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Sermon Message

"Test The Spirits"

1 John 4:1-6
Theme: we must carefully examine the teaching we hear and discern its true source.

(Delivered Sunday, April 28, 2002 at Bethany Bible Church.  All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)  


We live in a consumer-driven culture - that is, a culture that celebrates the freedom to have options and make choices. And we likewise live in a culture that celebrates a consumer-driven approach to spirituality. The good news, of course, is that a sense of "spiritual hunger" - a longing for inner fulfillment through something bigger than what the material world can offer - is on the rise. But the bad news is that "spiritual discernment" - the ability to discriminate between what is spiritually healthy and what is spiritually harmful; between what is spiritually true and what is spiritually false - is on the decline. This lack of spiritual discernment, combined with a consumer-driven approach to spirituality, is a very, very dangerous thing.

What do I mean by "a consumer-driven approach to spirituality"? I mean the approach that says that there are all kinds of equally valid, equally helpful spiritual choices available to you; and that because you (as the consumer) are in charge, you are free to make the final decisions as to the shape your spiritual journey will take. Counselors Timothy Clinton and George Olschlager refer to this as "smorgasbord spirituality"1. In a smorgasbord, the options are all laid out in front of you, and your choice of what will satisfy your hunger is all that's important. And likewise, in the "smorgasbord" model of spirituality, all the spiritual choices are laid out in front of you. You're the one who chooses where you want to go; and you're the one who chooses what spiritual resources you'll use to get there. Any spiritual choice is considered as valid as any other; so long as it's what you want, and so long as it gets you where you want to be. In "smorgasbord spirituality", choice is king and the options are unlimited.

The word "spirituality", in such an approach, is not understood in the same way as it used to be understood. Say the word "spirituality" in years past, and folks would automatically think of the pursuit of a deeper relationship with God through the traditional resources of prayer, church life, Bible study and personal obedience to God's commands. Today, however, "spirituality" is understood to mean "coming home to one's self" - that is, coming to grips with who you are; connecting with your own inner feelings; and arriving at the place where you say, "I'm okay".2 Self, rather than God, is the focus in the popular understand of spirituality today; and so, whatever might help you "come home to yourself" is considered spiritually valid: psychic-readings, eastern-mysticism, praying to angels, yoga; all are just among the many "options" made available to you - the consumer - in the "spiritual smorgasbord".

This consumer-driven, "smorgasbord" approach to spirituality is very prevalent today. I'm sure you encounter it often and feel its influence. That's why this morning's passage is so needed. The apostle John, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, gives us a warning that we will not hear from the "gurus" of of popular spirituality. He writes;

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error (1 John 4:1-6).

* * * * * * * * * *

These words would, no doubt, be considered "harsh" and "intolerant" by many today. So why would the Holy Spirit lead John to include them in his letter? I believe there are some very important reasons. First, I believe this passage is here because its warning is absolutely essential to being able to enjoy true fellowship with Jesus Christ.

People who pursue "spirituality" today - however they may define "spirituality" - are seeking to fill a legitimate need. They seek an inner sense of fulfillment. The need for spiritual fulfillment is a very real one; and those who pursue it are being true to their humanity. We are, after all, spiritual beings; and we are restless until the spiritual "hole" in our being is filled. But this very valid pursuit has been thrown off track because of sin. God designed us to experience spiritual fulfillment only through a relationship with Himself; but sin has made an entry into God's universe, and has separated us from the One who made us. And it's that brokenness in our relationship with God because of sin that has caused the desperate spiritual emptiness people feel inside.

The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that God did something to solve the problem of our separation from Him. He has provided the means for us to experience fulfillment in a restored relationship with Himself. He sent His own sinless Son to be born into the human family, and to die on the cross in our place for our sins. If we will hear the message of the gospel of Jesus, turn from our sins, and place our trust in His sacrifice on the cross, then the barrier that separates us from God is removed. The moment that happens, we enter into an ever-growing fellowship with God our Creator - the very fellowship for which we were made, and which alone can satisfy the longing of our soul.

