This post continues a study of St John’s epistles, which are not found in the three-year Lectionary used for public worship in many denominations.
1Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.
2Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:
3And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.
4Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.
5They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them.
6We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.
The Gospel of John reveals Christ’s divinity, His work with God the Father and perfect obedience to Him. Christ’s words recorded there indicate the dichotomy between the divine and the demonic, between heaven and the world.
John’s epistles reinforce the eternal truth of Jesus Christ, the reality of antichrists — including false teachers — and the command to love one another.
His Book of Revelation presents Christ in all glory, the defeat of the ultimate Antichrist and a glimpse into the afterlife for believers.
Regular readers will observe that John’s writing is of a circular style. He returns to his principal themes again and again. John MacArthur’s preaching is similar. Strangely enough, I worked with a John, a Methodist laypreacher, who did the same when he trained staff members. He often told me, ‘When you teach this course, tell them once, repeat it, then tell them again’. (It was a great shame when he was made redundant.) This method works as it does in St John’s writing. One makes a statement, develops it, comes back to the original statement, explores a related theme and returns to the original. The idea is to really make certain messages stick in our minds.
St John is concerned that we not forget the eternal truth of Christ. Already we have read the following in his Gospel and letters (admittedly, not an exhaustive selection of verses, but it will give you an idea of the commonality):
- The distinct nature of the Christian versus Satan’s worldly people:
44Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. 45And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not. (John 8:44-45) (Christ’s words)
9He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now. 10He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him. 11But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes. (1 John 2:9-11)
15Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. (1 John 2:15-16)
9 No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. 10By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:9-10)
14We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. 15Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him. (1 John 3:14-15)
- Christ and His truth:
20For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. 21But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God. (John 3:20-21) (Christ’s words)
28So Jesus proclaimed, as he taught in the temple, “You know me, and you know where I come from? But I have not come of my own accord. He who sent me is true, and him you do not know. (John 7:28)
15Ye judge after the flesh; I judge no man. 16And yet if I judge, my judgment is true: for I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me. (John 8:15-16) (Christ’s words)
31Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; 32And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:31-32)
20But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things. 21I have not written unto you because ye know not the truth, but because ye know it, and that no lie is of the truth. (1 John 2:20-21)
18My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:18)
19And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him. (1 John 3:19)
18Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. 19They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us. (1 John 2:18-19)
22Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son. (1 John 2:22)
Now to today’s letter, which John begins with an exhortation to discern what they are being taught (verse 1). The word ‘try’ means ‘test’ or ‘assay’. Even then, early metallurgists performed assays, or tests, to determine the composition of metals with which they worked. So, John is telling his faithful to discern whether what they were being told by others matched what they had been taught when they converted.
This is the same thing the Bereans did in Acts 17:10-13:
10And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews.
11These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.
12Therefore many of them believed; also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few.
13But when the Jews of Thessalonica had knowledge that the word of God was preached of Paul at Berea, they came thither also, and stirred up the people.
Matthew Henry explains why John asked his followers to do this (emphases mine):
There being much about the time of our Saviour’s appearance in the world a general expectation among the Jews of a Redeemer to Israel, and the humiliation, spiritual reformation, and sufferings of the Saviour being taken as a prejudice against him, others were induced to set up as prophets and messiahs to Israel, according to the Saviour’s prediction, Mt. 24:23, 24. It should not seem strange to us that false teachers set themselves up in the church: it was so in the apostles’ times; fatal is the spirit of delusion, sad that men should vaunt themselves for prophets and inspired preachers that are by no means so!
These false prophets are alive and well today. They are well known, sell many books, appear at conferences, pastor thousands — and yet they are preaching a false gospel. Their admirers do not want to be told that they are following false teachers. This is why it is absolutely essential to read the Bible cover to cover, then go back and begin studying each book carefully. Yes, it takes a lifetime, but please begin with the New Testament, because many false teachers demand their congregations follow a Mosaic lifestyle, full of legalism under the guise of ‘holiness’. Christ died for our sins and has wiped away Old Testament directives, apart from the Ten Commandments (Matthew 22:37-40):
37Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38This is the first and great commandment.
39And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Back to discernment. John MacArthur defined spiritual warfare as follows in one of his sermons from 2003:
We are continually warned against error and the corruption that comes with it because that is precisely the strategy of the kingdom of darkness. God reveals the truth in the world and Satan counters with lies. That is the great spiritual battle, folks. If you want to know what spiritual warfare is, I can define it for you very simply. It is the battle between the truth and error. That is what’s spiritual warfare. It’s not chasing demons around, that is not a true understanding of spiritual warfare. Spiritual warfare is the battle for the mind. It is the battle between truth and error. That is what occupies the great energy of the Scripture and the great energy and power of the Holy Spirit. And that is the great objective of the church, to bring the truth to bear on people who live in damning error.
Discernment through a solid knowledge of Scripture is one of our best weapons in this battle. We would do well to pray to the Holy Spirit for His continued guidance and wisdom in our reading and understanding.
