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Makestraightpaths.com examines the teachings of the religious group variously known as “the Family,” “The Family International,” the “Children of God,” or the “Family of Love,” and evaluates these teachings from a Christian perspective.

This page is the first in a series examining the Family teachings about spirit helpers.

 

Trying the Spirits

1 John 4:1-3

One of the most controversial Family teachings concerns their long-standing belief that Christians may freely communicate with “spirit helpers.” To the Family, spirit helpers are  people who have died, or angels, or other spiritual beings who are active in the ‘spirit world,’ an unseen dimension that coexists with the visible material world. According to the Family, these beings are unrestricted by human limitations and actively assist Christians in their work for the Lord.

In John’s first epistle, there is an often-quoted passage that appears to contain a procedure for testing spiritual beings. The Family claims that this passage vindicate their stance on spirit helpers, saying that it proves that believers may communicate with the spirit world, and even engage in dialogue with the spirit beings there, to the point that one may question them in order to discern whether or not they come from God. Then, according to the Family, one may continue to communicate freely with those that do come from God, while those that do not come from God (that is, those that originate from the devil) are to be shunned.

It should be noted that there are some Christian teachers, mainly from extreme charismatic churches, who appear to hold to a similar teaching.

This pages examines the passage in First John in its original context in order to determine if that is its intention: Was John discussing procedures for dealing with spirit helpers? If he was, then it is reasonable to assume that he would have mentioned the topic elsewhere, and that the passage would clearly say so. If he was not discussing spirit helpers, then there are pertinent two questions for Family members:

  • What does this passage actually mean?

  • If the Bible does not say that Christians may 'test' spirit helpers, then what are the implications for the Family?

Test the spirits

1 John 4:1-3

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. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.

NASU

A surface reading of this passage gives rise to the theory that one may question spiritual beings as to whether or not they proceed from God. It appears that demonic spirits would be unable to say that Christ has come, while God’s angels would have no trouble. The 'test question' appears to be, "Has Jesus Christ come in the flesh?" or "Is Jesus Christ from God?" or a similar question.

However, this interpretation has a number of difficulties. It ignores the context of First John - which does not refer to spirits, demons or angels - and it is incompatible with a number of other relevant Scriptures. For example, Jesus made it clear that evildoers would have no difficulty in working miracles or prophesying in His name (Matt 7:21-23), and Paul explained that Satan Himself could appear as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14). Therefore, it seems that the Devil, who is the “father of lies” (John 8:44), would have no trouble lying about his own attitude towards Jesus Christ. In fact, some of the Corinthians had been deceived by some false preachers who were using the name of Jesus to promote a “different gospel.”

2 Cor 11:4 For if some one comes and preaches another Jesus than the one we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough. RSV

Jesus warned that many people would be misled by false teachers who would use His own name in order to lie and deceive.

Matt 24:5 For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many. NASU

From these passages, we can see that the name “Jesus” does not have attached to it some kind of power to prevent its own misuse. This is, of course, an obvious conclusion that may also be reached by observing the fact that the words “Jesus” or “Jesus Christ” are commonly used as curse words in the world.

Several times in the Scriptures, we also see instances of when demons used Jesus’ name, and even told the truth about who He was.

Luke 8:28 Seeing Jesus, he cried out and fell before Him, and said in a loud voice, “What business do we have with each other, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg You, do not torment me.” NASU (See also Luke 4:33-34)

Therefore, questioning spiritual beings in an attempt to determine whether or not they originate from God would be a pointless exercise. In the first place, evil spirits are not afraid to use the name “Jesus.” Second, the Devil is a liar, and is under no compulsion to tell the truth about who he is or his plans. Third, there are specific warnings that false teachers will use the name of Jesus in order to propagate a false gospel.

So, 1 John 4:1-3 does not mandate interrogating spiritual beings. Besides, it is difficult to imagine the setting in which a human may interrogate a demon.

So, what does it mean to “test the spirits?” Is there any application from this passage that modern Christians may put into practice?

First, it is important to do some research into the background of this letter.

 

The First Epistle of John

The first epistle of John is in the nature of a family letter from the heavenly Father to His “little children” who are in the world. The great theme of the epistle is fellowship in the family of the Father. The intimacy of the epistle has always had great attraction for the people of God.

