Spiritual Discernment Study Banner
Photo by Bailey Zindel on Unsplash

Introduction

This will be the penultimate study in our series of studies on the first epistle of John.  I certainly hope that you have enjoyed these studies and if you have missed a study in this series, you can click here.  In our last study, we took a look at the imperative for us to move with agápē love.  In this study, we’re going to focus more on love and spiritual discernment.

Quick note for before you start this study: Studies are written out to be longer than my sermons and the Sunday School lesson commentaries. I skip a couple of weeks with posting bible studies because not everybody can complete a study in one sitting. Take your time and do not rush through my studies! Take it one day at a time if you need to do so. I will recommend a stopping point below for taking a break. Enjoy this study and share it with others!

Discerning the Spirits

This chapter opens with John saying, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God (v.1).”  John is talking about spiritual discernment – being able to differentiate between the many spirits present in our world (reality).  

 We must understand that there are two different realms that are present in this world – a physical realm and spiritual realm.  We happen to be spiritual beings shelled in our physical bodies that occupy the physical realm. The physical realm is made up of physical matter that you and I are able to interact with.

The spiritual realm is one that you and I are currently unable to see.  Yet, the spiritual realm has a very great presence in this world and highly influences our lives. Now, this study is not going to dive into the spiritual realm too much as that was not the primary focus of John in this chapter.  That said, being able to discern the spirits we interact with daily is of the utmost importance for we who genuinely believe in the Lord.

The importance

We are like sponges in our spirit.  What I mean by this is that we are capable of attracting other spirits – those within their own shells and those we cannot see.  And like sponges we are able to absorb things in our spirits from those around us.  

Spiritual discernment was very important to John for a couple of reasons I believe.  First:  we have seen John talk about future days and the person Antichrist but he also spoke of the spirits of antichrist that are already present in the world.  Second:  who and what we attract and absorb is capable of influencing us in our spirit.  So, again, spiritual discernment is very important to us as believers because we do not want to be led away from the Lord.

John even says in this same verse, “test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world (v.1).”  What we must understand is that there are two different types of spirits present in our world.  Those two spirits:  a righteous spirit and an unrighteous spirit.

We have actually seen John touch on the thought of these two different spirits before.  In the third chapter, you may recall that John touched on the children of God and the children of the devil.  He said, “In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother (1 John 3:10).”  So, John has already touched on spiritual discernment just a bit but now it’s time to dive deeper into spiritual discernment.

Telling the difference

The question that I have been asked about spiritual discernment is how can we tell when a spirit is good or bad?  We have seen that John has already given us an answer to this question but let’s take a look at what he says here in this passage of scripture.

The righteous and unrighteous spirit

John says, “By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God (v.2), and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God (v.3).”  John tells us that to discern whether we are interacting with a spirit of God the first place we begin is with Jesus.  The righteous spirit will acknowledge, confess, and genuinely believe that Jesus was born into this world and walked in it.  This is an acknowledgement that the Lord became flesh and dwelt among mankind.

Now it is a great difficulty for many people who are in our world today, who were in the world yesterday, and who will be in the world tomorrow to acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ.  Some will say that they do not believe that the Lord was ever in the world.  Others will say that Jesus was a real person but was no Messiah (Christ).  Those who do not acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah will fall into either of these two categories.  We should note that neither group is confessing that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh.

In Isaiah, it was prophesied that Jesus would be a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to both the houses of Israel and as a trap and snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem (Is. 8:14).  This prophecy occurred at a time when Israel was divided into two kingdoms.  The northern kingdom was composed of ten tribes and the southern kingdom was composed of the tribe of Judah (the Jews) and Benjamin.  The Levites returned to the southern kingdom just prior to the Assyrians conquering the northern kingdom.

