1 John 4. 1-6: Our Testing
June 26, 2011 Series: Letters of John
Topic: New Testament Passage: 1 John 4:1–4:1
A Good Crap Detector
I was a hard English teacher. I told my students from the beginning that I didn’t’ need any 16 or 17 year old friends, that I was not trying to relive my high school experience and be a cool teacher, and that I was more committed to them learning good truth than with them leaving with a good grade. Many students struggled with my “unorthodox ways” because most teachers (not all) did not expect them to think—only to regurgitate what they taught. If the student was present and puking up some sort of answer—they passed—even if they didn’t learn anything. My class was a bit different. I jettisoned the politically correct textbooks, ignored the cheesy handouts, refused multiple choice tests, and quite lecturing about trivial facts that might help them on a game show, but not in life. It has been said that education is what you remember when you forget everything you’ve learned. After only a few years as new teacher I discovered that most kids actually forget nearly every bit of knowledge you teach them within days, if not hours, after test day. So, after watching student after student, getting grades, receiving diplomas, but still leave immature, ill-equipped, and rather apathetic toward life, I adopted a new philosophy influenced by American writer Ernest Hemingway. When he asked what the most important quality one needed to be a successful writer was, he responded, “a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector.” I wanted my students to develop a good crap detector because we all know the world is full of people who are full of crap.
Crap in the Church
I’ve learned that the job description for a teacher is quite similar to a pastor. A pastor is charged with equipping the saints with a good spiritual crap detector. Another name for this skill is simply DISCERNMENT. Discernment is the ability to tell the difference between a truth and a lie. Discernment requires a certain amount of knowledge, a certain amount of curiosity, a certain amount of commitment, and certain amount self-control. Discernment is that important space between superstition where you accept everything and skepticism where you reject everything. There is a huge need for discernment in our faith and in today’s churches. Many well-meaning Christians are simply too gullible, too naïve, and too ignorant about truth and falsehood. THERE ARE TWO DITCHES on each side of discernment road. In one ditch you have “Cultic Christian” where believers devote themselves to freaky false teachers. On the other side of the road, in the other ditch, you have to “Cultural Christians” where believers devote themselves to anything labeled “Christian” because it is in a book store, on the radio, or TV. The church needs faithful shepherds, bible-thumping, Jesus-loving preachers and teachers, but more than that, our church needs discerning Christian men, women, husbands, wives, fathers, mother, and even children, who can separate the truth from the crap.
Test the Spirits V. 1
John begins chapter 4 here by telling the church to test every spirit that teaches. Up to this point John has shown how BELIEF in certain things demonstrates spiritual maturity. Now, he is going to show how UNBELIEF in certain things also demonstrates spiritual maturity. 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. John again says that we live in a world full of both true and false prophets proclaiming different messages. And every one of these messengers has a spirit behind them, either the Spirit of God or the Spirit of the Devil; the Spirit of Christ or the Spirit of the Anti-Christ; the Spirit of Truth or the Spirit of Error. If we are not careful to test these spirits, we may find ourselves devoted to demonic teaching leading us away from God and his people.
Before we see what the test questions are, it is important to remember why we test at all. If we’re not careful, we can get more enamored and excited about finding error than we can in finding truth. John 14 is a powerful chapter discussing the relationship between a Jesus and truth. Jesus declares himself to be the way, the truth, and the life. So to say you love Jesus is to say you love truth (vice versa) Christians love God’s truth because they love Jesus—these are the same. Just as they have a transformed disposition toward sin, they have a transformed disposition toward God’s Word. What was once foolish, confusing, even repulsive to them, is now the source of life, a treasure of knowledge, a sword that protects, a tool to grows, a guide for all of our decision-making. We test NOT so much because we hate lies and liars, but because we LOVE truth and Jesus. We hunger for God’s truth, we pursue God’s truth, we delight in God’s truth, because we believe that life, joy, wisdom, hope, peace, comfort, clarity, vision, guidance, prosperity, satisfaction and contentment is NOT found in the world, but in God’s truth.
Who or What to Test
With right motivation, then, who or what are we to test? The Bible says every spirit, or, everyone and everything that comes into our lives teaching or influencing us with truth claims. This might be a pastor, a teacher, an author, a family member, or a friend. Just because one of these people is popular, well respected, or “Christian”; just because someone claims spiritual power, uses spiritual language, discovers new spiritual insight, or feels spiritually led, does not mean that the spirit of God is empowering them. That Spirit must be tested. In Deuteronomy 13.1-6, Moses warns us to test the teaching of those who seem to have amazing fruit. And in Matthew 7.15-17, Jesus tells us to test the fruit of those who appear to have amazing teaching: 15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. You may have heard the story of how a Charlie Chaplin look-a-like contest was held and the real Chaplin decided he would enter. After deliberating long and hard, the judges awarded Chaplin the third prize. We must go beyond the surface, but that is often hard, inconvenient, and unpopular work. Without digging, questioning, listening carefully, we may fall a little sheep that wants to eat us.
