Testing the Spirits
Topic: 1 John Passage: 1 John 4:1–4:6
By This We Know Love
Grace Community Church
March 18, 2018
Test the Spirits
Please turn with me to 1 John 4 as we continue working out way through this incredible letter. We’re going to be looking at vv. 1-6 this morning. Read 1 John 4:1-6
In a 1989 broadcast, Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) shared an unsettling story they said they had found published in a respected scientific journal in Finland called Ammennusastia, about a team of Russian geologists in Siberia who had drilled a hole 8.9 miles deep into the earth when the drill bit began to rotate wildly as if the earth’s core from that point was hollow and more surprisingly, their calculations indicated the temperature at that depth was over 2000 degrees. In an effort to listen to the earth’s movements at such a depth they dropped a supersensitive microphone down the hole and recorded what they heard. And what they heard filled their hearts with terror. One of the engineers, Dr. Azzacov explains, “after some adjustments we comprehended that indeed the sound came from the earth's interior. We could hardly believe our own ears. We heard a human voice, screaming in pain. Even though one voice was discernible, we could hear thousands, perhaps millions, in the background, of suffering souls screaming. After this ghastly discovery, about half of the scientists quit because of fear.” Dr. Azzacov added, ominously, “Hopefully, that which is down there will stay there.”
Adding further verification to the story was a letter written to TBN by a Norwegian man named Age Rendalen, who expressed his initial skepticism at the story but he shared that when he returned to Norway he found all the newspapers full of reports about the incident. To verify it he sent them an article from Norway’s largest and most reputable newspaper, along with a translation of the story which added even more frightening details: one eyewitness, a Mr. Nemmedal shared this account: What really unnerved the Soviets, apart from the voice recordings, was the appearance that same night of a fountainhead of luminous gas shooting up from the drill site, and out of the midst of this incandescent cloud pillar a brilliant being with bat wings revealed itself with the words (in Russian): 'I have conquered,' emblazoned against the dark Siberian sky.
TBN, R.W. Shambach, and other Christian ministries used this frightening account to motivate people to take the biblical account of hell more seriously and give their lives to Christ. After hearing about this story and getting a lot of people calling in asking about it, Christian talk show host and creator of truthorfiction.com, Rich Buhler decided to investigate. Here’s what he found. The “respected scientific journal” called Ammennusastia wasn’t a respected scientific journal at all; it was a monthly publication by a group of Finnish Christians. They had gotten the story from a Finnish daily newspaper who, when contacted, didn’t recall running the story at first, but after some investigation discovered that it had appeared in their paper, not as an article, but in a section where readers could write letters about pretty much anything they wanted to. The letter with this account had been sent in by a kind, elderly man who, when contacted, said he got the story from a Christian newsletter published by a group of Finnish missionaries. They in turn got the story from one of their readers who had read it in a newsletter called “Jewels of Jericho” published by Jewish Christians in California. That was the end of the line for the story, and it seemed pretty obvious the story was an nothing more than an urban legend.
But what about the Norwegian man Age Rendalen who had confirmed the story appeared in Norwegian newspapers and sent TBN a copy of it? Rich Buhler easily tracked him down, called him, and asked if he had sent the story to TBN. Without hesitation he confirmed he had. “Do you have any way of knowing if it is true or not?” Buhler asked. “Yes I do,” Rendalen answered, “I fabricated every word of it”. When he had heard the original account being reported as truth, he thought it would be fun to embellish the story, attach his real name and information to it to see if anyone at TBN would take the trouble to call him to verify his account or if they’d simply pass it on as truth. The newspaper account he had sent and translated for them was actually a story about a local building inspector, which he falsely translated to be about a winged bat from hell. This story had been passed on from Christian publication to Christian publication and finally to national TV but until Buhler no one had bothered to verify any of it, they just believed it hook line and sinker and ran with it.
The moral of this story is, I believe, the same lesson that John is teaching us in this passage: Christians must not, and should not, be gullible! We must be careful about what we accept and believe as truth. Faith doesn’t mean we believe without question or investigation. And examining something carefully to make sure it’s biblical and factual isn’t an indication of a lack of faith, it’s an important quality of spiritual discernment.
