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The Test of Fellowship

Series: 1 John

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Nov 23, 2003

1 John 2:18-21

I'd invite you to turn with me to 1 John chapter 2 and to the 18th verse as we continue to make our way through this letter. Over the last number of weeks, we have seen John digress from a plan that he has been pursuing in the first two chapters to give, first, a word of encouragement and, then, a word of exhortation. A couple of weeks ago we saw John encourage those who are reading this book about his own assurance about their assurance. He wanted to make sure that as he gave them tests whereby to measure true Christian discipleship, that they themselves were not discouraged by the application of those tests. And he explained to them that his purposes were for them to be able to distinguish between true and false Christians, but not to unsettle their own assurance of salvation.

Then, last week Brad took you through a very difficult passage in which John makes a strong challenge to those believers in that local congregation and of course to us: that we might not love the world, that we might not be caught up in the things of the world–the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life. And so John brings this strong exhortation to the congregation.

Now today, beginning in verse 18, he goes back to what he was doing before: that is, giving us tests of what it means to be a Christian: What does a true Christian look like? John has been pursuing that question for the whole of the first two chapters, and, after these digressions, he's back to that issue again. And, interestingly, he comes to this now from the standpoint of our commitment to one another in the body of Christ and, in this context especially, our commitment to one another in a local Christian congregation. The context of the passage before us is very simple: there are some people in this local congregation, or in these local congregations to whom John is originally writing, who have actually left those local congregations. They have dis-fellowshipped themselves from those local congregations on theological grounds. They disagreed with those orthodox Christians over the person and work of Jesus Christ, and therefore they have absented themselves from fellowship. They have reneged on their membership, and they have gone out of the church. And John is commenting on this in this passage as a test of true Christianity.

Now I want to hasten very quickly to note that these departures are not over something like the color of the carpet or over the fact that they don't like John's preaching and that they heard Apollos, and he's better, and he's just at the church down the street, so they went to hear him–these are very significant departures. They are over theological issues, and so John's test of fellowship is rooted in the truth. True Christian fellowship is rooted in the truth, and the fact that these people have left the congregation is rooted in their rejection of the truth. So it's not something trivial that has led to the departure; it's something profound that has led to the departure. And so this is the context for the words that John will speak in this passage. Before we hear God's word read and proclaimed, let's look to Him in prayer. Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your word. You have appointed it as a means of grace to us. It is to serve to open our eyes, to show us ourselves, but more to show us the Savior. We ask, O God, that You would show us the Savior in Your word, and that You would show us the way of life, and that You would give us discernment by Your spirit as we read Your word to see the marks of grace in ourselves and to pursue growth in grace in our lives. Hear our prayers, we pray. Answer them because we ask them in Jesus' name. Amen.

Let us hear God's word then in 1 John chapter 2, beginning in verse 18.

“Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you all know. I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it, and because no lie is of the truth.”

Amen. This is God's word. May He add His blessing to it.

Well, John has dumped a bag of issues on our plate, hasn't he? Four verses; lots of significant issues. There's more to say here than we can do justice to, but let me outline this passage for you in three parts. The first part comes in verse 18, where John is urging us to live life in light of the reality that we are living in the last days. Then in verse 19 he explains to us that though true believers cannot fall away, false believers must fall away. And then, thirdly, in verses 20 and 21, he tells us that all true believers are indwelt with the Holy Spirit and have the true knowledge of God. Let's look at this passage in those three parts today, beginning in verse 18 where John is urging us to live Christianly, to live in light of the lateness of the hour, to be watchful, to be on guard.

I. Live Christianly in light of the lateness of the hour, and be watchful, on guard.
That's his message: live Christianly in light of the lateness of the hour, and be watchful; be on guard. Listen to his words: “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour.” John is orienting these Christians. He's attempting to help them to put their present experience in biblical perspective, and he says to them, “Children, it is the last hour.”

Now, this is very important for us to understand. John is saying that Christians then, and not simply Christians now, are already living in the last hour. From the perspective of Scripture, the structure of God's plan in redemption looks like this: there is the old covenant in which God unfolds His plan in shadows and in signs prefiguring the reality that is to come in Christ, but when Jesus comes that reality has come in the flesh and has been inaugurated. The end times have commenced in the coming of Jesus Christ.

