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The Test of the Acknowledgment of Jesus as the Messiah

Series: 1 John

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Nov 30, 2003

1 John 2:22-23

Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to 1 John chapter 2 as we continue to work our way through this letter of the Apostle John to the church. As we've worked through this letter over the last several months, we have said that over and over John's concern is to show us what the marks of a true Christian are. What's the expression of true Christian faith in life? What does it look like? And John is concerned to articulate an answer for these Christians and for us.

And he's given a three-part answer to that question: He has spoken of the moral test of our Christian profession; he has spoken of a fellowship test of our Christian profession; and for today in particular and for much of the rest of the book, he is going to talk about a doctrinal test of our Christian profession. That is, in chapter one he tells us that one mark of a true Christian is that he loves God's word, he obeys God's word, and he responds to God's moral commands with a hearty and willing embrace of God's teaching in Scripture. He wants to be holy as God is holy. He wants to walk in the way of holiness as God has commanded in His word. And so, John explores different aspects of that moral test in 1 John chapter 1.

But there was also a fellowship test of our Christian experience. We've called it different things. We've called it “a social test” or “a relational test.” But it boils down to this: Do we love one another as believers? Are we committed in fellowship with one another? Are we committed to living in a supportive, encouraging, Christ-exalting, God-centered community with one another? Are we committed to one another even when we let one another down? Are we committed to serving one another, or does our life revolve around what we as individuals get out of fellowship in the community? Are we really committed to one another in this Christian community? And John explores different ways of that. In fact, last week when we were looking at 1 John 2:18-21, we saw something of John's exploration of this idea or test of Christian fellowship in the fact that he was dealing with a group of people that had left the local congregation. And he was talking about what that meant about their own commitment to Christ.

But today, especially when we get to verses 22 and 23 of 1 John chapter 2, John turns his attention to a doctrinal test. So that there's not only a moral test and a relational test, or a fellowship test, but there's a doctrinal test to our profession of Christianity: How do you know a true Christian? Well, John is very concerned that Christians make certain affirmations, and especially affirmations pertaining to Jesus Christ. In fact, for John one of the key doctrinal issues in the Christian life is: What does a person think of Jesus? Who do we believe Jesus to be? Who do we accept Jesus to be? How much do we embrace what the apostles taught about Jesus, what Jesus claimed about Jesus, what the Bible says about Jesus? Do we love a Jesus of our own imagination and invention? Or, do we embrace the Jesus who is set forth in the Scriptures? Is our trust in Christ as He is offered in the Gospel? Or, is our trust in a Christ of our own imagination? And John is very concerned that our belief about Jesus would be derived from the word of God; it would be correct; it would be doctrinally sound. And so, in exploring these tests, John gives us diagnostic tools which for true Christians serve as helps to our assurance, but also serve the true Christian in cultivating discernment, especially about false teachers. And that's very much relevant to the passage we're going to study today.

So, as we turn to 1 John 2:22 and 23 to consider this doctrinal test, let me outline that passage for you before we read it so that you can follow the logic of John's argument. There are four clauses or phrases in these two verses. And in each of those phrases, John is making an assertion. He first asserts that any Christian teacher who denies that Jesus is the incarnate Messiah and Son of God is a liar; that is, he's speaking falsehood. And you see that assertion in the very first phrase.

In the second phrase, he tells us that any Christian teacher who denies that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God and Messiah is denying both the Father and the Son. That is, even if he claims to know God, even if he claims to be a follower of God, and even if he claims to be in fellowship with God–if he denies Jesus’ incarnate sonship, he is in fact denying God. That's the second thing that John says, and you see that in the second half of verse 22.

