Test the Spirits by Jack Kettler
Scripture commands believers to be on guard against those who pervert the faith. These warnings will be the focus of this study.
Why is this important? We learn the fountainhead of these warnings when God spoke to Moses:
“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3)
The matter is of such importance that the Apostle John leaves the church with this warning:
“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try (test – δοκιμάζω) the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” (1John 4:1)
Some translations use the word “try.” “Test” is a better translation of the Greek word δοκιμάζω. An excursion into the Thayer’s Greek Lexicon will be helpful.
From Thayer’s Greek Lexicon on δοκιμάζω:
“STRONGS NT 1381: δοκιμάζω
δοκιμάζω; (future δοκιμάσω); 1 aorist ἐδοκίμασά; passive, (present δοκιμάζομαι); perfect δεδοκίμασμαι; (δόκιμος); the Sept. chiefly for בָּחַן; as in Greek writings from (Herodotus, Thucydides), Xenophon, and Plato onward, to try;
1. to test, examine, prove, scrutinize (to see whether a thing be genuine or not), as metals: χρυσίον διά πυρός (Isocrates, p. 240 d. (i. e. Panathen. § 14); ad Demon., p. 7 b. (here Bekker βασανίζομεν); the Sept., Proverbs 8:10; Sir. 2:5; Wis. 3:6; ἄργυρον, Proverbs 17:3 (cf. Zechariah 13:9)), 1 Peter 1:7; other things: Luke 12:56; Luke 14:19; 2 Corinthians 8:8; Galatians 6:4; 1 Thessalonians 2:4; 1 Thessalonians 5:21; τά διαφέροντα, Romans 2:18; Philippians 1:10 (others refer these passages to 2; see διαφέρω, 2 b.); men, 1 Timothy 3:10 (in the passive); ἑαυτόν, 1 Corinthians 11:28; 2 Corinthians 13:5 (cf. ἐξετάζειν ἑαυτόν, Xenophon, mem. 2, 5, 1 and 4); Θεόν, Hebrews 3:9 (R G, from Psalm 94:9 (); on the sense of the phrase see πειράζω, 2 d. β.); τά πνεύματα, followed by εἰ whether etc. 1 John 4:1; followed by indirect discourse, Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 3:13; Ephesians 5:10.
2. to recognize as genuine after examination, to approve, deem worthy: 1 Corinthians 16:3; τινα σπουδαῖον ὄντα, 2 Corinthians 8:22; ἐν ᾧ δοκιμάζει for ἐν τούτῳ, ὁ δοκιμάζει in that which he approves, deems right, Romans 14:22; δεδοκιμάσμεθα ὑπό τοῦ Θεοῦ πιστευθῆναι τό εὐαγγέλιον we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the business of pointing out to men the way of salvation, 1 Thessalonians 2:4; our οὐκ ἐδοκίμασαν τόν Θεόν ἔχειν ἐν ἐπιγνώσει they did not think God worthy to be kept in knowledge, Romans 1:28. (On δοκιμάζω (as compared with πειράζω) see Trench, § lxxiv.; Cremer, under the word πειράζω. Compare: ἀποδοκιμάζω.)” (1)
Nineteenth-Century commentator, Charles Ellicott, is superb in his handling of the passage from 1John 4:1.
From Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers on 1John 4:1:
NOT ALL SPIRITS ARE THE RESULT OF THE SONSHIP: NECESSITY OF EXAMINING THEM (1John 4:1-6).
(a)The difference among spirits (1John 4:1).
(b)The measure (1John 4:2-3).
(c)The encouragement (1John 4:4).
(d)The condemnation (1John 4:5).
(e)Inference and conclusion (1John 4:6).
The mention of faith in 1John 3:23 had reminded St. John of the danger of intellectual, as well as of moral error. The mention of God’s Spirit at the conclusion of the last paragraph gave him a form in which to clothe the discussion of truth and falsehood in its human manifestations. By “spirits” he means those tendencies towards good and evil (here especially with regard to thought and opinion) which may be considered as coming from the supreme power of God, on the one hand, and from the inferior power of the devil, on the other. Into the question what these influences are, whether, like the Holy Spirit, they are personal or not, he does not enter. Where one quality, or opinion, shows itself in different individuals, he identifies it and calls it a spirit. Religious fervour might take a form quite antagonistic to the real will and law of God. For Christians there was but one standard by which to measure all claims on their religious allegiance: confession that the man Christ Jesus was the Word. All that demurred to that plain fact, and the loyalty implied by it, belonged to the spirit of antichrist. His hearers, however, if he understood them rightly, need not fear. By virtue of their adherence to the truth, God was in them. In Him they had conquered the spirits of the world, and had but to claim their victory. The false teachers might be known, and must be condemned by the savour of the world that was in their method and their message, and by their popularity with what was opposed to God. The Apostles and those who taught with them could confidently before God put forward the grand claim that theirs was the spirit that came from Him, because they had held undeviatingly to the truth as manifested in Jesus.
