Test The Spirits

Bible Book: 1 John  4 : 1-6
Subject: Spirits, Test the; Post-Modernism; Gnostics; Truth

1 John 4:1-6: 1 – 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. 2 – 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, 3 – 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. 4 – 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. 5 – They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. 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.

When I was a sophomore in college and home for Christmas break I spent a Saturday morning with a friend of mine installing a brand new, top of the line stereo system in his car. Of course, back then top of the line meant eight-track player! For those of you who have no idea what an eight-track player looks like—here’s a picture. If you want to see one up close head for the Smithsonian! Once we finished the install—which included some expensive speakers—we popped our favorite eight-track in and drove to the mall to meet some friends from the college group at our church. We were all meeting there to see a movie that had just come out starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman—The Sting. How many of you remember that oldie but goldie? For you “younger people” it’s a story about con men who pull off an amazing SCAM in the early twentieth century in which they steal millions from the head of an organized crime syndicate. The movie is well done—so well done—that viewers get taken in and experience “the sting” themselves at the end of the film. Well, as we exited the theater my friend and I were talking about our favorite parts and how surprised we were at the ending—when we got to his car and noticed something was wrong. His brand new eight-track top of the line stereo system was gone. So were all his eight-track tapes. The speakers had even been removed. We had been the victim of thieves. We had been taken. In essence we had been “stung” while we were watching The Sting.

Now—even though many of you aren’t old enough to have experienced having your eight-track system stolen, I’m sure you can all relate to that feeling of “being taken” because these days thieves and scams are everywhere. I mean, you really have to watch out because there is a long line of people trying to get everything from your cash to your identity. For example, this week I read a story about a group of three men who were posing as police officers, complete with badges and walkie-talkies, and robbing homes on the northwest side of Chicago. I also heard about a new epidemic of “skimmer thieves.” These are guys who install devices on ATMS that look like they are part of the machine.But when people use those ATMS to get cash from their bank accounts these crooks get the account number and password and then help themselves to that person’s assets.

Of course, the biggest scammers out there these days use the Internet. Recently a report was circulated about a type of scam called, “phishing” in which a fake email about individual i-tune accounts is circulated that looks like it comes from Apple. When an e-mail user is duped into revealing personal or confidential information on a fake website, the scammer then uses it illicitly. These emails and the website look legitimate and the messages are often urgent and very believable so a lot of people are TAKEN IN by them.

But some e-mail scams are even more tricky—like when scammers steal your e-mail lists without your even realizing it. Several of you have been taken in by this one. I know this because I’ve gotten e-mails from you and the only message is a link. Thinking I can certainly trust e-mails from church members, I’ve clicked on those links—only to be taken to a website trying to sell pharmaceuticals from Canada or something.

One of the most common scams these days involves an email from Nigeria where you are asked to help access a large sum of money in a foreign bank account. For your efforts, you are promised a percentage of the funds. Once a dialogue is established, you will eventually be asked for advance fees and personal account information. By the way, I read that the second most lucrative industry in Nigeria is scamming foolish Americans out of their money.

I bring all this up because—while scams like the phony phishing schemes on the Internet are dangerous—there are SPIRITUAL scams taking place which are far more serious. You see, these days there are lots of false teachers pushing false faith systems that people buy into—and this is NOTHING NEW. It’s been going on since the early days of the church. In fact, every single New Testament writer warns against the “scams” of false teachers or false prophets. For example, in Matthew 24:4-5 Jesus said, “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many.” 2nd Peter 2:1-2 says, “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord Who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute.” And Jude 3 says, “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you.They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.”

And—the writer of our text for this morning, John the Apostle, also warns us about false teachers. You should remember that this is one of the main reasons John wrote his little epistle. It’s one of those themes he keeps coming back to again and again. As I told you when we began our study the religious scammers in John’s day were called Gnostics. To review—the word “Gnostic” means “knowledge.” Gnostics believed in secret levels of spirituality that were only available to certain people who attained special knowledge. Remember? Their “special knowledge” was the belief that all matter was evil and that only the spirit was good—so according to their way of thinking there was really no right or wrong. Gnostics encouraged people to sin all they wanted while they lived in their body because only the spirit is pure anyway. They also denied Jesus’ deity and taught their followers that He was not fully man.

Well, John’s warning to his first century readers have tremendous application to us in the twenty-first century because as I said there is a lot of spiritual falsehood in OUR day and age. I mean, there are still people who follow the “gnostic path” and say Jesus was not really God’s Son. There are others who say morality is outdated and old fashioned—that basically right and wrong is a matter of opinion. There are books written to support this kind of false teaching all the time and they become best sellers as more and more people get TAKEN IN by their lies.

