Tests of Christian Fellowship
Topic: Grace Pulpit Passage: Luke 9:49–9:50
Tests of Christian Fellowship
May 19, 2019
For our time in God’s Word this morning, we’ve come to an important mile-marker in the Gospel of Luke, so go ahead and turn to Luke 9:49-50. This is our text for this morning, and it’s also, as I said, an important mile-marker that you’ll see for yourself. Today, by God’s grace as we get through this hour together, this marks the end of Jesus’ Galilean ministry as recorded by Luke. Back in Luke 4:14—some of you have even arrived since we started then—but back in Luke 4:14, after Jesus came out of the wilderness testing, it says there, “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee,” and from that point to this—today—Jesus has been ministering in and around Galilee. He has saturated the region with his teaching, he’s eradicated disease and maladies from the Fall, and he’s banished demons out of the land.
Now in Luke 9:51 it says, “As the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” And that journey—from here in Luke 9:51 to the cross—is going to take us to chapter 19:28. That marks the journey’s end: “And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.” And the rest of Luke’s Gospel is going to take place in the city of Jerusalem, which includes the final Passover in that section and the institution of the Lord’s Supper, which we are going to celebrate again today.
Before we set out and follow Jesus on his journey to the cross, Luke wants us to enter into that section—that journey—he intends that before we start down the road with Jesus on this journey, we start down the road with a heart of humility. So there are two sections here at the end of the Galilean ministry, both of them confront, expose, and correct the blinding pride of the Apostles. Lest you think, “Oh, those poor Apostles”—that’s all of us. We have some manifestation of pride in our hearts that needs to be rooted out, confronted, and exposed. So these two sections here on turning from pride to humility. We studied the first one last week—verses 46-48—and we’re going to look at the second one for our study today.
So let’s back up and start reading in verse 46:
*An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.”*
We said last week that pride is one of those sins that the stronger it is, the more blinding it is. Someone who is steeped in pride seems to be the last one to know it. Outwardly, the pride of man, as it does here among the Apostles, causes division, corruption; inwardly, the sin of pride leads to anger, agitation, jealousy, slander, bitterness, resentment. Again, that produces outwardly divisions, factions—all that was breaking out among the Apostles. They’re arguing about who is the greatest among them. It’s such an ugly topic that reveals ugly hearts that are influenced by pride, and as we said last week, if our hearts were truly revealed, and the thoughts of our heart were put up on a screen in black and white, we would see that we’ve had these same thoughts about ourselves. The Apostles’ blindness—that’s just one symptom of their pride—is evident in the fact that they had such an argument about who is the greatest, and they had it in the presence of Jesus Christ himself, who is the great One. So this is as absurd as it is shameful.
As we see Jesus correcting them, he is so gentle. He waited for the right time, the right setting, the right circumstance to confront their pride and to teach them the path to humility. He showed them his welcoming spirit, his receptive, loving attitude toward a little child—one among them who’s insignificant—and he said, basically, “Do what I do. Strive among yourselves to be the least among yourselves by welcoming, receiving, serving anyone. Don’t make those external judgments. Don’t compare yourselves with yourselves and by yourselves. Be content that you, yourself, are received by the only One whose judgment truly counts. So if you receive a child, you receive me; if you receive me, you receive the One who sent me.” That’s what he’s saying.
True greatness is found in genuine humility, a humility that doesn’t count oneself as worthy of regard, or worthy of some consideration. The heart of greatness is found in the one who denies himself to serve others, no matter who they are, who receives all those whom Christ receives. In Christ’s name, we are to welcome all whom Christ has welcomed. So if Jesus has called them and presented them and embraced them and put them in places of honor near himself, directly by his side, before the Father in heaven, who are we to refuse and reject them?
Well, did Jesus’ teaching here on this occasion find its mark? You bet it did. Their consciences are pricked, and you can see that in the way that John answered Jesus, starting in verse 49:
*John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.”*
What John is asking about, here, and what Jesus answers, here, involves tests of fellowship. Who are those who are in the group, and who are those who are outside of the group? What are and are not good and appropriate tests of Christian fellowship? And remember, this conversation, this subject, this topic, comes in the context of exposing the Apostles’ pride, and this is another example of it. It’s due to pride that John did not see clearly, and he wasn’t making good, sound, biblical judgments about this unnamed exorcist.
But Jesus sets him straight, and in doing so, Jesus provides us, here, with useful teaching on tests of Christian fellowship. Whom should we affirm and fellowship with, and whom should we not affirm and avoid? Again, the context, here in this section, is pride—the pride of the Apostles—that’s what caused them to miss the mark on this test of fellowship. Pride had caused among them unnecessary internal divisions among the Twelve; and pride, here, causes unnecessary external exclusions of genuine believers.
So on the one hand, pride disrupts harmony within the fellowship, destroying Christian unity. On the other hand, pride creates a sectarian spirit, a spirit of criticism, a spirit of exclusion that refuses fellowship with true Christians whom Jesus receives and he uses unbiblical reasons to make these judgments.
