What's new? - 1 John 1:1-10
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me tell you about a church which produces members for the Hare Krishna. 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. She wanted what they had. So week by week she listened carefully to the messages preached. The minister told her that if she invited Jesus into her heart she could have joy, 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- for a while. But then her parents separated and she was caught up in the fighting. All the good feelings left. In fact the bad feelings were so strong that she cried every afternoon for months. Still the church meetings told her that Jesus would make her experience victory and wholeness. She began to suspect it wasn't true. "If Jesus is there to give me good feelings" she said, "and all I seem to have is 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. Why not? 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.
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 in itself the product of a deeper problem- the problem of faulty teaching. 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. Faulty teaching leads to lack of assurance. But on the other hand, lack of assurance leads 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, to breaking the vicious circle is to provide stable teaching which produces stable Christians. God really does want us to have assurance which is why he inspired his apostle John to write his first letter-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.' The background to this heart warming pastoral letter is the rise of new teachers introducing a new theology which promotes a new morality. And as usual it is just close enough to the truth for it to be seductive. The scary thing is that this new breed of minister had arisen under sound ministry, they came from within the 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 pastor called Cerinthus who taught that there was an ordinary man called Jesus upon whom a supernatural being-the Christ- descended at his baptism but left him before his crucifixion. Why? Because matter is evil and God is immune from suffering. And given that our bodies belong to an inferior material world, not the superior spirit world, then it didn't matter too much how you behaved so long as you believed. This was later to become known as 'Gnosticism'. What counted was 'having the experience'- being initiated into the right group and so being 'in the know' which is what '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 not to worry-what matters is the inner 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 climate like ours such teaching is just as attractive now as it was then. But there is a downside to all of this. First, you become more and more dependent upon the teacher- the guru. If you go down this road of 'what works for me' you become as dependent upon the man who can produce the goods as a drug addict is to his supplier. Second, what results is something which, while retaining the name 'Christian', is anything but. If Jesus is not God the second person of the Trinity, then God has not finally spoken through him. If Jesus as God did not die on the cross our sins have not been dealt with. If Jesus is not God, Christians are blasphemously worshipping a man. The stakes are that high.
Now what John does is to bring us back to the firm foundations upon which our faith is to be built; foundations which are being undermined by the antichrists within the church even today as we shall see.
First, John unfolds a faith to stand by vv 1-4. 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. V 1 'That which was from the beginning'- the same phrase he uses as the start of his Gospel 'In the beginning was the Word' and also at the start of the Bible in Genesis 1, 'In the beginning God' The point is, God's plan of salvation is like God himself eternal. Now that is a truth to cling to when we do begin to doubt. Your salvation and mine is not ultimately tied to a man made decision which we can make and unmake or anything which belongs merely to the world of time. From all 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.
But this is not some mystical message locked away in heaven waiting for us to penetrate it by some religious experience; 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'. So is this Word a person or a proposition, a man or a message? The answer is: both, that is why John writes as he does. He is saying that the Lord Jesus Christ is the total content of God's message. He is the Gospel-the Good News. You can't separate off the Living Word from the written word, the only way we can have access to the true Jesus is by turning to where he is found-here in the Bible. Close this book and start imagining Jesus then what you end up with is simply an idol- a product of the fallen imagination.
Secondly, the Christian faith is historical and factual. John writes about all the senses of the apostles being involved 'that which we have heard, seen, touched' to underscore the truth that the God who exists within himself outside time has broken into time. You see, 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; here was an adolescent with sexual drives; here was a man weary and in pain and finally a dying man amongst dying men dying for men. And because the Christian faith is historical it can be checked out. That is one of its strengths, why we can argue the case that it is true. Whilst we are called to believe simply we are never asked simply to believe.
But 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 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 a transformation to make a relationship real between ourselves and God and with each other. That is what the word 'fellowship' is all about. It is a word which in the common currency of the day meant being a shareholder in a business, being committed to a common concern. In this case the Gospel. 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 shareholders in the family business- sharing the Gospel. That is the unity the Bible is concerned with. And that kind of fellowship of living together, serving together, even suffering together, brings the kind of joy John talks about. This is a joy which is convinced and not contrived, meaningful, not manufactured.