(6 a.) (1) Beloved. — Whenever St. John uses this word, he has a strong and earnest exhortation in hand. (Comp. 1John 3:2-21; 1John 4:7.)
Try the spirits.—Comp. 1Corinthians 10:15; 1Corinthians 11:13; 1Corinthians 12:10; Ephesians 5:10; 1Thessalonians 5:21. It is most important to notice that this examination of truth and error is inculcated on all alike, not merely on an ordained and materially separate class.
Prophets, in the New Testament, preach rather than predict. (Comp. 1Corinthians 14:1-4; 1Corinthians 14:24; Ephesians 4:11.)
Are gone out into the world, either “from us,” or else “have appeared in order to give their message.” (Comp. John 6:14; John 16:28; John 18:37.)
(6 b.) Comp. 1Corinthians 12:3. The real humanity of the Saviour is the truth here specially emphasised.
(2) Jesus Christ is taken to imply all His history. (Comp. 1John 3:23, and 1John 4:6.)
Come is used of Christ in St. John’s language for His mission and manifestation. (Comp. John 5:43; John 6:14; John 7:28-29; John 8:42; John 16:28; John 18:37.)
(3) Every spirit that confesseth not.—There is a curious old reading mentioned by Socrates, the historian, viz., “every spirit that destroyeth” (or, dissolveth) “Jesus Christ.” It is, however, evidently a gloss, written against the Gnostics, which crept into the text. It is clear that this verse presupposes an evangelistic presentation of Christ before refusal to confess His historical person could be made. (Comp. 1John 2:18.)
(6 c.) This consolation is in the same manner as that in 1John 2:12, and is introduced by the same endearing phrase. He is sure they have held to the truth, and have the Sonship. (Comp. 1John 3:1-2; 1John 3:13-14.) God is in them, and therefore the victory is already theirs. Although they may still have to struggle, they have only to claim Christ’s strength, and they have won. In making their choice between light and darkness, love and hate, good and evil, God and the devil, they became of the victorious party.
(4) Them—i.e., the antichrists, the false prophets, the spirits that are not of God. (Comp. 1John 2:13-14.)
He that is in the world—i.e., “the prince of this world,” the devil.
(6 d.) As usual, a contrast. The reason of their success is at once, their distinguishing mark and their condemnation. (Comp. John 8:37; John 8:43; John 8:47; John 18:37.)
(5) Hearing them. — This implies listening with attention and pleasure.
(6 e.) (6) We are of God. — The first side of the antithesis repeated, after St. John’s manner, with a difference, we being substituted for ye, and meaning “the Apostles and those who taught with them.” St. John feels the grave duty, in condemnation of Cerinthus and other opponents, to assert the genuine truth and divine authority of the apostolic gospel. There could be no spiritual pride in this; it was a conscientious obligation. God spoke in them, and their loyalty for bade alike disclaimer and accommodation. (Comp. John 18:37.) When heretics said, “Christ ought to have said this or that,” the Apostles had only to reply, “But He did not say it.”
Hereby know we. — The criterion here is much the same as in 1John 4:2-3, but regarded from a different point of view: attention to false innovators, or faithful adherence to the Jesus Christ of history.” (2)
In essence, a decision must be made as to what spirit is influencing a prophet, apostle or teacher. Is it the Holy Spirit, or a lying spirit?
The next two entries from the book of Deuteronomy provide valuable insight on how this verdict is accomplished:
“If a prophet or dreamer of dreams arises among you and proclaims a sign or wonder to you, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 13:1-3)
Deuteronomy 13 reflects to the First Commandment in Exodus 20:3.
“But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die. And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken? When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.” (Deuteronomy 18:20-22)
Deuteronomy 18 introduces the test of accuracy in predictive prophecy.
“Then the LORD said unto me, the prophets prophesy lies in my name: I sent them not, neither have I commanded them, neither spake unto them: they prophesy unto you a false vision and divination, and a thing of nought, and the deceit of their heart.” (Jeremiah 14:14)
Jeremiah’s test is one of truth-telling. The false prophet lies in God’s name as the serpent did to Eve in Genesis 3:4.
