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1 John 4:1-6 (NRSV) stresses the importance of testing the spirits, given that not all spirits come from God:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world. 4 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. 5 They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

So basically to test a spirit we need to check whether the spirit confesses Jesus or not. That's clear. However, I still wonder: how are we to do this in practice? Do we have to speak to the spirit and expect the spirit to answer? Is this passage actually encouraging believers to engage spirits in conversation, just like Jesus exchanged words with the demons that were possessing the Gadarene (Luke 8:26-39)?

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The verb translated "test" here in 1 John 4:1, δοκιμάζω, is used by Paul often in a very similar sense of:

  1. to test, examine, prove, scrutinize; 2. to recognize as genuine after examination, to approve, deem worthy [Thayer]

Here is a sample of how this word is used:

  • Rom 12:2 - Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.
  • Rom 14:22 - Keep your belief about such matters between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves.
  • Eph 5:8-10 - For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light, for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness, and truth. Test and prove what pleases the Lord.
  • Phil 1:9, 10 - And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to test and prove what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,
  • 1 Thess 5:20, 21 - Do not treat prophecies with contempt, but test all things. Hold fast to what is good.
  • 1 John 4:1-3 - Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God. For many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you will 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 have heard is coming and which is already in the world at this time.

Since "spirits" invariably inspire prophecies of some kind (see 1 Thess 5:20, 21, 1 John 4:2), the testing of spirits concerns the testing of the messages delivered by the prophets. Note that this requires "knowledge" (Phil 1:9, 10).

From this and a few other references we may now tabulate what constitutes the test of these spirits and the messages they inspire:

  1. Jesus came in the flesh, ie, was human (1 John 4:1-3, 2 John 7)
  2. Jesus is Christ or Messiah (1 John 2:22) and came from heaven (John 3:13, 31, 6:41, 45, 51, 58, 1 Cor 15:47, etc).
  3. False Christs claim to be the "I AM" (Mark 13:6, Luke 21:8). [This suggests the the real, true, Christ correctly claims to be the "I AM", as per John 4:26, 6:20, 8:24, 28, 58, 13:19, 18:5, 6, 8, etc]
  4. Acts according to God's will (presumably as already revealed in the inspired Scripture), Rom 12:2, Eph 5:10, see also Isa 8:19, 20.
  5. Teaching is consistent with already revealed Apostolic teaching (1 John 4:6, 2:19)
  6. Teaching is "good", encourages righteousness and truth (Eph 5:8-10)
  7. Teaching is nothing that we might be ashamed of on the day of judgement (Phil 1:9, 10) or even sooner (Rom 14:22)

Notice how central the doctrine of christology is as the measure of what is true and what can be approved as a reliable spirit and its teaching.

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  • This answer makes a lot of sense when dealing with external prophecies. In short: assess the content of the prophecies (and probably the fruit of the prophets as well). But what about when you are the one who is receiving revelations (not someone else)? Is it valid to address (talk to) the spirit directly? – Spirit Realm Investigator Feb 15 at 5:49
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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator - great question (again)! I cannot answer this question based on a Scriptural authority - there is precedent for such. So, all can offer is my weak and human opinion - probably yes, but Prefer to ask 'in the name of Jesus' as we have been instructed to do. – Dottard Feb 15 at 5:53
  • There is also the gift of discernment of spirits, that gift should be quite handy now that I think of it. – Spirit Realm Investigator Feb 15 at 5:56
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - quite right but I did not want start cluttering the answer to toooooo much information. However, the testing of spirits is a job for us all as Ellicott points out. – Dottard Feb 15 at 5:57
  • Dottard : A very good answer, I like the seven points that you mentioned. +1 . In the first-century Christian congregations, some were granted the gift of “discernment of inspired utterances” (1Co 12:10), making possible the authentication of prophecies. Today, however, this gift of discernment is not available, and since most people find it impossible to understand the inspired prophecies, they have to rely on their congregation or church to make such studies and comparisons. – Ozzie Ozzie Feb 15 at 10:50
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Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. -v.1

I am building upon an answer ably given here by Dottard. Just as Paul praised the Bereans for checking what he preached to them against the scriptures to see if what he was saying was correct (Acts 17:11), so John uses the word "test" here. It means to take what is being spoken (or thought) and hold it up in comparison to what has been already established.

It is evident in 1 John 4 that the "spirits" in view predominantly represent, not unseen spiritual beings who might whisper into our minds, but the mindsets and intentions of false prophets who proclaim falsely:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. - v.1

They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. - v.4

This is not to exclude the trickery of spiritual beings who pluck at the strings of our consciousness or the deceitful craftings of our own sinful hearts but the passage primarily treats that antichrist spirit who is behind false teaching. John gives a litmus test against which to measure these prophetic messages:

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. - v.2-3

Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. -v.15

The litmus test is not that Jesus had flesh or has flesh but that he "came" in the flesh. Just as he cannot come from heaven with great glory without already existing there (and his name there is "The Word of God"(Rev 19:13)), he did not "come" the first time except that he already existed...in the beginning the Word was God.

