Separating Fact from Fiction
1 John 4:1-7
April 23, 2006 | Brian Bill
My mom is an avid reader and a member of a book club. A couple years ago she read the DaVinci Code by Dan Brown and was deeply disturbed. She asked me some questions and I couldn’t answer them because I hadn’t read it. I asked if I could borrow her copy and started reading it. The book is a page-turner, filled with mystery and intrigue, murder and investigations. About halfway through, when I was hooked on the characters and the suspenseful storyline, Dan Brown introduces a complicated conspiracy and church cover-up that takes direct aim at the founder and foundation of Christianity.
I understood clearly why my mom was bothered by the book. We sat down and discussed it and I assured her that Dan Brown is not a theologian or a church historian and that he had mixed more fiction than fact in his novel. I pointed out that this book makes direct attacks on the church, the deity of Christ, the reliability of Scripture, argues for goddess worship and is filled with Gnostic nonsense, so it’s no wonder she was unsettled. Albert Mohler has said, “If you thought the Last Temptation of Christ was explosive, the DaVinci Code is thermonuclear.”
The reason why so many people have been confused by this book is because instead of making a disclaimer at the beginning like many authors do, the author actually makes a proclaimer. On the page before the prologue, Brown has written the word FACT in bold capital letters and then describes the “Priory of Sion,” indicating that among other famous people, Leonardo da Vinci was a member. He then describes a group called Opus Dei. According to the research I’ve done, Brown is not totally accurate with these descriptions. Perhaps most insidious of all is the statement made at the bottom of this page: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”
Chuck Colson warns that this book is “effectively affirming the unbelief of nonbelievers, turning off honest seekers, and even confusing and disillusioning many Christians.” With over 40 million copies sold and translated into 44 languages, some estimate that about 1/3 of Americans have read this book. It’s been on the New York Times bestseller list for over 150 weeks, and has moved back to number one with the release of the paperback edition just in time for Easter. Our local Wal-Mart had a huge display filled with these paperbacks but there are not many left. They had been selling on average eleven books a week for the last five weeks. But in the last week alone, they have been selling nine books a day. In Canada, the National Geographic Channel commissioned a survey in 2005 and discovered that 32% of Canadians who have read the novel believe that the theories outlined in it are true.
Once the movie comes out on May 19th, some experts believe that we will see 10 times the interest that there is now. When the three big “H’s” converge – Hollywood, Howard and Hanks – our culture will be inundated with all things DaVinci. And because director Ron Howard (Opie and Richie) has teamed up with good guy actor Tom Hanks (the voice of Woody in Toy Story), this material will become even more believable when it hits the big screen.
You may be wondering why we are focusing on this topic for five weeks. If you think we’ve lost our way, you’ll be happy to know that we’re returning to our verse-by-verse study of Romans in June. I see at least three purposes behind this series.
- To equip believers. I’m excited for the opportunity to teach some theology, chew on some church history and get back to the basics of how we got our Bible in the first place. It’s time to contend for our faith and not be shaken by all the counterfeit stuff like DaVinci and the Gospel of Judas that is appearing today. The words of Jude 3-4 speak right to our situation: “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.” There is no reason to be afraid. We have truth on our side. Let’s be like the Bereans who “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).
- To engage our culture. I want to be very clear here. I am not endorsing or recommending that you read this book or that you go and see the movie. That’s a choice you will have to make on your own. In fact, after I finished the book I mentioned in a sermon that I didn’t think any Christian should read the book because it borders on blasphemy. I’ve moderated a bit since then. What I am saying, whether or not you read it or watch it, is that we need to be informed so that we can intelligently interact with people in our society. That means we need to understand when our culture gets it right and when it gets things wrong.
We should follow the model of Paul when he spoke to the Athenians in Acts 17. He was “greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (verse 16) but he also “reasoned” with the people (verse 17), affirmed the fact that in every way they were “very religious” (verse 22) and in verse 23 states, “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.” After giving a theology lesson, he quoted some of their own authors in order to engage them, which is what we’re doing in this series. In the midst of doing all this, he did not equivocate on the message in verse 30: “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”
- To evangelize the lost. Let’s see this as an unprecedented opportunity to share the gospel. The trailer for the upcoming movie ends with these words: “Seek the truth.” We have the truth so let’s make sure we point people to the one who is the Truth. We need to be prepared by making sure we’re equipped and that we’re ready to engage in evangelism. 1 Peter 3:15: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” Make sure your walk with Christ is good before you talk about the good news. Give reasons for what you believe but make sure you do it respectfully. Let’s take advantage of the prevailing spiritual curiosity in our culture and leverage this phenomenon for spiritual fruit.
Our topic today is “Separating Fact from Fiction.” The following four weeks will look like this:
- Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?
- Can You Trust the Bible?
- The Women in Jesus’ Life
- Searching for Holy Grace
Summary of Storyline
Someone asked me on Wednesday night what the book is all about. I’m going to glean the storyline from Lutzer’s book because he does a great job summarizing the story. I’m going to leave out some of the details but I do want to mention the highlights, or lowlights, depending on your perspective.
