Summary: John provides 1) A Command to test (1 John 4:1a) 2) A Reason to test (1 John 4:1b) and 3) Guidelines on how to test (1 John 4:2-6) the Spirits/False teachers in our midst.
James Marshall, the first to discover gold in California in 1848, and the “forty-niners” who followed him, used the term eureka, meaning “I have found it”. Other would-be prospectors quickly learned that not everything that appeared to be gold actually was. Riverbeds and rock quarries could be full of golden specks that were nevertheless entirely worthless. This “fool’s gold” was iron pyrite, and miners had to be careful to distinguish it from the real thing. Their very livelihood depended on it. Experienced miners could usually distinguish pyrite from gold simply by looking at it. But, in some cases, the distinction was not quite so clear. So, they developed tests to discern what was genuine from what was not. One test involved biting the rock in question. Real gold is softer than the human tooth, whereas fool’s gold is harder. A second test involved scraping the rock on a piece of white stone, such as ceramic. True gold leaves a yellow streak, whereas the residue left by fool’s gold is greenish black. In either case, a miner relied on tests to authenticate his finds—both his fortune and his future depended on the results.
Spiritually speaking, Christians often find themselves in a similar position to the California gold rushers of the mid-1800s. When confronted with various doctrines and religious teachings, all of which claim to be true, believers must be able to tell those that are biblically sound from those that are not. As was true in the gold rush, just because something glitters doesn’t mean it’s good. Christians need to be equally wary of spiritual “fool’s gold.” They must not accept something as true without first testing it to see if it meets with God’s approval. If it fails the test, Christians should discard it as false and warn others also. But if it passes the test, in keeping with the truth of God’s Word, believers can embrace and endorse it wholeheartedly.
If they fail to be discerning, Christians will not only be confused and unable to discern for themselves, but they will also be unable to accurately convey the truth to others. Thus, they must guard the truth (1 Tim. 6:20–21; 2 Tim. 1:13–14; Jude 3; cf. Acts 20:28; Prov. 23:23) by knowing it, firmly holding to it as a conviction (cf. Luke 1:4; John 8:32; 19:35; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Tim. 2:15), and distinguishing it from that which is false (cf. Phil. 3:2; Col. 2:8). By being faithful to sound doctrine, they will be able to teach others also (cf. 2 Tim. 2:2). But discernment only comes with practice. Discernment requires thinking. Only those Christians who know their Bible and can think critically will be able to recognize false teachers and their teachings. This cannot occur without personal study of the Scriptures (Derickson, G. W. (2012). First, Second, and Third John. (H. W. House, W. H. Harris III, & A. W. Pitts, Eds.) (1 Jn 4:6). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.).
The apostle John knew that his readers were under attack from false teachers. As a safeguard, he 1) commanded them to test those who claim to teach the truth (1 John 4:1a). He gave them 2) reasons that such testing is crucial (1 John 4:1b), and 3) guidelines for how it should be conducted (1 John 4:2-6). In so doing, he laid out a strategy all Christians can use for distinguishing between true spiritual riches and doctrinal “fool’s gold.” California gold prospectors would cry “Eureka!” only when they found true gold. When it comes to spiritual things, Christians should be careful to do the same.
1) A Command to Test (1 John 4:1a)
1 John 4:1a Beloved, 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) (ESV)
Having just discussed the abiding work of the Holy Spirit in true believers (3:24), John makes the transition to the work of unholy spirits in false teachers and their false teachings. Because these ancient, supernatural spirits are experts in deception, Christians must be careful to closely examine every spiritual message they encounter (cf. Matt. 10:16; 1 Thess. 5:21–22). John is not referring here to demon possession, but to teachers who promote error (Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1997). The Nelson Study Bible: New King James Version (1 Jn 4:1). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.)
Please turn to 1 Thessalonians 5 (p.988)
The imperative form of the verb believe, with the negative particle not, could literally be translated “stop believing.” John’s phrase indicates the forbidding of an action already under way. If any of his readers were uncritically accepting the message of false teachers, they were to stop doing so immediately. They needed to exercise biblical discernment, like the Bereans of whom Luke wrote, “Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).