When Unbelief Is Right
Tim Temple


Open your Bibles to I John, chapter 4, as we continue our study of this letter from John. Anybody that knows anything at all about Christianity knows that one of the fundamental stresses of Christianity is believing. Christianity puts a great deal of stress on believing—not believing in myths and legends and fairy tales, as the liberals would say, but believing facts. Faith isn't a matter of convincing yourself that something is true when you know it isn't. One of the philosophers—I have forgotten which one—gave that definition of faith, but that is not what faith is at all. In fact, faith is just the opposite. Hebrews, chapter 12, the great faith chapter of the Bible, tells us, with example after example, that faith is believing what God has said and acting upon it. There are many cases in that chapter when the people who were acting on it didn't understand how it could possibly work. That is what faith is. Faith is believing what God has said and acting on it.

In order to be a Christian, you must be a believer. You must believe that Jesus Christ died for your sins. You must accept that as true and act upon it. To be a Christian, you have to be a believer because from faith comes that life and strength and peace and everything else that the Christian life offers. What a lot of people don't realize is that every Christian must also believe in unbelief. There is a time when unbelief is the right thing, in fact a time when unbelief is the only right thing. The very same Bible which tells us to believe also tells us not to believe.

Let me point out that this is no more a contradiction than there is in many other areas of life that we accept without question. For example, it is no contradiction to say that in order to live, it is necessary both to inhale and to exhale. Those are contradictory things, but both of them are necessary for maintaining life. But you can't do both of them at the same time. You can't inhale until you have exhaled and vice-versa. The same thing is true of belief and unbelief. You can't believe the truth unless you reject error. You can't love righteousness until you are ready to hate sin. You can't accept Christ without rejecting yourself. Jesus said in Matthew, chapter 16, verse 24:

Matthew 16:

24Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

As long as you are depending on yourself, believing in yourself for your salvation or believing in yourself for success in the Christian life, you cannot put your trust in Jesus Christ. It is not surprising that the Scripture tells us some very specific things that we are not to believe as well as what we are to believe.

The passage that we come to today in our study of I John is one of those places. Look at I John, chapter 4, verse 1:

I John 4:

1Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.

Need For A Test

The first thing that we need to notice about this verse is the need for a test. What does John mean with this business of testing the spirits anyway? Remember that back in the last verse of chapter 3, John concluded that chapter by saying that one of the ways that we can know that we are of God is that we have the Holy Spirit in us. Notice that verse again:

I John 3:

24…And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us.

It is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives that gives us the ability to understand that we are in the truth, and gives us the ability to understand all of the truth that God has revealed for us in His Word. It is the Spirit Who makes all of the difference. It may be for some of you that that is a completely new concept, but most of us have heard the truth of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. John says in these verses that you need to know that there are other spirits at work in the world today. Besides the Holy Spirit, there are also false spirits, deceiving spirits, who do the work of the enemy, Satan himself.

It suggests three reasons we need to have a test of the spirits. The first reason stems from the context in which we find this chapter, and that is the context of love. John is talking in this whole section of this letter about the importance of love. He puts great stress on love and will continue to do that throughout the whole letter. He keeps coming back to that subject of love. It is one of the basic, underlying themes of the whole book. He talks about the importance of love in this section of the letter.

The problem is that there are so many misconceptions of love in the world today. Because love is such a significant subject, we need to understand that false spirits will make a very big deal of love also. Every cult, every deviant group of our day, that seeks to convert people into their number does so in the name of love. They will always come around to that subject of love and, as we have already seen, this word can be used in a thousand different ways to describe a thousand different reactions and impulses. It means one thing to the country-western singer who sings about lost love. It means something else to the counselor, and it means something else in the life of a teenager, and something else again in reference to the relationship between nations. There is probably no word in the English language that is capable of being stretched in so many different directions as the word love .

Chances are, if we had the opportunity to discuss this, we would find that many of us have different concepts of the meaning of that word love . Even though that is true, most people are completely gullible about love. Some teacher comes along talking about love, speaking in terms of love, and even Christians think it must be of God because they are talking about love. “It must be of the truth,” to use John's terms, despite the fact that the oldest trick in Satan's book is to show a spirit of loving concern.

