If you were here last week, you may remember I asked you a profoundly important question: how many Methodists does it take to change a light bulb? I hope you remember the point, that there’s a real and dangerous temptation to try to blur the line between walking in the light and walking in the darkness. It’s a temptation we see quite clearly in the American church—not just among the Methodists by any means, far from it—but it’s not new to us, it’s not new to our age; indeed, it’s as old as sin, which is why John goes after it in this letter.
He hammers at the point: you can have God or you can have the world, but you can’t have both; and whatever the world may have that you want, what God has for you is far, far better. There is far greater joy, far greater blessing, far greater good in letting the world go to follow Jesus than in pursuing the world; it will send you running the opposite direction, and in the end, you’ll find it was just a will-o’the-wisp after all. There may be a pot at the end of the rainbow, but there’s nothing in it but fool’s gold and rust.
The thing is, true as that may be, truth doesn’t govern human belief. Rather, as Francis Bacon put it, people prefer to believe what they prefer to be true. We have an amazing appetite for the comfortable lie, and no matter how many times it gives us indigestion and how badly it sickens us, we still feel the temptation; without the intervention of the Holy Spirit and the work of grace, we just keep going back to it, time after time after time, hoping that this time the results will be different.
This is why Jesus says in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” because what drives our faith, what drives our decisions, isn’t our experience, but our thirst. Bad experiences in relationships do not by themselves drive people to pursue and build healthier relationships, and good experiences of God do not sustain faith. Experiences shape our understanding, but they’re in the past, and they fade with distance; what drives us, what moves us, is what we hunger and thirst for now, in this moment. That’s why the pleasures of the world never satisfy; if they did, we could move on to something better, but instead, they leave us wanting more, building the craving, strengthening the addiction. It’s also why the Holy Spirit does not work to sate our hunger and thirst for righteousness, for love, for joy, for God, but only to deepen and strengthen them. Which sounds just like the world, but there is this difference: with the world, the hunger and thirst are an agony; with God, they are in themselves a joy.
As dissimilar as they are, though, we still tend to want to satisfy both—to try to find hope in Christ and at the same time pursue the hope that this relationship will be the one that makes me happy, or this job will be the one that turns out well and makes me feel secure. As agonizing as hungering and thirsting for the world may be, we resist giving up that hunger and thirst—we resist admitting defeat, admitting that we are in fact hungry and thirsty for something that will never nourish us. But if we’re in the church, if we name the name of Jesus, then we don’t want to give that up either; and so one of three things happens. We may acknowledge the conflict and, by the Holy Spirit, make the painful choice to let him go to work on our soul, to wean us off the world; we may instead openly choose the world over Christ; or we may try to find a way to pretend that Jesus actually approves of our hunger and thirst for the things of the world.
This, I think, is what John was dealing with. We see the word “antichrist” and we think of a powerful figure of evil at the very end of time, but that’s not what John’s on about here; rather, that figure will have many, many precursors, all in the same spirit. What is antichrist? It is one who seeks to replace the true Christ with a false Christ—and who may even, and in the end certainly will, claim to be Christ himself, while leading people away from God.
Now, let’s be very clear here, this doesn’t just mean anybody who has some of their teaching about Jesus wrong—that’s all of us; this is talking about someone who systematically denies the heart of the gospel, that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, God become human, in whom alone is salvation through his atoning death and resurrection on our behalf and for our sake. Anyone who denies any of this denies Jesus, and anyone who denies Jesus denies the Father, because it is the Father who sent his Son and bears witness to his Son, and it is the Son who testifies to the Father and reveals him to us. Anyone who denies this is a liar, and a servant of the lie; anyone who does this serves the spirit of the antichrist. It doesn’t mean they’re evil, or beyond redemption, but it does mean their teaching is a lie and must be fought.
To understand why John’s opponents were doing this, look what he says: “They went out from us, but they were not of us.” Indeed, he actually says, “They went out from us so that it would be revealed that they were not of us.” They looked like Christians, considered themselves Christians, but they never really belonged to Christ; God allowed their outward departure from the church so as to reveal the fact that they were never truly part of it to begin with. John doesn’t tell us explicitly why they weren’t, but from the context, it seems they loved the world and were unwilling to give that up.
As a consequence, their governing theological principle became the insistence that God couldn’t actually be telling them they had to give it up—everything else had to bend to fit that, even including their understanding of Jesus, who he is and what he did. Like the Pharisees (though in a very different way), they would only accept Jesus as the Messiah on their terms, provided he would be the kind of Messiah to suit their preferences; they would not accept Jesus as the Messiah he was.
Now, we don’t want to make too much of this as a conservative vs. liberal issue, because this is no less a temptation for conservatives; we tend to be guilty of this more covertly, is all. But it is a governing principle of liberal theology—it has been ever since Friedrich Schleiermacher, who essentially founded modern liberal Protestantism with his work On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers—that Jesus and his gospel can and should be trimmed to fit what the culture is already comfortable believing; when we see those who call themselves evangelical adopting this idea explicitly, as I believe we have seen and are seeing with Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, and others in the emerging-church movement, this should be cause for great concern.
In that context, it’s interesting—one of the first complaints I ever heard against Bell, from another Grand Rapids-area pastor, is that he was telling his congregation that they needed him in order to understand the Scriptures. At the time, I just put it down to a little bit of ego, not really surprising in a megachurch pastor, but you know, that’s a very common approach among false teachers. You find it a lot in cult leaders, actually, as a means of keeping control of their followers. I think John was dealing with this as well on the part of those against whom he’s writing here, because he tells his hearers, “No, you don’t need anyone to teach you—you have been anointed by Jesus, you’ve been given his Holy Spirit, and you have all knowledge.” NIV follows a different reading in verse 20, but I think that’s the correct one—“you know all things”—because that’s really what his argument requires; you can see that he ends up with that point in verse 27.
This isn’t to say that good teachers aren’t valuable, nor is it a justification for spiritual pride, as we must always be humbly open to learning from each other. This is, rather, an attack on any claim of spiritual dependence, and on our tendency to vest authority in human figures rather than in God. God chooses to raise up men and women to preach and teach, and they bless us, but in the last analysis, none of us who do this are necessary, because God could perfectly well do without us if he chose. I’m grateful he doesn’t, but he could. And in that process, we aren’t the ones who really matter; God uses the work I do, the work Matt and Kathy do, the work Pam and her volunteers do, but we aren’t the ones who make anything happen; it’s the Holy Spirit working through us who teaches and strengthens and builds up the body of Christ.
The key here is that this all comes back to what I noted last week, that the only way to learn to live is by living; ultimately, the only way to know the truth is by abiding in the presence of the One who is Truth, by remaining in him and letting his truth fill us. We just need to keep coming back, again and again, to the heart of the gospel, to who Jesus is and what he has done for us—to keep coming back to that and letting that judge and correct everything we think and everything we want to do, letting ourselves be conformed to him rather than seeking to conform him to anything else. We need to keep coming back to God and opening our hearts and minds to him, through his word and through prayer, trusting that by his Holy Spirit he has given us all truth and will lead us into all truth—because he has, and he will. He desires to do that, because he wants us to know the truth, because he wants us to know him—that’s what he made us for. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—who hunger and thirst for God—why? Because they will be filled.