A study of early church history reveals that the earliest controversies and errors the church faced had to do with the incarnation. Did God really appear in human flesh? Indeed, could He really appear in human flesh? The Apostles and church leaders fiercely defended the literal record of Jesus' incarnation, His coming in real human flesh.
Gnosticism, a precursor to modern New Age philosophy, attempted to deny this truth. Modern New Age philosophy, aside from the incredible variety of ideas propagated from one advocate to the other, accepts that Jesus came in the flesh. Some will even acknowledge His deity, but not in the sense you and I would expect. According to them, Jesus was nothing more than a mere man who worked and learned until he "realized his own deity." In the same way, according to this teaching, you and I can work and study until we also realize our own deity. This concept does not present the Biblical concept of God or of Christ.
Included under the general heading of gnosticism is an equally perverted view of the origin of the physical universe. This idea relates directly to the incarnation. Much like ripples that form when you throw a stone into a still body of water, gnosticism taught the existence of one ultimate deity, unknown, unknowable and unapproachable. But emanating from this supreme deity are countless lesser god-like beings, like the ripples in the water's surface or like rays emitting from the sun. According to the gnostic view, one of these "demiurges" wholly misunderstood the intent of the supreme deity and created the material universe. He was actually a rather undesirable kind of lesser god, mean-spirited and inclined to hold grudges. Supposedly he is the Jehovah of the Old Testament! The supreme deity had no desire to create a material universe. In fact, he viewed anything tangible and material as inferior and despicable.
Given this low view of the material universe, what do you think ancient gnostic philosophers thought of Jesus as the direct personification of God in human flesh? They abhorred the idea! How could a god who hated the material universe enter it? In fact, according to them he couldn't even come into contact with it. It would contaminate him and make him something less of the god-force than he was before that contact.
How did the gnostics deal with the multitude of witnesses and evidences for the incarnation? They were quite creative. According to one sect of gnostic teachers, the Docetists, Jesus never possessed a true material body. They claimed that what people saw was merely a phantom, a spirit appearance of a human body similar to angels who are immaterial but may at times appear as material.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia identifies eight characteristics of ancient gnosticism. (Volume 4, pages 548-9)
The following may be regarded as the chief points in the characteristics of the Gnostic systems: (1) A claim on the part of the initiated to a special knowledge of the truth, a tendency to regard knowledge as superior to faith, and as the special possession of the more enlightened, for ordinary Christians did not possess this secret and higher doctrine. (2) The essential separation of matter and spirit, the former of these being essentially evil, and the source from which all evil has arisen. (3) An attempt at the solution of the problems of creation and of the origin of evil by the conception of a Demiurge, i.e. a Creator or Artificer of the world as distinct from the Supreme Deity, and also by means of emanations extending between God and the visible universe. It should be observed that this conception merely concealed the difficulties of the problem, and did not solve them. (4) A denial of the true humanity of Christ, a docetic Christology, (which looked upon the earthly life of Christ and especially on His sufferings on the cross as unreal. (5) The denial of the personality of the Supreme God, and the denial also of the free will of man. (6) The teaching, on the one hand, of asceticism as the means of attaining to spiritual communion with God, and, on the other hand, of an indifference which led directly to licentiousness. (7) A syncretistic tendency which combined certain more or less misunderstood Christian doctrines, various elements from oriental and Jewish and other sources. (8) The Scriptures of the Old Testament were ascribed to the Demiurge or inferior Creator of the world, who was the God of the Jews, but not the true God. Some of these characteristic ideas are more obvious in one, and some of them in others of the Gnostic systems. The relation of these ideas to Christian facts and doctrines is dealt with more particularly below.
John's writings emphasize the incarnation as a literal event in time and space, very much an event that involved God becoming man and living in a human body. That body in every way except its vulnerability to sin was human. For example, notice 1Jo 4:2-3 -- Anyone who denies that Jesus Christ has "come in the flesh" is not of God. For John, belief in the incarnation was not an optional, non-essential theological technicality; it was the core, the central truth, of all Christian teaching. You couldn't deny this truth and be a Christian. Deny this truth and John says you are in fact "anti-Christ."
Even in the opening verses of his letter, John establishes the central truth of a literal coming of God in human flesh. Notice our study verses. The letter begins, "That which was from the beginning...." Only God exists "from the beginning." Only God is eternal, personally and self-sufficiently. Thus John introduces us to the very person of God. But notice how he integrates the deity of Jesus Christ with His literal humanity. John says, "We heard him speak, we saw him with our eyes, and we touched him with our hands." This was no phantom, no spirit body, of which John wrote. He was writing about an altogether real person who lived among men in human flesh.
If we view this epistle as a nice appeal for more love among the brotherhood of the faith, we miss its major point. Love is one of several strategies by which faithful Christians are to counter this heresy. Gnosticism inherently was a cold, intellectual philosophy. John's idea of love differs widely from the common Western idea of sentimental, emotional attachment. Like Paul's definition of love in 1Co 13, true Christian love is defined, not by how one feels, but by what one does. In fact, First John may be the most fiercely polemical of the New Testament letters in its focused opposition to this specific error. In the same ISBE article cited above the authors note that gnosticism was not an error that arose from within the church, but that it was an external error that found its way into the church from the outside. In every essential trait this error was alien to New Testament Christianity. John was fully justified in his pointed rejection of its teachings. Deny the truths it attacked and you deny every major premise of Christian fact and doctrine. Christianity no longer exists. Indeed John fought for the life of the reality he had so personally experienced and witnessed.
Interestingly, in these first verses of John's epistle, New Testament Greek scholars are nearly universal in viewing the verbs in the perfect tense. "That which we have heard, and our ears still hear his voice; that which we have seen, and our eyes still see him...." Christian truth did not originate generations after the fact, the result of mythical hyperbole. Most of the men who wrote the New Testament were eyewitnesses of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Even Paul, whose conversion likely occurred less than five years after the resurrection, defended his apostleship on the basis that he had actually seen Jesus Christ (1Co 9:1; 2Co 5:16). Thus they viewed any claim that Jesus was nothing more than a mythical fantasy or only an apparent "spirit body" as heretical error to be rejected emphatically.
While New Testament writers frame our model apologetic strategy in factual evidence and documented reality, they also include a touch of personal witness. Not only did John witness Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, the reality of the experience still rang in his ears and flooded his eyes and mind with memories. May we learn this model well. This ancient error has surfaced in our time through New Age teaching and many of its insidious tenets corrupt Christian thought. It is altogether relevant to our time.
A sermon flavored with experience always plays better than one from theory alone. John prepares his readers that his letter will draw from actual life experiences. Within the context we also learn that he did not intend merely to write randomly about his life. No, this is not his autobiography. In the first two verses he singled out his personal witness of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This testimony did not present a myth. He literally saw, heard and touched the human body of Jesus Christ. This fact directly contradicted the error John confronted in this letter. If the body of Jesus was only apparent, not a true literal physical body, then John could not possibly have touched it. But he tells us he did touch it.
The Greek word translated fellowship is koinonia. It carries the idea of community, of sharing and communicating. How sad in our time that fellowship has taken a dramatic negative overtone. Often when people use the word, they describe the hostile discontinuance of community, so they are actually describing "non-fellowship," not fellowship. We need to return to the Biblical use of this beautiful word.
John wants to communicate his vibrant personal testimony of Jesus' life with his audience, to create a sense of community with them based on the historic Jesus. He sees the dangers of Docetic error and challenges it in the most direct terms possible. We should not confront all differences in the same way. Some differences may be insignificant in terms of the major issues of the historic faith. The fact that two sincere believers, even people in the same church or fellowship, disagree does not necessarily mean that one of them is absolutely correct and the other is dishonest and sinister, or in error at all for that matter. In fact both sides of an issue may be partly correct and partly in error. Thus we should evaluate the whole of what we believe in terms of essential truth and non-essentials. Is a difference so significant, so contradictory to historic Christian teaching, that holding to it brings your very Christianity into question? Or is it a non-essential issue in which, to borrow from Paul (Ro 14:5 and context), each man should be persuaded in his own mind, and each person should charitably allow other viewpoints? Unless we take the time to separate our views into essentials and non-essentials, we tend to make everything an essential. Soon a minor disagreement on the interpretation of a particular passage, even though both sides hold to orthodox doctrine in their overall Biblical view, becomes a matter of schism and hostility. In Ro 14 Paul urges that believers show gracious non-judgmental attitudes toward each other in all non-essential areas. Be faithful to your personal convictions in these areas, but don't force everyone else to hold your exact view. Rather than looking for reasons to break fellowship, Paul joined John in urging its high value and preservation.
John also points us to the ultimate issue upon which we must build lasting fellowship with each other, the person of Christ. We may not agree on the best political party or candidate for our country. We may not agree on which car model to buy. We may not always agree on the preferred decorations in the church building. Perhaps we may not favor the same hymnal. After all hymnals are not inspired, so all of them contain both good and not-so-good selections. But none of these issues should be viewed as so important as to strain the fellowship we have in Christ and with Him. When two people become involved in a tense disagreement, they tend to polarize, to move farther apart. When they are willing to look jointly at Christ and their common inheritance in Him, they will begin to move closer together, not apart. Jesus does that to people, you know.
The ultimate "community," fellowship in John's model, is not simply our individual or collective relationships but our common relationship with Christ. His goal is to move us from one-on-one relationships, you and me, to a threesome; Jesus, you and me. We should not separate our personal relationships from our common relationship with Christ. Imagine what that dynamic does to interpersonal relationships. If you begin building your relationships on this model, your life will never be the same!
John draws the premise of including Jesus in this fellowship model from the historic reality of the incarnation. In Jesus God actually lived and died. He actually arose and returned to heaven as Lord and Christ, as God. Such a model of life could not develop around a mere phantom or a myth. True essential error has implications on every area of our Christianity. It alters the very character of historic Biblical Christianity.
That your joy may be full. First of all, John seeks to establish joyful Christianity as the normative model of the faith. He would have nothing to do with sour-faced religion often paraded as genuine Christianity. Joy in this sense means far more than sentimental emotive feelings. It means an inclusive worldview, a comprehensive lifestyle. Further it does not admit the self-deluded Pollyanna attitude that simply ignores the unpleasant or the painful in hopes that it will just "go away." It maintains its joyful character in the midst of life's greatest disappointments. It faces trial and difficulty head-on, but those things fail to dampen this kind of joy. Why? This Christian joy does not grow in the soil of hedonistic self-gratifying pleasure. It grows in the soil of God! Your whole world may be coming apart at the seams, but your joy is constant because it resides in your relationship with Jesus, not in the circumstances of your life. When things are at their worst in your life, you can celebrate your fellowship with Christ, full-well knowing that He endured far greater trials than you ever could imagine, and the Father stood by Him and delivered Him. Even in death the Father remained faithful to Him. Several times in Acts those first preachers quoted Ps 16 as applicable to Jesus' death and resurrection. "My soul shall rest in hope..." describes the prophetic attitude of Jesus toward His death. He faced death, fully assured that the Father would raise Him up on the third day. If we discover authentic fellowship with Christ, our joy in Him does not depend on success and pleasure. We may face imminent death and pain, but we can face it with joy if we stand firmly in "community" with Him. He never changes. In life or in death He remains faithful.
Did you ever have a friend who wanted to be your "best friend," but they insisted on a one-way relationship? Their whole view of friendship revolved around what you could do for them, what was in the relationship for them. You always left time with them emotionally drained. We've all had that kind of "friend." The relationship gave you anything but joy. John wants us to view our relationship with Christ as a vivid contrast to such relationships. An authentic relationship with Jesus Christ will add community, security and joy to your life.
Should a church cultivate a different culture than this? Every church develops its own unique personality and culture. That makes them authentic and individual. However, you occasionally see a church whose culture leaves you much like that needy "friend." Rather than enhancing your joyful community with God, they leave you drained and discouraged. Such a church fails at its most fundamental reason for existing! If godly friendships impart community, security and joy, should healthy churches do any less? We've all known people who play this "You're my best friend" game by their own rules. They don't really mean you are their "best" friend; they mean that you are their only friend. And they expect you to view them as your best and only friend. If you begin to develop community, involving yourself with other people, they will react. They feel insecure and threatened. This attitude is common among young adolescents, but it is not becoming or appropriate for churches or mature Christians. And it fails John's test for our faith. A "faith" so insecure that it cannot foster community, sharing, is a faith not worth having or sharing. A faith that presumes to have Jesus exclusively in its possession gives more evidence of spiritual adolescence than of Biblical maturity. It may be acceptable for a phantom "spirit-body" Docetic New Age Jesus, but it fails to measure up to the real Jesus of Scripture. John will expose the gnostic Docetic Jesus that threatened authentic faith, but he will do so in a way to challenge and grow each of us into stronger believers and followers of the real Jesus. May we grow with him.
One of the best ways to test any doctrine with which you are not familiar is to examine its view of God. Error views God inconsistently. You need only examine it carefully to discover the flaw. John introduces us to the basic dishonesty of the Docetic gnostic error in this passage. Those whose teachings he opposed said, "God is both light and darkness." John said God is light only. Remember their essential error in denying that Jesus had a material body. But He "appeared" to have a physical body. The whole of ancient Christian doctrine built itself on the reality of the Incarnation. For them God is not a phantom. He is not a remote uninvolved deity. He is real. He is constantly and intimately involved in the operation of the universe, especially in the lives of His people. The Incarnation proves that to be so. But if in this ultimate act of self-revelation, God worked deceitfully and dishonestly, what does that say about God? He must be both light and darkness. He is involved and He is uninvolved. He is faithful and He is deceptive. At the core, the Docetic god is unpredictable, not to be trusted! If he acted deceptively in his most direct act of self-disclosure, what does that say about his essential character?
John doesn't simply say that God has light, that He is an "enlightened" being. He says He is light. If He is light, He cannot be darkness too. Light and darkness are opposites. The Docetic god appeared to be human, but Docetists said he was not actually human. He appeared to live in a flesh-body, but they said it was merely appearance, not a real body at all. Reflect on what this means to a believer in such a god. You face a terrible problem and you pray. Your god answers with warm assurances of concern and promises to intervene on your behalf. But the nagging question looms in your mind. Will he follow through with his promise? Or is he playing this deceptive game with you, just as he did in the apparent, but not real, incarnation? How will you leave this encounter with your god? Will you find any comfort? Will you find any relief from your problem? Such a god is worse than no god at all!
In our systematic theology mindset we grab verses here and there, reconstructing the Bible in our neat theological outline of major doctrinal issues. But God didn't give us the Bible in that form. Systematizing major Bible doctrines serves a valuable purpose. However, for the average believer in the ordinary course of events, the Bible in its real form, the form in which God gave it to us, serves our needs far better. Take this lesson as an example. John begins the letter with the foundational truth of the incarnation. Then he touches on some rather practical implications to our theological perspective. If we reconstruct the Bible in the form of a systematic theology book, we might find one or two of these verses, but not all of them. We'd grasp one truth, but miss others in the context. This approach to Bible study and thinking tends to sterilize important Bible doctrines. They are great brainteasers. They challenge our minds. We find them amazingly interesting. But they contain no essential practical value whatever in the real world where we live! How often have you heard a sermon on a major doctrine of Scripture, but because of the manner in which it was preached, you left the sermon wondering what value that doctrine held for your life? We've all heard those sermons. The problem lies with the sermon, not the doctrine. Review the Docetic error. What implications does it have for you? How might it impact your personal discipleship? At first glance, you might think it has little impact at all. As we broaden the context of this passage, John shows us what an amazing impact it really does have on us. Those who worship a god should imitate the object they worship. If the god we worshipped were the Docetic god, we should follow his example. Or should we?
If we say one thing and act differently, we imitate the Doectic god, but we fail miserably to follow the true God of the Bible. If we say we walk in the light, we must actually walk in the light. The true God of Scripture frowns intensely on deceptive conduct. To say you walk in the light while knowingly walking in fact in darkness follows the practice of this false god.
We live in an age where appearance has taken on far more value than substance. In so many circles of human activity nowadays you can safely do whatever you wish so long as no one sees you or discovers what you are doing. Men and women often feel there is no moral problem at all in engaging in affairs as long as their spouse doesn't discover it. They consider the wrong to be in the discovery, not in the act itself. You can cheat on your spouse, steal from your employer and generally do just about anything you wish; just don't let anyone know. Then you can go to church on Sunday and put on a grand performance. Pretend to be a pure Christian full of faith. I recently spoke with a very conscientious pastor of a growing church in another denomination. He confessed that he was under a doctor's care for high blood pressure. It was dangerously high. After a few minutes he revealed the reason. This man's heart was breaking over the impact of sinful choices among the people to whom he ministers. Do you see this concern in John's comment? What you actually do, not what you say, carries the day. You may put on the best image and convey the best pretense imaginable. But if your conduct does not walk in honorable stride with you words and pretenses, you deceive yourself, but God knows. And your God is not a dishonest gnostic god. He knows all about you and all about your lifestyle. He cannot be deceived! You may succeed at deceiving those around you, even those in your own church and in your own family. But you will never deceive God. And He does not accept rationalizations for sin.
If we walk in the light, as he is in the light.... Our walk must match His, if not in perfection, at least in direction and consistency. Try as we might, we will never reach that point of perfection in our walk. The theological question for us becomes so obvious. How will we handle ourselves when we realize acts of sin in our own conduct? We can try to explain it away, but that doesn't work. God knows the truth. We can try to justify it, but He despises that attitude. It compounds one sin by adding another sin to the list. We can say to ourselves that it isn't really a sin, but a habit or a sickness. But God has the last word. If He calls it sin, call it what we wish, when we face Him, we must face the grim reality; it is sin.
Our walk in the light will not be uninterrupted and flawless. What do you do when you face the moment of sin? John carefully crafts his words here. We walk in the light, even as He is in the light. We walk the same way He walks. How, you ask, can we as sinners walk in the same way the holy God walks? You can't. But you can follow John's intent here. You can maintain consistency in conduct. When you fall into temptation, face it honestly. You can deal with it as God deals with sin. He calls it sin and deals with it. If God could honor His holy nature and play the mind games we play, He could have simply denied that all our sins are in fact sin, and He could have told Jesus the incarnation and atonement were not necessary. But this attitude toward sin is dishonest. God expects us to face our sins honestly when we do fall. He expects us to confess them and call them sins! View your sin just as God views it. That is walking in the light.
The blood of his Son Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin. Notice the present tense of the verb. Present and ongoing cleansing is the issue. This passage is not a salvation text. It does not describe the once-and-for-all-time cleansing we receive through Christ's blood in the new birth. It describes the ongoing cleansing that occurs contingent on how we walk! If you face your sins dishonestly, you lose the joyful relief from that conviction and guilty conscience that God provides right now through Christ's blood. Calling your sins what they really are, sins, invades your pride. But it opens the door of cleansing and relief to you in Christ. As long as you pretend you haven't sinned, or the questionable action is actually not sin, you shut yourself off from the divine remedy. Like the dishonest employee who steals cash from his employer, every time the auditors come to visit, you sweat and worry. Will they discover your theft? Will you have to face the consequences of your actions? When dealing with God, we should live constantly on the premise that He knows. He will not discover our sin; He knows it! Why live with sweaty palms and a deceived heart when you could resolve the problem through confession and repentance? It is so simple. Why complicate it? Once you begin walking in God's light and dealing with your sins in His light, Jesus' blood cleanses, and cleanses, and cleanses.
Would you like to discover that joy? Would it give you sweet peace and relief from your past habit of covering up your sins? Then take your sins out of the shadows of your own deceived darkness immediately. Take them to God and tell Him you agree in every detail with Him and with His holy Word; what you did and have tried to avoid is sin. Tell Him you are tired of hiding it, tired of denying it and tired of living with it. Ask His forgiveness and strength to break the habit and start a new life free of it. He will answer that prayer and you will begin to realize the amazing joy of Christ's cleansing. You will see that truth move from a theological idea to a living reality in your life. You will discover the joy of fellowship with Him. What better time than right now!
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1Jo 1:8-10)
Denial of the incarnation represents one of the most serious departures from historic Christian faith. It must represent one of, if not, the leading essential doctrine of the historic faith. Why would anyone deny the incarnation or question any of its primary characteristics? Since Jesus came to settle the sin issue, anyone who tampers with the truth of the incarnation must not fully understand his sin problem. This is likely what John was dealing with in these verses. The Docetists denied that Jesus actually possessed a literal human body. If He did not have a human body, He could not suffer as man and die for man's sins. Did these people deny their own sin? I know of no record that they held to this view, but it appears that John is imposing onto them the obvious consequences of their error.
Often otherwise sincere believers will deny either particular sins they have committed or they will deny some element of their inherent sinful nature. They may not hold to Docetic heresy, but they join the foolish conclusion John imposed on them here.
Mt 1:21 says Jesus was born to "save his people from their sins." 1Jo 1:8 and 1Jo 1:10 seem to deal with somewhat different issues of sin. Some use the singular form of the word sin in 1Jo 1:8 to interpret that verse as referring to our original sin or our "sin nature." Then they interpret 1Jo 1:10 with sins in the plural as referring to individual acts of sin committed in our lives. It seems a more natural interpretation in the context to notice the two verb tenses. 1Jo 1:8 speaks of sin in the present tense. 1Jo 1:10 speaks of sin in the past tense, more precisely in the past perfect tense. This distinction seems more natural to the context than to contrast inherent sin nature with acts of sin. 1Jo 1:8 deals with our attitude toward present conduct. Given the dominance of human pride, we might confess to some particular sin in our past, but strongly deny that it poses any problem to us in the present. To acknowledge present sin forces us to ask why we haven't already dealt with it and repented of it. Rather than face the embarrassment of confronting present conduct, we might be tempted to deny the sin. Simply deny that you have any present sin. How does John deal with this problem? "...we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." The cruelest deception we ever perpetrated on anyone is self-deception! Honest confrontation and confession of sin forms a foundational principle of our discipleship. If we refuse to face present sin in our life, confess it and repent, how can we witness to Jesus as our Savior with any degree of credibility?
Our culture has cultivated a self-absorbed worldview so fully that its ideas have penetrated even many sincere believers. They would not think of joining the Docetic heresy; they are altogether orthodox doctrinally. But pride and self-absorption hold them tightly in their grip. To confess to specific sins would require too much honesty and too much loss of pride. They will not do so. They will deny or redefine their conduct so as to justify it. Do anything except confess to it as a real sin. Therein lies the self-deception. But more seriously such a person, according to John, does not have the truth in him. That is a grave question.
The next step John confronts deals with past sins. "If we say that we have not sinned, ...". It is one thing to deny sin in your present conduct, and John gives this idea no comfort, but it is a far more serious problem to deny that you have ever had a sin problem. Since God said we are all sinners, to deny sin in our past is to contradict God's conclusion about us. We make Him a liar; our denial of past sin charges God with lying about our sin problem.
Occasionally over the years I've confronted people who confess to past sins, but will tell you they now live above sin. When examined carefully in light of Scripture, their conduct will not stand up to their assertion. They apparently have redefined sin so as to justify this excessive pretense of sinless living.
In the midst of bruising our pride in more ways than we could imagine John also reveals to us a far better way to deal with our sins, "If we confess our sins...". Have you ever discovered sin in your life and dealt with it by saying, "I'll confess it to God, but it is no one else's business. I don't need to confess it to anyone else." Is this correct? Almost certainly it is wrong, a good indicator of pride's influence in our conscience. Ask yourself one simple question if this attitude surfaces in your mind. Did you actually commit any of those sins in the presence of any other human being? If you did, you should confess that sin in their presence. Otherwise they might fall under your example and begin practicing the same sin because of your example. If you confess the sin in their presence, they quickly understand that you view the conduct as so unacceptable that you refused to allow it to stand in their mind. By confession to them you remove the stumbling block from their pathway.
But John goes beyond our confession to others. "He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins." God honors His nature and character. He responds to our confession by forgiving us! There is nothing in us to deserve that reaction in God. We sinned! But He is faithful to His own nature, and that prompts Him to forgive us. "...and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Occasionally we will try to adopt a different view of sin than God's view. Have you ever heard anyone say that God can forgive all sins, but His church cannot, indeed should not? Does it seem a bit strange for someone to justify a different course for the church than the God of the church takes? Never does God tell one of His children, "You can repent of this sin and I'll forgive you. But even if you repent of that sin, I can't and won't forgive you." The promise gloriously extends God's forgiving hand to His children that open honest confession will be met with His open and honest forgiveness! That is truly good news for sin-sick sinners.
Take note as we conclude our study of this first chapter of John's epistle that he is writing to children of God, to believers, not to lost sinners. To apply this passage to unsaved sinners is to do it and its Author a terrible injustice. The whole letter is written to children of God, this lesson included. In that light we should notice carefully an ongoing progression in both the confession and in the forgiveness. Confession is not a once-in-a-lifetime event. Every time we become aware of sin in our life we should condition ourselves for immediate, full and genuine confession, both to God and to those impacted by our sinful conduct. I sin today and realize that what I did was sin. Immediately I confess it. I sin again tomorrow and realize the sinfulness of my conduct. Once again I immediately confess the sin. This practice of confession should become a regular habit. However, we should practice the habit with growth and purpose. We should not continually sin and confess the same sin repeatedly! To do that denies repentance. Confession without repentance amounts to dishonest confession. Godly confession includes acknowledgement of the sin and commitment to cease the sin that required confession. To confess with no intent of repenting is not Biblical confession. It is equivalent to a rebellious son being discovered in conduct that dishonors the father. When confronted by the father, the son responds with "Yes I did it and I intend to do it again. What do you plan to do about it?" Is this what you want to tell God when faced with your sin?
The whole process outlined in 1Jo 1 should form the process of growth and maturity in faith. By confession we learn to face our sins more honestly, more as God faces them. And as we face them in this manner, we remove them from acceptable conduct in our lives. We stop sinning! Thus we slowly remove sinful habits from our life and the nature of our confession changes. It becomes a process of purification or, to use the New Testament term, sanctification.
The joyful encouragement in this passage for sin-sick sinners is amazing. We keep on confessing our sins from a sin-sick heart, and God keeps on forgiving and cleansing us from our sins. His forgiveness and cleansing makes us more sensitive to sin, so the process actually discovers more sins in us, sins we may not have even know as sins before. Once we discover this sin in our improved sensitivity to sin, we promptly confess and seek God's grace to help us cease the practice. He is always a willing helper in our battle with sin. Try it today!
