Staying on course - 1 John 2:15-27
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In his autobiography, Leading with My Chin, American comedian Jay Leno recounts numerous stories of his rise as a young Boston comedian to become one of the biggest names on American talk show TV. In one story he tells of his appearance as a young man on the Dinah Shore show where he learned the importance of what is known in showbiz as the "outcue". The director asked him when he got to the studio: "OK, Jay, what's your last joke going to be so the band knows when to play you off?" Well Jay wasn't too keen on this, but eventually he said to the Director: "OK, how about I say 'Thank you, thank you very much!' And that can be the cue for the band?" So it was agreed. Unfortunately, when it came to the moment when Jay Leno was welcomed onto the stage by the host Dinah Shore, her welcome was so warm and gushing that the audience went wild, and Leno was completely taken aback. As the applause died down, Leno, flustered, not knowing what to do, muttered without thinking: "Thank you, thank you very much." At which point the band leader, taken completely by surprise, spat out his freshly lit cigarette, brought the band crashing in, and Jay Leno was ushered off, as quickly as he had come in. Leno comments ruefully: "It was the most ridiculous slot of my career." It's an amusing story, and somewhat embarrassing, but the story has one problem. It didn't happen, or at least it didn't happen to Jay Leno. The incident actually happened to a fellow comedian and friend of Leno's; but Leno was so delighted at the story, he paid his friend $1000 to have the rights to the story and to use it in his own autobiography.
Well that story illustrates the thought that is so prevalent in the world in which we live today, the thought that the image you project is far more important than the truth of who you are. Of course it's nothing new. Mark Twain once said famously: "The secret of success is sincerity. If you can fake that, then you've got it made." Truth with a capital T is a false concept. Truth is what you make it. So who cares if something didn't happen to you. If it's a good story then use it for the effect you want.
But the Bible would disagree. Truth in the Bible is a concrete concept. It is very black and white. So there is either truth or falsehood and there is nothing in between. And it is absolutely vital to understand what is true and what is false because the stakes are so high. For truth leads people to heaven and falsehood leads people to hell. It's as simple as that. And we need to make sure we are on the right side of that dividing line. Because our very eternal destinies are bound up in where we stand. And it is those eternal issues that the apostle John is speaking about in his letter. Now if you've been here these last few weeks, you'll know that John's letter is both a polemical letter and a pastoral letter. It's a polemical letter because in it John is taking on false teaching. He's attacking something that is very wrong. Something false and wrong is in danger of leading these churches astray, churches for which John is responsible. And it's probable that it was bound up with a man called Cerinthus. Cerinthus was a heretical false teacher who was in Ephesus at the same time as the apostle John in the later first century. And Cerinthus had distorted the truth of the gospel and his teaching was infecting the churches like a virus. And John was totally opposed to Cerinthus and his teaching. In fact the story is told that one time John was going to have a wash in the local baths in Ephesus, but he heard that Cerinthus was there too, so he ran away, saying that he feared the judgement of God might fall on those bathes since that heretic was bathing there too. Such was John's feeling towards him. And such teaching was in danger of leading people to hell not heaven. So John wrote his letter as a polemical letter to expose such false teaching.
But it was also a pastoral letter, written to those John calls his dear friends. And the heart of the letter comes in 5 v 13: "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you might know you have eternal life." He wants them to be sure, to know various things. In fact this word "know" comes forty times in John's letter, that's more than any other letter in the NT. And throughout the letter, John gives three tests of the authentic Christian, the true Christian as opposed to the false teachers, tests he keeps coming back to in his letter. First there's the moral test. John says that Christians as children of the God of holiness and light are to hate sin and have nothing whatsoever to do with it. Second there's the love test, that is are you loving those in your fellowship? Because if you claim to love God and care not one jot for those in the fellowship of the church, then we are not living God's way. And then thirdly there is the doctrinal test. There are certain things that you must believe to be a genuine Christian.
