Reverend Bible was a fourth generation preacher. He was his father’s son. He was a chip off the old block. While he was growing up he watched his father mount the pulpit week after week at First Church and offer his thoughts to the people. The son of a preacher now thought he would make his move to the pulpit. He had attended the finest of colleges to gain his undergraduate degree. Upon completing his studies he enrolled in a fine, prestigious Seminary known for its textual criticism, unparalleled adherence to the finest in liberal scholarship, and social consciousness. At the seminary young Reverend Bible followed in the footsteps of his father and read the best works of Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Sigmund Freud, Albert Camus, and James Cone.
When Reverend Bible finally graduated from Seminary he felt good about the well-rounded liberal education that he had gained from four years of study with his professors. He had learned about Process Theology, Liberation Theology, inclusive language, and unmasking the Patriarchal elements of the Bible. He had sat at the feet of professors who possessed Ph.D.’s in dismantling the historical tenets of the faith. They taught him that historic Christianity was passed down to us by unsophisticated, uneducated, but well-meaning men who didn’t understand. The early Church didn’t understand that biology rules out the Virgin Birth. They were unaware that Adam, Eve, Abraham and Sarah, and many others figures of the Bible were mythological figures. The early believers’ emotional needs kept them from believing that the death of Jesus was just that, a death, it held no power other than the fact that it was heroic. The early believers didn’t have the advances we have to help them know that “sin” was simply moral defects or a genetic predisposition that could be overcome through technological advances and an advanced education. Reverend Bible bowed his head and thanked his “Higher Power” for all that he had gained from the halls of religious academia.
After graduating from Seminary, Reverend Bible took his first pastorate and began to regurgitate all of the garbage that he had garnered in his graduate studies. Each week, people who had tossed and turned in the turmoil of their troubles took their seat on Sunday. Each week, men and women who were being held captive by the guilt that gnawed at their soul sat quietly hoping for release. Each week, young people came to church looking for hope to hang onto in their struggles to stay unstained from the drugs, sex, and sin that lay waiting for them around every corner. Each week, husbands and wives came looking for ways to reconcile. Each week, precious but broken people came looking for strength to make it through another day since the death of their loved one. And each week, Reverend Bible offered them the same drivel.
Reverend Bible rarely referred to the Bible except to point out how out-dated it had become in the modern world. He spoke of psychology as the Savior of humanity in helping us to deal with our neurosis and psychosis, but he never mentioned “sin.” Reverend Bible knew the finer tenets of church growth and with that knowledge he was certain that speaking of “sin” would only alienate potential members.
Reverend Bible focused all of his efforts on starting new classes in helping people obtain happiness. There were classes on “How To Get All You Want From Marriage,” “Maximizing Your Earning Power,” and “Power Parenting.” There were “Singles” classes that provided fun and entertainment for everyone who participated. The Bible was rarely referred to, but boy did everyone have a good time. The only thing missing was a bar and a jukebox.
For Reverend Bible, Jesus was a fine teacher, the Bible was used when it was helpful, God was the God of all religions, and the Church was a great place for people to get together who didn’t have access to the Country Club.
Reverend Bible may have passed the test of his professors, he may have passed the test of growing a church, and he may have passed the test of being inclusive and politically correct, but he miserably failed the test of 1 John 4. Passing the tests of men or society is a far cry from passing the test that God places before all of His followers. As a matter of fact, if you pass God’s test you will most often be sent to study hall by society in order that you can get your act together and gain the necessary insights you need to fit in with the flock of the spiritually generic and politically correct.
In our Scripture for today we are continuing our study of 1 John. In today’s lesson John encourages us to be discerning so that we won’t be dragged away by every idea that becomes fashionable. The wonderful thing about our lesson for today is that John not only warns us to “test the spirits,” but he tells us how we can be discerning and put the ideas that are so prevalent in our society to the test. Let’s take a look at our Scripture for today found in 1 John 4:1-6.
1Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. 4You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. 6We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. (1 John 4:1-6 NIV)
This is such an important section of God’s Word for us today as we seek to maneuver our way through the maze of maniacal ideas soliciting our support. With the proliferation of pseudo solutions to all that ails us, it is crucial that we know how to distinguish between truth and error. The predicament that we find ourselves in today is not a new challenge to the followers of Jesus, but there is uniqueness to our situation. The uniqueness to our challenge is in the explosion of mass media to bombard us with so many counselors from so many places across the world.
In the first century, when John wrote his letter to the church, people lived in a smaller world, they didn’t have the ability to carry on conversations with folks a nation away, and they were not influenced by television, radio, magazines, newspapers, and the internet. Today, we are bombarded by input from every angle. When you couple this with the fact that we live in a broken world, filled with much sorrow, heartache, guilt, and pain you have folks who are overwhelmed with answers to their ailments and anxieties.
People who are undergoing turmoil in their lives are open to answers from most anyone. What is of crucial importance for you and me is that we are able to weigh the potential answers in the crucible of Truth – God’s Word provides for us the crucible.
