What Does 1 John 4:1 Mean?

A sermon on 1 John 4:1-6 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 18 April 2021

Each year on Remembrance Day, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we remember the end of one of the world’s most horrific conflicts. World War One. It was meant to be the war that ended all wars. Its brutality was supposed to mean that we would never fight each other again. But that hope did not last even one generation. World War Two began only 21 years after the First came to an end. And ever since the world has been embroiled in one conflict after another.

John’s first letter was written in the midst of conflict. A church had been broken in two, with half of its members walking out on the others. Each side claimed to be the true followers of God. Each side tried to lure those on the other side to come over and join them and to condemn those who refused to listen.

Compared to the horrors of modern warfare it may seem petty and insignificant. But in this obscure little battle we get an insight into the great conflict that lies at the heart of all wars. And in that conflict there will be no ceasefire. There will be no surrender. There will be no peace until every knee bows to Jesus Christ and confesses him as Lord. It is the great conflict between good and evil. While we live, it will go on. We will be caught up in it, and we be wounded by it. We will be misunderstood and hated and mocked as fools and dinosaurs by the world around us. But in the midst of this conflict we have the Lord’s help. His perspective, his peace and his power to carry us through.

Firstly, let’s look at the Lord’s perspective. John wrote in chapter 4 verse 1,

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.

There is a deliberate contrast here with what we learned last week. A couple of verses earlier in 1 John chapter 3:23 we are commanded to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ. In the next verse we are told,

And this is how we know that he lives in us: we know it by the Spirit he gave us.

And in the very next verse, this first verse of chapter 4 we are told,

Do not believe every spirit.

John is warning us not to be gullible, not to be too easily impressed by those who seem to be enthusiastic or gifted by the Holy Spirit. For it is too easy to be impressed by appearances and the Holy Spirit is not the only spirit. During his earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus encountered time and again spiritual beings called unclean or evil spirits. They had the power to influence the thoughts and words and actions of human beings.

And apart from these beings, the Bible teaches us that we possess a spirit of our own. It’s the bit inside us that is more than flesh and bone. It is the spark of life and personality that makes us who we really are. Our spirit is sensitive to music and to works of art. When another person shares a moving story, it strikes a chord in our spirit. Because God is Spirit and he has made us both body and spirit, we are sensitive to his work in the world and in our lives. By his Holy Spirit God can reassure us of his presence and power, or he may convict us of some fault or sin in our life.

But there is more than one kind of spirit, and they don’t all have our best interest at hearts. And our spirit is susceptible to their suggestions and impulses. The devil and his servants can try to tempt us to some sin or to doubt God’s goodness and power. And if you don’t believe that is true you are in even more danger.

So John, when he wrote his letter, he warned his readers, Don’t believe every spirit. Don’t trust every person who says they’re from God. Don’t believe every sermon you hear. Don’t trust every person who volunteers for some ministry position. Don’t believe every prophet who warns you that the sky is falling in. Don’t trust every plan for the church’s future direction. Don’t vote yes to every motion in a church meeting. When someone is excited about some plan or purpose, it’s obvious that their spirit has been aroused. It just may be that they are most in tune with the Spirit of God. But there is more than one spirit.

John said,

Test the spirits to see if they are from God.

John doesn’t want us to be suspicious of all spirits. Some people are naturally suspicious of any kind of spirit, of any display of enthusiasm, of any experience that is outside of their comfort zone. They are afraid of anything that they can’t control. But the spirit is creative. The spirit inspires strong emotions. And the Spirit of God is certainly not interested in what is inside our comfort zone.

We are not meant to be suspicious of all spirits. But we are meant to test the spirits, to discern which come from God and to expose the false prophets who will lead us away from God. And the test we must apply is this:

Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.

It is not enough just to mouth the words, “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” Even the devil himself could say the words and not mean them in his heart. It means that the work of the Spirit of God will always be in harmony with the purpose and result of the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. In his ministry, in his death on the cross, and in his resurrection from the dead. The criterion is nothing other than the gospel of Jesus Christ, of the proclamation of his saving death for us, of the power of his risen life, and of the offer of forgiveness and eternal life in his name.

So don’t believe every sermon you hear. For false prophets will come. They will wear a suit and tie and have a charming smile and a great sense of humour. They will use amazing illustrations and attention grabbing slides. And they will come among you and they will talk down God’s grace and they will talk up what human beings can achieve by their own strength and power. Don’t believe every sermon, but only those that exalt Jesus Christ as Lord, our only Saviour and hope. Don’t trust every person who volunteers for some ministry position, but only those who know the love of God for us in Jesus Christ and who demonstrate that love for others. Don’t vote for every motion put at a church meeting except those that help us become a church that tells and lives the life of Jesus Christ revealed in the flesh.

