That message grabs our attention, does it not? It was written to first-century saints who were facing the challenge of dealing with the influence that false messengers were having on the church.
In its entirety, the wording of 1 John 4:1 is: “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.” Let us examine the meaning and application of those words.
“Beloved” – This comes from a Greek word which means “beloved, esteemed, dear, favorite, worthy of love” [Thayer, word no. 27 via e-Sword]. It is an endearing term, found five times in this letter that we know as “First John.” In each of those five instances, it is the beginning word of a sentence (3:2,21; 4:1,7,11). For John to address them as his “beloved” let them know that he cared about them. He has some tough language for those who cast aside the Lord’s instructions, but he loved all of them dearly.
“Do not believe every spirit” – First, we need to identify who or what these “spirits” were. In the same statement, John mentioned prophets (4:1). He went on to write about spirits confessing or not confessing Jesus (4:2,3). John said the spirits “speak” (4:5), and he noted that there is a difference between “the spirit of truth” and “the spirit of error” (4:6). It is clear that when John charged the disciples not to believe every spirit, he meant do not believe every religious messenger/message.
It is not uncommon for parents, perhaps on several occasions, to warn their children, “Do not believe everything you hear.” That still is sage advice. In the spiritual realm, not every spoken or printed message is good for us. There is sound doctrine, which is teaching that is healthy for our soul (Titus 2:1). There also are unhealthy spiritual messages. In the context of 1 John 4, John speaks of false prophets (4:1), messengers who are “not of God” (4:3). He further describes them as being “of the world” (4:5) and “the spirit of error” (4:6). Our Lord does not want any of us to be influenced by “every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting” (Ephesians 4:14).
“Test the spirits, whether they are of God” – How can you and I know which spirits are of God? Test them. “To test/try” is from the Greek word δοκιμάζω/ dokimazō,” defined as “to test, examine, prove, scrutinize (to see whether a thing is genuine or not), as metals; to recognize as genuine after examination, to approve, deem worthy” [Thayer, word no. 1381 via e-Sword]. The charge to “prove/test all things” employs the same Greek word (1 Thessalonians 5:21). It is the word Jesus used when speaking about a man testing his oxen (Luke 14:19). So, there is testing metals . . . testing animals . . . testing religious teachers.
Instead of believing each religious message we come across, we are to test them one by one. How? We must compare what we hear or read with the truth that God has revealed to us. God’s word is truth (John 17:17). Truth cannot contradict itself. Thus, if a message harmonizes with the revealed will/truth of God, it is true. If it clashes with the Bible, it is false. If the message is an addition to God’s word, it is a human-devised hoax. We recall that the apostle Paul warned the churches of Galatia not to receive any message which was different from the genuine gospel he had proclaimed to them (Galatians 1:6-8).
In order for a person to be effective in testing the religious messages he encounters, he must have a good knowledge of God’s word. This is where many people are in serious trouble! They are in great danger of accepting and promoting falsehoods because they do not have adequate Bible knowledge.
National and world leaders often discuss and identify what they consider to be the greatest problems facing humanity. There is one grave danger which such worldly officials never contemplate: a lousy knowledge of the Bible leads people and communities into violation of God’s will, and that has eternal consequences! If a person is convinced that going to heaven is the most important matter in his existence, he will be like the Bereans and search the Scriptures (Acts 17:11). It is worth the effort! Failing to arm ourselves will not produce a happy outcome.
“Because many false prophets have gone out into the world” – As Jesus’ apostle, John could not take away man’s free will, which included the liberty to speak. The reality is, when people open their mouths to speak, many of them do not teach God’s truth. John said that in his day there were “false” prophets . . . “many” of them. Our Lord said to beware of such people, who outwardly resemble sheep, but inwardly are ravenous wolves (Matthew 7:15).
No, not every religious message is acceptable to God. No, not every religious messenger is a great person. We love the soul of each false messenger, but we detest their false words which deceive the gullible and lead them toward eternal torment (2 Peter 2:1,2).
— Roger D. Campbell