Test the Spirits!

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TEST THE SPIRITS

False teachers were a big problem in the early church. Itinerant preachers were all over the place, taking advantage of the generosity of local churches to line their pockets. Things are no different today. We have pastors and evangelists peddling false teachings for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes these people are just ignorant; they have no theological education or training. Others knowingly mislead their trusting congregants for nefarious reasons.

What was needed in John’s day is precisely what’s needed today: discernment. Christians need to always be on their guard. The Devil never takes time off and neither should we. When it comes to discernment, we have an edge; we are filled with the Holy Spirit and He brings with Him a gift; the gift of discernment. All we have to do is learn to tap into that precious gift.

But there are other, practical things we can do to guard our hearts. First, we must live close to God. In prayer and in fellowship with other believers, we gain spiritual and mental strength. Second, we must learn how to listen to the Holy Spirit. He lives in us and we have Christ’s promise that the Spirit will lead us into truth. Finally, we must know the truth. That means knowing what the Bible says so that we will be able to tell when we are hearing false teaching.

It all sounds so simple! And it is. John has a great deal to say about this issue, and his advice is the essence of simple: test the spirits.

Gain confidence through obedience, 1 John 3:19 – 24

Belonging to the truth, verses 19- 22

Then we will know for sure, by our actions, that we are on God’s side, and our consciences will be clear, even when we stand before the Lord. But if we have bad consciences and feel that we have done wrong, the Lord will surely feel it even more,a for he knows everything we do.

But, dearly loved friends, if our consciences are clear, we can come to the Lord with perfect assurance and trust, and get whatever we ask for because we are obeying him and doing the things that please him. (TLB)

The “then” in verse 19 means we need to look back to see what he had just written. It’s about love; love for one another. Christians need to love each other not just with words, though. Our expressions of brotherly love must be backed up with corresponding actions or deeds. As Moffatt observed,

Let us put our love not into words or into talk, but into deeds, and make it real.

The kind of love John refers to is agape love, which is action-oriented. When we love this way, we are giving evidence that we really belong to God. And the more we practice this agape, action-oriented love, the more confident we become in our own faith. The Greek in this passage is confusing and depending on how it is translated and interpreted, its meaning may change slightly. It seems like this is what John is trying to get across to his readers: All believers need to know that they belong to the truth, and there are two ways to know. First, if we love in deed – practice agape love – that shows we have not been misled and that we belong to the truth. Second, God Himself gives us assurance that we belong to the truth – He is greater than our hearts or consciences and He knows everything.

We need to keep this in mind because from time to time we may feel condemned by our consciences, especially if we give credence to those who criticize us. The Devil always knows how to attack us; he knows what will “get to us.” What can we do when we doubt our beliefs? God knows what’s going on; He is smarter than our consciences and greater than our feelings. We can trust Him and rest in His love. We should never excuse our sins, but neither should be needlessly condemn ourselves, either.

What about me? Have I been a good servant? Well, I don’t worry over what you think about this or what anyone else thinks. I don’t even trust my own judgment on this point. My conscience is clear, but even that isn’t final proof. It is the Lord himself who must examine me and decide. (1 Corinthians 4:3, 4 TLB)

Believing in the Son and Living in Him, verses 23, 24

And this is what God says we must do: Believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another. Those who do what God says—they are living with God and he with them. We know this is true because the Holy Spirit he has given us tells us so. (TLB)

John is giving us much more than theology in these two verses! He’s giving us the only way to live life. As Christians, we are indwelt by God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, and because they are in us, then it follows we must live – demonstrate – that experience by being obedient and doing what God says through the Holy Spirit.

Discern the Spirits, 1 John 4:1 – 6

The ability to discern the spirits is not a gimmick. It’s not a parlor trick. It’s a very real gift available to all believers, according to Paul.

He gives someone else the power to know whether evil spirits are speaking through those who claim to be giving God’s messages—or whether it is really the Spirit of God who is speaking. (1 Corinthians 12:10 TLB)

John said the same thing this way:

Dearly loved friends, don’t always believe everything you hear just because someone says it is a message from God: test it first to see if it really is. For there are many false teachers around… (1 John 4:1 TLB)

It’s frightening to consider, but the fact is there are many spirits in the world, both good and bad, and we as believers need to be able to distinguish between them. There is the “Spirit of God” and the “spirit of antichrist.” Each may possess and manifest himself through people. There is the power of righteousness and the power of evil operating in the world, through people. And there are false prophets who are able to make evil out of good. People like this are all over the church of Jesus Christ today. According to John, there is a simple test to tell if a person is a false prophet or not:

…the way to find out if their message is from the Holy Spirit is to ask: Does it really agree that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, actually became man with a human body? If so, then the message is from God. (1 John 4:2 TLB)

This test was designed to combat popular heresies of John’s day, things like Gnosticism and Docetism. For believers today, whomever we may be listening to must be preaching orthodox theology, not “new fangled” philosophies. We need to be able to find their teachings the Bible somewhere.

