RPM, Volume 15, Number 3, January 13 to January 19, 2013

The Test of Acknowledgement of Jesus
as the Messiah come in the flesh

1 John 4:1-6

By J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to 1 John chapter 4. As we've been looking through this book, we have seen John do three things repeatedly. First of all, in the first chapter of the book especially, John was concerned to make sure that we as Christians understood the relationship of sin and holiness in the Christian life. On the one hand, John wanted us to know that as believers we would still struggle with sin; but on the other hand, John wanted to make sure that we strove for holiness in the Christian life, that we were seeking to be conformed into the image of God, that we were realistic about the sin that we still faced and had, and at the same time, were striving to be like the Lord Jesus Christ, striving after holiness. And he was having to speak about this subject because there were teachers in this congregation that were teaching once you become a Christian you no longer sin; and therefore you can live any way you want because Christianity is all about the change of your heart, of your spirit, and so it doesn't matter how you live in your body. And John condemns those teachers very roundly.

Now secondly, in connection with that, John has in this book been giving Christians diagnostics whereby we could tell the difference between true and false teachers. Jesus did this with His disciples (we'll talk about that just a little bit later today); John did it as well. But in this book he gives several different tests whereby we can tell a true prophet from a false prophet, a true teacher of Christ's word from one who only claims to be a teacher of Christ's word and is, in fact, a false prophet.

But thirdly, in this book John gives us tests that we can apply to ourselves so that we can answer the question, "Do we see a work of grace in our own hearts? Are we in Christ and growing in Christ?" And John in particular in this book has given us a doctrinal test (What do we think about Jesus?), a moral test (Are we obedient to God's word?), and a relational test (Do we love — really love, tangibly love — our fellow believers? Those who are now friends in Christ to us — do we truly love them?) And John applies and states those tests in various ways in order to give us diagnostics for our own hearts.

And in the passage today, John is dealing with the issue again of giving us discernment regarding false prophets. Let's hear God's holy word in 1 John chapter 4.

This is God's word:

"Beloved, 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. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error."

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to it.

Friends, in our day and age, in our generation, in the times in which we live — I want to suggest this, that second only to our need for a heart of holiness is our need for discernment. We live in a day and age where the Church is worldly; the world is in the Church; and the Church is like the world. And we need a Church which has a heart for holiness to be sure, maybe more than anything else. Our witness to the world as evangelical, Bible-believing, gospel-preaching, Christ-exalting Christians is hampered by the fact that our lives are too much like the world, and we have a great need for holiness. But I suspect that second only to that great need of dealing with worldliness and cultivating holiness in the life of Christians, we have a need for discernment, spiritual discernment, spiritual discernment that can tell the difference between true and healthy and good and right Bible-teaching and that which claims to be Bible teaching but is not true, not healthy, not good, and in fact destructive to the Christian life — the ability to distinguish between Bible truth and error.

Now that ability has been eroded in our generation because of the loss of Bible knowledge. George Barna and others have been drawing our attention to that over the last 10 years, just how little Bible people who view themselves as Bible-believing Christians really know. If you don't know God's word it's very difficult, isn't it, to know the difference between truth and error being taught about God's word? And that's why John is so concerned to call us in this passage to spiritual discernment. You'll see in the very last words of the passage that that is his point. He wants us to be spiritually discerning. Look at the final sentence of verse 6. "By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error." He wants believer to be discerning of that which is true and to be able to distinguish it from that which is false.

Now in this passage John says three things to us about this. First of all, he wants us to be discerning about who Christ is. You'll see this in the first three verses. Secondly, he wants us to realize that this is a spiritual matter. It's not just an intellectual matter; it's not just a matter of being smart. It's not even a matter of just knowing a lot of things about the Bible. It's a spiritual matter to be able to distinguish between truth and error. You see that in verses 4 and 5. And then finally in verse 6, John will make it clear that one test of a true prophet and a false prophet is whether that prophet believes the Bible. The way John puts it is this: "[Those] who know God listen to us." Who is the us? The apostles. In other words, he is saying, "Those who are true prophets listen to the apostles' teaching." Where do we find the apostles' teaching? In the word of God. "Those who are not true prophets," he says, "do not receive the teaching of the apostles; they do not receive our teaching; they reject the teaching of the word of God." And so in these three passages, John is giving to us, as Christians, tests whereby we may discern the spirits.