So our outline this morning is going to ask and answer some questions about tests of Christian fellowship. We want to understand the importance of Christian fellowship and why it is that we need to ask questions about it, and then we want to know how to make good judgments about Christian fellowship. What are the wrong question to ask, and what are the right questions to ask?
So the first point in your outline—Why do we need tests of fellowship in the first place? Why do we need these tests? The question isn’t as simple as we might think. In fact, as much as I’d like to cover every issue with regard to fellowship and address everything in this sermon, I cannot possibly do that. So there are going to be some things that we’re just going to have to trust the Spirit of God to teach and mature and nuance and help us to understand as the days and months and years go by. But right now, we just have a limited time and a limited opportunity. It’s just not a simple issue.
You look back into the history of our own evangelicalism of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism had very, very good beginnings. And then in some places, fundamentalism went to seed; it caused some wicked, evil fruit. Some of it was that spirit of sectarianism and pride, and others was a reaction against fundamentalism that just embraced everything.
So we want to ask here at the start—I’ve written this out: Why do we need tests of fellowship?—the question I’ve posed assumes that there ought to be tests of fellowship, and we need to ask, is that even true? There are errors on both sides. Some seem willing to embrace everything. They want to be critical about nothing. “Judge not.” They want to affirm everyone and everything. And others make Christianity into a matter of so-called “discernment,” and they criticize absolutely everything. They ultimately exclude and reject most everyone. They draw the circle so small and so tight that only they and their “tribe” can stand in it. They can only stand on one foot, too.
We’ve got to be careful. We can see this on the national level, international level—a sinful spirit of ecumenism on one side, and a sinful spirit of fundamentalism gone to seed on the other side. There is a good ecumenical spirit of cooperation and fellowship. There’s a good spirit of fundamentalism, of holding fast to fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. But in either direction, when it’s driven by pride, when it is apart from maturity, biblical fidelity, doctrinal clarity, either impulse can devolve rather easily and quickly into error and sin and destructive unfaithfulness.
Here at the local level, where we all live with family, friends, and neighbors, these tests of fellowship and this issue of testing fellowship are so very, very important. The ecumenical spirit that refuses to exercise discernment and make distinctions, the ecumenical, accepting spirit that associates with everyone—what passes as a friendly spirit of affirmation and embrace—is often actually a cloak for fearing man, being unwilling to separate for the sake of Christ and his truth. That does not please Christ. Neither does the spirit of a harsh, censorious fundamentalism that turns everyone into enemies, refusing friendship and fellowship with everyone that doesn’t think exactly alike. That’s not just a horrible testimony to the community; it is disobedience to the One who said in verse 48, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me.” Neither attitude pleases Christ. Both attitudes are self-centered, pride-driven, man-exalting—and absolutely unfaithful.
So do we need these tests of fellowship? Oh, yes. The answer from Scripture is “yes.” There are many instances in the Bible of this, but I’ll just cite a couple from Jesus when writing letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. On the one hand, he commends the Ephesian church on this point. He says that “you cannot bear with those who are evil”—Revelation 2:2—“but you have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.” That’s a good thing. He has other things to say in correction of the Ephesian church, but that’s a good thing. On the other hand, he condemns the church in Thyatira because, quote, “You tolerate that woman Jezebel”—Revelation 2:20—“who calls herself a prophetess, who is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.” This is the spirit of compromise, a sinful spirit of toleration that embraces and accepts anything.
We need tests of fellowship because doctrine matters. We need it because truth matters. It’s the difference between life and death, between holiness and impurity. It’s the difference between faithfulness to Christ and unfaithfulness to him and disobedience to him. Listen folks—sin and error destroy and pollute the fellowship, and they are causes of stumbling to young believers. They destroy lives. You cannot claim to love God and others while tolerating sin and error.
John, here in our text, is clearly reacting to what Jesus said in verse 48: “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me.” And then it says, “And John answered…” His conscience is bothering him, here, which is why he speaks up and answers Jesus. What’s not clear is how he is thinking about this when he speaks. Is John confessing this because he sees in his actions a violation of a receptive spirit? Perhaps he’s bringing this up for another reason. There are some commentators who think he might actually be trying to justify his former actions, as if to say, “Receiving little children in your name, as you’ve said”—and by the way, that’s the connection—“in your name”—the exorcist is casting out demons “in Christ’s name”—so John may be trying here to justify his censorious reaction by saying, “Receiving little children in your name doesn’t include this situation, does it?” Sort of like the lawyer—Luke 10:29—who desired to justify himself—“And who is my neighbor?” Maybe John is asking, “And who qualifies as a little child, exactly? What warrants my reception and affirmation and welcome—and what justifies my censure?”
They are some reasons for seeing John responding in a spirit of self-justification according to the context—the context, as we said, is confronting pride in the Apostles. Pride is certainly involved here, too. Once again we see in the text John addresses Jesus as “Master”—“epistata”—and that clues us in, as we’ve said before, that the Apostle is somehow missing the point. That’s a thematic clue in Luke that what we’re about to hear—there’s something wrong with it, and we need to pay attention. It’s happening here, too.