This whole letter from John is about how to walk in fellowship with God through His Son Jesus Christ. It was written to help us to know for sure that we truly have entered into that fellowship, and to teach us how to experience the full enjoyment of that fellowship. That's why he wrote, near the beginning of his letter, "... That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full" (1 John 1:3-4).

So, one of the reasons I believe the Holy Spirit moved John to pen these particular words was to protect our fellowship with God through Christ. John, who had a pastor's heart toward his readers, was concerned that we truly enter into the full satisfaction and spiritual fulfillment that comes only through fellowship with Jesus. He wanted to protect us against any substitute "spirituality" that would turn us from genuine fellowship with Christ, and from the ultimate inner fulfillment that can be ours only through that fellowship. That's why he warns us to "test the spirits, whether they are of God".

* * * * * * * * * *

I believe that another purpose for this passage is to help protect a correct understanding of love. This passage seems, at first glance, to come at an odd place - right in the middle of John's very lengthy exposition of true, Christ-like love. In 3:10-24, John teaches us that the love of Jesus toward us - a love that was self-sacrificing - obligates us to love one another. And then, in 4:7-5:3, John teaches us that love is essential to the being of God; that God is, Himself, "love". Sandwiched between these two passages on love is this morning's passage - a passage that calls us to spiritual discernment, and to "test the spirits, whether they are of God".

This passage isn't really out of place at all, however. One of the great errors people often fall into is that of thinking of "love" and "the defense of the truth" as mutually exclusive things. Folks often think that it's not loving toward someone to hold them accountable to biblical truth - and that if we're truly loving toward someone, we won't care about the things they believe or do or teach. This is something that used to be called "sloppy-agape" - the idea that it's not important what we believe, just so long as we love each other.

It's true, of course, that we should love our brothers and sisters in Christ. We should also be loving toward those outside the family of God. Yet, John affirms that the keeping of Jesus' command of genuine, sacrificial love is inseparable from careful spiritual discernment of the truth. In his second letter, he writes,

This is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, that as you have heard from the beginning, you should walk in it.

For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist. Look to yourselves, that we do not lose those things we worked for, but that we may receive a full reward. Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. Who who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds (2 John 6-11).

We are certainly to be a loving people - even toward those who deny the truth about Jesus. God Himself "so loved the world" (John 3:16). But "love" doesn't mean that I consider someone who denies the biblical truth about Jesus my "brother" or "sister". Being both loving and discerning means that I must love those who believe the truth as "inside the family", and love those who deny the truth as "outside the family". The most loving thing you can do to someone who denies the truth is to love them as someone who is "outside the family". That way, they can know the truth, believe, and genuinely become our brother or sister in Christ.

This, then, is another reason I believe this passage is given to us: to protect in us a correct understanding of the relationship between spiritual love and spiritual discernment, and to keep us from engaging in a kind of "sloppy-agape" that - in the end - fails to remain true to the gospel.

* * * * * * * * * *

And perhaps the most immediate reason for John being led to include these words is because of what he says in verse 24. John was writing about Jesus' commandment that we love one another as He has loved us; and he writes, "Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us."

One of the proofs that we are, indeed, in a relationship with Jesus Christ and are truly saved by Him is the fact that the Holy Spirit has taken up residence in us. Before Jesus went to the cross for us, He told His disciples,

If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever - the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you (John 14:15-18).

The Bible says that the Holy Spirit, living in us, bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Romans 8:16). This same Holy Spirit also lives in an empowers those He commissions to preach and teach spiritual truth in Christ's name. And so, perhaps John's mention of the Holy Spirit in verse 24 moved him to warn his readers to "test the spirits". How can you know whether or not the spirit at work in a preacher or teacher is truly the Holy Spirit? How does someone know for sure that someone who claims to speak or prophesy spiritual truth is truly speaking from the Spirit of God? How do we know when someone who offers us another spiritual "option" in the "spiritual smorgasbord" is truly offering us something from God? John, in this passage, shows us how we can "test the spirits".

* * * * * * * * * *

First, then, notice that John presents us with ...