Think back about Genesis, chapter 3. Isn't that exactly what Satan did to Eve in the Garden of Eden? I think a paraphrase of Genesis, chapter 3, verses 1-5, would be Satan's coming alongside Eve and saying something like, “Is it really true that God said you couldn't eat of one of the trees in the Garden? I am sure that I must have misunderstood that. Is that what He said? That doesn't sound very loving to me. That doesn't sound like the God of love that I know. Are you sure that is what He said? I may have to rethink my impression of Him. I thought He was more loving than that. After all, this fruit is so beautiful, and it is pleasant to the eyes. When you take a bite of it, you are going to say that it is the best fruit you have ever eaten. We all know it is designed to make you wise. Why would a loving God tell you that you can't eat of that fruit? What a surprising thing. I am just beginning to realize that probably the reason He said that is that He may just be a little bit afraid of what you will learn if you eat of that fruit because if you eat of that fruit, you will be like God—knowing good and evil. God doesn't want that for you, I suppose. I am glad that I am such a loving and concerned friend and can share this with you. Let me encourage you to eat of this fruit.”

The Scripture says that when Eve saw that it was pleasant to the eyes and a fruit to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit and she ate it. Satan very lovingly, very much concerned, had talked her into it. Listen! That is what all of the cults and the “isms” in our world today are saying. In one way or another, sooner or later, they all are saying, “If you really want to live life as it was meant to be lived, if you really want to be in God's inner circle, then try what we are offering. We have the answers.” They include the loving acceptance of the person, no matter who he is or what kind of background he might have; but the Scriptures warn us in Ephesians, chapter 4, verse 4, that the biggest mark of spiritual immaturity is to be tossed about with every wind of doctrine, with whatever teaching that comes along.

In fact, the first half of Ephesians, chapter 4, tells us that that is exactly what the church is designed to prevent. God has given spiritual gifts to certain individuals; among them are pastors and teachers. He has given those gifted individuals to the church. First, the Apostles in the early days of the church laid the foundation and wrote the New Testament. Then later, evangelists and pastors and teachers were for the purpose of establishing the church, for the purpose of bringing us to maturity. He says, “We should no longer be children tossed to and fro, cast about by every wind of doctrine.” God has given us His truth so that we can become established. I say again that the mark of immaturity is to be caught up in every new fad and every new device, every new teaching that comes along. So there is a real need to test the spirits.

Multiplicity Of False Prophets

Then there is a second need for a test of false teachers, John says, and that is because of the multiplicity of false prophets. In the latter part of verse 1, John says that this is a widespread problem. Notice:

I John 4:

1…because many false prophets are gone out into the world.

Many false prophets have gone out into the world and many false teachers have gone out into the world. The Lord Jesus Himself warned us of this same danger. He said in Matthew, chapter 7, verse 15:

Matthew 7:

15Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

Jesus' emphasis was not only on the fact that there would be false teachers and that there would be large numbers of false teachers, but the fact that they will be hard to detect. “They came to us in sheep's clothing.” Remember how Jesus spoke of us as His sheep? So many times false teachers come in and they appear to be of us. They appear to share our faith in Christ and share our belief in the validity of the Word of God. John says, “Do not believe these teachers until you have tested them.” If anything, the problem is worse in our day than it was when John originally wrote these words because we now have all the technological advancements such as nice, big printing presses. We have more books available than in any period of history in the world before us. We have television, radio and even the Internet, through which all of these false teachers as well as the good teachers can come to us. I certainly do not mean that anybody who is on television or has written a book is a false teacher, but the false teachers have those media available to them just as much as the true teachers do, so there is a need for a test of some kind because there are so many false teachers out there. How do we know who they are? How do we know if we should believe them or not?

False Teachers Manipulated By Evil Spirits

There is third need for a test, and it is probably the most important one of all. It is the manipulation by those messengers. Look at verse 2:

I John 4:

2Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:
3And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.