And in our passage, chapter 2 vv 15-27, John returns to two of these themes, the moral and doctrinal tests. Because John's letter is a bit like a spiral staircase. He keeps come back to the same points again and again but from a slightly different point of view. And once again the challenge for us tonight is to be people of spiritual substance, not projecting an image of holiness, but being holy. Not just saying we believe the truth, but doing the truth. Because John will remind us that our times are very dangerous. The truth is stake. For there are many who would claim to be Christians but who are not, many who are in danger of being sucked into false teaching and the ways of the world. And I would guess that none of us here tonight want to be in that position. None of us want to be on the side of falsehood going to hell. We want to be on the side of truth, knowing God, going to heaven. So let's hear what John has to say to us. And his teaching this evening comes to us in the form of two words:
1) A Word of Command (Vv 15-17)
2) A Word of Warning (Vv 18-27)
1) A Word of Command
So first of all John gives us a word of command in verses 15-17. And what is that command? Verse 15: "Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him." John so often puts things in black and white terms to make us see the seriousness of the issue. And here it's the same: You are either a lover of the world or you are a lover of God. But you cannot be both. Or as we have seen in Homegroups in James, James says: "You adulterous people! Don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred towards God." In other words if we are friends of the world, we're two timing God. You can only love one or the other. But hang on a minute, we might say. What does John mean by the world? I mean, doesn't he say in John 3 v 16 that God so loved the world? How can God command us not to love the world, when he clearly does love the world? Well we need to understand that the words "love" and "world" can have different meanings in different contexts. So love can either mean the self-giving, self-less love of God. Or love can mean that selfish, self centred love that is always out for no. 1. And the world can mean different things too. So the world can mean a big place with lots of people in it. Or more usually in the Bible it means the organised system of evil that is opposed to God. That is sinful humanity in opposition to God. So in chapter 5 v 19, John will say that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. In other words, it is the devil and his ways that influence the thinking and actions of this world in opposition to God. So when John talks here about loving the world and loving God, he is saying that we must not love this sinful, rebellious system that opposes God with it's thoughts and ways. We are not to live with such an attitude, not to let that thinking infect our thinking and actions, not to have a self centred love which gets want we want. Rather we are to love God and his ways. So when John says in John 3 v 16 that God so loved the world that he sent his Son to die for us, we're not just meant to think that God's love is very big because he loves lots of people. Rather we're meant to think that God's love is incredibly kind in loving people like you and me who live in this world with all its sin and rebelliousness. He doesn't love the world in the sense of it's sin and rebellion. Rather he loves you and me. But whilst God loves the world in the sense that he loves us human beings with the holy love of rescue, you and I are not to love this world in the sense that it is an ordered system of rebelliousness against God. And for us that produces in us a conflict. Because we are immersed in this world and it's attitudes and actions which are opposed to God. We live in this world. We are not in heaven yet. And yet John says whilst we're in the world, we are not to love it. We mustn't allow the world to get into us. Don't love the world.
By way of illustration, let me tell you about where I grew up. As some of you will know, I grew up in Cambridge, and running through the centre of Cambridge, and just past our house is the river Cam. And in the summer months, the river Cam provided me and my friends with endless hours of amusement, from bombing tourists from the bridges as they rowed or punted underneath, to having parties by the river all night, to chucking people in! However, sometimes, we would find ourselves on the receiving end of the joke and we would end up in the river. And it was at this point that the difference between the local and the tourist became very clear. Because the tourists did not know the crucial thing to do when you fell in the river. And that is close your mouth. Because we locals knew that the river was rife with Weils Disease which causes all sorts of nasty things. And if you take a gulp of Cam water, you will have a very nasty few days ahead of you. Whilst its fine and refreshing to be in the Cam on a hot summer's day, the very last thing you want is for the Cam to be in you.
And that is John's point here. We cannot help but live in this sinful world opposed to God. But whatever you do, don't let the world get into you. Don't drink in the waters of the world so infected and polluted with sin and self. Because otherwise you will be very ill spiritually speaking. In fact, you are endangering your spiritual life. Do not love the world, says John. Because you cannot love both God and the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. If you are so dedicated to the world and it's sinful ways, then actually you are showing yourself to be unconverted. You are not really a Christian at all. You see, what John is commanding of us is that if we claim to be Christians, then we must make a clear and conscious break with the world around us. We cannot go on living the way we were living when we did know God. So why should we do that? And what will that mean in practice? Well past generations of Christians set down special rules which helped you to work out what was of the world and what was not. So dancing, card playing, lipstick, smoking and drinking were all out for example. The writer Don Carson says that he was given a little ditty when he was young to help him remember what he should not do: "Don't drink, swear, smoke or chew [chew tobacco], and don't go out with that girls that do!" But John has in mind far more than a few rules, whatever their usefulness. Because in verses 16-17, he gives four marks of the world which show us what we need to avoid and why we should avoid these things.
He talks first about the cravings of sinful man, literally, the cravings of the flesh. He's talking here about the abuse of those natural desires of our bodies. So it's not sex that is wrong, but a wrong use of sex, outside of heterosexual marriage. It's not eating that is wrong, but over indulgent gluttony. It's not drinking that is wrong, but addiction and over dependence. It is the sinful selfish distortion of good and godly appetites. Not using them according to the creator's instructions and without thanks to the creator. That's what the world does, doesn't it? We're urged to fulfil and satisfy those needs. You deserve it, we're told. It's your body. Why hold back? So one university published a guide for freshers, young students just starting out in university, which said in regard to sexual health: "There are no morals at university. The only moral is have sex safely." And the trouble is we Christians are in danger of swallowing the lie, not just in the area of sex, but in everything. What's wrong with a little self indulgence and pampering. What's wrong with letting ourselves go every so often. What's wrong with pushing the boundaries sexually. We love each other. Everyone else is doing it. We'll get married anyway. What's wrong? Because quite simply when self is at the centre, then God is absent. You're saying yes to the world and no to God. And quite frankly we are doubting that God knows best. Do you control your cravings of your flesh, or do they control you?