John writes, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world." "Spirits", as John is using the word here, is not referring to the Holy Spirit. Here, he's referring to the activating spiritual force by which a supposed prophet or teacher speaks. It may be a "spiritual force" that a prophet merely pretends to be speaking from - even if pretending to speak from the Holy Spirit; or it may be a real demonic being who is the activating force behind a false prophet or false teacher3.

It would be very easy to be deceived by such "spirits". The reason is because many people use the wrong criteria to test the spirits. For example, people might think that someone is teaching spiritual truth simply because the person teaching is very popular, and because many people are listening to him or her. "Oh, you ought to hear this guy," they'd say, "I get so much out of what he has to say He speaks to packed-out crowds wherever he goes; and everybody's buying his new book and his tapes. How can so many people be wrong?" But popularity isn't proof that such a person teaches the truth from God. Jesus once gave the disciples a lengthy discourse on the end-times; and He began by saying, "Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many" (Matthew 24:5). Peter wrote that, in the Old Testament times, there were false prophets that arose from among the ranks of the people of God; "... even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of the truth will be blasphemed" (2 Peter 2:1-2). "Many" will be deceived by false teachers; and "many" will follow their destructive ways. The "popularity" of a spiritual teacher, then, is no proof at all that he or she is from God.

People might also think that someone is teaching spiritual truth because miraculous things happen when they teach. People get healed, future events seem to be accurately foretold, and marvelous signs and wonders occur. Yet, Jesus said, "Then if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'There!' do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand" (vv. 23-25). And so, even "miraculous signs and wonders" do not prove that a "spiritual teacher" speaks the truth from God.

Again, people might be persuaded that someone is teaching spiritual truth because the one doing the teaching had a lot of experience within the church. They grew up in the church, and seem to have a lot of knowledge of church history and theology. They may have even been trained in seminary, and rose up into positions of leadership. But somewhere down the line, they gained a "new insight" or a "new approach" to a fulfilling life with God. They claim to have "matured" to a new level; and they offer a fresh, innovative approach that they never heard in the traditional forms of Christian teaching - and neither will you! But the apostle Paul, in a farewell sermon to a group of pastors from Ephesus, said,

... Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves (Acts 20:28-30).

"A Christian background" is not proof that someone is speaking truth from God; because Paul warns that false teachers would arise even from within the ranks of the church itself.

I say this very cautiously; even the fact that someone had been teaching spiritual truth for a long time in the past isn't reliable proof that they are teaching the truth today. Perhaps such a teacher has a record of ministering in churches for many years. Perhaps they have a good track record with many endorsements. Perhaps they have written many good Christian books in the past that helped many people grow strong in the faith. But Paul wrote to Timothy and warned, "Now the spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron" (1 Tim. 4:1-2). The fact that a spiritual teacher "held to the truth in the past" isn't itself reliable proof that they are now teaching the truth from God.

* * * * * * * * * *

If these things are not the proof that someone is teaching the truth from God, then what is? John now gives us ...


I find in this remarkable passage two basic means by which to "test the spirits, whether they are of God". I don't believe they are the only tests; but I do believe they are basic. They are two very reliable, very objective measures by which to test the spirits. The first is ...


John writes, "By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God"

Notice first the word that's here translated "confess". The Greek word John uses is made from the combination of two Greek words combined together - the Greek word for "the same" and the Greek word for "to speak". Thus, to "confess" Jesus Christ, as John means it, is to "say the same thing" about Him as Jesus said about Himself, and as His apostles also taught about Him. In other words, it means to be in agreement with the testimony of Scripture regarding what we believe and affirm about Jesus. We can have absolute confidence in what the early apostles wrote about Jesus; because the Lord Himself told them that their teaching would be guided by the Holy Spirit. He said, "... When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you" (John 16:13-14).

Someone who is truly a spiritual teacher sent from God, then, will not come along with new, innovative concepts about Jesus. Rather, they will faithfully "confess" the apostolic teaching about Jesus that's preserved for us in the Scriptures. Genuine Christian faith is based on "the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone" (Eph. 2:20); and we are called upon to "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" by them (Jude 3). Beware, then, of teachers who come with "a new vision" of Jesus, or "a Jesus for a new millennium". Spiritual teachers who offer a different version of Jesus than that which we have received once for all time from the apostles are teaching falsehood.

