Lecture 52: 1 John - Chapters 1-3
Lecture: 1 John - Chapters 1-3
With regard to the book itself, right away as we begin at v. 1, it immediately brings to mind all sorts of thoughts that come from the gospel of John, “That which was from the beginning….” The gospel of John begins, “In the beginning ….” So you have a very similar kind of understanding, and it goes on, “… 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 ….” In comparison, we have in John 1:4, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” So you have in both the word of life (or a better translation may be “the life-giving word”, or the word that gives life). In vv. 1-3, he clearly claims to be an eyewitness. And already, if we’re correct in understanding that the proto-Gnosticism that we talked about in 4:2-3 (which denies that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh), was a major problem, right in the opening verses, John takes that thought on,
“That 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 that 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 ….”
Notice the various senses referred to. John is saying that he’s seen him with his own eyes, he’s heard him with his own ears, and he’s touched him with his hands. How can there be people out there who are saying that the Son of God was a phantom, that he really didn’t have a human body? They weren’t there; John was there. He’d seen him, heard him, and held him with his hands. That’s a pretty powerful testimony. We have people who were not there talking about Jesus, and John writes to say, essentially, “Well, I’ve seen Jesus, and let me tell you that I’ve seen him and heard him, and touched him.” So the idea that it was a docetic Christ, that he only appeared this way, but did not become flesh, is nonsense. From the opening verses here, we have this attack on proto-Gnosticism, which in 4:2 then becomes more doctrinally organized. What he’s saying in these opening verses is essentially, “I who write this letter am in a much better position to tell you whether the word became flesh than those people who were never there.” It’s a powerful argument – I think it would be very persuasive to the people there.
Then in v. 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 ….” Compare that with the gospel of John (1:1), “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God …”, as opposed to 1 John’s opening statement that the Word is with the Father. So you have another tie-in with 1:1. The only difference between the two statements is the word “Father” and “God”. Real fellowship, he says, involves being in fellowship with us, and that is fellowship with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. You can fellowship with those other people, but that’s not the real fellowship with the Father and with the Son. That comes through the fellowship that we have with him.
We have the contrast between light and darkness in 1:5, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” And again you have in John 1:5 the same terms used, “In him was life and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” So we have the light and darkness theme right at the beginning there. There are great similarities, so you’d have to say that if John didn’t write this letter, it would have to be his “school”, which would be so filled with his theology in his gospel that this terminology comes out.
In 1:8-10, he deals with a criticism and the application today is very apparent. This is no longer really a major issue as it used to be, but there used to be a very strong perfectionist kind of theological emphasis by some groups in America (it comes from a Wesleyan sanctification mode), “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. [The idea of ever having come to perfection is simply wiped out that way.] But if we confess our sins there is forgiveness ….”
There is a concept in 2:1 that we have to look at here (because it will come up again in chapters 3 and 4 when he says, “He that is of God does not sin”). And we have to look at what that means, “My 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.” For those of you who have any access to Greek, you should note that the tense of all of these verbs is aeorist in 2:1. And they’re dealing not with the continuing practice of sin, but individual acts of sin. “My children, I write to you so that you may not sin,” not that you may not continually abide in sin, but that you do not commit sins. And if you do commit an act of sin, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Later, he’ll say that you can’t sin, but he’ll not be referring to acts of sin (as he has here), because we say that if we have no sin we deceive ourselves. And he talks about committing sin, and that if we commit a sin we have an advocate in the Father. So, somehow, what he is saying here assumes that we as Christians sin, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” This is something that Jesus taught his disciples in their prayer to pray, with the assumption of acts of sin that we will be committing. In chapters 3 and 4, it is not so much the act of sin that’s dealt with, but the practice of sin, but I wanted to prepare you for that here in 2:1.
