Portions of 1 John 4:1-6 are often cited in discussions of spiritual warfare.  John’s admonition to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 Jn 4:1) is cited as evidence that we need to exercise spiritual discernment to distinguish between angelic and demonic spirits, or even good and bad human spirits.  And then there is 1 John 4:4b: “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.”  This Scripture is typically quoted in the context of overcoming the Devil.  But are these passages being interpreted correctly?  Are they referring to spiritual warfare?  To find out, let’s look at the context:

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. [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, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. [4] Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. [5] They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. [6] We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 Jn 4:1-6, ESV)

A key word in this passage is “spirit.”  Many presume that when John talks about “test[ing] the spirits,” he is referring to angelic and demonic beings.  It’s clear, however, that John uses “spirit” in several ways in this passage.  And in verse one he uses “spirit” to refer to human teachers, not angels and demons.  This is evidenced by his juxtaposition of “spirits” with “false prophets” who “have gone out into the world.”

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