Testing the Spirits

The Apostle John teaches the church what to look for in spotting spiritual predators.
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We have a child safety program at the congregation where I serve as one of the ministers. It is a condition imposed by our insurance provider that requires we verify the background of those teaching or working with our children and youth. The policy also has other safety conditions for classrooms, outings, and events. In this world, and even in the church, we have to protect our children against predators that would come in among us and harm them. I say all of this to make the point that there are also "spiritual" predators that try to infiltrate the church to do spiritual harm to God's people as well.

Paul refers to them as "wolves":

I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.
- Acts 20:29-30

Along with the safety precautions we take to insure that our children are not harmed, we also need to protect the church against the spiritual harm that might befall it as well. This is the subject of John's admonition:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
- 1 John 4:1

In this passage, John warns the brethren that in his absence they had to be on guard for those who would teach things contrary to the Spirit and doctrine of Christ. John is referring to teachers and prophets when he speaks of "spirits". I believe that John's warning was not only for the first century church but for all congregations, that each be careful to judge or test every teacher and preacher to make sure that they accurately speak only God's word.

Criteria Outlined by John

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.
- 1 John 4:1-3

In John's day, a false doctrine promoting the idea that Jesus was not really a human being, was circulating in certain churches. The main thought was that He appeared as a spirit that looked like a man but did not actually take on a body of flesh.

This false teaching was the result of an effort to mix elements of Greek philosophy with Christian theology. The Greek philosophers taught that the flesh was evil and so it was impossible for a divine being to inhabit a body of flesh. They rejected the doctrine of the Incarnation (a divine being takes on a human body of flesh in Jesus) and replaced it with this idea which better fit their philosophy.

They misunderstood, or were not aware of, the prophecy (Hebrews 10:5-7) that Jesus, the Messiah, had to become a man (human) so that He could live a thoroughly human life and offer that perfect human life as a sacrifice/atonement for sin:

By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
- Hebrews 10:10

Had Jesus only appeared as a spirit, no acceptable sacrifice could have been offered, no atonement could have been made for sin, and no forgiveness would then be possible. In the face of this dangerous false teaching John establishes the criteria for the authenticity of those who were qualified to teach God's people:

  • If someone doesn't acknowledge that Jesus is God become man, he is a false prophet (teacher).

Those who promoted this false teaching were to be rejected on the grounds that they were as individuals, false prophets, and collectively part of the "spirit" of the antichrist. The spirit of the antichrist was the sum of all these individuals and teachings that rejected Jesus as both divine and human simultaneously. This passage teaches us that there can be incorrect doctrine taught in the church, and Christians must learn to discern the true from the false based on God's word. We also see that this problem has existed from the very beginning when the church was established.

John was addressing one major false doctrine that was prevalent in his day. Today, we continue to have many false and incorrect doctrines being promoted by various teachers. For this reason we need to have a simple and direct way to determine which are true and which are false.

Criteria that is not Valid

Unfortunately, many people use the wrong standards to decide the quality and expertise of a Bible teacher or preacher. Sincere believers often judge ministers responsible for teaching and preaching the word of God as they would business leaders or athletes. Here are some characteristics that are not valid in testing the "spirits":

1. Dynamism is not a Qualification

  • A preacher overwhelms us with his public speaking ability, the level of formal education he has received, or his use of scholarly language.
  • Some teachers are persuasive and funny, giving us an emotional charge.
  • Sometimes a minister is well-organized and seems by his demeanor that he is a man that can, "get things done."
  • Many are impressed if a person is wealthy, well-dressed, or modern and can relate to many different kinds of people.

These are great qualifications and those who minister should cultivate these skills, however, none of them are necessary in order to be accepted as a true prophet. Apollos was a well-educated, persuasive, dynamic orator who preached up a storm in Ephesus and built up a following (Acts 18:24-19:7). However, he was preaching an incomplete gospel and had to be taught the way of God more accurately by Acquilla and Priscilla. In addition to this, Paul had to re-educate and re-baptize his converts because of Apollos' inaccurate teaching. Thankfully, Apollos had a teachable heart and received the correction with humility so that he could go on and become an effective servant of the Lord.

