We’ve got to the second half in the New Testament Letter called 1 John. Our title is Be discerning and not naïve.
There’ s a fantastic need for discernment among Christian people today, and I remember when I was a young Christian and the Beatle, George Harrison, produced a song called “My Sweet Lord” and so many of us quite foolishly thought that one of the Beatles had become a Christian because he said “My Sweet Lord”. And then of course if you listen to the rest of the song which we didn’t, he goes on to sing about Krishna.
We have friends who will send their children to any Conference, any Camp or any Mission as long as the name “Jesus” is somewhere in the Camp, the Mission or the Conference not realising that there are all sorts of ‘Jesus things’ being said and a whole range of ‘Jesus’ being presented. You will know that there are thousands of people today who will gather in Churches and they will be told that God basically exists to make them into a success and they will sit there, and they will believe it.
There is a fantastic need for discernment, Biblical, Spiritual Discernment. The gullibility is incredible, and of course, if the world needs discerning believers, the Church also needs discerning believers. John brings us back to the subject of the importance of truth.
Last week he was on the importance of love, the week before he was on the importance of holiness and these three tests – holiness, love, truth are his regular reminders and if we are going to have fellowship with God, we need them. Now the more I read 1 John, the more I am persuaded that he’s absolutely right – that fellowship with God is the most important thing in the world.T here is nothing to beat it. If you have fellowship with God, he is your refuge in the present, and I promise you, if you belong to Jesus Christ, you’re moving to the goal of fellowship with God. That’s where you are going. Everything else will disappear. Fellowship with God is the present privilege and the final destination. Jesus said, “this is eternal life that you know God and his Son whom he has sent”. We also need things like truth, holiness and love if our fellowship with God is to warm up. And you know that the opposite happens when you get caught up in heresies or fights or sinfulness – your fellowship with God cools.
John, in this remarkable letter, is bringing his readers back again and again to the critical subject of fellowship with God which will be hugely strengthened by holiness, love for the believers and truth as opposed to heresy. So we come to the truth passage this morning – chapter 4:1-6 – it’s not the first in the letter, it’s a new appeal for truth.
And in this concise passage of 6 verses, he spends the first three verses talking about a test for true teachers and in the second part (verses 4-6) a test for true listeners. Although these verses are simple, you’ll kind of be shocked at the end, and you’ll think “Gee couldn’t we have something more complicated’! But be sure that what he is giving us in these verses is a tremendous test for working out who is the true teacher and who is the true listener.
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First of all – The Teacher – chapter 4 verses 1-3. “Dear friends, do not believe”. Ever been told that in church before? “Dear friends, don’t believe”. He goes on to say “every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God”. What an important message to be told to the churches today. If you are sitting in a pew and there is somebody preaching – don’t believe everything they say – test it. Now it’s interesting in chapter 3 he said to them (verse 23) God commands you to believe, he commands you to believe in Christ but now in chapter 4 verse 1 God commands you not to believe everything.
I don’t know if you can picture my two arms at the front here but I’m putting them into two horizontal lines, and I’ve shown you this before. If you can imagine that Biblical truth fits between those two lines, the sane, useful Christian sticks with the truth inside the Biblical lines. And one of the problems with the church is of course that you get people who sometimes go below the lines and they say there are parts there that we don’t believe, we believe less than the Bible. And then, of course, you get some people who unfortunately they go above the lines, and they say we believe more than the Bible.
Now I’m not talking about we believe in dinosaurs, or we believe in traffic control, or we believe in school education, I’m talking about truths to do with God – what he has revealed himself in the Scriptures. Some people basically cut parts out, and some people would like to add to Scripture, and we need to say to certain people ‘don’t go below the lines’.
Yesterday I was taking a Conference in the city on the Old Testament, and there were some people there who just did not believe that the Old Testament was authoritative. One guy said to me in the break ‘I think it’s a lot of fables’. We need to say to that guy ‘don’t go below the lines of God’s words – stick with the word. But we also need to say to some people ‘don’t go above the line and you just believe too much – you’d swallow anything. As soon as somebody gets up and tells you a story, you believe it’. We need discernment so that we’ll not be too naïve. This is not an old or new issue – it’s a permanent issue. I don’t know if you have ever seen the ‘Philippian Fragment’.
