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.
I. NEED FOR TESTING. "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world." Again, at the thought of danger, his heart warms toward his readers as his beloved. It is necessary to bear in mind the circumstances in which they were placed. They had the help of true prophets. The apostolic age had not come to an end. John was still living; and there were others who had inspired utterance. They had that for which some minds still crave - infallible guidance on the spot. But they were not placed beyond danger, as minds never are in this world. Many false prophets had gone out into the world, and were in their neighbourhood, as they are in all neighbourhoods where Christ's truth is published and finding acceptance. The false prophets are Satan's counterpoise to the true prophets, and, as the true prophets were really under Divine inspiration, the false prophets claimed to be under Divine inspiration too. For that lie best succeeds which is made to bear the closest resemblance to the truth that is active. Christianity was at that time wonderfully active in many places. How was it to be counteracted? We can understand that forming the subject of evil counsel. One way was to incorporate Judaism with Christianity. Another way was to incorporate Gentile philosophy with Christianity, to which the name of Gnosticism is given. The general drift of Gnosticism is to substitute, for the plain facts of the gospel, philosophic myths. Cerinthus, who was a contemporary of John in proconsular Asia, is described by Neander as "the intermediate link between the Judaizing and the Gnostic sects." "As a Judaizer, Cerinthus held, with the Ebionites, that Jesus was only the son of Joseph and Mary, born in the natural way. As a Gnostic, he maintained that the Christ first descended, in the form of a dove, on the carpenter's son at his baptism; that he revealed to him the unknown Father, and worked miracles through him; and that at length he took his flight, and left him, so that Jesus alone suffered and rose, while the Christ remained impassible." There is reason for believing that this was the particular danger, or something not unlike it, which beset the circle or circles to which John writes in this Epistle. There therefore arose a necessity for discriminating between the true prophets and the false prophets, that the one class might be followed and the others shunned. How was this necessity to be met? Only by the action of the Christians themselves. The duty of discrimination is here laid upon them. For this they were not specially inspired; but they had the ordinary assistance of the Holy Spirit. Observe the language in which the duty is described. "Believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world." They were not enjoined to sit in judgment upon the prophets as individuals, but in respect of their prophetic teachings, which they claimed to have received from God. There were spirits of God to whom afterward is attributed the confessing of Christ; and there were spirits not of God to whom afterward is attributed the refusal to confess Christ, the organs of the latter being the false prophets. How are we to understand this plurality of spirits? Are we to think of the spirits of the prophets as objectified? or are we to think of spirits as connected with separate movements, finding their organs in prophets true or false? The latter view is not excluded by the language; but we know very little of the sphere in question. The practical thing is that there are true teachers and false teachers, between whom a discrimination has to be made. The Christian ministry should be in the service of truth; but it would be vain to think that the teaching from every Christian pulpit is true. There are times when many go forth from our theological halls with rationalistic tendencies. What are Christian people to do? They are not to believe every spirit. Whoever the Christian teacher is, the influence resting upon him and giving character to his utterances must be tested, to see whether it is of God. There are teachers rising up from time to time of commanding ability. They are, or seem to be, burdened with a message for their age. Their influence extends beyond the readers of their books or listeners to their orations. It is soon to be found in novels, in magazines, in newspapers, in conversation. What are Christian people to do. They are to discriminate, they are not to believe every spirit; they are to satisfy themselves that the influence present in the teaching is of God before they yield themselves to it. If they are not satisfied, then they must do what they can to make themselves impervious to, or vigorously to counteract, the influence. For very much depends on what teaching we receive through all channels, it being either for our spiritual advancement or for our spiritual deterioration.