2. Success and Results are not Qualifications

We live in a success oriented society that judges the value of an individual by the success that person has achieved. This is why people are so shocked to learn that a rich and famous person is an alcoholic or child molester. We equate material and social success with moral purity. The Jews were like this also. They believed that if you were rich it meant that you were blessed by God. For this reason they stumbled when Jesus said,

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
- Matthew 19:24

We have this attitude today when we judge a preacher's biblical soundness on the size of the congregation where he preaches or how well known he might be. How successful a minister is has no bearing on the accuracy of his teachings. This is not to say that one's success in ministry eliminates the possibility that he is teaching God's word correctly. Hopefully every preacher has the opportunity to preach to as many souls as possible; however, the size of the audience does not guarantee that what is being taught is in accordance with God's will recorded in His word.

3. Zeal is not a Qualification

Paul said of the Jews:

For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge.
- Romans 10:2
  • Jews had an enthusiasm for their religion, bordering on the fanatic, but Paul says that it wasn't according to the knowledge of the truth.
  • Muslims are quite zealous about converting people to their religion and they often sacrifice their lives for it, but Mohammad isn't the Savior.
  • Charismatic believers roll around on the floor and go into trances, but this activity does not substitute for true holiness and purity.

That someone is excited or emotional about their religion, even if it's Christianity, is good, but zeal is no replacement for or sign of true knowledge and authority in spiritual matters.

Criteria that is Valid

What should we be looking for when we "test the spirits?" When looking for a "true prophet," what signs should guide our search?

1. True Prophets Speak and Act According to God's Word

The most obvious way to judge a potential teacher or preacher is to compare what he says and does to God's word. Jesus commanded that the Apostles teach others to observe all that He taught (Matthew 28:20). This involves three things that modern-day prophets (teachers and preachers) need to do:

  1. They must teach all of the things that Jesus taught. Their doctrine must be accurate to, and include all of, what Christ taught.
  2. They must themselves obey His teachings. There is no better way of determining insincerity than by observing carefully if the teacher is actually doing the things he's teaching others to do.
  3. Effective teachers train others to obey the teaching. They demonstrate to their students how to put into practice what is being taught, and encourage them to be teachers themselves.

In the religious world there are many who like to speak, and do it well, but the true prophet is the one who speaks and does well what Jesus taught.

2. True Prophets Magnify Christ

You know you are in the presence of a true prophet if the result of his ministry to you is that you love Jesus more, not the minister more. The purpose of ministry is not to advance the career of the minister, it's to advance the cause of Christ, the gospel, and His church. A true prophet will not compromise the gospel for wealth, fame, or influence. For example:

  • Jesus' ministry ended at the cross.
  • Peter and Paul's ministries ended in a Roman execution.

True prophets are focused on service, not self; their zeal is for the church not their careers.

The late Dr. Raymond Kelcy (Professor of Bible, Oklahoma Christian University) was once asked to name the most outstanding preacher in the churches of Christ. He replied that it was probably someone we had never heard of, a man who simply did his work quietly in the name of the Lord in a place not many knew of.

When you see people being baptized, erring souls returning to God, church members sacrificing to serve Christ, men and women living holy lives because of their faith, entire families who know and obey God's word, you can be assured that they are receiving ministry from a true prophet of God.

3. True Prophets Promote Unity in the Church

When the topic of teachers and their work is spoken of in the New Testament you notice that a common feature mentioned in connection with false teachers is that they create division wherever they go.

Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.
- Romans 16:17

In I Corinthians 1:10 Paul exhorts them to stop dividing the church by following different teachers.

  • When a man begins to worry about his following rather than his teaching.
  • When people begin to favor one teacher over another to the point of quarreling or gossip.
  • When brothers and sisters in Christ are feeling tense and losing their peace of mind, it is often because of the disturbance brought into the church through the ideas and teachings of false prophets.

True prophets work towards unity, harmony, peace, love, and growth even at the expense of their pride, their ambition, and their valid complaints about what is fair.

Paul, the Apostle, took a vow and went to the temple to sacrifice in order to maintain peace and help the weaker Jewish Christian brethren who thought he was out to destroy their way of life (Acts 21). He didn't have to do this, but he did so to maintain unity and strengthen these brethren in their moment of weakness. The only thing a true prophet will not compromise is God's word. He will, however, sacrifice his opinion, ego, and rights in order to support the weak and maintain the unity of the Spirit.


We read the New Testament and think that their problems were unique to that time and place. However, the New Testament addresses universal problems that have always affected the church in every generation. No matter how long it takes for Jesus to return, we will always have to deal with personal sin; the challenge of growing spiritually; the task of evangelizing the world; dealing with church growth issues; and the need to be aware of false teachers. We are stronger if we are prepared to recognize what characteristics distinguish the true from the false so that we will never become victims of those who would destroy the unity, peace, and love we share in the church of our Lord.

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