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. – 1 John 4:1 ESV
1 John 4:1-6
What’s right and what’s wrong? Who’s telling the truth and who’s lying? How do I know who to trust? There are so many people saying so many different things, how can I tell who I should listen to? Let’s face it, we live in an age of confusion. There are so many voices shouting so many different messages and sharing so many different opinions, that it is hard to filter out the fact from the fiction, the heresy from the hearsay. Even the shelves in Christian bookstores are filled with an ever-growing selection of so-called religious titles on everything from finance to family devotionals, and losing weight to increasing your joy. Even the TV is filled with Christian broadcasters doling out an eclectic and ecclesiasticly confusing wave of “spiritual” messages for the masses. It can all become a bit overwhelming. And the same thing was true in John’s day. Which is a big part of the reason he wrote his letter in the first place. He was addressing a group of believers in the local church in Ephesus who had recently experienced a divorce of sorts. A contingent of their brothers and sisters had left their fellowship over a disagreement over doctrine. There had been a not-so-amicable parting of the ways. One group had begun espousing a different message and teaching a variant form of truth. But there was enough common language and similarities to make it confusing for those who had been left behind. They were probably wondering, “What if they’re right and we’re wrong?” Some of what their former friends had been saying probably sounded reasonable and even attractive to them. They were most likely asking themselves, “How can we be so sure of ourselves?”
The danger they faced was allowing their confusion to turn to compromise. Their lack of confidence in what they believed could be easily taken advantage of by anyone with a slightly different take on the facts. And we run the same danger today. There is no shortage of individuals espousing their opinions about all things spiritual. Which is why we have to be careful. John indicated that there is “the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:6 ESV) and we have to be able to know the difference. So he provided us with a very simple test. “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” (1 John 4:2-3 ESV). This is the foundational requirement for determining truth. What do they believe about Jesus? Notice it is not whether they believe in Jesus, but what do they believe about Jesus. Do they believe He is the Son of God? Do they believe He was God in human flesh? Do they believe He was the Christ, the Messiah, sent from God to pay for the sins of mankind? There are many who use the name of Jesus and even write books about Jesus, but who refuse His deity and deny His role as Savior. Sometimes their messages are subtle and difficult to discern. They use familiar phrases and similar terminology to ours. They speak of Jesus in glowing terms and talk of the spiritual life in terms that cause us to let down our guard. But John called them false prophets. They claim to speak for God, but what they are saying is not from God. Which is why he said, “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1 ESV). Test them. Put what they are saying up against the Word of God. Start with what they say about Jesus. Make sure they are confessing the same Jesus the apostles taught, the Holy Spirit confirms and the Bible reveals. Not every Christian book is Christ-centered. Not every Christian teacher is speaking on behalf of God. John warns us, “They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them” ( 1John 4:5 ESV). Which is why their books may sell in record numbers. It explains why many of these authors and speaks are so popular. Paul warned Timothy that this was going to happen. “For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3 NLT). Everybody wants to have their best life now, so if you write a book that tells you exactly how to have it, you’ll have a best-seller on your hands. Everybody wants to be better, to improve their lives, so if you can tell them how God exists to make that happen, you’ll be on the lecture circuit before you can say, “Become a better you!” But we need to test the spirits. We need to determine what they believe about Jesus. The spirit of the antichrist is all around us. And it is not always blatantly anti-Christ. It appears in subtle, beguiling forms as half-truths and slight variations on what God has said. Like the serpent in the garden, the enemy continues to say, “Surely God has not said.” Then he gives us his version of the truth. Close, but deadly wrong. But John reminds us, “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4 ESV). We are the children of God. We have the Spirit of God. We must constantly return to the truth of God as revealed in the Word of God. We must not allow ourselves to be misled, misinformed or misdirected as we make our way through this life. Christ must remain our focus.