What did John mean to “test the spirits?”


Tyler S. Ramey

First John 4:1-3 has been used erroneously as a sort of blueprint for determining the source of spiritual entities, especially within the framework of some contemporary brands of spiritual warfare.  Interrogating an angelic being, good or evil, is a common theme pulled from this passage of Scripture.  But what did John have in mind when he instructed his readers to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (v. 1)?  The passage reads:


Dear friends, 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.  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.  This is the spirit of antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.


Are we to presume that testing spirits requires a bit of theological quizzing in order to “see whether they are from God” (v. 1) or not?  Are we supposed to ask angelic beings to either confirm or deny that Jesus has come in the flesh?  Unfortunately, many have subscribed to such notions and have failed to understand how to apply John’s instructions to their lives.  Let’s examine John’s directive to “test the spirits.” 


First, we need to understand that John is not referring to spiritual entities per se in this passage.  A couple of quick proofs—one biblical, one rational—helps to confirm this. 


A Biblical Proof

Mark 1:24 records the fact that demons recognize Jesus as having come in the flesh, and the spirit noted in Mark is quite specific.  It exclaimed, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”  Now, if John referred to spiritual beings in 1 John 4:2 when he said that spirits that acknowledge that Jesus has come in the flesh are from God, i.e., “have divine approval,” a contradiction would be apparent.  But Scripture is not contradictory.  Therefore, John does not refer to spiritual beings in 1 John 4:1-3. 


A Rational Proof

Why would a believer draw conclusions about a specific angelic being’s source when clearly “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14)?  Evil beings are inclined to lie.  Therefore, it is not reasonable to presume that an evil spirit would tell the truth if queried about Christ’s incarnation.  John’s instruction cannot be the litmus test for determining the source of a spiritual entity.  But if his directive to test the spirits is not an instruction for identifying the source of a spiritual being, what does he mean when he says to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God”? 


The believers to whom John wrote were apparently confronted with a new and developing heresy called Gnosticism that denied Jesus had come in the flesh.  There were itinerant preachers of this new heresy among the Christians (some had apparently emerged FROM among the believers) and John was concerned to warn them of the lies perpetuated by them.  In addition, early Christians typically extended hospitality to traveling ministers and others, and the preachers of gnostic nonsense were enjoying these same privileges as true Christian ministers.  This, however, contributed to the matter John addresses since entertaining these purveyors of lies, namely, that Jesus did not come in the flesh, was an act of “sharing in their wicked work” (2 John 11). 


Note:  Second John is directly related to the matter addressed in 1 John (cf., 1 John 2:22; 4:3; 2 John 7).  John says that “Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh have gone out into the world” (2 John 7).


John encourages the believers to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).  He specifically ties the testing of spirits to the false prophets (the gnostic teachers) who denied that Jesus had come in the flesh.  The believers to whom he wrote were to discern which teachers were or were not from God by asking the relative question of them:  “Do you affirm that Jesus has come in the flesh?”  The false teachers would not be inclined to agree with this theological distinction, and, therefore, were more easily identified among and excluded from the brethren.


So, what did John mean when he said to test the spirits?  Since we know that he was not referring to spiritual beings, he must be referring to something else.  Testing the spirits refers to the “spirit of a teaching,” not spiritual entities.  This is akin to the “spirit of an age,” or the “spirit of Christmas,” or better yet, the “spirit of the antichrist” (1 John 4:3).  This spirit of antichrist is embodied in all false teachers and John identifies this truth in 1 John 2:18 when he says that “many antichrists have come” and “Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world.  Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 7).


In applying John’s instruction to “test the spirits,” believers would do well to understand that asking many other theologically distinctive questions of teachers is an appropriate way to separate “wheat from chaff.”  Here’s a few examples:


Do you affirm that Jesus rose from the dead?  Do you affirm that Jesus is God?  Do you affirm that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity? 


Can you think of other questions that would separate or identify false teachers or teaching from true Christian faith?


“We know that the Son of God has come” (1 John 5:20).


—John