I. Introduction: The Apostolic Message - 1:1-4
II. The First Series of Tests - 1:5-2:27
III. The Second Series of Tests - 2:28-4:6
A. The Moral Test (3) - 2:28-3:10a
B. The Social Test (2) - 3:10b-18
C. A Digression: assurance and confidence in prayer - 3:19-24
D. The Doctrinal Test (2) - 4:1-6
These verses are the second application of the doctrinal test in which one's opinion of Jesus Christ is eternally decisive. Although 4:1-6 is a section standing somewhat independently of the verses which follow (vv. 7-21), it is linked with what precedes (3:19-24) by the word "spirit". "It is not absolutely clear whether the mention of the Spirit in 3:24 led John to develop the thought in this new section or whether in anticipation of this section he included the linking phrase in 3:24. On the whole, the latter is more likely" (Marshall, 203). Whatever the case, it is obvious that John is concerned with the "two spirits" which inspire contrary confessions of the Lord Jesus Christ.
1. the confession of Jesus as Christ Incarnate is the means by which to determine the origin of a "spirit", whether it be of God or of the Devil - 4:1-3
The background to this passage is the abundance of supernatural activity and phenomena in the early church: tongues, healings, prophecies, deliverance, etc. John's readers were apparently given to the uncritical acceptance of anything supernatural. It remains for John to inform them that the supernatural is not always divine! The emphasis here is not so much on the character of the spirit, whether it be false or genuine, but on its origin, whether it be divine or diabolical.
a. all believers have the responsibility to test the spirits to determine their origin - 4:1
"Unbelief," notes Stott, "can be as much a mark of spiritual maturity as belief" (153). In other words, Christians must resist the temptation to be na?ve and gullible about supernatural and miraculous phenomena. The fact is, "many false prophets" have gone out into the world. Neither Christian faith nor love are to function indiscriminately. It is the duty of us all to judge, weigh, assess, evaluate, to exercise our discernment.
b. the doctrine of the incarnation is the standard and test of truth and falsehood - 4:2-3
1) positively stated: the Spirit of God is discerned by the confession of Jesus as Christ come in the flesh - 4:2
John's point is that the origin of the inspiring spirit may be discerned by the teaching of the prophet through whom it speaks; specifically, what he says concerning the incarnation. The NASB translates v. 2 - "every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God." The issue is the object or content of the verb "to confess" ("confess" = profession of faith in and allegiance to; this is not merely confession of certain propositions about a person, but the confession of a Person, of whom certain propositions are true). The phrase may be taken in any of three ways:
* The object of the confession may be the entire phrase "Jesus Christ has come in the flesh" (NASB); i.e., the confession needed is of the fact of the incarnation as a historical event.
* The object of the confession may be "Jesus Christ as come in the flesh"; i.e., one must confess that the person called Jesus Christ is such a one who came in the flesh. But, before the incarnation or before the coming in the flesh, he cannot rightly be called "Jesus".
* The object of the confession is "Jesus" as "Christ come in the flesh"; i.e., the confession is that the man Jesus of Nazareth is himself the incarnate Christ or Son. It was the teaching of the false prophets that Jesus was merely a man upon whom the "Christ" came at his baptism and from he left before the crucifixion. Thus the heresy consisted of a denial of the permanent assumption of human nature by the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. The point John makes is this: Jesus of Nazareth is the 'Christ' or 'Eternal Son of God' incarnate; the divine person, the Son, has permanently assumed and taken to himself human flesh. Jesus Christ then is not a mere man upon whom divinity descended but is himself the God-man, one person with two natures, one human and one divine. Hence the supreme heresy is to deny the incarnation and deity of Jesus Christ.
2) negatively stated: the spirit of antichrist is discerned by a failure to confess Jesus - 4:3
John gives two negative signs of "not being of God". In 3:10 the one who does not practice righteousness is "not of God" and in 4:3 the one who does not confess Jesus is "not of God". Furthermore, such a one is not merely "not of God", he is, positively speaking, "of the devil" (3:10) and "of antichrist" (4:3). The "of" suggests both "belonging to" and "spiritual dependence."
In passing we should take note of a variant reading (grammatically unlikely and weakly supported) in v. 3 which reads: 'every spirit that looses [i.e., separates or divides] (luei) Jesus is not from God. This would reflect that form of docetism which differentiated between the earthly man Jesus and the heavenly Christ. This was the docetism of Cerinthus.
2. another means by which to discern the spirit of truth and the spirit of error is the response of the audience - 4:4-6
a. the greatness of the indwelling Holy Spirit has granted us victory over falsehood - 4:4
Christians are assured of victory over false prophets and heretics (theological victory - they have not succeeded in deceiving you; you know the truth and have rejected their lies). Why? How? Because "greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world!" Having contrasted Christians ("you") with the heretics ("them"), he now compares the spiritual forces who are in the respective antagonists. Yes, Satan is great, but God is greater! Yes, Satan is powerful, but God is infinitely more powerful!
The "He" who is in the Christian = (1) God the Father (1 John 3:20; 4:12-13); (2) God the Son (1 John 2:14; 3:24); and (3) God the Holy Spirit (1 John 2:20,27). John does not say "greater are you" but "greater is He". It isn't you, but God in you that brings the assurance of victory. Marshall:
"Other people may be taken in by the false teachers who deny Christ, but John does not believe that his 'children' will do so. They have their source in God (cf. 3:10), and consequently they have the inner power of the truth to enable them to withstand error. In this sense they can be said to have 'overcome' the upholders of false teaching. This probably does not mean that they have physically driven them out of the church; rather they have proved victorious over the temptation to accept false doctrine. False belief is as much a sin as unrighteous behavior or lack of love [emphasis mine]. Victory over it, however, is not due to any innate strength of believers, but rather to the fact that the One who lives in them is greater, i.e, more powerful, than the one at work in the world. God is mightier than the evil one" (208).
b. the response of the audience to the respective messages reveals their true character and is yet another criterion by which to know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error - 4:5-6
At first glance, these verses sound like the height of arrogance. John says that if you know God you will listen to what I say! If you don't listen to what I say and receive my teaching then you are in bondage to the spirit of error! No ordinary individual Christian could ever make such a bold claim. But John is here speaking as an apostle with the full authority and inspiration of Christ behind his words. Stott explains:
"He is carrying a stage further the argument of the first three verses. There the test of doctrine was whether it acknowledged the divine-human person of Jesus Christ; here the test is whether it is accepted by Christians and rejected by non-Christians. There is a certain affinity between God's Word and God's people. Jesus had taught that His sheep hear His voice (Jn. 10:4,5,8,16,26,27), that everyone who is of the truth listens to His witness to the truth (Jn. 18:37), and that 'he who is of God hears the words of God' (Jn. 8:47). In the same way John asserts that since 'we are of God (6) and 'ye are of God' (4), you listen to us. There is a correspondence between message and hearers. The Spirit who is in you (4) enables you to discern His own voice speaking through us (2). So you can recognize God's Word because God's people listen to it, just as you can recognize God's people because they listen to God's Word" (158).