II. THE TEST TO BE APPLIED. "Hereby know ye the Spirit of God."
1. Positive. "Every spirit which confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God." Teaching is to be judged in relation to Christ. It is due to Christ that there should be an open declaration in his favour. The object of confession is (strictly) Jesus Christ come in the flesh. It is to be borne in mind that Jesus is the historical name. It is admitted on all sides that "one Jesus" lived about nineteen hundred years ago, and that his influence has extended far and wide. What account is to be given of this Personage? The right teaching is that which confesses him to be the Christ. This is in agreement with 1 John 2:22. Cerinthus taught that the Christ had a temporary abode in Jesus; the Christian teacher declares Jesus to be the Christ. But the Christ refers us to Divinity, eternal Sonship, with which we associate ideas of immateriality, invisibility, impassibility, exemption from death. This was virtually the understanding of Cerinthus, and his way of accounting for the ordinary manifestations of humanity in Jesus was that he was only apparently the Christ. This was the usual solution of the difficulty by the Gnostics. The right teaching is that Jesus is Christ come in the flesh. That is to say, the true solution is the Incarnation. Christ is Divine, and as such we can think of him as essentially immaterial, invisible, impassible, undying; and. yet he is human, and as such there could be connected with him materiality, visibility, suffering, death. The Incarnation is well worthy of being made the great object of confession. For it proclaims the wonderful and indissoluble union between God and man with a view to human redemption, which sometimes tends to repel by its strangeness. It proclaims a new and unexpected outlet for Divine love, transcending all finite power of thought, to be estimated adequately only by him in whose heart the love burned. In this view we obtain facts which are rich in meaning. We first stand in presence of his birth, when the mysterious union commenced. We are amazed as we contemplate him growing up to manhood. We behold him setting himself to his work, and proving himself in a threefold encounter with the tempter. We are overwhelmed with awe to think of him, in death, passing under the eclipse of the Father's countenance. We are profoundly interested to behold him rising from the dead, and to think of him as passing into the heavens in our glorified nature. That is the right kind of teaching which deals with these facts, puts them forward for the grasp of faith, uses them for the clearing of thought and the stirring up of love.
2. Negative. "And every spirit which confesseth not Jesus is not of God: and this is the spirit of the antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it cometh; and now it is in the world already." The true confession has been defined; this is its contradiction. There is implied a certain knowledge of Christianity. The news has gone forth that God has become incarnate for human salvation. It is news which is fitted to arrest, and leaves no excuse for want of inquiry into the question of fact. Every teacher especially should have his mind made up with regard to it. The apostle lays it down as the test of a true confession. By this Cerinthus and other Gnostic teachers were to be condemned. They found a way of avoiding the Incarnation, and thus took away the impression of the great love of God manifested toward men. The same thing is done by the Unitarians now. They withhold acknowledgment from Jesus. Many of their teachers plead for warmth of feeling toward Christ. "Without the passions which move incessantly, like glittering and intense fire, around the Person of Christ, religious teaching will not make men's hearts so to burn within them as to bring them in crowds to hear and to obey, and to be impelled to become teachers in turn" (Stepford Brooke). They do not, however, leave room for the calling forth of such love, inasmuch as they represent Christ as a mere man, only transcending other men in excellence of character. They do not accept the Incarnation; it is not credible to them; it takes away from the simplicity of the faith. Their declaration must go forward to judgment; a Higher than man will one day pronounce upon its worth. It is an important consideration for our guidance that Unitarianism stands clearly condemned by the apostolic test. It confesses not Jesus, admits not the higher view of his Person and work. There are teachers of great eminence "who occupy rather a negative and undefined position in relation to Christ and Christianity. They have written upon almost every subject of human thought - upon government and the Church, upon history and biography, upon morals and destiny. They have gone round the world to find heroes and representative men, and have said many true and striking things about them; but, strange to say, they have never clearly informed the world as to what they think of Christ. They are unaccountably reticent upon a subject that is the most important of all. They allow a painful silence to brood over a Name that is above every name. What can be the meaning of this? Is it because they have no faith in Christ, but do not think it prudent or necessary to profess their unbelief? Can they have faith without professing it? The fact remains that they have thought it their business to act as guides to the world, and have thought it necessary to publish many volumes of their opinions, and. yet have never directly told the world what they think of Christ. That fact remains; and alongside of it the truth remains, 'Every spirit which confesseth not Jesus is not of God'" (F. Ferguson). Of the Corinthian Gnosticism, which set aside the Incarnation, John says that it was the presence of antichrist. So early had the announced opposition to Christ commenced; it still exists under other specious forms. The most radical opposition is that which is directed against the central fact of the Incarnation, which would reduce Christ to the position of a mere human teacher.
