1 John 4:1a
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God,”
For many years I had thought that this verse prompts the Christian to be careful concerning evil spirits. In other words, I had always thought that it indicated that a testing of some sort, regarding spirit beings, is what the Christian must do in order to discern whether a spirit was good or evil. But how one would even do such, or what it would even look like has been a source of confusion for me. After closer examination, however, I am no longer of the mindset to interpret this passage as referring to the testing of non-corporeal or non-physical beings for the purpose of figuring out whether they are good or evil. I now believe that the verse is instead referring to the influences or motivations behind our intensions, and such must always be tested or evaluated by scripture. Why do I say this? Look at how the second half of the verse reads:
1 John 4:1b
“for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
Are false prophets spirit beings?
Pneuma is the Greek word for “spirit” in this verse. Pneuma can refer basically to any one of five different options:
1) Holy Spirit
2) a human soul
3) an angel (good or evil)
4) the disposition or influence which fills and governs the soul of anyone
5) a movement of air (gentle blast), a breath, or wind
First off, John tells us “do not believe every spirit.” Right off the bat this eliminates #5. John is obviously not talking about the movement of air, so this leaves us with the first four.
Second, I find it hard to believe that pneuma is referring to the Holy Spirit here. I say this because the “spirit” of the verse is to figure out whether the spirits in question are from God or not, therefore it’s a generic reference and not the Holy Spirit, eliminating #1.
This then leaves us with 2, 3, or 4. I find it hard to conclude that John is referring to an angel. Why? Part “b” reminds the reader “for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Are angels false prophets? Look, it’s possible, but I think it’s far fetched. It doesn’t seem logical that John would be encouraging us (Christians) to test an angel. Just go through scripture. Whenever an angel confronts a person in scripture, it’s quite a terrifying experience for the person, so to think that John would want us to start testing angels when we are confronted with them is a bit nutty to say the least (Isaiah 6:1-5, Luke 1:1-2, Luke 1:28-30, Luke 2:8-9, and Matthew 26:1-4).
So, this leaves us with either #2 or #4. It could be #2, but it doesn’t encourage testing another person or persons, but “spirits”.
That leaves us with #4. Look at how the verse reads when we replace “spirit” with #4:
1 John 4:1
“Beloved, do not believe every disposition or influence which fills and governs the soul, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
It makes sense that #4 is the proper meaning. What is the goal of a false prophet? To deceive the disposition or influence which fills and governs the soul of those they preach to. In other words, it is the goal of a false prophet to trick or fool the hearer into ignoring God’s Word as their ultimate authority.
Brothers and sisters, we must be diligent to test the influences and motivations which drive our souls, against scripture, in order “to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
1 John 4:2-6
“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, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
Godspeed, to the brethren!
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