How to know the difference between the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error

The apostle John explains to his readers how to tell the difference between the Spirit of God and the spirit of antichrist:

1 John 4:6We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”

This means that if you want to know Jesus and if you want to know the truth, then you must listen to His apostolic witnesses. If you refuse to listen to and to believe in the apostolic portrait of Jesus, you are listening to the spirit of antichrist (1 John 4:3).

This is John’s expansion of what Jesus himself said in the upper room discourse. Jesus told his apostles that he would uniquely reveal himself to his apostles and would enable them to faithfully communicate his revelation to the world:

John 14:25 “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you [apostles] all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.”

John 16:13 “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you [apostles] into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.”

The spirit of Christ is saying, “listen to my apostles.” The spirit of error says, “Don’t get hung up on the apostolic teaching; just focus on Jesus.” The spirit of error trades in the lie that we can know Christ apart from the apostolic revelation of him in scripture.

Even though Paul was not with the eleven when Jesus told them that he would guide them into all truth, we know that Jesus intends for us to view Paul as having the same revelatory authority as the other apostles. How do we know that? Because Jesus himself discloses this intention when he appears to Ananias in a vision and says this concerning Paul:

Acts 9:15-16 “Go, for [Paul] is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.”

Likewise, consider Jesus’ words about Paul in Acts 26:16-18:

Acts 26:16-1815 And I said, ‘Who art Thou, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 ‘But arise, and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; 17 delivering you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, 18 to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me'” (italics mine).

Jesus called Paul to be an apostle just as he called the other eleven. Jesus also specifically directed Paul to proclaim his name among the Gentiles. Jesus appointed Paul for this task and intends for Paul’s listeners (and now readers) to heed the message that Paul proclaims.

If Jesus chose and appointed Paul to bear His name among the gentiles, then who are we to gainsay Jesus? Doesn’t King Jesus have the authority to select and enable His own spokesmen? Jesus has chosen to reveal His words and deeds through apostolic witnesses, and he has directed us to listen to the likes of Paul.

When we read the apostolic testimony in the New Testament, we are hearing directly from Christ himself. It was not a generic spirit that inspired the words of Scripture. It was the Spirit of Christ that moved the authors to write what they wrote. Jesus describes the Spirit this way in John 15:26, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father…He will bear witness of Me.” This is the Spirit that Jesus sends to inspire the apostolic witness. It is the same Spirit that inspired the Old Testament, and it is the same Spirit that Peter calls “the Spirit of Christ.”

1 Peter 1:10-1110 As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful search and inquiry, 11 seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow.”

Paul too spoke of “the Christ who speaks in me” in 2 Corinthians 13:3. That means that there is no daylight between Jesus and Paul when it comes to what Paul communicates to us in scripture. Paul speaks for Christ. If we want to be obedient to Christ, then we must obey the canonical words of Paul and of the other apostles. Those who wish to honor biblical authority will avoid attempts to pit Jesus’ words against Paul’s words, for the words of Paul and of the other apostolic authors of Scripture are nothing less than the very words of Christ.

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*The material above is an adaptation of pages 76-84 from my book What Is the Meaning of Sex? (Crossway, 2013).

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