We may be surprised by many things when we reach heaven. I dare not contend with J.C. Ryle who said that the thing which will surprise us most is how much more we ought to have loved Christ while on earth. But I think there is another reality which will also greatly surprise us when we reach heaven. And that is this: the depths of the spiritual battle that was waged for the souls of men and women during our lifetime. Take any saint—whether in the first century under the persecution of Nero, or suffering under Rome during the Inquisition in the 13th century, or faced with oppression by the secular government in China today—and behind the scenes in his life, the spiritual battle is of the intensest kind.
I think we will be surprised to finally understand the depth of the conflict which was introduced to us in Genesis 3:15, where we are told that God “put enmity between” the serpent’s seed and the seed of the woman (whom many commentators consider to be Christ). Commenting on this verse, John Gill notes that Christ “has been implacably hated by Satan and his angels, and by wicked men, so he has opposed himself to all them that hate and persecute his people.” I think we will be surprised to realize the depth of the battle that has raged—of which Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness gave us a glimpse of the craftiness, subtlety, and desperation of the enemy of our souls. I think we will be surprised to realize the skirmishes and clashes that have occurred in the spiritual realm, and of which we perhaps unknowingly participated in via prayer, discipleship, evangelism, loving our brothers and sisters in Christ, a word of encouragement, a word of rebuke, sharing a gospel tract, speaking up for the weak, not giving in to sin. I think when we reach heaven, we will be like the servant of Elisha, who had his eyes opened to see the fiery angelic army encamped around Dothan.
Do you remember that story? The king of Syria is ticked off because Elisha keeps warning the king of Israel about his battle plans. Finally, the king of Syria has enough and basically says, “That’s it. I am going after this prophet Elisha.” A massive Syrian army comes at night and surrounds the city of Dothan, where Elisha was. In the morning, Elisha’s servant is afraid and says, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” (2 Kings 6:15). Elisha says—and doesn’t this remind you of what John says in 1 John 4:4?—”Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16). What he prays next is what I believe happens every time the Holy Spirit, through the Word, reveals to us an aspect of the spiritual battle that is occurring—he prays: “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see” (2 Kings 6:17). The Lord opens his eyes and he saw that the “mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around” (2 Kings 6:17).
In this article, I want to pull back that veil and give us a glimpse of the spiritual reality that is occurring in the world today. I can assure you of this: the spiritual battle that is raging now is no less intense than when those chariots of fire rallied around the prophet of God against the Syrian army. The New Testament contains vivid imagery of warfare (Ephesians 6:10-20, 1 Timothy 1:18). This imagery points us to the spiritual reality of a great warfare between Christ and Satan. One text in particular shows us the reality of spiritual warfare: 1 John 4:1-6.
Beloved, 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. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
The Command of 1 John 4:1
The book of 1 John contains only a handful of explicit commands. Based on my count, there are about 8-12 commands in total. Compare this with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians or Colossians, which can contain over a dozen mandates in each paragraph. Or consider 1 Peter, which contains about one command every three verses. 1 John is different.
Now, every single command given in God’s Word ought to be something you take very seriously. Psalm 119:47 says: “For I find my delight in your commandments, which I love.” We can sing that song and yet not live it out. Let’s state an obvious but often overlooked reality: if you don’t know the commands of God, then you cannot find your delight in them, love them, or obey them. There is a story I heard probably eight years ago, I still remember it quite well. It was John MacArthur talking about a man who, on one occasion, was up into the early hours of the morning, reading, reading, reading the Bible. His companion asked him what he was doing. And he said something to this effect: “I am rereading the New Testament to make sure that I haven’t missed any command from my Lord.” That story stuck with me because of the seriousness and passion that man had for his Lord and for obeying his commands. But that man was simply doing what Jesus said. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” 1 John is full of tests to see if you are in the faith. Here’s one: don’t claim to love Jesus Christ if you don’t even know his commandments.
All the commands in 1 John, I believe, can be broken down into four categories. These categories can be remembered by the acronym FLAT. Faith commands. Love commands. Abide commands. And Testing commands. I encourage you, like that diligent Christian in that story did, to take some time to go through 1 John. Noting the commands the Spirit of Christ gives through the Apostle John. And I think you will be able to see how each one fits within this structure.
