“Beloved, do not believe every spirit” (1 John 4:1, NKJV)
One of the jobs of parents is to protect their kids, whatever the stage of life, whether as a baby rolling off the changing table, or a toddler running out in street, or the poor decision-making of the teenage years. The nature of that protection will change over the years as their children become more independent.
In his letter, John has taken on the role of spiritual father. He has often addressed his readers as “children” or “little children.” Here at the start of chapter four he addresses us with a term of endearment he has used previously, “beloved.” As believers, we are loved ones. John is expressing his affection as a spiritual father but more pointedly, he is recognizing us as loved by God.
The protective concern for our safety comes ultimately from our Father in heaven who has led His servant, John, to write these words and by His providence has included them in the canon of Scripture for our spiritual wellbeing. John urges us to discernment: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1).
This warning is pointedly significant in that John has warned us of the presence and intention of the evil one in this world to lead us astray. He writes that “many false prophets have gone out into the world” (4:2). A prophet is one who speaks for God. Throughout history God has communicated His word and will through human intermediaries. The Bible records examples of false prophets, those who presume to speak for God but whom He did not send.
John is particularly concerned that we be guarded from false teaching about Jesus. He lays out a litmus test for our discernment: “By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God” (4:2-3). The key phrase here is “come in the flesh.” In other words, did the eternal Son of God take on real flesh and blood humanity, as John asserted to begin his epistle (1:1)?
Why is this so important? It’s because if Jesus did not share our humanity, He could not be our Savior (John 1:1, 14). He could not be our representative and our substitute. In addition, without a physical body His death on the cross would be an illusion. Jesus would not have accomplished salvation. The promise of John 3:16 and the assurance of 1 John 5:13 would be empty.
John is protecting us from believing a lie. So it’s no surprise when he identifies the source of the lie. “And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world” (1 John 4:1–3). A false prophet leads us to a false truth, and leaves us empty-handed for any hope of eternal life.
What is the basis for our testing the teachings of the world and even the church?