Testing the Spirits

About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Barth Campbell at Simpson University during my sophomore year for a class in hermeneutics.


Tests—they are all over the place! Many students tend to think that once they are out of college they will be free of tests, but this line of thinking could not be further from the truth. All throughout educational structures tests exist, and there is many different kinds of tests as well. We have long exams known as tests, short exams known as quizzes, and both of these exams can be oral, written, multiple choice, essay, physical, mental, matching, and/or true/false. Simply put, tests have a huge role in our lives, and we cannot escape them. In fact, the Word of God contains all sorts of tests. Hebrews 11:17 records how Abraham took a test to show his faith in God by following God’s orders to sacrifice his son. The queen of Sheba tested Solomon’s wisdom in 1 Kings 10:1. In 2 Corinthians 13:5, Paul tells the Corinthians to test themselves to make sure that they are in the faith. And in 1 John 4:1-6, John commands that Christians test all spirits to know if they are from God. Tests are all over the place and they play an important role, especially for Christians. Although a Christian may be walking in the Truth, it is vital for the Christian to test all spirits that are presented before him—whether the spirit be of God or of the antichrist—so as to make sure that they are in the Spirit of God continuing on in the Truth and not fall astray to falsehood and away from the brotherly love in the fellowship of Christ. In this case tests are a good thing, for they safeguard the Christian’s walk with God and direct the Christian in the Spirit of God.

You may be thinking, “Why should I test things to see if they are of God? Why should I adhere to this command?” Well, the apostle John was no “Joe Shmoe” from the streets; he was an authoritative elder in the church. He is the one accredited with writing 1 John “late in his life” (NIV 1994: 1696) during the A.D. 80s. John was a disciple of Jesus and one of the twelve apostles. He may have been “one of the apostles mentioned at the council (Acts 15:6)” (Ryrie 1959: 305). Being that he was a disciple of Jesus, an apostle, and a member of the Jerusalem council, he definitely had ruling authority that which First Century Christians submitted to. John is also known as the apostle of love, but also of sternness. Charles Ryrie wrote “the best way to describe his character would be with the word intense. In actions, in love for the brethren, in condemnation of Christ-rejectors he was the Apostle of Intensity” (1959: 306). Keeping this in mind, it is no wonder that John exhorts us to know what we are following, and to follow the Truth wholeheartedly, proving our faith by showing love to all. It is likely that John wrote first John as a sermon because 1 John has “no address or salutation, which points to its being a homily rather than a personal letter” (Ryrie 1959: 309). It is also important to know that John wrote this letter to the churches around Ephesus while he was living there.

Ephesus and its surrounding areas were filled with idolatrous worship, magic, and Gnosticism (Ryrie 1959: 310-311). Ephesus was indeed a city that was important in the Roman Empire. It was a “commercial, political, and religious center, the great temple of Artemis (Diana) being there” (NASB 1995: 1875). The great temple of Artemis was a “house of prostitution in the name of religion” (Harrison and Pfeiffer 1962: 1463). Obviously, this city was filled with beliefs that opposed Christianity, and because of its important use for trade, its beliefs could spread rapidly. It is also important to note, “morality in Ephesus was low” (Harrison and Pfeiffer 1962: 1463). This city was obviously no safe-haven for Christians, and it certainly was not a place that they should look to for a good example of how to live a holy life. However, the Christians around Ephesus must have had a weak faith in God, or a weak understanding of God, because these Christians were getting involved with false teaching and were being lead astray from the Spirit of the Truth.

