Abide (1 John 2:18-27)

This sermon was preached on June 4, 2017 by Brian Watson.
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If you’re a Christian, one of the most exciting bits of news that you will ever hear is when someone you know becomes a Christian. If a relative, a friend, a neighbor, or a coworker puts his or her faith in Jesus, you get excited. On the other hand, one of the most distressing things that Christians will experience is seeing someone we thought was a Christian walk away from the church and Jesus. And that’s usually how it works. Usually, a person leaves the church, and then that person stops following Jesus altogether. I don’t mean that this person leaves one church and becomes a member of another one. That happens, and there are good reasons for moving to a new church. I mean someone quits being a part of any church, and then that walks away from Jesus. He or she may not say they have abandoned Christ, but their life doesn’t resemble a Christian one in any discernible way.

We find that not only disturbing and sorrowful, but also confusing. We see people we thought were Christians change, and we wonder why that could ever happen. We wonder if that person “lost their salvation,” or if they had been faking it the whole time. We wonder who might be next, or if that could even happen to us.

Why do some people turn away from Jesus, particularly after they had seemed to follow him? How can we make sure that we don’t turn away from Jesus? These are questions that our passage this morning answers. So, let’s start by reading 1 John 2:18–27:

18 Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. 20 But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. 21 I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth. 22 Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. 23 No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. 24 Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. 25 And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life.

26 I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. 27 But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.[1]

There are three main things in this passage that I want us to see. And they all begin with the letter A: antichrists, anointing, and abiding.

First, let’s talk about antichrists. John begins this passage by referring to the antichrist. In verse 18, he writes, “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour.” Many people get very worked up about the identity of the antichrist or, as the apostle Paul describes him in 2 Thessalonians, “the man of lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2:3). John is the only one who uses the word “antichrist,” which means someone who either is opposed to Jesus or who tries to take the place of Jesus. The Bible indicates that there will be a final person—or perhaps it could be an institution, a movement, or a government—that is opposed to Jesus and will cause trouble for God’s people. But notice here that John doesn’t encourage his readers to speculate about end-time scenarios. He doesn’t encourage us to identify a final antichrist, or to match newspaper headlines with Scripture. His point is that it is already the last hour, and antichrists are already here.

A number of passages in the New Testament indicate that it is already the last hour. We are already living in the end times. This was true in the first century, after Jesus rose from the grave, ascended into heaven, and poured out the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2:17; 2 Tim. 3:1; Heb. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:20; 2 Pet. 3:3; Jude 18) and it’s true today. Theologians often talk about this in terms of “already, not yet.” The kingdom of God is already here but not yet fully established. We can enter into God’s kingdom and live as his servants, but clearly not everyone lives as if Jesus is their King. Satan is already defeated, but not yet fully. And yet, he’s at work in the world and will do more before it’s all said and done. And, in a similar way, the antichrist is already here, but not yet. The spirit of antichrist is already present, but the final and ultimate manifestation of the antichrist isn’t here yet. In 1 John 4:3, John writes, “This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.”

And what does this spirit of antichrist look like? According to that same verse I just quoted, every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is the spirit of antichrist. John specifically says that every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God (1 John 4:2). It seems that some people thought that Jesus didn’t actually become a man, but that he only seemed to have a real human body. This false teaching would later be known as Docetism.

That’s one way to be against Jesus, to deny what the Bible says about him. If we deny that he is both truly God and truly man, we are against Jesus. That’s why we can say the Jehovah’s Witnesses are antichrists. They don’t believe that Jesus is God, as equally divine as the Father. Ironically, Jehovah’s Witnesses think that we’re antichrists because we believe in the Trinity and that Jesus is God. Their website says that one of the way to identify antichrists is: “They promote false ideas related to Jesus. (Matthew 24:9, 11) For example, those who teach the Trinity or that Jesus is Almighty God actually oppose the teachings of Jesus, who said: ‘The Father is greater than I am.’—John 14:28.”[2] But Jesus said other things. Even in John’s Gospel, he claims to be “I am,” which is a reference back to several passages in the book of Isaiah that are used of God (Isa. 41:4; 43:10, 13, 25; 46:4). And what’s interesting is that in those passages in Isaiah, God declares that there is no other God (Isa. 44:8; 45:5, 21; 46:9). The Bible states that there is only one God, and yet the Father, the Son, and the Spirit—we call them three Persons—are all God. To deny what the Bible says about Jesus’ identity is to be an antichrist.

Of course, another way to be against Christ is to deny what Jesus did in dying on the cross and to deny what Jesus taught about various subjects. And we see these heresies promoted today, too. Islam denies that Jesus is God’s Son and that he died on the cross. And many people deny what Jesus says about sin and salvation. Polycarp, an early Christian theologian, said,

“For everyone ‘who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is antichrist’ [1 John 4:2–3]; and whoever does not acknowledge the testimony of the cross ‘is of the devil’ [1 John 3:8]; and whoever twists the sayings of the Lord to suit his own sinful desires and claims that there is neither resurrection nor judgment—well, that person is the first-born of Satan.”[3] Polycarp didn’t mince words there.

In this passage, John tells us how we can recognize antichrists. In verse 19, he writes,

“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” These people, who apparently were teaching false things about Jesus, left the churches that John is writing to. Why did they leave? “There were not of us.” That seems to be John’s way of saying that they never were Christians to begin with. They only appeared to be Christians.

We know that these people were not truly Christians because they didn’t receive the anointing that John talks about in verse 20 and also in verse 27. This anointing must be the Holy Spirit. In other words, these antichrists never received the Holy Spirit. They weren’t born again. It’s not as though they had the Holy Spirit and then he left them. It’s not as though they were born again and then somehow became spiritually dead. It’s not as though they had real faith and then lost it. In short, it’s not that they “lost their salvation.” They never had it to begin with.

I can say that confidently for two reasons. One, the Bible the talks about false professions of faith. Think of Jesus’ parable of the sower. A man sows seed, which is the word of God, on four different types of soil. One is the path. The seed doesn’t take root at all. The second soil is rocky ground, and the seeds seem to grow. However, those plants wither because “they had no root.” The third soil has thorns, which choke out the growth of the plants. And the fourth soil is good soil, which produces grain that grows. When Jesus explains the rocky soil, he says that it represents “the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.” In other words, it’s someone who appears to have had a real conversion experience, but that person’s faith isn’t enduring. Jesus says that the soil with thorns “is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” I don’t think either of these soils represent real Christians. (See Matt. 13:1–9, 18–23 for the parable and Jesus’ explanation of it.) Jesus’ point is that not all will receive the word of God. Some appear to receive it but they don’t last. Only the one who bears fruit is really alive.

The second reason I can confidently say that these antichrists were never really Christians is because the Bible says that conversion is an act of God from start to finish, and God’s power guards and keeps those who are truly born again. For example, we can look at 1 Peter 1:3–5:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

Notice that Peter says that the God “has caused us to be born again.” We don’t cause ourselves to be born again. Also, the inheritance we are promised is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for” us. It is God’s power that guards our salvation. As someone has said, “If we could lose our salvation, we would.” But God guards and keeps it for us. We have to work as Christians, but God is the one who empowers that work (see Phil. 2:12–13).

Another passage is Romans 8:29–30, which shows that God is the one in control of the whole process of salvation:

29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

God foreknew people. In other words, he had set his covenant love on them before they even existed. And he predestined them to be conformed to the image of Jesus, to be saved. He called them by sending the gospel message to them through evangelists, preachers, and ordinary Christians like you and me. When they came to faith, they were justified, made right in his eyes. And these people will be glorified, which is another way of saying perfected. They will be resurrected to eternal life in a body that cannot die. Paul views this as such a done deal that he uses the past tense when he says God “also glorified” these people, as if it was already a reality.

The point is that those who are really Christians don’t fall away from Jesus. But the Bible does teach that there are people who can appear to be Christians who fall away. And their falling away shows that they were not “of us.” There were not transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I’ll come back to the implications of that, but for not I want to talk about the anointing that John is referring to. That’s the second thing we see in this passage. In verse 20, John writes,

“But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge.” The Holy One is Jesus (cf. John 6:69), and the anointing he gives is of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus gives to his people. Those who receive the Spirit also have real knowledge of Jesus. They know the truth, which is what John says in verse 21: “I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth.” The false teachers probably were teaching that they had some secret, elite, more profound knowledge of Jesus. But John says, “No, don’t believe that. What you were taught when you heard the gospel message is true. That’s the real message about Jesus.”

Think about it this way: In order to come to faith in Jesus, we need to hear the gospel message. We need to know some basic, true things about Jesus. We need to know who he is and what he has done for us. That doesn’t mean we must know the whole Bible, or have the most precise theology. But it means we need to know that Jesus is divine, that he alone lived the perfect life and that his death on the cross is the only way our sins can be paid for. In other words, we need to know that Jesus is God and our only hope of being reconciled to God. We should grow in our knowledge of God and his word, but those basic truths remain unchanged. If we hear anything contrary to that message, we must reject it. John’s concern was that the false teachers who had departed the churches he was writing to would try to deceive his readers. And he encourages them to cling to the truth.

The reason John is so adamant about rejecting a different message can be found in verses 22 and 23: “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” Whoever rejects what the Bible teaches about Jesus doesn’t have a right relationship with God. I like what David Jackson writes about this: “If an individual does not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the Christ, God’s own Son, sent from the Father, then he is (literally) against Christ. This means that he cannot be in a right relationship to God the Father, for he is denying the whole basis on which such a fellowship could exist.”[4]

In fact, without the anointing of the Holy Spirit, we all would deny Christ. The only way we can see the kingdom of God and enter into it is if the Holy Spirit causes us to be born again. We wouldn’t trust Jesus and know him truly if it were not for the Holy Spirit. In writing to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul said, “I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3).

Not only will the Holy Spirit empower someone to confess faith in Jesus, but the Holy Spirit also empowers people to continue to trust Jesus and live for him. In other words, the Holy Spirit causes us to abide in Christ. And that’s the third thing we see in this passage. In verses 24 and 25, John writes, “Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life.” Those who are true Christians will stay connected to Jesus. They will rest in him, trusting that he has done all the work necessary for them to be reconciled to the Father. They will follow him, knowing that his is the only path to eternal life. They will obey him because he is King. John encourages them to continue trusting the gospel message that they heard when they first came to faith. The way of a Christian isn’t always easy in this life, but it’s the only way to eternal life. That is the great promise for those who follow Jesus.

In verse 26, John again warns his readers not to be deceived. And in verse 27, he says that they don’t need what the false teachers are peddling, because they have the Spirit’s anointing. Let’s read those verses again: “I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.”

John’s desire for his readers—and for all Christians—not to be deceived is understandable. If there’s a truth about who Jesus is and what he’s done, and if knowing the true Jesus is the only way to God and the only way to have eternal life, then it’s important that we know the truth and remain committed to it. Verse 27, however, can be misunderstood. John says that his reader “have no need that anyone should teach you.” John can’t mean that they don’t require any teaching at all. If that’s what he meant, then why would he write them a letter which teaches them? It wouldn’t make sense for John to say, “I’m teaching you that you don’t need a teacher” if he means that they don’t need any teaching at all. John probably means that Christians don’t need anyone to teach something different than the gospel they have already heard. As David Jackson puts it, “Every Christian knows the truth because without it he could not be a Christian. But the fact that anyone knows it at all is attributable solely to the gift of God’s grace, in the person and work of the Holy Spirit.”[5] The false teachers were offering a secret knowledge of Jesus, one different from what the apostles preached. John was saying, in effect, “You don’t need anything else. You already know the real Jesus. The Holy Spirit produced in you real faith in the real Jesus. Don’t be deceived.”

The truth is that we do need teachers in the church. The apostle Paul says that Jesus gave the church pastors and teachers, which probably means pastor-teachers (Eph. 4:11). Pastor-teachers feed Christians the nourishing food that is the word of God. Pastor-teachers protect the flock from false teaching. Pastor-teachers equip the saints for ministry, so that they can be effective in their service and witness. John isn’t contradicting Paul. We need to read this passage in context. And we should understand that John is writing to churches. All the “yous” of verse 27 are in the plural. We tend to read the Bible in very individualistic ways, but John wasn’t writing to isolated individuals. The Holy Spirit dwells in Christians individually, but also collectively. He is in their midst, in the churches. He has given the spiritual gift of leadership and teaching to some in the church. The church needs them. And the church has the Spirit’s word, the Bible. They don’t need to hear a different message.

In a way, this is the equivalent of Paul’s words to the Galatians, when he writes, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). There is no other news about Jesus that Christians need to embrace.

John’s words about not needing another teacher relate to the promise of the new covenant. The new covenant promise is made in the prophets. In Jeremiah, we are told that members of the new covenant would have God’s law written on their hearts, that they would know God, and that their sins would be forgiven (Jer. 31:31–34). In Ezekiel, we read that God would cleanse them and give them the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:25–27). So, God’s law is written on his people’s hearts by means of the Holy Spirit. And Jeremiah 31:34 says, “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.” Every member of the new covenant knows the Lord. They don’t need someone to teach them that.