There are those who will confess the name of Jesus all day long and yet who deny that he is God's begotten Son who came in flesh. They will stand firm that Jesus had a body of flesh, died in flesh, was raised in flesh, and is coming again in flesh but will deny that he had a prior existence as God and that he, at a point in time, "came" in flesh. This position fails the litmus test John has given. It is in the spirit of antichrist.

This same John who declared that in the beginning the Word was God (John 1:1) and that very same Word was made flesh (John 1:14) has given the litmus test. The Word that was God "came" in the flesh and confession of this demonstrates it's origin in God. Those who do not confess this are not of God but of antichrist. They do not abide in God who do not confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who "came" in the flesh.

Thoughts that intrude which, when followed to their logical conclusion, lead us away from the positive confession John has laid down are also not of God's Spirit but of antichrist and must be severed with the sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God.

It is not that we shall "name" him Emmanuel (and that name means such and such). It is, rather, that we shall call his name (which is Jesus Christ) God with us. 1 John 4:2-3 declares that anything else, whether in the ear or in the mind, is antichrist.

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Who are the ones who have the Spirit of God? (I John 4:2 NKJV)

"By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God,"

What is confessed by those who are of God? John said, "Jesus Christ has come in the flesh".

How does one accept Jesus as flesh? (Luke 24:39 NKJV)

"Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.'"

How does one accept Jesus as flesh? Jesus said, "a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have". A person can not claim to confess that Jesus has come in the flesh if they claim that Jesus is spirit in nature.

Who is spirit in nature? (John 4:24 KJV)

"God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth."

Who is a spirit in nature? Jesus said, "God". Hence, those who claim that Jesus is God deny that Jesus has come in the flesh, for the true God is spirit in nature, without flesh and bone.

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There are many spirits. There is only one source of good Spirit - God. There is only one source of evil - the Devil, the serpent, the one who masquerades as an 'Angel of Light'.

There are many NT references to God's Spirit 'speaking' to people - i.e. God is revealing truth into the spirit in men by His spirit of truth.

Many have claimed of late to have heard the 'word of God' and He told them that Mr Trump would be returned to power. These 'Christians' claimed to have the truth and was specially revealed to them to proclaim to the people.

Sadly, there is much disappointment that they were totally wrong. Clearly God was not wrong. They were claiming falsely that God had 'spoken to them in the spirit'.

How might we test this spiritual 'truth'? Or any other 'spiritual truth'?

The primary way is to look to God's word which has been largely preserved to reveal God's personal being and manner, His son Jesus, His plan for creation and the salvation of it.

Things which are not written there are to be questioned regarding their veracity. No matter who wrote them.

God has allowed corruption to interfere with practically every thing He has done on the earth from the garden onwards. We may understand from this that God intended man to experience the horror of sin as part of His gracious salvation - depicted in many respects by the message about Jesus being foreknown and 'slain from the foundation of the world'. Rev 13:8

He was known before the foundation of the world, but was revealed in the last times for your sake. 1 Pet 1:20

His word has also suffered corruption and interference over the centuries. What we have today contains error and bias not intended by the writers or the God who inspired them. Yet, thank God, the overall narrative remains intact and a source for great encouragement and truth of things that matter.

The spirits that tell things not of the word, or of things that extrapolate too far from the word, or things that conflict with the word are not of God - He is not the author of confusion or contradiction.

For ex. The devil is the great deceiver. Those who deceive and misdirect from plain truth are not of God. We might ask what the following passage means.

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, refusing to confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. 2 John 1:7

If Jesus is God, is he really flesh? Is God flesh? No, He is spirit. There is no plain teaching that Jesus is God anywhere in the bible. Many have used bits of scripture to suggest otherwise and the questions and thoughts on this matter fill the pages of this site and many others.

The truth of the word of God, the bible (even with the additions that form a bias to another gospel, another God) is clear about who Jesus is. If he is somehow God - he is not flesh but God, he is not made like one of us!

it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Heb 2:17

God is not flesh. Those who proclaim some pre-existing Jesus - who is NOT like us in every respect, speak not the spirit of truth, but some other spirit is guiding them. We are warned to recognise and then avoid such spirits. How Jesus can be God and also High Priest before God is a mystery not of the text.

Each of us has to honestly enquire of the truth on such matters and, hopefully with God's grace, it will be known. We will have 'tested the spirits' and this not through careful study of the most prominent authors - but by earnest prayer and a humble adherence to the written truth already provided.

Perhaps many, or most, over the ages have not had opportunity to know the whole truth and have died being somewhat deceived. This matters not for salvation - God is gracious and planned through the resurrections to give each their opportunity. Let us not judge one another - this is Jesus' job.

God...who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

He is bigger than sin, bigger than deception, bigger than evil and will see His beautiful creation redeemed to the glory He intended through His son Jesus.

The god (Satan) of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

Through prayer and genuine seeking of truth from God's word, God willing it will be obtained - perhaps in this age, certainly in the next!

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