But don’t expect to win any popularity awards for pointing out error. MacArthur described his own experience:
I just want to warn you. People who don’t like the idea of being discerning, people who don’t like the fact that you’re scrutinizing what they proclaim and what they teach are almost inevitably false teachers. Those people who through the years who have labeled me as a heresy hunter, who have, as it were, vilified me sometimes in print, sometimes on the media and very often in letters that I receive, those people who don’t want their teaching scrutinized, who don’t want their teaching brought to the test of Scripture are certainly those people who are teaching error and error cannot stand the test of biblical scrutiny. And so keep your eyes open to that fact that when you bring the Word of God to bear upon people and they don’t like that, that very often is a dead giveaway that they are being exposed.
Furthermore, from the beginning of time with the first couple, Satan has been cunning in his work. In Genesis 3, in serpent’s form he seduced Eve with one simple question about the Tree of Knowledge.
“Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”
He started with truth then tempted her to sin against God:
4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Many of today’s false teachers are in churches around the world. Some pastors brought up in orthodoxy left it and made their own brand of Christianity. Charles Finney, the 19th century evangelist, was one. So was the founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their many admirers say that they spoke the truth. And there are many other false teachers, before and after, through to the present day. You can buy their books in Christian bookshops and see their sermons on YouTube.
In verses 2 and 3, John reiterates the truth. Does the teacher confess that Jesus came to us in human form? If so, he knows God. The teacher who denies that Jesus came in human form is not of God; he is an antichrist — someone who works against Christ. That is not the sum of Christian theology, however, John is summarising one heresy. Various false teachers taught various heresies. This is but one.
These spirits set up for prophets, doctors, or dictators in religion, and so they were to be tried by their doctrine; and the test whereby in that day, or in that part of the world where the apostle now resided (for in various seasons, and in various churches, tests were different), must be this: Hereby know you the Spirit of God … God has given so much testimony to Jesus Christ, who was lately here in the world, and in the flesh (or in a fleshly body like ours), though now in heaven, that you may be assured that any impulse or pretended inspiration that contradicts this is far from being from heaven and of God.” The sum of revealed religion is comprehended in the doctrine concerning Christ, his person and office. We see then the aggravation of a systematic opposition to him and it.
These people are antichrists, and we would well to focus on the truth of Christ in order to better disregard them. Henry writes:
It was foreknown by God that antichrists would arise, and antichristian spirits oppose his Spirit and his truth; it was foreknown also that one eminent antichrist would arise, and make a long and fatal war against the Christ of God, and his institution, and honour, and kingdom in the world. This great antichrist would have his way prepared, and his rise facilitated, by other less antichrists, and the spirit of error working and disposing men’s minds for him: the antichristian spirit began betimes, even in the apostles’ days. Dreadful and unsearchable is the judgment of God, that persons should be given over to an antichristian spirit, and to such darkness and delusion as to set themselves against the Son of God and all the testimony that the Father hath given to the Son! But we have been forewarned that such opposition would arise; we should therefore cease to be offended, and the more we see the word of Christ fulfilled the more confirmed we should be in the truth of it.
In verse 4, John encourages his faithful, telling them that they are people of faith. As such, God is working through them. They belong to Him. Therefore, they have overcome the world, and God is greater than Satan.
The same is true for believing Christians today. MacArthur preached on it:
When you hear somebody teaching something, and you say to yourself, “That is not right,” that’s the Spirit of God, the truth of God kicking in and acting in a discerning fashion on your behalf. As you walk in the Spirit and walk in obedience to the truth, the Spirit of God exercises that protective influence. You are saved because you know the truth and believe the truth. It is the evidence of your regeneration. And there will be in your life the fruit of that regeneration.
So, look at their lives. Trust your doctrinal instincts about the gospel. There may be some peripheral issues that you’re not sure about, but false teachers don’t usually camp on that. Real false teachers who want to undermine the gospel, attack Christ, they attack the realities of regeneration.
And how do they do that? Well, their system is always a work system. They’re not so concerned about you being from God as a source, but somehow you finding God through your works and ceremonies and religion. It’s that divine accomplishment verses human achievement thing that we talked about several times earlier in this gospel. So you test people by their view of Christ and you test people by how they live. Do they manifest, do they demonstrate the characteristics of regeneration?
St John says that false teachers are preoccupied by the trappings of this world (verse 5). Furthermore, they have great followings because people of the world are attracted to them. If they promote carnality — be it control, sex or materialism — they are false prophets. And they will seduce many churchgoers into believing them because of Satan’s subtle ways. ‘Want a better family? Do this. Want more money? Do this. Want a better marital bed? Do this.’ Does it tie in with the New Testament? No, although a few verses are slipped in and pressed upon their followers convincing them that they have the only way. If we live a life of faith and know our Scripture, God will give us what we need and the Holy Spirit will direct us.
In verse 6, John reiterates that he and his faithful belong to God. Others whom they encounter will know they are Christians if there is mutual understanding. In contrast, anyone who berates them or doesn’t understand what John and his people speak of or how they live, is not ‘of God’. They are not Christians, even if they claim so to be:
Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.
Next week: 1 John 4:7-13