Perhaps this is John’s way of saying that there won’t be a newer covenant. The new covenant is the only one we need. The covenant is God’s terms of dealing with his people. His people are those who trust Jesus, who have been forgiven for all their wrongdoing, and who are led by the Holy Spirit. If anyone comes along claiming they have another covenant, they should be rejected. The word “testament” refers to a covenant. The Mormons claim to have “another testament of Jesus Christ.” I believe John would call them antichrists. If anyone says that Jesus has changed, or that there’s new information about Jesus that no one has previously known, that person should be rejected.

So, what does this mean for us? What does this passage teach us and how should we live in light of it?

First, this passage explains, at least in part, why some people who seem to be Christians walk away from the faith. They do so because they were never really Christians to begin with. They did not have the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Still, this is confusing for us. Why would people who appeared to be Christians, who appeared to be sincere and passionate, later turn their backs on Jesus? Personally, I have seen men who have gone to seminary and were part of church plants later renounce what they claimed to believe. Why would they ever go to seminary in the first place?

The answer is that people are attracted to Christianity for different reasons. Some people, and this is true of children, aren’t settled in what they believe. That’s why some people who grew up in Christian homes, made a profession of faith when they were young, and were baptized don’t persevere in the faith. Children are impressionable. They will change when they are adolescents and young adults. That’s why there used to a be a tradition of baptizing people only after were adults. A number of Baptist pastors in the nineteenth century wouldn’t baptize their own children until they were at least 18. This includes Charles Spurgeon.[6]

Still others are attracted to Christianity because they confuse the gospel with something related to Christianity. I have seen people who seemed to be Christians come to Christianity because they like what it says about social justice and peace. They like what it says about loving other people. But those same people are quick to change their views on Jesus and his teachings when the prevailing culture changes. They hang on to Christian views on social justice—at least some forms of social justice—but reject orthodox Christian theology. That’s because they never really were passionate about the gospel. They confused a byproduct of the gospel with the gospel itself.

Other people have turned away from Christianity because they assumed that patriotism, politics, and the American dream are inherent to Christianity. When they saw Christians supporting political issues that they objected to, or that they thought were contrary to Christian principles, they were turned off. They thought, “If that’s Christianity, I want no part of it.” This is a real problem, one that Christians in America have contributed to. Whenever we confuse the gospel with other issues, or when we marry Christianity with a political party or a blind and uncritical love of country, we are being poor ambassadors for Christ. We aren’t representing our King well when we do that and, whether we realize it or not, we are communicating a distorted gospel.

That is why it is so important to be clear about the gospel. The good news of Christianity isn’t “join this political party,” or, “if we only get the right person in the White House/Congress/Supreme Court, then we’ll be saved.” The good news of Christianity isn’t “be a nice person” or “just get along with others.” The good news of Christianity is that although were made to worship and love and serve God, and yet have rebelled against God by ignoring him and rejecting him, God sent his one and only Son into the world to save us. The Son of God became a man, born as Jesus of Nazareth, and he lived the perfect life we don’t live. He always did what was right. He always loved God supremely and loved other people perfectly. Yet he died for our sins. He died to pay the penalty for our rebellion. And whoever puts his or her trust in Jesus, who loves him and follows him, who swears their allegiance to Jesus, not a country or a political party, is reconciled to God. That person is made right in God’s eyes not because of anything they have done, but because of everything Jesus has done. This is a gift given by God, not something we earn. That is the heart of Christianity. Don’t ever confuse the gospel with anything else.

Here is a second issue for us all: Are we truly for or against Jesus? In other words, are we Christians or antichrists? Jesus once said, “Whoever is not with is me is against me” (Matt. 12:30; Luke 11:23). We are either for Jesus or against him. There is no neutral ground. Is Jesus our King or not? Is he our Lord, our Master, as well our Savior and Friend? We are either living for him or we are against him. We either have a real relationship with him, which includes true knowledge of his identity and his works, or we don’t.

That leads me to a third issue: We should examine ourselves. Augustine, in a sermon on this passage, said, “each person ought to question his own conscience, whether he be an antichrist.”[7] You may think that is an odd thing to do, to question whether you are indeed for or against Jesus. But the apostle Paul says the same thing. In 2 Corinthians 13:5, he says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” I believe the Bible teaches eternal security: “once saved, always saved.” But the question is whether someone has actually been saved in the first place. The question is whether a person has been born again, transformed by God, anointed by the Holy Spirit. We should examine ourselves and ask, “Why am I a Christian? Do I really love Jesus? Do I really believe the gospel? Does my life line up with what I say I believe? Am I moving closer to Jesus or am I drifting away from him?” I would simply ask you, why are you here? Are you here because you know the truth and are grateful? Are you here because you know you need Jesus and his grace? Or are you here thinking you’ve done your religious duty and now God owes you something? These are all questions we should ask of ourselves. Ask God to reveal to you your true spiritual condition. Like David, we should say:

23  Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
24  And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting! (Ps. 139:23–24)

Fourth, and finally, we need to abide in Christ. We need to take our faith seriously. We stay close to Jesus by using God’s regular means of grace, things like reading the Bible, praying, and being part of a local church. If you stop doing these things, it’s spiritually dangerous. And I do think that being a part of a local church—not just showing up for an hour on Sunday, but getting involved as much as you can—is a very important part of abiding in Christ. Those who drift away from Jesus usually drift away from the church first. That is a very dangerous thing to do. If we see someone who has done that, don’t assume that because they once made a profession of faith and were baptized that they’re okay with God. They’re probably not. They may very well be in danger of going to hell. It is completely appropriate to reach out to that person and show concern for their soul. I think that’s why James ends his letter with these words:

19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19–20)

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. https://www.jw.org/en/bible-teachings/questions/antichrist.
  3. “The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians,” 7, in Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 213–215.
  4. David Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters: Living in the Love of God, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 69–70.
  5. Ibid., 72.
  6. See Mark E. Dever, “Baptism in the Context of the Local Church,” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, NAC Studies in Bible and Theology (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2006), 344–350.
  7. Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” 3.4, in St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. H. Browne and Joseph H. Myers, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 476.

 

Do Not Love the World (1 John 2:12-17)

This sermon was preached on May 21, 2017 by Brian Watson.
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Today, we’re celebrating a baptism. Baptism is a ceremony that has great significance. It signifies a change in a person. God has transferred the person who is being baptized out of the realm of darkness and into the kingdom of light. That person has gone from spiritual death to spiritual life. The old self has died and the new self is risen in Jesus Christ.

Baptism also signifies cleansing. The person being baptized has been washed of her sins, completely forgiven because Jesus paid the penalty for her sins and because his perfect life is credited to her.

Baptism is also a ceremony that demonstrates a commitment. I compare it to a wedding ceremony. That may seem strange at first, but they share a lot in common. They are public ceremonies held before witnesses, both God and the people who are gathered. They demonstrate a change in identity. They are outward signs of something that has already happened internally. The rite of baptism represents the internal faith that a Christian has, as well as the cleansing that person has already received. (I should be clear that the rite of baptism doesn’t impart faith or saving grace.) A wedding is a sign of a commitment that two people have already made to each other. They already love each other and have agreed to live their lives together. Now, before witnesses, they make promises. In a similar way, baptism is saying “I do” to Jesus in front of the witnesses of a local church. And I think this analogy isn’t a stretch because the Bible often likens the relationship between God and his people to a marriage. That’s why we call the church the “bride of Christ.”

As we think about baptism and the commitment it entails, we should consider what it means to be a Christian. We’ve already been doing that in recent weeks as we’ve been looking at 1 John, a letter written by one of Jesus’ initial followers, the apostle John. This week’s passage, 1 John 2:12–17, fits baptism well because it talks about the commitment that Christians make when following Jesus.

The passage is divided into two halves. The first half, verses 12–14, is a bit like a poem. John has written some tough words in the previous verses. He says that those who don’t obey God don’t know him, and that those who don’t specifically obey the commandment to love others don’t know Jesus. After such stern words, John wants to encourage his readers. This poem does that.[1] Let’s read verses 12–14 to see how John addresses his readers.

12  I am writing to you, little children,
because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake.
13  I am writing to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young men,
because you have overcome the evil one.
I write to you, children,
because you know the Father.
14  I write to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men,
because you are strong,
and the word of God abides in you,
and you have overcome the evil one.[2]

I’ll have to admit that in the past I have found these verses to be a bit perplexing. I didn’t really understand what John meant. But after studying the passage, I understand it a lot better. First of all, notice the structure. In verses 12 and 13, John addresses “little children,” “fathers,” and “young men.” At the very end of verse 13 in the ESV, we read of “children,” and then in verse 14, we read of “fathers” and “young men.”[3] So, it seems that this little poem has an A-B-C, A-B-C structure. In other words, it has two halves, and each half addresses “children,” “fathers,” and “young men.”

Now, are these supposed to be three groups of people? It seems that when John writes to “little children” or “children,” he is addressing all Christians, because throughout the letter he uses this term to address all Christians (2:1, 12, 13, 18, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21). John says that the sins of the children of God have been forgiven “for his name’s sake.” This is a translation that seems to hang on to what we find in the King James Version. A better translation would be “through his name,” or “on account of his name.” The “his” is Jesus. His name represents his character, his identity, his person. His name literally means “God saves” or “God is salvation.” Because Jesus is God incarnate, who lived the perfect life that God requires of his people and died an atoning death, all who have a right relationship with him are forgiven of their sins. This is true of all Christians. It is also true that all Christians know the Father.

It would seem that John then addresses two groups of Christians. First, he addresses the “fathers.” This is probably a term used for older Christians. And then, he addresses “young men,” which probably refers to younger Christians. Both times, John says that the “fathers” know “him who is from the beginning.” That’s Jesus. The older Christians know Jesus. They don’t just know facts about him. They have a right relationship with him. They know who the real Jesus is, and they are united to him. Perhaps John is writing this because, as we’ll see next week, one of the problem that he addresses in this letter is false teachers. There were people in the churches he is writing to who didn’t know the real Jesus. But true Christians know, love, worship, and obey the true Jesus.

The younger Christians, the “young men,” “have overcome the evil one,” Satan. They are strong. The word of God abides in them. Putting that all together, we might they have the strength to overcome Satan because the word of God abides in them. The word of God is Jesus, but it’s also the message concerning Jesus. Jesus dwells in these believers by means of the Holy Spirit, and they have clung to the gospel message. This is the same thing that John writes in Revelation 12:11: “they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” The only way that anyone can overcome Satan is by knowing Jesus, having the Holy Spirit indwelling the believer, and clinging fast to God’s word.

To sum it up: “children” refer to all Christians; “fathers” refers to older Christians; and “young men” refers to younger Christians. Augustine, in one of his sermons on 1 John, sums it nicely: “In the sons, birth: in the fathers, antiquity: in the young men, strength.”[4] All children of God are spiritually reborn. Older Christians have a more experienced knowledge of God. And younger Christians possess the strength of the young.

I don’t think we should get hung up on the fact that John uses male language of “fathers” and “young men.” When we read “brothers” in the letters of the Bible, it’s clear that women are also included. When masculine plural nouns are used in this way, they refer both to men and women. Truly, all Christians, whether young or old, male or female, know God and have overcome the evil one. Older Christians should have a greater knowledge of God that they can pass on to younger generations. Younger Christians can be strong in their zeal and what they can do for Jesus, but they must find their strength in Jesus and they must hold fast to Scripture.

John’s main point is that we know we are Christians if we do these things. John also uses this little poem to prepare for another strong commandment. Part of living in the light and obeying God is to give our ultimate allegiance to God. Let’s read verses 15–17 to see what John says.

15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

At first, this commandment seems impossible. If we only read, “Do not love the world or the things in the world,” we might think that we can’t love other people, because, after all, they are in the world. And wouldn’t that contradict what John has already written? In verse 10, John writes, “Whoever loves his brother abides in the light.”

To understand what John means, we have to look carefully at how John defines “world.” Here’s one thing we need to keep in mind: Sometimes, “world” or “earth” simply refers to this planet and has a neutral meaning. And we know from other parts of the Bible that God made everything and it is his. Psalm 24:1 says,

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein.

But “the world” can have another meaning. “Sometimes the world is seen as an organized system of human civilization and activity which is opposed to God and alienated from him.”[5] First John 3:13 says, “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you.” James 4:4 says, “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” Clearly, John has this negative sense of “the world” in mind.

Here’s a second thing we need to keep in mind: When interpreting one part of Scripture, we can’t pit it against other Scripture. If all Scripture is God-breathed, and is God’s word, we should expect harmony. From the rest of the Bible, we know that when God made the world, he initially made it good (Genesis 1). Though the power of sin is at work in the world, we can still enjoy God’s creation. Another apostle, Paul, tells his younger associate Timothy about people who forbid eating certain foods and even marrying. He says that this isn’t right. Paul’s reason? “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4–5). Paul also says that God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). I don’t think John is teaching a different message than Paul. John doesn’t mean we can’t love other people or enjoy things that God has made.

