In studies on discerning of the spirit(s) one has the tendency to jump to the list of gifts in I Corinthians 12 for support or study. The main presupposition, in turning here first, is that the Holy Spirit gives a spontaneous insight or revelation of discernment to aid the believer in dividing what is true from what is false. The point of this paper is not necessarily to refute this belief, but expand it by challenging believers to test things that are taught or spoken with the objective standards of Scripture and the rational mind. This was the challenge of many teachers in the New Testament: from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:15 , to Paul’s instruction in I Thessalonians 5:21-22, and finally to John’s command in I John 4:1–6. This passage will be the guide of our study as we learn that in I John 4:1–6, the Apostle John warns the church to be cautious of who and what they believe, and as children of God we are able to detect what is from God and what is from the world because through Christ we have overcome the world.
The Apostle John is the most likely author of this book as well as, second, and third John, Revelation, and the Gospel under his name. John was one of the closest followers of Christ and is traditionally known as the beloved disciple and one of three disciples who were closest to Christ, including James and Peter; and in John’s gospel, we see the loving relationship John shared with Jesus (13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 20). John was probably related to Jesus as a first cousin; his mother’s name was Salome, and she was very likely the sister of Mary the mother of Jesus. Because we know that Jesus and John the Baptist were cousins, it is reasonable to assume that John was also a cousin of John the Baptist. Furthermore, tradition tells us that before John became a follower of Jesus, he was a follower of his other cousin John the Baptist. After John left the Baptist to follow Jesus, we see that Jesus gave John and his brother James the nickname “Sons of Thunder” (Mk. 3:17, 9:38; and Lk. 9: 51-54). This “seems to imply that he had a vehement [passionate], violent temper,” and this temper would be humbled later in Mark 10:35-45, as Jesus taught them a lesson on pride after their request to sit at Jesus’ side in heaven.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection John was assigned to care for Mary (Jn. 19:26-27). He then teamed up with Peter in preaching the Gospel (Ac. 3:1-2, 8:14-15), and they were arrested together for preaching (Ac. 4:1-3). Paul refers to him as a pillar of the Church (Gal. 2:9) with James and Peter. He is also called the “Elder/presybeter who was probably responsible for second and third John.” Though he is not explicitly named as the author tradition holds that he wrote the gospel, epistles, and Revelation; however, some scholars hold that the use of “we” in John 1:14 and 1:16 may imply that a follower of John may have revised the material after John’s death. John was probably a mentor to Polycarp, Papias, and Ignatius who were church fathers and Bishops of Smyrna, Hierapolis, and Antioch respectively, and Polycarp and Ignatius would go on to write non-canonical epistles. Finally, John is believed to be the only original disciple to die a natural death as well as the one to live longest.
The background of the book shows that it was written sometime between 85 and 95 A.D., and the earlier date may be the closest to the actual time frame for dating the epistle. The best evidence concerning John’s intended audience indicates that it was written as a circular letter to the churches of Asia Minor. This is due to the tradition that John was living in the city of Ephesus, and there he probably held some form of leadership/pastoral position.
In the book, John addresses the major issue of Gnosticism; the Christian faith had been around for about 60 to 70 years, and it had become very well known, and some in the Roman Empire were trying to combine Christianity with philosophy. I John is written to address this problem called Gnosticism. A close look at Gnosticism shows that it taught that human nature consists of two separate, irreconcilable entities: the body and the S[s]pirit. The body or flesh is only where sin resides, and the flesh could do whatever it wanted to do, while the human spirit occupied itself with the things of God. One could transcend to a spiritual realm by acquiring “gnosis” or knowledge.
