The truth - 1 John 1:1-4
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me begin by telling you about a church which produces members for the Hare Krishna movement, quite unintentionally of course. The young woman had been attending the church since she was 13 years old. She remembered going for the first time and seeing so many happy people. And understandably, she wanted what they had. So week by week she listened carefully to the messages being preached. The minister told her that if she invited Jesus into her heart then she could have happiness and success. She was told that the Holy Spirit’s fullness would take away her sadness and giver he inner peace. And it worked- at least for a while. Then sadly her parents separated and she was caught up in an acrimonious divorce. Then all the good feelings left her. In fact the bad feelings were so strong that she cried every afternoon for months on end. Still the church told her that Jesus would make her experience victory and wholeness. But then very slowly she began to suspect it wasn’t true. “If Jesus is there to give me good feelings” she reasoned, “and all I seem to have are bad feelings- it doesn’t work- its fake.” That is when the invitation came. An old friend had become a full Hare Krishna. She said Lord Krishna would give her good feelings. So she thought she would give it a try. So off she went to the Hare Krishna centre, was taught the mantra and- guess what? It worked! Bad feelings were replaced with good feelings. So she ditched the Lord Jesus and took up with Lord Krishna instead.
Now what was that young woman’s problem? Well, you could say there were a variety of problems at work. But one problem which lay at the centre was the problem of assurance. She was not certain whether her faith was true, whether Jesus really did love her, whether Christianity worked. But of course this problem of lack of assurance was itself the product of a deeper problem- the problem of faulty teaching. You see, if the Christian message is packaged in terms of Jesus making you feel good, then inevitably when you don’t feel good you begin to doubt. So faulty teaching leads to lack of assurance. But on the other hand, lack of assurance leads some people to seek out faulty teaching- teaching which makes bigger promises to offset your doubts. In this case Hare Krishna. The fact is the problem of lack of assurance is a perennial pastoral problem: wobbly Christians which are the product of wobbly teaching and wobbly teaching which is put forward as the answer to wobbly Christians.
The Bible’s answer however is to break the vicious circle by providing stable teaching which in turn produces stable Christians. God really does want us to have assurance as believers, which is one of the reasons why he inspired his apostle John to write his first letter as we see in chapter 5:13: ‘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.’
Now the background to this heart warming letter is the rise of new teachers introducing a new spirituality which promotes a new morality. And, as is often the case, what is being taught is just close enough to the truth for it to seduce the unwary. But the real scary thing is that this new breed of minister has arisen under sound ministry, they came from within the very congregations John had been serving – 2:19, ‘They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us.’ One of the leading teachers was a man called Cerinthus who taught, amongst other things, that there was an ordinary man called Jesus upon whom a supernatural being-‘the Christ’- descended at his baptism but left him just before his crucifixion. Why didn’t he believe that Jesus was God who became man to die for us? Well, because of a prior belief that matter is evil and God is immune from suffering. Therefore it would be impossible for God to sully himself by direct contact with this world and he certainly could not be subject to pain. Also, given that our bodies belong to an ‘inferior’ material world, not the superior “spiritual” world, then it didn’t matter too much how you behaved so long as you believed. This was later to become known as ‘Gnosticism’. So it may be that what John is in part countering is this movement which exists in embryo. You see, according to these folk what really counted was ‘having the experience’- being initiated into the right group and so being ‘in the know’ which is what the word ‘gnosis’ means- ‘knowledge’. So is the moral life hard? Not to worry, enjoy your faith and behave like everyone else. Are you uncertain about what the Bible teaches? Again no problem-what matters is the subjective experience of the now- not the so called objective truths of the past. Faith, it is argued, is a matter of the heart, not the head, feelings not facts. And in a cultural climate like ours where things are deemed to be ‘as real as I feel’ then such teaching is going to be very alluring. A few years ago the sociologist Christian Smith, conducted a survey of hundreds of children in the United States who were children of conservative Christian parents- those who went to ‘bible teaching churches’. And he found that in general American teens practiced what he dubbed ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ which amounts to a bland relativistic spirituality that emphasises doing good and feeling good and believing in a harmless, benevolent, one-size fits all God, who doesn’t interfere with how we live our lives, so long as we are sincere. So it is moralistic, concerned with ‘doing good’, therapeutic-concerned with what makes me feel good, and deistic- God’s as good as dead- or he might as well be. Not surprisingly one of the most notable things was the absence of any connection between biblical thinking and day-to-day living. Smith writes, ‘Quite often, teens said they did not think their religious faith affected their family relationships, they did not believe religion was relevant to the conduct of a dating relationship, they did not see that religion affected their life at school and so on.’ That is a kind of Gnosticism that is live and well in our churches today- and not just American ones. Let me ask some of the younger folk here tonight, if you say you are a Christian, does it make any difference to the way you speak to your parents, to the way you go about your studies, your relationships? If not, then whatever you have isn’t Christianity. It is fake.