Then in verse 54, notice that John and his brother James are prepared to “nuke” the Samaritan village because they didn’t receive them. So there’s something still in this guy—where he likes fire, and he wants to call it down. John is going to become known as “the Apostle of love”—that’s true, but not yet. That comes later. His remarkable transformation is still future. So perhaps John’s answering Jesus in the blindness of his pride, and he’s wanting to justify himself: “And who, Jesus, might I ask, exactly, are the ‘little children’ you’re talking about?”
While that may be true, I think that view isn’t characterizing John accurately, here. I think the Apostles are appropriately and deeply convicted by Jesus’ confrontation. And it’s interesting because even though deeply convicted here, you know what they’re going to do later? Argue about who’s the greatest. In the face of Jesus’ impending crucifixion on the cross, they’re still arguing about that. Any teachers out there? Any parents out there? You feel like you’re repeating yourself all the time, right? That is the nature of teaching, and that is especially the nature of spiritual teaching—that we have to repeat the same things over and over. Why? Because we’re so thick; we’re so prone to forget. Pride wells up again and blinds us yet again. That’s why it’s incumbent upon pastors and teachers and elders and those who teach in the church to be teaching patiently. Be gentle with people.
So the Apostles are, I believe, convicted here. They’re rebuked—properly corrected. The “little child” object lesson made a very good and deep impression, and I believe it went deeper than we may know at first glance. I think John is humbled and concerned about his former actions, which were pride-driven and were off the mark; and now he actually has a heightened level of concern. We don’t see it as much here, but if you read the parallel accounts in Matthew and Mark, Jesus had a bit more to say about the consequences of receiving—or not receiving—a little child in his name. In fact, turn over to Matthew 18, verses 5-10. Just so you can see this for yourself. This is the same context, same occasion. And Jesus expands. He says, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Millstones are big and heavy. They’re used for grinding grain. A millstone is turned—it’s got a bar coming out from it attached to the stone itself, and it’s yoked to an animal like a donkey or an ox. And that donkey walks in a circle, grinding the grain under that heavy, heavy millstone. So when you think about that millstone being fastened to your neck, and you’re cast into the depths of the sea, it’s not the lack of air that’s going to kill you. You’re going to shoot to the bottom so fast, it’s going to be the crushing weight of the water above you that’s going to crush your body. It’s going to start with your eardrums, blowing them out, which is very painful—and then your whole body. It’s pretty serious. John is imagining that. Jesus says in Matthew 18:7, “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! That’s why verses 8 and 9—if you’ve got a precious body part that causes you to sin, better to cut that thing off and throw it away, and enter into eternal life crippled than to keep that offending part—loving your body more than your soul—only to “be thrown into the eternal fire.” And verse 10 says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” Very serious! John’s feeling the weight of this. You can understand!
So back to Luke 9. Better be careful with those that Christ considers to be “little ones”—“who believe in me.” Those little ones are very important to God, and “You had better not cause one of them to sin. You had better not be the cause or source of temptation or stumbling to any one of them. You’d better not despise them that way.” Very serious.
That’s what makes the incident that John brings up so much more significant, with implications beyond what John knew in the moment. Not only is it wrong to refuse fellowship to one of Christ’s little ones, but it’s also detrimental to affirm those who ought not to be affirmed. That causes little ones to stumble, too. I’ve seen this in the larger, maybe international stage as missionaries participate with other missionaries with whom they ought not to participate. That causes many little ones confusion. I’ve seen on the national stage in conservative Reformed circles in recent decades the willingness to affirm and platform popular young preachers who ought not to have been highlighted and celebrated at all. For the sake of one person’s potential influence, they elevate immature, unqualified men and feature them at large evangelical conferences. I have personally seen and personally dealt with—pastorally dealt with—those who have been the fall-out of that kind of unwise affirmation. Some of those men who’ve been platformed ought to have been rebuked and corrected rather than affirmed and elevated. It’s been the cause of stumbling for many of Christ’s little ones, and as I’ve said, I’ve had to deal with this, and it’s painful to see.
What about in our own circles? In our own families? Here among our neighbors and friends, how are our affirmations confusing other people? We need to understand this, so John brings this up in this recent incident in which he’s been involved. And he’s trying to get clarity. He’s received and taken in Jesus’ correction. He sees the pride that’s at work in his own heart, and he poses the question because he honestly doesn’t know what to think and how to think about this. John, the other Apostles, all of us—we need to know how they should have applied verse 48 to this unnamed exorcist. This is an individual whom they don’t know. This is a man who’s not connected with their group, but who is nevertheless, as it says here, “casting out demons in Jesus’ name.” What do we do about that? Do we receive him or not? It’s an important question about separation and fellowship, about exclusion and partnership. And especially when you consider that these men are the foundation of the Christian church. The doctrinal substance and pastoral forms that they will set in place are going to guide the Christian church for millennia to come.
