Famous Last Words (1 John 5:21)

As we come to the end of our study of 1 John, I find myself thinking about famous last words.

Some last words are anything but profound. On his deathbed, P.T. Barnum, the great circus impresario, asked, “How were the circus receipts in Madison Square Gardens?” Prompted for some final words of wisdom, the hotelier Conrad Hilton said, “Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub.”

Other last words are tragic. One thinks, in this regard, of what Julius Caesar said after being stabbed by a friend: “Et tu, Brute?” (“You too, Brutus?”)

Still other last words are heroic in their resistance to death. As he was being burned to death for his faith, Saint Lawrence mocked the savagery of his persecutors and exclaimed, “Turn me! I’m roasted on one side.” As he was about to be hanged for espionage, the American patriot Nathan Hale said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” And then there are the magnificent (albeit fictional) words of Sidney Carton that conclude Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done: it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”

Why are we so captivated by last words? I think it’s because we believe that last words reveal their speaker’s priorities in life. In the case of Barnum and Hilton, the priorities pertained to business. In the case of Lawrence, Hale, and Carton, they were spirituality, patriotism, and moral heroism, respectively.

According to 1 John 5:21, John’s last words—in this letter, not in life—were “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” Those words certainly reveal John’s priorities, and in two ways.

First, they reveal the priority he placed on relationship. Throughout this letter, John has referred to the members of his churches as “dear children.” As the founder of those churches, he has a warm, fatherly love for the souls under his care. He does not think of them as numbers to be counted or students to be lectured or sinners to be disciplined. (I think we’ve all had run-ins with pastors who treated their congregations so egregiously!) Rather, he thinks of them as his own sons and daughters. He cares for their wellbeing; he desires their spiritual growth.

Second, John’s last words reveal the priority he placed on truth. In verse 20, John writes, “He (Jesus) is the true God and eternal life.” If Jesus is the “true God,” then following anyone other than Jesus is idolatry. In the ancient world, of course, idols were concrete objects. They were made of metal and marble, they resided in temples, and their worshipers prostrated themselves before them. In our day, however, idols are more like ideologies. We are not tempted to bow down to Zeus or Diana or Moloch, but consumerism and materialism and hedonism do have their allures. If John were writing today, he’d say to us, “Dear children, keep yourself from isms!”

Ancient idols crumbled and rusted. Modern ideologies fail to deliver on their promises. But Jesus and the life he gives are eternal.

What Christians Know (1 John 5:18-20)

What do Christians know?

According to 1 John 5:18-20, they know three things:

We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him. We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

The first thing Christians know is the relationship between belief and behavior. Throughout 1 John, John argues that belief in God must result in godly behavior. There is an intimate and necessary connection between faith and works, in other words. In verse 18, John states the matter quite forcefully: “anyone born of God does not continue to sin.” I don’t think that John literally means Christians never sin after the moment of their conversions. Rather, I think he means that sin does not have an abiding power over them. Why? “The one who was born of God keeps him safe.” That is, Jesus protects Christians from any “harm” the “evil one” can do to them. It is Jesus himself who makes possible the ultimate victory of Christians over sin.

The second thing Christians know is the assurance of their salvation. According to verse 19, “We know that we are children of God.” Notice what a strong statement this is! Know. Not think or believe or hope. “Know” is what philosophers call a “success term.” It indicates the successful accomplishment of a desired action. In this case, Christians have succeeded in attaining assurance of salvation. They know they are saved because they have put their trust in Jesus Christ. He is the one who makes knowledge of salvation actual.

And, therefore, it is unsurprising that the third thing Christians know is really a person, Jesus Christ, who makes knowledge of the first two things possible. Verse 20 says, “We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true,” in other words, God. The reason Jesus Christ entered human history and took on a human nature was to give us the knowledge leading to salvation. He is in the position to give this knowledge because he himself is “the true God and eternal life.”

