Throughout 1 John three tests are applied to identify authentic Christianity:
- Moral (obeying God, 1:6-7; 2:3-6, 28-29; 3:4-10; 5:3)
- Doctrinal (believing the truth about Jesus, 2:18-27; 3:23; 4:1-6, 15; 5:1, 5, 10, 13)
- Social, (loving others faithfully, 2:7-11; 3:11-18, 23; 4:7-12, 19-21; 5:1-2).
In this passage, the doctrinal test is applied. After acknowledging the presence of God’s Spirit (3:24), John exhorts us not to be caught off-guard by false spirits. Believers are commanded to test the claims of other spirits (4:1), given the criterion for testing (4:2-3), then warned of the character of those who make false claims (4:4-6).
The Command to Test (v. 1)
We are called to think on our feet and affirm the distinction between truth and error regarding the identity of our Lord. Naïveté about Jesus has never been a virtue in Christendom.
Christian faith is discriminating and discerning (1 Thess. 5:19-22; 1 Cor. 12:3; 14:29). Believers are responsible to test God’s will (Rom. 12:2); self (2 Cor. 13:5); everything (1 Thess. 5:21).
The New Testament is replete with warnings to believers about deception (Mt. 24:11, 24; 2 Thess. 2:3-4; 2 Jn. 7; Rev. 20:10). Therefore, unbelief can be a sign of maturity where resistance to false beliefs is at issue.
Already John has noted false prophets who have defected from the Christian community (1 Jn. 2:19). Therefore, in an effort to protect and correct, it is imperative that the Church proclaim the truths about the identity of Jesus Christ our Lord!
Note: John takes it for granted that believers actively engage the world of false belief. Moreover, John is confident that all of God’s people are capable of scrutinizing claims about Jesus’ identity (1 Jn. 2:20-23).
To Consider: We’re told to test the spirits regarding who Jesus is. Throughout the history of the Christian Church, however, a great deal of time has been spent upon testing one another on doctrinal differences rather than Christian essentials.
Now that you know these things . . .
Can your local church confidently say “In the essentials: unity, in the non-essentials: diversity, and in all things: charity?” When have you demonstrated unity in the essentials and asked someone what they understand about the identity of Jesus?
The Criterion for Testing (vv. 2-3)
Earlier, John urged that all must believe in the full deity of Jesus (1 Jn. 2:22). Now he says that belief in the full humanity of Jesus is equally important.
John states that the test is to acknowledge, confess, or admit that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” John is not saying that “the Christ has come into the flesh of Jesus” like so many cults and New Age sects. As the full expression of God (Col. 2:9), Jesus of Nazareth was completely human, yet without sin (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15).
The spirit of the antichrist refuses to accept the reality of Jesus’ identity as fully divine, fully human.
“Which you have heard:” Believers are duly informed and warned of false beliefs about Jesus. Therefore, there is no excuse for accepting error over truth. Just as John carries on the Apostolic tradition concerning who Jesus is, so the Church is responsible to proclaim, without compromise, the true nature of God’s Son.
The Character of Testing (vv. 4-6)
The spirit of the antichrist manifests in many false prophets (Note: “them” refers to the “many false prophets” in v. 1). This is no less true today than it was in the first century. Satan is still the father of lies (Jn. 8:44) and deception remains his primary strategy (Gen. 3:1).
“The one who is in you” could refer to God, Jesus, or the Spirit. John refers to the presence of all three in the believer’s life (God = 4:12-13, 15; Jesus = 3:24; Spirit = 2:20, 27). Our confession of Jesus as Lord is made possible by the Holy Spirit, which identifies us as God’s children (1 Cor. 12:3). God is “greater.” Satan’s power and influence is relative, whereas God’s power is absolute.
Despite the number of false prophets who reject the truth about Jesus, God is greater in power than all of them combined. Because our identity comes “from God,” we can experience God’s greatness in the midst of numerous adversaries (for demonstrations of victory, despite circumstances to the contrary, cf., 2 Kgs. 6:8-23; 2 Chron. 32:1-23).
John, again, divides the world of humanity. This division is marked by a fundamental antithesis between truth and falsehood. False prophets have an audience because they speak the world’s language. The character of the false prophets and that of the world are from the same common stock of unbelief.
Those who make the false claims are “from the world.” The world of unbelief eagerly embraces the message of the false prophets. Consequently, to reject God’s revelation of himself in Jesus (3:1) shows membership in the Devil’s family.
“This is how we recognize” is better translated “This is how we can distinguish.” Implicit in this statement is an admonition to draw lines between truth and error. There is no neutral ground for John when speaking about the essential identity of Jesus.
Christianity is not based upon subjective impression or mere personal opinion. It is grounded in the objective and definitive reality of God in Jesus. This doctrinal test is decisive and uncompromising. All who bear faithful witness to the identity of Jesus, as found in Scripture, are born of God demonstrating membership in his family.
John exhorts all believers to discern truth from error and reject worldliness that manifests in false claims about Jesus. The implications of right beliefs, however, are not far from John’s pastoral heart as he goes on to instruct the Church in practical love (4:7-21).