Do Not Believe Every Spirit, 1 John 4:1-6
by Berry Kercheville
“1 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. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 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. 4 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. 5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 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.” (1 John 4:1–6 ESV)
As we begin our study of each of the sections of this letter, we need to keep in mind John’s overall purpose as stated in 5:13: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the confidence we have toward him…” John is concerned about those “who are trying to deceive” them (2:26) and would therefore take away their confidence. In chapter three, John repeatedly gave criteria by which the brothers could know who the children of God are. This offers us a connection to our text:
- 3:10 “By this it is evident who are the children of God…”
- 3:14 “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers…”
- 3:19 “By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him…”
- 4:2 “By this you know the Spirit of God…”
- 4:6 “By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
Throughout the letter, John’s “tests” have been on the basis of who God is as revealed by Jesus when he “came in the flesh.” God is light. God is righteous. God is pure. God is love. Therefore, those who are born of God are evident because they “walk in the light,” they “practice righteousness,” they “purify themselves,” do not “keep on sinning,” and they “love the brothers.”
Notice the connection between 3:24 and 4:1: “Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us. Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits…” John’s reason for his warning is, “for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Therefore, John is concerned with what “spirit” the brothers will listen to. Will it be the spirits of false prophets or will it be the Spirit of God? Fortunately there is a test for that. In 3:24, John already reminded them of one of those tests: keeping the commandments of God. God’s commandments are revealed by the Spirit, which is how we know God abides in us.
But what are the false prophets teaching? John identifies the teaching of “those who went out from us” (2:19), and therefore how to identify and reject them as brothers. John offers two criteria in this section. The first is whether a person confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. At this point, I would urge you to read John 8:31–59. John’s gospel is an excellent basis upon which to understand his epistle, and specifically this section. In John 8, Jesus is dealing with the same kind of people, those who initially believed, but then rejected his origin and his teaching as coming from God. While the test of whether Jesus Christ came in the flesh seems superficial at first, we need to see the greater implications to this test. John’s gospel is based on Jesus coming in the flesh (1:14). But the point of Jesus Christ coming in the flesh is that he is the only one who has seen God, and by coming in the flesh, the only one who reveals God (1:18). In 8:42, Jesus argued, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me.” In 8:31, Jesus triggered their objections of him when he said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Therefore, the test of Jesus Christ coming in the flesh has to do with the fact that coming from the Father into the flesh makes Jesus the standard of truth and makes Jesus’ life in the flesh the true revelation of God. That is John’s primary message throughout his letter. This being true, those who “went out” have no basis upon which to live their sinful lifestyles and hate those who live righteously. By the way, what do people do when their lifestyles are exposed? They hate those who insist that Jesus is the standard and who live according to that standard. That explains John’s words in verses 4-5. Those who deny Jesus Christ came in the flesh “are of the world and they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.” There are contrasting messages. Either it is the message of Jesus through the Spirit or the message of the world, and it doesn’t take a genius to see the difference.
John’s second test fits the first: “Whoever knows God listens to us.” John already established the “us” in the text when he opened his letter with, “we have heard, we have seen with our eyes, we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1:1). And again, “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us” (1:3). Therefore the test is, whoever listens to the apostles is of God and whoever does not listen to the apostles is not from God. John’s conclusion to that test is very bold: “By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” Even our religious world today is filled with people who deny the authority of the apostles’ teaching and the patterns they left for us.
The Message for Today
Though John’s message had to do with first century false teachers, the fact that they were “of the world” and spoke “from the world” means that their message never changes. The world’s message is that Jesus isn’t the only way to have fellowship with God. The world’s message is that there is no such thing as “sin” (who talks about sin any more?) and that one’s lifestyle is not to be judged. The world’s message is that the apostolic teaching of the New Testament is nothing but an ancient document that has no relevance in the twenty-first century. Indeed, what has changed? The world continues to teach that Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh to reveal God and the standards by which man should live. Just as in the first century, the world gets their “anointing” from messages they have received “inflated without cause by their fleshy minds” (Col. 2:18).