1 John 4: 1-6 - Test the spirits
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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.
One of the third-year students came to a biblical exegesis class on Monday morning in a state of confusion. On Sunday, a pastor had preached a sermon on redeeming the firstborn from Numbers 4:40-51. He told the congregation that each person needed to bring money the following Sunday to redeem their families. The reason for this, he explained, was that Jesus’ death on the cross is not enough to save us or our families. We also need to pay the money required in Numbers to obtain redemption. He then calculated the amount in local currency, according to the “sanctuary shekel.” It came to a substantial sum. Our student was distressed. She knew from her exegetical studies in Numbers that this was an incorrect application of the passage. Yet, she wanted to respect and obey her pastor. What should she do?
The problem for this student was not that she could not recognise wrong teaching, but that she was utterly confused that this teaching could have come from the pulpit in her church. She was not on her guard against false teachers. In this section, John calls his hearers to make themselves ready to distinguish between the false spirit of the world and the true Spirit of God.
In 1 John 2:18 John reminded the church that it is the “last hour” or the time between Jesus’ first and second coming during which there will be many false teachers. In v.1, John explains that there are already many “false prophets” in the world. These are the “spirit of the antichrist” which had been prophesied and had now appeared (v.3). Therefore, John urges the church to guard against false prophets.
To do this, it is important that they should not “believe every spirit” (v.1). Every teaching that they receive should be put to the test of truth. In v.2 John reminds them of the content of this truth. “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God”. The essence of truth is the recognition that Jesus Christ became human to reveal God to us (John 1:14). Therefore, we cannot know God, or live in fellowship with him, outside of Jesus Christ. Conversely, “Every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (v.3). This is the spirit of the world.
The reality is that the believers are born of God (“from God”, v.4) and they abide in him (1 John 3:24). Therefore, they have already overcome the false prophets by the power of God because, “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (v.4).
The preachers of the world speak as the world speaks. They deny the saving power of Jesus Christ and, as in our illustration, they add something to salvation. Only those who are from the world listen to them (v.5). As Calvin writes, “The vast multitude to whom the Gospel is not acceptable do not hear the faithful and true servants of God, because they are alienated from God himself” (p.236). However, the children of God are different. Those who have the Spirit of God listen to the apostolic teaching about Jesus (1 John 1:1-3). They hold onto and obey the word of God (v.6).
How then can we differentiate between true and false prophets in our times? John is quite clear in v.6. We can recognise those who know God by their attitude to the word of God. They acknowledge the authority of the word and submit to it. False prophets do not.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14.
Heavenly Father, grant us wisdom today to distinguish between truth and error. Forgive us where we may have wandered from the truth. Bring us back to the truth. Help us to stand on your word at all times, and in all circumstances.
For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ our Saviour.
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