November 15, 2020
Let me begin by apologizing to those who get a little irritated when Christmas music is played before Thanksgiving. Yes, I know it’s only the middle of November, but Christmas will be here before you know it – in 40 days. And if that statement brings anxiety, maybe we’re not doing it quite right. So, let me ask you, what is the meaning of Christmas? I know, we’re in church, and most would likely respond, well, it is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
And you would be right. It is good news of great joy for all people. I want to remind you – the birth of Jesus is the meaning of Christmas. And it is so important, this coming of Jesus, it is the meaning of our text today.
Assuming, of course, we don’t miss or ignore or dismiss it. Assuming also we know who Jesus is. You see, many around the world today celebrate Christmas as a time for family and festival and food – and of course, the all- important gifts under the tree. People celebrate as believers, and unbelievers, with rarely a thought to its meaning. Many even denying its meaning. It’s incredible to think people can put up lights and trees, buy gifts, take time off work, and yet not believe in Christmas.
You see, when we say it is the birth of Jesus – we mean much more than Joseph and Mary of Nazareth had a baby some two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. We mean more than a nativity set displays – a manger, a star, animals, shepherds and wise men – gold, frankincense and myrrh. We mean more than that baby grew up to gather a rather small following, irritate the religious establishment, start a new religion, and change the world. We mean more than He was good man, a moral man, a wise man, a holy man. We mean more than He did some really good teaching and performed a few miracles. We mean more than He died a cruel death and was presumably raised from the dead. If you believe all those things – and those things alone, your belief is sub-Christian. Lots of people believe some or all of those things – they can be historically verified. But that is not fully Christian.
No, we mean that baby born to Mary, conceived by the Holy Spirit, was none other than God born in the flesh. And if that is true – and we believe it is – than that religion He started is the only true religion. It alone will provide salvation; it alone will restore and maintain fellowship with God; it alone will bring great joy for all people. Well, for those who believe the real meaning of Christmas.
It’s interesting – you can trace the world religions and pseudo-Christian cults – and all of them in some way or another, mistreat the person and work of Jesus Christ. You show me a cult, and I’ll show you those who don’t know who Jesus is – who don’t know what Christmas is about. It started when Jesus was living – when the religious establishment said – He’s not the Son of God, He’s crazy. He’s demon possessed, He’s empowered by Beelzebub or Satan. Let’s throw Him from this cliff, let’s pick up stones to stone Him, let’s crucify Him.
It continued after His death. He’s not raised from the dead – someone came and stole His body while the Roman guard posted to protect the tomb, slept. Or, He wasn’t really dead, He was just mostly dead and was revived in the tomb. Or, His disciples came to the wrong tomb. And then those disciples perpetuated the myth, even though they knew it was lie, and brought their own deaths. Why would you die for a lie?
It continued after the church of Jesus – the new religion called the Way, later Christianity – was established. There were those who arose in the early church who taught perverse things – seeking to draw away disciples after themselves. Early or proto-Gnostics we call them. One group said Jesus wasn’t really human – in other words, they deny the truth of Christmas. He just seemed to be physical or human – but He wasn’t really. Another group said, He wasn’t really born of a virgin, conceived by the Holy Spirit. He was born the natural way of Joseph and Mary. He was a good man – better than most – such that the Spirit of Christ came on Him at His baptism but, left Him at the crucifixion. It was really only a man named Jesus – just a man – who died on a cross. Don’t miss that each of those false teachings deal with the person of Jesus – one saying, He wasn’t fully man, the other saying, He wasn’t fully God.
And so, the last living Apostle, John, wrote some letters to deal with these false teachers who denied the full humanity and full deity of Jesus. I do wonder what John write about our modern Christmas events. Last week, I suggested this group of false believers had left the church, and it was causing some concern for those who remained. Am I right? Are they right? Have I believed the right things? So John’s letters are both polemical and pastoral. Polemical in that he forcefully deals with this false teaching; pastoral in that he is encouraging those who remained. You can be sure you believe the right things. You can know that you have eternal life – fellowship with God and His Son; and the eternal joy that brings. These things have I written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.
Are you troubled by the seeming decline of the Christian church? Are you bothered by those who seemingly used to believe, but have now left, proclaiming their agnosticism, their atheism? Are you anxious about those who claim to be spiritual, just not religious, who proclaim that Jesus is good, but so is Buddha and Mohammed? Are you concerned about those who say, you Christians are so dogmatic in your beliefs, like you alone are right, and everyone else is wrong? You are so exclusive, bigoted, holier-than-thou, arrogant. Do you seek a middle ground, more middle of the road, less offensive?
John writes so that we who believe in the name of the Son of God – born on that Christmas 2000 years ago – can have the rock-solid assurance that we are in the right, and through this Son of God and His finished work, we have eternal life. He gives us three tests – three ways to confirm that we are indeed Christians:
The first is the theological test concerning the person of Christ. You must believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God – come in the flesh. In other words, fully human, fully God. To deny that is to fail this test of faith.
