In today’s world of fake news and alternative facts, discernment is increasingly important. This is no less true in the spiritual realm, where it is even more important for eternal matters. Scripture gives guidance to practice discernment in a number of places, but one of the most direct is in 1 John 4. The common view of that verse seems to limit its application today, but careful examination reveals additional details that are very helpful.
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. 1 John 4:1-3
The directive to test is very clear here, but application is a little less clear. It seems that few things we hear today deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. It is often taught that this was written to combat early Gnosticism, which sometimes taught that Jesus was not really human. This may be true, but since that isn’t very prevalent today, it’s worth looking deeper into the passage.
One thing to note is that the wording can also be translated “every spirit that confesses Jesus as the Christ who has come in the flesh”. Rather than using “Christ” as Jesus’ last name, this makes the test equivalent to recognizing Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah. This is consistent with statements elsewhere in 1 John, such as verse 5:1a (“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God,”). Other statements echo the importance of recognizing Him as the Son of God, a related designation (verses 1 John 4:15, 5:5, 10).
Since the text is ambiguous, taking it this way means that we should test the spirits by checking to see whether they are proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. This is more applicable, but becomes even more clear when we recognize another ambiguous element in the text that gets simplified when translated.
When John describes spirits that are not confessing Jesus as being of the antichrist, our English interpretation is that “antichrist” means something that works against Christ. But the Greek term can also mean something that attempts to act as a replacement. In this case, the antichrist could be anything that seeks to replace Jesus as the Messiah, not necessarily working directly against Him.
Taken together, the test is — whether something or someone proclaims anything other than Jesus as the Messiah. An antichrist spirit claims salvation can result from something other than Jesus’ work. This deception can even take the form of something that is added to what Jesus accomplished. In other words, claiming that salvation is found in a combination of Jesus’ work and something else.
This is exactly what was happening in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. False teachers had entered the Galatian churches, and were teaching that adherence to the Law, and especially circumcision, was necessary for salvation. Paul recognized this antichrist spirit for what it was, and wrote some of his strongest comments against it (Galatians 1:6-9, 3:1, 4:10-12, 20, 5:2-4, 12).
Now, this new understanding of the test seems much more useful. Even though few today are teaching that adherence to the Mosaic Law is necessary, the basic idea that we need to point people to something other than Jesus, is much more likely. We’ll wait for a later time to take this up more fully, but I encourage you to look around at the things today’s church is proclaiming to the lost. Are these things focused on the completed work of Jesus, or do they teach that something else is needed to be right with God?