It isn’t rude to test the spirits, to weigh the plans, the purposes, the intentions, the words, the predictions, and the enthusiasm of fallible human spirits    in the scale of the gospel. It isn’t being harsh or judgmental. It isn’t about making it harder to become a church member. It isn’t about setting up more hoops for people to jump through before they can be baptised. This isn’t about testing those who want to follow. This is about testing those who want to lead. Who want to influence the church with their teaching and with their suggestions.

John’s own letter had to pass that test to become part of the Bible. If his words had not been in harmony with the life and teaching of Christ they would have been rejected straight away. Why should my words, why should your thoughts and plans, be exempt from passing the same standard.

This is the perspective that God brings in the midst of the conflict. We don’t like to judge, to test, to examine others in case we might be examined too. Because we know that we are far from perfect. We swallow the lie that there is no good or evil, that there is no black or white. Only different shades of grey. But the Lord says to us in his Word, don’t believe every spirit. Test them by the standard of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The conflict may keep swirling around us. But we will see our way clearer through the storm.

Secondly, God provides us peace. John wrote in verse 4,

You, dear children, are from God and you have overcome them.

John means the false prophets. Those who come in the spirit of Antichrist. Those who deny the gospel of Jesus. Those whose lives and words are not in harmony with the purpose of God revealed in his Son. They were those who had split from the church and trying to lead the others away. It was a disturbing, confusing time for John’s readers. Harsh words had been spoken. Friendships broken. Feelings hurt. Faith undermined.

John’s word of encouragement to his readers was: You have overcome them. They have chosen their path. They have chosen the way of darkness. They have turned their backs on Christ and on the blessing of God through him. But they cannot snatch that away from you, if you stay true. For there is nothing they can do to separate you from the love of God.

I am very competitive. And I’ve played enough games to know that in the midst of the conflict, it can be tense. When the scores are close, people can say pretty nasty things to each other. But sometimes when the game is so one-sided that the end result becomes certain, it almost becomes fun like it’s meant to be. Even if a few things don’t go your way, what’s the point of arguing, what’s the point of making a fuss over an umpire’s decision, if you are going to win anyway.

This is the peace God gives us in the midst of the great conflict between good and evil. The enemies of Christ will misunderstand us and make fun of us. But Christ’s victory is assured. It has been ever since Easter day. If he is alive from the dead, if he could face death like that and walk away from it, there is nothing he cannot do. He is just waiting to claim his victory, to give us the opportunity to turn to him in faith and to receive the blessing of his love. Because in Christ we are winners too. In this life we share his love and one day we will share his victory.

And so even in the midst of the conflict, we can afford to be gracious. We can forgive our enemies. We can love those who hate us. We can return good for evil. To do anything less is to doubt the final victory of God. In the midst of the conflict, with the storm of words going around, there is the eye of the storm where Jesus Christ is, whose love is perfect, whose victory is assured, and whose promise is life and peace. And in that calm we will find his peace, if we remain true to him. Because we have nothing to lose.

Lastly, his power is with us too. John wrote in verse 4,

The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.

This is why we have overcome. This is why we are winners in Christ. This is why we share his victory. Because the one who is in us, within us, among us, is greater than the one who is in the world.  It speaks of the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit of good, the Spirit of power, the Spirit of love. The Spirit who hovered over the unmade world at the beginning of creation. The Spirit who came upon the Lord Jesus like a dove at his baptism. The Spirit that guided and empower his ministry and restored him to life. This Spirit, the one, true, Spirit of life dwells in the heart of the believer and in the fellowship of the church. By the Spirit we repent of our sins. By the Spirit we trust in Christ for salvation. By the Spirit we love each other. By the Spirit we understand the Scriptures. By the Spirit we live and grow.

And compared to the dynamite of the Spirit’s power, the different spirits of the world are just bright and glowing sparklers. Their power is an illusion, and in time it just fades away. So in the great conflict between good and evil, they can frighten us. But they cannot hurt us. They can grab at us, but they cannot snatch us out of the Lord’s hand. They can push and pull all they like, but they cannot separate us from the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Don’t believe every sermon you hear. Not even mine. Trust instead in the God whose peace and power are yours to fight evil with good.