Many passages reveal their truth in two facets. Not many reveal both facets as clearly as our study lesson. There is a legitimate concern when you assure people that their sin problem has been solved. Will they celebrate their deliverance and live conscientiously from that day forward? Or will they celebrate and return to their sinful habits, thinking their conduct doesn't matter? Why worry about sin? Jesus died to solve my sin problem, so I can just sin and not worry about it. This attitude callously avoids Biblical teaching on the believer's obligation to live a godly life. Paul devotes a whole chapter to this problem (Ro 6) and makes it clear that we can't claim a position in God's army while wearing the uniform of the enemy! John joins Paul in this context.
The rational conclusion to the first chapter of this epistle calls for honest confession of and repentance from our sins. When confession joins repentance, we initiate the process the New Testament calls sanctification. Continuous confession without repentance is hypocrisy. Through confession and repentance, we grow and improve in our godliness. Our walk with God grows closer and stronger. It never stagnates. Old habits of sin we would have indulged with little thought in times past we now view as sinful and repugnant to our spiritual inclination. Rather than continuing to repeat the same old sins and reluctantly confessing them when they catch up with us, we constantly examine our conduct and eliminate sinful habits through repentance. We grow closer to God through actual changes in our conduct. That is Biblical sanctification. (1Th 4:1-8. Notice in this passage that Paul says if we despise, reject or set aside, we despise God and not man. The contextual message is that when we refuse to engage our discipleship in this process of sanctification, we actually have set God and His will aside. We will answer to Him! And the answer will not be pleasant.)
This union of confession and repentance is the only rational conclusion we can reach from the first chapter. For a believer to confess a particular sin and continue practicing it is the equivalent to this habit in our natural life. What if you had an accident and cut yourself deeply? You go to the physician. The first thing he does is to cleanse the wound fully. The cleansing is often painful, but it is necessary for healing. Once he cleanses the wound, he will apply sutures and bandages to protect it during the healing process. Does it make any sense for you to go home from the doctor's visit, take off the bandages and see how dirty you can get that wound? You can almost guarantee infection or worse. Well, when you confess your sin and return to its practice, you have done the equivalent spiritually. And you shall surely suffer the consequences of spiritual infection and disease.
What is there about 1Jo 1 that nudges us to turn away from sin? First of all, the lesson clearly reveals God's hatred of sin, ours included. If God hates sin so fully, we have no business viewing it as neutral or acceptable conduct. Secondly, the remedy for active habits of sin in 1Jo 1 requires our active confession and repentance, a walk in righteousness. Only the self-deluded reader would conclude from that chapter that he/she may sin freely now that the sin question is settled in Christ. The rational conscientious believer will read the chapter and vow before God to begin a life of steady growth in godly conduct and removal of sin from their habits.
And if any man sin. John tells us a reality we will experience. Try as we might to avoid sin, we will fall into occasional sins. This does not justify habitual sin. In fact later in this book John actually questions a person's salvation who makes no effort to turn away from habitual sins. We have no Biblical authority to give comfort to habitual sinners who continually repeat the same sins and try to use confession alone as a convenient escape hatch from responsibility to repent and grow away from that sin. The point John makes here deals with the occasional sins that the most devoted believer will commit. The idea is that God's remedy for sin covers these sins. In fact he actually uses this lesson to reinforce the effective power of confession and cleansing he presented in the first chapter.
We have an advocate with the Father. This word advocate richly instructs us. It means "one who pleads another's cause before a judge, a pleader, counsel for defense, legal assistant, an advocate."1 God has provided a legal defense for that sin you committed. Consider another natural parallel to this lesson. Someone tells you the name of one of the best attorneys in the country. You meet this person and become best friends. He tells you if you ever need legal assistance he will gladly represent you. Does this mean you will go right out and rob a bank on the basis that your friend is so competent he can surely gain an innocent verdict from the courts? No! Then we should never allow a slack spirit toward our sins simply because we have Christ as our advocate with the Father. Repentance, confession or reform do not save us, but in the consistent teaching of the New Testament, they accompany salvation!
He is the propitiation for our sins. This word simply means that Jesus is the divine appeasement or legal satisfaction for our sins. We cannot deny our sins before an all-knowing God. Nothing can hide from His omniscient eye. But He has provided a legal remedy for our sins. New Age theologians will openly admit that Jesus is one of many ways to God. Oh, their description of the details will contradict just about everything the Bible says about Him, but they will say at least that much about Him. Try to convince them that He is the only way to God and you'll see their true colors. They will have none of that idea. John doesn't tell us that appeasement comes through Jesus and.... He says it comes through Him alone.
But for the sins of the whole world. Many theologians will debate this part of our passage fiercely. Did John intend that Jesus is the propitiation, the legal and actual appeasement, for every sin of every sinner? That interpretation would contradict the many passages that deal with eternal punishment, for if Jesus actually appeased God's justice for every sin of every sinner, universalism would be a fact. Hell would be empty and heaven would have a population explosion. If Jesus factually appeased the Father's justice for all the sins of all mankind, there can be no basis in fact for anyone being sent to hell because of their sins. How then to we explain this statement?
To gain a better grasp of the "whole world" in this passage, we need to understand the "our" of the passage first. Clearly "our" appears in contrast with "whole world." If "our" refers to all believers, people already saved, then we are forced into a particular definition of the whole world that contradicts other Scriptures. To whom was John writing this letter? We do not have a particular church or individual named in the opening of the letter, so we must look to the content of the letter and to John's ministry. The most obvious error John confronted in the letter is Docetism, the denial of Jesus' human body. Certainly the "our" of the letter appears in contrast to this group. Perhaps more informative to the question is Ga 2:9. On one of Paul's few trips to Jerusalem, narrated by him here, he had a private conference with Peter, James and John. At the end of that meeting, they all agreed that God had assigned the three of them to the Jews and Paul and Barnabas to the Gentiles. Thus God directed John's ministry to Jews. He employs more Jewish symbols in his writings than any other New Testament writer. He alone wrote a whole New Testament book in unique Jewish apocryphal genre, Revelation. Other cultures wrote apocryphal literary works, but the Jews adapted it to their history and culture in a rather unique manner. John adopted that style in writing Revelation.
When challenged with two interpretations and one contradicts Scripture but the other doesn't, wise Bible interpretation dictates that you adopt the view that harmonizes with Scripture generally. Given the problem with forcing this passage to say too much, having it embrace universalism and deny eternal punishment, or holding to a modified view, I recommend the modified view. If John was writing to Jewish believers, it naturally implies that the "our" of the lesson would refer to them. This application includes believers of a special class, Jewish believers. Jesus is the propitiation (itself a Jewish term common in John's day) for their sins. What about non-Jewish believers? How would you categorize them? You could call them Gentiles. But one of the most common terms of the day among Jews to refer to all non-Jewish cultures and races was the word world. This interpretation puts this passage in line with many other passages. Jesus died for, and became the eternal appeasement, satisfaction or propitiation, for the sins of all His people. He died and appeased God's justice for Jewish children of God. He died and appeased God's justice for Gentile children of God. In fact His death transcends all racial and cultural boundaries. He died for all His people alike! (Mt 1:21) The promises of 1Jo 1 apply to all God's children alike. The assurances of Christ's death and its benefits apply alike to all children of God. His command to refrain from sin applies to all His children alike. The comfort to believers when they realize areas of sin in their life applies equally to Jew and non-Jew alike. To borrow from a children's hymn, though to apply it slightly differently than in the hymn, "...red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight." God does not distribute His blessings based on our culture or race. He distributes them freely and wondrously based on His amazing love for us and based on Jesus' death on our behalf. There are no classes in God's family. All His children have full and equal access to His blessings. In God's family every child is a "saint." What a Savior!
John does not use this occasion to teach salvation by works. But he certainly uses it to make clear points about the assurance of salvation. No one can talk-the-talk without the walk of a Christian and make a legitimate claim to being a child of God. Nor can they find any personal assurance of their salvation in this course. Every appearance of the English word know in this lesson comes from the same Greek word, ginosko. It refers to knowledge grounded on personal experience. Three other words might have been used for know. One refers to mental perception, one to proximity or understanding, and one to native insight, knowledge gained through the five senses. John chose a particular word for good reason. Remember his concern in this letter is with Docetic gnosticism. Do you see the verbal similarity between ginosko and gnosticism? One trademark of the gnostics was a claim to knowledge not known by other people. They thrived on the assertion that they had superior revelation and knowledge through their cultic connections with the spirit world. But their life displayed none of Christianity's godly characteristics. They said, "I know God better than any other Christian," but their conduct lacked all the essentials traits of a Christian. John goes to the heart of their hypocrisy in this passage. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia contains an in-depth article on gnosticism. In naming the chief characteristics of gnostic philosophy the article begins with "A claim on the part of the initiated to a special knowledge of the truth, a tendency to regard knowledge as superior to faith, and as the special possession of the more enlightened, for ordinary Christians did not possess this secret and higher doctrine." Do you see John's point? A claim to knowledge of God apart from Jesus Christ and the historic faith is a false claim!
Irenaeus (ca. 120-202) wrote extensively against the Gnostics in his work Against Heresies. Two quotations from his writings will provide a glimpse both of their ideas and of a historic ancient Christian's objections to them. "The Universal Church, moreover, through the whole world, has received this tradition from the apostles." Here is his second quotation. "But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. For [they maintain] that the apostles intermingled the things of the law with the words of the Savior; and that not the apostles alone, but even the Lord Himself, spoke as at one time from the Demiurge, at another from the intermediate place, and yet again from the Pleroma, but that they themselves, indubitably, unsulliedly, and purely, have knowledge of the hidden mystery: this is, indeed, to blaspheme their Creator after a most impudent manner! It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition." Irenaeus shows how early Christians viewed the transmission of truth to them exclusively through the apostles and subsequent leaders within the church, not through private verbal revelations or traditions."
These citations could be repeated many times over from several ancient Christians whose writings are preserved for our reading. John leads the opposition to this non-Christian, anti-Christian philosophy, especially in 1 John. In reading Irenaeus and modern New Age teachers one frequently wonders at the amazing similarity between the ancient gnostic philosophy and modern New Age teaching. It originated outside Christianity, but attempted to gain entrance into the church. John recognized it as unacceptable error and opposed it. Apparently the Holy Spirit also objected to it with equal ferocity by including this writing in inspired Scripture.
While most readers of this chapter are neither ancient gnostics nor contemporary New Age disciples, the insidious error John confronts in this letter can creep into our minds and influence our thinking with great effectiveness and subtlety. This timeless wisdom cries out to us across the centuries. As we cling to timeless truth revealed in Scripture, God also charges us to oppose near-timeless error. As Scripture thoroughly furnishes us to every good work, it also thoroughly furnishes us with knowledge against error. Someone has written that those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat history's mistakes. Will we learn the dangers of this error and sit at John's feet to hear his counsel? Will we allow him to teach us how to oppose this evil?
Now we can explore John's lesson with historic reflection. Notice his opening words. I will expand the word know to include the specific definition of the word John used. "And hereby we do know [by personal experience] that we know him [in our personal experience], if we keep his commandments." How do you know Christ? How do you know that you know Him? You could claim some form of exclusive knowledge as your basis of personal knowledge and assurance, but that would merely imitate the gnostics. You and I have only one solid basis for a claim of personal knowledge of God and of our salvation, ...if we keep his commandments.
The word translated keep here "expresses watchful care and is suggestive of present possession."2 The true believer does not look for ways to avoid God's commandments; he/she looks for ways to practice them and maintain watchful care in consistently living by them. The idea here is not occasionally keeping the commandments but a constant habit of keeping them. The point John makes is frighteningly simple and frighteningly challenging. We have Biblical assurance of our salvation in direct proportion to our conduct, how faithfully we keep His commandments. We can attend church and maintain a wonderful image of Christianity, but we have no assurance of salvation within unless we actually live up to our profession of faith. The gnostics who denied the incarnation claimed superior knowledge without the accompanying lifestyle of a believer in Christ. John says the experiential knowledge of the ordinary believer is actually superior to the gnostic claim. However, the experiential knowledge of the believer is not based on feelings, but on actions. How we live generates our assurance or robs us of its blessing.
If we say we know him and fail to live according to His teachings, John says we lie and do not the truth. We perfect God's love through personal action, not through empty words and claims. Again John's definition of love is not a certain feeling, but specific actions.
He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, writes of this verse, "Present active infinitive [...] (ought), 'Himself also to keep on walking,' a continuous performance, not a spasmodic spurt." Do you see a consistent lifestyle here, not an occasional "spurt" of Christianity? Godly believers live under the charge constantly to sum up the life of Christ in their personal conduct. Do you want to know how Christ lived? Look at one of His followers! The world is already full of pseudo-gnostics who claim intellectual superiority over others because of a mystical knowledge they alone have of God. It runs in painfully short supply of robust Christians who present Christ to others by way of a consistent and predictable lifestyle.
If you were to give yourself a private report card today of your Christianity against this high challenge, what grade would you honestly earn? How seriously do you take your Christianity? Do you view it as an entertaining hobby, a pleasant pastime, but not to interfere with your "important" things? Or do you view it as the single most important activity of your life? Do you practice a private gnostic version of Christianity, or do you practice a New Testament historic Christianity? If you were to give yourself another report card a month or a year from now, what would you like to see? Are you willing to start working today, right now, to make the changes in your life that are necessary for that improvement? Let the work begin!
For the casual Bible reader, this would not be a good time to say God didn't write the Bible in "double-speak." But for the more thoughtful reader it should bear repeating. Whenever you find a Bible lesson in which similar terms are so carefully weighed and bantered back and forth, stop and pay attention. The writer (indeed, the Writer, the divine Author of Scripture) wants to capture your undivided attention. Ancient writers frequently used paradox to force the reader to think through ideas presented.
Actually this lesson contains strong evidence that John's original audience was Jewish believers. God gave their forefathers the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, the "old commandment which ye had from the beginning." In the Old Testament we also find these ten words or laws condensed to two general principles, loving God and loving your fellowman. The first four commandments focus on our relationship with God. The final six focus on our relationship with our fellowman.
This glorious simplification of God's Law fits beautifully in John's writings here. He confronts Doectic gnosticism's grave error and its claim to superior knowledge. He charges its advocates with empty claims to Christianity without the traits required of authentic Christian conduct. Their mystical knowledge sought to complicate God and His laws so that only they and their initiated followers could practice it. John makes simplicity, not complexity, the superior mark of true Christianity.
Moses' Law taught love for one's neighbor; Jesus taught love for one's enemies! The two teachings do not contradict. John's audience had lived under the Mosaic code, their "old commandment," which they had from the beginning. Now they receive it from Christ in a fresh vibrant form, the "new commandment." In fact the old and the new were the same.
John loves to contrast darkness and light in his writings. Here he offers clear insight into his meaning with these two metaphors. No matter what you say, hate your brother or sister, and John says you live in the dark. And if you love (actions not words, remember) your brother or sister, John says you live in the light. Western culture has corrupted the Biblical idea of love. We speak and write of "falling in love" and "falling out of love." We refer to a sentimental attachment and say how much we "love" someone. We "love" a certain food or a good movie. We equate love with emotion and things that satisfy our appetite for pleasure. Tell a person that Biblical love has no reference to how you feel but to how you act, and you can expect their eyes to glaze over in confusion. We can't grasp love as action apart from our emotional sentiments. It just doesn't compute with us.
In the verses just prior to our study lesson John equates knowledge of God and His commandments with assurance. The natural question arises. Knowledge of which commandments did he have in mind? Is he implying something new? The gnostics claimed a higher knowledge not available to others. John demonstrates the exact opposite perspective for Biblical Christians. This knowledge refers to God's old original commandments, albeit presented and exemplified in a refreshing new way, the personal life of Jesus Christ.
Christ's incarnation introduced a light into the world that will never be extinguished. His followers have the opportunity to bask in that light to the extent they will follow Jesus and His example in the trenches of their ordinary lives. This course will transform an "ordinary" life into a bright shining life that glorifies God. John considers it far superior to superficial and arrogant claims of superior knowledge apart from the Christian walk.
He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him. This verse requires a constant state of action. The moment we allow hate toward our brother to enter our minds we draw the shades over our minds, shutting out the light. If you fully spell out the verb tense, the passage would read, "He that keeps on loving his brother keeps on abiding in the light...". Here we see the crisp distinction between our Western concept of sentimental emotional love and the Biblical concept of love as action. Sentimental emotions ride a roller coaster up and down. The love of which John writes appears as a constant. It remains the same.
There are always consequences to our conduct. We cannot escape them. John qualifies the constant of love in action with a double consequence. There is none occasion of stumbling. To the extent we maintain the constant of love in action we maintain ourselves in the light where we see things more clearly. The moment we allow hate to darken our minds we shut down our vision, our clear perception. Stumbling and a painful fall will surely follow.
John's use of the term brother emphasizes his intended audience as Christians. Can a Christian actually hate his brother? Apparently John thinks he can. But a Christian who hates his brother gives comfort to the enemy and shuts himself off in darkness where he will increasingly lose his keen spiritual judgment and begin to stumble and fall where he should walk with upright integrity. Such a believer has much to learn about God and about the Christian life. If he truly followed Christ, he would love his brother, not hate him. In loving God's children through our actions we stand in the clear light. We have a compass in our hands, and we face a clearly marked pathway before us. We travel that pathway with confidence and assurance that we walk with God in a way pleasing to Him. When we hate our brother or sister, we shut down the light, throw away the compass and look to no avail for the pathway we should travel. We jump this way, then that. We stumble over pebbles instead of climbing mountains with God.
The Life Change Series offers this comment about the character of the kind of love John defines in this lesson. "While the other loves are based on warm feeling, ????? is 'an intelligent, purposeful attitude of esteem and devotion,' 'a selfless, purposeful, outgoing attitude that desires to do good to the one loved.' 'In secular Greek it represented a love in which the mind analyzes and the will chooses the object to be loved. Thus it is not a term wholly given to emotion, but it involves the whole man, emotions, intellect, and will. ????? is a deliberate, free act that is the decision of the subject rather than the result of unbidden, overpowering emotion.'"
We live in an interesting era of Christianity. In the first and second centuries gnosticism challenged Christianity at its heart. Because of robust thinking Christians who recognized the danger of this error and exposed it, along with John, Christianity defined itself as distinct from this error. It survived in its own right and in its pure form, not fatally compromised by a synergistic union with gnostic error.
Today we see the New Age movement flourishing in our culture, and most Christians don't have enough knowledge of it to understand what it teaches, much less take it on intellectually or philosophically and defeat it. We take one-line shots at Shirley MacClaine and her claims to deity, but we don't have the slightest idea what New Age philosophy is about. How can we confront and defeat it if we don't know anything about it? Should we choose to remain ignorant, we will not recognize its more subtle forms when they present themselves as sincere Christian ideas simply stated in modern form. Will we survive this onslaught? Or will it overcome us?
I do not believe God will ever leave Himself without a true witness. But He will not allow His witness to be disgraced by a people too soft and too unconcerned to know Him and His truth well enough to discern and expose error when it knocks on our door. Will we sign up in God's gymnasium and begin a spiritual workout to regain our spiritual muscle? Or will we sit idly by and watch God's enemy overtake us? The answer lies with you and me, not with someone on the other side of the country.
John frequently repeats his thought with slight variation. This gives Bible readers a distinct benefit in our study. If we struggle with one statement, look at the second statement of the same thought. One will tell you the same think in different words as the other. Let's single out the repetitions in this passage. They disclose their identity by the target audience.
Little children. The first appearance identifies that their sins are forgiven for his name's sake. The second says, "...ye have known the Father." In John's mind anyone whose sins are forgiven knows the Father, so identifying them as forgiven or as knowing the Father is the same to John.
Fathers. In the first appearance they "have known him that is from the beginning." The second appearance repeats the thought exactly. What is the point here? Little children may hardly know their father. He spends most of the day working outside the home. And often when he comes home at night the child is already in bed asleep. But a mature person knows his father. No one could deceive him into thinking someone else was his father.
Young men. In the first appearance John says he writes them "because ye have overcome the wicked one." In the second appearance he adds to the thought of their overcoming the wicked one that they are strong and the word of God abides in them.
In reading the first section of this book one could form the impression that John was in some grave way dissatisfied with these people. But in this section of the letter he strongly affirms them and his respectful love for them. Though faithful, they faced a grave danger that he felt compelled to warn them of. So he refers to them now in terms of his true personal affection for them, little children, fathers and young men.
At first glance we might think John singled out three distinct groups of people in his audience by these terms. But the sequence seems difficult for this idea. Why arrange them as little children, fathers and then as young men? Perhaps it would be more natural to think in these terms. John considered his whole audience as included in each of the terms. They carried too many attributes he needed to affirm for any single metaphor. As little children they had experienced the forgiveness that God as Father grants uniquely to His own. As fathers, they know the historic past, literally the eternity, of God. God didn't begin with their knowledge or with their personal experience of Him. Considered in light of Verses 3-6, the "him" whom the fathers have known is God, but it is God in the unique person of Jesus Christ. He was not another god or a lesser god. Though incarnated in human flesh, He was truly the eternal God. As young men, these believers had faced the hostile forces of the evil one in strength and godly maturity and had overcome. Their overcoming strength did not grow out of their superior faith or righteousness, but out of their knowledge of the word of God.
The breadth of these attributes surprises us. We strive to reach the status held forth in any one of the categories, but to strive toward all three overwhelms us. So long as we view the passage from the contemporary self-absorbed "me generation" attitude, it will continue to overwhelm us. We cannot claim any of these traits or attainments through personal efforts. Knowing God does not occur through our personal investigation or superior intellect, but through God's merciful revelation of Himself to us. We attempt to grasp the reality of God's eternal incommunicable attributes, and we give them fancy names (omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, etc.), but we cannot grasp the simplest of these concepts apart from divine enlightenment. And we may often strive against the wicked one in our own strength. But such striving will result in certain defeat, not in strength or in overcoming evil. We overcome evil through the word of God. I believe the word of God here refers to Scripture. We will never grow beyond spiritual infants, deformed and stunted in our growth, unless we devote major efforts and time in study of Scripture. No believer can grow beyond the maturity of his knowledge of Scripture. We cannot claim growth or spiritual insight based on well-rehearsed clichés. They only reflect a good memory. But when we sweat over Scripture, devoting arduous hours of study and research into its teachings we will begin to build the foundation for true spiritual maturity and growth into what John here refers to as being strong and (even as) the word of God abides in you. In other words our strength against the wicked one grows or diminishes in direct proportion to our knowledge of the Word of Scripture.
Further in this context strength derived from Scripture grows out of intimate and experiential knowledge of the Word, not out of mere memorization of the words. Consider Jesus as our example. When confronted by satan in the wilderness temptation, why did He select the Scriptures He used to answer and to thwart the tempter's enticements? Why not use other Scriptures? How did He use the Scriptures He called forth in answer to the tempter? What was the point, the interpretation, He drew from those passages that made them effective in defeating the wicked one? He could have well memorized the whole of the first five books of the Old Testament and had no such skill in handling Scripture. His selection and His use of those particular passages reveal that He had spent long thinking hours, days, even years, reflecting on and studying Scripture. In this He serves as our example. Easy answers and simple clichés will not turn the wicked one away when he assaults your mind. They will not still his voice when he approaches you in the subtle garb of error, such as the Docetic heresy with which John dealt throughout this letter. The tools to overcome grow out of long thoughtful investigation into the teaching of Scripture.
Through over forty years of preaching, I have observed a frequent failure among otherwise sincere believers. When they first came to the knowledge of Christ and His truth, they were full of zeal and spent healthy blocks of time studying Scripture. After a few years they apparently decided they knew as much Scripture as they needed to know. At that stage their Bibles gathered more dust on the coffee table than sweat from their studious brow. They knowledge soon stagnated, as did their discipleship. Oh, they may well know enough not to fall prey to major heretical teachings, but they often fall prey to satan's subtleties. This slothful neglect of Scripture leaves them vulnerable to the deceit of the greatest of all deceivers. It also leaves them vulnerable to frequent bouts with bitterness and an angry spirit, for they know enough of Scripture to know God's power. But they also know enough to know they are not living it or experiencing it. They want the blessing but not the labor to obtain the blessing. Jacob must wrestle with the angel all night long for the release of the blessing. Too many believers in this category want the blessing, but they have no intent on losing a night's sleep to obtain it. Much less are they willing to wrestle with God for the release of blessing. In their minds the only blessing worth having is the manna blessing, the one you wake up and stroll out in the morning to gather. God gave manna at a particular time, and He limited the time of this blessing. If you play the type and shadow game, manna served the people during their wilderness sojourn. But when they reached the borders of Canaan, the manna ceased and God commanded them to work the land of Canaan for their food.
In your own words write a description of these collective traits, linking them with the three categories, little children, fathers and young men. Translate these traits into the kind of person they would describe in your neighborhood, in your family and in your church. Then compare yourself with that model. Do you fall short? Don't complain and confess. Neither of these activities will alter your spiritual maturity unless accompanied by a significant transformation in your conduct. Is God worth your investment? Let the work begin, but keep God at the center.
Before we begin our investigation of this lesson, we need to remind ourselves of a major premise in John's writings, indeed in New Testament writings. Love does not relate to emotion or affection alone, but to action. In John particularly it relates to a consistent course of action. Thus in the opening sentence of this lesson, to love the world does not mean simply to view it with fondness. Rather it means to follow that magnetic attraction with actions described in the passage as love toward the world. You see that distinct clue in the last sentence of the passage. He that doeth the will of God abideth for ever. John does not build the believer's abiding on a sentimental emotion, but on conduct. We may describe or view our sentimental affections as we wish, but our true identity grows out of our conduct, not out of our emotions. This simple, but profound, truth unlocks several passages in John's writings for our reflection and edification.
Perhaps conduct begins with affection or appetite, but John takes the issue beyond the mental state to actual conduct. Sometimes we cloud the difference between mental activity and actions. Have you ever heard anyone quote the passage from the Sermon on the Mount regarding a lustful look toward a member of the opposite sex as being fully as sinful as the act itself? Make no mistake, the lustful look is sin, but it does not spread the sin-disease to those around you, including the object or innocent family members. There is nothing in the Sermon on the Mount to require this conclusion. Jesus did not say it was equal in degree, but that it was equally sin. He said those words in a culture of amazing hypocrisy. For example, first century Jewish history records this practice. A man plans to leave home for several days on business. As he traveled to the city, he could write out a "letter of divorce" against his wife and keep it in his private possession. During his time in the city he could visit prostitutes or have affairs at his pleasure. Then as he traveled back home, he could revoke the divorce letter and return home to his "wife," smugly telling himself that he had not sinned against her. After all, she was not his "wife" during the time he conducted these affairs in the city. Jesus confronted this external hypocritical sin in His Sermon on the Mount teaching. What prompted the man to write out the temporary divorce letter? It was lust in his heart. The simple piece of paper did not erase the sin in his heart. He was not free of guilt at all. Given the contextual setting of that lesson, it is far more likely that Jesus had this kind of attitude in mind than a fleeting lustful thought, quickly captured and dismissed with no subsequent action to accompany it.
