‘Test the spirits’ – Jonathan’s sermon on 1 John 4:1-6

Test the Spirits

An edited text of Jonathan’s sermon this morning on 1 John 4:1-6 -

4 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.

Discerning the truth

I am increasingly of the opinion that our ability to identify false teaching is one of the most important tasks of a Christian.  We don’t talk much about it, but the Bible actually has a lot to say about it. Consistently, Scripture warns us about false teachers and false prophets. In today’s passage, in verse 3, John clearly knows that his readers have heard about false teaching that is, right at the birth of the church, already in the world.

They could have heard it from Jesus himself. In Matthew 7:15, he warns us of false prophets that come to us as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Or in Mark  13:22, he states that false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. So be on your guard!

(Just notice, there, by the way, that Jesus is quite frank about the fact that false messiahs and false prophets have the ability to work signs and wonders – there is evil power at work in the world.)

Equally, they could have heard it from Paul, who in 1 Timothy 4:1 wrote that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.

Or they might have heard it from Peter, who in 2 Peter 2:1 was aware that besides those of the truth, there were also false prophets among the people. So, you can see, the Bible is particularly vocal on the dangers of false prophets and teachers, and its warnings apply just as much today as they ever did.

Currently prevalent false teachings

Before we go any further, let me just lay out a handful of prevalent false teachings that are in the world today. There are the obvious ones, like Mormonism, that claims God has given an extra revelation beyond the Bible in the Book of Mormon. But there are streams within the charismatic movement – not the movement as a whole, but streams within it – that head in a similar direction of extra revelation.

There’s a recognised pseudo-Christianity that is affecting many mainline churches in the western world dubbed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. In other words, Christianity is about being good (moralistic), feeling good (therapeutic), and God is somewhere in the picture but makes no demands upon your life (that’s deism.)

And then, of course, there’s the prosperity gospel that is so appealing, and whose false prophets and teachers have led so many astray, preaching a messiah who will appease your hunger, quench your thirst, drain the pus from your sores. A messiah who will fill your wallet, chain up your enemies and enthrone you on his right hand in glory. A messiah who says ‘You want it all?’ Well, God wants you to have it all.’  All you need to do is to have enough faith and give enough money. In other words, it’s a gospel that belittles the place of God. It’s a gospel that’s devoid of the cross. It’s a gospel that’s no gospel at all. And it’s everywhere.

False teaching is endemic in the modern church! And perhaps  the most subtle and devious perversion of truth is the false teaching that the Bible is all about you. That it’s all about you, and not about the glory of God.

Now is not the time to go into it in any great detail. But how many times have you heard the story of David and Goliath taught in such a way as this: you’re David, and Goliath is whatever issue you’re facing in life at the moment. I’ve done that. I’ve taught that passage in that way.  But, do you know what: you’re not David.  David points us towards Jesus and Goliath points us towards sin and death. And where are you?  You’re represented by the rest of the Israelites who were terrified at their inability to do anything to save themselves and were all up for running away. And the victory that is won, for the people of God, points is toward the cross and the resurrection where Jesus won the ultimate battle against sin and death on behalf of his people.

The Bible is not about you. The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters. He refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths. Sounds pretty great. Sounds like it’s all about me.  But why does he do it? For his name’s sake. For his name’s sake! He doesn’t do it because you’re a pretty good guy. He doesn’t do it because you deserve it. He does it for his glory. And the wonder of the gospel is that establishing his glory we get saved!

There is a whole sermon in there for another time. But suffice to say that preachers and teachers who package their message by saying that the Bible is all about you and not about the glory of God are false teachers. You can find preachers and teachers peddling that message all over the place. But it’s not the gospel. It’s false teaching from false prophets.

Be aware that false teaching is prevalent

We must not be blind to the fact that Satan often masquerades as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14) and that his greatest ambassadors are not pimps, politicians or power-brokers, but pastors who peddle not a new religion but a deadly perversion of the true one.

