Sermon Message: Fellowship in the Light
Sermon Message: O Worship the King
"The Most Dangerous Thing in the World"
2 John 7-11
(Delivered Sunday, December 15, 2002 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James version.)
We return this morning to our study of the second letter of John. Often, we have found the things John says to be so deep and profound that they are a little hard to grasp. After all, who could fully grasp the meaning of such things as his statement, "God is love"? But this morning, we find that he speaks with remarkable plainness and clarity. He would have wanted no one to misunderstand what he means, because he was warning his readers to be on the alert against the most dangerous thing in the world.
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If I were to go out into the streets today and conduct a survey - asking people what they thought the most dangerous thing in the world is - what do you suppose most people would say? I would suspect that, right now, most people would have an answer to that question already in mind. Many might say that the threat of nuclear force in the hands of hostile governments is the most dangerous threat people face today. Others might say that the use of small pox, or anthrax, or some other biological weapon in the hands of terrorist organizations would qualify. Others might suggest that, as dangerous as these things might potentially be, the dreadful spread of AIDS in such nations as Africa is such a dreadful thing that it might qualify it as the most dangerous thing in the world.
I suppose that, if I were to take such a survey, the list of things people would consider "the most dangerous thing in the world" might actually grow quite long. But I wonder if anyone would identify the danger that the apostle John points to in this morning's passage.
I would never want to make it sound as if I were trivializing the dreadfulness of those other "dangerous things", or as if I were not taking them as seriously as they deserve. Please understand that I do take those things seriously. But not even those soberly dangerous things are as dangerous as what God alerts us to in His word this morning. All those other things are dangerous because they can result in the physical deaths of unspeakable numbers of helpless people in a short amount of time; and that surely makes each of them a dreadfully dangerous thing. But the fact is that none of those things actually result in an increase in the numbers of physical deaths in the human family. The same number of physical deaths will still occur as would have occurred should those things never happen. No matter what else may happen, the human family will still suffer a 100% mortality rate; because - except for the people living when Jesus returns - everyone will eventually suffer physical death.
The danger that the Bible mentions to us in our text this morning is, like those other dangers, a very evil and malicious thing; but this particular danger presents an even greater risk than all those other things put together, because it can result in a consequence that none of those other things can produce. This dangerous thing can result in the eternal loss of many of those would die - an eternal loss that results from either being eternally separated from the God who made them, or from failing to grab ahold of all the eternal treasures God would have made them to enjoy. The exceeding greatness of this danger is reflected in Jesus' words when He said,
And do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Hell (Matthew 10:28).
What, then, is the most dangerous thing in the world - something that it has already brought about tragic loss to multiple billions of human beings who will grieve their loss throughout eternity? I am not trying to be dramatic; but I am speaking biblically when I say that the most dangerous thing in the world today - more dangerous than all other dangers put together - is false teaching about Jesus the Savior. John tells us in these words:
For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist. Look to yourselves, that we do not lose those things we worked for, but that we may receive a full reward. Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds (2 John 7-11).
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Many of those who first read those words - one would hope, in fact, most - are in heaven even as we speak, because they took John's warning seriously. They have been safe in the presence of Jesus for all these multiple centuries; and nothing will ever again threaten their full enjoyment of the eternal blessings they now receive from His hand. They will only grow to love and adore the Savior more and more, and experience ever-expanding vistas of bliss in His glorious love throughout eternity. To possess just one of the eternal blessings they now enjoy would have been worth forsaking all the treasures and riches of earth; and countless such blessings are now theirs forever. But what particular danger was it that threatened all these blessings at the time John wrote those words? What was it that so motivated his pastor's heart to alert them in such plain and forceful words?
At the time that John wrote these words, there was a false teaching infiltrating the church that caused many who professed Jesus to fall into error. The devil has always been busy bringing harm the church and destroy the eternal destinies of people; and one of his primary ways of doing so - and, I should add, one of his most successful ways as well - is by disseminating false teaching about Jesus so as to confuse people with respect to the way of salvation. The particular form that false teaching took at the time of John was something theologians now called Docetism.