Occasion and Date. The epistle was apparently written to compete with various forms of error, particularly Cerinthian Gnosticism. False teachers of this cult had denied the essential truth of the incarnation, that Christ had come in the flesh, maintaining that matter was evil. The writer also combated false mysticism that denied the reality of the sin nature in the Christian. He also railed against those who violated Christian fellowship and rejected Christian morality and love. The first epistle of John is in a sense a moral and practical application of the gospel. The time between the two could not have been long. It was probably written a little later than the gospel, around  A.D. 90 or 95.

Purpose. The apostle plainly refutes the false ideas of the errorists. He does this positively, giving fresh interpretation and application of the gospel to the urgent demands of his time. He shows the reality of the fellowship with the Father and that believers possess eternal life now in this world. He stresses the close connection of the possession of eternal life with the manifestation of love, right conduct, and sound morality. The apostle apparently does not develop this thought in progressive fashion but in what has been called a “spiral” manner, treating a number of related topics and interweaving them. For this reason outlining the epistle is difficult and to some extent arbitrary. The book is commonly divided into two principal parts.

(The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary)

While the letter has universal application, in that its principles may be applied to all Christians, it is important to discover exactly what those principles are. The recipients of the letter (probably believers in or near Ephesus), had been exposed to teachings from false prophets, so John wrote with a specific purpose in mind: He would refute their arguments and set the church straight.

1 John 2:26 These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you. NASU

In the letter, John addresses three main topics, each of which he returns to again and again. The three main topics are:

  • The incarnation of Christ

  • Sin and forgiveness

  • Love and Hatred

It appears that the false teachers were trying to infect the church with a form of Gnosticism, a heresy with mystic elements in which the universe was eternally separated into “good” and “evil.” This meant that it would have been completely impossible for Christ (good) to enter a human body (evil). John rejects this as “the spirit of the antichrist” (1 John 4:3), and repeatedly emphasises the fact that Jesus was actually incarnated into a real human body. In fact, in his opening sentence to the epistle, John stresses the physical reality of Christ’s body.

1 John 1:1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched — this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. NIV

Following is a brief explanation of the heresy John was combating:

EPISTLES OF JOHN

Docetism: To such a view of the universe Christianity could be adjusted only by a docetic interpretation of the Person of Christ. A real incarnation was unthinkable. The Divine could enter into no actual union with a corporeal organism. The human nature of Christ and the incidents of His earthly career were more or less an illusion. And it is with this docetic subversion of the truth of the incarnation that the “antichrists” are specially identified (1 John 2:22-23; 4:2-3), and against it that John directs with wholehearted fervor his central thesis-the complete, permanent, personal identification of the historical Jesus with the Divine Being who is the Word of Life (John 1:1), the Christ (4:2) and the Son of God (5:5): “Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh.” In John 5:6 there is a still more definite reference to the special form which gnostic Christology assumed in the teaching of Cerinthus and his school. According to Irenaeus (Adv. Haer., i.26, 1) this Cerinthus, who was John's prime antagonist in Ephesus, taught that Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary, and was distinguished from other men only by superiority in justice, prudence and wisdom; that at His baptism the heavenly Christ descended upon Him in the form of a dove; that on the eve of His Passion, the Christ again left Jesus, so that Jesus died and rose again, but the Christ, being spiritual, did not suffer. That is to say, that, in the language of the Epistle, the Christ “came by water,” but not, as John strenuously affirms, “by water and blood .... not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood” (1 John 5:6). He who was baptized of John in Jordan, and He whose life-blood was shed on Calvary, is the same Jesus and the same Christ, the same Son of God eternally.

(International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia)

So, with this in mind, we may now look at the passage containing the injunction to “test the spirits.”

1 John 4:1-4

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. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.

NASU

What does John mean by “spirit”?

The Greek word used here can have a number of meanings.

