I recall being a party to something very embarrassing. It was several years ago, I was in another country, and another pastor from America was with me. He and I got into a theological argument that was so heated we forgot the gracious hospitality of our hosts, we ignored the other people around us, and 1ooo’s of miles from the United States we verbally sparred over secondary issues. My wife had to point out to me how foolish I was. Here we were, in a third world country, doing God’s work, and he and I shamed ourselves by arguing over trivial matters. I tell my kids to never say the word “stupid,” but in that moment, this brother-in-Christ, and I were both stupid.
What’s worth an argument? When Christians are together, doing God’s work in a context of poverty, is that the time to bicker over theology?
The author of one of the commentaries I read on 1st John told of a Christian religious society at one of the Ivy League schools that had just on standard for all participants. All members had to affirm the ordination of women.[i] That was the only core issue. You could believe Jesus is currently on the moon inventing new kinds of cheese and sending it to Wisconsin, and you’d be OK as long as you agreed women could ordained to preach this milk curd gospel. Ordination of women was the issue.
The same author pointed out the standard for membership in an organization called The Evangelical Society. That group required its members to sign a statement affirming the inerrancy of scripture. Mormons have radically different beliefs about Jesus than do Protestants and Evangelicals, but they would have no problem signing the statement as it is worded. It was more important to claim inerrancy than to clarify what was meant by it.
I once had my own witness as a pastor assaulted because of my views on the creation of the earth. Obviously I believe God is creator – I believe that absolutely, without equivocation. I believe the way man has observed and described what God did within the limits of our scientific powers of observation is best described by the Big Bang theory. Our world has evolved and continues to evolve. Someone heard me say that and heard that I accept that the world is billions of years old, not 10,000 or so, and this person said that because of my failure to read Genesis literally, he had to reject what I had to say about Jesus. If I didn’t hold his views on creation, then my statements about salvation, taken straight from the Gospels and Paul’s letters were immaterial.
What’s the core issue for Christ followers? What’s worth arguing? When must we stand our ground? Is it the ordination of women? Is it our stance on a political issue like abortion or the death penalty? Is it something with an evasive meaning like inerrancy? A lot of people hold to the inerrancy of scripture, but they don’t hold the same definition of “inerrant,” or they aren’t the same scripture. Is one’s position in the creationism-evolution debate the determining factor in whether one is a true Christ follower?
In 1st John, the core issue is clear – the one thing that cannot be compromised. The opening to the letter makes the point. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of Life” (1:1). Scientists operate in the realm of five senses – that which can be proven by empirical observation. The authors of 1st John declare that all they propose is built upon what they saw, heard, and touched. Their fellowship, their relationship with God, and their relationship with other people, including all who read their letter are based on God’s appearing.
We must agree. God became flesh and walked the earth in the form of a specific man in history – Jesus. God is Jesus. Usually, we say, “Jesus is God.” Try is this way – God is Jesus. The awkwardness draws our attention. We can argue about ordination of women, form of baptism and whether re-baptism is OK; we can discuss these and 100 other issues. We must agree that God appeared to humankind in Jesus. God is Jesus. Jesus is God. On this we stand. All who claim the name Christian disciple must hold that Jesus is God and that God appeared in Jesus. He walked among us. He died for the sins of the world. To have life in his name, we must believe in Him and put our faith in Him.
If you aren’t sure about Jesus, we are glad you are here and we aren’t going to get in your face. We won’t try to jam Jesus down your throat. We love you because love is essential to Jesus. It is has to be the rule in His church. We cannot truly be His unless we love.
To be a church member and a true Christian, the core issue is Jesus. God came in the flesh in Jesus. That issue was being debated in the churches who received the letter we call 1st John. And God died for us to cover our sins. Sin also was an issue in the late first century continues to be an issue today.
First John was probably written in response to heresies unfolding in the churches that had been founded by the same people who wrote the Gospel of John, disciples that included the Apostle John and others. The young churches under their leadership were infiltrated by people who denied that Jesus came in the flesh and people who said sin didn’t matter. These deceivers claimed to be sinless. That’s what they said, anyway.