Obviously, these three pieces of knowledge are tremendously important from a personal and devotional point of view. What a comfort it is to have a personal relationship with Jesus, to receive assurance of salvation, and to be empowered for godly living! And yet, please do not fail to see the theological intensity of John’s personal and devotional remarks. They go straight to the heart, for example, of the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and salvation. Doctrine determines spirituality; spirituality reflects doctrine. Truth is practical, and practicality must be truthful. That also is something Christians know.

Mortal Sin (1 John 5:16-17)

What should you do if you see someone sinning? In our culture, the typical answer to that question is, “Absolutely nothing!” There are several reasons for this answer.

For one thing, we have drunk deeply from the cup of John Stuart Mill. In 1869, Mill published an influential essay, On Liberty, which advocated “one very simple principle”: “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.” In other words, if you see someone sinning, unless he is sinning against you, leave him alone.

For another thing, we have eaten at the table of moral relativism. That ideology teaches that the commandments, “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not,” are relative to the culture or the individual that commands them. What is cannibalism in one culture is another culture’s four-course meal. One man’s pornography is another man’s art.

There’s a bit of truth in both of these reasons for doing nothing, but only a bit. Christians are neither competent nor capable to intervene in every case of wrongdoing. If we tried, we wouldn’t have time to do anything else. And anyway, sometimes we do confuse morally universal norms with culturally relative practices. Marriage is a moral norm; wearing a white dress to a wedding is a cultural practice. We’d look silly if we imposed white dresses on a culture that had a different color scheme for weddings.

With these qualifications in mind, however, there are times when we are obligated to do something when we see someone sinning. The question is really not whether we should do something, but what we should do and when. First John 5:16-17 provides Christians with guidance on answering these two questions.

If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.

Regarding what, John advises us to pray. Other Scriptures advise us to stage an intervention of some sort. (See Matthew 18:15-17, Galatians 6:1-2, and James 5:19-20, for example.) But here, John counsels us simply to bring the issue before God in humble supplication. We may not be competent or capable of intervening, but God is. So pray!

Regarding when, John advises us to intervene in the case of a “brother,” that is, a fellow Christian. As Christians, we know what is on the line with sin, namely, life and death. Repentance leads to life. Lack of repentance leads to death. If you love your brother or sister, you will pray for their repentance.

As Christians, when it comes to the sins of others, God does not call us to either busybody-ism or indifference. But he does call us to concern. And the first expression of concern is always prayer.

God’s Obligation in Prayer (1 John 5:13-15)

Is God obligated to answer our prayers? Yes…and no.

Let’s start with no. God is not obligated to answer any number of prayers. For example, he is neither obligated nor able to answer impossible requests, such as squaring a circle or revoking the law of non-contradiction. Furthermore, he is not obligated to grant immoral requests. He will not – and morally cannot – help you cheat on your high school geometry test, your spouse, or your taxes. Finally, although he is able, he will not answer immodest requests, such as praying for the winning lottery numbers or getting a date with a supermodel. (Although when my wife agreed to marry me, I certainly felt like I’d won the lottery and gotten a supermodel thrown in to boot.)

So, with the obvious exceptions of impossible, immoral, and immodest requests, is God obligated to answer our prayers? Let me add one more qualification: There’s no such thing as unanswered prayers, as long as you remember that “No” and “Not yet” are also answers.

Now that the question has been properly qualified, I think we can provide a strong affirmative answer: God is obligated to answer our prayers. How do I know this? Because God’s word says so! Consider 1 John 5:13-15:

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.

John makes three statements here that are important in our prayer lives:

First, the most important prayer request we can make is for the gift of eternal life. According to John’s own testimony, the entire point of this letter is to enable his readers to know that they have eternal life. And how do we know we have eternal life? We must have faith in Jesus Christ. He is God’s Son, the atoning sacrifice for our sins, the means by which God saves us and welcomes us into eternity. This most important prayer request puts all our other requests into proper perspective. If we don’t have eternal life, nothing else we ask for matters. If we do have eternal life, nothing else we ask for matters that much.

