I intend to treat this passage twice. This morning I want to consider the third of the three tests of authentic Christian faith that John offers us in this wonderful letter, at least consider it in a general way. Next Lord’s Day I intend to consider the statement in v. 19: “they went out (John is speaking of the false teachers who had been troubling these Christians) that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”
Two items of New Testament teaching are introduced in this first verse of our text. We read variously in the New Testament that it is the last days or the last times or the last time or the last hour. Given the fact that the Lord Jesus explicitly taught his disciples that no one knows the day or the hour of his return it does not seem that John or the other NT writers are meaning to say that the return of Christ would come in days or months. He is not predicting the time of the Second Coming. Taking together all the uses of this terminology as we find it in the NT it appears that “last times” or “last hour” designates the time, the period, the age, or the era introduced by the consummation of redemption in the death and resurrection of the Lord. Nothing remains to complete the story of mankind in the world but those things the Lord himself mentioned, such as the preaching of the gospel through the entire world.
Similarly, “antichrist,” a term employed only in the writings of John, refers to a figure who Paul says will dominate the world of unbelief near the very end of the age. But such a figure will, of course, only represent a worldview, a hostility to God and Christ such as the church will have encountered throughout his history. It is in this sense that John can say that there are many antichrists. Such minor antichrists are anticipations of the figure who will appear on the stage of human history just before the Second Coming.
We will attend to this statement next Lord’s Day.
It was precisely the claim of the false teachers, the antichrists, that they alone had knowledge, they alone had been introduced to the secrets of reality, and only they could introduce others into that gnosis or knowledge. Again John’s riposte is that the knowledge of Jesus Christ is available to all and the Holy Spirit himself directly illuminates the mind to receive that knowledge. There is nothing secret about it; it can be shouted from the housetops!
John is going to be more explicit later in the letter about the precise nature of this false teaching about Christ, this denial of Jesus Christ and of the Father and the Son. For now it is enough to say that it amounted to a denial of the incarnation, a denial of the full deity of the Lord Jesus as God the Son, which, of course, in the nature of the case amounted to a denial of the triune nature of God and of the nature of Christ’s work of atonement and the power of his death on the cross. That is why John finishes with eternal life. As has often been recognized regarding unbiblical views of the person of Jesus Christ, they lead invariably to different views of salvation: how salvation is obtained, even what salvation is. Redefine who Jesus is and you will invariably redefine what Jesus did. This is the burden of Athanasius’ great work against the Arians in the 4th century, On the Incarnation of the Word of God. Only the God-Man is able to provide salvation because salvation required an atonement that only the God-Man was adequate to perform!
Once again John expresses his confidence in these believers: they know what they need to know and they are committed to that truth.
You will remember that in introducing John’s first letter we said that in the course of his argument John provides us with three tests by which to determine whether our faith, or another’s faith is genuine. Given the fact that many who have thought themselves Christians and claimed to be Christians were in fact not true followers of Christ and did not gain eternal life, the validation or authentication of Christian faith is a persistent theme in Holy Scripture. A great many biblical writers address the question and John does particularly in this letter. On the other hand, real Christians, ordinary followers of Jesus Christ, have no difficulty passing these tests, as John was sure his readers had and would.
The three tests – the moral test, the social test, and now the doctrinal test – are the principal subject of this letter. Earlier in this same chapter, John had introduced the first two of these tests by which we can judge whether our own or our brother’s claim to be a Christian is genuine or counterfeit. The first was the test of obedience: does this person who calls Jesus “Lord”, actually submit to his Lordship and rule? The second was the test of love: does this person who claims to have entered into the experience and knowledge of God’s love for his people, give evidence of it in the love he shows for others? We noted that each test is introduced in the letter with some statement to the effect that anyone who denies these essential characteristics of Christian faith is a liar. Just what we have here: “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ.”
We also noted that John does not organize his explanation of these three tests as we might have expected he would. We would have expected him to mention the first test and explain it at some length, move on to the second, and then, finally, the third. But, in fact, the three tests are mixed up through the letter. All three are mentioned in chapter 2 and all three mentioned again in the remainder of the letter and it is not particularly clear why one and now the other in the order in which they are found; but in fact such is John’s way. For example, though he has spoken earlier of the social test – an essential mark of authentic Christian faith is that it invariably produces love for other Christians – he will not employ the term “liar” in regard to this test until chapter 4, verse 20.
