Just after his command to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God,” John explains the reason for doing so: “for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (4:1). Testing a spirit apparently had something to do with false prophets. Were these spirits equivalent to false prophets? Or were these spirits to be identified as being at work through the false prophets in some way? And if so, who or what were these spirits, and in what way were they at work through the false prophets?
Answers to these questions are unearthed by going through the verses that follow. In 1 John 4:2–3, John gives the first of two tests to using in testing the spirits. Either the spirit “confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” and thus “is from God,” or the spirit “does not confess Jesus” and thus “is not from God” (4:2–3). The earlier mention of false prophets helps us to assume that a non-confessing spirit speaks through a false prophet, and the content of his speech is to somehow state that Jesus is not the Christ and/or has not come in the flesh.
John then identifies the non-confessing spirit as “the spirit of the antichrist,” something already present in the world (4:3). Though John speaks of the singular “spirit of the antichrist,” this spirit is obviously not from God and is apparently the source or origin behind “every spirit that does not confess Jesus” (4:3). Put briefly, every spirit not confessing Jesus is the spirit of the antichrist, and this spirit is the source of every false prophet’s failure to confess Jesus.
Another test given by John was to identify whether a speaker was from God or not by the nature of his audience (4:5–6). Speaking of false prophets (“They” in 4:5), “the world listens to them,” which indicates, “They,” the false teachers, “are from the world” (4:5). Speaking on behalf of the apostles who obviously confessed truthfully about Jesus, John stated, “We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us” (4:6). Referring back to these last two statements and who listens to who, John summed up his second test: “By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (4:6).
Wrapping up, every spirit that is not from God is the spirit of the antichrist and the spirit of error. This spirit makes itself known when a false prophet does not confess Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. This spirit also makes itself known by the nature of its hearers. Only the world will gladly listen to false prophets who do not confess Jesus for who He is.
Pastor David Huffstutler
Pastor Huffstutler regularly writes articles for our Sunday bulletin. See his bio on our pastoral bio page.