The book opens with the curator of a museum lying dead. He was the Grand Master of a secret society known as the Priory of Sion. Meanwhile, Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor and expert in esoteric symbolism is asked to interpret a strange symbol left on the body of the victim. He’s joined by a young cryptologist named Sophie, who warns Robert that he is the prime suspect in the murder. They then realize that the victim has left clues for them to follow, and as they decipher the coded instructions, they find out that the crime is linked to the search for the Holy Grail. They then link up with a Holy Grail fanatic, Sir Leigh Teabing, who instructs them on the real truth of the Grail. He cites the Gnostic Gospels and indicates that they are more reliable than the New Testament.
The most sinister part of the book is the notion that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that his bloodline continues to this day in France. The DaVinci code reinterprets the Holy Grail as none other than the remains of Jesus’ wife, Mary Magdalene. The book claims that Jesus intended Mary Magdalene to lead the church but “Peter had a problem with that,” thus she was declared a prostitute and cut out of the role of leadership. According to the book, the Catholic Church has covered up this secret for centuries. We’re told that Leonardo DaVinci knew all this, and used his well-known painting on the last supper to conceal many levels of meaning, including the idea that it was Mary Magdalene who was sitting next to Jesus, not John.
Finding the Facts
Aren’t you glad that the Bible helps us figure out how we can separate fact from fiction? In a letter written by the Apostle John, the one who is supposedly not present at DaVinci’s Last Supper, we come face-to-face with a false teaching that threatened to infect the early church. Its teaching was known as Gnosticism. The word “Gnostic” means knowledge. The root of this word is still used today as in agnostic, which means “without knowledge;” prognosis, “before knowledge;” and diagnosis, “with knowledge.” Interestingly, Gnostics believed in secret levels and doubted the deity, and at times the humanity of Jesus. John’s words that confront counterfeits in the first century have tremendous application to us today because this same error is creeping into our culture, and even into some churches, through books like DaVinci and the media attention on the Gospel of Judas. Let’s look at four diagnostics from 1 John 4.
1. Take a truth test (1).
Verse 1 tells us that it’s important to take a truth test: “Dear friends, 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.” John calls believers “beloved” or “dear,” because Christians are to be close with one another. The command to not believe every spirit is in the present tense. It literally means: “Stop believing every spirit,” which indicates that they were too gullible and accepting. It’s important to have a healthy skepticism when it comes to spiritual claims. Our culture tells us to believe what feels good or what sounds the best. The word “test” refers to examining, proving and scrutinizing something. Dear friends, it behooves us as believers to examine these extravagant claims because not everything you read or see or hear is from God. And the reason we are to test for the truth is because it’s not always obvious. 2 Corinthians 11:14 reminds us that even “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.” We are to stop believing and start testing.
Eugene Peterson offers this paraphrase: “My dear friends, don’t believe everything you hear. Carefully weigh and examine what people tell you. Not everyone who talks about God comes from God. There are a lot of lying preachers loose in the world.” Remember that the nature of truth is that it is exclusive; not all supposed “truths” can be true because they are contradictory. G.K. Chesterton reminds us that orthodoxy is not only true; it is infinitely more interesting than heresy because it is alive and compelling and life-changing.
2. Make Christ the key (2-3).
The second diagnostic when examining something is to make sure to keep Christ as the key. If a group doesn’t get their teaching about Jesus right, nothing else will be right either. Look at verses 2-3: “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ 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.” The word “acknowledge” is actually the word “confess,” which has to do with a commitment that leads to a genuine confession. It literally means to “say the same word,” or to say the same thing that God says about something. What is it that the Father has said about His Son? He is Savior and Lord and God.
Jesus is the central focus of all God has done
Brown is essentially saying that Jesus is not God and that what we’ve been taught about Him is all wrong. One line from the book is very troubling: “Almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false” (page 235). I like what Charles Spurgeon once said: “Christ is the sum and substance of theology.” Jesus is the central focus of all God has done, is doing and is going to do. The name “Jesus Christ” covers his humanity and His deity. Jesus is his earthly name and Christ refers to his heavenly name. He is fully God and fully man. Any system that denigrates His deity or dishonors his humanity is not of God. John calls this the spirit of the antichrist. Listen to these words from 2 Peter 2:1-2: “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them-bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute.”
3. Remember that God is greater (4-6).
Sometimes Christians can feel intimidated or outnumbered or even afraid. In verses 4-6, we see that we have nothing to fear: “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.”
Dear children, if you are born again then you are from God and the Almighty abides within you. The word “overcome” means to vanquish, subdue and conquer and the tense indicates that this victory has been won in the past and we are still enjoying that victory in the present. Those who don’t know God will speak according to the ways of the world but those who know God will be open to God’s words. The issue is not secret power that is revealed only to the initiated; it’s spiritual power that comes only when the living God invades your life. 2 Corinthians 2:14: “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.”
