When I was a child my mom and adoptive father bought a sailboat with fantasies of sailing around the world. But first we had to learn how to sail…which included learning how to navigate. One of my earliest memories was going out in our little sailboat from Marina Del Rey, and my adoptive dad getting horribly sea sick. So it was up to my mom to sail the boat--the only problem was that she didn’t know how to navigate--so all night long she sailed parallel with the beach, constantly keeping her eyes on the lights from the coast to keep her bearings, because she knew if she didn’t, she’d get lost.
Well all of us get lost at times, whether it’s sailing, driving somewhere, or just going into a building that you’ve never been to before. Last weekend my wife and I celebrated our 15th year of marriage, and par for the course of our 15 years of marriage, I got lost as we drove down the central coast. I lost my sense of direction because I couldn’t see the ocean anymore and I decided to take a shortcut...that shortcut cost us at least an hour.
Not only do we sometimes get lost driving or sailing, but we also sometimes get lost on the spiritual journey. Consider a friend of mine who came to know Jesus Christ through the ministry here at Life Bible Fellowship Church back in the early 1980s. Her and her new husband had been shunned by their friends and family because of the age difference between them, but here at the church the found love and were introduced to a relationship with Jesus Christ. They launched on the spiritual journey through faith in Jesus Christ, but soon after they started to lose their spiritual bearings. Soon they had drifted into various forms of witchcraft, reading tarot cards, and other occultic activities. Even though my friend and her husband knew these things were explicitly forbidden in the Bible, they persisted, still claiming to be followers of Jesus Christ, yet involved in things that were the very antithesis of the Christian life described in the Bible. My friend ended up divorcing her husband and marrying a drug dealer, and ultimately she died in that relationship....she lost her bearings in the spiritual life.
Consider someone else who attended our church. This man and his wife were a wonderful testimony of how Jesus Christ can transform people’s lives. They were deeply devoted to the spiritual journey of following Jesus Christ as his disciples, yet over the years the husband gradually lost his bearings. Finally he got involved in a Christian group that claimed to received direct communication from God, even though that so called communication from God sometimes contradicted the Bible. He claimed that God told him to leave his wife and children in order to pursue another relationship, and that’s just what he did. He lost his bearings, he got off course in the spiritual journey.
Many men and women who begin the spiritual journey of following Jesus Christ lost their bearings, they get lost, and the tragedy is that many don’t even realize that they’re lost. So our question is how can we get our bearings so we don’t get lost in the spiritual journey. Now I realize that by talking about getting lost in the spiritual journey I’m touching on an area that’s very sensitive in our culture today. To speak of getting lost in the journey assumes that there’s a right way and a wrong way in the spiritual life, and frankly that’s not a very popular idea these days.
Since the advent of a worldview known as postmodernism, the idea that certain spiritual claims are true and certain spiritual claims are false has come to be seen as narrow minded and ignorant. Today it’s more popular to view all spiritual views as simply being different roads that all lead to God, and for one road to claim to be the only right road sounds intolerant, uncaring, and uneducated to today’s postmodern ears. I heard recently of one pastor who teaches an introduction to Christianity class for spiritual seekers and inquirers (Tim Stafford, Christianity Today 9/14/92 p. 36). At the beginning of the class he shows them a jar full of beans and he asks each participant in the class to guess how many beans are in the jar. Then he asks each participant to write down the name of his or her favorite song. When the lists are complete, he reveals the actual number of beans in the jar, and each class participant looks over the guesses to determine which one is closest to being right. Then he asks the class, "Now which one of these songs is the closest to being right?" Of course, the class answers that there is no "right" answer to a person’s favorite song, because favorite songs are simply a matter of personal taste and preference. Then the pastor asks this group of seekers, "When you decide what to believe in terms of your faith, is it more like guess the number of beans or choosing your favorite song?" Every time the majority of class participants respond by saying it’s more like choosing your favorite song...that’s the influence of postmodernism in our world today.
Yet when you think about it, the postmodern claim that all spiritual claims are equally valid and truth is really a self-refuting claim. To claim that anyone’s spiritual truth is just as valid as anyone else’s spiritual truth is really a rejection of the existence of such a thing as spiritual truth in the first place. And if there’s no such thing as spiritual truth that statement becomes self-refuting because that statement itself is making a spiritual truth claim, namely that it’s true that there’s no such thing as spiritual truth. If there’s such a thing as spiritual truth—and that’s impossible to avoid—then there must also be such a thing as spiritual error. That’s not intolerant, close-minded or ignorant, but it’s simply being rational and consistent. Just as an example, Christians claim that Jesus Christ died on the cross, but the Muslim religion claims that Jesus did not die on the cross. Those claims cannot both be true.
If you’re here this morning as a seeker who’s investigating the Christian faith, we’re glad you’re here. We love you, we’re not going to do anything to embarrass you, manipulate you, or put you on the spot. But we also won’t shrink away from the fact that we believe the Christian faith is truthful. We don’t make that claim because we want to be intolerant or insensitive to people of other faiths, but we make it because that’s what the Bible claims, to present us with spiritual truth.
