You Have Conquered With the Truth
How do you know? Just a few short weeks ago we cast our votes and our local and state representatives were chosen. But one of the parts of that process that got to be really frustrating were the ads. You would hear one ad saying “Bob Jones hates you and all people.” And with an ominous voice the ad would tell you how bad that candidate was. And then, the opposing candidate would do the same. And at the end of the month leading up to it you end up asking the question: how do you know what the truth is? The words we find ourselves in this evening have much the same context. But the issue the Holy Spirit brings to us is not politicians, but instead, preachers. In 1 John 4, we read: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1 CSB17)
John the Evangelist tells us that just as we shouldn’t believe every ad we hear or every article we see on the internet, we also should not believe every spirit. And he makes it clear in this verse what he means by the word, spirit. The spirits here are false prophets. And here it’s important also to understand the context in which John is speaking. The false teachers aren’t those on the outside of the church. Those on the outside of the church were a real threat. But that’s not what he’s speaking about here. Here in these words he’s speaking about false teachers on the inside of the Christian Church. And so, what John says is true: We are not to believe everyone who calls himself a Christian and preaches some semblance of the truth of God’s word. Instead we are to test them. But what is the test we should use? John tells us: “2 This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming; even now it is already in the world.” (1 John 4:2–3 CSB17)
The litmus test, the knife that cuts through all the confusion is this: Does that preacher present all of who Jesus is? John places in front of us this amazing and massive truth that we celebrate this time of year. If we ask the question, “who is Jesus,” the answer is that Jesus is both fully and completely God and also fully and completely human. That’s the test. That’s the tool we can use to filter out false from true teachers. At Jesus’ conception there was one person, but there were two natures. Jesus was both fully God and fully human. And at the moment of his conception, Jesus continued to be both God and human forever.
Now all of this sounds like simple theology that we know already and can quickly pass over. But it’s not. There are two huge ways false teachers get this wrong. First, they are offended at Christ’s humanity. Long ago, Martin Luther had a long discussion and debate with a man named Ulrich Zwingli. And at the end of their long discussion, Luther and Zwingli agreed on 14 out of 15 theological points. That’s pretty good, right? But Luther refused to be in fellowship with Zwingli. He refused to commune with Zwingli because Zwingli said that, in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus’ body and blood weren’t there because Jesus body was at the right hand of God in heaven. Luther was frustrated that Zwingli couldn’t accept the clear and plain words Jesus spoke in the upper room, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood.” But what frustrated Luther even more was Zwingli’s lack of understanding of Christology. In Christ, there is one person. But there are two natures. Now think that through for a minute. Where Jesus is, both his divine and human nature are. Jesus doesn’t cease to be human in the Lord’s Supper simply because Zwingli wished it to be that way. Or to put it differently, what frustrated Luther was Zwingli’s lack of understanding of what happened on Christmas, not Maundy Thursday. And how did Luther arrive at this conclusion? He used the tool and test that John speaks about here. If a preacher is a true teacher he needs to know and teach all of the truth about Jesus, that he is fully human.
And this is a temptation we can fall into as well. Just as Zwingli was offended at Jesus’ humanity in the Lord’s Supper we can be tempted to be offended at Jesus’ humanity too. What happens so soon after Jesus is born? Our Savior has to run. And not only does he have to run, he is so frail and helpless as an infant, his parents have to carry him down to Egypt. It’s easy to be offended at how frail and human Jesus really is.
But the other part of the test is just as real. Jesus is fully human. But he is also fully divine. If Jesus isn’t God then you don’t have to be accountable to God. When Jesus says, “do this,” you don’t have to listen. When Jesus says, “stop that,” you don’t have to listen. But if he’s really God, then you have to listen.
So this test of confessing that Jesus is both one who has come in the flesh and is also from God is not just useful for seeing the false teachers out there. It’s also useful for seeing the false teacher in here, my heart. And that’s why the words which follow are so important to us as we prepare for Christmas: “4 You are from God, little children, and you have conquered them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5 They are from the world. Therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Anyone who knows God listens to us; anyone who is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of deception.” (1 John 4:4–6 CSB17)
You have conquered. What a strange statement to make to people who had been conquered by false teachers out there and the false teaching in their own hearts. They hadn’t conquered anything. But look what John does: Christ has conquered in our place. And now he gives that victory to us. And that’s a victory that we need. We need a Savior was completely and perfectly human to pass this test that we cannot get straight. And that’s what Jesus did. The boy Jesus goes to the temple at age twelve. And in the final verse of that section we hear how he grew and became strong in wisdom.1 Jesus knew who he was and grew in that knowledge—even when we did not. And his growth covers our lack of understanding. And through that growth we can say that we have conquered.
We need a human to grow in wisdom in our place. But we also need a God to die for us. There is no human, no matter how perfect that person might be, who can take away the sins of the world. The only payment that can pay for our sins of not wanting to obey our Good and Gracious God is the payment that only God can provide. And this child that was born grew up and died. And Jesus, as fully human and fully God, died. And God said, “amen” to his payment. And so, because of that, we can say that we have conquered. Amen.
1 “ηὔξανεν καὶ ἐκραταιοῦτο πληρούμενον σοφίᾳ” (Λουκᾶν 2·40 THGNT-T)