“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.”
Anytime you’re reading your bible and you come to words that say, “DO NOT BELIEVE,” it always gets your attention. It’s like, “what? Did it just say that I should NOT BELIEVE?”
The bible is filled with one admonition to believe after another. John concludes his gospel saying that the whole purpose, not only of his gospel but of the whole bible is that we might BELIEVE. “These things are written that you might BELIEVE… and that by BELIEVING have life in his name.” (John 20:31).
But here, like a cymbal crash in the middle of a lullaby, John writes, “DO NOT BELIEVE.”
Sometimes our problem is NOT that we believe TOO LITTLE but that we believe TOO MUCH. Because we don’t know our bible as well as we should, we can lack that critically important ingredient of faith called ‘discernment.’ The writer to the Hebrews urges his congregation, “solid food is for the mature, for those who have their POWERS OF DISCERNMENT trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Heb. 5:14).
UNBELIEF can be just as much a mark of SPRITUAL MATURITY as BELIEF.
John was writing to the church in his day, but some things just don’t change. It’s the same for us. Adam and Eve listened to the serpent and BELIEVED what they SHOULD NOT have believed. And ever since, people have been BELIVING what they should NOT BELIEVE and NOT BELIEVING what they should.
We believe what we WANT to believe. Whether it’s actually true or not, hardly seems to matter if we WANT it to be true. I BELIEVE people who tell me that the Lord will fix whatever problem I have if only I pray hard enough because I WANT my problems to be fixed. I BELIEVE people who tell me that the Lord will make me successful or rich or happy if I pray hard enough because I WANT to be successful, rich or happy.
Knowing that people would so desperately WANT Jesus to come again to bring this world to an end, Jesus warns His flock – DO NOT BELIEVE. “If anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ DO NOT BELIEVE IT. For many false Christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” (Mark 13:21-22)
Paul writes to Timothy, warning him that “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to sit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wader off into myths.” (2 Tim.4:3-4).
So John warns the church, ‘Don’t be naive. Don’t be gullible.’ “TEST the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
In his revelation, John hears Jesus commend the church at Ephesus. “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have TESTED those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.” (Rev. 2:2)
That word “TEST” comes from the banking industry. It’s the word that was used to TEST a coin to see if it was real or a counterfeit. The COUNTERFEITS look a lot like the REAL THING. But there’s a TEST that reveals the counterfeit. You drop a drop of acid on the coin to see how it reacts. If it’s not real gold, it’ll turn green.
So, what’s the ACID TEST for ‘spirits’? How do you tell if the spirit is FROM GOD and to be believed, or NOT FROM GOD and not to be believed?
I remember some time ago after a funeral service that I conducted that someone came up to me and told me that they were convinced that I spoke the truth because I was sincere. I wanted to say, but didn’t, that ‘false spirits’ are also very sincere.
John writes, “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.”
The ACID TEST that tells you whether the spirit is OF GOD or OF THE ANTICHRIST is THE FLESH OF JESUS CHRIST. The “flesh” of Jesus is the “humanity” of Jesus. The ‘test’ is, is Jesus truly human. Does He have real flesh and bones and eyes and ears and a nose and a mouth like we have?
Does He have a mind like ours that ‘thinks’ and ‘reasons’ and has to make choices and decisions? Does He have all of the ‘emotions’ that human beings have?
Does He know joy and happiness; grief and sadness; disappointment and pleasure? Does He laugh? Does He cry? Does He get angry? Does He have a gut that aches with ‘compassion’?
All of this is packed into that little word “flesh.” “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.”
If there is no ‘flesh,’ then there is no ‘real’ humanity. Throughout the Old Testament we read that God ‘sees’ what’s going on, and He ‘speaks,’ and gets ‘angry,’ and has ‘regrets,’ and ‘delights’ in His creation – He even changes His mind. But then we say, ‘no, that’s just us projecting our humanity onto God. These are just ‘anthropomorphisms’. God is spirit. And spirits don’t have ‘flesh.’ God is not ‘human.’
And now, can we see what makes the CHRISTIAN message about God so unique among all of the ‘god-stories’ out there – and what is so critically central and indispensable to it. God who is Spirit took on ‘flesh’ / ‘humanity.’
