John has made known the present reality of these Christians: they are begotten of God (3.1-3). They need to understand that position, then live accordingly (3.4-10), i.e. practice righteousness and true love for one another (3.11-24). He now warms them of the the clear and present danger of false teachers (4.1-6).
1 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.
Beloved—aged John’s term of address which also points to endearment. Also v.7, 11
Do not believe every spirit—This is a present imperative. “Stop believing every spirit” because every spirit is not “from God.” It would seem that some of the members of the body were following after the Gnostic teachers/spirits. Spirit: “not so much the personal teacher as the principle or tendency of the doctrine” (PC). “Every teacher claiming inspiration of the Holy Spirit” (JFB).
But test the spirits…– Also a present imperative. All believers (individually and collectively) were/are to “test the spirits.” Test: Originally to test metals and their worth, this means to test, scrutinize , prove the genuineness of a thing, in this case the message brought by the spirit. They did this either by miraculous means (see 1 Cor 12.10) or by comparing it to the apostolic revelation (Jesus has come in the flesh, v.2). In context, the latter seems best.
From God—what’s the origin? If these spirits have their origin in God, they will “speak the same word” as God about Christ (v.2). If not, they are the words of a “false prophet.”
Many false prophets have gone out—even Jesus predicted these were coming (Matt 24.24). John says they were already come and are still present in the world. Perhaps these have even come as if they are from God; John makes it clear they are not.
“Nowhere else in the NT is there so strong an emphasis as here on trust in the πνεῦμα who works in the community, who needs no official authorisation (sic), who bears witness, not by bringing new and unheard of revelations, but by bringing the old message.“ – TDNT, V.6, p.449
2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,
By this you know the Spirit of God—John will give the test by which one can identify the Spirit of God. The Gnostic teachers claim to have this Spirit and even call themselves “spirit-people” or “soul people.”
Jesus Christ has come in the flesh—what doctrine would have denied this core fact of the gospel message? Gnosticism certainly, but specifically the docetic flavor which Jesus only seemed to have a body of flesh. The Spirit of God would not deny this core fact. Where would this idea that Jesus did not have a body of flesh come from? Platonic philosophy which said that matter is evil and therefore a bodily incarnation is impossible. Augustine (theologian 4th cent.) said he find parallels between Platonic philosophy and the NT in everything except “The Word became flesh.”
Has come—or “is come”; lit. having come, perfect tense participle. Past completed action with present continuing results. The effects—benefits and blessings—continue.
From God—this message/word concerning Jesus’ humanity originates in the mind of God. The personification of the mind of God (Gk. Pnuema), the Spirit, reveals it. Indeed, only in the mind of God could something so fantastic originate that God could be with us, dwell among us, put on flesh and die for us. This message is too fantastic, incredible to have its origin in the mind of man
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.
Every spirit that does not confess Jesus—”confess” is Gk. Homologeo, (1.9) which is lit. “same word” or “speak the same word.” In this case, a spirit that does not speak the same word as God about Jesus (humanity, divinity, Messiah-ship, etc.) does not have its origin in God.
This is the spirit of the antichrist—”spirit” is supplied in nearly every translation (Darby: power). Lit. “This is that of the antichrist.”
You heard was coming—perf. Tense verb, you heard (past) and continue to hear (present) or you heard (past) and therefore know (present). Either way, they were warned of antichrists coming.
Now is in the world already—not a future prospect but an existing condition. Not a mysterious political figure rising out of the revived Roman Empire, i.e. the European Union who (even now) is yet to be revealed. John says they’re here, now (1st cent.) and they are messing up the faith of people with their heretical doctrine. The stuff these antichrists are saying does not have its origin in God.
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.
Little children—again, a favorite expression of John regarding his readers.
You are from God—”you” is emphatic and stands in opposition to “them” who are the Gnostic teachers/antichrists who propagate a message not from God. It is also plural pointing to this being a body thing. The Christian community is “from God.”
Have overcome them—perf. Tense, overcame (past) and continue to overcome (present). One writer says, “past completed victory…present state of being a conqueror.” How? Various ideas: 1) as a body, they have driven the errorists out and keep them out; 2) by their refusal to listen to the heretics heresy; 3) repudiation of the heretics doctrine. See also 2.13b, 14b where the young men overcame the evil one.
He who is in you—God the Holy Spirit. These believers have the Spirit (3.24) and He is in them, taken up his residence, fellowship language. Note that “you” is plural; this is a body thing. The Spirit is in their midst. Not only that, He is greater than that spirit that is in the world.
Is greater than he who is in the world—Spirit of antichrist, Satan. Though the Devil has some power, compared to the power of God…there is no comparison.
5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.
They are from the world—those Gnostic teachers who are promoting doctrine that is antichristian in nature. The Gnostic community is from the world, from that system that is under the subjection to the Devil (evil one, 5.19).
Therefore they speak from the world—they get their inspiration from the world; the character of what they speak corresponds to its origin. It is worldly.
The world listens to them—Hence, the world readily hears them. Contrast with Jn 15.19
6 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.
We are from God—apostles. The teachers of truth (inspired by the Spirit of truth) as opposed to the teachers of error (inspired by the spirit of error).
Whoever knows God listens to us—What does it mean to know God? John has already discussed this concept (2.3) and clearly defined that a person who keeps the commandments of God is one who knows God (and knows he knows). In other words, a person who listens to (keeps on listening to) the voice of God, His Word. So a person who listens to God, obeys His Word, will naturally listen to “us” (the apostolic college).
Whoever is not from God… – an example of this would be Diotrephes (3 John 9). He refused to heed apostolic address. But it begins with a refusal to hear and heed God’s revelation.
By this—lit. from this. Based on the foregoing.
We know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error—”The test of a prophet of God is not only that he recognizes that the Christ has appeared in the person of Jesus of Nazareth but that his teaching agrees in the essentials of faith and practice accepted by Christians from the beginning” (Sweet Commentary, 18:110). John says we can identify truth and error. If its truth then it lines up with God’s revelation in Christ and God’s revelation in apostolic doctrine. If it is error, it will not match God’s revelation by the Spirit.