John doesn’t see the implications of that at this point, but that’s what’s at stake. I’ve been enjoying reading George Marsden’s book Reforming Fundamentalism. It’s about the establishment and the first 20 years of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. It is the behemoth seminary of evangelicalism, the flagship. These are the very questions that the founders of Fuller Seminary, neo-evangelicals, were dealing with in the 1940s and the 1950s, and how they reacted against their own fundamentalist background that really had in many cases become so censorious and critical-spirited that how they reacted to that set the course for Fuller Seminary and really sowed the seeds for its own doctrinal drift and downfall. It’s very hard to find any faithfulness in that institution whatsoever, and yet it has spread pastors and missionaries all over the world. So these questions of affirmation and separation have been some of the perplexing and consequential issues throughout church history. And John is asking that very question right here and right now.
Jesus answers the question in verse 50, but before we get there, let’s consider one of the errors in John’s judgment, which is manifest in his criterion for testing fellowship. This is our second question. What is an insufficient test for fellowship? What’s insufficient? Looking again at verse 49, John answered Jesus, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” John and the others happen upon a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and when they see this, we can imagine several thoughts coming into their minds at the time. “Wait a minute! Jesus gave this power and authority to us, his Apostles! Who’s this guy? He’s not an Apostle. Who’s he loyal to? How do I know him? Is he allowed to use the same power and authority? And since he’s claiming to do all these acts in Jesus’ name, why doesn’t he join our group? We’re the ‘signs and wonders’ group—why doesn’t he join in, follow along with us?” Perhaps John and the others—seems that they did—invited the man to join along with him, but he refused. The grammar indicates, here, that the Apostles repeatedly tried to stop this man. Perhaps they tried to stop him from casting out demons, or perhaps they tried to stop him from using Jesus’ name, or it could have been both. Not only did he refuse to join their company, but he refused to stop. He kept going. He was unwilling to be dissuaded from the work he was doing in Jesus’ name. And that had to have irked John and the other Apostles. “Doesn’t this guy know who he’s talking to? I mean—I am an Apostle—capital ‘A’ Apostle! I’m not just sent out by the churches; I’m sent out by Christ!” These men are Apostles of Christ. And you can see the opportunity for pride to rear its ugly head within their hearts, right? “I was on the Mount of Transfiguration. Didn’t see you there.” In any event, they’re unsuccessful to shut down his exorcism ministry or from using Jesus’ name. It’s obviously been bothering John. He’s stewing on it. And now that Jesus brought up this whole “receive the little children” principle, and “don’t cause any of them to stumble, lest you’re dead!”, he’s scratching his head and wondering, “Was I right about that? Do have some confessing to do?” He’s wondering here how to think about it.
So—verse 9—we see—number 1—how John cites the evidence. This is evidence that he gives. It’s what they say. And notice—number 2—how he confesses his action, his reaction to the guy, his action to try to stop him. So he cites evidence—“This is what we saw.” In fact, in trying to stop him, you can see that he tested the evidence. He knows what he sees, he knows what the guy affirms. He’s tested him, and then he confesses his action and reaction in trying to stop the guy. And then—number 3—he gives Jesus the basis for his action. “The reason I tried to stop him, Jesus—he doesn’t follow with us.” That last one—number 3—the basis of his action—that is the reason he did what he did. That exposes the test—for him—of Christian fellowship.
And that, folks, is an insufficient test of Christian fellowship—whether or not he follows along with us. You say, “Wait minute, here. You’re saying it’s not important that someone’s a follower of Jesus Christ, or not?” No, I’m not saying that. Whether or not someone is a true follower of Jesus Christ—that is the issue. But we have every reason to believe that this man was a true follower of Jesus. It’s as John confessed with the evidence he cited, by his own testimony—they’d seen him casting out demons in Jesus’ name. John’s insufficient test of Christian fellowship is whether or not the man was following Jesus as a part of his group or as a part of another group. That’s the issue. That’s bugging John, literally, because “he is not”—that is currently, presently, continuously—that’s the sense of the verb, here—“presently, currently, continuously following along in discipleship, following after you, in your steps—literally, in close proximity,” and then there is, at the very end, “with us.”
This issue of spatial proximity is about visible identity with a group. It’s a matter of outward, apparent, marked identification with this particular group of disciples as opposed to another group of disciples. It’s the ones following along with them. So John says, “If he really is one of us, then he’d been walking along right with us, in the same group, in the same time, in the same space.” So John’s test of fellowship, here—what’s it based on? Externals. An external identity. It’s based on visible identity—an external standard.
And it’s one that conformed to the common view of discipleship in his day—one that had been practiced among all the famous rabbis. Popular rabbis gathered disciples around themselves, and to be counted as a disciple of a particular rabbi meant you were following along in his entourage. You can’t be a disciple if you’re not there, right? If you’re not physically present, following along behind in the steps of the one you claim to follow, then you’re not a disciple no matter what you say. It’s not that the visible identity is not important. But there’s something that the former rabbis held in common that’s very different from Jesus. Jesus is the God-man. And whereas in other rabbis, it’s just a man, and in order to commune with his teaching and participate in his ministry and fellowship with his spirit, you might say, you had to be there. You had to be with him. You know what’s different about Jesus? Jesus sends the Spirit of God. And the Spirit of God inhabits others as well. Very different.
