TEXT: 1 John 2:18-23
There’s something about betrayal that enrages us. After all you never hear of a new baby being named Judas Iscariot. Unfortunately betrayal isn’t just something we see in the movies. There’s a kind of betrayal that we experience in the spiritual journey.
Let me tell you about a guy who used to be a member of a prominent church in America back in the early 1980’s named “Joe”. Let’s just call him Joe…He was a gifted musician and speaker and he was highly involved in ministry during his early years. “Joe” wrote music, he led their church in worship, and he and his family were part of their church family. His musical gifts didn’t go unnoticed, and eventually different churches would invite him to play his music…And a Christian Recording Company invited him to have a musical play…But “Joe” never lasted for long, and he never finished that play…because while he sat where he use to sat in that church, led others in worship, traveled to other churches speaking singing and giving his testimony, inward doubts were building. Finally “Joe” concluded that God was not real at all, in his own words, “I discovered that there is no basis for believing that a God exists.” “Joe” had to admit to himself and to his friends that he was an atheist. He joined the atheist movement, he wrote a letter to the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin explaining why he was no longer a Christian, he went onto the Phil Donahue show to encourage others to leave the Christian faith, and eventually he wrote a book.
How can we make sense out of the “Joe’s” we meet in life, how can we make sense out of spiritual betrayal? As we’ve been studying John’s little letter to the Christians living in Asia Minor, they were facing this very kind of problem. Some of the members of the church in Asia Minor had walked away from their faith, they’d renounced Christ and were embracing false ideas about God. Those members of the church thought were close spiritual companions, turned out to be traitors. Tonight we’re going to look at how to make sense out of this kind of spiritual betrayal; or how we can understand spiritual betrayal.
1. A SIGN OF THE TIMES (2:18-19).
John doesn’t want us to get too surprised about spiritual betrayal. Now some have understood John to mean in vv. 18-19 that he expected the end of the world to come in his lifetime. The reasoning goes like this: “John and the other New Testament writers thought they were living in the last hour; that Christ would return again in their lifetime, yet now we know that they were wrong about that.” Of course if they were wrong about something as important as the second coming of Jesus Christ, what else might they have been wrong about?
However a close reading of these words reveals something very different. John could have either used the word “hour” literally to describe a 60 minute period of time or figuratively to describe a longer period of time. I doubt anyone believes that John thought that Christ would be returning in 60 minutes from when he wrote these words; after all it’d take longer than that for this letter to get delivered to the Christians living in Asia Minor! So he must be using the word “hour” figuratively to describe a longer period of time than 60 minutes.
The Bible pictures the entire church age, from the time Jesus came into this world to die on the cross and rise from the dead all the way to his second coming at the end of the age as “the last days” or “the final hour.” You might think of the “final hour” as the final chapter of the book. When the Spirit of God transformed the first 120 Christians into the church on the day of Pentecost, Peter stood up and quoted the Old Testament prophet Joel to tell the crowd that the “last days” or the “final hour” had begun. Hebrews 1:1-2 affirms this same idea: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (NIV).
So the “last days” or the “final hour” is the final chapter, the final stage in God’s redemptive plan that will climax with the second coming of Jesus Christ, when he will right every wrong and ushers in God’s Kingdom on earth. John is reminding us that we as Christians live in this same final chapter, just like the Christians in the first century did.
John’s friends knew that an antichrist figure would come shortly before the close of this final hour. Now antichrist simply means “against Christ” and broadly it describes anyone who opposes Jesus Christ and what he stands for. The Bible teaches that at some point in the future a person will arise who embodies this opposition to Christ. Paul calls him the “man of lawlessness” in the book of 2 Thessalonians, and this figure will “will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thess 2:4). This person will embody every hostility toward Christ that’s ever been expressed in all of the world’s history, all in one person. Throughout history there’ve been many people who’ve been precursors to this final antichrist figure who’s yet to come: The Roman Emperor Nero, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and many others…yet none of these people proved to be the final coming antichrist.
