“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.”
1 John 4:1-3
When was the last time your doctor ran a blood test? Or diagnosed your symptoms and prescribed medicine so that you might begin healing? This is a relatively common aspect of our human lives. We are comforted by the presence of medical testing. We know no other norm.
However, if I said, “spiritual testing” or “test the spirits,” I am certain this is less familiar. But, as seen in 1 John 4 above, testing the spirits is not a fun Myers-Briggs personality test you might do this weekend with friends. Rather, testing the spirits is the very command of God. Undoubtedly, there are a myriad of reasons as to why we feel uncomfortable with “spirit” language. We are uncomfortable because we don’t really talk that way. We talk in terms of doctrine and truth. In the midst of that, we sometimes forget doctrine and truth are actually spiritual dialogue. Doctrine and truth describe the work and nature of God, whose nature is Spirit (John 4:23).
Another example of why we are uncomfortable with “spirit language” is laxity. We may resist talking this way because we are spiritually lazy. Rather than spend effort discerning whether a spirit (meaning an individual and their teaching) is of God, it seems simpler to judge if their work benefits the community, or if their children are polite in public, or if they kicked that weed smoking habit. Behavior is important, but the Bible calls you to a much higher level of discernment. In fact, 1 John 4:1 gives us this imperative, “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.”
"Behavior is important, but the Bible calls you to a much higher level of discernment."
There is biblical warrant for you to test the spirits to see if they are from God or not. Why? Because false prophets are now among you. In addition to being false, John identifies the false prophets with the spirit of antichrist (4:3). Spiritual discernment is not merely commanded; it is a weighty command to discern between spirit of God and spirit of antichrist.
How do we test these spirits? What standards do we use to discern the true spirit of God? John tells us in verses 2-3, “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.”
That’s it? Do you mean to say that if someone comes claiming spiritual authority, we are supposed to accept them having the Spirit of God if they just confess the incarnation? Well, the short answer is: yes. The long answer is: yes, with some explanation. If we accepted an incarnation-denier, we have accepted the spirit of the antichrist. John’s quick test is correct, and we can’t test anything less than confessing the incarnation. However, John is also teaching a powerful lesson.
John has strongly defended himself and his teaching against false teachers. These teachers live immoral lives, deny the importance of the flesh, believe themselves to be without sin, and deny the incarnation. Now, why would all these things come together? How can John summarize these false teachers in one sentence and say, “every spirit that confesses Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God”?
I believe that the answer is somewhat simple, but let me provide more observation. Previously in 1 John, John has told us “how we know” different things. We know love. How? Because He laid down his life for us. We know we are in Him. How? Because we walk in the same way in which He walked. We know it is the last hour. How? Because Christ’s deniers, the antichrists, have gone out into the world.
John answers all of these questions by referring to Christ’s incarnation. John is saying that everything – morality, spirituality, history, the will of God, truth, true spirit – is to be subjected to the revelation of God in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Let me say that differently. All truth claims, spiritual or otherwise, are to be checked against the ministry of Jesus Christ in His incarnation, including His death and resurrection.
For example, how do I know how I should walk? I walk like Jesus walked. How do I know what part of God’s plan in history I am in? I know because Christ has come, and His deniers are in the world. How do I know true spirit of God? I know by whether they confess that Christ came, revealed God, died bodily, and rose bodily. John is arguing that once someone denies an aspect of Christ’s incarnation, they destroy Christian knowledge. Therefore, someone is in the spirit of antichrist if they confess contrary to Christ’s incarnation.
So the reason John can say that “every spirit that confesses Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” is because confessing the incarnation (God dwelling bodily amongst His people) is to accept God’s authority in all that was accomplished by that incarnation. And refusal to confess the incarnation is to reject God’s authority in all that was accomplished by that incarnation.
How does this impact FBC? There are several things we must be mindful as a church because of John’s command to test the spirits.
First, you must be intimately familiar with the life and claims of Jesus (also known as the New Testament). God gave you the command to test. He also gave the standard by which you test. If someone accepts the incarnation, that means they must believe that everything Christ said and revealed through the Apostles is God Himself speaking. In other words, every example and word of His ministry carries God’s authority. When someone disputes Christ’s miracles, teachings, or anything else, they are not arguing history, they are undermining the foundation of everything you believe to be true as a Christian.
Second, you must judge more than simple externals. Nice people are everywhere. All types of religions and cultures claim spirituality and display that spirituality. You must cut through the garbage. Test the spirit! False prophets have entered the world, therefore you must be spiritually discerning, not a Pharisee!
Third, you must kill false idols of knowledge. John’s opponents placed their own spiritual experience over Christ’s incarnation ministry because they believed all flesh to be evil or irrelevant. What sources of knowledge are you tempted to place over the Bible? An example from our culture is personal experience. “If I feel it, therefore it is true, even if Christ Himself stood against it” or “Jesus (or Paul/John, etc.) was confined to his cultural reality of patriarchy, slavery, and heterosexuality. We’ve moved past that and can love like Jesus would have loved if he were in our culture.”
Do not be deceived, Christian. The spirit of antichrist is now in the world already. Your discernment is a commandment.