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Identify the Counterfeit

October 26, 2009, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Pastor Wilson Tan (1 John 4:1-6) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: 1,2,3 John
Preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service

Tags: 1 John, 约翰一书

Listen to sermon recording with the play button or download with the download link. 您可点播或下载讲道录音。
About Pastor Wilson Tan: Pastor Tan served as a youth executive at the Presbyterian Synod, and as a pastor in Jubilee Church. He continues to serve as a cell leader in zone ministry and a teacher in children ministry.
Bible passage (ESV) of the sermon can be found at the bottom of the page.

Sermon on 1 John 4:1-6

Introduction (v. 1)

The overarching message of 1 John is: Christian love. The author has been encouraging the Christian community to “love one another as he (Jesus Christ) commanded us” (1 John 3:23b). Even in the section following, the author continues to explore further on God’s love. From the surface, it seems as if the passage today is misplaced. Key phrases and words like “test the spirits, the antichrist, in the flesh, in the world, in you, truth and falsehood” stick out like a sore thumb in this passage. What has Christian love got to do with these words? Has John lost his way in this theological curlicue? A deeper analysis would tell a different story.

In the opening greeting, the original Gk. word Agapetoi (Ἀγαπητοί) has been translated as “Dear friends” in NIV, while “Beloved” in NRSV. Both of which does not capture its full meaning. If you are familiar with the word agape, God’s love, you would immediately see that John was addressing them as those who are dearly loved by God. He does not digress from the theme of Christian love. In fact, he continues with it. Following from 1 John 3:24 the author tells the believers that they know God dwells in them because of the Spirit he gave them. Naturally, the question that follows is “How does one know which is the Spirit that came from God?”

[Which Apple iPod Nano is real?] – (pic)

The community in 1 John was also asked to identify the counterfeit spirit, so as to recognize the real Spirit of God. There are many others who claim to be indwelt by God, to have received the Spirit, and to speak in his name. Included among these people were those who were formerly from their community (secessionists). The author warns his readers to exercise discernment when they encounter people claiming to speak in God’s name. Do not believe every spirit. Not everyone claiming to speak in God’s name actually does so. “To test the spirits” means to evaluate the utterances of such people ‘to see whether they are from God.”

1. Jesus Christ has come in the flesh… (v. 2-3a)

This is the main message of our passage today. The criterion for testing the spirits is: “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (v. 2b). To acknowledge Jesus Christ, as incarnate, Word became Flesh, is to acknowledge His divinity and humanity. Jesus Christ is both fully divine (because he came from God and shares the same essence with God), and he is also fully human (because he came in the flesh). This may seem obvious to most of us, but in those days, it was not so.

John repeats this criterion negatively: “but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” (v. 3a). Some have accused John of being too harsh with his words. Pastor Siow Hwee calls it the Siege Mentality of John. Knowing the historical context may help us better understand the intention and message of the author. So, what made John so angsty? What were the heretical teachings prominent then?

Against Doceticism…

One of the most hotly debated theological debates was the humanity of Christ. Doceticism, one of the heretical teachings, denies that Jesus Christ was fully human. Jesus' physical body was not real, but only an illusion, as was his crucifixion; that is, Jesus only seemed to have a physical body, but in reality he was without a physical body, only a pure spirit, and hence could not physically die. This belief treats the sentence "the Word was made Flesh" (John 1:14) as merely figurative. One Docetic school held that the Christ-spirit came upon Jesus at the baptism and left him again at his crucifixion. Jesus the human is separate from Christ the divine spirit.

“Was Jesus fully human?” What a strange question to ask? Any eye witness of Jesus would have verified this. The real agenda behind this question is not about Jesus’ existence, but about the value of Jesus’ birth and death. How did his birth and death saved us from sin?

If Jesus was not fully human, it would not be possible for him to identify with us (sinners). If He is only fully divine, then how could he have died? His “death” would be meaningless. By denying his humanity, Christ has no right to stand before the Judge on our behalf. And so, he could not have taken our place on the cross. There is no victory over death. The problem of sin remains. Mankind remains separated from God. This was why John had to fight so vehemently against Doceticism in those days. The very core of Christian foundation – Christ’s redemption – is put into doubt.

Against Gnosticism…

Doceticism is a form of Gnosticism. Gnosticism is a philosophical-religious movement that developed during the first three hundred years of early Christianity. It claims to be more profound and presents a truer interpretation of Christianity. The basic idea is that Gnosticism believe that the physical human body is evil and God is absolutely outside of the physical world (transcendent) and so it is impossible for God to incarnate, or to dwell with humans (immanence). The only way for God to reveal His truth is through secret revelation to the privileged few (i.e. The Gnostics). To put in simple terms, the Gnostics believe that truth comes directly from God only to them and so their belief is the most truthful. Can you imagine the attraction for the early Christians? To be a Gnostic seems to give a believer a special place in God’s plan. You are highly esteemed and special because God has chosen to reveal His truth to you alone.

The Gospel of Thomas

To help us appreciate the context better, let me give an example of Gnosticism. Some of you may have heard about the Gospel of Thomas. Many scholars have deemed it to be Gnostic in nature. The Gospel of Thomas begins, "These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas recorded." In the Gospel of Thomas v.108, Jesus said, "Whoever drinks from my mouth will become as I am; I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to him."

Gnosticism as a Christian heresy was attacked by several early Church Fathers (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, etc.). It was rejected from the Christian Canon mainly because the dating of the corpus suggests that it was not written close to the times of Jesus, and so the author is unlikely to be the disciple, Thomas. The Gospel of Thomas was also not popular among the early churches. It is highly mystical, neither useful nor comprehensive for the readers. And, no one could verify its authenticity when it is deemed as secret knowledge from God.