So, here is the third thing to keep in mind: If we are going to understand what John means by “the world,” we need to pay careful attention to how he defines it. We find a definition in verse 16: “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.” The real problem isn’t the things in the world. The problem is our desires and our pride. Almost anything in the world can be used in a positive way or a negative way. The things themselves are generally neutral. The real problem is our relationship to those things. When John warns us about loving the world, he means that we shouldn’t love the world more than we love God, or even as much as we love God. If our love for God’s creation leads us to covet and lust, and to take pride in our possessions, then we have a great problem. One commentator that I’ve been studying is Robert Yarbrough, who writes, “to set one’s heart on the world is effectively to expel God from the heart. To attempt to love God in multitasking fashion, dedicating a portion of one’s love worldward and then the remaining amount godward, is fruitless because it fails to acknowledge God as he truly is: sole, unique, sovereign, alone deserving one’s core allegiance.”[6]

The problem, really, is our desires. We crave things that God doesn’t want us to have. Some theologians see a hint of Eve’s temptation here. She craved the forbidden fruit after Satan tempted her. She saw “that it was a delight to the eyes” (Gen. 3:6). Her pride caused her to want to “be like God” (Gen. 3:5). Whether John had Eve (and Adam) in mind, we all are like Eve: We crave what we don’t have, we see things we covet, and we tend to rely on our possessions. Instead of being content with what God has given us and relying on the Giver, we make the gift ultimate and we want more and more.

Because of our sinful condition, we tend to make even good gifts ultimate things in our lives. When we do that, we ignore the Giver. I quoted Augustine, one of the church’s most influential theologians, earlier. In one of his sermons on 1 John, he said that we tend to make the things of this world the objects of our worship. He said,

God does not forbid you to love these things, nevertheless, [God commands] not to set your affections upon them for blessedness, but to approve and praise them to this end, that you may love your Creator. In the same manner, my brothers, as if a bridegroom should make a ring for his bride, and she having received the ring, should love it more than she loves the bridegroom who made the ring for her: would not her soul be found guilty of adultery in the very gift of the bridegroom, however she did but love what the bridegroom gave her? By all means let her love what the bridegroom gave: yet should she say, “This ring is enough for me, I do not wish to see his face now:” what sort of woman would she be? Who would not detest such folly? who not pronounce her guilty of an adulterous mind?[7]

Wouldn’t it be strange if a man proposed to his girlfriend and she took the engagement ring and said, “Thanks, but now that I have this ring, I don’t require your services anymore”? Wouldn’t it also be strange if she said, “You gave me this modest ring? Why didn’t you give me a bigger diamond? Don’t you know I want platinum and not gold?” Augustine says that we are like that woman. We take the good things that God has given us but we don’t want a relationship with God. Or we’re not content with what God has given us and we want more and more.

That’s the problem with our cravings. In fact, there are several problems with loving the world in this ultimate way, as opposed to loving God. One, when we covet and lust and desire more and more, we aren’t grateful. We don’t really love the Giver. Instead, we take the gift and ignore the One who gave it to us. We don’t thank him. We don’t want a relationship with him. And we certainly don’t want him to be our King. Our problem is that we don’t want God to be our authority. We don’t trust that he is a good King. Something or someone else fills that role of authority in our lives. Jesus said that we cannot serve two masters. We will end up hating one and loving the other, or being devoted to one and not the other (Matt. 6:24). We often think we can handle the role of King, and so we reject God. When we reject God, we think we’re free.

But this leads us to another problem with loving the world in the way that John write about. Two, the person who follows every urge isn’t free. That person is enslaved by his or her desires. And that person is never happy and never satisfied. He’s like someone who is thirsty but only has salt water to drink. The salt water never quenches his thirst. In fact, it increases his thirst.[8]

That is because the goods of the world can’t satisfy us. They hold out that promise, of course, but it’s all a cheat. So many of us long for things that we will never get, like riches and power and fame and the world’s greatest entertainments. But even if we did get them, we would find that, though nice, they don’t live up to their billing. They would leave us wanting more. They would leave us asking, “Is that all there is?”

A third problem is that, as John puts is, “the world is passing away.” All the things we crave don’t last. The things we take pride in aren’t eternal. There are so many good things that we can misuse my making them ultimate things in our lives. We can do that with our marriages. Marriage is a good gift, but your spouse can never be your Lord and Savior. And our marriages have expiration dates. Some people make their children their idols. But our relationship with children may not last, and they certainly will disappoint us. Some people live for entertainment and pleasure, but those are the shortest-lasting things that exist. The same is true for sex. All of the things that we tend to desire the most don’t last. How foolish are we to put our trust in them? Especially when our lives are short and our deaths are inevitable?

Blaise Pascal once wrote, “You do not need a greatly elevated soul to realize that in this life there is no true and firm satisfaction, that all our pleasures are simply vanity, that our afflictions are infinite, and lastly that death, which threatens us at every moment, must in a few years infallibly present us with the appalling necessity of being either annihilated or wretched for all eternity.”[9] In other words, you don’t have to be particularly smart or astute to know that all our pleasures don’t satisfy, that they’re empty, that our pain is great, and that death threatens to put an end to us. If you’re an atheist, you assume that death means annihilation, the end, full stop. But if there’s a heaven and a hell, then there’s something infinitely worse, a wretched experience for all eternity. This should force us to wake up, to take a more serious look at what matters in life.

Elsewhere, Pascal has the following meditation:

When I consider the short span of my life absorbed into the preceding and subsequent eternity . . . , the small space which I fill and even can see, swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which knows nothing of me, I am terrified, and surprised to find myself here rather than there, for there is no reason why it should be here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who put me here? On whose orders and on whose decision have this place and this time been allotted to me?[10]

If we think about our lives in the grand spaces of time and of the universe, we should be terrified. Who are we? We’re just specks of dust in a massive universe. What do we matter? Compared to eternity, our lives are but mists. Why should we live here and now? Why should we exist? Who put us here? The fact that our lives come and go in the vast spaces of eternity should cause us to ask questions. And, if we’re wise, we should want to grab on to something eternal.

In the same sermon I quoted earlier, Augustine says that the one eternal thing we can hold onto is Jesus. He says

The river of temporal things hurries one along: but like a tree sprung up beside the river is our Lord Jesus Christ. He assumed flesh, died, rose again, ascended into heaven. It was His will to plant Himself, in a manner, beside the river of the things of time. Are you rushing down the stream to the headlong deep? Hold fast the tree. Is love of the world whirling you on? Hold fast Christ. For you He became temporal, that you might become eternal; because He also in such sort became temporal, that He remained still eternal. Something was added to Him from time, not anything went from His eternity. But you were born temporal, and by sin were made temporal: you were made temporal by sin, He was made temporal by mercy in remitting sins.[11]

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like life is “rushing down the stream to the headlong deep.” Time moves quickly, and it only moves in one direction. We all have the experience of having time evade our grasp. We can’t hold on to the best moments and we can’t go back in time to fix the bad ones. And as we get older, time seems to move more swiftly. But Jesus is the eternal one who entered time to make us eternal. If we hold fast to him, though the world passes away, we will not.

John tells us that whoever does the will of God abides forever. We don’t get eternal life by doing the will of God, as if eternal life is something we could ever earn. That’s not the gospel. Eternal life is a gift received by those who trust in Jesus. In fact, we can say that Jesus is the only one who truly loved the Father more than he loved the world. He loved the Father more than the world for the sake of the world. He is the one who was able to resist the desires of this world. Augustine says that Satan tried to tempt Jesus with the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life. According to Augustine,

By these three was the Lord tempted of the devil. By the lust of the flesh He was tempted when it was said to Him, “If you are the Son of God, speak to these stones that they become bread,” when He hungered after His fast. . . . He was tempted also by the lust of the eyes concerning a miracle, when he said to Him, “Cast yourself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning you: and in their hands they shall bear you up, lest at any time you dash your foot against a stone.” . . . By “pride of life” how was the Lord tempted? When he carried Him up to a high place, and said to Him, “All these will I give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” By the loftiness of an earthly kingdom he wished to tempt the King of all worlds: but the Lord who made heaven and earth trod the devil under foot.[12]

Jesus did what we can’t do, live the perfect life, for us.

Those who follow Jesus will follow in his footsteps. They don’t love the world in the way that John writes about. They love God first and foremost. They can love other people and the world, but not in a way that competes with their love for God. And, as John says earlier in his letter, those who have eternal life confess their sin, are cleansed, obey God, and love others. These are all signs of a Christian.

In fact, there’s a clear connection between verses 12–14 and verses 15–17. The ones whom John addresses in verses 12–14 are the ones who don’t love the world more than they love God. They are the ones who do the will of God. Their love for God and their obedience to God are daily realities. But those who love the world more than they love God, who love the gift but not the Giver, are the ones who do not overcome the evil one. They will not receive eternal life because they don’t walk in the light.

What does this mean for us? I see two important applications from this passage, one that is implied in verses 12–14 and one that is quite clear in verses 15–17.

In his little poem, John talks about older and younger Christians. In an ideal world, older Christians would be mature and would have a great knowledge of God. In the real world, I have seen older people who have been very immature in their faith, who have been selfish and demanded that things in church be done “their way,” and who haven’t had great theological knowledge. That shouldn’t be the case. Older Christians should have great wisdom, knowledge, and experience, and they should pass that on to younger Christians. John doesn’t say that here, but that is a very biblical concept. If you take your faith seriously and are living in light of eternity, and if you’re a “father” of the church, you should mentor someone younger. Older Christians, what are you doing now to pass on your knowledge and wisdom to younger generations? If you’re not doing anything along these lines, why not? Is the love of the world stopping you?

Younger Christians, you should also pay heed to what John says. You may have physical strength, but do you have spiritual strength? Are you overcoming the evil one by clinging to the word of God? Do you know the word of God? It is so important to know the Bible and to hold fast to the gospel message. In John’s day, people had left the churches because they had abandoned the faith that John and the other apostles taught. If you don’t know the word of God, you may be like those people whom John describes in verse 19: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.” Real Christians abide in Christ by doing the simple things like reading the Bible and praying on a daily basis and being a part of the church. False Christians have a superficial knowledge of God’s word. They won’t overcome the evil one; instead, they will be overcome.

The second application for us comes from verses 15–17. We should love God more than anything else, and we should take our faith seriously. We should live in light of eternity. So many things in this world will pass away. So much of what we waste our time on will be gone and will be forgotten. Much of what seems important right now won’t even be a footnote in the pages of history. That’s true of stories in the news. It’s true of sports and entertainment. It’s true of our hobbies. And if our love for any of these things has displaced our love for God, we’re in trouble. At the least, it harms our relationship with God and keeps us from experiencing fully his presence, love, and blessings. It also keeps us from being effective Christians. At worst, our disordered desires and loves may be a sign that we aren’t really Christians.

This passage should cause all of us to reassess our lives. Do we love the world as much we love God? Do we love the world more than we love God? If so, then the things that God has created have become idols to us. We get more joy of them than we get joy from God. We trust them to fulfill us more than we trust God. We’re more committed to them than we’re committed to God. Some of us are more committed to our hobbies than we are to God. If your hobby keeps you from worshiping God, from committing to the local church, then you need to repent. We must continue to worship together each Lord’s Day, to serve in the church and be served. We shouldn’t be like the bride who takes the ring from the groom and then ignores him.

Some of us may covet what we don’t have. We may wish we had more of what others have, what the world offers. If that is the case, we should consider what God has given to us and be thankful. Enjoy what God has given you to enjoy, and let those gifts lead you to praise the Giver. Don’t be like the woman who, upon receiving the engagement ring, asks, “Is this the best ring you could give me?”

Some of us may take pride in our possessions, trusting them instead of trusting in God. We may be like the woman who says, “Look at my ring” instead of “look at my husband,” the one who takes pride in the gift instead of the Giver. Remember that your possessions will pass away. They won’t die to pay for your sins. They won’t forgive you if you don’t take care of them. But Jesus did die for your sins, and he has forgiven you and will forgive you. If you’ve been baptized, if you professed your “I do” to Jesus, then continue to trust in him. He is the only Savior, the eternal God who entered into history to save temporal man. And if you haven’t said “I do” to Jesus, I would urge you to do that today. Everything else will pass away and fade into the abyss.

Notes

  1. I got this insight from David Helm, on Nancy Guthrie’s podcast, “Help Me Teach Me the Bible.”
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. Some translations have verse 14 start with the second address to “children.” This represents the versification of the United Bible Society’s latest Greek New Testament.
  4. Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” in St. Augustine: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. H. Browne and Joseph H. Myers, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 471.
  5. David Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters: Living in the Love of God, The Bible Speaks Today (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 60.
  6. Robert W. Yarbrough, 1–3 John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 130.
  7. Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” 473. I modernized the language in this quote for ease of comprehension.
  8. I got the salt water illustration from David Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters: Living in the Love of God, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 63: “It is like drinking salt water. Far from bringing satisfaction, the unquenchable thirst is in fact increased, and that is no way for a child of God to live.”
  9. Blaise Pascal, “Pensées,” §681, in Penseées and Other Writings, trans Honor Levi, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 160.
  10. Ibid., §102, p. 26.
  11. Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” 473. Again, I modernized the language slightly in order to understand it better.
  12. Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” 474–475. Again, I modernized Augustine’s language.