He talks next about the lust of the eyes. That is the all consuming desire for more. We see something which we want, and so we covet it, and long for it. And as Paul says, covetousness so easily leads to idolatry. Because there is an all consuming passion for more. For some of us it will be a person we cannot have, for others a status we want, for others a particular possession or lifestyle. We see something we want, and we play it over in our minds time and time and time again. And it is so easy to allow sin to first enter our hearts through our sight. Something we have seen on the TV, or we have read in a magazine, or we have looked at on the internet. And it festers and grows and we stroke it lovingly until it produces it's grim fruit in our hearts. We find ourselves far more obsessed with sin than the Lord Jesus Christ.
And then thirdly there is the boasting of what we have and do. That is the pride which comes from being secure in what we have and our life circumstances. We take pride in the fact we have our longed for job, house, marriage, security, all of which are good things. But boasting in them leads to forgetting the fourth factor about the world, which is that it is passing. The world is fading away. All these things will eventually fade away. So why pursue them, why trust in them, why hanker for them. Because it's absolute folly to trust in what will eventually be destroyed. Again, it's a misuse of God's good gifts.
Can you see then why John is so serious about his command. Do not love the world or anything in the world. Do not love anything which opposes God, which seeks to lead you astray from the one who saved you. And whilst we might laugh at previous generations who shunned dancing and the like because they thought it was worldly, then consider this. At least they had the courage of their convictions to draw the line. At least they took a stand in the world and sought to live distinctive lives for Christ in the world. They refused to drink from the foul, polluted and diseased waters of this sinful world. But do we? Or are we more prone to eat, drink and indulge ourselves and ask questions later? We'll watch anything, drink anything, read anything, eat anything, without even asking the question whether what we are doing is pleasing to God. Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating a new legalism. I just want us to take seriously John's command. Not to love the world. We're in danger of being so infected with the world's thinking that we won't even engage in the battle. Yes, for each of us the battle will be different, but engage we must. To be ruthless with the cravings of the flesh, to guard our eyes from the lusts, to have the right perspective on this world that everything will fade away. No the only thing that matters, is to do the will of God, to be holy. For none of us will drift into holiness. It is a battle of the heart and mind. And we must engage in the battle if we are to be men and women who remain in God's word. Hear the word of command and remain in the will of God.
2) A Word of Warning (Vv 18-27)
But then secondly John gives us a word of warning, in verses 18-27. And that word of warning is to beware of false teaching. So verse 26: "I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray." The problem for John's readers is that there were some who were clearly trying to lead them astray. And it's the same today. There is much false teaching around which is in danger of leading us away from Christ. But John reminds us here that this should not take us by surprise. And it should not even take us by surprise when such false teaching comes from within the church. Because that is exactly what happened in these congregations. So verse 19: "They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us." By leaving the church which was committed to Jesus Christ, these false teachers took off their disguise and revealed what they were like. So why shouldn't all this surprise us? Why shouldn't it surprise us when bishops deny truths, or church leaders lead people astray? Because, says John, these are the marks of the last hour, in verse 18. "Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour." This is John's way of talking about the last days, that is the time between Jesus' first coming and his return. Those days are going to be filled with trouble, and that will include plenty of false teachers. Jesus himself made it very clear that there would be many false Christs coming along teaching falsehood and promising things they wouldn't deliver. And we should not be surprised, because these we are living in the last days. Its so easy isn't it to get depressed at church leaders publicly denying the resurrection, or the exclusivity of Christ, or having interfaith services when the name of Jesus Christ is defamed and compromised. Or of supposed evangelical leaders denying some key truths of the faith. And it's easy to be shaken. But we mustn't. For these are the times in which we live. And it's all been long prophesied. It doesn't take God by surprise in the slightest. Instead stand firm and resist the false teaching. So let's ask John three questions which will help us both to reject falsehood and embrace the truth.
