1 John 4:1-6: Testing Prophets by Outcome and Teaching

Christ’s Spirit leads us into holiness and guides us in his ways (John.16:13) but what do we do when false teachers claim to be led by the same Spirit? It isn’t simply about what we agree with, or otherwise. People make life-changing decisions based on what they are taught, who they trust, and what they believe. Our eternal destiny hangs on knowing and embracing truth and holiness (John 8:32). John counsels us to:

Test the spirits to see whether they are from God (v1)

The Bible tells us that there is a different Jesus, a different Spirit and a different gospel (2 Cor.11:4; 1 Tim.6:3). That there are false apostles (2 Cor.11:2-13). Paul warns us elsewhere of the false gospel (Gal.1:8) and note – the danger is often in the church! Paul warns about, ‘your thoughts being led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.’ (1 Cor.11:3)

When we see claims to working signs and wonders, direct guidance from God, the claim to authority to radically direct the lives of others, how do we judge these things?

1 Examine What They Say (vv1-3)

Because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (v1)

There are biblical examples and precedents:

Pharaoh’s magicians counterfeited the miracles of God (Ex.7:22; 8:7) – up to a point (Ex.8:18-19)

Simon the Sorcerer impressed and deceived many in Acts 8:9-11

But there are tests for a prophet:

  1. Outcome: ‘You may say to yourselves, ‘How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?’ If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.’ (Deut.18:21-22)

  2. Teaching: ‘If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, ‘Let us follow other gods,’ (gods you have not known) ‘and let us worship them.’ You must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer...It is the LORD your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him.’ (Deut.13:1-5)

The plumb-line against which we test all truth claims is God’s established word. And we should remember that John is addressing the church (agapetoi, 2:7) not just leaders, so we are all responsible for discerning the truth. Deception works when we abdicate our responsibility to know for ourselves. We are to have the spirit of the Bereans of Paul’s experience, who were,‘more noble…received the word with eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things are so.’ (Acts 17:11)

In testing these things the ultimate truth is Jesus (1Cor.12:3; 1 John 4:2-3) False prophets deny the deity and the humanity of Jesus. Perhaps the two most important questions in the Bible are:

‘Did God really say..? (Gen.3:1) and ‘Who do you say I am? (Mark 8::29)

The serpent in the garden challenged God’s word and cast doubt in the mind of Eve. Jesus, the second Adam (Ro.5:14; 1Cor.15:22,45), trusted God’s word and planted hope in the hearts of all who trust him. If we know what God has said we can confidently and honestly answer both questions.

The second test is:

How do They Live? (1 John 4:4-6)

Belief and behaviour go together, so how do these “Spirit-led” teachers behave? In these verses we can identify three groups:

v4 Christians, who ‘are from God, who have overcome [the false spirits] for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.’

v5 False prophets, who are, ‘from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.’

v6 True apostles, who are from God, and to whom we listen because we know the spirit of truth from the spirit of error. This means active involvement in practising discernment and sound judgement (Ro.12:2).

Furthermore three truths are established:

  1. True Christians are not deceived. Gordon Clark wrote,

We children of John have conquered the false prophets…we still believe in the virgin birth, the atonement and the resurrection. We have conquered them. They could not conquer us.”

We have applied the test of truth and so remain true. We will not follow a stranger’s voice (Jn.10:5) and “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (4b)

  1. False teachers are tied to this world, are of this world (v5) which is passing away (2:17) This is one way we can identify them, i.e. they build worldly hierarchies and get a ready hearing from the world. They will often turn the gospel of sin and repentance into a moral code, an ethic men feel they can manage. Popularity should make us pause and think!

  2. True apostles are equally known by what they teach (v6) These teach identifiable biblical doctrine and their audience consists of the people of God. The key is found in a description of the early church:

‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of b read and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as they had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people, and the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.’ (Acts 2:42-47)

True prophets teach us to devote ourselves to the apostle’s teaching, false prophets refuse to listen to God’s word and bring “new” teaching, teaching that is strange to God’s people who know the truth.

We cannot read other people’s hearts but we can hear their words and see their lives and, by God’s grace, we can discern the false from the real and find safety in God’s sure word.