Last week’s passage was about how believers should love one another. So, we’re not to be like Cain, who hated his brother and killed him. We’re to be like the Lord who loved us and who laid down his life for us on the cross. And so, we should love our fellow believers with a sacrificial, costly love like his. And don’t love with words or tongue, but with actions and truth, because true love involves action. If our fellow believer is in need, and we are in a position to help, then we should help. Give him what he needs. That’s the kind of love we should have for our fellow believers.
And so, last week’s passage was all about love. But right at the end of last week’s passage, John referred to the Holy Spirit whom God has given to us. John said that we know we live in God by means of the Spirit he gave us. That is, we know we live in a relationship with God because of his Spirit. Now, we can’t see the Spirit, because he’s invisible. But we know his presence in our lives by the effect he has on our lives, because the Holy Spirit enables believers to do the will of God, which is to love our fellow believers.
And having mentioned the Holy Spirit, John goes on in today’s passage to instruct his readers — and that includes us — not to believe every spirit. Don’t believe every spirit, but tests the spirits to see whether they are from God. That’s in verse 1. And then he mentions the Holy Spirit in verse 2 and he tells us how we can recognise the Spirit of God. And then, in verse 3, John refers to the spirit of the antichrist. So, there’s the Holy Spirit of God; and there’s the unholy spirit of the antichrist. And then he refers in verse 4 to ‘the one who is in you’; and that’s a reference to the Holy Spirit. God is in us by his Spirit. And John also refers to ‘the one who is in the world’; and that’s a reference to the spirit of the antichrist. And right at the end of today’s passage, he refers to the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. The Spirit of truth is the Holy Spirit; and the spirit of falsehood is the spirit of the antichrist.
So today’s passage is about distinguishing the Spirit of God from the spirit of the antichrist. How can we tell them apart?
But before we get to that, let me remind you of what John means by the antichrist.
He first mentioned the antichrist in verse 18 of chapter 2. And when we studied that passage, I said that the prefix ‘anti’ means ‘opposed’ to or ‘against’. And so, the antichrist is opposed to Christ; he is against Christ; he is a rival to Christ. And John tells us that the antichrist is coming. So, he’s going to come or appear one day; but that day hasn’t arrived yet. He’s coming, but he isn’t here yet.
However, even though the antichrist has not yet come, many antichrists have come. They have already come. And we learned when we studied the previous passage that when John refers to the many antichrists who have already come, he was referring to various people who once belonged to the church, but who left the church and who were now trying to lead others astray by teaching things about Christ which are not true. Instead of teaching the true apostolic message about Christ, they were teaching things about Christ which were false. So, the many antichrists are false teachers who deny some of the most fundamental doctrines of the faith. For instance, we learned from John that these false teachers were saying that sin doesn’t matter. How you live doesn’t matter. What you do doesn’t matter. You can have a relationship with God and live an immoral and unholy life, because sin doesn’t matter. That’s one of the things they were saying, according to John. And they also denied that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. The apostles taught that the Lord Jesus is God the Son, the second person of the Trinity. And the apostles taught that God the Son came into the world as one of us, so that he is now God and man in one person. He is true God and true man. He is God in the flesh.
And because he became one of us, he was able to die on the cross in our place to pay for our sins with his life and to make peace for us with God. That’s what the apostles taught and it’s what we believe. But it seems that the false teachers were saying that the Lord did not become flesh. He only appeared to be human. He only seemed to be a man. And so, these false teachers, these many antichrists, denied some of the fundamental doctrines of the faith.
And so, John was warning his readers about these false teachers who have already come and who try to deceive many by their false teaching. And, of course, there are still false teachers in our day. The antichrist has not yet come, but there are many antichrists, many false teachers, in our day too.
And if that’s the case, how can we recognise them? How can we identify them? Presumably, the false teachers in John’s day claimed to be filled with the Spirit of God. When they arrived at a church, presumably they said to the people that God had sent them; and that they had the Spirit of God; and so, you should listen to us, because we have the Spirit of God in us.
But should we listen to someone just because they claim to have the Spirit of God? Should we listen to them? Should we believe what they say? Should we do what they ask? Well, before we believe what they say and do what they ask we must first test the spirits. That’s what John says in verse 1. Do not believe every spirit, he wrote, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God. And when he says do not believe ‘every spirit’, he means do not believe every person who claims to have the Spirit. And when he says ‘test the spirits’, he means test those people, those teachers, who claim to have the Spirit. Test them to see whether or not they have come from God. Are they true preachers, sent by God? Or are they charlatans? Are they false teachers? Are they heretics who have come to lead you away from the true gospel? So, test them.
And it’s necessary to test them, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. In 2 Peter 1, Peter refers to true prophets who spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit enabled true prophets to proclaim the word of God. But, according to John, many false prophets have gone out into the world. They claim to speak from God. They claim to have been carried along and inspired by the Holy Spirit. So, how can we recognise them? How can we identify them? How can we test them?