So it’s important that you know that false teaching is out there. False teaching is a real, and serious thing, if for no other reason that the Bible continuously warns us about it. False teaching is a serious thing because precious souls are at stake. For the truth is that by which we live: error (false teaching) is ultimately that by which we die. Your eternal destiny hangs on the true preaching of the gospel. Get the gospel wrong and you perish!

That’s why John is particularly keen that the Christians to whom he is writing use their discernment to figure out if a prophecy or teaching is from God or from the spirit of antichrist who is the evil one. That’s what this instruction, to ‘test the spirits to see whether they are from God’ means. And it means, today, that if you are a Christian, you have an obligation to test whatever I say this morning and indeed whatever any of the leaders of this congregation say from this lectern on any given Sunday. It is incumbent on you to ‘test the spirits to see whether they are from God.’

The problem, I think, is that as Christians we don’t do that. We tend to accept each and every teaching uncritically so long as it seems to be given under inspiration. When somebody offers something and labels it Christian we seem almost duty bound to accept it without asking questions. When someone inserts Jesus into his message, we buy it, unquestioningly, as gospel.

John Stott is helpful here. He reminds us that neither Christian faith nor Christian love are offered without careful judgement. In particular, he says Christian faith is not to be taken for naïve, innocent credulity. Our faith, he says, examines its object before placing confidence in it. Or at least it should.

Tests of faith

But we feel almost non-spiritual, or unholy, or impious if we dare to test something which promotes itself as Christian. But that is precisely John’s point here. Test the spirits. And it’s not just here. Jesus told us to apply a test: ‘You will know them by their fruit.’  Elsewhere in this letter John encourages us to apply the test of righteousness (3:10 – ‘this is how we know who the children of God are: anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child’) and the test of love (4:8 – ‘whoever does not love does not know God because God is love.’)  The discerning of spirits is listed by Paul as a spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 12:10.)  But in fact, there have been tests put in place to tell false prophets apart from true, godly prophets and teachers since the very beginning, in Deuteronomy 13. And in the Old Testament prophets, in passages like Jeremiah 23.

So don’t just buy anything you hear from any teacher or preacher without first testing it to see if it comes from God. John is urging his readers to apply a test to all human teachers who claim to speak under spiritual inspiration.

How to ‘test the spirits’

So the question is not whether you should test the spirits, but how do you test the spirits?

Well, this passage makes it pretty clear that what makes a false prophecy or false teaching false (and for our purposes today, we’re going to group those two together) is a denial of who Jesus really is. At the core of false teaching is the undermining of the divinity of Jesus Christ.

John tells us straight up: ‘This is how you can recognise the Spirit of God…….’ (and again, I could say much more on this, but this passage makes it clear that there are spiritual realities in this world – there are spirits that are not of God – evil and demonic.)  ‘This is how you can recognise the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.’ (verse 2)  How we recognise the Spirit of God at work – the Holy Spirit – is by the acknowledgement that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. Any spiritually inspired message that acknowledges Jesus as God in the flesh is from God.

But when we hear a message or a prophecy that does not acknowledge Jesus, is not from God. On the contrary, this is the spirit of the antichrist. Put simply, if a prophet or teacher professes faith in Jesus Christ openly and boldly as the incarnate Lord, he can be trusted. If he doesn’t, he can’t be, and you should reject his teaching.

Now what does it mean to ‘acknowledge’?  First if all, it means to bow your heart, to pin your life upon something. To own it and accept it and submit to it. So we’re not talking about a message that simply recites doctrinal statements about Jesus – anyone can do that. Even the demons in the gospels knew who Jesus was and made true statements about him (Luke 4:34: ‘Go away! What do you want with is, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy one of God.’) but they didn’t acknowledge him. They didn’t bow their heart of him, they didn’t pin their existence on him. They didn’t accept him or submit to him. They didn’t own him as their Lord. The know he was ‘the Holy one of God’, but they didn’t surrender their lives to him.