In the same way, the doctrinal test is introduced here in vv. 22 for the first time, and in the characteristic fashion using the word “liar,” but the same doctrinal test will be discussed in further detail in chapters 4 and 5. John is like Paul in that the principle by which he organizes his material is not always obvious. It is a delightful human touch. The very Word of God but written in the idiosyncratic style of the individual men the Holy Spirit employed to produce it. After all, the gospel is like this, isn’t it? God comes to us. He remakes us. The Lord creates his own new life in us; the Holy Spirit comes to live in us and exercises control over our lives. But in all of that, though God himself is powerfully at work in our lives, he does not obliterate our individual personalities. For better or for worse even when Almighty God is at work in us we remain the characters we were before.
In any case, the tests of faith are in each case the assertion of truths denied by the false teachers. And so here. John calls them “antichrists” because their teaching amounted to a denial of Christ as the incarnate Son of God. Now it is very important for you to understand, if you are going to apply this part of the Word of God to your own life and living today, that this is John’s judgment of the case. The false teachers themselves would almost certainly have been hotly offended at the suggestion that they were denying Jesus Christ. These teachers thought themselves Christians; they spoke and they preached about Jesus Christ. He was the subject of many of their sermons. They had no doubt that he was the Messiah; in some way or another, he was the Savior, as salvation was understood in their scheme, and they revered him as an extraordinarily important and at least somewhat divine figure.
They would have posed little danger to the church if they had come proclaiming that someone else beside Jesus was the Messiah; or that the incarnation was a figment of someone’s overactive imagination. No, the great danger they posed to the church was due precisely to the fact that in so many ways their teaching sounded Christian; in so many ways it resembled what these Christians had always heard and known. It was not always immediately apparent, at least not at first, that what they were teaching so completely overturned the truth about Jesus Christ.
It was a Christian heresy they taught; and it took a little doing to sort out the heresy from the apostolic faith. And it was just because of its appearance of Christianity that the heresy was so dangerous and so likely to beguile the church and why John felt it so important to speak to it directly.
But John did not speak about the theological viewpoint of the false teachers as people are accustomed to speak of such things today. He did not speak appreciatively of this teaching as a complementary insight; or as an understandable emphasis upon the true humanity of Jesus; or as an important corrective to an overemphasis on the deity of the Lord. No; to John, this denial that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God is a lie, and anyone who teaches it is a liar. He is an antichrist. And, what is more, any claim to Christianity which is built upon this denial of a real incarnation, a real coming in the flesh of the eternal Son of God, is completely bogus.
John’s ‘blacks and whites’ are so contrary to the drift of the modern mind, soaked as it is in relativism and pluralism, that you find very few, even among evangelical scholars of the Bible, following him in his rhetoric and his passionate dismissal of such errors as diabolical lies. But we would do better to listen to the Apostle John than to the bland and soft words of accommodation which are the custom of our day and all the more because it is this very teaching, this very set of ideas, that is making a great comeback in our culture even in our day.
For the whole Bible agrees that a correct view of Jesus Christ, a proper and accurate understanding of his person, is the key to everything and especially to eternal life. There is no more fundamental, no more crucial question to answer than just this question: “Who is Jesus Christ?” There is no answer with more eternally profound implications than the answer you give to that greatest of all questions.
John says here several times, as in v. 23, if you do not have Christ, you do not have God the Father. And that is the same thing as saying, if you don’t have Christ, you don’t have salvation, you don’t have eternal life, you don’t have hope for the world to come. If you don’t understand who Jesus is, your whole theory of reality must be wrong at the bottom. If you have got the wrong sum at the beginning, it doesn’t make any difference how far you carry out your calculations, you are going to be wrong; your result is going to be false. This is just John’s apostolic way of saying what his Savior said before him: “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” And getting to the Father is what we ought all to be about and to the Father’s house and to that room that the Savior is preparing for all those who trust in him in the Father’s house.
One morning at the breakfast table this past summer we read a tract that has been widely circulated in the United States Army. It is entitled Bullet Proof Faith and was written by Jeff Struecker. Struecker is now an army chaplain but before that he was a sergeant in the Rangers. He was involved in the action in Mogadishu, Somalia that is the subject of the well-known film Black Hawk Down.
