Paul exhorted us to test all things and to hold fast to the good. Because of the context it is clear that Paul wanted us to test prophecy given by fellow believers. Jesus also wanted us to test the prophets, even those in sheep’s clothing. Additionally, it appears that this testing could be extended to all ‘Spirit’ ministry. The purpose of this testing was for the believer to be able to tell the difference between what has truly come from the Spirit of God and what has not. This testing is so that we will be able to separate the good from every form of evil, preventing our deception.
Why be so concerned about deception? Jesus and his apostles taught us that in the last days deception would be the main danger. When we are deceived we believe a lie, but are not aware of it. Since belief is the basis for all action and relationships, wrong beliefs result in destructive actions and relationships. Ultimately we will be judged on what we have believed as evidenced by our actions. True beliefs lead us into a love relationship with God and others while false beliefs do not. Deception then is a means by which our healthy relationships with God and others are broken.
Because of this we can see how important it is that we are not deceived. Now it is true that not all false beliefs are equally dangerous. Believing that Jesus is not our savior is far more dangerous than believing in, say, a limited atonement. (I can feel a discussion brewing!) There are areas in which differences of opinion are not necessarily debilitating and there are other areas that will destroy our relationship with God. It is important that we maintain a sense of proportion.
How then can we tell whether or not some ‘spiritual’ activity is from the Holy Spirit or not? We will have to have some authority guide us here. We will have to be taught. Why do I say this? How would any of us know the answer to this question, for sure? Who has the right to say anything about this but those who undoubtedly have known this Spirit? This is why I propose scripture, the Old and New Testaments. No one in scripture has our cultural biases. And for my money, they are ones who undoubtedly knew the Holy Spirit.
Throughout time people have had to deal with the problem of who speaks authoritatively for God. Prophecy is where someone speaks for God as God directs, often in the first person singular. (Rev19:10, 22:6-9; Amos3:8) People who wanted to know the truth have always had to choose between those who spoke for God and those who claimed to speak for God. How were they able to distinguish between the two? What happened in the past and what can we learn from them?
The first situation that comes to mind is when Noah tried unsuccessfully to warn the world of the impending flood. Only his family listened. Even with the evidence of all these animals coming to the ark in pairs, people didn’t listen. No one had ever seen what Noah was talking about. Noah spoke of rain, floods, worldwide judgment, and cataclysm of a degree never before known. Besides, people didn’t want to repent. So Noah got no converts. Was Noah’s message from God? Yes. But people couldn’t tell because their hearts were hardened. They wanted their own way regardless. Noah’s message was right and he persisted with it for 120 years. He built an ark and gathered the animals (maybe even miraculously) and his family, demonstrating his sincerity. Still, his message went unheeded.
This shows us several things. The first is just because the message is strange and no one is listening does not prove that the message is not from God. It also shows that the reason we are not listening may have more to do with our hard heart than some flaw in the message. Herein is a ‘key’ to knowing the voice of God – the receptivity of our heart. Do we really want to hear from God, or do we only want God to confirm our own opinions? Unless we are open to correction we will have a very hard time hearing from God. Does this mean that when God speaks he only speaks correction? Of course not. But unless we are open to whatever God might say, we will have trouble hearing. Unless we hear, we cannot decide whether the message is from God or not.
Since Moses was afraid that the people would not believe that God had met with him, God gave him confirmatory signs. This method was used throughout the Bible. Jesus, the prophets, the apostles all had miraculous signs to confirm that their message was from God. Yet signs were never given total confirmatory power. In other words, signs could confirm the message, but the message had to conform to the standard already given. Signs alone, or signs with a suspicious message, confirmed nothing. Signs alone cannot accredit the messenger. But signs can confirm that the message, when the message was consistent with previous messages from God, is indeed from God. (Dt 13:1-3, 18:21-22)
Why the need for signs if the message was consistent with previous messages from God? Sometimes it is because the people who are being communicated with have not understood the previous messages. Take for instance the coming in of the Gentiles into the people of God. It took many signs from the Spirit of God to lead Peter to the house of Cornelius. It also took a mighty demonstration of the presence of the Spirit in the lives of those Gentiles for the Jewish believers to accept the Gentiles and baptize them. Even then Peter was called to task by the leadership in Jerusalem. His answer was simple. Who am I to resist God?
Sometimes signs are used when the message challenges our accepted beliefs. If it weren’t for the signs, we would not reconsider our beliefs. Yet signs do not have the strength to change our beliefs on their own. The message must be, as the Bereans noted, consistent with what God has communicated before in the scriptures.
Jesus also taught us to “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” Matt 7:15-20 NIV So we can tell if the Spirit is working through someone by their fruit. This presupposes a few things. One is that we know this person life well enough to test for fruit. The second is that we know what good fruit looks (tastes?) like. Knowing the person who ministers by the Spirit is essential.
I suggest that the fruit Jesus mentions is the same as the fruit that Paul lists in Gal 5:22 as “love, joy, peace,patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”. So also in Eph 5:9 the "fruit of light" is found in "all that is good and right and true." Contrasted with this are "the unfruitful works of darkness" (v. 11), the "fruitless trees" of subversive teachers in Jude 12. One of the characteristics of the "wisdom from above" is that it is "full of mercy and good fruits" (Jas 3:17, 2 Pet 1:8). In order to see such things we need to actually know that person. The more a person is disassociated with the local church the harder it is to assess fruit, and the easier it is to hide bad fruit.
If the prophetic word is consistent with scripture and is being communicated through a person of good fruit, it passes the initial test. All of this needs to done through a relationship with the Holy Spirit. You might remember when Agabus warned Paul of the binding he would receive by the Gentiles in Jerusalem. Paul wasn’t hard of hearing, he knew that what was said was true. He also knew the Lord was sending him and that he was willing to suffer for the Name. How the prophetic word given to Paul was to be interpreted by Paul, not others to whom this word was not addressed. So how the word is to be applied needs discernment.
Paul warns the Thessalonians not to put out the Spirit’s fire by looking down on prophecy. Instead they were to test everything and hold on to the good. Prophecy is one way that God mediates his presence though his people. If there is a need for anything now, it is for God to lovingly intervene in people’s lives. Prophecy is one way God does this. Let’s avoid evil by not putting out the Spirit’s fire.