1 John Lesson Six: 1 John 4:1-6 – Another Demand For Right Belief

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 

This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. But every spirit who does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist; you have heard that he is coming, and he is already in the world now. 

You are from God, little children, and you have conquered them, because the One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world. Therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Anyone who knows God listens to us; anyone who is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of deception. (HCSB)

John’s focus in this passage is all about spirits, both good and bad. John instructs the recipients of the letter to test whether the “spirit” is from God or if they are a false spirit. Let’s dig into this issue in greater detail.

  • When John mentions “spirit,” what is he talking about? There are three main interpretations of “spirit” in this passage.
    • Since John says, “many false prophets have gone into the world,” he is referring to the “spirit” behind the prophet who is speaking. In this case, the “spirit” is either the Holy Spirit or a demon, depending on whether or not the prophet was actually speaking on behalf of God.
    • John is referring to the prophet himself, with “spirit” being a figure of speech or a metaphor.
    • John is referring to the message, with “spirit” being a figure of speech or metaphor.
  • All three interpretations are possible.
    • Each option instructs the reader not automatically believe every message or sermon we hear.
    • We need to listen to the content of the message.
      • How does the message talk about Jesus?
      • Is there false teaching in the message?
    • The original hearers of John’s message were fighting against false teachers who rejected that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. 
  • However, the first two options make the most sense.
    • Verse two helps us to discard the third choice.
    • The phrase “every spirit who confesses” seems to be a phrase that refers to a person.
  • We need to be careful even with those who confess the fully human and divine nature of Jesus.
    • Does all of their message agree with Scripture?
    • There are many “attractive” heretical teachings present in the world today. But the “attractiveness” of the message will actually lead the person away from God.
      • The prosperity Gospel sounds good, especially for those who are struggling financially.
        • Jesus never said that His followers would become rich. In contrast, Jesus always spoke against selfish wealth.
        • It’s true that some followers of Jesus will experience financial gain. However, Scripture is clear that we are to share and help others. Those who are wealthy should sacrifice it for the benefit of others.
        • Often, those who preach the prosperity Gospel prey on the generosity of those who are less fortunate. It’s fairly common that the leaders of these movements wear fancy clothes, live in large houses, drive expensive cars, and sometimes have private planes. Their “prosperity” was the result of people donating money to them in response to their false message.
      • False teaching about homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
        • Beginning in Genesis, Scripture teaches us there are two sexes, male and female, and that a man and a woman are joined in marriage.
        • These false teachers often use Galatians 3:28 to support their position. However, the reference to there being neither “male or female” needs to be understood in the context of the passage. Paul is talking about every believer being equal in the body of Christ. The issue is equal standing, not sexual orientation.
        • 1 Corinthians 6:9 – Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: No sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, or anyone practicing homosexuality.
        • Leviticus 18:22 – You are not to sleep with a man as with a woman; it is detestable
        • It’s clear from Scripture that homosexuality is wrong and marriage can only occur between a man and a woman.
      • These are probably two of the most prevalent false teachings the church and Christians face today.
      • However, there is one more area that has also led to a decline in the correct understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ; the lack of biblical-based discipleship training and expectations.
        • Many churches don’t teach discipleship. They are only concerned with a person making a profession of faith in Jesus. While that may be a noble position, not being involved in the spiritual growth of believers is a serious omission by the church.
        • What has happened is that a generation of shallow or marginally committed Christians has developed. Because their faith is shallow, they often leave the faith when trouble first appears. They also don’t make good teachers because they don’t have a proper theological foundation to disciple others. What we are seeing is a repeat of the downward spiral that occurred in the book of Judges. 
        • The church, made up of individual believers, is called to make disciples. When the church, and those who make up the church, fail to make disciples, we are being disobedient to the Great Commission.
  • In the last three verses of this passage, 4:4-6, John switches gears and reminds the readers that those who are genuine followers of Christ and who stay rooted in Him will be able to discern the false teachers and resist their heretical message.
    • First, John addresses them with the affectionate term “little children.” The use of this term indicates a close relationship between John and the recipients.
    • John reminds them they are victors. They are victors not because they are more intelligent or skilled but because the Holy Spirit lives in them.
    • The one who lives in the believer is greater than the one in the world.
      • The Holy Spirit, one part of the triune God, lives in each believer. Romans 8:9 –  You, however, are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God lives in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him
      • The one of the world is Satan.
        • 1 John 5:19b – And the whole world is under the sway of the evil one
        • John 12:31b – Now the ruler of this world will be cast out.
    • John then contrasts the difference between those who are of God and those who are of the world.
      • Characteristics of those who are from God.
        • Genuine believers will listen, understand, and follow the messages of faithful and theologically sound teachers.
        • The Holy Spirit guides genuine believers in discerning the source and truthfulness of the message.
        • There are three main factors that guide believers in determining whether a message is true or false; prayer, meditation, and spiritual sensitivity.
      • Characteristics of those who are of the world, both false teachers and followers.
        • Those who teach speak messages that are based upon the values of the world and not the values of God.
        • They reject the messages that come from God as they don’t have the Holy Spirit to lead them.
        • 1 Corinthians 2:14 – But the unbeliever does not welcome what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually.
  • Let’s conclude our study of this passage with a discussion of these six verses that are a challenge to the modern church and the threat that tolerance brings to the holiness and purity of church teaching.
    • Society (the world and its influence) today puts an emphasis on religious tolerance and pluralism.
      • One example is the heretical teaching on homosexuality and same-sex marriage presented earlier in this lesson.
      • Another is the idea that God is love and He would never condemn or exclude anyone. While it is true that God is love, God is also infinitely holy, and His commands in Scripture are clear. Those who teach and follow this line of thinking ignore the passages that speak of judgment to those who live in disobedience to God.
    • The modern church is called on to “test the spirits” in the same way the early church was instructed.
      • Testing the spirits requires leaders who are sensitive and obedient to what is written in Scripture.
      • It also requires leaders to demonstrate faith and trust that when they follow Scripture and go against the “world,” God will walk with them and protect them.
    • John stresses for each believer to grow in their Christian maturity, which will enable them to spot and challenge false teaching in the church.
    • The church is called to be a custodian of the truth.
      • Church bodies, organizations, and denominations must evaluate what is being taught and those who are teaching to ensure they align with Scripture.
    • The church must emphasize the dual nature of Christ, both His humanity and divinity. 
    • The church is called on to identify and warn people of false teachers.
      • False teachers should never be given the ability to speak to believers.
      • Congregants should be protected from hearing false messages and, if they do occur, be told about them.

Applications

  • Always listen to sermons or Bible studies (including mine) with discernment. Sometimes honest mistakes are made, especially during a “live” sermon where it’s easy to misspeak. However, there are false teachers who will try and lead believers away from the truth and prevent the lost from hearing the truth. If you find teachings that disagree with Scripture or you don’t fully understand, ask the person who gave the message. Their response may be an indicator of whether or not they’re deliberately trying to lead people astray or it was an honest mistake.
  • Live in victory. John tells us we are conquerors. Are you living as a conqueror? Proclaim the truth of the Gospel whenever and wherever opportunities exist. Don’t live in fear of what others will say. Jesus gave us the Great Commission; live it out.
  • When we present the Gospel to the lost, don’t be surprised if they reject it or respond in a hostile way. It happened to Jesus, and it will happen to us. The important point to remember is being obedient to the task. We never save anyone. Some sow, some water, but God gives the increase.

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