1 John 4:1-6
Stephen Caswell © 1997
The Great Impostor.
The artic polar bear feeds almost entirely on seal. To enjoy such a meal, he sometimes resorts to a cunning bit of trickery. If the hole in the ice through which the seal gets his food is not too far from the edge of open water, the bear will take a deep breath, slip underwater, and swim to the seals' fishing hole. He will then imitate a fish scratching lightly on the under side of the ice. When the seal hears this sound, he dives in for a quick supper, only to find himself caught in the huge, hungry embrace of his predator. The one pretending to be the food turned out to be the hunter. The devil deceives people by speaking through false prophets who speak in the same way true prophets do.
1 John 4:1a 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. Verse one contains two commands and the reason for them. Firstly, don't believe every spirit. Secondly, test the spirits. We know John is addressing believers because he calls them beloved. He gives them both positive and negative commands, and then the reason for the test.
Firstly, The Reason for the Test
The Church at Ephesus
In the Ephesian Church there were a number of teachers who claimed to have special knowledge. They claimed to have received this knowledge directly from God through His Spirit. They claimed to be inspired prophets, speaking the true message of God. Some of their teaching was similar, but it was not exactly the same. At this point the New Testament cannon had not been completed, so God still spoke through prophets. There may have been others who spoke in tongues. So John wrote to the Ephesian Church and gave them two commands concerning the gift of prophecy. Beloved, do not believe every spirit, But test the spirits, whether they are of God; The reason for the test is in 1b: because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
The reason for the test is because many false prophets have gone out into the world. John first speaks about testing the spirits and then talks about men, false prophets. Why? The answer is that the false prophets are inspired and empowered by evil spirits. Because God spoke miraculously through His prophets did not mean that all prophets were genuine. Jesus gave a test for false prophets in Matthew 7:15-20, where he said that by their fruits you will know them. Paul also in 1 Corinthians 12:3 gave another test, where he said that no one could say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.
Paul warned that in the last days there would be those who give heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of demons in 1 Timothy 4:1-2. John is warning the Ephesian Church of the reality of false prophets who have gone out into the world to deceive. They are supernaturally empowered and can be identified through testing. This was not an option, but a command. If a prophet claimed to speak the Word of the Lord, his message was not to be believed until he had been tested.
Today in many churches people claim to speak God's prophetic word, but are not tested. We believe that God has finished His revelation to man in the completed New Testament cannon. Yet those who claim to have the gift of prophecy and tongues do not test the source of their gift. They think that the supernatural nature of the gift validates it. They claim that God has given them further revelation for the church. But is this is true? John 15:15 says: No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.
Hebrews 1:1-2a agrees with this: God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, 2 Thessalonians 2:9-10 warns us of those that perform lying signs and wonders and deceive many. I believe that this is happening today in the Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches. Do you believe everything you hear as truth? Do you test the message and the messenger? Let us be careful to test everything and thereby avoid deception.
Secondly, The Results of the Test
The Acid Test
A severe test is sometimes called an acid test. This term originated during times when gold was widely circulated. Many people tried to make it rich by counterfeiting this precious metal. So the wise would apply nitric acid to an object to see if it was genuine or not. If it was fake, the acid decomposed it: if it was genuine, the gold was unaffected.
In verse one John tells them to test the spirits. The word test dokimazw means to put to the test, to prove by trial, examine, scrutinise, to assay metals. Paul uses the same word in 2 Timothy 2:15: Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. The word approved speaks of one who has been tested and found genuine, to be tried and true. In verses 2-3 John gives us the requirements of the test. Then he gives us the results of the test. 1 John 4:2-3: 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.
John says you can know the true prophet from the false prophet by their confession of the incarnation. The word know used here basically means to know a thing by something, and in the context it is the test. The response of the prophet concerning the incarnation. This means that a true prophet empowered by God will publicly declare that Jesus Christ has come in human form. By doing this they acknowledge both the deity and humanity of Christ. When John wrote this letter to the Ephesians, there were some who claimed that the Christ came upon Jesus at His baptism and then left again before the crucifixion. This was an early form of gnosticism, that denied the divinity of Jesus. Others claimed that Christ only seemed to be human, that he was really a phantom or ghost like being.
These were the docetists and they denied the true humanity of Christ. Therefore John commanded the Ephesian Church to test the prophets and see if they were speaking by the Spirit of God or through the spirit of Antichrist. The word confess here means to say the same thing, or to agree with. A true prophet will say the same thing as the apostles concerning Christ's incarnation. A true prophet will acknowledge that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh and that we have a mediator in heaven who is the Man Christ Jesus 1 Timothy. The incarnation of Christ began at Bethlehem, but continues today in heaven. The false prophets could not make such a confession and were therefore to be rejected by the church.
During World War II the allies placed many secret agents behind enemy lines to spy on enemies movements. Often these agents would work together on large assignments. If they had to meet another agent that they did not recognise they would use a pass word to ensure that they were on the same side. The other agent identified himself as genuine by his knowledge of the pass word. The same is true in our spiritual battle against Satan. False prophets cannot use the password of the incarnation.