So here’s the list of commandments I found in 1 John. Some are repeated, so I will only list the first reference—and there may be one or two more depending on how you read the sentence. Nevertheless, these are the main ones I found:
- Do not love the world (2:15)
- Abide in him (2:27)
- Let no one deceive you (3:7)
- Love in deed and in truth (3:18)
- Believe in Christ (3:23)
- Love one another (4:7)
- Keep yourselves from idols (5:21)
- Do not believe every spirit (4:1)
The text of 1 John 4:1 is not a suggestion, it is not an opinion, it is a command that is to be obeyed. This is not optional. If you love Jesus, you will delight in knowing and doing his commands. The command given here is this, 1 John 4:1a: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”
Here’s what John does: he gives the command (v. 1a), he gives the reason for the command (v. 1b), he gives an example of how to obey this command (v. 2-4), and then he ends with encouragement for obeying this command (v. 5-6).
So let’s follow John’s logic here. First of all, understand this command. The command could be summarized as this: Don’t believe everything you hear—think critically about everything! We are called to (1) not uncritically believe every spirit and (2) to test the spirits.
Now, why does John use the term spirits? This could throw you off if you do not understand what he is getting at. You may think, I am not an exorcist or shaman priest, how in the world do I test a spirit? To understand this, we have to understand the context of John’s letter. John, perhaps a very old man at this point, is writing this letter to a group of Christians living in Asia Minor. In fact, John may have been in Ephesus when he wrote this letter. Ephesus was a highly idolatrous city. John wasn’t ministering in the “Bible Belt” in the 1950’s (not that there weren’t problems then). He was ministering to a small group of Christians living among various pagan religions that did not acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord. In this letter John has to correct various false teachings that have arisen in the very early church. Errors that you have no doubt noticed if you’ve studied 1 John:
- the teaching that man can be free from sin this side of eternity
- the teaching that someone can be truly converted and yet be characterized by sin
- the teaching that someone can love God and yet not love his brothers and sisters in Christ
Behind all these doctrines (or teachings), John says, there is a spirit. There are two ways to look at this, both of which could be true methinks. (1) There is a literal evil spirit behind every false doctrine. And (2) the ethos or essence of any teaching is described as the “spirit” of the teaching. I believe John is saying, behind every teaching, every idea, every worldview, there is a spiritual entity. Whether it is a literal spirit for every false doctrine, or an army of spirits that constantly work to spit out false doctrines into the world, I don’t know. Ultimately, these spirits that influence mankind come from one of only two sources: God or Satan. Thus John says examine, test, try, analyze every spirit, every doctrine, every teaching, everything to see its source. Does this come from God or does it come from Satan?
If you want to break it down, the negative part of the command is to not be simple minded and believe everything. Proverbs 14:15a: “The simple believes everything.” The positive part of the command is to test the spirits. That means you are critically thinking about any teaching, any idea, any movement, any action. Proverbs 14:15 again: “The simple believes everything, but the prudent (or the wise) gives thought to his steps.” Friends, if your Christianity is a thoughtless Christianity, then I have no doubt that it is a dangerous place you are in.
We are here given two errors to avoid: one is being simple minded and believing whatever is in style—an error younger people may be prone to fall into. The other error is to not believe anything that isn’t already a part of our established thinking. Older people are prone to this error. They are so set in their ways that they will never fall prey to any newfangled teaching. But their error is just as dangerous, because the command is not simply to not believe every spirit, but it is to test every spirit. Both errors are lazy. One simply believes everything, the other simply believes nothing. The way of Christ is to test everything. And that’s what Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 5:21: “But test everything; hold fast to what is good.” You may be holding fast to something, some idea, some conception of what Christ is like, but if it is not a good and correct and biblical conception, you should fling it far from you.
The spirit of this command is echoed throughout the chambers of sacred Scripture. What does Jesus say in Matthew 7? “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize (or discern) them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-16). Paul warns his readers in Romans 16:18 of those who “deceive the hearts of the naive.” In certain contexts, that word translated naive has to do with being unsuspecting, of not being aware of any evil in the world around us, of distrusting nothing, but simply believing everything.
