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. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 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. 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. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:1-11 ESV)
If you have an area of expertise or you know something pretty well – no matter what it is – or if you’re good or skilled at something – then it is usually the case that you can spot someone who isn’t. You develop a sort of sixth sense if you meet someone who claims to be similarly knowledgeable or skilled but isn’t. There’s something “just not right” with the phoney or the braggart, the foolish or the deluded that we pretty quickly sense. One of the reasons that we feel cross and angry when we’ve been duped – when someone has pulled the wool over our eyes – is because we say should have seen it – because we usually do.
However when it comes to religion, spirituality, and faith then it seems that everyone is an expert. The lack of objective proofs or criteria for assessment mean that anything – any statement or deed or object – can be imbued with a religious quality – and a spiritual truth emerges. The proof is at the time of death but then it may be too late. And while I may bemoan the spiritual barrenness of this land – or sigh at all the opinions, theories, and wacky ideas dressed up as religion and spirituality – I need to remember two things. 1. It has always been this way in the world that when it comes to religion, there are stacks of views and opinions around all of which can’t be true; and 2. There will be many people who think that my religious beliefs about Jesus are off with the wombats.
So John’s advice is understandable back in the first century and it makes sense still today. Don’t believe everything you hear about spiritual things – test – evaluate – so that you will know the truth and live with God. John’s counsel stems from the view that all roads don’t lead to the same place – all religions are not equal – we live in a world of truth and error – and you can be sincerely right as you can be sincerely wrong because sincerity is not much to go by. We would take a dim view of a person who sincerely wants to be a doctor and sets up a practice without the training or the accreditation. We do not let a person drive who sincerely believes he can do so safely after he’s had a few beers. We respond on the basis of an objective standard.
The principle is the same John says to the Early Church – the only difference is that you can’t see or touch Christianity’s objective standard – but you can hear it and you can sense whether it is truly believed. Every religion talks about God but the truth is only found in the person of Jesus – he alone – Immanuel – God with us – in the stable – God at Christmas – and on the cross – Saviour – is the criteria by which we can say we know God. Jesus – not a superman or a divine puppet but truly human and truly divine – is our only Saviour, our only access to God. He either is or he isn’t; he is not one of many. And what Jesus did on the cross becomes the criteria for spiritual truth – it’s not about us – the hardest thing we have to deal with – it is God’s rescue – God’s declaration of justification because of Jesus by his grace given through faith – this is the key point, the standard by which the
church stands or falls – you stand or fall – the world stands or falls. Jesus either rescued us or he didn’t. Sincerity on his part or ours is actually irrelevant – it is what he has done that counts. And those who know God, know that this is true.
Those who are thinking about this will, of course, sense a circular argument developing. God is only found in Jesus. Those who trust Jesus know the truth. Those who don’t trust Jesus are wrong and don’t know the truth and it doesn’t matter what they say because they’re wrong. ‘Not very tolerant of you’ tut tuts the world.
And here we need to recognise and remember why we are Christians. It’s not about us – our works, our effort, our sincerity, our smarts – that we believe in Jesus but because he has died for us, forgiven us, and made us alive with him. The world, for all its spiritual talk, doesn’t want to be saved but wants to live on its own terms – be its own god – and therefore denies God’s grace and Jesus’ sacrificial death for us. Such is not just a different point of view but is anti-anything to do with Jesus – usually it’s subtle but occasionally it is evident in violent persecution.
Therefore as we are saved by God’s grace so will those around us and that only occurs as people meet Jesus – hear law and gospel – are told about baptism and holy communion – as the only way to truly know God and the Holy Spirit breaks through all the barriers put up so that people hear and become convinced that Jesus is actually true after all – and more than that, that he is with them right then and there. Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed!)
These words – spoken or read – or wrapped up in water and bread and wine – are still words, mighty and active, but invisible, puffs of breath. Yet this word is still creative as only God’s Word is – for this Jesus produces fruit, continues his work through his people. John says it succinctly: Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. This becomes the living evidence that Jesus is true – his followers love with a sacrificial love like his.
Now we don’t love perfectly and people can point to individual and congregational and church actions that were not loving but that doesn’t eradicate the truth that Christians follow Jesus by loving those around them – yes, struggling – failing at times – fearful – could always do better – but there remains a qualitative difference in this love that only those who experience it notice. This love in the name of Jesus is given as graciously as humanly possible – not in order to get something back – but simply to give and give because that is what Jesus has done for us.
The religious truth that the world needs to hear is only Jesus Christ and his cross – for you – for everyone. This love is not just talk but action and it produces in the disciples of Jesus love for others – seen in patience, kindness, not envying, not boastful, not proud, not rude, not self serving, no tally up of wrongs, or squealing in secret delight with evil but rejoicing and not moving from the truth (Jesus is Lord!). This love protects, trusts, hopes, perseveres – which should tell you that it’s going to be tough going at times in this world – yet this love never fails. Ultimately it’s not our love but Jesus’!
God is love … don’t be fooled … live with Christ … and love the world.
What an adventure!
- 1 John 4:1 - 11