Prove The Spirits
1 John 4:1
The apostle John wrote his first epistle
1) he wanted his readers to have fellowship
with the Father and the Son (1 Jn. 1:1-4);
2) he wanted to keep Christians from sin (1 Jn.
3) he wanted to warn his brethren about those
who would lead them astray (1 Jn. 2:26); and
4) he wanted to assure Christians that they have eternal life (1 Jn. 5:13).
All of these objectives are interrelated.
Eternal life is maintained by continued fellowship with the Father and the Son
(1 Jn. 5:11-12). Fellowship with the Father and the Son is maintained by
avoiding sin (1 Jn. 1:6-7). And avoiding sin is accomplished in a large part by
recognizing those who would lead us astray. John wanted his brethren (and he
wants us) to understand that false doctrine is an ever-present threat to the
salvation of God's people. He provides us with a solution, however, in the first
six verses of the fourth chapter. In this brief passage, he tells us WHAT to do
WHY we must do it, and HOW.
"Beloved, believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, whether they are of
God" (1 Jn. 4:1a). John tells us first of all that we must not automatically and
gullibly believe every thing that we hear. Just because the teaching may seem
right and sound good and be presented in a forceful and an eloquent way from a
that we love and respect, these things do not guarantee its truthfulness. Before
Aquila and Priscilla took Apollos aside and "expounded unto him the way of God
more accurately" (Acts 18:26), all of these things characterized his teaching;
yet he was in error. Now, this does not mean that we should be suspicious and
see false teachers in every pulpit, but it does mean that we must be cautious.
If we are to avoid the soul-destroying effects of false doctrine, we must take
heed how we hear (Lk. 8:18).
Then John tells us that we must "prove" the spirits. Joseph Thayer says that the
word "prove" (dokimazo) means "to test, examine, prove, scrutinize (to see
whether a thing be genuine or not)" (A Greek-English lexicon of the New
Testament, p.154). It was used by the ancients to describe the process whereby
gold or coins were tested to determine their genuineness (1 Pet. 1:7). W.E. Vine
says that it means "to test, prove, with the expectation of approving" (The
Expanded Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, p.898). This tells
us of the kind of attitude with which we should examine the teachings of others.
Unlike the Jewish leaders who "examined" (peirazo) Jesus to "ensnare him in his
talk" (cf. Mt. 16:1; 19:3; 22:15-18), we must test our teachers with an attitude
that will accept anything and everything from anyone that is really truth.
John tells us that we must test "every spirit." We cannot accept the words of
our mate, our parents, our children, the elders, our favorite preacher, the
our friends, our brethren -- we cannot accept the words of anyone anywhere
anytime without putting them to the test. Jesus said, "And if the blind guide
the blind, both shall fall into a pit" (Mt. 15:15).
And furthermore, John gives this command, not just to elders, deacons,
preachers, or teachers, but to every child of God. Every Christian, whether
young or old, male or female, experienced or inexperienced in the faith, has the
God-given responsibility to "prove all things [and] hold fast that which is
good" (1 Th. 5:21). And this necessarily implies that we can distinguish between
truth and error. Truth is not so obscure and nebulous that we cannot discover
what it is (Eph. 5:17). Yes, there are difficult questions. The apostle Peter
acknowledged this when he said of Paul's epistles "wherein are some things hard
to be understood, which the ignorant and unstedfast wrest, as they do also the
other scriptures, unto their own destruction" (2 Pet. 3:16). But please note
that Peter said SOME things, not ALL things; he said HARD to be understood, not
impossible to be understood; and he indicated the IGNORANT and UNSTEDFAST, not
the KNOWLEDGEABLE and WELL-GROUNDED. There seems to be a growing sentiment among
some brethren which says because we do not know EVERYTHING, we cannot know
ANYTHING, and this is patently false. The MAIN THINGS are the PLAIN THINGS, and
the PLAIN THINGS are the MAIN THINGS!
"Because many false prophets are gone out into the world" (1 Jn. 4:1b). Testing
must be the continual practice of Christians, because false teaching abounds (2
Jn. 7). This has always been the case, and it always will be. There were false
prophets in Old Testament times (Jer. 23:16, 30-32). Jesus warned of false
prophets who would come in sheep's clothing (Mt. 7:15-20). Paul warned the
Ephesian elders that false teachers would arise from within their own midst
(Acts 20:38-31). Peter warned of false teachers who would secretly bring in
destructive heresies and with feigned words make merchandise of the flock (2
Pet. 2:1-3). Personal experience demonstrates that there are false teachers
today. Two people cannot teach contradictory doctrines and both of them be from
The Means For Testing:
John provided his first-century readers with a specific test: "Hereby know ye
the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the
flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not Jesus is not of God " (1
Jn. 4:2-3a). Acknowledgment of the incarnation is a test of truth. John was
writing to combat incipient Gnosticism, which taught as one of its fundamental
tenants that spirit is wholly good and matter is wholly evil. Therefore, the
Gnostics denied the possibility that God could be incarnate in a physical body.
While Gnosticism is no longer the threat to God's people that it once was, this
specific test is still important for Christians today. Anyone who would deny
that Jesus was fully God and fully man while on earth does not have God. Thus,
Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, and the
doctrines of the Jehovah's Witnesses must be rejected, because their "Jesus" is
not the Jesus that we read about in the Bible. But may I also say, as charitably
as I know how, that, at the very least, some of the trumpets among us seem to be
blowing an uncertain sound (1 Cor. 14:8) with respect to the deity and the
humanity of Jesus.
John also provided his first-century readers with a generic test. "We are of
God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he who is not of God heareth us not. By
this we know the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error" (1 Jn. 4:6). John
says that those who know God hear the apostles. Both verbs "knoweth" and "heareth"
are in the present tense which denotes a continual practice. We cannot determine
truth by the personality, the character or the ability of the teacher, by the
"success" of his work, by praying to God, by the "inner witness" of the Spirit,
or by our own feelings and impressions, etc. We distinguish between the spirit
of truth and the spirit of error based upon whether or not a man preaches and
practices the apostles' doctrine (Gal. 1:6-10; 1 Jn. 2:24). Therefore, may we
like the Beroeans of old receive the word with a headiness of mind and examine
the scriptures daily to see whether the things we are taught are so (Acts
By Kevin Kay
From Expository Files 1.1;