Not only is the command to test the spirits echoed throughout the Bible, but the practice of obeying this command is specifically commended by the Lord Jesus Christ. Consider Revelation 2:2. Writing to the church in that wicked city of Ephesus—where John himself may have ministered before being exiled to the island of Patmos—the message of Christ is this: “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and have found them to be false.” Not only did the Christian men and women of Ephesus test the teachings and doctrines of those claiming to speak for Jesus, they correctly evaluated them as false.
One of the most basic rules of engagement for Christians is this: test everything. Positively identify a threat. Be on your guard against false spirits—which will be manifested in false teachings (note how John links spirits and false prophets in 1 John 4:1).
The Reason Behind the Command
John does more than simply give the command to test the spirits, however. He gives a reason for the command, or perhaps, a reason the command is so urgent. He says, “for (or because) many false prophets have gone out into the world.” This also highlights the connection between false teaching and evil spirits. John says we must test the spirits because there are many false prophets in the world.
What I am about to discuss is one of the most overlooked aspects of the Bible. Yet it is one of the most interesting, encouraging, and edifying themes throughout the Bible, in my estimation. Would more Christians grasp but a little of what the Bible teaches concerning this subject, I believe they would have far more encouragement when looking around at the world today and far more encouragement in their own battle against sin and Satan.
The subject is spiritual warfare. But not simply the spiritual warfare which we wage as individuals or even as a church collectively. That spiritual warfare is a real, vital, and an essential part of a much larger spiritual war. You see, we are part of a great war involving “cosmic powers” and “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” That it is, in fact, a war is without question. J.C. Ryle drove this point home to his audience:
There is [a] warfare of far greater importance than any war that was ever waged by man. It is a warfare which concerns not two or three nations only, but every Christian man and woman born into the world. The warfare I speak of is the spiritual warfare. It is the fight which everyone who would be saved must fight about his soul. This warfare, I am aware, is a thing of which many know nothing. Talk to them about it, and they are ready to set you down as a madman, an enthusiast, or a fool. And yet it is as real and true as any war the world has ever seen.
Part of this spiritual warfare is the need for Christians to be on guard against any teaching or doctrine that will go against their Captain’s orders. It is because of this spiritual warfare that John is compelled to issue the command to test the spirits. For John says, “many false prophets have gone out in the world.” The natural question that arises in the interested reader’s mind is this: “Why have many false prophets gone out into the world?”
I want you to think about a few of the things John says in the Bible. Listen to these statements and think about what they say about Satan. And think about these passages with the theme of a war foremost in your mind. Imagine a minion in the ranks of Satan’s army hearing these words from God. How would he react? How would he feel?
- 1 John 2:8: “the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining”
- 1 John 2:14: “you have overcome the evil one”
- 1 John 2:17: “the world [system] is passing away along with its desires”
- 1 John 3:8: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil”
- 1 John 5:4: “Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world”
- John 12:31: “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.”
These statements do not bode well for Satan’s forces. There is no question that Jesus has defeated Satan on the cross. But, why then do we see the following statement in 1 John?
1 John 5:19: “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one”
Or what about 1 Peter 5:8: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
OK, so what is it? Is Satan defeated or does he rule the world? If Jesus Christ’s coming to earth, dying for sinners, and rising from the dead destroyed the works of the devil and cast him out as ruler, why is there still so much spiritual conflict and turmoil?
Here is the key: This tension between light and darkness has become more palpable precisely because Jesus defeated Satan on the cross. It is because the darkness is passing away (1 John 2:8) that we see an onslaught in false prophets sent out from Satan himself. It is because Satan’s system is passing away that those who will abide forever face such opposition from Satan. It is because Satan has been cast out as official ruler that he is desperate to devour anyone who is aligned with his greatest enemy, Jesus Christ.
Jesus won. Therefore the battle is fierce. Jesus won. Therefore the enemy is now frustrated and desperate. The fiercest fighting and the most desperate attempts in warfare are often made when the decisive blow has already been struck. Time would fail me to list all the examples of this principle. Let us be content with two examples: one from the Bible and one from very recent history.