In 2:2 again we have the use of the term ‘hilasmos’, “He is the [hilasmos, or the expiation or the] propitiation for our sins,” and again the great debate is, whether this is primarily the idea of propitiating God’s wrath or the covering of sin. I don’t think it’s an either/or; I think it’s not a matter of orthodoxy as to which idea you hold – it’s an exegetical decision you have to make. In 1 John, he gives a number of signs as to what it means, and how you can test if you are a Christian. The first is found in 2:3, and it continues in vv. 5-6, “By this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his commandments.” One of the ways that a believer has assurance that he truly knows God is because he keeps his commandments. Continuing, “He who says ‘I know him’ but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but he who keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”
So, the first sign of true Christian faith given in 1 John is the fact that true Christians keep God’s commandments. But where would they have found these commandments? These Christians in AD 90 or 100 would know that they’re truly Christian if they keep the commandments, but where would they arrive at the knowledge of these commandments? They did have the synagogue, and the teaching of the Old Testament. The Gnostics, by the way, tended to be very negative towards the teachings of the Old Testament, but the early church didn’t see the Old Testament as an anti-Christian document. That was their Bible. There are some that say Paul was anti-Old Testament, but we have to be careful about such statements. He was not anti-law or anti-Old Testament; he quotes it an awful lot. If you’re really opposed to something, it’s hard to use it as a proof for your arguments. What else would they have? There was oral tradition (much of which came from John) – apostolic teaching that John had taught the church. There was also the letter, so that the commandments that were given (e.g., v. 7, “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,” and that is that you love one another). I think that would be a commandment that certainly would fit with 2:3. So, the commandments that would be available to them would be the Old Testament teaching, Scriptures, the gospel traditions that had come from Jesus, and the apostolic teaching. How much of that would be available in this community? It’s hard to know .Would they have had the Book of James, or any of Paul’s letters? That, we don’t know. But they had apostolic teaching, to be sure. You can’t believe that by 60 years after the death of Jesus the only thing they still had was the Old Testament. They had all sorts of apostolic teaching from God’s messengers.
In vv. 9-10, you have the second true sign of the Christian faith, “He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling.” Then we have that picked up in 3:14 and other places, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death.” The love of fellow Christians is a mark that we have passed from death unto life. Again, I think that would be much more specific and clear in John’s day, where you have this large community of paganism and this small group of Christian believers. And the love you have, and concern you have for one another, for those who name the name of Christ, is a sign that you are one of God’s children, and that you have true Christian faith. We looked at 2:19 and pointed out the difference here between the visible and the invisible church in that regard – that people could be among us, and yet never really part of us. And later on in history, that theological terminology of the visible and invisible church comes from passages like this.
In 3:4, we pick up this theme of committing sin, “Anyone who does sin does lawlessness, for sin is lawlessness.” And then you have in 3:6, “Anyone who abides in him is not sinning, and the one who is sinning has not seen him, nor has known him.” If you look at the tenses in vv. 4, and the participle “doing”, it’s a present tense. It’s a habitual present tense, a durative present tense. And I think we could translate it this way: “Everyone who continually does sin, is continually doing lawlessness.” We could translate v. 6 as such: “Everyone who is continually abiding in him is not continually sinning. Everyone who is continually sinning has not seen him or known him.” And the difference here is in the tenses. In 2:1, we have the aeorist tense, and in Greek the aeorist tense does not emphasize any continuation, of sorts. The present tense, however, indicates the continuation of something. So, (especially when you get a participle or into a subjunctive mood, or something like that), if you have a present tense, you are emphasizing the continual nature of the verb. The aeorist tense, on the other hand, would not refer to it being continual.