Another reason this is is a wrong way to apply this visible identity test: Visible, outward identity does not always comport with reality. Judas Iscariot followed along with the Twelve, didn’t he?—but his heart was never with them. His heart was always in the money bag. Mere association with Christ is not enough. That’s what John 15 teaches. There are those who are visibly connected to the vine who are not of the vine. But they’re cut off. Mere outward identification may be—and often is—deceptive. It covers over a heart of self-centered pride and rebellion and unbelief.
First Corinthians, chapter 1, verse 12: The Corinthians were fracturing into outwardly identifiable groups. “I follow Paul. I follow Apollo. I follow Cephas. I follow Christ.” And Paul confronts that spirit of division. They were all wanting to visibly identify with a particular group. Why? Simply because they had a love and affection for those teachers and for those ministers of Christ—Paul, Apollos, Cephas, and Christ? Because if they truly loved the teacher and loved their teaching, it would have brought them together, and there would have been none of that fracturing.
So what is to be gained by visible, outward conformity and identity to a particular name? Pride. You are measured, right?—by the one you stand with. “I’m of John MacArthur.” “Oh, I’m of Al Mohler.” “Oh, well, I’m of…”—well, fill in the blank with all your favorite teachers. It just becomes a badge you wear. “Don’t question me. I line up with so-and-so’s teaching.” I don’t know how many people I’ve run into—who’ve come into this church or other churches I’ve been a part of—and they come flashing that badge. “Me and this teacher are like this.” “Oh, I’ve been reading these books.” “Oh, I’ve been…” And what they’re asking for is a pass. “Don’t look too carefully at me. Just look at my badge. Look at my name tag. I’m of this teacher. I’ve read the right books. I’ve gone to the right conferences.” It’s just cloak. It’s pride. When you get into it, you realize that if they truly adhered to that teacher, they wouldn’t be saying things like that. They’d just be living it out.
This exorcist didn’t walk in the same group as the Twelve, and that neither commended him nor condemned him. Physical, spatial proximity to Christ said nothing about his status about a true or false disciple. Hadn’t Jesus left some true disciples behind on purpose? Remember the sinful woman—the woman cleansed of sin in Luke 7? She wasn’t following along. She left. The Gerasene—cleansed of his demons in Luke chapter 8—Jesus told him, “Stay here. Go back to your home and tell what God has done for you.” They were true disciples even though they were not part of the same entourage following Jesus.
And here where we see John’s pride coming into clearer focus. It’s really an irony here in the text, and it reveals the blinding power of pride in John to prevent him from seeing what was really going on in his man’s heart, life, and ministry—the reality of this man’s faith. First, John confesses in verse 49, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons.” What is this? These are the same gifts that Jesus gave to John—Luke 9:1-2—“power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases.” It’s the power that he and the other Apostles had failed to exercise in verse 40. This man is successfully employing it to good effect. He’s curing people who are in bondage, held captive in bondage to demons. So the power and the authority that John and the other Apostles had exercised over demons this man is exercising now. And—get this—it’s right after verse 40—the others have failed. John said, “This man is casting out demons in your name.” “In your name” is not just using the name even though that will come later as we go through the progress of church history—people who falsely use the name of Jesus. This guy is using the name of Jesus when it’s not a “thing”; it’s not a fake. He’s not like the seven sons of Sceva, who were charlatans. They were using Jesus name like a magical incantation. This guy actually believed in Jesus’ name. How do we know that? For one, because of the Apostolic testimony of that fact—that he is actually casting out demons successfully. You know who also gave a testimony to his mighty works? Jesus did. Over in Mark 9:39—a parallel text—Jesus says this man has done a mighty work in his name. He has got Christ’s affirmation. The matter of acting in Jesus’ name means that he is walking in step with Jesus’ true character, with Jesus’ true person. This man is acting and walking in Jesus’ name. He is acting in accordance with Jesus’ true work. Jesus came “in the power of the Spirit to proclaim liberty to the captives, set at liberty those who are oppressed”—Luke 4:18—and this man is clearly—by John’s own testimony—walking and working in Jesus’ name. It’s verified by an Apostle; it’s authenticated by Christ himself. Even though John saw for himself, with his own eyes—he tested as he went and confronted the man—he saw clear evidence of spiritual kinship. He fixated on the false standard of partisanship—“What group are you a part of?” That is the wrong test of fellowship. John should have welcomed this brother, not tried to censure or hinder him.
Incidentally, there is always going to be a tendency within us to become overly exclusive about fellowship. It’s as old as the zeal found in Joshua, servant to Moses. God told Moses in Numbers 11:16, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel. Bring them to the tent of meeting.” So Moses did that. God said, in verse 17, to Moses, “I’m going to take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you so that you may not bear it yourself alone.” And it says in verse 25, “As soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied—though they did not continue doing it. There were two men, though—Eldad and Medad—upon whom the Spirit continued to rest, so they prophesied in the camp—verse 26—and a young man came and tattled on them. He told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!” That didn’t sit well with Joshua. His righteous zeal is inflamed. Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” Must have been John the Apostle’s life verse right there: “Stop them!” Maybe it’s what he’d just read in his Daily Bread that morning—that’s probably it. Fresh in his mind.