Verse 5 gives another “test” useful in discerning a false teacher:

These men belong to this world, so, quite naturally, they are concerned about worldly affairs and the world pays attention to them. 

False teachers are not from God, they are from the world and belong to the world and, therefore, their teachings are popular among worldly people. Their “philosophies” are attractive to the unsaved. The world won’t pay heed to genuine preachers of the Word, but they love false teachers. This idea parallels something Jesus said elsewhere:

Anyone whose Father is God listens gladly to the words of God. Since you don’t, it proves you aren’t his children. (John 8:47 TLB)

Learning to test the spirits; to discern between false and true teachers, takes wisdom. On the point of wisdom, Lactantius observed:

The first point of wisdom is to discern that which is false; the second to know that which is true.

Beware of deceivers, 2 John 7 – 11

No believer ever has to fall victim to a false teacher. John Borger explains:

God has defeated Satan through the death and resurrection of The Lord Jesus Christ. Through this overwhelming victory, God has also empowered you to overcome any temptation to sin and has provided sufficient resources for you to respond biblically to any problem in life. By relying on God’s power and being obedient to His Word, you can be an overcome in any situation.

Indeed. “Any situation” includes facing a false teacher shilling his deceptive, dangerous ideas.

The purpose behind the second letter of John’s was to alert its reader(s) to the spiritual hazards they would be facing. They, like we, ought to be able to identify false teachers and at the same time jealously guard God’s truth.

There’s a lot of repetition here, and for good reason. False teachers were a constant threat during these early, formative years of the church. Even though we, as believers, have powerful spiritual resources to fight these false teachers, there is always the risk that we will be taken in by smooth talk. So John gives a warning we would do well to pat attention to:

Beware of being like them and losing the prize that you and I have been working so hard to get. See to it that you win your full reward from the Lord. (2 John, verse 8 TLB)

This is a bit more forceful than advice; it sounds like a command. The idea John is putting forth here is that we ought to keep our eyes focused on our spiritual possessions so as not to lose them. But what is the “full reward” to which John refers? It can’t be salvation, because salvation is a gift, it cannot be earned. As Christians, though, we do merit a reward(s) for our faithfulness and obedience and even for diligent service. Throughout the New Testament is the idea that a worker in God’s kingdom will receive his “full reward.” John uses the reward as motivation for staying the course and avoiding false teachers.

The very best thing for a believer to do is stay on track, never deviate from God’s revealed truths.

For if you wander beyond the teaching of Christ, you will leave God behind; while if you are loyal to Christ’s teachings, you will have God too. Then you will have both the Father and the Son. (2 John, verse 9 TLB)

It’s good for Christians to learn and increase in wisdom, but to progress in a direction away from sound doctrine is to actually regress. C.S. Lewis remarks:

You must not do, you must not even try to do, the will of the Father unless you are prepared to “know the doctrine.”

False teaching is so dangerous and hazardous to our spiritual health, and false teachers so insidious, they must be avoided at all costs. As devoted, loyal followers of Christ, we are not to entertain a false teacher, for to do so makes us complicit in their evil work!

If anyone comes to teach you, and he doesn’t believe what Christ taught, don’t even invite him into your home. Don’t encourage him in any way. If you do, you will be a partner with him in his wickedness. (2 John, verses 10, 11 TLB)

Those are strong words, but necessary. Bring a false teacher into your home shows that you agree to his teachings. That may not be the case, but appearances are important. Souls may hang in the balance.

Now, the overriding command to love one another must be understood in relation to false teachers. We are first to love God and His people, and we are also to love even our enemy, and that could at some time be a false teacher. But John adds an important caveat to this love principle. Do NOT have anything to do with a false teacher. Kistemaker offers an excellent illustration:

A navy commander who had access to military secrets sold them to the enemy. He was caught and subsequently sentenced. Reporters interviewed his father and asked him for his reaction. The father replied that his son, whom he loved, had betrayed his country and now deserved to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. The father, in this case, separated himself from his son and regarded him as a fellow citizen who had transgressed the law.

John makes it clear that a false teacher is one who has betrayed, not his country, but his God, and he did so for the purpose of destroying the faith of others. Christians should love each other, but to get too chummy with a known false teacher could lead others away from Christ.

 

 

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