This morning we are going to look at how to get our bearings in the spiritual journey so we don’t get lost. Specifically we’re going to see two actions we can take to get our bearings and stay on course, to avoid spiritual falsehood.
I. Discernment (4:1-3).
The apostle John begins with a sobering warning in v. 1. We have a tendency to be very gullible people when it comes to claims about the supernatural. We tend to believe anything we hear about the spiritual realm, whether it’s from a guest on Oprah Winfrey or an article in Guideposts Magazine, whether it’s a radio talk show host or an expert being interviewed in Newsweek. No place is this more true than in the Christian community. If a person stands up quoting a few Bible verses and making reference to Jesus a few times, we’re apt to fall for whatever he or she has to say. John wants us to stop being so gullible, to not believe everything we hear about the spiritual realm.
The word "spirit" here can refer to our personal spiritual experiences, it can refer to religious leaders, and it can also refer to religious groups. In other words, don’t trust every spiritual experience you have, don’t trust every religious leader who claims to speak for God and don’t trust every religious group you come into contact with. Instead, says John, test these experiences, test these leaders, test these groups to determine whether they’re truly from God or not.
That word "test" means "to try to learn the genuineness of something by close examination" (Louw and Nida, Greek English Lexicon Based on Semantic Domains, 27.45). The first time the bank gave me one of those new 20 dollar bills, I looked at it real closely to make sure it wasn’t counterfeit. When a store makes an outrageous claim, if you’re smart you investigate the claim before forking your money out. That’s what this word is describing, that ability to look beyond the surface, to dig deeply into the claim to see what’s underneath. John’s telling us that before we trust any spiritual experience, any religious leader, or any religious group we must first test them, dig beneath the surface, look closely, to determine whether it’s a snow job or the real thing.
Now how do we do that? John tells us in vv. 2-3. God’s Spirit will always honor and magnify God’s Son. Every spiritual experience, religious leader and religious group that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh is from God.
That word "acknowledge" involves both recognition of the true identity of Jesus and also open commitment to that truth. It’s not just having the right idea, but it’s also being committed to the person that idea points to.
That phrase "Jesus Christ come in the flesh" is referring to the incarnation of Jesus Christ In fact, one translation reads, "Every spirit that confesses Jesus Christ incarnate is from God" (Brown, Anchor Bible Commentary). The word "Jesus" describes his full humanity, and "Christ" describes his full divinity, and "in the flesh" describes how in the person of Jesus Christ both Godhood and humanity are perfectly joined together. The incarnation, God himself revealed in human flesh, is the test John is giving us. Every spiritual experience, religious leader, and religious group that has a right view of who Jesus Christ is and is openly committed to Jesus Christ is from God. Every spiritual experience, religious leader and religious group that denies the incarnation and is not committed to following Jesus is not from God, says John. Instead, this is the spirit of the antichrist, it is opposed to who Jesus is, and stands opposed to what God is doing.
Here we find the first action we can take to get our bearings. WE WILL GET AND KEEP OUR BEARINGS IN THE SPIRITUAL JOURNEY BY DEVELOPING DOCTRINAL DISCERNMENT.
How do you determine whether a spiritual experience, a religious leader or a group is really from God? How do you know God’s Spirit is at work in your worship experience or in your private devotional life? Some make that determination on how it makes them feel, if they feel closer to God then it must be from God. Others make that determination based on how credible the person sounds or how honest the person looks.
Some listen for the name Jesus or a few Bible verses, and if the person does that it must be okay. Yet there are lots of false belief systems that will make you feel good, that look good, and that use the name Jesus. David Koresh and the Branch Davidians talked about Jesus and quoted Bible verses, yet his followers ended up setting themselves on fire in an effort to usher in the battle of Armageddon. Jim Jones was ordained by a prominent Christian denomination, he quoted his Bible frequently, he talked about Jesus, yet he led hundreds of people into the biggest mass suicide in history. My wife was visiting another church member a few weeks ago when some people knocked on their door selling a book called The Divine Principle. Perhaps they came to your door too. They are members of the Unification Church, also known as Moonies. They quote the Bible and talk about Jesus, yet when you penetrate beneath the surface you find that they believe that Jesus failed in his attempt to be our Savior, and that the Rev. Sun Myung Moon is the second coming of Christ for us today. The only sure way to sift through spiritual claims is to evaluate them on the basis of doctrinal truth.Doctrinal truth is the constant, it doesn’t move or change, so we can get our bearings by comparing where we are with those critical doctrinal truths.
Here John calls our attention to the incarnation of Jesus Christ because that’s the issue they were dealing with, but that’s not the only doctrine we can use to evaluate spiritual truth claims. Think of doctrinal truth as the stars , and the Bible is the Sexton that helps us see that truth and understand how it applies to our lives. Doctrinal discernment is really a skill that we learn by internalizing the Bible and learning how to apply it’s truth to our lives. Moody Bible Institute President Joseph Stowell says that "discernment...is that skill that enables us to differentiate. It is the ability to see issues clearly. We desperately need to cultivate this spiritual skill that will enable us to know right from wrong...light from darkness, truth from error, best from better, righteousness from unrighteousness" (Moody Monthly, 1986 p. 44). Stowell is right, discernment is a skill, and it’s a skill we develop by using our minds.
