Scripture: 1 John 2:18-27
A few weeks ago, I noticed for the first time a beautiful hutch, near the sanctuary, displaying Bibles, antique books, and mementos related to our church and its history. Inside this hutch, next to a 1914 edition of the Methodist Book of Discipline, was this particular book: Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, copyright 1906.
Maybe that title by itself doesn’t mean anything to you, but suppose I told you it was written by Mary Baker Eddy?
For some of you, that raises a red flag. Baker Eddy is the founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist, or Christian Science church. So this is literature that is published, quite literally, by a cult—part of what’s called the “New Thought” movement of the late-nineteenth century.
The spine of the book says this is the “Authorized Edition,” so you can be confident that this is 100 percent false teaching, with no mixture of truth! It also says “Sunday School Edition” on front, but we’re not going to be using this in Sunday school, I assure you.
Christian Science teaches, for example, that things like pain and suffering, sickness and disease, aren’t real; they’re an illusion. And we can overcome them with the power of our minds. So Christian Scientists reject the practice of medicine. Worse, they believe that Jesus was a mere human, who, as an adult, embodied “the Christ”—whatever that means. And it teaches that we can become Christs, as well.1
As I glance through this book, I see that it uses Christian language and vocabulary. It talks a lot about Jesus Christ and the apostles; it refers to scripture constantly.
And that’s one hallmark of cults and false teachers—be they Christian scientists, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Mormons, or New Agers: They want to sort of sneak in under the radar, to blend in, to camouflage themselves as just another Christian denomination. And once you let your guard down, then they want to share with you some additional revelation from God, one that the founder of this particular religious movement received… they say they want to add to your understanding of Christianity… which always… by the way, means taking something away from Jesus… diminishing Jesus… denying that Jesus is God incarnate… denying that he is both fully God and, at the same time, fully human.
This is precisely what’s happening in the churches to which John is writing in today’s scripture.
You may recall the first week of this series on 1 John, I said that John was writing this letter in part because of a controversy involving false teachers. Most scholars believe that the particular heresy that these teachers were promoting was an early form of Gnosticism.
Among many other things, Gnostics believed that Jesus was only human, not God. They believed that the divine Christ, who was a spirit, descended on the human Jesus at his baptism, and then left him before he suffered on the cross—so they were teaching that Jesus was not God and God did not become human. Because of their false teaching, they were told them to repent or leave. And they left.
And on their way out the door, they likely told the Christians in the church, “Come join our new church! We know the real Jesus! If you want to know the real Jesus the way we know him, come join our church.”
So these false teachers had confused and unsettled some members of John’s churches. And as I said three weeks ago, that’s why John was writing—to reassure these Christians that, in fact, they do know the real Jesus—and that these false teachers are wrong.
But not only wrong, John says. They are antichrists.
Look at verse 18: “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour.”
First, what does John mean when he says, “it is the last hour”? According to scripture, we are, at this moment, living in the last hour, or the “last days” or “the end of the ages.” Listen to Peter, preaching a sermon on Pentecost in Acts 2:16-17:
But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh…
We will be looking at that scripture next week on Pentecost Sunday.
Or Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10:11:
Now these things happened to them [people in the Old Testament] as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.
Or the author of Hebrews in Hebrews 1:1-2:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…
Or the apostle Peter, in 1 Peter 1:20:
[Christ] was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you…
Biblically speaking, we are in the last days now. We are in the last times now. We are at the end of the ages now. We are in the last hour now… It started when Christ came the first time.
And lest we think it’s been an unusually long time for us to be living in the “last days” or the “last hour,” we need to heed Peter’s words in 2 Peter chapter 3:
[S]coffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”… But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.2
My point is, from God’s perspective, the church has been waiting less than two days for Christ to return!
But for John, one characteristic of living in this time between Christ’s first coming and his second coming, is the appearance of what he calls antichrists. I’m guessing you’ve heard that word before—just maybe not in a Methodist church! Anyway, the only place that the word shows up in the Bible is in John’s letters. Three times in 1 John and once in 2 John.
But the antichrists are spoken of by Jesus himself in Matthew chapter 24, verses 5 and 24:
“For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray… For false christs and false prophets”—the same ones John refers to as antichrists—“will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”
Near the end of the first century, according to John, they were already appearing. And the Bible warns that their activity will only increase the closer we get to the Second Coming.
But based on what John writes in verse 18, it sounds like his readers weren’t expecting there to be many “little” antichrists; they were only expecting one “big” Antichrist. As he says, “you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come.”
And make no mistake, the Bible does say that there will one “big” Antichrist near the time of the Second Coming; this isn’t something that the writers and producers of the Left Behind series made up, or Hal Lindsey made up with his 1970s bestseller The Late Great Planet Earth. It comes from at least two places in the New Testament—Revelation 13 refers to the “big” Antichrist as “the beast.” And Paul writes most extensively about him in 2 Thessalonians chapter 2. He calls the “big” Antichrist “the man of lawlessness.”
