Spiritual Warfare in the Church
Introduction: I’d like to set the stage this morning with a story from 2 Kings 6. The prophet Elisha is in Dothan, where he has been regularly receiving information from God about the military movements of the Aramean or Syrian army and passing the information on to the King of Israel. The King of the Arameans suspects a spy among his trusted confidants, but eventually he is informed that Elisha is the culprit; in fact, one of his officers tells the king that Elisha knows the very words he speaks in his bedroom. Upon receiving that rather disconcerting news, he sends a strong force of soldiers, horses and chariots to surround the city of Dothan and capture Elisha.
When Elisha’s servant gets up the next morning and goes out to get the paper, he sees this huge army and says, “Oh, my lord, what shall we do?” The prophet answers, “Don’t be afraid. Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” I can just see his servant looking around, with that look on his face that says, “Sure, Elisha!” Have you been burning the candle at both ends again lately?” Elisha then prays, “O Lord, open his eyes so he may see.” And the Lord opens the servant’s eyes, and he looks and sees the hills full of horses and chariots of fire—God’s angelic forces—all around Elisha.
I, for one, do not believe this to be a unique or unusual situation. Oh, it is certainly unusual for someone to actually see the key players in the spiritual battle around us, but I do not believe it is unusual for them to be there. I have spoken several times about the Bible’s clear teaching on the presence and ministry of God’s holy angels in the lives of His people. Sometimes they are protecting believers from physical harm, but even more often they are active in protecting us from spiritual harm. Of course, there is also a corresponding presence of demonic spirits seeking to do Satan’s bidding and to counteract God’s.
We seem to readily recognize the war between the forces of religion, morality, and family and the forces of evil. Some of the enemies “out there” are humanism, drugs, pornography, abortion, evolution, political corruption, and apathy. But there is an even greater battle within religion, and even within the Church—a battle that originates at the highest level of the spirit world. And that is the battle described and discussed in our text today—1 John 4:1-6.
Two key affirmations come through loud and clear. First, the spirit world is behind all religious teaching, and secondly, the spirit world is behind all religious listening.
The spirit world is behind all religious teaching.
Two problems are evident at the outset: false teachers are prevalent and people are gullible.
Two problems are evident:
1. False teachers are prevalent. Verse 1 says, “Many false prophets have gone out into the world.” What we are dealing with here is a problem of great proportions, including major world religions, the cults, flaky offshoots of orthodoxy, and even, in my estimation, many of the mainline Protestant denominations. Virtually all of these religious teachers started in the true Church, or at least their forefathers did. But over a process of time, they abandoned God’s truth and began to pursue the world’s truth.
Some of you perhaps saw the article in our denominational magazine, The Evangelical Beacon, this week which told about the $35 million dollar gift Harvard University recently received for a new ethics department in its Business School. Harvard was founded in 1636 to train Christian clergy, but in the last 100 years has departed completely from its roots. President Derek Bok observed in an article in Harvard Magazine that faculty members reacted “with tepid interest and outright skepticism” to the idea of teaching any kind of ethics. Furthermore, they have been unable to find qualified teachers.
Well, it may be hard to find ethics professors for a University built on relativism, but there’s no shortage of false teachers who have left the church and gone out into the world. (Now please don’t misunderstand John. When he says they have “gone out” from the church he means from the “true church.” Most of these false teachers have remained in churches; they are still in the religion business. But they are not part of Christ’s church). Not only are the false prophets “many;” they are in fact, probably in the majority. But that shouldn’t surprise us; it has almost always been thus.
The story is recorded in 1 Kings 22 that in Jehoshaphat’s day the prophets of King Ahab were unanimous in telling the Jehoshaphat and Ahab that they should go fight against the Aramaens to capture Ramoth-Gilead and that God would give it into their hands. Only because of the persistence of Jehoshaphat was a prophet named Micaiah, son of Imlah, found. He claimed that if they went up against Ramoth Gilead Ahab would die. So Ahab threw him into prison and ordered him to be fed a diet of bread and water until he returned. To which Micaiah responded, “If you ever return, then the Lord has not spoken by me.” 400 to 1. Pretty bad odds. But Ahab died in that battle and the dogs licked his blood as Elijah had prophesied years earlier.
We must never judge truth by majority vote. There are many false prophets who have gone out into the world. But the fact that false teachers are prevalent is compounded by the second problem—people are gullible.
2. People are gullible. It never ceases to amaze me how bizarre a religious leader can become and still gather a rabid following around him. In fact, it almost seems that the more bizarre the doctrine and lifestyle of the leaders, the more certain they are of attracting a huge following. When you look at the personal lives of cult founders—Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Glover Patterson Eddy, Victor Wierwehl, Jim Jones, Rev. Moon, to name just a few—you begin to realize just how enormously gullible religious people can be. Charisma, novelty, large egos, flashy lifestyles—these things seem to speak far louder than faith, self-discipline, and personal holiness.