The community of 1 John was surrounded by many Docetic and Gnostic teachings. The Gospel of Thomas was not written during the time of John’s community but Gnostic thoughts and teachings did. Many have been corrupted by these heretical teachings and had left the community. John encourages those remaining to stay firm in their belief.

2. The one who is in you is greater than the one in the world (vv. 3b-6)

Do you believe that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh? If you do, you are dearly loved by God. If not, then you are the antichrist!

For the spirit which does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. You are either for God or against God. There is no middle ground. Antichrists are false prophets who have already gone out into the world speaking in God’s name. The aim of the antichrist is to deceive people by denying the truth about Jesus Christ, and in particular, within the context of 1 John, by denying the true humanity of Christ.

1 John is not the only biblical book alert to the dangers of false prophets. This danger was not hypothetical, but real, for many believers have left the Christian community, misled by heretical teachings in those days. But as children who are from God, the Beloved, you have overcome against them, “because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” The one in you refers to the Spirit of God, the indwelling One – the Holy Spirit who dwells in every believer. The one in the world refers to Satan, the “prince of this world” (John 12:31), “the god of this Age” (2 Cor. 4:4), and the “ruler of the kingdom of the air” (Eph. 2:2). The passage today teaches us how to recognize the real Spirit of God in us by identifying the counterfeit spirit of the antichrist. Our God is far greater than the one in the world.

To be in the world but not of it

The author’s message in v. 5-6 (“They are of the world; we are of God) gives the readers the impression of Christianity that pits “Christ against culture”. This form of witness, while powerful, is neither the most appropriate nor the most effective for the church in the modern world (Richard Niebuhr). Throughout history and across the globe, Christians have so often identified themselves with our culture that the church has lost its voice. Paul reminds us in Rom 12:2, “2Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Instead of transformation, we have conformed to the pattern of this world. My ex-Sunday school teacher reminded me recently, “Are we in the world or of the world?” (cf. John 17:11, 16) Have we been conforming too much to the world? Instead of renewing our minds, and changing the world, we allow the world to transform us.

Do you really believe that Jesus Christ was born, died and rose again? Do we believe in our hearts, confess with our lips and show it in our ways that Jesus Christ is the Messiah? Do our lives reflect Christ? To “acknowledge,” or confess Jesus involves recognition of his true identity and an open proclamation of faith in him (John Stott). We must outwardly confess our inward-most belief. This confession is not merely from our lips but also in our attitudes and our ways.

3. Contemporary significance: Our challenges today…

For most of us, we may find it hard to understand the significance in 1 John because Doceticism and Gnosticism are not as prevalent today, at least not in its original form. Even though the humanity of Christ may not be an issue for us today, it is still necessary for us to understand it. We accept that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine. But if I would to ask you, “Why?” What would you say? Because my pastor told me so. If so, then, we have failed in our task as preachers. The faith which we profess cannot be blind faith. It must be a faith seeking understanding. We must learn to read the Bible for all its worth, and discover within it a strange new world.

The central message of God has not changed. What needs to change is our mindset and attitudes when we read the Bible. Even though we do not encounter heretical teachings in our daily lives, it does not mean that they do not exist. It exists in various forms. We may not face the same issues as the early Christians, but our challenges are real. Today, we struggle with atheism, agnosticism, pantheism (everything is God), panentheism (everything is in God), pluralism, post-modernism, consumerism, prosperity gospel, health and wealth theology, me-ism and all the isms in the world!

What is our response? What is the central message of our Gospel? John responded harshly to his culture. He made a stand. What is our stand today? Do we even have a stand? The question I often ask myself is, “Am I an authentic Christian?” Am I for real? Am I a true follower of Jesus? Have I practiced what I preached? Is God performing his work of transformation in my life? Am I becoming more Christ-like? Does my life reflect the Spirit of God inside?

A balance between Christ and culture…

In our struggle between Christ and culture, sometimes we neglect one for the other. For John, there is no middle ground. You are either in the light or in the darkness, truth or falsehood, from the world or from God, believe the Spirit of God or the spirit of antichrist. We may not agree with John’s tone in the letter, but we cannot deny its importance. Ultimately, he is right to warn us against the spirit of the antichrists. To compromise on God’s truth is to acknowledge a counterfeit god. It is to believe the counterfeit spirit. It is to preach a counterfeit gospel: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” (Richard Niebuhr) Is this the gospel you believe in?

Dear friends, you know you are dearly loved by God because you have accepted that God has sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to be born into this world as like one of us. He is our Emmanuel, our God with us. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:14)” We are God’s children. Do not give up your faith! Do not turn to the dark side. Do not believe every spirit. Test them. See if they acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. See if they practice what they preach. By this you would know the Spirit of God! And the Spirit of God is in you.

For us to identify the counterfeits we must know the real thing inside out. I was told that real Louis Vuitton bags are made in such a way that their LV Monogram symbol is never cut away at the joints. Look very closely at the seams of the purse. Regardless of where the individual monogram symbols appear on an item, they should all be whole. I am not suggesting that everyone ought to buy LV bags but to able to identify the real ones from the counterfeits. In the same light, I also urge you to know the Spirit of God as intimately as you can. This is the best way to identify the counterfeit.

Let us pray.
[1]The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.) (1 Jn 4:1-6). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

1 John 4:1–6 (Listen)

4:1 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.