Docetism (or an early form of Gnosticism) is described as a “belief in a phantom Christ.” The Docetic teachers denied the incarnation or bodily appearance of Jesus, and they taught two things: Jesus was a phantom appearing to be a man, and/or the divine Christ joined the man Jesus at baptism and left him before he died. They believed “that the spirit was good but matter (flesh) was evil and that if Jesus had a material body He had to be evil. [Thus] For them, salvation was only for the soul, not for the body.” John is writing to address the Gnostic/docetic false teaching that said that Jesus was not entirely human. Thus, John speaks as an eyewitness (I John 1:3) to the humanity and deity of Jesus, and John’s Christological balance explains his writing as addressing two groups: the Jewish Christians who had a problem accepting the Messiahship of Jesus and the Hellenists who had difficulty accepting the full humanity of Jesus. This is seen in the Gospel and developed into further tension by the time of the letters. Further, Smalley identifies four groups that were in the house churches of Ephesus as the Johannine Christians, the heretically inclined Jewish members, the heterodox Hellenists/pagans, and the secessionists (who were anti-Christian, but not the false teachers). Obviously, the problem developed between the Jews with their high esteem of the Law and low regard for Jesus, and the Hellenists with their high respect of Jesus and their apathy towards righteousness. Therefore, the problem was both theological and ethical, as John had to balance the “low” or earthly Jesus (of the Jews) with the divine or “high” Jesus of the Hellenists and bring a balance between observance of the law and a righteousness of faith.
Finally, the letter was written as a reaction to the false teachers who were going around teaching their false doctrine(s). More specifically, John may be addressing his “opponent” Cerinthus. The Cerinthian heresy taught, “Jesus was the physical son of Joseph, and that at his baptism Jesus, who was just a man, was come upon by an aeonian, or eternal being, Christ. When Jesus went to the cross, the divine Christ abandoned him, and Jesus died as a mere man.” Thus, we see that a greater emphasis on “orthodoxy” is seen in the later books of the New Testament: from John’s “spirit of error vs. Spirit of Truth” (I Jn. 4:6), to Jude’s “rule of Faith” (Jude 3, 17), and the pastoral’s emphasis on keeping the faith (I Tim. 6:13-14, 20-21; II Tim. 1:13-14; Titus 1:9; and II Peter 1:12. 3:2-7). John fits perfectly within this reactionary movement as he and the others mentioned above set out to bring a “crystallization of the faith into set forms.” Here we see that the church leaders were trying to bring order and right doctrine to the church by exposing the false teachers and setting up a “bulwark against enthusiasm and false teaching – [with] the sense that the founding era of revelation was now past, [and] with the correlatives that the responsibility of the present becomes the preservation of the faith from the founding fathers for the future.” Thus, John’s sharpness and resolve in correcting the church and the heresies surrounding it was more a matter of survival than a theological debate with a Christian brother having a different opinion (as in Acts 15). Nevertheless, the correction of John and the crystallization of the faith proved to be a solidifying factor that grounded the church so that it would survive, and indeed thrive.
I John is an interesting book full of major doctrinal issues that the early church faced. The literary genre is described as like a “paper, written in the light of the fourth Gospel, it is a consideration for the purposes of teaching and further discussion of the Christological and ethical issues which were causing debate and even division within the Johannine Church.” The epistle can also be seen as a corrective sermon, as it has all the components of a sermon and is not addressed to anyone in particular as a normal letter would be in that era.
The book begins with the “Word” dialogue that almost exactly duplicates the Gospel discourse on the same topic (compare Jn. 1:1–18 and I Jn. 1:1–4). Following this is the first main point about the light of God. This is John’s confession and teaching: God is light and therefore, we should walk in the light (1:7). He then goes on to set forth what living in this light entails: namely, forgiveness of our sins and the avoidance of further sin (2:1–2), and keeping the commandments (2:3ff). John then transitions to a love theme in 2:15 and “the words ‘love’ (noun and verb) appear more frequently in I John than anywhere else in the NT (46 times).” John brings out three types of love: for the world (2:15–24), from God (2:25–3:10), and for each other (3:11–24). Accordingly, the two main features brought out in the book address the ethical problems (righteousness and love), but now John transitions into the theological problem (i.e. a right confession of Christ) in chapters four and five with emphasis on overcoming the deception of the false teachers sprinkled throughout both chapters. The passage in 4:1-6 serves as the primary point in the book to teach that not everything is from God. John’s point here is to show that discernment and biblical understanding are necessary because there are false teachers out there and they are deceptive to get people to believe their doctrine(s). As I read the book, it seems like John is setting up the person of Jesus that he knew personally and then transitioning to this chapter by saying now that we know whom Jesus is and what His characteristics are, we can now be ready to discern the truths and errors taught about Him.