 

An Old and New Commandment (1 John 2:7-11)

This sermon was preached on May 14, 2017 by Brian Watson.
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“How do you know?” That’s a simple but very important question. There are all kinds of “How do you know?” questions:

“How do you know which career to pick?”

“How do you know who you should marry?”

“How do you know your life matters?”

“How do you know someone loves you?”

“How do you know everything will be okay?”

“How do you know whom to trust?”

“How do you know what happens after death?”

“How do you know you’re a good person?”

“How do you know what God is like?”

“How do you know that you truly know God and have a right relationship with him?”

We started studying John’s first letter a few weeks ago, and one of things that John wants the readers of this letter to know is whether they truly know God or not. He wants them to be certain that they are God’s children, that they have right relationships with God and therefore have eternal life.

Throughout this letter, John gives us a series of tests. In chapter 1, he says that if we say we don’t have sin, we’re deceived, we don’t know God, and we’re calling God a liar. John’s point is that every human being who has walked this earth has a sin issue. We all have rebelled against God. Well, every human being except one, and that’s Jesus.

In the beginning of chapter 2, John says Jesus is our advocate and atoning sacrifice. He says that we can know we know Jesus if we keep his commandments. If we say we’re Christians but don’t obey Jesus, we’re liars and the truth is not in us.

That’s a strong statement. It’s so strong that we should naturally ask, “Which commandments is John referring to? Which commandments must we obey to demonstrate that we’re followers of Jesus and children of God?” And that leads us to today’s passage, which is really a continuation of John’s thought.

Today, we’re looking at 1 John 2:7–11. I’ll read the whole passage first, and then go back and explain it.

Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. 11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.[1]

John begins this paragraph by saying that he is not writing a new commandment, but an old one that his readers have already heard. But it’s also a new commandment. What does John mean? How can the commandment be both old and new?

To understand what John is getting at, we must think of Jesus’ own words. In the Gospels, Jesus makes it clear that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love others. When he is asked which is the greatest commandment, he says

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:37–40).

Jesus sums up the Old Testament commands with these two: love God with your whole being, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. These are not new commandments, but old ones. They’re both found in the Old Testament. The first is found in Deuteronomy 6:5; the second one comes from Leviticus 19:18. It seems clear that Jesus wants anyone who will follow him to observe these two commandments. They’re not new commandments. They are what God has always expected of his people. I’m sure that this is what John and the other apostles preached when they told people about Jesus.

So, if this commandment is old, how can it also be new? Well, Jesus himself said it was. In John’s Gospel, on the night before Jesus died, he washed his disciples’ feet. This was an act that symbolized what he was about to do for them; in dying on the cross, he was going to wash them of their sins. This is what happened after he washed their feet. Let’s read John 13:12–17:

12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

Jesus also washed his disciples’ feet as an example. They should wash each other’s feet because he washed theirs. Of course, the meaning of the event has now changed. He’s not saying that we can wash each other of our sins. He means that we should serve one another. In that age, washing another’s feet was a practical act. When you wear sandals on dusty roads, your feet get dirty. In our day, we don’t need to wash one another’s feet, but there are certainly other practical deeds that we can do for each other to serve one another. The point is that Jesus expects his followers to serve one another, just as their master, Jesus, served them. And Jesus’ followers—his servants—will be blessed if they do what he says.

Several verses later, then, Jesus says he is giving them a new commandment. In John 13:34–35, he says,

34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The commandment is simple: love one another. How is that new? Doesn’t Leviticus 19:18 says to love your neighbor as yourself? Yes, it does. But look carefully at Jesus’ command: “just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” The newness of the command is that Jesus himself has modeled it for them. God himself has become man and showed his people what love really looks like. The newness of the command is that Jesus has demonstrated and embodied this love.

Let’s look at one more passage in John’s Gospel. This is John 15:12–17:

12 This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another.

Again, Jesus commands his followers not just to love one another, but to love one another as Jesus has loved them. The greatest love is this: to lay down one’s life for his friends. We’ll talk more about this as we look at 1 John 3. The point that we need to remember now is that Jesus loved us, and that should be our motivation to love others. Jesus laid down his life for us. He had our best interests in mind. He did what we most needed.

That gives us a clue as to what real love is about. So many people talk about love these days, without knowing what it really means. Love is giving someone what is best. Love is more of an action than a feeling. Love is caring for another person. It is giving that person what he or she needs.

To know how to love, we need to know what a person’s greatest need is. Really, to love someone, we need to know what the purpose of life is. If the purpose of life is to “be happy,” then loving another person will mean doing whatever is necessary to make a person feel happy. If the purpose of life is to minimize pain, then loving another person means doing whatever is necessary to make a person not feel bad. But if the purpose of life is to know God and have a right relationship with him, then loving another person means doing whatever is necessary to help that person know God and to help that person have a right relationship with God.

That’s what Jesus does for us. He helps us know God by being the clearest revelation of God there has ever been. He is the true image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). According to the book of Hebrews, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). And Jesus does what is necessary to put us into a right relationship with God. Our problem is that our sins have separated us from God. We aren’t born into this life with a nature that seeks after God. We make other people or other things—or, usually, ourselves—the most important things in our lives. But God should be the most important part of our lives. We don’t live like this, however. We turn from God and do what we want to do instead of what he wants us to do. This leads to all kinds of bad things for us. God’s commands are given for our good, but we think we know better and we do things that are harmful to us. To get back into a right relationship with God, we need someone to wash us of our sins. And Jesus does that for us. Everyone who trusts Jesus is cleansed of their sins and put back into a right relationship with God.

Before we think more about what that love looks like, let’s consider another reason why this command to love is new. Look again at verse 8 of 1 John 2: “At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.” The commandment is new because it’s true in “him,” Jesus. As I said earlier, this commandment to love is embodied by Jesus. But John says it’s also true “in you”—in Christians. How is possible that this kind of love is true in Christians? John gives us the answer: “because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.”

John means that the true light of the world, Jesus, has come. And when Jesus came, died for our sins, rose from the grave, and ascended into heaven, he poured out the Holy Spirit. This is a new era. It is the age of the new covenant, which was promised in the Old Testament (Jer. 31:31–34). God has written his law of love on the hearts of his people (Jer. 31:33). God has cleansed his people of their sin, given his people new hearts, and put the Holy Spirit inside of them (Ezek. 36:25–27). People of faith in the Old Testament loved one another, but now we can love one another to a greater extent because of Jesus’ example and through the power of the Holy Spirit, who now lives in God’s people.

Who are God’s people? Well, one way to know who God’s people are is to think of the test that John gives us. Let’s read again verses 9–11:

Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. 11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes

On the positive side, whoever loves his (or her) brother (or sister) abides in the light. That is John’s way of saying that such a person truly knows God, who is light. In that person “there is no cause for stumbling.” That’s the translation of a Greek word (σκανδαλον), from which we get the word “scandal.” John means that a person who really loves others doesn’t put obstacles in their path to God.

On the negative side, however, those who say they know God but actually hate their brother or sister are still in darkness. That is, they don’t really know God. They are spiritually blind. “Hate” may seem like a very strong word. It’s perhaps a bit of hyperbole, a clear contrast to love. To fail to love someone the way that God wants us to love is to hate another person. This “hate” doesn’t have to be active. To fail to feed your child is to hate your child. You don’t have to actively do something bad, like physically abuse the child, in order to hate the child. All you have to do is withhold something good that the child needs. In the same way, when we withhold love from others, we hate them.

When we think of these verses, we need to remember what the Bible says about love. Real love is helping others know God and have a right relationship with him. If we don’t help other people know God, or if we end up teaching false things about God, we are hating another person. We are withholding an ultimate good from others. If we are stumbling blocks to other people, getting in the way of a true relationship with God, then we’re hating a person. In short, if we encourage people to sin, to not repent and put their faith in God, we are hating that person. We aren’t being truly loving.

Real love isn’t doing whatever makes some feel good. Real love isn’t necessarily minimizing another person’s pain, or making them feel “happy.” Real love is helping someone know God and have a right relationship with him. In fact, when we truly love someone, that person might not initially feel good at all. Real love can feel bad at first.

I say that because today, it is assumed that love involves making another person feel happy. How often do we hear parents say, “I just want my children to be happy”? Now, being happy isn’t wrong. But true, lasting happiness can only be found in God. The world’s version of happiness is like eating a candy bar. God’s happiness is a daily serving of the finest food. The world’s happiness may seem delicious, but it doesn’t last. It doesn’t nourish our souls. The happiness that comes from God is better for us and it never ends. So, loving parents should say, “I want my children to have the ultimate happiness of knowing God and having their lives transformed by him.” They should say, “I want my children to know Jesus and follow him.”

Love is never opposed to God’s commandments. In fact, to love someone truly is to love them according to God’s commandments. We see that in another passage in the New Testament, Romans 13:8–14:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

11 Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Notice that in this passage, Paul brings together love and law. He mentions some of the Ten Commandments (don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t covet—Commandments Seven, Six, Eight, and Ten) and says that they are summed up in the commandment to love our neighbors (Lev. 19:18). True love is not wronging your neighbor according to God’s moral law. When we sin, we harm our relationship with God and we hurt others. But when love others, we observe God’s laws, and this is good for us and for them.

Paul also says, like John, that the era of darkness is passing away. He urges us to walk in the light. And that means not fighting, not being jealous, not being drunk, and not engaging in sexual immorality. It’s an era of love, but this is a love marked by discipline and self-control. It’s not a love that says, “Do whatever makes you happy.” It’s a love that says, “Do what God wants you to do, and then you’ll truly be happy.”

So, what does this mean for us? How should we live in light of this passage?

First, I want us to see what our motivation for loving others is. John tells us that true Christians love their brothers and sisters. He means that we should love other Christians. But we also know that Jesus tells us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43–48; Luke 6:27–28). We can think of many reasons why we should love other Christians. We should love them because Jesus died for them and redeemed them. God chose them and they are precious in his sight. They are part of the body of Christ, and we should love Christ’s entire body. They are part of the bride of Christ, and if we love Jesus, we’ll love his bride. But it seems that the motivation here is Jesus’ example of love. He loved us first, and we should love others in that same way. God loved us while we were his enemies (Rom. 5:6–10), and we should therefore love our enemies.

That kind of motivation to love is very different than the world’s motivation to love. If you ask people who are not Christians why they should love others, you will get different responses. Some who belong to other religions may say, “God commanded us to love.” And while God does command us to love, it’s not just some arbitrary command. The true God commands us to love because he is love and he showed his love for us in his Son, Jesus.

Other people may say that we should love others in order to get something from them. This is a pragmatic, utilitarian sort of view. If everyone did nice things for one another, then life would go better for all of us. There are two problems with this view. One, it’s not the definition of love that the Bible gives us. Love isn’t necessarily “being nice” or “doing good” in a vague, undefined way. Love is helping other people know God, helping them have a right relationship with God, and also helping them experience something of God’s goodness. Too often, we think of love as simply doing something that others want. If we do to others what they want, perhaps they’ll do to us what we want. And that reveals the second problem with this approach to “love.” In the end, it’s selfish. It’s ultimately focused on the self and what we can get. But true love focuses on others, first on God and then on other people.

My point is that we should have the right motivation to love. God loved us in Christ, and therefore we should love others because we have been changed and moved by God’s love. If you want to know what this love is like, read 1 Corinthians 13:4–7:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Recently, I had a friend visiting from out of town, another pastor. As we were talking about life, he said that when he reads that passage, he wonders if he’s ever loved someone else. It’s true that our love for others will always fall short of God’s love for us. But we should still aspire to this kind of love. When we understand how God has loved us, we will love others. God loves us even though we’re not very lovable. He loved us before we loved him. He loves us more than we love him. God’s love is patient and bears all things. God’s love for his children bears and endures their foolishness, their waywardness, and their lack of love. God’s love is forgiving.

The second thing I want to talk about is how we can love others. I want us to think about this in three categories: How we can help others know God; how we can help others experience something of God’s love and goodness; and how we can help others have a right relationship with God.

One, we can love others by helping others know God better. Christians are commanded to do this. The apostle Paul writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). When we teach each other, when we share passages from the Bible, when we remind each other of who God is, we love each other. And that love should extend to non-Christians. Teaching them about God is an act of love. Evangelism isn’t primarily about making us feel good, or boosting numbers. It’s an act of love.

Two, we love others when we give them a glimpse of God’s love and goodness. Most of our acts of love could be placed in this category. Serving other people in practical ways gives others a glimpse of how Jesus serves us. Cooking a meal for others gives them a hint of how God has prepared a table for us, how God provides our daily bread, and how God is preparing an end-time feast for his people. Of course, whatever meal we make isn’t those things, but it’s a shadow of those things. It can help point people to the real thing. The same is true of any act of lovingkindness.

