Christianity is deeply spiritual but not everything spiritual is Christian. So how do we know the difference? Join us as we look at 1 John 4:1-6.
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In John’s Gospel he tells the story of a woman at the well that wanted Jesus to solve a religious question. About where a person was supposed to worship. What was the more holy place? The temple in Jerusalem or the one in Samaria. Jesus responded with a totally different answer than what she wanted. She gave him options “A” and “B” and Jesus responded with neither He answered with “C” “ In spirit and truth.”
24 "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." (John 4:24)
Now the word truth is easy He was saying if you’re going to worship God you must worship Him in truth. Meaning the actual God and all that He actually is. In the actual relationship with Him that He provides us by His Grace. And from the truth of how who He is and all He is doing is actually intersecting with and impacting our lives and where we are in life. (Is He convicting us of sin and rebellion? Are we broken and in need of comfort? Are we fearful and in need of courage? Are we lacking faith and in need of Him to establish our feet.?) So, the truth part is easy. Every relationship requires that it be centered in truth or it won’t work. Therefore, it’s just that more true of worshiping and knowing God!
But, the more head scratching question is what did Jesus mean by the word “spirit.”
In short, the word “spirit” in the Bible takes in to account the part of us that under the curse of sin will be absent from the body when we die and yet still very much alive and present with the Lord. The spirit is not simply an outward expression of emotion, but as odd as it sounds our spirit is physical and real. What remains of us after death is not the ideas and love and memories of us. But what remains of us after death is us. Granted, only part of us (body dies) but still very much us!
Our spirit is not our emotions, passions, dreams, visions, etc. But the expression of our spirit is seen and heard in our emotions, passions in life, dreams, visions, and even our attitude and character.
We feel and see the expressions of our spirit in that inward drive and direction that we cannot put our finger on where it comes from. But we know it's us because it is! We know that it is as much and uniquely part of us as our finger print. So much so that all who know us sees the outward expression of it!
The “spirit” is not describable by the natural laws of our universe because it is very much a supernatural part of who we are. It’s what God breathed into mankind that was of Him, but not of what He had made this world to be. It was different from the life that God gave everything else. And as such it is what supremely makes mankind in His image. We are spiritual beings. That spirit being divided by the curse of sin, but in the return of Christ fully restored as body and soul/spirit being one forever!
So, when Jesus said true worship of God is not concerned with buildings or days or methods. He was pointing to rituals and routines and entities, that have nothing whatsoever to do with who we really are. He was pointing us away from the celebrations, customs, traditions and religious practices as somehow being things and places that please God.
He was instead pointing to the substantive part of who we actually are knowing and loving God! That true worship is not checking a box that you went to a building and did some religious things. Not that you had ashes put on your forehead, that you drank some wine and ate some bread. Not that you sang certain songs or had oil put on your head. Nor that somebody burned candles and left them in a quiet place. None of that of has any meaning to God whatsoever because they are external things. They are not wrong. They just carry no weight with God. It's why He told David...
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:17)
This is exactly what Jesus was getting at with the woman at the well Jesus was stating, as fact, that this is the only form of Worship that is acceptable to God. Ever! He was saying your spirit, who you are at the core. The part of you that will be absent from the body at death. That part of you must be outwardly loving the actual God. Loving Him outwardly in a sincere and real way from your spirit. Who you actually are!
This is a Christian doctrine. It is the Gospel. That God wants me to worship Him, not religiously but spiritually!
That’s why it is fundamentally spiritual to be Christian. There are some who want to deny that, but it is actually not Christian if it is not spiritual!
However, the other side of this is, to be spiritual doesn’t mean to be Christian!
All humans have a spirit and as such there are many spiritual expressions in this world. But not all are Christian! There are many claims to spiritually that are not Christian. They are sincere claims to the ones who make it because they are in fact very much spiritual. They are genuine and they are real. But that doesn’t mean they are Christian!
