Some days, I come to church raring to go – switched on, ready to be taught. Other days, I crawl in the door, my heart and mind miles away,
Some days, I’m eager to be corrected, encouraged, taught, even rebuked, and all it will take for God to work in us is a gentle prompt from the Spirit and I’ll respond wholeheartedly and fulsomely. On other days, I am so distracted, or wrapped up in myself, or even hard-hearted that it will take a spiritual sledgehammer to elicit any response from me at all!
So which end of the spectrum are you at this morning? Do you think you need to be yelled at, or to hear a gentle whisper? A reassuring arm put around our shoulders, or a divinely inspired kick in the pants? Or perhaps you suspect you need a bit of both. Or it may be that you aren’t entirely sure what you need! But wherever you are today on this spiritual sliding scale, I have great news for you – I don’t think there is any part of the Bible which manages to address the full range of spiritual sensitivities and insensitivities, to smash arrogance and soothe anxious fears with such deftness and spiritual sure-footedness as the letters of John.
Over these next weeks as we work through 1st John together, we can expect two basic things to happen. At points, we will have to ask ourselves hard and searching questions about our consistency and authenticity. John’s ‘black and white’ approach has a way of cutting through our defences to lay it on the line – repeatedly he says things like if you do this, then you must not belong to Christ… . John is not afraid to wield a spiritual sledgehammer – and reading these letters can be deeply disconcerting. But then John also has an exquisitely delicate way of firmly reassuring us that if we have trusted Christ, then no matter what we are going through, or how we are wavering, we are his and he is ours for evermore. We can also expect to walk out to morning tea with our heads head high, and our hearts brimming over with the sweet security of being in Christ. Reading these letters can be deeply affirming. And it is part of the genius of Pastor John that he manages both the disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed at the same time as he re-centres us on the gospel of the Lord Jesus.
So who was this John? In a second century document, a man called Papias in the 2nd Century mentions someone called John the Elder who wrote letters. The simplest explanation is that he’s talking about the apostle John, Jesus’ closest friend, John the beloved apostle-elder. After Jesus’ death, John spent much of his time in and around Ephesus, before eventually being sent into exile on the tiny Greek island of Patmos, where he probably wrote Revelation, which was like these letters, primarily addressed to the churches in and around Ephesus, in the Roman province of Asia Minor (Turkey).
The only other thing I should mention before we get going is that these letters are strong stuff. You could even say that they are an acquired taste.
Not the methodical information gathering and presentation of Luke. Not the compelling energy and passionate argument of Paul. John is a little different. His writing is rich and complex, with multiple twists and turns; it needs to be sipped slowly. John’s letters are the Irish Whiskey of the New Testament – triple distilled, potent and much-under-rated. To read 1 John involves swirling the liquid around the glass, smelling it and holding it up to the light in order to try to get the full effect of its taste and aroma and dense complexity. It’s often more about savouring the message and feeling the impact of the text than breaking down its syntax. Every verse is saturated with rich theological concepts, and unlike 2 Corinthians, for example, there’s very little of John himself on display – because God himself dominates every verse, which is clear from these opening sentences of this letter, where the apostle invites us to commit to do three simple things. First, he urges us to…
It’s important to realise from the get-go that John’s goal is pastoral care – applying the gospel to people he loves – rather than philosophising or theologising for its own sake. There are massive concepts in the first phrases of his letter, but they are serve a simple purpose- he wants us to understand and embrace and believe the gospel – the announcement of what God has done for us in the Lord Jesus – which he has poured his life into preaching.
To get quickly to the heart of what John is saying in this soaring opening, listen out for the repeated verb… – 1 John 1:1 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 proclaimconcerning the Word of life. 2The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaimto you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3We proclaimto you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. Straight away John directs our attention to ‘what we proclaim‘ – that is, to the announcement of what God has done and is doing and will do through Jesus – or to use the shorter version of that, the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ – and then backs that up with a reminder of the purpose of this earth-shattering announcement, this gospel. The goal of his preaching, his writing and his life is to remind us of what the gospel is, so that we experience the full force of what the gospel can do, and take hold of it.
So what is the gospel?
What exactly is the gospel that John proclaims? You can see it in the first couple of verses of the letter.