Let's stop there. Here is something that is taught all through the New Testament, which we are very quick to overlook. There are evil spirits opposed to God who are all around us and at work at all times. Verse 2 says that true teachers are led by the Spirit of God. Notice again:

I John 4:

2Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:

God works through the Holy Spirit to teach us His Word and to enable us to understand His Word and to enable us to apply it in a test like this. I suppose all of us, and certainly most of us, have no problem with believing in and talking about the Holy Spirit; but sometimes the very ones of us who believe sincerely in the Holy Spirit fail to look beyond that to the fact that there are other spirits out there. Look in verse 3:

I John 4:

3And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.

It tells us that in the very same way that the Holy Spirit teaches us, there are spirits at work who are not of God. Every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. Believing in other spirits sounds like a lot of voodoo that educated people like us and sophisticated people like our generation don't believe in any more. But if we are to take the Word of God at face value, we have to admit that that is exactly what it says. In fact, we are even in more danger of being exposed to the false spirits or being influenced by the false spirits because to some extent we are not willing to admit they are here. I believe that the twentieth century world is a sitting duck for Satan's evil spirits because we are too sophisticated to believe in those.

In the day when Jesus was on earth, and for many years before and many years after, people believed in evil spirits. The underdeveloped nations of the world still put a heavy emphasis on evil spirits. We have become so sophisticated that they are free to operate all around us and to accomplish all kinds of evil things because they are not hampered by our caution about them, our sensitivity to them and our alertness to them. The problems in our world today, I sincerely believe, have come from evil spirits at work. The whole aim and purpose is to destroy the work of God if they possibly can.

I have pointed this out before, but it is such a basic thing that I want to go back through it with you again. It is the fact that Satan's basic, underlying strategy in anything he does is to keep people from knowing Jesus Christ as Savior. He wants to keep people blinded if he can, even to the existence of Jesus Christ. He wants to keep people blinded to the truth. He wants to keep people in confusion and in doubt. Satan's strategy is to keep people off balance, to create as much chaos and havoc in life as possible so that people will keep having to ask, “How could a loving God let something like this happen?” How many times have you heard people say that at the scene of a tornado or at some car wreck or at some other tragedy that has come into their own lives? That is exactly what Satan wants to get people to ask. He arranges all kinds of things just to keep us off balance. I believe that this is at least a possible explanation for such things as the senseless violence we hear about that kills hundreds of people. It could possibly explain the terrible tragedy of teenagers shooting each other as we hear about, and serial murderers, serial rapists, all of those kinds of thing that make no sense. Satan is very probably, through his evil spirits, at work bringing those things about. It keeps chaos and havoc going in our world.

If Satan fails at that and, in spite of his best efforts, someone does accept Christ and he loses the battle, the next step that he puts into play immediately is to keep that person who has trusted in Christ as His Savior from enjoying all the riches that are his in Jesus Christ. He even keeps them from finding out about those riches if he can or keeps them confused about it if he can. One of the biggest guns in his arsenal in accomplishing that is the false teacher, the person who comes along and in one way or another, always lovingly, but in one way or another explains that the Bible really doesn't mean this; it means that. Personally, you need to start giving money because God will honor that seed faith and will reproduce all kinds of abundance and wealth for you—all kinds of false teachings that Satan brings into play to keep you and me as believers in Jesus Christ from understanding the truth about our relationship with Christ, about what is ours in that relationship.

This passage says that false teachers just don't come up with those ideas on their own. They may think that they did. They may not be aware of the fact, but the Scripture says that false teachers are being manipulated by false spirits, by evil spirits. Verse 3 makes it very clear that the ultimate purpose is antichrist. He says:

I John 4:

3And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.

He is not talking there about the Antichrist, that person who will be on the scene of the whole world in the last few years of earth's history. The book of Revelation brings that out very clearly and there are references to him in other places. But he says, “This is the spirit of antichrist.” These false teachers, manipulated by these false spirits, are in the spirit of antichrist. They are anti-Christ in all that they do, and they will do whatever they can to keep us from knowing the truth about God and about our relationship to Him.