In my opinion, one of the most dangerous forms of modern Gnosticism is seen in a philosophy that started in the late 20th century called “post-modernism”—a popular way of thinking that says the idea that certain spiritual claims are true and certain spiritual claims are false is narrow minded and ignorant. People who embrace post-modernism don’t believe in absolute truth. I’m reminded of something Depak Chopra said in an interview a few years back. He said it is impossible for us to know God so instead we should just listen to our hearts. In other words he embraces this popular way of thinking that says you have your truth and I have my truth but there is no TRUTH. Just follow your heart! Live any way you want. This mindset is why it’s so popular these days to say that all spiritual views are simply different roads that all lead to God, so for Christianity to claim to be the only right road is intolerant and pious.

This week I read about an article in Christianity Today about a pastor named Tim Stafford who teaches an introduction to Christianity class for spiritual seekers and inquirers. At the beginning of the class he shows them a jar full of beans and he asks each participant in the class to guess how many beans are in the jar. Then he asks each participant to write down the name of his or her favorite song. When the lists are complete, he reveals the actual number of beans in the jar, and each class participant looks over the guesses to determine which one is closest to being right. Then Stafford shares the lists of favorite songs and asks the class, “Now which one of these SONGS is the closest to BEING RIGHT?” Of course, the class answers that there is no “right” answer to a person’s favorite song, because favorite songs are simply a matter of personal taste and preference. Then the pastor asks this group of seekers, “When you decide what to believe in terms of your faith, is it more like guessing the number of beans or choosing your favorite song?” Every time he’s asked this the majority of the class responds by saying deciding what to believe in is more like choosing your favorite song. That’s the influence of postmodernism in our world today. It’s a way of thinking that says there is no ONE truth. Everybody just picks their favorite “truth.”

Of course when you think about it, the postmodern belief that all spiritual claims are equally true is actually a self-refuting claim. I mean, to say that anyone’s spiritual truth is just as valid as anyone else’s spiritual truth is really a rejection of the existence of such a thing as spiritual truth in the first place. Truth doesn’t work like that. I mean, two conflicting things can’t both be true. Here’s an example of what I’m getting at: Christians claim that Jesus Christ died on the cross, but the Muslim religion claims that Jesus did not die on the cross. Those claims cannot both be true.

Okay—back to our text. John encourages his readers—then and now—to guard against GULLIBILITY when it comes to spirituality. After introducing the topic of God’s Spirit at the end of chapter 3, John warns us that there are other kinds of spirits around as well. So, as he says in verse 1, it’s important to be spiritually skeptical. He says, “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.” Now, this command to not believe every spirit is in the PRESENT TENSE. It literally means: “Stop believing every spirit,” which indicates that John’s first readers were being too gullible—too accepting of any teaching that came their way. And, it’s important for US to have a healthy skepticism when it comes to spiritual claims as well. Proverbs 14:15 says, “A simple man believes anything, but a prudent man gives thought to his steps.” We need to give thought to our steps—we need to be skeptical because false teachers don’t walk around with name tags that say, “Hi, I’m a false teacher.”

Our culture tells us to believe what feels good or what sounds the best but we must be wiser than that—more discerning than that. As John says, we must TEST the spirits. The word “test” refers to examining, proving and scrutinizing in order to see if something is genuine. In John’s day it was a word that was used to describe the examining of metals to see if they were the real deal. An example of a metal that needs TESTING is gold because as you know there is a thing called “fools gold.” One Gemologist writes about it and says: “It is not unusual for a beginner to wonder about the difference between gold and the other materials found in a streambed, because shiny rocks, or iron pyrite (fool’s gold) is often mistaken for the real thing. In fact, there is a story of an entire shipload of iron pyrite being shipped over to England during the 1500’s — the yellow stuff having been thought to be gold.” Perhaps this shipment inspired Shakespeare to write, “All that glitters is not gold.” Here’s a picture with fool’s gold on the left and the real thing on the right. They both glitter nicely don’t they!

Well, there’s a lot of stuff that “glitters” in the name of spirituality and because of that John encourages his readers to be suspicious about what they hear. Here’s a good paraphrase of his admonition in verse 1:“My dear friends, don’t believe everything you hear. Carefully weigh and examine what people tell you. Not everyone who TALKS ABOUT God COMES FROM God. There are a lot of lying preachers loose in the world.” As I said, we need to be just as skeptical because not everything we read or see or hear that claims to be from God IS from God. There are STILL a lot of lying preachers in the world.

