February 28, 2021
On January 24, 1848, James Marshall was building a lumber mill for John Sutter in Coloma, California. The mill included a waterwheel in a nearby stream to power the saw. While building Sutter’s Mill, Marshall noticed some shiny flecks in the water. He took the flecks to Sutter, and they had them tested. And thus, began the California Gold Rush. It’s estimated that 300,000 people rushed to California from literally all over the world. Most arrived in 1849, so they were called the forty-niners. San Francisco, for example, grew from 200 residents to 36,000 in a few short years. As a result, California was admitted to the Union as the 31st state in 1850.
As they were panning for gold, sometimes shoulder-to-shoulder on streams and rivers, once they found it, or thought they found it, the cried Eureka, an ancient Greek word meaning, I found it. By the way, Eureka is now the state motto of California.
I said, if you thought you found it, you would cry out. Because, one of the challenges became testing the flecks or nuggets to determine if they were, indeed, gold. You see, also found in the waters was iron pyrite, known as fool’s gold. Now, experienced miners could tell the real gold from the fool’s gold just by looking at it. That’s interesting. They were so familiar with the real and the fake, the authentic and the sham, the true and the false, they could spot the fake a mile off. But others had to develop ways to quickly test the flecks to determine what was genuine, and what was not.
The quickest and easiest way was to simply bite the rock. Real gold is softer than teeth; fool’s gold is harder. Break a tooth – you’ve got fool’s gold. A second way was to scrape the specimen on a piece of ceramic. Real gold would leave a yellow line; fool’s gold would leave a greenish-black line. The point is tests were needed to separate the genuine from the fake – the true from the false.
In our study of I John, we’ve found authenticity – real vs. spurious faith – was a primary purpose for the letter. You see, there were those we’ve called successionists who had left the church, in some way claiming a superior knowledge to those who remained. But it was nothing but fool’s gold. Now, attempts have been made to specifically identify these false teachers, but in the end, they are just guesses.
Based on what John writes, however, we can make some legitimate assumptions. First, they somehow denied, or at least diminished either the deity or the humanity of Jesus. Perhaps they were pre-Gnostics – denying the fully deity or full humanity of Jesus. This has always been a problem for the church – those who have said Jesus wasn’t God, He wasn’t fully God, He wasn’t always God, etc. Or, He wasn’t fully human, He was only partly human, He was only human, or He wasn’t physically human, etc. As a result, early church fathers, teachers and councils tried to determine what was biblically orthodox. They produced great creeds. We’ll come back to that.
Secondly, these false teachers – successionists – were in some way living ungodly lives. They somehow denied the commands of Jesus and Scripture, engaged in sin, saying it didn’t matter. Or, they said they didn’t have sin, for which John called them liars.
Third, by their very departure and seemingly superior attitudes, they didn’t love the brothers and sisters. They didn’t love the church – they left the church. They looked down on those who remained, claiming they had reached a new level of spiritual enlightenment. Interestingly, some even suggest they claimed to have the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit had given them some advanced knowledge – they knew more than the average person – apart from Scripture. And in the process, they left Jesus and the Gospel behind.
So, we’ve seen, then, because of these teachings and the obvious confusion, John gave his readers – who had remained in the church – some tests by which they could know their faith was genuine. They could know they were truly Christians. We’ve called them the theological, moral, and relational tests. You must confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, come in the flesh to die and be raised for the sins of His people. You must then seek to obey His commands. And you must love the brothers and sisters – you must love the church. Over and over, John keeps coming back to these tests. Just last week, we ended with these two verses at the end of chapter 3:
23 This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us.
24 The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.
All three tests are summed up in those verses. But, John’s not done. Oh no, we have two chapters left. And like variations on a theme, he keeps coming back, hitting them at every conceivable angle. So now, he just said we know that He abides in us, and we in Him, by the Spirit He has given us. This is the first mention of the Holy Spirit. And it’s intentional. Again, some rightly suggest – the false teachers were laying claim to the Holy Spirit. He has given us some special enlightenment.
So how do you know? Don’t we hear that today? The Spirit has given me some revelation, some vision, some new truth. How do know? This mention of the Holy Spirit transitions us to the next main point in chapter 4. How to know if you have the Spirit, and how do you know if the person who is teaching – especially something new – has the Holy Spirit? I don’t know of many things more important for the church of Jesus Christ today than this text – determining what is authentic and what is not – especially as it relates to orthodox truth about the Son of God and the Word of God by the Spirit of God. What is real, and what is fool’s gold. There are lots of voices out there – to whom do you listen? Read the text with me, I John 4:1-6.