So, when John was writing this letter to the Christians in Ephesus and the surrounding region, there was beginning to be a lot of confusion over this issue. During this time in the church there were many “supernatural” things taking place. Records of tons of supernatural healings, lots of people given the gift of tongues (a gift I don’t quite understand but one that clearly said to the Jews that the Messiah had come and the Kingdom of God but was clearly present!) All kinds of “supernatural” things were taking place. Things that had no possibility of being explained by the physical laws of the universe. They were supernatural. That is above and beyond those laws.
As a result, it opened the door for tremendous confusion. And here’s why. Satan and his demons do “supernatural” things in the world all the time. And, we as humans have a supernatural spirit. And as such we are capable of doing and experiencing and expressing that which is not naturally explained, because we are flesh and spirit. And spirit is supernatural.
So, in the early church and still today people find themselves deceived by expressions and manifestations of the supernatural. Just because something is spiritual, it doesn’t mean it’s from God. But, it is often confused as such! Yes, God is spiritual, but Satan is also spiritual. Demons are spiritual. And every human being on the earth is spiritual as well. So spiritual isn’t exclusive to God and thus it isn’t how we decide if something is of God or not.
So, how do we decide If something is spiritual? How do we know the source of why it's spiritual? What it's actually pointing us to, taking us to? Well, John writes this section of his letter to help his readers and us understand the answer to that question. Will you stand with me in honor of God’s word.
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. 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. 5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 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. (4:1-6)
1 John 4:1-6 gives two defining characteristics of Christian Spirituality.
The 1st defining characteristic of Christian spirituality is that...
Christian spirituality must be rooted in the correct doctrine of Jesus. (4:1-3)
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.
We see that we are supposed to test what we hear from others. And we are specifically to do that because, as I said in the intro, not everything that is spiritual in the world is from God!
John goes so far as to say there are many people who are functioning as “prophets,”. Which means they are proclaiming truths about God, that are in fact not proclaiming truth about God. Even though the experience they are offering feels like it is! So how do we know the difference?
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.
In the previous chapter John dealt with this subject as well. It is a subject that he frequently deals with because it is a subject that has unfortunately become prominent in the church.
Notice that the way to tell if the spirit of a person who is teaching is being led by the Spirit of God. It is based not upon the type of experience they offer, no matter what that experience is, but rather by the truth that the experience is based on. Specifically, if that truth is that Jesus Christ is one whom the apostles knew and loved and claimed to be.
Now understand that this text is not saying that the only thing you must believe about Jesus is that He came in the flesh (which the Gnostics did not believe). But ,John stating it the way he did in verse 2 and 3 is clearly encompassing the totality of who Jesus claimed to be! Therefore, when you see something spiritual, when you hear somebody teaching …
Are they proclaiming a Christ that is the Christ of the Old Testament prophets? Because Jesus claimed to be that!
Are they proclaiming a Christ that claimed to be the eternal God? Because Jesus claimed to be that!
Are they proclaiming a Christ that claimed He died on the cross and rose from the grave? Because Jesus claimed to be that!
Are they proclaiming a Christ that will judge the living and the dead? Because Jesus claimed to be that!
Are they proclaiming a Christ that is worthy of our total allegiance? And that demands it in order to be His. Because Jesus claimed to be that!
Are they proclaiming a Christ that proclaimed to be the 2nd person of the eternal trinity? Because Jesus claimed to be that!
Are they proclaiming a Christ that claimed His death was enough to pay the penalty of sin? That His grace is sufficient. That He came to seek and to save that which is lost. Because Jesus claimed to be that!
Are they proclaiming a Christ that claimed to be the only way to know the Father, The only way to salvation. The totality of truth. Because Jesus claimed to be that!
