November 8, 2020
I don’t know that I, personally, have lived through a more troubling time. Now, I’m sure there are some here who can remember such past events as the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, sandwiched in between the Cuban Missile Crisis, Watergate. I’m just randomly naming events of national, even international significance. Many more of us remember the attacks of 9/11, and the war which followed.
What to say about COVID-19? And then, the most recent election cycle. But, most of those things were and are external threats or challenges. Now however, the challenge is internal – and it is alarming, discouraging, even depressing. I’m not sure we have ever been more divided as a nation – at least since the Civil War of the 1860s. While each side portends to have the answers, I will not pretend to have an answer outside the return of the Prince ofPeace.
We went into an election on Tuesday with strong opinions and excessive vitriol – and more people voted than ever before. We woke up Wednesday with no clear winner for President, and that progressed through much of the week, switching from one candidate to the other. Charges and counter charges were lobbed across the political divide that lay between us.
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were verbal minefields – enter at your own risk. Protests, riots, looting continued, as they have for months.
So perhaps, you’re wondering, what now? Will we survive as a nation? Abraham Lincoln wondered the same during that Civil War, “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” And here we are seven score and 17 years later, after the Gettysburg Address in November of 1863, and the question remains, will we long endure? Again, I will not presume to have the answer. There are strong political opinions on each side, even in this room.
May I tell you this morning what will endure? The kingdom of God, embodied in the Church of Jesus Christ, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone will long – indeed forever endure. And if we lose sight of that truth, then we
may fall into the throes of anxiety and depression. But Jesus said, I will build My church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.
And so, can I suggest that through the centuries, there have been divisions of infinitely greater importance. Not national, because nations and empires come and go, but spiritual. You see, almost 2000 years ago, the early church faced significant division within. Oh, Paul said it would come. In Acts 20, interestingly, to the Elders of the church in Ephesus, he said:
28 “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. (That is a stunning statement. It declares the deity of Jesus more clearly than anywhere, and declares the value of the church, more strongly than anywhere. So any division in the church, any attacks against the church are of great, dare I say, infinite significance.)
29 “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock;
30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.”
That’s exactly what happened in Ephesus, and churches in the surrounding area of Asia Minor. People from within arose teaching perverse things, seeking to draw away disciples. The church became divided – and some cast their votes, if you will, and succumbed altogether. It’s interesting to note – the seven churches of Revelation were likely among these. And when that last book of the Bible was written, Jesus commended only two of those seven churches. Five were called to wake up, to repent, and return to their first love – which they had apparently forsaken.
In the midst of that great controversy, there was great concern. What will happen to the church of Jesus Christ? Will it long endure? Further, the concerns became personal. Am I on the right side? There’s division – do I believe that which is truly right? Are those who have seceded right? Am I even a believer – truly a follower of Jesus? And perhaps you’ve asked yourself that question – am I really a Christian? How can I know when doubts plague my soul? When more and more are saying today, you’re wrong. Am I right?
And so, the aged Apostle – the last living apostle – John wrote a letter to these people. It was both a polemical and pastoral letter. Polemical in that it was a clear defense against these heretical attacks that sought to divide and ultimately destroy. Pastoral, as he sought to encourage those believers who remained, in the midst of doubt and division. To give them assurance. We call that letter, I John. I can think of no better letter for us to study than
this one. Have current events brought you down? Do you find yourself asking, will this nation long endure? Will the church long endure? Do you find yourself in the midst of spiritual anxiety and concern? This book is for you.
The letter of I John shares the same author as the Gospel of John, and the purpose of the Gospel of John is clearly spelled out in John 20:30-31,
30 Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples (eyewitnesses), which are not written in this book; (John only recorded seven miracles of Jesus, but they were carefully chosen to prove something – what?)
31 but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.
He wrote the Gospel so you could meet Jesus, with convincing proofs that He is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing, have life, eternal life through Him. And now, John gets to his first letter, perhaps ten years later, 90-95 AD, he’s an old man, and tells us his purpose in 5:13,
13 These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God (maybe you read my Gospel, and you believed in Jesus – but now, the division is causing some anxiety, and you’re wondering – so I have written to those who believe in Jesus), so that you may know that you have eternal life.
Don’t miss it – I wrote the Gospel so you would believe Jesus is the Christ – I wrote this letter so that you would know that by believing, you can be confident that you have eternal life. John Stott says, “He wrote the Gospel for unbelievers in order to arouse their faith, and the letter for believers in order to deepen their assurance.” Do you doubt? Do you wonder? Are there those who have left us, denying the faith, redefining the faith, who cause you to wonder, are they right? Have they left you in the depths of doubt and despair? I don’t think I’ve heard the word anxiety more than in the last ten years. Are you anxious? My brothers and sisters, this book is for you.