I want to be quick to point out that these men are probably unaware that that is what is happening to them; but as they judge the truth in their own thinking, as they twist the Scriptures to fit their purposes, Satan steps in through one of his evil spirits and twists their thinking even more. They wind up basing logical deductions on illogical premises. They take a piece of Scripture, and they twist that to their own purposes. The conclusions that they draw are illogical because of their source. Remember, we are talking about spirit activity, so it may be very hard to recognize. Most of those false teachings are very appealing. They promise us something that we may already be looking for. They are lovingly spoken; they are spoken sincerely. This is very hard to recognize because it is spirit activity and the reason it may seem good and the reason it may seem very eloquent.

In addition to that, Satan is the great deceiver, and so that means that the falsehood will be very subtle. Satan, remember, did not come to Eve as a rattlesnake. He chose to inhabit the body of the serpent when it was still the most beautiful of all the creatures. Rattlesnakes and other poisonous snakes came into existence at the time God cursed the serpent at the time of the sin of Adam and Eve. But before that, he chose the most beautiful creature, which was the serpent, to come to her. He will always do that. He always chooses false teachers who are very attractive, very appealing, very knowledgeable, and very accepted in academic circles or in religious circles; and so the only way to discover that is to do just what John says here: “Test the spirit.” Try it and lay the measuring stick alongside that false teacher, and if he doesn't measure up, throw him out. Don't have anything to do with him. Don't listen to another word he has to say.

Nature Of The Test

What is this test? What is this measuring stick? The nature of the test is also given in verses 2-3. We have read those verses once, but let's go back over them again from a little different angle. Notice in verse 2, he said:

I John 4:

2Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:
3And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God…

There is the test. There are two parts to this test. First, there is the acknowledgement of the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ, the recognition of the fact that that Man Jesus was the appearance of God in the flesh. I think that almost all Bible scholars are agreed that the phrase in verse 2 should be read this way: “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus is The Christ come in the flesh is of God.” It is not enough just to know that there was a man named Jesus. Anybody who has any knowledge of history will have to admit there was a man named Jesus of Nazareth who had great impact on the world of His day; and most of them will admit that that impact has continued, though they can't imagine why, even down to the present.

But listen carefully. We talk about Jesus Christ and many people think that His first name was Jesus, and His last name was Christ. He was Jesus Christ; I am Tim Temple. But that is really not the case at all. The Greek term Christ was a title or the equivalent to the Old Testament term Messiah . Jesus was His name and Christ was His title. It was like King Solomon . It was like Dr. Smith , except in that day, things were reversed and it was Smith, the doctorJesus, the Christ .

The first part of the test is, does this teacher that we are testing agree that Jesus of Nazareth, the lowly, humble man born in a lowly, humble period of history, the Jesus Who walked the streets of Nazareth, was The Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God promised all throughout the Old Testament? Is that what they believe? Incidentally, this is why the correct term is the deity of Jesus , not the deity of Christ . Even at very prestigeous and astute institutions of learning, in theology courses and courses where this kind of thing is discussed, very often they still refer to it as the deity of Christ . That is really not correct terminology. That is saying, “I believe in the deity of God.” Well, who doesn't? I believe that God is God, but it is the deity of Jesus that is important, that Jesus was God, that He was deity, that the man Jesus of Nazareth was God. That is the test.

That is not the whole test. Remember that Jesus Himself claimed that for Himself. Jesus said over and over again, in various ways, very clearly, “I am God.” The other part of the test is the acceptance of the deity of Jesus. Look at verse 2:

I John 4:

2Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:

It is not enough to acknowledge that. The deity of Jesus was not only to acknowledge the historical fact; it must be confessed. In other words, there must be an acceptance by the teacher of this truth and a commitment of his life to it. If they don't trust that truth and live it, don't listen to them either. If they just acknowledge that there are people who believe that Jesus was God, don't listen to them. If they haven't committed themselves to Jesus Christ as their personal Savior, then don't listen to them.