How to Test
So HOW do we test them with exactly? The test is not whether the truth or their fruit makes me feel good, makes sense to me, makes me popular, makes me successful, makes friends, makes enemies, makes my life harder, or makes my life easier. The test is whether or not their teaching and their fruit makes much of God, namely, whether what they say and do aligns with the revealed word of God. God’s Word is our greatest CRAP DETECTOR TOOL, it protects us from being governed or led astray by what we think, what we feel, or what we experience. It guards us from our tendency to worship creation, from following the world, misreading God’s will. Romans 12.2 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. But we should not expect renewal and transformation when we spend 13 hours on the internet and 3 minutes in God’s Word every week? If we are supposed test everything and hold fast what is good (1Thess. 5.21), we need to know what is GOOD. I can tell you the good places to eat, good beers, good movies, good stores, good electronics, good bands, good teams, but what is God’s good?. And so we’re clear, God’s good is not what I think or feel God should approve, good is what God approves by His Word. God’s Word tells us what is “good” in everything that actually matters: 2Timothy 3.16 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
How to Pass the Test: The Holy Spirit V. 4
But even in testing for what is good, I believe in the DOCTRINE OF SIN, meaning, I know that my flesh likes to do what is bad. Quite honestly, I know a lot of us refuse to test what we listen to, believe, or do because it works and it feels good. This goes back to what we believe about the Bible. If we say we believe the Bible is authoritative and yet, it’s not authoritative enough for us to change…than it isn’t authoritative at all.
But intellectual ascent isn’t what John says is the key a good test in verse 4: 4 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. He who is in the world is the devil. He who is in Chrsitians, and the key to finding the truth lies with God the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, the forgotten third person of the trinity with emotion, intellect and will; God the Spirit is sent by Jesus, to dwell in the hearts of believers to help, to comfort, but most importantly, the Spirit of Truth (John 14.17; 15.26) is sent to teach. The Holy Spirit is our inbuilt crap detector. He does not teach new truth but points us to what Jesus taught: John 16.13-14 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
Without the Holy Spirit we will not believe, we will not delight, and we will not understand God’s Word. An absence of the Holy Spirit is why the Bible is foolishness to the world, it is why God’s ways are rejected, and it is why lies are believed. But the presence of the Holy Spirit is what transforms this “old book” into the living Words of the living God: 1Corinthians 2.12-14 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. 14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
Pastor John’s Test Questions:
By the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit, not degree or pedigree, we can understand the Bible and know the truth of God. We can know the difference between what Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the true gospel and what Paul calls in 2Corinthians 11.4, ”another” spirit, a “different” Jesus, and a “different gospel” . Today, the different spirits in our world would include everything from the occult to witchcraft, from spiritual gurus to respected religious leaders who are both allegedly Christian and non-Christian. And as we have read John’s letters, we get a sense of the kind of test questions John considers important to use. And it is basically a TRUE/FALSE TEST—not multiple choice—there is one answer and you cannot cross the T twice and try to make it work for both. And any teacher, any person, any church, or organization that will not answer definitively to these questions—fails and should not be assured that they are a Christian. There are basically three kinds of test questions because there are three kinds of lies: (1) Lies about Jesus. (How people relate God); (2) Lies about Jesus’ Bride. (How people relate to one another; (3) Lies about the Spirit of Jesus (How people make decisions). Here is John’s Test:
- Who or what is your governing authority? (Are the Words of the Bible God’s Words?)
- Who is Jesus? (Is Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God – Fully God and fully man?)
- What did Jesus say? (Is Jesus the only way to peace with God the Father?)
- What did Jesus do? (Did Jesus live and die for me as my substitute?)
- What is sin and what has it done to me? (Am I a sinner and is my rebellion against King Jesus to blame for the brokenness in my life?)
- How can I, a sinner, have a relationship with a Holy God? (Is my sin removed, and my relationship with God restored, only through confession and forgiveness in Jesus blood?)
- Does obedience matter for the believer? What role does God’s law play in my life? (Does Jesus expect me to live a life of repentance, to hate sin and to love him by obeying His commands? )
- What is the church? (Does my personal faith in Jesus also bring me into a faith family?)
- What is my relationship to and with the church? (Do I have a choice to be in that family?)
10. How am I to relate to the people called my brothers? (Is it required to love my fellow brothers and sisters, as Jesus loved me?).
11. What is the world? (As a child of God, am I supposed to live differently than a world rebelling against Jesus?)
12. How am to relate to the people in the world? (Am I to only love the world like Jesus did?)
13. How do I learn, grow, and live spiritually? (Am I supposed to look more like Jesus?)
14. How do we make decisions—discern between right and wrong, good and bad, wise and foolish? (Does all truth come through God’s Word as we are taught by the Spirit of Jesus?)
15. Where is success, joy, my hope in life? Death? (Is my hope in the resurrection and return of Jesus?)
Conclusion: Good Theologians who are Jerks
Only those who love Jesus care about testing the Spirits because they want nothing more than to love Jesus, to know Jesus, to be like Jesus, and to be with Jesus. Those who do not love Jesus could care less about testing spirits. Because they believe this is all there is, Romans 1 says they exchange the TRUTH for a LIE, thus, searching for whatever spirit will give them what they want, whatever spirit will make them feel good, whatever spirit will provide them success, or promise happiness. It is not arrogant or John to say, “Whoever knows God listens to us and whoever is not from God does not listen to us?” It is honest and descriptive of reality.
What characterizes your reality? A love for Jesus is a love for the truth and, therefore, a Christian’s life should be characterized by a pursuit of God’s truth. We must be careful, however, that we don’t become good test takers like my high school students, but fail to in fact become educated. Our goal is not simply to pass the test or get the grade. We don’t devote ourselves to developing fine-tuned crap detectors and spend all our times pointing to everything that stinks. Just as love without truth is a message from the spirit of error, so is truth without love. They are called good theologians who are jerks. There is a reason why John couches testing of the spirits in terms gospel love. Let us close with warning from his words to the Church at Ephesus: Revelation 2.2 2 “ ‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6 Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’ I pray that we become a church that is not only known to fight against the lies of false teachers, but is known for its love the truth by our radical love for Jesus.
Benediction Colossians 3.12-17 12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.