The coming of the “big” Antichrist is one of two important events have to happen first. The first event, however, is that there will be a great apostasy. That means that an unusually large number of people in the church will fall away from the faith. They will be deceived. They will abandon the faith. Then, Paul writes, the “man of lawlessness” will appear. He will deceive many, he will perform signs and wonders, and he will be some kind of powerful, charismatic political and religious leader.
But both Jesus and John teach that smaller “antichrists” will foreshadow and anticipate the work of the one big Antichrist. In other words, the little antichrists will perform on a small scale what the “big” Antichrist will perform on a larger scale.
And I know that Hollywood has gotten into the act, and there are movies about the Second Coming that feature the Antichrist, and Christians have often been distracted trying to identify this particular person, or that particular person, as the Antichrist… going all the way back to Roman emperors.
I don’t think we should get distracted by this kind of speculation… first because we’ll probably be proven wrong, and second, if John is right—and he is—we may be so distracted speculating about the “big” Antichrist that we miss the little antichrists that are all around us! Later, in 1 John 4:3, John says that the “spirit of antichrist” is in the world already.
Do we see evidence of the “spirit of antichrist” in our world? Without question. I have experienced this spirit in a personal and painful way.
I actually blogged and tweeted about this experience a couple of years ago, so it’s no secret. I also mentioned it to a group of you in one of my Wednesday night Bible studies.
Back in 2006, I was a student at the Candler School of Theology, our official United Methodist seminary at Emory in Atlanta. I took an elective—it was a “missions” class, as I recall—taught by the most popular professor in the school, who was himself an ordained Anglican minister from India. Like many professors at Candler, unfortunately, he embraced universalism—the idea that Christ is only one of many ways to get to God… that many world religions—in spite of their differences—reveal the same God… so we shouldn’t worry much about evangelism.
This was literally a world missions class!
But this professor was not merely a “universalist,” as troubling as that false doctrine is; he took it a step further. He took the members of his class on a field trip to the Hindu temple in Riverdale, just south of the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. While we were there, this professor invited dozens of us fellow future United Methodist clergy—myself included—to take turns offering “sacrifice”—of bananas and grapes—to a literal idol, which stood above an altar in the sanctuary of this temple. He did not force us to do it. But out of a class of 50 or so, all but three or four did it.
We handed our offering to a Hindu priest who then rang a bell—or something like that—as a way of indicating that the god had accepted our sacrifice.
From the professor’s point of view—and what he had been brainwashing us about for the entire semester—from his point of view our behavior wasn’t a sin because the god to whom we were sacrificing was really the same God that we Christians believe in.
Do you get the picture: As part of my training to become a Christian minister, I was asked to break in the most literal way the first two of the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me,” and “Don’t worship idols.” I mean, we often talk about breaking those commandments in a figurative way—like, “I worship money,” or “I’ve made an idol out of my career or my spouse.” But that’s not even what we’re talking about here! We’re talking about worshiping actual idols in a pagan temple!
Think about it: Paul warns Christians in Corinth to not even go inside idol temples, much less take part in pagan worship, because there are demonic forces working through the idols themselves… and here I stood, alongside dozens of future Methodist clergy, offering a sacrifice to an idol!
And this professor had been at Candler for decades… how many thousands—that’s a conservative estimate—how many thousands of future UMC clergy—like myself—took part in this same idolatrous exercise, this same blasphemy? And what kind of spiritual or demonic harm can come from this behavior? And remember: most of us ordained clergy in North Georgia went to Candler. We were trained at Candler! What affect does that have on us?
And I was soon to appear before the Board of Ordained Ministry to be commissioned as a provisional elder in our United Methodist Church. I passed with flying colors! But I should have been disqualified! They should have asked me two questions: “Did you take this class? Did you bow down to that idol? Come back and see us after you repent!” Of course, it’s likely that at least several members of the board had been through this same class and had taken part in that same experience!
Do we wonder why our denomination has been hemorrhaging members for 50 years…? Do we wonder why our North Georgia Conference has been hemorrhaging members for years? Do we wonder why we’re ineffectual at fulfilling the Great Commission? Do we wonder why the United Methodist Church is on the brink of splitting up?
Is it because too many of us pastors and church leaders think that sin—even the literal breaking of the first two commandments—isn’t a deal? Because we have no fear of God? Because we think that Jesus is just one option among many options to get to heaven—he’s only one path to eternal life among many paths. Because it doesn’t really matter so much whether we follow Jesus or Buddha or Muhammed or Vishnu or Brahma or Joseph Smith or Mary Baker Eddy… because after all, all these paths, all these teachers, all these gods lead to the same destination?
Is it because we don’t really believe that apostle John when he warns us in verse 23, “No one who denies the Son has the Father.” Or Jesus when he says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”3 Or the apostle Peter when he says, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”4
And we certainly don’t pay attention to Paul’s warning to the Galatians:
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.5
Paul is calling a curse on himself, saying, “Let me be damned to hell if I preach a gospel other than the one I first preached to you!” “If I am not faithful to the gospel revealed in the words of this book, let me be accursed.” He spoke in those strong, uncompromising terms because he understood exactly what was at stake: If people don’t hear the one true gospel as revealed in God’s Word, they will not find Jesus, and they will go to hell! The stakes couldn’t be higher!