Then, thirdly, if you look at verse 23 and the very first phrase, John says that anyone who denies the Bible's teaching about the Son, does not and cannot have a saving relationship with the Father. So what you think about the Son impacts your ability to have a relationship with the Father. And then the reverse of that, or the positive side of that, he states at the end of verse 23, and this is the fourth thing that he argues in this passage: that anyone and everyone who embraces and confesses Jesus the Son and Jesus the Messiah embraces His Father too. That is, when you embrace Jesus as He is offered in the Gospel, you embrace the One who can take you into saving fellowship with the living God, the only One who can introduce you into fellowship with the living God. So that's the outline of John's argument in this passage. Let's now hear God's word. Before we do, let's look to the Lord in prayer and ask Him to bless the reading and the proclamation of His word. Let's pray.

Lord, Your word is truth, and we ask that You might open our eyes that we might behold wonderful truth in Your word. The Scriptures you have given us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and therefore those Scriptures are profitable for reproof and correction and training and instruction in righteousness. You have given these as a means of grace to us so that we might be built up, rooted and grounded in the knowledge of God and the knowledge of the love of God which is in Jesus Christ. You have given these Scriptures to us to disciple us. So now we pray by Your Spirit that You would open our eyes to receive the truth of Your word and to embrace it and to live in it. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

This is God's word.

“Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

The false teacher sooner or later distorts the Bible's teaching on who Jesus is. The false teacher–we might even say every false teacher–sooner or later denies or distorts the Bible's teaching on who Jesus really is. And John is dealing with that kind of false teaching here. Allow your eyes to go back to verses 18-21. John spoke there about people who had left this congregation: “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.” In other words, a group has left this congregation. And in verses 22 and 23 you’re being told by John why they left the congregation: they had divergent beliefs about who Jesus was. They disagreed with central, biblical, apostolic, teaching about who Jesus was. They denied that Jesus was Messiah. Precisely, they denied that Jesus was the Messiah as He is set forth in Scripture by denying that He had come in the flesh–the He was incarnate, the incarnate Son of God. And John is speaking to this particular issue in 1 John 2:22 and 23.

Now, we've outlined the four parts of John's assertion, but let me put it another way for you. Verse 22: In that verse John is telling you what the denial of Jesus as Messiah tells you about the people who are denying that Jesus is the Messiah. In other words, in verse 22 John does make certain assertions about who Jesus is, but his main concern in verse 22 is to tell you what the denial of the Bible's teaching about Jesus means for the people who are denying the Bible's teaching about Jesus. In other words, he's saying, “Find somebody who is denying that Jesus is the Messiah in this way, and let me tell you a few things about what that denial says about them.” In other words, he's focusing on how the character of certain teachers is revealed by their denial of the Bible's teaching about Jesus. Then in verse 23, he talks about the consequences of that. So in verse 22, he's telling you what. In verse 23, he's telling you so what. In verse 22, he's telling you what the false teachers are denying and what that says about their character. In verse 23, he's telling you the consequence of their denial. And we’ll follow that two-part outline of the passage as we study it today.

I. Denial of the Bible's teaching about Jesus is a certain mark of false teaching.
First, let's look at verse 22, and there we see John's test of what a person believes about Jesus: the test of the acknowledgment of Jesus as the incarnate Messiah, the Son of God. And John's point in verse 22 is that a denial of the Bible's teaching about Jesus is a certain mark of false teaching. “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ?” John is zeroing in here on those who in some way are denying that Jesus is the Messiah. Now, from that phrase alone in isolation, without paying attention to the context, you might think that John is thinking about people who deny that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. So for instance, these might be unbelieving Jews who were denying that Jesus is in fact the Messiah prophesied in Isaiah and other places. And there are certainly people like that in the New Testament. Even as the apostles preached, as Peter and Paul and the other apostles preached in Acts, we see many Jews embracing the truth that Jesus is the Messiah. But we also in Acts 5 and elsewhere find many Jews who reject Jesus as the Messiah. So, you might think that John is speaking about them if you simply look at that phrase in isolation.

