John uses his discussion of assurance through the Holy Spirit in 3:24 as a launching point to instruct his readers about spiritual discernment. In an age where the New Testament does not yet exist and the church is dependent on oral communication, it is imperative that the church identify which teachers are truly Spirit-led and which teachers are not. John makes the case in this text that there are actually two spirits active in the world – the true Spirit of God and the spirit of the antichrist. Both will come to the churches as prophets; the church must discern which is true and which is false. John gives them two tests they can use to recognize the Spirit of truth and spirit of error.
In 3:23 John effectively said that the Holy Spirit enables us to obey God’s command to believe in Jesus and love one another (in many ways a summary of the whole Bible). In these verses he expands on the Holy Spirit’s role in our belief. Because of the Holy Spirit we know the true gospel and can identify what is and is not truth.
After instructing his readers that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is proof of belief, John wants to make sure they realize that not every claim of Spiritual inspiration is true. Spirits must be tested to verify they are from God because many false prophets have gone out into the world. It is interesting that John phrases this admonition in this way. Instead of saying that men or prophets must be tested, he says that spirits must be. He knows that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12). All prophets are spirit-led; the question becomes which spirit is doing the leading.
Thought: The Enemy did not take long to assault Christianity. This letter is written only decades after Christ’s death and already John can say as a matter of fact that many false prophets are in the world. Satan began immediately trying to undermine the gospel – not only through persecution but also by false teaching – and we would be wise to understand that what was true 2000 years ago is just as true today. Ours is the true faith and the main target of the forces of evil in the world. Satan desperately wants to lead believers astray and make them ineffective in the spiritual battle.
John gives the first test. Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. Again John uses interesting language. There is only one Holy Spirit, so it sounds odd to say every spirit that confesses… What he means, however, is that every prophet that comes to them speaking through the inspiration of the Spirit WILL confess that Jesus was (is) fully God AND fully man. The true prophet will confess – not just speak but truly believe and profess – that Jesus came to the earth in a physical body – in the flesh – and yet did not give up His divinity. Jesus said the Spirit will glorify Him (Jn 16:13-14); thus a prophet controlled by the Spirit will glorify Christ as well.
Thought: A true prophet/teacher of God will center his message and ministry on Christ. Nothing else will supersede that message – not activism, not experiences, not finances, not the teacher himself. He will preach Christ, praise Christ, glorify Christ. The person and work of Jesus will dominate his message. He will admonish his listeners to center their lives on Christ and will measure success by their devotion to Christ. He will study, pray, sing, and preach all with the goal of knowing Christ more and communicating that knowledge to his audiences. A ministry that does not exalt Christ alone is not inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Note the tense of the verb has come in verse 2. John says that Jesus is still in the flesh. He does not say that Jesus came – He has come in the flesh. Jesus remains in His glorified body for all eternity.
The false prophet will not confess Jesus in the flesh. He will claim that Jesus was not really divine. Or he will say that Jesus was divine for a portion of his life but did not go to the cross as a God-man. The heresy John has been addressing throughout the book is further amplified here – the churches are being assaulted with a theology that says Jesus was not truly on earth in the flesh.
Do not miss what this means. These prophets do not fully deny Jesus. They simply add to or detract from Him. This is what false prophets do and what makes them dangerous. If a false prophet clearly denounced Jesus or proclaimed that He never existed he would be easy to identify and avoid. But to attract followers he must proclaim near-truth and twist it with a lie. He must sound correct without being correct. Or he must state a new truth to add to the old (which is why John urged his readers to let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning – 2:24). This is the point of John’s admonitions in this text – if false prophets (false spirits) were easily identified there would be no reason for John to give his readers these tests.
The spirit who does not proclaim Jesus in the flesh is the spirit of the antichrist. This is the second mention of the antichrist in this letter. In chapter 2 John said the antichrist is the one who denies the Father and the Son. The antichrists were the ones who went out from the churches because their theology was not accepted. John says that God took them out to show they were not children of God (although do not miss that they were WITHIN the church – their false theology grew while they were in the fellowship). Here John uses the same title to describe those who deny Jesus in the flesh. Those who deny that Jesus was and is in the flesh are those who are utterly opposed to Him – they are ANTI-Christ. They are the spiritual ancestors of the man of lawlessness (II Thess 2) who will come in the end times.
Why are they antichrists? Because to deny that Jesus has come in the flesh is to deny the gospel. Christ’s death on the cross is nothing more than a martyr’s death if He is not truly God and truly man. A perfect man had to die for the sins of men. Only Jesus could die as a man and yet be the perfect sacrifice. If Jesus did not suffer and die on the cross as a God-man, there is no atonement, there is no forgiveness, there is no gospel. But we do see Him who has been made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone (Heb 2:9).