When John wrote this warning against loving the world, he intended a love that joins emotional attraction to the world with actual conduct that fulfills it. This combination of attitude and action clarifies his follow-up statement. If a person "loves" the world, combines appetite with consumption, lust with fulfilling sin, the love of God, actual conduct that honors God, cannot dwell in him. It is a moral and ethical impossibility! How can a person give full expression to his sinful appetite and at the same time give full expression to his godliness that curbs and controls that appetite? Western Christians often create an inconsistent schizophrenic faith by overemphasizing their "two natures." They occasionally imply that they are helpless victims of their two natures, their sinful depraved nature and their righteous saved nature. According to this description, the two natures are at war and the individual is the helpless victim torn between them with no escape. This view grows out of a false interpretation of Scripture, somewhat too convenient to receive credible rating from solid Biblical truth applied to life. True enough, the Christian possesses two natures, but Scripture never makes anyone the helpless victim caught between them. That view of Ro 7, for example, altogether ignores the greater context and actually makes the opposite point to the one Paul intended in the lesson. We cannot honor God by a constant shallow verbal pledge of allegiance while our conduct repeatedly gives space to the evil one more than to God. This whole mindset ignores the Bible doctrine of repentance and transformed lives. Being "transformed by the renewing of your minds" does not mean constantly complaining about your habitual sins. It means overcoming those sins and replacing them with habits of godliness!
A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, interprets lust of the flesh as "lust felt by the flesh." It describes a sinful craving that appeals to an organ or appetite identified with flesh, the physical body. Then "lust of the eyes" describes a sinful craving that appeals to the mind or the imagination. As a brief, perhaps oversimplified, example, sexual appetites illustrate lust of the flesh, for they appeal to the sexual appetite of the physical body. And perhaps a consuming desire for promotion on the job, a desire that causes you to justify walking over fellow-workers in immoral or unethical actions, illustrates the lust of the eyes.
John interestingly adds a third category to his comprehensive list, but he does not specifically associate the word lust to it, the pride of life. Throughout the Bible we discover pride, false self-absorbed pride, as a dangerous and attractive enticement. It "goes before destruction." It personifies the devil's stumbling block. It certainly relates to this sinful appetite John calls lust, but it does so in a distinctly different form. You most often see it in Christians when they try to put on phony external images before other people, especially other Christians. To view them at first glance, you would think they were nearly perfect. Often as you contemplate this person's impact on you, it causes you to feel inferior and sub-standard as a Christian. You feel that you simply cannot live up to their near-perfect righteousness. In a subtle way they may actually want to leave this reaction with you. They are actually filled with lust for this false appearance of greater godliness than they actually deserve, and they are willing to make you feel like worn out dirt to accomplish their objective. You will seldom if ever witness this person openly confessing to personal faults. They will often blame others for their problems. But the lust for appearance chokes their spirituality and motivates them to do just about anything to leave the impression that they are the super-Christians in the crowd and you are the left-over remnant, a shell of a Christian.
When confronted directly with their sinfulness, these people will react with hostility and denial. If possible, they will simply gloss it over and convince you that your concerns are ill founded. Their spouse is surely the most godly person on earth. Their children never gave them a moment's trouble from birth to adulthood. They serve in the only ideal career. Your concerns, when you see the tell-tale evidence of anything less than perfect in their life, are simply not correct. And then when specific sin surfaces in their world, they are well prepared with long pointing fingers that justify blaming someone or something other than themselves. They must maintain that phony image at all cost!
Take a careful look at this person. We've all met such a person somewhere in our Christian experience. The most dominant indicator of the problem is exactly as John labels it, pride. But behind pride you will discover a lust for image and the approval of others altogether sufficient to put this sin in the lust category.
How does John view these sins, all three categories? They do not come from the Father, but from the world! God doesn't approve of phony self-righteous appearances any more than He approves of sexual lust! All these sinful outlooks grow out of allegiance to the world, and not out of service or obedience to the Father.
What is the final outcome of these sinful worldviews? The world passes away and the lust thereof. At its very best, this world and all its false images and appetites are temporary. They will not last! The person who sold his/her soul to sexual appeal and physical beauty will grow old and lose that physical appeal. The person who craves any promotion that gives him/her advantage and image over others will reach the "Peter principle" at which their incompetence and frightening humanness become apparent for all to see. And the person who worked so hard to live behind that phony image of superior Christian perfection will sooner or later fall and reveal their sinfulness. All such conduct is doomed to failure!
But he that doeth, keeps on doing, the will of God abides for ever. This sentence does not describe occasional or convenient Christianity, but robust godliness. God will preserve and honor the authentic Christian. Where will we invest our reputations and life work?
I do not question that decline among Christians and increased opposition from outside the camp of believers will accompany the last days before Christ's final return. However in a respectful assessment of this passage, along with several of John's other references to "antichrists" of whom he wrote, they existed at the time of his writing. We cannot defer them until the end-times just prior to the Second Coming. He specifically states that many antichrists are already in the world, and he writes this letter in opposition to at least one of the major groups whom he categorized in this way. Here he merely identifies that many antichrists exist, evidence that epochal Bible prophecy had reached the time when the only direct Bible prophecy remaining to be fulfilled relates to the Second Coming. No other prophecy suspended the imminence of the Second Coming.
Some theologians attempt to establish that the first generation of Christians, even the apostles, believed that the Second Coming would occur in their lifetime. It seems more reasonable, and a more rational Biblical interpretation, to hold that they believed in the imminence, not the immediacy, of the Lord's return. In other words they believed He could return at any time, but not that He necessarily was to return immediately. Every faithful believer should hold to the imminence of the Lord's return. That belief should transform our lives and keep us faithful to our holy calling.
Remember the lesson from Jesus Himself that introduced the corollary between our view of the Second Coming and how we treat each other. The servant who concluded, "My lord delayeth his coming," also began to beat and mistreat his fellow servants. The servant who believed his lord would soon return lived more graciously toward his fellow servants. We see that lesson lived out frequently around us. When otherwise faithful believers begin to mistreat or speak harshly toward other believers, they reveal that they no longer truly accept the doctrine of Christ's imminent return! The believer who holds this doctrine tightly and faithfully will treat others, even those who do not live up to his expectations, as if the Lord might return tomorrow. How forcefully our deep personal belief regarding the Lord's return will appear in our conduct. How do you treat those with whom you disagree? Do you prove to them and to all who witness your conduct that you truly believe in the reality of the Lord's imminent return? Or do you merely give lip service to the idea while your conduct proves that you don't really view the Lord's return seriously?
Perhaps one of the most frequently misinterpreted passages from 1 John appears in our lesson. They went out from us...". How often Christians refer these words to other believers whom they have mistreated and driven from their fellowship? Or they will refer to those with whom they disagree over a non-essential issue in these harsh terms. Such a harsh accusation against someone who differs with us over an insignificant question says far more about us than about the person with whom we disagree. We should reserve this commentary for those who depart from major essential Christian doctrine or conduct. In the case of this letter John has already focused his opposition against the Docetists who literally denied the whole question of the incarnation, that Jesus was actually God manifest in human flesh. Such a doctrine attacked the very foundations of Christian truth and, if it succeeded, would have altered the whole course of Christianity for all future generations. We should never use such harshness against people who differ with us over minor or non-essential issues.
This whole question imposes a rather energetic task upon us. What do you view as essential Christian doctrine? What do you view as non-essential? Take the time to make a thoughtful list of both items. A word to the wise, your list of essentials should be rather short and thoughtfully constructed. Anyone who rejects, holds to an aberrant view of, one of these doctrines cannot be considered a "Christian." This harmonizes with John's use of the term against the Docetic gnostics. Think back over the last hundred years of our history. Have we at times rejected some from our fellowship who, though following admittedly grave error, were not guilty of such a severe departure as to question their basic Christianity? If so, we may well have imposed an excessively severe judgment against them in light of this passage. Once you cut off any relationship or contact with an erring brother or sister, you lose any hope of influencing them to repent and return to the right path. Before cutting them off so severely and finally, we should exhaust every avenue of contact and influence to win them back to the historic and Biblical view of the faith. We should carefully examine our own assessment of essentials to see if they ring true in light of a long view of history, not merely against our esoteric view and lifetime of experience in the faith. Even if we entered the faith early in life and live to a very old age, what is our lifetime compared with almost two thousand years of history in the faith? My personal experience or my private interpretation of my experience should never be used as the judge of what is historic and acceptable Christianity.
John didn't say that those who went out merely disagreed with us, but that they were not of us. At least he indicates that they did not share his views of the faith. At most he questioned that they were even saved! He did not view this situation in a trivial manner.
If we encounter areas of lesser disagreement with someone in our fellowship, we should honestly acknowledge the difference and work, kindly and faithfully, to resolve it. We should never break fellowship with anyone over these lesser issues! To do so makes us guilty of Biblical heresy, creating or contributing to a divisive "party spirit." You see heresy in the New Testament does not require that a person hold to a view that contradicts historic New Testament faith. You may be orthodox in every point of your theological beliefs and still, through a harsh schismatic attitude, be a full-fledged heretic! The New Testament does not view breach of fellowship among believers capriciously. Research the definition of the Greek word translated heresy in the New Testament. It should instill in us an amazing spirit of reserve in our dealings with those who do not in every point agree with us. We have much to learn in this area of our Christianity.
There may be significance in the fact that John writes, "They went out from us." Could he be referring to the apostolic circle, not to the broader circle of first century churches? If these people had openly departed from the New Testament faith as attested by the apostles, but were still involved in local churches, the gravity of John's warning becomes obvious and fully justified. A favorite tactic of the gnostics was to assert that they had a private revelation from the days of Christ and the apostles, but not the documented historic revelation contained in Scripture. It was a secret and unwritten source that they claimed to be superior to any written historical chain. Numerous documents appeared early in the second century claiming to be from the pen of an apostle, but containing spurious and obvious errors when compared with the written and known faith of the apostles. Had they already initiated this allegation of a secret non-written source for their ideas, John's comments here are quite revealing. In opposing gnostic heresies Irenaeus clearly defined what he meant by tradition as a reliable source of the church's authority. He rejected recent ideas and defined tradition as the written teachings of the apostles and other recognized authors of New Testament documents, and those teachings faithfully maintained from apostolic times by the church. Thus in one definition he rejected internal esoteric and recent "traditions" as well as the specific claims made by gnostics to a secret non-written source for their major departures from the faith.
How can this lesson instruct us? Be cautious in harshly judging those who may not agree with you in minor points. Don't become a heretic in your opposition to heretics. Be equally cautious about creating "traditions" of your own brand that fail to find their roots in Scripture and historic church practice. I once encountered a problem in a church (far away from our area) in which one element in this particular church referred to a practice they had initiated less than a year earlier as part of their "tradition." Bible tradition does not grow out of our immediate and private experience but out of Scripture and respect for the faith of Scripture once and for all time delivered to the saints.
Here we find one of those passages we often lift out of context and try to make fit in every area of our discipleship. But it doesn't fit and we intuitively know it. If all Christians know everything they need to know without Scriptural study, why have the Bible in the first place? And why does the Bible repeatedly urge believers to study it intently? What truth did John intend by this statement? The context and other Scriptures generally make clear that John did not intend to apply this point to all areas of spiritual knowledge. Within the context he carefully defined the area of knowledge he intended to address. The fact that his readers, the original recipients of this letter, had this knowledge does not impute their knowledge to us. We gain that degree of knowledge the same way they obtained it. The points that follow relate to Jesus as the Messiah of Old Testament prophecy and to His relationship with the Father, to His essential deity. Does every person who claims faith in Christ believe these fundamental truths? No they unfortunately do not. Do you believe them so clearly and so definitively as to need no more instruction in them? How do you gain that knowledge? John makes no reference to private revelations here. In fact he opposes the idea, for it was a basic tenet of the gnostics whom he opposed in this letter. Excessive claims of personal revelation often reveal entrenched error or entrenched slothfulness. We inherently know we cannot defend our ideas by Scripture, so we claim that God revealed this idea to us. Then we impute to our private revelation purity and authority equal to, or actually superior to, Scripture, for if our revelation contradicts Scripture, we are inclined more to hold to our revelation than to reject it in favor of Scripture! In the other case we decide what we want to believe and simply refuse to invest the time and mental or spiritual energy necessary to verify and document the idea from Scripture. Often people who hold to this view will reduce all ideas about the Bible to just that, ideas. "My opinion is just as valid as yours." They subtly reject any concept of fixed Bible truth and revelation in favor of a sadly relative truth philosophy. In this philosophical view all ideas are no more than one person's opinion, and they are all relative to the sincerity of the person holding them. Since this person believes himself/herself to be most sincere, his/her views are more relatively true than yours. They have little or no concept of a fixed truth and a fixed revelation of truth in Scripture. Granted that none of us can claim absolute knowledge of all Bible revelation and truth, but we all should go to Scripture with a high view of its content as a self-disclosure from God to us. We should inherently hold that the major truths of Christian faith are as self-disclosing in Scripture as God Himself. Therefore when we go to Scripture with this high view of its character, we will submit our preconceptions to its final judgment. As we submit to Scripture, we grow closer to agreement with others who also submit to Scripture alone as the source for Christian authority and faith.
To deny that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, is to deny His relationship to Old Testament prophecy. It undermines all His claims to deity as well as to fulfillment of prophetic Scripture.
To deny the "Father and the Son" implies denial of Jesus' deity and of His inherent eternal equality with the Father. John calls this denial antichrist, no small concept for a Bible Christian. Combined, these two denials precisely reproduce the error of the Docetic gnostic teachings that John rejected and opposed throughout this letter and in most of his writings. They held that God, whatever god meant to them, could not contact anything material, much less actually take onto Himself a human form and live in human flesh as a man. This they blatantly denied, and this John blatantly rejected and opposed. That Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy and that He represented God manifested in human form John viewed as a basic and foundational truth of the faith. Think of the gravity of this error.
For the moment recreate Jesus in your mind, but strip Him of every vestige of deity and every concept that He fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. What do you have? Forget the idea that you have the greatest human philosopher who ever lived. He claimed to be God incarnate. He claimed to fulfill Old Testament messianic prophecy. If He was neither, then He was the most self-deluded man who ever lived! He must be everything He claimed to be or He must be rejected as the greatest hoax in human history, either a madman or a skilled charlatan! There is no rational ground between these two views of Jesus. He was everything He claimed to be or He was a hoax.
Clearly John comes down on the side of Jesus as the Messiah, God incarnate. And he as clearly rejected any idea that views Him in any lesser position. He can't be one of many gods or one of many ways to God. He can't be a mere man who "realized his deity," a favorite New Age gnostic view that attempts to make human godhood an attainable and desirable goal.
Preeminently New Testament Christianity corresponds to reality, a critical test of its authenticity. Most New Age gnostic philosophies at some point depart from the real world. Have you ever heard anyone say, "We make our own reality"? Or "That is your reality, but it is not mine." What happens when your "reality" and mine collide? Let's suppose that you are walking across a busy street. You are in a hurry so you deny the red signal prohibiting you from crossing the street. You deny the Mack truck racing down the street toward your intersection at fifty miles per hour. These things simply don't exist in your "reality." So what happens when you walk out into the intersection? The reality of the Mack truck will collide with your imaginary reality, and you will end up either in the mortuary or in the hospital! The idea that we create our own reality is phony and does not correspond to the real world in which we live. Taking this New Age philosophy one step deeper into its unrealistic teachings, many of its advocates will tell you that every pain, every difficulty, every misfortune that occurs in your life is simply your way of working off "karma," moral debt from a former life. Of course it must accept Eastern Hindu reincarnation and karma to reach this conclusion. How well will this idea correspond to reality? Let's try this. Let me break into your house, beat you to within an inch of your life, and steal all your valuables. Why should you call the police and file a report? I merely helped you work off some of your karmic debt! I didn't do anything wrong; I'm simply helping you work off bad karma! These ideas are as ridiculous to the thinking Christian as anything one could imagine. They do not correspond to the Bible or to the real world in which we live.
John takes us back into sanity and into the real world. To deny that Jesus fulfilled numerous Old Testament prophecies is to deny reality! Many contemporary Bible "scholars" attempt to deny this truth by any creative means they can unearth. They will allege that many of the books containing messianic prophecies were actually written centuries later than they claim, actually after the events they supposedly predicted. But this idea will not stand the test of historic fact. They will tell you that Jesus never claimed to be God, much less equal with God the Father. And the studied established Bible student will cite specific passages and ask, "Which Bible are you reading?" Have they ever read John's gospel, one of several New Testament books filled with repeated and clear statements of Jesus claiming both full deity and full equality with the Father? What corresponds to reality and to documented historic truth? New Testament Christianity corresponds better than any other worldview. Sir William Ramsay was one of Great Britain's leading archeologists in his time, and an energetic atheist. He decided the best way to disprove Christianity was through archeology, and he set about to use his profession and its discoveries to prove that Christianity was a hoax. He died a devoted Christian and a prolific Christian writer! Are you prepared to trust God and Scripture equally?
Our human nature craves new things and new ideas. We may have used a particular product for years, and it worked beautifully. But then someone, perhaps even the manufacturer of our old faithful product, will run a flashy campaign advertising a similar product as "new and improved." We readily abandon the old for the new. Even in our faith we will lean in one of two extreme philosophies. Wary of anything we perceive as new because of this altogether human inclination, 1) we will fiercely hold to what we perceive to be the old. Or abandoning any concept of God and absolute truth from Him as our guide, 2) we will constantly look for new ideas or slants on our faith. In many ways our choice will grow out of our perception and our measure of what is old and what is new. All too often we view what we recall from childhood as "old." But what if our childhood witnessed something at the time brand new? We think it old, but in the historic perception of Christian history, it is far too young to be "old" in any credible way. The irony is that when we judge "old" by our personal experience we may actually think something to be old that is new. And when someone tells us about the old Biblical and historic truth, we think him/her untrustworthy, as if they tried to teach us a new thing.
We should approach this question with a degree of humility. While God is absolute and His truth is absolute, we are finite. Our perception of God's truth may not be as absolute as God. Therefore in many areas of non-essential thought we should exercise personal humility regarding our views and abundant charity toward those who hold different view from our own.
At the same time we should educate ourselves in areas presented in the Bible as essential and non-negotiable. In these areas we should stand firmly with John and other Scriptural authors. However broad or narrow your definition of essentials may be John takes the initiative on the incarnation and deity of Christ and makes certain that these truths are essential and not negotiable.
What is the conclusion of God's essential truth as revealed to us in Scripture? It concludes in a glorious promise. God has promised us eternal life in Christ. We need not redefine eternal or try to limit this promise to our earthbound existence. John intended far more than that by his use of the term. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, writes that the Greek word John and other New Testament writers use most often for eternal is the strongest word in the Greek language for our primary understanding of eternal, something beyond time and never-ending.
What is the immediate impact on our Christian ethic and our personal lifestyle to this idea of God's faithful promise? It requires that we actively and constantly abide in Him, remain in Him and under His lordship in our life-choices. I do not hold that different people will occupy different levels or positions of glory or honor in heaven, for that idea challenges the core truth that our presence in heaven relates to Christ's death for us. Can we make a Biblical case that He died any more for one of His children than for another? However many Scriptures indicate some element of judgment or divine scrutiny of our lives, either at the moment of death or at the resurrection. As we pass through the transition from this life to eternity, from this world to that, it seems altogether natural to look back with reflection and with a degree of divine insight we didn't always enjoy during this life. At that time we will either look back with regret and grief for sins and neglected blessings. Or we will look back with joy and celebration as we move into that heavenly world. The New Testament places significant importance on this moment, however comprehensive or brief it may be. John raises this issue here. Do we want to enter God's presence reliving sins and errors of action and thought? Do we want, in this exact context, to look back at a low view we held of God and of Christ? Do we want to enter His presence red-faced and ashamed at our conduct toward Him and toward His people during our lifetime?
This sobering question should awaken in us a sensitive devotion to God and to His revealed truth in Scripture. It boils down to a rather simple choice. Would you rather face occasional embarrassment and shame before other men and women who do not share you faith in Christ? Or would you rather have their blessing and face embarrassment and shame as you enter His presence? You can't do both!
If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him. John selects two different Greek words for know in this verse. In the first instance, "If ye know that he is righteous," the word refers to intuitive or absolute knowledge. Although we hold tightly and correctly to the fact that God is righteous in all His ways and being, we cannot speak to that conviction from personal experience. We are finite beings, not capable of exploring or knowing God in every aspect of His being. Thus our knowledge of His character must be intuitive and not experiential.
Then John's next word, "...ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him," refers to experiential knowledge. Our intuitive sense of God tells us things we may expect and count on in our personal experience of Him. And this personal experiential knowledge of Him will correspond to the intuitive knowledge on which we build it. Here again A. T. Robertson offers an obvious, but important, comment, "Doing righteousness is proof of the new birth." We may properly judge that people who fail to believe these doctrines are either personally deceived or that they are evil deceivers. John refers to them as seducing you. He leaves them at that point in God's hands. He feels no compulsion to make them a child of God in disobedience, latent universalism. Nor does he feel compelled to immediately and permanently judge them as for ever lost to God. He simply judges their present course as evil and seductive to an essential Biblical truth.
Our assurance of our own salvation or of another person's must rely on present conduct, not on our wishful desires. We have no Biblical authority to tell a wicked seductive person steeped in error and sin that he/she is actually a child of God in error. We don't know, and God doesn't give us this latitude. We may know, observe and conclude on the basis of personal experience, that a person who consistently lives righteously is born of God. We may not know the same conclusion from a person who lives in unrighteousness. To make such a stretch in our personal thinking or, worse, to give such assurance to a person living in unrighteousness cannot claim Biblical example or authority. Actually from John's statement here, we have no basis either in our intuitive knowledge of God or in our personal experiential knowledge that such is the case at all. Our true experiential knowledge bears the stamp of credibility only in so far as it corresponds to our intuitive knowledge of God and of His holy nature.
Whether in our own experience or in the lives of others, sin has a way of dulling one's senses toward righteousness. It anesthetizes the conscience, not only in the specific area of the immediate personal sin, but in all areas in which we may discern sin. If we consciously make a place for sin in our lives or in our assessment and approval of others, we intentionally blind our minds and consciences to sin and to righteousness. Thus we endanger our own sense of sin when we apply unscriptural criteria to the conduct of other people. God did not appoint us as anyone's eternal judge. He reserves that right to Himself alone. But our view of them and of our own selves in terms of divine righteousness will directly impact our sensitivity to sin and to righteousness. Follow His guide alone.
Does your view of God have any impact on the way you live and think? It certainly should. Too often we've packaged our views of God and of how we should live into neat little boxes, compartmentalizing and isolating each from the other. We view eternal doctrines as something precious and of great value, but often we cannot identify how they have any impact whatever on the way we will live and face our difficulties next week. This view of our theology, our concept of God, is faulty to the core. In our study passage and throughout Scripture we learn that we should integrate our view of God with our most mundane activities and decisions. Our view of God should directly impact every thought, word and deed in our lives.
The Docetic gnostic philosophers whom John opposed in this letter taught that the supreme deity was unknowable and unapproachable. They could realize their divinity and become a lesser god, but even these lesser gods could not know or approach the supreme god. Their god had no interest in this life or in this material world. In fact they held that he actually was infuriated at a lower "demiurge" who misunderstood his wishes and created the material universe. They identified this bumbling demiurge with the Jehovah of the Old Testament! John considered this teaching in all its parts as blasphemous error. Early Christians took John as their example and equally opposed this teaching. Distinct from any number of errors that arose within Christianity, this error originated outside the faith and attempted to legitimize itself by attaching itself to Christianity. John opposed them and their teachings as fiercely as a Roman emperor would oppose invading pagan hoards from the north. They and their teachings were altogether foreign to anything John could classify as orthodox or acceptable to the faith.
According to this incredible error, anything material was inherently inferior and marred in the eyes of their unknowable supreme deity. They could not fathom a knowable and approachable supreme God who created this material universe and takes pleasure in its existence. That the heavens would declare His glory and the atmospheric envelope around the earth, including the earth itself, shows His intimate and detailed handiwork. It is as if the heavens reveal His glory and the globe we know as earth, our home in that universe, reveals His needlework. We live in the midst of His fine artistic and orderly creation.
They tried to embrace Jesus as one of their own. According to their teaching, he was to be honored as a great teacher, one of few men who realized and grew into his potential deity. He started his existence on earth as a man, and nothing but a man. Then through gnostic secrets he realized his potential deity and eventually became one of the many underling gods. Therefore they encouraged others to follow His example and become a god like Him!
That background gives special weight to John's comments in this lesson. We do not need to grow or realize our deity. We are not gods, and we are not to become gods. But now, not a future potential, we are God's children, beloved children of a personal and knowable God. Everything John writes in these verses stands in amazing contrast to the Docetic gnostic error John opposed here.
Our being called the sons of God does not evolve from our personal attainments or from our gaining access to secret knowledge. Our position as sons of God stands firmly on God's personal and intimate love for us! What kind of love would prompt any being truly deserving of the title God to reach out and embrace fallen creatures in His creation as His own children? There is only one such being in John's concept, and He so loved His children that He entered their world. He actually took on Himself their nature, even a human body like theirs. But He did not cease being God during this time. He remained as fully God as at any time in His eternal existence. He did not enter this world to give undeserving mortals an opportunity to follow His example and become a lesser god. He entered it to manifest His profound love for us and to do what we could not do for ourselves, to suffer what we could not suffer and survive. He willingly and knowingly submitted to suffering and to death, an ignominious death, on our behalf. He did not die for crimes He committed, but for our sins. His death was vicarious, on behalf of others, not for Himself. It was in the form of a substitution for the penalty we deserved. And the righteousness we receive from Him is not acquired or infused but imputed. He took upon Himself the just penalty for our sins and imputed to us His spotless righteousness. Herein is the full measure of His love manifested. What manner of love is this!
