Text: 1 John 4:1-6 — 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. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. 4 Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
Introduction: Have you ever seen one of those bumper stickers with all kinds of religious symbols representing many approaches to “truth” with the word COEXIST right in the middle of them? The people who put them on their cars (whether they know it or not) are proponents of something called PLURALISM. You can define it as a system in which two or more sources of authority coexist. When it comes to faith matters, this means that there are multiple ways to God and no single religious instruction can claim to have a monopoly on the truth. In his recent book, the Problem of God, author Mark Clark writes this about pluralism: If you want to understand the dogma of religious pluralism, consider a scene from the comedy movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. If you haven’t seen it, Ricky is a professional race car driver whose car crashes during a race. Thinking he’s on fire, he runs around the track crying out, “Help me, Jesus! Help me, Jewish God! Help me, Allah! Help me, Tom Cruise (who is a scientologist)! Use your witchcraft on me to get the fire off of me! Help me, Oprah Winfrey!” In other words, when it comes to god, you’d best hedge your bets. One god doesn’t necessarily exclude all the others, so don’t limit yourself to just one when you can believe in all of them at once! This concept has its roots in Hindu and eastern philosophy, and has largely been adopted in Western culture. It can be found in several popular versions: (1) I am absolutely against any religion that says one faith is Superior to another. I don’t see how that is anything different than spiritual racism — Rabbi Shmuley Boteach; (2) My position is that all great religions are fundamentally equal –Mahatma Gandhi; (3) One of the biggest mistakes’ humans make is to believe there’s only one way. Actually, there are many diverse paths leading to God — Oprah Winfrey. So, the basic premise of pluralism is that all religions are true, or at least partially true; and have value. And in our culture, it is considered narrow-minded and judgmental to believe anything else. So how do we respond to the theology of Ricky Bobby and pluralism, which denies absolute truth?
In our passage for this morning, the Apostle John gives us the answer. In verse one of chapter four he says, “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” Why does he say this? Because we need to remember that behind every person who speaks on behalf of God is a spirit and behind every spirit is either the devil or God. In other words, not every person who claims to speak spiritual truth actually does so. True prophets are the mouthpiece of the Spirit of God. False prophets are the mouthpiece of the spirit of the antichrist. To discern the difference between them we have to be able to test the spirits. This is John’s command here in the first part of chapter four.
What does it mean to test the spirits? The word in the original language means to “try or prove” something as in the sense of a new scientific claim that must be proved to be valid by a careful examination of all the data. The idea here is that a believer is called to weigh the entirety of the evidence regarding a truth claim made by a prophet or teacher against what the Bible says about that subject. If it is in agreement with God’s Word, then it’s true. Otherwise, it is not! In His high priestly prayer in John 17:17, our Lord prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth. Thy word is truth.” His point was that Christians are called to love what God loves and hate what God hates. This happens when we are immersed in His revelation to us in the person of His Son and the pages of the Bible. This is how we learn to think God’s thoughts. We grow in the knowledge of Him and then apply it to all the stuff we hear from those who would teach us about God.
Why should we test the spirits? What does it hurt if false teachers put out their own version of the truth for others to consider? Does it really hurt anyone? Here’s why John issued his command.
· It arose out of a serious concern – verse 1b — … many false prophets have gone out into the world. In the first century there were a lot of people proclaiming their versions of the truth. The one that the Christians in Asia Minor were dealing with was an early form of Gnosticism which comes from the Greek word “to know.” It taught that the material world was evil and the spiritual world was good. The key matter for people was not salvation from the penalty of sin, but secret knowledge from God. These gnostic teachers stuck around so long as they had an audience to listen to their beliefs and then they left for other places to share their message. That’s why John said of them, “They went out from us, but they were not of us.” But even though they were gone, their words continued to land with some people causing them to question the gospel message. This is one of the reasons why John mentioned six times in the first three chapters of his letter that what he and the other apostles had been teaching was not some new form of truth, but the same message they had received from the beginning (1 John 1:1; 2:7, 13, 14, 24; 3:11). It had legitimacy because it came from Jesus Christ and not from a false prophet. Now, false teaching wasn’t only a first century problem. Today there continue to be an abundance of prophets speaking for God, many of whom are teaching stuff contrary to the Word of God. According to one web site (bibletruths.net) there are about 2,500 cults operating inside our borders. Each teaches things that are opposed to the historic Christian faith. That’s a big reason why Christians have to be able to distinguish between those that really speak for God and those that don’t. There are so many truth claims out there to sort through. Ultimately, behind every lie about the things of God stands the enemy, the deceiver. In Revelation 12:9 we’re told that Satan “leads the whole world astray.” Of course, that’s the world in the sense of those who are not a part of the kingdom of God and follow this world system under the devil’s control. They have bought into his lies and are seeking to find life by pursuing all that his kingdom (he is the god of this age) has to offer…the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life (See 1 John 2:15-17). So, the stakes in this conflict are very high! The truth brings eternal life while falsehood leads to eternal death. John felt it was necessary to call his readers back to the truth, but also to expose their untruth by holding it up to the light. In a 2011 blog post, Justin Buzzard wrote this about exposing untruth: While I think it is important to be known more for what you are for than what you are against, just a cursory reading of the Bible shows that it also calls us to deal with false teaching. Why? Because false teaching is dangerous and destructive; it hurts people. About ten years ago I heard (Christian author) Ben Patterson say something that I will never forget. Ben told the story of a retired pastor who began noticing that his former congregation was sliding away from orthodoxy. The pastor saw this as his fault, noting the one thing he thought he did most poorly as a pastor. The pastor stated, in two sentences, his great failure as a pastor: “I always told people what to believe. My great mistake is that I never clearly taught my people what NOT to believe.” There are a lot of truth claims out there. Because the consequences of believing falsehood is so devastating, we cannot afford to ignore them. Testing the spirits is as necessary today as ever. (Summary: Why did John say to test the spirits? It arose out of a serious concern.)
