Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
In DEUTERONOMY, God told the Israelites that there would be true prophets and false prophets. And He gave them a way of testing prophets – if what he said would happen did not come to pass then he was a false prophet. And the account in 1 Kings 22 that we read a moment ago is an example of this test at work; what happened on the battle-field revealed that Micaiah was a true prophet while all those others prophets were false.
So John’s words in our text would have immediately reminded Jewish believers of the Deut. test, and we can be sure that they would have explained this to Non-Jewish believers. But while there would still have been some prophecy of future events at that time, a much bigger problem faced by the church was false theology, as this passage and many others in the NT reveal. And this was especially dangerous because this was a time when the NT church did not yet have the complete NT. That is why the command to “test the spirits,” that we see here, was so necessary.
If you look at the last verse of ch. 3, John has just emphasized the vitally important role of the HOLY SPIRIT in the Christian life. But of course, you cannot see the Holy Spirit. People don’t have a halo hanging above their heads when the Holy Spirit is in them. So, while John claimed to be an Apostle who spoke with the authority of the Spirit of Christ, he wouldn’t have been the only one making this claim. The GNOSTICS we have spoken about, who were the false teachers in John’s time, had leaders who claimed to be Apostles. And of course, this was also the time of the extraordinary spiritual gifts, like tongue speaking and healing. So there were competing claims about the Holy Spirit, as well as denials that the other person’s claims were genuine.
So how was the ordinary believer in the pew to know if what he was seeing or hearing really was the work of the Holy Spirit, especially without a NT? That is why this test was so necessary.
But that was then and this is now. You and I do have the complete Bible. So I trust that you would have zero time for anyone who claimed to be an Apostle or a Prophet today. The Apostles were the official eye-witnesses of the life and death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. There are no more Apostles. And the time of Prophets ended with the completion of the Bible. Prophecy was a way that God used to reveal Himself and His will to His people, but not any more. So there are no more prophets. But that does not mean that we are free of the danger of false teaching today. Many faithful churches have been led astray by false teaching from the pulpit. And turn on your TV early in the morning, and you can hear bucket-loads of false teaching from those who are Reverends or Pastors, and who hold Bibles in their hands as they teach. And a sermon from xyz-Christian-sermons.com or a book from xyz-Christian bookstore are not necessarily reliable and true. And there are many churches who claim to be the true church of today because they have the extraordinary and miraculous gifts that reveal the presence of the Holy Spirit.
So the test that we have in this passage is just as important for us today as it was for those in John’s time. We also should not “believe every spirit (Whoever claims to speak the truth).” We also must “test the spirits.”
You will recall that we are working our way through the three Profession of faith tests in John’s letter for the second time. And as he has worked his way through the tests this time, John has used CONTRASTS. Well, with this third test, the theological test, the contrast is between truth and error, as we see in v6. So IF WE TEST THE SPIRITS IN THE WAY THAT PASTOR JOHN DESCRIBES, WE WILL KNOW THE SPIRIT OF TRUTH AND THE SPIRIT OF ERROR.
I. So there are two questions we should be asking about what we hear or read: And the first one is IS JESUS CHRIST EXALTED? Does this sermon/book/article/person who has knocked on my door to give me a magazine/ exalt Jesus Christ? Verse 2 says, “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.”
A. And there is a narrow implication of these words and a wider one. Let’s look at the narrow one first. The words we read here have to do with the doctrine of the INCARNATION.
1. You boys and girls will know that herbivores only eat plants – herb-plant, and that omnivores eat anything – omni – any, and that carnivores only eat meat of flesh – carn – flesh. So the doctrine of the in-carn-ation is Jesus coming in-flesh. It is the wonderful and mysterious and incredibly vital truth that the eternally existent Son of God took to Himself a human nature, by being conceived of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, so that He could be the Saviour we need.
2. We have mentioned a number of times that the false teachers that John most probably had in view with his letter were the GNOSTICS. They believed that Jesus was a regular human being who simply had the Spirit of God come upon Him at his baptism and leave Him when He was on the cross. They liked His teaching and His example, but He was not God and man, and what happened on the cross had nothing to do with salvation. So the Gnostics did not meet this test; they did not confess that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh. They denied what is called the doctrine of the Incarnation.
