As Christians, we are to evaluate everything we hear. We should especially consider that which makes “truth claims” into our lives. Why? We are commanded to. The Apostle John commands it – and for a very significant reason. He says, “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
What does it mean to “test the spirits”? In this article, we will cover the specifics of John’s command, as well as reflect on some passages that deal specifically with identifying false prophets and antichrists.
The Command & The Reason
To begin, read the Apostle John’s words in context:
“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. You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” 1 John 4:1-6 NASB
John says we are not to automatically believe. Why? Because there are spirits which are not from God! Did you catch that? If we routinely trust, without first testing, we may believe something that is not of God.
Simply put, we should not be gullible. We are to filter everything we hear. We should even be careful in relying on a “good reference.” What if that good reference did not do the proper testing? Each of us, for ourselves, is commanded to do the testing.
What are these “spirits” we are to be testing? By “spirit” the Apostle John ultimately is referring to whoever or whatever it is that is being used in the presentation of the false claim – whether it is something we read or a person teaching something.
Why should one “test the spirits”? Because there are many false teachers out there! And they do not walk around with labels on their foreheads saying “False Teacher Here.” We must identify them for ourselves.
The wonderful thing about John’s words to us in this passage is that we can know which spirits are from God and which are not. Ultimately, John will tell us that the teacher’s actual teaching is what will confirm or expose them for what they really are.
We see also in 1 Timothy 4:1 that there are seducing spirits: “But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons.” In this context, the seducing spirit is not that of a person, but that of demons. These seducing spirits can be behind false teachers or false teachings. It may very well be that the false prophets John refers to are under the direct influence of these demons.
In the next chapter of 1 John, he states: “We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” 1 John 5:19 This reminds us that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light, and so we should not be surprised that false prophets would do the same thing (see 2 Corinthians 11:13-15). This is why they are to be tested.
The Apostle John is overjoyed when he finds God’s children walking in the truth (2 John 1:4) and there are evidences when it is happening (1 John 1). But true saints need to realize not everyone is like them. Again, there are many deceivers out there. So, John tells us there is this test we can perform: truth vs. error. False prophets – though they may say they are prophets of God – can be proven false when the conditions of truth are not met and the conditions of error are met.
There are also indications that a person is from God. They are based upon a true confession of Jesus Christ. John is clearly stating that we need to be aware, to be careful, so that we are not gullible. In the Gospel of John, he reminds us what Jesus said – that those who love Him would keep His Word. To those who did this, Jesus said that He and the Father would abide with them. (John 14:23-26)
Jesus then tells the apostles that the Holy Spirit would teach them and bring to their minds all the things He had taught them. Jesus further explains that the apostles’ hatred by the world would be because of their fidelity to Him and His gospel (John 15:18-27 ).
Those who hate God won’t receive the apostolic witness. Those who are called of God will receive the apostolic truth and witness concerning the Lord Jesus Christ, that is, His Person and work of salvation. This is the true Spirit of God. And he makes clear there is a differentiation, a spirit of truth and a spirit of error, which is based in response to that truth and witness! This is Christian orthodoxy!
Identifying False Prophets
There are many false prophets who have gone into the world, not just a few here and there. They teach false doctrine, preach as if they are from God and mishandle the truth of the apostolic witness to the ruin of those who listen to them. And why not – they are actually from the world. But you may be surprised to find where are they located?
“Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you all know. I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it, and because no lie is of the truth. Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son.” 1 John 2:18-22 NASB
These antichrists – that are of the world – first made their presence known in the visible church. They rejected apostolic witness and brought contrary teaching into the midst of the church. These were antichrist, having denied Jesus Christ coming in the flesh, and specifically in the above text, they did not confess Him as the Christ and denied the nature of the Father and the Son. They were called “antichrists” because they had a replacement “Jesus Christ” that they preached and taught. The word “anti” in Greek can mean against or in the place of, in the stead of. They were against Jesus Christ even though some of their teaching may have seemed sound. One might at this point ask a very pertinent question: How can they preach “Christ” and still be rejecting Jesus Christ? The apostle gives the answer.
True saints give actual confession that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. What does that mean – Jesus Christ has come in the flesh? Does it mean Jesus was simply a real person like you and I? A human being you could both see and touch? Yes, that is absolutely true. But even many in the world believe that! “Jesus Christ coming in the flesh” is true confession and agreement concerning who He is and what He has done. What is at stake is the person and work of the God-man Jesus Christ.
Further, the apostle gives clear warning in his second epistle about those who don’t actually confess Jesus Christ in this manner.
“For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward. Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.” 2 John 7-11
Those that do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh are immediately defined as those who go too far and do not abide in the teaching of Christ. True saints abide in the teaching regarding Jesus Christ. They eat, live, breath and sleep Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures! They do not go “beyond” or out of bounds in regard to the teaching. They stick with the truth of the Scripture and do not take away or add anything. But deceivers do not. And since they are deceivers they may even give “lip service” to some supposed fidelity. But they are to be utterly avoided. They have been proven false by the results of the test. To rub elbows with them is to participate in their wickedness.
The growing willingness of many in the church to associate with men and women who can be categorized as “antichrists” is staggering. There may be some true things in what they say but do they really pass the test?
Those who have actually written or said things that clearly show they are not abiding in the teaching of Christ are Bill Johnson of Bethel Church (“When Heaven Invades Earth”), Kenneth Copeland of the Word-Faith movement (whenever he teaches on “the born-again Jesus”), and Brian Houston of Hillsong (youtube video shows him saying the God of Islam and the God of Christianity are the same) and there are a host of others. A quick search on the internet will help you find the specific heresies these may hold to.
Those who are even more deceiving and subtle are those who do not clearly define, i.e. they do not actually confess clearly the Lord Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. They simply use His name. These would include someone like T.D. Jakes who has his roots in the non-trinitarian teachings of Oneness Pentecostalism. But go try and find him teaching non-trinitarian doctrines! But if you can’t that does not tie your hands! Go try and find him teaching the trinity! When he has been asked or approached about it, he “runs the other way” from an actual public confess Jesus Christ or the nature of the Triune God! The body of Christ has tried to get him to “abide in the teaching” and he won’t even confess it.
So, we are commanded and persuaded by an “apostle whom Jesus loved” that we are to hold fast to an orthodox standard concerning Jesus Christ and never lose grip of it in our individual and corporate lives. Doing so will lead to false witness and compromise.