Trying the Spirits

1 John 4:1-3 (KJV)

1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.

2 Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:

3 And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.

Revelation 2:2 (KJV)

2 I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:

believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God.

John and Diotrephes

The book of 3rd John is a letter from the aged apostle to his dear friend Gaius. The church in Gaius’s community was taken over by a man named Diotrephes who began to conduct himself and lead the church in a manner that did not align with the teaching of Jesus.

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

3 John 1:9-10 NIV

John described some of Diotrephes behavior in his letter. Diotrephes enjoyed power and preeminence. He was guilty of spreading malicious and hateful nonsense and false accusations about other believers. He even harassed people and forced them to leave the church when they refused to cooperate with him. He also began taking steps to isolate his group from the broader community of churches.

These are all dangerous signs of an ungodly preacher.

John contrasted the ungodly actions of Diotrephes with the actions of the godly saints in the community, who he described as loving people who showed hospitality, and were willing to work with others to help share the truth of the gospel.

This situation in the early church is one of many that are illustrated in the New Testament where preachers and churches began to deviate away from the gospel and teachings of Jesus Christ. The Apostle John was concerned with the activities of such men, and he sent a warning to his readers in the book of 1st John. John warned that many false prophets had came into the world seeking to lure believers away from the true faith and undermine their relationship with Jesus. (1 John 4:1) John cautioned his readers to test the spirits, to see if they are of God.

Jesus provided instructions to his disciples to aid them in detecting false prophets and false teachers. John, Paul, Peter, James, and other New Testament writers took the words of Jesus and put them into action, leaving us with clear examples to follow.

The disciples in Ephesus followed the instructions and example given by the apostles, and they successfully tested several men who claimed to be apostles but found them to be liars. Their example shows us that no ministry is above being questioned and tested, and the members of the church are empowered to judge the teachings and claims of any man.

A man who tells you that must trust him, and forbids you from investigating the matter yourself, is himself exhibiting a behavior that Jesus has warned us is a possible sign of a false preacher.

The Truth Test

If our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?”

Romans 3:5-7 NIV

The truth test is one way we are empowered to detect false teachers, and it is the way the Ephesian church detected the false apostles in their midst. The Apostle Paul explained that the cause of Christ cannot be enhanced or benefited by falsehoods. God’s truth cannot be enhanced by lies or dishonesty.

When we detect someone using dishonest means, we can be sure that what they are doing is not inspired of God. Dishonesty and falsehoods can take different forms. False or failed predictions, covering up and denying wrong doings, telling stories that are not true, and excessive exaggerations are all forms of dishonesty and falsehoods.

Such things are a reproach and actually serve to undermine the gospel, as Paul explained. When dishonesty is tolerated and not confronted, the practice spreads and others begin to also take up dishonesty to justify themselves and their own failings. The ends to not justify the means, and when people introduce falsehoods and dishonesty as a means, we can be certain their dishonesty was not inspired by the spirit of God.

The Fruit Test

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.

Matthew 7:15-19

Jesus Christ, when preaching the sermon on the mount, gave one of the most powerful tests that can be performed to detect false prophets and false teachers. He told his disciples that such men could be detected by analyzing their fruit.

The Bible clearly explains to us what the good fruit is: love, joy, peace, self-control, patience, kindness, gentleness, meekness, faithfulness. (Galatians 5:22-23)

The Bible also clearly described the attributes of corrupt fruit: sexual immorality, idolatry, hatred, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, envy, drunkenness. (Galatians 5:19-21)

When you examine the manner of life being lived and you see a pattern of bad fruit or an absence of good fruit, it is a strong sign that you are dealing with someone who is not being led by the Spirit of God. Treating others abusively, engaging in sexual immorality, harboring feelings of hatred and jealousy, acting on selfish motives and ambitions, and prone to enraged ranting and raving: these are all clear signs of a lack of true godliness. When we detect these things in men who claim authority from God, we can be assured that we do have no obligation to obey them. Jesus gives us the freedom to turn away from such men.

The Word Test

But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.

Galatians 1:8-9 KJV

The word test is another means available to us to try the spirits. We can compare what is being taught to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles to see if they align. The Apostle Paul set the bar of the word test very high and said the believers should apply the test even to himself.

When we find a teacher who is consistently presenting the gospel contrary to the way it was taught by the apostles, it is a clear sign we are dealing with a false teacher. Paul made it clear throughout his epistles that we are saved by faith alone, in Christ alone. That is the heart of the gospel message. When a teacher makes salvation dependent on works, membership in special groups, learning from special teachers, special revelations, or presents teachings not clearly recorded in the bible, they are preaching another gospel.

The Bible gives us the authority to reject their teachings and we are under no obligation to obey them.

The Life of Jesus Test

Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.

1 Corinthians 12:3 KJV

When writing to the Corinthian Church, Paul shared another test that can be used to detect false teachers. He explained that no man speaking by the Holy Spirit can call Jesus accursed.

Plainly calling Jesus accursed is one very obvious way someone could expose themselves as a false teacher. More often though, false teachers will more subtly make Jesus accursed. They do so by introducing ideas and concept that, when applied to the life of Jesus, would turn him into a sinner.

If a teacher says wearing a purple robe is a sin, he has turned Jesus into a sinner. If they say wearing sandals is a sin, they have turned Jesus into a sinner. If a teacher says eating with publicans is a sin, he has turned Jesus into a sinner. If a teacher says being a carpenter is a sin, he has turned Jesus into a sinner. Teachers who say grief or sorrow is sinful have turned Jesus into a sinner. Teachers who have a pattern of turning Jesus into an accursed sinner with their teachings are not led by the Holy Spirit. Jesus is our perfect example and pattern. Nothing he ever did was anything short of perfection.

