Yesterday I considered what it means to “test the spirit.” Today we see that John says the grid through which we are to filter our discernment is what is written in the Scriptures about Jesus Christ. “By this you know the Spirit of God: 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.”
There are many ways that we can test teachers to see if their message is from God. We should, like the Bereans, test them according to Scripture. John gives a number of tests in this letter: their commitment to the church (2:19); their lifestyle (3:23-24); and even here in v. 1, the fruit of their message. But John says that the most important test of all is what they believe about Jesus Christ.
This test alone eliminates a whole host of heresies. In John’s setting, the Gnostics were addressed as those who were leading the people of God astray in their teaching in many areas. But one of their most grievous errors was their teaching that Christ was not both fully divine and fully human. Because they considered all material to be evil, they distorted the truth of the person of Christ, teaching that the divine Christ descended on the man Jesus at His baptism, then left Him before the crucifixion. They were false teachers because they did not confess that Jesus Christ came in the flesh. But they were but the forerunners of a long list of groups who have this error. The New Age movement was the fad when I was in college. One of their main tenets was that the Christ spirit has descended on many great men down through the ages, with Jesus of Nazareth being one of them. Liberal theologians refuse to call Jesus the God-man, the one and only Mediator between God and man. Cults such as the Jehovah Witnesses and the Mormons deny that in Christ all the fullness of deity dwells bodily (Col. 2:9).
However, that is the essence of the Christmas story and the life of Christ on this earth. The truth that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us is, as one theologian put it, a summary of the whole gospel – the person and ministry of Christ. It summarizes all that John has to say in his epistle about Jesus, and all that the Scriptures have to say about Christ. It summarizes the work of all of Christ’s offices.
John says, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” He refers to Jesus pre-existence – He came. Jesus did not begin in Bethlehem—Bethlehem is the place where the eternal Son of God first appeared in human flesh. Jesus said of Himself in John 8:58 – “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” We know that by this testimony Jesus identified Himself with God, the great “I am.” Some would deny this, stating that Jesus’ statement was but a device used for emphasis, that He was not in fact identifying Himself as God. Then why were the religious elite so furious with Him? So John asserts that we must test what is taught concerning the deity of Christ, that He always was, is, and will forever be God of very God. “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”
Conversely, anyone who teaches that Jesus was merely a man that came into being as His total existence in the womb of the virgin Mary has “the spirit of the antichrist.” The Greek word antichrist can mean “against or opposite of Christ” or “in the place of Christ.” John introduced these false professors in chapter 2 and the context there was as here, concerning doctrine and truth. The “spirit of the antichrist” does not point to Christ or exalt Christ. It denies these essential truths of the person of Christ. They attempt to reshape Christ in their own image according to their “more enlightened” understanding of truth. Isn’t it interesting that in 1 John 3:23 John says, “Believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ,” and then two verses later, in the same context, he can say, “But don’t believe everything you hear said about Jesus Christ”? Believe in Jesus Christ, but don’t believe everything you hear. Christians often mistake faith or belief for gullibility playing on emotion. But John says, “Don’t you be gullible. Test the spirits.” And this begins with the question, “What do you think of Christ?” And John is saying, ‘Real Bible-faith is discerning.’ Bible-faith doesn’t just believe any old, old story that is told; it believes the truth, and it discerns between truth and error. And so John is desirous that we would believe the truth, not just believe anything. Faith—Bible-faith, Christian faith, saving faith—is not “faith in faith” or “faith in a lark and a leap in the dark.” Faith is a firm belief, a belief anchored in the person and work of Christ, a cross and an empty tomb, and the promise of God that is true and sure.