III. SUCCESS IN APPLYING THE TEST.
1. The fact of victory. "Ye are of God, my little children, and have overcome them." This is another occasion on which the apostle is so affectionate as to call them his little children. He thinks of something which was greatly to their honour. They had overcome the false prophets. We are not told the wiles which were used by these prophets. They pretended to be under Divine inspiration. Very probably they pretended to work miracles. We do not know that they held out the inducement of false pleasures. Whatever the wiles were, in vain were they tried on those to whom John is now writing. They held tenaciously to the fact of the Incarnation, and to its blessed import. Nay, we can understand that they succeeded in separating from their communion all who were not in sympathy with the Incarnation, who for the fact put some fanciful idea. "They went out from us," it is said of these prophets in chapter 1 John 2:19, which, taken in connection with what is said here, gives us an impression of their moral defeat. There needed to be no recourse to the disciplinary power of excommunication; they went out when they could no longer endure the power of the truth.
2. The ground of victory. "Because greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world." The Divine Person is left undefined. We naturally think of Christ in the Spirit. For the victory lies in discrimination; and John's conception of their qualification is their having an anointing from the Holy One. As qualified in the same way, Christ had to fight. He was brought into conflict with him that is in the world. All attempts were made to delude him, to lead him to abandon the Father's cause; but he conquered. "Now is the judgment of this world; now shall the prince of this world be cast out." As the hour approaches, he announces his victory for the encouragement of his followers: "Be of good cheer; I have conquered the world." John's friends conquered too, because greater was he that was in them than he that was in the false prophets, and in the world to which properly these belonged, though they had once been connected with the communion of Christians. Christ is in us by his Spirit, to unmask all designs on us, to expose all fallacies, to disclose all the beauties of truth. He that is in the world has great power of delusion; but we can think of it as vanquished, and we can think of the victory as sure for us in the power of his Spirit which is within us as our equipment. Therefore let us be of good cheer.
3. The manner of victory.
(1) Discrimination in respect of the false prophets. "They are of the world: therefore speak they as of the world, and the world heareth them." How are false prophets to be known? They are the birth of a worldly state of society, they give utterance to worldly sentiment, they gain worldly applause. As for the Incarnation, it is remote from their thoughts; it is too high for their low origin; it is too self-abasing, too self-restraining. Let a field be sought where looser sentiment may be uttered, or where there may be a grim handling of abuses and unrealities and failings, and, if there is only sufficient vis in the teacher, certain men will loudly applaud.
(2) Discrimination in respect of the true prophets. "We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he who is not of God heareth us not." How are true prophets to be known? They may be said to be the birth of a quickened Church; they are here represented as the birth of God. They teach about God, and they set forth the Incarnation as the grandest manifestation of what God is - as the fact of facts and the truth of truths. He that is in the school of God, and seeks to advance in the knowledge of God, is attracted to them; while he who is not yet born of God is repelled from them. "I have set thee," says God to Jeremiah, "for a tower and a fortress among my people, that thou mayest know and try their way." Marking of the discrimination. "By this we know the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error." We are to understand the principle laid down. By it we discriminate between the spirit of truth resting on the true teachers, and the spirit of wandering resting on the false teachers. There is implied the test of the Incarnation. According as teachers are attracted to it do they come into the light of God; according as they are repelled from it do they wander themselves, and lead away others, into the darkness. - R.F.
I. It properly belongs to the Spirit to "confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh." He had much to do with the flesh in which Jesus Christ came. He prepared for Him a body in the Virgin's womb, so as to secure that He came into the world pure and sinless. And all throughout His sojourn on earth the Spirit ministered to Him as "Jesus Christ come in the flesh"; He could not minister to Him otherwise. It is the flesh, or humanity, of Jesus Christ that brings Him within the range of the Spirit's gracious care. It was His human experience that the Spirit animated and sustained; and it is with His human experience also that the Spirit deals when He "takes of what is Christ's and shows it unto us." His object is to make us one with "Jesus Christ as come in the flesh." That practically is His confession to us and in us. Let us see what it implies.
Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God
I. THE SCIENTIFIC FALSE PROPHET; or antiChrist in the schools, especially in connection with the study and interpretation of nature. There are three points in the scientific world that appear to be prominent. These points are — first, that our highest business here is to study nature — that nature at least in relation to this present life is supreme; second, that natural or physical law is absolutely uniform or unbending, and has been so since the creation of the universe; third, that the human race is to be elevated, regenerated, or truly developed from the basis of nature, and in accordance merely with natural laws. Now, if it really were so, we can have no hesitation in saying that the position and claims of the Christian religion are quite incompatible with it. If the dream of such thinkers were destined to be realised, Christianity must slowly fade from the earth, with other superstitions. It is only too evident what the spirit and hope of such systems is. Take the first position — that nature or the visible material scene around us is the supreme influence and power in relation to our life upon the earth. That involves the denial of a Divine revelation. Take the second position — that for incalculable ages Nature has been undeviating in her course. That law maintains its slow, grand march through millions of years, without deviation, acceleration, or interruption. That may be thought a grand idea; but as it is advanced in certain systems, it is not a true one; for it is a shutting out of the miraculous altogether. Take the third position — that man is saved by obedience to natural law, and that the human race will be elevated and ennobled only as men study the laws of nature, and conform themselves to them. That is a doctrine put forth by some. It looks with a sinister and disparaging eye on Christianity and the Church. It does not hesitate sometimes to say that all religions have been a misfortune to the world. When the plague comes this spirit declares that prayer is useless, and that the only thing that can save us is to perfect our sanitary arrangements. This is a spirit of antichrist, for it is the denial of a moral government in the Scriptural sense of the word.
II. THE SECULAR FALSE PROPHET; or antichrist in the kingdoms of the world. In as far as the kingdoms of the world are necessary to maintain order, to suppress violence, and repel invasion, they are the ordinance of God, but in so far as they perpetuate injustice and wrong, of course they cannot be of God; they are babels and antichrists, standing in the way of His kingdom who has the absolute right to rule. Now it is the duty of everyone to whom the light of the gospel comes to become a subject of the kingdom of Christ. That light will show him what is wrong in existing systems. It will show him that some of them are fundamentally wrong, but it will not teach him to remedy that wrong by violence and revolution. The eternal moral principle that truth and justice cannot be permanently advanced by mere physical force, enters into the foundation of Christ's kingdom. And if anyone asks, How then are we to hold our own in the world? the only answer that can be given is, that it is our duty to do as Christ did. Because God lives all those who have faith in Him will live also.
III. THE LITERARY FALSE PROPHET; or antichrist in the world of letters. This is a time of great thinkers, great writers, great bookmakers. We do not speak of individuals. We have no right to judge them; but their works we may judge, and the spirit of their works we may try whether it is of God or no. Now we know that some of the greatest works in the world are books written in defence of Christianity; but it is also true that some writers of considerable power have taken up positive ground against Christianity and have sufficiently shown that they do not believe that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. They do not believe in Him as the eternal Son of God, and the only Saviour of men. Some of them have written books expressly to deny this. But this is not so much what the text suggests. There are other writers of great power and influence in both hemispheres of the world who occupy rather a negative and undefined position in relation to Christ and Christianity. They have written upon almost every subject of human thought — upon government and the Church, upon history and biography, upon morals and destiny. They have gone round the world to find heroes and representative men, and have said many true and striking things about them; but, strange to say, they have never clearly informed the world as to what they think of Christ. They are unaccountably reticent upon a subject that is the most important of all.
IV. THE RELIGIOUS FALSE PROPHET; or antichrist in the ecclesiastical world. The antichrist of an atheistical, political system; of a poor, blind, hero worship — the worship of mere intellectual ability and unfathomable cunning; and the antichrist of a barren Protestantism which has a name to live while it is dead — such forms as these are little better than the Papacy.
