Beloved, believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not Jesus is not of God: and this is the spirit of the antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it cometh; and now it is in the world already (1 John 4:1-3).
John has manifested many concerns for his fellow Christians in 1 John. He wants to make sure that believers recognize that they are to walk in the light, and not the darkness, to not sin, and to follow the Savior and practice righteousness (1 John 1:1-2:6, 3:1-10). He fervently exhorts Christians to love one another, that “new old commandment,” for without that love, none can be saved (1 John 2:7-11, 3:11-24). Another primary concern for John has been the prevalence of false teachers, especially those of the Gnostic variety, and the need for believers to resist their error and to stand firm for the truth (1 John 2:12-29). He returns to this last concern in 1 John 4:1-3.
John begins this section with the exhortation to “prove” or “test” the “spirits” to see whether “they are of God” (1 John 4:1). “Spirits” here most likely have reference to spiritual powers of influence that are either inspired by God or Satan (cf. 1 Timothy 4:1, Hebrews 1:14, Revelation 1:4). These “spirits” are believed to be the “inspiration” or influence upon people and the things that they are teaching. The idea of this examination, therefore, is to ascertain whether the source of the teachings comes from God or from Satan, and the standard for that test involves that which God has already clearly revealed: in the days of John, such would involve the Scriptures that existed and the work of the Spirit in those days (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:10); today, our standard for such examinations is the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16-17). John’s exhortation is as valuable now as it was when it was first penned, for the forces of darkness have not ceased promoting false doctrines. The only trustworthy standard that cannot fail us is that which God has already revealed, and we must put all things to the test by that standard.
John then identifies his primary concern: does the teacher believe and confess that Jesus Christ came in the flesh? If he confesses that, he is of God; if he denies it, he is of the antichrist (1 John 4:2-3). John earlier spoke of the “antichrists,” those who departed from the faith, in 1 John 2:14-23. They are the ones who deny that Jesus is the Christ. Here John seems to envision “the antichrist” as a demonic or evil spirit who is influencing the Gnostic heretics– a far cry from the “antichrist” envisioned by modern dispensational premillennialists. The “antichrist” here might be Satan himself.
It is unwise for us here, as we have seen in previous passages (cf. 1 John 3:1-9, etc.), to make what John is saying absolute. There have been plenty of people throughout time who have confessed that Jesus is the Christ and that He came in the flesh and yet have espoused false teachings (cf. Acts 15:1-29, Galatians). Instead, we must recognize that John is speaking clearly and forcefully about the Gnostics and their teachings. The Gnostics retained plenty of Hellenistic philosophical influences and therefore could not come to grips with the idea that God would manifest Himself in the flesh, die, and be raised again in that flesh, as the Gospel message confessed (cf. 1 Corinthians 15). Therefore, they denied that Jesus came in the flesh, and that the man Jesus was the Christ. Instead, they taught that the god Christ came and only appeared, or seemed, to be flesh, but really was not of the flesh. This view is called docetism, from the Greek word dokeo, “to seem.” In this view, the Christ was never really a man, and He did not die on the cross; Simon of Cyrene, or someone else, was the one who died. If Christ did not really die, there was no real need for a resurrection. That was fine for the Gnostics, since they despised the flesh anyway, and had no desire for the resurrection of the body.
Such teachings made a mockery of the entire Christian message and emptied it of its power. Those who proclaimed “Christ and Him crucified” stressed His life, death, and resurrection, indicating that if Jesus was not really the Christ, did not really die, and was not really bodily raised from the dead, Christians have hoped in vain, they are still in their sins, and are of all people most to be pitied (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:12-19).
Since the entire Christian message depends on the belief that Jesus is the Christ in the flesh, the only way that one could truly be a believer in God and Christ was to confess this. Any who do not confess this must be rejected– this much John makes clear, and we can sympathize with his concern. Let us not be of the spirit of the antichrist, but of the Holy Spirit, believe that Jesus is the Christ who came in the flesh, and serve Him today!