Notes on 1 John 4:1-6
by Jonathan Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)
1 John 4:1, KJV 1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.
This word of warning has an application for John’s day, and for our day as well. Something to remember was that the early Church had very little Scripture except the Old Testament, maybe some of the Gospels, and whatever letters (from Paul, Peter, and James) were available. John was writing Scripture in this very letter, even though he may not have known that this Epistle would be part of the 27 books making the official New Testament
Worse than not having access to the new knowledge (a word of caution, knowledge here refers to the doctrines of salvation by grace alone, the doctrine of the Church, the future of Israel, and what Paul called “my gospel (Romans 2:16, 16:25; and 2 Timothy 2:8)” to name a few) would be the influence of evil spirits. Before His crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus had prophesied, and promised, that the Holy Spirit would lead the disciples and other believers, by extension, into all truth (John 16:13).
Some years later, Paul had written to Timothy that some would depart from the faith and give heed to doctrines from demons (1 Tim. 4:1, paraphrased) and that evil men and seducers would become worse and worse (2 Tim. 3:13). Already, even in Paul’s day, some were teaching outright error (see 2 Tim. 2:17-18) and John had previously listed known errors in this letter. These false doctrines could not possibly have come from God, especially the Holy Spirit; hence, these falsehoods had to have come from someone else. John is going to give a simple test, in the next two verses, to see if the spirit was bringing truth or attempting to bring error.
2 Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: 3 And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that (spirit) of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.
John first states that the readers can be sure when the Spirit of God is speaking every spirit confessing Jesus Christ came in the flesh—in a true body of flesh and blood—“is of God” or comes from God. John had previously warned the readers about false prophets in chapter 2, even as Paul, Peter and Jude had spoken of false prophets in various letters. Any spirit that did not confess Jesus came in the flesh was not of God. It was as simple as that.
Even at this early stage of the Church, perhaps 60 or so years since Pentecost, doctrinal errors were affecting the Church. Some had been teaching that Jesus never rose from the dead but the disciples stole the lifeless body of Jesus. Matthew spoke of this in his Gospel (Matt 28:13).
Later, Paul spoke of other false doctrines in his letter to the Colossians, such as philosophy (apparently in contrast to God’s Truths, see 2:8), worship of angels (2:18), abstaining (needlessly?) from various things (2:20-21), to name a few. There may have been some who denied the humanity (flesh and blood body) of Jesus, as well—see 2:9. John finishes these two verses by acknowledging these false spirits were already in the world.
Without a doubt, they still are.
4 Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.
Here John reminds the readers (the “little children”) that first, they are of God, not the devil or anyone else; and second, they overcame them—anyone in the world--because He that is in them (the Holy Spirit) is greater than anyone who is in the world.
5 They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them.
In this verse, John speaks of the unsaved, the unbelievers in general, perhaps including the false prophets and the spirits who denied Jesus had come in the flesh. Jesus had spoken of this in John 5:43, saying, “I am come in my Father's name, and ye receive me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive.” Later Paul would write that people would “heap to themselves teachers, (because they have) itching ears (2 Tim. 4:3, paraphrased)” or finding teachers who would say what the audience wanted them to say.
6 We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.
John again repeats a previous statement: in verse 4, he said, “Ye are of God. . .”; here, he includes himself by saying, “We are of God”. The false prophets and other unbelievers are excluded.
He also adds that he—anyone—who knows God hears us, the present tense of the verb indicating this is a regular or habitual deed. The reverse is true, also, when he says that he—anyone—who is not of God does not hear us (the apostles); again, the present tense indicating a repeated or continual action. Listening to the truth is a true sign of knowing the difference between the Spirit of truth (John 14:17, 15:26, 16:13) and the spirit of error.
Scripture quotations taken from the King James Version of the Bible (KJV).