given us! [The Holy Spirit: 3:24; 4:1, 2, 6, 13; 5:6, 7, 8; Jn. 14:15-17; 26; 15:26; 16:13] Thus, being assured that we are being taught the truth, discerning between truth and error, is one of the particular functions of the Holy Spirit in our livers, as we’ve seen in chapter 2.
II. False Prophets
We need to understand what John was concerned about when he wrote this passage. Throughout this letter John has been contrasting those who live in the light vs. those who live in darkness (1:5-10); those who confess their sins vs. those who say they do not sin and are liars); those love the brothers vs. those hate the brothers (2:3-11); those who do not love the world vs. those who do (2:15-17); those who know the truth vs. those who have left the faith and followed the lies of the antichrists that deny that Jesus is the Christ (2:18-27); those who are children of God and live in righteousness and love vs. the children of the devil who live in rebellion and hatred (3:4-23). Suffice it to say – John is not concerned to teach his children in the faith to battle demons directly in 4:1-6 – but to overcome false prophets that are liars and deceivers that cause the children of God to be confused about what to believe and how to live – most importantly loving one another.
Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount in Matt. 7:15-23:
15“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. 16You will know them by their fruits. [Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Therefore by their fruits you will know them.] 21“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. 22Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ 23And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’
False prophets/teachers have always arisen among God’s people during confusing times – times of crisis. Speaking of the great tribulation, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Jesus said: Matthew 24:9–13:
9“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. 10And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. 11Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. 12And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. 13But he who endures to the end shall be saved.
In 4:1-6, John returns to a subject Jesus spoke of and he already addressed (cf. 2:18-23) concerning antichrists that had come & were deceiving believers with false teaching in the “last hour,” the days leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem – writing in the 60’s AD.
18Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour. 19They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us. 20But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things. 21I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and that no lie is of the truth. 22Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son. 23Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also.
24Therefore let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father. 25And this is the promise that He has promised us—eternal life. 26These things I have written to you concerning those who try to deceive you. 27But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him.
Those whom John described as antichrists (literally – against Christ) are those who were initially inside the church. But by leaving they demonstrated that they were in opposition to not only Jesus, but the apostles and the rest of the church. Peter warned that false prophets would arise in the church, just as false prophets arose in Israel: “1But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. 2And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed.” (2 Pet. 2:1-2)
What made them dangerous is that they had real influence in the lives of Christians. False prophets/teachers are always like that. Mostly nobody listens to lunatics and crackpots. But people that have been in the church, people that have been respected in the past are dangerous because they know just enough of the truth, and speak enough of the right words and live in such a way that it is attractive to believers that they can bring confusion and discomfort in the truth and the biblical way of thinking and living. Even those who remain in the church, and are popular among us can sometimes teach things that sound true, but in reality are not fully biblical – which makes it all the more confusing.
III. Testing/Discerning the Spirits
John’s command to them and to us is to not believe everything that we hear – but we are to “test” the spirits. I ask you, how is it that we hear the spirits? Do we hear the spirits directly? Does the HS speak to us directly and we are to discern whether it is Him speaking to us? Do evil, spirits of error, speak to us directly and we are to test them directly? No – John said that the words we hear and must test are uttered by the false teachers that have gone out into the world. John is not saying we are to have conversations with demons, spirits of various names – rather, he is saying that we are to test what human speakers are saying – and by what they say, determine in what manner they are inspired. He is saying that some teachers are inspired, not by the Holy Spirit, but by a spirit of error (v. 6). These are (Bruce, 104) “men who falsely claimed to speak by inspiration of the HS, but were instead inspired by a spirit of falsehood….the “spirits” that John envisages but two spirits – Spirit of God and spirit of Anti-Christ –error).” Every prophet is a mouthpiece/spokeman of some spirit; Behind every prophet is a spirit, and behind every spirit is God or the Devil (cf. 3:10f) (Stott, 156).