4. Love is limitless (7).
This section of John’s letter is really a parenthesis on the topic of love. After telling his readers to take a truth test, to make Christ the key, and remember that God is greater than any heresy or power, we come back to the limitlessness of love. We are to love people even if we disagree with them. This is stated very clearly in verse 7: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” Andy Griffith, who is reportedly a Christian, appeared on Entertainment Tonight when the cast of the old “Andy Griffith” show came together for the funeral of Don Knotts. They asked Andy if he said anything to Ron Howard regarding his directing The DaVinci Code. He responded, “Yes! I said, ‘Ron, I love you! I don’t agree with you, but I love you.’” It would be well of us to follow and encourage that practice as well. It is not pleasing to the Lord for us to simply be the protectors of the truth if we fail to love Him and others. Ephesians 4:15 reminds us that we are to speak the truth in love.
Exposing the Errors
While we need to speak with love, we’re also called to expose error according to Ephesians 5:11: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.”
Sandra Miesel writes: “So error-laden is The DaVinci Code that the educated reader actually applauds those rare occasions when Brown stumbles (despite himself) into the truth.” We’ll explain some of the errors in the book as we continue in our series, but I’d like to mention eight of them today. According to one critic, Brown’s approach “seems to consist of grabbing large chunks of his stated sources and tossing them together into a salad of a story.”
- Brown says that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1950s (page 234). They were actually found in 1947. He also refers to these scrolls as among “the earliest Christian records” (page 245). These scrolls are Jewish, with nothing Christian in them.
- Brown says that “Jewish decorum” would have forbidden “a Jewish man to be unmarried” (page 245). This is not true. The Essene community that stored the Dead Sea scrolls was made up of unmarried male celibates.
- Brown says that Jesus was not considered divine until the Council of Nicea (page 233). This is not true as the New Testament makes it abundantly clear that He was divine and the early church fathers attest to this fact as well, years before this council even met.
- Brown also says that the divinity of Jesus was established by a “relatively close vote” at Nicea (page 233). But only two of more than 300 church leaders voted against the creed, certainly not a close vote. Incidentally, this document describes Jesus as “true God from true God.”
- Astonishingly, Brown claims that Jews in Solomon’s Temple used the services of sacred prostitutes to worship God’s feminine counterpart, the Shekinah (pages 308-309). Brown seems to be arguing that we need to return to the worship of the goddess and the way we do that is through sexual union that leads to spiritual wholeness. This is absurd and blasphemous and reveals a paucity of knowledge about the Old Testament and the holiness of God that prohibits any defiling of this sort.
- Brown claims that “any gospels that described earthly aspects of Jesus’ life had to be omitted from the Bible” (page 244). The fact is that the Gospels present many earthly aspects of Christ’s life such as hunger and tiredness.
- Brown argues that “history is always written by the winners” (page 256), which is his way of saying that the Gnostics were defeated by orthodox Christians because they were more powerful. Church history reveals that Christians were anything but “winners.” They were fiercely persecuted and were actually “losers” under Roman persecution.
- Brown states, “Every faith in the world is based on fabrication. That is the definition of faith—acceptance of that which we imagine to be true, that which we cannot prove” (page 341). It’s important to note that Christianity is a religion in and of history. Archaeology has verified the Bible’s accuracy and reliability. To date, over 25,000 sites have been discovered which establish the accuracy of innumerable details in the Bible.
One question that I’ve had this week is this: How do we investigate and examine all the errors and keep up with the avalanche of extra-biblical information in our culture today? Then it hit me. The best way to spot a counterfeit is to immerse oneself in the real thing. When new FBI agents are hired they are given intensive training. As part of the program, they are taught to watch for counterfeit money. They undertake a thorough study of the genuine bills — not the phonies — so that they can spot the fake currency immediately because of its contrast to the real thing. While it is helpful to study false religions and be fully aware of their dangerous dogmas, we should be so familiar with God’s Word that whenever we encounter error, we will spot it at once. A thorough knowledge of essential biblical doctrines is the only way to crack counterfeits like the DaVinci Code, and whatever else comes along next!
Putting Into Practice
I want to suggest three ways we can put into practice what we learned this morning.
1. Apply the four diagnostic tools.
Do that by taking a truth test, make sure Christ is the key, remember that God is greater and demonstrate limitless love.
2. Make sure you’re ready to give an answer to anyone who asks what you believe.
Do some serious study. Read the mini-magazine. Listen to these sermons. Pick up one of the recommended books.
3. Read everything that John wrote.
Start with the Gospel of John and then read his three short letters and then conclude by reading the Book of Revelation. If you start now and read a couple chapters a day you should be able to finish this reading by the time we conclude this series in late May.
That means you will always be restless until you are at peace with God
One reason this book has become so popular is because people are searching for truth, meaning, and purpose. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God has set “eternity in the hearts of men.” That means you will always be restless until you are at peace with God. You don’t need DaVinci’s Code; you need DaBible’s God. When your world is closing in don’t you want someone who can understand? When no one else knows how you feel, don’t you want the Lord’s love that has been proven real? It’s time to fall on your knees and confess that Jesus is Savior and Lord. Make Him your Forgiver and your Leader. Do that right now as we pray.