The godless unbelieving world cannot comprehend this kind of love or this kind of God. Such a concept seemed incredible to them when He came, and it continues to seem incredible to unbelievers when we speak of it.
Now are we the sons of God. No, we are not striving to become gods. We are right now, even in our current mortality, the sons of God. For the gnostic teachers the future was supposedly knowable through their secret and supposedly superior knowledge. But John tells us that the future state of God's family is so transcendent that we cannot fully know it or comprehend it at this time. We presently know God and we celebrate the knowledge of His transcendent love for us. Our grasp of His love enables us to anticipate a future state with Him so far outside our present knowledge or ability that we cannot imagine what it will be.
Study the language carefully. John does not disagree with the gnostics simply in terms of timing, as if they taught that we become gods now, and he taught that we become gods later. At no point does John say we will ever become gods, but that we will be so changed into an image compatible with Him that we will be able to fully comprehend Him as He is. In that way only will we be "like Him." We will participate vicariously, not inherently, in His nature. We will not become little gods, but we will be like Him in terms of His righteous nature. We will then see Him as He is because of the kinship He imputes to us. Gods don't evolve or grow. Gods don't receive their deity from another, at least any being worthy of the title. And there is only one such being in the entire universe! God is the same today as He was prior to His creating the universe. He is the same as He was prior to the incarnation. In the incarnation His deity didn't change, but He added humanity to His nature. That addition did not in any way alter His deity. It simply added humanity to His being in the body Christ indwelled during His incarnation.
Today because of our sinful and temporal state we cannot fully grasp the being of God, but He has condescended to us in our temporal humanity through Jesus and the incarnation. Thus He took such painstaking steps to put Himself in an accessible and knowable posture for us. Eventually John celebrates that we will be taken into His presence and see Him as He is.
The idea that mortals will eventually become gods, regardless of the means, is not a historic Christian view, but a gnostic/New Age non-Christian view. In fact according to John's language in this letter, it is antichristian! The whole idea of reducing Jesus to a man who by some mystical means became a god also elevates man to the same level. This reveals the insidious quality of the error John exposes and opposes in this letter. Worship of God is corrupted into worship of man, particularly of self. Incredible gratitude for everything He accomplished through the incarnation becomes a self-absorbed challenge for you to become a god in your own right.
The direct impact of the truth John presents here is overwhelming. The incarnation becomes the greatest evidence imaginable of God's transcendent love for us. Nothing in us earns or deserves that love. It floods upon us freely and wondrously through God's grace. Despite the wonder of what we now have as children, amazingly loved of God, our future so transcends our present state that we cannot fathom it or put words to its description. Despite what we now know of God, primarily through the incarnation and all its implications to us through Scriptural revelation, there is yet more to know of God than we can imagine or comprehend at this time. But God intends that we know Him in such amazing intimacy. Celebrate Him in every detail of life!
Do not sever this lesson from its context, the first two verses of the chapter. You have in this flowing context far more information than you at first glance see. Have you ever wondered how New Testament writers would define hope? By a full reading you quickly understand that they didn't think of hope as wishful thinking against expectations. But here John actually defines it. You do not see the word hope in the first two verses, but this lesson refers to the whole idea presented in those verses and sums it up in one word, hope. Linger reflectively over this truth. Let its force settle deeply into your mind. Allow it to strengthen your life and outlook in faith.
Now with that foundation firmly settled in our minds, let's move into the lesson. You will occasionally meet people who say they are Christians and believe devoutly in God. But when you examine their conduct and attitude toward life, they do not reflect the transformation John implied in this lesson. They say they love God and believe in their security in Christ. They say they live in hope of the resurrection and eternity with God. But they constantly struggle with depression, anger, self-absorption or other negative sinful attitudes. They may honestly confess their sins, though often they are so filled with pride they prefer to deny personal sins. But if they confess their sins, they also tend to remain in them, thus confessing the same sins over and over, for they continue to repeat them. You see no purification of personal conduct. You see no joyful outlook and no growth in spiritual knowledge or maturity. How do you explain this dilemma? The most obvious explanation is rather direct. John doesn't say that every person who truly has this hope will try to purify himself and fail. He says the person who truly has this hope will in fact purify himself. To say anything less puts us in contradiction to John's statement and to inspired Scripture. We should not put ourselves in this posture. Apparently it is possible for people to think they have this hope, to say they have it, but in fact they don't! Do you see in John's language that this hope will not allow the person who has it to continue in a stagnant sinful lifestyle? It is impossible! The hope always promotes purification in personal conduct.
Theologians use the term perseverance to describe this link between salvation and godliness. Sometimes people who do not respect Scripture's emphatic connection between salvation, at least a true profession of faith, and godliness will teach that we must choose between the doctrines of preservation and perseverance. On rare occasions I have heard some say, with no supportive historical evidence whatever, that ancient Christians who used the term perseverance simply misunderstood the two words and used one when they actually intended the other. However if you read their writings reasonably, you will conclude that they knew exactly what they believed and they wrote their convictions with precision. They believed in perseverance. You need not make every child of God a near-perfect Christian to teach this doctrine, but you cannot believe that a resolute sinner is a child of God in disobedience and hold the historic or the Bible perspective.
John didn't give a private mystical definition to sin. He made it as obvious and simple as possible. While believers in the New Testament Age are not under the Law (Ro 6:14), a faithful New Testament believer will acknowledge the union of the Law and God's fixed moral character. Whether we are under the Law or not, when we violate its moral principles, we violate God's righteous nature, and we sin!
And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin. John leads us to honest acknowledgement of our sins. We cannot deny our sins and understand John's teaching in this letter. But he views an honest confrontation of personal sin with the divine remedy for our sins. If Christ was manifested to take away our sins, how can we view our personal sins lightly? How can we dismiss them in sinful pride and pretend they don't exist? How can we continue the practice of them and convince anyone that we truly believe in Him? We can't! If He came through the incarnation to take away our sins, we must then hold His incarnation in high regard. Apart from what Jesus accomplished during His incarnation, His time in human flesh, we have no salvation! We have no hope for deliverance from our sins.
But in the same breath John reminds us that in Jesus Christ, the divine remedy for our sins, there is no sin. Notice John uses the present tense verb here, "In him is no sin." Sometimes theologians and Bible students will debate whether or not Jesus could have sinned. What is the point? He didn't! You can only address that question apart from Bible fact! That should convince us not to go there at all! Go where the Bible takes you, but avoid speculative questions that admittedly go in a different direction than Biblical teaching. Not only did He not sin, even now in heaven He has no sin. He did not commit personal sins. And the sins the Father imputed to Him He took in their legal penalty to Calvary and to death. But they do not remain with Him. He satisfied the Father's just requirements for their payment. He does not today carry our sins in heaven. He finished that work and ascended sinless back to the Father. At His ascension the sin question had already been resolved!
But John approaches this truth cautiously. He freely leads us to this amazing comfort in Christ's work. But he does not isolate that work from its moral and ethical implications to us. In him is no sin. If there is no sin in Him and we in heaven will be so like Him as to see Him as He is, we will confront and eliminate sin in our lives. We need not believe in the attainment of sinless perfection to hold to this truth. But we cannot hold to it and tolerate or justify continuing sin in our lives. If we hold to this truth, we will strive to imitate Christ's moral and ethical conduct. If we honor the truth of His sinless person, we must impose that goal as ours. We must at every possible occasion move in that direction. Sins that we may have tolerated a year ago we should now see more clearly as the sins they are and eliminate them from our life. What we consider as morally acceptable conduct today should be far more precise than what we viewed as acceptable Christianity even one year ago. Lest we allow pride to control our life we should approach our growth in godliness with a liberal measure of personal humility.
We should also increase in the wisdom that understands that our personal victory over sins we practice or permit in our lives will not occur through stubborn pride or personal energy. This approach to the elimination of sin in our conduct will grow legalism and arrogance in us. Or if we are honest enough to see and to confess our ongoing sins, it may grow despair in us. But it will not grow victory in us! The power to overcome sinful habits in our lifestyle and attitudes grows out of our faithful belief in Christ, the resurrection and our eventual conformation to His likeness. It is not the stubborn willpower of the man or woman who has this hope that delivers them from sin. It is the hope of that reality that overcomes sin in us. The more we live with a heavenward worldview and lifestyle the more we will realize our personal victory over sins in our life. The more we accept our future glory with Christ in His likeness the more we will confront and overcome sins in our person. Do you see the union between these two points in our lesson? Do you understand how John sees our ability to overcome sin as growing out of our hope in Christ, not out of our personal ability?
To combine these two truths harmoniously we must also understand another truth. For John hope is not a sentimental emotion or a wishful desire. Neither sentimental emotions nor wishful desires will conquer sin in our conduct. They will set us up for repeated failure. We may cross swords with our sins, but when the final blow strikes, the sin will hold the upper hand against us. How pure is God in your thoughts? Do you really believe this? This view becomes the true measure of your objective for your own actions. So you first of all eliminate the idea of redefining sin as a floating moving measure, subjectively seen as sin only in relation to your personal outlook. You will see it as God sees it, in the clear straightforward definition John gives us in this lesson. And then as you seek to conquer sin in your life, the power to overcome sinful habits will relate directly to your attitude toward Christ and His boundless love for you. Your concept of His love will not lower your expectations and increase your tolerance of sins. It will do the exact opposite. Let the purifying life begin.
Is it possible for a child of God to live above active sin in his life? Is that John's point here? No, John states his purpose, "In this the children of God are manifest...". How does a person manifest his spiritual identity? The whole context deals with this question. Sadly we live in an age in which many believers attempt to broaden God's family beyond what God teaches in Scripture. They occasionally make near heroes of reckless sinners more than of righteous people. If you were to rephrase this passage to fit the ethical outlook these people posit, it would read, "Whosoever abideth in him continues to sin, but he really feels bad about it."
This lesson has seen many battles over its true intent. We will not settle all the issues here, but we should attempt to establish John's intent and hold to it as nearly as we can. Can anyone realistically interpret these words to mean that John intended us to think that anyone who sins and feels badly about it is a righteous saved person? Whatever the primary meaning of the passage, this cannot reasonably match the language or the context we see here.
First we should attempt to find John's overall balance and teaching in the whole letter. We cannot read the first chapter and think for a moment that John thought anyone, even a child of God, has the ability to attain sinless conduct in this life. Do you really want to make God a liar? How then do we approach and interpret this passage so as to honor it in the immediate context as well as to honor John's message and intent in the first chapter? The most obvious accomplishment of comparing these two lessons will eliminate the idea that John implied that a believer has the ability to attain sinless perfection. We eliminate that view immediately by John's own words in this same letter, first chapter. How then do we interpret this passage so as to honor its intent and to avoid contradicting the first chapter? I will outline two major views and offer reasons for my preference toward one of them.
The first view states that John's intent refers specifically to the "part" of the child of God that is changed in the new birth. In other words the "regenerate part" of the child of God cannot sin. This view is somewhat difficult to prove or to defend. First John did not say a certain part of us cannot sin, but another part of us can. Thus it strains, if it does not outright violate, the direct language of the passage. If John had intended to teach that a certain part of our constitution does not sin, why didn't he use language to make that point more clearly? If that was his intent, he chose poor language to make the point. And this conclusion leads us to raise the same question regarding the Holy Spirit's role in directing the structure of the passage. Do we know better than John and the Holy Spirit who inspired his writing how to say what they jointly intended? The intent in this interpretation may be good, but the interpretation compared with the language strains credibility. And it may question the wisdom of God in the choice of the words He inspired John to use in writing the message. Few Bible believers would question the theological point made in this argument. It is almost certainly true. The question relates to the intent of this particular passage. Is that John's and the Holy Spirit's intent here, given the language structure? Is this the most obvious and concise intent of the words we see in the passage?
The alternate view is articulated well by A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, from the words and verb tense of the actual Greek text. "Sinneth not (ouch hamartanei). Linear present (linear menoôn, keeps on abiding) active indicative of hamartanoô, "does not keep on sinning." For menoô (abide) see 1Jo 2:6; Joh 15:4-10. Whosoever sinneth (ho hamartanoôn). Present (linear) active articular participle like menoôn above, "the one who keeps on sinning" (lives a life of sin, not mere occasional acts of sin as hamarteôsas, aorist active participle, would mean)." Robertson's emphasis deals with a dominant lifestyle either of sin or righteousness. It seems to carry stronger direct support from the original language in which the New Testament was written. It also seems to match obvious New Testament teaching more naturally.
How can a person in whose heart God has written His law continue in a habitual practice of sin? If so, what purpose does God's law written in the heart serve? Isolating this passage from the flowing context of 1John creates much of the problem. A single concise statement (1Jo 3:3) in the context sets the tone of the whole dialogue John develops here. A person who has the hope of verses 1 and 2 will live so as to manifest its impact on his/her life. You can't truly possess this knowledge and remain in the habit of unrestrained or continuous and habitual sin. A person will manifest their spiritual state by actions consistent with that state, not by empty words void of transformed conduct. While the end result of the lesson does not lead to sinless perfection, neither does it permit continuous uninterrupted sin. We manifest our spiritual state first of all by an altered lifestyle that avoids sin. We further manifest our spiritual state by a progression in godliness, what theologians call "progressive sanctification." In other words you will see advancement or progress in the godly conduct of God's children. They will not reach a state of conduct a mere step short of scandal and stagnate there, reasonably satisfied that they are as good as most other believers. Such stagnation manifests lack of a spiritual state with God far more than favoring a gracious state.
For this purpose the Son of God was manifest, that he might destroy the works of the devil. Jesus came to destroy the legal penalty of sin, but that is not John's point here. He was also manifest that He might destroy the actual influence of the devil. That seems more consistent with the passage. Satan's works appear in the life, in actual conduct, of people. If Jesus came to destroy the devil's works, we must conclude that His purpose in this aspect of His coming relates to an ongoing diminishing of sinful works in our conduct. By the intervening work of the Holy Spirit He constantly assaults the devil's influence and deception in our lives. We respond as children of God by following the Holy Spirit's influence and continuously walking more and more away from conduct the devil encourages. To use John's terminology, we manifest that we are children of God through moving constantly away from specific sinful actions and attitudes we formerly allowed in our lives. We grow in grace and in righteous conduct!
His seed remaineth in him. John does not by this reference to the spiritual seed, the spiritual life or nature, justify singling out only the regenerate nature. Rather he clarifies the driving force that will not allow a child of God to practice sinful habits continually. The moral influence of the Holy Spirit in your life is not a fleeting and occasional one, but a constant and progressive one. John did not say that his seed comes and goes, but that it remains. The spiritual life directly and constantly impacts one's conduct and attitude toward sin.
Take a special time this week to assess your spiritual journey over the last several years. Have you allowed sinful sloth to lead you to contentment with this notion that you are as righteous in your personal habits as you need to be? Have you slowed down your spiritual growth because of other factors in your life? We may easily decide to interrupt our spiritual growth for fear that it will demand more from us that we are prepared to give. Do you fear that God's influence in your life, if allowed to continue growing, might interfere with your "fun"? The more we allow such factors to control our life and to dwarf our spiritual growth the more we lose our spiritual vitality. We cease to manifest our spiritual nature to ourselves or to others around us. We cultivate the growth of doubts regarding our personal state with God. We might even reach the point at which we would seek to glorify our doubts rather than glorifying God in our lives. As you identify sinful habits in which you may have compromised your spiritual growth, pray and begin specific activities to confront and overcome those sins. You will clarify your spiritual manifestation in the process. Your joy and contentment will grow, and others will more clearly see Christ in you and know your spiritual state and commitment. No small matter, this question of manifesting our spiritual state.
John revisits his earlier appeal to the historic manifestation of our honorable service to God. Both in John's teachings in the second chapter of this letter and throughout Jesus' teachings in the gospels, we learn that we fulfill the whole intent of God's law by "loving God and by loving our neighbor as ourselves." And we must remember that John's, and the whole New Testament's, definition of love directs us to conduct, not to feelings or to sentimental emotions. In that amazing chapter on love (1Co 13) Paul consistently defines charity, the God-kind of love, by what it does, not by what it feels. And John advances that same principle in this letter. We manifest our love to God and to His people by what we do toward them, not simply by how we feel toward them.
Had someone asked Cain how he felt about his brother, what do you suppose he would have said? Surely he would have professed love for his brother. Otherwise there is no compelling reason for John to use this situation here. But how could he defend the truthfulness of his profession when he murdered Abel? His actions and his words would not have agreed. We have all seen people who profess to love others, but their actions show anything but love. Cain left no doubt about his true feelings toward Abel when he murdered him. And that is the very point John makes in this lesson by the Cain example. According to John, was Cain a mixed up child of God in disobedience? Or was he "of the wicked one"? Why did Cain murder Abel? What does John say about it? He was of that wicked one and because his deeds were evil and Abel's deeds were righteous.
The Bible Knowledge Commentary offers this thought about the verse. "The reason for this murder was Cain's jealous resentment of his brother's superior righteousness (Ge 4:2-7). In saying this, John touched a sensitive nerve, since hatred toward another Christian is often prompted by a feeling of guilt about one's own life as compared with that person's. It is well to remember that such reactions are satanic, as John bluntly affirmed here." Cain wanted God's approval or at least His blessing, but he had no intention of altering his conduct to receive it. Apparently he thought if he eliminated Abel, God would have no alternative but to bless him, even in his sinful neglect and murderous conduct. Perverted sinners can't reason with God! And they certainly can't manipulate God into doing anything for them.
If every human being were to be convinced of the reality of life after death as taught by the Bible, how would the wicked react to it? Can you imagine a wicked unrepentant sinner acknowledging the reality of a literal heaven and an equally literal hell? Then in contemplation of their death they say they are truly excited and looking forward to hell? If asked whether they want to spend eternity in heaven or hell, they would all choose heaven. But would any of the wicked actually change their conduct? No, they would follow Cain's posture of trying to alter circumstances so as to force God into blessing them despite their sinful conduct.
John's primary emphasis here is not Cain, but a contrasting fact - that we should love one another. John uses Cain to create in our minds the exact antithesis of godly love. Sadly through the centuries of Christianity, many have professed faith in Christ and love for God, even love for their brothers and sisters in Christ, while at the same moment they heaped criticism and malice upon their professed brothers and sisters. John's admonition is timeless and timelessly necessary. Our conduct toward others proves our true state.
Take a moment to evaluate this lesson in terms of John's major concern in this letter with the gnostic errors he confronts. These people had very little regard for personal conduct toward others. In fact they viewed anyone who did not agree with their private knowledge as inferior in their faith. They relished their superior "knowledge" as the only notable issue of life. By this they viewed others with selfish pride. Conduct meant almost nothing to them. John responds that words or claims of superiority without concrete actions that validate true words mean nothing at all. We prove our love to God by one and only one action, by how we treat those whom God loves.
A superior attitude may be one of the most dangerous conditions we allow in our minds. We might reject every abominable tenet of gnostic philosophy, but adopt a superior attitude on other grounds. But in our superior arrogance we actually join the gnostic error and depart from God's way. Paul issued a similar warning to believing Gentiles in Ro 11. Because the Jews as a culture rejected Christ as the Messiah and as God's Son, God rejected them from gospel blessings. They eventually lost their identity as a nation because of this sin. Believing Gentiles, particularly those Gentiles who had been mistreated by arrogant Jews, could easily adopt an arrogant attitude of superiority over the rejected Jews. Paul reminds them that they are dealing with God. He was able to cut off the Jews and graft in the Gentiles. But the Gentiles stood by faith, not by a desperate act of God. And God could as easily cut arrogant Gentiles off as He had done to arrogant Jews. He reminded them that they stood in their current blessings only by faith. Remain in faith and in faithful dependence on God and retain the blessing. Depart form those blessings and they endangered continuation of their blessings.
I doubt that many Christians of whatever stripe today consciously think they hold to false doctrine. Despite significant variations in what they believe, each has some grounds for holding sincerely to his particular view. How easily we could adopt a superior attitude as we focus on our sincere belief that we, not someone else, hold to more of God's truth than others.
We may, and should, hold to God as the absolute Ruler and Governor of the universe and of our faith. We may, and should, reject relativism in all moral and spiritual issues. Sincerity alone is never accepted in Scripture as grounds for God's blessings. Sincerity in the truth and in true faith is commended, but sincerity in error is sincere delusion! God never offers grounds for blessing based on sincerity alone. How do we embrace God's absolute and final rule and deal with others who differ from us in their views of His rule? We must affirm His absolute governance in all things. But we can never know beyond doubt that we know all points of God's absolute truth absolutely. Therefore the way to avoid this sinful attitude is to hold tightly to the clear truths of Scripture and to hold more loosely to points that appear less clearly in Scripture. And we should hold to all points with a full measure of humility. We could be wrong in some of our views. Therefore we should hold to our personal understanding with loose and humble hands and hearts full of faith in God. Then where we later discover error in our own thoughts we will not unduly offend God's children who differ from us. And we will be more receptive to God's truth as we grow in grace and in our knowledge of His truth. While we grow experientially in our knowledge of God's truth, His truth remains constant and reliable. To fall prey to relativism (That is your truth; this is mine. One thing is true in one set of circumstances; something different, even contradictory, may be true in another set of circumstances.) is to deny God's final and competent rule.
God gave each of us very strong and functional emotions. He intended that they form an integral part of our existence. But He did not intend that we make them ruler over our lives more than He Himself. As a study in your own motives, think of a few people whom you have known and with whom you may have struggled to get along peacefully. For the sake of this exercise, try to remove all emotion from your relationship with them. Think of your relationship with them only in terms of actions. What would your actions alone show them? What would their actions alone show you? Would either of you be convinced of the other's love by the evidence of actions alone?
Take this study an additional step. Keep emotions out of the equation for the moment. What caused the tensions and the strained moments between you and this person? How much of the strain relates to emotions and how much to actual deeds? The very act of separating deeds from emotions is next to impossible isn't it? How easily we recall something the other person said and we cannot reconstruct their words without imposing a motive on their words and reacting with strong personal emotions. And we defend our response by saying they actually did something that justified our response. In fact our emotional interpretation created much of our response, not their actual deeds. Try to regroup and reconstruct old relationships on the basis of actions alone. Then show your love to them from this day forward by your actions.
More than at any time in my lifetime our culture has polarized its attitude toward Christians. Regardless of your political affiliation or philosophy, if you are a Bible-believing Christian, you must wear the label "Radical Right-Wing Christian." Muslims and oriental religions, at times even New Age advocates, receive open arms to present their views in various public settings, but the moment a Christian asks for the same treatment, they are spurned with the "separation of church and state" denial. If you hold to Biblical Christian views today, more than at any time in our lifetime you understand John's comment, "Marvel not...if the world hate you." Because of the Christian influence in our country's history (I do not use the term "Christian nation" because it implies more than our history will support and more than the Bible teaches about nations since God's rejection of the Jewish nation-culture for special privilege.), we marvel at our culture's treatment. But from the long historic perspective implied by John in this lesson, it is no marvel that secular culture hates Christians. Historically it has done so! But for the thinking informed Christian, this is no cause for surprise or marvel.
Why does John move immediately from this arresting line to what appears to be a distinct in-house and personal issue to believers? "We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren." Occasionally Christians and those who prefer to be called Christians, even though their personal lifestyle doesn't support the name, will diminish the Biblical role of community worship. "I am a Christian, but I don't need to go to church every Sunday." This is equivalent to saying, "I am a Christian but I deny the teachings of Jesus." In late 1999 a public opinion poll was published in which a significant number of people said they were Christians in answer to one question, but said they were atheists in answer to another question. How can you be a Christian and an atheist? It is impossible! To deny your place in public worship within the community of a godly church is to deny your Christianity! Why? Because the New Testament incorporates the worshipping community of the church into its model of New Testament Christianity. Rarely will anyone maintain a clear and credible Christian presence in his/her life for any length of time apart from active involvement in a church.
So why did John present such an unusual sequence of thought in this passage? What does "knowledge," or assurance of salvation, have to do with the world's hateful attitude toward Christians? The first point should captivate our minds. Which is more important to you, the "world's" opinion of you or God's opinion of you? And God's opinion of you will form in your mind largely in terms of your attitude and actions toward other believers, as well as toward humanity in general. Regular participation in the worshipping community of church will train your habits and attitudes toward other people, helping you more consistently practice Christian ethics.
Secondly the lesson strongly implies that a person's Christianity must appear in public attitudes and actions, words included. The idea of a secret Christian runs contradictory to New Testament Christianity. This point builds on John's consistent teaching that love appears in action, not simply in words. We know our spiritual state with God, not by a certain feeling toward other believers but by specific actions toward them. You man talk about your love of other believers until your voice becomes hoarse. But your assurance of salvation will only grow and maintain consistent clarity in proportion to your actual conduct toward them. If you try to build your assurance of salvation on the way you feel toward them, your sense of assurance will go up and down in direct proportion to your emotional cycles. Try testing your assurance of salvation a few minutes after you just lost control and exploded angrily toward another believer, any other person for that matter! But if you entrench a godly ethic deeply into your lifestyle and habits, regardless of you emotional swings, your assurance of salvation will maintain the same consistency as your conduct.
He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him. Don't forget John's use of love as equating to actions, not to feelings. So if you do not love your brother or sister, you do not treat them with godly Christian actions. Is John saying that anyone who hates another, particularly another believer, is not really saved, not a child of God? We cannot minimize the vital importance of this lesson in terms of our Christian conduct and ethics. It will not allow us to justify hatred toward anyone, especially toward another believer. But does it question such a person's salvation? I suggest that the dominant theme of this lesson is assurance of salvation, not the fact of salvation. Because of its clarity in this area, I will quote freely from the Bible Knowledge Commentary on these verses. It clearly speaks to this important question.
The statements of 1Jo 3:14b 1Jo 3:15 suggest that the spheres of "death" and "life" are here treated as experiential and determined by one's actions. If so, the issue of conversion is not in view here.
The statement, Anyone who does not love (the majority of the mss. add "a brother" or "his brother") remains in death, is considered under 1Jo 3:15.
1Jo 3:15. This verse is usually taken to mean that a true Christian cannot hate his fellow Christian, since hatred is the moral equivalent of murder. But this view cannot stand up under close scrutiny.