Now there is a coming yet to come. We refer to it as “the Second Coming.” And so all believers who live between the First Coming and the Second Coming are living in the end times: the times which are the ends of the ages, which look forward to the final judgment of God, the Second Coming of Christ, and the restoration of all things in Him. And so when the New Testament refers to the end times, it's not referring to a period of time that commenced in 1948 and will extend for a few more years until Jesus sets up a visible reign in Palestine; it's referring to the fullness of time which exists between the First Coming and the Second Coming of Christ. It's saying that we are at the very cusp of the culmination of the ages, that the next great redemptive thing that is going to happen in God's glorious plan is the coming of our Lord. And so John is reminding his disciples again that we live in that last hour.

Do you remember how Jesus would express this to his disciples from time to time? We heard Derek remind us of this when we were studying through the gospel of John. You remember Jesus’ words in John: “Work for the night is coming when no man can work”? What's Jesus doing? He's reminding His disciples that there's not much time left, that the next great thing that will occur will be the coming of Messiah in power and glory–not to be the sin bearer but to be the judge of sin and to be the vindicator of His people. The next great thing to happen is the Judgment Day, and so we must live in light of the fact that it is the last hour.

And then John says something interesting, “And just as you heard that antichrist is coming”–and already your mind is bursting with questions, and I'm not going to answer them all. But let me just give you some framework for understanding what John has said. Since the Old Testament–not since the New Testament, but since the Old Testament–God had been telling His people in His word that there would be one raised up against the true Messiah, perhaps even seeking to serve as a counterfeit of that true Messiah. It's described, for instance, in Daniel. And so the idea of an anti-Messiah, someone who stands over against the Messiah, is not a New Testament idea; it's an Old Testament idea. And so John can say, “Just as you hear that antichrist is coming.” John is the one who uses this term–the anti-Messiah, “the antichrist”–in the New Testament. And so he's saying that they've learned about this one who will be raised over against the Messiah even from the Old Testament, even from Daniel. But he's saying this not to draw your attention to the question of, “Well, is that going to be one person right at the end of history? And is that going to be a person who attempts to pretend like he is Jesus come again? Or is this going to be in the form of a worldly tyranny raised up against the people of God? That's not John's point here. John's point is to say that the principle of this antichrist is already present in this local congregation, and it's present in the local congregation in people who are denying the Bible's truth about who Jesus is.

Many of you are reading the book, The DaVinci Code. Now this is not about to be a rebuke for reading novels or for reading that book. If you read it and enjoyed it, fine. That's not my point. My point is: it's amazing to me how many people are turning a novel into something as if it were historical truth about Jesus, because very frankly the things that the novel says about Jesus are blasphemous. But there are some people, even a major network has made a television special about Jesus based upon the suggestions of a novel as if they were somehow historical. And let me say that the Jesus presented in that novel bears no relation to the Jesus of the Bible. And were someone believing in that Jesus as opposed to the Jesus of the Bible, that would be an example of the principle of antichrist. You see, antichrist is anything that is set in the place of the Christ of the Bible. And so we want to make certain that our view of Jesus is derived from Scripture and not from somewhere else, and that the One that we worship as Jesus the Messiah is the One whom the Bible proclaims is Jesus and Messiah.

And this is precisely what John is saying. He's saying, ‘There are many antichrists who have already appeared.’ In other words, he's saying, ‘In this local congregation, there are people who have rejected who the Bible says Jesus is, and because of that they've left this church.’ That's what he's talking about in verse 19: they've left and they've gone off into their own fellowship; they've dis-fellowshipped themselves. And John says, ‘You see, this is actually proof that we are living in the end times, because that's just what Daniel said would happen when he spoke about Messiah all the way back in Daniel 7 through 9.’ “From this we know it is the last hour.”

Now what does John want us to do then? Well, John wants us to do two things: first of all, he wants us to live in light of that reality of the lateness of the hour. We are living in the end times. He wants us to live with a view to the coming of Christ as the culminating point in history. He wants us to see that Second Coming, that coming of Christ, that final judgment of God, as the culminating point of God's purposes and for us to live in consciousness of that reality. He wants that to color our reality.

Let me give you one example. Turn back in your hymnals to #358: the hymn that we opened with in our praise this morning. And look at verse four; look at stanza four. “The golden evening brightens in the west. / Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest. / Sweet is the calm of Paradise the blest. / Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” This stanza reminds us of the immediate rest that we receive when, trusting in Jesus Christ, we go home to be with the Lord. That is the rest that Horace Hines knows this Lord's Day morning. After a long fight with cancer, Horace knows that rest.

