I love 1st John, it’s one of my favorite books in the New Testament. As I was reading this morning I stopped on chapter 3 verses 16 – 18. I spent some time thinking about what this passage means and thought I would share what the Lord showed me. It is a hard teaching, but one I believe the church desperately needs to apply.
As John discusses love, he says that we are to love one another (vs 11). This has been taught from the beginning, it’s Christianity 101 so to speak. As such, John says that we have assurance of our salvation because we love the brothers (vs 14). In fact, those who don’t love are said to remain in death. So, if one of the basic results of our faith is love for the brethren and we find assurance in this, it seems important to know what this love looks like practically.
Fortunately, John very clearly describes this love. It is demonstrated perfectly by Christ in that He willingly and sacrificially laid down His life for us (vs 16). That, is the incarnation of Christian love that Christ gave us, and it is the model that His followers will emulate. As if John knew that the readers, like the Apostles with Jesus, would be quick to say I will die for the brothers; He quickly shows the true status of their hearts. Just like Jesus many times before, he does this by going after their wallets!
He says that if we see our brother in physical need and could help but don’t then the love of God does not abide in us (vs 17). In other words, we have no assurance of our salvation. John says if we don’t care enough about others to help them then we do not love God. Why does he tie these two things together? Isn’t it possible to love God, but not help the hurting?
When we understand that Jesus laid down his life for us and we respond in repentance and faith God gives us a new heart. God’s love abides in that heart. God then tests the genuineness of our love by placing the poor and needy in our paths. If we have a new heart that loves God we will display that love by sacrificially giving of all that He has given us to help the hurting around us. However, if we do not have a new heart we will exhibit that by hoarding God’s blessings for ourselves. This practice of hoarding demonstrates either a lack of love for the brothers, a lack of trust in God, or both. In either case John says it illustrates the true condition of our hearts.
Certainly, we are called to care for our families and to wisely plan for the future. However, when we are so consumed with these that we ignore the needs of others we must ask ourselves, does the love of God abide in me? When we allow our earthly desires to consume the resources God graciously provides, with no thought of sacrificing for the care of others, we must ask ourselves, does the love of God abide in me? This is a teaching that I daily struggle to apply in my own life, but it is none the less the word of God and the true follower of Christ must be conformed to it.
In the first four verses of this letter, John addressed the heresy that was confronting his little children in the faith. False teachers were denying the humanity of Christ because they believed the physical world to be evil. They could not accept that a holy and good God would stoop to becoming a man and taking on flesh. This belief had a terrible impact on their practice of religion.
One of the results of their view was complacency with sin. They believed that once their soul had been redeemed, it no longer mattered what they did with their physical bodies since they were merely a shell for their redeemed soul. Since the physical was evil, it could not be expected to commit righteousness, thus they could deny their own sinfulness. This is the issue that John addresses in 1 John 1:5-2:2.
In vs. 3, John stated that the purpose of the Apostles message was the restoration of fellowship with God and neighbor. In vs. 5 he gives the content of their message. The message they had received from the incarnate Christ was that God was light and that there was no darkness in him. They received this message not only from what Christ said, but what he did (vs.1-3). It was a message they had not only heard, but seen as well (John 14:8-11).
There are two ideas that can be drawn from the concept of God as light. First is the self-revelation of God. Without God’s self-revelation to man we would most certainly remain in darkness. Darkness cannot produce light; it must come from an outside source. Likewise, man who is spiritually blind and dead in sin depends upon the grace of God to reveal himself.
In this passage it can rightly be concluded that light refers to God’s own righteous character. God is light (righteous) and in him there is no darkness (unrighteousness). The righteous character of God had been revealed to the Apostles as they observed it being lived out in the life of Jesus Christ. The word of life, the eternal life that was with the Father, was manifested to them (vs.2). They knew that God was light not because of some special knowledge like the false teachers claimed, but because the incarnate son of God had revealed it to them in both word and deed, in what they had seen and heard.
In vs. 6 we see the first of three “If we say” statements where John directly addresses the heresy of the false teachers. Apparently, they were insisting that they had fellowship with God yet they continued to walk in darkness. They made a verbal profession, but they continued to walk (live) in darkness, or unrighteousness. John simply states that if we continue to walk in (practice) sin with no repentance, our verbal profession is a lie and we do not practice the truth. That is we do not practice righteousness. How many, in the church today, have made a profession of faith but still walk in darkness?
