Verses 1 to 6
Verse one tells us that we are called to test those we call our teachers (see also in scripture: Acts 17:11, Revelation 2:2). From Ichthys:
“[I]t is the responsibility of the listener to compare what is being taught with the Bible. To be sure, this should be done in a spirit of humility (as the Bereans demonstrated), but it should be done. No one who teaches the Bible should have a problem with this, for such a procedure is really the only way to keep everyone honest. As believers in Jesus Christ, we must ultimately place our faith in God and in the Word of God - Jesus, the living Word, and in the Bible, the written Word - not in man’s words.
Ideally, there will be no conflict between what your teacher teaches and what you read in the Bible as you check out the scripture references given to support a principle or doctrine. It is also true that there are many non-sinister reasons why you may feel there is some discrepancy between what is taught and what you read, and no one is advocating that you part company on the basis of minor discrepancies. At the same time, however, if, as you continue with the daily reading of your Bible, the “warning bells” begin to go off too frequently and too loudly, it is in the interest of your spiritual safety that you not ignore them. The apostle Paul even goes so far as to extend this warning to himself, establishing the principle that no track-record, even one as illustrious as his, exempts believers from continuing to apply the test of scripture to all Bible teaching:
But if I myself - or even an angel out of heaven - should preach to you something out of keeping with what I have preached to you, let him be cursed!
Believers have the responsibility to place what the Bible says over what people (even well-intentioned and respected people) may say. Now this principle is impossible to fulfill without reading your Bible regularly. As believers, we are to “evaluate everything” (1Thes.5:21), “test the spirits, to see whether or not they are from God” (1Jn.4:1), and “assess” teaching and prophecy (1Cor.14:29). But how are we to do this without prior information? The fulfillment of these commands is impossible without a deep, solid grounding in the Bible itself.
Verse two gives us the classic test of orthodoxy: if someone confesses that Jesus has “come in the flesh”, they are saying that He is God incarnate, the God-man (cf. John 1:14). More properly, they are affirming the hypostatic union, the doctrine that Christ was (and is) both fully divine and fully human. In a sense they are also confessing His judgement for our sins, death, and resurrection — the gospel message as it is commonly defined. He came, and in so doing, He accomplished the payment for our sins, payment that we would have otherwise been hopelessly incapable of providing.
In verses 3 to 6, John distinguishes between two types of teachers: those of God, and those of the devil. The language here can be difficult, so let’s break it down:
- A “spirit” in this context is a teacher, one we are testing per 1 John 4:1.
- A “spirit from God” (v.2) is a teacher under the control of God.
- A “spirit not from God” (v.3) is a teacher under the control of Satan (v.4 “he who is in the world”).
This passage is somewhat confusing because John uses the word for spirit (Gk. πνεῦμα, pneuma) both in the sense of teachers and in the sense of unseen supernatural influence. Humans are dichotomous beings (flesh and spirit, cf. Galatians 5:17), so by John referring to humans as “spirits”, he is emphasizing this aspect of our nature. “They/Them” in vv. 4-6 are those teachers not from God, people under the influence of Satan (commonly, interpreters of 1 John will simply refer to these people as “opponents”, cf. 1 John 2:18). An application we may draw here is that we ought to pay attention to the response teachers elicit. If someone is teaching the full counsel of God, they will not sound like the world, and the world will spurn them (i.e., not listen, and most likely persecute them). If however, the world approves someone and endorses their message, we may almost be sure that said individual and their message are from the devil. Caution must be taken when discerning this, but Biblically, this is how we know who to avoid. “By this (i.e., seeing who listens, be it the world or Christians) we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”