“Beware of false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7:15)
Matthew’s warning is not to be deceived by the outward appearance of the false prophets.
“And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.” (2Corinthians 11:14)
In addition, Paul warns the elders in Ephesus that:
“I know that after my departure, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” (Acts 20:29)
The apostle Paul agrees with the warning that we see from the apostle John in 1John and exhorts the church in Thessalonica to:
“Test all things; hold fast what is good.” (1Thessalonians 5:21)
How is this testing done? The “test” can be called the Berean test.
“These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” (Acts 17:11)
The Scriptures were the standard. A departure from the Scriptures was a departure from the truth.
The danger of being deceived is a burden Paul had in his love for the church. He cites an example of what happened in the churches in Galatia:
“I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.” (Galatians 1:6-7)
Paul warns the Corinthian Church:
“For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ.” (2Corinthians 11:13)
In Corinthians, Paul introduces a new category, which is one of “deceitful workers;” or persons whose work is to cheat and mislead, even claiming apostleship.
The apostle Peter adds false teachers to list of deceivers:
“But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.” (2Peter 2:1)
John says this to the church at Ephesus:
“I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars.” (Revelation 2:2)
The apostle John adds false apostles to the list of deceivers.
“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 that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.” (1John 4:2-3)
Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible on 1John 4:2, 3 will be an appropriate close to this study:
“Hereby know ye the Spirit of God … This is a rule by which believers may know whether a man professing to have the Spirit of God, and to be called and sent by him and whether the, doctrine he preaches, is of him or not:
every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh,
is of God; or of the Spirit of God; that is, every doctrine which carries this truth in it; or every man that owns, and professes, and publishes this doctrine concerning Christ, is on the side of God and truth; and which contains several articles in it, respecting the person and office of Christ; as that he existed before he came in the flesh, not in the human nature, or as man, or as an angel, but as the Son of God, as a divine person, being truly and properly God; so that this confession takes in his divine sonship, and proper deity, and also his true and real humanity; that the Messiah was incarnate, against the Jews, and was God and man in one person; and that he was really man, and not in appearance only, against the heretics of those times: and it also includes his offices, as that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, the Messiah, which the Jews denied, and that he was the anointed prophet, priest, and King; and so is a confession or acknowledgment of all the doctrines of the Gospel, which came by him, as a prophet; and of his satisfaction, sacrifice, and intercession, as a priest; and of all his ordinances and commands as a King; and that he is the only Saviour and Redeemer of men. Now, whoever owns and declares this system of truth, “is of God”; not that everyone that assents unto this, or preaches it, is born of God; a man may believe, and confess all this, as the devils themselves do, and yet be destitute of the grace of God; but the spirit, or doctrine, which contains these things in it, is certainly of God, or comes from him; or whoever brings these truths with him, and preaches them, he is, so far as he does so, on the side of God and truth, and to be regarded.
And every spirit that confesseth not, … The proper deity and sonship of Christ, his true and real humanity, and his Messiahship; or any of his offices, doctrines, and ordinances; or his satisfaction and righteousness; or that peace, pardon, justification, life, and salvation, are by him; all which are meant by what follows,
that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh: this clause is left out in the Ethiopic version, and that without hurting the sense, since it is easily supplied from the preceding verse; and the Alexandrian copy, and the Vulgate Latin version, only read “Jesus”: and the latter reads the whole thus, “and every spirit that dissolves Jesus”; that separates the two natures, human and divine, in him, and makes two persons of them; or denies either of them, either that he is truly God, or really man, or denies him to be Jesus, the Saviour; who, as much as in him lies, destroys his person, office, and work, and makes void his obedience, sufferings, and death:
is not of God; neither he nor his doctrine are of God; his doctrine cannot come from God, being contrary to the word of God; and he himself is neither born of God, nor on his side.
And this is that spirit of antichrist: who is against Christ, or opposes himself to him; as he who denies his sonship, his deity, his humanity, his offices, and his grace, manifestly does; every doctrine that is calculated against these truths is the spirit and doctrine of antichrist:
whereof you have heard that it should come, and even now already is it the world; in the false teachers, the forerunners of antichrist; See Gill on 1 John 2:18.” (3)
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)
1. J. H. Thayer, The New Thayer’s Greek English Lexicon, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers), p. 154.
2. Charles John Ellicott, Bible Commentary for English Readers, 1John, Vol.8, (London, England, Cassell and Company), p. 487.
3. John Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, 1John, (Grace Works, Multi-Media Labs), 2011, p. 78-79. Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com