Commentary for: 1 John 4:1   

Beloved, do not believe every spirit,a but test the spirits, to see if they are of God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

“Spirit” is a metonymy for a message spoken by spirit; in this case, a prophecy. There were many false prophets, as the verse says.

“do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits.” The Greek word translated “spirit” (and “spirits”) is pneuma (#4151 πνεῦμα), and this is the same use of “spirit” that is found in 1 Corinthians 14:12, 32 and 2 Thessalonians 2:2, and Isaiah 11:4. It is a metonymy, with the word “spirit” being put for the manifestations of holy spirit which are spoken by the power of holy spirit. In other words, that which is spoken by the power of holy spirit is called a “spirit” (see commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:12).

In this case the context makes it clear that “spirit” refers specifically to prophecies. The Christian is not to believe every “spirit,” i.e., every prophecy and spiritual utterance, but test them to see if they are from God because many “false prophets” have gone out into the world. The next verse continues the thought: every prophecy that acknowledges that Jesus has come in the flesh is from God, while those prophecies that do not are not from God.

This verse parallels 1 Thess. 5:20-21, which say not to treat prophecies with contempt, but to test them and then hold on to the ones that are “good,” that is, accurate and from the Lord.

The beauty of the metonymy is that it leaves the door open for primary meanings and secondary meanings to both be present, which is the case in this verse. Although the context is prophets and thus the primary meaning of “spirits” is prophecies, it is also true that the prophecies have a “spirit” generating them, and part of discerning the prophecies is discerning the spiritual power that is generating them and whether it is the holy spirit of God or a demon.

Commentary for: 1 John 4:1