And the sad fact is like John’s first readers we can be very gullible. We tend to believe anything we hear about the spiritual realm, whether it’s from a guest on Oprah or an article in Guidepost magazine or a popular book with the words “pray” and “love” in it. If a person stands up quoting Bible verses and making reference to Jesus a few times, we are apt to fall for whatever he or she has to say. Well, God uses John to warn us to stop being so easily taken in—warns us to not believe everything we come across in the spiritual realm. Instead, we must test these experiences—test these leaders—test these groups and their books—to determine whether they’re truly from God. We must learn discernment.Joseph Stowell writes, “Discernment is that skill that enables us to differentiate. It is the ability to see issues clearly. We desperately need to cultivate this spiritual skill that will enable us to filter out right from wrong, light from darkness, truth from error, best from better, righteousness from unrighteousness.”

Well, how can you filter out the false beliefs in today’s religious scams? How can you spot a false teacher? John tells us three things that help.

I. Rely on God’s SON.

This is a great test to use because if a group doesn’t get their teaching about Jesus right, nothing else they say will be right either. Look at verses 2-3 again. John says: “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.” The word “acknowledge” here is actually the word “confess,” which has to do with a commitment that leads to a genuine confession. It literally means to “say the same word,” or to say the same thing that God says about something. Well, what is it that the Father has said about Jesus? John reminds us that God’s Spirit says Jesus Christ has come in the flesh and is the Son of God. The phrase, “has come” means that it’s an ABIDING REALITY. To say He’s come “in the flesh,” means Jesus was not a phantom. Do you remember John’s words at the beginning of His gospel? He said, “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.” (John 1:14) So to not teach or confess that Christ came in the flesh is to deny that which is true. As John puts it in 2nd John 7: “Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.”

As editor of The Emporia Gazette, William White received many articles from aspiring writers, but he returned most of them to their authors with rejection slips.One disappointed and bitter person wrote back to White, “Sir, you sent back a story of mine. I know that you did not read it because, as a test, I pasted together pages 19 and 20.The manuscript came back with those pages still stuck together. So I know that you are a fraud and that you turn down articles without even reading them.”White sent her a brief reply, “Dear Madam: At breakfast when I taste an egg, I don’t have to eat it all to determine if it is bad.”

This principle is true when it comes to testing a belief system. You don’t have to examine every single belief to know if it’s false. If that teacher or preacher or belief system denies the deity or the humanity of Jesus Christ, His virgin birth, His perfect life, His atoning death, His bodily resurrection, or personal return, it is a “bad egg” and should be rejected. I’m reminded of a poem John Newton, who wrote “Amazing Grace,” wrote:

“What think ye of Christ? Is the test

To try both your state and scheme;
You cannot be right in the rest,
Unless you think rightly of Him.”

Friends, the Mormons talk about Jesus, but to them he is the half-brother of Lucifer and a created being. Jehovah Witnesses believe that Jesus was Michael the Archangel who became a man and that after the resurrection, Jesus was just a spirit, not a real, physical person. Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet but not God. Christian Science teaches that Jesus was a man in tune with the divine consciousness. The Baha’i faith believes that Jesus is only one of nine great world manifestations and is not the unique path of salvation. Unitarians believe that Jesus was a good man who was mistakenly deified by His followers. Any system like these that denigrates Jesus’ deity or dishonors his humanity is not of God and so it can and should be thrown out because if a person or group doesn’t get their teaching about Jesus right, nothing else will be right either. I like what Charles Hadden Spurgeon once said, “Christ is the sum and substance of theology.”

And he was correct! Jesus is the central focus of all God has done, is doing, and is going to do. Even the name “Jesus Christ” affirms both His humanity and His deity. JESUS is His earthly name and CHRIST refers to His heavenly name. He is fully God and fully man.

Let me pause to say that we must love people who follow false faith systems like these I have mentioned. Remember, they are not our enemy. They are VICTIMS of our enemy.

Okay—the first way to spot a false teacher is to see what they have to say about Jesus.

II. Rely on God's SPIRIT

A second thing John advises is that we learn to rely on God’s SPIRIT.

John knows that false teachers can be intimidating so in essence he gives his readers a pep talk. He says that since we’ve already made the decision to follow Jesus—He Who is the WAY, the TRUTH, and the LIFE, in that decision we’ve already overcome the deception and false belief systems that are in the world. The basis of this overcoming isn’t because of how smart we are or how good we are or how holy we are but it’s all based on Who God is. And God is simply greater—infinitely more powerful—than any other force in our world, including Satan himself. God’s Spirit—THE Overcomer Himself—indwells us through our faith in Jesus Christ. So, as John says, “Greater is He Who is in you than he who is in the world.”

Now, the tense here indicates that this victory has been won in the past and we are still enjoying that victory in the present. And we are! Through the new birth we experience when we put our faith in Jesus we are adopted into God’s family and we are now connected to Him. So as Paul says in Romans 8:37: “…in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him Who loved us.” We must remember that Satan is a defeated enemy but one of his biggest scams is to try and convince us that he has won—that he calls the shots.