Sometimes those acts can be very practical. I recently read the story of a woman who was married and had young children. She and her family were in the process of packing to move from one state to another. At that time, she heard that her brother and his family died in a car crash. Her mother told her to come as soon as she could. This involved getting on a plane. She and her family were trying to prepare to leave to see her mother and to go to her brother’s funeral and they were struggling to get organized.

This woman said that many of her friends told her, “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.” They were good intentioned, but she and her family were so distraught that they couldn’t think straight. They didn’t know what to ask for. They were so overwhelmed by the chaos of their life and their grief that they couldn’t think straight.

But a man from church showed up at her door and said, “I’ve come to clean your shoes.” The woman was confused. She asked him to repeat what he said. He explained that when his father died, it took him hours to clean and shine the shoes of his many children. He knew this woman would have a similar need. So, he asked for all the shoes in the house, then he sat down on the kitchen floor, spread out newspaper, and cleaned and shined each shoe. This grieving wife, mother, and sister said that not only did this act of love help her pack her family to leave for the funeral, but it also helped her restore a sense of order to her mind. This man’s simple act of cleaning shoes helped her focus on other tasks that enabled her to pack.[2] That is love. This man knew what this woman needed and he gave it to her, without seeking anything in return.

We should know each other well enough to know what each one of us needs. And when we act to give each other what we need, we’re giving each other a glimpse of God’s goodness and love. In fact, God often loves us through the acts of others. And God almost always provides for us through other people. So, when we do good for others, we’re doing the work of God.

The third way we can love others is by helping them have a right relationship with God. We can’t die for the sins of others. And there’s no need to do that, because Jesus’ death on the cross can and will pay for the sins of any who turn to him. But we can help each other stay on track in our relationships with God. When we encourage people to sin, we’re being stumbling blocks to each other. We’re getting in another person’s way of having a good relationship with God. But when we help correct each other, we’re actually loving one another. Think of Jesus’ love for his disciples. Jesus’ love wasn’t a sappy, nostalgic sort of love. Jesus’ love wasn’t always a “nice” love. Jesus loved his disciples so much that he corrected them. He rebuked them. When we challenge each other, it’s not unloving. When we see another person sin and we do nothing, we’re withholding something good from that person. When we see people running away from God and we’re silent, we don’t love that other person. In fact, according to John, we’re hating that person. Correcting a person in a patient, kind, and respectful way is actually an act of love.

If you are a Christian, you must love other Christians and even your enemies. You can’t truly love God without loving other people. That means we can’t be indifferent to each other’s needs. I don’t know about you, but I struggle with this and I find it challenging.

We also can’t hate others. You can’t live in the light if you hate other people. Hatred has a way of blinding us. Hate keeps us from seeing the truth. If you have experienced the love of God in Jesus, love others, whether they are your brothers and sisters in Christ or whether they are your enemies.

If you are not a Christian, I would urge you to think about this love that God has shown us. God loves us so much that he sent his one and only Son, Jesus, to be our Savior. Jesus lived the perfect life that we don’t live, and he laid down his life for us as an atoning sacrifice. His death pays the penalty for our failure to love God and others. Everyone who trusts Jesus, everyone who truly loves Jesus, and everyone who follows him is forgiven of that failure to love. Everyone who is united to Jesus will experience God’s love forever. Everyone who has the Holy Spirit in their life is adopted as God’s child and will never be disowned. That is a love that you can experience today if you turn to Jesus in faith.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Madge Harrah, “This Powerful Story Will Convince You to Stop Saying, ‘Let Me Know if You Need Anything,’” Reader’s Digest, December 1983, http://www.rd.com/true-stories/inspiring/let-me-know-if-you-need-anything/amp.

 

We Have an Advocate (1 John 2:1-6)

This sermon was preached on May 7, 2017 by Brian Watson.
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There always have been, and there always will be (well, until Jesus returns), misunderstandings about Christianity. Some people think that Christianity is moralism. It’s all about toeing the line, obeying the rules, and generally having a miserable time. The writer and atheist H. L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”[1] Many people see Christians as dour, “holier than thou” killjoys who talk more about what they’re against than what they’re for. Perhaps atheists, agnostics, and generally irreligious people see Christianity as just another religion, one in which you’re supposed to follow the rules if you want to get to heaven.

Other people see Christianity in a different light. I once met a young man whose pastor was a father. This young man was not a Christian. He said he didn’t think it was fair that a good person, say, a doctor who dedicated his life to going to third-world countries where he would serve the poor, could go to hell because he didn’t follow Jesus. Other people, perhaps people who follow strict religions, think that the idea of grace is a ticket to sin. They don’t think it’s fair that a murderer could be forgiven. And they think that if we’re simply forgiven all our sins, then there’s nothing to keep us from continually sinning.

I suppose those misunderstandings about Christianity exist because of false teachers. There have been some people who have stressed obedience so much that they hardly mention God’s mercy and grace. They have falsely given the impression that Christianity is primarily about obeying a set of rules and striving to be a good person. And I suppose there are others who have falsely taught that God’s grace doesn’t place any demands on us, so we can sin abundantly so grace would abound abundantly. Today, it seems that the false teaching regarding Christianity leans toward universalism. Universalism is the belief that, in the end, everyone will be reconciled to God. In other words, universalism teaches that everyone will be saved, everyone will be with God forever.

The passage that we’re looking at today, 1 John 2:1–6, if misunderstood, could cause someone to think that Christianity is all about not sinning, or that everyone’s sins are paid for. But when rightly understood, this passage speaks against such things. John’s letter is so important because it gives us a fuller picture of what it means to be a Christian, and as we study this letter, we’ll discuss false versions of Christianity.

So, without further ado, let’s read the whole paragraph, and then I’ll explain it.

1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.[2]

John begins by telling his readers one of the reasons why he is writing to them. He calls them “little children” because he is an old man, and he probably feels a sense of fatherly love for these Christians. Because he loves them and cares for them, he says that he writes so that they may not sin. If that were all he wrote, it would be easy to misunderstand John’s message and think, “So, Christianity is all about not sinning!” Well, the truth is that Christians shouldn’t sin. They shouldn’t want to sin, but not for the reasons that some might think.

You see, John is concerned about three things in this letter. You may say he’s concerned about the head, the heart, and the hands. He wants his readers to truly know God. He wants them to have correct beliefs about Jesus. He also wants them to have a right love for God and for others. That love should reflect God’s love for us and it should motivate everything that we do. And he wants his readers to live rightly. So, rightly understood, not sinning isn’t about trying to earn something from God. It’s about trying to live the best life, the one God wants for us. When we sin, we’re going against God’s design for our lives. Not sinning doesn’t mean life will be easy or fun, but when we sin less, we’ll naturally experience more of God’s blessings. But our desire not to sin shouldn’t be motivated by a desire to earn something from God. It should be motivated by love for God and thanks for what God has done for us. We shouldn’t want to sin because it is harmful to us and it is displeasing to God.

We don’t want to miss the second half of verse 1. John says that is we do sin, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” John knows that we’re going to sin, even though our goal should be to sin less and less. Toward the end of chapter 1, he writes that if we say we don’t sin, we’re liars (1 John 1:8, 10). Though John’s statements about not sinning seem rather strict, I don’t think he expects that we’re going to reach a level of sinless perfection in this life. And the good news is that if we sin, we have an advocate, a defender. The Greek word is παράκλητος, which is used in John’s Gospel to refer to the Holy Spirit. It is sometimes translated “helper” or “comforter.” Jesus promised his disciples that “another Helper” would come to them, the “Spirit of truth” (John 14:16–17). The first Helper, our champion, defender, Lord, and Savior, is Jesus himself.

What does it mean for Jesus to be our advocate? A couple of other passages shed light on this issue. Here is Romans 8:33–34:

33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.

And here is Hebrews 7:23–27:

23 The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, 24 but he [Jesus] holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

26 For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.

These passages state that no one can condemn God’s chosen people, true Christians, because Jesus makes intercession for them. He is a forever-priest, never failing to intercede for his people. Unlike the priests of the Old Testament Israel, he will never die, and he has no sins of his own to atone for.

To be our advocate, or to intercede for us, means that Jesus is pleading our case before God the Father. It’s as if he is saying to the Father, “Look, I died for them! I took the penalty that they deserve! And, look again, I’m the righteous one! My perfect, sinless life is credited to them. Father, when you consider them, look at what I’ve done.”

Jesus is also praying for us. Perhaps it’s best to consider a passage from the Gospels that shows what that looks like. While on earth, Jesus prayed for his disciples. When Jesus tells Simon Peter that he will betray Jesus, Jesus tells him, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31–32). Jesus prayed for Peter. He prayed that his faith wouldn’t fail, even though Satan wanted to sift him like wheat, or remove him from Jesus’ flock. What’s interesting is that the first “you”—“Satan demanded to have you”—is plural. Satan wanted the disciples, not just Peter. And Jesus says he prayed individually for Peter. According to Mark Jones, a pastor and theologian, “There is no Christian alive who has not had Christ mention his or her name to the Father.”[3]

Think about that: If you have real, abiding faith in Jesus, it is because the Father chose you from before the foundation of the world, and because Jesus died for your sins (Eph. 1:3–10). And Jesus is now—right now!—pleading your case before the Father. And he will always do that. That means if you fail—and you will—Jesus is always pleading your case. He will never give up on you. His sacrificial death on the cross is more than enough to pay for your sins. His righteous life is more than enough to present you acceptable and blameless in God’s eyes. That is great news.

Now, let’s move on to verse 2: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” That word, “propitiation,” is a big one, and it can be translated in different ways. Sometimes, it’s understood as “expiation,” which means extinguishing guilt, or making atonement. Propitiation includes that idea but goes further. It means to gain or regain favor, or to appease. The idea is that Jesus not only wipes away the guilt of the sinners who trust in him, but he also makes the Father favorable toward them. Robert Peterson puts it this way: “Propitiation is directed toward God and expiation is directed toward sin. Propitiation is the turning away of God’s wrath, and expiation is the putting away of sin.”[4]

The idea goes back to the Old Testament sacrifices for sin. Even before God gave Israel the law, it appears that some sacrifices made God favorable once again toward humanity. In the days of Noah, the people on earth were wicked, and God sent a flood to judge the world. He saved only Noah and his family. After the flood waters subsided, Noah offered up a sacrifice. We read this in Genesis 8:20–22:

20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

It seems that the smell of the sacrifice pleased God and made him favorable towards humanity. He promised never to curse the ground again and destroy every living creature on earth. This sacrifice seems to have satisfied God’s righteous demand for sin to be punished.[5]

One other Old Testament passage sheds some light on Jesus’ sacrifice. In Leviticus 16, we read about the Day of Atonement. This was one day a year when the sins of Israel would be wiped away and paid for. The high priest first had to offer the sacrifice of a bull for his own sin (Lev. 16:6, 11–14). Then he took two goats. One goat would be killed and the other would be the “scapegoat.” The blood of the goat that was killed would purify the tabernacle and the altar of all the sins of Israel, which corrupted their worship of God (Lev. 16:15–19). The high priest would then place his hands on the live goat, symbolically transferring the sins of Israel to this goat, which would then be released into the wilderness. In Leviticus 16:21–22, we read these instructions concerning Aaron, Moses’s brother and the first high priest:

21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. 22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.

In that way, all the sins of Israel were removed.

Of course, these actions didn’t actually accomplish anything. That’s why I said they were symbolic. Hebrews 10:4 says, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Animals can never be substitutes for human beings. We need a human being who can step in for us. We also need a human being who is a perfect sacrifice, one who is infinite, who can take on the sins of millions and even billions of people who come to him, one who will never change. There’s only one person who can fulfill that role, and that is Jesus. He takes away the sin of everyone who is united to him. And he makes God propitious, or favorable, toward us. Paul, borrowing the sacrificial language of the Old Testament, says, “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). Jesus willingly died for us, and his sacrifice was pleasing to the Father. As 1 Peter 3:18 says, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.”

John then also says that Jesus makes propitiation for the whole world. This, again, is verse 2: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” I think this needs some explaining. This may be a verse that attracts universalists. They might say, “Ah, Jesus has taken care of the sin problem of everyone in the world! I don’t think that’s what John means at all. Let’s think through this a bit. First, we should note that in the Greek, it doesn’t say “for the sins of the whole world,” but only “for the whole world.” Now, maybe that doesn’t affect the meaning much, because “sins of” is implied.

But, second, we need to look carefully at how John uses “world” in this letter. One of the ways that we read the Bible well is by paying attention to how an author uses language. We may think we understand a sentence when we’re reading it because we’re reading it the way we would use that language. But what we’re trying to do is understand what John meant. So, look at 1 John 2:15–17:

15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

That first sentence seems quite absolute: “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” So, love nothing physical, right? Wrong. Look at how John defines “world” in verse 16: “all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.” But, wait a minute! Didn’t God create everything in the world? In 1 Timothy 4:4, Paul writes, “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” So, in this passage, John means that we shouldn’t love “worldly” things, things that take us away from God, things that cause us to covet and to be proud. He doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love each and every “thing” in the world.