Picture two concentric circles. The inner circle consists of those core doctrinal truths, what C. S. Lewis called "mere Christianity." The incarnation of Jesus Christ is one of those core beliefs. These are the central claims of the Christian faith, stuff like the claim that God exists, that God is a personal God, that that the Bible communicates God’s truth, and so forth. This core is Christian orthodoxy throughout the centuries, it’s the classic truths of the Christian faith expressed since the founding of the church 2,000 years ago. The essential beliefs are what’s found in our church’s doctrinal statement.
The second circle represents peripheral doctrines that Christians who agree on the core don’t always see eye to eye on. These are things in the Bible can be taken in more than one way, like whether to baptize by immersion or sprinkling, like the role of spiritual gifts, like educational choice--whether to educate our kids in public school, private school, or home school--like worship styles, and so forth. These are things we can legitimately disagree about in the Christian community and still be in harmony with each other.
Outside that second circle is the world of non-Christian beliefs. This is where atheism falls--the claim that there is no God, this is where the other world religions stand, where non-Christian cults are, and so forth. This is spiritual truth claims that contradict the clear and evident teaching of the Bible lie. For instance when the Mormon church claims that Jesus is the spirit brother of Lucifer it lies outside this second circle, when the Muslim religion claims that Jesus is not God’s Son, when the New Age movement tells us to gain salvation reincarnation and karma, these things like outside of the circle of the Christian faith. Don’t trust every spiritual experience, religious leader or religious organization. Don’t just believe me because I seem believable, but test everything I say and this church says doctrinally, against the clear teaching of the Bible, against that core, that mere Christianity.We can get and keep our bearings by developing doctrinal discernment.
II. Applying Spiritual Victory (4:4-6).
Now not every follower of Jesus has the confidence to do this, so John needs to give his friends a pep talk in. vv. 4-6. Now the statement "you are from God" is not meant to be an arrogant claim that Christians are somehow superior or better than people of other faiths and belief systems. John is simply telling us that when we come to know God through faith in Jesus Christ we become specially connected to God through our faith. The Bible calls this a new birth, where we receive eternal life, our sins are forgiven, and God’s Holy Spirit lives inside of us. This doesn’t happen because we’re smarter or better than other people, but it’s the work of God’s grace in our lives, it’s all part of the gift of salvation that Jesus Christ brings.
Because of this intimate connection to God we’ve overcome the deception and false belief systems that are in the world. The basis of this overcoming isn’t because of how smart we are, or how good we are, or how holy we are, but it’s all based on who God is. God is simply greater—He’s more powerful--than any other force in our world, including Satan himself. The Spirit of God who indwells us through our faith in Jesus Christ is infinitely more powerful than any false belief system, religious leader, or religious organization that denies who Jesus Christ is.Now John’s friends didn’t feel much like overcomers. If you’ve been tracking with our series through 1 John, you know that the Christians John was writing to in ancient Asia Minor--modern day Turkey--we’re struggling in their spiritual journey.
Many of the people who’d once been part of their church had embraced false ideas about Jesus that denied the incarnation--that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh--and these former church members seemed to be gaining momentum. It seemed that every week they met for worship a few more people had left their congregation and had embraced these false ideas, so they felt like anything but overcomers. So John reminds us that popularity isn’t the test of truth. Just because people in our world clamor after false belief systems, false religious leaders and counterfeit organizations doesn’t mean that God is any less great or that something’s wrong with what we believe. The spiritual journey isn’t a popularity contest of how many people we can lure to our side, but it’s about being faithful to what God has revealed about himself through Jesus Christ. False religious systems will be popular, if for no other reason than the fact that they appeal to what the world already values, so the world listens because they tell them what they want to hear.
But he also tells us that people will come to know Christ as well, that God is working in the hearts and lives of people, and so we will see people come out of the world system and into faith in Jesus Christ.In this section we find the second action we can do to get our bearings. WE WILL GET AND KEEP OUR BEARINGS IN THE SPIRITUAL LIFE BY CONFIDENTLY APPLYING SPIRITUAL VICTORY.
Sometimes it’s hard to live as an overcomer in this spiritual journey of following Jesus Christ. It’s discouraging to see people we care about lured into false belief systems. Sometimes we feel like we’re not making any progress, that we’re the only one’s seeking to live in faithfulness to Jesus Christ, and at those times God wants to remind us that we’re overcomers not because of how popular or unpopular our message is but because we’ve been brought into a love relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. Our lighthouse to get our bearings isn’t how big our church is or how popular our message is, but it’s the fact that we serve a big God, a God who’s more powerful and greater than any force in the world. That friends is our lighthouse in the storm, that’s the constant that can help us get our bearings spiritually.
How can we avoid getting lost in the spiritual journey? By getting our bearings through doctrinal discernment and confidently applying spiritual victory. Friends if you can learn to do that, you’re spiritual life will become strong, even in the face of challenges and problems, even in the face of false belief systems. Testing the spirits and living as the overcomer that you truly are will enable you to live powerfully as Jesus Christ’s follower in a world that seems like it’s gone crazy.