Ye are of God, my little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world. They are of the world: therefore speak they as of the world, and the world heareth them. We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he who is not of God heareth us not. By this we know the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error (1 John 4:4-6).
John has focused on many concerns that he has for his fellow Christians in 1 John: their need to do what is right and avoid the wrong (1 John 1:1-2:6, 3:1-10), to love one another (1 John 2:7-11, 3:11-24), and their need to avoid those who teach false doctrines– in particular, the growing number of Gnostic teachers (1 John 2:12-29).
John has returned to this last concern in 1 John 4:1-6. In verses 1-3 he taught the Christians to test the spirits to see whether they are from God or not. Since the Gnostic teachers are John’s primary concern, he assures the Christians that those who teach that Jesus is God in the flesh are of God, while those who do not are of the antichrist and thus the Devil.
John continues in this same line of thought and uses the same contrast in 1 John 4:3-6. He speaks tenderly to “his little children,” more of a statement of endearment than patronage, as he does frequently in 1 John (cf. 1 John 2:1, 12, 13, 18, 28; 3:7, 18; 5:21). He assures the Christians that they are “of God” and have already overcome the false teachers and the powers of darkness behind them, for “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
The theme of conquering and overcoming the spiritual powers of darkness is found constantly in John’s writings. Jesus declares that He has overcome the world in John 16:33. When Jesus speaks to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2-3, He provides a promise to those who “overcome” in each of His seven messages. Christians overcome the dragon Satan through the blood of the Lamb Jesus and the word of their testimony (Revelation 12:11).
This is a very comforting message to Christians who feel overwhelmed by the opposition they receive on account of the spiritual powers of darkness (cf. Ephesians 6:12). Revelation 13 and 17 describe in a vision the power of Satan over the earth as manifest within the Roman Empire and the persecution which the saints endured. If the Christians focused only on their earthly condition they would have had plenty of reason for discouragement, despair, and distress. Yet, according to the spiritual and heavenly perspective as seen in Revelation 12, 14-16, and 18:1-22:6, it is evident that victory belongs to God and His Lamb, and believers can overcome through them. Therefore, even when it appears that the forces of evil have the upper hand, God is greater than the dark power, and Christians have their victory in Him.
John then provides a clear contrast in 1 John 4:5-6: Christians who are “of God” and the Gnostic teachers who are of “the world.” Since the Gnostics are of “the world,” they speak as the people of the world do, and the people of the world listen to them (v. 5). Christians are of God, and while people of the world may not understand their message, God hears them (v. 6ab). This allows believers to “test the spirits” and see what is the spirit of truth versus what is the spirit of error (v. 6c).
John is speaking of “the world” in the same way as he did in 1 John 2:15-17. He is not speaking of rocks and trees and birds but the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life– sin and those who remain enslaved to it. Paul speaks of the worldly versus the spiritual perspective in 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:16 and indicates that the worldly mind cannot understand the spiritual truths of God. He goes on to say in Romans 8:1-11 that the worldly mentality cannot please God, remains hostile to Him, and leads to death.
So it is with false teaching of any stripe. We must not absolutize what John says and believe that as long as someone affirms that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, whatever else they teach is acceptable. Far from it! Nevertheless, all false teachings are grounded in worldly belief systems and acceptance among those who are worldly. False teachers are consistently described as promoting the lusts of the flesh (1 Timothy 6:3-5, 2 Peter 2:12-19, Jude 1:4). Since false teachings do not come from God, they come from the world, and they satisfy the world’s desires and the way that the world does things.
But it is not to be that way with those of us who believe in God. Our words must affirm what God has taught even when it goes against society’s views (Romans 12:1-2). Let us teach what God has taught and be of the spirit of truth, and let us not be seduced by the spirit of error!