A few Sundays ago, we talked about Anti-Christ – which is a belief system and not an individual.
A belief system that denies that Jesus Christ is the Son of God in the flesh. John gets back to that here in Chapter 4 – adding some new principles for the early believers – and us.
In 2004, Sam Harris published The End of Faith. In the final chapter of his best-seller he declare that spiritual experience is a birthright – that spiritual experiences have meaning so we are entitled to them. Harris wrote that after he had finished carpet-bombing the cherished doctrines of many of the world’s religions. In doing so, he gave people permission to be “spiritual but not religious.”
And in the eleven years since The End of Faith hit the bookstores – the percentage of Americans who claim to have some sort of spirituality but are “unaffiliated” with a particular kind of faith has swelled to 20 percent. These are not my numbers – they come from a Pew Research Center survey.
And what do we as believers do about that 20 percent? They’re all around us. Maybe not one out of five people that we know, because this is the Midwest and we tend to hang back a bit before jumping onto the latest trend.
The Apostle John – Jesus’ “beloved disciple” – would tell us not to panic. Christians all over America are wringing their hands over this shift in faith – but he wrote to the early Christians – and to us:
“Greater is the One who is in you than the one who is in the world.”
He knows that the churches he has been caring for have lost people to this new movement that denies that Jesus is the promised Messiah. And that spirit – which is Anti-Christ – was swirling in the churches, and it is still moving around today.
So he starts this part by telling the believers that they are “Beloved” – not only to him, but also to Jesus Christ. And it is because of that love for them that he has to warn them to “stop believing” every spirit – they should not believe everything they hear. Or read on the Internet.
And he tells them to “test the spirits” – and the word he uses here is a word for testing metal to see whether it is what it appears to be. John writes this because many false prophets have left the Church and go out into the world – just as Jesus had warned His disciples that false Christs and false prophets would come.
But the fakers – the false prophets – are not the real problem. The evil spirit or spirits that inspire them are the problem. It is the spirit of Anti-Christ. And they are having success in making converts –
but success is not proof that they are doing it right. (That is a principle that the Church today should embrace.)
So John wants the believers to test the alternate belief system by asking whether Jesus Christ came in the flesh. Simple enough for believers to answer – but non-believers will be much more vague in their responses.
This is not John’s trying to protect his theological turf or keep his personal flock from being raided – he is defending the Gospel. Or as Paul put it in Ephesians 6 – our is not a flesh-and-blood struggle, but one against principalities and powers.
So as the spiritual-but-not-religious movement grows – we need to remember that theology does matter. Satan wants us to think it doesn’t.
John then restates that the spirit of Anti-Christ is already here – which might cause anxiety in his beloved flock – so he immediate reassures them: “You are from God” – so their salvation is safe and secure; “You have overcome them” – so their faith is safe and secure, and this new wave of unbelief will not prevail. And then one of the most powerful statements in the entire Bible: “Greater is the One who is in you than the one who is in the world.”
The Holy Spirit that is in you is greater than the spirit in the world – the spirit of Anti-Christ. And so those early Christians and you have already overcome the false prophets who are working under the influence of Anti-Christ.
John then explains that the unbelievers and the believers are coming at Jesus from opposite directions. Unbelievers speak from the world’s point of view – and the false teachers are successful in the world because they incorporate the world’s thinking into their teaching.
Which explains the popularity of the spiritual-but-not-religious movement: You can have all the benefits of believing in something greater than yourself, without that something making any demands on you or setting any limits for you. It seems to be the best of both worlds.
Paul warned about the same thing in his second letter to Timothy: “the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”
Peter said much the same in his second letter: “… there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them– bringing swift destruction on themselves.”
But Jesus assured His followers in Matthew 24: “… false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles with the goal of deceiving even the elect – if that were possible.”
His assurance is that it is impossible for those who are elect – who have the Holy Spirit within them – to be deceived and to fall away.
John tells us that unbelievers speak from the world’s point of view. And believers – or as he calls them, “those from God” – listen to the testimony of the witnesses to Jesus Christ. And that is how true believers can tell whether a teaching is from the Holy Spirit or the spirit of Anti-Christ: If a teaching does not acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God in the flesh then it is not from the Holy Spirit.
Those who are not true believers cannot accept that truth. Jesus said much the same to the Pharisees in chapter 8 of John’s Gospel: “He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.” That’s harsh – but it’s true.
The message from John to the early Christians – and to us – is that the Holy Spirit is within you, so you belong to God. Therefore, you believe the truth about Jesus Christ. And the Spirit within you is greater than the spirit of Anti-Christ.
So do not fear the spirit of Anti-Christ, for it cannot hurt your faith. Confident of that, challenge the spirit of the age with the Gospel. Be one of the witnesses to the truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, in the flesh. The hymn – politically incorrect as it may be – is entitled “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Not, “Retreat, Christian Soldiers,” or “Dig in, Christian Soldiers,” or “Sit around with other Christians and whine about how things are not the way they used to be in the Church, Christian Soldiers.”
I’m sorry to say that pastors can be the worst at hand-wringing and whining. They get talking about how the Church is under attack and we’re losing our religious freedom here in America and the spiritual-but-not-religious message is gaining converts (if you can call them that) every day.
I was with one particular group as a pastor was reciting a litany of outrage at how schools have slammed the door in God’s face. So I told him how the annual Baccalaureate has been held in the Bridgeport Schools Cafetorium for years now. When he asked, “How did that happen?” I told him, “We asked.”
Don’t be afraid – the spirit of Anti-Christ cannot hurt you or your faith. So take on that spirit with the Gospel of Jesus, the Christ.
For the Holy Spirit within you is greater than the spirit of Anti-Christ that is in the world.