The name of this heresy comes from the Greek word DOKEIN, which means "to appear". It taught that Jesus, the Son of God who walked upon this earth, only "appeared" to be a human being; and that the things that He seemed to have suffered in a physical body on the cross were in appearance only, and were not real. The teachers of this heresy argued that if Jesus could suffer, then he surely could not be deity; and that since, as deity, He appeared to suffer on a cross, then His suffering must have only appeared to be the suffering of a man - and not really of a man at all. The docetic teachers argued that Jesus came to this world as a messenger apart from realm of humanity - apart from human suffering and pain. They argued that He came to awaken people to the knowledge of the secret things from outside this human realm so they could become "divine" like Him; and that a literal suffering on a cross was not essential to this. Hence, this form of false teaching - Doceitism - became an integral part of a broader category of false teaching called Gnosticism - the false teaching through which the devil sought to capitalize on people's hunger for a short-cut to spirituality through "secret knowledge".
The dangerous thing about this heresy is that it refused to recognize the truth about Jesus as the apostles witnessed that truth to be - that He was both fully God and fully human. In order for us to be saved, the eternal Son of God needed to become fully human so that He could justly, literally die for the sins of humanity. He fully embraced humanity at the incarnation, just as the apostles taught (Phil. 2:5-8). But if, as this heresy taught, Jesus was not fully Man, then Jesus could not have died for the sins of humanity at all. Humanity would then would have no Savior - no substitute to atone for fallen humanity's sins. As you can see then, this teaching is an insidious lie of the devil, crafted by him to confuse people and keep them from the salvation that can only come through faith in Jesus as "the last Adam" - given to died for our sins.
John answers this diabolical heresy in this portion of his letter. But we should understand his words about this heresy as a general reminder to all of God's people, in whatever time or cultural context they are found, of the unspeakable danger of false doctrine about Jesus. Other dangers can destroy our bodies, but can do nothing more to us than that. This danger, however, can be used by the devil to groom unsuspecting people for hell and for eternal loss; and it can enable him to do so without their even being aware of it, because they think they're being "religious" for believing "something" about Jesus.
I hope you can appreciate now why I make that remarkable assertion - that there truly is nothing in this world more dangerous than false teaching about Jesus. Jesus spoke of many dangers that would come upon the world in the end times, and seems to give only a passing reference to them; but when He spoke of this one - false teaching about Himself - He issued a particular warning. He said,
Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, "I am the Christ," and will deceive many. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows (Matthew 24:4-8).
Such dreadful things as famines, and earthquakes, and wars - these are the very things that most people would say are the most dangerous things in the world! And just think; Jesus tells us not to be troubled by these things! But concerning false teaching about Himself, of this alone Jesus says, "Take heed ..." Surely, those through whom the devil spread false doctrines about our Savior constitute a far greater danger to us than what people usually consider to be the most dangerous things in the world today!
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I want to begin noting how John starts this section. In the original language of this letter, John begins with the word that's translated "for" or "because". This points our attention backward to the verses that proceed our text. What John says here concerning false teachers serves as the explanation for what he says back there. And in the proceeding verses, we find that John writes,
And now I plead with you, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment to you, but that which we have had from the beginning: that we love one another. This is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, that as you have heard from the beginning, you should walk in it (2 John 5-6).
This "lady" - as we have discussed in our previous study of 2 John - is a local church. This was clearly a very good church because, as John says in verse 4, many of its children were "walking in truth". In other words, they were rightly oriented toward doctrinal truth about Jesus. And John was urging his brothers and sisters in this very fine church to do two things. First, he was urging them to keep the commandment from Jesus that they had received from long ago - the commandment to love one another as He has loved them (John 13:34-35). And then, he urged them to remember that loving one another means obeying the Father's commandments with respect to our relationships and conduct toward one another.
We're to love one another as Jesus loved us; and such love is to be expressed by our conducting ourselves toward one another in accordance with God's commandments. And that's when John brings in this matter of false teachers; "For many deceivers have gone out into the world". In other words, his command to love one another and to obey the Father's commandments is given because many false teachers were in the world.
