What Does it Mean to “Test the Spirits?” #344
Happy Saturday to you, dear friends! Welcome aboard to new listeners from Austin, Texas, Assam, India, The Philippines, Dusseldorf, Germany (or at least, the Westphalia area), Machala, Ecuador, Los Angeles, Abilene/Sweetwater, Texas and Charlotte, NC – thanks for jumping on!
We begin today’s readings with 1 Chronicles 5-6, then to Nahum 3, Luke 19, and our focus passage in 1 John 4. In this chapter, John tells us to do something that really seems quite mysterious at first glance, and I’d wager that the vast majority of modern Christians, upon first encountering this passage, scratch their heard and wonder if we are literally supposed to talk to, interact with, and test the theology of spiritual beings. I don’t know about you, but I have rather infrequent opportunities to quiz and test spirits about their beliefs in Jesus! Let’s read 1 John 4, and then discuss what it is that John is commanding us to do in the Word of God.
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming; even now it is already in the world.
1 John 4:1-3
Honestly, the language that John uses here is quite perplexing. I want to be very careful when interacting with Bible passages of this type, because my fear is that pastors and Bible scholars alike too often rationalize the Bible…and I mean that literally. Sometimes we take Bible passages that are difficult or hard to understand, or, in this case, very spiritual, and we give them a bit more of a rational explanation that makes more sense to humans in a modern and scientific age. I want to avoid that at all costs. Thus I am going to share with you what I think this passage means, but I say it with a bit of fear and trembling, because I do not want to miss it. It could very well be that John is here talking about interacting with spirits either on their own, or spirits speaking through somebody in some way that I, and most westerners, just simply don’t understand. I don’t think that is what is going on here at all, but this is one of those passages without an absolute clear parallel elsewhere in the Bible, so we must be humble.
That said, I believe we can quite clearly understand what John is saying here, and I do believe that there are other Bible passages that will help us do so. We do not first interpret the Word of God via our rationality, logic, feelings or experience, but we ALWAYS interpret the Word of God by the Word of God. Here John is warning us about spirits who are not confessing that Jesus has come in the flesh. We could go into some deep theological depths here speaking about the origins of gnosticism, but that is a little beyond our scope, so let’s focus on how to test the spirits. In this instance, I believe John gives us indication that he is not talking about a stand-alone spirit, so to speak, but he is talking about a spirit speaking through a person – or, at the very least, somehow influencing what they are saying and teaching about. The Bible is quite crystal clear the the Holy Spirit speaks through people:
21 because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. 2nd Peter 1:21
The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me,
his word was on my tongue. 2 Samuel 23:2
just as he spoke by the mouth
of his holy prophets in ancient times; Luke 1:70
16 “Brothers and sisters, it was necessary that the Scripture be fulfilled that the Holy Spirit through the mouth of David foretold about Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. Acts 1:16
Acts 3:18 18 In this way God fulfilled what he had predicted through all the prophets—that his Messiah would suffer.
10 But they were unable to stand up against his wisdom and the Spirit by whom he was speaking. Acts 6:10
3 Therefore I want you to know that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians 12:3
11 They inquired into what time or what circumstances the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating when he testified in advance to the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. 1 Peter 1:11
So, the universal testimony of the Bible is that God the Holy Spirit speaks through people. It would appear from this passage that other spirits – unclean spirits, demonic spirits most likely, can also speak through people. We, of course, see this in the ministry of Jesus:
9 “What is your name?” he asked him. “My name is Legion,” he answered him, “because we are many.” 10 And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the region.
So – the Holy Spirit AND other spirits can speak through people – this seems to be indisputable from a biblical perspective. That John seems to be talking about spirits speaking through people seems fairly evident based on vs 1, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Why are we testing spirits? Because false HUMAN prophets have gone into the world. Are some probably just charlatans making it up as they go? Absolutely – but some, apparently, are also speaking empowered by unclean spirits. Paul also warns us about such false speakers, here referring to them as ‘false apostles.’
13 For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder! For Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 So it is no great surprise if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will be according to their works.
2 Cor 11:13-15
Paul, like John also encourages us to test things in this same context:
19 Don’t stifle the Spirit. 20 Don’t despise prophecies, 21 but test all things. Hold on to what is good. 22 Stay away from every kind of evil.
1 Thessalonians 5:19-22
I believe this is basically a parallel to what John is saying. Both are in the context of prophecy, and both are referring to obviously spiritual activity. Paul is saying to not despise words of prophecy, but to test them, and I believe John is saying the exact same thing. How do we test these spirits then? How do we test words of prophecy?
We test them by how they line up with the Word of God, exactly as the ‘noble’ Bereans did in Acts 17. We also see an example of this in 1 Corinthians 14, which also makes mention of the ‘spirits of the prophets,’ seemingly indicating that a prophet can have either God’s Holy Spirit, or another, misleading spirit:
29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should evaluate. 30 But if something has been revealed to another person sitting there, the first prophet should be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that everyone may learn and everyone may be encouraged. 32 And the prophets’ spirits are subject to the prophets, 33 since God is not a God of disorder but of peace.
1 Corinthians 14:29-33
Theologian Gary Burge helps us understand this text very well, while also giving two options as to its meaning – both of which are very biblical and possibly both correct.
THIS IS THE only time the Greek word for “testing” (dokimazo) occurs in the Johannine literature, although it occurs often in the New Testament (twenty-two times). It appears in Paul’s letters when he challenges his churches to assess the validity of irregular teachings (see 1 Thess. 5:21; 1 Tim. 3:10). Testing the spirits may refer to a spiritual apprehension, such as Paul’s understanding of the discernment of spirits (1 Cor. 12:10). In this case, John would have in mind charismatic leaders in the congregation who spiritually intuited the authenticity of these prophets’ lives. Just as Jesus could “see” the spiritual bonds of a person before a deliverance—that is, spirit seeing spirit—so the Spirit of God would equip Johannine believers to recognize God’s Spirit in others. On the other hand, John’s thought may be nothing more mysterious than weighing objectively what was being said by these prophets. Perhaps this engaged different gifts in the Johannine church—elders, teachers, and leaders with wisdom and knowledge, who could weigh what was said and compare it with what had been taught previously.
But what should one test for? The Spirit of God always glorifies the Son of God (John 15:26; 16:13–15; 1 Cor. 12:1–3). Thus the first test centers entirely on one’s view of Jesus Christ: “Every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God.”3 We saw earlier in 2:18–22 (as well as 1:1–4) how incarnational Christology was at the heart of this community’s struggles. Behind these words John is urging three things about our belief: (1) that the man Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the divine Word of God; (2) that Jesus Christ was and is fully divine as well as fully human; and that Jesus is the sole source of eternal life since he alone reveals the Father to us and atones for our sins.
John sees this confession as central to Christian discipleship. If Jesus, the man from Nazareth, were not our divine Lord, his sacrifice on the cross would have limited importance. If he were not divine, we would have little confidence that the Father had been revealed to us. The nature of discipleship would likewise be placed in question. Our human lives, our ethics, are important because God has deemed our humanity important through the incarnation of his Son.
Gary M. Burge, Letters of John, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 174–175.