The War Between the House of David and the House of Saul
With the death of Saul, the decisive blow against the house of Saul was struck. Here’s what was going on: “There was a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David. And David grew stronger and stronger, while the house of Saul became weaker and weaker” (2 Samuel 3:1). To the informed observer, the war truly was one-sided. The war was, for all intents and purposes, over. Saul was defeated. He was dead. The head of the snake was destroyed and the rest was soon to follow. And yet battles still had to be fought in order to practically end the war. And it was during these final days of fighting and intrigue that some of the most painful losses occurred. Abner defects from the house of Saul because of a falling out with Ish-bosheth, only to be killed by Joab. On the heels of mourning Abner’s death, David is informed that Ish-bosheth was murdered upon his bed by those within his own ranks. David then has Ish-bosheth’s murderers executed. Basically, it was a mess. And this was all after Saul had died. Immediate peace did not ensue.
The War Between the Allied Forces and the Nazis During World War II
If you know your history, you know that one of the decisive battles in the defeat of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis was D-Day. With much bloodshed, the Allied Forces successfully stormed the beaches of Normandy. Looking back, it was the beginning of the end for Hitler. But it didn’t mean the fighting was over. Not at all. The fighting that followed was some of the fiercest in the War. And sometimes the Allies suffered significant loss (Market Garden, for example). As the Nazis were forced to slowly retreat out of France to Germany, there was some desperate fighting and last-ditch efforts to turn back the inevitable onslaught of Allied Forces.
Think about it, if you are an Allied soldier in France or Belgium, when would you be viewed as more of a threat: 1939 or 1944? If you somehow got dropped in Nazi Germany in 1939, you would not necessarily be welcomed, that’s for sure, but you wouldn’t be viewed as a real threat to Nazi Germany. Why? Because Hitler still seemed to be on top of the world. However, in 1944 every Allied troop in or near Germany represented the final destruction of Hitler and Nazism. Why? Because Hitler’s world was crumbling. He was effectively cast out as the ruler of his little world. (And even after Hitler died, some Nazis still fought to the death.)
The point is this: as a Christian you are now standing on ground that was once owned and occupied by Satan. You are a threat to him and you represent his final destruction and defeat. Remember John 12:31: “now will the ruler of this world be cast out.” The true Christian church is the greatest enemy of Satan on this earth. It is against this body of believers that he will send out every last spirit in a last ditch effort to stave of defeat. Think about it: do you think that before the Gospel spread to America, Satan really needed to send out false prophets? The people were living in darkness already. Only when the Gospel comes do false prophets come. Before the Gospel came, there was certainly error and sin and idolatry, but it was occurring on Satan’s “home turf.” There wasn’t much need for an army of spirits to counterfeit the truth about Christ when no one even heard the Gospel!
The bottom-line is that because of Christ’s victory over Satan, more false spirit and false prophets have gone out into the world. This doesn’t mean things are getting worse, it means the battle is raging. This coincides with Paul’s saying in 2 Timothy 3: “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.” Why? What is the change? Why is there a not-so-small uptick in the tempo of spiritual warfare with the coming of Christ? Because Christ brought war.
Again, think about occupied France. Before D-Day, when the Nazis controlled most of France, there was a kind of peace. This “peace” was because the Nazis were reigning and suppressing freedom, yes, but it was still a form of “peace.” Now, did the victory of the Allied Forces at Normandy bring peace or fighting to France? Think about it. Initially, it actually brought more fighting! With the introduction of earnest warfare between the Allied Forces and the Nazis in occupied France, there was terrible devastation. As the Nazis retreated, they would bomb cities and towns, inflicted serious damage on both military units and civilians.
In the same way, before Christ, there was some sense in which there was a “peace” in the spiritual realm. But Christ’s invasion into the darkness of Satan’s kingdom brought with it spiritual violence. Recall what Jesus said: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matt. 11:12). Why from the days of John the Baptist? Because that marked the coming of Christ. John the Baptist’s proclamation of the coming of Christ was like the warning signal to the Nazis on the beaches of Normandy that 6,000+ vessels are coming to land and attack and turn the world upside down.
Some people read Matthew 24:24―”for false christs and false prophets will arise”―and think it refers to some distant time. I believe this referred certainly to the first century and also to us today.
I see our place in this grand war like this: every generation of Christians that takes the gospel a little further and a little deeper in this world are like those Allied troops getting closer and closer to the final victory of surrounding Berlin. To those men on the front lines, things may have never been worse. But to so many behind them in England, France, Belgium and elsewhere, things had become so much better. The fact that postmillennialists believe “things are getting better” does not mean that there are not real losses and setbacks for many Christians today and in the future.