This is John’s MO. Many have gone out, proclaiming new truth. These are false prophets who claim to have some special knowledge, some special anointing. How do we know? John tells us clearly. Listen, if someone comes teaching some new doctrine you’ve never heard before, he’s likely wrong. But everyone wants the new and improved. Don’t look for the new and improved, look for the old and already proven. That’s what John is saying. Here’s the outline:
- The Commands (1)
- The Test of the Person of Christ (2-3) – Christology
- The Test of the Source of Truth (4-6) – namely, apostolic teaching through the Word of God by the Spirit of God.
Back in chapter two, I pointed out there are only ten imperatives or commands in this entire letter. Relatively speaking, that’s not very many. We’ve already looked at:
2:15 – Do not love the world, nor the things in the world
2:24 – Let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning (which is gospel truth)
2:27 – Abide in Him
2:28 – Abide in Him
3:1 – See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us
3:7 – Make sure no one deceives you
3:13 – Do not be surprised if the world hates you
The last one will be the last verse of the book, 5:21 – Guard yourself from idols. But in our text, in 4:1, John gives two quick commands:
- Do not believe every spirit, rather
- Test the spirits to see whether they are from God – that ought to sober us right up. There are spirits out there who are not from God. How do we know? He’s going to tell us.
Now of course, there are lots of implied commands related to the tests – believe in Jesus, obey His commands, and love one another. By passing these tests, you prove yourselves to be His disciples. But now, he gives two clear commands as it relates to spirits. He’s just mentioned the Holy Spirit – you know by the Holy Spirit God has given us that we are in Him, and He is us. But now, my loved ones – a term of endearment. You can go through the book and every time John says, my little children, or beloved, he’s grabbing our attention.
Loved ones, don’t believe every spirit. You mean there’s more than spirit? Yes, you see the word spirit can be used in lots of different ways, even in English. It’s used to speak of breath or wind, of the Holy Spirit, of angels, of the human spirit, of attitudes like a spirit of fear, of Satan, and of demons. The question is, to what or whom is John here referring?
Obviously, it’s not the Holy Spirit – we always listen to Him. But most suggest it’s not necessarily a demonic spirit – but perhaps the human spirit of the false teachers who were claiming to have the Holy Spirit, and they did not. Clearly, when we read the rest of I John, we find these spirits, even if the human spirit of a false teacher, are satanically or demonically inspired. Chapter 5 will tell us, “We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” Remember, for John, he speaks in opposites – light and dark, sin and righteousness, children of God and children of the devil, Spirit of truth and spirit of error.
So, do not believe every spirit is either a demonic spirit, or at the very least, a human spirit demonically inspired. Do not believe everyone who says they have the Holy Spirit – that what they have heard or seen in a vision or some prophetic utterance is of God. No – there are some tests that must be passed. Even in I Corinthians 14, we are supposed to test every prophecy, against what? Against the Word of God.
Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God. Do you see – someone claiming to be from God – to speak for God – who even throws some Bible verses around, are not necessarily from God. We are of course reminded of the Bereans, who, after Paul preached, searched the Scripture to see if what Paul said was true. And they were called noble. Many call this verse a warning against being gullible – believing everything you hear. We must not do that.
After all, John reminds us many false prophets have gone out into the world. That’s a probably a shot at the successionists, the false teachers. Jesus warned in Matthew 7:15, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Paul said the same thing to the Ephesian elders, “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.” Peter said in the last book we studied, “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies…”
That is exactly what was happening in the churches to which John wrote. And it is happening today – false prophets in the church, who are after the church, seeking to draw disciples away after them. And the greater challenge today is the access they have to us – through the internet, blogs, podcasts, social media, videos – a click of the mouse, and the opportunities are almost endless. We must be aware and test the spirits – they are not all from God.
Anytime a teacher or preacher or church leader is more interested in their own benefits, their own profits, their own authority, their own teachings, their own good, their own welfare, instead of Jesus and the Gospel, instead of the Word of God, run. They are false prophets, false teachers. Paul said if anyone comes to you with a gospel contrary to what you have heard, he is to be accursed.
Which brings us to the first of two tests – that of the person of Christ in verses 2 and 3. By this you know the Spirit of God: here it is – every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. There is so much there. Paul basically said the same thing in I Corinthians 12:3, “Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus is accursed’; and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”
Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. Has come is in the perfect tense – He has come at a point in time past, and it has ongoing consequence. Meaning, His coming was not just an appearing – it had ongoing purpose – it had saving intent. He came as the Christ, the Son of God, in the flesh, to save people. One writes, “Therefore, the confession that Jesus Christ ‘has come’ in flesh does not simply acknowledge that Jesus was a historical person, but expresses the redeeming significance of His incarnation, life, death, and resurrection on behalf of the human race.” (Karen Jobes)
Apparently, there were those saying Jesus was not the Christ, that He had not come in the flesh, that He was not preexistent, or that He had not come from God. All those are orthodox truths of the Christian faith which must be believed. Early in church history, to the present day, people deny the full deity and humanity of Jesus. Arius was one of the first. He denied that Jesus was of the same substance or essence of the Father. He denied that Jesus was God. He denied that Jesus was eternal. One of his famous sayings was, “There was a time when He was not.” He said God created the Son, and was therefore not one with God, eternal with God, of the same essence as God. And the Council of Nicaea rightly condemned him as a heretic.
