Testing the Spirits (1 John 4.1-12)

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Confessing Jesus (4.1-6)
We know that God lives in us (3.24). How can we gain such assurance? Where does such confidence come from? John asserts that this certainty comes “from (Greek ek = out from – the opposite of John’s favourite preposition eis = into) the Spirit he gave us” (3.24). Now 3.24 leads naturally to chapter 4 (the chapter and verse divisions are not part of the original biblical text and can some times hide the text’s sequence of thought). So John proceeds to warn that not all spirits stem from God and we need therefore to test them (4.1). Does a particular spirit or prophecy come from (ek/from) God? John warns his readers that many false prophets have come into (Greek eis) the world, so we need to be very careful to discern the true origin of a spirit.
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How then can we recognise God’s Spirit? John provides two clear tests: the confession of Jesus and our love together. Proper testing of the spirits starts with their confession of Jesus Christ. Does Jesus have his rightful place at the centre? The true Spirit of God always confesses that Jesus has come in flesh from the glory; he has come from above into this world. The truth about Jesus must always stand openly as our primary confession. Some years ago I realised that my primary emphasis in my preaching, teaching and writing was international mission rather than the glory of Jesus Christ. And the Lord was also useful in encouraging people to get involved in mission! Of course mission lies close to the heart of God and should motivate everything in our Christian life. But even mission can become an idol which replaces Jesus and his glory. So John reminds us that confession of Jesus Christ’s coming in the flesh shows that the spirit or prophecy does indeed come from God.
With this repeated emphasis of the preposition ‘from’ John reveals the necessity of discerning where the spirit comes from. Does it originate from God or just from some worldly human source? Have we mistaken the spirit as originating from God when actually it comes from our own intuitions, desires and thoughts? Or is the spirit from God but mixed with very human character or thoughts? As John so clearly advocates, we need constantly to “test the spirits”. To describe those spirits which do not come from God, John uses strong words – “false prophets” and even “the spirit of the antichrist” (4.3). Perhaps John had in his mind the declaration of the Lord in Jeremiah 23.30-40 that God stands against “the prophets who wag their own tongues and yet declare, ‘the Lord declares'”. God will punish such false prophets, casting them out of his presence (Jeremiah 23.39). Claiming something as the evident presence of God’s Spirit or giving a prophetic word is no light matter! And all of us are called to discern the spirits to check whether they indeed come ‘from God’ (ek tou theou) and should be received as “the Spirit of God”.

Love one another (4.7-12)

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In the context of discerning the spirits John returns to the principle theme of the letter. As God’s beloved children we should love one another. Surely John has it in his mind that such love is the necessary mark of the Spirit of God, so we may discern the genuineness of a spirit by whether it leads to greater love. Such love between believers comes “from/ek) God” and shows that we have been born of God and that we know God with the intimacy of personal relationship (4.7).
Sunday School teachers often ask small children to learn off by heart that “God is love” (4.8). It is short, deeply significant and easy to understand. But in its simplicity we can easily overlook its profound meaning. Love lies at the very heart of God’s fundamental nature. Because he islove, he cannot stop loving. We may reverently declare that he must love; he cannot avoid loving. And he has shown the reality of his love by sending his Son, Jesus Christ, in order that “we might live through him” (4.9). In these words John reaffirms his basic  Gospel message of new life, abundant life and eternal life. So love is another vital test for whether a spirit comes from God.
God sent his Son “as an atonement for our sins” (4.10). Whereas God’s gift of resurrection life comes again and again in his writings, the more Pauline message of atonement for our sins and redemption hardly features in John’s Gospel or in this letter. But this verse shows that John and Paul share the same faith in Jesus’ life-giving salvation through his death and resurrection. It reminds us, however, that their particular Gospel emphasis differs slightly. It is rare for John to write about sin and atonement.
John reiterates that God’s love for us should motivate us as Jesus’ followers to love one another. He has loved us long before we came to love him and our fellow believers. What an amazing privilege and comfort it is to know that we are loved! If we really follow him and love each other, it is evident that God (who is love) lives in us. By his Spirit his nature of love is being worked into our innermost being. Although nobody can see God (4.12) in his absolute glory, purity and holiness, people can see that God lives is us. His love is completed in us (4.12)  and the wonderful outworking of that divine love is manifest in our lives.
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In this passage John twice addresses his readers as “Beloved”, not just “dear friends” (4.7 and 11). Evidently John practises what he preaches – he loves his fellow-Christian readers. In the life and teaching of our churches let us give due importance to anything which fosters a growing love in our fellowship together. And surely our love together will be deeply attractive in our broken societies where loneliness can so easily prevail. What good news we bring: new life and love!
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