It has largely been believed that the Apostle John wrote five NT books – The Gospel of John, the three epistles of John that bear his name, and the book of Revelation. Four of those books are technically anonymous – that is, the author does not name himself. It’s interesting to note that of all the NT Epistles, only these three and Hebrews don’t identify the writer. But our author gives enough clues for us to know that it was, indeed, the Apostle John – the beloved apostle. The one Jesus loved.
The Apostle John was a Galilean fisherman – brother to James, both sons of Zebedee and Salome. James and John were together known as the Sons of Thunder. That title seems to speak of men with great zeal, passion, even aggression. We see a little of that character coming out in the gospels.
There was the time all the disciples were arguing about which one of them would be greatest in the kingdom. I have no doubt James and John were right in the middle of that heated debate. Why do I say that? Because later, they had their mother, Salome, approach Jesus and say, “Grant that my two sons will be allowed to sit on your left and right hand in the kingdom.” Bold request. Jesus looked at these two sons of thunder and said, “Are you able to drink the cup I drink?” They said, no problem.
There was the time they were on their way to Jerusalem – for Jesus to drink the cup. They were stopping along the way, so Jesus sent people ahead to prepare for His arrival. One Samaritan city sent word back – you cannot stay here. What did the Sons of Thunder want to do? They asked Jesus, “You want us to call down fire from heaven and consume them?”
Jesus, seeing the multitudes, had compassion on them. And John, seeing the multitudes, said, “let’s torch ‘em.” And this was after three years with Jesus, right before the crucifixion. But after the crucifixion and resurrection, John’s life was forever changed. He went on to write what Martin Luther called God’s love letter to the world. Can you imagine a Bible without John 3:16? John records the new command – that you love one another. In fact, there’s a legend which says when John was elderly, hardly able to walk, they would carry him to the church in Ephesus – and whenever he had the energy to address the church, he would always say the same thing, “Little children, love one another.” After several such times, they asked him, why is that all you say? And he said, “It is the Lord’s command, and if this alone be done, it isenough.”
Well, there is a lot of credible evidence that in his later years, John moved to Ephesus. There, he wrote these five books. Again, while anonymous, there is enough proof from the early church – church fathers – that John wrote them. The earliest allusions of this letter are found early in the second century in Clement of Rome and the Didache. The earliest clear quotes from the letter come from Polycarp, and the earliest citing John as the author, come from Irenaeus, Papias, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen and Eusebius. I give you all that to say, there was clear and widespread acceptance of the letters, and Johannine authorship. Oh, and by the way, every early copy of I John that we have has John’s name in the title – and no other name.
There’s also lots of internal evidence – that is, by reading the book itself – that indicate John wrote it. When comparing the Gospel of John with I John, there are undeniable similarities which make it clear they came from the same pen. I won’t take the time this morning to prove that John wrote the Gospel of John – you can listen to my introduction of that Gospel from 2007. Here’s what we know – when you compare the Gospel of John with I John, it’s abundantly clear they are the same author. Much of the same language, the syntax, the concepts. Consider some verses:
John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
I John 1:1 says, “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life… (Incidentally, this makes clear the author of I John was an eyewitness.)
John 3:19-21 says, “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”
Compare that to I John 1:6-7, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.”
One more, just for good measure, and since this is a major theme in the letter. John 13:34-35 says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
I John says that all over, but look at 2:7, “Beloved, I am not writing a new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word which you have heard.” And throughout the letter, he talks about the importance of loving one another. He says in 3:11, “For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.”
Again, lots of very similar verses, grammar and concepts. Both books are filled with contrasting figures, like light and darkness, life and death, truth
and lies, love and hate. And by the way, it is noted there is no third option. You are either in the light, or in darkness. You either have life, or remain in death. You are either of the truth, or a liar. You are either in God or not.
Going back to the purpose of the letter. There are several times John says something like, I write these things because. I won’t review all those, but most agree the primary purpose is chapter 5, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
It is a pastoral letter of encouragement. I want you to know, you have right now the promise of God – eternal life through His Son. Now, why did they need encouraging? I’ve already referenced – there were false teachers in this church – and the surrounding churches – what is sometimes called the Johannine Community. They had gathered quite the following, and after some time, appeared to have left. Chapter 2 says, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have no doubt remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.” We’ll talk about that when we get to chapter 2, but we’ll see, you can’t leave the church without repercussions.
But here, in their going out, they took several with them. There was division, which seemed to cause much angst. And it seems they were continuing to try and seduce others to follow. So, this becomes a polemical letter as John seeks to expose their false teaching. He calls them false prophets, deceivers, and antichrists. Now, there have been lots of attempts to try to identify the false teachers and their system. Most often, they are identified as proto- or insipient Gnostics. That is, pre-Gnostics – full blown Gnosticism didn’t come until a few decades later. But surely, the seeds of their false teaching were already being sown. What did the Gnostics believe?