Then look at 1 John 5:18–19:

18 We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.

19 We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.

John says that those who are “born of God” are protected and the evil one, Satan, cannot touch them. Then he says that “the whole world” lies in the power of Satan. Clearly, “the whole world” cannot include Christians, who are not touched by Satan. So, “the whole world” doesn’t mean everyone in the world, just as “all that is in the world” doesn’t mean every single thing and/or person in the world.

Third, we need to use some basic reasoning. If Jesus indeed was the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, in the sense of “for every single person without exception in the world,” that would mean that everyone’s sins would be removed. God would be favorable toward every single human being. We might wish that were the case. Indeed, it would be nice to think that all human beings will be saved. But that’s not what the Bible says. John 3:36 says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Ephesians 5:6 says, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” God’s wrath will come upon those who reject Jesus. But if Jesus were the propitiation for all the sins of every single person in the world, no one would face God’s wrath.

So, what does John mean? I think he means that Jesus is the only savior. He is not just the savior for first-century Christians living near Ephesus. He is the world’s only savior. There is no one else who can make God favorable toward you and forgive you for ignoring him, rebelling against him, rejecting his word, and doing what is wrong. There is no one else who will plead your case before God. No pastor or priest on earth can do that. No politician can. No celebrity or teacher or professor or employer is qualified to do that. The only one God the Father will listen to without fail is his Son Jesus, the perfect, righteous, great high priest. And Jesus only prays for his disciples. In John 17:9, Jesus told the Father, “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” In short, there is no other savior, and to be reconciled to God, you need to come to Jesus and have a right relationship with him. As much as we would love everyone to be saved, that is not going to happen. Many people simply don’t want to have a relationship with the true God. They want to have a god of their own design, a god they can create and manipulate and control.

But in the end, Jesus will save people of all kinds throughout the world. Revelation 5:9 says to Jesus, “you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Jesus died for the sins of his people. The free offer of the gospel should be made to all people, but not all will put their trust in Jesus and follow him.

Obviously, if this is true, then having a relationship with Jesus is of the utmost importance. How do we know that we are united to Jesus? How do we know that we are reconciled to the Father on the basis of Jesus’ works? Look at verses 3–6 again:

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.

One way that we can know that we know Jesus is if we keep his commandments. If we say we know Jesus but we don’t do what he says, we’re liars. But if we keep his word, we can know that we are “in Christ.” If we’re united to Jesus, we should live like he did.

To clarify things a bit, the commandments of Jesus are not only his “red-letter words,” but also the words he delivered through his apostles (see 2 Pet. 3:2). Jesus spoke in the power of the Holy Spirit, and the apostles wrote Scripture in the power of that same Spirit, so we shouldn’t drive a wedge between the two. Paul’s commands are ultimately Jesus’ commands. So are John’s. Generally, we can say that all of these commands can be summed up in loving God and loving others, though we must be careful to pay attention to the specifics of the ethical principles that run through the whole Bible, in particular the commands found in the New Testament.

Does this mean that only those who obey all Jesus’ commands all the time belong to Jesus? Well, John has already told us that everyone has a sin issue, and he assumes that we will sin and therefore continue to need our advocate, Jesus. So, he can’t mean that we must perfectly obey Jesus’ commandments in order to be united to him. He didn’t write, “Little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. For if you sin just once, you will be kicked out of God’s family.”

What John must mean is that true Christians are generally becoming more and more obedient to Jesus. We can’t say we’re Christians and then ignore Jesus and his apostles. People do that, of course, but they’re liars. The truth is not in them. If we know Jesus, we will listen to his word and do what he says. We may not obey perfectly, all the time, but there will be evidence that we obey.

Some of Jesus’ own words, found in John’s Gospel, shed light on this reality. In John 10, Jesus describes himself as the “good shepherd,” and he calls his people his “sheep.” He says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14). Then, later, he says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Those who belong to Jesus’ flock pay attention to what he says, and then they act.

Later, also in John’s Gospel, Jesus says that those who love him obey him. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (John 14:21). “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). What about the one who doesn’t keep Jesus’ words? “Whoever does not love me does not keep my words” (John 14:24).

Those who are united to Jesus trust him, follow him, and love him, even if they do so imperfectly. There is no such thing, according to the Bible, as a person who is reconciled to God apart from Jesus. There is no such thing as a Christian who is not a follower of Jesus. There is no such thing as an obedient Christian who doesn’t love Jesus, or someone who loves Jesus but doesn’t obey him.

We do what Jesus says not because we’re trying to earn something from him. We obey because we love him. We trust our shepherd. We trust that his commandments are for our good. And so, we listen. We love Jesus because he first loved us and gave himself for us. We obey not only out of love, but also out of gratitude. In Christian ethics, motivation matters. Those who obey God trying to gain something from him don’t understand the gospel.

What this means is that true Christians continue to grow in obedience. We’ll never be perfect in this life, but we should more and more follow the example of Jesus’ obedience to the Father. Jesus knew Scripture, and so should we. Jesus prayed to the Father, and so should we. Jesus loved others and had compassion on those who were needy, and so should we. But, of course, Jesus is the God-man, completely perfect. We won’t be perfected until we’re with Jesus, living in a new creation. But we should aspire to grow.

John Newton, a former slave trader and the author of “Amazing Grace,” captured this well when he said, “I am not what I ought to be; but I am not what I once was. And it is by the grace of God that I am what I am.”[6] If we’re honest, we must admit that we’re not yet what we ought to be. But if we’re Christians, we should be able to look back at our lives and say, “By the grace of God, I am not what I once was.”

If you are a Christian, start following Jesus. Start with the basics. Read the Bible regularly. Pray regularly. Meet with Christians regularly. Be part of a local church where you serve and are served by others. As you read the Bible and grow in your understanding, live out what you read. Start ordering your home according to Scripture. Husbands, you are the head of your home and should love your wives. Wives, honor and respect your husbands. Parents, raise your children with discipline and instruct them in the things of the Lord. Children, obey and honor your parents. Employees, work hard as if you’re working for God. Be honest. Don’t steal. Don’t covet. Be faithful to your God and your spouse (if you have one). If you’re not married, don’t have sexual contact with others. Love other people. Pay attention to the poor and needy around you. Be generous. Be careful what comes into your eyes and ears. Be careful about what comes out of your mouth.

These are all very basic things, but they’re all important. And we should do these things because they are good for us, because they’re pleasing to God, and because we love him. If you’re a Christian, you need to obey Jesus.

Now, if you’re here today and you’re not following Jesus this way, what are you waiting for? I promise you that there is no ultimate hope outside of Jesus. There is no relationship with God outside of Jesus. There is no deliverance from death and despair outside of Jesus. He is our only hope. If you want to know more about what it means to follow Jesus, I would love to talk to you.

One last word: All that talk of God’s wrath, and of sacrifices, may seem odd to you. I understand. However, that shows that God is serious about justice. God cares more about justice than we do. And living our lives for anything other than God is injustice. Living our lives for something or someone else actually harms us and it destroys God’s world. So, God is right to care about justice.

I want to close with these wonderful words by a theologian named David Jackman:

[God’s] wrath is neither an emotion nor a petulant fit of temper, but the settled conviction of righteousness in action to destroy both sin and the sinner. The glory of the gospel is that we have an advocate who pleads for mercy on the ground of his own righteous action when he died the death that we deserve to die. Once the penalty has been paid, there cannot be any further demand for the sinner to be punished. God has himself met our debt. He came in person to do so. The cross is not the Father punishing an innocent third party, the Son, for our sins. It is God taking to himself, in the person of the Son, all the punishment that his wrath justly demands, quenching its sword, satisfying its penalty and thus atoning for our sins.[7]

 Notes

  1. H. L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writings (New York: Vintage, 1982), 624.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. Mark Jones, Knowing Christ (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2015), 179.
  4. Robert A. Peterson, Salvation Accomplished by the Son: The Work of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 85. Propitiation is mentioned also in Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; and 1 John 4:10.
  5. See also Lev. 1:9; 2:1–2; 3:3, 5; 4:29, 31.
  6. Quoted in David Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters: Living in the Love of God, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 43.
  7. David Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters: Living in the Love of God, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 46–47.

 

The Word of Life (1 John 1:1-4)

This sermon was preached by Pastor Brian Watson on April 23, 2017.
Sermon recording.
PDF of typescript (not a transcript of the recording, but the written sermon that was prepared in advance).

Have you ever heard news that sounds too good to be true? Years ago, I used to get emails offering me great fortune. I’m not sure when this started, but it was around 2004, and I got several of these messages. I guess I was particularly lucky. Here’s an example:

Dear Friend,

I am Barrister Rotimi Adams, the personal attorney to Mr. James Watson, herein after referred to as my client, a national of your country, who until his death was a major crude oil contractor with the federal government of Nigeria.

My client and his entire family were involved in a fatal motor accident along the Sagamu express road, sparing none of the occupants of the vehicle. I have since then made several enquiries to your Embassy, in a bid to locate any relation of my client, and these efforts of mine have not been productive. I then decided to trace his last name over the Internet, and came across your name that is why I have contacted you to assist me in securing the money and property left behind by my client before they are declared as unclaimed and unserviceable by the bank where they have been lodged for safekeeping. I am particularly interested in securing the funds lodged with Global Trust Bank Plc, totaling fifteen Million, United States Dollar (USD15M). This is because the said Bank has issued a notice to me, unequivocally instructing me to produce the Next of Kin/Beneficiary to the said account within the next ten official working days, or have the account confiscated.

I solicit your consent to enable me produce you as The Next of Kin to my deceased client, since you both bear the same last name. The funds will then be transferred to you as the beneficiary and shared according to a proposed sharing pattern /ratio of 70:30, i.e. 70% for me and 30% for you. I will provide all the necessary legally obtained documents to back up any claim we make regarding this process, and will just require your understanding and cooperation to enable us achieve success within a legitimate arrangement, eliminating any liability resulting from any breach of the prevalent laws.

Your urgent response will be highly appreciated; you can as well forward to me your Telephone number immediately for more discussion.

Best Regards,
Barrister Rotimi Adams[1]

That’s great news. I could get 30 percent of $15 million—that’s $4.5 million! Of course, all I have to do is transfer the good barrister some funds in order to pay the fees for acquiring the necessary documents. But it’s totally worth it. After all, what’s an investment of a thousand or two dollars when I’m getting millions of dollars back?

Of course, this is a scam. And we know it is. You’d have to be pretty naïve not to see that. And I should know, because I fell for it twice. But by the third time I received a message like that, I was wise to those scammers. All kidding aside, we know that such a message is too good to be true. We don’t have reason to trust Barrister Adams, or whoever it was that wrote that email.

That email promised great wealth, but the message of the Bible promises us something far greater. The Bible promises us not a few million dollars. The Bible promises us eternal life, a life with God in a perfect world, a life that never ends.

Today, we’re starting to look at a letter that is most certainly written by the apostle John, one of Jesus’ original followers. Towards the end of the 1 John, he tells us the reason for writing this letter. In 1 John 5:13, he says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” In the Gospel of John, which uses very similar language, John writes,

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).

John wrote his Gospel, his biography of Jesus, so that we would believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, and that we would have life by believing in him. And John wrote his first letter so that his readers would know for certain that they have eternal life.

John tells us that by having a proper relationship with Jesus, we will live forever. It’s hard to top that claim. It’s the best news. And John is so sure about his message that he writes, in chapter 4: “We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (v. 6). John says that those who disagree with him don’t know God. That, too, is a big claim. In chapter 2, he writes, “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (v. 23). So, not only do you have to listen to John to know God, but you must agree with how he describes the Son, Jesus, in order to have the Father. No one who holds a different view of Jesus than the one John presents has a right relationship with God. No one who denies John’s view of Jesus has eternal life.

A lot is riding on these claims. If John is right, one’s eternal destiny is on the line. John wrote this letter because people who had different views of Jesus left the churches that he wrote to. John wanted to reassure his readers about who Jesus is and how they could know they have eternal life. Having a right view of Jesus is essential. That’s not because God is going to give us a final exam at the end of our lives, as if we’ll be tested on some theological knowledge. No, the idea is that if you have a real relationship with Jesus, you’ll know what he’s like, just as if you’re actually married to your spouse, you’ll know what he or she is like. Jesus isn’t a wax nose. He has a particular identity. And the gospel, the good news about who Jesus is and what he’s done for us, isn’t something we can edit. This message has a particular content. Different religions say very different things about God and Jesus. We need to know who the real Jesus is.

So, how do we know that John is right? How do we know his claims are true? Why should we trust John when we can’t trust Barrister Adams?

One reason we should consider John’s claims is that he says he was an eyewitness to the life of Jesus. And, unlike Barrister Adams, John had little to gain by making that claim. He certainly didn’t stand to make $10.5 million. As a Jewish man living in the Roman Empire, John’s claims about Jesus would put him at odds with both Jews who weren’t Christians and Romans who weren’t Christians. In fact, it’s hard to understand why John and the other apostles would make the claims they do unless they believed what they were writing was true.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s read the beginning of John’s first letter. I’ll read 1 John 1:1–4:

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.[2]

John begins by talking about “the word of life.” That could be the message of the gospel, the good news about who Jesus is and what he’s done. But John says that he and others touched the word of life. So, he must be referring to Jesus himself. Jesus is the word of life. You can’t separate the man from the message about him. This is very similar to the beginning of John’s gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:1–5).