Second, we can approach God confidently in prayer because we know he listens to us. The gift of Jesus Christ is the greatest gift that can be given or received by anyone. If God gives us that gift, then he truly cares for us, and if he cares, then he also listens.

Finally, if God listens, he answers. John makes a bold declaration on God’s behalf. Any prayer request offered “according to God’s will” is answered affirmatively. The key thing, then, is to pray like Jesus whenever we pray: “yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

Spirit, Water, Blood (1 John 5:6-12)

When a juror hears evidence in a trial, he asks two questions: (1) what is being said and (2) who is saying it. Yesterday, we looked at the content of the testimony presented in 1 John 5:6-12, which I summarized as God’s life through God’s Son. Today, let’s look at the character of the witnesses.

Verses 6b-10 provide the relevant information:

And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. We accept man’s testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son.

According to these verses, there are three (possibly four) witnesses to the fact that God’s life comes through God’s Son: Spirit, water, blood, and (possibly) God himself. (It is unclear whether God’s testimony is identical to that of Spirit, water, and blood, or distinct from it.) We know what these words mean, of course—who doesn’t know what the words blood, water, and Spirit mean?—but in the context of this passage, what do they refer to?

The Spirit obviously refers to the Holy Spirit. Both here and in John 15:26, a basic function of the Holy Spirit is to “testify” to Jesus. At the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven declared, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).

What does the water refer to? In his commentary on 1 John, Colin G. Kruse points out that in Greek, the phrase “by water” (verse 6) is the same  as “with water” in John’s Gospel (John 1:26, 31, 33). In the Gospel, “with water” described the mode of John’s baptism. Since we know that Jesus also baptized converts (John 4:1-2), it does not require a huge stretch of imagination to assume that “by water” describes the mode of Jesus’ baptism. Perhaps, then, “by water” means that Jesus’ earthly ministry testifies to the fact that we have eternal life through him.

It is generally agreed that the blood refers to Jesus’ death. It is, of course, Jesus’ death that gives us eternal life by providing an “atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 2:2, 4:10). Calvary, then, also testifies to the fact that we have eternal life in the Son.

Now we are in a position to better understand the meaning of 1 John 5:6-12. John is essentially saying that the publicly available facts of Jesus’ ministry—his experience of the Holy Spirit, his baptizing ministry, and his death on the cross—all testify to the truth that God’s life comes to us through God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

God’s Life through God’s Son (1 John 5:6-12)

Sometimes, the Bible is hard to understand. Reading First John 5:6-12 is one of those times. So, over the next two days, I’ll try to make it a bit easier to understand.

Here’s what John writes:

This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. We accept man’s testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.

In order to understand this passage, it’s important to remember the context in which John is writing. According to 1 John 2:19, several people had seceded from John’s churches. Furthermore, according to 2:22-23 and 4:2-3, these secessionists denied cardinal truths about Jesus. Finally, according to 2:26, they attempted to deceive the orthodox Christians who remained in John’s churches. John wrote 5:6-12 in order to provide evidence to the orthodox Christians that their beliefs were true and those of the secessionists false.

I have served on a jury three times in my life, one civil case and two criminal cases. A juror has two basic responsibilities: to hear evidence and to render a verdict based on the evidence. As a juror, I asked myself two basic questions whenever I heard a witness being examined: (1) What is the character of the witness? Is he credible? And (2) What is the content of his testimony? As I read 1 John 5:6-12, I found it helpful to keep these two questions in mind.

In my opinion, the easier of these two questions to answer is the second one regarding the content of the testimony. Why? Because John explicitly states the answer: “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” If I had to summarize the content of this testimony, I’d use these fives words: God’s life through God’s Son.

Now, if I read 1 John correctly, the secessionists denied the truth of this testimony. They believed in God, and it seems they believed in the possibility of our eternal life. What they denied was that Jesus Christ was the connection between the two. John offered testimony to refute them, but are his witnesses credible? We’ll find out in our next Daily Word.

Faith, Love, and Hope (1 John 5:1-5)

The Christian life is a life of faith, hope, and love.