V. THE SOCIAL FALSE PROPHET; or antichrist in the work of everyday life. That is the most deadly form of antichrist which professes great respect for Christianity, but lives in continual opposition to its principles; and we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that a great amount of the Christian profession of this country seems little more than a mere profession. This is called a Christian country, but look at the woes that are festering in the midst of us; think of the rank worldliness and heartlessness that is baptized into the name of Christ. Is this not the reason why prayer seems unanswered, and troubles are thickening upon the land?
(F. Ferguson, D. D.)
1. He identifies us with Jesus Christ in His humiliation. In our Divine regeneration He brings us to be subject to the authority and commandments of God — willingly subject — our nature being renewed into the likeness of His.
2. The Spirit identifies us with Jesus Christ, not only in His humiliation, but in its conditions and liabilities. His coming in the flesh is His consenting to be crucified for us; the Spirit in us confessing Him as come in the flesh makes us willing to be crucified with Him. "In my flesh I shall see God" was the hope of the patriarch Job. It is made sure by Jesus Christ come in the flesh, and by the Spirit confessing in us that He is come.
II. This accordingly is the secret of our present victory over anti-Christian spirits and men: "Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them" (ver. 4).
1. The victory is a real victory got over the false prophets or teachers, who are not of God, whom the spirit of antichrist inspires. And it is a victory over them personally; not over their doctrines and principles merely, but over themselves — "ye have overcome them." It is the actual "coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh," and His actual accomplishment, in the flesh, of all that in the flesh He came for, that they resent and resist. It is that which Satan, the original spirit of antichrist, would fain have set himself to hinder; moving Herod to slay Jesus in His childhood, and Judas to betray Him in his manhood; tempting Jesus to make shipwreck of His integrity. And it is your actual personal participation with Him, as "Jesus Christ come in the flesh"; your being really one with Him in that wondrous humiliation, in its spirit and its fruit; that, so far as you are concerned, they seek to frustrate. In realising that, you get the better of them; confessing thus Jesus Christ come in the flesh, you have overcome them.
2. Your having overcome them is connected with your "being of God" (ver. 4); which again is intimately connected with your "confessing that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh" (ver. 2). Your being of God is the intermediate link between your confessing thus Jesus Christ is come in the flesh (ver. 2), and your having overcome them who reject that truth (ver. 4). The essential characteristic of the spirit of antichrist is that it is "not of God." It does not look at the Saviour and the salvation as on the side of God; rather it takes an opposite view, and subjects God to man. It subordinates everything to human interests and human claims; looks at everything from a human and mundane point of view; measures everything by a human standard; submits everything to human opinion — in a word, conceives and judges of God after the manner of man. This, indeed, may be said to be the distinctive feature of all false religions, as well as of all corruptions of the true religion. They exalt man. They dislike such representations as bring in the element of God's holy name and righteous authority, and lay much stress upon that element as one of primary consideration in the plan of saving mercy. Hence they naturally shrink from owning explicitly Jesus Christ as come in the flesh to make atonement by satisfying Divine justice. But "ye are of God, little children," in this matter; in the view that you take, and the conception that you form of Jesus Christ come in the flesh; of the end of His coming, and the manner in which that end is attained. You look at that great fact, first and chiefly in its relation to God, and as on the side of God. It is from God and for God that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. So He always taught; and so you firmly believe. You sit at the feet of Jesus Christ come in the flesh. You stand beside His Cross. You do not now stumble at the mystery of its bloody expiation; or quarrel with the great propitiation sacrifice through unbelief of its necessity. Nay, being "of God," on His side and in His interest in the whole of this great transaction, you can meekly, in faith, commit to Him and leave in His hands even the most terrible of those ultimate and eternal consequences, involving the aggravated guilt and final ruin of many, that you cannot but see to be inseparably mixed up with the confession that "Jesus Christ is come in the flesh."