Well, when you put these two problems together, namely the proliferation of false teachers and the gullibility of people, you begin to realize why John wrote with such a sense of urgency. He tells his parishioners …
The solution is to test the spirits behind the teaching. “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” The obvious implication behind this command is, as John Stott puts it, that “every prophet is the mouthpiece of some spirit.” True teachers are the mouthpiece of the Spirit of God, while false teachers are the mouthpiece of the spirit of Satan. Before we can trust a teacher, we must test him. And God assigns to every believer the responsibility to discern which is which. That’s important. This assignment is not given only to the pastors or only to the Elders or only to some hierarchical body in a denomination. Even the humblest Christian possesses the right and the responsibility to test the Church’s teachers and the spirits behind them.
It’s time we shake loose from our apathy. Perhaps you have heard about the pollster who asked the man on the street, “Do you think ignorance and apathy are the two greatest problems facing the human race?” The guy responded, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” He sounds like a lot of professing Christians I know. If asked for a reason for the hope that is within them, they would probably have to answer, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” Instead we need more people like the Bereans, who were said to be more noble than the Thessalonians, “for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”
By the way, putting teachers to the test is not an idea that originated with the Apostle John. Way back in Moses’ day, God laid down two tests to determine whether a prophet was a true spokesman of God or not: (1) According to Deut. 18:22, “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.” In other words, to be a prophet of God one had to be 100% accurate on all predictions. That negates the work of every astrologer or clairvoyant in the world today. (2) According to Deut. 13:1-5, even if the word which the prophet speaks comes true, he is still a false prophet if he leads his hearers astray to serve other gods—even gods like health and wealth.
So the Apostle John is merely reiterating a responsibility that believers have had for thousands of years—test your teachers. But John seems more interested in the source of the teaching than he is in the teacher himself, and there’s good reason for that. Even false teachers tell the truth some of the time, perhaps even most of the time, just as Satan generally portrays himself as an angel of light so as to deceive people more readily. Furthermore, false teachers have been known to perform supernatural feats (e.g., in Moses’ day the false prophets of Pharaoh were able to duplicate nearly every one of the plagues on Egypt). They also frequently claim to have additional revelation than is available just in the Bible.
But if you can discern that the spirit behind a particular teacher is an evil spirit, the spirit of anti-Christ, then you can avoid him entirely and not be trapped by his deceptive employment of the truth, or by his occasional use of the supernatural, or by his claim to have further revelation. But how can one discern what spirit is behind a particular teacher?
The standard to be used in testing is the doctrine of Christ. Now this sounds very much like what we studied in chapter 2:22: “Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist—he denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.” In chapter 4 he says essentially the same thing, only noting a little more specifically what it is that a teacher must say about Jesus in order to qualify as a spirit from God. “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.”
That one’s view of Jesus is the watershed issue is quite obvious from these verses. But just what must one believe about Jesus? The answer, of course, is that we should believe all that the Scriptures teach us, but two things are particularly critical: (1) Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one of God. This means He is God, for the Messiah was clearly deity. (2) The Messiah has come in the flesh, in the person of Jesus who was fully human. In other words, the fundamental Christian doctrine which can never be compromised is the eternal divine-human Person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Of course, the one who denies this truth about Jesus is not from God, according to verse 3.
Now I want to take a few moments to show you how the cults stack up against the yardstick offered here by the Apostle John. Jehovah’s Witnesses vehemently deny the deity of Christ and teach instead that Jesus was a created being. Mormons affirm that Jesus was God, but only in the sense that every man may become God; they deny his unique deity. Christian Science teaches that Christ is God, but then Everything is God; there is no uniqueness to the deity of Christ. The Bahai faith views Jesus as one of many religious teachers in a pantheon of great faith leaders.
The Unification Church believes Jesus is an authentic but failed prophet, whose work is in the process of being completed by the leader of that cult. Liberal Protestants and Liberal Catholics deny that Jesus was God but affirm that He was a great man and a fine moral teacher. New Age teach that Jesus is an example of what can occur to human beings who achieve their full potential by opening themselves up to the spirit world.
The false teachers we have been talking about are “not of God,” as verse 3 indicates, but worse than that, they are actually of the “spirit of antichrist,” i.e., they are against Christ. Now I’m not a cult-basher. I rarely attack other faiths, but this passage demands that we be honest and not mealy-mouthed. And lest anyone think that the antichrist is just a future world ruler who will oppose God during the Great Tribulation and of no concern to Christians today, John states clearly that his influence is already in the world.
One other thing before we move on. Please don’t overlook the fact that John is not simply saying that certain facts about Jesus must be accepted as true before a teacher can be “from God”; he is also demanding that Jesus be acknowledged or confessed. Mental assent is never enough to distinguish the Spirit of God from the Spirit of Satan. (James says that even the demons believe in God and they tremble when they think about Him, which is more than most people do). No one has stated the issue here more clearly than C.S. Lewis in his well-known classic, Mere Christianity:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone from saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Jesus: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that option open to us. He did not intend to.”[i]
In summary of our first main point, no system of religion can be tolerated, however loud its claims or learned its adherents, if it denies that Jesus is the Messiah come in the flesh, i.e., if it denies either His eternal deity or His historical humanity, or, for that matter, if it denies that He must be confessed as Lord.
