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. By this you know the Spirit of God: 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. 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. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 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)
The message of this text can be opened for us to understand and embrace under three headings:
- The threat, namely, the false prophets and false prophecy
- The victory, namely, apostolic truth and divine power
- The urgency, namely, antichrist.
Before we open each of these in turn, just a brief word about their relevance. This text is as relevant today in 2023 as it was in the first century. False prophecy abounds. Think locally and think globally. Think of the false prophets that once pastored large evangelical churches but now reject the authority of Scripture and spread their falsehoods in podcasts. Think of those who are still in large churches leading thousands astray.
Think of indigenous false prophets throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Think of the false prophecy of Islam, rejecting the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. Think of the false prophecy of Hinduism, without the divine-human Mediator. Think of false prophecies of Buddhism, Shintoism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism. Think of the false prophecies of Messiah-rejecting Judaism.
Think of the false prophecies of the Western secular religion of expressive individualism or moralistic therapeutic deism. Or, perhaps most similar to John’s immediate concern, think of the gnostic tendencies of modern theological liberalism that cannot accept the union of God with man in a virgin conception or walking on water or rising from the dead. It must all be demythologized to keep God at a safe distance from physical realities like sexuality and healing and crucifixion.
First John 4:1–6 is an absolutely crucial text for our time — and our school. When we say that here at Bethlehem College & Seminary we aim to build into our students the habits of mind and heart called observation, understanding, evaluation, feeling, application, and expression, we’re talking about the realities in this text. “Test the spirits” (1 John 4:1). Observe them. Do you see them? Understand them (no straw men). Evaluate them. That’s what John is focusing on. Feel their seriousness; feel the urgency; feel the glorious reality that “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Apply this to what you watch on your streaming service. Apply this to where you will spend your life so as not to waste it. Give expression to what you see so that others are protected and helped on their way to Christ, to significance, to heaven.
So, let’s turn to our three headings and see the threat, the victory, and the urgency.
“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” (verse 1). Then they are described again in verse 5: “They [the false prophets] are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.”
The threat is false prophecy through false prophets — people who claim to speak God’s truth but don’t. “Many false prophets have gone out into the world” (verse 1) — many. So, my list earlier was not an exaggeration.
Now, notice that the false prophets seem to speak from two sources — one supernatural (above the world) and one natural (in the world).
“Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits” (verse 1). Evil spirits never look at Christ-belittling error with indifference. Where Christ-distorting ideas are forming in your mind, demonic spirits have either put them there or are eager to get behind them and make them as plausible and prominent as possible. So, there is a supernatural source of false prophecy.
But verse 5 traces the false prophecies back to the world. “They [the false prophets] are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.” They speak from the world. Here’s a glimpse of what John has in mind by “the world”: “All that is in the world — the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life — is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:16). The world is a system of forces that marginalize or oppose God and substitute creature-pleasure for God-pleasure, creature-treasure for God-treasure. So, these false prophets are speaking “from the world.”
But we must not think that these two sources of falsehood — the spirits and the world — are separate and distinct. They aren’t. In 1 John 5:19, John says, “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (see also Ephesians 2:2). The world shapes false prophecy because Satan shapes the world.
So, since there are so many false prophets, and since the world in which we live is shot through with Satan-shaped error, and since false prophets speak with supernatural influence, how shall we get victory over these influences so that our faith is not destroyed, and so that we stand in the truth and in love?
We turn now from the threat to the victory — namely, apostolic truth and divine power.
John assumes that if we recognize the false prophets as false, we will renounce their falsehood and get victory over their influence. So, the first thing he does in this text, with his apostolic authority, is give a specific doctrinal truth with which to measure the teachings of the false prophets. “By this you know the Spirit of God: 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” (1 John 4:2–3).
At first, this looks simple and straightforward. If you deny that the eternal, divine Son of God was sent by the Father into the world, becoming the God-man, the incarnate Christ — if you deny that, you are a false prophet. Your teaching cannot be trusted. As verse 3 says, you are “not from God” — that is, not born of God and not representing God.
But there’s a problem to be solved. Demons (unclean spirits) know and profess that Jesus Christ is the holy Son of God and has come in the flesh. Mark 1:23–24 states, “There was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? . . . I know who you are — the Holy One of God.’” And then ten verses later it says Jesus “would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him” (Mark 1:34).
What, then, are we to make of verse 2, “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God”? I think John would answer my query like this: “When I say that a spirit confesses that Jesus has come in the flesh, I don’t mean demon-like confession. I mean confession with the whole heart and mind and soul that embraces the truth of the incarnation, trusts the truth of Christ incarnate, exults in the truth of Christ incarnate, treasures the truth of Christ incarnate, and loves the Christ himself who is incarnate.”
