1 John 4:1 – Not Every Spirit Speaks the Truth

John tells his readers to not believe everything they hear, but test the spirits (4:1a). The “spirits” in this context refers to individuals in a local church who teach or preach as they are led by the Holy Spirit.

This may be a local pastor or elder, an individual in the church, or a traveling teacher who may (or may not) be authorized by John to teach. If there were perhaps a dozen small congregations in the greater urban area of Ephesus, then John may have sent a person on a pastoral tour of the churches to deliver a message and help with any issues which the church may have had. On the other hand, the opponents may have done the same thing, so that a local church could have a visiting teacher who was not strictly orthodox from John’s perspective.

Wolf in Sheep's ClothingIn either case, these traveling teachers would have had limited access to Scripture. It is unlikely any of these small congregations would have even small portions of the Old Testament in Greek. They may have had limited copies of some of Paul’s letters and perhaps other communiques from John. These traveling teachers would therefore rely upon the Holy Spirit to call to mind Scripture which they had memorized and their teaching was done “in the Spirit.”

It is difficult to know how these teachers functioned as Holy Spirit led preachers, but it is important to realize this may have included the gift of prophecy (properly defined as a powerful Spirit led exposition of Scripture to a current situation). But if a teacher arrived in a local church and claimed to his message was from the Holy Spirit and they had a manifestation of tongues or some ecstatic prophecy, then the local congregation might be swayed to believe them!

Testing refers to a critical examination of something in order to determine the quality of something. The verb (δοκιμάζω) can be used for testing gold, but also testing one’s character. In LXX Jer 6:27 testing gold is used as a metaphor for testing one’s character. Compare Psalm 66:10 (LXX Ps 65:10), the Lord has tested us like silver. Proverbs 17:3, the Lord tests the heart like someone might test gold and silver in a crucible. This is the sense of the verb in 1 Peter 1:7, the trials a Christian faces is like “a refiner’s fire.”

In 1 Corinthians 16:3 Paul used the word for approving men to be sent with Pau to deliver the collection of money for the poor in Jerusalem. Secular Greek might use this word for approving or ratifying a law or examining the character of a person to determine if they are worthy to hold office. In 1 Timothy 3:10 Paul tells Timothy deacons ought to be examined (tested) before they are permitted to serve as deacons. It is also the word used in 2 Tim 2:15, Timothy ought to strive to be an approved workman who has been tested.

In the context of 1 John 4, how does the church “test a spirit”? The content of any teacher ought to be examined closely in order to determine if it is from God.

In the original setting of this letter, this likely refers to the activity of a traveling preacher or teacher. Third John concerns hospitality towards traveling teachers sent out by John, it is likely the opponents have also been sending out trained teachers who might visit a church and try to sway a local community toward their theological and practical false teaching.

What is being tested? Both doctrine (what they say about Jesus) and behavior (what is the content of their character). Both are important as we apply try to find appropriate application of this teaching to contemporary church problems. There may be teachers who have good doctrine but their character is questionable (in the ministry for the money, dictatorial and abusive, etc.) But there are other teachers who have very good character but teach clear false doctrine (perhaps a very moral person, good family values, but heretical on Jesus).

5 thoughts on “1 John 4:1 – Not Every Spirit Speaks the Truth

  1. Phil, I like the picture with the scary looking lamb . A wolf in sheep’s clothes. You made a good observation on the individuals (traveling teachers) who pass on words of encouragement to the local assembles around Ephesus. I did not think of individuals bring in their own teaching or, ” sway a local community toward their theological and practical false teaching.” This certainly happens today and we have the 66 books of the Bible. As much as I believe the mid-acts dispensational view is correct, I am always concern about the messenger who brings this view into a church deceitfully or knowingly going against the doctrinal statement of that church. We can be thankful for the Holy Spirit indwelling to guide our human spirit in seeking truth. Kendall

