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 me say that if you go to Wikipedia and search for “Demographics of the United States” you can find all the same information I’m about to share with you. Okay, so do you want some answers? From 1990-2008 the number of adults identifying themselves to be part of a mainline denomination (which includes most major protestant denominations other than Baptist) in the U.S. shrank by about 10%, or a total loss of 3.5 million people. 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, sticking within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy for just another minute, the number of Catholics grew about 25%.
Now, by some estimates, that all seems like reasonable growth. If we could grow this church by 6% every year 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. Keeping in mind that the total numbers of those who fall under the umbrella of Christian orthodoxy are much, much larger than some of the following groups, the growth trends present us with a unique challenge. Staying within this same 18 year period, the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses has grown almost 40% and the number of Mormons 27%. Again, those are pretty healthy growth numbers and come largely from the fact that those two religions are generally much more energetic about proselytizing than we are. Now for the real numbers. The number of adults identifying themselves as a follower of an Eastern religion such as Buddhism or Hinduism 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, Pagan, Scientology) has grown by 116%. Now, those numbers are high as individual representatives of the larger group “religious, non-Christian,” but because the group includes Jewish people whose number has decreased 14%, the total for the group is only 50% growth. 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. 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. People are less and less likely to look at the church as the bearer of truth in this world. 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 important to them. Furthermore, when people do still look towards Christianity to answer these questions (which they are, by the way, in rapidly increasing numbers in Asia, Africa, and South America), they are more and more often looking to denominations that many of us might label strange, unorthodox, and on the fringe of what’s acceptable worship practice.
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 and glumly conclude that this country is going to Hell in a hand basket and we need to close ranks, 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, but particularly in the United States of America given that we live here, 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, back before Constantine legalized Christianity. 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), 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 and walking away on the whole thing, living their lives as they see fit. The question in all this is 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 need to 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; but it is a long road, full of sorrows and troubles, and the end might come before we find the object of our search. This morning, then, I commend to you a better approach. And, surprise, surprise, it happens to be the next thing John has to say in his first epistle. With the understanding that John uses the word “spirit” to refer to the prevailing force or worldview behind all the different ideas and approaches to reality that we encounter in this life, the measuring stick that works for determining which spirits are true and which are not is Jesus. In other words, Christ is the measuring stick for every spirit. It is His life, ministry, and teachings which allow us to discern whether or not some so-called truth of this world corresponds to the reality of God’s kingdom. Christ is the measuring stick for every spirit.
Taking a step closer to the actual text, last week as Cody masterfully walked you through 1 John 3:11-24, the final verse of chapter 3 went like this: “The one who keeps His commands remains in Him, and He in him. And the way we know that He remains in us is from the Spirit 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 the Devil (nonbelievers might use the words “good spirit” and “evil spirit”). 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 spirits exercised dominion over which things 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 an opposite direction. There is a rampant interest in all things spiritual by many, many people. But instead of a paucity of information, 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 4:1-6 with me in your Bibles and let’s take a look at these powerful words. Our passage begins with John’s famous call for us to “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits…” If you are like me at all, your first question when reading this is quite simple: 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 it could not have meant. 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. As people came to Christ out of this culture they quickly lost much or all of their superstition (contrary to popular critical portrayals), 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 (Jewish Christians), or demons (Gentile Christians) 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 the both the person speaking as a prophet 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 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. The reason John gives for this is that “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. A couple of verses over from this John reminds us that all this falsehood comes from the “spirit of the antichrist” which we have already said is any testimony that seeks to diminish or supplant Christ’s lordship. Thus, anything we hear that doesn’t measure up with the standards God has clearly given us is not from Him. And Christ is the measuring stick for every spirit.
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 that things which seem very good can actually be very bad. One of the Food Network shows I enjoy watching is called “Unwrapped.” This is a show that takes you behind the scenes, so-to-speak, of your favorite snacks to see how they came about and are made. An episode I watched the other day was talking about the company that makes the plastic food that appears in commercials and TV shows in which the filming conditions are adverse to keeping the food looking good. 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 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 double speak 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. And the test is this in vv. 2-3: “Every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. But every spirit who does not confess Jesus is not from God.” Christ is the measuring stick for every spirit. But what does this mean, this Jesus coming in the flesh? 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 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. 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 (orthopraxy) and right belief (orthodoxy) 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.
Well after all of this gloom and doom John shifts gears just a bit and offers some hope and encouragement. Look at v. 4: “You are from God, little children, and you have conquered 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 are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?…Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or anguish or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than victorious through Him who loved us.” You see, in Christ we have conquered these spirits who are opposed to God, but the next logical question is: how have we done this? John states this very simply: “Because the One who is in you is greater than the one 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. 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. As we saw in Ecclesiastes almost exactly a year ago, we’re not enough on our own. 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 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. And Christ is the measuring stick for every spirit.
With this encouragement offered, John gives us one more test for the spirits: Who is listening to them? Look with me at v. 5: “They are from the world. Therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them.” In case it’s not totally clear, John is talking about the spirits opposed to God here. They are from the world, he says. 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. So 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 the politics of the Civil Rights Act aside, the churches in those situations were absolutely wrong in their theology. That said, that’s an exception rather than the rule. Generally speaking, if the world collectively votes yes, the church ought to be testing very carefully to determine if the prevailing spirit is from God. 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. Anyone who knows God listens to us; anyone who is not from God does not listen to us.” 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. Now, someone might read what John writes here—we are from God—and attempt to deride him as arrogant for making such a bold assumption. Yet nothing John has said up to now would seem to preclude him and his words from the tests for fidelity he has been laying out for us. John was instead confident that the example of his life would prove his ethical dedication to loving those around him and the active glorification of Christ in his words would prove his doctrinal dedication to confessing Christ as having come from in the flesh. Christ is the measuring stick for every spirit and John was confident that he measured up. Let us not, however, overlook the next thing John says in our effort to justify his words. If someone has passed both the ethical and the doctrinal tests for fidelity to God such that can 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 (akou?). When I ask Noah to pick up his toys, I know that he has heard me. His hearing is very good. If he doesn’t respond to my request then his 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 actions. 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 don’t blindly accept that as fact—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. 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 we have heard this morning which are from the Lord. 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 make us 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.