Now in John's congregation, apparently there were some people who were very impressed by the teaching of certain people, but those people were teaching things about Jesus Christ that were incorrect. And so John writes to them, and his very first words are, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit." Isn't it interesting that in 1 John 3:23 he can say, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ," and then two verses later, very context, he can say, "But don't believe everything you hear said about Jesus Christ"? Believe on Jesus Christ, but don't believe everything you hear. So often Christians mistake faith for credulity. And John is saying, "Real Bible-faith is very discerning." Bible-faith doesn't just believe any old story that you tell it; it believes the truth, and it discerns between truth and error. And so John is desirous that we would believe the truth, not just believe anything. Faith — Bible-faith, Christian faith, saving faith — is not "faith in faith" or "faith in a lark" or "a leap in the dark." Faith is a firm belief and trust in the person of God and the promise of God that is true and sure.

And so it is not an act of intellectual suicide. In fact, I would argue that it is not the Christian who must check his brains at the door when he believes in Jesus Christ; it is the unbeliever who must check his brains at the door when he attempts to do justice to this crazy, fallen world in which we live. The believer faces this world with both faith and discernment; the unbeliever faces it with unbelief and denial, neither of which is rational. So John is saying, "Be discerning! And when someone comes and teaches you, measure him according to the Scripture." It's just like Paul's commendation or Luke's commendation of the Berean Christians who, when they heard Paul teach, they didn't just run out and accept it right away. What did they do? They went back to their Bibles and they checked, and they said, "All right. What Paul is saying is exactly what the Bible was saying." And they tested to see if what Paul's teaching was in accordance with God's word. And in this passage, John says, "Here's a test to apply to every teacher." Notice the test in verse 2. "By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God."

I. Believers are to apply a Biblical-doctrinal test to those who claim to be prophets of the Lord.

Now in this passage, John is telling us that a teacher who teaches what the Bible says about Jesus is showing the mark of being a true Christian teacher, but that any teacher who denies the Bible's teaching about Jesus is not from God. In this passage, the particular problem that they are facing is the denial of the humanity of Christ. These teachers are apparently not saying that Jesus is not God; they were calling into question whether He was truly human. By the way, it is one of the great testimonies to me of the truth of the claims of Christ to be the divine Son of God — the second person of the Trinity in the flesh, very God of very God, begotten not created, deity, to be divine — that two centuries of Christian history passed before anyone dared suggest that Jesus was not fully divine. If you take your average religion course in the university, they'll tell you that the idea of Jesus' deity gradually evolved over the course of time. The testimony of history says, "No. Nobody questioned the deity of Christ in the history of Christianity…there was no serious challenge to it for three centuries." When that challenge came it was so soundly rebutted and refuted by the early Church that it was 1500 years before anybody got up the nerve to suggest again that Jesus was not fully divine.

The problem that people struggled with in the early Church was, "Is He human?" That to me, you see, is a testimony to the truth of the gospel. They had no problem believing in the deity of Christ, but they grappled with, "Was He fully human?" And John is responding to teachers who were denying that Jesus was fully human. He realized that that undercut the gospel. If He was not a high priest who could sympathize with us in all things except sin, then He could not be our Redeemer who bore our sin as a human in our place. And so this denial of the Bible-teaching about Christ was a denial of the gospel, and John meets it with a strong rebuke.

And, my friends, you do not have to go far today on television or on the radio or on the Internet to find Christian teachers teaching false things about Jesus Christ. And believers must be prepared to exercise doctrinal discernment. When we hear people claim to be teaching God's truth, we need to measure that teaching according to God's word.

Not long ago, a dear, dear lady in my home congregation went home to be with the Lord. And we found that though she had ministered greatly to the children of our congregation in the youth ministry, that she had been giving thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars of her own money to a man who had a television ministry who was undoubtedly a false prophet. She needed discernment. We need discernment. When I was a little boy, I grew up in a church where for the first three years of my life the minister was a liberal; he did not believe the truth of the Bible. But the officers, the elders, were Bible-believing men; and one of them, the patriarch of the Session, was Uncle Eddie Means. And the elders were concerned, and they were concerned to shepherd the flock until they could get a man in who could preach the word of God. And Uncle Eddie Means watched that guy like a hawk Sunday after Sunday, so that he could be ready in his Sunday School class the next day to teach them the truth from the Bible. When Gordon Reid, my boyhood pastor, came to the congregation following this man, Uncle Eddie Means watched him like a hawk for six months. And then one Sunday morning — he'd cross his arms just like this on the back row and look at him and listen to him, every word — one Sunday morning about six months later, Mr. Reid looked out and Uncle Eddie Means was on the back row asleep. And so after the service he said, "Well, Uncle Eddie, I noticed that you really enjoyed my sermon today." And Uncle Eddie said, "Gordon, I've been listening to you for six months. You know the Lord; you love the Bible; you're preaching the truth. I can go back to sleeping again." Now that's not John's point to you. But that elder was concerned to discern between truth and error because he knew that it would impact the lives of his people. And when we hear those who teach against what the Bible says about Jesus, John says, verse 3, "We know they're not from God."

