1 John 2:18-27, 4:16
We’ve been studying 1 John—a letter written by one of Jesus’ disciples to Christians in SW Turkey. These Christians had become confused about what spirituality looks like and how to cultivate it, and so John has been clearing up this confusion. Now John goes to the heart of the problem—false teachers who were responsible for this distorted spirituality. John devotes two sections to this (2:18-27; 4:1-6)—we will look at portions of both sections.
The danger Jesus predicted
Read 2:18,26; 4:1,3b. Define “antichrist(s)” as opposing Jesus by deception. Notice that John reminds them that they had been told to expect not only the emergence of the Antichrist—but also that he would be preceded by many antichrists.
Specifically, John is referring to Jesus’ own warning in Matt. 24:4,5,11,24,25 (read). Satan can’t stop the spread of the good news about Jesus throughout the world (24:14), so instead he will “flood the market with counterfeits” in order to deceive people. Many false teachers and false prophets would come throughout the time between his first and second comings—people who would claim to speak for him, speak as him, even do miracles—but who are actually working against him (e.g., “antichrists”). Jesus taught that these opponents were forerunners of the ultimate Antichrist—a diabolical false Messiah just before Jesus returns. John is saying that the false teachers/prophets have emerged—just as Jesus predicted. And they continue to emerge today, which means it’s important to know...
How to detect false teachers
How can we identify false teachers? Read Matt.7:15,16. They’re not going to say, “Hi—I’m a false teacher and I’ve come to deceive you.” They are wolves in sheep’s clothing—they’ll masquerade as true followers of Jesus. They’ll quote the Bible, speak positively about Jesus and claim to be advocating his mission. They are often gifted speakers, highly educated and seminary trained, writing best-selling books and/or leading large churches, sometimes holding roles in time-honored denominations, etc. Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits.” They will inevitably betray themselves—if you know what fruit to inspect.
John has already given us two fruits to inspect—and they both have to do with the kind of life leaders/teachers live and/or promote.
Do they “walk in the light” (have lives of moral integrity, free from sexual immorality, drunkenness/drug abuse, and financial honesty and modesty)—or do they teach &/or practice an immoral lifestyle? These teachers placed themselves above God’s moral law by denying any connection between sin and spirituality (1:6,8,10). Extra-biblical records indicate that they practiced and advocated sexual immorality as a means of spiritual enlightenment (Cerinthus). This is a common feature of false teachers (SEX: Moses David).
Do they “walk in love” (treat others with respect; advocate serving others as central)—or do they teach &/or justify contempt for others? These teachers openly hated others, including other true Christians (2:9; 3:15). Anyone who preaches hate or justifies contempt in the name of Jesus is a false teacher (EXAMPLES).
But here is the heart of the issue—what do they teach about Jesus? Jesus is the heart of Christianity, so what better way to deceive people than to teach a counterfeit Jesus? So John asks: Do they affirm or deny Jesus’ unique identity? Read 2:22; 4:2,3a. This phrase (“Jesus Christ has come in the flesh”) is not just a trite religious slogan. It is loaded with important theological content. It means “Jesus is fully God and fully human, humanity’s only Savior and Messiah.” False teachers often deny Jesus by rejecting his true identity in one way or another.
These teachers denied Jesus by reinventing him as a human-only teacher who was temporarily indwelt by the Christ spirit, and who taught salvation through secret spiritual knowledge.
Today we have many counterfeit versions of Jesus: New Age Jesus who is a guru of God-consciousness; “Jesus Seminar” Jesus who was a wandering sage/religious revolutionary; the Da Vinci Code Jesus who was a religious mystic who taught enlightenment through sexual intercourse and fathered children through Mary Magdalene; the Jesus of Eastern religions who is one of many manifestations of God; the therapeutic Jesus who becomes whatever we want him to be to help us with our problems as we define them; the Jesus of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, etc. who is more than human but not fully God. John says these versions of Jesus are “antichrists”—deceptive distortions to be identified and decisively rejected.