As we have seen throughout this letter, John is very concerned about false teachers who have infiltrated the church with a heretical message that denied that Jesus, the Son of God, had come in the flesh. Their teaching really was straight from the pit of hell, but it didn’t look like it was from the pit of hell. These false teachers were very convincing and charismatic and there seemed to be genuine spiritual power to what they taught and the undiscerning could easily be deceived into thinking they were the real deal. John is warning them to exercise spiritual discernment and he does it by urging a negative and a positive:
Do not believe every spirit…but test the spirits to see whether they are from God…
Don’t be gullible (do not believe every spirit) and do be careful to investigate everything before accepting or believing it (test the spirits). The word “test” means to means to put something to rigorous examination to discover its genuineness. Truth can stand under the most rigorous of examinations – truth doesn’t wilt under examination. I heard a teacher many years ago say that truth is like a rock and error like a balloon, if you press hard on error it will pop but truth will remain strong no matter how hard you press on it.
Christians, I have noticed, can be vulnerable to being gullible. Every now and then I get a fb message warning about some virus being transmitted through an email or a wicked conspiracy being foisted on the world by some well known company and I am urged to quickly pass it on to as many people as I possibly can before it’s too late.
I have learned over the years, before passing it on, it’s best to do a little research. Most of the time these things are hoaxes designed to prey on gullible people. Brothers and sisters, we owe it to the world and our testimony of Jesus Christ to be careful not to be gullible. Do not believe every spirit…but test the spirits. Investigate, research, press hard on it, before passing it on.
Someone might think, “John’s not talking about FB posts or Norwegian newspaper articles here, he’s talking about spirits – presumably demonic spirits. Do not believe every spirit…but test the spirits.” We know from the context that John’s primary concern has to do with false teaching. He will go on (and we’ll look at it in a minute) to connect this to the preaching of Christ coming in the flesh, and will close out this warning by contrasting the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. Demonic spirits don’t just take the shape of bat-like creatures with “I have conquered” written on its wings. In fact, that is pretty rare! Demonic spirits move most commonly through false prophets bringing false teaching whose purpose is to draw us away from the truth of Jesus Christ.
The truth is, every teaching has a spiritual force behind it. Every belief system has a spiritual force behind it. When Karl Marx published his Communist Manifesto in 1848, it was a book written with words and thoughts. But it also had a spiritual force behind it that unleashed an incalculable spiritual devastation that is felt around the world today. Millions upon millions of souls have been led astray and damned by those written words that were inspired by the devil himself. This past week Stephen Hawking died. He was a brilliant man who contributed much to science, and he lived a remarkable life as at age 21 he was diagnosed with an incurable neurodegenerative condition we Lou Gehrigs disease. He wasn’t supposed to live past 25 years of age. He lived three times that to age 76. In his early work he seemed more open to the possibility of a God, writing that scientific laws may or may not be divinely inspired and that if the unifying theory of the universe could be discovered, “we should know the mind of God.” But in his later works he became more outspoken about his atheism: “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” Clarifying his statement about knowing the mind of God, in a 2014 interview with El Mundo Hawking said, “What I meant by ‘we would know the mind of God’ is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God. Which there isn’t. I’m an atheist.”
Personally I feel a deep respect for Stephen Hawking and also, a sadness. It seems tragic that a man with such a brilliant mind and insatiable curiosity to know the mysteries of the universe should reject the One who created the universe and never get to know the infinite Mind who thought it all up. But Hawking’s writings have a spiritual force –Satan’s mission is to keep us from knowing or believing in God, and he will use writings such as Hawking’s to influence vast numbers of people to reject a belief in a personal God.
Don’t think that demonic spirits just push atheism, though. John is warning about teachers who were teaching the Bible, teaching about Jesus Christ, teaching good things like loving God and serving Jesus and all that stuff. You wouldn’t get the heebie jeebies listening to them, in fact, if you weren’t spiritually discerning you might leave the meeting feeling blessed. Spiritual discernment needs to go deeper than subjective feelings because demonic things can feel good and like God is in it. The false spirits at work were subtly moving people away from believing in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, come in the flesh and the Holy Spirit’s work is keeping us committed to a strong confession of faith that Jesus is the Son of God, come from God, the second Person of the Trinity.
2 This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. 1 John 4:2-3
The greatest danger to believers probably won’t be the Communist Manifesto or Hawking’s The Grand Design, it will be supposed Christian teachers who profess Christ all the while moving large segments of people away from Christ through their teaching.