So I think the easiest way I know of to understand these commands is not that if you were born of God you never sin after that; but that you do not continually abide in sin -- you don’t continually practice sin. Acts of sin, yes, but we have the promise that if we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins because we have an advocate with the Father, who is on our side and appeals on our behalf. But continually sinning is different. So the difference here is not to say that if a Christian sins he’s really not part of God’s family; those who continually practice sin are not of God. But for those of us who are not continually practicing sin, (but do sin now and then), if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. He doesn’t for instance say, “If you do it x times a day, rather than y times a day …” He doesn’t get into that; he expects that Christians will sin, and he says that if we confess them, he will be faithful to forgive us, and we have an advocate with the Father. He does not expect Christians to continually live in sin. As another example, I think that one of the commands that we’ve looked at in some of Paul’s letters, “Be not drunk with wine”, indicates that Christians at times could be drunk with wine. But there’s a difference between continually being drunk with wine, and getting drunk in the one-off incident. And we could say this of other kinds of things – Christians may lose their temper at times, but it’s not one continual attitude of anger with others. You may say something at times for which you’re very sorry afterwards, but you’re not continually talking like that. Sometimes the “old man” comes up, and you might find that you say something, a kind of profanity that you haven’t said for years, and you wonder what in the world happened there. But that’s different than continually having a foul mouth. And I think that’s the difference we’re talking about. And the author doesn’t describe the degree of this, and he will at the end of chapter 5 talk about an unpardonable kind of sin, which goes back to the Old Testament, but these are not that kind of apostasy.
I fear that sometimes we don’t have room for Christians who are sincerely struggling with the lifestyle that we’re part of. As an example, let’s take this alcoholic that became a Christian, and for two years he’s never touched anything. But then he goes on a binge, and we jump to the conclusion that he never was truly converted. If we were to consider his life before conversion (where he may have never had binges because he was never sober at all), we could praise the Lord for the progress that he had made. So that kind of thing is I think what we’re talking about as “acts of sin”. But there has been a change. You have some people who are caught in an immoral lifestyle and they can’t get out of it. They struggle with it. But they are not like they once were, where they were always involved in immorality. I think we need to be very mindful of the fact that we’re saved by grace. And even in the best of our moments, we are sinning. Yet, that’s not the same as wallowing in your sin, and delighting in it all the time, etc.
You also have to realize that there are some of us who may have been raised all our lives in a Christian home, and were taught things; we may have never become a Christian, but the atmosphere of a Christian life – the bloom, so to speak, has affected us, and we live a pretty nice lifestyle. We have some people whose lives were totally overwhelmed with sin; and they were part of a horrific lifestyle, and they had horrific tempers. And actually, the outward bloom of niceties is something they may never have to the extent of this unbeliever who was raised in a different environment. In other words, this person who never became a Christian is someone that you never saw lose their temper. But this new Christian still has moments of explosion. And I think that we have to compare him not with this non-Christian who has this refined lifestyle, but compare him with what he once was. And, yes, he might lose his temper now and again, but do you know what he once was like? Sometimes all we may be able to say is that we’re less worse than we once were. But something has indeed happened; there’s been a change. I think we always have to judge a person’s conversion (if we have to judge it all) from what that person was like before they were converted. That’s the starting point, and some people start so much further back than others, they never get up to where some people even were before their conversion.
But the difference here, and I think we need to maintain it, is the continual practice of sin, marking people off as not true believers. Where, continuing acts of sin is typical of the Christian life. And that’s why each day we have to ask for forgiveness, because even in our best moments we fall short. And what’s ironic of course is that the more you and I become like Jesus, the greater is our sense of failure and sin. So there’s a sense that, the more you grow in your Christian life, the more you are aware of how much of a sinner you are. And that realization is greater towards the end of your life than at the beginning. And if it isn’t, then something is wrong in that process. But here, what is being said is that you have to make a difference between the present tense of the participle and verbs, and the aorist tense in the earlier passage. The continual practicing of these things means that you don’t know him. Continual acts occasionally of doing these things – that’s different.
The third sign is found in 3:10, which combines the first two, “By this it may be evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: he who does not practice righteousness is not of God [in other words, if you don’t obey the commandments, as the first sign noted in 2:3], nor he who does not love his brother [which is the second one that we had in 2:9-10].”
In 3:17-18, I just call this to your attention because it sounds very much like the book of James, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed or in truth.” That’s as close as I think you can get to James 2:14-26.
In 3:24, you then have the fourth sign of the believers’ situation with God. We’ve seen keeping the commandments and loving fellow believers, and now we have, “And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us.” So along with obeying his commandments and the love of the brethren, there is the witness of the Spirit in one’s life that we are truly God’s children.