What on earth does it mean to “test the spirits” as John talks about in 1 John 4:1-6? This is a verse that is often used to put a Christian or non-Christian stamp on things. People will point to this verse upon questioning the intentions behind movies that are made, music that is produced that our kids listen to, it is even used in different church contexts to measure whether or not what one particular church, denomination or pastor presents as the Gospel, is in fact, the true Gospel. If it is not deemed to be so by the one who is “testing the spirits,” (in other words, if one disagrees with what another person says), then it is labeled demonic and Antichrist. We touched on this briefly a few posts ago when I talked about the Antichrist and how we are so quick to label people that we disagree with or make us uncomfortable as “Antichrist.” We use this verse in the same vein, and often, I argue, mistakenly.
So what in the world is going on when John encourages his readers with this odd admonition to “test the spirits and see whether they are from God?” I mentioned in the last post that John doesn’t talk about the Holy Spirit near as much in his letters as he does in his Gospel. One of the reasons this is so might be because there was so much conflicting information being presented to these early churches that all claimed to be from the Holy Spirit. When this happens, people naturally get confused and wonder which teaching is the right one. It may be that John purposefully omits talk of the Holy Spirit in his letters to avoid this type of confusion. His encouragement instead is to “test the spirits.” In other words, there is one only Spirit (emphasis on capital “S”) and the way you test them is to see whether or not they confess that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 John 4:2).
Now, this may seem odd to some of us who have read Frank Peretti novels where a demon is lurking behind every bush, or grew up in more charismatic settings which rendered “testing the spirits” as speaking in and interpreting tongues or prophecies. However, I think it is more straightforward than this.
It has been mentioned as we’ve read along that one of John’s primary purposes of writing the letter is to address false teaching that is coming from false teachers trying to claim that Jesus was basically never human and only “appeared” to be so. In the early church, this was known as a branch of what was called “Gnosticism” (silent “g”). I’ll let you look that up if you’re interested, but suffice it to say that John will not stand for
It was important that Jesus was human, and this makes our own humanity equally important. We aren’t just waiting to go to heaven. We’ve been gifted with physical bodies to make a physical impact on the world we inhabit, just as Jesus did. John goes on in his letter,
“Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
Our impact, as we will see next time, is not to have some exclusive teaching that makes us look smarter or more spiritual from other people and we try to pass as Gospel. Jesus was a real person, who lived as such, and loved his disciples and commanded them to love one another. We are to do the same, and this is how we overcome the world and how false teachers and teaching are exposed. Anything that goes against or is contrary to the love of God as demonstrated through Jesus is something that can and should be tested and exposed. The true Spirit is that of love, and anything opposite is “anti-Christ.” Now, this doesn’t mean we go on witch hunts and get carried away by confusing our mission to love the world with exposing lies and heresies. That can be equally off-putting to people. However, it does mean that we take our commandment seriously to love and respect one another while staying true to “that which we have heard from the beginning.”