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. 2 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, 3 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.
(1 John 4:1-3 NIV)
As we start chapter 4 today, John begins his third round of teaching doctrine and our duty associated with that doctrine.
The first round (1:1 – 2:17) taught about Jesus as Messiah, and about sin and righteousness. Round two (2:18 – 3:24) taught about Christian fellowship and how those who are not Christ followers break fellowship with the saints and try to take others with them.
In this third round of teaching, John highlights the importance of discernment – to whom we give our attention. There were many “teachers” during John’s day, similar to today. Some taught the truth of the Gospel of Christ; some did not. John is instructing us to be careful to whom we listen and receive instruction.
Notice that John begins this section with another term of endearment – “Dear friends”. The KJV, NASB, and ESV all use the word “Beloved”. Both of these phrases come from the same Greek word (“agapētos“, from the root Greek word “agape” – unconditional love). This Greek word is used to show the same love for us that God the Father has for His son Jesus.
John did not use his previous terms of endearment when he referred to the folks in the Asia Minor churches as his spiritual “children”. Instead, John uses “Dear friends” / “Beloved” to address us, and includes himself as “beloved” by the Lord.
Similar to John’s day, we often see the church as a “safe haven”, a place where we can trust those who are teaching the truth. When we find ourselves in a safe haven, we often let our guard down, and accept what is said and take it as valid instruction. Unfortunately, the false teachers knew this and used this opportunity to sneak in and try to lead the churches astray with their teachings.
So what test did John give us to see if a teacher is speaking God’s truth or something other than the truth? Verses 2 – 3a are clear: Either you recognize Jesus as Messiah, fully God and fully man, or you don’t. John does not mince words here, nor does he make it hard or complicated to understand.
John has spoken about this in the earlier parts of his letter and reiterates it here to be sure we remember. The Gnostics were claiming they had the truth. They claimed one of two lies: 1) that Jesus was not God, or 2) that Jesus was not really human (of flesh and blood like the rest of us humans), but rather only spiritual (not human). Again, John reminds us that Jesus was and is fully God and fully human.
John reminds us that those who deny Jesus as both fully human and fully God have the spirit of the antichrist. John is not saying they are “the antichrist” – he is simply saying that they have the same spirit as their father, just as those who recognize Jesus as fully God and fully human have God’s Spirit in them.
May we be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16), listening to the Holy Spirit’s direction and discernment to determine if the spirit of a teacher is from the Lord or otherwise. John’s simple test of “who is Jesus?” is a great place to start.