· It led to a clear confession – 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. The false teachers taught that Jesus was born by natural conception between a mother and father as Joseph planted his seed inside his soon-to-be wife Mary. While Jesus was a good man, he was just a man. It wasn’t until He was baptized in the Jordan River that the Christ of God came upon Him. The two were together during his three years of ministry so that the man, Jesus, could perform miracles and do the works of God. It was only when he was nailed to the cross that the Christ left Him That’s why he called out, “My God, my God. Why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Of course, this is not what the Bible teaches. Their error was in denying that Jesus was the Son of God who became a human being to accomplish our salvation. In fact, they went so far as to teach that what happened on the cross was inconsequential to reconciling us to God. To these teachers, salvation was based on acquiring the secret knowledge of God that they alone possessed and could impart. So, you can see why John had to confront this heresy. It was vitally important that he point out the way to tell the difference between teachers who have the Spirit of God and those who do not. The former (those who have the Spirit of God) confess that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, while the latter (those who have the spirit of the antichrist) don’t believe it for a second. Application: Today’s versions of Gnosticism according to Alistair Begg are UNIVERSALISM (the teaching that everyone will be saved no matter what they believe) and PLURALISM (that two or more sources of authority can coexist). Jesus warned that “small is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to life and few are those who find it, but wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction.” Just because a teaching is popular and accepted by many doesn’t mean it’s right. Beware of those who would lead you astray from a clear confession that Jesus is the Christ of God who came in the flesh to bring salvation to men. The Bible is clear: There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven by which a person can be saved (Acts 4:12). (Summary: Why did John command to test the spirits? It arose out of a serious concern; it led to a clear confession)
· It resulted in great confidence – 4 Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. John wanted the Christians in Asia Minor to know that they were a part of the kingdom of God and had overcome the spirit of the antichrist. Was this because they were simply smarter than these false teachers? Not at all. The reason was because God had revealed the truth to them by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. The contrast here is between the Holy Spirit (Greater is He who is in you) and the devil (than he who is in the world). Listen to what the Bible says in Ephesians 1:13-14 — In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation — having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.
Applications: So, John admonished his readers to test the spirits to see whether or not they were from the Spirit of God or the spirit of the antichrist. How should we apply this message today?
· Don’t believe everything you hear. Listen to the words of Paul in Galatians 1:8-9 — But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! Just because someone says something is true and sounds convincing in saying it, doesn’t mean that it is. Several years ago, I heard Rob Bell speak at a conference. He was, at the time, the hottest Christian speaker in the country. He was very dynamic and held the audience spellbound. A short time later, he published his book “Love Wins” and called the doctrine of an eternal hell “misguided and toxic and (that which) ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.” Today, he continues to exert tremendous influence over many young people who have bought into his assumptions about God. The only problem with his teaching is that it is not found in the Bible and ignores the fact that Jesus believed in an eternal Hell. Matthew 18:8-9 — If your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.
· Follow the example of the Bereans. In Acts 17:11, we’re told that they examined the Scriptures every day to determine if all that the Apostle Paul was teaching in the synagogue was true. I have a friend here who does this with me? Every time I share something in a message, he looks to the Word to see if it’s true. Am I mad about this? No way! I applaud him for holding me accountable to preach the truth of the Bible.
· Become a defender of the truth. We cannot afford to remain silent and just let falsehood prosper when it comes to the most important matter in life … the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must take a stand for the truth even if it adversely affects us. Listen to these words from the Apostle Paul in Galatians 2:4-5 — … some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you. NOT EVEN FOR A MOMENT DID THEY GIVE IN TO THEM. May we have the same kind of resolve!
Conclusion: Here’s a story out of the Washington Post (2-17-18) that ties it all together for us. When farmer Bruce Grubb saw what he perceived to be a potential threat to the people and animals on his farm, he acted decisively … Police in the area received a frantic call from the farmer, explaining that there was a tiger on the loose on his property, which he noticed on his way to check on his pregnant cows. “I got the fright of my life,” Bruce Grubb said, adding later: “I was worried it was going to eat all my cows before police managed to shoot it.” Grubbs call prompted authorities to send armed officers, also checking in with a local wildlife agency to ensure there had been no recent tiger escapes. After a 45-minute standoff, officers realized that the life-size tiger was, in fact, stuffed. They later returned with the tiger in tow, to be used as a workplace mascot. Besides enduring some teasing on social media, the farmer took the episode in stride. “I drove up to it with my truck, and that’s when I knew it was a toy,” said Grubbs. “I feel a bit silly for calling the police, but I thought it was a real emergency.” Police inspector George Gordiner gave a gracious final word: “Our ultimate aim is to protect the public and keep our officers safe when faced with uncertain situations. Until you know exactly what you are dealing with, every option has to be considered … we appreciate that it was a false call made with genuine good intent.” A FALSE CALL MADE WITH GENUINE GOOD INTENT. That’s a polite way to describe what happened in the case of Bruce Grubb. It’s also not a bad description of pluralism. A FALSE CALL ABOUT GOD MADE WITH GENUINE GOOD INTENT. Listen … for the most part, PLURALISM involves sincere people like Tom Cruise, Oprah Winfrey, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Mahatma Ghandi making all kinds of claims about God while remaining completely ignorant of the truth. But we have the Spirit of truth and do not need to give into the spirit of error.