It’s a book which pretends to be a 1st Century document of church life, but it’s actually poking gentle fun at every Century, especially 20th and 21st.
In this little book called the ‘Philippian Fragment,’ the author says:
One week ago as I passed through the Agora on a quick shopping trip, a voice interrupted my thoughts, the voice had a bugle-like quality, and it gathered a rather impressive crowd of men about it. I could tell by the wrinkle-free togas they were all merchants with an eye to the future. The name of the speaker was being whispered all about me with great respect – Marcus Sparcus – an up and coming Christian motivator. Marcus Sparcus has written 32 scrolls now with such titles as “The Impossible Possibility” “This way to success” “The Zeal Deal” and the ever-popular “You are numerous unis”.
In the first session, he tells his eager listeners that God is on their side. In the second he lists how God has given all things and people for our use. To make us richer, happier Christians. In Seminar three he instructs his audience to pray for our enemies in such a way that we can triumph over guilt, live a devoted life and become wealthy. I decided to take the course feeling it might help my already successful ministry but just as I was working out my chart for the future and recording my life action goals, there was a knock at the door, and I learnt that the Authorities had arrested Sparcus and hauled him off to be thrown to the lions.
It left the class unsettled. Now we are not sure how to make our life action goals harmonise with the unexpected difficulties of life. I wish Sparcus had been able to finish the Seminar and perhaps share a little light on the conflict. And what of Sparcus and the big cats in the arena? Can he triumph over them with positive thinking? One thinks of his scroll titled “Banqueting on the Difficulties of Life”, and one wonders what will be the main course of the arena the night of his ordeal. Can he get out of this one even if he thinks he can? And what if his great work puts a new man in your toga? It looks as though they will at least put another man in his if anything is left of it. I understand he has a group of scribes rapidly copying his new book for publication which will probably be published posthumously thinking it through for a lovelier you.
Thursday night is Christian Writers’ Night at the Arena. I think I’ll go and see how he finishes up. It will be interesting to know whether in the midst of all the torny, snarling beasts he lifts his hands and says to the ticket holders as he did at each of the seminars, ‘you can win if you think you can’ or if he merely cries ‘let me out of here’. I’m torn between the desire to think positively or to confront life as it is. If I am prone to remember Christ said ‘faith could move mountains’ he also said ‘in the world, you will have tribulations’.
Well there you are – there is a timeless piece of deception fooling millions.
How then are we going to test the spirits? Chapter 4 verse 1 he says ‘don’t believe everything, test the spirits’. Now, what does it mean to test the spirits? Are we meant to look for spirits or look for ghosts or are we meant to look for a kind of force breathing around the room this morning? Is there some device like a nuclear device which I could give you so that you could sit in the sermon or read paperbacks and there would be a kind of a red arrow that would move across saying “Warning, Warning, Warning” – not at all. John says you must work out the spiritual power behind the words. And there is a very important way to do that.
Listen to the words (verse 2) and see whether the person who is speaking acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh – there’s your test. Seems so simple, doesn’t it?
John Stott says in his little Commentary “behind every prophet is a spirit and behind every spirit is God or the devil”.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you can just work out from words that are being spoken exactly where a person stands spiritually. A person could stand at this pulpit and read the Bible and be a militant atheist. Nor is John saying that if somebody is orthodox on the subject of Christmas you can settle down and relax and everything else will be fine.
What John is saying is that the fundamental test for truth, the very first test to work out. Do they have an orthodox view on the person of Christ? That’s the first thing to work out. Are they declaring the person of Christ in all his majesty and all his mercy? Are they urging people to believe in Jesus Christ who is transcendent and imminent? Are people preaching Jesus Christ in a way that you know that he is historical but he’s also heavenly,that he’s real man and real God? So simple. But there you are – there’s John’s first test.