But John seems to be getting at something slightly different. And you’ll see this if you turn forward to 1 John 4:1-3. John in those verses combines the idea of Jesus as Messiah and Jesus as the incarnate Son of God–that is, God in the flesh. And he seems to be pointing us to a theme which runs throughout his gospel: that there are some people who are denying that Jesus was fully human, and that the Messiah, the Son of the living God, had fully taken upon Himself a whole and perfect human nature. And you see this in 1 John 4:1-3, “Beloved, 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. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.” And so if we read 1 John 2:22 in light of what he says–by the way, not only in 1 John 4:1-3, but about five other times in this gospel or in this letter–we see that John's concern is people who are basically teaching that God has not incarnated the second person of the Trinity in the flesh; that is, that the Messiah is to be distinguished from Jesus of Nazareth.

The idea probably went something like this: there would've been teachers…And there is one recorded, in fact, in Eusebius’ famous book, The Church History,1 a man named Cerinthius who taught that there was Jesus of Nazareth and then there was the Messiah. And for a while the Messiah inhabited Jesus of Nazareth, but just prior to Jesus of Nazareth's crucifixion, the Messiah left Jesus of Nazareth. So though Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, the Messiah did not. The Messiah was never infleshed. He was contained within Jesus of Nazareth, but He always remained an eternal and perfect and unembodied spirit. And therefore, you must keep distinct in your mind Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ. And John is saying this: ‘No, no, no, no. That's not the Christ of the Bible. The Christ of the Bible is God in the flesh; two natures: human and divine, whole and perfect united in one person; Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, God in the flesh. That is our Savior. That's the Jesus who we proclaim. Jesus who lived in a human body like us was a human like us: fully divine yet fully human. He suffered. He bled. He died. He was raised again in that same flesh though glorified, and sits even now at the right hand of the heavenly Father. So that John Duncan of New College, Edinburgh, two centuries ago could say, “The dust of the earth sits on the throne of heaven.” That is, there is a man now–Jesus, Son of God, and Son of Man–at the right hand of the heavenly Father. That is the Messiah. That is the Jesus proclaimed in the Gospel.

And John is saying here that there are people in this Christian communion who have denied that Jesus is God in the flesh. They've denied that He is the Messiah come in the flesh. And to deny that, John says, is to be a false prophet and more. It is to be the antichrist. Now, listen to John's language. John says to these Christians, ‘Wherever you hear a denial or a distortion of the Bible's teaching about Jesus, I give you the antichrist.’ John does not back down on this language at all.

So often we think of the antichrist as something that is coming later on. It's not going on now; it's something that is going to happen just right before the end of time, just right before the Second Coming. And here's John in the first century saying to a Christian congregation, ‘Wherever you see the Bible's teaching about Jesus denied or distorted, I give you the antichrist.’ My friends, that's John's point in this passage to these Christians. He's saying to them, ‘Look around you. Where you see Jesus’ claims about you not embraced, where you see the apostles’ teaching about Jesus not embraced, where you see the Bible's teaching about Jesus not embraced–there you see the spirit of antichrist. You see, for John any Christian teacher, put it in quotation marks, any “Christian teacher” who is part of the covenant community, is drawn up out of God's people; he seems to be part of the visible church; he claims to be anointed with the Spirit of God; but he does not teach what the Bible says about Jesus. And this is what John says about him: he's a liar and he is the antichrist. John, you see, is calling us as Christians to be discerning about voices which denigrate the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. And whether it's Bishop Spong2 just coming right out and saying it: “Jesus is not God. He is not God in the flesh. He is not the incarnate God.” Or whether it's a scholar who comes along and says it much more subtly, “Oh, I believe what the Bible says about Jesus, but it's not clear from the gospels that Jesus knew that He was the Messiah.” Either of those statements is equally pernicious and equally wrong and equally denigrates who the Bible says that Jesus was. And John is calling on us to be very, very much on guard for the spirit of antichrist in our midst right now.

What John is saying is this: What we believe about Jesus matters very, very much. It is the difference between an eternity with God and an eternity separated from God. John is telling us that what we believe about Jesus matters. To put it another way, John is saying that our doctrinal affirmations about Jesus are at the very core of what it means to be a Christian.

