Testing the Spirits
1 John 4 : 1 - 6
Far from being a secular society, the general picture of Britain today is that it remains religious. But it is not that Christian. It is false religion and false spirituality that predominates. Religious ideas and language permeate much popular cultural life. What is a ‘pop diva’ but the ancient goddess idea describing a female singer. What is an ‘icon’ but a spiritual concept used to describe a high example of something musical, artistic or sporty. If Wayne Rooney scores few goals at the World Cup and does not get sent off for swearing at referees no doubt you will see placards among supporters saying ‘Rooney walks on water’. You are promised paradise if you buy a Bounty Bar. One chocolate brand is marketed as ‘divine’. Holiday brochures also suggest that you will achieve nirvana and paradise all in one if you sign up for a week in Torremolinos. The interesting thing is that spiritual ideas and language still reflect the best aspirations of our human understanding. If, for example, all we were to hear on TV was an advertisement for chocolate describing in detail only the actual contents of the chocolate, it would not be attractive or appetising. For example, on the wrapper of a Cadbury’s bar of chocolate you read this: Ingredients : Milk, Fairtrade sugar, Fairtrade coca butter, Fairtrade cocoa mass, Vegetable fat, emulsifier (E442), Flavourings, Contains at least 70% certified Fairtrade ingredients. The equivalent of of 426ml of fresh liquid milk in every 227gms of milk chocolate. This information has its role. It is necessary and helpful, but, if that’s all we hear we will not be impressed. And so it is with our life and our attempts at life explanations. But that is what scientists do. If all we hear is that we are collections of cosmic dust - the detritus of imploded stars - if all we are told is that we are just a bunch of atoms randomly glued together - that does not fulfil our sense of aspiration and intelligence as humans. It does not explain beautiful literature, music and art and saintly lives. It does not explain worship. It does not explain Jesus Christ.
Test the spirits says John. What does he mean? In the lesson from Jeremiah, we heard his trenchant criticisms of the false preachers of his day. They say ‘Peace, peace, when there is no peace”. Classic Neville Chamberlain 1938 - piece of paper - signed by Hitler. Worthless. Former Episcopalian Bishop Richard Holloway and now apostate 'Legalise cannabis - it doesn’t do any harm'. Scientists now say after years of research that 'It rots the brain'. An Iranian Muslim cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi recently said : 'Many women who do not dress modestly... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes.'
In America there were the false cult leaders James Jones and David Koresh and the false evangelists Jim and Tammy Baaker and Jimmy Swaggert. There are many false prophets in the world today and there are false prophets within the Church. Jesus’ warns that it is not that easy to distinguish true from false because false prophets are on the face of it identical to the true.
Within the Church that John is talking about, there were many weird and wonderful people with strange ideas. As I have often said, the idea that in the first Christian churches everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet is wrong. The idea that there was a harmony of understanding is mistaken. Christianity was very new. It was dynamic and effective but - there was no central library of simple basic ideas for everyone to adhere to. Different evangelists stressed different things and spoke in different ways and disagreed on some matters with one another. If for an experiment, every Church of Scotland minister in West Lothian preached in turn in every church, you would hear very different expressions and interpretations of the Gospel. And that is just our own Church of Scotland. People had their own ideas then as now, church-goers also. The Church in John’s time was also more lively and dynamic with all sorts of things happening as the Holy Spirit worked in new converts’ lives. Paul’s letters were mostly written to try to restore and keep order in congregations and to keep Christians faithful to the central principles of Christianity as he had taught them.
In that very fluid context - there were different manifestations of the Holy Spirit. John urged discernment. As the church grew, a body of teaching emerged. One book called 'The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles' had this to say, 'Not everyone who speaks in a spirit is a prophet : he is only a prophet if he walks in the ways of the Lord'. Con-men often arrived at the houses of Christians saying that they were travelling evangelists and could they stay there for the night and perhaps even for a few days. Some even ordered their own choice of food. Christians were advised not to tolerate this sort of thing and to send such people on their way. St Francis of Assisi had frauds among his followers. He sacked one such person after describing him thus 'He prayed little and worked even less - but my - he did eat bravely'.
How then are we to test the spirits?
i) If someone who spoke in the spirit described Jesus as the Son of God, the true messiah then that was genuine. Today, there are many people who admire Jesus but do not regard Him as the Son of God. That is the difference.
ii) A person truly speaking under the influence of the Holy Spirit will acknowledge the physical incarnation of God in Jesus. Again, many today cannot bring themselves to accept that. Orthodox Jews, for example cannot accept that. Some Christians think that God was certainly working in Jesus in the manner of the prophets of the Old Testament but say that Jesus was not God Himself on earth.