So far we have seen that the spirit world is behind all religious teaching. It is either the Spirit of God or the Spirit of anti-Christ, namely the spirit of Satan. Secondly, I want us to see that the spirit world is behind all religious listening.
The spirit world is behind all religious listening.
This brings the matter closer to home. You cannot ignore this issue just because you may not be a teacher, for all of us are listeners. And John goes to some lengths to inform us of how the spirit world is active when people listen to false teachers as well as when they listen to true teachers.
When false teachers speak:
1. Believers overcome them because they have a greater Spirit. Verse 4: “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” I used this passage as my text last Monday night as I spoke to a small group of Christian inmates out at the Pacific prison. I heard quite a few “amens” on this verse because those guys know how impossible it would be for them to be disciples of Jesus Christ if it weren’t true that the Spirit of God in them is greater than the spirit of Satan in the world.
I can hardly think of any verse in the Bible that is more encouraging than this one when I think about what all Christian people are up against in the society in which we live. The anti-Christian messages we get from the media, from secular music, from the entertainment industry, from business, and from advertising, to say nothing of religious sources, is almost unbelievable. I don’t know how any of us could overcome this barrage were it not for this truth: “Greater is He that is in you than He that is in the world.”
Consider first that the Apostle is claiming that true believers have overcome false teachers. In what sense? Well, certainly not in the sense of forcing them out of business or destroying their influence. But we have overcome their influence over our lives and have avoided being deceived by them. We have tested them, found them wanting, and remained true to God’s truth.
And how have we been able to do this? Because we are smarter than they are? Wrong. Because we are holier than they? Wrong. Because we are more clever debaters than they? Wrong, we usually aren’t. How have we been able to overcome them? Because greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world. Obviously this is speaking of God’s power and authority in us as opposed to the power and authority of Satan in the world. And that’s the only reason! I hear people quoting this verse frequently in a wide variety of contexts. But the principal point John is making is that we can overcome the false voices clamoring for our attention because we have a greater Spirit, namely God Himself, than they have.
But if believers overcome false teachers when they speak, …
2. Unbelievers listen because they share a common spirit with them. Verse 5: “They (i.e., the false teachers) are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them.” Don’t ever be surprised that the cults and false religions gain a large following. What do you expect? Their philosophy is worldly, so it appeals to worldly people.
When true teachers speak:
1. Believers listen because they share a common Spirit with them. Verse 6 reads, “We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us.” The “we” of this verse is in direct antithesis to the “they” of the previous verse, and if the “they” means the false teachers, the “we” must be the true teachers, namely the apostles. But how can it be known that “we are of God” and are teaching the truth? John answers, in effect, that you can tell that our message is God’s message because God’s people listen to it and receive it.
These statements sound like the height of arrogance, and so they would be if uttered by an individual Christian. No believing pastor would presume to say: “whoever knows God agrees with me; only those who are not of God disagree with me.” But this is what John says, and he can do so because he is speaking, not in his own name but as one of the Apostles who were conscious of the special authority bestowed upon them by Jesus Christ.
There is a certain affinity between God’s Word and God’s people. Jesus taught that His sheep hear His voice. So you can recognize God’s Word because God’s people listen to it, just as you can recognize God’s people because they listen to God’s Word. Safety from religious error is found in loyalty to the apostolic doctrine delivered in the beginning.
On the other hand,
2. Unbelievers refuse to listen to the apostles because don’t have the same spiritual father. The last part of verse 6 reads, “But whoever is not from God does not listen to us.” This too should not surprise us. I have tried to witness to many cultists over the years, and usually it’s like speaking to a brick wall. Especially is that true if that person is on a mission of his own. In fact, I have never heard of a cultist knocking on a Christian’s door and being converted to faith in Christ in the process. But I believe it was Walter Martin who said you’ve probably never heard of a vacuum salesman going to a person’s house and buying their vacuum cleaner. So maybe that shouldn’t surprise us.
I do not say that to discourage you from witnessing to those entrapped by the cults, but you have to pick your times to witness to them. When they are knocking at your door is not the time. After building friendships with them as neighbors is the time.
Conclusion: The battle facing the Church is not simply between truth and falsehood but between the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. We must move beyond our rational, theological, and interpretive arguments and discern the spiritual source behind false teaching. You can win every argument in the book with a cult missionary, but because he has surrendered to the forces of spiritual evil, he will not acknowledge the truth.
That’s true, also, friends, of those who aren’t cultists but just ordinary unbelievers. You can argue till you’re blue in the face, but until the Spirit of God convicts them of their sin and of their need for a Savior, all your arguing and all your witnessing will be in vain. Let’s not get discouraged, however, and quit witnessing, for our witness may be just the thing the Spirit uses to reach their hearts.
Let me close with a verse that is familiar to many of you: Eph. 6:12: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore, put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”
DATE: November 26, 1989
[i] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.