We have been away from First John for a month and a half, so let me remind you where we are in the argument of the letter. In the verses we are about to read, John will finish the second cycle of comment on the three “tests of life.” There are three ways to tell the difference between a true Christian, an authentic child of God, on the one hand, and a person who is a Christian only in name, by profession or claim, on the other. The first test is that of obedience – the true disciple of Christ keeps his commandments – the second is the test of love – the true Christian loves his Christian brothers and sisters, there is a bond that the Spirit of God forges between, the love of Christ becomes a power in individuals life and finds expression in the love of others – and the third test is that of doctrine – the true believer accepts the apostolic witness concerning Jesus and incorporates that teaching into his way of thought and life. We have called these three tests the moral test, the social test, and the doctrinal test. By the beginning of chapter 4 John has explained each of the three tests once and the moral and social test twice. Now he returns a second time to the doctrinal test: the test of fidelity to the truth about Jesus the Christ.
John seems to be saying that behind every human teacher is a spirit and behind each spirit stands either God himself or the Devil. He doesn’t mention the Devil here, but in a similar context he mentioned him earlier in 2:8, 10-11 and will mention him again in 5:18-19. To test the human prophet, therefore, was, in effect, to test the spirit by whom the prophet spoke. [Bruce, 104]
The thinking that was proving attractive in some circles of the Christian church in the later years of the first century would later be termed “docetism,” from the Greek verb that means “to seem” or “to appear.” The idea was taught in various forms but the central thought was that Jesus only seemed or appeared to be a man. The notion that he became a true human being, with a physical body and a physical life, was repugnant to many people of the time. The reason was that in the prevailing philosophical culture of the day, the “prevalent climate of opinion,” [Bruce, 106] it was thought that the physical or material stuff of life was held to be the inferior and unworthy part of humanity and the source of all mankind’s troubles. It was the part that dragged you down. It was the part from which all of your moral and spiritual failings came. Therefore, in the nature of the case, God would have nothing to do with the physical, the bodily part of humanity and would have preserved himself from taint by association with it. Therefore they found it difficult, if not impossible, to believe that God could have become a human being. That was virtually in their view the same thing as saying that God had become a sinful, inferior, unworthy thing or person. John will have nothing of that. He uses a strong word “flesh” to describe what Jesus came from heaven to be. Flesh is a term that highlights the physical nature of humanity. The power of this first century way of thinking is hard for us to grasp because our philosophical culture in the modern West is so very different. In a materialist age like ours, in an age when men and women worship the body and care much less for the soul our problem is not believing that Christ had a body or that he was truly man, but much more that he was truly God.
John has referred to “antichrist” before in 2:18. There are many who stand against Christ in this world even now and they anticipate the one figure at the end of history who will be the great embodiment of human opposition to the reign and the kingdom of the Lord Jesus.
“Overcome them” means, in context, that they have not been deceived by these false teachers or the spirits behind them. They have compared their teaching to the apostolic witness and found it wanting. The “one who is in you” is the Holy Spirit as we learn in v. 6. He had imparted to them a spiritual instinct enabling them to recognize the truth and distinguish it from error (2:20).
The false prophets were, as they are today, simply packaging a worldly way of thinking in Christian dress. This is worldliness in its deepest and most dangerous form: the restatement or repackaging of the gospel in terms congenial to contemporary fashion. That is why their teaching is popular: it is familiar to people, it makes sense to them, and it doesn’t threaten the worldview with which they have grown comfortable. But, of course, fashions change and lose their appeal. The gospel does not. We live in a very different world of thought than Christians did in the first century, but the gospel remains precisely the same now as then.
What we have here is first an appeal by John to the apostolic witness regarding Jesus of Nazareth as both God and man, or, as we are want to say, to the reality of the incarnation: God becoming man for man’s salvation. How could we know this to be so? How could we know that the creator of heaven and earth has taken to himself a fully authentic human nature? How could we be confident that such a marvelous and mysterious thing has happened? Because the apostles and prophets, those who were appointed by Christ himself to deliver this message, and whose authority was confirmed by many works of divine power, these men have told us that it is so. There are many other reasons to believe the gospel, but this is the first: the truth about Jesus was taught, was given to the world by men who were the eyewitnesses of the Lord’s ministry, his miracles, heard all his sermons, saw him throughout the course of three years of his life and then were witnesses supremely of his resurrection from the dead, and who themselves wielded his divine power in their own ministries. Their teaching, their message became in that way the benchmark against which all other teaching is to be measured and judged true or false.
