June 15, 2008
Cleverly disguised as those who are offering truth, deceivers attempt to lead people away from the truth of Christ—and they’ve been doing so for over two thousand years. Using warnings from the apostle John, Alistair Begg reminds us that deceivers can be identified by their view of Christ and the diversion of their teaching from Christ. When we are firmly grounded in the truth of God’s Word, we will not so easily be led away.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to find 2 John in the New Testament. Second John. It’s in between 1 John and 3 John and very close to the end of the Bible, and on page 864 if you are using or would like to use one of our church Bibles. Page 864, 2 John, and we’re going to read from verse 7:
“Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch out that you do not lose what you[’ve] worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work.
“I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.
“The children of your chosen sister send their greetings.”
I encourage you to keep your Bibles open.
Father, we pray for your help so that what we do not know, you will teach us; what we do not have, you will give us; what we are not, that you will make us. We earnestly cry out to you so that, in both our speaking and in our hearing, we might fasten on by your enabling to that which you have made known to us, the children of men. And we pray in your Son’s name. Amen.
According to Irenaeus, who lived a long time ago, Polycarp, who was the first bishop of Smyrna, records in his writings an incident that took place in the public baths in Ephesus. Apparently, Polycarp writes that at a particular moment in the day, the apostle John shouted out, “Let us flee, lest the building fall down, for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is inside.” Cerinthus was a first-century heretic. And according to Polycarp, he found himself in the public bathing area in Ephesus at the same time as the apostle John, the writer of this little letter. If it is an accurate statement of history, then it serves, in a quite graphic way, to underscore John’s significant concern regarding the danger of those who profess to walk in the truth being led away by those who are deceivers.
He has commended in the first six verses those who are “walking in the truth,” following Jesus, and he has taken time to start there because of what follows. And in verse 7, he turns to the dangers that they face. And essentially, the danger that they face is a form of counterfeit Christianity. There are a group of individuals who are going around, and they are promulgating a gospel which is really no gospel at all. They are, in fact, a gathering of smooth-talking imposters. And John, out of a fatherly concern for those who are, many, his children in the faith, not only commends them for their continuance in the gospel but warns them concerning those who will deceive them if they can.
It’s almost as if in his letter, he would have put the skull and crossbones in the section that begins at verse 7—the international symbol for poison. I just was thinking of that today, and I went online to look up the symbol to make sure I was clear. And I found a statement made as a warning for children, which reads as follows: “This symbol”—the skull and crossbones—“means something is poison. Poison can make you or your friends very sick. You should always be careful to not play with anything with this symbol on it.” That’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it? A first grader, a second grader will be able to get that. And that is essentially what is being said by John in relationship to the poisonous influence of those who are selling a deceitful form of Christianity.
It is important for us to recognize that they are not picking away at peripheral matters concerning the faith. John is not, here, concerned because there are people who don’t agree with him on areas of secondary importance. No, these individuals are attacking the very heart of Christian belief. And let me state exactly what they’re on about: at issue is the eternal humanity and divinity of the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That’s the issue. (If you don’t normally take notes, you may want to find a piece of paper, because some of the things that I will say this morning will pass you by. If you can write them down, you may have occasion to look at them again and be helped by further thought.) At issue is the eternal humanity and divinity of the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. You see, the basic doctrinal test of the professing Christian—the basic test of the professing Christian doctrinally—is his or her view of the person of Jesus: Does this professing Christian have a view of Jesus that is true to the revelation that is provided for us in all of the Bible?
Now, John’s concern about this ought not to strike us as strange. Because it is not a concern that is locked, somehow, in the annals of church history—two thousand years ago, some problem. We might find ourselves immediately saying, “Here I am on Father’s Day, expecting a nice talk about how I could be a better father, and we’ve got a talk on the humanity and divinity of Jesus. What is possibly wrong with Begg?” Well, there are a number of things wrong with me, but that is a question for another day. I could do no better for you on this day than to warn you of error and to confirm you in the truth. And that is what John is doing: making sure that those who are his readers are not caught off guard.
