1John 4: Try The Spirits

By O. C. Birdwell, Jr.

The first six verses of chapter four seem to be set apart from the rest of the chapter. These first verses are introduced by the last verse of chapter 3 which says, “And hereby we know that he abideth in us by the Spirit which he gave us.” This presents a question and a problem to which John, by inspiration, feels the need to supply the answer. How could one, amidst so many false spirits and false prophets, know the Spirit of God? With this question at hand, John pauses in his discussion of faith, love, and keeping the Lord’s commandments to present the answer. In this discussion of the fourth chapter, primary attention will be given to the charge “Prove the Spirits.”

The presence of Jesus with the apostles was a settled matter. He had promised the Spirit. Now the Spirit had come and was providing that which had been promised. By this evidence they knew that Christ was with them.

The apostles had received the baptism of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost in keeping with the promise from Jesus (Acts 1:5; 2:1-4). The Spirit came to the apostles as a Comforter (Jn. 14:16); to teach them all things, and bring to their remembrance all that Jesus had. taught (Jn. 14:26); to bear witness of Jesus (Jn. 15:26); to convict the world in respect of sin (Jn. 16:8); to guide the apostles into all truth (Jn. 16:13); to declare unto the apostles the things that were to come (Jn. 16:13); and to glorify Jesus (Jn. 16:14). What the Spirit taught was from Jesus and the Father (Jn. 16:15, 16).

“Believe Not Every Spirit” (v: 1)

The writer is quick to warn people not to believe every spirit that is in the world. There are false spirits as well as the true Spirit. Under consideration is the contrast and conflict between the two kinds of spirits and the method by which the people could make a distinction. There is a need to make such a distinction. It involves truth and error, right and wrong, salvation and condemnation.

In order to justify believing every spirit and practicing any religious doctrine, some would compare religion to such material things as automobiles and refrigerators. They say that any of the many brands will get the job done. This analogy and comparison with religion will not hold up. Most any make of automobile will do a fair job of taking one where he needs to go. Any brand of refrigerator will provide ice and adequate temperature to preserve food. Only the religion of Jesus Christ, however, will provide the eternal salvation that the soul of man needs. Everything else is counterfeit and false. Jesus teaches that there are only two ways. One is a broad way that leadeth to destruction; the other is strait (difficult) and leads unto life (Matt. 7:13, 14).

“It seems that in this world there is no truth without its counterfeit, nor good wheat of God unmixed with tares. Christ is mimicked by antichrist; the Spirit of God is mocked by lying spirits and the prophets of truth are counterworked by `many false prophets’ which `have gone out into the world’ ” (Findlay, Fellowship in the Life Eternal, p. 311).

The warning, “Believe not every spirit,” should be preached and heeded today.

“But Prove the Spirits”

The alternative to believing every spirit is proving the spirits. We are, therefore, instructed to “prove the spirits.” There is, however, a present attitude at work in the hearts and lives of many religionists which runs contrary to this charge. Some would have us believe that nothing is false if the teacher is honest and sincere. Others would even hold the notion that if one is in the family of God all he need do is, apart from New Testament obedience, place his trust in Jesus. Believing false doctrine would not endanger his salvation. John did not teach this position. He said, “Prove the spirits.”

The need for such trying of the spirits is clearly shown in the account of Saul of Tarsus. We need to learn a lesson from Saul. He lived in all good conscience (Acts 23:1). This was before as well as after his conversion. Yet, while his conscience was clear he “beyond measure . . . persecuted the church of God” (Gal. 1:13). He speaks of his being at that time “chief” of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). He believed the wrong spirit. He accepted the wrong teaching. He was sincere, but wrong. He needed to “prove the spirits.”

The idea that certain things are to be tried or proven is rather common in scripture. Notice things that are to be proven. (1) “Try your own selves, whether ye are in the faith” (2 Cor. 15:5). Paul also affirms that he was approved of God to be entrusted with the gospel, therefore, he did not strive to please men, “but God who proveth our hearts” (1 Thess. 2:4). (2) “But let each man prove his own work, and then shall he have his glorying in regard of himself alone, and not of his neighbor” (Gal. 6:4). (3) “Count it all joy, my brethren, when ye fall into manifold temptations; knowing that the proving of your faith worketh patience” (James 1:2, 3). (4) “Prove all things, hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). Since we are charged to try self, work, faith, and all things, is it surprising that John tells us to “prove the spirits”?

