To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Overlooked Letters Part

2 John #2. Remaining in the Truth

Last week we talked about the importance of being “in truth.” Next time we will explore more about how being in truth allows us to truly love one another. But the importance of truth, and seriousness of John’s command to not even welcome someone who doesn’t believe and live according Christ’s teaching, calls for a bit more consideration.

Obviously, John is concerned that both individual Christians and even whole churches might be led away from true faith if we welcome as Christians those who are not “in the truth.” He lays out the issue in verses 7-11.

  • There are many deceivers. Those who don’t confess the coming of Jesus in the flesh represent the message of the anti-Christ.
  • If you don’t remain in Christ’s teaching, but go beyond it, you don’t have God
  • If you remain in Christ’s teaching you have the Father and the Son
  • If someone doesn’t bring Christ’s teaching, don’t welcome him into your church

This is an important message for many Christian churches today. Far too many Christians and churches seem almost terrified of coming across as narrow-minded or bigoted. They seem to be afraid of hurting the feelings of those who believe or live differently. Let’s call these, “Wishy-washy Christians” (WWCs). They minimize the importance of truth. If someone asks a WWC, “Do you believe that anyone goes to a real hell, a place of torment for those who reject Jesus?” they might respond with something like, “Well, I believe God is a God of love, and we can’t put limits on that love.” WWCs typically shy away from the hard truths that the Bible teaches about human sins (particularly sexual sins), or the demands of Jesus that we give him our whole lives, and die to ourselves as we follow him. They try to help people avoid feeling guilty about not praying, not reading the Bible, not going to Church, not being involved in real Christian community.

WWCs often say things like “Everyone is welcome! You don’t have to change your life or lifestyle, just come be a part of our community. Of course, Jesus said it differently: “If anyone wants to come after me, let him take up cross, die to himself, and follow me.”

WWCs might say things like: “We don’t judge you just because you have a different opinion about Jesus, or how to be close to God.  Jesus, again, says it differently: “I am the way, the truth, the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

John’s words are certainly aimed at Wishy-washy Christians.

Though many churches today seem to shy away from admitting it, the fact is, Jesus calls us to hard choices. When we don’t insist upon truth in our churches, we obscure that, and we are in danger of not remaining in Jesus.

But where, exactly, do we draw the line? How do we apply this business of remaining in truth? How can we insist upon truth, and yet not become a cult that suspects all outsiders?

Because, unfortunately, there are many other Christians who seem to have the opposite problem. These folks can take up ten blog pages explaining how the worship song “Ten Thousand Reasons” will lead to the downfall of Christianity across the entire globe. Let’s call them “Divisive Christians,” (DCs). DCs seem determined in all cases to throw out the baby with the bathwater. So if a movement arises that is leading people to the Lord and helping thousands of people to become true and better disciples of Jesus, but that movement also involves speaking in tongues, DCs seem perfectly willing to warn all Christians that it is probably the work of the devil. DCs are after a pure, untainted theology. What makes up a pure and untainted theology, none of them can seem to agree upon. At their worst, DCs can become cult-like, believing that no one but themselves has a true understanding of Jesus’ teachings.

So how can we apply John’s commands to remain in the truth of Jesus’ and teaching, without becoming either a Wishy-washy Christian, or a Divisive Christian? There is no cut and dried, easy way, but I think there are some principles that could be quite helpful to us. To WWCs, these will probably seem to rigid and judgmental. To DCs, they will undoubtedly seem not rigid enough. I realize I am moving off the text of 2 John as we do this, but I think it is important, and certainly, I think it is relevant to John’s concerns about truth and love.

The New Testament contains many commands to insist upon sound doctrine and Biblical teaching. It tells Christians leaders to contend for the faith, and rebuke and teach those who are wrong. 2 Timothy 4:1-5 is just one of many similar passages:

1I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and because of His appearing and His kingdom:2Proclaim the message; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching.3For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new.4They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths.5But as for you, be serious about everything, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2Tim 4:1-5, HCSB)

At the same time, many, many New Testament passages warn Christians not be involved in frivolous disputes:

23But reject foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they breed quarrels.24The Lord’s slave must not quarrel, but must be gentle to everyone, able to teach, and patient,25instructing his opponents with gentleness. Perhaps God will grant them repentance leading them to the knowledge of the truth.26Then they may come to their senses and escape the Devil’s trap, having been captured by him to do his will. (2Tim 2:23-26, HCSB)

 14Remind them of these things, charging them before God not to fight about words; this is in no way profitable and leads to the ruin of the hearers.15Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth.16But avoid irreverent, empty speech, for this will produce an even greater measure of godlessness. (2 Tim 2:14-16)

So what is worth fighting about? What do we insist upon as the truth that all Christians should walk in, and what things should we not quarrel about? At what point do we refuse to welcome people who call themselves Christians, but differ from us? At what point do we say, “those differences don’t have to divide us?