Those of you who read The Da Vinci Code, many of you were immediately alarmed, as I was, when around page 220 or so, there came just a full frontal assault on the person of Jesus of Nazareth. But of course, in talking with many of your friends—perhaps even some who profess to be Christians—you may have discovered that they had no sense of alarm at all. Why is that? Because they don’t know their Bibles well enough. Perhaps because they don’t actually know Jesus as he is presented to us in the Bible. And so the concern of John, century one, ought to be the concern of all who believe every century, including this one.
Now, the NIV does not tie verse 6 to verse 7 as it should, because in the Greek, there is the word [hoti], which is a conjunction meaning “for” or “because.” And verse 7 begins almost as a whole new thought, but it isn’t. And Phillips, the paraphraser, catches the continuity of thought when he writes, “You have known from the beginning that you must live in … him. For the world is becoming full of impostors.” The reason that it is so important, he says, to live in Christ, to abide in Christ, to know what it means to trust in Christ, is not simply that you may be assured in your faith but so that you might be alert to the dangers of deception which are present in the contemporary church.
And so, in this little section, John first of all identifies the error that is being offered, those who are promoting the error, and then he prescribes, if you like, the medicine or the action that needs to be taken if we’re going to have an antidote to this poison. And I’ve gathered my thoughts under two headings. We’ll only get to the first of these this morning, and that is simply “Counterfeit Christianity.” “Counterfeit Christianity.”
In verse 4, he has already rejoiced that “some of [the] children” are “walking in the truth.” These professors in Jesus are making headway in the truth. Now he bemoans the fact that “many deceivers,” in verse 7, have taken to the highways, seeking to insinuate their error into these local fellowships.
And you will notice how he puts it: these “deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world.” That’s almost a technical phrase by this time. And he, you will remember, wrote John’s Gospel. And in John’s Gospel, he records the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus, who, at one point in praying to his Father, says to him, “[Father], as you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” “I am sending them out into the world.” Who are they? The disciples, the apostles of Jesus, who will go out into the world to tell the truth about Jesus. Well, since the Evil One is a deceiver and “the father of lies,” and since he possesses an agenda and a strategy, too, we surely would not be surprised that he decides, “I will send my folks out into the world as well. I have a deceiving message to sow. I have untruths to convey. And I will send my folks out into the world.”
And that’s exactly what has happened. These “deceivers, who do[n’t] acknowledge Jesus Christ, … have gone out into the world.” They have not confessed the truth like the apostles have done. They’re actually opposed to the truth. But in most cases, they won’t have that on the front of their T-shirts. Deceivers are deceitful. So you don’t have a T-shirt that says, “I am opposed to the truth. May I come into your house and talk to you about the Bible?” No, you don’t have a T-shirt at all. You dress nicely and so on, and you use terminology and language which seems just entirely biblical in its orientation. You don’t have a baseball cap on that says on the front of it, “Deceiver,” ’cause you would be a horrible deceiver if you identified yourself as a deceiver. The key to being a deceiver is that nobody knows you’re a deceiver. That’s what makes it so difficult. That’s why a knowledge of the truth is so foundationally important. The best of deviations are subtle—almost undetectable at first glance.
From time to time here at Parkside, we have had members of the FBI as members in the church, and some of them told me of their adventures in catching currency counterfeiters, and the extent to which they went in order to catch these folks, and the training that they had to identify the counterfeit. They did not learn how to identify the fraud by paying attention to the fraud. They learned how to identify that which was counterfeit by having an absolute, comprehensive understanding of that which was true, so that when they took in their hands a bill that was not true, then the fact that they understood what a true one looked like enabled them to say, “I don’t think this is real.” That’s why, you see, again, he starts commending them with the necessity of their “walking in the truth,” because it is only if we are walking in the truth that we will then be alert to the danger of deception that confronts those who are the followers of Jesus.