This spiritual warfare continues to be relevant to us today. As Peter Leithart wrote: “Even in our sophisticated, scientific age, many are attracted to spiritualities and cults that teach a false gospel and mislead many. Satan is defeated, but he stupidly fights on, hoping to pull out a victory at the last. What’s going on in the Episcopal church is not merely a battle between conservatives who want to maintain traditional Christian morality and libertines who want to make room for sodomy in high places. It is a battle of spirits; it is an attempt at a hostile takeover, an effort by satanic forces to transform the church into a synagogue of Satan. It can happen on a smaller scale, too. Paul warns us not to let the sun go down on our anger, because if we do we give the devil an opportunity (Eph. 4)…Satan is given an opportunity to turn you into an ally if you don’t deal with your anger, confess sin, forgive and extend forgiveness. If you fail here, Satan has an opportunity to infect your marriage, your relationships with your co-workers and your relationships with people here are church.” (pp. 134-135).
Thus, not everyone who claims to speak for God – does speak for God. But how can we tell? Prophets needed to be tested to see if they speak for God. How do we test the spirits?
# 1 is the Truth and Faithfulness Test: Deut. 18:20-22; 13:1-5
This idea of testing the spirits is not new to John. In the law we are given instruction on testing those who presume to speak in God’s name. We can tell, in part, if someone speaks for God based on the prophet’s accuracy. Deut.18:20–22
20But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’ 21And if you say in your heart, ‘How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’— 22when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.
What should we think about popular prophets today, like Pat Robertson or Hal Lindsey, who make public announcements about things they believe will happen in our day (either by prophetic word or by the way they understand scripture) – and they do not come true? How about or Harold Camping who prophesied that the end of the world would happen last year? Are men like this false prophets that ought to be rejected? Yes, by biblical standards, they have made false claims in speaking for God. I am not saying they are unbelievers – but they have made statements that were demoniacally inspired and ought not be teachers in the church. We should not listen to them because they spoke inaccurately.
The law also says that spirits and prophets are to be test by what they say, and the evil influence they have. False teachers, no matter how impressive they are, are to be disregarded and judged if they turn people away from the Lord. Deut. 13:1–5
1“If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, 2and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods’—which you have not known—‘and let us serve them,’ 3you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams, for the Lord your God is testing you to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 4You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear Him, and keep His commandments and obey His voice; you shall serve Him and hold fast to Him. 5But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has spoken in order to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of bondage, to entice you from the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall put away the evil from your midst.
Under this category of spirit of error I’d count many of the cults, like Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints), the Church of Scientology, and churches that are set up as Gay/Lesbian churches. These self-consciously lead people away from God and His word.
#2 is the Theological Test vv. 2-3:
John also gives us a theological test: ask the teacher/antichrist if Jesus Christ has come in flesh or not (cf. 2:18, 22). Paul also has a test “Jesus is cursed” or “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3; 1 Thes. 5:19-22). 1 Corinthians 12:3: “Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”
No matter how charming, how plausible, how eloquent the prophet/teacher is – the test is their confession of Jesus. This Confession is a call to declare allegiance to Jesus Christ come in the flesh vs denial or cursing – Stott, 157: not just a recognition of His identity, but profession of faith in Him as the incarnate Lord. Even evil spirits recognize his deity (Mk. 1:24; 3:11; 5:7-8), but knowing him they did not acknowledge him as their Lord. Spirit of God always honors the Son – which is his particular ministry (Jn. 15:26; 16:13-15; 1 Cor. 12:3).
There are plenty of people that will acknowledge Jesus as having been a good man, but God in human flesh, the God-man, well that is a bridge just too far to cross. This is especially true in our modern age, where people are more enlightened today than to believe in such myths. There are plenty of false prophets in our schools and universities today – and we need to be on guard to test the spirits there. How many young people grow up strong in the faith, only to give it up when they hear the all too convincing rhetoric of those who deny that Jesus Christ is the God-man that is to be worshipped and obeyed. Test the spirits!
#3 is The Hearing test vv. 5-6:
The final test that John gives is the hearing test (vv. 5-6). False teachers are known by ears, by hearing – which works in two ways:
1) They find eager ears in the world. As Leithart noted: “Tongue and ear make a pair. Lying spirits speak form the world, and the ears that listen are also worldly. The world listens to them because they speak from the world (v. 5).” So, one test is to understand who listens to them. If a prophet/teacher receives approval from people who live according to the flesh, who are dominated by the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh and the boastful pride of life – that is a sign that the teacher is a inspired by error and falsehood. Success on the public stage, of course, is not necessarily a sign of falsehood, because even Jesus drew great crowds that later demanded His crucifixion. But John says that it is important for us to see who it is that is listening to the teacher to understand something about them and their message.
