Testing the Spirits
1 John 4:1-6
Identifying false teachers is not an easy task. This is especially true when they are disguised as wolves in sheep’s clothing or angels of light. In the first six verses of the fourth chapter of 1 John, the apostle gives us four tests to help identify them.
The connection between 1 John chapter three and this chapter is the term “spirit.” The word acts as an inclusio for this paragraph in that it begins with it in verse one and ends with it in verse six.
John tells his loved ones to “test the spirits” (4:1a). The term “test” was a term “used to refer to a metallurgist’s assaying of metals to test their purity and value” (MacArthur 154). The term “spirits” is pertaining to the teachings of the false teachers. Therefore, this commandment is not calling for the exorcism of evil spirits or demons. The responsibility of testing the spirits falls upon the shoulders of every individual Christian, not just the elders and the preacher. The test includes several areas of focus, such as, source, confession of Christ, etc. This is not the all-inclusive, once-for-all test for a false teacher.
The Bible abounds with many other tests. The Old Testament had several tests for false teachers. If their prophecy did not come true, they were judged to be false prophets. “When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him” (Deut. 18:22). “As for the prophet who prophesies of peace, when the word of the prophet comes to pass, the prophet will be known as one whom the Lord has truly sent” (Jer. 28:9). Even if they did perform a sign or by chance their prophecy came true, they may still be false prophets. Especially if they taught the people to go after other gods, they were deemed false. “If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods’—which you have not known—‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams, for the Lord your God is testing you to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 13:1-3).
Paul gives a similar warning in Gal.1:6-9: “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.”
✓ Test the Source
Those whom the apostle John loves, he urges “do not believe every spirit” (4:1a). There is a tendency for some to believe everything they hear and read. Unfortunately, man is no less gullible today. As a prank, Jay Branscomb posted a set of photos from the 1993 hit Jurassic Park showing Steven Spielberg next to a dead triceratops on a Facebook page. He posted a message along with the realistic photo: “Disgraceful photo of recreational hunter happily posing next to a triceratops he just slaughtered. Please share so the world can name and shame this despicable man.” It instantly went viral. One message read, “What a sad, disgusting scene.” Our education system has failed to inform some that triceratops are extinct and the photo was merely a director posing with a film prop. Sadly, many false teachers are fooling the Biblically illiterate by teaching that Barney the purple dinosaur of kid’s fame is the Beast, the 666 of Revelation. For centuries the world has been fooled by poor Bible students that Lucifer is another name for Satan and that one can be saved by “faith only.”
Perhaps it is really true in the mind of some, “if it is on the internet, it is true.” Neither the internet nor any other man-made source of information is infallible. The only infallible source of knowledge is the all-knowing, eternal God. This is why John told Christians to “test the spirits, whether they are of God” (4:1b). Teachers and preachers who claim to have messages from God abound today. It is up to the hearers to test what they are saying to see if God is really the source. The people of Berea even checked the preaching of the Apostle Paul to see if it came from the Scriptures. “These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
Another false source of truth is the number of people who hold a particular belief. John wants them to test all false teachers “because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (4:1c). Evolutionists have made the claim that no reputable scientist believes in Creation, they all hold Evolution to be a proven fact. If there were many false teachers in John’s day, just think how many more there are today. All the more reason why we need to test the spirits or sources of all teachers.
✓ Test Their Confession of Christ
The phrase “Spirit of God” in verse two is mentioned in over two dozen other passages, beginning with Genesis 1:2 where it says, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” In the New Testament, the phrase is found in relation to the account of Jesus baptism when “the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him” (Matt. 3:17). Jesus would go on to “cast out demons by the Spirit of God” (Matt. 12:28). Paul performed “mighty signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God” (Rom. 15:19). Paul makes the Holy Spirit equivalent to the Spirit of God in 1 Cor.12:3: “Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” It is with little doubt that John is here referring to the Holy Spirit.
The particular test John has in mind can have only two possible outcomes: 1) “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God” (4:2b); 2) “and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God” (4:3a). A false teacher is one who rejects the incarnation of Christ, that is, He is God who came down from heaven in the flesh. According to Irenaeus, Cerinthus “repented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation, while he nevertheless was more righteous, prudent, and wise than other men. Moreover, after his baptism. Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles. But at last Christ departed from Jesus, and that then Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained impassable, inasmuch as he was a spiritual being” (Against Heresies, 3.4).