3. What seems to have happened in the churches planted by the Apostles is that not long after the congregation was established, false teachers came along preaching a different Jesus than the incarnate Jesus. In 2 Corinthians 11:3-4, Paul says to the Corinthians, “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, you put up with it [too easily].” And Church history reveals that for the first 500 years of the church’s history, the major theological issue was Who is Jesus? Is He God? Is He man? How is He God and man? Is He eternal? Is He equal with God? And why is this doctrine necessary for our salvation?
4. So, how would you answer these questions? Might your ignorance about the Incarnation mean you could put up with someone proclaiming another Jesus? Well, we are extraordinarily blessed in that we are a CONFESSIONAL CONGREGATION. I mentioned a moment ago that the church debated what the Bible reveals about Who Jesus is for the first 500 years of its existence. And we have the great creeds of the church that clearly and accurately summarize what the Bible teaches about Jesus. And so, the Apostles’ Creed, for example, tells us that “Jesus Christ, [is God’s] only begotten Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary.” And the Nicene Creed expands on this in more detail, and the Athanasian Creed in even more detail. And then from the 16th century, we have the great confessions of faith and the Heidelberg Catechism, which tell us exactly where in the Bible we are told that Jesus is the eternal Son of God who took to Himself a human nature, so that He was one person with two natures – fully divine and fully human, God and man.
5. You see, THE JWS who knock on your door, for example, who call themselves Christians, will say a lot about Jesus, and they will turn from one verse in the Bible to another to prove their claims. But they actually proclaim another Jesus. They do not believe that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. But we only know this if we understand the doctrine of the Incarnation and where it is taught in the Bible.
B. But there is a WIDER implication of this verse also. For what John says here is not just to do with the correct understanding of the incarnation but that THE CORE AND THE ESSENCE AND THE CENTRE OF ALL CHRISTIAN TEACHING MUST BE THE PERSON AND WORK OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST.
1. One commentator says that this small phrase, “‘Jesus Christ has come in the flesh,’ summarizes the whole gospel – the entire person and ministry of Jesus. It summarizes all that John has to say in his epistle about Jesus, and all that the Scriptures have to say about Christ.” Jesus Christ is the very heart of the gospel – He is THE truth of God.
2. So the Spirit of truth always exalts Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ is always at the centre; Jesus Christ is always given the top-spot. It doesn’t matter whether we are hearing or reading about comfort or command, we are pointed to Jesus Christ and His work for explanation and pointed to Jesus Christ for our motivation.
3. And what this means is that a sermon or article or book will not be about what a person has seen and heard and read and done, or what he or she feels or thinks, but about Christ. When you have heard him or read him, you do not say, Wow! Isn’t he wonderful; you say, What a wonderful Saviour! The attraction is to Christ; he or she exalts Jesus Christ.
4. And one more point here in view of the wider church context that we live in today. And it is this: If the attention of the service or sermon or article or book or person who is talking to us is on the Holy Spirit and the extraordinary and miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, then it is likely that what we are dealing with is the spirit of error rather than the Spirit of truth. It is appropriate that we talk about the Holy Spirit, who is fully God, but even when we do, ultimately, it is to exalt Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus was very plain that the Holy Spirit would never draw attention to Himself, but always shine the spotlight, as it were, on Jesus Christ. It is Jesus Christ who is to be exalted.
II. So the first question by which we test the spirits is Is Jesus Christ exalted? Is there a correct understanding of the Incarnation and is Jesus Christ at the centre of what is heard or read? But the second Question is: IS WHAT I AM HEARING/READING CONSISTENT WITH THE SCRIPTURES?
A. And to help us with this point, we are going to focus on the PRONOUNS in vv4-6. And all you boys and girls will know that a pronoun takes the place of a noun. I, me, you, us, we, they, etc, are pronouns that we use instead of mentioning names. So the first pronoun we want to consider is in v5 – “THEY.” And this is a reference to false teachers, like the Gnostics. John says, “They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.”
1. You see, while the Gnostics claimed to be children of God and used lots of Christian terms and language, their beliefs were not from God but from the world. Even while they were teaching about Jesus, their thoughts were shaped by the philosophy of the world.