Of course, there were the Gnostics before Arius who suggested Jesus was a man upon whom the Spirit came, at His baptism, but left Him before the crucifixion. There were those who said He was not really flesh – He was just a spirit. It would take days, weeks, to explain all the heresies that have surrounded the person of Jesus – His full humanity and full deity. Even today, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons deny the fully deity of Jesus. Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the essential deity of Jesus; Mormons deny the exclusive deity of Jesus. Even today, there are those in the church who say, Jesus emptied Himself of His deity at the incarnation and lived as a mere man on earth. That is heresy. God does not change – if Jesus was not God in the flesh, we are forever lost.
So, creeds were written, which simply try to condense and express theological and orthodox truths. The Nicene Creed of 325, which was later part of the Creed of Constantinople of 381, says, for example:
We believe in one God,
the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.
And all of that can be verified by Scripture – it is consistent with what the Bible teaches. Do you see how they tried to deal with the false teaching of Arius? The Formula of Chalcedon is one of my favorites, written in 451. It’s long, but glorious – every word matters:
“Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the Godbearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.”
This is orthodox truth concerning Jesus. And anyone today who tries to deny the fully humanity and deity of Jesus even in the incarnation is heretical. In fact, John says, anyone who does not confess Jesus – all that He is and also all that He has done in the flesh – perfect life, miracles and teaching, death, burial and bodily resurrection – is not from God. Further, you think my statement of heresy is strong, John says they are of the spirit of antichrist. Yes, there is one coming, but the spirit of antichrist, which denies who He fully is and what He has fully done, is already in the world, and frankly in teaching in many so-called churches today.
Quickly then, our last point. The first test of orthodoxy to determine if a person is of the Holy Spirit is Christological. Do they confess that Jesus is the Christ, having come from God in the flesh. The second test is the source of truth, verses 4-6. He starts by encouraging his readers and us in verse 4, You are from God, little children, and have overcome them – that is, the successionists and the false teachers. How have we overcome them? By holding onto truth. How, by our own strength and wisdom? No, greater is He who is in you that he who is in the world.
In the context, John means, you have the Holy Spirit within you to guide you into all truth. They don’t. They don’t have the Holy Spirit, they only have their fallen human spirits – and implies it is controlled by the one in the world, who is Satan himself. Let me say it this way: all teaching that does not comport with the truth of Christ and His Word is ultimately, Satanic. It started in the Garden of Eden when Satan lied to Eve – questioning God, twisting His words. The same thing happens today. So, it is not wrong to say of every other world religion – they are evil. Because they are sending people directly to hell. Jesus is God’s Son in the flesh and the only way to the Father.
So, verse 5 – these people who are from the world, speak what the world wants to hear, and the world listens to them. You only have to look at what is happening to the church today regarding the person of Christ, the necessity of the atonement of Christ for salvation, embracing sin which the Bible clearly condemns, to know the spirit of antichrist is alive and well, speaking perverse things. The world likes it – we are to be much more discerning by the Spirit of God who lives in us. Don’t believe every spirit.
Because, verse 6, we are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. Who is the us here? Many think John is talking about the eyewitnesses he talked about in chapter 1 – he’s talking about the apostolic witness, by which the Word of God was written. You see, we don’t have living apostolic eyewitnesses today – well, actually we do – it’s called Word of God. So inasmuch as what is being taught is consistent with Scripture and orthodox truth, it is to be trusted. But inasmuch as it is not, it is to be rejected. By this we know the spirit of truth – Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Spirit of truth many times in the Farewell Discourse – and the spirit of error. Is it consistent with what the apostles wrote?
In closing, let me go back to the Person of Christ, and read to you from one of my commentaries. Douglas O’Donnell writes:
“Do not follow the en vogue voices, but rather the old apostolic eye, ear, hand and pen testimony. The clear choice is the canonical Jesus. The New Testament is the only authorized portrait of the true Jesus. Let us stay away from the social-activist Jesus, the merely-a-prophet Jesus, the great-teacher Jesus, the religious-genius Jesus, the pacifist Jesus, the rebel Jesus, the Republican Jesus, the Marxist Jesus, and the vegetarian Jesus. Rather, let us cling to the Jesus whom Peter preached at Pentecost: ‘Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ’ (Acts 2:26).”