Further, John uses a Greek literary device known as a chiasm to set up the argument for discernment in 4:1–6. A chiasm is used to create a “crossing effect [or] inverted parallelism,” “in which the words, poetic lines, or events are inversely repeated in order to shape episodes, speeches, or entire cycles of stories” (See Amos 5:4b–6a, Rom. 10:9–10, I Cor. 1:24–25, and Num. 11:11–15 for reference).
The pattern of this chiasm is
A. spirit of God (2a; but see below)
B. the spirit who is of God (2b)
C. the spirit not of God (3a)
(D) you are of God (4a)
C. they are of the world (5a)
B. we are of God (6a)
A. the spirit of truth (6b)
Finally, 2:18–24 and 4:1–6 appear to be parallel passages and indeed deal with almost the same subject matter: the spirit of the antichrist (2:18, 4:3), some going out from among the community/apostasy (2:19, 4:1), right and wrong confession of Christ (2:22–23, 4:2–3), and the spirit of truth and the spirit of error (2:21, 4:6).
Exegesis: I John 4:1–3
John begins this section by reaffirming the believers with his use of “Beloved” in verse one. John uses this endearing expression and the phrase “little children” sporadically throughout the book a total of eleven times in the epistle (2:1, 7, 18, 28, 3:2, 7, 4:1, 4, 7, 11, 5:21). Such frequency indicates John’s love for the church and his pastoral nature of giving sharp and critical correction in endearing and loving terms. The word used here denotes the attraction of two people, and it includes the traits of concern, care, and hospitality. The New Testament writers used it of Jesus the “Beloved Son” of God in Mk. 1:11. Paul also uses it to show that the called are the “Beloved of God” in Rom. 1:7 and Col. 3:12. Used in this passage, the vocative noun indicates direct speech to “my friends” or “my dear friends.” Other translations use “Dear Christian friends,” “Most dear brethren,” and “Dear friends.” The use of “Beloved” is “presumptive […] and has the effect of summoning the reader’s attention afresh to the subject at hand.” This may also explain why John uses it so frequently and sometimes at awkward points, even interrupting his flow of writing (as in 2:18, 2:28, 3:2, 4:11, and 5:21).
Now that we have established the caring relationship between John and the church, we see the command in verse one, “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” Not wanting to see any of the “beloved” fall prey to accepting all things as though they are from God, John issues this command to test the “spirits” and discern if they are truly from God, or as Stout said, “the present tense of the command ‘do not believe every spirit’ suggests that John’s readers were tending to accept uncritically all teaching which claimed to be inspired.” Thus, we see that the Pauline problem of I Corinthians 12–14 is one that John had to face in Ephesus as ecstatic people moved in their giftings. Though the problem faced by John was not entirely similar to that of Paul, it is still troubling because both groups (orthodox and heretical) claimed ‘inspiration’ to support their claims/positions. Further, “in both cases [I Cor. 12:3 and I John 4:1–3] the situation envisaged is the assembly at worship, when the inspired utterance could be tested by the rest of the congregation.” Consequently, the “writer is anxious to establish the means for discriminating between the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
The Greek word for “spirit” (pneuma) was used in Classical Greek to mean the dramatic movement of air, the result of the action of breathing, the human power of intellect, or Divine inspiration. It also stands alongside “heart” in meaning. In the New Testament, it denotes the power that people experience that relates them to the spiritual realm through the human spirit, evil and good spirits, or the Holy Spirit in Acts. Used in the passage, it indicates every man’s spirit or every human spirit (that is not from God), or as Stout asserts, “the word ‘spirit’ here must mean either ‘utterance inspired by a spirit’ or ‘person inspired by a spirit.’” However, Hiebert proposes that “the two spirits represent two distinct moral realms competing for control over the lives of human beings.” Nevertheless, we see that the command is to “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits” which is interesting seeing that John uses the plural “spirits” here and nowhere else in the passage. How can one test the “spirits” if there is only one Spirit, and one evil spirit? Is it reasonable to assume that John is comparing the two in his use of the plural? One idea may be that the “spirits” should be seen in contrast with “the ‘Spirit [definite and singular] of God’ [which] strongly suggests these are personal demonic spirits.” However, Smalley proposes, “the plural use of spirits is used because John sees that the spirit of truth or error can operate in a number of people at any one time. It does not imply a ‘multiplicity of divine or even of evil spirits.’” Therefore, the spirit being discussed in the plural probably connects with the other plural word “prophets” in the same sentence. It is then necessary to understand the meaning of the plural use of “spirits” as the multiplied working of the spirit of error in the preaching of the false prophets and not as an indicator of numerous spirits working to deceive the church.