It is perfectly plain from Holy Scripture that the apostles were immediately commissioned by Jesus Christ to make a full and authoritative revelation of his religion, to organize the church, to furnish it with officers and laws, and to start it on its course of conquest through the world. They are an isolated body in the history of the church, without predecessors or successors, just as Christ is himself. They disappear from history. Their title, their gifts and authority, their functions all disappeared when the last of them, likely the Apostle John himself, died. But the deposit they laid down, the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, that endures and will endure forever. And any teaching that in any way whatsoever diverges from that apostolic foundation is and must be false and so dangerous to souls.
Second, John lays great emphasis on the incarnation as fundamental to Christian faith and life. He is as much as saying get this wrong and you cannot be right in the rest. Get this wrong and you cannot be a Christian. How else could we interpret his statement that anyone who does not confess Jesus as God come in the flesh is not from God?
None of that is particularly controversial for us, of course. We believe in the incarnate God. We deny that Jesus only appeared to be a man. We rejoice in the central affirmation of the gospel that God the Son came not to be served but to serve and give his life a ransom for many. But, that being so, it is well for us not to hurry on but to pause to ponder what John says here in a polemical context to brethren who were facing a very real challenge to the apostolic witness to a real, historical incarnation. It is particularly important for us to consider carefully once again how fundamental all of this is to us and to everything we are and must become as Christians.
Some of you, I’m sure, have read George MacDonald’s novel Thomas Wingfold, Curate. Originally published in 1876 it is a moving story of a young Anglican minister in an English village parish. Like many Anglican ministers of his day, Thomas Wingfold entered the ministry because it was an honorable profession for a university educated man, because it would provide him with a decent living, and because his family and friends had thought it a good choice. They thought he was well-suited for the work of a parish priest. He had no theological convictions about it; he had no sense of divine call. It was a profession, a job. Indeed, as was common of men in his situation, he hardly ever thought about religious questions. He merely read the Sunday morning service of the Book of Common Prayer and performed the other responsibilities of a parish minister: baptisms, marriage, funerals and the like. His sermons he borrowed, without acknowledgement, from others with no thought whatsoever of the ethics involved. It was standard practice among Anglican curates in those days.
But one fateful day, Wingfold fell into conversation with a young lawyer, a man of the world, a sophisticated modern man of his time, who was proud of how little he believed of the doctrine of the church of which his own father had been a minister.
“‘Now, I am going to be honest with you,’ replied Bascombe abruptly, taking the cigar from his mouth. He stopped and turned toward his companion. ‘I like you,’ Bascombe went on, ‘for you seem reasonable. And, besides, a man ought to speak out of what he thinks. So here goes! Tell me honestly, do you really believe one word of all that?’
As he spoke he pointed in the direction of the great tower.
The curate was taken by surprise and made no answer. It was as if he had received a sudden blow in the face. Recovering himself presently, however, he sought room to pass the question without direct encounter.
‘How did the thing come to be there?’ Wingfold countered pointing to the church tower.
‘By faith, no doubt,’ answered Bascombe, laughing, ‘– but not your faith. No, nor the faith of any of the last few generations.’
‘How can you say there is no faith in these recent generations? There are more churches built now, ten times over, than in any former period of our history,’ protested Thomas.
‘Churches, yes,’ replied Bascombe. ‘But faith – I’m not so sure. Just because there’s a church standing somewhere doesn’t mean there’s faith inside its walls. And what sort of churches are they you refer to? All imitations. You are indebted to your forefathers for your would-be belief, as well as for whatever may be genuine in your churches. You hardly know what your belief is. Take my aunt – as good a specimen as I know of what you call a Christian! Yet she thinks and speaks no differently than those you would refer to as heathens.’
‘In truth,’ he continued, ‘I do not believe that even you believe more than an atom here and there of what you profess. I am confident you have a great deal more good sense than to believe it.’
‘…But, come now – did you not come to the church and become a clergy man merely as a profession, as a means to earn your bread?’
Wingfold did not answer. This was precisely the reason he had signed the articles and sought holy orders. He had never entertained a single question as to the truth or reality in either act.”
In MacDonald’s story that conversation proved to be an epoch in the life of Thomas Wingfold. From that moment on the young curate’s life was dominated by a single question: was Christianity true or not? Was Jesus Christ the Son of God and the Savior of the world or not? With the help of a few of his parishioners, who knew what their minister did not, he began to make his way slowly and haltingly to Christian faith. And his sermons, as a result, became more original, more honest, more ardent, more serious, more biblical, and more Christian, to the disgust of many of his hearers, to the amusement of others, and to the liberation and salvation of still others.
