In this past Sunday’s installment of A Word on Reality, we paused with John to be reminded once again how we can know what’s true and what’s not. In a world that is awash in different voices claiming to have the corner of the truth market, how do we figure out which voices are worth heeding and which are to be tossed out with the garbage? Keep reading to find out…
Test Every Spirit
If I were to ask you what the fastest growing religious affiliation in this country is according to recent survey data, what would you guess it to be? Let’s take a look at the broad categories starting with the group “religious, Christian.” From 1990-2008 the number of adults identifying themselves as part of a mainline Christian denomination (most Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopals, Lutherans, and the like) in the U.S. shrank by about 10%, or a total loss of 3.5 million members. The number of Baptists grew by about 6% or a little over two million people. Folks identifying themselves as either Pentecostals or simply nondenominational of some sort grew by 40% and 25%, respectively. And, just to round things out, the number of Catholics grew about 25%, although most of that was from immigration, not conversion.
Now, by some estimates, that all seems like reasonable growth. If we could grow this church by 6% every year, much less 25% or even 40%, it would not take very long for us to be a fair sight larger than we currently are. But let me share with you some other statistics that might be a bit more…intriguing to you. In that same period of time the number of adults identifying themselves as a follower of an Eastern religion has grown by 185%, the number of Muslims has grown 156%, and the number of those connected with some new religious movement (i.e. New Age, Wicca, Paganism, Scientology) has grown by 116%. Pretty impressive numbers. They make 6% seem pretty feeble, don’t they? Still, while those numbers are high, those movements are all part of the larger group, “religious, non-Christian.” And since that group includes Judaism which has shrank by 14%, the total growth for the group is only 50%. Sticking with the broad categories, the fastest growing religious identification in this country over the last twenty years is actually “none.” The number of adults identifying themselves as having no religious affiliation whatsoever has grown about 140% since 1990.
So, what should we make of all this? Well, for one, it reveals that people are throwing up their hands on religion entirely more quickly than they are embracing it as a source of meaning and hope in their lives. It also reveals that people are increasingly looking for the fundamental answers to the big questions of life in places other than traditional, Westernized Christianity. Now, as I said a minute ago, we are talking about percentages of people, not raw numbers. At the raw numbers level it would seem like we have nothing to worry about. In 2008 there were nearly four times as many Baptists as there were adherents to a non-Christian religion in the U.S. We out-numbered the “nones” by 2 million. All-in-all, there are more than three times as many adults who identify themselves as Christian of some stripe than there are folks who don’t. But, the percentages are disturbing. What’s more, these percentages are nine years old. Most of these trends have not simply continued, but accelerated; especially the rise in the number of people who claim no religious affiliation.
The point is that people are less and less likely to look at the church as the bearer of truth in this culture. Instead, they are increasingly likely to let some of the other groups who proclaim to have at least a portion of the market on truth take a shot at answering the questions that are important to them. Furthermore, when people do still look toward Christianity to answer these questions, they are more and more often looking to non-traditional movements like Pentecostalism or even fringe groups such as Mormonism or Jehovah’s
Again, then, what should we make of this? Well, we can look at it in a couple of different lights. We can look at it rather pessimistically. We can glumly conclude that this country is going to Hell in a handbasket and we need to circle the wagons so that we can stand against the coming onslaught from our increasingly secular world. Or, we can look at the current state of things as a unique opportunity. We as a church, as a group of Christ-followers dedicated to seeing the kingdom of God expand on earth have an opportunity to stand as a witness for the kingdom in a lost world in ways not seen since the earliest centuries of the church.
Ours has always been a nation of religious freedom unmatched in the history of the world, yet in a society that is increasingly embracing relativism alongside widespread spirituality, what this means is that the truth marketplace today is crowded with hawkers claiming to have the best and most true answers to the basic questions of human existence; the questions whose answers shape our worldviews. And if these non-Christian responses to the big questions of life are finding pitchmen of a Billy Mays caliber to entice curious passersby (which they are—consider Oprah’s influence on the rise of various strains of New Age spirituality), then we as a church need to make doubly sure we are poised to be even more compelling. One of the unintended consequences of this rapid proliferation of spiritual answers to the big questions of life is that people are getting overwhelmed. They are getting discouraged by what they perceive as religious bickering, and instead of pushing through until they have the right answers, they are throwing up their hands, walking away on the whole thing, and living their lives as they see fit. The question in all this that goes unanswered nearly as often as it goes unasked is this: with so many different ideas, or spirits, competing for center stage, how can we know which one is the real McCoy?