Listen, John is saying do not judge what is true about Jesus and the Gospel by the spirituality of your experience. Judge what is true based on whether or not not it is sourced from God. And if it is sourced from God it will point to the very Jesus that the Apostles knew and loved! The one who had 1,000’s of people hear him teach and agree that what the Apostle taught is what they heard Him teach. 100’s who witnessed His resurrection and ascension and gave their lives based on it!
Don’t define what is Christian by the spirituality of the moment. Or the one prophesying. Or the one teaching. But rather if it is pointing you to the way, the truth and the life that Jesus himself said He is!
Christian spirituality must be rooted in the correct doctrine of the Holy Spirit. (4:4-6)
There is something spiritual going on in the life of every actual child of God. It is speaking to them about what is true and what is not. A voice calling them away from the lies of “spirituality” that are not sourced in the actual Christ and to spirituality that is. That voice is The Holy Spirit's voice And you hear it within your spirit because He’s in you! John writes,
4 Little children (speaking to those who are actually saved), you are from God and have overcome them (who? The false prophets proclaiming a “word” from God that isn’t from Him because it reject who Jesus said He is. How did you overcome that?) For he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.
The Holy Spirit of God. The one who energizes all of creation. The one who is eternal God. If you are a child of God, He is in you. Breathing life to you, leading you, convicting you and shaping you into a vessel worthy of the name of Christ. Into a child who can enjoy loving and being loved by His Father. He is greater than anyone else, including Satan. And if He is greater, then He will get it done. He will protect you from believing and following what is a lie! Jesus said my sheep know my voice and follow me!
Now by contrast. He says this about the false teachers/prophets and those who listen and follow their teachings …
5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. (But on the other hand!) 6 We are from God. (as in the actual Apostles of Jesus and as such) 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. (4:1-6)
Jesus told the Apostles he would send the Holy Spirit to remind them of what He said. So they to have the assurance that the Holy Spirit is making sure they got it right.
John is not being arrogant here. He actually knew Jesus. Knew He and the others were given the Holy Spirit because Jesus said so and did so. And thus he knew what these other people were claiming was false!
So by saying that if the Spirit of God is in you will listen to us is not arrogant. It is just basic logic. Because it’s the same Spirit that was in the Apostles. That testified and brought to mind, convicting them of everything they personally heard Jesus say. About Himself and the Gospel!
Again, Jesus said, My sheep will hear and know and follow my voice. Therefore John can abundantly say that because he is preaching the voice of Jesus. That is the words of Jesus. Those who are actually Christ’s sheep will follow them!
Therefore, no matter how crazy awesome a spiritual experience you had. No matter how spiritual the person is you hear preach or sing. If it is not sourced in and pointing to the words of Jesus himself ,then you can know it’s not the Holy Spirit that is moving. It is not the Holy Spirit that is speaking. Unless you are child of God in which case the Holy Spirit will be saying no!
How much does truth matter to your spirituality? Is your spirituality defining truth or is the truth defining your spirituality?
Experiences can be very convincing even if they are wrong experiences. For instance it was a popular pastor who recently preached an incredibly spiritual and moving sermon where he stated that Jesus made a promise that when he left he would change forms and go from being with people to in people. That pastor then posted that excerpt on social media. And it went viral! Tons of people a minute talking about how encouraging it was, and expressing all sorts of spiritual experiences. Pondering what they assumed was the truth. Especially given the energy an amazing delivery that this preacher has. However, what he said is fundamental heresy. It has been declared as such for almost the entire history of the New Testament church! The listeners of this preacher's sermon certainly had a spiritual experience as they interacted with what he was saying, but it was not a Christian experience. It was actually the experience of false teaching that was pointing people away from the Jesus of the Bible and to an alternate version of Jesus, that began to be perpetrated in the 1st century with the very types of people that John is confronting in this passage .
So the question you and I need to ask ourselves is are we letting the truth take us into the true substantive experience of knowing and following Jesus or are we creating an alternate spiritual experience that is not leading us into the life that only Jesus Christ can provide!