Sunday, July 27, 2014
God is light and in Him there is no darkness. Jesus is the light of the world, a light the darkness cannot overcome. The Gospel of John and First John both offer a binary faith. It is an either/or seeing. As a man, a dad, a Christ-follower – in all of life, I can take the this-or-that as I strive to choose and speak as Jesus would have me choose and speak. The A-or-B, this or that process is one way of seeing for a disciple of Jesus.
Firsy John chapter 2:22 says, “Who is the liar, but the one that denies Jesus is the Christ? This is the anti-Christ.” A lot of confusion arises in Biblical reading and Christian literature over that term, ‘anti-Christ.’ Christian fiction like the Left Behind series would have us anticipating one specific future person who is the anti-Christ. Other villains of history were bad, but until he appears, the anti-Christ has not yet come, so the teaching goes. First John actually teaches that the anti-Christ is anyone who denies that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the Son of God, and God in human flesh. Verse 18 says there are many anti-Christs. It is a way of talking about anyone who denies the divinity and necessity of Jesus. And of course 1st and 2nd John are the only places in the Bible the term ‘anti-Christ’ is used.
That’s “A” – the liar, the one who denies Jesus is an anti-Christ.
Then, “B” is seen in verse 29. “If you know that he is righteous you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him.” Two ideas are asserted. First, Jesus is just or righteous. Second, people who work for justice or do the right thing are born of Jesus. The word for right, as in ‘do the right thing,’ also means ‘justice’ and could just as easily be translated that way.
So we have “A”, the one who denies Jesus is a liar and is an anti-Christ. And we have “B”, the one who is righteous, that is who does justice, is born of God through faith in Jesus. It is this, or it is that. What a clean way of visualizing Christian thought.
Unfortunately history shows it is rarely that simple. In fact, the history of the works associated with John in the New Testament reveal how cluttered theological dialogue can be. The so called Johanine literature is comprised of the Gospel of John, and 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John. And many also include the book of Revelation. It was also written near Ephesus, where all the other works are supposed to have been written. And, Revelation is the only book in the collection whose author actually give his name - John. He does not claim to be one of the 12. He just claims to be John, a Christ-follower in exile on the Island of Patmos.
The Gospel, the Epistles, and the Revelation were written in different contexts, as responses to forces that threatened the Christian community. A major theme in the Gospel is the tension between Jesus and synagogue leaders who reject the idea that He is the one sent by God. Throughout John, we read that Jesus was opposed by “the Jews.” This does not mean all Jews, though tragically, it has been used that way in history. This evil misrepresentation of the Gospel has been a tool of hate filled anti-Semitism, something God vehemently opposes. When John was written, most Christ-followers were Jewish and were persecuted by Jews who rejected him. The Gospel was the voice of a persecuted minority.
In the Epistles, the opponents are not synagogue Jews that oppose Jesus. The opponents are fellow church members who believe in Christ but offer a different interpretation of him, an interpretation that minimizes his earthly life and ethical example. And, in the situation of the book of Revelation, the opponents are Roman authorities who persecute Christ-followers because they refuse to worship Caesar.
When we read ‘anti-Christ’ in 1st and 2nd John, the only place we’ll find it, we need to realize that those who wrote the term did not anticipate a future evil person who would try to rule the world. If the writer of the Gospel of John had used the term, he would have applied it to synagogue and temple leaders that reject Jesus as the Messiah. In Revelation other terms are used, terms like dragon and beast. IN that work, these terms in refer to the Roman emperor. And the elder of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John used the term to refer to other Christians whose doctrine he opposed.
With the context in mind, do we still find the this-or-that method of thinking theologically helpful in our reading of 1st John?
In our situation, we don’t have another religious group threatening our worship, so whatever our struggles are, they not those faced by the author of the Gospel of John. We don’t have a powerful government crucifying our preachers or throwing us to the lions. We aren’t facing the situation in which Revelation was written. We do understand church splits, but HillSong is not going through that and even if we were, I hope we wouldn’t be calling each other ‘anti-Christs,’ though I have seen that sort of spite in other church splits I have experienced. What can we make of 1st John?