Until, at the end of the story, Wingfold is the very antithesis of what he once was: the indifferent, inoffensive, and irrelevant minister filling his post and receiving his pay. Now mastered by the truth of Jesus Christ as he had discovered it, he spoke to his congregation this way.
“You have borne with me in my trials, and I thank you. One word more to those who call themselves Christians among you but who, as I so recently did myself, present such a withered idea of Christianity that they cause the truth to hang its head rather than ride forth on a white horse to conquer the world for Jesus. You dull the luster of the truth in the eyes of men. You do not represent that which it is, but yet you call yourselves by its name. You are not the salt of the earth, but a salt that has lost its savor. I say these things not to judge you, for I was one of you such a short time ago. But I say to you simply, it is time to awake! Until you repent and believe afresh; believe in a nobler Christ, name the Christ of history and the Christ of the Bible rather than the vague form which false interpretations of men have substituted for him – until you believe in him rightly you will continue to be the main reason why faith is so scanty on the earth. And whether you do in some sense believe or not, one fact remains – while you are not a Christian who obeys the word of the master, doing the things he says rather than merely listening to them, talking about them, and holding certain opinions about them, then you will remain one of those to whom he will say, ‘I never knew you; go forth into outer darkness.’
But what unspeakable joy and contentment awaits you when you, like St. Paul, can be crucified with Christ, to live no more from your own self but to be thereafter possessed with the same faith toward the Father in which Jesus lived and did the will of the Father. Truly our destiny is a glorious one – because we have a God supremely grand, all-perfect. Unity with him alone can be the absolute bliss for which we were created. Therefore, I say to you, as I say to myself: awaken you spirits, and give your hearts and souls to him! For this you were created by him, and to this we are called – every one.”
A great story and a true story because, though it is fiction, it concerns things that are absolutely true! What is more, as we will see, it tells a story that has in fact happened many times. But here is my point. John has said, in effect, that we ought to be able to tell who the real Christians are. The moral test assumes that there is a discernible difference between those who love and obey the commandments of God and those who do not. The social test assumes that one can tell whether a person loves the people of God. Otherwise of what use could these tests be? They would tell us nothing. They would not distinguish between genuine and spurious faith. They would not be tests, in other words because they would reveal nothing to us.
Well, in a similar way, the doctrinal test must be such as makes obvious such a distinction. Does one really believe that Jesus is God come in the flesh? It is the critical question. There are others, of course. But this one is more fundamental than all the others. Everything else in the gospel rests upon it and comes after it.
John makes this the doctrinal test not only because false teaching regarding the incarnation had surfaced in the church and had to be contradicted but because, even more than the cross, even more than salvation by grace, even more than the resurrection, even more than justification by faith, everything depends upon a right understanding of the person of Jesus himself, who he is. Get that wrong and everything else must go wrong. Everything we know about salvation, every part of the good news, depends upon Jesus being at one and the same time Almighty God and a true and genuine human being like ourselves except for sin. This Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, is the gospel, the good news! Without the incarnation there would have been no cross, no empty tomb, and no good news to proclaim to the world about eternal life, life beyond the grave. This great miracle, this wonder is at the bottom of our faith and everything else rests upon it. It is the bedrock of any and all authentic Christian faith.
Surely, then, if a person really believes this, it must make an immense difference in his or her life. Surely it must. How could it not? So the question becomes: do we really believe this? Or are we paying lip service to something we have never truly embraced for ourselves?
Sometimes I think that I must not believe it; little difference as it sometimes makes in the way I live, with what faith, with what wonder, with what excitement and gladness and gratitude, with what sense of obligation. But then the mists part, the light of the glory of Christ shines upon me and within me once again and I know for a certainty that the incarnation is not only a fact of history, but it is the fact of history and therefore the fact of my own life and any other human life. This is the fact by which all other facts must be weighed and their importance and meaning judged. This is the truth by which all human life will some day be measured. This is a fact that, therefore, must rule our lives!
Here is John’s point. No one should have to wonder if we believe that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. “Has come,” that is, has come from heaven. “In the flesh” that is, that the one who came from heaven became a true human being in every sense save for sin. This is a historical truth so immense in its significance, so wonderful in its consequence, so breathtaking in its genius and its captivating beauty, that anyone who believes it, really believes it, should find it writ large over every day of his or her life, over the thoughts we think, the words we speak, and the deeds we perform. No one who believes in Jesus as God come in the flesh will rejoice in this world in the same way as one who does not believe. No one who believes in the incarnation will suffer their trials of life in the same way as one who does not. No one who believes in the incarnation will live his or her life for the same reasons or with the same passion as one who does not believe it. This truth looms, or should loom over all the comings and goings of our lives making them something very different than they would otherwise be had God not become man, had Christ Jesus not been God and Man, had God not provided eternal life through his Son.
