Let’s do a little Bible study together through I John 3:19-4:4. First, let’s look at our passage.
By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.
Test the Spirits
4 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. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has 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, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. 4 Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.
Let’s break down our passage verse by verse, looking for the main theme in our passage.
(v.19-20) “By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.”
Every person who is a true Christian will be convicted about their sin, even during their Christian experience. If we have no conviction about our sin, then we may take that as a sign that perhaps we are not really in Christ. But, in this passage there is also hope. Because John says, “God is greater than our heart.” In other words, the believer has the forgiveness of God.
Then John goes on to say (v.21), “If our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God.”
Here is the opposite. If we have no conviction about specific sins, then we should not worry and can be confident that our relationship with God is unbroken, uninterrupted.
(v.22) “We keep his commandments and do what pleases him.”
First, I want to ask, what pleases the Lord? Do we want God to take pleasure in our lives? We can recall what kind of joy and happiness we have when we see our kids or our grandkids learning and experiencing life and doing good. Imagine that same kind of reaction that you have being the kind of reaction that God has when he looks at your life, through Christ. He feels pleasure about your life as you follow and love him.
Now, notice something else in this passage. Three times in two verses John uses the word, command. (v.23-24). “And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God.”
Remember that in the past we’ve said when something is repeated it is important. So, let’s stop down and ask why John uses the word, command so often in just two short verses. Look at the structure. First, he says to believe in Jesus is his command. Then he says to love one another is his command. Then he broadens it to saying that he who keeps these commands abides in God.
Consider these questions: How can God “command” us to love him? Isn’t love an expression of the heart? Aren’t there people we love and don’t love and can’t help ourselves either way? Why is it legitimate for God to “command” us to love him?
“God does not want us to perform for him; he wants us to please him. He wants our obedience to arise out of love for him not merely out of obligation” (“Sure of Victory,” Bible Studies for Life, Senior Adults, Fall 2021).
(v.24) “By this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.”
Here is a follow-up to his use of the word command. John finalizes his statement by saying that the Spirit is within us. We follow his commands because the Holy Spirit indwells us. It is actually God who makes love for others, possible. When we were in Mongolia, I was challenged to love someone who was my enemy.
I was accused of a crime by a former employee. She filed 46 counts of slander against me. In Mongolia slander is a criminal offense that carries a sentence of as long as 10 years in prison. Thankfully, the prosecutor threw out the case since there was nothing to it. But God had to work on my heart. I had to learn how to love this person, and forgive her, by faith. Eventually we reconciled and forgave one another our wrongs. It was only possible for me to forgive her through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, I can abide in love for someone who made me their enemy because of the power of the Holy Spirit to work forgiveness in my heart.
(4:1) “Do not believe every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”
What kinds of “tests” can we do to know that we are in Christ? And what are the tests we need to use to determine false prophets and teachers from the genuine?
Now, there are two things going on here. First, we test ourselves to be sure we are in the kingdom. But these same tests can be applied to others to see if they are in the kingdom as well. So, let’s go through some tests we can apply to ourselves and others so that we can know if someone, or if we, are truly Christians. First, an example.
I had an employee who confessed that she was a Christian. Said she was a Christian but in our last meeting she said about Jesus, “I hate him. He never did anything for me. I hate him.” Though she made a profession of faith down the isle, in reality, she was not a believer. No true believer can say they hate the Lord. I Corinthians 12:3 says, “I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says, ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” My friend failed the test of being a true Christian.
John has already given us a few tests in our passage.
Verse 20 gives a first test. It says, “For whenever our heart condemns us.” When we are convicted about our sin it demonstrates that we are sensitive to the Spirit’s conviction.
Verse 22 says, “We do what pleases him.” What pleases God?
Verse 24, “Whoever keeps his commandments.” What does it mean to keep God’s commandments?
Verse 24, “The Spirit is within us.” How do we know we have the Spirit? We know by faith, trusting Jesus words when he says the Spirit will come to those who believe.
Carefully consider what John says here: (vs.2-3) “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.”
There are other tests so that we may be assured of our salvation or know if someone is a true believer or not.
Test by the scriptures. Acts 17:11 says, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” If we examine our lives against the teachings of Jesus, what do we come away with? The people in this passage, the Bereans, tested the apostle Paul’s teaching against scripture and came to a positive conclusion about who Jesus is. We can do the same thing with our lives.
Does it take away or add to scripture? Revelation 22:18-19 says, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”
When you consider your life or the life of another against scripture, are you tempted to reject, or disregard, or ignore a passage because it makes you uncomfortable or contradicts something in your life? This is no different than changing scripture itself. We must not bend the scripture to fit our desires. And we must not bend ourselves to fit scripture. Instead, we must be broken before the Lord, submitting everything to God in totality. Break, not bend.
We have the conviction of the Holy Spirit about who Jesus is. John 16:8-9 says, “When [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me…”
I should say here an important principle about sin in which the Lord convicts us. Whatever sin we choose to commit, it requires that we put aside our relationship with Jesus in order to commit it. Here’s an example. If we decide to commit adultery, we put aside our relationship with our spouse in order to commit it. We ignore our spouse, don’t think about our spouse, even don’t care about our spouse’s feelings or love to commit this wrong. The same is true with any sin and Jesus. We disregard what he teaches and our relationship with him so that we can commit that sin. All sin is a violation of relationship. Sin only happens in relationship.
