1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because 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; and this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.
(1 John 4:1-3, NASB).
The nature of a Test
So, we are directed to test the spirits and exercise caution over the teachings of people since many of them are false prophets. The question is, how? One of the things about testing the purity of gold is that impure gold and even fool’s gold looks for all the world like real gold, especially to the untrained eye. The appearance of impure gold is for all the world like pure gold, but it is only under scrutiny that its impurity is discovered. This is the example John encourages with the word “test” in v.1.
He gives us a sure test: the confession that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. We must be careful in unpacking this statement to be true to the text; it is a very simple statement yet we can end up reading our own pet doctrines concerning Jesus into it if we don’t observe what it directly says.
The nature of confession
First, it is a confession. Everything they say doesn’t have to be like a preacher expositing scripture about Jesus. However, when it comes under scrutiny, we want to see a confession of Jesus. It has to be a soul level release; they can say “Jesus Jesus Jesus” but when we get down to the core level desperate dependence, does Jesus come out? Is Jesus this teacher’s confession, their first and final refuge? Is Jesus the prime mover of their teaching? A confession of Jesus is different than a tip of the hat to Jesus. The spirit which is the driving animus has to confess Jesus.
A spirit is speaking
Secondly, we are hearing the teaching of a spirit. This is strange to think, but it is what the scripture says. This is a spiritual affair, a spiritual conflict, and the prize is our belief. The Spirit of God is a singular entity, but the false spirits are many. However, these false spirits are unified under the direction of the spirit of the antichrist. As far as I can read it, this is the lay of the land as spelled out here. It is not obvious at first whether it is the spirit of God or a spirit under the guidance of antichrist. You can only tell by their confession concerning Jesus.
In the flesh
Either the spirit which informs the teacher/prophet confesses Jesus has come in the flesh, or it does not confess Jesus. What does this phrase, “come in the flesh” mean? I could begin to dig up a lot of stuff about how the gnostics were spreading strange teachings about Jesus being a spirit and such, but I want to first look carefully at this text.
Jesus has come in the flesh. I and you and Hitler and Gandhi and everyone else has also come in the flesh. There is some peculiar twist to saying that Jesus has come in the flesh. It is not unusual nor is it contested or spoken otherwise that I or you or anyone else has come in the flesh. It is contested that Jesus has come in the flesh, otherwise he would not say so. From other scripture, such as John 1:1, we know that he means that God Himself has become flesh. This much is observable directly in the text here – Jesus has come in the flesh in a way that is unusual to believe. There is some strange motivation for people to assert that Jesus wasn’t a real flesh and blood human, that He was just a myth or a spirit or a storybook figure.
It is strange to reflect on this, isn’t it? No one really asserts that Abraham was a mythical figure, or that Mohammed or Buddha were spiritual ghosts, at least not that I know of. Not in the same way that they have counsels and write books on the “historical” Jesus. I’ve never seen a book on the “historical” Buddha or the “historical” Mohammed or even the “historical” Plato in the same sense that we see books like this about Jesus.
It is because the claims about Jesus are so crazy: He is God incarnate. He did many obvious and intense miracles. He died for the sins of mankind. He rose from the dead. If you believe that Jesus has come in the flesh, clearly it includes these things, or His coming in the flesh would not be so asserted or so contested. This coming in the flesh is one of the main themes of the book. False prophets may teach otherwise, but John, the author of this book, was an eyewitness:
1 What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life–
2 and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us–
3 what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.
(1 John 1:1-3, NASB).