But that is not the ultimate hope of the believer. The ultimate hope of the believer is expressed in stanzas five and six of “For All the Saints.” “But lo! There breaks a yet more glorious day.” See, the thing that I'm living for is not my dying day when my soul is immediately in the presence of Christ–as glorious as that is, as comforting as that is, as true as that is–the day that I'm living for is when I in my resurrected body stand with you, all the saints, and we see Jesus in His resurrected body passing by. That's what we're living for. We’re living for this: “When the saints triumphant rise in bright array / and the King of Glory passes on His way, / and from earth's wide bounds and ocean's farthest coast / through gates of pearl stream in the countless hosts / singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” That's what we're looking for. We’re looking for the whole world, the whole believing world, a multitude which no man can number of saints, not simply in soul but re-embodied, reunited with our resurrected bodies–see with our own eyes the victory of the Lord Jesus Christ. That's what we live for. We’re living for that day. And John is reminding us of that: we live in the last times. The next great event in history will be that event, and we're to live in light of that.

If I dare use a football metaphor on this weekend of all weekends, it's like John is saying, ‘Look. You’re in the fourth quarter, and the next thing that is going to happen is the referees whistle is going to blow, and the championship trophy is going to be bestowed at the end of this quarter. Don't live like you’re in the first quarter; you’re in the fourth quarter.” This doesn't mean that we live frantically, sort of running to and fro. There's enough of that already, isn't there? But it means there is certain urgency to our living for God in this world, isn't there? There's certain urgency to our witness. That's why Jesus can say, “Work for the night is coming when no man can work.” We do live with certain urgency, but we also live with an expectation.

And of course John's point here is primarily negative in verse 18. ‘We also live watchfully, knowing that in the last days that many will attempt to lead us astray.’ So we're circumspect; we're watchful; we're on guard. We’re not going to be taken in by goofy ideas and false teaching. We’re going to stick to the truth; we're going to stick to God's game plan, but we're going to know the clock is counting down. That's what John is saying here in verse 18: We’re going to live Christianly in light of the lateness of the hour. We live in the last hour, and so we're going to be watchful, and we're going to be on guard. You see, John knew that in this congregation, just like today, there were those who did not embrace Jesus as Messiah. Maybe they opposed Him; maybe they were counterfeiting Him; but they were there. And so he's telling this congregation to live watchfully, to live carefully in light of the last hour. That's the first thing.

II. True believers cannot fall away from the faith, but false believers not only can but always do.
There's a second thing too. Look at verse 19. Here John makes it clear that true believers cannot fall away from the faith, but false believers not only can, they always do. Now let me explain that because that can be confusing. Listen to John's words again, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.”

Now here's the short version of what John is saying. There are some false teachers and believers who had been in this church and they had left it. That's what John is describing in verse 19. There were false teachers and false believers in that congregation that had left. Now, isn't this an interesting way to describe that? He doesn't say, ‘These people were true believers and they didn't persevere.’ He doesn't say, ‘These believers had all the gifts of God except for perseverance and they fell away.’ Notice what he says. He does not say that they’re true Christians who failed to persevere. He says that when they left they revealed that they were never, ever truly believers. They reveal that they were never part of the true church. He says that they were false believers, and they revealed their true colors by rejecting Christ and rejecting the church. “They went out from us, but they were not really of us.” You see, John is saying, ‘Yes, they left…’ And Christians, you see, in this congregation are scratching their heads and they’re saying, ‘Can you lose your salvation? Can you apostatize from true faith? Can you be a true Christian and lose that?’ And so John's response is, ‘Yes, they went out from us. Yes, they professed to be part of us. Yes, they professed faith in Christ. Yes, they had received the signs of the covenant, and they departed and that departure–that rejection of Christ, that leaving the church–shows that they were never Christians in the first place.’

Isn't that an interesting thing for John to say? See, a lot of people would look at that phenomenon and say, “Well, you see that teaches you that you can lose your faith. That teaches you that you can lose salvation.” And John's response is, ‘No.’ John is not saying that they were true Christians, and they failed to persevere, and therefore they were lost. He is saying, ‘They were false believers who revealed their true colors.’