They preach every message from the Bible but they preach the Bible as if it were a self-help book designed to help us live our best life now. Jesus is mentioned as a great teacher and an inspiring example of faith for us to follow (we are to cast out demons or heal the sick or step out in faith like he did), but his redemptive work on the cross is rarely, if ever, taught.
The Word of Faith teachers present faith as a means of getting what we want in this life. Believe it and receive it. Name it and claim it. Blab it and grab it, or (just heard this), spit it and git it. But when faith in faith is focused on for the sake of getting what we want in this life, faith in Christ and his saving work falls by the wayside. Jesus may not be denied, but he is in danger of being ignored.
John makes it clear that while the medium might be words and teachings, the reality behind it is spiritual: either Satan at work or God at work. Those who hold onto faith in Christ in the face of all the strong currents against such a faith are evidencing that the Spirit of God is powerfully at work in them. Someone can believe in Jesus’ words and then fall away, but no one who has been born again of the Spirit through Jesus’ words can ever fall away. We are from God and overcome the demonic spirits at work in the world.
You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 1 John 4:4
Then John says something that might seem like bragging: We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. (vs. 6) It’s not bragging. John knows who he is and the unique stewardship that he and the other apostles were given by Jesus. He was chosen to walk with Jesus, he heard his teachings, saw his miracles, was commissioned to take the gospel to the world and experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit giving them the power to do so. He knows the authority of God that Jesus invested in the apostles and that all those who listen to the apostolic witness are from God, and those who reject the apostolic witness of who Christ is and what he did are not from God. If we’re of God we carefully listen to this book (Bible) and if we don’t listen to this carefully and hold to it, we are under the influence of the devil (no matter what we believe).
Sometimes Christians can think that spiritual discernment is primarily made up of subjective feelings that enable them to discern spirits. They think that growing in discernment is all about becoming more sensitive to spiritual feelings. But really, the way we grow in spiritual discernment is by studying the Bible, getting this book into our hearts and minds, so that we know the heart of God and the mind of God (as revealed in His word) and then can easily recognize the counterfeit.
John ends this section with this absolute statement: This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. (vs 6)
I read this in a commentary and though it’s long, felt it was worth quoting.
The phrase “spirit of deception” is interesting. It has the idea of wandering away from the truth. False prophets and those who listen to their teachings hang around the truth for a while, but they don’t stay. They wander away. Again and again, their error comes back to what they think and believe about Jesus. The Bible says He is God, but they wander away and deny His eternal deity. The Bible says He is sinless, but they wander away and say He sinned or at least committed error. The Bible says He did miracles, but they wander away and say these are myths and fables. The Bible says He is the only Savior, but they wander away and say He is only a savior. The Bible says He died on the cross for our sins, but they wander away and deny penal substitution, calling it cosmic child abuse. The Bible says He rose bodily from the dead, but they wander away and say the disciples imagined that He did. The Bible says He ascended into heaven as Lord, but they wander away and say this is just another myth. The Bible says He is coming again, but they wander away and say it’s pop-Christian fiction. And finally, the Bible says He will judge us all, but they wander away and say God is love and eventually all will be saved. In the end, they say, “Love Wins.”
The spirit of falsehood always wants to make us wander away from the truth of Christ. The devil is content to move us away from Christ a little at a time, knowing that wandering away from Christ a little bit at a time over time will leave us far away from Christ. John is warning us to test every spirit – rigorously investigate to determine if it is biblical and true or not before accepting it. That is the opposite of being gullible!
There are two massive reasons why Christians need to be careful not to be gullible. The first is that nothing has the power to guide our lives and our eternal destinies so powerfully as what we believe. Believing the truth of Christ reconciles us to God and saves us for eternity. Believing the lies the devil promotes leads us to eternal separation from God and to hell. So we need to be careful not to be gullible: don’t believe every spirit and do test the spirits to make sure it’s of God before accepting it.
The second reason has to do with our witness to the world. When we believe silly stuff that is easily verifiable as false, the world will think that’s what we’re doing with Jesus and the Bible. We do great damage to our credibility and hurt our witness of Christ. And so, love for Jesus and love for the lost requires that we be very careful not to be gullible and to be biblical. Let’s close by asking for the Holy Spirit to help us grow in spiritual discernment and hold tightly to the truth of our Lord Jesus Christ.