John, living in Ephesus at the time that he wrote 1 John, confronts the Christians for being lead astray. John, possibly a pastor in Ephesus, or at least acknowledged as an elder, was therefore looked at as high in authority, and what he said she not be taken lightly. Also, this letter was written shortly after pervious persecution from Nero, which claimed “the lives of thousands of Christians, including Paul and Peter” (NIV 1994: 1696). Paul and Peter were dead, and most of the other apostles were as well; it is also believed that John was the “last surviving apostle” (NIV 1994: 1696), which gives all the more authority to John in what he wrote. Christians in Ephesus were succumbing to false teachings because their faith lacked maturity. John, holding the highest authority second only to the Trinity, commands the Christians to test what they are taught by teachers. This way, despite their lack of maturity and faith, they will always distinguish between the good and false teachings, so that they will constantly walk in the truth, and not be lead astray.

In the surrounding context of 1 John 4:1-6, we see that we have the command to love one another at the beginning and the proof that we are in Christ because of the Spirit he gave us (3:11-24), the call to test and make sure that we are following the Spirit that he gave us (4:1-6), and the command to love again at the end which proves that the Spirit that Christ gave us is truly in us (4:7-19). This shows the reason for testing the spirits—to remain in fellowship of love with other Christians and to be sure that we are in Christ. Being that Gnosticism and temple worship were popular during that time, and since many people were teaching heresy, it was important for the Christians of that time to test any teaching and spirit to make sure that it was of God. This was in order to keep them from following the spirit of the antichrist, and to stay true to God. The original audience would have viewed this passage as a warning sign to stay away from false teachers, so as to not lose the fellowship that they had and continue in the brotherly love.



The Command to Test the Spirits (4:1)

John exhorts the Christians of Ephesus, whom he called his friends, to test the spirits to see whether they are from God. The word “test” used is a present-active verb. John is saying, “Right now, test what you are hearing and make sure it is of God.” Why does he command the use of tests? They needed a check-and-balance system to keep them from blindly following anyone that came along. It is here that John makes the Christian responsible to know who and what they were following, and what they followed had better have been of the Spirit of God; they no longer had an excuse of being arrogant, for it was their job to know exactly what it was that they were following. The Greek word for “test” is “ά,” which means, “to prove with a view to approving” (Strong 2001: 71). In other words, it means to prove with a view to endorse, support, agree with, commend, or back up. However, they were supposed to test the teachings and spirits to see if they were from God; here lies the icing on the cake: could they prove the teachings and spirits with a view that God would endorse it? If so, then it was good and they could accept it as Truth; if not, then it was discarded and regarded as a lie, thus saving them from being detracted from the fellowship.

The need for tests arose because many false prophets had gone out into the world. The Greek word for “false prophet” is “ψευδοπροφήτης,” which literally means “religious impostor” (Strong 2001: 275). There were many religious imposters throughout the world during First Century A.D., and evidently those imposters were somehow or another attracting many people and beamed them into their teachings. John is saying to steer clear of these imposters because they are just that—imposters—they are not the real deal and therefore have nothing to offer. John warns Christians about them by saying, “Test them, and if they turn out to be of God, then you have grounds to believe them.” Christians, therefore, are not allowed to simply believe anything they here without checking it first, to do so would be plain foolishness. This is the whole purpose of the test, to uphold the Truth and not lose sight of it.

The Test Supplied (4:2-6)

John commands us to test the spirits, but how? Luckily for us he gives us the test so that we will know how. John says that we can recognize the Spirit of God if the spirit we are testing acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come and walked on this earth; if the spirit does not acknowledge Jesus, then it is not the Spirit of God. This is particularly important because John is refuting the belief of Gnosticism that claims Jesus was “not human at all but was merely a prolonged theophany” (Harrison and Pfeiffer 1962: 1464). John is saying that the teacher that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is a true prophet. The open acknowledgment of the “person of the incarnate Saviour” (Harrison and Pfeiffer 1962: 1464) shows the “mode of his coming (in the flesh) and permanence of the incarnation (perfect tense of come)” (Harrison and Pfeiffer 1962: 1464). In other words, the prophet must show Christ’s role in the flesh in order to be a true prophet. This shows that “If he had not taken upon himself a human body, he could never have died and been the Saviour” (Harrison and Pfeiffer 1962: 1465). John sets the test up in this way because of the content of the false prophet’s teachings; they did not believe that “Jesus was the Christ or the Son of God…they denied that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh” (Marshall 1978: 15). John is proving that they were not from God because they did not accept Jesus as from God. This is John’s method by which all Christians test prophets and spirits. Any spirit that does not pass as being of God is identified as the spirit of the antichrist, which John tells is already in the world.