II. Discernment is a spiritual matter.

Now in verses 4 and 5, John says, "Discerning this is not just a matter of being smart; this is a spiritual matter." Listen to his words. "You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world." You know, we could preach a whole sermon series just on that phrase. It's a glorious phrase, isn't it, filled with truth? Now you see what John is saying. This isn't just a matter of you knowing more technical information about the Bible than somebody else does. This isn't a matter of you being smarter than somebody else and so being able to discern truth and error; this is a spiritual matter. If the Spirit dwells in you, "He who is in you…who is [greater than] the world." If the Spirit dwells in you, that Bible-knowledge that you have will not lie fallow but will be used to create in you a heart filled with love and a good conscience and a sincere faith, and it will give you discernment. That's why there are some very humble people in terms of their intellectual capacities who know God better than some people who are very, very smart and have very technical abilities.

I will never forget a friend of mine with whom I grew up, who came from a humble background but he was very, very gifted with regard to his intellect. He came from a humble Baptist church where the word of God was preached faithfully. He grew up in this Baptist church in a mill village. And he went off to a great university, very liberal, and a famous seminary, very liberal, and he lost his faith. And he came back to those people to teach them a thing or two. And I'll never forget being there listening to him talk to his minister. Now his minister was not educated; he wasn't trained theologically, but he knew God. He knew Jesus and he knew his Bible. And I'll never forget him saying, "Bill, I hear all you're saying, but I know what my Bible says." And I want to tell you, that man, though he was not as intellectually gifted as my friend, he knew God and my friend did not. He had spiritual discernment to know truth from error, and he called truth "truth" and he called error "error." We need that kind of spiritual discernment. We need the Bible in our hearts so that we can discern truth from error.

III. The true prophet believes the Bible

One last thing. Look at verse 6. "We are from God; he who knows God listens to us." Who's the us? It's the apostles. "We the apostles, we're from God. And if you know God," John is saying, "you will listen to the apostles' teaching." The apostles, you see, are from God and so they are faithful teachers. And those who are faithful teachers and followers of the Lord Jesus Christ will teach in accordance with them. The apostles are God's men. And so those who know God will accept their teaching, and those who don't will reject it. They'll show that they're really of the world by rejecting the apostles' teaching.

My friends, there are Christian teachers today who regularly call into question the authority and the truthfulness of this word. John, in 1 John 4: 4-6 especially, says that anybody who tells you that this word is wrong is not of God. Now look, I didn't say that. A crotchety, old, conservative PCA minister (though I am that) didn't invent that. John, who knew Jesus, who lived with Jesus, who laid his head on Jesus' chest, said that. Anybody who rejects the apostles' teaching doesn't know the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

My friends, that is a very, very important thing for us to remember today as we discern between truth and error. There are many people who claim to be the agents of God, the messengers of God, the heralds of God, and deny the word of God. And John says, "You deny the teaching of the apostles; you show that you don't know the God of the apostles." My friends, we need to be discerning, discerning about what people are teaching about the Lord Jesus. Do we believe the Lord Jesus as He is offered in the gospel, the Son of God and Savior of sinners? If so, we're believing in the Jesus of Scripture. Do we have spiritual discernment so that in our hearts the Holy Spirit has so wrought our knowledge of the truth of Scripture so that we can discern between that which is right and wrong, that which is error and that which is true? And do we submit ourselves to the Bible and accept it as fully true and authoritative? Those are the tests that John gives us for false teachers. May God help us to be discerning. And if we don't know Jesus today, what we need more than anything else is to receive Him so that He would give us new eyes to see and to discern the truth and the way of life.

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