First John 5:1-5 shows how these theological virtues play out in the everyday life of the Christian:

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.

John begins with the virtue of faith, which is where the Christian life itself begins, for without faith a person cannot even become a Christian. Faith consists of three elements: belief that, belief in, and belief through. Faith is first of all belief that certain statements about God and the world are objectively true. We must, for example, believe that God exists and created the world. But faith is more than theological knowledge, it is personal knowledge. We believe in God, that is, we trust him implicitly because he is our Creator and Savior. Finally, faith is belief through. It is not a one-time thing. It is a stubborn trust in God that hangs on to him and his promises even through (and especially in!) troubled times.

According to John, faith in God produces love. By faith, he says, we are “born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.” The connection between faith and love, between belief and behavior, is one of John’s overarching themes in this letter. The Christian life is not an either-or proposition: either faith or love. It is a both-and proposition: both faith and love. It includes the head (belief that), the heart (belief in), and the hands (how we behave). Fundamentalist Christians sometimes make the mistake of overemphasizing belief to the exclusion of good works. Liberal Christians sometimes make the opposite error of overemphasizing good works at the expense of truth. Evangelical Christians—people who are formed by the gospel (in Latin, evangel)—hew closely to the biblical formula of “faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).

Finally, John addresses the issue of hope. We do not live in a world that has been shaped by the gospel. Our world does not believe the truth about God, nor is it characterized by love of God, neighbor, self, and enemy (Matthew 22:37-40, 5:43-48). Indeed, the world stands in determined opposition to the gospel. Rather than being dismayed by this reality, John is filled with hope of a day when we experience “the victory that has overcome the world.” And what is that victory? Faith itself. But remember, faith never stands alone. Love is always the outward manifestation of faith, the evidence of its authenticity. Christians who are formed by the gospel in faith and love are also hopeful, optimistic people, because we know that ultimately, God himself will overcome the world and cover the distance between what is and what should be.

Microscopic Philanthropy (1 John 4:19-21)

Love begins at home, or it never begins at all.

In the fourth chapter of Bleak House, Charles Dickens narrates the arrival of Esther Summerson at the home of Mrs. Jellyby. Although her house is ramshackle and her children clothed in tattered garments, Mrs. Jellyby’s best time and efforts are spent organizing help for “the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger.” Mrs. Jellyby is a fine example of what Dickens calls “Telescopic Philanthropy,” charity for strangers far away combined with neglect of people near and dear.

First John 4:19-21 offers a different model of charity, what I would call “microscopic philanthropy,” the love of nearest and dearest first.

We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.

When John used the word brother, he was not referring primarily to one’s biological sibling. Rather, he was referring to one’s spiritual kin. Brother and sister were the terms early Christians used to refer to one another. This usage reinforced the unity and equality of Christians with one another. They were all siblings in the same divine family. They never called anyone “father” because God alone was their “Father in heaven.”

By describing the church as a family, the early Christians expanded the scope of love beyond kith and kin. Anyone could become a brother or sister, regardless of their sex, race, ethnicity, or class. Grace excluded no one from God’s family. Faith included (potentially) everyone.

In that sense, the early church universalized the concept of love. Love was not merely owed to one’s family, clan, tribe, and nation, it was owed to everyone. But the early church avoided Mrs. Jellyby’s “telescopic philanthropy” by insisting that we love everyone within our direct line of sight. “Anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”

Love begins at home, or it never begins at all.

Unfortunately, our world is filled with people like Mrs. Jellyby. Paul Johnson’s description of intellectuals could describe them. “Almost all intellectuals profess to love humanity and to be working for its improvement and happiness. But it is the idea of humanity they love, rather than the actual individuals who compose it. They love humanity in general rather than men and women in particular.”

To love truly and christianly means paying attention to that annoying, old, hymn-singing curmudgeon who sits in the pew in front of you on Sunday mornings. It means accepting the immodestly dressed, gum-chewing, iPod-listening teenage girl who attends your youth group. It means providing for the drug-addicted, chronically homeless young family whose lives are lived uncertainly from meal to meal. We love humanity in general by loving particular humans.