In both his Gospel and his first letter, John talks about “the beginning.” In 1 John, it seems like he could be talking about the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. But in the Gospel, he’s talking about the beginning. In this Gospel, John says that Jesus is God and that he created the universe. Christianity says that Jesus is both God and man, that he is the one who created the universe and everything in it, and that he is the one who gives eternal life.

So, why should we believe this claim?

That’s a complex question, and I won’t be able to do justice to it fully this morning. The evidence is too complex to get into fully, but I’ll try to give us reasons why it’s rational to believe that Christianity is true. After all, if it’s not true, it’s useless. If you read the New Testament, you can very easily see that the writers are stating quite clearly that Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). They say that if he didn’t rise from the grave in a real, indestructible body, Christianity is worthless (1 Cor. 15:12–19).

There are many reasons why people believe in a certain religion. Often, people accept their parents’ faith, or the faith of those around them. Of course, other people rebel against their parents’ faith, and their own faith (or lack thereof) seems to be a reaction against their upbringing. Some people are attracted to a religion because they like what it teaches. They are attracted to a certain vision that a religion paints. But if a religion isn’t true, there’s no good reason to embrace it.

If I didn’t think John and others saw Jesus during his life, could testify to his death, and saw and even touched Jesus after he rose from the grave, I wouldn’t be a Christian. I was thinking about this recently: What would have to be true for me to stop being a Christian? In other words, what would be a defeater for the Christian faith?

I don’t think science can disprove Christianity. I don’t believe the Bible is a book of science. There are ways to harmonize the Bible with various scientific paradigms without doing damage to the text of the Bible. That doesn’t mean that scientists are always right. Not at all. But I don’t think science has the tools to disprove Christianity.

Some people assume that the miraculous and the supernatural don’t exist, and that since Christianity is built on these things, it’s false. But, again, I don’t think science disproves miracles. To disprove miracle claims, you would have to be omniscient. Think about it: To say, “A dead man has never risen from the grave two days after being killed,” is to say that you have known what has happened to every single dead person from the dawn of time. Of course, dead people stay dead. Unless. Unless God exists. If God exists, anything is possible. If God exists, he can bring the dead to life, just as he made a universe out of nothing. We have a number of lines of evidence for the existence of God as well as philosophical arguments that show that the idea of God is rational and coherent. So, miracles are certainly philosophically possible. And we have numerous miracle claims throughout history, from around the world. Many people from all times and places have claimed to have witnessed miracles.[3] Though I have never personally witnessed a miracle, I have every reason to believe that miracles are possible.

I think there are only two ways that you could disprove Christianity. One is to show that the Christian system of thought, or the Christian worldview, is incoherent or self-contradictory. Having studied the Christian worldview extensively, I think it’s a system of thought that doesn’t contradict itself. By itself it makes sense. And I think it makes sense of life. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Christianity is true. It could all be a lie. If someone could prove that the Gospels and the other New Testament documents were simply made up, and if Jesus didn’t rise from the grave, then I would have to abandon Christianity.

So, should we trust John and his claim that he and others can testify that Jesus is the Son of God, that he is God, that he is the Creator, and he is the one who can give eternal life? I think we have many good reasons to trust John. But in order to see why Christianity is unique as a religion, we have to consider how it differs from other religions.

Before we do that, let make one important comment: We live in a pluralistic society, in which there are many religions. And we live in a relativistic culture, which often refuses to state that any religion is true. But the fact is that they can’t all be true. They say very different things about God and Jesus. They say very different things about how to be reconciled to God and have an eternal reward. The things they say are contradictory. It is impossible that they’re all true. I believe that Christianity is true and that other religions are false. That doesn’t mean I have to be hateful or disrespectful to people with different views. I can love other people even when I say, “I think you’re wrong.” That’s true tolerance.

So, my point is that we shouldn’t belittle other religions. My point is that they can’t all be true. We should, at the least, know the story of their origins. To see why we should trust that the Bible is God’s message to us, we should look at how other religions have made claims about their holy books.

First, let’s consider the story of how Islam started. The story is about a man named Muhammad, living in what is now Saudi Arabia. “Muhammad was in the habit of taking regular periods of retreat and reflection in the Cave of Hira outside Mecca. This is where the first revelation of the Qur’an came to him in 610 ce, when he was 40 years old.”[4] Muhammad was alone in the cave the first time the angel spoke to him, but subsequent times others were with him. According to one account,

When he experienced the ‘state of revelation’, those around him were able to observe his visible, audible, and sensory reactions. His face would become flushed and he would fall silent and appear as if his thoughts were far away, his body would become limp as if he were asleep, a humming sound would be heard about him, and sweat would appear on his face, even on winter days. This state would last for a brief period and as it passed the Prophet would immediately recite new verses of the Qur’an. The revelation would descend on him as he was walking, sitting, riding, or giving a sermon, and there were occasions when he waited anxiously for it for over a month in answer to a question he was asked, or in comment on an event: the state was clearly not the Prophet’s to command. The Prophet and his followers understood these signs as the experience accompanying the communication of Qur’anic verses by the Angel of Revelation (Gabriel), while the Prophet’s adversaries explained them as magic or as a sign of his ‘being possessed’.[5]

According to another account, after Muhammad experienced the first encounter with the angel, “Mohammed [sic] came down from the mountain sick with fear, thinking he might have been possessed by a jinn, an evil spirit.”[6] Both of those accounts, by the way, were written by Muslims.

Muhammad then spoke these revelations to others, who wrote down the revelations. They were only collected into the form of the Qur’an after Muhammad’s death in 632. The Qur’an is very different from the New Testament for a few reasons. One, the revelation came from an angel to one man. Two, Muhammad is not really the author of the Qur’an. He relayed a message, but, at least in the story of Islam, he is not considered an author. And, three, the content of the Qur’an ranges from the time of the Old Testament, including many stories of Old Testament figures like Adam, Noah, Moses, and David, to the time of the New Testament, including many mentions of Jesus. But these revelations were given many centuries after the events took place.

The New Testament, on the other hand, is different. One, it was written by at least eight people and probably nine. Two, it was authored by people, who were under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to write what he wanted written. That’s why we can talk of John writing his Gospel or a letter, or Paul writing letters. They are truly authors, but they were doing exactly what God wanted them to do, so that we also say their words are God’s words. And, three, the authors of the New Testament claim to be eyewitnesses or people associated with eyewitnesses. For example, at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, he makes it clear that he wasn’t an eyewitness to Jesus, but he interviewed eyewitnesses and wrote up his own orderly account of Jesus’ life (Luke 1:1–4).

The Qur’an talks about Jesus but it says he isn’t the Son of God. It says,

People of the Book [in this case, Christians], do not go to excess in your religion, and do not say anything about God except the truth: the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was nothing more than a messenger of God, His word directed to Mary, and a spirit from him. So believe in God and His messengers and do not speak of a ‘Trinity’—stop [this], that is better for you—God is only one God, He is far above having a son, everything in the heavens and earth belongs to Him and He is the best one to trust.[7]

To Muslims, Jesus is just a great prophet, but he is not divine.

The Qur’an also claims Jesus wasn’t crucified. Therefore, there is no resurrection. The Qur’an curses “The People of the Book” (in this case, unbelieving Jews) for killing prophets. These are the people who said, “We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of God.” But then, in a parenthetical note, it says, “They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them; those that disagreed about him are full of doubt, with no knowledge to follow, only supposition; they certainly did not kill him—No! God raised him up to Himself. God is almighty and wise.”[8]

The problem with this is that the Qur’an was delivered six hundred years after Jesus was crucified and raised from the grave. Even people who are skeptical about Jesus’ identity know that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. That is one of the most agreed-upon facts in the ancient world.[9]

So, the Qur’an gets Jesus wrong. It seems that the Qur’an is a bit of a mash-up of Jewish and Christian doctrines, including later Jewish legends. It seems to contain information from false Gospels, which were written beginning in the late second century, well after all the eyewitnesses to Jesus had died.[10]

Here is the point: The Qur’an is wrong about Jesus’ death. That is certain. And it says very different things about God than the New Testament does. It says different things about salvation, or how to achieve eternal life. Which one would you trust: Eyewitness testimony written by multiple sources within a lifetime of Jesus’ ministry or supernatural revelations directed through one man six centuries later?

Now let’s move on to the origins of Mormonism. Their major prophet, Joseph Smith (1805–1844), lived twelve hundred years after Muhammad. In 1823, in upstate New York, Smith was allegedly visited by an angel named Moroni. The angel told Smith about golden plates, upon which was engraved “the fullness of the everlasting Gospel.” He also told Smith about two stones, the Urim and Thummim, which were “seer stones” that could help Smith translate the contents of the plates into English. The angel told Smith that when he got these plates and stones, he could only show them to a few people. If he showed them to others, he would die. Then, a vision was given to him that indicated the location of the plates. However, he wasn’t allowed to take the plates, which were buried in the ground in a stone box, until 1827.[11]

Between 1827 and 1829, Smith “translated” the “reformed Egyptian” hieroglyphics on the plates by using a “seer stone.”[12] Smith would look at the seer stone, placed at the bottom of a stovepipe hat (in order to block out any light), to “translate” the contents of the golden plates. He dictated what he saw to his disciple, Oliver Cowdery, who sat on the opposite side of a curtain from Smith. Shortly before The Book of Mormon was completed, Smith claims that John the Baptist appeared in person.[13] After translating The Book of Mormon, the angel told Smith to return the golden plates.

There are a number of problems with The Book of Mormon. One great problem has to do with its original language, the so-called “Reformed Egyptian” language. In another Mormon book, The Pearl of Great Price, we’re told that one of Smith’s associates, a man named Martin Harris, brought samples of this “Reformed Egyptian” language to a professor at Columbia University, named Charles Anthon. (Martin Harris, by the way, is listed in The Book of Mormon as one eleven total witnesses who saw the golden plates.) According to The Pearl of Great Price, Anthon said that Smith’s translation was correct and that the portion not translated yet contained Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic characters.[14]

That sounds impressive. Who wouldn’t want to have their translation of an ancient language verified by a professor? But there’s a problem. A man named E. D. Howe learned of Smith’s claim and wrote a letter to Anthon about it. Anthon wrote a letter back to Howe, dated February 17, 1834. In the letter, Anthon stated that the story was “perfectly false.” He wrote, “Upon examining the paper in question, I soon came to the conclusion that it was all a trick, perhaps a hoax.” He then described the writing on the paper as a jumble of Greek and Hebrew, as well as Roman letters inverted or placed sideways, arranged in columns. He wrote, “[I] well remember that the paper contained anything else but ‘Egyptian Hieroglyphics’.”[15]

As if that were not enough, The Book of Mormon has other problems. It has long passages copied out of the King James Bible and though it claims to recall the history of people living in the Americas between 600 B.C. and A.D. 421, archaeologists have not located any of these places and have no evidence of these peoples. Thomas Stuart Ferguson, a professor at Brigham Young University, was given the task of finding archaeological evidence for The Book of Mormon. “After twenty-five years of dedicated archaeological research, Ferguson found nothing to back up the book and, in fact, he called the geography of The Book of Mormon ‘fictional.’”[16]

Now, let’s compare those stories with the story of how the New Testament was written. The New Testament wasn’t delivered on plates by an angel. It wasn’t dictated by angel. The story is that the eternal Son of God became man and lived in Galilee. He taught in unforgettable, unparalleled ways. He called twelve disciples, who witnessed his teachings and the miracles he performed. At least one of them saw him die, and they all (minus Judas, who was replaced by Matthias) saw him alive after he rose from the grave. Some of them would later write down biographies of Jesus. Others would write letters to churches. At least two other people who weren’t eyewitnesses—Mark and Luke—wrote their own biographies. Mark knew the apostle Peter and Luke knew the apostle Paul. Luke seems to have interviewed other eyewitnesses, including Mary. And Luke wrote the history of the early church called the book of Acts. When they wrote, they were under the direction of the Holy Spirit, who caused them to write what he wanted written. The Holy Spirit used their experiences, knowledge, and personalities to write what he wanted written.

At least eight different people wrote the 27 books of the New Testament. They didn’t write it all together, in the same time and in the same place. It’s not as if they stayed together in a room in Jerusalem and churned it out in a few months. They wrote in different places (Judea, Antioch, Rome, Corinth, etc.), at different times (roughly 48–96), to different churches and/or individuals in different locations. James White, an author who was written on many topics related to the Bible, calls this “multifocality.”[17]

We should observe that the apostles and their associates had no political power. Their own writings admit that sometimes they disagree with each other. Paul says that he had to correct Peter in Galatians 2:11–14. In Acts 15:36–41, we’re told that Paul and Barnabas had a “sharp disagreement.” One can suppose that the apostles as well as men like Mark and Luke conspired to fabricate a story, that they made things up to get a following or to gain power. But they had everything to lose, including persecution by Jews and Gentiles. And they don’t always present themselves in most flattering light. In the Gospels, Peter is often presented as headstrong and foolish. Yet he was the leader of the apostles. Why would anyone make that up?