(R. S. Candlish, D. D.)I. THE GENERAL COUNSEL — "Beloved, believe not every spirit," etc. Those who are called "spirits" in the first part of it are denominated "prophets" in the last. They are the ministers of the Word, whether they write or preach it. They are supposed to be under the dominion of other spirits. These may be good, or they may be evil. Such being the position of the teachers of the Church, we must at once perceive the propriety of the counsel which is given respecting them. "Believe not every spirit." You are not to suppose because a man is a minister he must be sound in his views, or faithful in his office, or exemplary in his life. All professing ministers must be tested by members of the Church. Nor let us fail particularly to notice what is to be tried in the matter of all ministers of the Word. It is "whether they are of God." How solemn the duty! Has God sent them? Do they bear their credentials from Him? Do they speak His truth? Do they maintain His cause? Do they promote His glory? A reason is assigned for this duty, "Because many false prophets are gone out into the world." It was so even in the days of the apostles. All their influence, and zeal, and fidelity could not prevent it. The opponents of the truth were many — many in numbers, many in their forms of error, and many in the spirit and practices of enmity which they discovered. It is, therefore, no strange thing that happens if the same be found in all subsequent ages. Nor let us overlook the powerful motive by which the members of the Church are urged to fidelity in the duty here required of them. Compassion for false teachers should operate on them. Their guilt is great and we should earnestly seek to deliver them from it. What is the crime of the man who sets up a false light on the dangerous shore? Such is that of the false teacher. But it is not he only that is concerned. Our Lord has said, "If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch." In like manner they who mislead the members of the Church draw them with themselves to destruction. Above all, if we encourage false teachers we are held accountable with them and shall be partakers in their condemnation.
II. Having given this general counsel the apostle proceeds to give A PARTICULAR ILLUSTRATION of both the error that might be introduced and of the duty of opposing it in the subsequent verses — "hereby know ye the spirit of God," etc. There are signs by which the minister who is under the teaching and influence of the Spirit of God may be known. What are they? They are both positive and negative. "Every spirit that confesseth," etc.
1. To confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is to own the Divinity of His mission.
2. To confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is to own the Divinity of His person.
3. To confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is to own the grace of both His mission and His person (2 Corinthians 8:9).
4. Finally, to confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is to own Him to be an all-sufficient Saviour.
(J. Morgan, D. D.)
I. FROM WHAT SPRINGS OR MOTIVES THE FALSE PRETENCES TO THE SPIRIT GENERALLY PROCEED. Vainglory, or a thirst after fame, is often the most prevailing motive. But to go a little deeper; self-love, of some kind or other, is the general root of all. Who does not wish to be one of the favourites of heaven, and to be extraordinarily illuminated, or conducted by God's Holy Spirit? When the pleasing delusion is once indulged thus far, the man begins presently to fancy himself a kind of saint upon earth, or perhaps an apostle. It is not to be doubted but that persons of this unhappy complexion must have some appearances whereby to deceive their own hearts.
II. BY WHAT RULES OR MARKS ANY PRETENCES OF THAT KIND MAY BE TRIED, AND DETECTED TO BE FALSE AND VAIN.
1. Boasting and ostentation are a flat contradiction to the very supposal of the ordinary graces boasted of; because humility and modesty are the very chief graces upon which all the rest hang.
2. Another sure, mark of a false spirit is disobedience to rule and order, contempt of lawful authority, and especially any intruding into what does not belong to them.
3. Another sure mark of a false spirit is the laying down deceitful rules or tokens whereby to judge, whether or when a man has the spirit of God. There have been many who have laid great stress upon I know not what sensible emotions, or violent impulses, coming upon them at times.
III. HOW MUCH IT CONCERNS US TO BE UPON OUR GUARD IN SUCH CASES. Religion, like all other weighty concernments, is best carried on in the calm, regular, and sedate way; and there fore great care should be taken to keep up the old and well-tried methods, rather than to change them for new devices, which will never answer.
(D. Waterland, D. D.)I. WHAT RULES THEY HAD IN THE APOSTLES' DAYS TO TRY THE SPIRITS, AND TO DISTINGUISH THE FALSE PROPHETS OR TEACHERS FROM THE TRUE.