And yet nineteen centuries later, we pastors often act as if we know something that Jesus and the apostles and writers of the New Testament didn’t know… as if we know something that God the Holy Spirit, who guided and breathed out the words the apostles wrote,6 didn’t know?
It’s insane! I must have lost my mind 15 years ago… Thank God I didn’t lose my soul! I have long since repented!
By the way, when I tweeted and blogged about my experience at Candler, one prominent United Methodist layperson told me that when he was a teenager, growing up in metro Atlanta, Candler sponsored a summer theology camp for Methodist youth. And as a good Methodist kid, he signed up—and this same professor I mentioned earlier took impressionable Christian teenagers to the Hindu temple and had them take part in the very same idolatrous exercise!
What does Jesus say? “But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Matthew 18:6.
This United Methodist lay leader said, “I had forgotten all about that experience until I saw your tweet! I can’t believe I did that!”
Brothers and sisters, I can’t believe I did that, either! All I can say is, at the time… this kind of activity seemed perfectly okay… perfectly normal… like no big deal… like… the evil was so subtle I didn’t even see it coming! And John wants us to know that this is the way Satan works through people! He “disguises himself as an angel of light,” Paul says. This apostasy, this falling away from the orthodox Christian faith, which I mentioned earlier, never seems like such a big deal when it’s happening! Satan’s deception will always try to make us think that our apostasy is good and right and just when it’s happening.
If that’s not the spirit of antichrist that John is talking about in today’s scripture, what is?
Because please notice that the antichrists whom John mentions in today’s scripture started inside the church… They were at first indistinguishable from other Christians. And they led people astray… It happened 2,000 years ago; it happens today. And the Bible warns that it will happen in the church with greater frequency before Christ returns. It’s deadly dangerous. So we must be on guard! We need to protect ourselves.
And John tells us how we can do that in today’s scripture.
Two weeks ago I mentioned two of the three tests that John gives us to determine whether or not we are genuinely Christian. First, the righteousness test: “Are we faithful in obeying Christ’s commandments.” 1 John 2:3. Second, the ethical test: “Are we loving others with Christlike love?” 1 John 2:5 and 6. Finally, the third test is described in today’s scripture, verses 24 and 25:
“Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you”—there’s the test—if what you heard abides in you!—then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life.
This is what commentators call the “test of doctrine.” If we are genuine believers in Christ, if we have eternal life, if we are saved, we will hold fast to the infallible, God-breathed apostolic teaching contained in this book. It doesn’t change. As Jude says in Jude 3, “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write, appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”
Who doesn’t think that we are living in an age in which we must once again “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered.” Or do we not love and want to save those who are lost and in need of a Savior?
The faith that was once for all delivered. In other words, contrary to false teachers like Mary Baker Eddy, whom I mentioned earlier, there’s nothing new to be added to the faith. There’s nothing that someone living in the 21st century knows or understands about the Christian faith that the apostles didn’t and that God the Holy Spirit didn’t also guide them to write down. Everything we need to know is right here in this book.
Let me make two quick observations:
First, this test of doctrine—which means faithfulness to God’s Word—doesn’t mean that we will automatically understand everything written here. But we will be willing to pray, “Lord, I don’t understand this passage of scripture; it bothers me. But… since your Spirit breathed out these words, according to 2 Timothy 3:16-17, I’m trusting you to show me what it means and how it applies to my life. Even more, because I know you’re good, and you love me, and you’re all-powerful, therefore I believe you wouldn’t lie to me or mislead me. I know these words are true.”
Second, this “test of doctrine” is so much more than dry, intellectual beliefs. I mean, if that were the case, then Satan himself would pass the test. Satan knows from first hand experience that every line of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed is true.
So this “test of doctrine” isn’t merely up here, in your head. It’s also right here, in your heart.
Because unlike the devil, you not only affirm that God’s Word is true, you abide in his Word… which means his Word is precious to you… In part because through this Word you get to know Jesus… personally… he speaks to you… personally… “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me,”7 he says. You listen to Jesus speak to you through his Word, and Jesus becomes precious to you. You fall in love with Jesus, and your love grows deeper and stronger. You learn to love him more than you love anyone else. You learn to treasure him above everything else.
See, the best reason of all to make sure you pass John’s “test of doctrine” and abide in God’s Word is that you get to experience more of Jesus.
You don’t get that if you’re being “tossed to and fro by the waves,” Paul says, “and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”8
That’s what was happening to me back in 2006—when I was so lost and confused about the truthfulness and authority of God’s Word that I thought it was okay to walk into a pagan temple and participate in idolatry!
But abiding in God’s Word—and as a result, knowing Jesus the way I know him now—is a million times better than what I knew or possessed or experienced back then—when I wasn’t abiding in the Word.
Brothers and sisters, that’s all I want for you… that you would know Jesus like I do! Or know him better than I do! Know him at least as well as I do! But if you know him at least as well as I do, you’ll know that he’s the greatest thing ever! I just want you to have the greatest thing ever! And God is showing us the way right here! Amen.