Remember the incident in Mark and Luke. In Mark, it is in the first chapter. Jesus was getting ready to cast out some demons that were inhabiting a person, and the demons spoke out through the voice of the person and said, “We know Who You are—the holy man of God.” The demons knew Who He was. They believed in Him, but obviously they didn't confess that. They didn't commit themselves to Jesus Christ for their salvation. A teacher may acknowledge the deity of Jesus, but they must also confess it. In fact, that really is the important thing. They must confess that Jesus was the Christ in the flesh. That is the test to apply to anyone who wants to have an influence on your life spiritually. Really in any other way also. Spiritually, the test to apply is what does he say about Jesus of Nazareth. Who was He? Was He God or was He not?

Obviously, it may be difficult to apply that test to somebody you are hearing on the radio or television the first time, but the thing to do is to listen to that person long enough to find out what they say about Jesus, or if it is somebody you are listening to and there is somewhere you can write to them, call or write to them and ask them this question. “What do you believe about Jesus of Nazareth? Was He The Christ or was He not?” That is the test.

In personal conversations, you may have to work the conversation around, but as soon as it is possible, ask them that question. Even if they pass that test, they may be mixed up about a lot of other things. They may interpret the Bible differently from what you have heard, but the test is, what do they believe about Jesus? If they believe that Jesus was and is The Christ, then you can straighten them out about those other things later on. There may be some other reasons that you do not accept their teaching, but the test above all is this: You have to listen to some of the other things they have to say and decide that you are not going to accept those teachings. If they don't pass that test, then don't listen to anything they have to say. In fact, Peter tells us, “Don't even have anything to do with them.” John tells us in his other letter, “Don't even invite them into your house.” Don't have anything to do with them if they do not pass this test.

Think about how some of the groups in our world today, some of the groups you are probably familiar with, would answer this question. If you were to ask, “What do you believe about Jesus of Nazareth?”, to the Christian Scientist, they would say, “The spirit of Christ came upon the man Jesus at his baptism and left him again before he died on the cross. Jesus, therefore, was born as a mere man and died as a mere man. Therefore, his ministry that is effective is his public ministry of teaching when he was influenced by the spirit of Christ.” Will that pass the test? Absolutely not! It is not enough to say that Jesus was influenced by the Spirit of Christ. They must say and accept and acknowledge and confess that Jesus was The Christ. The official doctrine of the Mormon Church is that Jesus was never eternal, unchangeable God, but that he was a man who became God and came to show us how we, too, might become gods someday.

Again, that is somewhat close to what the New Testament says, and that false teaching is so cleverly, beautifully packaged in the television commercials that we see that seem to be saying everything we believe; but when you put the test to all of the other good and attractive things the Mormons are saying, this is the answer they give. He is not the eternal, unchanging God. He is a man who became a god and God sent him back to earth to teach us how we, too, can become gods. That does not pass the test. That does not say that Jesus is the Christ . We can apply that test to any other popular but false teachings in the world today with the same results, but the Word of God says this Man, the carpenter of Nazareth, was and is the Christ come in the flesh, the eternal God in the flesh. Any other answer simply doesn't pass the test.

Without that standard, the rest of the Bible falls apart, too, because the Old Testament predicts this Man, Who would come and be the Messiah, God in the flesh, would save His people from their sins. The New Testament proclaims in all the books after the gospels that record the coming of Christ that this Jesus was the Messiah. The Bible is worthless without this test. You cannot put your confidence in even the Bible if you are not willing to accept that this test is true. Without a central standard by which to measure truth, the individual and society and the whole human race falls apart. The major problem and the major danger in our country today is not simply enemies who may attack us, but the major danger in our country today is that we have removed any kind of a central standard by which to judge truth. We have made the Bible illegal in any kind of educational institution that receives a penny of government money, even public buildings. Very soon I expect to hear about a bill in Congress that will be used to pay to have the Scripture sandblasted off the public buildings in Washington. Those things are illegal now in our government. They shouldn't be in any public building. That is separation of church and state. That is the irony of it.


When you remove the Word of God, there isn't a standard by which to judge anything. When that standard is gone, then what I think is true is as good as what you think is true, even if what I think is true is the opposite of what you think is true, and it is just a matter of who can speak the loudest or get the most people around them. There must be a standard, and that standard is the Word of God and that standard or that test of the Word of God is, Who was Jesus the Christ? Who was Jesus of Nazareth? Was He the Christ?

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