Verses 2 and 3
In verses 2 and 3 John shows us how to recognise the Spirit of God and the spirit of the antichrist. And he means that this is how to know whether a preacher or teacher has come from God or has not come from God. Here’s a preacher. He claims to have the Spirit of God. How can I tell whether he’s really from God or whether he’s a false teacher?
And here’s the test. What does he say about Christ? What does he say about the Lord Jesus Christ? Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. There’s the test. What does he say about Christ?
And so, it’s a doctrinal test. It’s about what the teacher believes and teaches. It’s about what he acknowledges. However, ‘acknowledge’ is perhaps not the best translation. People can acknowledge something to be the case, but it’s not important to them. When they’re put on the spot, they acknowledge something to be the case, but it’s not important to them and they don’t normally talk about it. Perhaps they even avoid talking about it. So, a better translation is ‘confess’. Some churches recite the Apostles’ Creed or another creed every Sunday as part of their service of worship. And that’s a good practice, because every Sunday the people are reminded of what they and all Christians believe; and they get to confess it publicly. As they recite the creed, they’re saying that this is what we believe. And because the Apostles’ Creed is very old, it’s what Christians have always believed and confessed.
And so, John is not referring to someone who, when put on the spot, acknowledges something. He’s talking about someone who publicly and openly confesses that he believes… what? He believes that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. That is, he believes that Jesus Christ is God, the second person of the Trinity; and he believes that God the Son came to earth as one of us, becoming like us in every way apart from sin. He therefore confesses that Jesus is God and man in one person. He is true God and true man. He is fully divine and fully human. That’s the test. What does this teacher say about Christ?
And that’s the test, because the false teachers who were around in John’s day were denying it. Though they claimed to have the Spirit of God, they did not acknowledge or confess Jesus. That is, they did not confess that Jesus is God and man in one person. That kind of preacher is not from God. That kind of preacher does not have the Holy Spirit. That kind of preacher has the spirit of the antichrist, because they are speaking against Christ. They are opposed to Christ. They are denying the truth about Christ. They are therefore displaying the spirit of the antichrist.
And it’s important that we note that the test is a test of doctrine: what we believe; and what we teach. The test is not whether or not this person who claims to have the Spirit can perform signs and wonders. People are often taken in by that kind of thing. Here’s someone who can do amazing things. He must be from God! But remember what happened when Moses went to Pharaoh? God had given Moses a sign to perform. Throw your staff on the ground and it will become a snake. And Moses did it. What a sign! What a miracle. The problem was that Pharaoh then summoned his wise men and sorcerers and his magicians and they were able to do the same thing by their secret arts. They were able to do by their secret arts what what Moses did by the power of God. Whether or not someone can perform signs and wonders is not the test.
And the test is not whether the preacher is dynamic and has a charismatic personality and has a great crowd of followers. People are often taken in by that kind of thing. Here’s a preacher and he looks good and he sounds good and so many people go to his church. He must be from God! But that’s no guarantee that someone is from God.
No, the test is doctrinal. What do they believe? What do they confess? What do they say about Christ? In John’s day, the false teachers were denying the incarnation. In our day, it might be something else. But whatever it is, it’s normally something in connection with the Lord Jesus. The spirit of the antichrist in them means they will deny some fundamental doctrine about the person or work of Christ. Not so long ago there were books being written by various people, including some who claimed to be evangelical, in which the authors attacked what we call the doctrine of penal substitute. The doctrine of penal substitute is the doctrine that Christ suffered in our place the penalty we deserve for our sins. People were denying this key doctrine of the faith, which Christians have always believed. And so, that’s a test to use. What do you confess about Christ’s death? Why did Jesus die?
And so, the test is not the performance of signs and wonders. The test is not whether someone is dynamic and has a big following. The test is doctrinal: What do you say about Christ? What do you say about his person: who he is? And what do you say about his work: why did he die? Those who confess the true apostolic doctrine are from God. Those who do not confess the true apostolic doctrine are not from God. It’s not the Spirit of God who makes them deny Christ. It’s the spirit of the antichrist.
Now, you’re normally safe enough in a Presbyterian Church, where every minister has to subscribe to the Confession of Faith, which is hundreds of years old and which summarises what the Bible teaches. And if a minister ever teaches something which contradicts the Confession, they can be disciplined by the church. But when you watch other preachers on TV or on YouTube or if you read a book by a popular author, you need to remember that not everyone who claims to be from God is from God. And so, you need to apply this doctrinal test; and find out what this person believes about the Lord Jesus Christ. Does what this person believes and confesses match up with the true apostolic message about the Saviour? Just because someone has a big following on YouTube, just because someone’s books are popular doesn’t mean that that person is from God.
