2 Cor. 13:5. Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?
This sobering admonition was written to the Corinthian church by a very concerned Apostle Paul. He recognized that not every member of the congregation was a genuine Christian and that the responsibility of making certain of salvation rested upon each individual. Paul had poured his heart out to them in giving them the gospel and seeking to establish them solidly on Christ, the one true foundation. Still, in spite of all his efforts, he saw needs that caused him to doubt some and thus to exhort them to examine themselves.
In chapter one we sought to begin laying the groundwork for this crucial subject by examining some of the teachings of our Lord Jesus regarding the kingdom He had come to establish. I believe we made it plain that Jesus expected the great majority of His professed followers down through the age to be false, counterfeits planted by Satan in an attempt to corrupt and hinder the work of God. The narrow road that leads to life would be found and traveled by “few” while the broad road that leads to destruction would be traveled by “many.”
I believe it would be in order to briefly examine the beginnings of the church as they are recorded for us in the New Testament. We will be able to see examples of the outworking of the things that Jesus taught and find lessons that bear on the issues we face in our day.
In the parable of the wheat and the tares Jesus made it plain that the devil would plant tares, unbelievers, his children, among the wheat, God’s true children. The early history of the church is set forth in the book of Acts. For a considerable period of time following the inception of the church on the day of Pentecost the life, power, and purity of the young church was such that Satan couldn’t get in — and he couldn’t stop it! I believe that a sovereign God powerfully overshadowed the young church to get it solidly established and to give a mighty witness to Israel. In spite of the general unbelief of Israel the Lord was faithful to have His word proclaimed for the sake of the true remnant.
Think of the wonderful grace of God that was manifested among newborn believers! Never has the church known greater unity, greater love, greater power, or greater purity than during this period. I have no doubt that Satan was keenly interested in getting some of his people in but he just couldn’t. And when he stirred up persecution it only drove the Christians to prayer for greater boldness and courage. No matter what Satan did the work of the gospel grew and spread.
But finally there came a day when the first sin was recorded in the young church. Acts 4:32-37 recounts for us the selfless way in which believers responded to the practical needs of other believers. It was God’s grace at work that enabled them to do this. After all, when the church began Peter preached to a great crowd consisting of people from many countries who had gathered for the Jewish feast of Pentecost. When 3000 people were converted that day I have no doubt that there were many foreigners among them. The gospel made such an impact on them that they simply didn’t go home. Over time this created practical economic problems and God moved the hearts of the believers to see to one another’s needs.
But Satan, by the time of Acts 5, had succeeded in planting a couple in the church by the name of Ananias and Sapphira. As people began to sell surplus property and bring the proceeds of those sales to the Apostles’ feet they, too, sold a piece of property. Unfortunately, however, self was on the throne of their hearts and it caused them to do two things. The first was to hold back part of the money for themselves. By itself this wasn’t a terrible thing had they simply been honest about it. However, that same spirit of self moved them to pretend that they were bringing the whole amount. Their pride drove them to desire the credit for doing what others were doing.
I’m sure they had no real sense of what they had done. They probably reasoned that they had made a real sacrifice and congratulated themselves on their spirit of charity. But their act of deceit and hypocrisy was the first break in the perfect unity of spirit that prevailed in the young church. It was a direct affront and challenge, not to the people, or even to the apostles, but to the Holy Ghost. And that was the line that God led Peter to take with them. What they had done was supernaturally revealed to Peter and so he challenged, first Ananias, then Sapphira a few hours later. God struck both dead on the spot and great fear filled everyone who heard of it. Still the church continued to grow as new believers were being steadily added.
Hypocrisy is a terrible thing. Jesus warned of it, comparing it to leaven (Luke 12:1). Like leaven, a little hypocrisy will permeate and drastically affect the whole. At this stage of things God wouldn’t let Satan corrupt the church. What if He judged every hypocrite today in the same manner? How many church members would be left?