Here are some positive reasons to believe that the New Testament is trustworthy. One, the documents of the New Testament were written early, within the first century A.D. As opposed to the Qur’an, which reports on events that took place hundreds and even thousands of years earlier, the New Testament reports on events that took place only years or decades earlier. Two, the books of the New Testament were written by eyewitnesses (Matthew, John, Paul, Peter, James, Jude) or those who associated with eyewitnesses (Mark, Luke, and perhaps the author of Hebrews). Three, the New Testament documents were written by multiple men, who didn’t always agree in life, but who agreed in their writings. Four, we have thousands of manuscripts of these books, some dating to as early as the beginning of the second century. That may not seem very impressive until you start comparing manuscript evidence with other ancient books. Five, archaeological evidence corroborates the New Testament. That doesn’t mean that every event described in the New Testament has left an artifact. But historical places and the names of people have been verified. It used to be that people thought that John’s Gospel was written far too late to be written by one of Jesus’ followers. But archaeological discoveries have shown that John’s knowledge of Jerusalem, was very accurate. And this is something that only someone was familiar with the city prior to its destruction in the year 70 could know.[18] Six, if we can trust that the New Testament is basically historically accurate, then we can see that Jesus often referred to the Old Testament as God’s word (John 10:35; cf. Matt. 19:4–5; 22:43), as an unbreakable (John 10:35), and unalterable document (Matt. 5:17–20). He clearly viewed the Old Testament as authoritative (Matt. 4:1–11). He told his disciples that his words would never pass away (Matt. 24:35). He told them that after he had ascended to heaven, he would send the Holy Spirit to teach them all things and cause them to remember what he said (John 14:26; 16:13–14).[19]

If you want to know more about why you can trust the New Testament to be true, you can visit our website, wbcommunity.org, and find some things I’ve written under the “Articles” section, which is under the “Media” tab.[20] I would also recommend a couple of books. One is Cold Case Christianity, by an LA homicide detective named J. Warner Wallace.[21] Wallace has solved many previously unsolved murder cases, cases that went “cold.” He has been featured on Dateline NBC. He was an atheist in his mid-30s when he decided to investigate the “case” of Christianity. He treated the Gospels like evidence reports and after doing a lot of research, he came to believe they’re true. He also has a website: http://coldcasechristianity.com. Another book that I would recommend is Tim Keller’s The Reason for God.[22] He has a chapter on the trustworthiness of the Gospels, but his book also handles common objections to Christianity and presents a positive, and even beautiful, case for the faith.

Not only is the story of how the New Testament was put together different from the origin stories of the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon, but the message is very different. In Christianity, there is a clear distinction between God and human beings. The same can’t be said of Mormonism, which teaches that God was a man and that men can be gods. But Christianity, as opposed to Islam, also teaches that we can truly know God and call him our Father. Christianity says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). There is no equivalent concept in Islam. In fact, John tells (1 John 1:3) that we can have fellowship with one another and with God. We can be united to God and have a real, personal relationship with him. That’s why John says that his letter makes his joy—and our joy—complete.

And both Islam and Mormonism have a system of merit. Islam says all our works will be weighed on scales.[23] Those whose good works outweigh their bad works and who confess that “there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger” will enter Paradise. Mormonism focuses on obedience. In the words of Joseph F. Smith, the sixth President (or Prophet) of the LDS Church, “Every blessing, privilege, glory, or exaltation is obtained only through obedience to the law upon which the same is promised. If we will abide by the law, we shall receive the reward; but we can receive it on no other ground.”[24]

But Christianity is different. It says we can’t earn our way to God (or become gods and earn our own planets). Christianity says that God came down to us. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The God who is love sent his Son. That is, God the Father sent God the Son, by the power of God the Holy Spirit. Jesus fulfilled the perfect life that God required; he is the only truly righteous person. Yet his righteousness is credited to all who trust him. (We’ll learn more about what that faith looks like as continue to study 1 John). And Jesus died for us. His death satisfied God’s just demands. All who trust in him have eternal life. This is a gift given to us by a God who comes to us. It is not something we can earn from a God who is either distant and tyrannical or who is, in the end, fundamentally not all that different from us.

If you’re a Christian, I hope this message gives you confidence to know that we have good reasons to believe that Christianity is true. I hope that you can use elements of this message when you try to share the gospel with others. And if you’re not yet a Christian, I would encourage you to do your homework. Be like Jim Wallace and examine the evidence. I would be glad to meet with you, answer any questions you have, and give you resources.

The story of Christianity is unique. I think it’s more beautiful than the story of other religions. And, more importantly, it’s true.

Notes

  1. I didn’t actually save the original emails. I found this example at https://www.expertlaw.com/library/consumer/spam_email_fraud3.html and slightly edited it.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. For an in-depth treatment of miracles, see Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011).
  4. M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, “Introduction,” in The Qur’an: A New Translation by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), xi.
  5. Ibid., xiv.
  6. Tamim Ansary, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes (New York: Public Affairs, 2009), 19.
  7. Qur’an 4.171 in Haleem’s translation.
  8. Qur’an 4.157–158 in Haleem’s translation.
  9. In fact, one strategy for demonstrating the truth of Jesus’ resurrection is to rely on three facts that most scholars, whether they’re believers or not, agree to be true. The first is that Jesus of Nazareth, a remarkable figure who was a wise teacher and possibly a miracle worker, was crucified by Pontius Pilate during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. The second is that after Jesus died, his followers claimed to have seen him alive again. They claimed that the resurrected Jesus appeared to various groups of people for a number of days. The third is that Saul of Tarsus, otherwise known as the apostle Paul, came to believe in Jesus even though he had previously been an unbelieving Jew and an opponent of Christianity. Given these three facts, it’s hard to explain how they could have occurred unless Jesus actually rose from the grave. Jesus’ followers could be lying, but they couldn’t have experienced a group dream or hallucination. But why would they lie? Lying would bring persecution to them from both Jews who rejected Jesus and Roman Gentiles who said that Caesar, not Jesus, is Lord. And since Christians refused to worship the many gods of the Greco-Roman world, they were often ostracized. And why would Paul lie? He was an enemy of Jesus. He would have no reason to hallucinate a vision of Jesus or to fabricate stories of Jesus.
  10. For more information, see James R. White, What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Qur’an (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2013), 229–247.
  11. This information is taken from “The Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” located at the beginning of The Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981).
  12. It should be noted that Smith used seer stones to attempt to locate treasure. He had a reputation for being involved in magic and treasure hunting. See Richard Abanes, One Nation under Gods (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003), particularly chapter 2, “Moroni, Magic, and Masonry.”
  13. See “Joseph Smith—History,” 1:68–73, in The Pearl of Great Price.
  14. “Joseph Smith—History,” 1:63–65, in The Pearl of Great Price.
  15. E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unveiled (Painsville, OH: n.p., 1834), 270–272; quoted in Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, gen. ed. Ravi Zacharias, managing ed. Jill Martin Rische and Kevin Rische (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2003), 212–213.
  16. Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, 216. The historical problems of Mormonism go from bad to worse. Joseph Smith claimed that he acquired the Book of Abraham in 1835. In that year, Smith’s church purchased several papyrus scrolls supposedly written by Abraham and Joseph, patriarchs who appear in biblical book of Genesis. (These men would have lived well over three thousand years earlier.) Smith translated these scrolls, which contained important information regarding Mormon doctrines such as pre-existence. However, the truth of the matter is that the scrolls Smith acquired were copies of common Egyptian funeral texts. In 1912, several Egyptologists examined Smith’s “translations” and found them to be “fraud,” “absurd,” “a fabrication,” and “undoubtedly the work of pure imagination.” These judgments were based on Smith’s drawings of the scrolls. However, the actual scrolls themselves were destroyed in a fire in Chicago in 1876. Therefore, Mormons could claim that Smith’s translation, based on the scrolls, not the drawings, was accurate. However, papyri fragments of these scrolls reappeared in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1967. These fragments showed that Smith’s critics were right all along. We have proof that Smith was a fraud. See Abanes, One Nation under Gods, 449–55.
  17. James R. White, The King James Only Controversy, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2009), 82.
  18. Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 182–183. See also J. Warner Wallace, Cold Case Christianity: (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013), 20
  19. One could also add a seventh reason to believe the New Testament. Where the Qur’an and The Book of Mormon seem to protest too much about their truthfulness, the New Testament, while affirming its truthfulness, has an actual ring of truth to it. It doesn’t sound like a fable or a myth. If you compare it with false Gospels from the second and third centuries, such as The Gospel of Peter, you can see what I mean. (You can read that document here: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/gospelpeter-brown.html.) C. S. Lewis, who was a professor of literature, once made the following observation: “I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this. Of this [gospel] text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage . . . or else, some unknown [ancient] writer . . . without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic narrative.” (C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967], 155, quoted in Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism [New York: Riverhead, 2008], 110).
  20. https://wbcommunity.org/articles. See, “Why We Can Trust the New Testament,” https://wbcommunity.org/can-trust-new-testament; “The New Testament versus The Book of Mormon and the Qur’an,” https://wbcommunity.org/new-testament-versus-book-mormon; and “Evidence for the Resurrection,” https://wbcommunity.org/resurrection.
  21. J. Warner Wallace, Cold Case Christianity: (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013).
  22. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead, 2008).
  23. Qur’an 21.47; 23.99–104; 99:6–8
  24. Joseph F. Smith, “Eternal Life and Salvation 441,” in Gospel Doctrine, 11th ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1959), https://archive.org/stream/gospeldoctrine009956mbp/gospeldoctrine009956mbp_djvu.txt.

 

The True God and Eternal Life (1 John 5:13-21)

Pastor Brian Watson summarizes the message of 1 John and explores the last section, in which the apostle John stresses the importance of knowing Jesus to have eternal life, praying for those who go astray, and following Jesus, the one true God. To believe in any other Jesus than the Jesus of the Bible, who is truly God and truly man, is to make an idol.

The Testimony of God (1 John 5:6-12)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 5:6-12. What is the content of the Christian faith? How do we know it’s true? Why should we believe it? Christianity says that God became man and has spoken to us. This grand claim should cause us to, at the least, examine the evidence.

God Is Love (1 John 4:7-21)

“God Is Love.” Those are some of the most famous words in the Bible. What is God’s love like? How do we know that God is love? How does that love change us? Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 4:7-21, which includes those famous words. He explains what God’s love is like, how we know it, how it drives out fear, and how we should respond to such love.

Test the Spirits (1 John 4:1-6)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 4:1-6. How can we know if a message is from God or not? How can we determine who is a false teacher? The true message from God, the gospel, gets facts about Jesus right, whereas false teachers distort Jesus’ identity or his message. We need to know the Bible to be able to tell the difference.

If Our Heart Does Not Condemn Us (1 John 3:19-24)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 3:19-24. How do we know we “of the truth”? How can we have confidence that we are God’s people and that God will hear our prayers? What if the desires and motivations of our hearts condemn us? What then? Listen to find out what John says about our hearts and about the God who is greater than our hearts.

Two Fathers, Two Practices, Two Paths (1 John 3:4-18)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 3:4-18. John makes a distinction between Christians and non-Christians. He tells us that there are two types of children (of either God or the devil), two practices (love or hate), and two paths (to eternal life or death).

We Shall Be Like Him (1 John 2:28-3:3)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 2:28-3:3. Those who are united to Jesus will strive to live righteous lives because Jesus is righteous. But we won’t be the people we ought to be until we see Jesus face to face. The great promise for Christians is that we will be like Jesus because we will see him.

Abide (1 John 2:18-27)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 2:18-27. This passage talks about those who are against the real Jesus (antichrists), what real Christians have (the anointing of the Holy Spirit), and the importance of following (abiding in) Jesus.

Do Not Love the World (1 John 2:12-17)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 2:12-17. What does it mean for Christians not to love the world? It means not loving God’s gifts more than (or as much as) we love the Giver. The problem with the world isn’t the things in the world as much as it is our desires. Also, find out what John says about God’s children, those who abide in Christ.

An Old and New Commandment (1 John 2:7-11)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon on 1 John 2:7-11. John tells us that one mark of a Christian is obeying the old and new commandment to love. The commandment is old because it is found in the Old Testament and it has always been, since God is love. The commandment is new because it has been demonstrated by Jesus’ love for us and is empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Walk in the Light (1 John 1:5-10)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 1:5-10. God is light and John urges his readers to walk in the light. That means being honest, letting God expose our sins for what they are, and walking in a way that is pleasing to God. We also have the great promise that those who turn to Jesus in faith will be cleansed from all their sin.

The Word of Life (1 John 1:1-4)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on the beginning of 1 John. John claims to be an eyewitness to the “word of life,” Jesus. John makes a big claim in this letter, that to have eternal life, one must know who Jesus truly is and have a relationship with him. John says one must agree with his account of Jesus. How do we know the New Testament is true? Why is Christianity, and not other religions, true? Listen to find out.