Well, in order to do this we can do one of two things: try them all until we find one that works; or find some sort of a standard by which we can determine fairly quickly and easily what is true and what is not. Now, we are certainly welcomed to take the first approach to discovering truth in this life, and many do. But it is usually a long road full of sorrows and troubles. What’s more, it stretches out long enough that the end might come before we find the object of our search. This morning, then, I would like to commend to you a better approach. And, surprise, surprise, it happens to be the next thing John has to say in his letter.
Before we get to our text for this morning, though, something John said at the end of our passage last week offers a bit of a setup for where we’re going this morning. Last week as we looked at John’s call to make loving one another an activity instead of merely a slogan, the final verse of that section went like this: “Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.” The point there was that the Holy Spirit resides in believers enabling them to know for certain their status before God. This point, however, no doubt led John’s readers to ask a question that many modern believers and nonbelievers alike ask: how do I know whether or not the leadings I feel in my spirit are from the Holy Spirit or from somewhere else?
In John’s day every single city, town, and village had their own deity and way of worshiping which determined how they viewed the world. Everything was viewed as spiritual. You had to know which deity, or spirit, exercised dominion over which things and in which places and honor them appropriately or face their wrath. Complicating this was the scarcity of written texts which could serve as plumb lines for the claims of various teachers. Today we face a similarly troublesome milieu but from the opposite direction. There is still a rampant interest in all things spiritual. But, instead of a paucity of information, thanks to the internet, we have far more than we can handle leaving us with a great need for discerning what’s true and what’s not. Thus, in spite of a vastly different culture and prevailing worldview, John’s words here are just as relevant for us as they were for his original readers.
Find 1 John 4 with me in your Bibles and let’s take a look at these powerful words. The chapter begins like this: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God…” Now, if you are like me at all, your first question when reading here probably goes something like this: What on earth does this mean? What does John mean by “spirit” and how can we test them? How can we know if we are following the lead of some spirit? Are there really spirits out there for us to believe or disbelieve?
Well, the best way to go about figuring out what John is saying here is to take a look at how his first readers would have understood him. After all, one of the basic principles of Biblical interpretation is that the text cannot mean something now it could not have meant then. In other words, if they wouldn’t have understood it to mean something, we shouldn’t either. In this light, John was writing to a culture that had a deep belief in the reality of the spiritual world. There were spirits everywhere. Some of them were good and some of them were evil. Much of this belief played itself out in a variety superstitions—the magical thinking we talked about last week. Do this and not that to avoid angering the gods or gaining bad luck for yourself. As people came to Christ out of this culture they quickly lost much or all of their superstition (indeed, contrary to a popular misconception, becoming more committed to orthodox Christianity tends to make someone less superstitious, while abandoning the faith tends to make them more so). They lost their superstitious beliefs, but they did not lose their belief in an active spiritual world. Instead, these early followers of Christ believed that the Holy Spirit was the only good spirit, but that there were myriads of evil spirits, or demons, that could have an impact on people and even inspire them to say or do things with the goal of leading people away from Christ. John’s use of the word spirit (pneumata) here is probably a reference to both an individual person speaking on behalf of some spirit as well as to the spirit (Holy or evil) inspiring what the person was saying.
What this reflects is a belief on John’s part that some of the lies people spout off about the nature of reality are rooted in something other than simply the mind of the person speaking. Putting this in terms which are perhaps more understandable for us, John is saying that we should not blindly follow the words of someone who claims to be speaking on behalf of God, but should test what he is saying to see if it stands up to the revelation we have from God. In the second half of v. 1 John offers the reason this is important: “…for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” In other words, there are a lot of folks out there who will try and lead us away from the path of righteousness. As John reminded us back in chapter 2, anybody who would attempt such a thing is an antichrist. Thus, anything we hear that doesn’t measure up with the standards God has clearly given us is not from Him. Period.
What John is basically saying here is this: We need to evaluate everything in our lives: every mood and intent; every thought and desire; every action and belief, to see if it is under the authority of God. The fact is, things which seem very good can actually be very bad. While most of the shows on the Food Network are aimed at women, they throw us guys a few bones. One of the bones they threw out a few years ago was the show “Unwrapped,” hosted by Mark Summers. This was a show that took you behind the scenes, so-to-speak, of your favorite snacks to see how they come about and are made. I remember one episode that featured a company that makes the plastic food that appears in commercials and TV shows in which the filming conditions are such that keeping real food looking appetizing is impossible. This company employs not chefs, but artists who are extremely skilled at making things like a plastic Thanksgiving dinner that looks so good you want to pull off the turkey leg and start chowing down. The food looks very good, but it would be very bad for you to eat. It is intended to deceive you.