Now, if you doubt this, consider how many of the cults use Bibles in their advertising. Have you ever looked at the television screen in those amazing Mormon commercials, and what are they offering you? They’re offering you a copy of the Bible: “Would you like to get a copy of the Bible?” And then, just a little further down on the page, it shows that you’re getting a copy of the Book of Mormon right along with it. What they don’t tell you is that it is impossible, from a Mormon perspective, to make any sense of the Bible at all without the Book of Mormon—without the necessary addition and the revelation that was received by the prophet Joseph Smith, thereby making it possible for people in the twentieth and twenty-first century to understand this ancient book. But it comes across so beautifully, so gorgeous, so nice. Have you passed a Christian Science Reading Room without a copy of the Bible in the window? Never in your entire life. The Bible is always there, right alongside Mary Baker Eddy. They don’t put her in on her own. They put her right in with the Bible. Why? It’s deceitful. The same thing is true in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and we can go all the way down the line of cultish activity. It is always compelling on the basis of its deceit.
Now, what are the characteristics of these smooth-talking charlatans? Well, there are many, but let me give you just two.
First of all—and you will notice this in the text—they “do not [confess] Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh.” That’s verse 9: “Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God.” Actually, that is verse 9, but it is in verse 7 that he says, “many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh.”
Now, let me just cross-reference this for you in 1 John, because he is concerned with this in 1 John and has more to say about it, and I think it comes across quite clearly and helpfully. One John 2:21:
I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist—he denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.
I resist the temptation to start making points of application here, but you understand what this means in terms of dialogue with contemporary religious expressions, New Age notions, Judaism itself, and so on. The Bible is absolutely, unequivocally clear that a knowledge of God the Creator, the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is only possible through his Son. He is the “one mediator”—1 Timothy 2—he is the “one mediator between God and [man], the man Christ Jesus,” full in his humanity, full in his divinity.
If you go to 1 John 4, you find him saying the same thing at the beginning of the chapter: “This is how you can recognize”—verse 2—“the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ”—notice again the phraseology—“has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.”
“Well,” you say, “this seems a little heavy duty,” and in some ways, perhaps it is. But it is of absolute importance. And let me state it as clearly as I can: the deceivers—these deceivers—denied that the man Jesus of Nazareth and the eternal Son were and are one and the same person. Now, that might not mean a lot to you right now this morning because of where you are in your inquiries about Christianity and so on. That’s all right. But that is the issue that he’s confronting. In other words, these deceivers would not have been willing to sing, in Wesley’s Christmas carol,
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail the Incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with [man] to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
They would not sing that. Why? Because they didn’t believe it. Nor would they be prepared to sing Kendrick’s perhaps most famous song,
Meekness and majesty,
Manhood and Deity,
In perfect harmony,
The Man who is God.
And the reason they wouldn’t sing it is because they do not believe it. The false teachers here described denied—and I say it to you again for emphasis—denied that the man Jesus and the eternal Son were and are the same person, possessing two perfect natures, human and divine. That’s the issue. Essentially, they denied and dismissed an orthodox view of the incarnation.
If that is their denial, what then was it that they were offering in their deceitfulness? Well, this is what they were saying: in their view, Jesus was a mere man upon whom “the Christ”—in their view, simply a divine emanation—upon whom “the Christ” descended at his baptism and departed before his crucifixion. So Jesus is simply a man.
This is not a diatribe against Mormonism or your Mormon friends, but if you go to the website and go to the statement of Mormonism, it is classic insofar as it says, “We believe in God, the eternal Father, and his Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” Someone says, “Well, that’s perfect. That’s exactly what we’re talking about. See? They are true believers.” No, but what they don’t tell you is that the distinction that they are making is there only for those who have eyes to see, only for those who will go far enough to discover it. And that is that when they say, “We believe in God, the eternal Father, and in his Son, Jesus Christ,” Mormonism teaches that Jesus Christ is a created being—that he is not eternal with the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit coeternal with the Father. That’s the subtlety in it. And that’s the deceit that is in it. And that is exactly what is being conveyed here: that an ordinary man was invaded by divinity for a time, and then it departed.
In other words (and you might want to write this down), they were teaching that “the Christ” came into the flesh of Jesus—that “the Christ,” the eternal Son, came into the flesh of Jesus. The Bible declares that Jesus was the Christ come in the flesh. Do you understand the distinction? They said that the eternal Son came into the flesh of Jesus; the Bible declares that Jesus Christ came in the flesh—that as imponderable and as incomprehensible as the doctrine of the Trinity is, namely, that is orthodoxy: that God himself, in the person of the eternal Son, comes in time and space in order to reveal God in a revelation of all of God that is capable in humanity and to provide reconciliation to that God for those who are sinners.
