Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. – 1 John 4:1-3.
I would imagine that John felt compelled to write his epistle primarily because of the deceptive efforts of the false teachers. These false teachers were effective in misleading some Christians in Asia Minor because of the believers’ inexperience in discerning truth from error. John lovingly warned against such gullibility, charging his beloved “children” and “friends” to “test the spirits.”
Believers today need to follow this same counsel. We live in an era that features all sorts of competing philosophies and contrasting claims (even in the religious realm). On the surface many of these common ideas seem to make sense. Furthermore, they are advocated by “knowledgeable experts” and believed by many. Nevertheless, when held up to the bright light of God’s truth, these notions are shown to be wrong . . . and dangerous. Critically evaluate the things you hear. Be as the Bereans were, (Acts 17:10-11), study God’s Word well enough to determine whether a claim is true or false.
The test believers (John’s “dear friends”) are to use is given in 4:2–3. The responsibility for testing the spirits rests not merely on scholars or church leaders but on every Christian. “Do not believe every spirit” means that the believers should not believe everything they hear just because someone says it is a message from God. It doesn’t matter the source or the “expertise” of the speaker, believers should test the message to see if it is truly from the Lord. One way is to check to see if it matches God’s Word, the Bible. Other tests include the teachers’ commitment to the body of believers (1 John 2:19), their lifestyles (1 John 3:23–24), and the fruit of their ministries (1 John 4:6). The most important test of all, however, is what they believe about Christ. Do they teach that Jesus is fully God and fully man? The first-century world was filled with many false prophets who were claiming to speak for God. The believers needed to apply these tests in order to discern truth from error.
The term “false prophets” is another name for the many antichrists (see 1 John 2:18–19). Whereas a true prophet is one who receives direct revelation from God, a false prophet only claims to have received direct revelation from God, but has not. The test is similar to that administered to false prophets in Deuteronomy 13:1–5; 18:15–22.
A particularly widespread false teaching during John’s time, was called Docetism (from the Greek word dokeo, meaning “to seem”), and held that Jesus was actually a spirit who only appeared to have a body. Thus, he cast no shadow and left no footprints, for he was God and not man. Another heretical teaching, related to Gnosticism (from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge”), held that all physical matter was evil, the spirit was good, and only the intellectually enlightened could enjoy the benefits of religion. Both groups found it difficult to believe in a Savior who was fully human and yet fully divine.
John answered these false teachers as an eyewitness to Jesus’ life on earth. He had seen Jesus, had spoken with him, and had touched him. John personally knew that Jesus was more than a mere spirit. John emphatically stated that Jesus was both divine and human.
Through the centuries, many heretics have denied that Jesus was both God and man. In John’s day, people had trouble believing Jesus was human; today more people have problems thinking he is God. But Jesus’ divine-human nature is the pivotal issue of Christianity. Before you accept what religious teachers say about any topic, listen carefully to what they believe about Jesus. To deny either his divinity or his humanity is to make him less than Christ, the Savior of all who accept Him.
Following are just some common characteristics of the teachings of cults and false religions that attack Christianity. Knowing about them will help Christians stand firm.
- Allow a central authority to make the decisions.
Cults find their authority, not in the Bible, but in a powerful and dictatorial leader.
- Claim to have “new truth” from special prophets or special revelation.
Because of so-called problems in the Bible or in Christian doctrine, cults appeal to new authorities or new spiritual revelation to counter Christianity.
- Attack the Christian church.
Cults take great pains to point out that Christian denominations show the disunity of the Christian church. A cult may point out immorality, racism, and hypocrisy in the Christian church in order to “prove” that it is not the true church.
- Twist Christian doctrine.
To establish their authority, cults try to prove the “unreasonableness” of Christian doctrine. They especially attack the doctrine of the Trinity and of the deity of Christ.
- Undermine Scripture.
Cults will string together unrelated verses or twist the Scripture’s grammatical or textual background in order to “prove” some way-out viewpoint.
- Promote salvation by works.
Cults stress the actions necessary—meetings, training, doing the work of the group—as essential to acceptance by God.
- Undermine the assurance of eternal life in God’s grace.
Cults teach that salvation exists in adherence to their teaching and practice, not in the merciful love of God through Jesus Christ.