NT:4151

1.         a movement of air (gentle) blast

a.         used of the wind:

b.         breath of the nostrils or mouth

2.         the spirit, i.e., the vital principle by which the body is animated

3.         a spirit

a.         generically: Luke 24:37

b.         a human soul that has left the body Heb 12:23

c.         a spirit higher than man but lower than God, i.e. an angel: plural Heb 1:14

d.         the spiritual nature of Christ, higher than the highest angels, close to God and most intimately united to him (in doctrinal phraseology the divine nature of Christ): 1 Tim 3:16

4.         The Scriptures also ascribe a pneuma to God, i.e., God’s power and agency. By metonymy, pneuma is used of:

a.         one in whom a spirit (pneuma) is manifest or embodied; 2 Thess 2:2

b.         the plural pneumata denotes the various modes and gifts by which the Holy Spirit shows itself operative in those in whom it dwells 1 Cor 14:12

5.         universally, the disposition or influence which fills and governs the soul of anyone; the efficient source of any power, affection, emotion, desire, 2 Cor 12:18

(Thayer’s Greek Lexicon)

While it is possible that John is referring exclusively to spirit beings, this is unlikely as there is no other reference in the epistle to spirit beings at all, whether angels or demons. It is far more likely that John is either referring to the false teachers themselves, or possibly to the demonic entities that influence these false teachers. In either case, the believers were not urged to examine a spiritual being as such, but to look closely at what the false teachers had said, and so discern whether or not these people were “from God.”

 

Commentaries

Stedman

Stedman wrote that the “spirit” mentioned was the antithesis to the Holy Spirit, an evil spirit of antichrist that guides false teachers.

It is of this that John writes and says, “Do not believe these spirits -- until you have tested them.” First test them. Don’t be a sucker, don’t believe anyone who comes along. It is important to note that there is here a very clear recognition of what the Bible teaches all the way through -- that behind the false prophet or false teacher is an evil spirit. Men simply do not speak out of their own intellectual attainments. Quite unconscious to themselves they are being guided -- and misguided -- by an evil spirit, a “spirit of error” John calls it, an anti-Christian spirit which is behind these false prophets and teachers. There is a true Spirit, the Holy Spirit of truth, the Spirit of love, and just as he speaks through men, so evil spirits, false spirits, the spirits of error, also speak through men. When you hear men and women talking about religious things or values, do not gullibly swallow everything they say, especially if they appear to be attractively setting forth something about love and sweetness and light and concern for others. Especially test that line, for it is the usual approach of error. Recognize that behind the individual may be a spirit of error.

(Ray Stedman)

Adam Clarke

[Beloved, believe not every spirit] Do not be forward to believe every teacher to be a man sent of God. As in those early times every teacher professed to be inspired by the Spirit of God, because all the prophets had come thus accredited, the term spirit was used to express the man who pretended to be and teach under the Spirit’s influence. See 1 Cor 12:1-12; 1 Tim 4:1.

[Try the spirits] Put these teachers to the proof. Try them by that testimony which is known to have come from the Spirit of God, the word of revelation already given.

[Many false prophets] Teachers not inspired by the Spirit of God, are gone out into the world-among the Jewish people particularly, and among them who are carnal and have not the Spirit.

(Adam Clarke’s Commentary)

Barnes

Verse 1. [Beloved, believe not every spirit] Do not confide implicitly in everyone who professes to be under the influences of the Holy Spirit. Compare Matt 24:4-5. The true and the false teachers of religion alike claimed to be under the influence of the Spirit of God, and it was of importance that all such pretensions should be examined. It was not to be admitted because anyone claimed to have been sent from God that therefore he was sent. Every such claim should be subjected to the proper proof before it was conceded. All pretensions to divine inspiration, or to being authorised teachers of religion, were to be examined by the proper tests, because there were many false and delusive teachers who set up such claims in the world.

[But try the spirits whether they are of God] There were those in the early Christian church who had the gift of “discerning spirits,” (see the notes at 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 of doing 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 were to reject them, and hold them to be impostors. It may be remarked, that it is just as proper and as important now to examine the claims of all who profess to be teachers of religion, as it was then. In a matter so momentous as religion, and where there is so much at stake, it is important that all pretensions of this kind should be subjected to a rigid examination. No one should be received as a religious teacher without the clearest evidence that he has come in accordance with the will of God, nor unless he inculcates the very truth which God has revealed. See the notes at Isa 8:20, and Acts 17:11.

(Barnes’ Notes)

 

The test

Exactly how were John’s readers to administer this test? John gives specific criteria by which his readers would be able to tell if a particular teacher was speaking error. If he denied the incarnation of Christ, he had been inspired by the spirit of antichrist. If he confessed that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh,” he was from God.