The idea of testing is the main point of this passage as John commands the believers to do such. The concept of testing someone or something comes from the Classical Greek word dokimos, and denotes something as trustworthy or approved, and is the term used for genuine coinage. The Old Testament also uses this word, and there it means the test of true coinage or to be tested by fire. In the New Testament, it means to examine, interpret, search, seek, measure, taste, try out, weigh, to see the goodness of. Used in this passage it means, to test with the result being approval, or rejection if found impure, and fits with the dependant clause “to see” in the verse.
The command to test is qualified by the subordinate clause “because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” The testing of spirits would not be as necessary, if at all, if the false prophets were not going out with the purpose of deceiving others to follow them. Smalley seems to think that the false teachers are the “heretical members of John’s congregation” However, the phrase “have gone out into the world” seems to indicate that the false teachers/prophets are going out from the community, or as Howard Marshall said, “They went out, like Christian missionaries (II Jn. 7), in order to win converts for their cause.” The phrase “they have gone out into the world” is used here in the third person, plural, perfect form, and here the perfect tense indicates past action with continuing effects. In other words, it could read they went out before and that is still affecting the ministry and preaching of the word. Other translations read, “Many false prophets have already gone out into the world,” and “there are many prophets who are not true who have gone out into the world.”
The false teachers have gone out into the world and their deceptions are very dangerous because they are obviously wrong, but also because they masquerade themselves in Christian rhetoric, thought, practice, and charismata. The false prophets however, are not a new group of people. Jesus faced them and warned his disciples about following them, and “Jesus had warned people against them (Mt. 7:15) even when they as false Christs work portents [signs, omens]”
Used only 11 times in the N.T., the Greek word (pseudoprophētai or pseudo-prophet) means a person who makes a false claim to being a prophet and/or a person who preaches anything that is untrue. Here the false prophets are definitely labeled as wrong and are connected to the spirit of the antichrist in verse three. The word antichrist is found only in the second half of the first century (with the exception of early Jewish apocalyptic literature). Originally the preposition “anti” meant “in place of” and then later “against,” and it is related to pseudoprophētai and pseudochristoi. Caution should be used here, as John is not talking about the antichrist (e.g. the man of lawlessness in II Thess. 2:3–12, and the two beasts of Revelation in chapter 13), but about the spirit of the antichrist found in the false prophets. Notice here that the “spirit” of the antichrist is in the world, which could mean the spirit of false doctrine and false prophets, but not the physical antichrist.
John then gives believers the means or the boundaries of the testing process by saying, “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.” Remembering our study on the true test of coinage is valuable here to notice the scale of the test. This test is not an abstract or vaguely worded examination of Christological ideas and beliefs; rather, it is an all or nothing way to divide the “spirits” into groups of correct or incorrect. Just as coinage is tested and found to be either pure or impure so also is doctrine in John’s mind especially when it comes to the confession of Christ. If one does not confess that Jesus has come “in the flesh” then that person cannot be from God. Moreover, John is adamant in his writing that Jesus came in the flesh. “Flesh” was seen as sinful and evil in the eyes of many in the NT era, and especially the Gnostics, and John’s frequent use of it in both this letter and the Gospel is seen as deliberate with the intention of excluding the docetists. Dunn further expounds on this concept using communion as an example of John’s intentional wording;
John underscores the shocking nature of his assertion [that Jesus came in the flesh] in [the gospel of John] 6:51–63: to believe in Jesus is to crunch or chew his flesh and drink his blood […] The very idea of attaining eternal life by feeding upon flesh would horrify John’s Hellenistic readers and most of all any docetists.