It is always fair to ask, how does this fit into the life of Jesus? And if it does not fit in the life of Jesus, you have no need to try and make it fit into your life either.

The Tactics Test

For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many. And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.

Matthew 24:5-6 KJV

Jesus gave his disciples another way they could detect false prophets. When Jesus was asked by his disciples to tell them about his second coming, he explained certain tactics that would be employed by false prophets to deceive the believers. By having forewarning of their tactics, we can be on the alert when we see a pattern of behavior that matches Jesus warning.

One pattern Jesus warned about was the use of wars and rumors of wars as a sign of the end. Teachers who use doomsday topics to draw people away from the true focus of the gospel are following the pattern of the false prophets Jesus warned about. Thankfully, Jesus set our minds at ease, by telling us that wars, rumors of wars, famines, and pestilence are not signs that be can used predict the end.

And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.

Matthew 24:11-12 KJV

Jesus foretold a second attribute that would occur in connection to the false prophets. As the false teachers rose on the scene and deceived many, love would decrease and sinfulness would increase. Over time, false prophets would have the opposite effect as Holy Spirit. Corrupt fruit would be produced rather than good fruit in lives of their hearers.

Finally, Jesus gave two more tactics of false prophets to be aware of. They would be guilty of faking the appearance or return of Christ. Throughout history this has happened, as different false teachers claimed that Jesus returned in a private way. Some would claim he returned to a location in the desert. Others would claim he was in a secret place which only they could show you the way to. But Jesus concluded by telling us than whenever those tactics are present in a professed prophet or teacher of God, we have no obligation to believe or obey them.

Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. Behold, I have told you before. Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not.

Matthew 24:11-12 KJV

Jesus cautioned us that such men may even perform great signs and wonders in their ministry, but that such things are not a cause for us to believe them. Jesus showed us that a heavy reliance on signs and wonders to vindicate a ministry is actually a warning sign. No amount of signs and wonders can be used to vindicate false prophets who use the tactics Jesus warned us about.

Prove All Things

The Apostle Paul instructed his readers to prove all things. (1 Thes 5:21) Every believer has an individual responsibility to use the tests outlined in the Bible to try the spirit behind the messages and teachings they hear. This is not a responsibility a believer can give to someone else, but each person is responsible for themselves.

But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him.

1 John 2:27 NKJV

The Apostle John explained that each born-again believers has been equipped with an anointing that will allow us to apply the tests of scripture and discern the truth from a lie. A person who denies your God-given right to be led directly by the Holy Spirit in such matters is disregarding the Bible and sinning. 

When a person tries to override your relationship with God and direct your life themselves, they are putting themselves in the role of the Holy Spirit, and taking an authority to themselves for which they have no right. Jesus’s disciples have a personal relationship with him, and most often, the ultimate goal of any false teacher or prophet is to insert himself between you and Christ.

Applying Scripture

Did you know the bible gives you tools for detecting false prophets and false teachers? Did you know that every believer is authorized to use those tools? You are not only empowered by the Holy Spirit and the word of God to discern false teachers and prophets, the bible also commands you to do so.

Remember that everyone makes mistakes, even ministers. An honest mistake is not a reason to label anyone as a false teacher.  But when you take the tests given by the scripture, and you find a pattern where a teacher fails the Truth Test, the Word Test, the Tactics Test, the Life of Jesus Test, and the Fruit Test, you are certainly dealing with a false teacher.

If you find yourself in such a situation, let the wisdom of the Holy Spirit guide you how to respond. The bible does not require us confront or battle every false teacher we encounter, but we are wise to separate ourselves from them and find a healthy Christian community where our souls can be fed with the true gospel.

Voyage: A Prayer of the Puritans 

O Lord of the sea, 

My little bark sails on a restless sea,

Grant that Jesus may sit at the helm and steer me safely;

Suffer no adverse currents to divert my heavenward course;

Let not my faith be wrecked amid storms and shoals;

Bring me to harbor with flying pennants,

hull unbreached, cargo unspoiled.

I ask great things,

expects great things,

shall receive great things.

I venture on thee wholly, fully,

my wind, sunshine, anchor, defence.

The voyage is long, the waves high, the storms pitiless,

by my helm is held steady,

thy Word secures safe passage,

thy grace wafts me onward,

my haven is guaranteed.

This day will  bring me nearer home,

Grant me holy consistency in every transaction,

my peace flowing as a running tide,

my righteousness as every chasing wave.

Help me live circumspectly,

with skill to convert every care into prayer,

Halo my path with gentleness and love,

smooth every asperity of temper;

let me not forget how to easy it is to occasion grief;

may I strive to bind up every wound,

and pour oil on all the troubled waters.

May the world this day be happier and better because I live.

Let my mast before me be the Savior’s cross,

and every oncoming wave the fountain in his side.

Help me, protect me in the moving sea until I reach the shore of unceasing praise.

In Jesus name, I ask it 


The Valley of Vision: A collection of Puritan Prayers Edited by Arthur Bennet, 1975 

Study Questions

  1. Can the Holy Spirit inspire someone to say the life of Jesus was sinful?
  2. What are some examples of things Jesus did in his life that some people may call sinful?
  3. Can you give an example of a time you detected a false teacher?