Sermon Series on First John, “Collecting Evidence of Faith”
“Beware: Falsehood” I John 4:1-6 -Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
I enjoy watching Antiques Roadshow on PBS. One of the show’s most famous discoveries was a Seymour mahogany card table from Boston, bought at a garage sale by a New Jersey retiree for $25. She later sold the table at Sotheby’s for over half a million dollars. Sometimes the appraisers tell people they’ve brought in a priceless heirloom, and sometimes they burst some bubbles, revealing items appearing to be valuable as worthless, deceptive frauds. It’s our job as Christians to appraise viewpoints as to whether they come from God or some other source.
Religious notions abound. There are many disparate voices out there, and some are dangerous. People claim to speak by the Spirit, but do they? How much do you really know about the guy preaching on the radio? Discernment is a good thing overall, for example--on the web, the last time you did some internet research, how carefully did you check your sources? How much did you know about the sites you logged onto? John is strongly cautioning us to beware of the “spirit of error.” We need spiritual discernment every time we encounter voices claiming to be from God: books, magazines, radio and TV preachers, websites and blogs. Some are spouting false doctrine. So don’t believe everything you hear.
John urges us to “test the spirits” in verses 1-3 to see if the spirit teachers have comes from God; some possess the spirit of antichrist. In other words, don’t blindly accept what you’re presented simply because the source claims to be of God. John warns that many views belong to this world. How do we “test” to see whether a teacher or organization is speaking the truth? We don’t want to bless that which comes from ego, evil, or error. Before we trust teachers, we test them. We distinguish truth from error by knowing Scripture. If we’re biblically illiterate we are fair game for any false teacher.
In the Old Testament, there were several tests to determine whether prophets came from God: Did their short-term predictions come to pass? Did they use pagan divination methods? Did their teachings match the Scriptures? What about their ethical conduct? And did reliable sources weigh and confirm their beliefs?
Today we need to be aware of the distinguishing characteristics of cults. Cults are groups that zealously set themselves apart from mainstream religion, claiming to be the only true faith. They often have exclusive writings, unique interpretations, and rigid rules. Their path to salvation is by works. They expect unquestioning acceptance of their teachings.
Cults often deny the deity and/or humanity of Christ, which was a major reason why John wrote his epistle. Authentic faith requires a proper understanding of Jesus. Gentile Christians in John’s day were being misled by people who followed Plato’s view that the physical body is a prison and that only the spirit is important. This is why in the Gnostic Gospel of Judas Jesus thanks His betrayer for helping Him escape His mortal body (the Gnostic writings came from the 2nd & 3rd centuries and were rejected by the early church fathers). False teachers in John’s day were claiming that Jesus was only a spirit. The New Testament authors uniformly state that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, the unique God-Man, or as John writes, “the Word-made-flesh” (John 1:14). Jesus reveals the Father to us, and through His sacrificial death He atones for our sins. He is the Way of eternal life. Our first question then, when examining any religious group is: “What do they believe about Christ?”
Besides cults, there are many self-appointed, self-ordained teachers who answer to no one, and totally unaffiliated churches. They claim they answer to God, which may sound alright, but when there’s no one to check them or their teachings, any kind of false beliefs may be possible. They’re like loose cannons, spouting off under no one’s sanction or authority. They often claim that any who disagree with their teachings are disagreeing with God. Some people don’t care for “organized religion,” but one significant benefit is accountability.
I admit that, in the defense of truth, it’s easy to feel discouraged and outnumbered. To encourage us, John reminds us in verse 4: “Greater is He who is in you than the evil one who is in the world.” We are overcomers, thanks to God’s working within us. Dualism claims that there are two equal opposing forces in the world--good and evil. We see this expressed in fantasy and science-fiction, where tension builds over which force will prevail. The Scriptures assure us that God is greater than any evil, and that we’re on the winning side. We need not worry; the outcome has already been determined. Our Savior faced the devil (the ultimate source of false teaching) and won; we are “more than conquerors” through Christ.
Once more the matter of contrasting worldviews is raised, in verse 5. If you recall TIME magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th Century, there are some Christian leaders listed, but not many. Billy Graham came in as #4, just under #3 Adolph Hitler. How we interpret life and death, time and eternity, right and wrong comes from our worldview. The secular world, fallen and corrupted by sin, has its perspective, and it doesn’t come from Above. We find ourselves in opposition to secularism, at odds with relativism, agnosticism, situation ethics, nihilism, and all perspectives that contradict the views of Scripture. We can be cordial to those who believe differently, but we nonetheless express our convictions knowing that we may be incurring conflict and controversy. We’re not “looking for a fight” but we are outspoken in expressing our Christian beliefs, and living by them. We are opposed to any ideology in conflict with the revealed truth of Scripture. This doesn’t mean we’re free to be obnoxious or hostile. We’re called to love people we disagree with without affirming their views.
John says “we are from God,” verse 6. The “we” refer to the Apostles, the earliest Christian teachers. How people respond to Apostolic teaching reveals their true colors. Those who follow in the footsteps of the Apostles and early Church Fathers do so by having their calling confirmed/verified by established clergy. Vicinage/ordination councils examine the credentials and doctrinal positions of candidates to the ministry. This does not mean that ordained clergy are infallible; councils determine whether candidates are adequately equipped to lead others. We who sit on such councils look for spiritual maturity, orthodox theology, and pastoral care/people skills. Also, when we send our children to Sunday School, we deserve the assurance that the teachers aren’t there only because they volunteered, but are doctrinally and spiritually qualified.
False teachers tell people what they want to hear; John says, “the world listens to them.” The Christ-denying world isn’t interested in hearing sound Biblical teaching. I once sent an agnostic relative a Christian booklet titled “20 Questions You Have Asked,” like: “How can I know there’s a God? Is Prayer Real? What Happens After Death?” -and he wrote back saying he never asked any of them (he was perhaps too tuned into the world). But maybe I got him to think, and consider some of the ultimate issues of life and eternity.
On Antiques Roadshow, before giving the bottom-line, the appraiser usually turns to the hopeful guest and asks, “So, how much do you think your object is worth?” As custodians of God’s word, we need discernment to appraise religious teachers and assess the validity and worth of their message. Many claim an authority not rightfully theirs and their heresies need to be exposed. Their teachings are not in harmony with Scripture. Having correct beliefs is obviously important, but behind all our theology is a Person to Whom we offer our devotion. We are called to be in relation to our Savior, to live according to His directives, and to confess Him as our Lord.