A sermon preached at All Saints in Boise, Idaho on 13 June 2010:
For the next couple weeks we will be reading together from a very interesting letter. The letter of 1 John was written by John, one of the closest disciples of Jesus. We don’t know to what exact persons this letter was first written. It is believed to have been written, interestingly enough, to everyone. It seems that John wrote this letter to the whole church, to all the people of God. As it turns out, that includes us. Among many other readers, of course, John wrote this letter to us.
We do know from where John wrote this letter. He almost assuredly wrote this letter while banished to an island. For years – perhaps as many as 50 years – he had lived among the people of God and taught them and served them and trained them and loved them. Now he lived in isolation, in exile, away from the things he knew and loved.
It is no surprise then that one of the main themes in this letter is fellowship – and especially the joy that come through fellowship.
Another idea that is central to this letter is love. What is love, or more importantly, who is love? It is from 1 John, in fact, that our own culture has learned the one thing that it knows about God: that God is love. It might not realize that this idea comes from 1 John, but it is in this letter that that phrase first occurs.
Turn with me to 1 John and we will read the first chapter.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—-the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—-that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. [vv. 1-4, ESV]
It is important to understand a few things before we continue reading the rest of the letter: First, note how John argues for the reliability of the apostles, their message, and their work.
John was the last living apostle, the last member of Jesus’ closest group. He was the last one who could speak to what they saw, what they heard, what they touched. And he very badly needed to speak to those things because the apostles’ message and work were under attack.
Their enemies were saying that none of what they taught was true – Jesus was not God, he had not said and done the things they claimed, and most importantly he was not raised from the dead. It was all a lie, these opponents said. The apostles had made it all up for their own gain, to trick people into following them.
Does this sound familiar? Do we not hear these same things today? Many years have passed since this letter was written, but the criticism of the Christian message is virtually exactly the same today as it was when John wrote.
But there was John, the last apostle. All the others had been killed for the things they taught. Only John died of natural causes, and there he was writing a letter defending the things he had said and done over the past decades.
And his response to his critics is something along these lines. I was there. I saw and heard and touched these things. Can you make the same claim? I’m an old man and that was a long time ago. But I was there. Which one of us is a more reliable witness to these things?
Moreover, this letter points to the goal or desired outcome of his message and work as further evidence of its authenticity. For what purpose did he teach the things he did? For his own gain? To acquire wealth and popularity? If so, then his plan didn’t work out very well. He was now poor and alone in exile.
Instead, look at what two things he says he hoped to get out of it: fellowship; and joy. Nothing self-centered at all.
Now, just as the criticisms John heard about his teaching about Jesus are virtually the same criticisms we still hear today, our response to those criticisms is still essentially the same as John’s. Why should we believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are telling the truth about Jesus?
First, because they were there. What is the best source of information about something? An eye-witness, of course! When a policeman wants to know how the accident happened, he doesn’t stop a random pedestrian who happens to be coming by the scene 20 minutes later and ask him to analyze the scene and give a hypothesis of what happened. No, he asks the person who was there, who saw and heard what happened.
And if we want to know the facts about Jesus, should we ask an 18th century philosopher who Jesus is? What about a 19th century prophet? A 20th century revolutionary? Obviously, it would be better to get our information from someone who was there!
But what if those apostles were trying to trick us? They had their own reasons for writing those things, right? What if they only said those things for selfish reasons?
Our response is the same as John’s: That can’t be why they wrote what they did because they only received pain for their trouble: some were tortured, all but one was executed, and that one – John – was exiled and, from the perspective of selfish gain, lost everything. They all lost everything. By the standards of wealth and power, they gained nothing at all for what they said about Jesus.
If it was all a lie, they would not have held onto it to the death. Not all of them. Someone would’ve cracked. But none of them ever did. And that’s why we should believe them.
Before we read further, we need to keep in mind what exactly was this message was. What did John teach that got him exiled?
