November 05, 2023 | Peter Rowan
Passage: 1 John 4:1-6
John continues on in Chapter 4 with various tests of true faith. He's given the churches in Asia Minor and the churches of today, here and now, moral tests of how we live our lives and social tests of how we live together in love. He now turns his attention back to a doctrinal test. There were many other teachers coming up who claimed to be from God but they had given in to the thinking of their day. John calls his readers back to the confession of God coming in the flesh in Christ. This, of course, challenged the idea of a distant god, it challenged the idea of household gods and it challenged the idea of a god who doesn't care much for the physical, bodily life. To deny the confess that Jesus came in the flesh is to miss the whole point of Christian faith.
We are back in the First Epistle of John. Last week we heard from Dale Kulp from the 2 Kings 5. It’s a wonderful story of the grace and power of God. An enemy, a Commander in the Syrian Army, Naaman has leaprsey and a young Jewish servant girl who had likely been abducted in a Syrian army raid on Israel has compassion on this Commander and tells him to go to Elisha, the great prophet in Israel. He does and along with him he brings a letter from his king and all kinds of money and bling and drip swag. Now, Elisha tells him to humble himself and take a bath. To wash and be clean. But how could it be that simple? He needs the show. He needs the spectacle for his status. All-the-same, he washes and is clean. Elisha decline all of the coins and clothes, but his servant Gehazi denied he’d like them. He’s greedy and hides what he’s taken all to be found out and to receive the leprosy that was once Naaman’s. It’s a great story. It’s like a Flannery O’Connor story where the least expected person proves to be the wisest and the most open to God and the one that seems to know it all ends up knowing nothing. Of course, it’s a story for us too, particularly for us in the church who tend to like to have our stuff together and to look at the world out there with a level of contempt and disdain while inside we can just be whitewashed tombs.
The next chapter of 2 Kings, chapter 6 tells another great story. Keep in mind the context. It was one of rather continual skirmishes and sometimes outright warfare between the Syrians and the northern tribes of Israel. And the Syrian king had discovered that all his plans and his deliberations were being revealed to the king of Israel because of Elisha. So, the Syrian king sends his army to track down Elisha. Elisha’s servant wakes up one day and looks out around the town where they lived and their town was absolutely surrounded by horses and chariots. He goes back to Elisha and says, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Elisha says. “What? They are a whole army!” And Elisha asks God to open the eyes of this servant. When he does so this servant sees the reality. The mountains all around their town were filled with horses and chariots of fire.
Sometimes it is hard to see reality. Sometimes it is easy to doubt faith. Like Peter walking on water, it’s easy to loose sight of what is really going on, even though he had seen Jesus calm the storm.
“He who is in you is great than he who is in the world.”
John has given his readers a moral test of faith - the test of righteousness, of loving the things of God, the things that God loves. John has given us a social test, the test of the new commandment - that we love one another and not just in words but in deeds.
John now gives us a doctrinal test, or what we could call a test of belief. He’s inviting them to see what is really happening, to test different teachings.
Let’s consider this passage by considering the content and the characters.
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.
Ok, first John just gives us an invitation. Test stuff. Be attentive to what you are listening to. Don’t just go along being blown here and there by whatever tickles your ears.
Now, I think you have to understand here that it is good to take “Spirit” not in some ethereal just non-physical sense, rather what he is saying is “test the teaching.”
Eugene Peterson’s The Message says it this way "My dear friends, don’t believe everything you hear. Carefully weigh and examine what people tell you. Not everyone who talks about God comes from God. There are a lot of lying preachers loose in the world."
There are a lot of lying preachers loose in the world. There were then and there are now.
Keep in mind the context here. John is likely writing from Ephesus. And this was a general Epistle, so it was sent to a bunch of different churches. He was the oldest living disciple of Jesus and so he spoke authoritatively, but he was getting old and for some the message of Jesus was getting stale. And the message wasn’t fitting in with the teaching that the people in Asia Minor were getting elsewhere. So, as happens now, there were teachers that would take some of the truths of Christian faith and just make them a little palatable for their ears of those around them.
John says, don’t believe everything you hear. Examine it. Test it. Is it true? Does it agree with Holy Scripture and what you have heard from the beginning. Test it.
Now, let me say this: whenever the message of Jesus seems to cohere too easily and too completely with the teachings of the world around us, you almost must think “something is off here!” If your Christianity aligns just perfectly with current nationalism, something is probably off. If you can find your identity in a political party and not feel like you really don’t quite belong, something is probably off. Test the spirits. Test them. I get it. I get that it is nice to just feel like you can fit in with those around you, but if you are going to be faithful to Jesus you will always have a sense that you are not home until you are finally home with him. Test the spirits.
But while this passage is telling us “do not believe every spirit”, every teaching even if it comes from someone claiming to be a Christian, it has a specific teaching that it is speaking to.