The southern kingdom was conquered by the Babylonians after the northern kingdom had been conquered.  The “inhabitants of Jerusalem” part of this prophecy is talking about Gentiles that would inhabit the city.  So, this was prophesied well before Jesus was in the world that He would be a stumbling stone for the Israelites (the Jews) and Gentiles.  Peter quoted this prophecy also in his letter when he spoke of those who are disobedient to the word (1 Pet. 2:8).  This prophecy is one that still stands today – Jesus is a stumbling block for many people – Jew and Gentile alike.

Those that are unsure

Now, I do feel I need to make some extra notes to these two verses.  There are many people who are unsure of what exactly they believe – they are lost.  These people may not confess Christ but at the same time they don’t speak against Him.  We have to remember, there are many people who have a curiosity about Christ and want to learn of Him.  At the same time, there are many people that just don’t know. I say this because John was painting a picture in these two verses that is black and white.

The unsure person is not someone who is full of conviction in their faith and I don’t believe John is talking about that type of person in this scripture.  I believe at one point in time every genuine believer fell into a category where they were not full of conviction in anything.  We were all lost sinners at one point in time.  

However, we eventually sought the Lord and found Him,  When we found the Lord and began to believe in Him and our faith began to grow to the point we became full in our conviction of believing in Him.  We confessed (acknowledged) and genuinely believed God in our spirit.  So, the unsure – lost sinner – is someone that can be reached.  

The spiritual spectrum

Now, the person that John is speaking of when he says “every spirit that does not confess Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God” is someone that is full in their convictions of not believing.  John says that the one who is fully convinced in their disbelief has the spirit of Antichrist.  They are not the person Antichrist but they literally are anti-Christ. 

You see, there are two polar opposite ends of the spectrum with the spirits – those in the light and those in total darkness.  Those in the light are fully convicted believers of God.  John says to those in the light, “You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world (v.5).”

Those who are in total darkness are of the world and speak as of the world (v.5).  Again, I want to reiterate that those in total darkness are fully convicted non-believers and by being fully convicted they refuse to repent (turn back to God).  Then there is another group, I believe, that falls in the middle that we could consider being unsure or lost – a lost sinner.  The lost spirit is the one we should help in finding the light of God.

John says that we can listen to the confession of these spirits to discern what part of the spectrum a spirit is in.  If a spirit confesses Christ, then they are in the light.  If a spirit does not confess Christ – speaks against Him – that spirit is in darkness.  Then I also added in a bit of nuance because there are spirits lost in darkness that want out of the dark – we should be ready to help those spirits.

Stopping point: you have made it through the first part of this study. Take a break if needed and return back to this point to continue. This is the bookmark point of this study. If you do not feel like pausing, let’s dive deeper into this study!

Discernment Through Actions

Now, I do want to say that the words people say don’t really do enough for me, if I’m being honest.  There are many people who will speak the name of Jesus but there is no conviction or genuineness to what they speak.  

They had interactions with people that would say they believed in Christ but their actions said otherwise.  For example, in Acts 5:1-10, Ananias and Sapphira said that they had faith and wanted to be a part of the church.  However, their actions told a different story as they lied to the Holy Spirit.  Another example I think of is found in Simon the sorcerer who said he believed in Christ but he did it because he thought he would get increased magical powers (Acts 8:9-25).

The action that reveals a spirit

So, when you are testing spirits, there is a potential that words can be deceiving.  We know that people are capable of saying one thing and doing the other!  I truly believe John understood this very well because we will see him say, “let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God (v.7).”

There is an action that should come from all of those that truly believe in the Lord.  John tells us that action is the action of love.  Again, we have seen John talk about love a great deal in this letter, right?  Our last study on 1 John 3 was all about the imperative of love (1 John 3:10-11).  Remember, to be in true fellowship with the Lord, John said that we should be in fellowship (in a loving relationship) with one another (1 John 1:7).

Again, the command that Jesus gave to us is the command to love our neighbor (Luke 6:27-36).  So, a child of God should move in love, not just speak the name of Jesus.  To me, I believe it to be very easy to say the name and speak the name of Jesus, but it is our actions that betray us.  We see this happen quite a bit in our society today – people speak the name of Jesus but their actions oppose what He taught about love.

