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Developing Discerning Spirits

1 John 4

Jim Davis

I remember a fellow saying: "Don't believe anything you hear and only half of what you see!" I was only a teenager when I heard this bit of wisdom from a heart that had grown cynical. However cynical the person who spoke these words, I realized there was some truth to his words. There is reason for healthy skepticism. The Bible warns us against believing everything we hear because there are many false prophets gone out into the world.

Too many of God's children have never developed discerning minds. They don't discriminate. They judge what is said by how it makes them feel rather than truth.

1 John 4:1-3
Dear friends, 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. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: 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. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. (NIV)

John begins with a warning about the false spirits in the world. Keep in mind that the New Testament was not yet completed and what had been written was not widely known; until the completion of the New Testament, the local churches depended on the ministry of people with spiritual gifts to teach them truth. This left them open to those who would claim to be speaking by the Spirit of God but weren't. So John issues a stern warning about false teachers.

We Must Test the Spirits

John urges us to test the spirits. Behind every teacher is a spirit. The question is, "Does the Spirit of God or an evil spirit lead this teacher?" Before we trust any teacher, we must test the spirit of the teacher. This means that we must examine and scrutinize what is taught. This attitude is encouraged throughout the Scriptures.

John 18:37-38
"You are a king, then!" said Pilate. Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." "What is truth?" Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, "I find no basis for a charge against him. (NIV)

Many claim to teach the truth; therefore we must examine what they say. Moses encourages us to test the prophets.

Deuteronomy 18:18-22
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account. But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death." You may say to yourselves, "How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?" If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him. (NIV)

Deuteronomy 13:1-4
If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, "Let us follow other gods" (gods you have not known) "and let us worship them," you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the LORD your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. (NIV)

When Paul went into Berea, he preached Jesus as the Messiah from the Old Testament Scriptures. The Bereans examined Paul's teaching by looking into Old Testament Scriptures.

Acts 17:11-12
Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men. (NIV)

God is not encouraging a contentious spirit, but rather a search for truth.

1 Thessalonians 5:19-21
Do not put out the Spirit's fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. (NIV)

We must make certain that we follow in the apostle's doctrine.

Acts 2:40-42
With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation." Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (NIV)

Even the apostles recognized the apostles teaching.

2 Peter 3:15-18
Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen. (NIV)

So we too, must recognize the teaching of the apostles.

1 Corinthians 14:37-38
If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord's command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored. (NIV)

Christ Is the Key

John says spirits are tested by what they believe about Jesus Christ. Those who have the Spirit of God proclaim that Jesus came in the flesh. John taught that Christ came in the flesh. In the first verses of 1 John, John says we have heard him, seen him and touched him with our hands. John proclaimed a Jesus that was real.

1 John 4:2-3
This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: 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. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. (NIV)

John 1:12-14
Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God--children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (NIV)

John 8:24
I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am, you will indeed die in your sins." (NIV)

John says spirits are tested by the viewpoints they teach. False prophets are from the world and they teach the world's viewpoint.

1 John 4:4-5
You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. (NIV)

Some say, "I believe in Jesus, but I do not believe he was born of a virgin."
Some say, "I believe in the man Jesus, but I do not believe he was the Son of God."
Others say, "I believe in the historical Jesus, but I do not believe in the eternal Jesus."
Still others say, "I believe in Jesus, but I do not believe he was who he claimed to be."

All of these attitudes are antichrist attitudes. We must believe in the Jesus of scripture or we do not believe in Jesus at all. We must test what we believe with a few simple questions.

What does it mean to believe in Jesus?
Can I believe in Jesus without believing what he teaches?
Can I believe in Jesus without embracing the principles he taught?

The spirit of this world guides the false prophets to teach a worldly wisdom.

1 Corinthians 1:18-21
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate." Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. (NIV)

The Spirit of God guided the apostles to teach the wisdom of God.

1 Corinthians 2:7-16
No, we speak of God's secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him"-- but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man's judgment: "For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ. (NIV)

True Spirits listen to apostles and false spirits refuse to listen to the apostles.

1 John 4:6
We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. (NIV)

Today we test the spirits as we compare what they teach to what Christ teaches through the Word of God.

2 John 1:9-11
Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him.

Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work. (NIV)

The Test of Christian Love

It seems as though John is changing the subject from false spirits to love, but John says love it the mark of those who have the Spirit of God. Love motivates those who have the Spirit of God. The test of love should be given to all the false prophets.

1 John 4:7-8
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (NIV)

The test for truth goes beyond cold hard logic. Truth dished out through cold hard logic without love is also void of truth. The church at Ephesus had lost its first love although she did embrace the truth.

Revelation 2:1-5
"To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands: I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. (NIV)

Today we test the spirits by observing how they exemplify the love of Christ.

John 14:15-21
"If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever-- the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him." (NIV)

Christ love motivates us to love others while the world's viewpoint of love is self-centered.

1 John 2:15-17
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world-- the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does-- comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever. (NIV)

Little of what our modern society calls "love" resembles the love of God. We define immorality by calling it "making love." This kind of love rejects God and uses others for its own selfish ends. This kind of worldly love led Eve to deceive Adam for her personal selfish purposes.

Those speaking the truth seek to love others as God loves them.

1 John 4:9-11
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (NIV)

Those who exemplify God's love have God's Spirit living in them.

1 John 4:12-16
No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. (NIV)

Love is a true test of those who claim to speak the truth.

Romans 5:5
And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. (NIV)

True love for God and others will never allow anyone to teach something contrary to his Word. True love is proof that we know God. Anyone who claims to know God but refuses to love as he loves is a false prophet.

1 John 4:17-21
In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother. (NIV)

False teachers encourage us to walk the path of sin and self-destruction because there is no love in their hearts for the truth. Truth can only come from hearts that love us as God loves us. To intentionally teach someone error is the same as hatred. Do those who teach you, love you or hate you?

Conclusion:

When Jesus ascended into heaven, he sent the Spirit of truth to lead and guide the apostles.

John 14:6
Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (NIV)

John 14:15-17
"If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever-- the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. (NIV)

John 16:13
But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. (NIV)

John 14:26
But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (NIV)

John 17:17
Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. (NIV)

 

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