John starts with that which was from the beginning, in a clear echo of Genesis 1:1. The phrase ‘that which’ isn’t referring to Jesus himself, but the message about Jesus, the gospel. And this gospel, this message, has its beginning, its roots, its foundations before the beginning of time itself, with the Father and the Son and the Spirit living together in a delight that had either beginning nor end. But of course, it doesn’t stop there. The staggering reality of the gospel is that God intervenes in time and space to speak in many times and in various ways, before finally, definitively stepping into history, as God becomes flesh in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Which is what happens next – the gospel doesn’t just deal with God outside time, but what we have heard and seen and looked at and touched. It’s the announcement that God the Son has become human, and walked with and worked with and ate with John himself as well as many others. But what John is talking about goes far beyond the five senses – because this message is all about the word of life. The word of life is probably both a way of describing who Jesus is and what he makes possible – as he allows people like us to share life with the Father through the Son forever.
The ‘testify’ language here is taken straight from the courtroom – John (and the apostles as a whole) have given a sworn deposition that they have seen this message unfold before their very eyes as God became flesh and dwelt among us. They have seen all this, and been blown away by the truth of this message, and believed it, and now proclaim it –we proclaimto you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us... And they do it so that we can enjoy this life – life with God himself through his son. This is huge.
In his book On Communion with God Owen writes thesewords: ‘For sinners to have fellowship with God, the infinitely holy God, is an astonishing dispensation… (On Communion with God, 91, 94). We are caught up in the life of God himself. This is the announcement, the gospel, that we need to take hold of with both hands, never letting go. But that’s only half of what John says here, because he also tells us to take hold of the gospel because of what it can do!
What does the gospel do?
John goes on We proclaimto you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. The reason for proclaiming the gospel, the reason for taking hold of the gospel is that it brings us into relationship not just with one another as brothers and sisters, but through the power of the Spirit, the gospel brings us into a relationship with the Father and the Son. The gospel both unites us to the Trinity, and to each other.’ Calvin says ‘There is something more magnificent here that can be expressed in words.’ As John reminds us to take hold of the gospel, in effect, he calls to treasure our relationship with God and with each other.
I cannot say this strongly enough – our highest priority, our greatest goal this year has to be knowing God. I love Jim Packer’s statement in his classic book Knowing God – “Once you become aware that the main business that you are here for is to know God, most of life’s problems fall into place of their own accord.” Before we do anything else, may I urge you to take hold of the gospel again, and commit yourself to the pursuit of God, that we might see and savour how marvellous he is in and through the gospel? To throw yourself into plumbing the depths of the fact that our fellowship is with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ – and as a sideline, to take hold of the gospel so that we can enjoy fellowship with each other.
Now I have to say that the English word ‘fellowship’ doesn’t really do it for me. It may be my age and my cultural background, but even the word is enough to conjure up the smell of slightly mouldy church halls, the taste of stewed tea and the texture of stale biscuit on my tongue. But John has something a little more robust in mind. For John, taking hold of the gospel leads to a deep connection and togetherness which only family language can do justice to. In my experience, family is that group of people I am related to who cause me more angst, more frustration, more sadness and more delight than anyone else. They are the people I can’t ditch, because we’re related. I’m stuck with them and they’re stuck with me. And that’s how this passage encourages us to treat each other – as people we’re stuck with (eternally) because we have all taken hold of the gospel of the Lord Jesus!
In Christ we are family. In Christ we are now joined forever to people who annoy us, disappoint us and hurt us. In Christ we are united to people who, if we’re honest, if it were down to us would be quietly dropped from the list of people we want in our lives. But when we take hold of the gospel, we discover that all these people come for free – more of this in a moment, but for now, just resolve quietly to take hold of the gospel, to make the most of the fact that we have been drawn into communion with – fellowship with God – and with each other – which takes us to the second thing John says, which could very easily be missed… He tells us to:
In 1:4, John says We write this to make our joy complete. John’s point is that taking hold of the gospel leads naturally to pursuing joy together. In verses 1-3, John highlights that truth and love are connected, as God’s true self-revelation gathers us up in his love and enables us to love each other. Now he weaves joy into the pattern with truth and love. The truth and love which are revealed in the gospel are the key to our knowing and tasting real joy. But there is something else here which is quite profound. Our joy is focused on other people!