If you have no conviction about who Jesus is then that is a warning sign that something might be wrong.
There is a major test of authenticity that God gave us through Moses in Deuteronomy 18. It is the first test we are given about the genuineness of a prophet or teacher, and we may apply it to our own hearts as well. Deuteronomy 18:20-22 says, “The prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.”
Here are more tests that we can apply to ourselves to see whether or not we, or someone else, are in Christ.
We talk about the Lord. Notice what Moses said about this in Deuteronomy 6:7. “You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
Surround myself with things of the Lord. “You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:8-9).
Love the scripture. Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 32:47 about the place that scripture should have in our lives. Scripture, speaking of itself says, “This is not an idle word for you. Indeed, it is your life.” Jesus reiterated this when he said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word…whoever does not love me does not keep my words” (John 14:23-24). Here’s one more from Deuteronomy, “These words that I command you today shall be on your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:6).
Bring my thoughts under the control of the Holy Spirit. What do you think about the most?
How often in a day, or even a week, do you contemplate spiritual things? The Apostle Paul said in II Corinthians 10:5, “Take every thought captive to obey Christ.” When we are faced with temptation or have troubling thoughts that disturb us, we should be engaged in intentionally submitting our thought life to the control of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes this takes work. We all have bad thoughts from time to time. When this occurs, we should confess them to God and begin to think of scripture or biblical principles that are the opposite of what we are struggling with. For instance, if I feel the temptation coming on, I say to myself, “No. I don’t want to go there. I will think and commit acts of faithfulness.”
We want others to love the Lord.
Consider what Jesus said in the Great Commission. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). This principle is built into the Christian experience. It is the primary command in scripture that tells us what we should be doing with our Christian life. If you have no desire for others to know Jesus, or to grow to maturity in Christ, then you may not have your heart right with the Lord.
Love others as Jesus loved us. This is a little different than what I just mentioned. Jesus raised the bar when he said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). How did Jesus love us? He sacrificed himself for us on the cross. What greater love is there than this?
Now, to be honest, this is probably the hardest way to love someone. And we don’t usually come upon it early in our Christian experience. But we should at least be growing in this direction. So, check yourself. Are you willing to become this kind of person? Consider the example of Jesus who forgave those who crucified him. Think about this for a moment. This is the first thing Jesus said from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Jesus decided to forgive them while they were in the process of murdering him at that very moment. What a difficult thing to do. Just like forgiving my employee, but the Holy Spirit can empower us to do that very thing.
But a word of caution: When we examine the life of others, we should be careful that we do not do what the apostle Paul warned against. That is, “Do not pronounce judgment before the time” I Corinthians 4:5 says, “Do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.”
There are some of whom it is obvious that they are not Christians, or they are open about their rebellion from Christ. These are the obvious who are not saved. But there are others who say they are Christians, but we have trouble seeing the fruit of that confession. We must be careful that we don’t accidentally judge them wrongly.
(v.4) “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”
The one who is in us is the Holy Spirit. The one who is in the world is the Evil One, the spirit of the antichrist as John mentioned in 4:3. The world cannot overcome you because the world system, which is run by the enemy, will some day pass away, but you, sealed with the Spirit, will live forever.
What is John’s Big Idea? I think we can take away two major lessons that John wants us to remember.
- You can know, beyond a doubt, that you, or someone else, is a Christian.
- You can know, beyond a doubt, that you, or someone else, is not a Christian.
Notice John’s progression in the text. He discusses the condition of our hearts, even using the word, “confidence,” about our relationship to God (v.3:21). Then he moves to what pleases the Lord, obeying his commands, then he gives a second assurance about abiding in Christ. How do we abide? By doing what he just commanded.
Then he moves to testing the spirits, which includes testing ourselves.
If you are in agreement with these things that test us, then you can know you are a Christian and do not need to entertain any doubt. But if you find that these principles are not growing in you, then you may have reason to doubt, or perhaps you are in a phase where you may be ignoring what God is doing in your life. Either way, the scripture gives us encouragement that we can get on the right track. In 4:5-6 John says:
“They are from the world; therefore, they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
So too, we can know by these guidelines, these tests, if we are truly in Christ or not.
Now, the tests presented in our passage are actually meant to apply to others. However, we must first always examine ourselves before others. So, I will apply these to us. But they can also be applied to others. Our application is rather simple. Test yourselves to see if you are in the kingdom. Go through each of these principles and answer honestly to yourself, does my life reflect this truth? If not, what must I do to make it true in my life?
- Verse 20 gives a first test. Does my heart condemn me or not condemn me?
- Verse 2, do I do what pleases God?
- Verse 24, do I keep his commandments?
- 4:2-3, Do I confess that Jesus Christ has come in human form?
- Test myself by the scriptures. Acts 17:11 Do I define my beliefs by scripture?
- Do I take away or add to scripture? I.E., do I prefer culture over commands?
- Do I have the conviction of the Holy Spirit about who Jesus is?
- Do I talk about the Lord?
- Do I surround myself with things of the Lord?
- Do I love the scripture?
- Do I bring my thoughts under the control of the Holy Spirit?
- Do I want others to love the Lord?
- Do I love others as Jesus loved us?
Someone you know may need to read this. Please share.