The second test is the moral test – you must seek to obey His commands. You cannot call yourself a follower of Jesus and not follow Jesus.
And the third test is the relational test – you must love one another. You cannot call yourself a Christian and not love other Christians.
So, right at the beginning, in the first sentence of the letter – because verses 1-4 are actually one sentence in the Greek – John deals with the person of Jesus – and false, sub-Christian teaching. Read it with me – I John 1:1-4.
This is a very challenging sentence. Compiling a bunch of commentaries, the sentence has been called, abrupt and confused, nearly impossible grammar, exceedingly complex, syntactically convoluted, frequently ambiguous, complicated interweaving, stammering, infuriatingly obscure, a grammatical tangle – among other things. But everyone agrees, once you disentangle the language, it is fairly easy to understand. So here we go.
The sentence begins with four relative pronouns – in my translation, beginning with the word what in verse 1, all leading to the Word of Life. Then, verse 2 is a parenthetical, explaining more about the Word of Life. We finally get to the main verb of the sentence in verse 3, what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you. There it is – we proclaim what was from the beginning, what our senses have observed – what we’ve heard, seen and touched, concerning the Word of Life.
Why do we do that? He follows in verses 4 and 5 with two purpose statements – we proclaim this so that you may have fellowship with us, as we have fellowship with the Father and the Son. We proclaim this so that our joy may be made complete. Again, one long convoluted sentence, but the meaning is clear enough. One of the challenges of trying to straighten it out is we might miss the stunning nature of the claim the author makes.
One commentator writes, “The grandeur of the claim may help account for the rhetorical complexity with which the author makes it.” Another says, “It is a lofty idea. Who can grasp it?” But, for our understanding, disentangling it, we end up with these restatements:
John Stott – “We proclaim to you, concerning the word of life, what was from the beginning, which we have heard, seen and touched, and the objects of our proclamation are fellowship and joy.”
Robert Yarborough – (a little longer) “We report to you, what we have seen and heard, so that you may have fellowship with us—indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We report what was from the beginning—something we heard and saw with our eyes, something we beheld and our hands felt concerning the word that bestows life. This life was revealed, and we have seen and testify and report to you the eternal life that was with the Father and revealed to us. These things we write to so you that our joy may be complete.”
I could go on – almost every commentary tries to rewrite the sentence so it’s more understandable. Let’s look at it with this outline:
- The Four Whats Concerning the Word of Life (1)
- The Parenthesis Expounding the Word of Life (2)
- The Proclamation of the Word of Life (3a)
- The Purpose of the Proclamation (3b-4)
As I noted earlier, John starts with four relative pronouns:
- What was from the beginning
- What we have heard
- What we have seen with our eyes
- What we have looked at (examined) and touched with our hands
Those are clear statements of an eyewitness – and deal decisively with this idea that Jesus was just a phantom. Nope – we heard him, we saw him, touched him. By the way, the we there are those who were with Jesus during His earthly ministry – whom Jesus commissioned to be His witnesses when He returned to heaven. The we are the apostles.
What was from the beginning should sound somewhat familiar – it’s the way John began His Gospel – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. That was meant to be a clear statement of the deity of Jesus Christ. He was with God in the beginning – before time, before creation. He was with God, because He was God. But then, John 1:14 says, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, the glory of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” All of that is supposed to come to mind with this statement, “What was from the beginning.”
Certainly John is tipping his hat to the eternal preexistence of the Son – He is from the beginning, because in the beginning, He was with God, and He was God. Meaning, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity did not come into being at the incarnation. He has always, eternally existed with God as God. But, in I John 1:1, John is likely talking about the incarnation of the Son – that is, what happened at the first Christmas. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory. We heard it, we saw it, we touched it. There could be no denying both His humanity and His deity. (Anyone who says Jesus emptied Himself of His deity is a heretic.)
The beginning is probably more clearly pointing to the birth of Christ, leading to His physical life, death and resurrection. And of that life, John says, we heard Him. We heard Him speak – we heard His teaching. We saw Him, in fact, John repeats that with a different word – we looked at Him. That means, we looked closely, we examined Him. Further, we touched Him with our hands. As they spent three years together, there was no doubt physical contact. He washed my feet, they would say. So there was human physicality to Him.
Interesting, in Luke 24, when Jesus was raised from the dead, on that first Sunday, the doors were shut, and the disciples were locked within, trying to figure out the report that came from Mary Magdelene and the other woman – His body was gone. Further, Mary said, she saw Him. In fact, John says, when Mary saw Jesus, she clung to Him. Then, these two on the road to Emmaus came back to tell the disciples – Jesus had appeared too – in fact, we had a meal together. Physical. Human.
So in Luke 24, Jesus came and appeared to the disciples – they heard and saw Him again. But they were startled and frightened – they thought they were seeing a ghost. But Jesus said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I
Myself (in other words, you can see the marks of crucifixion); touch me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And the word for touch is the same word that John uses. They touched Him – they saw that it was He.