John’s wording here must then be seen as reactionary to bring balance to the overly spiritual people who could not understand the divine Christ in human terms. Nevertheless, John makes it clear with his use of “flesh” that Jesus was not merely a phantom or ghost like person; rather, he was real in his humanity. John, however, does use strong and somewhat cannibal like words which make it difficult to understand the doctrine John intends us to learn, but Dunn goes on to say that “Such otherwise needlessly offensive language can only be understood as deliberately and provocatively directed against any docetic spiritualization of Jesus’ humanity, an attempt to exclude docetism by emphasizing the reality of the incarnation[…]”
Exegesis: I John 4:4–6
In this section of the passage, John identifies the two groups by bringing a reassurance to the believers, and criticizing the false prophets. To begin, we notice that John states the believer’s position by telling them that, “You are from God, little children.” Again, we notice John’s use of the reaffirming or pastoral language as already seen in his use of “Beloved” and here “little children.” Yet, here the affirmation goes beyond John’s love for them as he clearly asserts their position as from God as opposed to the false prophets who are from the world.
The advantage then is to the believers not only because they are from God, but also because of their victory over the false prophets as John says in verse 4, “You are from God, little children, and have overcome them.” Yet what are to make of this overcoming process? Stout proposes that “this ‘overcoming’ process is not so much moral (as in 2:13–14, where the same word occurs) as intellectual. The false teachers have not succeeded in deceiving you.” However, Robertson interprets the word for “overcome” as the “calm confidence of final victory as in 2:13 and John 16:33.” Still yet, Hiebert draws upon the Greek grammar by stating, “The perfect tense ‘have overcome’ denotes a definite time when they faced the temptation to accept their [the false prophet’s] alluring message, but having tested it they rejected it and were victorious.” Personally, I have difficulty accepting any of the above options because they do not relate back to verse one. Why would John feel the need to write a command to do something (namely test the spirits) if the believers had already outwitted the heretical members? It seems implausible that John is making a point in the present about a problem solved (at least partially) in the past. If we reject this, we still have to deal with Robertson’s interpretation. This too seems troublesome, because it denotes a future overcoming that is not consistent with the perfect tense “have overcome.” Though we know that the ultimate and final victory of God’s kingdom is still to come, we must also recognize that we are victorious as Christians. This belief leaves the future interpretation of the phrase to be ignored, and does not connect well with John’s next thought that we have overcome “because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.”
Perhaps one of Christianity’s more popular (and misquoted) verses this thought was probably a great encouragement to the believers who were facing the false prophets. Nevertheless, we come to an interesting crossroads here that deals with our interpretation of the “He” in this verse. The convenient capitalization of “He” by the NASB translators makes it easy to assume that John means the “He” to be Jesus. However, we must consider that often (if not always) the translators capitalize “He” in reference to Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit. So what do we do here? Do we accept the idea that “John stressed not the identity but the superior greatness of this divine Enabler,” or do we try to examine the text to find the answer? For the sake of clarity, I’ll choose the latter. A look at the original Greek, however, shows that the word used here is the Greek article and not a pronoun. Therefore, a more literal translation might be “the one who is” than “He.” The NIV interprets it as “the one who is,” the KJV “he” (notice the shift in capitalization) and the NLT gives us another perspective “the Spirit who lives in you is.” The NLT might be on to something here if you take I John 2:27 literally,
“But you have received the Holy Spirit, and he lives within you, so you don’t need anyone to teach you what is true. For the Spirit teaches you everything you need to know, and what he teaches is true—it is not a lie. So just as he has taught you, remain in fellowship with Christ.”
Additionally, we must recognize that “John, more than any other New testament author, emphahizes the Spirit’s role in helping the believer to know Christian truth.” However, this may fit the idea of the earlier text as related to this one, but the literal interpretation of 2:27, as referring to 4:4 seems unqualified and a stretch of proper interpretation. Moreover, using 2:27 as a basis for discernment is rather subjective and does not give us the objective kinds of tests that 4:1-6 does. This then leaves us with Jesus. Seeing that the context is definitely Christological in nature, it appears rational to assume that Jesus is the “He.” Furthermore, the idea of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and exaltation fit with the phrase “have overcome” because these events were in the past, and Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation fit with the idea of a “He” that is greater than the world.