Now, my friends, I want to say that's counter-intuitive in our day and age. In our day and age, doctrinal beliefs are hustled off into the corner right next to other sorts of speculative opinions. And the idea is that if we really believe those doctrinal beliefs are true, we are incapable of being tolerant. And, of course, tolerance is the only virtue there is, and in tolerance is the only vice there is. And if you really believe that, it means that there are other people (gasp)…who are wrong! And therefore we really can't believe that. And certainly we can't believe that what a person thinks about Jesus is the difference between eternal life and eternal condemnation.

And, my friends, that is precisely what John says. John says that what you believe about Jesus is the difference between heaven and hell. He just puts it that baldly. And as shocking as that may be to us, it is absolutely prime for John. Why? Because a Jesus who is not the incarnate Son of God is incapable of bearing your sins and bringing you into fellowship with the living God. And so what you believe about Jesus’ person impinges upon Jesus’ work. And if you do not believe whom Jesus says He was than you cannot participate in what Jesus says He did. And so for John there is an inextricable link between those two things, and so it is vital for the Christian to understand what he or she means when she says that Jesus is the Lord, He is the Messiah, He is the Son of the living God in the flesh, crucified, dead and buried on our behalf. All of those things are essential.

And that's why early Christians began to make very strong statements about who Jesus is. Let me ask you to take your hymnals out and turn with me to page 845. In this section of the hymnal you will find two creeds, a confession of faith, and a catechism: The Apostles’ Creed, The Nicene Creed, The Westminster Confession of Faith, and then The Shorter Catechism. Notice on page 845, as you look at The Apostles’ Creed, it begins with a short affirmation of our belief in God, and then with a short affirmation of our belief in the Holy Spirit, and then several other things–like the church and the communion of the saints and forgiveness of sins and resurrection and the everlasting life. And in the middle there is a long section about…Jesus. Why? Because of 1 John 2:22 and 23. What you believe about Jesus has eternal consequences. And so the early church in The Apostles’ Creed said more about Jesus than about anything else precisely to get that point through.

Now flip over to the next page. Look at page 846: The Nicene Creed. The Apostle's Creed was in development before The Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed was adopted in 325 at the Council of Nicaea and then modified at Constantinople in 381, and it has been promulgated from that time. The official name for it is The Niceano-Constantinopolitan Creed, which is why we call it The Nicene Creed. And you notice again, it begins with a brief statement about God; it concludes with a brief statement about the Holy Spirit and about the other things which are mentioned in The Apostles’ Creed, and the long center section is about…Jesus. Why? Because of 1 John 2: 22 and 23.

Flip forward to The Westminster Confession of Faith. Look at page 849 and at the very top of 850. A short statement about what we as Christians believe about God the holy Trinity. But then if you will turn forward to page 853…long!…one of the longest chapters in the whole of The Confession of Faith. What's it about? Jesus. Why? Because of 1 John 2: 22 and 23.

Turn forward to The Catechism. Turn to The Shorter Catechism, page 869. Look at questions 4 and 6: brief statement about what we believe about God. But then turn over a page. Page 870 and page 871, look at questions 21-28. They’re all about Jesus. Why? 1 John 2: 22 and 23. If you don't get Jesus right, everything else goes wrong. And that's what John is saying, ‘What you believe about Jesus Christ matters. And a denial of the Bible's teaching about Jesus is, therefore, a certain mark of false teaching.’ So there's his test of the acknowledgment of Jesus the Messiah.