To begin with, John speaks of anyone who hates his brother. If John had believed that only an unsaved person can hate another Christian, the word "his" unnecessarily personalizes the relationship (cf. comments on 1Jo 2:9). But it is an illusion to believe that a real Christian is incapable of hatred and murder. David was guilty of the murder of pious Uriah the Hittite (2Sa 12:9) and Peter warned his Christian readers, "If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer" (1Pe 4:15; more lit., "Let none of you suffer as a murderer"). The view that 1Jo 3:15 cannot refer to the saved is totally devoid of all realism. The solemn fact remains that hatred of some other believer is the spiritual equivalent of murder (Mt 5:21-22), as a lustful eye is the spiritual equivalent of adultery (Mt 5:28).
John insisted then that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. The NIV does not translate the Greek participle ???????? ("abiding"), which is a crucial word here. John does not say that someone who hates his brother does not possess eternal life, but rather that he does not have it abiding in him. But since for John, Christ Himself is eternal life (Joh 14:6; 1Jo 1:2; 5:20), John's statement is saying that no murderer has Christ abiding in him. Thus once more the experience of "abiding" is what John had in view.
Hatred on the part of one Christian toward another is thus an experience of moral murder. As John had indicated in 1Jo 3:14b, he held that a Christian who fails to love his brother "remains (?????) in death." He is thus experientially living in the same sphere in which the world lives (see 1Jo 3:13). Because he is a murderer at heart he can make no real claim to the kind of intimate fellowship with God and Christ which the word "abide" suggests. Eternal life (i.e., Christ) is not at home in his heart so long as the spirit of murder is there. Such a person is disastrously out of touch with his Lord and he experiences only death. (Cf. Paul's statement, "For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die" [Ro 8:13].) John's words were surely grim. But no service is rendered to the church by denying their applicability to believers. The experience of the Christian church through the ages shows how urgently they are needed. Hate, unfortunately, is not confined to unsaved people."
The commentary's explanation does not diminish the importance of the passage, but it does free us from the false theological view that a saved person may lose their salvation and fall away so as to be eternally lost.
What is your state of mind when you allow any form of animosity to dwell in it? You become self-absorbed. The whole world must revolve around you and what you view is right for you at the moment. That person offended you. You did nothing to provoke them or to justify their actions. If someone approached you during this episode and suggested that your best course of action would be to confess your faults, you would likely become as hostile toward them as you are toward the person against whom your original anger erupted.
You also become guilty of thinking evil against the other person. Rethink Paul's comment in his love chapter (1Co 13), "Charity...thinketh no evil." In fact read Paul's complete list here. (1Co 13:4-7) Paul did not define charity, the God-kind of love, in terms of how we feel, but in terms of what we do toward others.
As you reflect on this passage and its ethical implications, will you take a few moments to personalize it to your life and conduct. Not a living person can reflect on their life without encountering some occasion when they failed to practice the high ground of Christian ethics John sets forth here. Your failures will appear in broken relationships, people you once considered as dear friends who today find no place in your life. Oh, you may try to blame them by saying it was their choice to exit your life, that you hold no responsibility whatever, but the protest is not terribly convincing. Legitimate friendship is a precious commodity in this life. People don't simply walk away from dear friends! Often they are driven away by unloving attitudes and actions. Look through the last chapter or so of your relationship with these people. Check for signs of things you may have done to push them away, to give them the indication that you did not regard them with the same fondness as in times past. Did you structure the friendship so as to get the most out of it for yourself or to give of yourself? Did you judge the value of the friendship on what it gave to you? If so, you missed John's point here. And despite mistakes on that person's part, you did contribute to the destruction of that precious commodity of friendship. To the extent we damage, poison or destroy friendships in our life we will suffer from low assurance of our own salvation.
Why not start today with a new way of dealing with others? John closes this lesson with an exhortation to love in a specific way. My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth. Does this mean we should never tell another person we love them? Of course not, but it does tell us not to limit our love to words. Prove your love by actions. This approach to life will not only deepen the vital taproot of treasured friendships in your life. It will strengthen your assurance of salvation. Christ and hatred, the ethical equivalent of murder, cannot live in the same house. Who do you want to live in your house with you, to abide with you? In the lonely cold winter evenings of old age who would you like to keep you company? One will leave you bitter and lonely, void of close friends. The other will leave you at the sunset full of joy and surrounded by friends who want to know more of your secret outlook toward life. Do you want to be surprised when you enter heaven and joy with God, or do you want your death to simply represent the last comfortable and natural transition into glory from a life lived in anticipation of it? Now is the time to begin you choice. A notable and romantic poet wrote the lines, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." Change the line ever so slightly to reflect your love. "How do I love? Let me follow Christ's example alone."
John continues his extensive dialogue regarding personal assurance of salvation. Interestingly several New Testament books develop focused themes. A suffering Christian should read 1 Peter, for example. And a Christian in need of more insight into his assurance should read 1John.
This question of assurance becomes more simple and direct upon careful study of 1John. In our study passage we discover a fundamental principle of assurance. It relates directly to your conscience. If you constantly twist your conscience to justify sin, you will weaken your assurance. If you ignore your conscience or in any way violate it so that it convicts you, assurance will diminish. If you conscientiously study Scripture and mold your life into conformity with Biblical teaching, your conscience will bless you, not condemn you, and your assurance will blossom. Occasionally you will meet believers who appear to live exemplary godly lives, but they constantly struggle with their assurance. Perhaps they have not trained their conscience to rely on Scripture and God. Perhaps they are not living in secret as nearly the model Christian life as they appear in public.
This passage presents a perfect occasion for each of us to pause and engage in some serious self-examination. Look for patterns to your assurance struggle. What else is going on in your life during those struggles? How are your personal relationships at the moment? Are you wrestling with anger or tension toward someone you especially love and value? How about your private choices and decisions? Do you follow your emotions or your knowledge of the Bible? Do you go to the Bible, hands and heart open for God to instruct you, or do you go to it, mind already made up and merely seeking to validate your preconceptions? All of these factors will impact God's work in your conscience, and thus your assurance. View low assurance as a red light, a danger signal, to call attention to immediate spiritual needs or flaws in your thinking or conduct. We may actually deceive ourselves into thinking we are doing well, but God will not respond to deception and give assurance based on guile, even if we sincerely deceive ourselves!
Here the pseudo-New Age response will also fail. Have you ever heard a Christian say, "Oh, God doesn't care what you do so long as you are sincere"? The Bible certainly requires sincerity in our conduct, but nowhere does the Bible imply that sincerity alone pleases God. A believer may deceive his/her conscience with this ploy and lose assurance. Because of their faulty thinking, they will not at all understand their low assurance.
Another clue to godly conduct and assurance relates to prayer. Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God. And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight. A clear honorable conscience, not simply deceived into clarity, but one that faithfully follows God, will instill confidence. Godly confidence will drive the believer to God in assured prayer. It will also lead to answered prayer. Few things enhance our personal assurance as powerfully as answered prayer. Many of the Puritans encouraged believers to keep a prayer diary. Make a list of everything you request of God in prayer. Then as God answers the prayer make a note in your diary. Occasionally go back over your prayer list and take note of the number of answered prayers. How often we casually ask God to help in a matter, but when He does we are as casual in noticing the answer and thanking Him for it as we were in the request itself. So we never consciously register the answered prayer and glean the assurance from it that God intended.
Do you see the clear link in this lesson between answered prayer and faithful obedience? God does not promise answered prayers to careless and disobedient believers. And frankly we should not expect answered prayers while we remain stubbornly in our sinful self-absorbed ways. Answered prayer comes in proportion to obedience and pleasing God.
Is there a difference between keeping His commandments and doing things that are pleasing in His sight? Certainly the two categories overlap, but one seems far broader than the other. Do you try to live as near to the edge of God's allowable conduct as possible? Go to the edge. Test God, but try not to cross the line. You might claim in this lifestyle to keep God's basic moral commandments. But you cannot claim to do things that are pleasing in His sight. As you face the many issues that arise each day, you will face some questions that quickly fall into the category of God's moral commandments. You choose to steal or not to steal, to lie or to tell the truth. But then other issues face you that fall more in what might be classified as ethical questions. While you may not find a Bible verse that tells you whether to buy a new car or not, to do this or that in a given situation, you will find a prevailing Bible model of conduct that infects every aspect of your life. Do you try to follow that model or do you try to skirt it in favor of that fringe conduct that falls near the edge of God's allowable ethic? If your heart plots what God will allow you to get away with short of firm and painful chastening, you are far from doing those things that are "pleasing in his sight." And this rebellious stubborn attitude will come home in the form of unanswered prayers and unrealized blessings.
What commandments did John have in mind? He answers the question. Merely keeping the Ten Commandments will not suffice. Here keeping His commandments requires believing on the name of Christ (Authority, you acknowledge that He has ultimate authority over your life and conduct, so you take your life to Him and you practice a lifestyle that reflects His active authority in your life.). The next step in keeping His commandments is to love one another. Don't forget our earlier discussion on John's view of loving God. It has almost nothing to do with how you feel toward God and everything to do with how you act. So loving one another means the same thing. It has very little to do with how you feel toward a particular person, but it has everything to do with how you treat that person. Many years ago a precious friend and member of the church I pastored was literally on his deathbed. He was reflecting joyfully about his love for the people in the church. He named several of the members. Then he paused, twinkle in eye, and observed, "Of course there are a few people, even in our church, who make it harder for you to love them than others." We can all agree with this humorous but true observation. But God does not give us liberty to treat those Christians who stretch our ability to "love" them in the emotional sense differently. We must treat them exactly the same as those we hold dear to our emotions. That is what the God-kind of love is all about, how you treat a person, what you do toward them, not how you feel about them.
And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us. To dwell in Christ is not the same as Him indwelling us through the Holy Spirit. It relates to a lifestyle that comfortably resides in Christ. We all have our comfortable spot in our homes. At the end of the day you look for that warm cozy comfortable spot where you can slouch down and relax. You can really be "at home" there. That is what John intends here. You live so that at the end of the day you can relax, be yourself and be fully comfortable with God. You don't reach the end of the day with anxiety or guile because you lived contrary to Him all day, but you want Him in the next room at night. John ends this lesson as he began it, with assurance. This is the way we know that God abides with us. From beginning to end, this lesson deals with assurance. How is your assurance today? Do you seek more of it? Linger over this lesson and begin implementing Christ into your daily decisions. The more you do the greater your assurance will become.
Although first glance would suggest that John briefly deflected from the major error he confronted in this letter, careful study will show that he actually continued with it throughout. You see the gnostic philosophy taught that no mortal (In fact not even the lesser gods) could know or approach the ultimate deity. He was unknowable and unapproachable. Yet they taught that they had access to a superior and secret knowledge not available to historic Christians. They claimed superiority status and assurance based on this knowledge, not based on a living relationship with God and mirrored in the life of the believer. When John developed his thoughts on assurance through pleasing God, keeping His commandments, answered prayer and related activities, he was actually establishing that the historic and traditional Christian knowledge was in fact superior to gnostic knowledge and philosophy. Why settle for lesser gods and underlings when you can freely communicate with God Himself? And receive communication from Him!
We do not live in an ideal world in which we may safely listen to any and every person who claims to believe in God and to know God's Word in Scripture. As in John's time, so in ours, many people claim more insight than they possess. Many claim to be sincere beyond challenge, but in fact they aim to deceive. It should not go without notice that people do not join the cults or fringe-pseudo-Christian groups because these groups offer superior theology! They do not. Rather they join these groups because a member of these groups stepped into their life during a time of intense need and helped them. If that attracted them to the cult, what do you think will attract them away from the cult to Biblical Christianity? You can't engage them in a front door dialogue on theology and expect them to run to your church next Sunday. If you hope to win them to Christ and His truth, you must become intimately involved in their life and fill a personal need more effectively and self-sacrificially than the cult members who attracted them to their cult. Are you willing to invest this kind of effort on behalf of your Lord and your faith? A well-known Christian radio program that deals with many of the errors proposed by the cults often closes its program with a question. "Are you willing to do for the truth what the cults are willing to do for a lie?" This is a soul-searching question, one we need to answer.
Believe not every spirit. Don't take everything at face value. Sincerity and appearance alone do not meet the Bible criteria. The next question we should readily anticipate. How then do we know which spirit or teaching comes from God and which comes from error? Since John did not write a comprehensive confrontation of all error (How could anyone do so? The volume would be so overwhelming no one would attempt to read it. Further it would require frequent revision to expose the endless stream of new errors!), but one specific error. Perhaps this error was, and is, one of the most insidious errors ever to appear in Christian garb. In this instance, and a primary assessment tool for all error, the criteria for exposing and ejecting error is rather simple. What do they think of Christ? Specifically, what do they think of His incarnation?
At the risk of repetition, we should rehearse the primary error of the Docetic gnostic philosophy. It rejected all elements of the incarnation, of God coming in material human form. God could not condescend to touch, much less live in, human flesh. To explain the physical appearance of Jesus in His incarnation, they said He appeared as a "spirit body," whatever that means. Much like the superstitions of ghosts and goblins, He appeared to be physical and human, but in fact it was nothing more than appearance. He was not human or material in any way. So how does John expose the error? Jesus was God incarnate, dwelling in literal human flesh. Therefore any teaching that denies that basic truth of the incarnation is error and should be rejected.
We live in a theological culture where many teach that the end is drawing near and a final ultimate "antichrist" figure will soon appear. Often Christian teachers who hold to this idea will single out a charismatic world leader as the antichrist. For example, during the Cold War, Christians of this view often named leading communist leaders as the looming antichrist. Whether or not an ultimate and final antichrist will appear is immaterial to John's teaching here. He singled out this abysmal error as the essential antichrist, and he viewed it as already existing in his world and time. He did not reserve antichrist exclusively for the end times. Neither should we! We may live in the end times and we may not. But when such grievous error appears in pseudo-Christian trappings, we should confront it and reject it with John's teachings.
Why should we view this teaching with such fierce opposition? It strikes at the heart of Christian truth. It attacks the foundations of Biblical theology. And it certainly is not a newer, better or more accurate revelation of Bible truth. It is error in its worst form.
How do you reconcile John's image as the apostle of love with his intense opposition to Docetic error in this letter? How do you reconcile Paul's admonition to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:3) with his near fierce "I am set for the defense of the gospel"? (Php 1:17) The point actually reconciles itself. When talking with believers who love the Lord, even when they do not fully understand all the points of Bible truth, speak graciously and in love. When talking with people whose attitude and teachings insidiously violate Bible truth, oppose and reject their teaching. Even here, however, we should take a cautious approach. Occasionally when factional Christians break fellowship within churches over trivial and non-essential matters, zealous advocates of one or the other view will quote from 1Jo 2:19, "They went out from us, but they were not of us...". Typically this citation will be followed by excessively harsh words against other believers. This reference sadly and harshly misrepresents the passage and the people against whom it is hurled.
This particular error apparently, from early Christian writings, originated outside historic Christianity and attempted to invade the faith, pretending to be Christian. Early Christians immediately recognized its deep error and firmly rejected it. This kind of grave error should never be compared with disagreements over minor points of interpretation or church practice.
Further, we should always approach those who hold to error, even grave error such as this, with a full measure of humility. We must sufficiently equip our minds with Scripture and rational thinking based on Scripture so that we recognize error and do not fall into it. But when we confront someone who holds to it, we should reject their error, not their person. Once I heard a zealous Christian tell about a conversation with a Jehovah's Witness. When they ended their conversation, the Christian turned to the Jehovah's Witness and said smugly, "My sins are forgiven. Too bad yours aren't." This attitude represents an arrogant attack on the person and has nothing to do with rational and Biblical arguments that expose the error involved. Oppose the error, not the person. Model gracious Christian conduct in every way possible as you reason with this person from the Scriptures. And prepare yourself fully to reason from the Scriptures before you engage them in dialogue! Often advocates of these errors will be well prepared and ready to answer every objection you raise to their teachings. They will likely misrepresent Scripture and give false or partial definitions of words in Scripture, but they will not approach you from a basis of ignorance. They have been well trained. What kind of witness will you leave with them if you can't provide reasonable answers to their false claims? A word of caution, do not enter a nuclear war unarmed! Equip yourself before your conversation with them. Do not enter the discussion uninformed! What kind of witness does open ignorance leave with these people? There are good solid Bible answers to their teachings and interpretations, but you learn them through dedicated study and thoughtful reflection with Scripture.
Although we examine brief sections of this letter at a time, we must consider each passage in the context of John's complete letter. Therefore we should make a specific, not a general, application of these words. The error John opposed in this letter taught that man is capable of becoming a god in his own right. One gnostic school, Docetism, denied Jesus' literal human body. Another group actually held Jesus in high respect, but for the wrong reasons. In their view He was an ordinary man who realized his potential for godhood and thus became a god. But even gods in their view were not that great. Like mortals, they could not know or communicate with the chief god in their massive hierarchy of gods. John builds an entirely different doctrine of God than taught by these people. Irenaeus in the mid to late second century wrote extensively against this error in his work Against Heresies. He was methodical and thorough in his writing. He documented the problems well and reasoned clearly against them.
In gnostic philosophy you could never reach the point at which you could know or communicate with the chief god. He for ever remained aloof and obscure, even to the lesser gods. This teaching leaves gnosticism open to some interesting philosophical and logical problems. If the chief god is unknowable and outside any being's ability to access or communicate with him, how does any being know what he approves or disapproves? But advocates of this teaching often injected ideas about what their chief god approved and disapproved. For example, they taught that the Jehovah of the Old Testament was a lesser god who misunderstood this chief god's desires and, against the wishes of the chief god, created a material universe. How did they know this if the chief god was not within intelligent access? How could they know he despised all material things? How could they know he would never consider becoming man? Who told them and on what authority? At best they might eventually become a lesser god, but even in that state they would be doomed to a vacuum between them and this chief god.
John's concept of God stands in direct opposition to this view. Now John tells us, we are of God. God is in us. He also repeatedly emphasized God's knowableness. We know God and God knows us. God communicates with us so that we may know what He teaches us and how He directs us to live.
John occasionally injects an already-not-yet tension into his letter. You have overcome, but you must take bold and faithful steps to overcome. Error has been exposed and rejected, but it must constantly be exposed to avoid its re-entry into the faith. We would do well to learn from John in our own pursuits of truth and error.
Ye are of God, and have overcome them. Your origin is from God Himself. Your material existence is not the product of a bungling demi-urge. God made you and saved you by His personal will. How did you overcome them? John does not credit his readers with superior intelligence or secret knowledge, though he certainly expects us to move forward in our faith. Their success in opposing this error John directly attributed to God who was in them and greater than those who taught this error. God in the believers was also greater than the gnostic's imaginary gods! The Bible Knowledge Commentary makes a crucial point in reference to this passage. "Reliance on God is the secret of all victory whether over heresy or any other snare." How we could all grow in our spiritual health and vigor by this truth.
John acknowledges, as do other New Testament writers, the cosmic conflict between good and evil, between God and satan. Rather than allowing this truth to alarm or frighten us, John repeatedly emphasizes the truth he teaches here. God is greater than all our adversaries combined. Through Him we shall overcome and gain the victory. But without Him we leave ourselves vulnerable to the weakest of foes. Victory over error is never automatic. The medieval test by conflict does not work. Therefore John takes us step by baby step through a whole letter, reasoning so as to expose error and its roots and also leading us to the wondrous truth of Jesus, God incarnate.
When these gnostic philosophers spoke their falsehoods, John was not the least surprised that people listened. The gnostics were "of" the world, and people who, like them, were "of" the world would listen and even like what they heard. Given man's fallen sinful state, is it any wonder that he would entertain the idea of becoming a god? (Ge 3:5)
But John also knew another dimension to this truth. We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. This passage raises an interesting question. Can a person believe such a gross error as by that very belief to give evidence that he is not saved? Apparently John indicates that possibility here. This was not a minor error or a disagreement on a non-essential point. This error was so grave that John indicates that a person who holds to it may not in fact be saved at all. Our passage does not justify a leap beyond this point. Sometimes people take this leap far afield from John's point, teaching that children of God will come to the knowledge of God in the gospel in all major points of truth. Scripture too often deals with children of God falling into error, but the error typically is a far less grave than the one John here confronts. Can a person wholly distort the entire character and nature of God while God indwells him? I believe God has a people in every culture under heaven, but I do not believe his people in these cultures hold to all the cultural error and spiritual blasphemy that dominates their culture. We should not make every worshipping instinct tantamount to worshipping God, or an evidence of salvation. Often the Bible speaks of those whose very attitude of worship is so corrupt as to convey evidence that more denies their salvation than affirms it. If every worshipping instinct bears evidence of salvation, how can we harmonize this concept with Php 3:19? Their end is destruction. Their god is their belly (Hedonism, they worship satisfaction of their appetite). They glory in their shame. And they mind earthly things. This act of worship actually evidences a lost state, not a saved one!
God's work of salvation necessarily makes a dramatic change in us. No one has Biblical authority to claim salvation while living in sin just as they always lived. Revisit John's extensive teaching on assurance in the prior chapter. Assurance of salvation, for ourselves or toward others, grows out of a profound and decisive change in one's conduct and worldview. A saved person will not automatically know the truth and believe it, but neither will they embrace the most despicable and insidious of errors.
When Jesus told the disciples they would know the truth and the truth would make them free, the assurance of knowing the truth was not an unconditional promise. He conditioned knowing the truth and realizing its liberty on a rigorous condition. "If ye continue in my words, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." We may claim knowledge of God's truth only insofar as we manifest that we are truly His disciples! This is a challenging and a soul-searching realization, not easily embraced. Often closed-minded denominational thinkers will approach this passage with more arrogance than humility on the premise that God has automatically revealed ultimate truth to them alone. They are less concerned at their discipleship than at your lack of discipleship. Either you match their definition of discipleship and truth, or you are in error. Far from arrogance, Jesus' words instill in the thinking believer a profound humility. Why should God reveal His truth to me? How consistent and pure is my discipleship? Only as I continue in His words can I hope to know His truth.
John's sharp lines grow out of the severity of the error with which he dealt. Do not generalize his teaching to any minor misinterpretations or errors in doctrine or practice. The idea that all children of God know all essential truth becomes fertile soil for arrogant spirits and a very narrow view of salvation. Avoid this error. But also avoid the opposite error. To imply that anyone with any form of worshipping disposition is surely a child of God equally misses Biblical teaching. Likely it grows out of a latent desire toward universalism, to make every person who ever lived or shall live a child of God. Follow John where he leads, but don't strike out on your own. Hold tightly to the essential truth of Jesus' incarnation. It will protect you from many errors. This was John's foundational premise, and its denial was the gnostics' foundational error!
As with our last chapter, Christian views and opinions are often so varied as to leave one amazed that God Himself could preserve His truth through the ages. Increasingly I am convinced that our view of Biblical authority and interpretation may well represent the most important issues to a healthy faith. If you compromise the authority of the Bible or if you adopt a mystical or private method of interpreting the Bible, you will reach faulty conclusions, all the while thinking you stand on safe Bible ground. In the last chapter it was necessary to steer a safe course between two extreme and unbiblical views; we need to follow the same course here as well.
On one occasion a few years ago I heard a man quote this verse and make this application. According to the view, anyone who shows compassion for his animals and treats them with kindness is a child of God. After all he is doing righteousness. Do you agree? I hope not! As we investigate this passage, we must define love by Biblical usage. We must also define righteousness according to the Bible. You see once again we discover people drawing their own conclusions conveniently and then going to Scripture for support instead of going to Scripture for their conclusions. One person will read this passage and try to force it to teach salvation by human righteousness. Another will read it, much like the man who assessed righteousness by how you treat your pets, and attempt to make all mankind children of God. Neither view will stand the test of Biblical examination.
On several occasions during our exploration of 1John, reference to the Bible definition and use of the word love has been made. Although written by another inspired writer, you could not find a better definition of love than from Paul in 1Co 13. Not once in the chapter did Paul define love by how you feel toward someone. Beginning to end, Paul's view of love appears through what we do, not by how we feel. "Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things." (1Co 13:4-7)
Perhaps John in our study passage gives us an even more powerful example. How did God manifest His love for us? Did He remain safely and remotely in heaven and tell us how much He loved us? Or did He do something specifically and directly to convince us of His love toward us? How did God manifest His love? By sending Christ in human flesh to suffer for us! It was an act of love, not remote words, that God chose to convince us of His love. He serves as our example. We show our love by what we do, not be what we say. Words are important to love, but they become a mockery when they appear alone. Actions must prove love.
Do not forget the error John has been confronting throughout this letter. According to advocates of Docetic gnosticism, we cannot know God. He remains too aloof to be knowable or approachable. How do we know that love is of God? That everyone who loves knows God and is known of God? How can we assert with any authority or evidence that any mortal is actually born of God, embraced in God's personal and beloved family?
Occasionally we might think that our theology, our view of God, has little to do with our daily life. Nothing could be more wrong. We will mirror our views of God in our daily life. Therefore our view of God must grow out of Scripture and rational thinking based on Scripture. What would your worldview be if you built it around the premise that your God is unapproachable and unknowable? In vivid contrast what should your worldview be, given your belief in Scripture? John and other New Testament writers clearly teach that God remains intimately and permanently involved in your life. Should that knowledge give you a different view of life and of the world around you? Should it frame your view of the world to come? Will these ideas impact the way you live? The Bible Knowledge Commentary offers wise thoughts from this passage. "Love stems from a regenerate nature and also from fellowship with God which issues in knowing Him (see 2:3-5). The absence of love is evidence that a person does not know God."3
God intended to leave no doubt in our minds of His love toward us. He sent His only Son to be the propitiation for our sins. This profound act of God proves His love for us. John's commentary her both rejects the Docetic gnostic error of his day and the many errors of our time that confuse God's love and the effect of Jesus' death. Did God love every human being potentially or prospectively, making the propitiation, the satisfaction for sin, in Christ only potentially or prospectively available to them? If so, then His love was not committed love that accomplished our peace with God. It actually accomplished nothing other than opening an opportunity for us, if this is the correct view of God's love. Others will make God's love embrace all humanity. This idea appeals to our human perspective, but it must deal with heavy philosophical baggage. We must all agree with Malachi that God is unchangeable. (Mal 3:6) If God loves all humanity today, and if He will eventually judge and condemn many to eternal separation, an indisputable Bible truth, will He continue loving them in hell? Or will He hate them? Ps 5:5 says that God hates (Notice the present tense of the verb.) all the workers of iniquity. When did His universal love turn to hate? At that precise moment we compromise God's immutability, His unchangeableness! Try as we might, we cannot escape the consequences of our view. God's love cannot be viewed as simply a mirror reflection of our conduct, for then God becomes a mirror of us! We become more like the gnostics John rejected than like John and the Christians to whom he wrote. Justify His change in sentiment as you wish, if He loved you yesterday and hates you today, He changed! Such a changeable being is not the God of the Bible. There can be no doubt that many mysteries about God transcend our minds. We cannot begin to grasp all the dimensions of their reality. But when the Bible makes clear allegations about God, we do well to believe and embrace them. God will give us all of eternity to ask Him questions and to understand them better. But He has revealed certain core truths to us now, not contingent on our understanding of them, but as living faithful promises from Him to us. We need those promises as our secure foundation for life with and for Him.
