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1 John 4:1 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
4 Beloved ones, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.
Beloved ones, do not believe every spirit. Do not confide implicitly in everyone who professes to be under the influences of the Holy Spirit. Comp. Matt. 24:4-5. The true and false teachers of religion claimed to be under the influence of the Spirit of God, and it was important that all such pretenses should be examined. It was not to be admitted because anyone claimed to have been sent from God, so he was sent. Every such claim should be subjected to the proper proof before it is conceded. The proper tests examined all pretenses (possible shams) to divine inspiration or to being authorized teachers of God because many false and delusive teachers set up such claims worldwide.
But test the spirits to see whether they are from God. There were those in the early Christian church who had the gift of ‘discerning spirits’ (see Notes, 1 Cor. 12:10,) but it is not certain that the apostle refers here to any such supernatural power. It is more probable, as he addresses this command to Christians in general that he refers to the ability to do this by a comparison of the doctrines which they professed to hold with what was revealed and by the fruits of their doctrines in their lives. If they taught what God had taught in his word, and if their lives corresponded with his requirements, and if their doctrines agreed with what had been inculcated by those who were admitted to be true apostles, (1 John 4:6) they were to receive them as what they professed to be. If not, they would reject them and hold them as impostors. It may be remarked that it is just as proper and important now to examine the claims of all who profess to be teachers of God as it was then. In a matter so momentous as the sovereignty of God and his great name, and where there is so much at stake, it is critical that all claims of this kind should be subjected to a rigid examination. No man should be received as a teacher of God without the clearest evidence that he has come by the will of God, nor unless he inculcates the very truth which God has revealed. See Isa. 8:20 and Acts 17:11.
For many false prophets have gone out into the world. The word prophet is often used in the New Testament to denote instructors, proclaimers (heralds), or preachers of God’s will and purposes (his Word). Such false teachers evidently abounded in the times here referred to. See 1 John 2:18. The meaning is that many had gone out into the world pretending to be true teachers of God but who inculcated the most dangerous doctrines. It was their duty to be on their guard against them, for they had the very spirit of the antichrist. (1 John 4:3) There were false prophets also among the people – (2 Pet 2:1, 19-21) All who claimed to be prophets were not true messengers of God. Many pretended to be such, who only led the people astray. It is unnecessary to say that such men have abounded in all ages where there have been true prophets. There shall be false teachers in the church. The fact that false teachers would arise in the church is often made known in the New Testament. (compare Matt. 24:5, 24; Acts 20:29-30). Prophets that are simply messengers of God’s Word continued after the death of the apostle John in 100 A.D. But prophets that miraculously foretell the future were no longer needed and existed, as the canon of Scripture was closed. The sixty-six books of the Bible were enough to get God’s people through until into the thousand-year reign of Christ when other books would be opened.
By Albert Barnes and Edward D. Andrews