Part 8 of Authentic, a series on 1 John
Text: 1 John 4:1-6
You can listen to this sermon here.
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 (v. 1).
Wolves in Disguise
Probably all of us know the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Little Red Riding Hood is deceived by a wolf who disguises itself as the girl’s grandmother.
In the New Testament, Christians are warned to watch out for wolves in disguise. Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt. 7:15). The apostle Paul told the Ephesian elders, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). And here in v. 1, John warns his readers, “Many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
Christians must not be spiritually gullible.
John writes, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (v. 1). Little Red Riding hood was deceived by the wolf because she was gullible. False teachers will not announce to us that their teaching is false, so we shouldn’t believe every teaching we hear. (Many false teachers sincerely believe their teaching is true.) How can we discern between truth and error?
To discern is to judge. (To discern between truth and error is to make a judgment.) But didn’t Jesus say, “Judge not”? Not exactly. Jesus also said, “Judge with right judgment” (John 7:24). The words “Judge not” are found in Matthew 7:1, but to understand what Jesus really meant, we need to read Matthew 7:1-5. “Jesus was explicitly rebuking the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who were quick to see the sins of others but were blind and unwilling to hold themselves accountable to the same standard they were imposing on everyone else” (Eric J. Bargerhuff, The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, 26).
Matthew 7:1 does not prohibit Christians from exposing false teaching. Paul says that one of the qualifications for an elder is that he must “be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). This doesn’t mean that Christians shouldn’t be allowed to have different views on non-essential doctrines (e.g., the millennial kingdom).
Testing the Spirits
John says, “Test the spirits,” because he believes that there is a spiritual force behind every teaching: either the Holy Spirit or demonic spirits. Paul writes, “The Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). We are to “test everything” (1 Thess. 5:21). When trying to discern between “the Spirit of truth” and “the spirit of error,” we should ask two questions.
1. What does this person say about Jesus?
John writes, “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” (vv. 2-3). There are three essential beliefs about Jesus: (1) the man Jesus of Nazareth is God the Son; (2) Jesus is fully God and fully man; and (3) Jesus is the only source of eternal life. We must reject teaching that denies any of these truths because it will lead people astray. To detect error, we must know the truth!
2. What does the world say about this person?
“The world” in this context refers to people who reject the gospel. Beware a “Christian” teacher who is celebrated by the world. John writes, “They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them” (v. 5).
The Importance of Doctrine
In some versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Little Red Riding Hood gets eaten by the wolf. Sometimes being deceived has very serious consequences.
If Christians are deceived by false teaching about Jesus, the consequences will be more serious than getting eaten by a wolf.