If God so loved us makes God's love the example for our love. Throughout these verses A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, identifies the Greek verb tense as what he fondly calls "timeless aorist." Adding a cumbersome, but communicative addition to the translation of the text to convey this verb tense, he suggests "keeps on loving" for the positive act and "keeps on not loving" for the negative wicked act. What John has in mind here refers to a lifestyle, not isolated or occasional moments of time and conduct. The person who "keeps on not loving God" and not doing righteousness does not know God. The actuating force behind his life is not God. And the person who "keeps on loving" is born and actuated of God.
Despite all the teaching of the Bible, we too easily slip back into our sinful self-absorbed habits of thinking and acting. We want to love people who love us, treat them with kindness who show kindness to us. This attitude reflects the opposite of God's love in this lesson. Not that we loved God, but that he loved us.... This whole process of salvation, of assurance and of knowing God did not begin with my loving God. Nor did it begin with God merely knowing in advance that we would love Him, for that view fails to escape the logical relationship John rejects here.
The actuating force of conduct for the godly believer comes from God as a first cause, not as His reaction to us. We cannot claim our conduct as a first cause for God's work, either factually or in terms of God anticipating our work. In either of these events we become the first cause and violate the truth John teaches here. That makes His love the example for ours!
John continues his emphasis on the believer's intimate and knowable relationship with God. He addresses a frequently asked question. If God is immaterial and His glory so great that I can't see Him, how do I know He exists? Christian philosophers and thinkers have addressed this question from the beginning and have developed thoughtful answers that we do well to study. But John surpasses even those rich answers with a simple and personal evidence of God's existence.
Foundational to John's teaching on assurance in the prior chapter is our conduct. We have assurance of our salvation and of a secure relationship with God in direct proportion to our faithfulness in conduct. Our conduct does not save us, but it provides the basis for assurance, our conscious awareness of salvation. John will not ignore this truth. He remains consistent to it throughout his writings.
Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. Don't forget John's definition of love. It relates to our conduct, not to our feelings. If God loved us so as to act on His love by sending Christ in the incarnation, we should imitate His love. How do we imitate God's love? We may protest and try to negotiate God into expecting less of us but at the end of the day He prevails and His expectations remain upon us. God's love appears in conduct, in specific and sacrificial deeds that prove His love for us. Does anyone think God would send Christ into the world, to live as a man and to die an ignominious death, for people whom He really didn't love at all? The thought is ridiculous. If you ever doubt God's love for you, look at the incarnation!
We follow God's exemplary love when we commit our lives to specific and sacrificial deeds for others. The Christian world is full of people who will show love if they know they are in the spotlight and their deeds will bring accolades of praise from others upon them. But if the spotlight shines elsewhere and their deeds go unnoticed, they will act differently - in fact indifferently - to the same people to whom they feigned love when they knew the spotlight was on them. Give them assurance of praise and publicity for their good deeds and good deeds will flood from them. Take away the likelihood of public praise and the good deeds vanish. This attitude clearly reveals its motivation. They do not find sufficient grounds in God for good deeds. They crave praise for themselves.
But the person who responds to John's exhortation finds every motivation necessary for goodness in Christ's example. He cares not for the spotlight or praise from others. His eye and heart center on Christ, and all the praise he seeks will fall on Christ, not on himself.
At first glance, the next statement appears strangely out of place here. No man hath seen God at any time. In both testaments we find this thought frequently repeated. At times the idea appears in terms of the threat of God's supreme glory. If a mere mortal were to stand in God's presence today, the glory would melt him into ashes.
Add the dominant factor of the Docetic gnostic error John opposed throughout this letter, and you find a strange combination of reasoning. The gnostic teachers agreed with John that they could not see their chief god. They also taught that they could not know him or his will. They must content themselves with lesser truth from lesser gods until they realized their own deity and became gods in their own right. But even then they had no hope of ever knowing or seeing their chief god. At the point of not seeing God in our mortality, John and the gnostics agreed, but that is about as far as their agreement went. The gnostics must resign themselves to this mystical ignorance of their god forever. John taught his readers and us the exact opposite. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. Keep John's definition of love. Don't slip back into the soft sentimentality of emotional roller coaster love here. If we show our love for each other through specific and sacrificial deeds, God dwells in us and perfects His love in us. Does this imply that we know God? It certainly does! By these deeds God grows His love in us to a state of maturity, perfection. It doesn't remain infant love in mere words and thoughts. It grows from thoughts to words to deeds. It grows up! It matures and reaches more the model of God's love as manifested in the incarnation.
Our God does not dwell forever hidden behind the clouds of mystery. Unapproachable as He is in His glory to us now, when we grow His love to maturity through unselfish deeds toward others, we come to know Him experientially and to realize His presence and blessing in our lives.
How do we know this? John reminds us that we know through the Spirit Who reminds us that God in the Person of the Spirit dwells in us and we in God. We must not forget that the Holy Spirit is not an impersonal force or power, but a vital personal dimension of God Himself. When Peter confronted Ananias and Saphira in their lie to God, he equated lying to the Holy Spirit with lying to God Himself. You don't lie to a force or a power; you only lie to a living intelligent being. When God grieved at the sin in the world immediately before the flood, He said His Spirit would not always strive with man. An impersonal force or power does not strive spiritually, mentally and morally with people. And when Paul taught the Corinthian church the truth of spiritual gifts, he reminded them that regardless of the diversity of the gifts, they all came from God, from one Spirit, according to His will. (1Co 12:11) An impersonal force or power has no will. Thus the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us is factually God Himself dwelling in us. Paul makes this exact point in 2Co 6:16. He makes this the premise by which we no longer keep personal scores and live according to our carnal self-absorbed appetites. We no longer belong to ourselves; we belong to God! What sense does it make with this perspective to become offended at others who may not treat us as we prefer? Why bother with the destructive selfish protection of personal turf and interests? Why react to threats of loss with carnal insecurities and hostilities? We belong to God! He commands us to be good stewards of His blessings to us, but He does not command us to be good prison wardens of those blessings. We ensure our enjoyment of blessings by sharing them with others, not by a greedy protection of them for ourselves alone. Fits of insecurity that often destroy far more of the truly good things in our life thrive on a false and sinful worldview, a view that ignores our standing with Christ. We have enthroned in our major theological doctrines the "eternal security of the believer." We view this doctrine as an essential to our faith. We celebrate its blessing. But until we remove the word eternal and broaden the doctrine to include our present security in Christ, we have robbed the doctrine of a major Biblical component. And we have robbed ourselves of the joy of that truth. How, logically and rationally, can a believer in Christ celebrate eternal security while reacting in fits of insecurity toward others in life, particularly in God's family? This senseless contradiction should keep us awake nights until it forces us to rethink our view of God and of His truth in Scripture. If we truly embrace Scripture as our guide and view God as our security, both for time and for eternity, we have no reason for insecurity and worry.
Does this mean that nothing bad will ever happen to believers? Not at all, but it does mean that God is greater than the trials we will face. While we should reject that God causes all things, particularly evil things, we should remember that everything that happens to us must pass through His permissive will before it reaches our life. And with its entrance into our life we have His promise of blessing and grace. We may lose our retirement investment in the stock market, but we will not lose our blessing with Him. And He can turn bankruptcy into riches in a moment if he pleases.
God has charged us to view our life as a stewardship before Him. Good stewardship means that we view everything in our possession as actually belonging to Him, not to us. And we invest and use everything in our charge wisely and for His honor. Doing that, we may trust Him to guide the outcome of events in our life for our benefit and for His glory. They may not fall as we wish or prefer, but they will fall within His providential hand and power to govern. To Him be the glory!
Did Jesus come in the incarnation on behalf of all humanity or for a chosen people? This question has seen intense dialogue from earliest Christian history. When you examine some passages in isolation, you might lean toward one answer. Then you examine other passages and you could lean toward the opposite answer. Perhaps God intentionally provided this tension to prevent us from falling into arrogance; "I'm saved; too bad you aren't." Regardless of the view we adopt on this question, all of us will undoubtedly be surprised in heaven. We will see some people we knew during our lifetime who convinced us beyond reasonable doubt that they had no interest in God and no hope for heaven. And we may look around and miss others whom we almost knew would be there.
This chapter will examine some foundational issues in the salvation/predestination/election debate. The next chapter will examine the details of the passage. You will discover two words you may have read from theologians, but didn't understand. We'll attempt to find at least a basic working definition of them and explore the distinction in their theological impact.
Without apology, but with a significant measure of humility, I hold to the view that God chose a people in Christ before He created the universe. I do not hold to the supralapsarian view that He also chose or reprobated those who will suffer for their sins in eternal hell. This view borders on teaching that God literally allows certain people to be born for the sole purpose of populating hell. That said, I do not accuse all who hold to supralapsarianism of this error. My point is that the view leans in this direction. It seems more harmonious with God's character as revealed in Scripture to hold the infralapsarian view that God chose His people in Christ, fully aware of the fall and its consequences, but in a mysterious and amazing way so as not in any way actively to contribute to the sin or the punishment earned by the wicked. He passed them by, leaving them in the sinful state accrued by their identity with Adam's family and fully manifested by personal acts of freely committed sins in the course of their own lives. On the God side of the question this view seems far more consistent with Scripture than its opposite.
To adopt the view that Jesus came in the incarnation on behalf of all humanity leaves us with a major philosophical question. Why do all humans not eventually become saved in heaven? If God is sovereign and if He sent Christ on behalf of all humanity, what happened to foil God's purpose? And if God's purpose is foiled, can we philosophically and rationally maintain that God is actually sovereign? Further if we hold that God loved all humanity, the supposed motive for sending Christ on their behalf, does He continue to love the wicked and lost, even after they die and arrive in hell? And if He eventually hates them, does this turning of love to hate for them not question God's attribute of immutability? He appears to have changed. Love at one point in time and hate at a subsequent time involves change, regardless of the contributing factors.
Given these tensions and difficulties with both God's sovereignty and His attribute of immutability, unchangeableness, it appears that the infralapsarian view more fully harmonizes with His revealed nature and attributes. Rather than disagreeing with those who do not hold this view, that it compromises God's benevolence toward all of His creatures, I would rather agree with them, if the supralapsarian view were upheld. This is a major fault in that view, and one of several reasons I do not hold to it. Unfortunately, as many who hold to God's sovereign choice misrepresent the views of those who hold to God's universal love, so also those who hold to God's universal love misrepresent the infralapsarian view. It appears that they do not understand that there is more than one view of sovereign election, so they impute the inconsistencies and flaws they see in one view upon all views. I would agree with their critique against the supralapsarian view, but I don't hold that view. Therefore I have no reason to defend its weaknesses. Those who hold both views of God's love should exercise great caution in describing and critiquing other views. Setting up paper tigers and burning them down by either camp does not promote good understanding or goodwill. You naturally polarize when you hear someone misstate or misrepresent your viewpoint. If they will not take the time to investigate your viewpoint sufficiently to state it correctly, why should you give their preferred view any consideration?
Christian grace among all believers toward those who hold differing views would significantly increase quality of communication and the potential for at least understanding other viewpoints fairly and graciously, agree with them or not. We owe this ethical posture to our God and to our personal honor as Christians. Considering the length of time this question has been debated among sincere Christian people, we will not soon settle it. But we should adopt a gracious spirit when we interact with those of the opposite viewpoint. And we should go to great lengths to avoid misrepresenting the viewpoint of those with whom we differ. Thinking and reasoning light will always work better than emotional heat and smoke. And whether we hold to one or the other view, the deciding criteria should be Scripture alone, not emotion.
Given the two strange words used above, we will briefly investigate the two historic views of predestination and election. Both views hold that God knew and allowed the fall to occur. Neither view imposes an absolute order upon God, but rather assumes a particular logical sequence of God's order of salvation.
Supralapsarian. The word simply means "over the fall." It holds that God actually ordained the fall and then actively chose one portion of humanity to redemption and chose the other portion to perdition, to eternal punishment. Aside from the objections raised above, this view also seems to make God fatalistic, the active cause of all things good and evil. Scripture clearly teaches that God is not the active cause of sin and wickedness. (Jer 7:31; 19:5; 32:35; 1Co 14:33; 1Jo 2:16) It appears that this view leaves God in a causative mode to sin's entrance into the world. He ordained its entrance in order to justify His active election of the saved and to justify His active reprobation of the lost.
Infralapsarian. This word means "under the fall." It holds that God knew and determined to permit, not cause, the fall. Knowing about and permitting the fall, He determined to leave a certain number of fallen humanity in their sins, in no way doing anything to make them worse than they were by the fall. Left in this state, they come into the world in sin and manifest this nature by acts of personal sin and hatred against God. But God also determined to choose out from this number a people to be the recipients of His mercy and grace through Christ and the incarnation.
Both views leave many unanswered questions. We should not avoid that obvious point. But it seems that the infralapsarian view more harmonizes with what the Bible teaches regarding God's essential nature, attributes that Christians representing most major theological views of salvation hold as indisputable, such as His sovereignty and His immutability.
I hold to the infralapsarian view because it avoids putting God in the role of actively causing or contributing to the sin and subsequent punishment of the lost. How could He punish them when He actively caused their sinful state?
Sometimes in our eagerness to defend God's sovereignty we over-emphasize the question of man's will. Does man in his sinful state possess a free will? Of course the answer is more complicated than first appears likely. A major question faces all views of salvation. If God knew about the fall in advance, why did He permit it to occur? It appears that He did so because He deemed it more correct to permit man to choose sin, and to choose freely of his own purpose, than to force him against his will to maintain righteousness. But once man made this choice God also, in keeping with His holiness, determined to deal with sin's consequences righteously. Even the saved escape sin's consequences only through full satisfaction of Divine justice by Christ's imputed righteousness, not by God inconsistently looking the other way and pretending they did not sin. Sin will face its just punishment before a holy God, either through Christ's substitutionary suffering and death on behalf of others or personally by those who sin. Critics of this view will object that election by God's sovereign choice eliminates man's choice, some even implying that it casts God as forcing salvation upon man against his will. This view is incorrect, for the view of God's sovereign election holds that God's first work in the active salvation of an individual is to change his nature and thus his will. Once the will is changed by God's intervention into man's sinful and helpless condition, it is drawn like a magnet to God and to His will. Prior to this act of salvation, man's sinful will is helpless to make a righteous choice. (He cannot respond to Jesus; Joh 8:43. He will not respond to Jesus; Joh 5:40. Further he does not seek after God; Ro 3:11.)
Jonathan Edwards the early American theologian makes a pertinent point in his classic work Freedom of the Will that man's nature, saved or unsaved, is free within the nature he possesses and bound not to violate his essential nature. An unsaved man by virtue of his animosity against God neither can, nor is willing to, cooperate with God in spiritual matters. A saved person whose will God has changed at the moment of salvation freely chooses to serve and obey God. Edward's definition is classic. In one sense we could say that even God's will is bound in that God cannot and will not violate His essential holy nature. And His will is free to do whatever He chooses within the confines of His holy nature. Then we can apply similar reasoning to man's will. Unsaved, man's will is free to do whatever corresponds to his unsaved nature, but Scripture, such as the passages mentioned above, clearly sets forth that the unsaved man's will despises God, and neither can nor will seek after Him. But his will is free to do whatever corresponds to his sinful nature. Once God saves a person, one of the first logical changes relates to the will. God doesn't merely change the heavenly record and leave the saved man exactly as he was before salvation. The work of salvation transforms the person throughout, including his will. The will of the saved person seeks after God and desires to honor God, and it takes this course freely.
From an experiential perspective how does a person know if he is saved or not? One of the first questions to ask relates to this person's present attitude toward God. If they hate God, or seem wholly indifferent to Him, they give no evidence of salvation. If they confess to a revolutionary transformation of attitude toward God, likely something of a mystery to them, they give direct evidence of God's saving work within. The gospel helps them understand the mystery of the amazing change they have experienced.
Another direct evidence of salvation relates to a person's attitude toward Christ. The person who confesses the truth about Jesus witnesses by the confession that God dwells in him, precisely the point John makes in this passage.
And the third evidence to note relates to conduct. Throughout this series on 1John we have repeatedly noted that to John and other New Testament writers love relates far more directly to a person's conduct than to emotions or "feelings." So when John tells us that he who dwells in love dwells in God, and God dwells in him/her, he is really saying that the person whose lifestyle continuously witnesses to godly righteousness gives evidence by that conduct of his/her salvation.
All of these evidences John uses to draw our minds to the contrast between the gnostic absence of specific knowledge about their god or assurances of their relationship with him and the Christian's open access to God through Christ. We have specific assurances from God in Christ of our salvation and of God's will for our life. We need not play the mystical game of trying to please an unknowable and inaccessible god. God cares enough to interact in our lives and to make Himself known to us. Thank God for Christ and, in Christ, His incredible self-revelation!
How do we perfect God's love? The sense here seems more to refer to completion, to a logical conclusion, than to removing a flaw and making God's love better. Since God's love must share the perfection of its owner, we need not concern ourselves with imperfections or flaws in God's love. But God's love in us, particularly in the sense already outlined in the context of this chapter, implores a lifestyle, a worldview, which proves its legitimacy in us. If God's love equates with conduct that mirrors His motivating love, we must logically conclude that we only prove our love to Him by similar conduct. How could empty words that profess love for God, short of companion actions, complete God's love-action? It can't.
That we may have boldness in the day of judgment. Perhaps John here refers to a timely season of judgment and chastening in the Christian life. I reject the idea that the saved will face final judgment in the same way as the wicked. I equally reject that the saved will be judged in the end and receive rewards and punishments that impose an eternal stereotype on their status in heaven. This idea questions the equal and effective death of Christ for all the sins of all God's family. However, historic faith and Scripture allows, if it doesn't require, consideration for a brief time of manifestation of our conduct during our transition from resurrection to ultimate glory. During our lifetime we may allow pride or compromised appetites toward sinful habits to interfere with our full confession and repentance of certain sins. Despite adequate and compelling Scriptures that fully instruct us, we may not fully implement Scripture equally in every area of our conduct. An anecdotal story tells of an ancient Jewish student who, after only a short time studying under a leading rabbi, went to his master and reported, "Sir, I have gone through the entire Torah seven times already." Not wanting to discourage his student, but designing to remind the youth of the gravity of God's word, the wise rabbi replied, "Good, but how much of the Torah has gone through you?" We correctly value and encourage Bible reading. But behind our urgent exhortation to its study lies the deeper reality we seek. We pray and hope as people read the Bible through that the Bible will go through them and transform their lives. Only if they interfere with its natural and powerful course will it not transform them.
This reference in 1John may refer to a season of chastening and trial later in life, but it may also refer to a final season of manifestation. If we played the hypocrite and covered up our deep lack of actual service to God while frequently and vigorously asserting our love for Him, we must realize that our deceptive game will not succeed in the face of God's judgment, whenever it occurs. We may deceive ourselves. We may deceive others. But we will never deceive God! How would you like to live so as to literally think of the day of judgment, however you view that day, with boldness and joy? Nothing you ever did or even thought would bring shame or embarrassment on you or on your testimony of faith in God. John teaches the possibility of such a holy boldness! We grow in our godliness toward such faithful courage through actions that fill out in conduct the love of God we profess.
As He is so are we in the world. Even when we make strong points of the surrounding ideas, we often generalize over this truth. First of all, John not only refers to Christ's presence in the world during the first advent, but also His presence now; "As He is...." John takes us one baby step at a time down a path that will enable us to face the idea of ultimate judgment and manifestation of our deepest secret with holy boldness, a state most of us, if honest with ourselves, have not yet comfortably attained. Consider these different ways in which Christ is in the world.
He faithfully and constantly witnesses to the Father's character. Both in the incarnation and now through the Holy Spirit, Jesus holds the title "Faithful Witness." (Re 1:5) How faithful and constant is our witness? Are we a faithful witness too?
He always does the things that please His Father. (Joh 8:29) Do we please the Father or ourselves?
He views His purpose in the world as a servant. "I am among you as he that serveth." (Lu 22:27) Do we serve or work to obtain service from others?
Perhaps you can find several other parallels to go with these. Make this a matter of your Bible study and daily devotion. See how many parallels you can find in the New Testament. The point for us becomes both challenging and simple. Simple in that gaining boldness in the day of judgment does not grow out of a secret or mystical list or a vague code of conduct. It becomes a simple matter of truly practicing Christ-likeness in our daily activities. Obviously the high mark set by Christ as our actual example challenges every fiber of our moral and ethical makeup. Once many years ago I was counseling with a man who at the time had allowed anger to control his life. I started to remind him of Christ as our example and he quickly cut me off with "Don't start reminding me of what Jesus did!" His conduct soon proved that He wasn't following Christ's example! What is the point? Why claim to be a Christian when you openly reject Christ's life and conduct as your model?
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. Whatever we make of the judgment in this context remains the governing factor. Love, fear or torment, how do we view that solemn moment between God and us alone? When every thought we ever thought, every motive that ever prompted us to action, will be openly declared. God and we will know the reality of them all! And their true nature will stand in clear view for all to see. God does not look the other way and ignore sin, even in His beloved children. Remember Solomon's wise counsel. "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil." (Ec 12:13-14) If we believe this direct statement of Scripture, we must conclude that God will indeed bring every deed or thought we ever practiced to see the light of His holy judgment. While Christ's death certainly erases all eternal implications related to our sins, nothing in Scripture implies that God ignores our sins in other ways. We must especially face the Judge for continuing sins that repeat themselves throughout our lives. That seems to be the point of Heb 10:26-31, the frightening point. The person who claims standing as a believer and fails to grasp the frightening severity of facing God in judgment has missed a major and important Bible truth.
Some might protest that this teaching is new to our culture and sounds too much like the teaching of those who use fear to motivate people, like those who teach that salvation occurs through human effort. But this is not the case at all. If you have access to The Primitive Preacher by Greg Thompson, son of Wilson Thompson, take the time to read the sermons contained in that book. Seldom indeed did these faithful men whom we claim in our heritage, and a not-so-distant heritage at that, ever conclude a sermon without a warning to the careless among the congregation. Divine judgment for children of God was an accepted Bible truth to these men, and it should be for us! We have nearly lost its sobering truth and with it the sacred reality of godly fear. According to the passages we reviewed here and many others, believe it or not, we each will face our holy God at some time or another in personal judgment for sins committed. (2Co 5:10-11) This passage in particular concludes with these words, "Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; but we are made manifest unto God; and I trust also are made manifest in your consciences." If we have become so complacent with sin in self or in others, that we no longer understand Paul's words or deem it necessary as part of the gospel to persuade men because of divine terror against sin, we have lost a vital part of the New Testament gospel!
He that feareth is not made perfect in love. If we face the literal reality of looking directly in the face of God and seeing our sins openly before Him in fear because we stubbornly and in pride refused to repent of them, we have not yet perfected God's love in godly conduct. His love remains in us incomplete and unfulfilled. But if we begin to grow in grace and manifest that growth in transformed lives, fear fades and love grows. May it be so with each of us.
Occasionally we hear someone extract the first sentence in our passage from the context. It certainly stands alone. If a person truly loves God, the cause must go back to God Himself. But this isolated application does not honor the full context of the lesson. A person might say he loves God and claim the comforts of the sentence in the midst of anger and retribution against a brother or sister in Christ. What does John say about such inconsistency? He rejects the idea that a person can do so with sincerity. The moment a person treats a brother or sister hatefully he ethically rejects God and His love. He may no longer say, "I love God."
This chapter will seem rather direct, to some readers perhaps blunt. The directness grows out of a concern, an urgency, in John's writings that we take our Christianity far more seriously than we often do. And it requires that we gauge our Christianity on Scripture more than on our private sentimentality. We may "feel" like a Christian and act like a pagan. History is full of people who did precisely this. The love of which John writes has little to do with how we feel and everything to do with how we act. Our Western culture struggles with this idea. It is so foreign to our way of viewing love.
If we approach this passage from the perspective of emotional or sentimental feelings of love, we must confess that some people make it far easier for us to "love" them than others. It sets the stage for, and actually defends the idea of, partiality. At times some people demonstrate an uncanny way of pushing our emotional hot buttons, of touching tender spots that trigger strong angry reactions in us. If they make this conduct too much of a habit, we begin to wonder if they know what they are doing, if they actually do it intentionally. Then we've all met someone whose habits and attitudes almost constantly rub us the wrong way. We barely can tolerate being around them. Perhaps they view life so differently than we that we struggle to find any kind of common ground with them. Like them? It almost seems more than we can bring ourselves to do. And of course we eventually encounter the person who seems so self-absorbed that they have no interest in anyone or anything outside their immediate focus and desires. Now imagine some of these traits in a person in the church with you! How do you deal with it? How do you react to these Biblical commands to "love" this person when they make it so difficult for you even to like them? This becomes indeed challenging!
Redefine love as used by John here in terms of your conduct toward this person. Can you find a basic moral and ethical foundation in your own character that will enable you to treat this person with reasonable grace? Can you build a relationship on your own moral convictions? What better way to remind ourselves that God's love for us does not stand on our being irresistibly lovable in His eyes. It grows out of His intimate personal being. Thus if we adopt His kind of love toward these people, we must build a moral and ethical love based on our own moral and ethical convictions, not on a reactive posture to their conduct. You will find this process amazingly challenging, but in the midst of the difficulty remind yourself that this at least in kind represents God's love toward you! Practice God's kind of love toward them. This is Christ-like Christianity at its best, perhaps also for us at its most difficult!
If love retains the idea of action, moral and ethical conduct toward others, then hate must also hold the idea of the opposite kind of action. If love does not intend a sentimental or emotional feeling for the person, then hate does not intend the opposite emotional reaction against them. Regardless of the meaning of the two terms, think of the absurdity that John describes. You say you love God, and supposedly you develop traits in your life that are consistent with God-love. But then you discover a reservoir of resentment and anger against someone, perhaps even someone in your church. How do you regroup and deal with it, and with the person, in a Christ-like ethical manner? John will not permit us to love God and hate our brother. In fact he says if we make such a claim we are liars. We just compounded an already bad situation with yet another sin.
