Apostle John’s Three Letters . . . 1 John 4:1–6
The Spirit of Truth vs. the Spirit of Falsehood
Chapter 4 encourages us to "test the spirits to see whether they are from God." Gnosticism had been infiltrating John's home churches in Ephesus, thereby dismissing Jesus as the true Savior of the world. John the Elder invites us to test every teaching, learning to recognize and distinguish between the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. He then reminds us, his readers, to love one another, just as God proves his love for us by bringing Jesus into our lives, then, now, and going forward.
Today's six-verse passage is about "discernment," which is defined as “the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure; an act of perceiving something; a power to see what is not evident to the average mind.” The definition also stresses accuracy, as in “the ability to see the truth.” Spiritual discernment is a Spirit-endowed gift, the ability to tell the difference between truth and fallacy. It's basic to having wisdom.
The spiritual gift of discernment is also known as the gift of “distinguishing between spirits.” The Greek for "gift of discernment" is Diakrisis; being able to distinguish, discern, judge or appraise a person, statement, situation, or environment. Used in the New Testament, it describes the ability to distinguish between spirits, as in 1 Corinthians 12:10, and to discern good from evil, as in Hebrews 5:14.
The Holy Spirit gives the discernment gift to enable certain Christians to clearly recognize and distinguish between the influences of God, Satan, the world, and the flesh, in a given situation. The church needs discernment-gifted members to warn believers of danger or keep them from being led astray by false teaching.
In Apostle Paul's first letter to believers in Thessalonica, he taught that it's the responsibility of every Christian to be discerning: "But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil" (1 Thessalonians 5:21–22). In today's study, we'll see how John the Elder issues a similar warning to his church body when he says, "Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1). Paul also warned Timothy of the demonic aspect of false teachers in his first letter to him: "But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons" (1 Timothy 4:1). These Scriptures exhort believers to perceive and correctly discern the basics of spirituality.
The Essence of and Need for Discernment (1 John 4:1)
The Bible makes it clear that, even in the church’s infancy, there were many false prophets and teachers who claimed to speak God’s words with God’s authority. These men were strangers to God, yet claimed to speak for him. Many house-church believers were drawn to and led astray by their unfounded teachings. It was because of this that the Scriptures contain numerous exhortations to Christians to test all teaching.
Today's epistle text falls into three parts: the requirement to discern (v. 1); the justification for discernment (vv. 2–3); the proof of discernment (vv. 4–6). Apostle John urged first-century Christians to practice the spiritual gift of discernment because of how easily and quickly they could be deceived if they weren’t grounded in the truth.
Having already spoken (in John 3:34) of the fact that the Holy Spirit is given to us as a proof of God’s presence in our lives, John makes it certain here that his readers know that not every spirit is holy. We're tempted to believe and obey spirits, since they represent a spiritual realm that's outside our experience. But because many spirits are commanded by Satan (the father of lies), we need to test or prove every spirit to determine conclusively which one comes from God. The Elder's exhortation to test the spirits begins in v. 1.
On Denying the Incarnation
4 1Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world (4:1).
There had always been prophets and spiritual manifestations in ancient Israel. A number of prophets, particularly Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, played prominent roles in the nation’s history. However, throughout Israel's history, it had faced the risk, even danger, of false prophecy, which is why prophesies must be regulated by the church body. In his "test the spirits," John uses the Greek word dokimazō, which means “to test with a view toward approval” (Utley, Free Bible Commentary, 1 John, v. 4:1.). The ultimate test of prophecy is whether or not it agrees with Scripture.
For believers today, the key to living an uncompromising life lies in one's ability to exercise discernment in every area of his or her life. A failure to properly distinguish between truth and error makes Christians vulnerable to all manner of false teaching, which can lead to a non-biblical attitude and lifestyle that subsequently results in unfruitful, disobedient living, often leading to making compromises. On the positive side, the Bible teaches the confirmed existence of Satan and other fallen angels (also called demons).
Discerning between two spirits John’s teaching here assumes that "the Spirit of truth" supports all spiritual truth. But it's “the spirit of falsehood” (v. 6) who's behind all spiritually false teaching perpetuated by Satan and his collection of demonic, fallen forces. Behind every false prophet or teacher, whether in John's house churches in Ephesus or in our own church today, is the evil spirit of falsehood to be avoided at all cost. That's why it's wise to define "discernment" as the ability to think biblically about all areas of life. Such biblical discernment becomes indispensable to an uncompromising life. Therefore, it's incumbent upon Christians to prioritize God-honoring discernment. If we're complacent about how and when to discern spiritual matters, we run the risk of being "tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming" (Ephesians 4:14). Discernment is learning to think God’s thoughts, practically and spiritually, having a sense of how things look in God’s eyes.
Today we need spiritual discernment more than ever because Satan and his demonic forces are alive and well, challenging spiritual truth while promoting fallacy, every step we take. We read on gotquestions.org that "It is not wrong to possess knowledge or have an education, and it is not wrong to use reason and logic to solve problems. However, spiritual discernment cannot be attained that way. It must be given by the revelation of Jesus Christ to the believer, and then developed by way of training in righteousness (Hebrews 5:14) and prayer (Philippians 1:9)."