Hypocrisy is a direct challenge to Christ. It is like saying, “I can run my own life, make my own decisions, and outwardly present myself in the church as a Christian, one who serves Christ — and get away with it!” Such people are deceived, yet they believe themselves to be Christians, on the road to heaven. They do not realize what incredible rebellion it is to serve self and pretend to serve Christ. Peter described their sin as lying, not to men, but to the Holy Ghost. Ananias and Sapphira paid the price on the spot but everyone like them will ultimately pay the same price unless they become aware of their condition and find a place of repentance. And so this particular attempt by Satan to invade the church failed.
In Acts 8 we see another kind of attempt. Following the death of Stephen by stoning, God used persecution by Saul and other Jews to scatter the church from Jerusalem so that the gospel could be carried to other places. It was at this time that Philip went to Samaria and preached. God bore witness to his preaching by enabling him to perform many mighty miracles of deliverance and the result was that great numbers believed.
Before Philip brought the gospel to the Samaritans there had been a sorcerer named Simon who had held a position of high esteem among the people. He had performed demon-inspired magic to bewitch the people. No doubt he enjoyed the status that his power gave him before the people. However, when Philip came even Simon was amazed at the great power of God that was manifest. As a result he was baptized and continued to follow Philip around, watching as he ministered and performed miracles.
In preaching among the Samaritans, Philip was breaking new ground. Up to that time all gospel work had been among the Jews and all the converts had been Jewish. But the Samaritans were despised by the Jews as “half-breeds.” Their ancestors were partly Jewish and partly heathen. They maintained their own religious traditions as we can see from John 4 where Jesus talked with the woman at the well.
And so, although many Samaritans had been baptized in Jesus’ name, none of them had at that time received the Holy Spirit as had those who were baptized on the day of Pentecost — and no doubt the other new converts in the months and years following. God wanted to bear witness by and through the apostles that the gospel had indeed been extended to the Samaritans. Accordingly, Peter and John were sent from Jerusalem to see what was going on. It was very evidently a genuine work of God and so they laid their hands on the new converts and they did receive the Holy Spirit.
It was at this point that Simon’s true condition came out. He went to Peter and John and offered them money for the ability to lay hands on people that they might receive the Holy Spirit. Of course, it then became obvious what his real motivation was. He was enamored by supernatural power and manifestation. He wanted it for self that he might continue to be “somebody” before the people. And religion attracts such people in droves. Many come because they want to wield the power and others come to experience it and see its manifestation. This attraction to the supernatural opens up many opportunities for Satan to deceive people. That is why Jesus warned so plainly that many would come in his name performing great lying signs and wonders that would deceive many. Matthew 24:4-5, 24.
People apparently follow Christ for many reasons other than a genuine love for God and His kingdom. Their motives vary greatly and are often hidden. This is plain from the ministry of Jesus recorded in the first part of John 6. On this occasion Jesus miraculously fed 5000 hungry people. After the providential meal it became necessary for Jesus to withdraw from the crowds. He discerned that the people intended to make him their king by force. In one sense you could say they believed in him and were honoring him but what was their real motive? Were they true seekers of God and His kingdom?
Their motives were entirely selfish. If Jesus was a prophet they wanted him to be THEIR prophet. When he did amazing things they wanted to bask in the glory of what their prophet could do. In short, they were sign-seekers who gloried in the supernatural. However, their interests were completely selfish and earthly. They had no interest in God’s kingdom and heaven. They wanted an earthly king of whom they could be proud — and one, no doubt, who could deal in a supernatural way with the problems of life.
Many supposed followers of Christ fall into this category. Their supreme motivation is to glory in signs and wonders and miracles. They willingly follow someone who talks about Jesus and exhibits seeming miracle power. They are thrilled with every apparent miracle they see or hear about. They will go on and on about such things as though that were the very height of spirituality, the very essence of what God and His kingdom are all about.
However, if you start talking about taking up one’s cross and daily following Jesus, or living a life of faith based on God’s Word, or dying daily, or finding strength in God’s sufficient grace to cope with weakness and affliction, they quickly lose interest. Their concept of the kingdom of God centers in supernatural power to make life’s problems go away. Note: their interest in God’s power has to do with the problems of THIS LIFE.