And as we love those near and dear, God expands our vision so that we can love those far away as well.

Grounds for Assurance, Part 2 (1 John 4:16b-18)

According to 1 John 4:13-18, the subjective experience of the Holy Spirit, the objective truth about the Savior, and our effective action in the world are three grounds for assurance of salvation.

In a previous Daily Word, I discussed subjective experience and objective truth. Today, I want to take a close look at 1 John 4:16b-18 and discuss effective action in the world.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

The first statement John makes in this passage is also the most important one: “God is love.” From what I wrote previously, you might have formed the impression that subjective experience, objective truth, and effective action are equally fundamental. They aren’t. In reality, the objective truth about God is the foundation of the foundations, the ground of the grounds. The only reason we have a subjective experience of the Holy Spirit or take effective action in the world is because of the objective truth that God is love and expresses love to us through his Son Jesus Christ.

In other words, the logical order of the grounds for assurance is truth, experience, and action. God expresses his love for us through Jesus Christ (1 John 4:9). When we believe in Jesus Christ, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13). And love—the characteristic form of effective Christian action—is the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Loving action, in other words, is the logical result of God’s initiative-taking love for sinners. It cannot be separated from faith in Jesus Christ or the experience of the Holy Spirit.

So, when John writes, “Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him,” he is not referring to a Christ-less, Spirit-less love. Love, in and of itself, is not a ground for assurance of salvation. It is only a ground for assurance if belief in the objective truth about the Savior and the subjective experience of the Spirit are also present. As Christians, we do not believe that nonbelievers have grounds for assurance of salvation, no matter how good or loving they may be. We do not believe that a person can be saved by works, after all (Romans 3:20). Instead, we urge everyone to believe in Jesus Christ and receive the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:38).

When we love in a Christ-centered, Spirit-filled way, “[God’s] love is made complete among us.” Such love assures us that on the Day of Judgment we will have nothing to fear, for “fear has to do with punishment.” But if God’s love for us results in God’s love through us to others, we can have assurance that we will be welcomed into eternal life in his presence.

Grounds for Assurance, Part 1 (1 John 4:13-16a)

How do we know that we are truly Christian?

One of the most haunting passages I have ever read in the Bible is Matthew 7:21-23:

[Jesus said:] “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

The reason this passage haunts me is because I sometimes wonder if I’m the guy saying, “Lord, Lord.” I’ve been in church a long time, delivered a lot of sermons, prayed a lot of prayers, and led a lot of small groups. But if even prophets and miracle workers don’t necessarily make the final cut on judgment day, how can I know that I will?

First John 4:13-18 offers believers three grounds for assurance of salvation: the experience of the Spirit, the truth about the Savior, and loving action in the world. In this Daily Word, we’ll look briefly at the Spirit and the Savior; in the next one, we’ll look at loving action. For now, let’s focus on verses 13-16a:

We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

In these verses, the experience of the Spirit is the first ground of assurance for the believer. John writes, “[God] has given us of his Spirit.” What does this refer to? It refers, first of all, to the testimony of the Holy Spirit. According to Galatians 4:6, it is the Spirit who helps us call out to God “Abba, Father”—and more importantly, to mean it. Second, it refers to the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Galatians 5:22-23 outline nine virtues that only the Spirit can produce in our hearts, virtues that lead to positive actions. Finally, it refers to the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit. First Corinthians 12:7-11 lists the gifts in all their variety. When the believer experiences the Spirit in these ways, he or she can begin to have assurance of salvation.

The second ground of assurance is the truth about the Savior. For John, the truth is that “the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.” When a person believes this truth, he or she can be assured that “God lives in him and he in God.” The objectivity of belief is an important counterpart to the subjectivity of experience. Our feelings as Christians are (and must be) grounded in the truth of what God has done for us through his Son Jesus Christ.

In the next Daily Word, we will talk about how subjective experience combines with objective truth to produce effective action in the world, for such action is also grounds for assurance of salvation.

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