Now this is not an invitation for us to speculate on who this coming figure might be, because the “final hour” could last another 1,000 years if God wants it to. Throughout 2,000 years of church history Christians have found it difficult to resist the temptation to speculate on who this antichrist is. Just since 1945 the list of people that Christians have claimed were the antichrist includes Pope Pious XII, John F. Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Pat Robertson, King Juan Carlos of Spain, Rev. Sun Myung Moon, and Mikhail Gorbachev (Kyle, The Last Days Are Here Again 131-32). Recently I ran across a claim that Barney was the antichrist, and that if you took the words “Dancing Purple Dinosaur” and added up the numerical value of the numbers, it added up to 666. I think the claim was a joke, but knowing some Christians maybe not.
All John is saying here is that the appearance of men and women who oppose Jesus Christ is a precursor of the coming antichrist, that’s all.
What makes it all the more difficult for John’s readers and for us as we think about people like “Joe”, is that these people came from their own church. Just like “Joe” from that prominent church, or even some “Joe’s” who had been in our church…John says that these people opposed to Jesus came out from the church in Asia Minor. These are people they’d worshipped God with, people they’d prayed with, people they’d shared the Lord’s Supper with and served God together. John says that the fact that they abandoned the Christian reveals that they never truly were one of us, they looked like followers of Jesus Christ, they talked the talk, but the fact that they didn’t remain with us reveals that inwardly something was wrong all the time.
Now remember, he’s not talking about people who go to another church, or people who step on a spiritual landmine and are incapacitated for a while, but he’s talking about people who abandon Christ and the Christian community.
The key word here is in v. 19 that word “remained.” This verb “remain” is used 7 different times in the verses we’re looking at today, and it means to “abide,” to “continue,” to “persevere and to persist.” John is telling is that those who truly know Christ are those who abide with Christ and the Christian community. People who abandon the Christian community and become opposed to Jesus are people who don’t remain, they’re people who never truly abided in Christ in the first place.
Here we learn our first important lesson about spiritual betrayal. WHEN WE FACE SPIRITUAL BETRAYAL WE NEED TO REMIND OURSELVES THAT IT IS A SIGN OF THE TIMES WE LIVE IN.
Spiritual betrayal is not something novel or new, but its part and parcel with life in the last hour, life between Christ’s first and second comings. John is trying to soften the sting by reminding his friends that they live in a time when these things happen.
Jesus once told a story that illustrates this, a story about a guy who planted wheat, but while he was sleeping an enemy came and planted tares among the wheat. As the wheat began growing, so did the tares. The thing about tares and wheat is that they look exactly the same until it’s time to harvest, and then you can tell the difference. We live in that period of time before the final harvest, when both tares and wheat grow among us–even as a church family.
John’s telling his friends, “Welcome to the final hour, things are like this.” This helps his friends know that they’re not going crazy, there’s not something wrong with them or with their church that made these people turn into those opposed to Christ.
2. TAKE HOLD OF THE GIVEN RESOURCES (2:20-23).
So this first insight from the apostle John helps us place our experiences of spiritual betrayal in perspective, it helps us see these experiences in light of the big picture of what God is doing. Yet what about how to deal with it, are we just left to fend for ourselves or are there resources we can draw on? In the next section we’re going to see that WHEN WE FACE SPIRITUAL BETRAYAL, WE NEED TO REALIZE THAT GOD HAS GIVEN US THE RESOURCES WE NEED TO AVOID IT OURSELVES. Specifically we’re going to find two resources John mentions, two tools in our tool box that God has given us to avoid spiritual betrayal derailing our spiritual journey.
In verse 20-23 mentions these two resources. Let’s talk about the second resource first, this truth that they already know. The first resource God’s given us is the gift of GOD’S TRUTH. God’s revealed truth is our measuring rod. John knows that his friends already have the truth, they have the gospel he wrote–the fourth book of the New Testament–they had the message they received about Christ when they first came to know him personally. So like a good pastor, John’s gently reminding them that they already have truth, that all they need to do is to utilize what they already have.