2. Let me give you an example of what this might look like today: If I were to stand on a box in Westfield Mall and preach that Jesus was a good teacher and that He wants us to love each other and that He loves us no matter what we do and that He wants us all to have a connection with God, whatever we want to call that connection, people would lap that up – Tolerance. Non-judgmental. Inclusive. But if I were to stand up and say that Jesus is the Son of God and that you are all guilty sinners who will go to hell unless you repent and believe, and that lying and pride and homosexual activity is sin, and that all other religions are false and idolatrous religions… Hate-speech! Judgmentalism. Exclusivism.
3. What this means then is that we must know the Scriptures if we are to be able to recognize the difference between what is from and what is from the world.
B. And we see more on this as we look to v6 and the next pronoun, “WE. John says, “We are from God.” And this “we” is John and the other Apostles – “We are from God”; we are the official witnesses of the life and death and teaching of Jesus Christ. So John says, “Whoever is from God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us.”
1. And so, for John’s original audience, this meant the standard by which they measured everything they heard or read was the teaching of the Apostles. If what you heard or read sounded like what the Apostles taught, you could be sure you were listening to someone from God. If what you heard or read was different than what the Apostles taught, then this person was from the world.
a) The Apostle Paul put it this way in 1 TIMOTHY 6:3, “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness … flee these things.” Have nothing to do with them.
2. And this means, for you and me, that the standard by which we judge and discern everything we hear and read is the Scriptures. If what we read or hear is true to what we read in the Bible, then we can be sure the person is from God and not from the world.
b) In ACTS 17:10-11, we read about the NOBLE BEREANS who “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” They didn’t care if it was Peter or John up in the pulpit, they wanted to be sure that what they were reading or hearing was faithful to Scripture. We have already made the point about how Spirit-filled teachers exalt Jesus Christ. But we would be more accurate to say that Spirit-filled teachers help us exalt Jesus Christ from the Scriptures. They encourage us to open up the Bible and they walk us through a passage such that we can see what that passage says and how it exalts Jesus Christ, by calling on us to adore Him or confess our sins or thank Him or be warned by Him or be encouraged by His promises or be eager to obey Him or strengthened in our love for Him.
3. And I want to make the point again that we are IMMEASURABLY BLESSED TO BE A PART OF A CONFESSIONAL CHURCH. Yes, Scripture alone is our ultimate authority. Yes, the creeds and confessions are man-made documents that can never take the place of the Bible. But in the creeds and confessions we have very helpful summaries of the truth of the Bible that are a wonderful aid for recognizing error.
C. So, we must be those who know the Scriptures if we are to be able to recognize whether teachers or teaching is from God or from the world. And this brings us to the last pronoun of this section, from v4, which is “YOU.” “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.”
1. The believers John wrote to had thus far recognized and resisted the false teachers. The Gnostics had tried to deceive them but they were not having a bar of it. These believers, who did not have the NT, had, by the power of the Spirit of Christ, been able to recognize error and resist it. Isn’t that wonderfully encouraging for you and me? Perhaps you have heard all we have said about false teachers on the TV and in the bookstore and on the internet and you are tempted to despair: How can we possibly stand firm against all this opposition? How can I be confident of recognizing error when some of them know Greek and Hebrew…?
2. Well, that’s where the way John phrases this verse is so encouraging! For the last part of this verse points us back to another episode in the OT. At one time, the King of Syria was at war with Israel, but his plans kept being frustrated because the prophet ELISHA would tell the King of Israel exactly what the King of Syria would do next. So the King of Syria decided to go and seize Elisha. And one morning, Elisha’s prophet got up and went out, and he saw this vast army camped right around the village. The servant was terrified and he hurried back in to tell Elisha. But Elisha quietly said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” And then Elisha prayed and we read that the servants eyes were opened and he went out and looked again and he saw that behind and above the Syrian army were the horses and chariots of the host of heaven’s armies!
If you are a child of God, then you have the Spirit of Christ within you. And He will lead you into the truth and preserve you in the truth, for He is greater than the spirit of error.
So just ask these questions: Does what I am hearing or reading exalt the Lord Jesus Christ? Is it faithful and consistent with the teaching of the Bible? If so, then this is the Spirit of truth. And you may praise God and thank Him for what He is teaching you through His servant. Amen.