And interestingly, he's actually saying this by way of encouragement to the believers who would've been shaken by this. You see, there would've been believers in that congregation, and they would've been wondering, ‘How can this be? These people received baptism like I received baptism. These people came to the Lord's Table like I come to the Lord's Table. These people seemed to trust in Christ in the midst of a persecuting world like I do. Yet, they've left the church. They've rejected Christ. Is something wrong?’ And John says, ‘Yes, there's something wrong, but it's not with you, believer sitting there in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. The problem is with those who have rejected the Messiah. It's not with God's promise; it's not with God's salvation; it's not with our assurance or the perseverance of the saints. The problem is with them: they never really believed.’ You see, true believers cannot fall away from the faith, but false believers must. John is saying, ‘Their dis-fellowshipping themselves shows the state of their hearts. And the state of their hearts reveals not someone who knew grace and lost it, but someone who never knew grace.’ They pretended to know grace. They professed to know grace, but they never had it. This is a vitally important truth because John is actually going out of his way here to keep from unsettling your confidence in the surety of your salvation. He’ll come back and say it again at the very end of verse 21 just to make sure that you understand what he's getting at. His point of telling you this is not to unsettle your confidence and assurance but actually to confirm it, even when we see–and we do see it from time to time–those who have professed faith in Christ reject him, turn their back on Him, and leave the fellowship of His people. You see, the fellowship of God's people is built upon the reality of Jesus Christ and union with Him. And when we reject the reality of Jesus Christ, we are not capable of sharing fellowship with those who are in fellowship with Jesus Christ. And what we see here is people rejecting the truth and as a consequence rejecting fellowship and the possibility of it. That's what we see happening in 1 John chapter 2, verse 19.

III. All true believer are anointed with, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who unites us to Christ, and thus we have true knowledge of God.
And then John makes it clear that all true believers are anointed with, they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit who unites us to Christ. And because we're indwelt by, because we're anointed by the Holy Spirit, we have a true knowledge of God. Listen to this: “You have an anointing from the Holy One”–that's a term that John usually uses either of God the Father or of God the Son, of Christ, that is Christ anointing us even as the priest was anointed or of God anointing us even as a priest was anointed. You have an anointing from the Holy One and you all know. Now John's statement is probably a direct jab at the false teachers. The false teachers probably claimed that they had a special anointing and a secret knowledge of God. And John is saying to these believers, ‘No, no, no, no. You have the anointing and you have the knowledge of God. They claim a secret anointing and a special anointing and a secret knowledge of God that only they've been initiated into, but in fact by the Holy Spirit you have been initiated into the true knowledge of God.’

And that's exactly what Paul is saying in Ephesians chapter 3. Turn with me there very briefly. In Paul's prayer for the Ephesians, in chapter 3 beginning in verse 14 he says that this is what he bows his knee to the Father for. Beginning in verse 16, “That He would grant you according to the riches of His glory to be strengthened with power through His spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts with faith.” Paul prays that the Spirit would strengthen you with power in the inner man so that Christ would dwell in your hearts by faith. Every believer is anointed by God with His Holy Spirit in order that Christ might dwell in the heart. Receiving the Spirit and the anointing of God is not something that happens after salvation, some second higher step into a secret knowledge, it is what God uses to bring us into the knowledge of Christ.

Now the Spirit's work is ongoing, but when we turn on the television and see ubiquitously men claiming to have an anointing or declaring that in this place there is anointing, they are fundamentally misunderstanding what the New Testament means by that. Because the New Testament says that if you’re a believer, you have the anointing. That anointing comes from God the Father and God the Son and the anointing is the Holy Spirit. That's what Paul means in Ephesians chapter 1 verses 13 and 14. It's the Spirit that is the seal. It's the Spirit that is the anointing. The Spirit Himself is the blessing poured out upon us so that we might have Christ dwell in our hearts.

And John frankly is mocking the false teachers’ claims to have a special anointing and a special knowledge of God. ‘No,’ he's saying, ‘No! You have the Holy Spirit and you know the truth.’ And then he closes with these words, “I've not written to you because you do not know the truth but because you do know it and because no lie is of the truth.” In other words, John is saying, ‘I'm not bringing to you some new truth that you haven't heard before. You've already heard this and you know it and you believe it.’ But he is saying, ‘I'm saying these things in order to give you confidence’–confidence in your standing in Christ, confidence in the doctrinal teachings which John had revealed and Paul had revealed and Jesus had revealed that these people believed. Their unity, you see, was to be built around the truth.

Our fellowship, too, friends, is built around the truth. It's not simply a sentimental thing. When we sing in just a few moments “Blessed Be the Tie that Binds,” the tie that binds us is not the tie of just sort of liking to be with one another. The tie that binds us is Jesus Christ and, by the Spirit, our profession of Him. That is what creates Christian fellowship and no true believer ever dis-fellowships himself from Christ or from all of Christ's people. Now that's why the test of fellowship is very important because it shows us that we understand who Jesus is and what He did and what He meant to accomplish by His life and death and resurrection. Now let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, Your words are rich, even when they are hard. Grant us truth and light from this Your word, and by Your Spirit enable us to walk in it. In Jesus' name. Amen.

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