The meat of John’s admonition is found in two present tense imperatives. First, John says, “believe not every spirit.” Second, “try the spirits.” In the first century the Holy Spirit miraculously inspired men to preach and teach the word of God (c.f. 1 Cor. 12-14). Unfortunately, there were many who tried to take advantage of that by falsely claiming inspiration in order to deceive God’s people into believing a lie (Eph. 4:14). Therefore, Christians were commanded not to continually believe everyone who claimed to be speaking on behalf of God, but were to continually try, or test, them. To “try” is to prove, examine, or verify legitimacy and authenticity. The same word is used in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 where Paul said, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” The imagery of the word is illustrated beautifully in 1 Peter 1:7 where Peter speaks of faith being “tried with fire.” In that passage the term reminds us of the practice of placing precious metals into the fire in order to burn off impurities. So, to “try the spirits” is to examine them closely in order to see through any impurities that may be contained within them.
1 John 4:1 is a practice that God commanded to be continually present among His people for all time. So, not only was it pertinent to those to whom John was writing, it is pertinent to you and me as well. In every generation there are those who claim to be speaking on behalf of God, but in reality are not. From beginning to end their message is one of error and destruction. Our job is to take what is spoken and compare it to scripture to test its validity. This was the practice of the “noble Bereans” in Acts 17:11. The scripture says that they “received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” False teachers are sneaky. They privately bring in “damnable heresies” (2 Pet. 2:1) as wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15) seeking to lead people away from the truth. God does not want us to be lulled to sleep with a false sense of security, nor does He want us to take them only on their word. He wants us to be awake and aware, and “try the spirits whether they are of God.” He wants us to open our bible’s daily and be sure that we are learning and walking in truth (2 John 4).