1. The miraculous gifts which were then bestowed upon the true prophets or teachers.
2. Their obedience and subjection to the apostles of our Blessed Saviour, as the great directors of their ministry.
3. The agreement of their doctrine with the doctrines taught by Christ and His apostles.
II. WHAT RULES THERE ARE IN OUR DAYS, TO KNOW AND DISTINGUISH THEM so as that the honest and well-meaning Christians may not be imposed upon by false prophets or teachers.
1. If men pretend to come to us with an extraordinary message from God, or boast of an extraordinary inspiration, such as the apostles had, we may justly require of them to give the same, or the like extraordinary proof of it.
2. If they pretend to no more than a common and ordinary assistance of God's Holy Spirit, such as any good man may lay claim to, then are they subject to Christ and His apostles, and obey those orders and injunctions they have left us in the New Testament.
3. If anyone, though never so regularly called to the office of the ministry, should preach a doctrine contrary to the doctrine of the gospel, such a teacher is not to be heard — his spirit cannot be from God.Conclusion:
1. From what has been said we may learn to make a true judgment of those who take upon them the office of preachers.
2. We should take care that the wild notions and practices of these men do not create a prejudice in us, and possess us with a less esteem for religion in general, or any particular doctrines of Christianity; for there is nothing so good but may be mistaken or abused, and an ill use made of it.
3. That God assists good men, both in the knowledge and practice of their duty, by the secret operation of His Holy Spirit, is a plain and certain doctrine of Christianity; but that the motions of the Holy Spirit are to be distinguished from the natural workings of our own minds, or the suggestions of the evil spirit by anything to be felt in these motions themselves, does not appear from Holy Scripture. The only way we have to distinguish them is to bring them to the standard of truth, and those rules of right and wrong, of good and evil, which are fixed and certain.
(Chas. Peters, M. A.)I. THE FAITH OF THE CHRISTIAN RESTS UPON INWARD CONVICTION, NOT ON OUTWARD AUTHORITY.
1. Scripture proof of this.(1) We are commanded to test the doctrines delivered to us. (1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 Corinthians 2:10, 14, 15; 1 Corinthians 10:15).(2) The foundation of our faith is declared to be such (John 6:45; John 14:26; John 16:13; Ephesians 2:18; Ephesians 4:21; 1 Thessalonians 4:9; Hebrews 8:10, 11; 1 John 2:27; also Romans 14:5; Colossians 2:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:5).
2. The occasions on which the apostles spoke with authority of their own had to do with minor matters. The gospel they had to deliver was entrusted to them from above, (1 Corinthians 9:16; Galatians 1:8, 9). Over that they had no power, (Ephesians 3:2, 3; Colossians 1:25; 1 Timothy 1:11).
II. YET OUTWARD AUTHORITY HAS ITS OWN FUNCTION IN THE CHURCH OF GOD. It deals, not with the truths of Christianity itself, but with rules and ordinances, which touch, not the essence of the Church's life, but its details.
III. THE TRUE LIMITS OF OUTWARD AUTHORITY. Every society must have its rules. Our conscience must be satisfied that there is nothing wrong in principle in these rules.
IV. BY WHAT TEST ARE WE TO TRY THE SPIRITS?
V. THERE ARE MANY ERRORS ABROAD. St. John warns the Christians of his day against error. The warning is equally necessary now. It needs not to specify instances. They fall under four heads:(1) traditional corruptions of the faith, whether in a Roman or a Protestant direction;(2) new revelations, such as Swedenborgianism, Irvingism, or Mormonism;(3) neglect of portions of revealed truth, such as has often led to the formation of sects; and(4) denial of all revelation, as in the various forms of infidelity.
(J. J. Lias, M. A.)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.)
