Chapter 4:1-6 (ESV) - 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. 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. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
Question to consider: How do we discern whether someone is from God today?
It is important that we understand today’s passage in the context of the rest of John’s message to the church. John was dealing with false teachers who were dividing spirit and flesh in such a way that they justified and even celebrated the sins of the flesh. When confronted by the church for their heresy, these false teachers deceived people into cursing the church and walking away from the faith. Therefore, John questioned whether those who could walk away from the church or curse their brothers and sisters in Christ had a demonic spirit rather than the Holy Spirit dwelling in them.
In telling the church to “test the spirits,” he was exhorting Christians to use discernment and not to automatically believe those who proclaimed to have heard from God. The specific heresy of that day was a denial that Jesus Christ came in the flesh so the reader could dismiss the message of anyone who proclaimed to be a prophet but held to this view. Those who denied that Jesus came in the flesh had the spirit of antichrist rather than the Spirit of God, and Jesus had warned John and the other disciples that these antichrists would be coming before the judgment that was to be poured out on that generation.
Today, we have teachers who are still considered false even though they affirm that Christ came in the flesh. So how can we discern “the spirit of truth” from the “spirit of error” today? John also described false teachers as being “from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.” False teachers tend to focus on worldly things rather than on Christ crucified for our sins. They have a lot of advice on how to experience healing or grow your wealth or get ahead in this world without regard to things that are eternally important. They focus more on personal happiness than personal holiness. They focus on earthly justice rather than the justice that was poured out on Christ for our sins, and the world follows after them because it makes them feel good about themselves or gives them a religious experience.
If someone claims to hear from God and criticizes you for testing their message in light of God’s written word, you should run to the nearest exit and find a biblically sound church. Ultimately, we can face the slings and arrows of this world knowing that He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world.
Dear heavenly father, thank You for Your Holy Spirit who helps us see our need for Christ. Help us to be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves as we navigate in the world. May Your word be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path so we will walk in Your ways to the glory of Your holy name. Amen.