Or if they admitted their sins, they said because God is spirit, sins of the flesh don’t matter. Jesus was a spirit – not a flesh and blood man, and so sins committed in the body are inconsequential. Both claims are outright lies – the claim that I do not sin; and, the claim that I might sin, yes, but my sins are of no importance because only intangible, spiritual realities last. These deceptions are contrary to the Gospel. The writers of 1st John started off by connected words of life and salvation to what the authors saw, heard, and touched – the physical reality of God in the flesh, Jesus.
Getting very personal, the author says in the beginning of chapter 2, “My dear ones, I write so that you will not sin.” Obviously sin happens, and he’s already made that point. He knows those in the church will mess up sometimes. Sin is a part of human reality. He’s rejected the opponents who claimed to be sinless. “I write so that you will not sin,” – this means so that we do not make the mistake of claiming perfection.
We make mistakes, which is why we need Jesus. First John 2:2 says He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and for the sins of the world. The death of this very real man, God in the flesh, covers all sin because sin needs to be covered. As people of God, we have to take sin seriously and we have to acknowledge our absolute need for the forgiveness we have in Jesus.
Once we receive that forgiveness, first John tells us to “walk in the light as he is in the light” (1:7). In the light, all sin is acknowledged. The ways of God are openly named and life is conformed to God’s standards and God’s expectations. This is true of all our relationships. In all our human interactions, we do things God’s way, the way of selfless, sacrificial love.
As we step into 1st John, we see a progression for the life of one who follows Jesus. First, the reality: the discipels have seen, touched, heard – God in the flesh, Jesus. First John is based not on an indescribable mystery, but on his very real encounter with Jesus.
Next, because we have met Jesus, for us in the form of the Holy Spirit, we identify falsehood, name it, and root it out. The falsehoods 1st John fought against was a denial of the incarnation and the lie that sin is not present or it is present but unimportant. Naming the centrality of the life of and death and resurrection of Jesus, and declaring the presence of sin, we are then called to walk in the light because only in the light are we walking with Jesus. Walking in the light means faith (believing the Biblical story about God), and obedience (submitting to God’s rule). And God’s rule is love.
Where does it all lead? Why was 1st John written? What’s the point?
The best life a person can have is life in Jesus Christ. Only in Him do we have truly blessed relationships with people and with God. In friendships with Christians and nonChristians alike, we love best because God is at work in us and we are sensitive to and cooperative with His Holy Spirit. And this best life, this life in Christ, reaches its peack when we share the story of salvation and the love of the Gospel.
First John 1:4: “we are writing these things so that our joy may be made complete.” For that first century community of committed Christ-followers, absolute fulfillment and happiness came in sharing the gospel with the church who would in turn share the Jesus story with the world. Joy was present complete when the truth was believed and the sins forgiven and heresy demolished. But joy was complete when the good news was told to the world. Our joy is in our witness, our telling.
As we go through six weeks in 1st John, the authors’ joy will once again be increased. Our little church will drink and be filled with the living word of God. In Heaven somewhere, John rejoices. We read this letter so we will grow in our knowledge of God. In our reading our relationship with Him deepens. In our sharing it deepens even more.
If you were here last week, you heard a new believer’s testimony read and you saw her proclaim new faith in Jesus by being baptized. I had my own role in her story even though I was not here last week. I wouldn’t say I “led her to the Lord.” I think the Holy Spirit did that. I don’t take any credit for ____’s salvation and I don’t give credit to any person. Phil, Jonathan, Heather, and I – we are all grateful God allowed us a role in ____’s story. We rejoice.
I want everyone here to experience that kind of rejoicing. It comes when you are a witness and you honestly and fully tell of how you were saved by the love of Jesus. You tell someone who doesn’t know Him. And you pray for that person, and he or she considers the Gospel, and prompted by the Holy Spirit, becomes a Christ follower. I want everyone here to know the thrill and joy of playing a part in another person’s salvation. I think 1st John shows what a joy that can be.
So we end with invitation. Maybe someone listening has not yet put his or her faith in Jesus Christ. You are invited to come to Him today.
Maybe someone didn’t know that everything in faith, everything in life depends on God in the flesh, Jesus the Anointed. Maybe someone thought he knew the Christian story but disregarded the seriousness of sin. You are invited to pray a prayer of repentance today.
Maybe someone knows the story, believes it, repents of sin, but doesn’t share it. We want your joy to be complete. You are invited to pray and ask God to help you be a Gospel-sharer this week.
Seekers, we invite you to pray to receive Jesus today.
As our musicians come, you are invited.