By This You Know
"By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God." (I John 4:2)
That's a pretty simple sentence. Other than "spirit," "Jesus," and "confesses," every word in the verse has just a single syllable.
And yet, when these simple words were written, they answered troubling questions, questions that were causing confusion and division on the Church of the first century. Today, those same short words have the same enormous power to resolve difficulties and divisions in the Church of the 21st century.
Reading "that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh" during this first week of Advent, may instinctively turn our thoughts to the doctrine of the Incarnation. That's an understandable, indeed a desirable, association. But in these few paragraphs, I want to focus on the words that come before John's affirmation of the Incarnation: "By this you know the Spirit of God."
John likely wrote his first letter near the end of the first Christian century. At this time, false teachers were insisting that Jesus wasn't God Incarnate. They declared that the God who created the heavens and the earth couldn't become part of his creation. According to these "false prophets" (I John 4:1), what Jesus' disciples (including John) saw when they thought they were looking at Jesus was only an apparition, an illusion, not a flesh and blood human being.
This public denial that Jesus had come in the flesh was causing confusion and division in the church. How could the average Christian know who to believe? Was there any way to be sure which teaching was true?
Those are questions that still resonate in Christian congregations today. There are many, many people - in pulpits and Sunday school classrooms, on television and the Internet - teaching many, many things about Jesus. Much of their teaching sounds sincere, quite reasonable and rational. But is it true? How can we be sure?
We hear people say that Jesus was a great moral teacher, and indeed he was. His teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, which amplify those found in the Ten Commandments, are foundational to the ethical system of most of Western Culture. But was Jesus God in human flesh? No, many of these same teachers insist, he was a good person, a good teacher, but not God.
Others today teach that Jesus was an exceptional example of "God-consciousness," that he was aware of God's presence to a degree that should inspire the rest of us to be more alert to God's presence in our own lives. But, they teach that awareness was simply a difference of quantity, not quality. Jesus was aware of God, but he was not God.
Sadly, in recent decades, many in our congregations have fallen under the spell of these and similar false prophets. They have lost sight of, if in fact they ever learned, the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, which John explained in the prologue of his gospel:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." (John 1:1, 14).
Was Jesus simply a good human teacher or did his teaching have authority because he was God. Was Jesus simply more aware of God's presence than the rest of us or was his unique awareness of God a function of the fact that he was God?
How do we know who to believe? John answers:
"1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. ... 5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error." (I John 6:1-6)
As God's chosen people, as those God has called into eternal fellowship with him, Christians have not only the right but the obligation to test the spirits, to ask whether what we are hearing and seeing and reading comes from a God's Holy Spirit or from the unholy spirits at work in the world today.
You and I don't have to suffer the doubts and divisions that have troubled Christian congregations from earliest days of the church. We can have the assurance God intends and desires for each of his children.
By this we know!
We know by listening for the Spirit of God speaking in and through every pastor and Sunday school teacher, every television personality and Internet expert: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.
May we listen for God's spirit, and rest in his assurance, this Advent season and always.
Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.
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