It is not enough to make a verbal profession or walk down an aisle, true fellowship with God results in righteous behavior. That is to say that because God is light (righteous), if we walk in the light (practice righteousness), we can be sure we have fellowship with one another (vs.7a). We might expect the Apostle to say we can be sure we have fellowship with God, but he has already established in vs. 3 that the gospel restores fellowship with God and as a result with one another. Thus, in the beginning of vs. 7 our practice of righteousness with one another is testimony to the fact that we have fellowship with the Lord.
This is made possible by the blood of Jesus which cleanses us from all of our sin (vs. 7b). By no means is John proclaiming a works based salvation. Consistent with vs. 3 he described salvation in terms of our restored fellowship with God. This restored fellowship and the resulting practice of righteousness is accomplished by the blood of Jesus that atones for all of our sin.
In the second “If we say” statement, John addresses the claim of the false teachers that they had no sin (vs. 8). It is likely that they were claiming not to have a sin nature. Their view was that God had either eradicated the sin nature in them, or at least in their soul. How many today claim a form of spirituality while rejecting the presence of sin in their lives? If we do this, John says we are self-deceived and the truth is not in us. If we deny our own sinfulness, then any behavior becomes acceptable. There is no moral standard. This was the case with the false teachers and many in our society as well.
If we acknowledge and confess our sins however, God who is faithful and just, will forgive us (vs. 9). In vs. 8 he spoke of sin (sin nature) and in vs. 9 he says we should confess our sins (sinful acts). Again, a denial of the sin nature results in no perceived need of confession. Conversely, an acceptance of our sin nature will lead to confession of our sinful actions. When we acknowledge and confess our sins we can have confidence that God will forgive us and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.
This is because he is faithful to his promises. The Lord has promised to forgive the sins of his children. This is clearly seen in the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34) among other places. The Lord must forgive sin if he is to remain faithful to his promises. This poses a problem though because John said that God was not only faithful but just or righteous. How can God maintain his righteousness if he does not punish sin? He cannot! Therefore Christ was the propitiation for our sin; he satisfied God’s wrath in bearing our sin and dying on our behalf. In this way God was both just and the justifier (Rom 3:21-26).
In the third “If we say” statement, John deals with the claim of the false teachers that they had not sinned (vs. 10). Not only did they deny their sin nature, but they denied that they had committed a single sin. Whether they were referring to their being sinless prior to their profession of faith or that they had not sinned since in either case John says such a view makes God to be a liar. In his word, the Lord has made it clear that all have sinned (Rom 3:23). Further, Paul described the war in his flesh as he wrestled with sin stating that sin dwelt within him and caused him to do evil instead of the good that he desired to do (Rom 7:13-25). To deny this present reality for the believer is to make God a liar and to give evidence that we are not in fellowship with him.
Having thoroughly disputed the false teaching regarding a lack of sin, John is quick to correct in the opposite direction. Lest he be perceived as accepting sin, he states definitively that he is correcting the false teachers so that his dear children in the faith would not sin (2:1). He is not minimizing sin, but rather calling them to walk in the light; to understand the truth and practice righteousness. Should we fall into sin however, we know that Jesus Christ the righteous is our advocate with the Father.
Jesus is righteous because he lived a righteous life, thus he can approach the Father on our behalf. He is our advocate before the Father. Therefore, when we sin we need not be afraid because the Lord Jesus intercedes for us. He alone is qualified to do this because he is the propitiation for our sins (vs. 2). As stated above, in his substitutionary death on the cross he satisfied the wrath of God against our sin. God is just and must judge sin so Jesus bore that judgment on our behalf. He was uniquely qualified to do that because he alone lived a righteous life, the very life he manifested, which the Apostles proclaimed.
This view of propitiation should not be confused with a pagan view of sinful men attempting to appease an angry or disinterested God. That is the total opposite of the truth. It was God who initiated this propitiation. He sent his son to die in order to satisfy his wrath against sin and provide for our forgiveness (1 John 4:10). According to John the scope of this satisfaction of wrath is global and is sufficient for the sins of the world.
It is clear that salvation should be seen in terms of restored fellowship with God that results in proper fellowship with one another. This is demonstrated by walking in the light (practicing righteousness) which transcends personal holiness and includes how we love one another. This is made possible by the blood of Jesus, which satisfies God’s wrath and cleanses us from sin, making restored fellowship possible for all who believe in repentance and faith.