2) Most importantly, we need to understand what voice the teacher is listening to. Is it something other than the apostolic voice? V. 6 says that those who are “of God” are those who hear the voice of the apostles. Of course, for us, the apostolic voice is heard in the scriptures. Listening to God through the scriptures is one of the primary means that we are able to not only know the truth, but also to test the truthfulness of those who presume to speak for God.
John Stott in his commentary wrote: “There is need for Christian discernment. Many are too gullible, and exhibit a naïve readiness to credit messages and teachings which purport to come from the spirit-world. There is such a thing, however, as a misguided tolerance of false doctrine. Unbelief (i.e. not believing every spirit) can be as much a mark of spiritual maturity as belief. We should avoid both extremes, the superstition which believes everything and the suspicion which believes nothing,” (Stott, 157)
We live in an age that provides a forum for teachers all around us on TV, the radio and especially on the internet. We have bloggers galore; and anyone with a video camera can be a spiritual teacher on Youtube. But we are called upon to be careful not to believe all that comes before us.
We are told that false prophets/teachers are demonically inspired – we are not told how that happens. While we don’t know from scripture the specific mechanics of demonic activity in the lives of people – we do know that it is a reality that people can be inspired to lead the children of God astray. There is no reason, biblically to believe that the children of God can be possessed or oppressed in the sense that people so often talk about today. This too is an error that we should not believe.
False teachers then or now are not necessarily aware that they are inspired by a spirit of error, nor do they necessarily have an evil motive [giggling diabolically about taking over the world and undermining believers]. False teachers are often well meaning believers that are just plain wrong – as with the example I read at the beginning of the sermon. We need to be continually asking if what we hear people saying is truly biblical.
IV. Overcoming Them
Right in the middle of this text, John writes in v. 4 words of great comfort to us. He assures us that we are children of God, and that we have overcome the false teachers with their inspiration from spirits of error. Because we have the Holy Spirit indwelling us, we have an anointing from God, we are overcoming false teachers– (read 2:20, 27) “built-in spiritual instinct enabling them to hold fast to truth and reject error” (Bruce, 106).
John wrote this so that we believers would continue to abide (remain in place) in the truth of Jesus, and overcome those antichrists that would challenge the truth. He wanted to encourage us to remain strong in faith, because He (the Holy Spirit) who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (the Devil and his children). Because of that, we know and can discern true from false spirits. We are not left to our own wisdom or insight, but depend on wisdom that comes from God. Nor do we have to be discouraged and doubtful when false teachers leave or are cast out of the Church. We can have confidence that God is preserving the truth and His body.
In the battle of spirits John describes, he is confident that the Spirit of God will be victorious in us and through us!
The Bible is the final authority for testing everything before believing it. One of the assurances given to us is that we are “of God,” and “abiding in Him,” because we hear God speaking through the apostolic revelation, believe it, and keep His commandments (3:24; 4:6).
Be generally discerning. Don’t just accept what sounds good – test everything with, “Does the Bible really say that? Is that what this passage of scripture really means?” Just because someone uses a Bible verse or biblical language doesn’t mean they are speaking the truth of the Bible. Be noble Bereans (Acts 17:11), who not only received the word with readiness, but also searched the scriptures to see if what the Apostle said was true. How much more everything else you hear among the myriads of voices that are out there today. Men who teach something contrary to the scriptures may not necessarily be antichrists – but they may still be teaching error.
Pay attention to who people, specifically teachers 1) listen to (Apostolic voice in the scripture), and most important 2) who hears them – are instructed by them – who give them an audience. I know this may seem to my classically educated son Adam that I am committing the logical fallacy of guilt by association – but this is what John writes to us.
I do not want to give the impression that I think there are no demons in the world, or that they in no way have influence in the world. Rather – I want to encourage you to test everything you hear to be sure that it has it’s source in the Spirit of God, who leads us into all truth as we abide in Him.
Let us pray:
Heavenly Father – we confess that your son Jesus Christ has indeed come in the flesh, die for the sins of the world, was raised from the dead and sits at your right hand ruling all thing for your glory. Enable us, by your Spirit, to continue in that confession – and to never be led astray by false teachers. Empower us to overcome them, for we know that He who is in us is greater than those in this world that would ruin our faith in you and love for one another. In Jesus’ name. Amen.