There are some verses that can be tempting to consider out-dated. For example, verses about eating food sacrificed to idols seemed to me to be sort of a "not for today" thing. But then one day, I was a guest in a home with bona fide idols, and I suddenly found myself in desperate need of guidance.
So the problem was me, not the verse. That shouldn't surprise anyone.
1 John 4:1–3 is one of those passages. I never really seemed to need those verses, until all of a sudden I did. It seems to me like when I was growing up, there was a whole lot of distance between the sorts of churches where people would claim to have a new revelation from God and the sorts of churches that I would attend or visit. But (at least here in America) those lines are getting more and more blurry. There are certainly still some pretty hard-line "not for today" churches, but those are getting thinner and thinner on the ground. And I'm not entirely sure that's a bad thing... it seems to me some of those churches weren't so much faithful to scripture as they were faithful to their own preferences. But that's a discussion for another day.
Now, let me start out by saying that someone who claims to be hearing from God – either audibly or inaudibly – is making a very serious claim, with some very serious implications. Are they claiming that the Scripture is incomplete? Are they claiming some sort of new revelation? Are they saying they are speaking as an Apostolic authority? Are they claiming equal authority with the writers of the New Testament?
In some cases, that's exactly what they are claiming, and we can condemn that sort of thing very quickly, very easily. The written word of God is complete and authoritative. We don't need to spend a lot of time and effort analyzing that sort of thing.
But there is another case that is much more of a "grey area," the "God gave me this verse" area. I have no doubt that the Lord speaks to us individually: I have no idea what being led of the Spirit is if not that. And neither I nor my friends would claim such a thing is a new revelation. The Spirit of God speaks to us subjectively, sometimes it's just a matter of us seeing a verse for the first time, or in a new light. Sometimes it's realizing that the verse we've read thousands of times is saying something different than we'd always thought. This is legitimately the work of the Spirit of God, and we definitely don't want to condemn that!
When someone claims to have "a word from the Lord," we should listen carefully. But we don't listen naïvely, we test what is said against the Scripture. Does it line up with Scripture?
1 John 4:1–3 gives us a test, and it's brilliant in both its simplicity and it's breadth. The question is, does the spirit speaking to us confess Jesus Christ come in flesh? It seems to me there are several claims – "confessions" if you will – packed into this sentence, and we are to test "the spirits" by them.
First, the Spirit of God confesses Jesus Christ. I've met many who claim to be Christians, who are much more interested in angels than they are in Jesus Christ. At best, this is a dangerous place to be, at worst, it's a denial of the faith. Colossians 2:18–19 warns against this very thing: it's possible to get distracted by spiritual things and "not hold fast the Head." Angels are real, but we are expressly forbidden from worshiping them (Revelation 22:8–9). We are to worship God, and God alone. Hebrews 1–2 picks up this theme: the Son is over the angels, because He is by nature their superior – He is eternal God – (Hebrews 1:4) and He has earned what they cannot (Hebrews 1:3).
Notice this contrast: the Son sits at God's right hand (Hebrews 1:3, 13), angels don't sit in God's presence, they stand (cf. Luke 1:19).
Perhaps more subtly, there are those who are content to worship the Father, but seem to forget the Son. John 5:21–23 shows us that it is God's purpose for us to honor the Son just as we honor the Father. If we're not honoring the Son, we're not honoring the Father either. So when I hear someone talk a whole lot about the Father, but never mention the Son, I take careful note. The test in 1 John 4:1–3 isn't what they say about God, but what they say about Jesus Christ. Someone who has a whole lot to say about God but very little to say about Jesus Christ fails that test.
Second, the Spirit of God confesses Jesus Christ come in flesh. A confession of Jesus Christ that's limited to His earthly ministry isn't really enough. You and I didn't come in flesh, we've never been anything except flesh. We began as flesh, and will be eternally flesh – to be sure, it'll be redeemed flesh, but it's still flesh. We are physical beings with a definite beginning.
But Jesus Christ is eternal God. When there was no such thing as flesh, there was the Son. When there was nothing but God, He was there. He is eternal. The Spirit of God confesses not merely Jesus Christ as a real Man, but as truly God.
Third, the Spirit of God confesses Jesus Christ come in flesh. The Spirit of God confesses Jesus Christ as truly Man. There is a danger that we don't believe Jesus Christ is God. There is an equal and opposite danger that we don't treat Him as Man. The Apostles wrote against both errors, but we might not truly appreciate their warnings.
The gospel that Paul preached makes this very clear – He was buried (1 Corinthians 15:4). Notice the language: it's not that "His body was buried," but "He was buried." John's gospel makes the same point (John 19:42): "There therefore, on account of the preparation of the Jews, because the tomb was near, they laid Jesus." The Lord is so completely Man that the Scripture talks about His dead body as Him. He wasn't merely eternal God who took a body, He is eternal God who became Man.
So that's the test from 1 John 4:1–3. I don't think it's the only test, but it's a test, maybe the most important one.
I'm pretty open about the fact that I'm not a cessationist. I can't remember ever taking that position, even as a young person. But I believe it's extremely important for us to test so-called spiritual manifestations against Scripture. 1 Corinthians 14 gives us a series of tests that relate to order, 1 John gives us a series of tests that relate to content. In all honesty, I can't remember ever being in a meeting where the "spiritual manifestations" passed either set of tests.
I don't bring that up to be contentious, but because it's of the first importance to me that we don't condemn what Scripture doesn't explicitly condemn. Condemning "spiritual manifestations" that fail to meet the tests of Scripture is nothing but obedience. Condemning those very same things because they don't fit my personal theology is something I just can't conscience.
Anyway for better or for worse, a whole lot of things that were once "fringe" are now "mainline." As we wait for the Son of God to come for us, let's be sure we're testing what we see an hear against Scripture. If we're hearing from a spirit that doesn't confess Jesus Christ come in flesh, let's be clear that's not the Spirit of God.