1 John 4:1-6

This Bible Study was led by Larry Reynolds in the Spring of 2008.

Denton, TX

True and False Spirits (1 John 4:1-6)


            As we study this section of 1 John, a couple of important things need to be kept it mind:

·        Remember that the setting of this letter had to do with a serious conflict facing the early church.  The conflict had to do with people claiming to be Christians but who really were not.  John was not opposing people who openly denied the Gospel or who claimed to be pagans.  Those misleading the church claimed to possess the Holy Spirit and claimed to speak for God.

·        The nature of the services of the early church differed greatly from our church services today.  Their services were much less formal and much less predictable.  Usually, visitors were allowed to address the congregations.  It was easy for unprincipled people to take advantage of that opportunity and claim to be speaking a word from God whether they were or not.  It was imperative that the church had some mechanism to determine whether a message delivered really was from God.  This was especially true in the era before the New Testament was compiled and accepted by the church.  (cf. 2 Cor. 11:3-4; 2 Thess.2:2)


To understand these verses, we need to study them in the context of two other New Testament passages:

  • 1 Corinthians 12:10 – 1 Corinthians 12, 13, & 14 contain a lengthy discussion of spiritual gifts.  In this particular verse Paul mentions the gift described as “the distinguishing of spirits.”  The gift consisted of special insight to be able to distinguish between true and false manifestations of the Spirit.  The Scripture consistently describes Satan as a liar and deceiver.  He will do all he can to mislead and lead astray the people of God, even cloaking his work in religious garb.  Therefore, it is essential that the church have in it people who have the ability to distinguish between that which was truly from God and that which was an attack of Satan disguised as coming from God.  From the context of the discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians, it is clear that not every believer had the gift of “the distinguishing of spirits.”  However, those who did have such a gift could protect the young church from false prophets.
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21“But examine everything carefully, hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.”This verse is closer to the passage of 1 John on which we are going to focus in this session.  It seems to indicate that every Christian should have this ability.


The command (v.1) “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

“beloved” – This is the fourth time John uses this word in 1 John (cf. 2:7, 3:2, 3:21).  The use of this word suggests the seriousness of the matter about to be discussed.


“do not believe every spirit” – The verb is present imperative meaning “Stop believing…”  Stop being so gullible!  Stop being so trusting!  Stop assuming that just because a person claims to speak for God he or she is really speaking for God.


“spirit” – This is the key word in this passage and there is much debate about what precisely John meant by this word.  Here are a few of the ways the word has been translated:

            Goodspeed – “inspired utterance”

            Williams – “spiritual utterance”

            Tyndale – “inspiration”

            Knox – “prophetic spirit”

            Calvin – “prophet”


“test the spirits” – Test them for authenticity.  The word for “test” was used for the process of testing precious metals to determine whether or not they were genuine.  (cf. Romans 12:2; 1 Cor. 3:13)


“to see whether they are from God” – The purpose of the testing is not to make oneself look good and another look bad.  The purpose of the testing is to get to the truth.


“because many false prophets have gone out into the world” – This explains the need for such testing.  “Prophets” sometimes refers to those who foretell the future but more often than not refers to those who “forth tell” a truth or a message.


An Explanation (vv.2-3) – “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; 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.”  These verses explain the test by which true and false prophets can be distinguished.  The test is doctrinal – What does the person say about Jesus?  Those who accept Christ as the incarnate Word of God are true prophets and those who reject Christ as the incarnate Word of God are false prophets. (cf. 1 John 1:1-5; 2:22-24)

“by this” – Points forward to what is about to be said.


“know” – Know by observation or experience (ginosko)


“every spirit that confesses” – Refers to a prophetic utterance under the claim of divine inspiration.  “Confesses” carries the idea of declaring openly or boldly.


“that Jesus has come in the flesh” – This statement implies a great truth (that Jesus pre-existed before coming to earth) and it asserts a great truth (that the incarnation was an event which occurred in history).


“in” – It is significant that John did not say “into” as the Gnostics were teaching.  They were teaching that the Christ spirit came into Jesus at baptism and departed him before the crucifixion.

“flesh” – A reference to human form or human nature.


“has come” – Perfect tense meaning that it happened in the past but has continuing results.  It was a permanent as opposed to a temporary condition.  Jesus is the perfect union of God and humanity, in one Person, forever.


      The crucial matter in testing the spirits is to determine the attitude of the speaker toward Jesus.  “As Christ is the object at which faith aims, so He is the stone at which all heretics stumble.” (John Calvin)


      Verse 3a is typical of John’s style of writing, stating the mirror opposite of the preceding verse.


      Verse 3b identifies the false prophets with the antichrists mentioned in 2:18ff.


An Assurance (vv. 4-6) “You are from God, little children and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you that he who is in the world.  They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them.  We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us.  By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”


      Notice that each of these three verses begins with a personal pronoun which is emphatic:

            “You” in v.4 refers to John’s readers, true Christians.

            “They” in v.5 refers to the false prophets, counterfeit Christians.

            “We” in v.6 refers to John and other true prophets.


  1. The victory of Johns’ readers (v.4 - “You are from God, little children and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you that he who is in the world.”)  The aim of this verse is to encourage his readers to face the false teachers.  He does this by:
    1. Assuring them of their divine origin“You are from God” in contrast to the false prophets who are not from God.
    2. Reminding them of their victory in conflict with error“…have overcome them…”  They had won the initial battle and John was confident they would go on winning.
    3. Reminding them of the power of God“Greater is He…”  This entire verse is an echo of Jesus’ statement in John16:33 – “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”


  1. The worldly character of the false prophets (v.5 – “They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them.”) – While John’s readers have God on their side, all the false prophets have in the world.  John Calvin wrote, “It is no small consolation that they who dare to assail God have only the world to aid and help them.”


“the world listens” – The world listens to them because they are saying what the world wants to hear.  The measure of rightness or spiritually is not the size of the crowds.  If that were the case, Jesus would have to be declared a failure.  By the end of His earthly ministry the crowds had dwindled away!


  1. The divine inspiration of the apostolic preachers (v.6 – “We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us.  By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”)


“we” may be the editorial plural or may refer to all those who, like John, preach the true gospel.


“from God” – As opposed to being “of the world” as were the false prophets.


“he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us” – This is a bold statement reflecting John’s awareness of his authority as an apostle.  It is important to read this statement in the context of the subject at hand.  John is not speaking about all things but of the identity of Christ.  There can be no compromise on that issue.  It is not just the heart of the gospel; it is the gospel.  On this subject, John proclaims, we Apostles know of what we speak!


“by this” – Points to the dual test set forth in this passage to determine whether a person is a true or false prophet.

·        The content of the message proclaimed (vv.2-3)

·        The character of the audience attracted (vv.5-6)