The reason that we are required to test every spirit is because we are at war. Just as the men of Gilead would test every man of Ephraim by having him say “Shibboleth,” so we too are to test every spirit according to Jesus Christ. We are at war. As Steven Lawson put it: “The closer we follow the Lord Jesus Christ, the more we advance to the frontline of the conflict.”
The Instructions for the Command: Jesus Christ is the Cornerstone
John gave the command. He gave the reason for the command. Next, in verses 2-3, he gives instructions on how to follow the command. The way to follow this command is to judge everything in relation to Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the cornerstone. Every false religion and cult will be sure to get this one question wrong: who is Jesus Christ? What is the essence of our victory? What is it that overcomes the world? Our faith. Our faith that Jesus is the Son of God (1 John 5:5)! That this Jesus is both God and man. That he is the Savior of wretched, helpless sinners. That he died under the wrath of God in the place of his people. That he rose again and ascended and now rules and reigns as king over all things. It is this point that the enemy will often attack most deceptively.
The Mormons can get everything else right (which they don’t) and yet deny the truth about He who is Truth itself and they have a system of religion straight from the pit of hell—it is antichrist. The Jehovah Witnesses can quote a lot of Scripture, but they cannot love Jesus Christ as their Savior and their God. Of Jesus, they cannot say with Thomas, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). And therefore, the spirit behind the false prophets of Jehovah’s Witness theology is antichrist, it is the devil’s doing.
But let’s apply it a step further. Here’s what we need to do to grow in maturity as Christians. Not just systems of religion (like Mormonism, Islam, etc) need to be evaluated in light of the Christ of Scripture, but every single thought, action, decision, and idea must be brought into subjection to Jesus Christ. Martin Luther said it as only he could:
I have also noticed that all error, heresy, idolatry, offense, misuse, and evil in the church originally came from despising or losing sight of this article of faith in Jesus Christ. And if one looks at it correctly and clearly, all heresies do contend against this dear article of Jesus Christ, as Simeon says of him, that he is ‘set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against [Lk 2:34]…For whatsoever stumbles, certainly stumbles on this stone, which lies in everyone’s way and is rejected by the builders…St. John also gives us no other or more certain sign for recognizing false and anti-Christian spirits than their denial of Jesus Christ [2 John 7]. They have all wanted to reap honor at his expense and have instead garnered shame from it.
Jesus Christ is the key. It is not that the Son of God is more important than the Father or the Spirit. No. But the Son of God is the one that the Godhead has chosen to conquer the world. John 3:35: “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.” The Son is the one who represents Satan’s defeat and he is the one Satan will most vehemently seek to dishonor and denigrate. Every single error or falsehood the enemy will throw at you is ultimately and finally an attack on Jesus Christ.
- “You are too sinful to be saved.” It is an attack on Jesus Christ—the enemy spirit lies by suggesting Christ is not powerful enough to save a sinner like you.
- “You can never be sure if you will make it to heaven.” It is an attack on Jesus Christ—the enemy spirit lies by suggesting Christ cannot keep those whom the Father has given to him.
- “You should sin just this once, it’s not a big deal.” It is an attack on Jesus Christ—the enemy spirit lies by suggesting Christ is not enough to keep you satisfied.
- “You will never be able to break free from this sin.” It is an attack on Jesus Christ—the enemy spirit lies by suggesting Christ is not able to sanctify those for whom he died.
- “You can be a Christian and yet still live in a lifestyle of perpetual sin.” It is an attack on Jesus Christ—the enemy spirit lies by suggesting Christ may be able to save you from the penalty of sin, but not the power of sin.
- “You have no worth. Your life is meaningless.” It is an attack on Jesus Christ—the enemy spirit lies by suggesting that having your identity in Christ is not real or practical.
