Testing the Spirits - Chapter 4.1-6
These verses deal with a matter which was directly relevant to the day in which John wrote and to the present. It is notable that John pens these words. He, himself, had been guilty of acting in a wrong spirit (Lk 9.55).
1. The Reason for the Warning (v.1)
When John wrote, there was still opportunity for some to say that they had received a revelation from the Holy Spirit. There was a need to test this to determine whether the claims were true. Today, we have the advantage of being able to refer to Scripture. It is still possible, as Peter warns us in 2 Peter 3.16, that there will be false teachers who misuse the Scriptures to support false doctrine. This is the character of the devil himself in the temptation of the Lord (Mt 4.6; Lk 4.10-11). While we ought to check everything against the Word of God, there will be occasions where we may need to challenge something quickly. In such situations, the principles laid down in a passage like this will serve as a test to keep us in right paths.
As a general principle, we all ought to be marked by the characteristic of the Bereans (Acts 17.10,11). This is the ultimate safeguard for every true believer. We have a responsibility to read the Word of God regularly and carefully because it will be our safeguard against the attack of the enemy. The more we read the Scriptures, the more the Holy Spirit will be able to bring to mind those things which we have learned when we are tested, otherwise there will always be the possibility of being swayed by doctrines which are contrary to the mind of God. The gifts of the risen Lord to His Church (Eph 4.11) were designed to bring us all into "the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (Eph.4.13).
2. The Test of Truth and Error (vv.2-3)
The test of the Spirit of God is simple. He will always confess "that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh". This may seem to be a very basic test that is open to imitation, but the reality is that the statement has many implications. The name, Jesus Christ, links the humanity of our Lord with His heavenly character. He is the One who went to the cross and triumphed over the hosts of darkness. Peter challenged the Jews on the day of Pentecost with the fact that "God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2.36). Here is a Name which clearly demonstrates the power and authority of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Old Testament had clearly told of a coming Messiah or Christ. The statement here is that Jesus is the Christ of whom the Old Testament had spoken. Implicit in this is the fact that He is also the Son of God. The difficulty of the Jews concerning the Deity of Christ was that they were looking for a manifestation in glory rather than a coming in humility.
The fact that He "is come in the flesh" rather than "was born" is a further statement of His divine origin. He had life before His birth. It also implies that His life in the flesh continues beyond His death. We cannot claim to have an eternal salvation unless all this is true. We need the assurance that we have a Saviour who has dealt fully and finally with everything that could ever stand between us and God. This is only possible if we rest in the assurance that our Saviour was free from the sin of Adam (Rom 5.12), was fully identified with mankind apart from sin (Rom 8.3), was completely free from every taint of sin (1 Pet 2.22; 2 Cor 5.21; 1 Jn 3.5), but has answered fully to the claims of sins on behalf of the believer (1 Pet 2.24; 1 Pet 3.18; 1 Jn 3.5), and has triumphed over every power that might oppose us before God (Rom 4.25; Rom 8.33; Heb 2.14; Col 2.13-15). Here is the confidence that we have in our Lord Jesus Christ. A denial of anything implied in the statement of John here in vv.2-3 would mean that we do not have claim to the security that we proclaim in the gospel. We can only claim a full salvation because we have a Redeemer who was truly Man, who has fully met the claims of God, bearing the punishment for our sins, and who has risen to demonstrate that the power of sin has been broken. We have a Saviour in glory, who has passed through death, and therefore we rest in the assurance that death cannot hold us. We bow to the claims of Jesus Christ to be Lord in our lives.
In contrast, error is equally evident because it refuses to confess that the Man, Jesus, has the right to these claims. It may be, in the subtlety of the evil one, that he may appear to concede on one or more of these claims, but only in such a way as to deny some feature which in reality will undermine the whole. We cannot separate out the aspects of the Person and work of our Lord. One obvious aspect that is frequently under attack is the fact that our Lord was unable to sin. This is a dangerous line because the claim is that He was not a real man if we say He could not sin. The reality is that if He was a man in the sense suggested, He would be under the condemnation of Romans 5.12 and therefore under sentence of death because of sin. It would mean He could not be Son of God, and would completely remove the value of His work.
3. The Triumph of the Believer (v.4)
John underlines what is involved in the confession of faith and exposure of error: "Ye are of God". Because of our Lord Jesus Christ, we have entered into a relationship with God which ensures that we are kept by the full power of the Godhead. The triumph of our Lord which we have already seen to be involved in the confession of faith means that we can never be overcome by the forces of sin and darkness that oppose the ways of God. Our security is based on the fact that the battle has already been fought, the victory has already been won. There is nothing to be added to the work that our Lord has done. The devil will constantly remind us of our failures, but we ought to be looking at the triumph of our Lord. If we try to stand in our own strength, then the devil will quickly gain the advantage. As soon as we recognise that everything we have is in Christ, and the triumph of His finished work, then we shall withstand every attack of the devil in confidence. Clearly, if our lives are being lived in the good of all that we profess then we will have a moral confidence because there will not be the shame of sins which can be exposed by the enemy.
4. The Distinction between the Believer and the World (vv.5-6)
John reminds us now of the fact that there are two completely distinct companies in the world. Those without Christ belong to the world and cannot understand the things of God. They will readily fall into the snare of the devil, believing his lies. These are things which will appeal to men, because they are attractive to them naturally. It may be their inner desires, it may be their intellect, it may be their emotions that are attracted. The devil knows every means to draw us away from our Lord. His ways will always appeal to us in our natural state.
In contrast to the world, the believer belongs to God. We have found our centre in our Lord Jesus Christ. We should refuse the attacks of the enemy because they take away from the glory of our Lord. Every one that is of God will listen to the truth because it exalts our Lord Jesus Christ, and there is no greater joy than to hear Him exalted. In contrast, the men of the world cannot take the sound of His glory because it condemns them. For this reason they will refuse to listen, and will show their true character as those who come in the spirit of antichrist.
Let us take care that we always remember that the simple test of truth and error is the Person of Christ. The true believer will always delight to hear Him exalted. An additional challenge to each of our hearts is that our true spiritual condition will be measured, not by what we say of our Lord publicly, but by how much He occupies our hearts in every circumstance of life.
To be continued.