He says his teaching was about the “word of life”. This leads us to one of the most interesting features of this letter. John loves to write things that have double meanings. He loves to make his reader say, “Wait, does he mean this or that?” He does this to make his readers thing. Sometimes it’s even subtly humorous – sometimes he will slip a pun in there, just to see if you catch it. John was definitely not a crotchety old man.
In this case, the double meaning is this: does “word of life” mean the message or the person? That is, by “word of life” does he mean the message that he taught – literally the word that brings life to its hearer?
Or does he mean the person of Jesus himself? In the gospel of John, Jesus is identified as both the Word and the Life. Which does John mean here in his letter, the message or the person?
Of course, when John uses these double meanings, he doesn’t always – or even usually – mean it to be an either/or sort of question. In this case, it’s both. The message is the person. The person of Jesus is the thing John taught, the message that got him banished. Jesus is the word of life, he was with the Father, and he is manifested with us.
Not only was that John’s central teaching, it is the central teaching of the Bible. Not just the gospels or the New Testament either, but the whole thing, from Genesis forward. From the beginning to the end, Yahweh and Jesus are the same, the message of salvation from sin and brokenness is the same, and the people of God – those saved by grace through faith – are the same.
Very often our historians treat Christianity as an offshoot of Judaism, as something new that broke with the old in the middle of the first century. But this is not the case. John’s teaching, what he taught to the people to whom he wrote this letter, was taught centuries before by Isaiah the prophet, by David the king, by Joshua the conqueror, and by Moses, the writer of the first books of the Bible.
And it is the same thing that we read and rely upon today. The person of Jesus – the Word of Life who was with the Father and manifested himself among us – must be the very center of everything we believe and do.
Before we continue reading John’s letter, I’ll just remind you of his purpose in writing it: he desires fellowship, a fellowship that results in joy.
Now, let’s continue reading.
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. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say 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 we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. [vv. 5-10, ESV]
Here John does it again: It’s another metaphor with a double meaning. What does it mean that God is light? Does light mean perfection or illumination? That is, does John mean that God is like a pure light in that he is morally perfect and completely holy? Or does he mean that like a pure light, God both reveals and rolls back the darkness that is in our world?
The answer is, of course, both! Not only is God pure light in the sense that he is the definition of perfect holiness, but also the pure light that is his holiness illuminates everything else.
Everyone who has tried to paint their home knows that there are different shades of white, right? It is only by shining a strong, pure light that a painter can determine what shade of white it really is. In the same way, God’s holiness reveals the true color of everything else. Even those things masquerading as pure white are revealed to be false under his light.
Unfortunately in everything outside himself, the light of God’s holiness reveals sin. Nothing but God himself is true white; nothing but God himself measures up; nothing and no one but God himself is what it should be.
The idea of sin is not popular in our culture. People make mistakes, but they don’t sin. They do things they shouldn’t, but it’s not bad enough to apply the harsh word of sin to it.
Deep down, however, I think everyone knows that they aren’t what they should be. In fact, I think everyone knows that there isn’t one area of their life that is good enough and doesn’t need work.
Do I really love my wife as I should, or am I more interested in how she should love me?
Am I investing in my children, spending time with them and getting involved in their lives, or do I more often than not expect them to come to me?
Are we all not guilty of forming friendships based on what we can get out of it – whether it’s fun or the ego boost, etc? How often do we really consider how we can serve our friends?
Which one of us can say that we are the perfect employee? What is it you would be embarrassed if your boss walked in and found you doing at work?
Can any of us claim to be a great citizen? Aside from paying taxes, are we really doing what we should to serve our communities and make this a better place to live for all of us?
These are just basic things, the kinds of things that everyone would admit we should be doing but the kinds of things that everyone should admit that we are not doing. And these few examples pale in comparison to the pure light of the holy God. We don’t even meet our own standards, let alone his, and yet we deny that we are sinful people.
