If you have your Bibles, turn with me to 1 John chapter 2, verse 12, through chapter 3, verse 10.
I am writing to you, little children,
because your sins have been forgiven
because of Jesus’ name.
I am writing to you, fathers,
because you have come to know
the One who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young men,
because you have had victory over the evil one.
I have written to you, children,
because you have come to know the Father.
I have written to you, fathers,
because you have come to know
the One who is from the beginning.
I have written to you, young men,
because you are strong,
God’s word remains in you,
and you have had victory over the evil one.
Do not love the world or the things that belong to the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For everything that belongs to the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride in one’s lifestyle—is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does God’s will remains forever.
Children, it is the last hour. And as you have heard, “Antichrist is coming,” even now many antichrists have come. We know from this that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. However, they went out so that it might be made clear that none of them belongs to us.
But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you have knowledge. I have not written to you because you don’t know the truth, but because you do know it, and because no lie comes from the truth. Who is the liar, if not the one who denies that Jesus is the Messiah? This one is the antichrist: the one who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son can have the Father; he who confesses the Son has the Father as well.
What you have heard from the beginning must remain in you. If what you have heard from the beginning remains in you, then you will remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that He Himself made to us: eternal life. I have written these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you.
The anointing you received from Him remains in you, and you don’t need anyone to teach you. Instead, His anointing teaches you about all things and is true and is not a lie; just as He has taught you, remain in Him.
So now, little children, remain in Him, so that when He appears we may have boldness and not be ashamed before Him at His coming. If you know that He is righteous, you know this as well: Everyone who does what is right has been born of Him.
Look at how great a love the Father has given us that we should be called God’s children. And we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it didn’t know Him. Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him because we will see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself just as He is pure.
Everyone who commits sin also breaks the law; sin is the breaking of law. You know that He was revealed so that He might take away sins, and there is no sin in Him. Everyone who remains in Him does not sin; everyone who sins has not seen Him or known Him.
Little children, let no one deceive you! The one who does what is right is righteous, just as He is righteous. The one who commits sin is of the Devil, for the Devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose: to destroy the Devil’s works. Everyone who has been born of God does not sin, because His seed remains in him; he is not able to sin, because he has been born of God. This is how God’s children—and the Devil’s children—are made evident.
My favorite National Enquirer headline is “Local Congresswoman Gives Birth To Alien Triplets.” Anybody read the National Enquirer?
Reading First John is kind of like reading The National Enquirer, or something. Every page there’s just another bombshell statement. 1 John’s filled with statements like “If you say have fellowship with God, but you still sin, you don’t have fellowship with God,” and “If you say you don’t sin, you’re lying.” So if you’re like me, the first time you ever read First John, you were confused.
But unlike the National Enquirer, 1 John makes a lot of sense when you fill in the background story. And the background story for most of the strange stuff we see in 1 John is a guy named Cerinthus.
For those who don’t remember, Cerinthus was a heretic from the first century, and his beliefs could be summarized by saying that A) Jesus did not become a human being, he simply came to Earth as a “spirit being,” kind of like a ghost – his “spirit” descended from heaven and possessed the body of a carpenter from Nazareth. And he taught that B) that the “material world” – so, your flesh, the Earth, everything – was made by mistake. So the “Christ Spirit” came to save us from the “material world.”
John’s enemy Cerinthus believed that there was nothing good whatsoever about human bodies, or the environment, or the physical world, and so he taught that God was going to destroy the earth, and then “take us away on the Magic School Bus” to a kind of “disembodied heaven” where there is no “flesh” or “blood” or “bone,” or “grass,” or “sky,” where we will be “spirits,” floating around, playing “spirit harps” on “spirit clouds” – you know.
But in verse 17 when John says, “The world with its lusts is passing away,” it doesn’t mean what his sworn enemy Cerinthus meant, that God’s nuking this place and taking us somewhere where we won’t have bodies. Because in Revelation chapter 21, which John also wrote, he tells us exactly what’s going to happen at what we could call the “End Of Time”: What we see is not that God “takes us all up to heaven”; what we see is that God “comes down,” he brings a “New Jerusalem” down to earth, and there’s a “New Heavens and a New Earth.”
