Dear Brother:

Question: “Believe not every spirit” (1 John 4:1). This has been explained in reference to false doctrine. Could it also refer to the devil giving impulses or tempting the Christ?

A few times in my life, I thought the Lord was speaking to me, but now I am sure that He was not.

Answer: One of John’s main purposes in writing this Epistle was to warn his readers about certain false teachers who were spreading heretical propaganda about the Person of Christ, and particularly about His real humanity. They are described as denying that “Jesus is the Christ” (2:22), “them that seduce you” (2:26), and, in this verse, as “false prophets.” The “spirits” — which the readers are not to believe, but which they are to “try” or “test” — are the spirits indwelling these teachers. They are contrasted with the Spirit of God, who, as stated in the preceding verse (3:24), indwells the believer and prompts obedience to God’s commandments. The early verses of chapter 4 give some tests by which a Christian may discover the origin of teachers and their teachings —whether “of God” (a key phrase in the passage, occuring eight times in seven verses), or “not of God,” “of antichrist,” of the world,” or “error.” Nineteen centuries have passed since John’s day, but his words are highly relevant to our days, in which teachers of many cults, purporting to be “of God,” visit homes and even churches to spread their heresies, and have seduced and deceived many. We ought, therefore, to note the tests by which they may be distinguished, especially the test which is first and foremost — their witness to Christ (verses 2, 3).

“What think ye of Christ is the test
That tries both our state and our scheme;
We cannot be right in the rest
Unless we thing rightly of Him.”

The essential mark of the Spirit of God is His testimony to Christ —”He shall glorify Me,” “He shall testify of Me” (John 16:14, 15:26). Anyone indwelt by Him will therefore give a true testimony of Christ — His Person and Incarnation — confessing that “Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh” (a probable reading of 1 John 4:2), i.e. that Jesus is none other than the Incarnate Christ, the Son of God. Denial of this doctrine of Christ is evidence that the teacher is “not of God.”

It is clear, then, that the reference in 1 John 4:1 is to false teachers and the doctrines they bring. However, it is true, as we learn from other Scriptures, that the devil does tempt the Christian — just as he tempted the Saviour. As in that temptation in the wilderness, his methods are very subtle; he appeals to natural needs (e.g. hunger), makes alluring offers, and even uses Scripture to support his appeal. It is not surprising that at times we may not recognize his voice, as the questioner has experienced. We know that he not only comes to us as “a roaring lion,” but he disguises himself as an “angel of light” (1 Pet. 5:8: 2 Cor. 11:14). We need therefore to be constantly vigilant, and, following the example of our Lord, be so conversant with the Scriptures that we can recognize what is God’s will and repel the attacks of Satan by the Word of God.

—Dr. James Naismith

Water and the Spirit

The following is in answer to questions that arise from time to time as to the meaning of “water” in John 3:5.

“Water” in this passage seems to refer to the Word of God, as the instrument of the Spirit in bringing about the New Birth.

The reference cannot well be to baptism. Baptism (in Romans 6) is likened to Burial — here it is a question of Birth.

Some would render the statement as “Water, even the Spirit.” But this seems unnatural and hardly clarifies matters. If the Spirit alone is meant, would it not have been more natural and clearer to omit the reference to water?

In some current editions of the King James Version (though not in the original edition of 1611) the second “of” in the expression “born of water and of the Spirit” is in italics — indicating that it is not part of the original text. RV and RSV agree in omitting the second “of.” The one preposition, as F. F. Bruce pointed out in the Harvester some time ago, governs both “water” and “the Spirit.” This seems to suggest a Single experience, rather than a two-fold one. Prof. Bruce says “We have more probably a compound expression for spiritual birth, both ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’ referring back to Ezekiel 36:25-27.”

To make the water refer to John’s baptism, as some do, or to natural birth, would involve a two-fold experience — baptism and the Spirit, or natural birth and the Spirit. If the suggestion above is correct, the text seems to leave no room for either of these interpretations, since it is a Single experience that is referred to.

—F. W. Schwartz