Now that we have arrived at the believer’s sanding, we can observe the place of the false prophets. John clearly says that “they are from the world.” Their worldliness is evident to the believers and marks them as false teachers, yet this standing (from the world) grants the false teachers an audience and fame. Because their speech is from the world, it is listened to by the world. John’s point here is that the world only listens to what it wants to hear, but the people of God listen to correct teaching no matter how it may challenge or rebuke them. This is the flow of thought from verse 5 to 6, as John develops the idea that the world will only listen to the enticing words of the false teachers. Nevertheless, this serves as another test for the children of God to use in observing who is a false teacher. The phrase “By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” aligns with the idea that God’s people listen to us, worldly people listen to the false prophets, and serves as the concluding argument in this section.
One’s confession of Christ is the major teaching of this passage. Here we see that John is very concerned with the false teacher’s confession of Christ as anything less than wholly God and wholly man. Yet, must we be as alert as John in defending Christ against heresy? Aren’t the 16 fundamental truths significant enough to refer to when questions arise? Didn’t the church councils at “Nicea in A.D. 325 (which confessed Christ as fully divine), Constantinople in A.D. 381 (which confessed Christ as fully human), and Chalcedon in A.D. 451 (which confessed the unity of Christ–two natures, one person)” settle the doctrine into a compact and understandable position that we can turn to during an argument? If we do indeed take these church confessions or councils as the basis of our faith, and indeed most do, we would do well to realize that these confessions came long after John’s writing and brought a clarity of doctrine to their present, not ours.
While bringing a defense of Christ into the modern world might sound redundant or overwhelming, we must realize that in the wake of the Da Vinci Code , the Gnostic Gospels, and The Jesus papers. Each of these and many more seek to cast doubt on the reality of Christ as divine. Further, the historical movement tries to deny the resurrection of Jesus and study Him as one would any other historical figure. However, we as Christians must find a “place between a historicism that wants to keep Jesus locked in the past and a mysticism that threatens to vaporize the particularity of Jesus altogether.” Here the idea is that we seek the living Christ as the Son of God and learn from Him as we live with Him. In doing so we bring Christ into our world with its doubts and confusion and we show the world, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer did in the 1930’s, that Christ is the center or as Bonhoeffer said, “I do not know who this man Jesus is unless I say at the same time ‘Jesus Christ is God’, and I do not know who the God Jesus Christ is unless I say at the same time ‘Jesus Christ is man’ […] This one God-Man is the starting point of Christology.” Further we read of an interesting account from Smith Wigglesworth about “spirits” that would deny, or refuse to admit, the reality of Christ’s coming.
I have seen a person under a power of evil, or having a fit, I have said to the power of evil, or Satanic force that is within the possessed person, “Did Jesus Christ come in the flesh?” and straightway they have answered, “No.” They either say, “No,” or hold their tongues, refusing altogether to acknowledge that the Lord Jesus Christ came in the flesh. I know it is the enemy who is trying to work.
For us the teachings against Christ’s divinity might be easily recognized as false teaching, but what teachings/doctrines do we accept blindly today? It is a thought we must all consider as we realize that this text in I John 4:1–3 shows us that the Holy Spirit empowers believers to discern the difference between truth and falsehood. In II Timothy 4:3, Paul warns that in the last days people will not put up with sound doctrines. Instead, they will be itching ear audiences who will accept anything that entertains them or makes them feel good about their “religion.” John, however, does not leave us to wonder about whether a doctrine is real or not, but he shows us that we can test the spirits by making them endure the decisive tests of sound doctrine. A.T. Robertson wrote, “Prove the spirits. Put them to the acid test of truth as the metallurgist does his metals. If it stands the test like a coin, it is acceptable, otherwise it is rejected.” What do these tests include? Taken from the text we see that it includes, what they teach about Jesus (vv.2 and 3), that their speech is from the world (v.5), “for their talk proceeds from the world and wins a ready hearing. The false prophets and the world are in perfect unison,” as well as their love and righteousness. We, however, can easily keep ourselves safe from false teachers if we keep alert and follow the Bereans as an example,
“The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men.” (Acts 17:10–12)
Notice that they received the word eagerly (v.11). They did not harbor an attitude of skepticism nor were they hesitant to the word; rather, they received it, then turned and examined the Scriptures daily to see if the things that were being taught were right (v.11). Neil Foster gives us a list of good attitudes to have when testing something. First is to ask questions, “In spiritual matters there often develops a strange paralysis among us. We Christians hesitate to question anything lest we grieve the Spirit of God […] It is neither carnal nor unspiritual to ask the question.” We should also expect things to get worse. “We must not even be surprised when new religious maniacs arise.” Another fascinating note from Wigglesworth’s article says,
You will have people come to meetings who are spiritists. You must be able to deal with spiritist conditions. You can so deal with them that they will not have any power in the meetings. If you ever have Theosophists or Christian Scientists, you must be able to discern them and settle them. Never play with them; always clear them out.