Larger meaning of “In the flesh”
We are looking for a purity of teaching, a purity of belief, like checking for the purity of gold. So if someone says, “yes – I believe Jesus was a real guy.” I don’t personally buy it, not without qualification. John looks at Jesus coming the flesh in the sense of Him being the son of God, God in the flesh. If not, he would not say a thing like “Jesus has come in the flesh.” We assume normal humans “come in the flesh.” He also looks at Jesus in the sense of being the propitiation for our sins (1 John 1:7, 2:2, 3:5, 3:16, 4:10). You cannot think of Jesus as coming in the flesh, the true Jesus, without including the propitiation. The idea of His sacrifice includes that He was flesh. It is the critical piece; spirits and myths don’t really bleed. If you say, Jesus was real – He was a great moral teacher, or even, Jesus came as God incarnate, but you reject the idea that He is primarily a savior and our propitiation, you are not advocating the true Jesus who actually came in the flesh. Instead you are advocating a mythical Jesus. His moral teachings and great example of living served to point us most powerfully to our need for His salvation. So I believe all of this is included in believing that He came in the flesh. If you exclude or obscure His propitiatory death from His coming, you have rejected His real in-the-flesh life altogether.
How does this translate into our real-life relationships with people? Are we supposed to go around like the belief-checking police, checking everyone for conformity to the perfect doctrine of Christ’s incarnation and propitiation and resurrection and all? In a way, yes, but I don’t think this is the spirit of it. As I have said, it is not so much that we judge others, but we judge the message that we are willing to receive as gospel truth. We take care what we listen to:
24 And He was saying to them, “Take care what you listen to. By your standard of measure it shall be measured to you; and more shall be given you besides.
18 “Therefore take care how you listen; for whoever has, to him shall more be given; and whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has shall be taken away from him.”
(Mark 4:24; Luke 8:18, NASB).
Also, remember that we are not talking about going around to individual people asking discerning questions trying to ascertain where they are coming from. We are talking about false teachers – people trying to teach us and directly persuade us and influence our beliefs. It is the spirit behind the teacher who is attempting to influence our beliefs who we are to test, who must qualify to influence us. We are not talking about going around correcting unsuspecting non-Christian people, but about being influenced by persuasive teachers who are trying to pass themselves off as teachers but who are false prophets.
This part really is my personal opinion, and is up for argument. I think that if you hear someone saying that it is all about performance, all about perfection of deeds, that somehow our sinful actions can negate and trump the perfect blood of Christ, they may mean very well, but they are not preaching the real Jesus who came in the flesh. The real Jesus who came in the flesh came not to condemn the world, but to save the world. He did not come to represent an ideal, but to redeem real people. The real Jesus died for our sins. All of them. The gospel according to Jesus is that the free gift of salvation is offered to all who thirst. Remember that counterfeit money is most successful when it most closely resembles real money. Even so, a counterfeit Jesus may be offered up in a legitimate looking church, with a legitimate looking preacher in a legitimate denominational congregation, but if He is preached as respresenting that your transformed life and your deeds and your success in sanctification is your ticket, something else than the real Jesus who came in the flesh is being offered. So, can some pentecostal holiness oneness preacher be thought of as a true prophet? I just don’t see how. How about a baptist minister who is generally a bit harsh and legalistic? It’s up for grabs, but I’m not going to that church. I’m sorry. Remember that it was the religious leaders, who purported to speak for God and lead the people, whom Jesus most fiercely refuted. We are not wrong to test the spirits most stringently, we are in fact commanded to do so in this scripture.
Test it, and it passes!
Now, there are some whom we may test, and we may not like the flavor or appearance of what they are saying, but they really are teaching the true Christ who was crucified for us. maybe they emphasize things differently, or come from an angle I’m uncomfortable with. I wanted to think I disagreed, for example, with Kevin DeYoung in his book “Hole in our Holiness”. Guess what? He totally passes the test for real Jesus gospel belief. I actually differ with him on the details of what pattern of mind leads to a more purified lifestyle, but I don’t differ with him on the value of sanctification or the centrality of Christ and Him crucified. We are brothers in Christ – I tested what he was saying and in the end it is pure gold. So it is not that we reject everything that we disagree with. We can be, in some ways, on opposite ends of the spectrum on some issues, but still be united in believing that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, and all that that entails. This belief is therefore not the basis of fragmentation and disunity, but unity in Christ. Unity in Christ obviously means disunity with those who make a pretense of being in Christ but are not in Christ. Unity is not the end, but truth.