There are many today who claim to follow Christ, to have the Holy Spirit, and to preach the gospel. The question we always need to be asking, however, is if they follow the true Christ, have the true Holy Spirit, and preach the true gospel.
Paul once wrote with great concern to the Corinthian church, saying,
But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. (II Corinthians 11:3-4)
It was with this same kind of concern that John wrote to his readers. After telling them that we can know God dwells in us by the Spirit he gave (3:24), he immediately warns them,
Dear friends, 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. (4:1)
I don’t think there’s a disconnect in thought between 3:24 and 4:1. I believe they’re strongly connected. John’s saying on one hand that we as Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. But then he swiftly warns us to watch out because the Holy Spirit is not the only spirit around. There are a lot of evil ones out there too, and most times, they come portraying themselves as “angels of light.”
And just as there were many false prophets in the Old Testament days, there were false prophets in John’s day and there are false prophets even in our day, all powered by these spirits. So John says, when someone claims to speak for God, test them. Don’t be fooled by sweet sounding words or by spiritual experiences.
How can we discern the false spirits from the Holy Spirit?
One thing is to test what they say about Christ. In John’s day, the big thing was whether Jesus had actually come in the flesh or not. Many people claimed that he hadn’t. That he had just appeared to have flesh, but was not truly human.
Not many deny Jesus’ humanity nowadays, but many do deny his deity, that he truly was God come in human form. But John says that anyone who fails to confess Jesus as he truly is, both God and man, is not from God. (4:2-3)
The other test is if they contradict the things that the apostles have already taught about Jesus and the gospel. He says,
We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. (4:6)
Those are strong words, and they show the authority that God had given the apostles. As a result, you cannot claim to follow God and yet deny or contradict what the apostles taught. So if you hear anyone who does that, you know he cannot from God.
The sad thing is that many people do not test what they hear. They believe everyone who says they follow Christ, and because of that, they fall into darkness. They are in fact following antichrists, not the true Christ.
But if we test the spirits, we don’t need to fear about falling into confusion or darkness. For John tells us,
You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (4:4)
Are you testing what you hear?