Isn’t John being judgmental and intolerant? Our culture’s emphasis on religious tolerance (not only respecting people’s freedom to believe/disbelieve what they, but also agreeing that all religious views are equally valid) makes John sound like a nasty, unloving, intolerant dogmatist. But it is possible to be insistent and urgent about something for different reasons.
John is insistent on this first of all because this is what John knew that Jesus claimed about himself (paraphrase Jn.3:16; 8:58/10:30; “I am” claims; etc.). Remember, John was an eye-witness disciple of Jesus who heard these words, saw his validation of these claims, and who was persecuted and (probably) martyred for this testimony.
So John isn’t being disrespectful of others to insist on this portrait of Jesus—he is being respectful and faithful to Jesus. What is disrespectful is to re-create or misrepresent Jesus into something other than what he claimed for himself. We should have the integrity to let Jesus speak for himself and then accept or reject him, but to re-invent him into what we want him to be lacks integrity.
John is insistent on this also because he wants people to be saved—and the salvation Jesus offers us depends upon his unique identity. According to the Bible, salvation is being reconciled to God by being forgiven for the guilt of our sins. And according to the Bible, our sins can be forgiven only through the death of God’s chosen Substitute. And this Substitute must be both a sinless human (in order to die for sinful humans) and fully divine (in order to pay for all of our sins). Only Jesus lived a perfect life to qualify to lay his life down for our sins. Only Jesus claimed to be God so that his death could extend complete forgiveness to all people who are willing to receive his offer.
So John does not speak as a nasty dogmatist. He speaks as one who has been healed from a fatal disease through a wonderful medicine—and then discovers that others with the same disease are being offered a counterfeit medication that will leave them to die in their sickness.
And this is the spirit in which I speak to you. I have no desire to impose my beliefs about Jesus on you, and I take no personal delight in refuting counterfeit Jesuses. But I have to be faithful to report the wonderful discovery I have made. I was alienated from God because of my sins, and this Jesus forgave me of my sins and reconciled me to God and God’s love has changed my life. So I want you to know the real Jesus, and not be taken in by counterfeit Jesuses who can’t give you this wonderful gift. Put your trust in him, ask him to forgive you through his death on the cross, ask him to come into your heart and change your life through God’s love.
How should Christians respond to this warning?
First, learn what the Bible teaches about Jesus well enough to spot false teaching about Jesus (1 Jn. 4:1). The best way to detect counterfeit currency is not to study counterfeits, but to become so familiar with real currency that counterfeits jump out at you.
This is your responsibility. Do not trust someone’s teaching about Jesus (including mine) just because they have a seminary degree, or because they are a powerful speaker, or because they are part of a long-standing denomination, etc. Genuine teachers should root their teachings in the Bible, and they should encourage you to test their teachings by the Bible. Be suspicious of those who deviate from this.
Second, we should be careful about calling people false teachers unless they fit this description. We may disagree about matters of lesser importance (e.g., worship style; position on lesser ethical matters; role of ritual; church structures and methods; etc.)—but if they uphold the real Jesus, have moral integrity, and are genuinely loving, we should not use this term.
Third, we should not support false teachers with our personal fellowship with our financial support (2 John1:7-11). This is not a license to be mean or nasty to such people. But if someone is teaching a counterfeit Jesus, we cannot embrace them as fellow Christians or financially support their ministry without compromising our commitment to Jesus and hurting his cause.
Fourth, we should warn other Christians of false teachers (John’s example here; virtually every New Testament letter). By doing so, we may save them from being damaged by false teaching so they can grow spiritually and be effective workers for Jesus.
Finally, we should reach out to those who have been influenced by false teaching (read Jude1:22,23). How many people in this room are glad others have done this for them? Avoid fruitless argument—but relating to them with genuine love and sharing the good news of God’s complete forgiveness can have a powerful impact on those who have been deceived by counterfeit Christianity (EXAMPLES).