But Moses said to Joshua, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them all.”
That young Apostle John sounds a lot like the young Joshua, doesn’t he? Filled with misguided zeal that’s motivated by an immature pride. The older man, Moses, speaks from humility and wisdom. He rejoices in the Spirit resting on other men of character, for gifting, for competency, to spread out the load of leadership, to help lift the burdens of shepherding. Paul speaks according to the same sentiment in Philippians 1:15-18. He knew there were rival preachers, preaching Christ. And that is truly preaching Christ. But they’re preaching with wrong motives. They’re preaching out of envy of Paul and his ministry. They’re preaching out of selfish ambitions. Paul rejoiced in the fact that Christ was being proclaimed nonetheless, whether in pretense or the truth. He says, “In that I rejoice, and yes, I will rejoice.” It’s almost as if he’s preaching to himself. Like Moses, like Paul, John, too, needed to learn to be large-hearted in this sense, to share the burden of Gospel ministry with other like-minded preacher. Listen—there were enough demons to go around. “Let’s get some help here! Awesome! You can cast out demons in Jesus’ name? Have at it! Let’s rid the land of their foul stench.”
This is a proper ecumenical spirit—one that refuses to judge on mere externals or non-essentials, but rejoices in the proclamation of the truth and the cardinal doctrines of the truth, and the spread of the true, saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. Listen folks—this is why we can affirm our Presbyterian brothers, right? The ones who proclaim the same truth of God’s holy Word, the ones who preach the same Gospel, even though they baptize babies and think we’re currently living in the Millennium. I don’t agree with them on these points, but I am so grateful for their powerful Gospel witness and adherence to the truth of Scripture on so many other points. They are closer to me that some who adhere to our name but don’t hold the reality. That’s why we don’t condemn those whose doctrine is less consistent, like our Arminian brothers and sisters, those whose theological understanding may not be as mature, provided they believe and preach the same Gospel of grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone. You know what? Those brothers and sisters are Christ’s little ones. We don’t understand the things we understand by our own power or might or intelligence or anything else, do we? Who are we to look down with pride on anybody? What are we, really? We’re just sinners saved by grace. We’re so grateful for those who are Christ’s little ones. But John, here, is trying to figure out the limits of fellowship. He’d applied a wrong, insufficient test of fellowship. Have you done that? Have I done that? Absolutely—we’ve all done that. Now he needs to know the right way to think about this.
This brings us to a third question, finally—to Jesus’ answer in verse 50. What are appropriate tests for fellowship? Look at verse 50: “Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.’” “The one who is not against you is for you.” Two chapters from now, in Luke 11:23, Jesus will say, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me, scatters.” What do we find here? Contradictions in God’s Word from the lips of Jesus himself? No, not at all. You find in the context of Luke 11:23 that Jesus is there providing for those who hear him—“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me, scatters”—an inward test for every person who hears him to apply to himself. If he can’t see that you’re on Christ’s side, that you’re “with me,” that you’re “gathering with me,” that you’re “doing my work in my name,” well, then, “you’re not only not with me; you are against me.” That’s for every conscience to hear and apply.
Here in verse 50—Luke chapter 9—this is an outward, external test that Jesus gives to John in thinking about other people. What’s he asking John to do, here? Judge. He’s saying, “I want you to judge. Here’s the test I’m going to give you for judgment.” The grammar indicates, here, at the very beginning, this command—this prohibition. Jesus turns, he looks directly at John. He looks at him, and he essentially says, “Stop stopping him!” John says, “We tried to stop him.” He says, “Stop stopping him! I am forbidding you to forbid him.” That snapped John to attention. And evidently Jesus does think this question of fellowship is an important issue as well because he continues with the principle for judgment. He wants to make sure that John and the others really do get this right, so he lays down the principle, “The one who is not against you is for you.” In other words, if you can’t see that a professing Christian is against Christ, clearly opposing his cause, then you’re to consider him an ally. “One who is not against you is for you.” The preposition “against” is “katá”; it refers here in this context to hostility and opposition. This man is clearly not in hostility or opposition to them. He is actually in opposition and hostility to the spiritual enemies of Jesus—the demons. He’s making havoc there. He’s one of us.
Just a footnote—Jesus makes it clear that there are only two sides in the spiritual realm—for and against. There’s no in between. There’s no middle of the road. There’s no straddling the fence. Any mediating position is a compromise. Leon Morris put it this way: “There can be no neutrality in the war against evil.” No neutrality, here. So by not opposing Jesus, this man casting out demons in Jesus’ name is opposing demons. He’s for the Apostles. He’s on their side. He’s on their team. And the preposition “for”—as in “for you”—“hyper”—here conveys a component of concern for the Apostles. As he acts here, and works here, and does his ministry, he’s doing it in cooperation with them and for sake and in their interests. Jesus is saying, “This guy’s not an enemy; he’s a friend.”
Another footnote, here—Jesus is affirming that others are doing God’s work besides those in his spatial proximity. Others doing his work, not just the ones following along with the Apostles. “John, it’s true, this man does not follow—verse 49—with us. That’s true. That being said, this man is not against you, so that means he is for you. He is working in our interests.” So Jesus lays down this principle. You know what he forces John to do? To look back and consider the evidence that he missed.
