Unlike certain earlier parts of this letter, John’s argument here is very simple, and very clear. It’s also critically important. As we’ve seen, the purpose of his letter is to keep his audience from being led astray by false teachers who have left the church to preach a false version of Christianity; he has drawn a sharp line between those who walk in the light of God and those who don’t, and made it clear that those who walk in the light are those who are filled with the love of God, and those who don’t, aren’t. In our passage last week—of which we’ve included the last couple verses again this morning, as John once again links his argument very closely—he gave us the standard for what the love of God looks like: Jesus Christ, and most particularly his death on the cross for us. Love is not just anything that calls itself love, it’s something that looks like Jesus.
And here, he gathers that point up, binds it together with his earlier observation that the false teachers are false because their teaching denies Christ, sharpens it all into a spike, and drives it home. You want to know who to follow and who not to follow? One simple rule: anyone who is all about Jesus Christ, first, last, and always, is from God. Anyone who isn’t, even if they use the name of Jesus Christ, is not from God. Period.
It doesn’t matter if you were born in the church and your name was on the membership rolls three weeks before you drew breath; it doesn’t matter if you have a perfect-attendance badge in Sunday school going all the way back to your days in the nursery. It doesn’t matter if you’re an elder, a deacon, a pastor, a professor; it doesn’t matter if you work in a building that calls itself a church and holds services every Sunday morning. It doesn’t matter if you’re part of a denomination that’s been calling itself a church for 500 years, or 2000 years. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written books for Christian publishers, articles for Christian magazines, songs for Christian record companies, or greeting cards for Christian bookstores, or showed up on Christian TV programs to talk about any or all of them. If your primary purpose isn’t to point people to Jesus Christ, to encourage them to put their faith in Jesus alone to follow Christ alone, then you do not acknowledge him, you’re only trying to make use of him for your own purposes; and if that’s the case, then you are not from God, and you are not speaking by the Spirit of God.
Now, again, John isn’t expecting perfection here, and none of us do this perfectly; we all have ulterior motives that creep in at various places. We need to keep after them, cutting them back and digging them up, but they do not disqualify us. The key is, what are we trying to do first and foremost—what is our goal? What are we really on about, and what is essential about what we do and why?
You know, I certainly hope that y’all will invite people to come, and they’ll keep coming and invite others, and that some who are outside the church will come, and hear the gospel, and bow before Jesus as Savior and Lord, and in their turn invite others, and so on and so forth; I certainly hope that this church will grow, and it would be nice if it grew enough that the giving was high enough to support all the ministries we do, so that we didn’t have to keep selling off assets to pay the bills. That would be nice, and there’s nothing wrong in hoping for it. But if I start to make that the purpose of my preaching, if I start to make that the focus of the ministry God has given me here, then I would be out of step with the Holy Spirit, and I would become a false teacher. I want the church to grow—but if God should call me to preach a sermon that would somehow drive half the church away, my responsibility to him would be to stand up and faithfully preach that sermon, whatever the consequences. I don’t see that happening, of course—it’s a pretty extreme thought experiment—but that’s where my calling would be.
Similarly, when teachers come along insisting that we need to change our understanding of God or of the Scriptures, and their arguments are all about what people in our culture believe or want or think they know, when they contend that we must fit the biblical definition of the love of God to what the majority in our society wants to believe is loving, we need to stand against that. The fact that the world listens to them, and does so with approval, is not evidence they’re right, it’s a sign that they are from the world, not from God. If the world seeks to marginalize and silence us, it’s not a sign that we’re wrong, out of date, or regressive; rather, it’s evidence that we are standing in the way of Jesus, who spoke the truth of God so clearly to the world that they butchered him for it.
Now, we need to be clear about something here: “the world” doesn’t just mean “not the church,” and it doesn’t just mean “liberal.” There’s plenty of the world in the church, too, unfortunately, and plenty of people who are conservative because the part of the world they want to please happens to be made up of conservative churchgoers. It’s all too easy, as Jesus notes in Matthew 7, to see the speck in our brother’s eye, and not notice the log in our own; the teachings of Christ, properly understood, will convict us and make us uncomfortable just as much as they will encourage and support us, and just as much as they will convict and disrupt “those” people “out there” who we know are wrong about this, that and the other thing. Indeed, if we are truly conscious of our own sinfulness and need for grace, we should expect the Spirit of Christ to convict us even more than others, for we should be able to say with Paul, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”
That said, though we must be humble before all people, even the false teachers and false prophets of our age, our humility is because we are sinful and imperfect, and our understanding of God’s truth is thus incomplete and flawed. God is perfect, and his truth and love are utterly without flaw, and so we must hold fast to him and his truth with no hesitation, no apology, and no compromise. We don’t understand everything yet, and so we continually need correction and refocusing as we abide in Christ and grow in him; but by his Spirit we have all truth, and we can trust him to help us understand it more and more as we need to, in his own good time. We always need to recognize and admit our limits, but we never need to back down, no matter what anyone might say or do.
And you know, as we hold fast to Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, we should do so joyfully, even when doing so brings us trials and tribulations. James doesn’t say, “Complain, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials, knowing that society should appreciate you properly and do what you want”; no, he says, “Rejoice when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” When the high priest had the apostles flogged, they didn’t grumble that this was supposed to be a godly nation—they rejoiced that they had been counted worthy to share in the sufferings of Christ. And John doesn’t say, “Little children, expect the world to like you and approve of you for being like Jesus”; rather, he says, “The world just didn’t get Jesus, and it’s not going to get you either if you look like Jesus, so don’t be surprised when the world hates you.”
If we are truly agents of the gospel of Jesus Christ working to carry out the ministry of Jesus Christ in the face of the hatred of the Father of Lies, then the more effectively we point people to Jesus, the more the Enemy is going to attack us, using every weapon he can conjure up—and he is the Father of Lies, so that gives him plenty of opportunity for conjuring—and the more unexpected, undeserved, and painful the attack, the better. When we respond with complaint, with bitterness, with anger and resentment, when we fight back, we play right into the Enemy’s hands and give him what he wants. It’s far better for us to respond to those attacks by looking to Jesus.
Just as an example, when Dr. Kavanaugh’s ministry comes under attack in one way or another, if you hear him talk about it at all, you’ll always hear him say, “Well, praise God.” There are times I think he’s maybe a little ironic about that, but I have the sense—and correct me if I’m wrong, Doc—I have the sense that he’s trained himself to that discipline to keep pointing himself back to the truth that such things really are reasons to praise God.
When you are attacked for preaching the gospel instead of telling people what they want to hear, for pointing them to Jesus Christ instead of what they want to see, don’t complain, but rejoice that you are sharing in the sufferings of his ministry, and that his Spirit is using those sufferings for your growth; and don’t fight back, don’t let yourself be drawn away from the truth, but go on preaching the gospel. Go on pointing people to Jesus Christ. Go on trusting him to be faithful and true even when that’s hard to see, and in your own trust, show others how to do the same. And those who don’t listen, leave them to God—they’re not your worry, they’re his. You, look to Jesus, follow those who help you see him, and show him to others in your turn. That is enough.