As we move on through the life of the apostle John into his years as pastor, elder and senior leader in the early church, it becomes clear from his letters (1, 2 and 3 John) that all was not well in the churches. We tend to focus on the persecution that Christians suffered in Roman times, but John’s writings reveal that problems had emerged _within_ the church. Among the things that caused division were theological disagreements about the person of Jesus (1 Jn 2:20-21), as well as claims from some believers that they had “special knowledge” which contradicted past teachings, because they had unique inspiration from the Holy Spirit (1 Jn 4:1-6).
There’s too much detail to include in this post, but it’s clear that the three letters are still relevant to us today. Over the last two days I’ve been leading a staff training conference looking at exactly these issues: how do we tell a lost and broken world about Jesus, if we can’t seem to agree within the church? In his time, John was so heartbroken over this that he described it as “the last hour” of the church (1 Jn 2:18).
There’s nothing more painful in church life than when we are divided, when we should be living as brothers and sisters bought by Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself on the cross. And it could be discouraging, not to mention scary, to think that there could have been so much confusion even in the churches led by the very disciples who lived with and learnt from Jesus in the flesh. And yet God’s people, His worldwide church, continues to grow in number to this day. His power and His plan to bring people to Himself have not been defeated by division and false teaching. Hallelujah!
Here’s a warning to us then, but also encouragement. The warning is that we must ALL make every effort to make sure we know our Bibles thoroughly, so that we can discern what is true. The Holy Spirit will never contradict Scripture but always speaks to confirm and clarify it, affirming that Jesus is Lord:
“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 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. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. 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.” (1 John 4:1-4)
And the encouragement? To know God’s love and live in obedience to Him, extending that love to one another even when we have divided opinions. There may be points that we disagree on, and while Pastor John warns us to know the truth, he is also clear that love for one another is non-negotiable:
“This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us…” (1 John 3:19-24)
PRAY: Dear Father, thank you that You have established and protected Your church through the generations. Help me to love my brothers and sisters with action and in truth, as You command. And give me a love for Your Word so that I will be anchored and secure in Your truth, not easily tossed about or deceived by false teachings. Give me a discerning heart and lead me always back to my first love for You.