Another aspect of this confession which would identify the false teacher is His denial that Jesus is the Christ or the Messiah of prophecy. And finally, that Jesus is the Savior sent from God. This does not mean that if one confessed correctly it would conclusively prove he was not a false teacher. There are many other false doctrines taught by men who do not reject the incarnation, deity or prophecies of Jesus. Some false teachers of the Bible have denied the resurrection even teaching it has already past. John immediately connects the false teachers holding this confession to be “the spirit of the Antichrist,” Although most translations capitalize “Antichrist.” as if the term refers exclusively single individual. Many false teachers have gone out into the world and “even now many antichrists have come” (2:18). Compare this with 2 John 1:7: “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.” Some hold that the these false teachers are not really the antichrists but forerunners of the real one coming the “end times.” However John clarifies when and where these antichrist are: “which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world” (4:3b). Those who are antichrists in this context are anyone against Jesus being the Christ who came in the flesh from God. Today, the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witness, and Muslims represent the spirit of this antichrist.
✓ Test of Strength
John is encouraged by the fact that his “little children..have overcome” (4:4a) the false teachers. In the Revelation John wrote to the seven churches of Asia. Each were promised a blessing if they overcame (Rev. 2,3).
The victory over the false teachers is not from the Christians’ inner strength but “because He who is in” (4:4b) them God is their source of strength but which they were able to overcome the false teachers. The reason why they need God as their strength and help is because he “is greater than he who is in the world” (4:4c). God is the strong man who can overcome the devil (Matt. 12:29) Jesus showed His power over demons. Jesus quoted scriptures during His temptations to defeat the Devil (Matt. 4:1-11). If they were teachers of God’s will, God would not have helped the saints overcome them and the scriptures would not have conflicted with their teachings. God does not fight against Himself. His Word of Truth will never contradict the scriptural teachings.
✓ Test of Origin and Appeal
Next, Christians need to test the origin or appeal of these teachers. False teachers “are of the world” (4:5a). The “world” is in reference to the world system which follows the prince of this world, the Devil and is at war with God (James 4:1-4). How does one tell if a teacher is of the world? Jesus gave this warning, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:15,16a).
Because they are worldly “they speak as of the world” (4:5b). They enjoy telling the people “‘Peace, peace!’ When there is no peace” (Jer. 8:11). The false prophets of Jeremiah’s day loved to tell the people of the world what they wanted to hear. “The prophets say to them, ‘You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you assured peace in this place’” (Jer. 14:13).
Because they speak from the carnal wisdom of this world “the world hears them” (4:5c). And why not? After all, these false teachers are speaking their language. Paul told Timothy about the appeal of these false teachers to the worldly man. “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Tim. 4:3,4).
False teachers are often very deceptive with their appeal. To the worldly-minded these liars will deceive others by making themselves look appealing. Paul pointed this out when he wrote, “for such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works” (2 Cor. 11:13-15). All those who look godly are not of God. The “we” in verse six is speaking of the apostles. Thus it is referencing the same “we” mention in the preface of the letter (1:1-3). They are not of this world. Their audience are those who know God and therefore listen to the preaching of the apostles. They remain steadfast to the apostles doctrine (Acts 2:42). In contrast, “he who is not of God does not hear us” (4:6c). Jesus told the unbelieving Jews, “he who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God” (John 8:47). Jesus told the apostles, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who receives whomever I send receives Me; and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me” (John 13:20).
✓ Test of Exclusiveness
John gives no middle ground as the end result of this test. When the testing is over Christians will know whether the teaching is by “the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (4:6c).
The Holy Spirit revealed Word is the truth. God sent the Holy Spirit to guide the apostles in all truth. They along with inspired prophets wrote down the truth of the New Testament. When we read it, we can come to a correct understanding of the will of God (Eph. 3:3-5; 5:17). Using it correctly, we can discern between false doctrine of the Truth.
– Daniel R. Vess