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We must not believe every spirit, for only the spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; the one that fails to make this acknowledgment is the spirit of the Antichrist.
1 John 4:1–3 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
Testing the Spirits
4 Beloved ones, 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. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ as having come in the flesh is from God; 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is in the world already.
Antichrist: (ἀντίχριστος antichristos) The term “Antichrist,” occurs in the NT five times. From those five times, we gather this entity is “against” (i.e., denies Christ) or “instead of” (i.e., false Christs) Jesus Christ. Many antichrists began back in the apostle John’s day and will continue up unto Jesus’ second coming. (1 John 2:18) The antichrist is referred to as a number of individuals taken together, i.e., collectively. (2 John 1;7) Persons who deny Jesus Christ are the antichrist. (1 John 2:22) All who deny the divinity of Jesus Christ as the One and Only Son of God is the antichrist. (1 John 2:22; John 10:36; Lu 9:35) Some antichrists are apostates who left the faith and are now in opposition to the truth. (1 John 2:18-19) Those who oppose the true followers of Jesus are the antichrist. (John 15:20-21) Antichrists are individuals or nations opposing Jesus or trying to supplant his kingly authority. – Ps. 2:2; Matt. 24:24; Rev. 17:3, 12-14; 19:11-21.
Spirit can be interpreted in one of three ways:
- The spirit behind the prophet who is speaking (many false prophets have gone out into the world), in which case it would refer to the Holy Spirit or to demons, depending on whether the prophet was of God.
- The prophet himself, “spirit” being a figure of speech, a metaphor, meaning “the prophet.”
- The message itself, “spirit” being a figure of speech, a metaphor, meaning “the message.”
All three of these interpretations are possible. Most Bible teachers prefer option 1 or option 2 because the test given for the spirits in the next verse seems personal (every spirit that acknowledges). Each of the options tells us not to automatically believe anyone who comes to the church to preach or teach. We are to listen carefully to their treatment of Jesus. Apparently, false prophets in the church at Ephesus were denying that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. This test was specifically set up for this situation: Does the teacher accept Jesus’ full humanity and full deity. If not, his entire teaching is to be rejected.
This is not the only test a teacher must pass. An eloquent teacher of God’s Word might agree to the divinity and humanity of Jesus, but have other things so out of bounds in his theology that he still might qualify as a false prophet. Jesus himself said that not everyone who called him “Lord” would enter the kingdom.
In this context, the person who acknowledges or confesses that Jesus has come in the flesh is from God. Those who don’t are the spirit of the Antichrist, which John had already warned his readers about (2:18–27; see 2 John 7). Every teacher belongs in one of the two categories: true prophet of the Word or Antichrist.
By David Walls, Max Anders, Edward D. Andrews