I think it helps to think of Christian beliefs on four different “levels.” The first level includes those things that we must believe in order to be Biblical Christians. I call this “foundational level” truth. We must insist upon agreement when it involves foundational-level issues, like:

  1. When the self-revelation of God is at stake. The universe exists for the glory of God. Anything that makes him less, that lifts up something higher than God, that makes something other than God and his glory a higher priority, is worth fighting about.
  2. When the revelation of Jesus Christ is at stake. Anything that makes Jesus less than Lord, Messiah, Savior, God-the-Son is worth fighting about. John makes this clear in 2 John 7.
  3. When the Gospel is at stake. Anything that claims we can be saved without Jesus’ death and resurrection, saved without repentance and gracious obedience, is worth fighting about.
  4. When the integrity of the Bible is at stake. We know and believe 1, 2 and 3 because of the Bible. Anything that generally undermines the truth or reliability of scripture therefore also undermines those things. Note, I don’t mean things that undermine a particular interpretation of one or more passages. I mean teachings or behavior that results in the bible as whole being viewed as less reliable or true.

When there is disagreement about things on this “first level” we need to obey the command of 2 John 10-11, and refuse to welcome the dissenters as Christians. If they do not claim to be Christians, we can still welcome them as visitors.

There is a second level of important Christian beliefs. I believe these things are also necessary to agree about among true Christians. Second-level Christian truths may not be entirely central to the faith, but if can’t agree on these things, Christian faith becomes basically meaningless. I call this second level “Doctrinal level” truth (“Doctrine” means “teaching.”)

For instance, the Bible contains many clear verses about Christian sexual morality. Now, we are not saved by obeying the Bible’s teaching about sexuality. We must also admit that this topic is not directly about the nature of God, or the work of Jesus. Even so, the Bible’s teaching on sexuality is so clear and straightforward that if we reject it, we are basically rejecting the Bible as a source of spiritual truth. If we do that, we end up having no basis to believe what the Bible says about God, Jesus, sin or salvation. All of the moral teachings of the Bible (not just sexual morality) fall into this doctrinal level of truth.

One thing that is helpful about doctrinal level truth is that we have 2,000 years of Christian history to help us. The core of Christian belief has been tested by 20 centuries of disagreements and discussions. Doctrinal level truth includes those things that we call “orthodox Christianity” – beliefs that all Christians have agreed upon throughout history.

Let’s make sure we are very clear about this. I don’t mean we should go around automatically condemning those who fail to live according to Biblical morality. I don’t mean we should demand that Christians be perfect. But we must insist that the Bible’s teachings on these issues are good, right and true. In other words, we let the words of the Bible judge our behavior and belief in these matters. If someone rejects these teachings of the Bible as not good, or invalid, we cannot call that person a fellow-Christian. This isn’t about performance, it is about Biblical truth.

There is another “level” of Christian belief. At this third level, we can disagree and still accept each other as Christians, yet the disagreement is serious. Therefore, I call it,  “Contention level,” truth, because at this level, we need to contend for (that is, make arguments for) a true understanding of the Bible. It is different from foundational and doctrinal level truth, because disputes at this level do not mean that one group are true Christians, and the other is not. Even so, we recognize that in contention level truth, usually, one party is in error, and that error should be corrected.

For example, consider the teaching of the “prosperity gospel.” The focus of prosperity gospel is all about this life. It minimizes the eternal hope we have in Jesus. It tends to reduce God to some sort of slot machine that we can manipulate in order to get what we want. I think the teaching of the prosperity gospel is wrong. I think it is dangerous, and tends to lead people farther away from Jesus, rather than closer.

Even so, I am sure that almost all of those with prosperity gospel beliefs are still real Christians. They agree with orthodox Christianity about foundational level and doctrinal level truth. This means that even though they are in error, they are still fellow-Christians. We shouldn’t welcome their teachings, but we can welcome them personally as fellow Jesus-followers.

Again, history can guide us. Orthodox Christianity (that is the core of agreed-upon Christian beliefs) has never included the prosperity gospel as correct.

At a fourth level we find teachings that are in the Bible, but about which many Christians have disagreed about for centuries. I call this “theological level,” truth, because the main people who get worked up about it are professional theologians. It is not necessary that we agree upon all theological level truth in order for us to have good Christian fellowship. We can accept as fellow-Christians people who disagree with us in these fourth level issues. Though we may have our strong opinions, at the theological level, we need to recognize that perhaps our opinions are wrong.