As you listen to somebody who is teaching or preaching, they will impress upon you the doctrine of the Lord Jesus Christ in such a way that you will know he is human, divine, that he’s historical, and he’s supreme and by the time you’ve finished listening to this person you’ll be saying to yourself things like this: ‘he really lived, he was God, he is God, he came, he lived, he died, he rose, he’s absolutely supreme, he is unique in the history of the universe.
This is where real Christianity begins because you have to get Jesus right to get Christianity right. Remember Jesus’ question in Mark chapter 8 “who do you say that I am?” And the answer came back ‘you are the Christ’.
Jesus wasn’t asking the question because he wanted to know whether people knew that he was Jesus from Nazareth. He was asking the question because he wanted to know if the penny had dropped and they had come to the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth who they knew perfectly well as they’d walked and talked with him was also The Christ, The Messiah.
I remember taking Christianity Explained course once, and a lady had bought her father who was in his 80’s, he sat at the back, and we went through the straightforward passages of Jesus – healing the sick, calming the storm, raising the dead and this man. This old man called out from the back spontaneously, he couldn’t stop himself, “he must be God”. And it was as if the scales had dropped and the penny had dropped and he could see for himself – this is the one.
Now everything else falls into place. You may think John is being a little strange when he gives this test to work out whether somebody preaches that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh but it is a piece of genius you see because he wants to know whether the person’s doctrine of Christ is balanced and not unbalanced. Are they preaching a very great Jesus and a very gentle Jesus and a very heavenly Jesus and a very historical Jesus? He wants to know whether a person is preaching the full orb of Jesus’ character. And it’s also a very compassionate test because, in the end, a person is never going to get God right until they get Jesus right.
That’s why Jesus has come to present the world with himself by whom the world will know that God is real and loving and great and gracious. That’s why the greatest sin in the world is to turn your back on the supreme revelation of Jesus. That’s what we’ve got to say to people when we are talking to them about the problem. It’s turning your back on this magnificent person who has come and changed history because if you don’t get Jesus right,you never get to the Father. Back in chapter 2 John says, if people don’t know Christ,they don’t know the Father.
Here he says in chapter 4, if they don’t know Christ they won’t get the Spirit. So there’s nothing hostile about saying to people ‘Jesus is the only way’ when he is the only way. It’s most compassionate and everything about Jesus of course hangs on his identity. If you don’t know who he is you can’t work out why the cross is so significant. Who dies on the cross? It’s Jesus the Christ. Therefore if we are tolerant of half-truths and we settle for low views of God and we make it more dangerous for sinners to believe, you know that we are just being immature at best or loveless at worst. And that’s why great care is needed in teaching.
When the church was young, the Creed, the basic Creed, was Jesus is Lord and then in came heresy in the left and dissent in the right and the Creed had to expand and become more complicated to deal with these very sneaky heresies and now here we are in the 21st Century and there are massive amounts of errors and distortions and deceptions around and people who are teaching need to be very careful. The preacher who stays in Kindergarten will keep his congregation in Kindergarten. The preacher who says “I’m pretty flexible, I’m pretty grey really” will end up having a fairly grey congregation. I know friends we think we are discerning – there’s probably nobody here in the pew or the pulpit thinking at this particular moment “Gee I’m not that discerning”.
We mostly think we are discerning but I want to tell you that discernment comes with very careful study of the Scriptures. And discernment increases by being very careful of discerning writers otherwise we end up just taking on board subtle dangers which in the end with a false theology ends up with a false lifestyle.
To lighten this particular moment, I’m grateful for what I read of a young man who said that in his church he is thankful for the traditional church with the traditional sermon. He says every now & again in our church we have the unstructured service and there is an open microphone and instead of the sermon, people can come and say whatever they want. And he says I usually sit and stare at my Bulletin during this time. I have folded it into a tiny pile about the size of a square inch!