Who is this guy, anyway—this unnamed, unknown, anonymous exorcist? It’s easy to imagine this guy had become acquainted with Jesus during the Galilean ministry. He’d put his faith in him at some point. Jesus and the Apostles had moved on, traveling to another village, carrying on their ministry—but this guy stayed behind and began to preach Jesus’ Gospel. Makes sense. That happened on other occasions as well.
As to the second question—how this guy came to exercise power and authority over demons—we have to see this as some kind of a special dispensation of the Holy Spirit, who operates according to the will of the Father, and gave him the power to cast out demons like the Apostles had done. We believe that because, quite obviously and quite apparently, that’s precisely what did happen. The man’s ability to cast out demons foreshadows what’s coming in chapter 10:1—“Jesus appointed 72 others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, going to every town, every place where he was about to go.” Down in verse 9, Jesus gave them power to heal the sick while preaching, “The Kingdom of God has come near you.” That was the message—he gave them power. No mention, there, of casting out demons, though, right? Notice when they return in verse 17. The testify to what to them was an unexpected superabundance of power. “The 72 returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name.’” So evidently, during Jesus’ first advent, the Holy Spirit is please to confer upon others the power to cast out demons as well. The power accompanied the preaching of the Gospel of the Kingdom attested to the validity of the messenger. It confirmed the message as coming from God.
Not the same thing going on today, but this was what was happening in Jesus’ first advent and through the ministry of the Apostles. So when Jesus said, “The one who is not against you is for you,” he made it clear that there is no neutrality in the spiritual war. You’re either for or against. You’re on one side or the other. He also made it clear that the team is bigger and broader than John originally thought, but according to certain tests. It’s obvious that Jesus is thinking very differently from the Apostles, and he sees something very clearly in what John has testified to in this unknown, unnamed exorcist—something that John and the others had completely missed. They were focusing on the outward form—the “name tag.” John was unable to see, though, the reality and the substance of this man’s faith. And it was there—and it came out of his own mouth. Those who were legitimately representing God, those who are doing his work, are tested according to their fruit. Jesus said back in Luke 6:43-45 in the Sermon on the Mount, “You will know them by their fruits.” And you’ve got to watch out.
So what are the tests for fellowship? Get out your pen and write these things down. They’re easy to remember, but I don’t want you to forget when you get into this afternoon’s dinner. So write these things down. The fruit of doctrine, the fruit of behavior, and the fruit of endurance. Doctrine, behavior, and endurance.
First, the test of doctrinal fruit. Do they believe the truth and walk in the name of Jesus Christ, or not? Preaching a false gospel is a clear sign of a violation. Galatians 1:8, Paul said, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” He repeats it again in verse 9: “As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” Do you know the Gospel that Paul preached well enough to use it as a litmus test for those you listen to, for those you have lunch with, those in your family, friends, and neighbors. If you don’t, it’s incumbent to learn it well.
What is that Gospel? God is absolutely holy. Man has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and the wages of sin is death and eternal hell. Eternal hell is the sentence put upon one who refuses to bow the knee to Jesus Christ—refuses to honor God and give thanks. Eternal hell is the sentence upon those over whom God’s wrath has come. And the only way to be rescued from the wrath of God against human sin—against your sin and mine—is salvation in Jesus Christ and in him alone. “There is no other name by which men must be saved.” God put him to death on the cross for our sins—sins that merited an eternal death. God punished him instead of all those who believe. And to those who believe—he gives them the righteousness of Jesus Christ. So not only are they cleansed of all their sin, but they are perfect in all righteousness. They stand before God holy, accepted in the Beloved. So for all those who put their faith in Jesus Christ, who receive him, who welcome him, who embrace him—that’s demonstrated by obedience, following him as Lord, repenting of sin, and pursuing righteousness, holiness, and fruit. That’s the Gospel.
I say this with sadness in my heart that the biggest, most well-known church in our town—I talked to a gal who’d been attending there for 10 years. She’s living with her boyfriend in open sin. She never heard from the pulpits there anything about the Gospel. She never heard anything about sin, about consequences for her sin. She never was called out for her sin. She never heard about hell, judgement—anything like that. Many, many people in our town go to that church. That’s sad, beloved, that you could attend church for that long and not hear that. And when I started to speak to her about these things, you know where she went back to? She said, “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard that before.” “Where’d you hear that?” “Oh, before I started attending this church, I was a Catholic.” That’s where she’d heard about sin and hell.
Beloved, doctrine has consequences, and that girl was still trapped by her sin, still enslaved. There are so many people who are enslaved by bad doctrine and a refusal to confront error.