Take some time to compile a list of attitudes and actual habits that might credibly witness to others that you actually do love God. Don't go to sentimental creativity for the list; go to the Bible. Cultivate the practice of using Scripture, not how you feel, to steer the course of your faith. If you love God, what kind of actions will you show toward Him, both in His presence and when you do not consciously regard Him as present. I use this term because one of God's essential attributes rises in our consideration of this exercise. Feel His presence or not, God is omnipresent. We may have no immediate thought of Him, but He is just as present at that moment as when we "felt" His most powerful presence. So when you vented your anger against this person, God personally saw every hateful gesture and heard every toxic word you uttered. He even knew every poisonous thought that entered your mind against that person. If you were called before God at that immediate moment to account for the action, how would you answer? You can't deceive God. He will not accept self-absorbed rationalizations. Perhaps His first question to you would be this. Do you love me or hate me? Do you love this person or hate him? One answer directly relates to the other. You can't convince God that you love Him while treating this person hatefully. If this line of thought doesn't make you flinch, you are one of a very few human beings who ever lived on this sinful earth who could stand up to the test! Or do you really?
Put a specific measure to your habits.
Conversation with others. If you put a stopwatch on each segment of your ordinary conversation with another person in your family or in your church, how much time would you talk? How much time would you listen? And how much time while listening would you turn off your mind to what the person is actually saying, barely enduring the conversation until you find an opening to start your own speech again?
Energy invested in activities for others. Imagine situations in which you will never possibly warm in the limelight of praise from others for your good deed. No one will ever know. But you actually went out of your way. You expended significant personal energy and other resources, even wallet resources, for that person's benefit.
We could go on, but these two simple points make the point. This kind of activity speaks to your love for God. No typo here, John wants us to understand that the way we treat other people actually mirrors our true view of God. Go back and read Mt 25:31-46, particularly those verses that contain terms like "...inasmuch as ye did it to...ye did it unto me" and "...inasmuch as ye did it not to...ye did it not unto me." How does the King-Judge gauge our conduct toward Him? He goes directly and immediately to how we treated other people.
I spent over twelve years in full-time employment in public education. The general attitude among teachers was that because they were "certificated," they were better than, anyone else. Yes, thank God, there were exceptions. The only thing their certificate did was to verify that they had completed certain educational requirements. It made no commentary on their moral or ethical outlook. It made no conclusions on how they viewed their students. And it certainly did nothing to make them superior human beings to the janitor or other employees with far less education. We may celebrate education and accomplishments honorably, but when we use anything to justify an attitude that we are inherently better than another person, we step across a Biblical ethical boundary. You will find this same attitude among many other professionals where education or structured accomplishment measures position or success. And sadly even in churches at times people will think a certain criteria makes them a more important person to the church than others. Rather than justifying such faulty attitudes, John and other Scriptural writers bring this whole worldview up short. It runs contrary to the whole Biblical concept of love for God and others.
Normally in studying a passage we start at the beginning and move through the ideas presented. In this lesson we will start at the end and work our way back through the ideas. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous. This sentence reinforces the repeated point of this study, that loving God refers to how we live, keeping God's commandments, living according to His model of conduct, not our own. We may at times in moments of vanity question why God would require a certain thing of us, but the faithful believer trusts God to teach him truly and correctly. Therefore, whatever God teaches is not grievous, not burdensome or heavy, as the Greek word translates.
What is the last commandment we read in this context? Look to the last verse of the fourth chapter(1Jo 4:21), "And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also." So what commandment might John have in mind as he wrote these words? The command to love God stands at the top of the list. And immediately beside it we discover that we cannot love God apart from loving our brother/sister. Take a moment to look up the Ten Commandments. (Ex 20:1-17) The first four commandments refer exclusively to our service and worship of God. The remaining six commandments refer to the way we treat our fellowman. Loving God then refers to living according to these four commandments, and loving our fellowman refers to living according to the remaining six. But lest we think minimally that we need only to do these things, read the Sermon on the Mount from Jesus' own words. He specifically interpreted the Ten Commandments and applied them to our life. There is no way to respect and keep the Sermon on the Mount with a minimalist's attitude. The only way to keep His commandments is to pour all of our life into following God wholly in everything we think and do. (Mt 22:37-40) Then alone can we approach the idea Jesus taught and John here confirmed in this simple statement. Only as we live by this ethical model do we give credible evidence that we love God and keep His commandments. And only when we make this our honest and chief aim in life do we enter the task freely and joyfully. Otherwise we will view it as an odious task; we will think the commandments are grievous. You see John's challenge to us involves more than minimally keeping a moral code. It involves a transforming lifestyle that begins in our minds and works its way throughout our whole being. Then we will understand that His commandments are not grievous.
How do you know you love God? If you base your idea of love on how you feel, buckle your seatbelt! One day you will love God and the next day you may not love Him at all. And your sense of assurance and stable faith will go up and down like a wild roller coaster ride. Is that what you want in your faith? Is that what the Bible teaches as the model of faith? No, Biblical faith's primary characteristic appears to be its constancy. Then you might think you know you love God by how you feel toward other believers. If you live with your emotions leading your life, you will find a worse situation than before. John earlier in this letter reminds us that we know, have assurance of, our salvation because we love the brothers. But if you love your brother today and despise him tomorrow, how do you gauge your love for God? John constantly reminds us that the two go together. On the day you despise your brother you will not comfortably believe that you truly love God. And you will be right!
John gives us the only constant and reliable measure of our love to God. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments. If loving the children of God measures our love for God, then we should begin with an assessment of our love toward them. But what do you do when they do not act in a lovable manner? You do what God did toward us when we did not act lovable! If our love for them stands on the same ground as God's love for us, moral and ethical obligation, then we will maintain a godly and gracious attitude toward them, regardless of how they act. We will treat them with kindness because God teaches us it is the right thing to do, whether we feel like it or not. It is right, and God teaches us to do it, so we will do it. Since God's commandments build on our honoring each other with moral and ethical grace, we know we love God when we love (in the Biblical sense) others. And when we treat them with that steady moral and ethical integrity that God commands us, we will also know that we love God. You see, moral and ethical norms do not change based on how we feel on a particular day. They remain fixed because they reflect God's fixed moral values. If one day I awaken and feel unloving toward my spouse, God's commandment that I remain faithful to her and to my marriage vow is just as binding as the day we go to a nice restaurant and celebrate our anniversary. Moral and ethical values do not change on the basis of how we feel. Neither does Biblical love! It actually stands on the same fixed foundation as God's moral and ethical commandments. If you look up the Greek word most commonly translated love in the New Testament, particularly when it refers to God's love, you will discover this truth. Strong's definition is "to love in a social or moral sense."
Rather than robbing us of something special, this whole Biblical idea of love that is so different from our dominant Western idea actually elevates God's love, and ours, to a new height and to a new stability. It remains constant through all our mood swings and our emotional cycles. You awaken one morning on top of the world and think God never loved you more. You are right! But on another day you awaken to bad news, gloomy prospects in the day's agenda, complicated by an equally dismal mood, and you think God must not love you at all. With this Biblical idea you have a solid basis to take charge of your emotions and remember that God loves you just as much today as he did yesterday! God doesn't measure His love for you on the fickle thermometer of your emotions. So with that reminder of God's constant love, you can turn your whole life and worldview around. Emotions make a good caboose in the train of your life, but they make a terrible engine! With this view of God's love you can put God and His moral and ethical outlook at the leading power position in your life. Then other things follow in line. And, yes, a few things that don't really belong in your life will drop by the wayside and your life will be better for the change. Does this whole idea rattle your cage and cause you to rethink your whole way of looking at life? I hope it does! For if it does, then you have started down a pathway that puts God at the helm of your life. It will revolutionize your whole way of thinking and reacting to others. It will transform your method of dealing with difficulties. God, not you, will be the most important thing in your life! All the pieces necessary for a wholesome contented life will suddenly fall into place. Limelight and praise for what you do, who needs it? Your main goal now seeks the limelight on Him! If something about your life shines more brightly on Him, you celebrate and thank Him for the honor of the service.
Now, finally after a rather robust struggle with self and with the many magnets that pull us in so many directions, we can move forward to the grand conclusion of this whole amazing cycle. Do we need the mystical knowledge of the gnostic to assure us of God and of a healthy relationship with Him? No indeed, we have it already. Do we need the self-absorbed lifestyle that seeks pseudo-deity for self? No, He alone has earned the title of God. We have no desire to compete with Him for deity!
Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him. Do you believe this truth about Jesus? If you didn't, you certainly would have never submitted to His lordship in all the issues of your life. You have rejected the shallow "easy-believism" of pretentious religionists and you have embraced robust and authentic Christianity. What assurance do you discover within? God is your Father! And you are His child! This is a present and secure eternal reality. Celebrate Him and His glory!
Too often you will observe Christians licking their wounds in defeat and claiming strength from their superior faith. Granted, faith at times comforts us in defeat, but this may represent more the exception than the rule. John assures us of a pattern of victory through faith. We learn powerful lessons from some of the defeats recorded in Scripture. For example, Paul preached a memorable sermon on Mars Hill (Ac 17), but almost all the audience rejected his message! Did he complain and go away in the doldrums? No, he went away excited and moving forward with his ministry. You see, in Acts the apostles and preachers never worried over the results of their ministry. The Holy Spirit called them to be faithful witnesses of Christ. They labored to present credible and factual testimony to their faith, to live up to their calling to be faithful and communicative witnesses. They left results in the hands of the Holy Spirit. We should learn from them! Defeat or victory, thousands responding or none, they celebrated the opportunity to present their testimony, and they presented it well.
Sometimes we may attempt to split theological hairs too finely in an attempt to identify the "what" of this lesson. One verse identifies what overcomes the world and the other identifies who overcomes. The context explains this distinction to us. What overcomes the world? Our faith. Who overcomes the world? He who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. The word translated faith is the noun form of the same word translated believeth. Believeth simply appears in the verb form, but it is the same word. Faith always overcomes, even when we from a superficial perspective think it failed. And the believer who lives by his faith, who truly applies his Christian ethic to every aspect of his life, making Christ and Biblical truth the centerpiece of his life, gains the victory over difficulties in his life through that faith.
By taking us through this process in two steps, John helps us understand that we should expect victory only as we walk and stand in our faith. As John presents it, faith is something specific and concrete. If you try to impose the "faith-not-sight" concept to this lesson, you miss the main point John makes. For John and us, the walk of faith does not equate to a blind leap into the darkness. It stands on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ and His unquestioned deity, His godhood. As we translate the clear principle of faith into a daily walk, we cannot always predict or second-guess God, so we should avoid trying. That is the correct focus of walking by faith, not by sight. But the principle of faith stands on very distinct and identifiable reality in Christ. 1Ti 4:6 distinctly unites faith and our familiarity with "good doctrine," good teaching. We should not view faith as a mystical thing, but as a clear and quantifiable trait that grows as we increase our knowledge and practice of the gospel. It actually grows out of our knowledge.
While God does not add revelation to Scripture, He does progressively reveal more and more truth as you trace His revelation through various eras of Scripture. For example, the Old Testament reveals many of the same truths we discover in the New. However, in the Old they appear with less detail and clarity. Even within the New Testament this same principle seems to apply. Think of the disciples' plea to Christ, "Increase our faith." (Lu 17:5) Then move ahead in time and in the New Testament text to A. D. 65 or 66 when Paul wrote to Timothy. Rather than leaving us with an uncertain and mystical plea for more faith, the final chapter of Biblical revelation actually answers the disciples' plea for increased faith. Do you want more faith? Follow God's program for more faith. Grow in your knowledge of God's Word and the good teaching that builds on it. Don't pray for more faith and ignore Scripture or think to yourself that you know as much as you need to know about the Bible. Your faith will grow in direct proportion to your investment of both study and living practice in the good teaching that builds on Scripture. And if you decide you know as much about the Bible as you need to know, accept the reality of Paul's teaching that you just arrested your faith in its tracks. So long as you hold to this view, your faith will never grow beyond where it stands today.
John's victory promise to us translates overcoming faith from a principle, what is born of God, to a living reality, who overcomes...the believer.
Compare this thrilling truth that creates a personal and intimate corollary between God and us with the mystical gnostic faith. They could never hope to see or enjoy any kind of personal relationship with their god. He would never reveal himself to them. Their one hope was that they might become a little god. But what is the value of becoming a little god who never quite knows where he fits into the grand scheme of the greater and unknowable god? What value could one see in becoming a god among a countless throng of gods, all forever held back from access to the chief deity in their worldview?
John's revelation opens up the canopy of heaven and escorts us into God's personal presence. He gives birth to our faith and then allows us to develop that faith into an increasingly intimate relationship with Him. We manifest that faith every day by facing difficulties with an unflappable confidence in God's sustaining presence. We overcome insurmountable odds through that faith. Thus it becomes far more than a private esoteric mystery. It becomes apparent for all to see through our active practice of it. We need not search for hidden mystical knowledge at the hands of gnostic masters. We need not wander in doubt as to why we can't have more of it. God gives it to us in principle. Then we develop it in direct proportion to our growth in the knowledge and practice of the gospel.
The personal priesthood of each believer shines at its brightest and best in this truth. God does not stand at a shadowy distance. He gives us all the tools to access Him and to learn His will. He provides all the materials to promote growth of that faith principle as far as we are willing to grow it. He even tells us exactly how to grow it; grow in our knowledge of good doctrine, of Biblical truth absorbed into our life and lived out in our daily practice of the gospel.
John takes us an additional step in our pursuit of faith. The overcoming believer believes that Jesus is the Son of God. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, offers an insightful comment on this point. "Here there is sharp antithesis between "Jesus" (humanity) and "the Son of God" (deity) united in the one personality." Thus we find significant truth that forms the foundation of our faith. Not a mystical faith in a remote deity, but specific belief in the God who revealed Himself by becoming a man, that forms the substance of Biblical faith. John has now taken his readers full circle in his expose of Docetic gnosticism. He saved the best for last. The major point they rejected now appears as the central theme of Christian faith. They rejected that God could possibly become man. John makes the incarnation the crucial meeting point between God and man. They said it was impossible. John says it is the only way for man to grasp the reality of God. They said their god despised all things material. John says the true God Himself created the whole universe and takes great pleasure in it. In all its parts it reveals his fingerprints and beauty. At every point John has rejected this gnostic ancient version of New Age philosophy and given us in its stead a superior way of thinking and living. The unknowable inapproachable god of the gnostic falls before the incarnate God of Christianity. The inferior mistake of creation takes on the personality of its Creator God and shines forth His glory. The secret and confused knowledge of an unknowable (We must not overlook the irony of this point.) deity melts before the clear revelation of the intimate and knowable God of the Bible. Rather than worship a remote shadowy deity whom we will never approach, we worship a God who became man, a God whom we touched with human hands, whose words we heard with human ears, whom we saw with human eyes. Rather than leave us to wallow in our self-absorbed pursuit of inferior deity, our God invades our life and makes us His own child. We receive at His merciful hands the position of beloved children. Confident and secure in His family, we reach out with compassion to help those in need around us with no fear that giving away of ourselves will in any way deplete us. We received freely, so we may freely give. What a God!
Our value of faith can take on no more value than its object and fulfillment. Christian philosophers often refer to our present age as "post-modernism" or at times "post-Christian." One of several characteristic ideas on the rise in this era teaches that faith, regardless of its object, rules. Think of what this means. You may have faith in your grandmother's photograph. It really doesn't matter. The only important point is that you have faith! This absurd idea grows out of the prevailing emphasis on relativism. Even Christians who would strongly defend their faith, at least their perception of their faith, adopt this non-Biblical view of faith. If questioned, they likely offer, "We walk by faith and not by sight," a correct quotation from Paul, but not a correct interpretation of his teaching. (2Co 5:7) This man who emphasized that knowing anything other than Jesus Christ and Him crucified would hardly accept the idea of faith apart from any objective link to Christ! And he would equally reject the relativistic idea that faith equates to one's private perception. For Paul faith was both public and objective.
John takes us through deep theological and spiritual waters in our study passage. His objective stands in emphatic harmony with Paul's. Objective Biblical faith must reside in one worthy of its claims. Therefore to realize the joy of our faith's certain victory we must cement this faith to its object, Jesus Christ, in both His incarnation and His uncompromised deity. Faith in a vague shadowy something accrues no more value than its object, and thus becomes nothing more than a vague shadowy something of an influence in our life, powerless and without direction.
Faith's object must appear in this worldview as the same God-man who came by water and blood, God incarnate and suffering for our sins. Almost certainly, John used these two terms, water and blood, in reference to his eyewitness memory of Jesus' crucifixion. From the crucifixion narratives in the gospels, it appears that John was the only apostle who remained at Calvary to witness the entire crucifixion and even the subsequent visit by the soldiers who pierced Jesus' side. Notice the parallel in John's gospel account of this moment. "But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water." (Joh 19:34) This verse so precisely and specifically affirms Jesus' literal connection with His material body as to refute all Docetic claims that He didn't inhabit a material body. For John God in material human flesh represented the supreme essential truth of Christian doctrine. For the Docetic gnostic it represented the most despicable elements of Christianity.
Then John affirms the Holy Spirit's involvement in the incarnation as the confirming witness from God to incarnation truth.
Verses seven and eight are among the most disputed verses in the New Testament. To be honest, ancient manuscripts vary in their inclusion or exclusion of these verses. Most ancient manuscripts omit them. However it should be noted that these verses contain nothing that cannot be readily proved by other Scriptures. It should be further noted that a Christian apologist in the late second century quoted these verses in his defense of the doctrine of the Trinity. For that reason we should have no qualms at receiving them and including them as presented in our Bibles. If you were discussing the doctrine of the Trinity with a cult member who opposed them as possibly not included in John's original writing, you could easily go to other passages and prove the doctrine of the Trinity. The cults that generally oppose the doctrine of the Trinity typically allege that the Trinity grew out of the Nicene Creed and was not affirmed by Christians prior to that date, ca. 325 A. D. This allegation is false. Numerous citations could be offered from pre-Nicene writings that deal specifically with the doctrine of the Trinity. Because the Nicene Creed dealt with the Arian heresy that denied the doctrine of the Trinity and asserted that Jesus was a created being and a "lesser" god, it predictably defended this doctrine forthrightly. But it in no way introduced a new doctrine not formerly believed and defended by Christians throughout the first three centuries of the faith.
The simple (if you could call it that) point of the doctrine of the Trinity appears in this passage. Nowhere, this passage included, does the Bible or orthodox Christian doctrine assert that the Trinity consists of three and one in the same sense or way. In one sense there are three Persons, or persona, within the being of God. But Trinitarians reject any implication that there are three gods! And in another sense, the ontological essential being of God, there is one and only one God. We struggle with the complexity of human makeup. Does man consist of two parts or three? Is he simply made up of material and immaterial components, spirit and soul being synonymous? Or does the immaterial component itself consist of two distinguishable parts, spirit as distinguished from soul? Christians of almost all stripes have differed on this question throughout the centuries. It does not touch an essential doctrine of the faith. But if we can't precisely define the complexity of human life and composition, why should we react with surprise that we can't define or explain with precision the complexity of God's being? Various Scriptures specifically assert that the Father is God, that Christ is God and that the Holy Spirit is God. Various Scriptures attribute unique traits of individual identity to each, denying the allegation that the three terms are merely different words used in reference to the same Person. Equally concise passages assert that there is but one essential Being to whom we refer as God. Therefore Trinitarians are not tri-theists; they do not believe in three gods.
This amazing truth John presents as concisely as could be expressed in human language. There are three...and they are one. Several years ago the Watch Tower Tract and Bible Society published a booklet entitled Should You Believe in the Trinity? Aside from multiple misrepresentations of Christian writers and documents, this tract attacks Trinitarian doctrine in a number of ways. (The tract frequently extracts brief sentences out of context from Christian writers who strongly believe the doctrine of the Trinity, but represents them so as to imply to the uninformed reader that these men and documents rejected the doctrine.) A devout Christian Robert Bowman wrote a reply to this tract defending the doctrine of the Trinity and exposing many of the misrepresentations contained in it. The contemporary Watch Tower view of this doctrine is precisely Arius' view, exposed and rejected as heresy in the Nicene Council and Creed. As old truth survives despite hostile attacks, old error also survives at times despite concise and Biblical rejection.
At the core of Docetic gnosticism we find one of two views. As with modern New Age philosophers, ancient gnostic advocates seldom agreed among themselves. One view, the specific group identified with the Docetic heresy, held that Jesus may well have been God visiting man, but that God could not touch anything material. Therefore He could not possibly inhabit a human body. How did they defend their ideas against men and women still living who were personal eyewitnesses to the incarnate Christ? They said He merely appeared to have a material body. As angels, who are not material beings, sometimes appear in the form of humans, so Jesus actually possessed only a spirit body that appeared to be material, but it wasn't.
Another school of gnosticism alleged that Jesus was born a mere man, but at His baptism the divine Christ descended on Him and then ascended from Him prior to His crucifixion.
Something of a tangential view to this one was the idea that He was born of Joseph and Mary, a mere man. During His lifetime He studied under gnostic masters and grew into godhood. They often assert that He studied under these masters during the period between His appearance in the temple at age thirteen and the beginning of His public ministry at around age thirty. John has done the faith and us a tremendous service in this concise lesson.
None of these ideas measures up to the Biblical view of Christ or of the Trinity. Either they diminish Him and move toward the gnostic philosophy John rejected, or they compromise the person and character of God.
John reminds us in this lesson of the gravity of our faith. Unbelief should never be viewed as a badge or merit or of an excusable and understandable state of mind. At its heart unbelief constitutes rejection of God's testimony! When Jesus prepared the disciples for His departure, He told them they were to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and throughout the world. (Ac 1:8) When we initiate discussion with others regarding our faith in God, we should enter the discussion well equipped to present a credible intelligent testimony. We never reach the point at which we cannot improve the quality of our testimony, and God charges us to invest the necessary energy and spiritual disciplines to grow in our ability. But this passage deals with God's testimony, not ours. We cannot charge God with a faulty testimony. Nor can we tell Him He needs to improve His witness.
In every area of human activity every day we interact with people and accept their word for things beyond our immediate knowledge. We receive their testimony. How can we then justify rejecting God's testimony? How can we imagine that we can spurn His witness and avoid dire consequences? We cannot! God's testimony appears in Scripture and in the facts of history that correspond to the Biblical witness. It comes to us sufficiently clear and understandable that we may grasp it. It is indeed fearful when supposedly informed believers depreciate Scripture as if its truths are so beyond human comprehension that we can do no more than read it and form opinions. I read it and reach one conclusion; you read it and reach another. Your conclusion is just as valid as mine. Do you see the flaw in this reasoning? The question of authority has been shifted from Scripture, supposedly unknowable, to a human opinion about Scripture. It blatantly denies the public, repeatable and knowable revelation of Scripture. It more resembles the gnostic philosophy John rejected than John's revelation to us.
The gnostics taught that no one could know the ultimate truth of the supreme deity. Further they taught that truth is not a fixed reality, determined and revealed by God. To them, truth was relative. Each individual had his own opinion of truth, and, however contradictory or confused, "your truth" and "my truth" was equally valid. This idea comes right from the lines of ancient gnostic sentiment, as well as from contemporary New Age teaching. Christians have no reason to adopt this idea.
We should all approach our perception of Scripture's teaching with a measure of humility. No one of us can grasp absolute truth absolutely. But the ancient concept of the perspicuity of Scripture should be respected. Those things God has clearly revealed in Scripture are the important things He expects us to know and to believe. He requires that we receive His testimony! Other things not so clearly revealed in Scripture serve a valid purpose in our faith, but should not become essential issues over which we fight each other. Scripture, not anyone's opinion about Scripture, represents the rule of faith to be honored, believed and followed by all Christians.
He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself: he that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son. Consider the logical order of testimony and belief. You must have documented testimony before you have anything to believe. Rational faith, belief in the God of Biblical revelation, represents a rational response to God's testimony. The believer already has the witness within. The unbeliever stands in hostile rebellion to the God who gave public and credible testimony of His Son.
And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. Go through all the sequences of Biblical testimony, of God's witness. What is your conclusion? John's appears in these words. God does not stand aloof from the universe as a disinterested observer. He so involves Himself that He testifies that He personally gave us eternal life. We do not have merely the prospect of life at the end. We do not have a hope that perhaps we might receive it in the end. We have it now.
Further John enlightens us as to the source of this life. It is in, by and from the Son. He gave it to us. He procured it on our behalf. Every claim we make to it must stand firmly on Him alone. This concept frames the essence of God's testimony.
When we make too much of unbelief, often citing Mr 9:24 as our justification, we overlook the hundreds of passages that command us to believe in Christ. We especially fly in the face of this passage that takes us to the profound and frightening reality. Unbelief constitutes rejection of God's testimony! It postures us in the role of gnostic allies against John and God's revealed testimony. We should never view this matter of belief in Christ as a small matter to be taken lightly. John's couching of our belief or unbelief in terms of our attitude toward God's testimony sounds an alarming solemnity to this question. For John there is no middle ground between accepting God's testimony or making God out to be a liar.
Don't forget the gnostic concept of knowledge and of their perception of deity. In earlier chapters we followed John through some rather theological points in which he marked the stark diversity between gnostic obscurity and Biblical revelation. The inconsistency of gnosticism in both these points borders on the laughable. They approached uninformed Christians with the idea that they had received a superior and secret knowledge. But as you investigate their teaching, you discover that their god remains forever remote and unknowable. Their claim of superior knowledge actually becomes a form of agnosticism, of now knowing! John repeatedly reminds us in this letter of things we know about God, Christ and His noble plan.
The gnostic god remained forever in the shadows, never willing to reveal himself or to involve himself in human affairs. The true God whom John revealed in his writings is involved in human lives at every corner and step of our existence. Although you could identify a number of significant theological truths John touches in this lesson, his primary goal is to bring the reality of this distinction home to the actual experience and knowledge of his readers. Philosophical truth should always submit to the ultimate test. Does it correspond to reality? If it fails this test, we should reject it as irrational and unworthy of acceptance. If it corresponds to reality, we should receive and honor it. We should believe it!