I’m glad that God in His mercy and compassion can and does intervene miraculously but that is not what the gospel is about. At best it is a witness to it. Hebrews 2:4, Mark 16:20, John 10:37-38. Such things are meant to point to the greatest miracle of all — salvation! I’m afraid that many religious people have such a distorted view of things that salvation is almost regarded as trivial, no big deal. “Accepting Jesus” and being “saved” are seen as simple and common whereas faith to cast out devils or heal someone’s body, well, that’s really something!
When the disciples returned from a season of ministry in which they had healed the sick and cast out devils (Luke 10:17-20) they were full of rejoicing and amazement that even the devils had been subject to them through Jesus’ name. However, Jesus said, “...do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Luke 10:20. That’s the real miracle! I wonder how many of today’s miracle-chasers have any idea what Jesus was talking about? I wonder how many of them are even saved — or are they really just like the sign-seekers of Jesus’ day?
There were others among the crowds that day in John 6 who were not so much attracted by the supernatural itself but by the results, namely the food. Their interest in Jesus was motivated by the fleshly blessing they had enjoyed. They sought earthly food, not heavenly. They were concerned about bodily needs relating to their earthly life and not about their desperate need of eternal salvation. They undoubtedly wouldn’t have cared if their provision had come through the Son of God or through some heathen magician.
People in every age have been motivated by similar concerns. Many in today’s churches are there for earthly advantage. Some are motivated by business interests or social contacts. Some others associate themselves with religion through economic need with a hope of charitable aid. And multitudes have embraced a so-called gospel that centers in a Jesus who is primarily interested in helping them cope with the problems of this life.
Such a “gospel” is highly selective and very earthly and selfish. It is selective because it leaves out the parts of the true gospel message that are regarded as less palatable. It is earthly and selfish because the parts that are retained are carefully packaged to appeal to the interests and needs of the natural man who desires help with life’s problems such as stress, financial problems, issues with relationships, health problems, psychological issues such as negative thinking, dealing with pain and loss, and so forth.
Christ can and does deal with the issues of this life. But what of sin and repentance, judgment and hell, the cross, and the blood? (Oh, let’s not talk about those things. People will stop coming and then how will we reach them?) What of suffering for Christ? What of sacrifice? What of loving not our lives unto the death? What about the kinds of things that Paul said were necessary for him to minister the life of Christ to others (2 Corinthians 4:7-12)? Can such people ever “glory in tribulation,” “in all things give thanks,” “offer the sacrifice of praise,” and especially “glory in...infirmities”?
The overwhelming majority of people attracted by that kind of “gospel” are lost and don’t know it. Their motivation is no different than millions of others who just want help with life’s problems. The idea that they can get that and go to heaven too is just icing on the cake, a wonderful bonus. You can build huge churches with that kind of a gospel but you will fill them with lost church members.
There were others in John 6 whose motivation was more like that of Simon the magician. They wanted to know what they had to do to be able to do the miraculous things that Jesus did. They wanted to know his secret. They had no real interest in serving God but in winning the praise and admiration of men. Their motivation was sinful selfish pride.
Jesus, of course, wasn’t fooled. He immediately turned their attention to what God really wanted from them — that they believe in the one He had sent. Unfortunately that didn’t interest them. However, such people interest Satan! They have great potential for serving his evil ends. He comes to them under the guise of the Holy Spirit and offers them power and influence and they all too often become tools for the deception of sign-seekers.
That is why Jesus warned so pointedly of those who would perform great miracles and signs to deceive. God is a miracle-working God but that is nowhere near the heart of what His kingdom is about. And Satan loves to take advantage of the selfish motivations of natural men and of a misplaced emphasis to deceive many and cause them to miss Christ. Undoubtedly it is people in this class who will be among those rejected as workers of iniquity that Jesus spoke of in Matt. 7:21-23.
And so we have seen two early attempts by Satan to infiltrate and corrupt the church fail. Unfortunately, though, it wasn’t long before he began to succeed as Jesus had said he would. The rest of the New Testament records many instances of the apostles contending with his efforts.