Now, it is important here to note that John does not imply that this is the only test of whether or not a teacher was from God. In his epistle, he gives many other ‘tests’ of truth and error.

 

Other ‘tests’ of error in 1 John

Each of the following references contain a ‘mini test’ in which John says that if his readers saw this particular thing happening, they would know that the person was not from God.

Walking in darkness (1 John 1:6)

Saying we have no sin (1 John 1:8-10)

Disobedience to God’s commandments (1 John 2:4)

Hating one’s brother (1 John 2:9-11, 3:15, 4:8, 4:20-21)

Loving the world (1 John 2:15-16)

Departure from the church (1 John 2:19)

Denial that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 2:22)

Practising sin (1 John 3:4-10)

Not listening to the apostles (1 John 4:6)

Clearly, John gave his readers many ‘tests’ whereby they could discern whether or not a particular person was a true or false teacher. If that person ‘failed’ any one of those tests, he was to be rejected.

 

Summary of 1 John

Now we may begin to understand the text as John’s original readers would have understood it.

False teachers were present in the church, and John knew exactly what they were saying. His epistle repeatedly warned the Christians to avoid and reject them. False teachers could be recognised by any one of a number of errors they were prone to. There would then be no doubt; if someone failed one of those tests, he was a false teacher not to be tolerated. For example, if he said he had no sin, he was a false teacher to be rejected, whether or not he admitted that Christ had come in the flesh. In other words, suppose someone had proclaimed that they believed that Christ had come in the flesh (according to 1 John 4:2), but also claimed that he was sinless, this man would have been totally rejected as a false teacher, a liar motivated by the ‘spirit of antichrist.’

It is clear that the church was under attack from false teaching that specifically denied the incarnation. In fact, it seems that this false teaching was not entirely cleared up by this epistle, for the apostle refers to it again in his next letter.

2 John 7 For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. NASU

The passage in chapter four about ‘testing the spirits’ refers specifically to the false teachers who were infiltrating the church. John was not instructing the believers to attempt to interrogate spirit beings to determine whether they were angels or demons!

 

Application

The first principle we may apply from this passage is the responsibility of all believers to discern whether or not their teachers are from God. We are not to passively accept everything we are told, as John explained to his followers:

1 John 2:26-27

26 These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you. 27 As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him

NASU

People were trying to deceive them, and they were to reject those teachers.

The second principle from this passage is that discernment of doctrine is only accomplished through comparison with true doctrine as revealed in the Bible. The New Testament contains a record of the inspired teachings of Christ and His anointed Apostles. These teachings are authoritative, in that God will hold us accountable if we fail to obey them.

1 John 4:1-3 does not contain an infallible quiz question for differentiating between angels and demons. Rather, it is one of a series of questions that should be asked to determine whether or not a teacher or his message is of God. If the teacher himself does not obey Scripture, or his message does not conform to biblical teaching, then both are to be rejected.

Having understood the purpose of this passage, one can now see the spiritual peril involved in the false belief that this is a procedure that will provide protection against demonic deception. For example, a Family ‘prophet’ may assume that he can at any time trust that the ‘messages’ he receives come from God as long as he receives a confirmation that “Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.” However, what may be happening is that a demonic entity is deceiving the ‘prophet’ in order to present messages that actually originate from the Devil.

It is a major weakness in Family theology that ‘regular’ Family members are not permitted to evaluate the truth of prophecies they are given. The Bible, however, says that each believer can and must do so, and should reject any message that fails to conform to biblical truth.

 

Conclusion

The Family (and other churches with similar interpretations) have totally misinterpreted these verses, and in so doing have left themselves open for gross deception. Demons do exist, but the Family's false notions that they have the ability to discern between demons and angels, or between demons and spirit helpers who come "from God" leaves them in the perilous position of being open to demonic spiritual attack.

The practice of contacting the spirit world is forbidden in the scriptures for good reason, and it seems that the Family is blindly walking to its own destruction.

 

 

 

  

See also

Hearing from Spirit Helpers

Prophecy

Angels and Demons

Further Study

When Unbelief is Right by Ray Stedman 

Marks of a True Believer by John Macarthur 

 

 

 

 

 

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