In the epistle of 1 John, the Apostle is writing to his beloved little children to address a heresy that has risen in the church. Scholars disagree on the exact heresy but it’s clear that it involved the denial of the humanity of the Lord Jesus. One version of this heretical view saw Jesus as a man whom the Christ descended upon for a season between his baptism and his crucifixion. In this view, the Christ was a spirit that came upon a man named Jesus who was the son of Mary and Joseph. In another variation the false teachers taught that the Christ was not really born a man but was a spirit without a physical body, like a ghost or phantom.
Regardless of which view was held by the false teachers, the impact on the church is clear from John’s letter. The dehumanizing of Jesus led to two sinful behaviors. First, the people became complacent with sin. Second, they became calloused to the needs of others. What was it about the rejection of the humanity of Christ that led to these behaviors?
By rejecting the humanity of Christ they devalued humanity in general. These false teachers thought that the physical was bad and evil. On the other hand, they elevated the spiritual as being the only thing of any value. For them the soul or spirit was all that mattered. Thus, if your spirit had been redeemed then it did not matter what you did with your body because after all the flesh is evil.
Their sinfulness did not only include sins of commission, but their heretical view likewise led to sins of omission. Since they had devalued the physical and elevated the spiritual they could now look at their brothers who struggled with physical needs and close their hearts to them. After all, the spirit or soul is what mattered; the physical was fleeting and evil.
While we may not rise to the level of heresy and deny the humanity of Christ, we do often elevate the spiritual over the physical. Do we justify our sin because the flesh is evil and weak? Do we look at the physical needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ and turn a blind eye because saving souls is more important than saving lives? John says that neither of these practices is compatible with Christianity! In Jesus Christ both deity and humanity are equally and fully present and thus the spiritual and the physical are forever unified.
In light of the heresies present in the church, it’s no wonder that John commits the prologue of the letter to firmly establishing the reality of the humanity of Christ. In the first two verses he makes it clear that Jesus is the Christ and that he had become a man. The reference to “That which was from the beginning…” in vs 1 certainly includes the understanding of the pre-existence of Christ as seen in John 1, but here he specifically deals with the incarnation and the beginning of Christ’s earthly life.
John, the Apostle, offers his eye witness account of the humanity of Christ. Contrary to the false teachers who espoused a special knowledge, John had heard, seen, and touched the Lord. John and the other Apostles had heard Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount. They had seen him touch and heal the blind and the sick. They had touched him and even placed their fingers in his wounds after the resurrection. It’s significant that the Apostles not only proclaimed what they heard Jesus teach, but also what they saw him do. What Christ did is as important as what he said.
In his Gospel, John referred to Christ as the pre-existent Word who was with the Father and stated that in him was life (John 1:1-4). As the creator and sustainer of all things Christ was the eternal life. Through the incarnation he dwelt among mankind and manifested this eternal life. John and the other Apostles had been eyewitnesses to the manifested life of Christ and they testified and proclaimed it to the church (vs. 2).
In these first two verses, John clearly and concisely refutes the false teachers’ distortions of who Jesus was. It was beyond debate that Jesus was both God and man unified in one person. His humanity was not subordinate to, nor did it detract from, his deity.
To be sure, the incarnation of Christ and the manifestation of eternal life had a purpose and John states it clearly in vs. 3. It was the restoration of fellowship between humanity and God. This is a very interesting way to describe the gospel. I suspect many of us would say the gospel is that Jesus died for my sin so that I can avoid hell. Or perhaps we would state it more positively, that Jesus died for my sin so that I can go to heaven. Yet this is not how John describes the gospel at all.
For John, the good news is not that I get out of hell or even that I get into heaven. For John the good news is that I get God! We were created for eternal fellowship with the Lord and with one another. Sin severed our fellowship with God and corrupted our fellowship with man, but in Christ this fellowship is restored. We can know God and love him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and we can love our neighbor as ourselves. We can dwell in the presence of God. We can find our purpose in our role as image bearers glorifying God and participating in his kingdom. This is the gospel!
The ultimate result of restored fellowship is joy. John is proclaiming Christ in order that his hearers can enter into fellowship with the church and with the Father and the Son. He knows that the end result of this fellowship is complete joy. Certainly he is looking ahead to the consummation of history when all is made new; however, even now when we participate in the fellowship of the body with the Father and the Son we will experience great joy!