Despite the existence of these spirits of the antichrist, the Christians had overcome them because they are of God, and the Spirit that resides in each Christian is greater than the spirit that resides in the world. John claims the victory won by the Spirit of God. John “assures them of a more divine principle in them” (Henry 1961: 1960), that they are born of God. John “gives them hope of victory” (Henry 1961: 1960) in verse four, because the Spirit that resides in them is greater than the spirit that is in the world. He moves from the test to the victory so as to show that it is important to follow the Spirit of God, which is greater than the spirit of the antichrist, so as to give them hope and reason to test the spirits. Once John directs them towards a hope worth living for, he then describes the false prophets.

The false prophets are from the world. It is from the world that the false prophets take “their source of speech” (Harrison and Pfeiffer 1962: 1475). They speak as the world does. This is why the world listens to them and not to Christian teachers, because Christians speak from a different source—from the Holy Spirit—and therefore the world will not listen to that which they do not know or understand. The Spirit of God “hath framed your mind for God and heaven” (Henry 1961: 1960). The Christian teacher’s source was from the Spirit of God, which turned their mind on the things of God and of heaven. Therefore, the Christian teacher cannot relate to the false prophets because their sources by which they speak are different. The Greek word for “world” is “κόσμος,” which in this case is understood to mean the “‘present condition of human affairs,’ in alienation from and opposition to God” (Strong 2001: 144). The false prophets were from human affairs—as opposed to God’s affairs—and were alienated from God, and were against God. There was therefore, no reason for any Christian to be following any such false prophet because they were against God. Because false prophets were from human affairs and not of God’s affairs, they therefore did not teach in the same manner as the apostles or other Christians. These false prophets—being of the world—spoke according to the world, as opposed to John—being of God—spoke according to the Father. The false prophets spoke according to the views and values of the world; Christians spoke according to the views and values of a higher standard—Jesus Christ. Because the false prophets spoke according to the world, the world listened to what they had to say.

The world listened to the false prophets, not because the false prophets had something good to offer, but because they “tickled the world’s ears.” In other words, they told the world what they wanted to hear, not to mention that “the world will love its own, and its own will love it” (Henry 1961: 1960). It is, therefore, no wonder that the world listened to them. Ephesus was known for the great temple of Artemis, where temple prostitution was commonly practiced. It was here that the false prophets were claiming that having sex in the name of religion was an acceptable form of worship; evidently, many believed and participated. Although temple prostitution was popular in Ephesus, John was more likely writing about the false prophets of Gnosticism, for it was apparent that these false prophets did not live in a “conspicuously immoral manner” (Marshall 1978: 15). It is for this reason why they appeared to be good and appear to have some truth to their teaching, thus becoming more of a threat as religious imposters. It is important to note that within their teachings they ascribed “any unusual phenomenon to the power of God” (Marshall 1978: 204). The false prophets of this sort of pre-gnosticism were not the only problem, for it was also the natural tendency of the church to “regard any kind of unusual ‘spiritual’ gift such as tongues or prophecy as being inspired by the Spirit of God, and therefore a sign of the validity and truth of what was said by the person possessed of the gift” (Marshall 1978: 204). The Christians during this time were overemphasizing the Spirit of God and his works. It is this evidence that shows false spirits do in fact attack the church and do so from within, and John needed to remind the Christians about it (Marshall 1978: 204). These demonic spirits, which resided in the false prophets, were able to take people away from the Truth at the very heart of the church. However, John had already claimed victory over such evil spirits by the power of the Spirit of God. Therefore, John is warning the Christians to be aware of the false prophets, even from within the church.