And even that can be confusing, because the word that we translate to “New” in English would be a little bit better translated as “Renewed”: A “Renewed Heavens and Renewed Earth.”
So we like to say things like, “The end is near,” even if we’re not the sort of folks who’d walk up and down sidewalks with sandwich boards screaming at people, right? But the message of Revelation could be better summarized by saying “The Beginning Is Near.”
The beginning is near because “The world with its lusts is passing away.” The beginning is near because all the darkness that has consumed this world and has been consuming us from the inside out since we were born is passing away, but we aren’t passing away along with it.
So “The Beginning Is Near,” because “Our sins have been forgiven,” because “We’ve come to know the One who is from the beginning,” because “We’ve had victory over the evil one,” because “We have come to know the Father,” so God has “made us strong” because “His word remains in us” – that’s the poem that John opens this section with.
And so John makes yet another fascinating claim: He says, “Children, it is the last hour.” Have you ever heard of sermon where someone says, “We Are Living In The End Times”? I really like Adrian Rogers, and he said that in half the sermons he ever preached.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses who live down the street from me and evangelize in downtown Wake Forest also believe that “We Are Living In The End Times,” but they mean a different thing than Adrian Rogers does, and they mean a very different thing than John.
Because if we are living in the “end times,” and the person who told that to us was Saint John, writing towards the end of the first century, that means that “We’ve Been Living In The End Times” for about 2,000 years. And that sort of changes what we mean when we say End Times, tight?
So it’s true that today you can make more money writing increasingly speculative books about “what’s going to happen at the end of the world” than you can as, like, a doctor or engineer.
But it’s also true that the actual books of the Bible give us next-to-nothing to satisfy our curiosity, right? If you read the whole thing cover to cover, you won’t find much in terms of “specific predictions” but you’ll find a whole wealth of, kind of, broad images of the world that God is bringing about through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Like, if you can read the book of Revelation and map it out into highly specified charts with dates and associated figures throughout history, it usually means that you are more creative than cautious in the way that you read the Bible. And that’s why there’s been one “false alarm/end-of-the-world” prediction after another for the last few hundred years: because the “prophetic” books in the Old Testament, just like “Revelation” in the New Testament, are not primarily designed to make predictions about the future. They are designed to disciple the “body of Christ” so that we will become the tools that God uses to make the future.
So John didn’t write the Book of Revelation so that I could hypothesize about whether such-and-such politician I don’t like might be “the Antichrist.” He wrote the Book of Revelation so that you and I would devote ourselves to fulfilling God’s mission in the world.
John goes on to say, “As you have heard, the Antichrist is coming,” but “even now many antichrists have already come.”
And he keeps going: “We know from this is that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not belong to us. If they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. However, they went out so that it might be made clear that none of them belong to us.”
Because of movies like Left Behind, we tend to think of “the Antichrist” as a singular “political figure” who persecutes Christians, or tries to “take over the world,” or something like that. And it’s entirely possible that is also the case, but what John actually says is that there are a lot of antichrists. He says, “Many antichrists have already come.”
So we are “living in the end times,” and one of the side effects is that the “antichrists” are multiplying.
So during John‘s lifetime, Cerinthus would specifically travel from village to village where John and the other apostles had recently evangelized the people and planted a church, and he would tell them that there had been a “new revelation” that the apostles “hadn’t known about” when they’d first evangelized them, and then he would spend several weeks indoctrinating the new converts into his “false teaching.”
Like I said earlier, he taught that Jesus was not the “Messiah,” but that he was a “spirit” who came to rescue us from our human bodies. Cerinthus and his people believed that our issue was not our sin, or our “rebellion against God,” but that it was our physical bodies. And for Cerinthus, the idea that Jesus came to “save you from your body,” rather than save you from your sin, meant that your body really didn’t matter.
And if your body doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t really matter what you do with your body. Some of his followers dissolved their marriages, and they replaced their marriages with a whole host of sex partners, of all ages, because for Cerinthus your age was just a function of your physical body, but your soul was eternal. Those people who like to say that “age is just a number,” they’re kind of like Cerinthus.
But because Jesus came to save your soul and your body together, to “renew the heavens and the Earth” and “restore them to what God created them to be,” your body matters, so it matters deeply what you do with your body.
