“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
but test the spirits,
The word “but” is a term of strong contrast. Instead of gullibly believing religious leaders, we test their teaching by the Word of God.
John puts the word “spirits” here for people who claim special revelation, but this revelation is clearly not from God. Many religious types will represent the Word or even as a prophet from God, but they do not teach sound doctrine.
Mature believers “test the spirits.” The word “test” means to test for approval. “Find out whether you approve or disapprove of any given teaching by comparing their teaching to the statements of the Word” (4:2-3). God has an objective standard for testing doctrine. The Bible is the ultimate standard for truth. We find all we know of Jesus there. The Bible is the only reliable criterion for determining the truth about Him and about the truth itself.
whether they are of God;
We must distinguish false teachers from true teachers. The acid test of a false teacher is their view of the person of Christ (4:2-3). Much religious teaching does not find its source in God; it is not “of God.”
What a prophet says must agree with previously revealed truth, he must speak in the name of the Lord, and the prophecy must come to pass (Dt 13:1?5; 18:20?22; Je 23:9?22; 28:9).
The believer must clearly understand the Word of God before he can be spiritually self-sustaining and distinguish truth from error.
The believer must have a clear understanding of God’s Word before he can be spiritually self-sustaining. This is a great objective of the Christian life. We must have an objective norm before we can test something. The norm is the truth of God’s Word. The Word of God gives us discernment.
Think of someone who is as repugnant to you as anyone could ever be. Let’s say that she is a woman. Suppose this individual hadn’t had a bath in a year. She insults all your olfactory senses. She has bad breath and is ghastly looking. Seepage comes from her eyes and mouth. She forgot her wig, and she is bald. She has 4 front teeth missing and weighs 325 pounds. She comes up to you, smiles, and says, “Honey, let us just forget about our differences and go out on a date.”
Now, I am a discerning person, for I have all my olfactory senses. I have eyes that cannot take in this monstrosity. I have a nose that can smell it. So, I say, “No thanks, not today.” Then I walk about 3 steps and decide to take off in a dead run. That is discernment!
Now someone comes along and says, “The Bible teaches the essence of the Christian life is to gain a better self image.” Or, “It is sinful for you not to be healed in all cases.” Do you have the discernment to run from this false teaching? There are a lot of phonies out there today. They pretend to know the truth, but they are only fakers. It takes biblical scrutiny to ferret them out.
2 Pe 2:1, “But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction.”
2 Pet 3:16, “…as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.”
If we do not test religious spirits, Satan will sucker us into his system. Ephesians 6 talks about his system.
Eph 6:12, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
There is the satanic system on the one hand and God’s point of view on the other hand. There is an invisible war raging every day; we live between the forces of God and those of the Devil.