John writes to the Church and warns them to refuse to believe every spirit, every teaching that comes their way. He writes,
1Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
There are a couple of words that you and I need to have a clear understanding of before we learn how to distinguish between truth and error. The first word we need to understand is the word, “spirit.” The Greek word, “pneu/mati” (pneumati) which is translated, “spirit,” is used 344 in the New Testament. You have to be very careful when you study the word to know what the writer means when he uses it because it can mean different things. Let me give you an example. Of the 344 times that the Bible uses the word, “spirit,” it is used over two hundred times for God’s Spirit. Forty-seven times it is used of an evil spirit, three times it is used to speak about the spirit of the writer, forty-nine times it is used to speak about the spirit of a person, and twenty-six times it is used for “spirit” in general.
Along with these references to this often-used word, there are other definitions. Some of the definitions of the Greek word “pneuma” are, “a movement of air of the wind, breath of nostrils or mouth, the spirit, i.e. the vital principal by which the body is animated, the rational spirit, the power by which the human being feels, thinks, decides, the soul, a spirit higher than man but lower than God, i.e. an angel, used of demons, or evil spirits, who were conceived as inhabiting the bodies of men, the spiritual nature of Christ, higher than the highest angels and equal to God, the divine nature of Christ, of God, the third person of the trinity, God the Holy Spirit.”
You can see that it is important to understand what is being said to us. Which “spirit” is John writing about when he says, “Don’t believe every spirit.” The Bible clearly teaches us that there are two spirits at work in the world – the Spirit of God and the spirit of Satan. Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus and said,
11Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:11-12 NIV)
Our battle is not with the people who are the false teachers, but rather with the spirit that is behind them. The Spirit of the Enemy has led many astray and deceived many people, but through Jesus we have the power to overcome the Enemy. Jesus said, upon preparing to leave His followers,
7But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: 9in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; 10in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. (John 16:7-11 NIV))))
Through Jesus’ death and resurrection you and I have the power to overcome the Enemy and be discerning concerning the ideas that confront us each day. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we can speak the Truth and distinguish between what is true and false.
We regard people’s ideas as the possession of the person, but the Bible has a far different understanding of what you and I say and teach others. The Bible says that behind every idea is either the Spirit of God or the Spirit of the Enemy. Jesus illustrates this when He told His followers that one day they would be brought in to be persecuted on His behalf. He sought to comfort them by letting them know that when the day arrived they would be able to speak precisely what they needed to say because the Spirit of God would speak through them. Listen to His words.
18On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. 19But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. (Matthew 10:18-20 NIV)
We need to look beneath the surface to find the source of what is being said. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t judge an idea by how logical it sounds, how fascinating it seems, or how it is presented with charisma and power – look beneath the surface.
Let me give you a glaring example. Hardly a day goes by without you seeing a commercial on television of a warm, tender family moment. Mom and dad are smiling at each other, the children are lovingly gazing into the eyes of their parents, and the family dog has just brought dad his slippers and paper. It is a picture that makes Ozzie and Harriet and the Cosby family look dysfunctional. At the end of the commercial you are hit with something like, “This touching moment is brought to you by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” Then they give us a number we can call for our own copy of the Book of Mormon that will give us the same kind of happy family.
At the very moment that the commercial is playing there are countless husbands and wives arguing over how they are going to pay their bills, their son just walked in the door with his hair dyed purple sporting a new tattoo, the baby is screaming her head off because of colic, and the family dog chewed up their new chair while they were at work. Don’t you know the Book of Mormon looks appealing at that moment!
Don’t judge a book by its cover. Look beneath the surface to find out the real story. The question facing us is this: How do we know what to look for while we are trying to gauge whether the “spirit” behind the teacher is true or false? Great question.
John says in verses 1-3,
1Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
John tells us to test the spirits. He gives us the measure by which all “spirits” and all teaching must be gauged. John says, 2This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.
John says that we must test the spirits in the crucible of Christ Jesus. John uses a Greek word for “test” that means to examine or prove. The word, “dokima,zete” (dokimazete) is used in two other places in the New Testament. Let’s take a look at both verses so that we can see the scrutinizing power of this word.
19Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; 20do not treat prophecies with contempt. 21Test everything. Hold on to the good. 22Avoid every kind of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 NIV)
5Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you-unless, of course, you fail the test? 6And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test. (2 Corinthians 13:5-6 NIV)
Paul wants us to scrutinize our faith to see if we belong to Jesus. It is the same scrutiny that must be applied to everything we hear, all teaching must be examined and evaluated to be able to determine its source. We find an example of the scrutiny we are to apply to teachers and the lessons being offered by our society in Acts 17:11 where Luke tells us,
11Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (Acts 17:11 NIV)
Test the teaching, don’t just accept it. You and I should not simply test the teachings being offered by society, we should test the teachings being offered in the church. You should search your Bible to see if the sermons you hear here each Sunday are biblical or if I am off base. You should scrutinize your Sunday school teachers lessons to make sure they are teaching God’s Word. Look closely and see if the teachings are from God.