Two examples of this “theological level truth” are the doctrines of Baptism and Communion. The Bible teaches about these things. But some aspects of the Bible’s teaching about these two subjects are not quite clear. Good Christians have disagreed with each other for centuries about these two areas. People who were baptized as babies, and believe that infant baptism is valid, are going to be in heaven. There will also be people in heaven who believe that only adults should be baptized. There is a legitimate case to be made – from the Bible – for both positions. Most importantly, history shows that neither position undermines either foundational or doctrinal level truth, or tends to weaken any part of the Christian message more than the other.

Theological level disputes should not be allowed to cause deep divisions among Christians. Once more, the history of Christian orthodoxy is helpful. 2,000 years have shown us that these disagreements have remained, and have not harmed the core of the Christian faith.

At the fifth level, we find things that definitely should not be an issue between true Jesus followers. I call this the “liberty level” of truth, because the Bible clearly allows Christians to make individual decisions about a number of different things; that is, we have liberty to make our own choices, while remaining good Christians. Liberty level truth includes things like worship styles, and particular ceremonies for worship or other occasions. Special festivals, liturgies, or church seasons should not be issues that divide us, nor should we try to impose them on each other. We have liberty in what we eat, and how (and when) we eat it. There is liberty in whether Christians choose to view movies (and which ones) and in the sorts of music we listen to. There is liberty in whether or not we consume alcohol (as long as we are not getting drunk). There is liberty in whether Christians go out dancing, or play cards, or in a huge number of individual decisions in which we exercise our best judgement as we live our lives of faith in Jesus Christ.

There is a very old saying, dating back about four hundred years: “In essentials Unity, in non-essentials Liberty, and in all Things, Love.” This is a good, quick way to summarize what we’ve been learning here. Let the Holy Spirit continue to lead you as you meditate on these things.

Love & Liberty. 1 Corinthians Part 12. 1 Cor 8:1-12

Download 1 Corinthians Part 12

In order to better understand 1 Corinthians 12 we should learn a little about the historical context. You may remember from the introduction to 1 Corinthians, that Paul wrote this letter in response to a letter that the Corinthians sent him, and also in response to the report some visitors from Corinth gave him about the church.

In 1 Corinthians 7:1 Paul says, “now concerning the matters about which you wrote…” Apparently chapter 8 is continuing to address some things that the Corinthians wrote about in their letter to Paul. The topic for this chapter is food (almost certainly meat) that had been sacrificed to idols.

In those days, meat was a relatively rare commodity. There was no refrigeration of course, so all meat had to be eaten within a day or two of the slaughter. Even as recently as the 19th century, one of the great attractions for joining the British army was that all soldiers were given a ration of meat every day. Daily meat was rare enough to make this a big selling point for recruiters. In the 1st century (when Paul wrote this) meat was at least that scarce, if not more so.

When I was a child, my family sometimes went to live in small villages in Papua New Guinea for weeks at a time. The situation there was similar, as regards meat. We ate vegetables and rice. Meat was only for special occasions of celebration and feasting. Once an animal was slaughtered, it had to be eaten with a day or two.

In 1st Century Corinth, the main occasions for eating meat would be connected one way or another with the worship of idols and false gods. If it was a feast day or some other special day of worship in the pagan religion, people would go the temple and slaughter an animal. Part of the animal might be burned on an altar, or left in front of the idol. Another portion would be given to the priests. A third portion would be given back to the worshipers to feast with. Sometimes families would make a sacrifice or have an idol feast for some personal reason, and the meat was divided the same way. On feast days especially, the priests and temple workers would often end up with more meat than they could eat before it spoiled. So they would sell the rest in the city meat market. If the animal was large, the family celebrating might also have too much meat, and likewise, sell the extra. Alternatively, the family would sometimes invite friends and relatives over for more feasting after the pagan worship, in order to use up the rest of meat.

So during or immediately after pagan worship celebrations, meat would be more available, and less expensive than at other times. But a lot of that meat would have been originally part of pagan worship ceremonies to idols and false gods.

Not only that, but for a poor family, they might have a chance to eat free meat by going with friends to a pagan temple, or by eating at the houses of friends who had just sacrificed at the temple.

Apparently the Christians at Corinth were divided over whether it was OK to eat meat that had been involved in pagan worship, or whether it was wrong. We don’t know know for sure, but is possible that when Paul says “we know that all of us possess knowledge” he is quoting their letter to him. From this, and from the tone of his response, it sounds like at least some of the believers at Corinth were saying, “Look, we know that there is only God, and idols are nothing. So we are free to eat whatever we want, whenever and wherever we want to.”

Paul responds in two parts. The first part of his answer is here in chapter eight. He gets into a very involved discussion and then concludes his answer in chapter 10. But there appears to be two distinct issues here. The first is, “is it OK, in general to eat meat that might have been sacrificed to an idol?” The second question is, “is it OK to attend the idol feasts themselves and eat there?”

