1 John 4:1-6
Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God…
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.
Parallel VersesKJV: Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.