If we were faced with the problem of protecting a church against teachers who were teaching false doctrine about Jesus, most of us would think that the solution was to begin holding classes on theology. That, of course, is a necessary and worthy thing to do; but few of us would think of beginning where John begins - that is, by stressing that church family focus in on both practical love and practical obedience. But then, consider how many false teachers have swayed undiscerning people because they bring a message of "love", while leaving out a message of "obedience". Jesus said that, if we keep His commandments, we will abide in His love; just as He kept His Father's commandments and thus abided in His love (John 15:10).
One of the things that false doctrine about Jesus does is cause people to separate love from obedience. Many such false teachers will say that Jesus came to teach us about love; but they don't deal with the reality of sin and for the need of holiness though obedience to God's commands. And because true love toward God is expressed as obeying God's commandments, they thus persuade people to embrace a false kind of love. True love in our hearts toward each other, obedience in our practical conduct, and submission to revealed truth about Jesus in our wills are inseparable spiritual realities; and they must all be found together.
All three of those spiritual realities must be stressed together because, as the Bible says, "For He [God the Father] made Him [Jesus] who knew now sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor. 5:21). We were separated from God because of sin; but in unmerited love, God sent His Son to become a member of the human family and die in our place for those sins. Now that the Savior has died for our sins, we are called upon to respond in faith to that love through Christ by turning from our sins and living a life of holiness and obedience unto Him. But false teachers present a different 'Jesus' than the apostles proclaimed - a 'Jesus' who preached love, but not one who came to atone for our sins or call us to a life of holiness. And so, because there were false teachers making the rounds, John prefaced his teaching about them by urging his brothers and sisters to true love and faithful obedience.
John would not allow these spiritual realities to be separated; and neither should we.
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What, then, does John specifically say about this most dangerous of things - false teaching about Jesus? The first thing he shows us is ...
1. HOW WE CAN RECOGNIZE FALSE TEACHERS (v. 7).
John says, "For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist."
Detecting false teaching requires great discernment. Many false teachers are deceiving because they preach a message about love. And many more deceive because they preach a message about obedience. And many more still deceive because they even teach a message about Jesus. But one of the objective, tell-tale signs that they are false teachers is that they do not teach what God had revealed to the apostles about Jesus as that teaching is preserved for us in the pages of Scripture.
Many in John's day, for example, were teaching that Jesus came to the earth NOT in human flesh. Some taught that He was not fully a man. Others were teaching that there was a distinction between the Man Jesus, and the Christ - and were insisting that it was Jesus, a mere man, who died on the Cross; but that the Christ did not die. In our own day, many heretical groups teach that Jesus was a mere man who did not "come in the flesh", but "came from flesh" and eventually "became" God.
John combats all this when he clearly asserts "Jesus Christ" as "coming in the flesh" - both fully God and fully man, with both natures unmixed and unmingled in one Person. His words are marvelously complete: presenting Jesus as the same Person as the Christ, asserting that He was "flesh", and asserting that He was deity come in human flesh rather than human flesh evolved into deity.
How such a wondrous thing could be is certainly beyond our ability to fully grasp. But the Bible reveals some of the mystery when it tells us that an angel came to Mary and told her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:35). The eternal Son of God - at a point in human history, and without ever ceasing to be fully God - became fully human, conceived in the womb of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. The tiny baby forming in her womb was the Son of God come into the world in human flesh.
John is unsparing toward those who would teach otherwise. He calls such a teacher a "deceiver"; and in addition, he calls them an "antichrist". Here, John not speaking of the one-world ruler that we read about in the Book of Revelation. Rather, he's speaking about a whole system of values, priorities and beliefs that is set against God and inspired by the devil - a whole system of which the coming Antichrist will simply be the devil-empowered, visible personification. In his first letter, John writes,
Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things. I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and that no lie is of the truth. Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also (1 John 2:18-23).
And so, we know false teachers by this crucial test - not by whether they teach about love; not by whether they teach about God's commandments; not even by whether they talk about Jesus; but by whether they teach the truth about Jesus that the apostles handed down to us, and that has been preserved for us in Scripture. If they deny that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, as the Bible teaches, they are deceivers and antichrists.