One passage I want to show you if you’ll turn over to 2 John. Go to Revelation, then just back up a couple of letters—2 John, a short little epistle. And it’s by this Apostle we learn this lesson from John—what Jesus taught him. And contrary to what you might think, when he writes to a Christian woman in 2 John, he doesn’t tell her, “Embrace everybody who says they are a Christian.” He writes to this Christian woman, and he’s confronting her for sinning because she’s not applying any doctrinal tests. She’s receiving false teachers into her home—embracing them. 2 John verses 5-11:
*And now I ask you, dear lady—not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning—that we love one another. And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it. For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.*
Beloved, obedience to Christ’s command that we love one another means necessarily that we must exercise discernment. We must know the Gospel clearly, and we must exclude from the fellowship those who preach a false gospel, particularly and especially when they profess to be Christians. They falsely name the name of Christ, and they deny the very Gospel that he taught.
Well, that’s the doctrinal test. We don’t have time to go through all this now, but if you look at the epistles of John, they’re full of these kind of tests. To continue receiving and embracing as friends those who pervert the Gospel, those who call themselves Christians and pervert the Gospel, is to take part in evil works, and we need to repent of that, wherever we’ve done it.
Second: the test of behavioral fruit. A true work of the Holy Spirit is evident in transforming power, a life that’s increasingly conformed to Christ, growing in increasing patterns of holiness. The Bible tells us to remain separate from those who profess the name of Christ while they walk in open sin. The Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 5:11-13 about those who profess faith in Jesus Christ but are guilty of living in unrepentant sin, “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders?”—“non-Christians. That’s what non-Christians do. That’s how they live. That’s why they need the Gospel. That’s how I love them!”—“Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’”
So, there’s a negative test. On the other hand, we need to receive and not censure, not reject, but embrace and receive those who evidence the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. How’s that evident, how’s that manifest? In godly attitudes, in godly behavior. “The fruit of the Spirit”—Galatians 5:22, is what?—you can recite it—ever since AWANA, right?—“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.” The same Holy Spirit who produces those attitudes in us, those virtues in us, also causes us to walk in godly behavior. So those attitudes don’t just stay on the inside; they come out to the outside. I’ve met so many people who are filled with corruption in their outward behavior, and you test them and they say, “Oh, but I have the fruit of the Holy Spirit on the inside, where you can’t see.” “You’re right, I can’t see it! You’re absolutely right about that! Make no mistake.” But Titus 2:14 says, “Christ gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” Ephesians 2:8-9, right? “For by grace you have been saved” but why?—verse 10: “We are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
Beloved, we’re saved by grace alone, but it’s not by grace that is alone. We’re saved by a God who sent his Son to redeem us from evil works, a God who sent his Spirit to produce good works in us. Those who walk in that way are walking in the name of Jesus Christ and are to be welcomed as Christ’s little children.
The third and final test: sthe test of enduring fruit. John said in verse 49, “We tried to stop him,” but he was unsuccessful in preventing him from doing and continuing to do what Christians ought to do—to preach the Gospel in Jesus’ name, manifesting the power of the Spirit. In other words, if someone perseveres in abiding in Christ, he remains firm in the truth, he walks in holiness, he perseveres amid testing—that is a brother, that is a sister in Christ. It’s not just how someone starts. It’s how they finish. Jesus said, “The one who endures to the end will be saved.”
Well, look—there’s a whole lot more to say about this subject. We just don’t have time to develop all these ideas and nuances and clarify. Some of these tests take time to watch, take relationship. So don’t go out to start to cast everyone away or embrace the wrong people. Just take time. Take time. We have to trust God to mature us by the Spirit in all truth. Beloved, I know there are some of you out there for whom this is a very real, very ongoing challenge. The more you learn—biblically, doctrinally, theologically—the harder it is for you to retain old friendships, to have conversations with errant people whom you love. It used to be a lot easier for us, didn’t it? When some of these issues were less clear. We had less clarity, so we didn’t know any better—unable to discern. Conversations all stayed at a superficial level. So everything was easy. Everyone was a Christian! Now that we learn more, have gone deeper, the gift of truth has consequences, doesn’t it? And speaking out may cost you friendships, relationships. It may come at the expense of future influence. And I know among grandparents and parents, this is a real pain because you don’t want to see influence among children and grandchildren gone. So what do you do? Cover it over. You don’t speak. I understand. We need to be faithful, but I do understand, and I sympathize. I empathize.
So you just need to know—as elders, leaders, deacons—we’re praying for you that God will give you wisdom to make righteous decisions. Christ in his shepherding of his church has brought us by his will into this text, authored by his Holy Spirit, so we can see how to please him in this area as well. Amen? So we need his wisdom, his grace to help us to make good decisions. So let’s pray for that now, shall we?
Our Father, we can identify or understand a little bit of what Solomon said: “With great wisdom comes great sorrow.” And we do feel the sorrow and the pain of exclusion and the potential for blow-back when we have to hold fast to your truth. We don’t lament that one bit. We hold fast to your truth and stand firm in it because that is a grace and a mercy from you. We love you and we thank you for saving us, and we want to see this same Gospel that saved us, to see our ability to preach it and administer it and minister it to people with clarity, making distinctions, exercising discernment. So help us not to sin, Father, either in what we affirm or what we exclude. Help us to have sensitive consciences like John did, that we would not offend one of these little ones either by excluding a little one or by affirming the wrong people and thereby causing a little one to stumble. We just ask for your great mercy on our congregation, on each of our lives. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.