In the prelude to his gospel, John announces the absolutely unheard of and amazing thing – “the Word became flesh and dwelt among.” (Jn.1:14) Paul writes, “In Him, the whole fullness of deity dwells BODILY.” (Col. 2:9)
Just to be clear here, it wasn’t a man who became divine – but the divine who became man. The Nicene Creed carefully charts this course for us to follow when it has us confess, “who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven AND WAS MADE MAN…” And the Athanasian Creed carefully distinguishes the ‘false spirits’ from the ‘spirit of God,’ saying, “not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh, but by the assumption of the humanity into God…”
Only in Jesus Christ can we say, in truth, that God ‘sees’ us and ‘hears’ us and gets ‘angry’ with us and ‘cares’ for us – and ‘knows’ us with any sense of real ‘knowing’ what it is that we experience as real human beings. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb. 4:15)
Only in Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, can say, ‘God loves me.’ Not just poetically, but literally, physically, ‘God loves me.’ He laid down His life for me. Only an ‘EMBODIED’ God can do that.
And most significantly, apart from Jesus Christ in the flesh, the cross has no bearing at all on my sin – for apart from REAL FLESH there was no REAL BLOOD shed for me. And apart from REAL BLOOD, there is no REAL FORGIVENESS of sins.
Without REAL HUMANITY, there can be no REAL DEATH, and I have no Savior who has gone before me into MY DEATH, and who can say to me, ‘do not be afraid.’
But “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he Himself likewise partook of the same things, that THROUGH DEATH He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” (Heb. 2:14)
Can we being to see how high the stakes in getting this right are? ‘By this we 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.” Already in John’s day, false teachers were teaching a false gospel and the baptized in Christ were being led astray. And not much has changed.
Before Easter, the false teachers taught that Jesus could not possibly be TRUE GOD. He was truly HUMAN, but not truly DIVINE.
But after Easter, the false teachers do a flip-flop in their message. Now they preach and teach that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead – it’s near impossible to deny it. But they teach a ‘spiritual’ resurrection. His ‘body’ was only a ‘spiritual body’ – not a ‘physical body.’
This is why the gospel writers spill an incredible amount of inspired ink testifying to the ‘physical’ / ‘bodily’ resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter.
John reports that on Easter evening, Jesus came into the room where the disciples were all huddled in fear and after giving them the spoils of His victory, “peace be to you,” – “he showed them His hands and His sides.” (John 20:19-20)
John records the episode of Thomas whom Jesus instructs, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” His ‘flesh’- is His proof to Thomas that it is really Him and not just a ‘spirit.’
Luke records that when the risen Jesus came to His disciples, “they thought they saw a spirit.” He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24:28-29)
Luke carefully reports that at His ascension into heaven, the disciples see Jesus ascend ‘BODILY’ into the sky.
Even now, it is the God / Man, Jesus Christ, with all of His physical / bodily wounds by which He suffered and died for us, as a lamb who was slain, who sits at the right hand of God the Father. And who is interceding for us – with whom He has become ONE BODY even as we are ONE BODY with Him. “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, THE MAN Christ Jesus.” (1 Timothy 2:5)
And even now, today, here, He gives His true flesh and true blood in His Holy Supper. “Take and eat, this is my BODY. Take and drink, this is my BLOOD.”
We believe that just same God / Man, Jesus Christ who was raised in BOTH BODY AND SPIRIT and who ascended into heaven in BOTH BODY AND SPIRIT, will come again in BOTH BODY AND SPIRIT to raise our mortal bodies and unite them with our spirit, that we may live with Him forever and worship Him forever in BOTH BODY AND SPIRIT.
He CAME in THE FLESH. He COMES in THE FLESH. He will COME AGAIN in THE FLESH.
It is to our own day that has lost sight of the sanctity of the human body – both in life and in death – that the Christian gospel has such a profound message to proclaim. The only, true God, who created the human body, Himself took on a real human body of real flesh, to redeem our bodies, to forgive us all of the sins that we have committed with our bodies, even as He will raise our bodies on the Last Day.
Therefore “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.”