* * * * * * * * * *

Second, notice the "confession" about Jesus that separates the true teacher from the false: that is, the confession that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. When John wrote this letter, he was combating a heresy that taught that the Man "Jesus" was a separate entity from "the Christ". These false teachers said that Jesus was a mere human upon whom "the Christ" - a divine "force" - came to rest. They taught that "the Christ" came upon Jesus at His baptism, and departed from Him at His crucifixion. They taught that "the Christ" could come upon us too, just as it came upon Him. John's answer was to affirm that Jesus is Himself "the Christ come in the flesh". "Jesus" and "the Christ" are not two different entities. Rather, Jesus Christ is one Being in whom two distinct natures coexist eternally - the divine (which nature has always been His), and the human (which nature He assumed to Himself at the incarnation). To teach otherwise is to teach error about Jesus; and those teach error about Jesus are not teachers from God.

The "confession" John gives us helps distinguish the truth from a lot of other forms of error about Jesus. Some groups have taught that Jesus was not truly human; but John's words affirm that Jesus came " in the flesh". Others have taught that Jesus was only a human and in no way divine; but John's words affirm that Jesus is "Christ come" - that is, from outside the realm of humanity. Still others - including some major cults of our own day - teach that Jesus was a man who became God; but John's words affirm the opposite - that He is "Jesus Christ ... come in the flesh"; eternal God who became Man.

Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God Who at a point in time, and without in any way ceasing to be fully God, became fully human. He will forever be both fully God and fully Man, with both natures existing forevermore, unmixed and unmingled, in His one Person. He came into humanity in order to die for the sins of humanity; and to raise redeemed humanity up to His own glory. This, in summary form, is the teaching of the apostles about Jesus. No teacher come from God will deny the basic fundamentals about Jesus that we have received from the apostles. Every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. "By this", John writes, "you know the Spirit of God."

* * * * * * * * * *

Third, please notice what John says about "the spirit" that denies the apostolic teaching about Jesus; "And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world."

John has already mentioned "the Antichrist" in his letter - that satanically empowered, future world-ruler who will be the embodiment of all that is against Jesus Christ. And John has also let us know that "many antichrist" have come, who advance this satanic agenda in the world. Earlier in the letter, he writes;

Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things. I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and that no lie is of the truth. Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also (1 John 2:18-23).

There are "many antichrists" already active in the world; and there is "the Antichrist" yet to come. And now, in this morning's passage, John lets us know that the teaching that denies the fundamental truth about Jesus is "the spirit of the Antichrist". What a dreadful thing it is to deny the apostolic teaching concerning Jesus!

Let me make just a couple of observations about this. First, I don't believe that this means that anyone who fails to understand the truth about Jesus should be immediately shunned by us as a propagator of "the spirit of the Antichrist". Many people who are new to the teaching of the Bible will struggle to understand all that it says to us about Jesus; and the beliefs they express about Jesus may be quite imperfect, and fail to measure up to the clear standard of faith the apostles gave us. They may even say some things that, technically speaking, are heretical. The Bible's doctrine about Jesus is wonderful - but we need to also appreciate that it's difficult to grasp. We, who are older in the faith and more mature in our understanding, should exercise the utmost patience and gentleness with those who are learning about Jesus. We should gently correct and guide them toward confessing Scriptural truth. I believe Jesus Himself is patient with such sincere learners. And we can be confident that the Holy Spirit - who infinitely loves those in whom He abides - will gradually guide them toward a more accurate understanding of the truth.

John is not saying that anyone is of "the spirit of the Antichrist" if they struggle with immature and inaccurate understanding about Jesus. I believe John is speaking about those who have self-consciously rejected the apostolic truth about Jesus and have presumed to teach humanly-created speculations about Him instead. I believe John is speaking about those who set themselves up to "change" Jesus into the image and likeness of that which appeals to the values and priorities of this world. The teaching of these false teachers and false prophets - propagators of false goods in the "spiritual smorgasbord" - are what John means when he speaks of "the spirit of the Antichrist".

