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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Discerning the Spirits (4:1-6)
Discerning the Spirits (4:1-6)

My husband and I are birdwatchers. No serious "birder" would be without a good field guide or two. A field guide is simply a book with pictures and descriptions of birds and their chief identifying characteristics, including size, coloration, voice, range, habitat and so on. With a field guide and a little practice, one can become adept at identifying literally hundreds of birds.

What this passage gives us is in its own way a "field guide" to iden tifying or discerning "spirits." Specifically, it calls attention to two distinct "field marks" of various spirits: first, what they say or teach; second, who hears or accepts their teaching. That seems straightforward enough. With this knowledge in mind, we ought to be able to venture forth to spot and identify a variety of spirits, simply by checking each species against our guide. Why, then, does it seem that so many people cannot see the spirits for what they are and fall prey to all varieties of heresies, misin terpretations of Scripture, cults and fads? And even when we can discern truth from error and determine that a particular teaching, person or group is wrong, what are we to do? Is it enough not to follow that teaching? Are we, as individuals or as a church, to do something more than resist perversions of the truth, as important as that is? Such questions are not easily answered. After a look at the content of the passage under consideration, we will suggest some guidelines—and call attention to some of the difficulties—in this matter of discerning the spirits.

To understand John's instruction to test the Spirits, we need to place it in the context of Johannine church life. People met in houses in groups of about twenty to thirty people, for worship and fellowship (compare 2 Jn 10). These scattered communities did not have immediate access to authoritative figures like the Elder, and communication with them was not always easy. Apparently the Elder sent emissaries to communicate with the churches (3 John 5-8), sometimes carrying letters such as these epistles. These congregations had been glad to welcome the Elder's traveling ambassadors. But now there were also "false prophets" who, like the emissaries of the Elder, would have claimed to speak the truth under the inspiration of the Spirit. And, finally, there were also various itinerant philosophers who traveled in hopes of a hearing and a place to stay. In light of this complex situation, John is anxious to provide his readers with criteria against which claims to truth and inspiration could be tested.

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