1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God;
3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.
4 You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.
5 They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them.
6 We 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.
At the time John wrote the church was confronted with error. Many false prophets were spreading error across the world. John has just said (I John 3:24) that we know that we abide in God and He abides in us "by the Spirit whom He has given us." Now, in the next verse (I John 4:1), he exhorts us to "test the spirits to see whether they are from God."
It was important to test the spirits in order to find out the source of the teachings affecting the church. In I John 4:1-6 John emphasizes two opposing sources. As Burge points out (p. 172):
Two spirits are active in this world, "the Spirit of truth" and "the spirit of falsehood." (4:6). That is, there is the Spirit who comes from God, who glorifies and elevates his Son, Jesus Christ (John 16:14), and there is the spirit of antichrist (I John 4:3), which is welcomed by the world (4:5) and sabotages the truth about Jesus (4:2).
John not only exhorts the believers to test the spirits, but he provides the tests that they can use. Guthrie identifies one of the tests proposed by John with these comments (p. 901):
One of the tests is the attitude towards Christ. A real grasp of the fact of the incarnation is essential. Any who deny this are regarded as being possessed by the spirit of Antichrist who dominates the world, but the Christian believers are assured that they will overcome error.
Another test has to do with the response of the hearers. The world listens to the false prophets, but the believers listen to the teachers who are committed to Christ and His Incarnation. Thus, the church is to keenly observe who is listening to the truth.
The False Prophets
The phrase "every spirit" and the word "spirits" indicate that there are many spirits. The word spirits could refer to evil spirits, to the prophets themselves, or to their spirits. It could also refer to attitudes held by the prophets. Those who hold that "spirits" refers to the "prophets" do not distinguish between the terms.
Many writers, however, hold that the spirits inspire the prophets to speak. Given this view, the terms "spirits" and "prophets" are not synonymous. The spirits have an influence on the prophets. Nevertheless, the relationship between them is so close that the spirits, as well as the false prophets, are represented as the ones who are teaching.
Collectively, the spirits inspiring the false prophets may be described as the "spirit of antichrist" or the "spirit of error." We know that there are evil spirits who are under the control of the devil. As Wescott (p. 141) declares: "The many false spirits represent one personal power of falsehood, ‘the prince of the world' (John xii. 31, xiv. 30), the devil whose ‘children" the wicked are (iii. 10)."
The First Test of Truth
At this point we will present the first test of truth, which is presented by John in verses 2-3. As we discuss this test, we will consider these two points: (1) the meaning of the word "spirit" when applied to believers and (2) the confession that these believers make.
First, John says, every spirit that "confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God." What does he mean by "spirit?" There are good spirits as well as evil. The angels, for example, are regarded as (Hebrews 1:14) "ministering spirits." Also, in Hebrews 12:23, we read about "the spirits of righteous men made perfect."
According to Rea, every spirit is "the spirit of every human being under the influence of the Holy Spirit." The ultimate inspirer of the believer's confession is the Holy Spirit. As the apostle Paul says (1 Corinthians 12:3): "Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus is accursed'; and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit." NAU
The spirit and the person are closely related. As McDowell says (p. 132): "An interesting aspect of John's prescribed test is that he relates the spirit which inspires the prophet (whether false or true prophet) so intimately to the prophet himself that He represents the spirit as making the confession, and this is in keeping with the biblical idea of prophetic inspiration."
Second, as Rea indicates (p. 298), the first test that John presents is: "What is the spirit prompting the person to teach about Jesus?" John declares (verses 2-3) "every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is form God; and very spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God." Based on this, a distinction between the spirits can be drawn. The spirit that is from God upholds the Incarnation of Jesus.
The false prophets at the time did not hold proper views with regard to the Incarnation. They either minimized or opposed the idea that Christ came in the flesh. To counter this, John presents basic gospel truths. According to Burge (p. 174-175):
Behind these words [verse3] John is urging three things about our belief: (1) that the man Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the divine Word of God; (2) that Jesus Christ was and if fully divine as well as human; and (3) that Jesus is the sole source of eternal life since he alone reveals the Father to us and atones for our sins."
