Test the Spirits

6th Sunday of Easter – May 6, 2018

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. 2This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3but 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. 4You, 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. 5They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. 6We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. 7Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:1-11)

In the 300 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Christian Church had seen it all. Persecutions spread believers across the known world. Church sprouted up in every corner of the Roman Empire. Christians could be found in every level of society, from slaves to soldiers to Senators, and eventually, even Emperors.

Constantine the Great was that first Emperor to openly declare himself a Christian. He then went on to declare Christianity an accepted religion of the Roman Empire. How far the Christian faith had come! Once persecuted Christians now saw their faith become central to the Roman Empire. It was a miraculous achievement.

That’s when one of Christianity’s greatest dangers arose. It seemed with the Empire becoming Christian, many let their guard down. All sorts of false teachings rose up like weeds. Some pastors began teaching “secret truths” that they had added to God’s Word. Others preached that to be a “true” Christian you had to die by persecution.

Every one of these false teachers and each of their false teachings threw churches into turmoil. But one man surpassed them all. His name was Arius, and his false teaching was so bad, and so enticing, that it sent a shockwave through the entire Christian Church – the reverberations of which can still be felt today.

History tells us that Arius was talk, dark and handsome. No one could preach a sermon as good as he could. He wrote music that people hummed for centuries. But it was what he preached that was so dangerous. Arius said that because Jesus was “begotten of God the Father,” then he must have been less than God the Father.

It sounded so logical. It made so much sense! But it was completely wrong. The problem was that thousands, and eventually millions of believers were captivated by that teaching. And what was the harm? So Arius taught that Jesus was a little less than the Father – some passages even seemed to suggest that.

But it was a big deal. To diminish who Jesus is and what he has done cut away at the central message of Scripture! Years of church councils wrestled with this Arian message until finally they arrived at a Scriptural stance. I bet it sounds familiar: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father.” All of that in the Nicene Creed, which we will confess together in just a moment, because of one rogue pastor and his convincing teaching.

Our creeds are filled with those types of stories. In fact, it has been said that every phrase of the creeds that we confess are written in blood. Each word tells a bitter story of pain, division and loss.

So how does that happen? How do churches and pastors and entire synods lose their way? Where do the “Ariuses” come from? John tells us, “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.” The believers in the days of Arius stopped doing that. They didn’t check Arius’ false words with Scripture’s true testimony.

So what’s the test? Well, John tells us that, too. “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.” It all comes down to Christ. Does a teaching keep Christ at the center or does it focus on something or someone else?

Arius may have lived a long time ago, but his teaching and others like it still push down Jesus. John tells us what those teachings really are: “This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.” And John explains why these false messages are so tempting: “They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them.”

And so do we. It can be hard not to. Maybe Arius’ false teaching is an easy one for you to push aside. What about those today who teach that everyone is going to heaven – isn’t it tempting to believe that? There are churches that focus primarily on helping the poor, rather than on worship and Bible study – doesn’t that sound nice? And there are pastors that just want to talk about you – how great you are, and how you are so nice and talented that heaven is yours…because of you.

Those teachings can be more than tempting. They have pulled us in, at times, too. But remember the difference? Remember how to “test the spirits”? “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” This, then, is our true, Christian faith: Christ came to be one of us, he lived, he taught, he served, then he suffered and died. He still is “of one being with the Father.”

Jesus really is God. He had to be. Quite frankly, if he wasn’t, than what is the point? If Jesus isn’t who he says he is than we’ve made him out to be a liar. He couldn’t be our Savior. Heaven wouldn’t be ours. And all is lost.

That is what it looked like when that pastor, Arius, preached 1700 years ago. He appeared to be the pied piper, playing his tune of false teaching and luring the entire Christian Roman Empire away from Christ with him.

Then came another pastor named Athanasius. Like a lone voice in a storm, he boldly preached that Jesus Christ is God. For his faithful preaching he was exiled by the government and the church…five times! He never wavered. At a gathering called the Council of Nicaea, the group of pastors put together and signed a creed that perfectly summarized who Jesus is. The secretary of that Council was Athanasius. His job was to write down the words. And he did. And that is how it came to be that the much maligned defender of the faith wrote down the words of the Nicene Creed. Words we are about to confess.

They are not empty words. They accurately summarize God’s inspired word. They place Christ at the center. And through Christ, as Athanasius once wrote, that “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Amen.