The church itself, when taught what they wanted to hear, accepted it as truth without checking it to see if it was something God would endorse as truth. Therefore, it was not just the world that was falling subject to the false prophets, who told them what they wanted to hear, but many members of the church also. Whether the invitation was to sin in the name of religion or to overuse the gifts of the Spirit of God and attribute it to the Spirit, John did not approve of either practice. When most people are given an open invitation to sin and justify it, they are more likely than not going to listen regardless of who is teaching. When people are taught that which they desire, they are going to listen, regardless of who is teaching. However, John commands otherwise; he commands Christians to test all spirits in order to know for certain that it is from God or not.

John identifies himself and his friends he was writing to as being from God, and he also notes that those who know God will listen to them. The Greek word for “know” is “γινώσκω,” which means, “to come to know” (Strong 2001: 60). Only those that come to know God will listen to the teaching of the Spirit of God; those that have not come to know God will simply not listen to the teaching, but rather, will listen to what they want to hear. It is from this knowledge that the Christians were to understand what teaching was of the Spirit of God and what was not, for now they understood the teaching of the world to be unacceptable because it was not something that God would endorse. It also helps them to understand why people believe in the teachings of the antichrist, for when people get what they desire and hear what they want to hear they listen to whomever grant them their wishes.


The Test Concluded (4:6)

John wanted his Christian friends to be cautious of these false prophets, and “encourages the disciples against this seducing antichristian spirit” (Henry 1961: 1960). John draws to attention to two types of spirits in the world in verse six: the Spirit of truth, and the spirit of falsehood. John specifically uses the word “recognize” in this passage. The word “recognize” is a present-active verb. And what is it that Christians are to recognize? Christians are to recognize both the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood—not just one or the other. John is saying to take no chances and to prove that the teaching is actually from one or the other so that they will know exactly what they are listening to and whether or not they should accept it. This is the purpose of the test, and the test applies to all Christians, not to the newest of Christians, not to the oldest of Christians, not to the weakest of Christians, not to the strongest of Christians, but to all Christians regardless of status.


We need to test the teachers and prophets that teach today as well, for we are as vulnerable as the earliest Christians were. For example, students in a class on New Testament literature from a state college or a private Christian college should always test their teachers and their teachers’ teachings in order to make sure that they are in the Truth and are from God. By doing so, this will help the student to constantly stand in the Truth with little chance of them being lead astray from the Spirit of God. How can the student go about testing their teachers and the teachings presented to them? The answer is simple: research the material taught in books, converse with other professors, pray, and search the Scriptures to see if the teaching is parallel to them. It is important for us to check all teachings and make sure they would be teachings that God would endorse, and in this way we can overcome these spirits in the power of the Spirit of God.

It is important to notice that false, evil spirits did in fact go to the church’s front line and attack during John’s time, and they still continue to do so today; however, we Christians have the victory over them because of the Spirit of God, which resides in us. For example, there was a church that on the Saturday night prior to their Sunday morning service had been vandalized with graffiti with many demonic symbols spray-painted on the front doors of the church. The elders of the church panicked and asked their senior pastor what to do since they had only an hour before the service was to begin. The pastor said to leave it, and over the course of the next year, that church grew larger and stronger than ever before. Why? It was because the Christians there overcame the demonic spirits that attacked the church and gained victory through the Spirit of God. Christians can indeed overcome the false spirits and prophets by the power of the Spirit of God.

Tests are everywhere, and they are an integral part in Christians walk with God. Without them, we would be easily drawn away from the Truth. As we continue on in our walk with God, it is absolutely vital for us to test our teachers and pastors, friends and co-workers, personal beliefs and religious constructs, so as to make sure that we do not fall away from the Truth which God endorses, so that we do not lose the brotherly love we have in fellowship with each other. If all Christians would conduct such tests, we might put the false teachers out of business!


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