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This leads to the next thing John says to us ...
2. WHAT HARM FALSE TEACHERS CAN DO TO US (v. 8).
In the New King James Version, John gives this warning: "Look to yourselves, that we do not lose those things we have worked for, but that we may receive a full reward."
There's an urgency to John's words. He urges us to look to ourselves, because there are eternal things that hang in the balance. The apostle Paul put it this way when he spoke of his own ministry;
According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one's work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one's work, of what sort it is. If anyone's work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he will be saved, yet so as through fire (1 Cor. 3:11-15).
Paul stressed that no other foundation can be laid than that of Jesus Christ - that is, the foundation of faith in Jesus as He truly is. We must build upon faith in Jesus as He was presented to us by the apostles - that is, as the Son of God come in full humanity to be our Savior. Many were in danger of not recognizing this true foundation, and thus of suffering loss because they built on a false foundation. Others who did believe on Jesus were in danger of losing rewards because of having that faith compromised in some way, and thus building on a true foundation poorly. John wanted to see neither happen to the people he loved; and so he urged them, "Look to yourselves".
And I would suggest that it is our own responsibility to defend ourselves, and not let ourselves suffer loss because of false doctrine. In the older and more reliable Greek texts, John's words are presented as if it were the responsibility of John's readers to do this. It was John and the other apostles who labored with the saints for all that they have worked for; but as the New American Standard translation has expressed the more reliable reading; "Watch yourselves, that YOU do not lose what WE have accomplished, but that YOU may receive a full reward" (emphasis added).
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You can see then what a terribly dangerous thing false doctrine is. It results in eternal loss. What a terrible thing it is that these false teachers fell into this error - and to have become a "deceiver" and an "antichrist". This leads us, next, to what John says concerning ...
3. HOW WE SHOULD UNDERSTAND THEIR ERROR (v. 9).
What John says next should be very sobering to us, and should add emphasis to his warning to look to ourselves. He writes, "Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son."
I was fascinated to find that the word John uses to describe these false teachers - that is "a deceiver" - literally means "a vagabond" or "a wonderer". It came to be used to describe someone who goes around flim-flaming people as a con-artist. Those who crucified Jesus used it of Him when they asked Pilate to seal His tomb. "Sir," they said, "we remember, while He was still alive, how that deceiver said, 'After three days I will rise'" (Matthew 27:63). It was used by those who opposed the gospel to describe the apostles. Paul described himself and his fellow apostles as considered to be "deceivers; yet true" (2 Cor. 6:8). Paul even used this word to describe the demons who were in operation behind false doctrine; saying that in latter times, some will depart from the faith, "giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons" (1 Tim. 4:1).
The idea behind the word "deceiver", then, is that of a "wanderer" from the truth, and of a "vagabond" going around selling falsehoods like snake-oil. And here, John presents such a "wanderer" and "vagabond" as someone who literally "runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ" (NIV). That implies the sobering thought that such false teachers had perhaps walked in the truth at one time - not obviously as a saved person, but as someone who at one time publically embraced the saving truth - and had nevertheless become drawn away by falsehood. They ran ahead of the truth they once walked in - chasing after false doctrine until they lost sight of the truth altogether.
I'll never forget a time when I was spending a free evening in a used book store, looking over the theology section. (Now you know what I do for fun.) I try not to eaves-drop when other people are chatting; but when folks are talking to one another about books that I'm also looking at, I can't help but be interested in what they are saying about them. I noticed a young couple pouring over books that, given my limited familiarity, I recognized as books by authors who denied the biblical truth about Jesus. The young man pulled one such book off the shelf, excitedly showed it to the young woman who was with him, and said, "You should read this. It'll put you miles ahead of the average person in the pew."
Just think of that! - "... Miles ahead of the average person in the pew ..."! That's the attitude of someone who "runs ahead" so far that they leave the truth behind! And that's the attitude of these false teachers. They became like what John describes elsewhere:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us (1 John 2:19).