I can assure you that false prophets will not stop at major systems of religion in their quest to stymie the advance of Christ’s kingdom. Every single philosophy on this earth either exalts and honors Jesus Christ or it disregards his lordship and authority. To deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is to deny that his authority and lordship touch the things of this earth. As Christians, we must take this truth―that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh and has defeated sin and Satan and has risen from the dead―and judge every single thing we do by it. We are to take every single thought captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). I don’t have an easy three-step process for you to do that right now. You know what it takes to do this well? Practice. Consider Hebrews 5:14―one of my favorite passages in the Bible:
But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
You know how to get better at obeying this command to test the spirits? You constantly work at it. You constantly judge everything in light of Jesus Christ. Studying the Bible, listening critically to sermons and lessons, memorizing the Scripture, thinking about how a text applies to various situations, talking with other believers (and not just your peers―spend time with seasoned, mature saints). Immerse yourself in God’s Word. Be a thinking Christian. You are required to be.
Encouragement to Obey the Command
John goes on with a final word to encourage his readers to follow this command. In verse 4, he reminds you that if you are a Christian, you have already overcome the false prophets. The enemy has already been defeated. And why is this? Because “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” That Jesus is stronger than Satan, I doubt any professing Christian would question. Nevertheless, we often fail to think and live like that.
Let me point out one of the most paradigm shifting passages in the Bible in my experience. James 4:7: “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Paul tells us to flee from sexual immorality. He tells us to run from sin. To cast it off. But of the devil, James says that if we resist him, he will flee from us. How can this be? How can I—sinner that I am, weak as I am, frail as I am—cause the devil, a mighty spiritual being, to run away from me? It is only because of the truth found in 1 John 4: “he who is in [me] is greater than he who is in the world!” You are not a victim of the thought patterns and the ideas of our age. Everything this world has to throw at your blessed Savior, every false teaching from the depths of hell, cannot stand for one second in the face of Jesus Christ.
Look, make no mistake about it: “they are from the world; therefore they speak from the world.” You must not be surprised when you face ardent opposition to your Lord. Should you expect anything else? And I don’t simply mean opposition from people. I mean opposition in your own mind! Opposition to Christ’s lordships from thoughts arising in your mind. Despair. Hopelessness. Anxiety. Fear. I don’t want you to be surprised that false prophets and spirits will utilize all these things and more
And don’t be surprised when those around you listen to the anti-Christian rhetoric. John’s readers no doubt experienced the painful reality of those from within their own ranks who had followed after the anti-Christian teaching of the false prophets in the first century. Don’t be surprised that the world doesn’t listen to you. They are going to listen to the world. Look, the devil hates Jesus Christ. Do not expect the world to receive what you are saying apart from a work of the Spirit.
Here’s some encouragement when you go out to share the Gospel. So you seek to share the gospel with the lost, right? Well, our text basically says that, yeah, those in the world, they will not listen to you. They won’t. The only ones that will listen are those who know God. So when we go share the gospel of Christ, in our school, in our job, with our friends, in the streets, at an outreach to Planned Parenthood, we go because Jesus Christ is King. He is worthy. But we go also because we want to see people saved. We do. But the text reminds us that unless God works in someone’s heart (to make them “from God”), they will not listen.
Here’s the bottom line: Christ is King. Those that are from God get that. They accept it. They embrace it. Those that are from the world, that are under the influence of a mortally-wounded devil, cannot embrace Jesus Christ. And you don’t need to feel like their rejection of your King is your failure. The world hears the false prophets and they say, “Yes, and amen.” When they hear the truth about Christ, they rebel against it. But it is not for you make them listen [i.e. hearken]. May A.W. Tozer’s words encourage you in the face of rejection:
He that is from above is above all. I want to say dear Christians don’t go around apologizing for Him. Don’t go around worried because you can’t make His doctrines fit in with what you learned in school. All you learned in school was one fallen head instructing another fallen head. And you don’t have to apologize for Him.
Now let me say a word here from verse 6. This is how you know, John says. If someone does not receive the apostolic teaching, then he is not of God. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. I think this is a summary of this whole section, but it is also an apt description of this point: those of the world cannot receive the full counsel of God. They cannot receive the complete teaching of the Bible. They can receive parts, perhaps, but to embrace all is a bridge too far.
They’ll take heaven, but no hell. They’ll take principles for better living, but not commandments forbidding their precious sins. They’ll take stories of “love,” but not those of judgment. They’ll take comfort in suffering, but not a God who allows suffering.
