WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

by Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson X) 01/28/22

4:1 Dearly loved friends, don’t always believe everything you hear simply because someone says it is a message from God: test it first to see if it actually is, for there are many false teachers all around.

Paul Waitman Hoon (1910-2000) states that side by side with positive Christian faith is a healthy skepticism that makes inquiries into the claims of people and movements of being inspired. (Significantly, no less than nine times does the Apostle John offer his readers a test, by which they may assure themselves that they are of the truth, introduced with such a phrase as in verse six, “By this we know”). The mind of a Christian is not soft-minded, and faith is the farthest thing from being naïve. But observe: the Christian is not to test the spirits, to determine whether they agree with their own opinions, but to see if they are of God.[1] For that test, they turn to God’s Word plus the experience of older and more mature believers. When you ask anyone what they think about a particular ministry or minister, if they begin with, “Well, I think,” make your conversation short.

Rudolf Schnackenburg (1914-2002) says that the caution “test the spirits,”[2] as well as the means used to distinguish the spirits, involved watching out for how they confess Jesus.[3] It had a noticeable echo in the Apostle Paul’s moral rules set up in his communities for extraordinary charismatic manifestations of the Spirit.[4] It was, therefore, suggested that similar things were going on among John’s readers. But this is to overlook the essential differences. The Corinthian charismatics did not face heretical teachers but pagans inspired by demons.

Meanwhile, in Thessalonica, says Schnackenburg, the Apostle Paul seems to be thinking only of testing the various (Christian) charismata to see whether they are helpful to the community (“hold fast what is good”).[5] On the other hand, John in verse one does not suggest enthusiastic forms of speaking in the Spirit. What these heretics are saying was directed by Satan.[6] The orthodox believers could hardly have indulged in unusual patterns of speech. The spirits here are not demonic powers (like, for example, the “deceitful spirits” Paul mentions to Timothy),[7] but human spirits inspired by God or Satan. It reveals the unseen forces that confess the Anointed One and those that deny Him.[8]

Donald W. Burdick (1917-1996) says that we see the urgent occasion for writing this epistle in sentences like verse one. The Apostle John writes to believers, as is evident from the declaration of verse four as well as from the term “beloved.” However, there is an indication that they have been gullible when confronted with the claims of false teachers. John’s Greek construction shows that he urges his readers to “stop believing every spirit.” They had naïvely been assuming the genuineness of every teacher who claimed to be from God. That’s why, John orders, “Try the spirits whether they are of God.” The Greek verb dokimazete (“try”) was the technical term for testing persons for public office. (Today, we would say they were “vetted.”[9]) It should be a continuing practice (present tense) for believers to test spiritual leaders to determine whether they are doctrinally qualified for leadership. The mention of the Spirit brings the author back again to the heretical teachings falsely claimed to be of divine inspiration. The possession of the Spirit of God can also be an illusion.[10]

John R. W. Stott (1921-2011) says that neither Christian belief nor Christian love is haphazard guesses. In particular, the Christian faith is not to be mistaken for gullibility. True faith examines its object before relaxing with confidence in it. So, John tells his readers to test the spirits to see whether they are from God. Every prophet is the mouthpiece or spokesman of some spirit. True prophets are anointed by “the Spirit of God,” who is called “the Spirit of truth” in verse six.” False prophets are motivated by “the spirit of falsehood” or “the spirit of the antichrist.” Therefore, every prophet is inspired by some force, either of God or Satan. It is their origin that matters. We may note the similar command given by the Apostle Paul.[11] Apostles Paul and John assumed that even the humblest Christian possessed “the right of private judgment,” as Reformer John Wesley correctly insisted.[12] Therefore, both could and should apply the objective test John is about to give in the next verse.[13]

John Phillips (1927-2010) aptly describes that the enemy’s primary purpose was to deceive the human race. After all, he started with Eve. The word for “deceive” is found nineteen times in the Final Covenant, and it always has to do with the Devil and his works. Satan does not destroy God’s wheat because he cannot do so.[14] So he imitates it. Wheat and tares look very much alike in the early stages of their growth, but tares are not only worthless; they’re poisonous. God sows His children into the world, and Satan sows his counterfeit agents into the same world.[15] Not all unbelievers are part of the Devil’s brood; the vast majority are simply unregenerate children of Adam. The “offspring of the devil’ are those people Satan has taught, inspired, energized, and sent forth as his emissaries. Historically, every time God sends His anointed servants into the harvest field, Satan sows a crop of his deceivers right behind them.[16]

American Catholic priest and prominent Bible scholar Raymond E. Brown (1928-1998) finds difficulty interpreting verse one. It’s because of the tendency of the translators to paraphrase, “Do not believe every person, that they have the Spirit (of God).” Also, the following line is “Test every manifestation of the Spirit.” But the Apostle John speaks literally about the necessity of believing and testing these “spirits.” He is interested in what lies at the root of a person’s actions, not just their claims. So, John says here, “Do not believe every spirit to be the Spirit that God gave us,” that is, the Spirit that he has just mentioned in the preceding verse.

