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"Test the Spirits"


Stewart Crafts

 “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, [to see] whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

“By this you [may] know the spirit of God:

 “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God

 “And every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God...”   (1 John 4:1-3 NKJV)

 The proverb warns us that “the simple[ton] believes every word [he hears]: but the prudent man considers well his steps.” (Prov 14:15)

May the people of God exercise godly prudence, discrimination, and tact, taking care not to be too accepting of any man’s teaching.  “Beloved, do not believe every spirit.”


What do the words “test the spirits” mean?  Do they mean (as some believe) that we should find out whose “ministering spirit” is in behind the human speaker?  This is a dangerous thought indeed.

If this was the meaning of the Scripture, then as spirit mediums we would have to communicate directly with the spirit; questioning it to the effect: “do you confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh?”  And of course the spirit medium then hears the answer from the spirit and passes it on to others, informing them whether the speaker is of God or not.

Does this scenario not speak to us of serious danger?  It ought to.

Will we all be communicators with the “spirits”?  No.  And yet the test described in 1 John 4 is a test we must all be able to exercise.

The Spirit of prophecy tells us that we should take Scripture just as it reads.  And does it not read,  “Test the spirits”?

“If all would take the Scripture just as it reads, and open their hearts to understand the word of the Lord…”

However, we must also be “circumspect” in all that the Lord has said.  (Ex 23:13)  Let us be careful to rightly “divide” (or open) the word of God, laying line upon line, precept upon precept.  And let us be careful, lest we be counted among the “unlearned and unstable” who inevitably distort the Holy Scriptures. Note 1.  (2 Pet 3:16)

Will God ever have us communicate with the “spirits” in the way just described?  On this point let us make no assumptions.  Such spirit communication is an “abomination” to God.  It is hateful to Him – “an abomination” -- because of the terrible consequences it brings to the people He loves.

So what are those verses in 1 John 4 talking about?


The terms, “spirit” and “spirits”, are in the Williams translation rendered “spiritual utterance”, which, if we look at the Greek word itself, appears to be well borne out.

Looking at the Greek word, we find that it “primarily denotes the windalso breath; then, especially the spirit.”  However the study continues, eventually referring to the use of the word in 1 John 4:1-3 (the very Scripture under consideration).

The study asserts that the word points to those people “who claim to be the depositories of these gifts” (i.e. the divine gifts of teaching, service, etc.).  The test is to be applied to the people.  (Vines’ expository dictionary).

Those that teach spiritual things are to be tested on a certain point of doctrine relating to Jesus Himself.  And if the teacher does not speak according to that truth (relating to Christ’s nature), then their teachings are not to be believed or trusted.

The actual test will be considered at more length shortly.  But bearing in mind the general definition we have -- wind, breath, spirit -- let us consider the following thoughts.

Acts 9:1   “And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest”.

 Psalm 27:12   "Deliver me not over unto the will of mine enemies: for false witnesses are risen up against me, and such as breathe out cruelty."

Now Saul’s breathing out threatenings, and David’s reference to those that breathe out cruelty, refers to their expression or utterance of these things.

But of course this idea of “breathing out” need not be confined to hurtful things only.  It is quite reasonable, is it not, to contemplate the “breathing out” of spiritual doctrine?  And of course that doctrine may be either good or bad.

It is thus that we have the Williams’ translation, “spiritual utterance”, which is to say, spiritual teaching, expression, or breath.

Let us also note that Jesus uses exactly the same word translated “spirits” in 1 John 4:1-3, when He speaks of the “wind” in John 3:8.

“Do not believe every spirit” might nearly be rendered, do not follow after “every wind of doctrine”.

And Fenton’s translation note 2 puts the thought in 1 John 4 like this:

        “Friends, do not believe every thinker;
        but test the teachings, whether they emanate from God:
        because many false teachers have gone out into the

        "By this you can recognise the teacher from God:

"Every teacher acknowledging that Jesus Christ came bodily is from God.  And every teacher who does not acknowledge Jesus [in this way] is not from God.”

“Take heed, therefore, how ye hear” (Luke 8:18), is an admonition of Christ.  And in another place: “Take heed what ye hear” (Mark 4:24).  Let us examine closely, “prove all things” (1 Thess. 5:21), “believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).  This is the counsel of God; shall we heed it?


Because many false prophets have gone out into the world.  There are many, claiming to be spokespeople for God, who are not so.  Most of them are well meaning, some are very eloquent, but they are self-deceived.  We should be careful not to judge their motives, but let’s not allow any misplaced sentiment (on our part) to hinder the judgment of their words.


Did Jesus really come “in the flesh”?  Did he live in the world as a man: as a man without any advantage over us?  (He is not ashamed to call us brethren.)

If we deny that He overcame sin in exactly the same way that we, His brethren, may overcome it, then we cannot speak on God’s behalf.  Jesus said, “Of Myself I can do nothing,” just as we say.

His dependence was on God, just as ours may be.  Jesus was truly God: God with us, but He did not employ the powers of His divine prerogative.  For our sakes, He lived His life here “in the flesh”, as a man.

On this point let us be firmly established, because it is central to the Christian faith.  Has Christ set an attainable standard of righteousness for His people?  Yes indeed He has.  May the people of God be a pillar, upholding this truth, giving it the prominence that is due such a basic truth and test of doctrine.  (1 Tim 3:15)



Note 1.

What does this “learnedness” mean?  It essentially means humble familiarity with Scripture.  But not only this!  Because familiarity with Scripture is of no real benefit to those that reject the Spirit of God.  And it is He alone who can lead into truth. Nicodemus (though a teacher and leader among the Jews) lacked the true learnedness, because he had not been a student under the instruction of the Spirit.  Back to text


 Note 2.  [For any who might reject such Bible versions.]

It cannot be denied that Bible versions such as this (the Fenton version) are paraphrased.  And paraphrasing is not translation as such: it aims to give the thought, the idea, the sense, of Scripture. 

The process of paraphrasing can be summed up using the term, “in other words...” Extra care should always be taken whenever we use such versions, but they can have a valid place in the study of the Scriptures.  How so?  Let us consider inspired counsels such as these:

           “It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired.  Inspiration acts not on the man’s words or his expressions, but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts…” 7BC 945-946 (See also GC vi-vii, 1SM 21.)

 An example of what I believe to be correct paraphrasing (correct clarifying of the thought) is shown with regard to the words,

 “And I also have given you cleanness of teeth in all your cities” (Amos 4:6 KJV).

J.B. Phillips puts this in other words: “It was I who gave you hungry mouths in all your cities.”  This is by no means a precise translation, and fault can be found with it, but the term “cleanness of teeth” is sufficiently clarified, making that part of the inspired thought more understandable.  In the cities, the people had little or no food to eat.

Now an example of what I believe to be incorrect paraphrasing (by the same author):

But first the KJV translation, referring to certain people in Israel “that pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor.”  (Amos 2:7)

Phillips puts the thought: “they grind the faces of the poor into the dust.”  This sounds quite reasonable and clear, and many readers are quick to take this as the true meaning.  But if we look closely at the Hebrew words, another thought becomes apparent.

The panting referred to (in the KJV) is a coveting, a strong self-centred desire. Certain people in Israel were targeting those that had come to desperation and extremity (illustrated by the dust of woe on their heads).  And in the same way that a pack of hyenas covets, longs to see, and targets, an injured animal that falls behind its fellows, so the rich in Israel were targeting the destitute, taking them into servitude (into slavery)!

Paraphrases can clarify the inspired thought, but they can also mislead, veiling the inspired thought with a false impression.  Howbeit, it is generally done in an appealing way. Back to text



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