Remember how part of John’s purpose in writing is to give assurance of salvation to those who are truly converted? In fact, all of 1 John can be read as a test to see if you are in the faith. Here is one of those tests. If you read a part of God’s Word and you can’t stand it—I mean you just can’t stand to worship a “God like that”—you’ve failed the test. I don’t mean that you need to fully comprehend every part of the Bible, or fully understand it. I even grant that the true believer can be troubled by a passage of Scripture and yet still hear it, receive it, and submit to it—asking God to help him understand. There are still portions of Scripture that are mysteries to me. But if you will not hear it—you just can’t stand it—that is a sign that you are not of God. Beg God to open your eyes to the Gospel.
If you are going to avail yourself of this test, what do you have to do? If you are going to know whether or not you listen to apostolic teaching, to Bible teaching, you have to actually read the Bible. All of it. Here’s the point: You must read God’s Word to know if you will submit to God’s Word. What I am not saying is this: I am not saying you cannot have assurance until you’ve read the Bible from cover to cover. There are saints who would risk their lives to have one page of the New Testament because of their love for Christ. They probably have more assurance than many Bible scholars, because they’ve endured the test of affliction and hardship for Christ. And you can be soundly saved today and have assurance of salvation because you are enduring against sin—you have confessed your sin, you trust in Christ, and are communing with him. So let it be clear: I am not saying you cannot have assurance until you read the whole Bible.
But what I am saying is this: there are, I fear, many who have the most surface-level experience of Christianity because they only read those well-known and feel-good sections of the Bible. They, perhaps because they have no true love for Christ, have no true desire to read God’s Word. How can they be confronted with the truths of God’s Word which causes the false convert to walk away if they won’t read the Bible?
As a parent, I want to teach my children the Bible. Let me tell, you I grew up believing I was a Christian, but I knew nothing of what the Bible really taught. My nine-year-old daughter is over halfway through the Bible now. She’s read more of the Bible in three years than I did in the twenty years I spent as a nominal Christian. I don’t think that earns her favor with God. However, I think it may help her understand Christianity far better than I did. I think it may mean she will be better able to gauge her true response to Christianity.
Let me also be equally clear: just because you have read the Bible from cover-to-cover doesn’t mean you will all of the sudden fall on your face and admit you haven’t loved Christ as you ought and repent of sin. You might. Would to God that all outside of Christ would respond to God’s Word that way!
A lack of desire for God’s Word is a warning sign. A red flag. Warning signs are good. The warning sign didn’t create the problem, it merely notifies you of it. If you have no desire to read all of God’s Word—that’s your first warning sign. But once you do, or perhaps you have already, and you come across a difficult passage: how will you respond? How will you respond to God’s wrath in judgment? How will you respond to his free grace in saving some and not others? How will you react to his hardening of Pharaoh’s heart? Jesus said this: “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (John 8:47). Now, I want you to wrestle with God’s Word. That’s a good thing. Wrestle with it. Talk to your pastor about it. Talk to me about it. But be honest with yourself.
Those times in my life when I have sinned and not acted as I would have liked, I’ve noticed that I have been a bit careless. I was less vigilant than I ought to have been. I lacked a bit of that violence required to take the kingdom of heaven. Afterwards, I realized that what I did wasn’t the wisest thing. I wasn’t on guard. I didn’t test everything according to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. When we fail to obey this command, we must come to Christ in repentance and ask for his forgiveness. He is worth fighting for. He is worth every effort we can make to think critically. He has defeated sin, death, and the devil. He calls us now to finish the battle and take every thought captive.
I end this post with a prayer:
Oh, may we love Christ Jesus as we ought. May we treasure him and every single one of his words recorded in Sacred Scripture. May you, Father, give us the clarity to reject anything, any idea, any teaching, any worldview that does not hold Jesus Christ in the highest possible regard. May every thought that does not redound in exalting Jesus Christ be cast far from our minds and hearts and sent back to hell from whence it came. Command what you will, O Lord, and give what you command. Give us the discernment, the clarity, and perhaps most of all, the love for Jesus Christ that will enable us to test every spirit in light of your Holy Word and reject anything that does not bestow upon Christ the highest possible honor. And may we have the wisdom to hold fast to that which does engender faith in Christ, obedience to Christ, and love for Christ. Grant us this I pray. Give us the victory over those spirits that hate Jesus Christ. Amen.