The true test of a teacher is where does he or she stand on the person of Jesus Christ. In John’s day there were teachers who were seeking to convince folks that Jesus was less than God. He was an ascended Master, a great teacher, possessed by the Christ-Spirit, or a Jewish madman, but He was not YHWH God. John says that any teacher who does not acknowledge that Jesus has come in the flesh is not from God. Spurgeon once said that Christ is the sum and the substance of theology.
Does the teacher believe that Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin, the full image of the invisible God? Or does the teacher hold some other view of Jesus? We can’t assume that because someone stands behind a pulpit that he believes Jesus is the full expression of God who was born of a virgin, died on the cross, and was gloriously resurrected. Many preachers have been taught that the stories of Jesus’ deity, death, and resurrection are myths – what is truly important was what Jesus taught. John says this understanding is of the Enemy.
John doesn’t mean that teachers can merely mouth that Jesus has come from God and therefore have their teaching accepted carte blanche. To acknowledge that Jesus has come from God means that we confess with our mouths that Jesus is the Messiah, God who has come to save us from our sins. It also means that we live lives that reflect His life.
Let’s take a look at the first element of acknowledgement: confession. The Bible teaches that Jesus is the unique Son of God. He has always existed as God and is equal with the Father and the Spirit (John 1:1, 14; 10:30; 14:9; Colossians 2:9).
Jesus laid aside His glory and became one of us for the purpose of saving us from our sins. The Bible never wavers from this teaching, but those who are not of God do not hold this belief.
The Mormon Church gives us an example of how the biblical teaching concerning Jesus has been distorted by some in our society today. The Mormon Church teaches that Jesus Christ is our elder brother who progressed to godhood, having first been procreated as a spirit child by God and a heavenly mother; He was later conceived physically through intercourse between God and the virgin Mary (Achieving a Celestial Marriage, p. 129; Mormon Doctrine, pp. 546-547; 742). Mormon doctrine affirms that Jesus and Lucifer are brothers (Gospel Principles, pp. 17-18; Mormon Doctrine, p. 192).
Another example is found in the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy. The teachings of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science faith, hold that Jesus was a man upon whom the Spirit of Christ settled. The Spirit of Christ is eternal and He came upon Jesus at His baptism and left Him again before He died upon the cross. Jesus, according to the teaching of the Christian Scientists, was born as a mere man and died as a mere man. The only part of Jesus’ ministry that is worth anything to us is His public ministry of teaching when He was influenced by the Spirit of Christ.
John says that the spirit that confesses that Jesus is the Christ, that the two are identical, one and the same, never to be separated — that is the Spirit that is of God. Anything else is the spirit of error and of antichrist.
Another example of the twisting of Truth by false teachers is the teaching of the Jehovah Witnesses who teach that Jesus is not God the Father, but a lesser god.
These illustrate for us that there are many popular religious groups who have twisted the biblical teaching that John was setting forth for us in 1 John 4:1-6. I could fill reams of paper with evidence of popular cultural teachings that diminish Jesus’ claim to be God and make Him out to be a mere man, but time is limited. The important thing that we must know is, where do teachers stand on the issue of Jesus’ deity.
The second element of acknowledgement has to do with more than mental ascent – we must walk in Jesus’ steps. John wants us to know that those who are from God will model the Christian life in word and lifestyle. If those who teach do not seek to follow in Jesus’ steps then there are serious reasons to question the validity of their teachings.
You can’t teach God’s Word and live for the world! If I share with others the biblical understanding of being a husband and yet treat my wife with contempt and scorn, ridiculing and abusing her then I am a false prophet. If I share with others the biblical understanding of stewardship and yet I am delinquent in paying my bills and bringing my tithe to the house of God, then I am a false prophet. If I profess that Jesus is my Lord and King and yet speak lies, harbor resentment, refuse to forgive, steal, slander, gossip, and look down upon others, then I am a false prophet. God’s Word demands that those who speak for God live a life of integrity and honor.
I was visiting with a friend of mine this past week who told me that the lesson taught to all Loan Officers at the bank is the “Law of the 3 P’s.” The Law states that Loan Officers should never make loans to Police officers, Prostitutes, or Preachers. That is a sad commentary when two of the three professions should be known for integrity and responsibility, but are known as risks.
Those who teach must seek to walk as Jesus walked or else we will be deemed as frauds by our Savior. James says that not all of us should be teachers since teachers will be judged more harshly. The fact of the matter is that teachers will fail in their pursuit of holiness, but there must be an earnest desire to light a life of righteousness and integrity. When a teacher of God fails he must be willing to admit his sin and humbly seek God’s forgiveness and restoration.
We live in a world where are so many ideas circulating and seeking to draw us in. Many folks don’t know how to gauge between truth and error, but for the Christian this should not be the dilemma. God has given us His Word and His Spirit to lead us through the minefield of pitfalls and peculiar teachings that surround us.
John writes, and we can take confidence in what He shares with us when he says,
4You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. 6We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. (1 John 4:1-6 NIV)
We can overcome all of the false teaching being circulated in society because of what God has done for us through His Son Jesus. Don’t be deceived. Seek direction and counsel from God’s Holy Word and allow His Spirit to guide you through this life.