When I was a kid, my favorite part of any fair or carnival was the Midway. I was enraptured by the allure of the potential of winning an over-sized stuffed animal from a seemingly simple game. My parents, however, wouldn't give me any money to play the games - I had to save up and use my own. So off to the Midway I went whenever my family visited the Minnesota State Fair, usually with about $10.00 of my own hard-earned money burning a hole in my pocket. Usually, all it took was about 5 minutes and a few failed attempts at achieving over-sized-stuffed-animal-glory for my money to be gone. When this happened, I remember always feeling flabbergasted that I couldn't win the game. After all, the game operators made it look and sound so easy - what gives?
The problem was, of course, that I was being deceived (plus I'm not any good at carnival games). The game operators were assuring me that winning the game was easy, and that I could certainly be successful at it if I just put my money down and gave it my best shot. Of course, they didn't actually believe that, but that's what they told me to draw me in. Once in a while, one of them would even complete the task of the game as an example of how easy it was. The truth, however, was quite different: those games are not easy, and they are mostly rigged to create losers rather than winners. I was duped. I believed the lie that I could win the game and achieve over-sized stuffed animal greatness.
Don't get me wrong: it was nobody's fault but mine that I got suckered in to shelling out my lawn-mowing money for no return. I should have known better. I should have learned from all of the empty hands and wallets of other Midway goers that the dream of being a King of the Midway was not easily fulfilled. But when you're a kid with money in his pocket and no over-sized stuffed animal waiting for you at home, it's hard to tell a lie from the truth.
This is similar to the challenge that we face as Christians in navigating all of the truth claims that are perpetuated by our society. We are constantly assaulted with various, and some times conflicting, truth claims. And just like the promise of an over-sized stuffed animal will entice a 10 year old boy to believe the lie that winning the carnival game is easy, the truth claims offered by our society and other religious systems are often attractive and appealing - even if they aren't true. It can be hard to see the truth through all the lies.
The same was true for the church to which the Apostle John wrote the first letter that bears his name. There were false teachers influencing the church and teaching doctrines that did not accord with Christ and the gospel. In order to help them know what was true and what was false, John instructed his readers to "test the spirits." (1 John 4.1) By "spirits" John means "truth claims." If you want to know what is true, you just can't accept something on its face. Its veracity needs to be tested and verified before you should believe it. John gives his readers a two-part rubric for testing truth claims, and some counsel as to how they can overcome false truth claims in their lives. This text was the focus of our message at Riverview this past week. Check it out here.
In John's day there were several false teachers who denied certain things about the humanity and divinity of Jesus. You had some false teachers who claimed that Jesus never came in the flesh. His body wasn't real - it was just a mirage. And you had other false teachers who claimed that Jesus was not fully God, or that he wasn't actually divine at all - he was just a man. Because of these false teachings, John instructs his readers to evaluate the truth claims of those who would purport to be teachers by asking this question: "Did Jesus Christ come in the flesh?" (1 John 4.2) The answer to this question, John says, will help his readers and early Christians to evaluate the truthfulness of the claims made by the teachers in their day. While the question may have changed a bit here and there between John's day and our own, the principle is the same: when someone makes a truth claim, find out what they believe about Jesus. What they believe about him will either authenticate or disqualify other spiritual truth claims they make.
A second test that John instructs his readers to perform is to ask the question: "Will they listen to us?" (1 John 4.6) By "us" John means "the church." In other words, if someone comes along teaching about spiritual things, will that person submit his teaching and himself to the authority of the church? God has given the church the authority to stand in judgment over theological truth claims. Those who would make such claims will willingly submit themselves and their teachings to the authority of the church and the word of God. The messages and claims of those who will not submit to this authority are to be rejected. In these ways, John says that we can "test the spirits" in order to know the Spirit of God.
In addition to the two tests that John gives, the early church began to develop other ways that they could test truth claims - especially truth claims about spiritual things - namely, creeds. A creed is a solid, stated position of doctrine and beliefs - the foundational parts of the Christian faith. The early church developed creeds as a way of knowing and standing upon the foundations of the faith - those things they knew for sure to be true. This way, when someone came along with a new idea or teaching, that idea or teaching was compared to the creeds. If the new idea or teaching matched the core beliefs of the church as expressed in the creeds, it was accepted. If not, it was rejected. Creeds were essential for early Christians to be able to know truth from falsehood. Throughout church history, several creeds were developed in order to help the church "test the spirits." (For a deeper exposition on the various elements of the Apostle's Creed, see here.)
The Apostle's Creed - the earliest known creed of the church (which we recited together at Riverview this past week) - was in use as early as the fourth century A.D., but was probably written much earlier than that. Other creeds, such as the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed have helped the church identify false teachings and teachers and protect the truth of God throughout the church's history.
Creeds are still used in the church today, although more as a liturgical act of worship than as a defense of the faith or as an aid for determining the truth of various claims and worldviews that circulate in our world. Instead, we now have access to the greatest truth-filter of all time: the word of God. If we are knowing the word and what it says about the story of God through Christ, we will be able to navigate the truth claims that we encounter in this life. That being said, we still affirm much of what is written in the creeds of church history, and there is value to knowing them.
This world provides us with a multitude of different truth claims and worldviews that challenge what we believe and how we see the world, and many of them are false, yet are hard to identify as being so. The world is very good at making lies look good, and at convincing us to believe things that are simply not true. Thankfully, God has given us a timeless standard through his word to be able to "test the spirits" and know him in truth.