The Second Test of Truth
John begins verses 4-6 by saying that the believers have overcome the false teachers. God abides in them, and He is greater than "he who is in the world." As Robertson (p. 230) points out, "God is greater than Satan, ‘he that is in the world' (ho entoi kosmoi), the prince of this world (John 12:31; 14:30), the god of this age (II Cor. 4:14), powerful as he seems."
Then, John presents another test. This test has to do with who is listening to the messages being proclaimed. In verse 5 John shows that the false prophets and the world are in perfect agreement. Those who celebrate the teachings of the false prophets are of the world. In contrast to them, the true teachers are from God. He who knows God listens to the true teachers and prophets. Those who are not from God do not listen to them.
The Holy Spirit inspires those who are from God. Burge states (p. 176): "There is also a harmony, a correspondence, between the Holy Spirit in the believer and the Holy Spirit in the prophet. When God's Spirit inspires a prophet, his people will discern God's truth." The people of God know His voice and respond fully to Him.
Thus, the responses of the world and the church present a test of truth. The world responds to the falsehoods inspired by the spirit of error. The church is positive in its response to the truth that is inspired by the Holy Spirit who is the Spirit of Truth. Concerning this test, Swete (p. 269) writes;
A secondary test, but one more easy of application and generally not less sure in its results, is to be found in readiness to accept the testimony of the authorized teachers of the truth. No man was taught by the Spirit of Christ would reject the witness of His duly accredited messengers.
Discernment of Spirits
Going beyond John's comments, we might ask, "Is there a connection between our text and the Pauline gift of discernment of spirits? Much depends, of course, on what is meant by discernment of spirits.
Dunn indicates (Jesus, p. 233) that the most common definition is that discernment of spirits refers to determining whether the source of inspiration is good or evil. However, as Dunn says, some writers view this gift as the ability to interpret inspired revelation. An illustration of this would be the interpretation of dreams. Dunn himself (p. 234) takes a both-and position and upholds both views.
Rea regards discernment of spirits in the sense of determining the source of inspiration. Then he states (pp. 297-298): "Even when the charismatic gift of discerning of spirits is not manifested, Christians are responsible to examine carefully every seeming work of the Spirit." The gift of discerning of spirits is useful, but it is not required in determining the source of the spirits.
John was confronted with false prophets who were teaching error concerning the Incarnation of Christ. Because of this, he exhorted the church to tests the spirits. They could test the spirits by evaluating what teachers were saying about the Incarnate Christ and by observing who was listening to them. The spirits who supported the Incarnation were from God; those who did not were not from God. Another test was to observe who was listening to the teachers. Those who teach the truth have an audience with the true believers.
Today, the church encounters many errors. As in the days of John, we must always rely on the basic truths of the gospel. Now, we have the New Testament in its full form. The Word of God is our surest guide to the truth. The teachers who conform to God's Word are from God. Moreover, God's people listen to them.
George M. Flattery
For Further Study
Burge, Gary M. The Letters of John: The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
Dunn, James. D. G. Jesus and the Spirit. London: SCM Press Ltd., 1975. Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. London: The Tyndale Press, 1970.
Lenski, R. C. H. The Epistles of St. Peter, St. John, and St. Jude. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1966.
McDowell, Edward A. Broadman Bible Commentary: Luke to John, Vol. 9. ed. Clifton J. Allen. Nashville: Broadman Press, n.d.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Divine Comforter. Chicago: Moody Press, 1963.
Pink, Arthur. The Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970.
Rea, John. Bible Handbook on the Holy Spirit. Orlando: Creation House, 1998.
Robertson, A. T. Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vols. 1-6. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930.
Swete, Henry Barclay. The Holy Spirit in the New Testament. London: Macmillan and Company, 1910.
© Copyright 2005. GMF.