That day the 24 year old squad leader put his nine man squad in two humvees and led a ten vehicle convoy into the city to retrieve the soldiers who had earlier been dropped by helicopter on a mission to seize the warlord Mohomed Farrah Aidid. Aidid had taken to ambushing and killing U.N. workers in Mogadishu, there to provide food for the starving population, and the decision had been made to go get him. One of the soldiers helicoptered into the city had missed the slide rope and fallen 70 feet to the ground and when Struecker and the convoy he was leading got to his destination in the center of the city he was given orders to take the injured man back to their base. But by the time they left with the injured man the warlord’s forces had closed in behind them and they had to fight their way out of the city. One of his men, stationed on the right side of Struecker’s humvee was killed by gunfire, the man’s blood spattered everywhere over the back of the vehicle.
As it happened they made it back to base with but the one casualty.
“As doctors were taking Todd Blackburn off [the soldier who had fallen] and removing Pilla’s body, my platoon leader said, ‘There’s been a Black Hawk helicopter shot down. Get your men and go back into the city.’
“I thought to myself, There is no way I can go back there. I sent my men for more ammunition and fuel and began to clean Dominick Pilla’s blood off my vehicle. I thought, God, I’m going to die tonight. I believed beyond a shadow of doubt there was no way to survive the situation.
“I didn’t know what to do or say, so I did what any Christian would do in this situation. I prayed. I didn’t negotiate with God nor did I hear a booming voice from heaven. I simply said, “God I need your help, I’m in over my head!” then I pictured in my mind Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. I could see him bowing his knee before God and praying before he went to the cross. I could hear him say, as if he was right next to me, “God, if there is any way possible, let this cup pass from me.” I prayed those same words. Then I remembered what Jesus said next. “Not my will, but Yours be done.”
“At that moment, I realized something I had known since I became a Christian… As a Christian, no matter what happens to me in this life, if I live or die, I am firmly in God’s hands.
“My wife, Dawn, had just written to tell me she was pregnant. I thought I’d never see her again or hold my child. If by some miracle of God I survived this situation, I would go home to my family. As a Christian I also knew if I died I’d go home to heaven and be with my Savior. So no matter what happens to me tonight, I’m going home. I’m going to be safe, I thought.”
Struecker and his men went back into Mogadishu and rescued some Rangers whose vehicles had been rendered useless by gunfire. Having brought them back to the base they were sent into the city a third time. As it happened, as the rescue of the soldiers who had been trapped in the city was completed, Struecker and his humvee crammed with his own men and 15 more soldiers were the last to leave Mogadishu.
Now, the point of all of that is this. Sgt. Struecker’s convictions, his understanding of his situation in life, his hope in the face of death, all of that rested entirely – whether or not he was thinking about all of this at the time – entirely upon a particular understanding of who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ did. The person of Christ is the essential foundation of those convictions that settled Sgt. Struecker’s mind and heart as he drove back into maelstrom of violence in Mogadishu. That is true for you and me; it is true for everyone. Alter the understanding of Jesus in any significant way from that way taught in the Word of God and the entire hope collapses, the entire complex understanding of reality. That is why there is no such practical hope as that seized as a lifeline by this young man who thought he was about to die offered in any other religion or philosophy of life apart from biblical, historic Christianity, founded as it is on a particular answer to the question: who is Jesus Christ?
Sgt. Struecker’s confidence in the face of almost certain death was, in fact, founded on the incarnation of God the Son, on the fact that his Savior was a true man but at the same time Almighty God. Only such a Savior could live our life and die our death, only such a Savior could conquer death, and only such a Savior could so control events in the world that whatever happened would be according to his will. Only such a Savior could honestly promise his people, “I will be with you wherever you go,” and “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” Only such a Savior could know what it is like to be terrified and be able to do something about it at the same time.
You must have a Savior who is God and man if you are to possess the certainties of the Christian faith and the proof of this is that wherever the doctrine of the person of Jesus Christ as both God and man is tampered with the result is not some other useful form of Christianity but a religion that is the repudiation of biblical faith root and branch.
We preach Christ crucified, Paul wrote, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles… And it was exactly that – foolishness – to these teachers who had made their way into the churches to whom John is writing. They could not conceive of God in human flesh – the idea was ridiculous to them, spirit and matter cannot be joined in that way – or of God suffering; or of God associated with the humiliation of a cross. Such an idea was preposterous they thought. And so they concocted instead a doctrine of Jesus that did not require the man to be God or God the man. In fact, in their view, God came upon the man at his baptism and left him before the cross. He was with Jesus at some points in the ministry, but he had departed Jesus before the crucifixion. But, says John, you know better because the Spirit of God has opened your eyes to see the truth and has taught you that in no other way but by the incarnation, suffering, and death of the Son of God could man be saved from his sin and the death that sin deserves.