Why did this matter and why does it matter today? Because we have to take our stand as Christians on the extraordinary life of Jesus Himself and we cannot and must not allow ourselves to downgrade Christianity and make it just a social entity called a ‘religion’.
i) Jesus is our pattern for life
ii) Jesus is our mediator with God
iii) Jesus is our Saviour
iv) We are His body continuing on earth infused by the Holy Spirit
v) Jesus is the certain and reliable personal link between us and God our Maker.
All of these things are jeopardised if we listen to the subtle promptings of false spirits and the intellectual prophetic atheists of our day. Christianity is something different from other ideas and thoughts. It is something different from human rational activity and from our common sense. Christianity does not conform to the limits of our knowledge and wisdom. It is very different from the distracting competing commercialised views about Jesus that our media peddle and that our politicians swallow hook line and sinker.
And there is another area where it is essential for Christians to test the spirits and discern falsehood. Spiritualism. Every week you’ll see in 'The Courier' classified advertisements the following : Under Church Notices - wrongly described - Armadale Church of Spiritual Light (Scout Hall), Bathgate Christian Spiritualist Church (Scout Hall), Bathgate Guiding Light Spiritualist Church (Guide Hall), Broxburn Healing Light Spiritual Church (Bowling Club), Healing Light of Peace Spiritualist Church (The East Barn, Craigs Farm, Craigshill). These are not churches in the Christian sense and they should not describe themselves as such. One claims to be a Christian Spiritualist Church - there is no such thing - the Bible condemns spiritualism as inherently dangerous. People turn to spiritualism when they have nothing else, when they have lost faith and when they think they have a special gift of contacting the living dead. There is money to be made, of course. The Old Testament forbids us from getting involved in this, not because it is spurious and false but because it is real and dangerous. Opening ourselves out to the world of spirits is damaging to our psychology and emotional well being. Most people who get involved are pretty confused to begin with and are only made worse. They can become unhinged and fragmented of mind. The Bible acknowledges the existence of a spiritual world but teaches us not to try to make contact. We are to trust in Jesus Christ’s mastery and authority over that world and its influence for our life protection, health and eternal salvation.
When King Saul was losing his war with the Philistines he turned to a spiritualist woman for help. He disguised himself in order to seek her advice. The story is told in 1 Samuel : 28. Saul had been praying to God for help but no help had come. Saul had lost God’s favour through being a bad ruler. So he said 'Find me a woman who is a medium so that I may go and enquire of her'. He went to someone called the Witch of Endor. He asked her to put him in touch with Samuel the prophet who had died. The medium recognised Saul and then claimed to see a spirit rising from the ground looking like an old man. The medium imitated Samuel saying 'Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?' -'Why do you consult me, now that the Lord has turned away from you and become your enemy?'. - '…because you did not obey the Lord'…'The Lord will hand over both you and Israel to the Philistines'. Saul fell to the ground in bitterness and grief. As the battle was lost, Saul took his own life with his own sword so that he would not fall into the hands of the Philistines and be tortured and publicly abused and then killed.
In the New Testament it is clear that Jesus confronted the spiritualist world which he discerned had hurt and injured many people’s lives. It is interesting to note that there was something within stricken people that seemed to recognise who Jesus really was more than others did. 'I know who you are - the holy One of God'. He exorcised suffering souls and placed his own presence within them for their healing. At Calvary and in resurrection He overcame the influence of the powers of spiritual evil that certainly do exist. Paul in turn took on a lifelong battle with false spirits getting into all sorts of trouble for exorcising a young slave girl who made a lot of money for her owners telling fortunes. Over the centuries, the Christian Church has kept a place, usually very discreetly, at the margins, for dealing with this sort of thing. But if you go and visit Rev George Fox, under certain circumstances, you may hear him using the words of Christian exorcism over someone suffering illness and pain. These days, mental illness problems are being described in terms of faulty electrical wiring in the brain. But, although there have been marvellous advances in the treatment of mental illness by drugs, there is no great advancement in understanding the causes of such human problems.
Test the spirits. Christians are safe in the arms of Jesus if we trust Him and hold on to Him. There are many frauds and false alternatives and some are within the church and within the ministry too. Apostolic succession from Jesus, from Peter and James and John and Paul down through the ages is the guarantee of truth and validity in the Christian message. Even so - for those of us who teach and preach, it is the living of the faith that authenticates it in each life and time and generation.