1 John 4:1-6
(watch here: https://youtu.be/HvFyVbSaQU0)
1Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world. 4Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. 6We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
It’s been a few weeks since we’ve gathered to celebrate God’s Word and all the blessings He bestows on us. We’ve shifted into another 4-week sermon series on the first epistle of John. Recall from a couple weeks ago how John starts his letter with a call into fellowship. He wants us to not only gather around God’s Word but also support each other and pray for each other and most importantly challenge each other. We need each other to weather the storms of life and bring out the best in each of us. None of us can do this life thing alone. We need each other, the strengths and gifts of each other, if we are to bear the fruit God wants us to bear. Despite what our American culture glorifies in rugged individualism, none of us is an island unto themselves. We all must rely on someone at some point to survive. I recommend that someone being God but to each his or her own. After all, God will never leave you or abandon you. God will always be with you whether you choose to acknowledge his presence or not. But I realize his presence is not enough at times and it is good to reach out to someone here in this world. Fellowship is good. Individualism goes only so far in bringing out the best of us. There comes a point when we need each other to go a little further and bring out just a little more.
And as we gather to share in fellowship, leaders naturally arise to help manage and guide our gatherings. John naturally shifts the attention of his letter from a calling into fellowship to a precaution towards poor leaders or “false prophets” as John refers to them. We are called to gather and “test the spirits” that appear to guide and lead us. Some like to believe that John is simply referring to the handful of people that directly lead our lives; people like parents or bosses or coaches or pastors or teachers or doctors. Yes, we should always be on alert about the lessons and teachings that these leaders convey. We should always question whether what they have to offer is for our benefit or not. That’s just common sense! But for the most part we trust that those leaders are looking out for our best interests if not their own. Parents and bosses and coaches and pastors and teachers want us to succeed, or at least they ought to. They don’t want us to fail. They want us to grow and blossom into what God wants us to become. They want to help us, not hurt us. And I realize that not all of them do help us; some actually go out of their way to hurt us and for that I am sorry. But they are supposed to be good, supportive, challenging people in our lives. John advises us to seek out the good people, the “good spirits,” and to test their goodness. Believe it or not, not all good people are good! Some aim to harm us despite what they claim and John wants us to be prepared. More importantly, John wants us to have discerning hearts. He wants us to be able to distinguish between false prophets and truthful prophets; between bad spirits and good spirits.
Contrary to what some like to believe, there are a multitude of spirits that have influence over our lives besides our parents or bosses or coaches or pastors or teachers or doctors. Just turn on the tv or the radio, pick up a magazine or a book, and you’ll be influenced by someone or something, a spirit of sorts. John’s advice applies to a whole slew of spirits that seek to guide our daily living. Good and bad spirits are all around us from the moment we wake up until the moment we’re asleep. And for some of us, even while we sleep! John encourages us to carry the strongest weapon as we encounter the spirits of this world: a discerning heart. Spiritual discernment is the key for survival in this wicked world. It enables us to grow and flourish and keep God ever close to the heart.
In the early 1500s, while Luther was blazing his theological trails in Germany, there was another man blazing his own theological trails. A Catholic priest by the name of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Italy was establishing his own religious order called the Society of Jesus or Jesuits. At the core of the order was a collection of Ignatius’ writings known as the “Spiritual Exercises.” The exercises are designed to deepen one’s faith in Christ and understanding of God. Ignatius talks about discerning the spirits in terms of “consolation” and “desolation.” Ignatius explains, “consolation is the interior movement of the heart that gives us a deep sense of life-giving connection with God, others, and our authentic self. We may experience it as a sense that all is right with the world, that we are free to be given over to God and love, even in moments of pain and crisis. Desolation is the loss of a sense of God’s presence; indeed, we feel out of touch with God, with others and with our authentic self. It might be an experience of being off-center, full of turmoil, confusion, and maybe even rebellion. Or we might sense our energy draining away, tension in our gut or tears welling in our eyes.” You see, discernment is more than simply being able to distinguish good spirits from bad spirit. Discernment is about drawing closer to God or further away from God. The spirits work to draw us to or cast us away from God. A discerning heart is one that knows how to keep God close.
The biblical definition of discernment takes it even further by distinguishing truth from error. Wisdom is the gift of discernment according to scripture. Paul prays in his letter to the Philippians, “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless.” (1:9-10) The prophet Hosea explains, “Those who are wise understand these things; those who are discerning know them. For the ways of the Lord are right, and the upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them.” And David pleads in his psalm, “Teach me good judgment and knowledge, for I believe in your commandments.” (119:66) You see, a discerning heart seeks more than good. It seeks truth and wisdom.
John calls us to gather in fellowship and test the spirits that invariably lead us. Testing spirits is more than determining their goodness or lack thereof. Testing spirits is discerning their truth. And what is truth? Truth is nothing more than that which draws us closer to God. How do we test the spirits? Well, I’ll close with the wisdom of the great 20th century pastor, A.W. Tozer, who posed seven tests to use on the teachings of any spirit:
1. How does the teaching affect my relationship with God? Is He magnified and glorified, or diminished?
2. How does the teaching affect my attitude toward the Lord Jesus Christ? Does it magnify Him and give Him first place? Or, does it subtly shift my focus onto myself or some experience?
3. How does the teaching affect my attitude toward Scripture? Did the teaching come from and agree with the Word? Does it increase my love for the Word?
4. How does the teaching affect my self-life? Does it feed self or crucify it? Does it feed pride or humility?
5. How does the teaching affect my relationships to other Christians? Does it cause me to withdraw, find fault, and exalt myself in superiority? Or, does it lead me to genuine love for all that truly know Christ?
6. How does the teaching affect my relationship to the world system? Does it lead me to pursue the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life? Does it lead me to pursue worldly riches, reputation, and pleasures? Or, does it crucify the world to me?
7. How does the teaching affect my attitude toward sin? Does it cause me to tolerate sin in my life or to turn from it and grow in holiness? Any teaching that makes holiness more acceptable and sin more intolerable is genuine.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.