1 John 4:1-6
Stephen Caswell © 2001
The Great Impostor.
The arctic 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. Believers must be on the look out for them.
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. Finally, the reason; false prophets abound. We know that John is addressing believers because he calls them beloved. This command must be obeyed, it isn't an option.
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. Others were given a word of knowledge and some a word of wisdom. There may have been others who spoke in tongues. Therefore, John wrote to the Ephesian Church about supernatural revelation. He gave them two commands to observe for their own good. Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God. The last part of the verse gives us the reason for the test; 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.
John warned the Ephesians of the reality of false prophets who have gone out into the world to deceive people including believers. They are supernaturally empowered and can be identified through testing. This was not an option, but a command. If a prophet claimed to speak a Word from the Lord, his message was not to be believed until the spirit speaking had been tested. Other New Testament Scriptures command this too. 1 Thessalonians 5:20-22: Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. 1 Corinthians 14:29: Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge.
Matthew 7:20-23: Therefore by their fruits you will know them. 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. Many 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? And then I will declare to them, I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!
Today's Pentecostal Churches
Today in many churches, especially Pentecostal churches, people prophesy and many speak in tongues. Others claim to have a word of knowledge or wisdom from the Lord. Yet contrary to Scripture, they don't test the spirit speaking through them. Even though their message is usually erroneous these practices are not questioned but rather they increase. They think that the supernatural nature of the gift validates it. They claim that God has given them further revelation for the church. Usually their lives are far from holy. It doesn't concern them that God never speaks through unclean vessels. Those who claim to have the gift of prophecy, tongues and knowledge refuse to test the source of their gift. This is in direct disobedience to God's Word that commands all supernatural revelation to be tested.
We believe that God has finished supernatural revelation for the Church. This happened when the New Testament cannon was completed. 1 Corinthians 13:8-10: Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. The gifts of prophecy, knowledge and tongues passed away at the end of the Apostolic Age. They ceased as the Bible said they would. For about 1800 years they have not functioned in the Christian Church. Significantly, none of the great revivalists have exercised them either.
Purpose Of Revelatory Gifts
The important criterion in determining whether or not a particular spiritual gift will endure is its purpose. The purpose of a mercury vapor light is to light up the highway at night. When the sin rises, the highway becomes illuminated by a greater and more perfect light. The mercury vapor light then goes out because it has served its purpose. In a similar way spiritual gifts such as knowledge, prophecy and tongues have ceased to function now that we have a more perfect light in the completed cannon of Scripture. Their imperfect light is no longer needed. None of those who share new revelation today come close to the perfect revelation of God's Word. Why listen to them? They haven't even been found genuine!
It wasn't until the charismatic movement began in the twentieth century that claims of supernatural revelation began again. But its the very counterfeit that Paul warned would come. 1 Timothy 4:1-2: Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron. Paul saw how believers would be lead away from the truth. He spoke more of this in 2 Corinthians 11:3-4: But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted — you may well put up with it!
Do you believe that God gives new revelation to His people today? Do you know someone who claims to have the gift of prophecy or tongues? Has someone told you that they have a word of knowledge or wisdom for you from the Lord? Have they tested their spiritual source? Do they get it right 100%? Do their lives exhibit holiness and the fruit of the Spirit? If not, then they can't be trusted. I believe on the authority of God's Word that such people are deceived and being used by Satan to deceive others! Many lead people away from the truth into error and experience. Many curse Christ in other languages under the guise of speaking in tongues. They are in a deep spiritual bondage and lead others into it as well.
Today charismatic theology has taken over most churches. They are receiving all kinds of new revelation. The people in Pentecostal churches claim to have experienced the baptism of the spirit. Has it resulted in greater holiness? Do they serve Christ in their Churches? Are they more zealous in reaching the lost? Not at all. In fact the exact opposite is true. They are so wrapped up in their own experience. They're not even interested in the great commission.
Secondly, 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.
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 commands us to test the spirits. The word test dokimazw means to put to the test, to prove by trial, to examine, to scrutinize, 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. Now he gives us the results of the test.
John says that you can know a true prophet from a 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. They said that He only appeared to be human He was really a spirit. 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 came in the flesh and that we have a mediator in heaven who is the Man Christ Jesus. 1 Timothy 2:5 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. The spirit speaking through a false prophet will never allow him to affirm the Truth of the incarnation.
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 recognize 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 withstood.
The False Cults
This is still true today. The cults will gladly accept that Jesus is a good man or great moral teacher. But they deny that He is the sinless Son of God. They deny that God the Son manifested Himself in human form to conquer 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 every prophet confesses that Christ has come in the flesh? To ignore this command is to disobey God's Word. 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 you 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. Firstly, Believers, addressed as you, little children. v. 4 Secondly, False prophets, addressed as they. v. 5 Thirdly, The Apostles, addressed as we. v. 6 John shows that the way people respond to the true and false prophets demonstrates their spiritual allegiance.
a. Believers Overcome Them
1 John 4:4: 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 little children teknia 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 gives them resistance 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. They don't talk about sin, righteousness or judgment. There is nothing offensive in their message and it is gladly received by the world. The gospel message is offensive to those who reject it. It condemns their lifestyle and they rebel against it. But Satan's message appeals to them because he doesn't talk about their sin. The world listens to his false prophets.
c. The Apostles Message Divides Truth and Error
1 John 4:6: 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 brethren. 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.
Qualities 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 belong to God are drawn to it. But those who don't belong to God are repelled by it. The message is the same in each case but the response depends upon the heart of the individual. The truth will always divide mankind. Some will reject it whilst others will receive it.
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 follows the false prophets. The believer must follow 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. This is certainly true today. One only needs to attend a Pentecostal church service. These churches continually receive new revelation and continually get it wrong. Their lives are not marked by devotion, holiness or service. In fact, their followers live very undisciplined lives. We must test all who claim to have received new revelation.
The test of course, is their confession of the incarnation. If they fail this test they belong to the spirit of Antichrist. Do you believe everyone who claims to have a new word from God? Do you listen to people who prophesy or speak in tongues? Do you test the spirits to see if they are from God? Conservative Evangelicals believe that the gift of prophecy has passed away with tongues and knowledge. The New Testament is complete. God still empowers people to preach the word, but He does not give new revelation. Do you test what is preached by the word of God? We must not be swayed by signs or wonders even if large numbers of people support such a ministry. The test we must apply is the test of the incarnation. Only those spirits who confess that Jesus Christ is God come in the flesh are from God. 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 Savior, Who alone is wise, Be glory and majesty, Dominion and power, Both now and forever. Amen.