Additionally one should cultivate a wholesome naiveté. “[…] if one falls into the suspicion syndrome, all one sees is deception […] A wholesome biblical tension needs to be maintained.” And finally keep your eyes on holiness. We can easily discern something if we ask, “Does this attitude, action, practice, or movement contribute toward personal holiness in the life of the believer?”
Now that we have explored the message of this text, I hope that we have learned that we are called by the Bible to be careful in what we accept as truth. We are told, not encouraged, to test the spirits to see if they are from God. This does not give us the right to call everything that we don’t agree with heresy, nor does this mean that most of Christian preaching is wrong. Rather, this speaks to our duty to look diligently into questionable teachings, not as religious watchdogs or doctrine police, but we should lovingly question anything that seems contradictory to the Bible, and do whatever is necessary to reject that teaching.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Christ the Center. New York: Harper and Row, 1960.
Brown, Colin, ed. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975.
Carpenter, Eugene E. and Wayne McCown, eds. Asbury Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.
DeMoss, Matthew. Pocket Dictionary for the Study of New Testament Greek. Downers Grove,
Ill.: InterVarstiy, 2001, 29.
Dunn, James. Unity and Diversity in the New Testament. London: SCM, 2006.
Foster, Neill K. The Discerning Christian. How the believer detects truth from error in the midst of today’s religious confusion. Harrisburg, Pa.: Christian Publications, Inc., 1981.
Foster, Richard J. Streams of Living Water. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998.
Halley, Henry. Halley’s Bible Handbook. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.
Hernando, James D. “Discerning of Spirits - 1 John 4:1-6.” Paraclete (1992): 6-9
Hiebert, D. Edmond. “An expositional study of 1 John.” Bibliotheca Sacra (1988): 420-.
Cited: 8 December 2006, Online: http://search.atlaonline.com/pls/eli/ashow? aid=ATLA0001254246&offset=62&lcookie=2685497
Johnson, Luke Timothy. Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999.
Johnson, Thomas F. 1, 2, and 3 John. New international Bible Commentary. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1993.
Miethe, Terry. The Compact Dictionary of Doctrinal Words. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1988.
Minear, Paul S. “Idea of incarnation in First John.” Interpretation (1970): 291-302.
Cited:8 December 2006, Online: http://search.atlaonline.com/pls/eli/ashow?
Pierce, Samuel E. I John. Newport Commentary Series. Springfield, Mo: Particular Baptist, 2004.
Robertson, A.T. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Nashville: Broadman, 1933.
Smalley, Stephen. 1, 2, 3 John. Word Biblical Commentary; Waco, Tex.: Word, 1984.
Stout, John. The Letters of John. Leicester, Eng.: InterVarsity, 1990.
Tate, Randolph. Interpreting the Bible. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2006.
Verbrugge, Verlyn D. The NIV Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.
Wigglesworth, Smith. “Discerning of spirits.” Pentecostal Evangel (12-08-1923): 2.
Cited: 8 December 2006, Online: http://www.agheritage.org/pdf2/pe/1922-1926/12-08- 1923.pdf#Page2
Read more articles by Chris Vaughn or search for articles on the same topic or others.