In fact, the literal wording of verse 2 is, “Every spirit that confesses Jesus Christ come in the flesh is from God” — just as Paul says, “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23), not “We preach that Christ is crucified.” It’s the same grammatical construction. As verse 3 makes plain, “Every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” The confession is a heartfelt “Yes!” to the incarnate Christ. And essential to that personal, confessional embrace of Jesus as true and precious is the doctrine of the incarnation.
So, the key to victory over false prophets in verses 2 and 3 is the apostolic truth of the incarnation as a litmus test for genuine prophecy and faithful teaching. But there is one more thing to say about apostolic truth as a means of victory over the threat of false teaching. In verse 6, John says, “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.” In verse 4, he said, “Little children, you are from God.” And here in verse 6, he says, “We are from God.”
I think by “we” he means the same “we” as 4:14: “We have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.” This is the “we” of eyewitnesses, just like in 1:1: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life . . .”
So, I think verse 6 is John’s way of saying, “It’s not just the apostolic doctrine of the incarnation that divides the true and false prophets. It’s the whole body of what we eyewitnesses teach.” “We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us [in all we teach]; whoever is not from God does not listen to us [in all we teach]. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (verse 6). In other words, the key to victory over the spirit of error and the false prophets is apostolic teaching in general, not just one doctrine.
So, when we speak of observation and understanding and evaluation here at Bethlehem College & Seminary, this is the touchstone for evaluation. Does any claim to truth fit with apostolic teaching? Does it fit with Scripture?
What, then, is the victory over error and false prophets in this text? The first answer is apostolic truth. By this we detect the spirit of truth and the spirit of error, and are not deceived.
But there is a second key to victory over the false prophets — namely, divine power. This is found in verse 4: “Little children, you are from God and have overcome [gotten victory over] them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”
The “them” here is the false prophets. The overcoming, or the victory, over these false prophets is the successful resistance against their deceptions, deceptions that seek to destroy our faith by destroying our hold on the truth.
And that successful resistance is owing to God’s divine power. “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” The one in you is God. First John 4:12–13 says, “If we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” And the one who is in the world is the devil: “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). You have victory over the destructive effects of false prophets and false teaching because the Spirit of God in you is greater than the spirit of the world. He is more powerful than Satan, the great deceiver.
Our final hope at this school to be faithful over the long haul will be the power of God in our lives. The Spirit of God keeps the children of God from destructive error by causing us to observe and understand and evaluate and cherish the word of God. No hope without apostolic truth and divine power.
This brings us finally to the third heading, the urgency — namely, the antichrist. “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” (verse 3). And add to this 1 John 2:18: “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour.”
John did not have to bring up the antichrist. But he does — twice (chapter 2 and chapter 4). And the effect in both cases is to intensify the urgency of not being deceived by the false prophets, because Jesus put the false prophets and the false christs together in Matthew 24:24: “False christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”
So, John is saying that when there are many false prophets, especially in the church (2 Thessalonians 2:3), this is the kind of intensification of evil that precedes the coming of Christ. And that coming, he says, will be preceded at the end by the arrival of antichrist. Both 1 John 2:18 and 4:3 describe the coming of a single antichrist preceded by forerunners who are like the antichrist. First John 2:18 says, “Antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come.” First John 4:3 says, “You heard [the spirit of antichrist] was coming and now is in the world already.”
This is virtually the same way Paul describes the coming of the end-time man of lawlessness. He is coming, and his spirit is already at work. When he finally comes, the Lord Jesus will destroy him at his second coming. Second Thessalonians 2:3, 7–8:
That day [the day of the Lord] will not come, unless the [apostasy] comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction. . . . The mystery of lawlessness is already at work. . . . [When] the lawless one [is] revealed . . . the Lord Jesus will kill [him] with the breath of his mouth and bring [him] to nothing by the appearance of his coming.
Both Paul and John taught that we — between the first and second coming of Christ — are in the “last days” (2 Timothy 3:1–5; “last hour” in 1 John 2:18). In this time, the antichrist is coming, and already many antichrists have come. The man of lawlessness is coming, and already the mystery of lawlessness has come. The point of these connections, and John’s reason for mentioning the antichrist, is to make us alert but not alarmed (2 Thessalonians 2:2; Matthew 24:6; 1 John 2:28) — that is, to make us spiritually awake with a sense of urgency to the threat of false prophets, the antichrists, but not fearful, because he who is in us is greater than he who is in the world.
In summary, the threat all around us, then and now, locally and globally, is false prophets who are anti-Christ. The victory over this threat is the infallible apostolic truth before us and the supreme power of God within us. And the urgency of this situation is that antichrist is coming, and his spirit is already at work. So, be of good cheer, trust Jesus, love one another (1 John 3:23), because “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).