There could be no denying these sensory perceptions – they saw, heard and touched – everything but smelled and tasted. But even then, Jesus said to them in Luke 24 when they were still afraid – do you have anything to eat? And they gave Him some broiled fish, which He ate – tasted before them.
There could be no doubting it was Jesus – and He was physically alive.
So, what was from the beginning, what we heard, what we saw, what we touched, concerning the Word of Life. This Word of Life again draws our minds back to John 1, but again with a little different nuance. Yes, He is the Word made flesh – but in the incarnation, He brought life – what John calls eternal life in the next verse. This Word of Life is not doubt talking about Jesus, but the Word is qualified to speak of the eternal life He came to give.
Which is clarified in verse 2, point 2 – and the life was manifested – we know that, when He became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory – the glory of the only begotten Son. As a result, having seen this life manifested, we testify – that’s what Jesus told us to do. You will be my witnesses to testify about what you have seen and heard. To be clear, the apostles carry a unique place in redemptive history. They were chosen by God to be the witnesses of Christ. They lived with Him for three years. And they were then commissioned to testify about that life, so that what we hear through their testimony – the Word of God – provokes faith. Remember, faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ.
You say, I sure would like to have been alive then – to see Him, hear Him, touch Him. I agree.
But, remember when Jesus made His first resurrection appearance to the Twelve that Thomas was not there. And they said to Thomas, we have seen the Lord. It’s true, He’s risen from the dead. How did Thomas respond?
Unless I can see Him with my own eyes and touch Him with my own hands – put my finger in the nail prints, my hand in His side, I won’t believe.
Jesus appeared again, and this time, Thomas was there. And Jesus said to Thomas – come and see – come and touch Me. Thomas fell at His feet and proclaimed, My Lord and My God. Do you remember what Jesus said? Good for you, Thomas. You believe because you have seen. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believed. That’s us, my brothers and sisters – because we have believed the testimony of these eyewitnesses who have proclaimed the truth to us – which is our third point. What we have seen and heard we – the apostles, proclaim to you.
By the way, I cannot help but make an appropriate application to us. The apostles are gone – although we do have written record of their testimony. And it is up to us share that testimony – what we have seen and heard in the Scripture with other people, so they can believe with us. Remember II Peter – God is not willing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance.
Don’t miss the last part of verse 2 – the life was manifested – He became flesh – and we have seen it and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life. We remember what John – actually Jesus – said about that in John 17.
Jesus is praying to the Father night before the crucifixion. And He says, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” Jesus Himself said – this is the way to eternal life – to know the only true God. Meaning, not any ole god will do.
Jesus had earlier said, I am the way, the truth, and the life – no one comes to the Father but by Me. Now He prays, may they have eternal life by knowing You and the one You sent – Jesus. This is why Jesus came – He is the perfect revelation of the Father to us. In that same conversation earlier, He said to Philip, “He that has seen Me has seen the Father.” The author of Hebrews says that Jesus is the exact representation of the nature of the Father. So as I said earlier, while it may sound arrogant – we don’t mean it to. But there is truth – one true and living God – and there is one way to eternal life – and that is by knowing the true God through the one He sent. You cannot know God apart from Jesus. So these world religions that deny that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, do not know God.
Those who deny the essential deity and humanity of Jesus do not know God.
This is what the false teachers were doing that John had to confront. Which leads to our last point – why does John write these things? Two purposes:
First, that you may have fellowship with us, and indeed our fellowship [our koinonia, our bond of life that unites us] is with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ. You see, the false teachers had left – they had gone out from the church. And by their going, they showed that they didn’t really belong in the church. But now, the question is, who’s right? With whom will these being wooed fellowship? John says, stay with what we have proclaimed and testified. We’ve heard it, seen it, touched it. We know Jesus and His Gospel which brings eternal life is true. Don’t depart – maintain your fellowship with us – because ours is with the Father andSon.
Does that sound arrogant? Unkind? Uncaring? No – it’s what the Scripture says. What would be unkind would be to know the truth but withhold it from others because of some false sense of not wanting to offend others or hurt their sensibilities. No – the most loving thing we can do is to tell the truth of the true and living God so others can be in fellowship with us, and with Him. There is no other way.
The second purpose in declaring the truth of Jesus and His gospel of which they were eyewitnesses is to make our joy complete. Now, it’s interesting – John doesn’t actually write, to make your joy complete – but to make our joy complete. That sounds kind of selfish, doesn’t it? He’s telling us about Jesus so his joy would be complete? What about our joy?
Of course, our joy will be made complete in knowing Jesus and eternal life. But what John is saying, he says again in II and III John. I have no greater joy than this, than to know that my children walk in the truth. His joy was in knowing others followed Jesus. Isn’t that true? Don’t you find great joy – dare I say complete joy – when others you love stay faithful to thegospel?
It’s not selfish – quite the opposite. He is saying, my greatest joy is knowing that you find your treasure, your greatest gift, in Jesus. It is, after all, the real meaning of Christmas.
1 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— 2 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— 3 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. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.