Now, there is a downside to all of this ‘Gnosticism’, both ancient and modern. In the first place, you become more and more dependent upon the teacher- the guru. If you go down this road of ‘what works for me’ and ‘what will make me feel good’ then you become as reliant upon the man or the movement just as a drug addict is reliant upon his supplier. Second, you will be tossed in every which way in your faith as you get swept along by the latest fad or the highs and lows of your feelings. And thirdly, what you end up with is something which, while retaining the name ‘Christian’, is anything but.
Now what John does in his letter is to bring us back to the firm foundations upon which our faith is to be built.
So here we are told three things about the authentic Christian faith which goes back to Jesus himself.
In the first place, the Christian faith is eternal and revelational. Look at the first part of verse 1, ‘That which was from the beginning’. And immediately, our mind goes to the prologue of John’s Gospel ‘In the beginning was the Word’ which also echoes what we find at the very start of the Bible in Genesis 1, ‘In the beginning God’ The point is that our salvation is rooted in God himself, it has an ‘eternal beginning’ if you like. And that is a truth to cling on to when we do begin to doubt; that your salvation and mine is not ultimately tied to a man made decision which we can make and unmake or is dependent upon the mood of our feelings or indeed, anything which belongs merely to this world of time. For from eternity to all eternity it was God the Father’s purpose to save people like you and me through God the Son working in our lives by God the Holy Spirit. In other words, since our salvation began in eternity you can be sure it will take us into eternity- after all we are talking about ‘eternal life’.
But this is not some mystical message locked away in heaven waiting for us to penetrate by some religious experience; no, it is something revealed to us, v1 and 2 ‘This we proclaim –the Word of life. . The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.’ Now there is a bit of an oddity here in the original. This ‘Word’ he is speaking of is masculine- a person, but in verse 1 he says ‘that which’ rather than ‘he whom’ appeared. So is this Word a man or a message? The answer is that it is both. The apostle John is saying that the Lord Jesus Christ is the total content of God’s message. Jesus is the Gospel -the Good News. You can’t separate off the Living Word from the written word, the only way we have access to the true Jesus is by turning to where he is found here in the Bible- the testimony of the prophets and apostles. Close this book and start imagining Jesus then what you end up with is fabricated Christ- a product of the fallen imagination- ‘the Jesus-I-like-to-believe-in’- which is worse than useless and is as real as the tooth fairy. What we believe has been revealed.
Secondly, the Christian faith is historical and factual. John writes about all the senses being involved did you notice that?–‘that which we have heard, seen, looked at, touched’ and so underscoring the truth that the God who exists within himself outside our world has broken into our world- the world of space, time and ‘stuff’. When God entered into our human existence some 2000 years ago, he shared our life in all its grime. Here was a baby with dirty nappies; he was an adolescent with sexual drives; he was a man weary and in pain and finally died as a man amongst dying men as he died for men. And because the Christian faith is historical it can be checked out. That is one of its strengths and why we can argue that it is true. Whilst we are called to believe simply we are never asked simply to believe.
The astonishing claim is being made that the real God became a real man without ceasing to be God. This was wonderfully expressed by the 4th century theologian, Augustine, ‘And we think that something impossible to believe is told us about the omnipotence of God, when we are told that the Word of God, by whom all things were made, took flesh from a virgin and appeared to mortal senses without destroying His immortality or infringing His eternity, or diminishing His power, or neglecting the government of the world, or leaving the bosom of the Father, where He is intimately with Him and in Him!’ Mind blowing stuff- that is what John is getting at.