  2. It is kind of mind boggling to realize that John’s readers (and everyone at that time) did not have the immediate access to biblical truths, like we do today. I think it is easy to imagine these church congregations in the realm of our modern access to God’s word. Today, we are still tested in our faith and what the Bible says, but we can be equipped with the truth so much easier since we have the word of God in our hands. But to realize that these early Christians had limited, if any, access to bits and pieces of God’s word and teaching, brings such a reality to not only what they may be facing but the strength of their faith as well. It is easy to see how Satan saw an “opportunity” to introduce dissension through false teachers, and why the author of 1 John saw the necessity of addressing and correcting these teachings. But what I find interesting is how the author decides to address this, not by attacking or condemning the teachings, but by encouraging the readers. Jobes (2011) states that the purpose of 1 John was “to reassure those who remain that they do indeed know the truth about Jesus” (413). I can only imagine the confusion, and possible anxiety, these false teachings were creating among the believers. The author likely realized that reassurance and encouragement was a much more effective way to combat and test false teaching, for these teachers were likely persuasive in their methods. Reassuring the believers that they already know the truth about Jesus likely gave them the strength to then put these false teachings to the test, instead of creating self-doubt. This is a good reminder for today, that relying on what we know to be true about God can help if we are faced with questionable character or doctrine.

    Jobes, K.A. (2011). Letters to the Church. Zondervan.

  3. Professor P. Long, when I saw the picture, I was a little freaked out, but I understood the picture though. Matthew 7:15 tells us to beware of false prophets and those who wear sheep’s clothing but underneath, they are wolves. I can think of those who are wolves, it seems like they are pretending to be your friend, take advantage, and hurt you. When I was growing up, I was never raised as a Chrisitan, but I was sort of learning; during that time, I started liking the Christian songs, artists, evangelical minister, and pastors. When I saw the picture, the one thing that came to my mind was a Christian artist, TobyMac. The reason why I said TobyMac is because, from his 2012 album entitled Eye On it has a meaning behind it that a few Christians will point out and know in their heart there is something not right with the artist, songs or music videos. The song Eye On It which no one knows what TobyMac is referring to in his lyrics and he had never mentioned God or Jesus or anything related in his song. There are Christians that will support Joel Osteen, probably a few do not. I do not care for Joel Osteen and I do not trust him.
    Another pastor that did was scandalous was Carl Lentz and another pastor that did something in a sinful act was Brian Houston. We have to be careful of who we are listening to. Another example is Kanye West. When I heard Kanye West was releasing a gospel album, I had a feeling people including Christians would like his songs. I told myself I am not going to listen to his songs and I am going to wait and see what falls down by going back to what he normally does. Our faith is being tested by the Holy Spirit. We have to learn to lean towards God and ask him to guide us through our trials and challenges that we are facing. Most of all, we pray by asking God to put the right place in our hearts whether the church will be good or it is not us.

  4. Similar to how the church in Ephesus was being faced with false teachings the church today often comes under the same kind of attacks. Culturally the idea of something being absolute truth is not very popular in today’s culture, and nor was it at the time when this warning was written to the church. Today mega churches can mislead thousands of people, some by false teachings and leaders who preach one thing, but live differently than they ask their congregations to. For the churches in Ephesus being led astray seems a bit more excusable since the people did not have the scriptures themselves and they were learning from the teachers who visited them. However, today God’s word is easy to access in most of the world. We are in the time of “postapostolic leadership” and the members of a church, while they are still taught, have their own access to the Bible (Jobes, 2011, p.448). While Christians today have the most access to the Bible many do not know or memorize the Bible. I think that if Christians were more literate when it came to God’s word that there would be much less false teaching in the church today. But as it is many do not have God’s word hidden in their heart and do not check what their teachers tell them and so they are easily led astray by verses taken out of context and soak in false teachings about their own sin and about Jesus.

    Jobes, K. H. (2011). Letters To the Church: A survey of Hebrews and the general epistles. Zondervan.

  5. When I have heard this passage quoted, many times it has referred to claims of a false teacher. I’ve also heard of it being used as reference to any kind of “spirit” as angelic or demonic, that can allude to false teachings. An example I can think of would be Joseph Smith if you believe his testimony to be partly true concerning his experience. Yet even so, whether told by a fallen angel, or by a normal man. The point made is for us to have discernment and be diligent in testing the teachings of those who claim to be leaders in the church. When someone comes with claims that his “message was from the Holy Spirit and they had a manifestation of tongues or some ecstatic prophecy,” (Long, 2020), we ought to be diligent in making sure the teachings are authentic, which is why we have a gift given from God to know what he has already said to us, his word. When someone comes with a “new revelation”, we must test it with scripture. That is what the noble Berean’s did in Acts 17. Testing the teachings of Paul in order to know truth from lies. To tell between the sheep and the wolves hidden in wool

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