The True and False Spirits
1 John 4:1-3
Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God…

In this world there appears to be no truth without its counterfeit, no religion without hypocrites, no gold without tinsel, nor good wheat of God unmixed with tares. Christ is mimicked by Antichrist. Indeed, the more active is religious thought and life in any period, so much the more numerous and plausible are likely to be the forms of religious delusion and imposture. St. John has set forth in his last paragraph (1 John 3:19-24) the grounds of a Christian man's assurance; he has traced it to its spring in the gift of the Spirit, who first kindled the life of God within ourselves. But, alas! even on this point deception is possible, and a warning is necessary. "Beloved," he interjects, "don't be believing every spirit, but test the spirits, to see whether they are of God." It is a common but perilous mistake occurring even in books of Christian evidence, to treat the supernatural as synonymous with the Divine. One is amazed at the facility with which many religious minded people fall into the meshes of spiritualism. Let them be persuaded that they are witnessing manifestations from another world, and they bow to them at once as Divine revelation, without considering their intrinsic character, their moral worth, their agreement with Scripture and established truth. Let it be proved to me that certain phenomena are "spiritual," and I say, "Very possibly; but there are many spirits abroad in the world — some of them from the pit!" The Apostle Paul had had to deal with a similar opposition at Corinth, with spiritual and prophetical manifestations that contravened his teaching. And he speaks in 1 Corinthians 12:10 of the "discerning of spirits," the power to distinguish genuine from spurious inspiration, as a supernatural grace bestowed upon certain members of the Church. On the same point he wrote to the Thessalonians earlier (vers. 19, 20). Our Lord Himself foretold in His last discourses the rise of "false Christs and false prophets" to deceive the Church. "The false prophet" figures side by side with "the wild beast" in his visions in the Apocalypse, representing a corrupt form of religion abetting a cruel and persecuting worldly power. Elymas, the Jewish sorcerer of Paphos, was a specimen of this kind of trader in the supernatural (Acts 13:6). In the later Old Testament times such upstarts were numerous, men who professed to speak by revelation in Jehovah's name, and who brought a more popular message than the true prophets, and for gain flattered the rulers and the multitude to their destruction. This last feature appears in St. John's false prophets: "They are of the world" — animated by its spirit and tastes; "therefore they speak of the world (they utter what it prompts; they give back to the world its own ideas, and tickle its ear with its vain fancies), and the world heareth them." Along with their worldly spirit, it is false doctrine rather than miracles or lying predictions that supplies the chief mark of the class of men denounced by our apostle. Accordingly, he puts them through a theological examination: he uses for their touchstone the Incarnate Deity of Jesus. In this way the apostle comes round again to the subject of 1 John 2:18-29, and the great conflict there announced between Christ and Antichrist. It is evident, from the whole Epistle, that the burning question of controversy just then was the nature of Jesus Christ — the reality of His bodily form, and the consistency of His seeming fleshly life with His higher Divine origin and being.