But there may be more to what John is saying here when speaking of ‘the Word of life, which has been heard and seen and touched’ for as well as referring to Jesus incarnation, he may also be alluding to Jesus resurrection. When John speaks of that which ‘our hands have touched’ he could have in mind the encounter of Thomas with the risen Jesus. You may remember that Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them. In John’s Gospel we read that they said to him ‘We have seen the Lord’ but Thomas says, ‘Unless I see (same idea) the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand in his side I will not believe.’ Then when Jesus appeared to Thomas, he said, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out you hand and put it in my side (touch). Stop doubting and believe.’ Seeing, touching and so believing-that is the sequence in John’s Gospel and that is the sequence in his letter as providing evidence for belief. It may also be that by referring to Jesus as the ‘Word of life’, there is an allusion to Jesus statement that he is the ‘resurrection and the life’. So the Christian faith is enveloped by these twin truths- the incarnation – God became man, and the resurrection- Christ was raised from the dead. And both of these truths have eyewitnesses to back them up. Now in John’s day eyewitnesses counted for far more than written witnesses. For us written documentation is crucial- in historical research and so on, but in the ancient world it was eyewitness testimony that carried the day. If it was a choice between what someone who was not present at an event but had written the account down and someone who had been there and was able to tell you about it orally-, the latter trumped every time. And John is saying- ‘I was there, not only me of course, but the other apostles and a whole load more. This is not a fancy philosophy we have dreamed up like some people I could mention, but a reality which is a matter of plain historical fact.’ Indeed, there is even more to it that that because the word translated ‘which we have looked at’ is not just another way of saying ‘seeing’ and so John is simply repeating himself. It is a word which carried with it a sort of visionary quality, being able to see beyond mere appearance to a deeper reality behind it. So when John says they looked at Jesus both during his life and during his resurrection, they are claiming to have had a perception that Jesus was more than a man, looking at him they had come face to face with God himself.
But this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a subjective side to our faith, that it’s all of head and no heart, because in the third place our faith is personal and experimental, v 3 ‘We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.’ Do you see what John is saying? He is celebrating the glorious fact that God has not just broken into our history; he has also broken into our lives. Christ came not simply to bring us information –the claim of the false teachers- he came to bring about transformation – to make a relationship real between ourselves and God and each other. That is what the word ‘fellowship’-koinonia- is all about. It is a word which in the common currency of John’s day meant being a shareholder in a business. So when someone commits their lives to the Lord Jesus Christ they become part of God’s family, knowing God as Father through trusting in the Son and as such they become stakeholders in the family business- the Gospel sharing business. It is the fellowship of the King –not fellowship of the ring John is referring to!
And did you notice why John is writing this letter at all? It is so that those who read it will share in joy. The footnote at the bottom on your Bible says it could be translated, ‘your joy’ or ‘our joy’. But at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter because both amount to the same thing. John and the apostles have fellowship with God through faith in Jesus. When anyone received their message about who Jesus is and what he has done, then they have fellowship with them and so with God. And this fellowship produced joy because we have been related to the one who is Joy (with a capital J) - Jesus himself. It is unfortunate that sometimes the impression given is that Christianity is all about what we don’t do. I am reminded of the little girl who asked her Mum one day, ‘Is that horse a Christian?’ And the Mum turned quizzically to her daughter and said, ‘No. why?’ to which girl replied, ‘Well, it has such a long face’! Usually one of the first questions anyone asks who is looking into the Christian faith is: ‘What do I have to give up?’ Now, sure there is a change in direction and lifestyle in following Christ- that is part of discipleship, but first and foremost it is not a matter of what we lose but what we gain. And one of the greatest, most beautiful, most heart melting things God gives is joy.
Do you realise that on the night he was betrayed, Jesus prayed for you if you are a Christian? And one of the things he prayed was that you would have joy it is there in John 17:13, ‘But now (he says to his heavenly Father) I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in them.’ Isn’t that remarkable? The night before his greatest agony, Jesus had joy and that is the joy he prays his followers will have! ‘Joy’ wrote G.K. Chesterton ‘Is the gigantic secret of the Christian’. C.S. Lewis went even further and said, ‘Joy is the business of heaven’. Why, one of J.S. Bach’s most delicious pieces of music is entitled ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’. What man deep down desires, although he may not realise it and look for it in all the wrong places, joy-Jesus ultimately gives. As C.S. Lewis relates about his own conversion, all his life he had been seeking joy and then one night he discovered that joy was a Person- the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now don’t misunderstand me, this joy isn’t the ‘here today gone tomorrow’ feeling of happiness that the girl I mentioned at the beginning was looking for. Rather it is that deep seated delight of knowing the Lord Jesus personally and experiencing something of that joy with other believers when we meet and worship together. When you begin to think on the excellencies of Christ, his grace, his majesty, his tenderness, his sovereign rule and dying love, let alone the splendour of being with him in heaven as he presents us to his heavenly Father as the jewels of his crown, then of course joy is stirred up in your heart by the Holy Spirit. And it is so that we may experience this that John writes as he does, steering us away from those people and teachings which downgrade the Lord Jesus Christ and put other things in his place and thereby cheating us of the joy which is ours by right.
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