I hope recognizing context keeps us humble in our theology and in our practice of Christian life within the community. We need to be patient with each other because situations change, get muddled. Because of our sins we can count messes being made. In the future, messes will come and we will find ourselves waist-deep in them. This is why 1st John uses such harsh language for the opponents who are causing a church split.
God is even more dependable than sin. We can count on human sin bringing chaos, but we can also count on the love of God restoring order and calling us into God’s embrace. This is why Jesus came – to save the world from itself. We can be sure God loves us and wants us to have joy. This truth –that we can rely on God as we know Him in Jesus – helps the binary thought make sense.
It is absolutely so: the one who denies Jesus is a liar. That one is an anti-Christ where ‘anti’ means against. In that vein, Muslims who refer to Jesus as a prophet but not as the son of God are against him and against our message that salvation is in him. I am not saying Muslims are worse sinners than Christians and are bent on destroying the world. Maybe that is true of a few, but most Muslims are just people like Christians, people who need God. But, if they deny the lordship of Jesus, then they are against the message we preach.
Similarly those in Judaism who reject Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, are against our proclamation that salvation is in Him and Him alone. In this respect, they are ‘anti,’ against the idea that Jesus is the Lord.
The “A”-or-“B” approach helps clarify this. When a written work is called a polemic, it means that work is an argument against an opposing doctrine. Works in the New Testament like 1st John, 2nd Peter, and Jude, are polemics, arguments against false statements about Jesus. These harshly written pieces give us a sense of clarity. We can see why it is absolutely necessary to know the truth about Jesus, speak that truth, and not allow any wiggle room.
We cannot accept flaky ideas like the wishful notion that “many paths lead to God,” or “all religions teach the same thing,” or “religious truth is a private thing and we’ll all find out who was right when we get to heaven.” All religions do not teach the same thing. We reject pluralism and universalist fluff in matters of theology and expressions of faith. We insist that Jesus is Lord – the Jesus we meet in the New Testament and in the Holy Spirit. This is true for all people whether they acknowledge it or not. Jesus is Lord and must be followed and worshipped.
The binary way of seeing gives clarity even when we know our situation is vastly different than the numerous 1st century environments in which Christianity was born. There was more than one context then and ours is different than all that existed then. The world in which we live is not like the world in which the Bible was born. Yet, we are clear about Jesus and what we need to believe about Him because the Bible, inspired by the Spirit, transcends generations and continents and cultures.
The “this-or-that” viewpoint also tells us what is true about us. “He has promised us eternal life” (1st John 2:25).” And we are to abide in him because “everyone who does what is right, [read who does justice as the prophet Micah says], is born of him” (2:29).
The sign that we are his is our treatment of people. We do the right thing. Doing the right thing does not earn us salvation. God gives it. Our efforts at right-living are the signs that we have received the salvation God gives. The A-or-B point of view is only somewhat helpful in fully understanding the New Testament but it is extremely important in our lives as Christ followers.
Our birthright is eternal life. Jesus rose and we will rise. Death of the body is coming because the fall has corrupted God’s world, but Jesus has overcome death. He rose and all who are in him will rise. Death has been defeated. We will enter resurrection in bodies that cannot die and will be with God forever.
Our birth responsibility is to live as Jesus lived. We are to do the right thing. No matter how hard the choice is, no matter much easier other choices appear we are to work for justice, to do right, and to obey God in all things. When you or I say we are in Christ, we are saying we have committed to live life on his terms. In matters of how we treat people whether it is daily interactions or larger societal issues, we are guided by the same compassionate love that God showed in sending Jesus for us.
Or, as 1st John 4:7 puts it. “Beloved let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God.” We live with hope and joy because eternal life is our birthright. We live in love showing compassion to all who hurt as we work for justice because it is the right thing to do. This is our birth responsibility.