Reminds me of a story I came across about a proud lion that was walking through the jungle and came upon a little rabbit. He demanded to know who the rabbit thought the king of the jungle was: “Oh, you are, mighty lion! You’re the king!” The lion lumbered on and came to a monkey and roared out the same question. The answer was the same. He was king and everyone knew it.

Then he came to a bull elephant that was 16 feet tall and had 6 foot tusks. The lion roared, “Who’s the king of the jungle?”The elephant did not answer. He just grabbed the lion with his trunk, lifted him high over his head, and threw him against an oak tree 20 yards away. As the lion slid down the tree like melted butter, he looked up at the elephant and said, “Well, just because you know the answer you don’t have to get uptight about it!”Listen. The devil is deceiving many into believing he is strong, that he is the king—but he’s not! Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world! Christ won and that means we win!

Union General George McClellan always seemed fearful that the enemy had superior forces; so he never attacked Robert E. Lee in the early days of the Civil War. He sent a spy named Allan Pinkerton into Richmond to assess the confederate forces. Pinkerton assumed there were more Confederates than he could see, so he inflated the numbers. As a result McClellan did not attack. So often we are like McClellan. We overestimate the power of the enemy, and we underestimate the power of God—the God Who is WITH us and IN us. We have nothing to fear from today’s false teachers no matter how popular their messages are.

And speaking of their messages…

III. Rely on God's BOOK

The third thing John says we must do as we face false teachers is to rely on God’s BOOK…GOD’S message.

In other words one way we should evaluate preachers and teachers by seeking an answer to this question: How high is their view of the Scriptures? In verse 6 John says: “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.”

When John uses the word “we” and “us,” he’s referring to all the apostles—the men God used to write the Scriptures as preserved in the New Testament. He’s saying all who are truly born of God will accept these writings as authoritative. Or to put it another way, those who truly know God listen to the Word of God. False teachers don’t listen because they don’t have a high view of the Bible. They either add additional books, or they ignore its clear teaching or they teach the Bible out of context. This week, I came across five traits of false teachers listed in the Life Application Bible.

• They claim to have “new truth” other than the Bible from special prophets or special revelation.
• They twist Christian doctrine.
• They undermine Scripture.
• They promote salvation by works.
• They undermine the assurance of eternal life by God’s grace.

One of the marvels of the Internet age is a thing called Pandora radio. When you listen to a radio station on terrestrial or satellite radio, you have to listen to every song played. You can change the channel, but you can’t change the song. You’re stuck with whatever you’re given. But that’s not so on Pandora. How many of you are Pandora listeners? For the rest of you, Pandora is great because you put in different singers, bands, or songs that you like; and the computers at Pandora use an algorithm to parse the music that you list. The algorithm asks, is this rock, or is it soft rock, or is it hard rock? Is it antiphonal? Does it have guitar leads? Does it have a front man? It analyzes what you like in these ways and then it can incorporate other similar songs and artists into the mix. By each song that’s played Pandora puts a little thumbs-up sign and a little thumbs-down sign. When you click the thumbs-up sign, the algorithm is strengthened even more to your tastes, and it will play more music like that. If you click the thumbs-down sign, Pandora will just skip that particular song and bring up a different one for you to judge. I share this because in an age where customization of lifestyle and belief has become the norm, this is often the way people approach the Bible. They say, “I like 1st Corinthians 13 because of what it says about love; I don’t like 1st Corinthians 11 because of what it says about women. I like the Book of Joshua where it tells how God brought the Israelites into the Promised Land; I don’t like the parts of Joshua about killing people. I like Jesus in the beatitudes; I don’t like Him when he talks about plucking out your eye and cutting off your hand.” People tend to tailor and customize their view of Scripture and, ultimately, their view of God. It’s like they have their own internal algorithm all the time, sorting through and processing the Biblical data to say, “Oh, I accept this part, I’ll preach this part, this part is useful to modern society; but this other part I’m embarrassed—even ashamed—of.” Well, that “Pandora kind of attitude” makes people susceptible to false teachers—those who preach messages they like to hear…messages they prefer. Paul warns us about this in 2nd Timothy 4:3-4, “The time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” When you come across someone who treats the Bible like a Pandora algorithm you should be suspicious. Authentic teachers rely on God’s Word—ALL OF IT. We must all be like those believers from Berea. Acts 17:11 says, “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.” They didn’t even believe Paul until they checked his preaching against the Scriptures!

So—John says that to deal with the false teachers of our world—rely on God’s Son, rely on God’s Spirit, rely on God’s Book.

Let us pray