II. Denial of the Bible's teaching about Jesus leads to spiritual disaster.
Now, so what? What's the consequence of this? Well, look at verse 23. Here John makes it clear that denial of the Bible's teaching about Jesus leads to spiritual disaster. ‘To deny the Son,’ he's already said in verse 22, ‘is to deny the heavenly Father.’ You can't have a relationship with the heavenly Father apart from the Son. What did Jesus Himself say? “No one comes to the Father but by Me.” So it makes perfect sense when John says, ‘If you deny Jesus, you've denied the Father,’ because Jesus Himself has said, “No one comes to the Father but by Me.” And He doesn't just mean, ‘No one comes to the Father but by a person named Jesus.’ He means, “No one comes to the Father but by Me”–the real Jesus, not the Jesus of your own imagination, but the Jesus of Scripture, the Jesus of my own self-revelation, the Jesus that my apostles preached to you, the Jesus who is recorded in the gospels, the New Testament, testified to in the Old Testament, the Jesus of the Bible. ‘To deny Him,’ John says in verse 22, ‘is to deny the Father.’

And so he goes on in verse 23 to say that to deny the Son means that you do not have the Father. To deny the Jesus of the Scriptures is to deny the heavenly Father. Even if a prophet says, “Oh, I have a relationship with God. I know the true God. I know the God of Heaven and Earth but I don't believe that about Jesus.” Well, that person does not have a relationship with the heavenly Father. That person does not have a relationship with the one, true God. And John goes on to say that the other side of this truth is that the one who confesses the Son has the Father also. To confess the Son means to have the Father. Now John of course doesn't just mean a bare confession, a bare mental assent. You know, you agree halfheartedly to the abstract proposition that Jesus is the Messiah come in the flesh…boom! You’re a Christian. It's not John's point.

See, to confess costs the early Christians greatly. There were whole groups of early Christians; we call them today “the martyrs.” They were thought of as the witnesses in the early church, and to confess Jesus as the Son of God, as the Messiah, meant for them to die. There are many, many Christians around the world today, my friends, in the same circumstances, especially those who are in Muslim countries where to be baptized and to confess Jesus as Lord and Messiah means to sign your own death warrant. There are literally hundreds of thousands of Sudanese Christians whose bodies have been laid in the ground because of this confession of faith. I was in Trinity Presbyterian Church in Montgomery just a couple of weeks ago where our friend Claude McRoberts ministers. And as Claude introduces The Apostles’ Creed he not only asks, “Christian, what do you believe?” He adds, “And what and for what are you willing to die?” Puts a new perspective on repeating the words of The Apostles’ Creed, doesn't it?

Well, John's asking you, ‘Will you confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Messiah? Are you ready to die for that? Has that truth so laid hold of you you’re ready to die for it? You realize that your only hope in life and death is in Jesus Christ, and therefore there is nothing in this world that you’re going to deny Jesus for.’ See John is pressing the bedrock nature of this truth upon us. By this truth everything else hangs or falls. On this truth everything else hinges: the truth of who the Bible says Jesus is. John is calling us to discernment and John is calling us to confession. We live, my friends, in an easy place. Many Christians must give their lives for this confession. But the easiness of this place makes it a hard place because we can fool ourselves into thinking that we're confessing Christ when we are not. May God grant us the grace truly to trust in Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel and thus to confess Him aright. Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, guard our hearts against all wrong thinking about our Savior, and grant that we would truly trust Him and confess Him, and that not only with our lips but with our lives. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

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  1. Eusebius Pamphilus (c. 260 —341) Bishop of C–∂sarea. Eusebius studied under Pamphilius (c. 240-309). a Christian scholar and presbyter in the church at Caesarea. Pamphilius was an ardent disciple of Origen and Eusebius became deeply influenced by the Origenist tradition. His major work was his Historia Ecclesiastica, or History of the Church, a massive piece of research that preserves quotations from many older writers that would otherwise have been lost. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05617b.htm

2. John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark, denies central tenets of historic Christianity. His own writings and reviews of his recent works are at these links:

http://www.beliefnet.com/story/119/story_11975_1.html
http://www.beliefnet.com/story/72/story_7216_2.html
http://www.pastornet.net.au/jmm/athe/athe0540.htm
http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbnInquiry.asp?isbn=0060670843
http://www.spiritualityhealth.com/newsh/excerpts/bookreview/excp_3888.html
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0060670630/ref=ase_absolutsearch05/103-4799876-6117454?v=glance&s=books

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