Sermon February 16

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

February 16, 2014

“Don’t Always Believe What You Hear”

I John 4:1-6

When I prepare a sermon title, I sometimes wonder what people will think about it. When you walk by the sign out front, or see the sermon title printed in the bulletin, you may make some guesses about the direction the sermon will take. With a title like – “Don’t Always Believe What You Hear”, you may think I’m going to talk about politics. It may be a good point to make, but I’m staying away from that subject. The title is really my paraphrase of John’s message. John is saying – You can’t believe everything you hear, because there are many people who will mislead you.

As I was flipping the TV channels between the Olympics and some other show I was interested in, I stopped briefly on a program where a celebrity was being interviewed. The subject had just turned to religion and she said that she dabbled in all kinds of religions, because she claimed – all religions are equally valid; all paths lead to God. That’s one of those false teachings John was warning us about. Another statement was very much like it – “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere.” In today’s culture those statements have a definite appeal. They sound broad-minded and tolerant. They are certainly politically correct. But the Bible says they are not true.

John tells us not to believe everything we hear. Instead, he says, “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” In all of John’s New Testament writings, the Gospel of John, the book of Revelation, and the letters of John, nowhere does he use the full title for the Holy Spirit. Instead, John uses the simple term “the Spirit”, or the expression “Spirit of God”, which is found in verse 2. But in this first verse, John is using the word “spirit” in a generic sense; spirit with a small “s”. The Greek word “pneuma” which is often translated as “spirit”, literally means “wind”. With this meaning in mind, John is advising his readers to test the winds.

The word “test” means to think, to examine closely. This is the word Paul employs in I Thessalonians 5:21 – “Test everything; hold fast to what is good.” John was telling Christians – use your heads. Be mentally, as well as morally and spiritually alert. Test the winds to see where they are coming from.

Then in verses 2 and 3, John gives us the one critical criteria for this test – “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.”

The central issue John says, is – Who is Jesus Christ? For the Christian, the test of any religious belief, any spiritual practice, is whether it conforms to what we understand about Christ. Jesus Christ is at the center of our faith. The life and teachings of Christ are the standard by which we judge every belief and every practice.

John’s readers were being confused by a philosophic religious group called the Gnostics. Their name comes from the Greek word, gnosis, which means knowledge. The Gnostics claimed to have a superior and esoteric knowledge. They believed that they had the answers to the basic questions of life, questions like – How was the world created? How can you explain evil? And how do you explain God?

Their reasoning was that matter is evil and spirit is good. God is a spirit and therefore good. The material world, being matter, is evil so it could not have been created by a good, spiritual God. They believed that God brought into existence a long series of created heavenly beings that were further and further removed from the true God. So it was not the good God who created the evil world, but one of the lesser gods farther down the ladder from him.

So when Christians would speak of their faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the answer from the Gnostics was predictable. Christ is just one of those many emanations from the true God. Maybe higher than some and lower than others. But there’s nothing unique about Christ, nothing special about him. All of the heresies down through history have denied either the full humanity or the full divinity of Jesus. The Gnostics watered down both.

At first glance, these Gnostic beliefs may sound pretty bizarre to us. However, the religious climate today has many parallels with those ancient Gnostics. The Hindu saint Ramakrishna declared: “God has made different religions to suit different aspirants, times, and countries. All doctrines are only so many paths; but a path is by no means God himself. Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths with whole hearted devotion. One may eat a cake with icing either straight or sideways. It will taste sweet either way.” All paths lead to God, he says. Where have we heard that before?

In Shirley MacLaine’s book, she claims that the real Jesus “became an adept yogi and mastered complete control over his body and the physical world around him.” Having achieved this state, he “tried to teach people that they could do the same things too if they got more in touch with their spiritual selves and their own potential power.” Marianne Williamson wrote: “The word Christ is a psychological term. No religion has a monopoly on the truth. Christ refers to the common thread of divine love that is the core and essence of every human mind.”

Just as with the ancient Gnostics, some people today still look for secret, hidden knowledge, something that only the insider, the enlightened, can know. And they look for meaning in life by using things like crystals and pyramids, and through channeling to past lives.

In his second letter to Timothy, Paul warns about such people. He wrote: “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”

John’s answer to the Gnostics was to point to Jesus Christ. We believe that Jesus was truly and completely human. As the creed says – “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” Jesus was not a shadowy, ghostly apparition. He was not just a state of mind or a psychological ideal. No; John declares in his gospel – “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”

And we believe that Jesus was truly and completely God, nothing less. “On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father.” As John has said – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Paul sums it up: “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”

What makes the Christian faith unique is our affirmation that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and our Lord. In one of his famous radio talks a generation ago, C.S. Lewis made this now well-known statement: “I am trying here to prevent anyone from saying the really silly thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That’s the one thing we mustn’t say. A man who is merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said wouldn’t be a great moral teacher. He’d either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he’s a poached egg – or else he’d be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But don’t let us come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He hasn’t left that open to us. He didn’t intend to.”

Karl Barth was the most renowned Protestant theologian of the past century. He was a Swiss pastor and he had the distinction of being the first person kicked out of Germany by Adolf Hitler. When he returned in 1945 after the war, he gave a lecture to his former students on the Apostles’ Creed. He made this profound statement: “Christology is the touchstone of all knowledge of God in the Christian sense.” When he says Christology he means the study of Christ, like theology is the study of God. “Christology is the touchstone of all knowledge of God in the Christian sense. Tell me how it stands with your Christology,” he said, “and I will tell you who you are.”

That’s a challenge for us. Tell me what you believe about Jesus Christ and I will know who you are. Everything else is secondary. We may be full of good deeds. We may be friendly and caring, but that doesn’t tell who we are. We could do all those things for the wrong reasons. But tell me who Jesus Christ is in your life and I will tell you who you are.

John said – “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” That’s a warning to be careful to discern the truth when people preach and teach about spiritual things. However, there are also times when that which misleads us comes from within us. Our own thoughts and attitudes and behaviors need to be tested to see if they are of God.

Don McCullough writes about what he refers to as the god-of-my-experience. This is what happens when my style of worshiping God, my way of praying, my experience of God, becomes the only standard I accept as authentic Christianity. The effect of this is to confine the majesty and mystery of God into the container of my own experience. The god-of-my-experience is the God who doesn’t make too many demands on me; the God who will help me to get the things I want; the God who promises to deliver me from all my problems.

How can Christians fall for this? Maybe we don’t have to be fooled by false teachers as John feared; we can fool ourselves. Even if we believe in Jesus Christ, when we water down what Christ has said, we are substituting a false god for the true God.

John says – “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” When the problem comes from outside the church, from those who deny the humanity or deity of Christ, the answer is to put our trust in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and our Savior. When the problem comes from within us, from our own distortion of the gospel, the answer is to obey Christ as Lord. George MacDonald, the 19th century Scottish pastor, wrote about the folly of trying to know God apart from obeying him. He said: “There is no salvation in correct opinions. A person’s real belief is that by which he lives. To do his works is to enter into a vital relationship with Jesus, to obey him is the only way to be one with him.”

Hear the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God re-mold your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.”

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