(J. Lindsay, D. D.)1 Thessalonians 5:21). Cf. among the distribution of gifts of the Spirit, those of criticism and discernment (1 Corinthians 12:10). The spirit of St. John and St. Paul, however deeply reverential and childlike, is not one of credulous fanaticism, or abject unreasoning submission to authority (1 Corinthians 12:10; 1 Corinthians 14:29; 1 Timothy 4:1). It must have been a crisis time in the spiritual world (Revelation 9:1-3). We must remember that at Ephesus, and in Asia Minor generally, St. John found not only a heresy of the intellect in Cerinthus and the Gnostics, and a heresy of the senses in the Nicolaitanes, but also a heresy of magic and mysticism. The streets of Ephesus were full of theoleptics and convulsionaries; magical practices and invocations were pursued by the educated with a passionate interest to which modern spiritualism presents but a feeble parallel. St. Paul triumphed for a season (Acts 19:17-20). But Persian Magi, with their enchantments and philtres, Egyptian hierophants, Chaldean astrologers, came to Ephesus year after year. Cabalistic letters, called Ephesian letters, were in reputation for their power of healing or divination. Apollonius of Tyana found an enthusiastic reception in Ephesus. It may be added that St. John's Epistles contain no point of the apostles exercising gifts of healing.
(Abp. Wm. Alexander.)
Hereby know ye the Spirit of GodI. THE CHARACTERISTIC NATURE OF THE INFLUENCES OF THE HOLY SPIRIT.
1. Their perfect accordance with the written Word.
2. Self-abasement under a sense of sin.
3. A faithful reliance on the covenanted mercy of God in Christ.
4. A spirit of prayer.
5. It uniformly excites in the soul a principle of love.
6. There is one other point characteristic of the influence of the Holy Spirit within the soul, to which we must advert the influential principle of holiness.
II. THE NATURE OF THIS IMPLANTED HOLINESS. It is no abstract reverie about the perfectibility of man's nature — a dream originating in a half-informed imagination. The holiness of the believer has a definite character, and a model no less authoritative than it is luminously distinct.
(E. Yoking, M. A.)
Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God
1. The first of these springs from the aversion which is very widely felt towards anything approaching to an exact and definite theological system. I speak of that large mass of half-educated minds, the aggregate or average of whose sentiments forms very largely what is commonly called public opinion; I speak of those, too, who aspire to be leaders of that public opinion. Such persons profess the utmost respect for what they believe to be Christianity, but repudiate whatever religion comes before them in a definite and tangible shape. Now, if these minor sceptics would carry out their own views with anything like consistency, they would at least wrong nobody but themselves. Content with denying the possibility of arriving at the truth, they would leave others to enjoy undisturbed their real or fancied possession of it; remembering that if it be impossible to prove that any religious system is true, it must be equally impossible to prove that any religious system is false. They would think it enough to regard creeds and orthodoxy with contemptuous pity, without expressing opinions on a subject upon which they are proud to be ignorant, or raising a clamour against those whose adoption of a fixed standard of belief. rebukes their own indifference.
2. The next peril comes from men of a totally different stamp, a nobler sort than the others, persons of strong religious convictions, and professing a rigid orthodoxy of a certain kind. They accept the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, and other doctrines which, whether true or false, are not fundamental. But their creed is out of all keeping and perspective, for they lay but little stress upon the weightier matters of revealed religion; while the objects of present or recent controversy assume an exaggerated importance in their eyes. The end of it is that they become Protestants, or Churchmen, or Arminians, or Supralapsarians, or anything rather than Christians. And if, as is often the case, they have been led to dwell almost exclusively upon what may be called the subjective doctrines of the gospel — those which regard the work of redemption as it reveals itself in the inner man — the danger comes to them in a more subtle shape. For the internal and spiritual character of those doctrines seduces men readily into the belief that the profession of them is a guarantee for spirituality.
3. The third proceeds from persons who profess a perfectly correct belief, while they are not at all spiritual, nor always particularly practical. The true object of the confession is not so properly the Incarnation, as the Saviour regarded as Incarnate. Yet creeds and dogmas have their proper function, so far forth as they give our faith a definite object to fasten on. A Christ who is not come in the flesh would be no Christ at all.
(W. B. Jones, M. A.)
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