This is nervous energy, nervous because of the reality that many people weren’t gifted with the ability to stand in front of a group and say something that is God-centred and relevant and brief. You may have been to these occasions – you hear from the sweet old lady who talks no less than 17 minutes about her kidney ailment, and there is the well-meaning attractive college guy who shares about how all of the girls in the college want to get physical with him and how difficult this is and if you are lucky you might get a bad poem because let’s face it, all poems are bad!
He says to be fair, there are good things that come out of these unstructured services but I’m usually left feeling really thankful for our Pastor and expositional sermons. It’s much sexier to appear to have come up with something off the top of your head but I’m glad my Pastor spends 20 hours each week reading, praying and preparing a logical sermon.
I say that partly to defend my job but also partly so that you will know there is a place there for somebody who does their homework. There’s the first test for the teacher – what’s his doctrine? What’s his doctrine of Jesus? And does he care?
Now the second test (verses 4-6) is the test for the listeners and these are remarkable verses. I don’t know if you’ve noticed them as they were read for us this morning. Verse 4 John says “you” and talks about the Christian readers “they” (verse 5) false teachers and “we” (verse 6) the apostles and he has something to say to you about them and about we the apostles and I hope, like me, you will absorb the comfort of these remarkable verses.
He calls them (verse 4) “dear children”. He writes as a spiritual father. He says “you are from God”. What a lovely thing to say. I want to echo this to you this morning. The building is full of people and I am pretty sure that almost everybody here has their faith in Christ – “dear children you are from God”. The false teacher is not but the real believer is from God. And then he says “you have overcome” and what does John mean when he says “you have overcome”? Does he mean that his readers are great successors physically and personally successful? No, he doesn’t mean that because look at the rest of verse 4 – he says “you have overcome because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world”. That’s why his readers have survived because God’s spirit indwelling them keeps them wise and going and faithful.
God’s spirit within the Christian keeps the Christian from falling into gross error and evil. What a wonderful gift is the Holy Spirit. Why does the Christian survive year after year? Is it because church is on and you turn up?
The Bible’s answer is you survive in your faith year after year because God enables you. Partly through his word and we need 1 John don’t we? if we are to know the truth – we need the Scriptures. The Scriptures are our light and our compass and our rock but significantly we are kept going as believers through his Spirit. His Spirit, the Holy Spirit is greater than all the false spirits in the world. Now when I read this in my preparation this week I spontaneously sent up a pray of thanks of gratitude to God for bringing me to this particular day. It seemed to me to be quite a wonderful thing because I know that there are many people, smarter than me and more godly than me, that have given up the Christian life.
Some people have been for one reason or another apparently taken over by their own sin or by the world or by the devil and God in his goodness has brought me to this particular day still believing and if you believe today, he’s brought you to this day as well. “Greater is he that is in you” says John “than he who is in the world”.
How wonderful the Holy Spirit is to us. He comforts us. He convicts us. He causes us to see the error and have distaste for it. He causes us to see the truth and have a hunger for it. In a thousand ways the Holy Spirit (God within us) gently, graciously, consistently, steadfastly works so that we persevere.
I know we persevere but that’s because God perseveres. What a wonderful thing God tells us in verse 4. Now the second thing he says is that “they” (false teachers) “are from the world” and that’s why they are popular with the world. And it’s almost as if he says ‘watch and see because if the world is applauding the preacher, that’s quite a giveaway’.
You know that the Press, for example, can give very positive coverage to some religious people and it’s always a warning bell to me when I see the Press are continually being supportive and encouraging about some religious people. It almost always says doesn’t it, that these are people are not putting the truth forward in the face of the world. They are doing something which is different, harmless, and popular and so the world applauds them.
You know that preachers also can steer very carefully through the Bible picking the comfortable truths, making sure that a congregation says “how lovely”. A preacher needs to turn around and tell someone their Christianity is all a fake, you’re a fake, and you need to repent. A preacher who sees someone who’s obsessed with money, they need to say to that person “repent”. A preacher who knows a person who has secret immorality going on, they need to say to that person “repent”. A preacher who knows a person who is just too proud and never learns anything, they think they know everything; the preacher needs to say to them “repent”.