This is an enormously encouraging verse. John tells his readers that since they are from God and have God’s Spirit indwelling them they have overcome the false prophets. The reason they have overcome them is because the Spirit that indwells them is greater than the spirit that inhabits the world. God is omnipotent. God rules the universe that He called into existence. God is eternal and not dependent on anything or anyone. So His Spirit is greater than any other spirit. He is greater than Satan and greater than the power of Satan’s influence in the world.
Thought: While this verse refers specifically to false prophets and false teaching, it is not too much of a stretch to apply it to all of life (as is regularly done). If the Spirit in us is greater than the spirit in the world – if God is greater than Satan – then we have power over sin, we have comfort in the midst of trials, we have no reason to fear death. We have meaning in life because we know that what we believe is true. The promises of the gospel will be fulfilled because the One who promises them commands the universe. We can live with eternity in mind because we know God’s side wins in the end. This is a truth we must hold to when the power of the world and the effects of sin seem overwhelming and we feel so outnumbered by those who pursue evil – greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.
Verse 4 is similar to what John said in 2:20. Believers have been anointed by the Spirit. They have been set apart for God. And this anointing enables them to know the truth. Through the work of the Spirit we believe the truth (the Spirit enables us to both believe and love – 3:23) and discern what is and is not in accordance with it. Combining 2:20 and 4:4 makes it clear that our defense against heresy is knowledge of the truth and the work of the Holy Spirit. We must have both. The Spirit works through the word to defend us from sin and enable us to discern what is right.
Here is another verb tense that is encouraging. He does not say his readers WILL overcome the false teachers or CAN overcome them. He says they HAVE overcome them. This is similar to what John said to the young men in 2:12-14. As believers we have overcome the power of the Enemy by the blood of Christ even if oftentimes it does not feel like it. Victory is already ours because we are in Christ. Christ conquered sin and conquered the power of the Enemy. If we are in Christ we are victorious through Him. We are not enslaved to sin and therefore do not have to engage in it. Because of the Holy Spirit we do not have to be misled by false teaching.
John lays out the second test in these two verses. The true prophet is the one the world does NOT listen to (meditate on that for a moment). The true prophet teaches the same doctrine the apostles teach (We in verse 6 likely refers to the apostles [note that verses 4-6 each begin with a pronoun – You, They, We]). The false prophet speaks as from the world and the world listens to him. He does not teach what the apostles teach. When true believers through the guidance of the Holy Spirit respond to teaching, the teaching is thus verified to be in accordance with the truth (I Cor 2:6-16). Accordingly, the Spirit-led believer does not respond to teaching from the world.
It makes sense that if someone is from the world and teaches what the world believes, he will be accepted by the world. If someone preaches an anti-gospel the world will respond because the whole world lies in the power of the evil one (5:19). Those who do not have the Holy Spirit to enable them to discern truth will run after falsehood (Jn 8:42-47, I Cor 1:18-31).
Think of how many religious movements throughout history have been based on something close to the gospel but corrupted by man. How many times has someone risen to fame and developed large numbers of followers preaching something that sounds like truth but is tailored to worldly beliefs? It is not hard to find people hungry for a gospel that is centered on themselves. John says the world listens to those who are of it but does not listen to those who are of God. We must be diligent to apply John’s tests in this text to those who achieve enormous popularity as prophets and teachers.
Verse 6 gives a proof of the validity of both the prophet and the hearer. If one’s message is accepted by those who are of God, the message is true. If one listens and accepts a true message, he is truly of God. Still today we can recognize God’s Word because God’s people listen to it, just as we can recognize God’s people because they listen to God’s Word. (John Stott, The Letters of John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; 110.)
John’s summary at the end of verse 6 restates what has been his point throughout the text. All prophets are controlled by a spirit – the vital question is whether they are controlled by the spirit of truth or the spirit of error. We are in the midst of a spiritual war where the Enemy desperately wants to lead astray those who embrace the truth. In this fight he employs servants who look and sound very close to ministers of the gospel but who are wolves in sheep’s clothing. We can know them by their confession of Jesus and whether they are embraced by the children of God or the disciples of the world. We also have confidence that we will recognize truth and discern error because we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and greater is He who is in us than he who is in the world.
Thought: It is hugely encouraging that the Bible speaks to us as realistically as it does in this passage. John wants us to understand the gravity of the battle we face and the tactics our Enemy uses. Nothing is sugar-coated or hidden from us. Yet in the midst of this explanation he gives us the knowledge to overcome and the truth of the power we possess. We are in a battle that we ultimately win because of the One who fights for us. We cannot win ourselves because we are weak (and we actually would not even fight except for the Spirit who indwells us). But we are strong in our weakness because it is our weakness that forces us to depend on the Omnipotent. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!