1. St. John's crucial test of Christian belief lies, then, in the true confession of Christ Himself. "In this," says the apostle, "you may know the Spirit of God." One may repeat a creed glibly enough, and yet be very far from "confessing Jesus Christ." We can only apprehend Him, and lay hold of the person of Christ with a realising mental grasp, by the aid of the Spirit of God: "No man can say Jesus is Lord," declared the other theological apostle, "except in the Holy Ghost" (1 Corinthians 12:3; Matthew 16:17). But mark the precise form given to this proof question by St. John: "Every spirit that confesseth Jesus Christ come in flesh." The content of this confession is variously construed by interpreters. Some read it, "confesseth Jesus Christ as come in flesh" — that is, "as the incarnate Messiah." I do not think that either grammatical usage or the doctrinal situation points to this construction. Others, "confesseth Jesus Christ to be come in flesh;" but this makes "Jesus Christ" the specific name of Godhead, equivalent by itself to "the Son of God" (else it is no antithesis to "come in flesh"); and this is not at all obvious, nor John-like. We must read the expression as one continuous object: "Confesseth Jesus Christ come in flesh." To "confess Jesus Christ" is to confess the human Jesus, known in the gospel history, as the declared Messiah of God; and to confess Him "come, in flesh," is to confess the Godhead in the humanity, to acknowledge Him as indubitable man, but more than man — to confess, in short, "the Word made flesh." For, of course, when you speak of one as "come (arrived) in flesh," it is assumed that he has issued from some other, spiritual region, and that his flesh is the garb of a higher nature; otherwise the words are pointless (John 16:28). St. Paul's watchword of confession in 1 Corinthians 12:3, belonged to the stage of conflict with original Jewish unbelief. As the Messiahship of the Nazarene was preached, the spirit of evil cried out — and Paul had frequently been thus interrupted in the Jewish synagogue — "Jesus is anathema, accursed of God! He was justly crucified; He is the abhorred, and not the elect of Israel!" But it is a more developed and subtle kind of error, bred within the Church, that is here unmasked. "Christ" is no longer, in St. John's Ephesian circle, the disputed title of the crucified Jesus; it is His accepted designation; and the words Jesus Christ have coalesced by this time into the familiar name of the Redeemer. The rising Gnosticism of John's day separated the words in a new fashion, by metaphysical analysis, not by historical distinction. The new prophets recoiled not from a crucified Messiah, but from a humanised God. Now St. John's formula is precisely opposed to this popular heresy of Asia Minor, which tradition imputes to Cerinthus, the apostle's personal antagonist. To "confess Jesus Christ come in flesh" is to declare the oneness of His Divine-human person as an abiding certainty, not from His baptism, but from His birth and onwards. (Note the force of the Greek perfect eleluthota, "arrived, come for good and all.") The bearing of the expression is indicated by the marginal reading of the Revised Version in ver. 3, which is probably a very ancient gloss upon the text: "Every spirit which dissolveth Jesus is not of God." In this latter negative clause (ver. 3a) it is to be observed the apostle writes "Jesus" with the Greek definite article, as much as to say "this Jesus" — "the Jesus thus defined — Jesus as the Church knows Him, as the apostles preached Him." He it is whom the spirit of error rejects, and whose Person it would dissolve and destroy.

2. This brings us to St. John's second test of true doctrine in the Church, the general consent of Christian believers. The teaching he denounced was repudiated by the Church; it found acceptance only in the outside world. The seductions of the false prophets are "overcome" by John's "little children," because they are born "of God"; there is in them a Spirit "greater than" the spirit that lives "in the world." Plausible as the new teaching was, and powerful through its accord with the current of prevailing thought, St. John's readers, as a body, had rejected it. They felt it could not be true. They had struggled with the network of error flung about them, and broken through the snare. They had received an "anointing (the 'chrism' which makes Christians) from the Holy One," in virtue of which they "know the truth," and detect, as by an inner, instinctive sense, the "lie" which is its counterfeit (1 John 2:20). Admittedly this test, taken by itself, is not easy to apply. The orthodoxy that prevails in any one Church, or at any given moment, is not necessarily the orthodoxy of the Spirit of God. You must take a sufficiently large area to get the consensus of Christian faith, and you must take the central and primary truths, not questions such as those of "the three orders" in Church government, or the refinements of the Quinquarticular controversy. The danger lies with us, not in the difficulty that attends a formal adoption of this confession of Christ, but in the ease with which men accept it in words but deny it in heart and life.

3. St. John in ver. 6 clinches the two previous tests of the true or false spirits at work in the Church by a third — that of agreement with the apostolic testimony. "You are of God," he declared in ver. 4; but now adds, speaking for himself and his brother witnesses who had seen and handled the Word made flesh (1 John 1:1-3), "We are of God: and men are shown to be of God or not of God by the sole fact of their hearing or refusing us." This was an enormous assumption to make, a piece of boundless arrogance, if it was not simple truth. But the claim has now the endorsement of eighteen centuries behind it. "He that knows God" (ho ginoskon, ver. 5) is, strictly, "he who is getting-to-know" — the learner of God, the true disciple, the seeker after Divine truth. Is it not to the teaching of the New Testament that such men, all the world over, are infallibly drawn when it comes within their knowledge? They follow it, they listen to the Gospel and the Epistles, as the eye follows the dawning light and the intent ear the breaking of sweet music and the famished appetite the scent of wholesome food. The soul that seeks God, from whatever distance, knows when it hears the words of this Book that its quest is not in vain; it is getting what it wants!

(G. G. Findlay, B. A.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.

WEB: Beloved, don't believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

The Test of Truth -- Confessing Christ
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