Worldly preachers get the applause of the world. The worldly congregation or audience says ‘keep going – we love what you are saying – leave us alone – it doesn’t cut us anywhere – it doesn’t convict us – it doesn’t challenge us – we love it’. I’ve been reading an excellent little book on Richard Dawkins called “Dealing with Dawkins”. It’s only 80 pages long. I think it’s the best thing I’ve read on his own work. Richard Dawkins is a very popular and a very persuasive and a very clever man in his own way. This little book called “Dealing with Dawkins” by John Blanshard I think is a great critic but I realise as I was reading the book again that part of Dawkins’ cleverness is his phraseology. He’s so entertaining. I give you some examples from his writings.
This is Dawkins: Those who don’t commit to evolution also think America is 10 yards wide, as the De Vinci Code is modern fiction, the gospels are ancient fiction accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are as well documented as Jack-in-the-Beanstalk. Christian faith means blind trust in the absence of evidence, Believing in God is on par with believing in Santa Clause, the tooth fairy or the flying spaghetti monster. Now I read these phrases, and I thought to myself they just fly off the tongue so cleverly.
There is a kind of daring bravado in them, isn’t there? It’s almost like the naughty schoolboy saying the thing which you didn’t quite dare to say, but you wish somebody would say.
And so there isn’t a lot of truth in what’s being said. In fact, I think this little book absolutely demolishes his position. There’s not a lot of truth being said but it is so clever and for the person who wants an escape vehicle to get away from Jesus Christ, what is Dawkins doing? He’s just oiling the wheels!
John says in chapter 4 of his Letter (verse 5) “the world loves that type of voice”. And when you see that type of voice being loved by the world, there is your warning. Finally this morning (verse 6) “We, the apostles” he says “we’re also a help to you because you can watch and see” says the Apostle John “watch and see whether people are taking what we say seriously”.
“We” (verse 6) “we apostles 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 recognise the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood”. It’s not only by what’s being said but it’s also by who is listening and who is not listening is. And just as the Old Testament prophets would stand in the counsel of God and then go and say the truths of God regardless of what people thought, the Apostles have stood in the counsel of God and they have now gone and written for us the Word of God and the real test is whether people bow humbly to the words of the Apostles or whether they are always standing over them and picking and choosing them and cutting out the bits they don’t like and basically being selective as if they are the chooser of authority.
It is an amazing claim John is making in verse 6 but it’s absolutely true in the history of the Church wherever there have been faithful, useful servants, they’ve usually submitted to the words of the Apostles. And where there have been people who have done great damage, they have sat over the words of the Apostles and been in the end a great nuisance. Now, friends, we live in a world which is absolutely avalanched, tsunami-ed by words.
Maybe if you drive home alone you’ll turn on the radio spontaneously, maybe then you’ll turn on your television, maybe then you’ll start reading your Sunday papers, words will be coming at you all the time and in the midst of millions and millions of words are thousands and thousands of untruths. And the simple test for working out where the Spirit of God is at work is to ask yourself ‘what does this person think of God’s son’?
Then the second thing to ask yourself is ‘who is listening and am I listening to the words of the Apostles or am I actually more interested in the words of anybody but the Apostles’?
I don’t know what your IQ is and I don’t know what your EQ is but John is giving us our DQ (our discernment quotient). And this is our opportunity to work out whether we are discerning people by staying with the voice of truth about Jesus and by watching carefully to see where the ears attend.
Let’s pray, Our Father we thank you this morning for these very precious Scriptures. We thank you first of all for giving us the test for the teacher and we pray that you would lead us into the great rich truths of the Lord Jesus. We pray that what we know not of Jesus you would teach us. We also thank you our Father for this very shrewd test of listening and we pray that in the midst of the world which is very enthusiastic for error, you would give us the grace to resist and we pray that you would also give us the grace to be attentive to the words of your messengers. So may we in the midst of a very confused and careless world, be discerning and not naïve and we pray it in Jesus’ Name – Amen.