Jesus’ highest charge against the religious leaders of His day was that they were hypocrites to the law of God (Matt. 15:3-9).  Instead of teaching followers to honor their parents and love others, they were teaching selfish practices.  Any taken out of malice and selfish ambition towards others is not an action of God – nor the actions of one that genuinely believe in Him.  Actions taken out of malice and greedy selfish ambition are actions done of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21).  Paul warned that such actions would lead to not inheriting the kingdom of God.

Why we should love others

John now goes into speaking about why the child of God should move with love.  John says, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love (v.8).”  So, again, our actions betray who and what we are.  We should love others genuinely because God is love.  As a child of God, He is raising us to be just like Him.  Look how John goes into detail about how the Lord has raised us.

Love defined

John speaks about how God manifested His only begotten Son for us that we might live through Him (v.9).  He then says, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins (v.10).”  Notice that John is defining what love is here in this verse.  John is defining love based solely off of the Lord and what God did for mankind.

God trains us up to understand what love is by His own example.  What did God do that was love?  Well, He gave His only begotten Son to be the propitiation for mankind.  Let’s understand this giving because a lot of times we gloss over this giving.  When you see the word propitiation, it speaks to Jesus being a sacrifice — the atonement offering for mankind.

Our propitiation explained

Mankind was lost to sin before His manifestation.  Before Christ, when someone physically died, their spirits went to Hades (Sheol/hell).  The ones who were faithful before Christ would go to “paradise” which was called “Abraham’s bosom”.  The unfaithful would go to torments in Hades.  Both parts of Hades were separated by a large gulf so that no spirits could travel between locations.  (Jesus explains this when teaching about The Rich Man and Lazarus – Luke 16:19-31.)

The reason as to why both spirits were going to Hades was because even those faithful ones had not been justified of their sins.  They were faithful in that they had faith in the Lord and did their very best to keep the law.  Yet, the law did not justify anybody of their sins (Rom. 3:20).  So, because they were not yet justified of their sins, all spirits, including the faithful, were blocked from entering into the kingdom of heaven (Is 59:2).

When we think of Jesus coming to save souls, we always seem to consider all of the souls that inhabited this world after He died on the cross and rose from the grave.  However, I want you to understand that Jesus also justified those faithful souls of their sins that had lived before Him.  He went to Hades and proclaimed victory and brought those spirits in Abraham’s bosom back with Him to be with Him (Eph. 4:8).

Jesus in becoming the atonement offering for the sins of mankind justifies all who genuinely believe in Him.  When we talk about sins, let’s also not gloss over that word.  Sin is lawless opposition against the Lord.  Whether we commit sins knowingly or unknowingly, sin stands in opposition against the Lord.  Sin blocks us from having access to Him and dwelling in His eternal kingdom.  God does not put up with sin – not one bit!

With that being said, God still loved the mankind and gave His only begotten Son so that whosoever believes in Him would not perish (spiritually) but have everlasting life (John 3:16).  God is giving mankind an opportunity to be justified of their sins.  Being justified of our sins grants us access to the Lord through prayer and after our physical lives come to an end, we’ll be able to dwell with the Lord eternally.

Love one another

So, God raises us in love through the example of how he gave His only begotten Son – the greatest show of love and compassion there is.  John concludes this section of scripture by saying, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (v.11).”

Let’s remember that all of this began with John talking about spiritual discernment.  The spirit that confesses Christ came in the flesh understands the meaning of God giving His only begotten Son; there is an understanding of Jesus becoming the propitiation of our sins.  Because there is an understanding of what the Lord has done, then the one fully convicted of faith in Him ought to love others.

The spirit that does not confess Christ stands in opposition against what God sent His only begotten Son to do.  To reject Christ is to reject the Lord’s reason for sending Him; it is to reject the purpose of His death – being the propitiation of sin.  I want you to understand that this is a rejection of forgiveness and justification; it is also a rejection of the heavenly promise.