That’s what it means when, in the Scriptures, you read the word ‘acknowledge.’ And so, what that means here is that, when you have a message that lifts high the name of Jesus, that bows before him and submits to his Lordship…. you know that’s come from God, you know that the Holy Spirit is at work in that person. For the very work of the Holy Spirit, Jesus tells us is ‘to testify to and to glorify him’ (John 15:26; 16:13-15)  The Spirit of God always honours the Son of God. ‘This is how you can recognise the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God..’ (verse 3)

Now that’s tricky wording for us to get our head around. It means this ‘acknowledges that Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh.’  In other words an acknowledgment and a confession that the man Jesus of Nazareth is himself none other than the incarnate Son of God.

No system can be tolerated, however loud its claims, or how learned its adherents, however good it sounds (and there’s a lot that sounds good out there these days)…..it cannot be tolerated if it denies that Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh, that is if it denies his eternal deity or his historical humanity. Teachers of such systems are false teachers and false prophets and the origin of such systems is the spirit of the antichrist.

Now this emphasis on the incarnation – of Jesus becoming a human being – was of the utmost importance to John because, at the time when he was writing, there were numerous heresies – numerous – that denied the incarnation of Jesus. As such, this  was the battlefield of true and false teaching for John, and it continues to this day.

But I don’t think we do an injustice to the text at all to state that what John is telling us is that we test the spirits simply by assessing what emphasis the preacher or teacher puts on the person of Jesus. Is he acknowledged as Saviour and Lord? Is his life, death and resurrection trusted as perfectly sufficient for salvation? Is he acknowledged as reigning in power and glory over all? Is his return in power and glory eagerly anticipated? If yes, we see the Holy Spirit at work, inspiring that person’s message. If no, we see the spirit of antichrist at work.

It is fundamental that you test the spirits.

Verses 4-6

Now, I haven’t even got on to verses 4-6, and nor do I have time to do so in any great depth. Let me simply highlight that John’s readers had overcome the false prophets at work around them. But the only way they had been able to do so was ‘because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.’ (v4)  You are only able to resist and overcome false teaching by the one who lives in you: the Holy Spirit, who dwells in all believers.

False teaching is overcome by truth. And we will only know the truth if we submit ourselves to the Holy Spirit who, as verse 6 tells us, is the Spirit of truth – he reveals the truth to us. He testifies to and glorifies Jesus – that’s his ‘job.’

And finally,  John asserts the fundamental importance of Scripture. The Spirit and the word always go hand in hand. So, verse 5: They (the false prophets) are from the world. Verse 6: We (the apostles) are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us.  What John is doing is making an explicit claim for what theologicans call apostolic authority. In other words, that the teaching of the apostles – those who saw Jesus with their own eyes and who wrote the New Testament – is dependable and authoritative. We, John writes, the apostles, are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us. And today, we listen to them through the pages of scripture.

In a nutshell, it simply means that we guard against false teaching by knowing the Bible. Your only hope is to be filled with the Spirit and to know your Bible, to ask the Spirit of truth to give you a love for the Bible and an eagerness to study the Bible and to open your eyes to the truth of the Bible. So that, like the Bereans in Acts 17, you can study the Scriptures to see if what people are teaching is tre. They tested the spirits, essentially. And Luke praised them for so doing.

As a church, I believe, our only hope is to teach and preach the whole counsel of God. We need to be purposeful in the way we teach and preach so that, to quote Paul in Colossians – the motto, if you like, of the Youth Project – we might present everyone fully mature in Christ.

In conclusion – test the spirits

So, test the spirits.

How do you do it? You look for whether or not Jesus is acknowledged as Saviour and Lord.

And you will overcome because the one who is in you – the Spirit of truth – is greater than the one who is in the world.

And he opens our eyes to the truth, which is the teaching of the apostles, found on every page of scripture, which is our supreme authority for faith and life.

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