2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
Again, from The Message: "Here’s how you test for the genuine Spirit of God. Everyone who confesses openly his faith in Jesus Christ—the Son of God, who came as an actual flesh-and-blood person—comes from God and belongs to God. And everyone who refuses to confess faith in Jesus has nothing in common with God. This is the spirit of antichrist that you heard was coming. Well, here it is, sooner than we thought!"
Jess pointed out well for us in our staff meeting on Tuesday that what he is most intent on here is creedal kind of teaching. John is warning them against those who are not willing to stand up and confess that Jesus is God in the flesh. That is foundational Christianity. This isn’t John getting into sacramental debates or debates on church polity, this is first-tier theology, first order teaching.
But here is what you also need to hear: this is the kind of teaching that would have been laughed in the towns that received this letter. God in the flesh?! And One God who is to be worshipped and adored who died on a Roman cross?! What a joke! Why would I believe that! You have to hear that what John is getting at may be foundational stuff, but it was the stuff that would have been hardest for those around them to swallow.
And think of it: If God comes in the flesh it means that our bodies matter immensely and what we do with them matters immensely. If God comes in the flesh then it matters how we treat others’ bodies. It become a lot harder to justify the objectification of women or the keeping of slaves or the frequenting of the temple brothel with our buddies. If God comes in the flesh and he really died a fleshy death and rose a fleshy body, then maybe I need to give my life over to him completely. It means that I have to live within the community of others and that the constraints of fleshly life can be for my good. Maybe that kind of God who can do the unthinkable - be truly God and truly man, die and yet live - well, maybe that means I have to give him my life completely. Maybe that kind of God is more of a Lord than Caesar himself and maybe that kind of a God will sustain me when my body fails and my heart breaks and my bank account is empty and my fiends disown me and my neighbors laugh at me.
If God comes in the flesh then it means my sin is a big deal, but God’s love for me is even bigger. It means that I can’t diminish my sin, but I also can’t diminish my dignity and how loved I am.
You can’t be from God and deny the coming of Jesus in the flesh.
This is core content.
But if that’s the content, who are the characters?
This second half of our test has you, they and us. I want to take those in reverse order.
6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us.
Let’s just acknowledge that that sounds like the absolute height of arrogance! I mean, how many pastors and religious leaders - how many cult leaders - say stuff like that? A lot! And there is a lot of abuse in churches that takes place because people say that they have heard from God!
I know this passage reeks of that kind of stuff. It is important here though to understand that this is the Apostle John. He was the last living disciple of Jesus and he could speak for the apostolic message, the message of those who were with Jesus. And he says, “I laid my head against his breast! I walked with him on the journey to Jerusalem. I was at the foot of the cross when he said to Mary, “Woman, behold your son,” and to me “Behold, your mother!”
So John says “If you cannot listen to this message of God in the flesh in Jesus, you are not from God!” and that is categorically different than all of the abuses that are so sadly chronicled of church leaders claiming to be of God when they abuse those under their care!
5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.
He is not speaking here of just those outside the church. He is saying that those inside the community of faith who are false teachers! And they are of the world because they have not had their starting point the centrality of God as he is revealing in the un-fleshed Jesus! Instead, they have made a palatable God, a god to their liking an the liking of their neighbors around them.
Listen to this NT Wright quote from your bulletin:
Left to myself, the god I want is a god who will give me what I want. He—or more likely it—will be a projection of my desires. At the grosser level, this will lead me to one of the more obvious pagan gods or goddesses, who offer their devotees money, or sex, or power… All idols started out life as the god somebody wanted.
At a more sophisticated level, the god I want will be a god who lives up to my intellectual expectations…I want this god because he, or it, will underwrite my intellectual arrogance. He will boost my sense of being a refined modern thinker. The net result is that I become god; and this god I’ve made becomes my puppet. Nobody falls down on their face before the god they wanted. Nobody trembles at the word of a home-made god. Nobody goes out with fire in their belly to heal the sick, to clothe the naked, to teach the ignorant, to feed the hungry, because of the god they wanted. They are more likely to stay at home with their feet up.
Can such a god really be God?
And John says, “no, that is not God.” The God “they” are teaching is not God.
4 Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.
Let me just end with this. The opened eyes that God gives to the servant of Elisha is what John desires for you to have!
It is easy to come out of the house in the morning and to look around and to see the army encamped and thing, “Ahhh, master!!!” But if Jesus really did come in the flesh and live and die and rise again to new life, you already have the victory.
The one who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.
Test the Spirits and don’t buy the lies.
He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.
The book of 1 John is a letter from the last remaining apostle to group of house churches he oversees near Ephesus. It is a message of encouragement to saints who have grown weary with the unbelief of those around them. John writes to them and us as one who has known and been known by Jesus - and has found Jesus to be full of light, kindness and love.