“Testing the Spirits” 1 John 4:1-6
Testing the spirits is important. In church history there have always been those who resemble the seventy Jesus sent out in Luke 10. The showy so impressed them, they forgot the vitally important. Our Lord brought the seventy down to earth in Luke 10:19-20. “Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”
Those who put the exciting and phenomenal too high on the list of priority can be taken victim by false teachers. What do we do when the things that others say are accompanied by all kind of miracles, signs, or other kinds of alleged proof? How do we test the spiritual? John gave us some important pointers in 1 John 4:1-6. He told us first that we must test the spirits and gave us an important criterion for the test. Then he tried to encourage us in our faithfulness to the truth and he also gives us one more criterion to test the truth.
“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.” (1 John 4:1). John warns them that every spirit is not of God’ They need to test the spirits to see if they are God’s spirit or from some other source.
John counsels a healthy skepticism of any one or thing that claims to be from the Spirit of God. We are by nature strongly tempted to believe anyone or anything that claims to be from the Spirit of God. The Apostle John emphatically commands us not to believe all the spirits.
Before believing them, we must test them. For me the Greek word conjures pictures of the old Timex watch commercials on television. The watch was subjected to all kinds of tests to show us that it “takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” John’s question asks if the claim that this truth is from the Spirit of God “takes a licking and keep on ticking?” Does it pass the test?
What test are we talking about here? If we are going to test the spirits, how do we do that? What criteria do we use? John only gives us one criterion here, but that does not mean that there are not others. “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.” (1 John 4:2–3).
The first criterion that John gives us is: “What does this spirit say about Jesus Christ?” Obviously, those who opposed John and the churches were those who taught that Jesus could not have come in the flesh. If spirit was good and matter evil, then God could not take on flesh and thus, the Lord Jesus could not have been both God and man. John wrote about this question several times in this epistle.
Backing up and taking a bigger view of this we find an important principle. Doctrine tests experience. Doctrine is not accepted because of experience. This is an old test but one that is frequently overlooked. In Deuteronomy 13:1–3, Moses wrote: “If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, 2and 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.” Experience must always be tested against the truth, and not the other way around.
In the New Testament, the criterion is further defined, Jesus is God and He is come in the flesh. What we believe about who the Lord Jesus Christ is defines what we are.
Having laid down the criterion by which they are to determine the source of the spirit. John pauses to encourage and help these believers and gives them a second criterion to evaluate the spirits. “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.” (I John 4:4). We can understand that this command to test the spirits could produce uncertainty. So, John stops to encourage the believers with the fact that the Spirit of God lives within each of them and He is greater than any spirit that is in the world.
We do not exist or minister in a world in which there is any doubt over who will win in the end. God and Satan are not equally strong. God has already won. Satan has already lost. As the song says, “Although the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” We are on the victory side. We should draw great comfort from this fact. We will ultimately win with Him because we are children of the King.
John already told us the world may hate us. This should not surprise us. The Apostle John now outlines the second test to determine the source of the spirits. “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 4:5-6).
How do we tell the spirit of truth and the spirit of error? We know by how the world (the lost who make up the world’s system) responds to God’s message. When those motivated by the spirit of the world speak, the world hears them and loves them. The world loves those who speak their language and embrace their values. This spirit is not from God.
However, those who know God hear the ones who speak from God. The world does not listen to them and will not receive God’s truth. We learn some important lessons from this simple statement. In the past, some Christian scholars desired the world to accept their learning. Secular authorities did not accept them, not because their scholarship was flawed, but because of this reality.
John then underlines all of this again. This also is a “hereby we know that we know.” We can know the Spirit of God who dwells in us is really from God because, He teaches us unequivocally that Jesus came in the flesh. Second, we know He is from God because other believers believe what we believe and the world rejects it.