“False Prophets are Gone Out”

The early Christians were soon to deal with false prophets. Jesus foretold their existence and activity during the period preceeding the destruction of Jerusalem. He said, “And many false prophets shall arise, and shall lead many astray” (Matt. 24:11). In verse 24 of the same chapter he said, “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”

John probably wrote the statement which we are now considering after the Jerusalem destruction. The false prophets had not ceased their work. If anything, they became more prevelant. At the late date of John’s writing most, if not all, the apostles except John, were dead. Spiritual gifts by the laying on of the apostles hands were decreasing and disappearing. It was a time ripe for false spirits and prophets. “In such a situation, the gnostic heresy might pass as another manifestation of the spirit. The claim to special knowledge might be taken as knowing all mysteries and having all knowledge (1 Cor. 13:2). Indeed, such seems to be the case, for John’s aorist imperative is `stop believing every spirit’ ” (Gill, Hereby We Know, p. 96).

One Simple Test

“Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not Jesus is not of God.”

This simple test would especially :pply to the Gnostics of John’s day as well as to other similar religious beliefs that denied the incarnation. The test involved a confession of belief that Jesus had come in the flesh. The false teachers under consideration did not believe that He had come in the flesh, and , therefore, denied it as a fact. This is what identified them as false prophets and their teaching as coming not from the Spirit of God, but from false spirits. Testimony that Jesus had come in the flesh was made by the Holy Spirit through inspired men. The Spirit of God alone could assuredly make this proclamation which identified the Spirit as being from God.

We need to understand that John is not saying that all that is necessary to please God is to believe that Jesus came in the flesh. Paul wrote that those who teach “contrary to the doctrine which ye learned, . . . serve not our Lord Christ” (Ram. 16:17, 18). The doctrine they had learned was all the teaching received by Paul from the Spirit. To this John adds, “Whosoever goeth onward and abideth not in the teaching of Christ, hath not God: he that abideth in the teaching, the same hath both the Father and the Son” (2 Jn. 9). One must abide in the teaching of Christ. This involves obedience and commandment keeping.

Believing That Jesus Has Come in the Flesh

There is much involved in the matter of believing that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. Notice a few related facts: (1) He came as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah. He came to establish a kingdom. The kingdom was established and cannot be shaken or destroyed (Matt. 16:18; Dan. 2:44; Heb. 12:28). (2) He was born of a virgin, being “conceived in her” by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:20-23). He lived in a fleshly body, a fact denied by some who are identified by John and called false prophets. (3) He worked signs and miracles among the people and revealed to his apostles truth to be taught in the kingdom (Jn. 20:30, 31; Acts 1:2). (4) He has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18-20). (5) His New Testament is now in force and all religious truth which regulates our salvation is therein contained (Heb. 9:16, 17; Jn. 17:20, 21; Eph. 3:1-3). (6) His word shall judge us (Jn. 12:48). (7) By His word we are to judge all teachers and teaching (Ram. 16:17). If Jesus Christ has come in the flesh all of this, and much more, is true.

Further Evidence Given (5,6)

“They are of the world: therefore speak they as of the world, and the world heareth them. We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he who is not of God heareth us not. By this we know the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.” Paul says about the same thing in the following words: “Know ye not, that to whom ye present yourselves as servants unto obedience, his servants ye are whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?” (Ram. 6:16). The false prophets did not speak the things revealed by the Holy Spirit. They, therefore, were of the world. Those who reject the teaching of the Holy Spirit through the apostles and, instead of hearing the New Testament, hear and obey the false prophets, are also of the world. The Spirit of truth is known by hearing the apostles; the spirit of error by hearing false teachers.


  1. How did the apostles know that Jesus was continuing with them? Discuss and explain.
  2. Why would John warn man not to believe every spirit?
  3. Discuss present-day attitudes toward the charge “prove the spirits.”
  4. Relate some lessons we can learn from Soul of Tarsus on the subject of proving the spirits. Can you recall other Bible examples?
  5. List and discuss other things the new Testament tells us to prove.

  1. What opportunities in John’s day might false teachers use to teach their doctrines? Compare this to our day.
  2. What was one test John gave to be used in trying the spirits? Why was there such a need for this test in John’s day?
  3. Are all teachers who believe that Jesus Christ came in the flesh teaching the truth on other subjects?
  4. Make a list of facts, commands, and promises that must be accepted if one truly believes that Jesus Christ came in the flesh?
  5. Are we to prove teachers today? If so, how do we go about the task?

Guardian of Truth XXV: 14, pp. 211-213
April 2, 1981