Paul’s answer in chapter eight is to change the subject.

It isn’t that he doesn’t have an answer – he gives the answers fairly definitely in chapter 10. But his point in chapter eight is that the issue is not really about eating meat, but rather about looking out for each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is set up like this. In Paul’s opinion, nothing is unclean.

6 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism…(Colossians 2:16-18)

There are some things in the bible that are neither commanded nor forbidden. We should not accept someone judging us regarding something like that. When it is not commanded or forbidden, we can keep a clear conscience about our own behavior, whatever we choose.

At the same time, Paul recognizes that not everyone is in the same place with regard to conscience. Some of the Corinthians had previously been Jews; they had never in their lives worshiped idols, nor believed that there was anything to an idol. Therefore eating meat used in sacrifice, or even eating at the temple, presented no problem to them.

On the other hand, many of the Christians in Corinth used to worship those very same idols. Going to the temple might suck them back into that lifestyle and belief system. In some cases, they felt that even eating something offered at the pagan temple would be sinful. Paul says, even though they are technically free from all that, if they believe it is wrong and then do it, they have succumbed to sin in terms of their intentions. They have violated their own conscience.

Once when they were younger, one of my children took a swing at one of her siblings. She wasn’t terribly coordinated, and the punch did not connect at all – she punched air. So technically, she did nothing wrong. But obviously, it was her intention to punch her sibling in the face. I disciplined her just as if the punch had connected. I did this because obviously something in her heart needed to be corrected, even if she failed to carry out the deed. It is the same here.

Suppose I point a gun at someone, believing it is loaded, and pull the trigger. If the gun is not loaded, I will not actually harm the person. Even so, I could be arrested and convicted for attempted murder. The fact that I did not actually do wrong does not change the fact that I intended to.

Paul, writing about basically the same subject as 1 Corinthians 8 in Romans 14, puts it this way:

But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Romans 14:23)

So a person who eats idol-meat, believing it is wrong, has deliberately done something they think is wrong. In that person’s heart, he made a choice to do wrong, even though the action itself is morally neutral. Paul’s conclusion about all of it is this:

20Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats.21It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. (Romans 14:20-21)

The point is not what you are free to do, but rather, how your actions affect your brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.

Now, I haven’t been invited to any idol-feasts lately. I couldn’t tell you if I have ever eaten meat sacrificed to an idol (though considering how I grew up, my chances are better than yours). So what does this mean for us today? Is it just a historical curiosity, or is there a principle here that helps us even now?

I think the principle is clear: when something is neither commanded nor forbidden by the bible, we should internally hold on to our freedom, while externally behaving in such a way so as to encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ.

These days, many Christians aren’t sure about alcohol. Some drink to excess and never worry about it. Others feel that even a sip would be sinful. It is clear to me that Jesus and his disciples drank alcohol in the form of wine. Paul wrote to Timothy to drink a little wine for his health. But the New Testament also clearly says that drunkenness is a sin. It is listed alongside adultery and homosexual behavior in 1 Corinthians 6, which we studied a few weeks ago.

So for myself personally, I have a clear conscience drinking a glass of wine with dinner, or having one alcoholic beverage over the course of an evening. I have never been drunk. Praise the Lord, I’ve never even been tempted to drink too much.

But I know some people who think it is categorically wrong. If I am around someone who feels that way, I won’t drink anything at all, so that I don’t throw them into confusion, or cause them to violate their own conscience.

Likewise, I know some people who can’t stop with just one drink. If they have one drink, they are going to have at least three or four (or maybe a lot more), and they won’t stop until the alcohol affects them. They can’t drink without at least getting “buzzed.” Unfortunately, that usually means they would be legally considered drunk if they were driving. Those people may or may not feel alcohol is wrong. But I won’t drink when I’m around them either, for fear of encouraging them to drink too much.

I am settled in my own mind that I’m free to drink alcohol without abusing it. I have a clear conscience about my occasional use of it. But in terms of where and when I have some, my concern is not about my own freedom, but about the spiritual welfare of the people I am with.

There are other things like this. Some Christians feel that dancing is wrong. Others have issues with certain foods. Some believers feel that you have to observe certain Christian festivals or ceremonies. Some people feel it is wrong to shop on Sunday. I am convinced in my own mind about my freedom in Jesus Christ. Even so, I am willing to alter my behavior so as not to cause harm to another believer in Jesus. Paul puts it this in Romans 14:13. [When he says “brother” he means “person who believes in Jesus Christ, whether male or female.”]

13Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.

Far from being some ancient and irrelevant problem of the Corinthians, the whole concept of food sacrificed to idols is very relevant today. Ask the Lord to speak to you about this right now.