This is a really healthy corrective for people like us, who tend to think of ‘joy’ in purely individualistic terms – joy is what’s going on inside my head when events play out to my advantage or pleasure. But for John, John is intricately linked to his relationship with his brothers and sisters. He says as much here – and he says the same thing in 2 John 12 – Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete; and he returns to this theme in 3 John 4: I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. My old NT Professor, Howard Marshall, writes ‘He has the heart of a pastor which cannot be completely happy so long as some of those for whom he feels responsible are not experiencing the full blessings of the gospel.’
There is a really basic but crucial challenge for all of us who are part of the church of the Lord Jesus – the great goal of all that we do is to see people taste and see just how spectacularly good God is in and through the Lord Jesus Christ. There should be nothing more encouraging, more joy-fuelling than seeing other people grasp and grow in and delight in the gospel. In church, my joy is tied to yours. Your joy in Christ fuels mine. So is that how it is for you? Is our joy tied to the extent to which the kids in Sunday school or youth group grasp the gospel? Is our state of mind affected by the extent to which people in our growth group are delighting in the gospel? When team or the elders suffer, do we all suffer? Do we get the fact that our joy is linked?
There is a very real sense in which our experience of joy – and I would go as far as to say our capacity for joy – is limited by the extent to which we are willing and able to find joy in seeing God at work in other people as we live together for the gospel. John writes so that his readers might find greater joy in Christ through the gospel, and that this would have the knock-on effect of increasing – even completing – his joy. Of course, there will be brokenness and pain and struggle and failure ahead – we may weep together – but as we encourage one another in the gospel, let’s pursue joy in Christ together. And there is one more thing we need to grapple with before we finish, because it takes us right to the heart of why John is writing this letter. John urges us to…
As I mentioned at the beginning, John’s double concern in these letters is with people who are confident that they are Christians when they may have little reason for that confidence, and people who are crippled by fear that they don’t belong to God when they have every reason to rest on that fact that they are his children who have been united to Christ by faith. And how does he deal with these seeming opposites? By getting his readers – and us – to check our foundations. And he does so by raising three basic issues:
Do we have a right view of God? (1:5)
In what could be described as a banner headline for the rest of the letter, John writes this:
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. John deliberately kicks off with who God is by his very nature. He is blindingly pure and flawless. He is utterly moral, exposing all that is evil and shattering darkness. He is the God who measures us and who is his own standard of measurement. But the description of God has light rather than darkness also implies that he is good – there is no evil in him – we have no reason to be terrified of him, as if he might viciously turn on us.
The Old Testament uses this imagery at least 139 times. John had also heard Jesus pick it up and use it of himself: John 8:12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”; Now John he repeats it as the simplest, most succinct summary of who God is and what he’s like to fast-track his readers to the place where their view of God is big enough, and pure enough, and awesome enough, because he knows that if our doctrine of God is wrong, then everything else will be out of kilter.
One of the challenges we all face is to make sure that our view of God flows from what the Bible says, rather than a mish-mash of things we’ve picked up from all over the place – including our own heads – over the years. For some of us, like some of John’s readers, that will mean having to come to terms with the fact that God is altogether more holy and pure and demanding and beyond our understanding than we have admitted up until now. For some of us, like some of John’s readers, it will mean discovering that God is more gracious and tender and self-giving and relentlessly committed to us than we could ever have imagined – but we will not go far wrong if we simply ask God to reveal himself to us as the God who is light, in whom there is no darkness at all. So the first ‘check your foundations’ question is ‘do we have a right view of God?’ and the second?
Are we responding to God properly? (1:6-7)
In verses 6-7, John moves from the basis of our theology – that God is light – to the basics of our response to God – are we actually living in a way which fits with the fact that we belong to a God who is light? There are two parts to that – one is living consistent God-like (godly) lives, and the other is living in a way which is open and guileless. Here’s how John puts it:
6If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.
Regularly, deliberately choosing to sin – choosing to live selfishly rather than for God and others – walking in darkness rather than the light is a contradiction which interrupts our fellowship with God and with each other. Living for ourselves whilst saying that we are living for God is the road to misery. It shows we aren’t taking hold of the gospel, it shows that we aren’t pursuing joy together – we are seeking satisfaction where it cannot be found – in sinfully serving ourselves. John says this upfront because he knows that all kinds of problems flow from a refusal to bring our sin into the light, to repent and look to Christ alone for forgiveness. We need to embrace the truth about God and then live in the light of it. We need to walk with our sinfulness and brokenness in full view. To try to hide in the darkness is foolish, dangerous and costly – for it interferes with our enjoyment of God and each other. Pretence is deadly. Deceiving ourselves is toxic. Because God is light, the only gospel-shaped option is to walk with our sinfulness and brokenness in full view.