So John and the apostles taught a kind of “radical faithfulness” to your spouse, and they taught that you have a “radical obligation” to the poor and suffering. Since your body matters to Jesus, it matters deeply what happens to the poor folks on the other side of town. So the early Christians under John and the others would put their money together to make sure nobody starves to death.
But the followers of Cerinthus believed that Jesus came to rescue your soul and then destroy this place with fire, so to them it didn’t matter what you did with your body. And it follows from that that it didn’t matter what you did to other people’s bodies, either. So it didn’t matter if the poor folks down the road starved to death, because starving to death is just something that happens to your body, and as far as Cerinthus was concerned, your body is “part of the problem.”
And so Cerinthus and his people would go and preach to the poor and then leave so they could starve to death in peace. They would go preach to the men visiting the brothel, and wouldn’t say a blasted thing about how they shouldn’t go to the brothel anymore.
Because Cerinthus and his cronies weren’t just “honest Christians that John disagreed with about some stuff.” Like, there’s a difference between “Christians who are wrong” and bona fide “False Teachers,” right?
We disagree with Presbyterians about whether you should baptize you babies, but that doesn’t make them heretics; some Christians are more liberal than we are, and some Christians are so conservative that St. Paul isn’t allowed to correct anything their grandma told them back when they were children. But that doesn’t make them “false teachers.” Being “Wrong About Some Stuff” doesn’t land you land you in John’s “antichrist database.” There’s a universe of difference.
The difference between an honest Christian who ill-advisedly baptizes their baby and an “antichrist” is that the folks that John is facing off against here are teaching falsehoods not just because they’ve made some mistakes while interpreting the scriptures but because they have a vested interest in making sure the darkness never really passes away – you know what I’m talking about?
That’s why John, who is, kind of, the “Mister Rogers” of the apostles – speaks in such harsh terms about them. Because a bona fide antichrist is teaching falsely on purpose. He’s working to make sure that the darkness of the world never really passes away.
So that’s the bad news. The good news is that we can take heart in the fact that John says, “You have an anointing from the Holy One.” That’s a strange sentence, and John is famous for those. He says, “I have not written to you because you don’t know the truth, but because you do know it, and because no lie comes from the truth.”
False teachers may be well-organized, but we have what John calls “an anointing from the Holy One.” If you have a paraphrase translation, it probably just says “We have the Holy Spirit.” We have God himself living inside us and working out his will in us- and through us- and no amount of false teachers can overturn “The Mission of God.”
False teachers can outnumber us, and they can raise more support and do better fundraising, and so on, but what they can’t do is carry out the mission of God with the power of God that comes from God himself living inside us.
But in order for that to matter, we have to “opt-in” to the mission that God sends us on. I heard a story a few years back where there was a missionary in Japan, I think, and he was talking to a college student there about the gospel, and at one point the college student interrupted him and said, “If the message you bring is the truth, why do I see so many Mormons on bikes, so many Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on doors, but so few of you?”
In Wake Forest, once a week I run into my Jehovah’s Witness friends while they’re downtown evangelizing. They are there because they care about the people of Wake Forest. They believe that they have the truth and they want the rest of us to have it, too. Not very many people talk to them, but for the folks who never darken the door of a church by their own initiative, the thing that will “rattle around in their heads” is not the handful of Bible verses that they heard their grandma rattle off once, it’s the things that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are saying to them every single week. Because there are so many of them reaching out on a regular basis and so few of us. I live in The Seminary Town, and they are out-witnessing us by a mile.
John says “We have an anointing from the Holy One,” and over the long haul, even if we never see the fruit, that anointing from the Holy One will make us useful tools for God’s Kingdom, the Holy Spirit will draw people to Christ even in our total lack of skill or cleverness in evangelism. But that only actually happens if we offer ourselves as tools for the Holy Spirit who lives inside us to draw people to himself.
And the upshot of that, in verse 27, is that, “If the anointing you received from him remains in you, you don’t need anyone to teach you.” Which sounds scary if you are a paid “teacher.” That verse is not great for your job security. But John says, “His anointing teaches you about all things.”
That is a large part of why we do things the way that we do them here; you’ve seen this play out on Wednesday nights. If you haven’t been on Wednesday nights, ask the people who have, and they can tell you: On paper, I am “the teacher,” but in practice I teach very little, because when God’s people get together, the Holy Spirit that indwells us can work through us to teach one another.