The Justification for Discernment (4:2–3)
2This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world (4:2–3).
How are we to properly test and recognize the Spirit of God? No matter how righteous a false teacher acts or if his prophesies materialize, the real test is find out to whom does he direct people to embrace and follow: (A) Does he lead people to the almighty God of truth and creation? (B) Or does he direct people to follow a false god? There are only two possible answers from which to choose. John's text in vv. 2–3 makes crystal clear the qualities and characteristics of both accessible spirits. John Piper writes this about "our concern for truth."
Senior Pastor Steven J Cole writes this informative commentary about v. 2: "When John states that 'Jesus Christ has come in the flesh,' he is referring not only to His true deity, but also to His true humanity. The Docetists taught that matter is evil; thus Jesus was only a spirit-being who seemed to be a real man. The Cerenthian Gnostics, whom John was probably combating, taught that Jesus was a mere man, but that 'the Christ,' a divine emanation, came upon Him at His baptism but left just before His crucifixion. John’s test refutes both of these heresies. Jesus is the Christ (the Anointed One, or Messiah) who was conceived supernaturally by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary. He had a human body, although apart from sin."
John stresses in v. 3a that a spirit who refuses to acknowledge that Jesus is God's Son and that he came from heaven to live on earth as a human being, in flesh and blood, is an antichrist spirit. That's why discernment was and is essential.
In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, John MacArthur summarizes the implications of discernment: “It can be said that the gift of discernment is given to tell if the other gifts are of the Holy Spirit, if they are merely natural imitations, or if they are demonic counterfeits. I believe God still empowers some of His people to unmask false prophets and carnal hypocrites. He gives them insight to expose imitations and deceptions that most Christians would take as genuine.”
Christians who've been gifted with discernment are able to compare ungodly words, deeds, and appearances with what God has revealed in Scripture and, after examining God's words carefully and thoroughly, they can then expose fraudulent leaders and teachers. Discernment-gifted Christians have the unusual ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood and right from wrong.
The Proof of True Discernment: From God or from the World (4:4–6)
Christians are responsible to always test the words of teaching and prophecy, for which the Bereans were considered reputable: They heard the teaching of Paul and Silas, received each man eagerly, and “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11b). These Berean believers tested the words of the apostles by intentionally examining the Scriptures to see if what they were being taught was consistent with what they knew to be God’s words about himself. Doing so, they modeled the standard of discernment for all believers.
Because Satan and his forces continue to attempt to deceive us about indispensable biblical truth, we must declare that Jesus Christ is the true God (with a capital "G") and a true man. We must also be ever ready to discern right from wrong, truth from error. In vv. 4–6, John enables his readers to recognize and evaluate their ability to discern the truth.
4You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. 6We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood (4:4–6).
Beginning with v. 4a's “You, dear children, are from God,” the Elder again refers to a believer's new birth. Being born of God makes it possible to receive new life from him as one of his children. Only after you experience a new birth can you correctly understand, accept, and live according to God's truth. John's use of "listens" refers to much more than perceiving words with our ears; it refers to a combined end result of hearing, which provides both an understanding of and an obedience to the truth.
John follows up on his "the one who is in the world" (v. 4b) by indicting the false-teaching deceivers of their erroneous ways (v. 5). He brings to light the fact that those who teach error, as well as those who follow such false teaching, are world-dominated souls.
In v. 6, John provides a meaningful answer to this question: How are we to measure one's ability and success of discernment? The "We" and "us" in v. 6a refer to John and all other apostolic eyewitnesses of the truth of Jesus. Those born-again "dear children" of his, who'd listened to the apostles, understood and obeyed what they'd heard. They accepted the apostolic declarations that Jesus Christ was God incarnate. Sadly, the false teachers were "not from God" and did "not listen to" the apostles' testimonies. They didn't respond to the apostolic teaching about Jesus Christ, thereby failing to meet the standard of discernment.
So, how do you increase your gift of spiritual discernment? First, after you recognize that God is the only one who can increase your wisdom, pray for increased wisdom (James 1:5). Then, after gaining the wisdom to distinguish good from evil, read the Bible often and devotedly, meditate on it, and discuss with others what you've learned and appreciated. After you've been adequately trained and practiced in the Word, you'll know the truth so well that, when the false appears, you'll quickly recognize and refute it as the Bereans did. By knowing and obeying God's Word, you'll be able to distinguish — discern — good from evil while learning about his character and will. At the heart of spiritual discernment is being able to distinguish the world's voice from God's, so you'll be ready to correctly determine “right” from “wrong.”
- Q. 1 At what level would you measure your gift of spiritual discernment today?
- Q. 2 As a Christian, how might you develop your Spirit-endowed discernment gift?
1 John 4:1–6
New International Version (NIV)
[View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 4 narrated by Max McLean.]