He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. A favorite quip of modern New Age teaching, borrowed faithfully from these ancient gnostic predecessors, is that Jesus is one of many ways to God. Once again John draws a sharp contrast between his teachings and gnostic philosophy. For John there is only one way to God, Jesus Christ. If you have Christ, you have eternal life with, and from, God. If you do not have Christ, you do not have eternal life. The life of which John writes comes exclusively from Christ alone. Of the four men who wrote of Jesus' life and public ministry, John alone recorded the words of Jesus, "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him." (Joh 14:6-7, emphasis mine) Could any two worldviews display more contrast? One attempts to entice you with secret revelation and superior knowledge. But when you learn its inner workings you discover that its god refuses to reveal himself to any, refuses to involve himself in the lives of people, will not allow any to gain intimate personal knowledge about him and offers no prospect of more revelation in the future. What about this kind of "god" appeals to anyone?
This study should help us appreciate the amazing beauty of serving the one true and living God of the Bible. Celebrate Him daily!
John continues to press the experiential contrast between the obscure uninvolved god of gnosticism and the true God of the Bible. In the present reality of your life you may know God and understand that He has embraced you as a member of His intimate family. Not only has He made us a part of His family but He has also given us the assurance of communication with Him. We may contact Him directly and personally through prayer. Our faith-relationship with Him assures us that our prayers do not go unheard or unanswered. He hears every individual prayer of every one of His children. He also answers those prayers.
These things have I written...that ye may know. While placing an inordinate emphasis on their ideas of knowledge, the gnostic philosophers knew nothing. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia contains an extensive chapter on this philosophy. Consider this paragraph on its loveless emphasis on knowledge that failed to transform the life of the one who "knows." "Gnosticism was distinguished by an unethical, loveless intellectualism. This seems to be the explanation of the false teaching against which this epistle is directed. The apostle describes the dry head-knowledge which left the heart and life untouched by love, and which led men, while they professed to love God, nevertheless to remain destitute of love to their fellow-men. (They did not fold their human brethren to their hearts, they were dead to the fact that where pity dwells, the love of God dwells also. In Gnosticism knowledge was in itself the supreme end and purpose of life, the sum of highest good to which a man could attain, the crown of life. The system was loveless to the core."
Knowledge that "left the heart and life untouched by love" had no value to John or to the gospel he preached. From the beginning of the gospel record, one of the greatest testimonials to the gospel's truth appeared in the transformed lives of its adherents. Before his full conversion, Peter denied Christ in fear; afterwards he was among the first to preach Christ in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. Prior to his transformation, John was known as an angry "son of thunder;" afterwards he became the apostle of love. Saul the persecutor became Paul the preacher. These men had no comprehension of a believer apart from a transformed life. Would these men have jeopardized their life for a shadowy myth? No, but they considered life of no consequence apart from their faith in Christ.
We should note that despite the false gnostic claim of superior knowledge, John repeatedly in this letter reminds us of the things believers may know about God and their relationship with Him through Christ. Faith generates knowledge, not ignorance. And knowledge based on authentic faith in Christ opens the doors of heaven's throne room to the believer. From faith's revelation about God and his glory, it builds a secure life in the present. The believer may know he has this life-relationship with God. He concludes correctly from that faith-knowledge that God opens heaven's doors to full access. We may pray directly to God through Christ. If we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. How do you know if you pray according to His will? Compare your prayer list, and its motives, to Scripture. Study the various prayers of Bible saints. What prompted them to pray? What did they request? Why? What does Scripture teach us about God's will? If we ask according to His will, we have the assurance that He hears us. How do we know His will? We learn it from Scripture. The more we immerse our minds and lives into Scripture the more we become familiar with God and with His will. The more we learn of His will the more we develop a fondness for it and a desire that it prevail in all things. This progression of informed prayer draws us magnet-like into God's presence and will. It becomes the impetus, the power that transforms our lives. We gladly disown the "me-generation" of the self-absorbed and join the Christ-followers. Faith-knowledge appears far more desirable than shadowy gnostic secrets. The God Who is There, to borrow from Shaffer's title, becomes far more appealing than the mystical gnostic god who never quite appears in clear focus.
The Puritans frequently recommended that believers keep a "prayer journal," a written list of every item for which they prayed. Periodically they were to review the list and make a note of every prayer that God had answered. Few things have the transforming power of a face-to-face realization of answered prayer. It instills the realization that you not only prayed, but that God heard and answered your prayer. It becomes something of a personal testimonial from God to you. You asked and He answered. You petitioned and He granted. This thing called Christianity becomes far more than an empty form or ritual of external rites and rigors. It takes on a sense of reality that permeates every fiber of your being. The deeper the reality of God soaks into your being the deeper the transformation you experience through Him. He grows in significance as you diminish. And you celebrate the fact!
How we view ourselves may contribute as much to our Christianity as how we view God. If we have a reasonably accurate view of God, but a flawed view of ourselves, we will struggle in near paralysis and never become transformed effective witnesses to His glory. Rather than fall victim to the consuming jealousy of his disciples, John reminded them of his true role. He compared his role with Christ to that of the bridegroom's friend at his friend's wedding. This role involved more than our contemporary best man. The friend of the groom had the responsibility to see that everything went well for his friend throughout the celebration. No one would remember the friend, but this was the most important day in the life of the groom. It must go well for him. Thus John cast himself in a role that did not require praise and accolades. If at the end of the day, the groom turned to him and congratulated him for a worthy celebration, he had fulfilled his most cherished assignment. What role do we impose on ourselves in our church? In the greater activities of our faith in our personal life? If that role demands that our name appear in the credits at the end of the film, we missed the mark. We cast ourselves in the wrong role. But if when the credits role at the end of the day, Christ's name and glory shine and we sense a deep and contented joy, we served as a faithful bridegroom.
There is an interesting twist of the language in John's last statement in our lesson. And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him. This point requires a bit of thought, but it is worth it many times over if you grasp it. Think of a particularly needy moment in your life when you cried out with all your heart to God. What if someone had come to you moments after this prayer and said to you, "Do you know that God just heard every word of your prayer?" How would you react? At the heart of your prayer, isn't one of the most important issues the fact that God cares enough to hear? And even if He denied the request, simply knowing that He cared enough to hear, really to hear your prayer, imparts a tremendous peace. Even if He denies your petition in one particular, He answered it in another. You have the petition you desired; He heard you! So what if the doctor walks into your room and tells you to prepare for death in a few weeks, you know God heard your prayer and will stand beside you through whatever you face. Deny the details of the petition or grant them, the greater prayer was already answered! God cared enough to stoop and listen to every word you uttered. Come what may, God heard your prayer!
Do you see the tremendous contrast between gnosticism and Biblical Christianity at the point where you live your life? With one view you go through life consoling yourself that you know things not known by ordinary mortals, but you also struggle with a nagging lack of certainty. With the Christian view you have the faith-knowledge of God's self-revelation and of His intimate involvement in your life. He stands faithfully beside you. He knows all about you, and He cares intimately and personally for your best interest. (Ps 139) This concept sets the stage for John's Revelation letter. Regardless of the trials of the moment, God stands with us and we shall overcome in the end!
This passage has seen many wrestlings. It has been twisted out of joint to teach doctrines it did not contain. Rather than speculate on a particular sin that produces death, John's contextual emphasis focuses on believers praying for each other during times of temptation and of actual sins committed. A "brother" commits the sin not unto death. All sin leads to death, but apparently John considered some sins more serious in this consequence than others. It could refer to such a heinous sin that God visits it with speedy death, literal physical death. We have at least one New Testament example of such an event in Ananias and Saphira. (Ac 5:1-11) We might not view this particular sin as particularly insidious, but God did, and He visited prompt death upon it. Given the obvious Biblical truth that all sin eventually leads to death, it may be that John here refers to particularly heinous sins that lead to untimely and immediate death. Could he refer to some other form of "death" than physical death? Perhaps he could, but to make that interpretation requires a bit of questionable allegorizing.
The passage contains no specific justification for the idea that John referred to one particular sin. "...a sin" does not contain a supporting Greek word to justify the definite article here in most manuscripts. More likely John intends either a particularly heinous sin or a particularly insidious and obvious motive for the sin that makes it more damaging than ordinary.
In keeping with the flow of John's writing we should move forward and investigate the proper response to observed sin, not speculate either on the sin that brings unnatural death or on the nature of the "death" it produces.
What does the Bible teach us to do if we witness a brother in the act of sinning? We should take special note here that John deals with a personal eyewitness of the sin. You "see" your brother in the act of sinning. Sometimes faulty response to sin observed will cause as much damage to our Christian testimony as the sin itself. If you see the brother sin and begin telling other people about it, either to accuse or to excuse the act, you violate John's example. Spreading knowledge of the sin, regardless of your reason, increases the damage caused by the sin. Do not fall prey to that temptation! John exemplifies one response and only one. Pray for him! John just completed a powerful lesson on the interaction between faith and answered prayer. We normally think of prayer, especially intense prayer, in terms of personal needs or circumstances in our own life. John comforted us with the amazing assurance we find in the very realization that God hears our prayer. This event flows out of that context. It offers his first actual example of active intercessory prayer. You see your brother sin. Rather than deciding who to tell and how to describe the sordid details of the sin, you quietly and earnestly take it to God in your prayers. You ask God to spare the sinner's life.
The Bible contains instructive examples of such intercessory prayers. One of the most fascinating appears in the first chapter of Job. One measure of Job's exceptional righteousness appears in the fact that he offered regular sacrifices for his children in the event they had sinned. Unlike the prideful parent who pretends his or her children are perfect models of humanity, Job demonstrated righteous character by acknowledging the sinful humanity of his children. Technically he prayed for them and offered sacrifices to God before they sinned, or for sins they committed outside Job's personal knowledge.
We tend to think of sin from a pride-filled attitude. Never confess it. Pretend it didn't happen. When all else fails, confess to it but call it an illness. Or fall back on the tried-and-true tactic of passing the blame to someone else. All these strategies exhibit a flawed and failed attitude toward sin. Remember the quote in the last chapter that described gnosticism, the error John exposes here, as an unloving pride-filled emphasis on pretentious knowledge that never impacted lifestyle at all. Do you see even in this in-the-trenches example John's emphasis that Biblical Christianity follows the beat of a different drummer?
To immediately respond to observed sin by praying to God distinctly implies that God retains the power and ability to restore the sinner and to forgive the sin. The prayer does not ask God simply to look the other way and ignore the sin. Ac 17:30 reminds us clearly that God refuses such trivialization of sin. Can we honestly justify this idea in the face of Jesus' incarnation for our sins? Follow the idea carefully. You witness the sin. Do you pretend you didn't see it and simply ignore it? No, you take it to God in prayer. You ask Him to involve Himself in this person's life, to convict, to chasten them until repentance occurs.
Does this practice eliminate the option of personally confronting the sinner? Not at all, the fact that you witnessed the sin should prompt a personal conference with the sinner. Plead with them for repentance. Urge them to consider the consequences of sin. God allows no sin to go unnoticed. He will not permit sin without consequences. Likely this person has gone through some faulty rationalization of the sin before engaging in it. Avoid the policeman's role! You need not accuse or attempt to impose guilty emotions in them. A far better tactic involves asking the person to describe their reasons and justification for the sin. Help them limping step by step to retrace the mental gymnastics that opened the door to this sin in their mind. Perhaps you might help them identify the error of thought that opened the sin-door to their conduct. If you go to the person with a strong prayer to God, He might well use you to regain the brother.
Don't practice the policeman's role, but also don't minimize the sin. If you go to a person in the midst of a sin and respond to their sin as if it were no big problem, you will not gain their repentance! "Oh don't worry about it, God loves you anyway" may well be one of the most dangerous half-truths you could possibly repeat. Never in a single instance recorded in Scripture did one believer confront a sinning brother or sister with this casual attitude toward sin. Your prayer and your conduct toward the sinner should take the role of a co-operating accomplice with God! If God calls the conduct sin, don't call it neutral. Be sincerely honest with the person about the fact of their sin. Be fearfully open about your concern for the consequences of their sin, both for them personally and for the bad example their sin will set before others. Be appropriately humble as you consider that you are not immune from this or other sins. It could be you in the sinner's role and that brother or sister appealing to you for repentance.
The role of prayer in this situation must remain prominent. Alone our approach to the sinning person may provoke angry rejection. They might accuse you of meddling into their private life, as if sin is ever private when God is involved! You approach the process cautiously and humbly, dependent on God to lead the process and to influence the outcome. You cannot convict their conscience. Don't try to! You can't empower transformation. At best you can serve as a tool in God's hand to recover an erring child from the jaws of the adversary. And you only serve that role when you follow God's leadership and empowerment.
In almost every case, regardless of the particular sin, pride complicates the recovery process. God has a far better success record at neutralizing pride than any of us. And you will certainly fail to recover the erring brother or sister if you allow your own pride to influence your contact with this person. "...considering thyself lest thou also be tempted," (Ga 6:1) must weigh heavily on our minds as we encounter the erring person.
Lastly we must consider that God's restoring power has no limits. We may view a situation as impossible, but He loves to reverse seemingly impossible situations. And we should also keep prominent in our minds that He requires His church to follow His leadership in recovering sin-sick sinners. We need never face a situation thinking that God can restore the sinner, but we cannot. If God restores the person, we must honor God's success!
We have seen God's involvement in human existence from several perspectives throughout this letter. None can claim more personal intimacy that His involvement with an erring sinner. Chastening, convicting, forgiving and restoring require His hands-on best. Celebrate His success and pray for it repeatedly!
Knowledge appears throughout this letter. The irony can hardly escape our minds. The gnostic philosophy that John exposed emphasized a secret knowledge supposedly superior to traditional Christian sources. Rather than going to the defensive and contrasting knowledge with faith, John took the offensive and contrasted "knowledge falsely so called" with the Christian's true knowledge. (1Ti 6:20. The Greek word translated science is gnosis, knowledge.) Gnostic knowledge was filled with pride. It never transformed the life or softened the heart toward one's fellowman. Likely when John closed this letter with the words, "Little children, keep yourselves from idols," he had gnostic pride and its related pride-filled worldview in mind.
This epilogue to the letter returns to the major ideas John presented and restates them for emphasis. And the principal issue resolves in whether gnostic knowledge or Christian knowledge corresponds to the reality of life and to the ultimate reality of God as revealed in the Christian epistemology of Scripture. Repeatedly in this epilogue John asserts what "we know" as believers in Christ. He offered no secret knowledge to a select few. He made his knowledge public for all to see. Let's spend a few minutes reviewing the knowledge of believers based on Scripture and on their God-given faith in Christ.
We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not. A. T. Robertson emphasizes again (Word Pictures in the New Testament) the verb tense and its related idea of habitual and continual practice. True Christianity will not tolerate a pretense of knowledge that generates pride, but shows no compassion and help to those less fortunate. Transforming faith was the only faith early Christians authenticated. We would do well to imitate their robust faith. We know that God's involvement in a human life will transform. It makes an obvious and observable difference in their whole outlook. It particularly makes a difference in the way they act toward God's fixed moral principles and toward other people.
And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness. You can stack a number of realizations one on top of the other with this verse. We are of God in terms of His creation. He created the universe, including man. Through His creation of man, we are His creatures. He does not reject the universe as a big mistake, the gnostic error, but He created it. His handprint appears from the telescopic to the microscopic dimensions of the natural creation. And it all declares His glory and demonstrates His handiwork. Further we know that we are of God in terms of His special and spiritual creation. We belong to His family. He knows us and we know Him personally and intimately. We also know that the world of sin and contradiction that opposes Him will not prevail. It lies in wickedness. It wallows in sin. That is repugnant to God! But God's natural creation pleases Him.
And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding. From Matthew to Revelation (In terms of prophetic truth from Genesis to Revelation), the incarnation forms God's centerpiece of His amazing self-disclosure to us. Rather than hiding and refusing to reveal Himself, He stands in the bright sunshine of self-revelation and invites our intimate fellowship with Him. Not only has He come into this material world of His own creation, but He has given us a deep thoughtful revelation of Himself specifically with the design that we may know Him. A gospel that fails to keep the incarnation, God dwelling in human flesh and returning victoriously to His eternal glory, fails the ultimate test of the only true Bible gospel. Take all the futility Paul identified in 1Co 15 regarding the consequences of no-resurrection into consideration. All that futility becomes reality without the incarnation, for He cannot die and rise again from the dead if He never enters the world as a man. What a mystery! He never ceased being God! But He added humanity to His deity. The addition didn't alter His immutable deity, but it is as real as His deity. Paul wrote that he had known Christ after the flesh. (2Co 5:16) In Col 2:9 Paul affirmed that Jesus retains the fullness of deity in His body, "the fullness of the godhead bodily." Paul wrote Colossians around 60-62 A. D. while in prison. Jesus died somewhere around 30-33 A. D. Thus thirty years after Jesus' ascension Paul affirmed that He yet retained His human body in heaven. He further affirmed that Jesus' human body is the only physical body that God possesses or reveals. No, God the Father is not an ascended and glorified human.
... that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. The crescendo of the whole book, its principle design, appears here. John's God holds no resemblance whatever to the gnostic god who refuses to appear, to be known, or seen. God took an amazing step into our world in the incarnation. He disclosed Himself in the form of a man, a God-man, who was fully God and at the same time fully man. Why did He become man? That we may know Him that is true. Rather than seeking to remain unknown and unknowable, the true God goes to great lengths to reveal Himself to us. He further takes great pains to ensure that we may understand that we are personally and individually in Him. He adopts and births us into His family. Not a metaphor of some obscure symbol, He brings us into the personal and intimate reality of this amazing truth. By His divine intervention we become His own children. We gain free and ready access to His presence. And we learn to expect His presence and protection in our lives, no less than a child learns to trust and depend on loving parents for care and protection.
John sets off two major statements to end his epilogue. This is the true God, and eternal life. Gnosticism proposed another "true" god, but John refused the claim. We do not anticipate eternity in the role of subordinate lesser gods. Our eternity will blossom with the full reality of our loving and knowable God.
Then he sounds the final salvo for God and truth. Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Far from being another equally acceptable or desirable way to God, gnosticism for John was pure idolatry! It elevated human pride in secret "knowledge" apart from transformed Christ-like lives. It reverted to the ultimate subversive feature of God's greatest enemy. Pride is written across the whole episode of man in Eden. (Ge 3) Pride appears in Scripture as the deepest flaw in mankind. (Ps 10:4; Pr 8:13; 13:10; 16:18; 29:23; 1Ti 3:6) And it was a primary trait of gnostic philosophy.
One wonders why Satan continues to use pride to gain the upper hand and influence over men. Why not? As long as men allow pride to blind them to truth and to God, the scheme will work as effectively as it did the first time he used it in the Garden!
Here too John and Biblical Christianity stand in stark contradiction to this evil philosophy. The New Testament model of the pastor-teacher is that of the servant-leader, not of the despotic overlord. The weight and power of leadership in God's kingdom grows out of godly examples, not out of intimidation and threat. (1Pe 5:1-3) It seeks God's will, not the private personal wishes of the leader. Its example manifests the transformed life of ever true believer. It exhibits the specific model of what knowing God does to an individual. And it is not the arrogant boast of pride in secret knowledge, but the humble comfort of God's love that embraces us in His holy family. Herein we discover the amazing power of transforming powerful Christian truth. May we learn the lesson well. May our lives demonstrate in actions the power of a God whose presence changes everything about us from pride and self to humility and His deserved glory!
Throughout this letter John has contrasted the false knowledge of the gnostic philosophers whom he opposed with the true knowledge that comes through the gospel. They claimed a secret and at times mystical knowledge of which traditional Christianity knew nothing. After the close of the Apostolic Age, the gnostic teachers often claimed that the apostles shared their knowledge and passed it along to them by oral transmission. But with John still alive they could not succeed at this tactic, and in this letter he establishes the record with his rejection of this philosophy. With our Western slant on love as a sentimental emotional quality, we read 1John and think of it in those terms. But in fact this letter is one of the most polemical of the New Testament letters. For John love does not relate to how we feel but to how we act. It is a system of ethical conduct, both toward God and man. And for John knowledge of salvation and of God's eternal truths does not relate to secret mystical revelations or to private sources, but to the public record of Jesus' teachings, carried forward by the apostles and faithfully transmitted from one generation to another through the church.
By word John hasn't mentioned idolatry in this letter, but the letter confronted idolatry from the first sentence. For John Docetic gnosticism was not simply another acceptable way of looking at the truth. It was idolatry, error in its worst form. All the forms of ancient docetism rejected the core truth of the incarnation. Three major perspectives appeared under their general teaching.
The most specific error attributed to docetism proper was that Jesus did not possess a material human body. As angels do not possess a material body but sometimes appear in visible form, so the Christ appeared to have a material body, but it was actually a "spirit body."
The other two ideas appear more as hybrid forms of gnosticism. The "Christ" spirit descended on the man Jesus at his baptism and ascended from him just prior to his crucifixion.
And finally Jesus was an ordinary human who studied under gnostic masters and got in touch with his divine side, eventually becoming a god. This view is most similar to the modern New Age movement's philosophy. Frequently New Age advocates will speak in glowing terms of Jesus, but when asked for details, they will offer this very ancient heresy.
All three of these ideas compromises the gospel at its most essential point, the incarnation where God became man and resolved our sin problem. They both deny the exclusive deity of God and either the humanity or the deity of Jesus, or both. They leave Christianity with a farce of a gospel and with a confused image of God at His nearest point to man, the incarnation. If Jesus in the incarnation was not both fully God and fully man, He could not atone for sins. To the extent we either compromise His deity or His humanity we compromise His substitutionary atonement. According to Paul in 1Co 15, this compromise will leave us in our sins, found to be false witnesses when we preach the gospel, and hopeless in terms of the future.
By combining an emphatic list of "We know" statements with this closing sentence in his epilogue, John reveals a notable truth to our minds. The method by which we avoid idolatry relates to our knowledge. The more we know about God and His eternal purposes, the more we know about why we know what we know, the more we will insulate ourselves against the potential for idolatry. The cults are full of sincere people who truly believe what they teach. Sincerity does not insulate us against ignorance or idolatry. The primary cult rejected by John in this letter claimed a private line of knowledge not available to ordinary believers in his time. So knowledge alone cannot insulate us from idolatry. Many members of the cults hold advanced degrees and demonstrate significant knowledge within their fields of study. So we must pursue a unique kind of knowledge, and pursue it uniquely, in order to avoid the pitfalls of idolatry. Knowledge that, as Paul terms it, puffs up and feeds the ego will not protect the believer from idolatry. In fact in the case of the gnostic philosophy John exposed here knowledge itself may well have been the idol!
We live in an age of convenience. Throw a meal in the microwave and eat it in less than ten minutes. Back your car out of the garage and drive in air-conditioned comfort to your destination. Pick up the phone, dial a few numbers and talk instantly with anyone you wish anywhere in the world. And we have transferred that convenience mindset to our faith. Turn on your computer or pull your Strong's concordance down off the shelf and find any verse, indeed any word, in the Bible at a moment's notice with minimal effort or time invested. Do you want to know more about the word in the original language in which the Bible was written? On your computer simply double click your mouse and a little window opens on your screen that gives you Strong's or Thayer's definition of the word in Hebrew or Greek. Without your computer, follow the Strong's numbers to the dictionary and simply locate the number and there you find your definition.
But despite all this information we know less of God's will and less of Biblical truth than perhaps any generation of Christians ever. We pride ourselves in knowing, but we demonstrate amazing vulnerability to the most whimsical and trivial of false notions. Why? What causes this proliferation of knowledge and this coincidental drought of functional wisdom? Do you doubt my case? Ask a person you consider a faithful believer to give you the Bible definition of the fear of God? You'll hear something like "reverential fear." What does that mean? It is a cliché they heard, but they have no idea of the fear of God beyond the well-rehearsed cliché.
Biblical insight, the true knowledge of which John wrote, does not grow out of desire. It grows out of long dedicated investment in Bible study. Reading a chapter or two before going to sleep at nights is not Bible study; it is recreational Bible reading at best. Often it is little more than a sleeping pill for often those who spend no more time than this with their Bibles will not get through their nightly reading before they begin nodding off to sleep.
This concordance style of Bible study will connect superficial words in various passages in the reader's mind, but it will not impart sound thoughtful insight into Biblical truth. Why? We live under our own modern form of idolatry that blinds us to effective and insightful study of Biblical truth. And we have so adopted the attitudes of our convenience age that we refuse to invest the time, mental energy and discipline necessary to gain it. We can rehearse what someone told us. We may recall having read what a pious dead man wrote about it. But we have no sense of bearing by which to gain personal depth into Scripture's fertile soil. We suffer through life with blighted souls. But our cultural blindness refuses to apply the Biblical remedy necessary to correct the problem.
Few people who read this work on 1John believe the Docetic gnostic error. But too many likely leave their minds and lives open to idolatry through a consistent refusal to invest sweat, tears and time in a concerted Bible study to gain the depth of which John writes here. Too often we gain a little knowledge and satisfy ourselves that we know all we need to know. The Bible at that point becomes more of a superficial adornment than a tool in our hands. We wouldn't think of consulting the Bible or even the God of the Bible as we prepare to go to the polls to vote for high office and to vote for propositions that often include significant social morality in their premises. We make life's most important decisions apart from Scripture because we hold Scripture in such low regard. Oh we profess to revere it, but our lives say differently. We suffer great risk of idolatry in our time. Why are people boastful of being "neo-pagans" today? And we do not understand the vital significance of Scripture to protect us.
We face grave choices in our future. Will we step up to the task and preserve God's truth for the next generation? Or will we continue the neglect that caused our drought? The history of the Christian church resembles that of a nomadic tribe. It has not long remained in one place. There is no church in any of the seven cities named by John in Revelation. There are few remnants of vital faith in Europe today. Will we stand by while our own culture trivializes our faith and views us as irrelevant? Are we turning the world upside down for God or putting it to sleep? John challenges us with the reality of aggressive and convincing error. It will lose eventually, but we may allow it to win the day in the short term. What will be the result in our city, in our home, of our faith on the next generation? Will we welcome or keep ourselves from idolatry?
1Enhanced Strong's Lexicon, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.) 1995. 2Enhanced Strong's Lexicon, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.) 1995. 3 Walvoord, John F., and Zuck, Roy B., The Bible Knowledge Commentary, (Wheaton, Illinois: Scripture Press Publications, Inc.) 1983, 1985. ?? ?? ?? ?? 67