In the same way, there are forces in this world that are, literally, Hell-bent on deceiving us away from the path of Christ. They present grand “truths” in deceptively alluring packages aimed at getting us to water down our doctrinal or ethical purity in some way in hopes of eventually washing them away. For example, some people claim with apparently gleaming motives that the church should be a place of love and not critical judgmentalism. Now, the substance of this is surely true. But, where this is doublespeak for a vision of the church in which theology and practice don’t really matter as long as the right rituals are performed in the right ways and at the right times—for example, as long as a person is showing up regularly and giving generously we shouldn’t judge them for struggling with homosexuality or substance abuse or a pornography addiction or spousal abuse or infidelity or gossip or you get the picture—this is a false spirit. So, what do we do about this?
John says that we should test the spirits. But what’s our test? In vv. 2-3 he tells us: “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.” John, harkening back to what we talked about a couple of weeks ago, goes on to identify these false spirits as antichrists: “This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.”
There you have it: Christ is the measuring stick for every spirit. We hold every ideology, every theology, every psychology, up to Him. If it agrees with what the Scriptures proclaim to be true and right we accept it, and if it doesn’t, we don’t. But what does this bit about Jesus coming in the flesh mean? Well, in John’s day, no one doubted that Jesus was fully divine. People had trouble believing that He was fully human. The problem with this for us, though, is that almost no one today has any trouble believing in Jesus’ full humanity. We just can’t believe that Jesus was also fully divine. In other words, we struggle with the exact opposite heresy. The broader point, though, is that every purportedly prophetic word that does not fully uphold Jesus’ complete humanity and complete divinity along with the full range of implications of that truth is not from God. Christ is the measuring stick for every spirit.
If a word offered as from the Lord does not uphold Christ’s absolute lordship it isn’t really from the Lord. Anyone who says, “How you live doesn’t really matter as long as you believe the right thing,” or “the details of what you believe don’t really matter as long as you are living right,” is not from God. This doctrinal test for fidelity to the faith offers the much needed other side to the ethical tests John has already offered. John has already told us that someone who claims to be from God is going to be behaving in a certain way. Here he reminds us that they will be believing in a certain way as well.
In this day and age it is a common thing to hear someone say concerning the spiritual state of a friend, “Well, she doesn’t go to church, but she’s such a good person,” or “well, he doesn’t seem to have much of a relationship with Jesus, but he’ll do anything for you.” The tough reality is that we need both right practice and right belief in our journey to live our lives according to the reality of God’s kingdom. And taking into account more of what John has said: We’re not all there yet. We have holes in both our belief and our actions. This is not okay with God, but His grace is big enough to cover us and to fill in the holes if we will let Him. Christ is the measuring stick for every spirit and when we are fully abiding in Him we can be sure we’ll measure up.
In fact, offering us some encouragement along these lines is where John goes next. Look at v. 4: “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them [the spirits who are not from God].” This is not just great news. This is the greatest news we could possibly hear ever. Paul said it best in Romans 8: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?…Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
You see, in Christ we have conquered these spirits who are opposed to God. That’s great news, but it kind of leaves you wondering how it happened? How are we “more than conquerors?” John answers this directly in the second half of v. 4: “…for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” Got that? If we have overcome and can stand firm against a myriad of forces aiming to blow us off course and keep us from experiencing the full glory of the abundant life here and now it is not and never because of something in us. When you master some sin issue, it is not because of your phenomenal spiritual strength. It is only because if we are tapped into the power of the Spirit available through Jesus Christ, the power, or person rather, in us is greater than anything in this world. You see, we’re not enough on our own. That’s one of the fundamental beginning points of the Gospel. But, in Christ we are more than conquerors. Christ is the measuring stick for every spirit. Yet it is also important to note that the victory is His. We have no part in achieving it. We only share in what He has already won. What was it that Jesus said when reassuring His disciples before His own violent execution after promising them a life of persecution from the world? “Take heart, I have overcome the world.” This is an invitation to real freedom. We don’t have to bear the weight of the world. We only have to abide in Him and test all that we hear for its fidelity to the reality of the kingdom. Christ is the measuring stick for every spirit.
With this encouragement offered, John gives us one more test for the spirits. We can know where they’re from by the audience they are attracting. Look with me at v. 5: “They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.” The spirits that are not from God are from the world. Jesus once said that we will know a tree by its fruit. If this tree has its roots planted deeply in the world then of course the fruit that it produces is going to be from the world. Furthermore, the folks who eat of this fruit are going to be from the world. Presumably, those who have been born of God are going to recognize (with the help of the Holy Spirit) that this fruit is not good to eat. It may look pleasing to the eye, but it is deadly poisonous to the soul.