Verses 4 to 6
Let’s move on to verses 4 to 6 where he says that his readers have overcome ‘them’. That is, his readers have overcome those false prophets, those false teachers, who left the church and who have now gone out into the world. And when John says that his readers have overcome the false teachers, he means they have not been led astray. They have not been taken in. They have rejected the heretical things which the false teachers have taught.
That’s how we overcome false preachers; and that’s how we overcome the spirit of the antichrist. We overcome them by holding firmly to the gospel. So, the false teachers are trying to lead us astray. But we overcome them when we hold on to the gospel message and do not move from it. That’s how we overcome.
Of course, one of the problems we have is that we’re often tempted by whatever is new. Here comes a preacher and he’s saying things which I’ve never heard before in church. In church I hear the same old message, which I’ve heard a million times before. But here’s something new. And new is good, right? People love to get new clothes. They love to get a new look. They love to drive a new car. They love to get a new phone. New is good. And very often new is good. But it’s not good when it comes to Christian doctrine. It’s not good when it comes to what we believe about the Saviour. When it comes to what we believe about him, the old is better, because we must believe what Christians have always believed about Christ. We must believe what the apostles taught about him when they laid the foundation of the church.
And so, the way to overcome the false teachers is by holding on to the gospel message which Christian have always believed. And we’re able to overcome them by holding on to the gospel, because he who is in us is greater than he who is in the world.
The one who is in believers is the Holy Spirit. God dwells in us by his Spirit. And the one who is in the world is the spirit of the antichrist. And because the spirit of the antichrist is in the world, then the world is against Christ. The world is opposed to Christ. It is antagonistic towards Christ and towards Christ’s church.
And John writes in verse 5 that false teachers are from the world. So, they left the church and they now belong in the world with everyone else who does not believe. And since they now belong in the world, they speak from the viewpoint of the world. Do you see that in verse 5? The viewpoint of the world is an unbelieving viewpoint, which opposes the truth about Christ. And the false teachers speak from the viewpoint of the world. And this is fascinating, because John says that the world listens to them. They speak from the viewpoint of the world; and the world listens to them.
They call this an echo chamber, don’t they? People join some news group on the internet where everyone believes the same thing; and no one contradicts anyone else; and all they do is reinforce their own beliefs. And that’s fine, if what they believe is true. But if they believe in some silly conspiracy theory or if they are extremists, then it’s very bad. Those bad ideas need to be challenged and corrected. But that’s an echo chamber: it’s a group where everyone believes the same thing.
And in a sense, the unbelieving world is one big echo chamber, because everyone is echoing everyone else. None of them believe the truth about Jesus Christ; and each person reinforces the unbelief of everyone else and helps everyone else to continue in their unbelief. And false teachers, who have rejected the truth about Christ, are only echoing what everyone else in the unbelieving world already believes.
But look at what John says in verse 6. He says that we are from God. He’s referring to himself and his readers. We belong to God. We are his children. And everyone who knows God as we do listens to us, but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. So, imagine if some of those false teachers came into their church. They would be turned off by what they hear, because those false teachers are opposed to the truth about Christ. But when visiting believers came into their church, they would feel right at home, because they’re hearing what believers have always believed.
And so, this is how we recognise the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. Does this person confess what Christians have always confessed? If so, then that person has the Spirit of truth. Does this person not confess what Christians have always confessed? If so, then that person has the spirit of falsehood, which is the spirit of the antichrist.
Before we finish, let me say this about the Spirit of truth. He’s the Spirit of truth because he enables us to know and believe the truth. He doesn’t zap us and fill us with the truth all at once. He could do that, because he’s God. But he doesn’t do that. But he enables us to know and to believe the truth by giving us the Bible. The Bible was written under his inspiration. And that means it’s true, because it is the word of God. And the Holy Spirit works through the reading and the preaching of God’s word to help us to grow in our knowledge of the truth. And when we’re wondering what to do, he reminds us of things we heard in the Bible. When someone asks us what we believe, he helps us to explain what the Bible says. The Spirit doesn’t zap us and fill our heads with knowledge. But he gives us his word so that we may know the truth more and more.
And here’s the thing. The Holy Spirit is like a flood-light outside a building. A flood-light outside a building doesn’t draw attention to itself. We’re not to look at the flood-light and admire it. That’s not the purpose of a flood-light. The purpose of a flood-light is to direct our attention to the building. The flood-light enables us to see and to admire the building. And the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit of God, directs our attention to the Saviour. He teaches us that the the Saviour left the glory of heaven and came to earth as one of us; and that he lived a perfect life of obedience; and that he gave up his life on the cross to pay for our sins; and that he was raised from the dead and exalted to heaven; and that everyone who believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life in the presence of God forever. The Spirit of truth points us to Christ so that we may all believe in him for salvation.