The most horrible thing about sin is that it destroys fellowship. Every one of us, thanks to our sin, has fractured relationships among our homes, workplaces, churches, communities, and friends. Where there was once common ground, there is now hostility, thanks to our sin.
Think back over your life: have we not all left a wake of broken relationships over the years? Sure, there might have been wrong done on both sides, but if we are honest with ourselves we know that our sin played a central role in each instance.
This is true not only of our human relationships, but of our relationship with God as well. Our sin has permanently broken that relationship. Another writer wrote long ago that our hearts are restless apart from God, but unfortunately our sinfulness has left us permanently apart from God.
Fellowship and joy are the two main themes of this part of John’s letter. Fellowship is destroyed by sin, and when fellowship is destroyed, joy is lost as well. But the good news, the message John taught, the one that got him banished, was that the damage of sin can be reversed! Fellowship can be restored!
How is fellowship restored? John tells us that it is by walking in the light. But he used a double meaning for light, as you might recall. By light he meant both perfection and illumination. Which does he mean when he tells us to walk in the light?
If by “walking in the light” John means that we should strive to be as holy and morally perfect as God is, then we are in trouble. But he cannot mean us to take “walking in the light” this way, because he is quick to point out our complete lack of holiness and moral perfection in vv. 8-10.
He must want us to understand “walking in the light” in terms of the illumination that God’s holiness brings on our lives. It is by pretending that we have no sin, by treating everyone else, including God, as if they are the problem – as if I am the one who is in the right – I am the standard, I am the measure of goodness that everyone else should adjust to. It is this kind of sinful heart that fractures relationships, that destroys fellowship, and consequently destroys true joy.
It is when we confess what we are, what the pure light of God’s holiness has revealed us to be, that the problem is fixed. Only when we confess to God and to each other that I am the problem, not the solution, can these relationships be restored. If we walk in the light in this way, vv. 7 & 9 tell us that the problem of our sin is solved and fellowship is restored.
And this brings us to the last thing that we will look at from this part of John’s letter: Why would God do this? Why would he want to fix the relationship between himself and us? Why would he want to restore that fellowship? I’ll tell you what, if someone had done to me what I’ve done to God, I would never even want to think about them again, let alone see them. Why would he want to befriend me again?
And especially at that cost! To forsake his own Son? Just so he could have a relationship with me? It doesn’t make sense to us. We would never do that for someone else. Thank God that he isn’t like us.
Friends, this is grace. Grace is when God gives us something that we not only don’t deserve, but even worse: we deserve the exact opposite. We deserve for God to say (as we often say), “That’s enough! If you don’t want to have a relationship, that’s fine! We won’t!” Instead, God says, “I love you. I want you. And I will go to any length to restore our fellowship.” For all who are in Christ, that is grace.
And grace is powerful! It changes who we are! Once we have received the grace of God, it causes us to crave fellowship, not just with him, but with each other. As recipients of God’s grace, we begin to be conduits of his grace to each other.
Let us make one thing as plain as possible: Every relationship we have is only really, ultimately possible by God’s grace changing who I am and making me more gracious to those around me. I need to confess my shortcomings and stop pretending that I am the standard by which everyone else around me should live. I will never love my wife or children or coworkers or friends or community or you unless God’s grace has changed my heart and I am communicating his grace to you.
For those who are in Christ, ours is a life of grace! And that phrase, “life of grace”, also has a double meaning: First, we live a life of grace because we are recipients of God’s grace, and everything that we have has been given to us by God’s grace!
And second, we live a life of grace in that we now show grace to those around us. We do not yet do so perfectly, but if we are in Christ, then the grace we have been shown is changing us more and more into a gracious people.
Fellowship has been restored! And joy with it! This is John’s teaching, the one for which he was banished. How amazing and gracious it is that God did not treat us as we treat him, that he did not forever banish us from himself, but has instead revealed to us the Word of Life. Amen.