The Expository Files.

Prove The Spirits

1 John 4:1


The apostle John wrote his first epistle because:
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. 2:1);
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.

The Command:

"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 teacher 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 begin to 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 scholars, 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!

The Reason:

"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 God.

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 17:11).
 By Kevin Kay
From Expository Files 1.1; January, 1994