So, those who reject the only begotten Son are rejecting God’s love.  Remember, when I say God’s love, I am talking about the agápē love.  Does this mean that they aren’t capable of love?  Well, they are certainly capable of love as it is thought of in the world.  But let us understand that worldly love is not the same as agápē love.

Stopping point: you have made it through the second part of this study. Take a break if needed and return back to this point to continue. This is the bookmark point of this study. If you do not feel like pausing, let’s finish up this study!

God Recognized

The next few verses in our study speaks to being able to see the Lord through our spiritual discernment.  I believe it is very important for us to not lose track of the fact that this chapter is about spiritual discernment and how we can recognize the spirit of others.  So, as we go over these next few verses, let’s keep in mind being able to see through your spirit

John says, “No one has seen God at any time (v.12).”  In his gospel, John also says, “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him (John 1:18).”  Now, I’m sure all of you will think about how Adam, Abraham, Moses, and several others have seen the Lord in scripture.  In fact, some of you may even consider that the apostles literally saw and walked with Jesus who was God in the flesh.  Let’s try to understand what John is saying here.

When Moses wanted to see God’s glory, the Lord told him plainly, that he could not see Him.  Why, you may ask?  Well, the answer that came from God was that no man can see Him and live (Ex. 33:20).  God had to shield Moses just so that Moses could get a glimpse of His back (Ex. 33:22).

Let’s consider that when the folks in scripture saw the Lord, they simply saw a form of Him.  For example, when the children of Israel were being led from Egypt, they saw a form God when He led them by day by a pillar of cloud and by night a pillar of fire.  When the apostles saw Jesus, they saw God in the form of man.  So what John is actually saying here is that no man has seen God as He truly is.

Seeing God today

Yet, it is possible for us to see the Lord just as it was for those living in the times of the Old Testament and the gospel.  John writes to us, “If we love one another, God abides in us (v.12).”  This is very important to understand in how we are able to see the Lord today.  God abides in us through the inner dwelling of His Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit was given to all of those that genuinely believe in His only begotten Son.

In Old Testament days, the Lord abided with the children of Israel in the tabernacle during their days in the wilderness and then in the temple at Jerusalem after it was built.  Paul wrote that we, all who genuinely believe in the Lord, are now the temple(s) of God (1 Cor. 6:19-20).  The Lord’s glory abided in the tabernacle and in the temple with the Israelites.  Now, it is the Holy Spirit that dwells in the hearts of all of those that genuinely believe in Him.

What this means for us is that through the inner dwelling of the Holy Spirit, God can be seen through us.  This is why it is so critical that our actions are actions of love that is of God.  As a child of God, we are stewards (representatives) of the Lord.  So, when someone sees you, they are seeing God through your actions.

When God is not seen

I want to skip down to the final two verses of this chapter now.  John says, “If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen (v.20)?”  Again, our actions betray the type of spirit we are.  The spirit that resides in the light of God ought to act out of genuine love.

That said, there are many people who say they are a child of God but their actions betray their spirits to be a spirit in total darkness.  This is what John touches on in this scripture.  How is it possible to say that you “love God” (are a child of His), but turn around and the very next second you are acting out of hate to others?  I will tell you plainly that’s not possible.

So, the type of spirit that you are can certainly be discerned by those that pay attention.  The type of spirit that of others can also be discerned by you.  First:  we must pay attention to their confession – whether they believe Jesus is the Christ (Messiah).  Second: we must pay attention to their actions.  

For whatever reason, there are lots of people who seem to struggle with paying attention to actions – they’ll take people for their words alone.  You cannot be that person!  We must be prudent in our discernment because, again, our spirit is like a sponge and it will attract and absorb anything around.  Alright, I hope that you enjoyed this study and that you will share this study with someone.  My next study will be both the last study in this series and the last study for the season, so, I certainly hope that you will return in a few weeks for the final study of the season!