1Beloved, 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. 2By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3and 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. 4Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 5They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 6We 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. – 1 John 4:1-6 ESV
Throughout his letter, John addresses concerns about false teachers who were presenting a similar form of worship of Jesus, but in the form of worshiping Caesar and other mythical gods. To prove their authenticity, these teachers were prophesying and may have been performing miracles. The ability to do these things did not mean that they were from God; they could have performed these works by the powers of evil.
Testing is necessary because of the presence of false teachers. John knows the reality and risk of the situation and wants to make it clear. John does not go into much detail, but his basis is most likely drawn from Deuteronomy chapter 13, which would be known by the real believers of the day…
1If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, 2and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” 3you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. 4It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. 5That prophet or dreamer must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. That prophet or dreamer tried to turn you from the way the Lord your God commanded you to follow. You must purge the evil from among you. – Deuteronomy 13:1-5 NIV
Even if a source appears to be divine, a believer must reject the suggestion if the prophet or dreamer suggests violating the commands of Yahweh (verses 2 & 4). We need to be able to distinguish the motive and intention of messages and dialog.
We note in this Old Testament scripture that God will use false prophets to test his believers. It must be clear that even if God uses a lesser spirit to influence a person, such persons are still responsible for their actions.
Can you describe a time or situation where you were tested? What were some of your insights, or the tactics used to test you? What was the lesson you learned?
Due to a similar concern, Paul expressed complementary thoughts about the “distinguishing of spirits” in his letter to the Corinthians when he outlines Spiritual Gifts:
4Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. – 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 ESV
Paul makes it clear that it is a skill (gift) to be able to distinguish between spirits. There are times, probably, when each of us have experienced the obvious, but also the confusing. It is not always easy. If we are honest in self-evaluations of our self, we have been deceived and tricked. We learn from those experiences but there has to be a better way.
In verse 2 of 1 John chapter 4, John points out a key concept we need to keep on our forefront.
2By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. – 1 John 4:2-3 NLT
Why is this so significant?
Even in our day, believers are lured and given tests to see if they will allow their light to be dimmed. The heretical teaching of Docetism (from the verb dokeō, meaning “to seem” or “appear”) held that Jesus “appeared” to be human, but in reality His humanity was nothing more than an illusion. By making this concession, the opposers were able to deny Jesus’ actual human experiences—including His atoning death, which they argued was nothing more than an illusion. Such a redefinition relegated Jesus to the role of something like a prophet but certainly not the Messiah or Suffering Servant, who literally experienced suffering and death (compare Isa 53:10).
If someone believes that Jesus was not human and did not die a physical death, then the atonement of sacrifice is not real, and the basis of Christianity falls apart. That is also why in the Gospels we read about Jesus testing disciples about who they thought He was. It does matter.
Loving One Another
7Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. 8But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
9God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. 10This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.
11Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. 12No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.
13And God has given us his Spirit as proof that we live in him and he in us. 14Furthermore, we have seen with our own eyes and now testify that the Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15All who declare that Jesus is the Son of God have God living in them, and they live in God. 16We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love.
God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. 17And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.
18Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. 19We love each other because he loved us first.
20If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? 21And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. – 1 John 4:7-20 NLT
John declares that God’s true children (believers) will reflect the character of Jesus. Since God is love, His children will love as He does. Those who do not live in this manner are not His true children.
How are you doing in your walk of life when it comes to loving others? Is there an area of your life you need to step out of denial about your relationship(s)? God can help, it begins with confessing and asking Him for help.
John reiterates the Gospel of God coming down as a man to give us the opportunity to have eternal life with Him. John does not sugar coat and sidestep around the fact that Christianity is about Jesus. As illustrated in the previous section, the false teachers (anitchrists) were quick to dismiss the idea that Jesus was actually a human or was even God. John continue to ensure the audience about Jesus.
Seeing God is a key statement that we hear many times even today. Even in verse 12 John states “No one has seen God”.
How do you respond to such statements?
There is a term known at “theophany”. A theophany is an appearance of God that people can discern—not all appearances of God are recognized by people. The term comes from the Greek theos, “god,” and the verb phaino, “to appear” or “be revealed.”
Since people cannot possibly process God’s nature as a disembodied, formless spirit, theophany allows God to make His presence known in a physical way that people can discern through their senses. Theophanies also address the problem in the OT that people cannot withstand direct contact with the unfiltered divine presence (Exod 33:20; compare Deut. 5:24; Judg. 6:22, 23; 13:22). Theophany both protects people, and allows for contact with God.
Theophanies in the OT occur when God takes form in the natural world, as a phenomena (like wind, spirit, or the burning bush) or when God takes human form (like the Angel of Yahweh). We experience similar effects with storms, angels and experiences.
Can you share a theophany moment when you knew God was present?
John’s scripture reference of “No one has seen God” is referencing in His full, manifest form. John argues that although no one has seen God, His character can be seen in believers who love as He does. (See also John 1:18; 6:46) In the OT, figures like Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah had encounters with God, yet none involved witnessing God in His full glory—as He really is. John doesn’t consider them to have “seen” God because they didn’t see Him in His fullness.
Verses 15 and 16 represent the main point of John’s letter: correctly identifying Jesus as Messiah and living with love and obedience keep a person in fellowship. These actions also define that person as a true child of God and a member of the believing community.
If we believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we should not fear challenges in this life. If we have confidence in our eternity, in our God, our peace comes from our relationship with God.
As we go out this week, keep in mind the concept of theophany. How do you see God in your life daily. Not in a human manifestation, but in numerous ways. keep in check your overall behavior. As you catch yourself not acting in a manner that Jesus would, capture your thoughts and ideas. Pray for clarity and revelation. Use the challenges in your life as a test, knowing that he is like the best coach and trainer. Thank God for working with you.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
The New International Version. (2011). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Tyndale House Publishers. (2013). Holy Bible: New Living Translation. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.
Faithlife Study Bible. Barry, J. D., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Mangum, D., & Whitehead, M. M. (2012). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
Another article on testing for false teachers can be found on Crosswalk by clicking -> here