After hours and hours of travel, we were ready to get out of the car. It was our family’s first trip to Myrtle Beach and we were excited. This was the first time my kids had seen palm trees and geckos!
It was along Highway 501 that we started to see signs for the Myrtle Beach Welcome centre. The first one we stopped at was closed (it was the off season), but the second one was open. That should have tipped me off—why would there be two “official” Myrtle Beach welcome centres along the same stretch of asphalt? With the sign promising free popcorn and soda, we pulled in to check it out.
As the boys and I browsed through the racks of flyers, a kind lady with a Southern accent at the centre kiosk started chatting with my wife, Donna. She sounded helpful at the beginning. She knew a lot about Myrtle Beach and wanted to offer us discounts on some of the key attractions. Before long, however, the truth came out. The things she had to offer came at a cost: the apparent Myrtle Beach Welcome Centre was in truth a Time-Share Sales Centre. With the vague discomfort of almost being deceived in our minds, we said, “no thanks,” and left.
(To add insult to injury, the “free soda” was only to be dispensed into shot-glass sized paper cups.)
John was concerned that the people in his congregation would be pulled away by deceptive false teachers. These people were likely Docetists of various stripes—teachers who held a disdain for flesh and bone who therefore couldn’t believe that Jesus, the Son of God, actually put on our flesh.
John saw below the surface of these teachers. He knew it wasn’t just a group of people he was wrestling with. It was a spiritual battle. The false teachers were led by a “spirit of error” while he and the true believers were led by the “Spirit of truth” (v. 6).
I find it interesting that the translators of the ESV chose to capitalize the Spirit of truth while leaving the spirit of error in the lower case. There is nothing in the Greek manuscripts that would suggest one pneuma was different from the other pneuma. This is a theological decision—the right one.
In the Gospel of John, the Spirit of God plays a prominent role. One passage in particular stands out:
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him or knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. (John 14:17 ESV, emphasis mine)
The Spirit of truth is none other than the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Christ himself. In contrast to this Holy Spirit, we have mere “spirit of error.” There is no competition. This is why John could say with such certainty:
He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. (1 John 4:4 ESV)
We use that scripture for all sorts of things in the modern Christian church:
- Did someone make fun of your faith? He who is in you is greater.
- Are circumstances not falling in your favour? He who is in you is greater.
- Has anxiety eclipsed your faith in Jesus? He who is in you is greater.
Now, these are all good thoughts but they’re not exactly what John had in mind when he put quill to parchment. John was affirming that the Spirit of truth will prevent you from being deceived by false teachers.
Although (it is implied) the evil spirit is ‘great’, the Holy Spirit is greater, and by his illumination all false teaching may be overcome. (Stott 160)
. . .
This takes us back to 1 John 1:20: “You have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge” (ESV). With the Spirit of truth living inside of us (in-dwelling us), we have the perfect antidote for deception. Like a flash-light dispels shadows at (literally) the speed of light, the Spirit of truth dispels deception if we choose to listen.
False teachers are persuasive or they wouldn’t have any followers. The alchemy of truth and half-truths that make up false teaching can be hard to recognize at first. Like the time we spent with the time-share saleswoman in Myrtle Beach, it can take some time to realize that something’s off. John acknowledges this at the end of v. 6. “By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” The verb “to know” is in the present tense. Think of it this way: “By this we get to know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
Take the time to get to know what someone is teaching. When you get that uncomfortable feeling that something is not quite right, trust the Spirit of truth.
. . .
One last warning. It’s easy to interpret v. 6 in a way that confirms our believes and our sense of self-righteousness. “We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us” (ESV). We can pervert this verse to say: “If you don’t agree with my view on this, you’re clearly not hearing form God.”
If you’ve been around church life for any amount of time you’ll know that Godly Christ-followers can both hold opposing views on a topic under the impression that they’ve heard from God on the matter. This calls for humility rather than isolation; peacemaking rather than division. The Spirit of truth always works towards unity: “There is one body and one Spirit” (Ephesians 4:4 ESV).