We also find a hint about what these former church members were now teaching. Somehow they were denying that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah or Anointed One. Most Bible scholars believe that these former church members had separated Jesus and Christ into two different people, as if they were two different entities rather than fully Godhood and full humanity joined in one person. For the apostle John, being wrong about Jesus’ identity is the same as denying Jesus. We can’t just claim Jesus was a good guy or a clever moral teacher or a gifted rabbi, but according to the Bible anything less than viewing him as fully God and fully human is denial of who he truly is.
George Whitefield, the great British evangelist, was speaking to a man about his soul. He asked the man, “Sir, what do you believe?”
“I believe what my church believes,” the man replied respectfully.
“And what does your church believe?”
“The same thing I believe.”
“And what do both of you believe?” the preacher inquired again.
“We both believe the same thing!” was the only reply he could get.
A man is not saved by assenting to a church creed. He is saved by trusting Jesus Christ and bearing witness to his faith (Rom 10:9-10). False teachers will often say, “We worship the Father. We believe in God the Father, even though we disagree with you about Jesus Christ. “And denying him means denying God the Father, since the Father sent the Son into the world to provide for our salvation and forgiveness of our sins.
If the Christians John is writing to had some truth to draw on, we in the 21st century have even more truth. When John wrote these words the fully New Testament hadn’t yet been collected and bound together, so they only had the Old Testament, John’s Gospel, and now this letter. We today have 66 books that make up the Bible, including all 27 books of the New Testament, the full account of the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and resurrection. This gift of God’s truth is given to us so we don’t get derailed when those around us experience spiritual betrayal.
But John also mentions a second resource he calls an ANOINTING. Now back then an anointing was when someone rubbed oil on a person in order to visibly set that person apart for a special task. In the Old Testament, kings and priests were all publicly commissioned for their work by being anointed. In fact the word “Christ” means “anointed one,” that is the One God has anointed, who God sent to do the work of our salvation. To be anointed meant you were officially appointed or assigned a special task. The Latin equivalent is the word unction. This picture of a king or a prophet being publicly anointed with oil for a special task becomes a picture for us of the Holy Spirit coming to live inside of us when we trust in Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 1:21-22 says, “God…anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” This means that every person who’s trusted Jesus Christ and become a follower of Jesus Christ has this same anointing, it’s just a special word picture that describes what it means to have God’s Holy Spirit living in us. I’m no more or less anointed than you are if you’ve trusted in Jesus Christ, but we’re both anointed by God through the Holy Spirit living in us.
Notice the repetition of that key word “remains” in v. 27, that the spiritual traitors didn’t remain, but the anointing of God does remain on those who are still walking with Jesus. This anointing teaches us what we need to know, it’s a genuine anointing, not a phony, and it teaches us–there’s that key word again–to “remain” or “abide” in Christ.
A missionary to the American Indians was in Los Angeles with an Indian friend who was a new Christian. As they walked down the street, they passed a man on the corner who was preaching with a Bible in his hand. The missionary knew the man represented a cult, but the Indian saw only the Bible. He stopped to listen to the sermon.
“I hope my friend doesn’t get confused,” the missionary thought to himself, and he began to pray. In a few minutes the Indian turned away from the meeting and joined his missionary friend.
“What did you think of the preacher?” the missionary asked.
“All the time he was talking,” exclaimed the Indian, “something in his heart was “someone” – the Holy Spirit of God! The Spirit guides us into the truth and helps us to recognize error. This anointing of God is “no lie,” because “the Spirit is truth” (1 John 5:6).
This second resource is the gift of GOD’S HOLY SPIRIT. Now some have taken John’s words here to mean that Christians who are truly spiritual don’t need any teachers in their lives. That would seem odd since John is teaching them with his letter and the New Testament speaks often if our need for spiritual teachers. But in the Christian journey a teacher isn’t going to add anything new to what God has already said in his Bible. These false teachers, these former church members claimed that they had special knowledge from God, that in order to truly experience God you had to be under their teaching. John is saying that we don’t need that sort of thing.