First, John, tell us what is the cause of this false teaching? The cause is in verse 18: "Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour." The cause is something that called antichrist. Now what does John mean by the antichrist? Well the word antichrist conjures up all sorts of apocalyptic images. But actually the Bible's teaching on the antichrist is very simple. The word "anti" means one of two things in Greek. It can mean "instead of". Or it can mean "against", or "opposed to". And actually in this word "antichrist" both those meanings overlap. To be antichrist is to put something else in place of Jesus and to put something against Jesus. That is what it means to be antichrist. Now there are hints in the Bible that one day someone will come before Jesus returns who embodies all the worst characteristics of this antichrist spirit. This will be The Antichrist. He is coming, says John. But there are plenty already doing his work of opposing and replacing Christ. And who is behind it all? Who is it that is against and opposed to Christ par excellence, who seeks to replace Jesus with anything else? Well of course it is the devil himself. He is the father of lies, who is opposed to all that Jesus is and came to do. And it is he who is the cause of this antichrist teaching. And he longs to lead as many as possible astray through false and ungodly teaching. So friends, let's be very clear. False teaching is not radical, or hip, or cool. It's not fun or cutting edge, or bohemian or trendy or relevant. It is down right demonic. It comes from the pit of hell itself and only leads people back there. And that is why we your ministers and us as a whole church must speak and against and expose false teaching as well positively teaching the truth. Because the job of the shepherd is both to guard the sheep and to feed the sheep.
So John, tell us secondly what is the content of false teaching? Well very simply it is Jesus Christ, or more clearly is a false teaching about Jesus. The key is Jesus. So verse 22: "Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist- he denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also." Cerinthus and his cronies were saying that Jesus was not the Christ. It's not that they were denying Jesus outright, rather it was a little more subtle. So they said that Jesus was a human being, and the divine spirit of the Christ descended on him at baptism, and then left him at the cross. But of course in doing that you deny that Jesus is fully God and so you deny that he can save you. That was the problem then. And much of the false teaching today centres on Jesus Christ. And some of it can sound very Christian. And by and large it usually falls into one of two camps. Jesus + or Jesus -. So some false teaching will be Jesus +. It will add to Jesus by saying: Yes, Jesus is great, but you need our particular experience or set of rules to be a really mature Christian. You need to do things our way to be really top notch spiritually. That's Jesus +. Or else it's Jesus -, taking something away from Jesus as many cults and religions will do. Jesus is great but he's not divine. He's a good man, even a spiritual man, but he's not the exclusive way to God. And that is a lie, says John, however Christian it may sound. And if you believe that, then you do not know the Father.
And in our culture which constantly tells us not to be offensive and to be tolerant, then you and I need to have the courage to stand for the only way of salvation, the Lord Jesus Christ. Yes it will mean ostracism and persecution, but again Jesus warned that such was our lot in the last days. And again and again, I have found that the point of most conflict is over the person of Christ. So one of my more memorable conversations that I have had on the university campus this year is with two students who burst into our meeting having had several too many to drink. And at the end we got chatting. And for the next hour they angrily told me how horrible and arrogant it was to believe that Jesus is the only way to God. Until I pointed out for the tenth time that Jesus himself made that claim. It's not just within the church that we are facing the teaching of the antichrist. It's actually all round us. Our culture is seeped in the understanding that there are many ways to God. But it's lie. So will you stand for the truth of Christ. Because he is the key. On him the truth stands or falls.
And that brings us to our final question to ask John. John, what's the counter to this false teaching? How can we stand firm in a culture which despises truth and seeks to persecute those who love the truth? Well John gives us two reasons. First there is the work of the Spirit. Verse 20: "But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth." And verse 27: "As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeitjust as it has taught you, remain in him." Now what is John talking about here? You can imagine that these verses have caused not a little controversy! But what John is referring to is the fulfilment of God's promise in Jeremiah 31 that all of God's people will receive the Spirit of God through the new covenant that was brought in by Jesus. Every Christian has that anointing of the Spirit that enables them to know God personally. So John isn't talking about a special experience for the top class Christian. He's speaking about all of us. And so we don't need anyone to take us into God's presence or give us an inside track to God, as the priests of the OT did and the false teachers were offering. We don't need those sort of teachers to give us new things. We do need teachers to remind us of old things, otherwise I'd be out of a job. But not those who offer special mediation with God. No, we can all know God. You don't need anything else. You have the gift of the Spirit in you and can know the truth.
And the second counter to false teaching? Well quite simply it's the gospel itself, the word of God. Verse 24: "See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he promised useven eternal life." We need to make sure we remain in the truth of God's word, that which we heard in the beginning, which John made clear in chapter one was the good news about Jesus. You see all you need to have a full mature Christian life is the Word of God applied by the Spirit of God. Move away from those two gifts and you will end up denying Christ and not knowing the Father.
And that is actually the heart of John's letter isn't it? It is to remain in the truth. He wants us to know the truth and stick with the truth. Because only by remaining in the truth of the Word of God will you not love the world. And only by remaining in the truth of the Word will you not fall prey to false teaching. That's what authentic Christianity is about. So will you hear the Word of the Lord today? His loving word of command, and his loving word of warning.
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