The essence of our salvation is bound up in the incarnation. Therefore any attempt to deny it is most serious and must be strongly withstood. This is still true today. The cults will gladly accept that Jesus was a good man or great moral teacher. But they deny that He is the sinless Son of God manifested in human form to destroy the power of sin and provide salvation for mankind. This teaching is fundamental to salvation and cannot be compromised in the slightest possible way. If a prophet denies the perfect deity and humanity of Christ they are the mouthpiece of the spirit of Antichrist.
Miracles and signs are not the test of authenticity. The test was that they agreed with the apostolic teaching concerning the incarnation. The result is this. A prophet is either speaking by the Spirit of God acknowledges the incarnation and is therefore a true prophet. A prophet speaking by the spirit of Antichrist denies the incarnation and is therefore a false prophet. There is no other alternative.
Do you test the message you hear with the word of God? Do you make sure that the messenger confesses, says the same thing as the apostolic message, concerning Christ's incarnation? This is of vital importance because only a perfect, sinless Son of God can atone for man's sin. And only a perfect man can be a substitute in our place. If the preacher does not agree with the apostolic message he is a false prophet empowered by the spirit of Antichrist. Do we test the spirit as the Bible commands?
We do not need to go out looking for people possessed by evil spirits. But should someone claim that God has given them new revelation, or that they are unsure of the source of their spiritual experience, then this is still a valid test to determine the source of the spirit. I must repeat that God has finished His revelation to man. We now have a completed Bible and do not need further revelation. We must not support any minister or ministry that denies the incarnation, the apostolic message.
Thirdly The Response of the Hearers
John addresses three groups of people in verses 4-6. Believers, addressed as you, little children. v.4 False prophets, addressed as they. v. 5 The apostles, addressed as we. v. 6
He shows that the way people respond to the true and false prophets demonstrates their spiritual allegiance.
a. The Believer Overcomes Them
1 John 4:4 says: 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.
John begins with the response of the believers. John says that his little children are of God. The word translated little children is literally born ones. They have been born of the Spirit into God's family. Because of their relationship with God they have conquered the false prophets. The reason they have conquered is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. They have the Spirit of Truth guiding them into all truth. He warns them of the deceptions of the evil one. The Holy Spirit who resides in believers is greater than the spirit of Antichrist who resides in the world. Evil spirits may deceive the world, but they cannot deceive the Lord.
This year seems to be like any other, a new strain of the flu has attacked society, and as usual in the winter. Some folk who catch it regularly take precautions by being inoculated. They see their doctor and he gives them a needle that will build up their resistance. They are then able to withstand the flu virus when they come into contact with it. It is like this for believers. The Holy Spirit indwells them and enables them to overcome the false prophets.
b. The False Prophets Deceive the World
1 John 4:5 They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them.
The false teachers are from the world. They have not been born from above as the little children in verse 4 were. They belong to the world, the world which Satan now controls. Therefore they speak like the world. They say the things that people in the world want to hear. Satan is the God of this world and he uses them to propagate his message. They do not conflict with what people want to here. There is nothing offensive in their message and it is gladly received by the people of the world. The gospel message is offensive to those who reject it. But Satan's message appeals to them because they don't have to deal with their sin. The world listens to the false prophets.
c. The Apostles Message Divides Truth and Error
1 John 4:6 says this: 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.
John claimed to have apostolic authority. He said that he belonged to God and so did his message. Because of this he could say that anyone who received his message knows God. But on the other hand anyone who rejected his message did not belong to God. The apostolic message divided the true believers from the false prophets. The false prophets denied Jesus Christ had come in the flesh. They also denied apostolic teaching. Therefore since John's message is Holy Spirit inspired those who receive it belong to the Spirit of Truth, whilst those who reject it belong to the spirit of error. There is no middle ground in this matter. Put in simple terms God's people and prophets receive God's word, the apostolic message. Those belonging to the world do not receive God's word.
Qualites Of A Magnet
If you have ever owned a magnet you will be aware of its amazing properties. When you place the magnet next to another magnet it will do one of two things. It will either repel or attract. The response depends on which way the second magnet is aligned. The same is true of the apostolic message. Those who belonged to God were drawn to it. But those who did not belong to God were repelled by it. The message was the same in each case but the response depended upon the heart of the individual.
Today we have seen that there are two spirits at work in the world, the spirit of Antichrist or error and the Spirit of God or Truth. We have observed that they empower true and false prophets. The world follow the false prophets. The believer follows the apostles and true prophets. Because of this we have been commanded to test the spirits. The Lord does not want us to believe everyone who speaks in His name. Many false prophets have gone out into the world. God has given us the method to test them. We are to prove them genuine by their confession of the incarnation, before we believe them. If they fail this test they belong to the spirit of Antichrist. Do not support any ministry that does not proclaim the apostolic message.
Do you believe every spirit? Do you test the spirits to see if they are from God? Today some preachers and Christians claim to have the gift of prophecy. But you should not accept what is said unless you can test the spirit of the prophet. Conservative Evangelicals believe that the gift of prophecy has been done away with, since the New Testament is now complete. God still empowers people to preach the word, but not in a prophetic way. Do you test what is preached by the word of God? We must not be swayed by signs or wonders or even if large numbers of people support such a ministry. The test we must apply is the observance of the apostolic message and the confession of the incarnation. I encourage you to test what you hear with God's word so that you will not be deceived.
Jude 24-25: Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, And to present you faultless Before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, To God our Saviour, Who alone is wise, Be glory and majesty, Dominion and power, Both now and forever. Amen.