And second, let me make the observation that, if we take John's words seriously, there is no neutrality with respect to such teachers. John speaks in "black-and-white" terms. He speaks "antithetically". Either such a spiritual teacher is of God, or he or she is of "the spirit of the Antichrist". This provides us with a reliable means of testing the spirits. "By this," John says, you know the Spirit of God".

* * * * * * * * * *

There is first, then, the test of the "confession". This leads us, secondly, to ...


John writes to his precious brothers and sisters who must interact with "the spirit of the Antichrist" that is active in the world. He tells them, "You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world."

We should be very thankful for the ministry of the Holy Spirit. He indwells every man and woman who has been saved by Jesus, and guides them increasingly in the truth. His ministry in us ensures that we will never be ultimately overcome by the false teachers and false prophets that are active in the world. John wrote, "These things I have written to you concerning those who try to deceive you. But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him" (2:26-27).

But John says more than that such false teachers will not overcome us. Rather, he says that we have overcome them! We "overcome" by our faith in Jesus Christ! John later writes, "For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world - our faith. Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?" (5:4-5). In Revelation, John writes of the heavenly shout of victory for those who will have overcome the devil - even in the face of intense persecution. "And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death" (Rev. 12:11).

The devil is a powerful enemy, dear brothers and sisters. If He cannot "persecute" us into defeat, he will seek to throw us off the track by false teaching about Jesus. But greater is He who is in us than he who is in the world. By the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we will never be overcome by the devil and the spirit of the Antichrist through which he works. And the Holy Spirit enables us to overcome the devil through our faith in, and bold proclamation of, the truth about Jesus Christ. The faithful proclamation of the truth about Jesus is a dreadful weapon that the devil cannot endure. He cannot stand against it.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Holy Spirit in us - who is God's seal upon us that we are His - insures, then, that we will never be overcome by false teachers. But many unredeemed people will. John goes on to say, "They [that is, the false teachers] are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them."

When John speaks here of "the world", he is speaking of the philosophic system of values and priorities that characterizes and motivates the ungodly people of this world. This is what John meant when he wrote, "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world - the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life - is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lusts of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever" (2:15-17).

False spiritual teachers tickle the ears of those who thrive on the values and priorities of this world's system. Their teaching advances the things of this world in the lives of those who hear them. It encourages them to do what "feels good" to do - to give themselves over to their passions and their fleshly desires, and to believe that "it can't be wrong if it feels so right". It encourages them in the belief that happiness can be found in the material things of this world - that fulfillment comes through obtaining riches and wealth, and that who you are is wrapped up in what you possess. It appeals to the natural bent toward self-centeredness and self-exaltation - and teaches people to believe that they are the masters of their own fate; that they are their own "gods".

This, then, is a second objective way we can test the spirits. John says that if a spiritual teacher is readily heard and welcomed by the people of this world, it's a sign that the spiritual teacher is - himself or herself - of the world. John speaks of the apostles who were entrusted with the truth from God, and says, "We are of God. He who knows God hears us; and He who is not of God does not hear us."

John was not being arrogant in saying this. He was simply affirming that the truth he and the other apostles passed on to us was not their own creation but was from God. Those whose hearts have been graciously transformed by God will hear the apostolic teaching, and will welcome it. Those who are of this world's system will never accept such teaching. They will only accept that which is of the world; and what is of the world is of the spirit of the Antichrist. Thus, John affirms that you can detect the "preaching" of a false spirit by the type of "congregation" that listens to it. "By this," he writes, "we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error."

* * * * * * * * * *

Dear brothers and sisters; we live in a world that has been filled with false teaching by the enemy of our souls. We must exercise the utmost care. Let's heed John's warning. "Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits whether they are of God."

1 Timothy Clinton and George Ohlschlager, eds., Competent Christian Counseling: Volume One, Foundations & Practice of Compassionate Soul Care (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2002), p. 1.

2 Ibid.

3 Paul, for example, expressed concern over the believers in the church at Corinth because they easily fell victim to false teachers; "For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted - you may well put up with it!" (2 Cor. 11:4). He warned the Thessalonian believers, with respect to some false teaching they heard, "not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us ..." (2 Thessalonials 2:2).

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