The two resources of God’s truth and God’s Spirit provide us with everything we need to avoid spiritual betrayal. God’s given us His truth in the Bible and His anointing through His Holy Spirit through our faith in Jesus Christ. Every follower of Jesus has these resources to ensure that someone else’s spiritual betrayal doesn’t devastate us.
3 . A TIME FOR DIRECTION CHECK (2:24-25).
Now all of this isn’t to suggest that spiritual betrayal is no big deal. When someone we love and trust walks away from Christ it can devastate us. Just this last week I read about a student at a major university in Southern California who was raised in the church–his dad’s an elder at their church–and after taking a philosophy class this young man has announced to his family that he’s an atheist now. Those parents are devastated, as well as that young man’s home church, they’re torturing themselves with questions about what they did wrong. Spiritual betrayal is painful, if it wasn’t it would be betrayal.
But John knows that someone else’s spiritual betrayal can be a teachable moment for us. Again notice the repetition of that key word “remain” or “abide.” Up to this point John’s been describing, but here he shifts to the imperative, the mode of command, to tell his friends to make sure they are remaining where they should. You see, when spiritual betrayal confronts us, we’re tempted to throw up our hands and say, “What’s the use?” That’s why one person’s spiritual betrayal can actually derail lots of other Christians. So John says it’s time to do a little inventory, time to check the map and make sure we’re on course spiritually. Is the message of Jesus Christ–the message that’s from the beginning–truly remaining in us, or have we been substituting some other message for it, perhaps the message of our culture, perhaps the message of a persuasive teacher or TV personality. The message of Christ is our map, we can get our bearings by comparing our direction to the truth of that message. SA LAHAT NANG NARIRINIG NATING KATURUAN, KE CELEBRITY O KUNG SINO PA MAN, DAPAT ANG PANG-CHECK NATIN AY ANG MENSAHE NI KRISTO!
If our lives are in sync with that message, then we’re still remaining with Christ–abiding with him–and if we’re remaining with Christ, we’re still with God the father as well. If we’re remaining with Jesus, then we have eternal life, this is his gift to us here and now, not just the kind of life that lasts forever, but the kind of lives that knows God in the here and now.
John is concerned that other people’s spiritual betrayal will get his friends off track in their own spiritual life. That word “lead astray” literally means “to cause someone to wander off the right path.” The spiritual journey he’s talking about has lots of forks in the road, lots of rabbit trails people tend to wander off on their own.
So here we find the heart of John’s concern. WHEN WE FACE SPIRITUAL BETRAYAL WE NEED TO EVALUATE THE DIRECTION OF OUR SPIRITUAL JOURNEY.
When someone else abandons the Christian journey that’s a great time to do a little evaluation of your own spiritual progress. HINDI ITO PANAHON PARA GAYAHIN SILA, TO THROW THE TOWEL AND SAY, “IT’S OVER!” HINDI ITO PANAHON PARA TUMALIKOD DIN…ITO AY PANAHON UPANG EVALUATE, TIGNAN ANG ATING SARILING BUHAY PANANAMPALATAYA O PAGLAKAD SA PANGINOON…Do you need to make some mid-course corrections? What may seem just a little bit off now will grow more and more significant the longer you go, just a few degrees off can mean the difference between arriving at your destination or getting hopelessly lost.
Spiritual betrayal can devastate those who are left behind. Some of you are still hurting from some “Joe’s” spiritual betrayal. You keep thinking how you trusted him, you prayed together, he led you in worship, he worked with your children in ministry. John wants us to know that even though it hurts, we shouldn’t be too surprised at spiritual betrayal because it’s a sign of the times in which we live, he wants us to regain our confidence that he’s given us the resources we need to deal with spiritual betrayal, and he wants us to use the opportunity to evaluate the direction of our own spiritual journey.