Because they believed it, these Christians not only drove away the false teachers who came denying the incarnation, but they loved one another deeply and committed themselves to keep all of God’s commandments. And the fact and doctrine of the incarnation should have the same effect upon us.
George MacDonald’s Thomas Wingfold, Curate is a work of fiction, however perceptive, however accurately it described the world of Victorian Anglicanism. But MacDonald might as well have written a biography of another Anglican minister. I have told some of you before about William Haslam. I would be interested to know if George MacDonald had heard of Haslam before he wrote Thomas Wingfold. I wonder. I suspect he probably had. Haslam was very like MacDonald’s country curate. He had been ordained to the Anglican ministry without any personal faith of his own and was, predictably, largely a failure as a pastor. In fact, he had become a pastor not because he felt any particular call to such work but because he was university-educated and his doctor thought the bracing air of Cornwall’s north coast would be good for his chronic poor health and there was a Cornwall curacy in need of a man. The pastorate was a job for a university man and he needed a job. He read the daily and Sunday services from the Prayer Book, administered the sacraments according to the established forms, but, otherwise he had little to offer his parishioners. A number of them were genuine Christians and took some offense to the fact that – like MacDonald’s character Wingfold – Haslam usually read someone else’s sermon, usually one of John Henry Newman, the high church Anglican who would soon leave the Church of England for Rome.
Some three years later Haslam was given a new parish not far away and it was for what happened there in October, 1851, twenty-five years before Thomas Wingfold was published, that William Haslam’s name would go down in history. Shortly after taking the new post Haslam visited a nearby minister and that man spoke directly of the gospel and the Christian ministry in ways that forced upon Haslam the realization that was not a Christian like this man was and that he did not have the living faith that this man had. A few days later he was in his own pulpit explaining to a full church the text from Matthew 16: “What think ye of the Christ? or, as the modern translations have it, “Who do you say that I am?” He pointed out from the text that the Pharisees had been condemned because they had failed to believe that Christ had come from heaven to save them from their sins. As he preached about what others thought of Christ he realized for the first time that he had never really believed this of Jesus either. But as he continued with his sermon he saw the truth more and more clearly and the glory of the gospel began to shine in his heart. He explains in his autobiography what happened next.
“I do not remember all that I said, but I felt a wonderful light and joy coming into my soul… Whether it was something in my words, or my manner, or my look, I know not; but all of a sudden a local preacher, who happened to be in the congregation, stood up, and putting up his arms, shouted out as only a Cornishman can, ‘the parson’s converted! The parson’s converted! Hallelujah!’ And in another moment his voice was lost in the shouts and praises of three or four hundred of the congregation.”
And so William Haslam has gone down in history as the preacher converted by his own sermon! You may be interested to know that one Percy Stott, another Anglican minister of the 19th century and the great uncle of John Stott, one of the most important evangelical churchmen of recent years, whose books many of us have read with great profit, was also an Anglican vicar before he was a real Christian and was led to real faith in Christ by none other than William Haslam! [T. Dudley-Smith, John Stott, i, 24-25] But you see the point: to realize, really to realize that Jesus of Nazareth is God come in the flesh for your salvation, is to change one’s life root and branch. It certainly did Haslam’s. For the next three years his ministry had wonderful power in his parish and many came to living faith in Christ. And he spent the rest of his life in the service of the gospel he had come to believe that October Sunday in 1851. No one thereafter wondered if William Haslam believed that Jesus Christ was God come in the flesh!
Here is John’s third test: the doctrinal test. Not simply an intellectual assent to the doctrine that God the Son became a man. Not merely a mental agreement with the history of the incarnation, but the embrace of it; believing it, standing upon it, loving it, rejoicing over it, and telling it to others as the thing they most need to know and believe.
Here is a calling for the new year. To be a person over whose life the incarnation of the Son of God is writ large; a person who never enters an acquaintance without the intention of telling the new friend of God’s love for sinners in Jesus Christ, of his coming in the flesh to give his life for sinners. To live a life the foundation of which is the history of God coming in the flesh: the wonder and genius and beauty of the incarnation, the love behind it, and the saving power in it. To live, to speak, and to act in such a way that anyone can tell and many will notice that you are all about the fact that “Jesus of Nazareth is God come in the flesh.” For you, everything harks back to that single fact and everything comes from it.
If the history of the church teaches us anything it is that people like that are a force in this world! Not for us to be among those who cause the truth to hang its head rather than ride forth on a white horse to conquer the world for Jesus!