The Threefold Secret of Life

Study Guide to 1,2,3 John
by Francis Foulkes ©


`Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already. Little children, you are of God, and have overcome them; for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world, therefore what they say is of the world, and the world listens to them. We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error' (4:1-6).

In this section we move back again to right belief as the mark of the true Christian (as in 2:18-27). Chapter 3 closed by saying that we know that we are God's people and that He is our Lord and Father, by the Holy Spirit whom He gave to live in our lives. The Spirit of God inspires and directs the Christian in his or her life, and in particular the Spirit of God inspires the Christian preacher and teacher. But there are other preachers and teachers who claim to be inspired, just as in Old Testament times there were prophets of God who brought His message to the people and there were false prophets. These verses emphasize the need for all Christian people to be on their guard. There are those who are 'of God' (a phrase used six times in these six verses) and there are those who are 'of the world'. There are the world's prophets, teaching ideas that please the world, and acting in the power of the prince of this world; but there are also God's prophets, speaking God's truth. Those who are God's people must be sure that they recognize the difference and know God's power to overcome all evil.

a. The world's prophets or the messengers of God.

When Jesus had finished His work and left this world, He sent His followers out to go into all the world with His gospel (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8). The trouble was that 'many false prophets' had also 'gone out into the world' (verse 1). They professed to be inspired to speak things that they wanted others to follow. But not all inspiration is from God. Jesus warned people of false prophets (as in Matthew 24:11 and 24). So did the apostle Paul (1 Timothy 4:1-8). There would be 'antichrists' (as spoken of in 2:18 and 22) and 'the spirit of antichrist' (verse 3), opposing Christ and trying to turn Christians to serve another master. There were false prophets out in the world when John wrote this letter. Some of them had been in the Church and had gone out from it (2:19). So it was most important for the Christians to 'test the spirits' (compare 1 Thessalonians 5:21 and Revelation 2:2), that is to see which of those who claimed to speak by inspiration were true. In 2:20 and 27 it was emphasized that the Holy Spirit has been given to us as our 'anointing' to help us to know the truth and to recognize what is false. In that part of the letter it has been said also that the test for those who profess to teach the truth to others is, 'Do they believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (2:22-23). Here another very important part of the Christian's belief is added as a test to decide between truth and error.

b. The world's ideas or the truth of God.

'Every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is of God' (verse 2). This is the test here. Did the prophets believe that? Jesus is the Son of God, who became man - truly God, truly man. That is our faith in all the wonder of it. To deny it is to take away the heart of the Christian faith. What we call the Incarnation - a word that simply means God becoming man - matters supremely to the Christian. It means that God is not just the high and holy God beyond us, our Creator and our Judge. He has come to us. His Son has come to be one of us. In His life we see our human life as it was intended to be lived. Jesus our Lord, moreover, is One who knows all our weaknesses and temptations, as He has lived our life to the full. More important still, He lived that life without any sin and so was able to offer Himself to the Father as the sacrifice for our sins, and we who are sinful come to God by Him. As the hymn puts it:

It is a thing most wonderful

Almost too wonderful to be

That God's own Son should come from heaven

And die to save a child like me.

Almost too wonderful to be true, but true it is and the greatest truth of all. Those who had lived with Jesus and who had seen Him die and had seen Him alive from the dead knew it to be true and the greatest truth of all. Those who have believed their message ever since have found the truth in experience and have found the power it brings to life.

However, there are always things in our Christian faith that the world finds hard to believe and wants us to change. We need to bear witness to our faith in the ways that the world around us can understand, but we need to be very careful not to change our faith simply to agree with the ideas of the world that change from age to age. In New Testament times (as we noted in our Introduction to this letter) Greek people and many eastern peoples thought of spirit as good and everything material (including our own bodies) as bad. So they found it very hard to think that the Son of God, who is spirit, could have a body like ours. They wanted Christians to change their belief and to say that He only seemed or appeared to have a body. But that would have been to deny the very heart of the Christian's faith.

The world today finds some things hard to believe. For example, science tells us so much about nature, about the natural order, which it can observe and conduct experiments to explain, that people find it hard to believe in the supernatural, especially in Western countries. We can be thankful for all that science shows us about God's creation: but beyond the scope of science is the supernatural, God the Creator Himself, the truth He has made known to us, above all in His Son Jesus Christ, and the supernatural spiritual strength and grace that He gives us by His Spirit These are the greatest blessings which He has promised and which He gives, greater than all material blessings.

c. The world's power or the might of God.

Sometimes the influence of the world's thinking seems great and the power of the world seems great. The New Testament speaks of the devil as 'the ruler of this world' (see John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11). He is spoken of in verse 4 as 'the one who is in the world'. His temptations may often seem very strong against us, our children, and our Christian friends whom we love and care for and against all the people around us. Sometimes we feel that the powers of evil against us are very strong. We may fear that others can use these powers of evil against us. We need not fear. If Christ is in our lives, the powers of evil cannot possess us. There is great comfort and encouragement for our faith and our prayers and our own living in what verse 4 says, 'he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world'. Though the powers against us may seem to be very strong, we can say with the apostle Paul, 'I can do all things in him who strengthens me' (Philippians 4:13). We have to do battle to hold to our faith. We have to do battle to live by it - in truth and in love; but, 'strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might' (Ephesians 6:10) we need never fail.


Lord God Almighty, we thank You for Your gift of Your own Son, greater than our words of praise can tell and greater than we can fully understand. We thank You also for Your Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth. May Your Spirit help us to understand the truth and recognize and resist what is false. May He also make us strong to oppose all evil and live our lives to the full in the service of Jesus Christ and to make Him known to others. AMEN.

For further thought and study.

1. Using this passage, John 1:1-18, Hebrews chapters 1 and 2 and any other passages, consider why it is so important for our Christian faith that we believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that He became truly Man.

2. What things can help us when people claim to be prophets today to know whether they are true or false prophets? What guidance do you find in these verses? What guiding principles are given in such Old Testament passages as Deuteronomy 13:1-4, 18:20-22 and Jeremiah 23:16-22?


1. There is another situation in which we may sometimes experience the need to 'test the spirits'. When a person is acting in a strange or uncontrolled way is that person possessed by a demon or just sick in mind? One test is whether the person reacts violently against the name of Jesus or curses Jesus in the kind of way Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 12:3.

Muslim people find very great difficulty in the way that Christians speak of Jesus Christ as Son of God. They wrongly think that we mean that physically Jesus was born as Son to God the Father. The New Testament means that Jesus is Son because He shares with the Father the (spiritual) nature of God, and, as far as our human language can express it, there is a relation of the Persons in the One God, as Father and Son (see John 5:19-26, 10:30, 14:8-11 and 1 Corinthians 15:24-28).

2. What verse 6 says might seem to be very proud in its claim, `Whoever knows God listens to us', but we have to remember that this is not just John's personal opinion. He is speaking of the certainty that the apostles had about Jesus, whom they had lived with, heard, seen, touched (1:1-2), and known His death and resurrection. They were so sure, by their experiences of Him and then of His Spirit, that they could say that those who truly sought to know and serve God would recognize that truth; those who did not were rejecting the truth of God that He had made known and so they could not really be 'of God'.


1 John 4:7-5:5