Beloved, 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. 1 John 4:1 NASB
Test – When John wrote his letters, the messianic congregations were under attack. Buffeted between Hellenism through Gnostic and pagan religions and the Judaism that rejected Yeshua as the Messiah, the early followers of the Way had to know how to evaluate claims made by teachers. In the past, Moses provided two tests. First, if the words spoken by a man claiming to be a prophet did not come true, then that man was not from God (Deuteronomy 18:22). Second, even if the man’s predictions came true, any man who led the people toward idolatry was not from God (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). Certainly John was aware of these tests, but now he adds another. Anyone who claims that Yeshua did not come in the flesh is a false prophet. John’s test is aimed directly at Gnosticism and its cousin, Docetism. Today this heretical view has all but disappeared among Christians. That makes us think we have met the tests for prophets, but maybe this conclusion isn’t quite right. Docetism may have disappeared, but other false teachings have taken its place.
In John’s day, the teaching that Yeshua only appeared to be a man (but was really God disguised in human form) was a formidable Hellenistic enemy of the faith. On the opposite side was the continued battle with Judaism that Yeshua wasn’t really God at all. He was just another man, certainly not the Messiah. Followers of the Way had to combat both of these opposing views. But that didn’t remove the tests provided by Moses. Those were firmly established in the Torah. Today we have settled the Docetic heresy and we hope that by our way of life we will encourage Jews to recognize Yeshua as the Messiah, but we still have a problem with Moses. John’s use of the verb dokimazo exhorts us to try, to test, to discern and distinguish those teachings that lead to idolatry and reject them and the ones who promote them. The root behind this verb is the idea of accepting what has been received and proved. You find the same thought in 2 Timothy 2:15; the man approved by God who needs not be ashamed. But here’s the catch. What John considered accepted and proved is the Torah observance of Yeshua and the utter reliability and applicability of the Tanakh. In other words, Moses’ second test validates John’s claim of Yeshua’s divinity and His role as the Messiah because it leads directly to a life built on the Torah. Anything else leads toward idolatry. The rejection of God’s instructions for living implies the rejection of the God who gives the instructions.
Now we have an enormous problem. The Church has rejected Docetism, upholding John’s test, but it fails to meet the conditions of Moses’ tests. In fact, one might argue that the Church itself is the great deceiver, suggesting that it is no longer necessary to practice what God said in the Old Testament. Such a claim implies that it is no longer necessary to believe what Yeshua Himself said. Such a claim would have been idolatry for John and all followers of the Way. How we came to accept what the Church taught but reject what Scripture teaches is a very long story, but it doesn’t change the situation. We have failed to test the spirits because we have rejected Moses. We threw out the tests that would have kept us on track and then claimed that we could alter Scripture to fit our own discernment. Unless we take seriously this shift in our own history, we will continue toward idolatry even when we believe the truth about Yeshua.
John wrote about those prophets who denied the human reality of Yeshua. We aren’t fighting that battle. Our concern is much older. Moses wrote about those prophets who spoke true words but lead the people astray. That seems to be our fight. It’s far more subtle and far more dangerous. And few there will be who find the narrow gate.
Topical Index: test, dokimazo, prophets, Docetism, 1 John 4:1