Now, what makes this so vital—and you may not believe it to be vital, and that’s your story—what makes this so vital is that we live in a time where clarity and conviction are often regarded as suspect and where vagueness and uncertainty are in vogue. Things are so warped that the only people that you need to fear will be people saying things such as I’m saying—people actually discriminating between truth and error, people actually delineating distinctions. These are the people you must watch for! Why? Because the contemporary philosophical climate suggests that we know that there is no absolute truth; we know that there is no defining way of knowing God; we know that God has not articulated himself in these objective categories. Therefore, anybody who suggests that he has, he’s the person you should watch out for.
That’s why, loved ones, it is vital that you read your Bibles. That’s why it is of fundamental importance that you recognize that I am only here to teach this book. I’m not here to tell you stories. I’m not here to titillate you on Father’s Day. I have a calling from God to try somehow or another to make sure that after my departure, you will be able to recall these things, and you and your children and your children’s children will walk in the truth, even if the whole world is against you. That’s the issue. So any temptation we have to compromise or fudge on this question has to be resisted.
You will notice that John does not mince his words. At the end of verse 7: “Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.” “There could be no stronger condemnation of error and deceit in [all] of Christian doctrine,” writes Marshall. In other words, this individual, or these individuals, embody radical opposition to the true doctrine about Jesus, and they are absolutely, fundamentally opposed to Jesus. And here’s what makes it so difficult: they love to tell you that that’s not the case—that they actually are followers of Jesus, they love Jesus, and so on. But it’s not a Jesus of our invention that we’re called to follow and trust. It’s not a Jesus of our invention that dies upon the cross for us. Anselm, in his little book Cur Deus Homo, “God Becomes Man,” “God as Man,” argues magnificently—centuries ago—for the fact that the only way atonement can be achieved, the only way that reconciliation can take place, is for the individual who effects that reconciliation to be both God and man. And only one person qualifies: Jesus.
Now, let me just say the final thing. Characteristic number one is that they “do not [confess] Jesus as coming in the flesh,” and characteristic number two is that they do not “continue”—verse 9—“in the teaching of [Jesus].” They don’t “continue in the teaching of [Jesus].”
You’ll notice how John’s approach is essentially “If the cap fits, wear it,” so that at the end of verse 7, he says “any such person,” and then here in verse 9, he says “anyone who runs ahead and does[n’t] continue.” In other words, if you find somebody who “runs ahead and does[n’t] continue,” then you need to be very, very careful.
In other words, what he’s saying here is you’ve got to watch out for the person who’s so advanced that he is no longer content with what Jesus taught. That’s the notion here. This person had got on the road marked “Orthodoxy,” and then he didn’t realize that at a certain point, the name of the road changed—indeed, the nature of the road changed—and he’s now driven out and beyond orthodox Christianity. He has run ahead and has failed to continue in what Jesus taught. In other words, the advance that has taken place is an advance beyond the boundaries of Christian belief. And says Plummer, the commentator, to advance beyond Christ “is not progress but apostasy.”
Many of us have occasion to be thankful to God for Dick Lucas. We love it when he comes, and I hope he’ll come at least one more time. But when he speaks to ministers, he’s at his absolute best. And every so often, he takes a piece of chalk, and he does artwork on the blackboard. He’s a hopeless artist. I can say that because I share that with him.
But one of his magnificent masterpieces is when he takes a piece of chalk, he starts on the left-hand side of the blackboard, and he holds the chalk, and he walks all the way to the right-hand side of the blackboard, and then he stops. Then he stands back, and he says, “What do you think?”
And people say, “I think it’s very good.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a line.”
“Yes,” he says, “it is a line. What does the line represent?” he says. The line represents the true, clear, definitive teaching of the Bible. And then he says to the ministers, “Stay on the line. Every challenge that you face will be a challenge either to go above the line and add to the truth or to go below the line and subtract from the truth. And if you,” he says to the ministers, “do not stay on the line, there is no possibility that your congregation will either.”