Well, that sounds good, but what does this mean in more practical terms? How about this: If some teaching from a person purportedly speaking on behalf of Christ is celebrated by the world, then there’s at least a reasonable chance it’s not right. In other words, if a whole bunch of non-Christians speak up and say, “Yeah, that sounds like good, Christian theology to us,” and a bunch of faithfully committed Christians are saying, “I’m not so sure…” I would have to side with the latter group. Does this mean that the church has always gotten everything right and the world has always gotten everything wrong? Absolutely not. There is still the image of God residing in every person to take into account. For example, in the Civil Rights era of the 1960s there were unfortunately a number of churches who took strong stands against universal equality from purely racist motives and there were a number of nonbelievers who took strong stands for universal equality because it was the right thing to do. Leaving aside the politics of the Civil Rights Act, the churches in those situations were absolutely wrong in their theology. Any church today who would embrace or even try to mitigate for political reasons the sin of racism is dead wrong in what they are proclaiming. Racism has no place in the church. It is antithetical to the Gospel. It is a spirit that does not uphold the Lordship of Christ and so we must reject it. That said, this is an exception rather than the rule. Generally speaking, if the world collectively votes yes, the church ought to be testing very carefully to determine whether the prevailing spirit is from God or from the world. Conversely, whenever the world cheers something the church has done, that’s a good indicator that it’s time to pause for at least a moment and ask the hard questions: Did this glorify God? Did this uphold the authority of Christ? Indeed, Christ is the measuring stick for every spirit.
On the other hand here, when we are truly speaking with the voice of God to the world then anyone who knows God is going to listen up and respond appropriately. From v. 6: “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.” Who is listening and how do they respond? When someone speaks the words of the Spirit, then those who are led by the Spirit are going to pay heed and adjust their lives accordingly. Christ is the measuring stick for every spirit and when something measures up we need to give it our attention. When someone or something has passed both the ethical and the doctrinal tests for fidelity to God such that can they confidently be taken as speaking on behalf of the Holy Spirit, then we who would also make such a claim had better be listening.
Now, speaking of listening, there are two kinds of listening envisioned by the Greek word John uses here (akouō). When I ask our boys to pick up their toys, I know that they have heard me. Their hearing is very good. If they don’t respond to my request then this hearing has been a merely physical act. Throughout the New Testament there is a call to a different kind of hearing which results in faith and action. It is a hearing that goes deeper than mere physicality to affect the heart and mind of the hearer in such a way that something happens. This is the kind of hearing John has in mind here. In other words, when someone is speaking on behalf of God—and again, don’t blindly accept that as fact…test the spirits—then we who profess to be the people of God had better demonstrate our hearing by doing what we are told. Folks who are from the world will not listen in this way. Actually, what John says is that those who are not from God will not listen. This is as hard a reality as any that John has thrown our way in this letter. When we receive a word from God and do not adjust our lives in necessary ways (i.e. obey it), we behave as one who does not know God. That ought to make you a bit uncomfortable. This fits squarely with James’ declaration that to know the good we ought to do and not do it is sin. Thanks be to God that we have an advocate who is intimately familiar with our situation and intercedes actively on our part when we fall like this; but how much better to not fall in the first place?
So my friends, here is what we must do in light of the words from the Lord we have heard this morning. There are many popular teachings today that are most decidedly not from God. Regardless of an idea’s popularity, then, let us actively and vigilantly test every spirit we encounter in this life to determine if it is from God—every teaching, idea, thought, motive, and intent. Christ is the measuring stick for every spirit. Let us not, however, allow this practice to render us pridefully unteachable, but rather humbly reliant on the Spirit of God through whom we have all knowledge. And then, when we have proved the spirit to be delivering a word from the Lord, let us be eager to obey the word we have heard to God’s glory and our joy. Let us be not mere hearers, but doers of the word in order that the abundant life awaiting all those who find themselves abiding fully in our Lord Jesus Christ might be ours. And by this let us be humbly confident in our knowledge of what is true and what is false, in what is reality and what is fantasy. Christ is the measuring stick for every spirit. Let us be sure that we measure up. Because when we do, love will be the outcome. And if you’ll be sure to be here in two weeks, I’ll tell you what that is. See you next week as we take a break to celebrate the movement of God’s Spirit in our midst by raising up and setting apart some folks as His servants. You won’t want to miss it.