John thinks of two Spirits, says Brown, divine and devilish, that manifest themselves in human behavior and manifest themselves in true and false confessions of faith. A true confession comes from the Spirit of God. Ask yourself this question, “If I wanted to know the true story about some person, would I choose to listen to someone who only read about them or someone who knew them personally?” A born-again believer knows Jesus personally. Therefore, a false confession indicates the absence of the Spirit of God. Instead, we find the presence of the wicked spirit of deceit. Here, we have an instance of the opposition described between the Paraclete (Spirit of Truth) and the prince of this world,[17] two spiritual forces who exercise their leadership and influence on the children of God and the devil’s brood, respectively.[18]

David E. Hiebert (1928-1995) sees the Apostle John formulating his charge to the readers negatively and positively. Negatively, his command is, “do not believe every spirit.” John spoke against being gullible and believing “every spirit” claiming to be from God. When John says, “believe not,” he warns against an attitude of acceptance and personal trust in the various spirits declaring their message through the human messenger. Some members may have been prone to accept the claims of the spirits energetically, but it is unwarranted to assume that John now censured them by commanding them to stop the practice.

Instead, says Hiebert positively, John insisted that they must never yield to such an attitude of naivety. Let them not “believe” (“to think it’s true, be persuaded by, put confidence in,” or give credence to every spirit that claims to be from God. As those who have personally experienced the divine endowment of the Holy Spirit,[19] they must not enthusiastically accept every spirit speaking through some “inspired” human messenger who claims to be God’s prophet.[20] People attribute so much popularization of such humanly-inspired messages to the speaker’s fame and personality in today’s world.

Simon J. Kistemaker (1930-2017) says that the Apostle John acted as a wise pastor. First, he addresses his readers with words of tender love. He calls them “dear friends.”[21]  After the address, John tactfully warns the readers against the work of false teachers and tells them not to believe they are all anointed by the same spirit. He wants them to realize that there are two spiritual spheres in this world: one is the domain of the Holy Spirit; the other is the dominion of the devil. The Holy Spirit dwells in the children of God.[22] Still, the devil’s spirit possesses the false prophets who speak in his name.

Apparently, some of the loyal readers of this epistle were beginning to believe the false prophets who said their teaching was a revelation from the Holy Spirit. John encourages the readers to distinguish carefully between the teachings of God’s Spirit and false teachings. Not every message guarantees the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, John advises the Christians to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” and verify all teaching in the Light of God’s Word.[23] [24]


[1] Hoon, Paul W., The Interpreters Bible, op. cit., 1 John, Exegesis, p. 273

[2] Cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:21

[3] 1 Corinthians 12:3

[4] Ibid. 12:10; cf. Acts of the Apostles 17:11

[5] 1 Thessalonians 5:21

[6] 1 John 4:4

[7] 1 Timothy 4:1

[8] Schnackenburg, Rudolf: The Johannine Epistles, op. cit., pp. 199-200

[9] Vetting means to investigate (someone) thoroughly, especially in order to ensure that they are suitable for a job requiring secrecy, loyalty, or trustworthiness.

[10] Burdick, Donald W., The Epistles of John, op. cit., p. 66

[11] 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22

[12] The Right of Private Judgment by Leon O. Hynson, The Asbury Theological Journal, Spring 1003, Vol 60, Num. 1, pp. 95-97, 101

[13] Stott, John. The Letters of John (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), op. cit., pp. 153-154

[14] Luke 10:19

[15] See Matthew 13

[16] Phillips, John: Exploring the First Epistle of John, op. cit., p. 126

[17] John 16:11

[18] Brown, Raymond E., The Anchor Bible, op. cit., Vol. 30, p. 486

[19] 1 John 3:24

[20] Hiebert, David E., Bibliotheca Sacra, October-December 1989, pp. 421-422

[21] Cf. 1 John 3:21; 4:7

[22] Ibid. 3:24

[23] Cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:4; 5:21

[24] Kistemaker, Simon J., New Testament Commentary, James and I-III John, op. cit., pp. 323-324

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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