They were like what Paul once warned about when he said,
For I know this, that after my departure, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves (Acts 20:29-30).
This is the sobering thing we learn from John's warning, then; that the most dangerous thing in the world - false doctrine about Jesus - often arises from and becomes disseminated by those who came from within the church itself! This is how we should understand the dreadful nature of their error. Many false teachers held possession of the truth at one time; but they "transgressed" or "ran ahead", and they did not "abide" or "continue" (NIV) in the apostle's doctrine concerning Jesus. They became drawn away. Only those who remain in the truth about Jesus have fellowship with God the Father and with Jesus His Son. Those who once walked in it and yet wander away, as John says, "Do not have God". How important it is, then, that we heed John's serious counsel and "Look to yourselves"!
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The danger of becoming subject to such wanderers, and the loss we risk if we do so, leads finally to John's instruction concerning ...
4. HOW WE SHOULD PROTECT OURSELVES AGAINST THEM (vv. 10-11).
Now, these closing words need to be understood in the context of the times in which they were written. In John's day, many teachers within the body of Christ at large travelled around from city to city, visiting the different local churches. These different churches didn't meet in church buildings, as we do today; rather, they met in private houses. Often, because the journeys were long and difficult, the cities dangerous, and the local inns rather immoral, the Christians needed to show hospitality to these different teachers by hosting them in their homes. Sometimes, the home in which the teacher would stay would be the same as the home in which the church met.
If we look ahead to John's third letter, we can see something of this practice in the early church. John wrote to a particular Christian - a leader in the church - and said,
Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the brethren and for strangers, who have borne witness of your love before the church. If you send them forward on their journey in a manner worthy of God, you will do well, because they went forth for His name's sake taking nothing from the Gentiles [that is, unbelievers]. We therefore ought to receive such, that we may become fellow workers for the truth (3 John 5-8).
We need to faithfully support those who are truly "fellow workers for the truth" - providing for their financial and material needs, and hosting them in their travels when we can. But there were some who were not fellow workers for the truth, but were instead deceivers who peddled a false doctrine about Jesus. These are to be treated in an entirely different way. John writes, "If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds."
Those who taught were to be carefully examined as to their conformity to the apostolic teaching about Jesus. Those who were found to be false teachers were not to be given any credibility or support whatsoever. They were not to be allowed to teach in the church. They were not to be welcomed into the homes of believers. They were not even to be given a greeting such as "God speed to you;" or "God be with you;" or, as it is in the original language, "Rejoice". They were to be given no welcome at all, but simply pointed toward the direction of the nearest highway and urged to leave on it immediately. Now that may sound insensitive or discourteous; but what John is really urging us to do is to treat false teaching about Jesus for what it really is - the most dangerous thing in the world. We should never do anything to encourage false teachers and the doctrines they spread.
I remember one preacher even suggesting that one of the most frequent ways false teachers are encouraged and supported today is by other otherwise-orthodox pastors and Christians buying their books. Often, pastors - who understandably wish to be scholarly and "up on the latest trends" - will buy the books of some teacher who peddles controversial doctrines. They may end up "informed"; but this tendency probably helps "legitimize" the distribution of false teaching more than anything else. What's more, the sound of the cash register does a lot to encourage publishers to keep the books of heretical teachers rolling off the presses.
We should never allow someone who denies the apostolic teaching about Jesus to speak or hold discussions in the household of God. We should not invite them or their literature into our private homes. We most certainly should not enable them with financial or material support of any kind. And, as John says, we shouldn't even send them away with a "God bless you." If they didn't receive money or encouragement or support, they'd soon stop peddling their ungodly doctrines. And John is clear as to why we should stay away from such things: "... for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds."
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There is nothing more dangerous than false teaching about Jesus. >From the standpoint of eternity, it will prove to have been the most harmful force the world has ever seen. Let's do nothing then to encourage it or share in its evil results. And let's also look carefully to ourselves lest we become drawn away from the truth. Let's, instead, do as Jude says, and "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). Let's do this faithfully and diligently; because eternal lives and eternal rewards hang in the balance.
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