What had these people done? They’d gone above the line. Actually, they’d gone both above it and below it. And John says, “I need you to understand this: they err in their message, and they err in their lives.”
Now you will notice—and with this we will conclude—that the implications of what they have done are so significant. “Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God.” “Does not have God”! You see how devastating even a line like that sounds in our contemporary conversations with one another? The exclusivity of it jangles in people’s ears. And that’s why it is important, I say to you again, to be people of the Book. That’s why the issues of Christ alone and the Scriptures alone and grace alone and faith alone and so on—that’s why these things are all so vitally important. Because if we’re not going to go Scripture on its own, then it’ll be Scripture plus something else—either the Roman Catholic magisterium, or the Book of Mormon, or whatever else it is. “No,” says the Bible Christian, “it’s the Bible by itself. And this is what the Bible says. And I’m glad that I didn’t make it up, ’cause it sounds so different.” But the person who doesn’t have Jesus as he is revealed, perfect in his humanity and perfect in his divinity, does not have God at all. “To [confess] the Son,” says Stott, “is to possess the Father; to deny the Son is to [forfeit] the Father.”
And I know I’ve said this to you before, but I feel it so strongly when I have time with my Jewish friends: The ones who care to discuss it do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah. I believe that Jesus is the Messiah. We can’t both be right. Hinduism says that God has incarnated himself on multiple occasions. Christianity says that the incarnation was a unique and unrepeatable event. We can’t both be right. Islam says that a person will make heaven if, according to the scales which are their symbol, they are eventually able to outweigh the bad with the good. Christianity says we could never outweigh the bad with the good; we need someone who was absolutely perfect to keep God’s law and someone who was absolutely sinless to die in our place. We can’t both be right. Mormonism says that Jesus Christ is a created being, no matter how they tend to disguise it. Christianity says that Jesus Christ is the Creator, not the created, and that he is coequal and coeternal with the Father.
That, my friends, is not an issue of marginal importance. This is not a story of somebody who’s just annoyed because certain people differ in relationship to peripheral questions. No, John, as an old man, doesn’t sit down to write these letters just because he had a bad pizza the night before, and his tummy’s unsettled him, and he’s just feeling kind of cantankerous. He writes these things down because, he says, “there can be no greater joy than to know that my children are walking in the truth.” And I have to tell you what the truth is, and I have to alert you to what deception is, so that you then, in turn, may be able to abide by that which Jesus so clearly taught and that you may be able to teach it to your children when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you get up, and you may be able to put it on little videos for your grandchildren when they come along and teach them songs and sing all about it as you walk with them in the park. Why? Because Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by me.”
You’re sensible people. Examine the Bible and see if these things are so.
Let us pray:
Father, we thank you now for your Word. We pray that you will bring it to bear upon our minds, helping us to think clearly. We pray that you will open our hearts to receive its truth sincerely, that you will help us to distinguish between unnecessary and futile quarrels about things that are of peripheral significance, and yet we ask you to help us to so understand that which is central and foundational that we might not give away the core of the gospel as a result of the pressure to compromise in a pluralistic culture. I pray for your help in this, for us as a congregation, for us as a pastoral team, so that we will not lead our people astray but rather that each of us might walk in the paths of righteousness for your name’s sake.
So may grace, mercy, and peace from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Triune God, rest upon and remain with us, now and forevermore. Amen.
 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.3.4. Paraphrased.
 2 John 4 (NIV 1984).
 2 John 6–7 (Phillips). Emphasis added.
 John 17:18 (NIV 1984). Emphasis added.
 John 8:44 (NIV 1984).
 1 Timothy 2:5 (NIV 1984).
 1 John 4:2–3 (NIV 1984). Emphasis added.
 Charles Wesley, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” (1739).
 Graham Kendrick, “Meekness and Majesty (This Is Your God)” (1986).
 See John 1:14.
 See 2 Peter 1:15.
 I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 71.
 A. Plummer, The Epistles of S. John, with Notes, Introduction and Appendices, The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1887), 182.
 John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John: An Introduction and Commentary, rev. ed., The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 213.
 See Deuteronomy 6:7.
 John 14:6 (paraphrased).
 See Psalm 23:3.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.