And so we will read whatever the passage for the week is, and then I essentially “interrogate” the people who are there. I ask them what each passage teaches us about God, what each passage teaches us about Humanity, I ask if there was a command to be followed or an example to be obeyed, either explicitly or implicitly, then I ask if there is a sin to avoid in the passage and if there is a promise to claim. That’s the whole thing.
And over the course of about 30 or 45 minutes, what happens is that, together, the people at the Bible study will draw all those answers out of the text themselves so I never have to do a kind of “here comes the train” spoon-feed-it-to-them typed-thing. Because “We have an anointing from the Holy One, so we do not need anyone to teach us.”
And John’s point obviously isn’t that you literally don’t need to be taught what is and isn’t true – like, if you’ve ever been four years old and found a fork and seen a power outlet, you know that. John’s point is that the gospel doesn’t work the way Cerinthus works.
The gospel doesn’t work the way “false teaching” works. Because false teachers thrive on pretending to have “unique knowledge” that normal folks can’t have access to. False teaching thrives on being able to exert power over people by convincing them that you are uniquely sent by God to be his ambassador. But in the gospel that John presents to us, we are all already “God’s priests.” We are all already God’s ambassadors.
The passage that Baptists love to slap on everything – Matthew chapter 28, verses 18 through 20 – says “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you, since all authority under heaven and earth has been given to me, and I will be with you until the end of the age.”
And that passage is directed at the whole church – not just the apostles back then, not just the folks who descended from the apostles today, everyone who has been rescued by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is bound up in the Great Commission, so everyone has been given an “anointing” from the Holy One.
And so we don’t need “spiritual gurus” who can deliver “high-minded spiritual insights” that no one else on planet Earth could ever have access to, we need the scriptures that the Holy Spirit inspired, so that we can sit in a circle looking at the same scriptures, indwelled by the same Holy Spirit that inspired them, so we can teach one another in service of the same kingdom of that same God who created us, and then called us out of Egypt, and then rescued us from our own fallenness in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So we don’t need Cerinthus, and we don’t need the hucksters who are like him. What we need, in verse 28, is to “remain in Christ” so that “when he appears we may have boldness and not be ashamed before him at his coming.” We don’t need a new gospel. Because the Holy Spirit will teach us the “things of God” through the Bible.
And that same Holy Spirit who anoints us to carry out the Great Commission together will also to purge us from whatever darkness is still in us, over the course of a life. Right?
Because we’ve been “born of God,” because we’re his children, he will mold us through the Holy Spirit until one day, in the new heavens and the new earth, all the darkness that’s in you will be gone. Because “The Beginning Is Near.”
Because when Jesus is your hope, the Holy Spirit will move you to quit buying into the darkness in the world and instead start finding ways that you can be a light. When we throw ourselves on the mercy of Jesus, we’re forgiven for everything we’ve ever done, and we’re given an absolute commission to right the wrongs that used to define our lives.
And eventually that becomes the thing that brings you joy. Because – and this is a stupid analogy, but I’m gonna run with it anyway – taking away your sin is like taking away your heroin: You spend months or years having nauseating withdrawals. But as the Spirit changes your heart, you start to take pleasure in allowing Jesus to take away your sin. To use Isaiah’s term, he “turns your heart of stone into a heart of flesh.”
And some of you know this much better than I do, because you’ve been allowing Jesus to take away your sin for longer than I’ve been alive. I’ve been blessed to get to know a lot of the elderly folks in this church, because I’ve gotten to personally witness what it looks like to walk with God through sanctification over the course of seventy years, or eighty years, or more. And when you come out the other side of that, it’s something to behold.
But if you haven’t been submitting yourself that process where God “turns your heart of stone into a heart of flesh,” I want you to. I want you to be 80 years old one day and be a blessing to the people who know you. I want you to be someone they can look at and say, “This is what it looks like when God works on a person’s heart, year after year, decade after decade,” so that by the time you go into the ground, you have become an image of God’s great faithfulness and mercy.
So if I’ve been talking about you for the last half-hour, come talk to me when we start to sing. I’d love to walk you through the process of throwing yourself on God’s mercy.