You will hear some Christians saying that “doctrine” is not practical, that it stands in the way of real spirituality, that it is head knowledge at the expense of heart knowledge and the like. In our day to a peculiar degree, feelings count more than convictions, impressions more than the truth that is absolute and alone. But no one can say that after reading 1 John 2. Doctrine is a word which means, simply, “teaching”; and what the Bible “teaches” about Jesus Christ and his incarnation is so practical that it separates men between heaven and hell. This doctrine of Jesus is not some intellectual theory; it is our life! Our hope! Our peace! as Sgt. Struecker was to find.
Most of us who have been Christians for a time know people who are interested in doctrine in the abstract, but for whom that teaching does not seem to be a living power in their hearts and lives. They are like a person who is fascinated with maps, with cartography, but who doesn’t like to travel. But doctrine is never for its own sake in the Bible. It is for faith and for life; for peace, for hope, and above all, for love. And no doctrine is more intended for application to the heart than the doctrine of the person of the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
Here then is the third test of true life in Christ. The doctrinal test. Does one hold to the truth about Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God? But, the test is not, says John, merely a measurement of intellectual assent and agreement; but much more of the full engagement of heart and soul with that truth, and still much more, with the Son of God himself.
You do not pass the test if you know the facts only and nod your head at them. You pass the test if those facts have awakened in you a deep and intense commitment not only to that truth, but much more to the One who is that truth.
Some of you know of the films of Paul Schrader. Schrader was a product of a Christian Reformed Church home and a graduate of Calvin College. But he lost his Christian faith and now works in Hollywood. As an influential film writer and director, he tends to portray the darker side of life. Taxi Driver and Mishima are two of his films. Another, starring George C. Scott, is perhaps the most autobiographical of Schrader’s films. In it, Scott plays a man from Grand Rapids, Michigan, a Mr. van Dorn, an elder in the Dutch Reformation Church – a thinly disguised reference to Schrader’s own former church, the Christian Reformed Church. Indeed, the film begins with a Sunday afternoon discussion, around the van Dorn dining room table, about what constitutes the sin against the Holy Spirit. The story of the film is this: van Dorn’s daughter has run away from a “Youth Calvinist Convention” to Hollywood, and there has been sucked into the seamy underworld of pornography. The film is about the father’s efforts to locate and rescue his daughter.
There is a scene in the movie in which van Dorn has a conversation with a prostitute about religion. She is helping him locate his daughter and they are sitting in an airport waiting for a plane and she asks him what he believes. She is a member of the Venusian church, the church of Venus, and believes in “love and reincarnation.” But what does he believe? Well, he believes in TULIP he says; and in a few short sentences explains very poorly and inaccurately, by the way, the acrostic summary of the Calvinist doctrine of salvation. But Schrader makes van Dorn’s explanation stilted, lifeless, and colorless. He is obviously embarrassed discussing religion with this woman and he doesn’t really care about her, as he later admits. And his confession of faith all comes across, as no doubt Schrader intended, as an enumeration of theological principles which are as dry as they are heartless, more like a table of logarithms than a living affirmation of the heart. Facts only, without power or joy or love.
And that is how one ex-member of the Reformed Church thinks about our doctrine. And I do not doubt that there are some in Reformed churches whose grasp of the truth is as devoid of heart, soul, color, life, and fire as was Van Dorn’s in Schrader’s film. After all, Schrader got the idea from somewhere; someone gave him this image of doctrinal, orthodox Christianity that is dry, lifeless and useless.
But that is not what the Apostle John is talking about. True doctrine, yes. Absolutely. The correct view of the incarnation of God the Son and there is only one correct view. Other views are lies. But this truth is so wonderful, so grand, so exhilarating, that one has not truly grasped it unless it has also gripped him or her, unless it is not only accepted intellectually, but woven into the fabric of daily life, and unless it has set the Christian after the Lord Jesus himself, to walk with him in joy and love, to depend upon his presence until his power becomes life itself to us. That is why the doctrinal test, the test of true faith in Jesus Christ as both God and Man, stands side by side with the moral test and the social test. They cannot be isolated from one another. The Christian faith in Jesus becomes a life of obedience to him in love because that’s who Jesus is and that’s what Jesus did.
Here then is the third great test of genuineness in the Christian life; does a person so hold to the truth which God has revealed in his Word about his incarnate Son, that he or she not only believes it, but practices it, and, still more, loves the Lord Jesus for it and loves others in his name. This faith in Jesus, this knowledge of him is life-changing, heart stirring, love compelling, must be, always, because of who Jesus is and what Jesus did.