If we want to live authentically, then we need to step into the light. We need to drag our much loved sinful behaviour out of the gloom into the light, for only there will it lose its power. And it’s only as we do this, living together in the light, that we can have the relationships which God longs for us to have. Look with me at verse 7:
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship [not with God, as we might expect, but]with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
The only assurance of God’s love, the only real relief from guilt, the only joy of forgiveness, the only freedom to relate to each other in honest vulnerability comes when we are responding to the God of light in the only way that makes sense, which is throwing ourselves at the foot of the cross of the Lord Jesus, that he might clean us up, inside and out. So let’s ask ourselves are we responding to God properly? Which brings us to the last part of John’s ‘foundation check’ in 1:5-10, which comes from verse 8 onwards…
Have we got a right view of ourselves? (1:8-10)
It seems that there were some people whose defective view of God, and refusal to face the reality of their own lives, led them to a staggeringly arrogant view of themselves. Whatever they actually said out loud, they acted and spoke as if their thoughts, motives and intentions were pure as the driven snow. When they examined themselves and their actions, they were terribly impressed with what they found. So John writes…
1 John 1:8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. … 10If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.
You see if we don’t take our sin seriously, it has all kinds of implications. First, a refusal to accept that we are both sinful and sinners, interrupts our relationship with God, because he is light. Second, it betrays a pride which is completely at odds with the gospel. Third, it completely undercuts the need for forgiveness, and so loosens our grip on the gospel itself. Fourth, a refusal to accept both that we are sinful in theory and that our actions are, in practice, sinful, damages both us and other people, robbing us both of the joy we are made to share. If we are to live gospel-shaped lives, if we are to pursue joy together, then we need to have a right view of ourselves.
If I ever get a tattoo, which, granted, is unlikely, I think I’d like paragraph V of chapter VI of the Westminster Confession of Faith emblazoned across my chest here’s what it says: VI.V. This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be through Christ pardoned and mortified, yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin. As Christians we are sinful, we have sinful instincts, we still sin. To say or think anything different is to deceive ourselves and to live in the dark. As Caesarius of Arles once wrote ‘Let no-one deceive you brothers, not to know your own sin is the worst kind of sin.’
It is so easy to start to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt in every situation. It is so easy to start to listen to our own take on life as if it is the gospel itself. It is so very easy to excuse ourselves, saying simply ‘but this is who I am’, whilst gradually becoming blind to the ways in which we are hurting other people in our pride and ungodliness. So what are we to do? The solution is stunningly simple and grace-filled:
9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and wil forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. We need to become experts on our own sin – we need to become deeply sensitive to our own tendencies to lie and hide and manipulate – and we need to run to Christ.
Do you notice that when we do that, the father is not merciful or gracious, as we might expect, but faithful – isn’t that so good? God has already committed himself to cleaning us up from sin, God has already secured, purchased that cleansing through the death of Jesus – and all we have to do is confess – to come clean with him. And the marvellous thing is that when we have deceived ourselves and other people, when we have let each other down and hurt our brothers and sisters, even that can be turned around by God to bring deeper joy, and commitment to one another.
You know this week, and next and the one after, we will let each other down. We will hurt each other. We’ll disappoint each other. But If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and wil forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness Coming clean, stepping into the glare of God’s light is always the way to go. Incredibly, in God’s kindness, he will even work through that. Facing ourselves in view of the fact that God is light is to take hold of the gospel, and it is the road to joy.
No wonder Augustine wrote of 1st John – ‘This book is very sweet to every healthy Christian heart that savours the bread of God, and it should constantly be in the mind of God’s holy church. … May this book – and this opening chapter, with its call to take hold of the gospel, and pursue joy together, even as we check our foundations – our view of God, our response to God and our view of ourselves – kindle the flame of wholehearted commitment, and consistent authenticity and humble reliance on the forgiveness which is held out to us in the Lord Jesus Christ, so that we might walk together in the joy of the light of the God who is light. Amen.