The word Gnostic comes from the Greek word to know – they thought they had some special knowledge, in which true salvation was found. Apart from the Gospel, by the way. Sounds a bit like today – many, even in the church, think they know more than what the Bible clearly says – that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
So, as a result of their special knowledge, they looked down on others, even in the church, who weren’t on an elite level with them. There were the enlightened, and the unenlightened.
Third, the Gnostics followed Greek dualism – that is, they thought all matter was evil, and only the immaterial – the spiritual – was good. That led to some other serious falsehoods.
For example, since matter – the physical – was all evil, then how you lived in the physical didn’t really matter. As long as you had attained spiritual enlightenment, you were good. Live in sin – it didn’t matter. That sounds a lot like today – I’m saved, I can live however I want, since my sins are forgiven.
Further, since matter was evil – since our physical bodies are evil – therefore, the Christ could not have a physical body. There were two primary teachings regarding Jesus in this way. The Docetists, from the word dokew – which means to seem – taught that it just seemed like Jesus had a physical body. But He didn’t. Certainly, the Christ couldn’t be physical.
Another group, called Cerinthians – led by their founder Cerinthus – who was a contemporary of John and lived in Ephesus – taught that Jesus was born in the normal way of all people – through Mary and Joseph (not through the Holy Spirit). He was a good man – a moral man, a holy man, but just a man. But, at His baptism, the Spirit of God came upon Him – but, left Him before the crucifixion – you can’t have God dying on a cross.
There is a story told that one day, the Apostle John went to a bathhouse in Ephesus, and found that Cerinthus was inside. It is said that John fled, exclaiming, “Let us fly, lest even the bathhouse fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of truth, is within.”
So, understand the primary teaching of these proto-Gnostics. They were superior to other people, even in the church. They said since everything physical is evil – so we can live in sin, since it’s all evil anyway. And third, either Jesus wasn’t a man, or Jesus wasn’t fully the Christ. They denied His humanity, or His full deity. That’s a problem.
Which leads to the purpose of the letter of I John. Polemical and Pastoral. At the same time John vigorously defends the Christian faith, he encourages us who believe the Christian faith. You can divide his argument into three main points – certainly with many subpoints. The points are theological, moral and relational – and deals definitively with these false teachers. And in so doing, he deals with your doubts and concerns. Basically, he answers the question – how can I know if I am a Christian? You must pass these tests. Again, to quote Stott, “the Gospel contains ‘signs’ to evoke faith, and the letter tests by which to judge it.” Here are thetests:
The Theological Test – you must believe the Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God – that He came in the flesh, and is therefore both fully human and fully God.
The Moral/Ethical Test – you must seek to obey His commands. You cannot continue in sin as lifestyle like it doesn’t matter. It matters. Now, he’ll balance that as we’ll see in a couple of weeks. He’ll say, no one should claim to be sinless. But, they should be seeking to obey Christ’s commandments. But, when we sin, and we will, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ the Righteous.
The Relational/Social Test – so important for today for those who want to dismiss the incredible, indeed indispensable importance of the church. You must love the church – you must love brothers and sisters in Christ.
Further, you must prove that love by your actions.
We will see these truths over and over. You see, it is difficult to outline the book. Some suggest there is no outline. It seems clear that John returns to those themes over and over again – lots or repetition. I suppose we could just group all the verses together thematically – but then we would miss the creative beauty and intentional redundancy of the text. As one author wrote:
“John’s pattern of thinking does not involve sequential logic in the manner of conventional argument so much as the literary equivalent of musical variations on a theme—a constant circling around the basic issue, coming at it from a variety of angles, developing now this aspect and now that aspect, balancing one statement with another to clarify what is and is not entailed, returning to a point already made so that it may be seen afresh in the light of what has been said subsequently.” (R.W.L. Moberly)
I’m out of time, but I’m excited to study this book with you. Anxious, discouraged, doubting? You’ve come to the right place. My desire is that we grow in our understanding of our Savior’s greatness, and His great salvation. Pastor Kent Hughes said of the Gospel of John, “The serious student will find that each time he returns to the Gospel, Christ will be a little bigger.” That is my desire for us – that we launch into this study of I John, and Christ becomes bigger to us. In this Christological letter, Jesus brings eternal life, cleanses from sin, intercedes before the Father, died a propitiatory death, confirms true knowledge, destroys the works of the Devil, teaches the meaning of love, and gives the Holy Spirit. Christ is exalted in this book – I want Him to grow bigger in our hearts.
Not unlike Lucy’s experience with the lion Aslan in C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. She had this conversation with the Aslan as she gazed again into his large, wise, powerful face:
“Welcome child,” he said.
“Aslan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.”
“That’s because you are a little older, little one,” answered he. “Not because you are?” asked Lucy.
“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”
Isn’t that what we want, as we grow in our Christian faith moment by moment, day by day, year by year? Not that Jesus changes – He doesn’t. He remains the same, yesterday, today, and forever. But, as we grow in grace and truth, our concept and understanding of Him gets bigger and better. We realize more and more how big He really is and how little we are. That’s what I want for us.