Now why should all of this provide the solid grounds for all the assurance we need that we are loved by God and saved by God rather than subjective experience? Well, because since these things have happened in the past God coming to earth, God speaking to us, God in Christ dying on a cross and rising from the dead-they cannot change, whereas our feelings do. These things having happened -they are fixed, whereas we don't know what our feelings are going to be like tomorrow, they fluctuate. Will God perform a miracle tomorrow to bolster my faith- I don't know, but that he has performed miracles in the past I do know and that is all I need for my faith today. Do you see?
But of course some people will try and get us to doubt the historicity of our faith and so make us vulnerable to whatever the latest fad they have to offer. Several years ago Bishop John Selby Spong, of Newark, New Jersey wrote a book entitled: 'Born of a Woman- a Bishop rethinks the Birth of Jesus.' In this book he says that Jesus conception was natural, his mother, Mary, had probably been raped. He denies all the miraculous elements in the Bible and pours scorn on those who would naively read them as history. He argues that belief in the virgin birth has led to a negative view of women and that Jesus married Mary Magdalene. He writes: 'The time has come for the church to surrender its neurotic pattern of trafficking in one feeble religious security system after another and to allow its people to feel the bracing wind of insecurity so that Christians might know what it means to walk by faith.' This man specialises in creating a lack of assurance. But do you see that he, and there are many more like him, stand in the company of the antichrists. And what is believed inevitable affects how we behave. And so not surprisingly he celebrates gay marriages and advocates 'divorce without guilt.' And if you don't think that will happen here then just you wait- we already have the teachers, the practitioners are just lining up.
And this brings us to the next point; we have a faith to live by. What we believe is to affect how we behave and John spells that out. Here is the basic truth about the nature of God verse 5 'This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.' This is God's self revelation as we see it perfectly expressed in the Lord Jesus Christ. What does this imagery say to us? Well, it speaks of holiness and purity, of truth and integrity; it speaks of illumination and guidance, of warmth and comfort. Without light there is no life, no growth, no beauty, no activity. So it is spiritually without being properly related to God-having fellowship with him through the Son. And it highly significant that this is a message first and foremost about God and not about us. We are far to man centred by half in our thinking and so self centred when it comes to so called spirituality- as if religion is all about us, how we feel, what we want out of it- desires which the false teachers will appeal to every time, as with that young woman I mentioned at the beginning. But the Gospel begins with God, his nature, his purposes, what he requires of us rather than what we demand of him. Anything less is idolatry and so it is no surprise that John signs off his letter with the terse command: 'Dear children, keep yourself from idols.' Idolatry- a devotion to anyone or anything other than the God who is light is precisely what the false teachers will peddle. And as right at the beginning in the Garden of Eden idolatry is the original sin for it is the worship of self- ' I dolatry' 'you too will be like God.' Snd that begins with doubting God's word 'Has God said..?'
The result? A soft peddling of sin- for then we, not God, defines what is and not acceptable, even in the church. And John points out three errors which always result when we forget that God is light and in him there are no darkness at all. Each is introduced with the phrase 'If we sayand each is condemned in a phrase.
First there is libertinism or carelessness v 6: 'If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.' This is the attitude which says sin doesn't really matter. This is 'walking' in darkness, a deliberate and wilful way of life which treats sin lightly; a life of self-indulging rather than god-pleasing. This is the person who claims to be a Christian (having fellowship) but denies it by their life. I think one of the most wanton scenes I have witnessed was when the Lesbian and Gay Christian movement celebrated their founding at Southwark Cathedral a few years ago, which was televised, and those who were openly having homosexual genital relations were singing 'We are walking in the Light of God' the irony seemed to have been lost on everyone.
Secondly there is escapism or a refusal to accept responsibility for sin. v 8 literally reads 'If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.' It is a phrase Jesus himself uses in John 15:22 which carries the sense of 'bearing guilt'. Here sin is simply redefined. So 'lying' becomes 'being economical with the truth'; 'adultery' becomes 'extra marital relations'; 'cheating' becomes 'creative accounting.' And on and on it goes. We so easily excuse ourselves by failing to see sin for what it is an offence against a holy God, one who is light and who cannot have sin in his presence whatever we may choose to call it.
But thirdly there is perfectionism or denying the presence of sin v10: 'If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives' Now we might find it difficult to believe that anyone could believe this. But it shows itself in two ways. There are those who deny original sin; that we are born with sinful natures. I have a book on my shelf by a well known evangelical , a vice-president of the UCCF who despises the very idea of original sin and claims that we are not considered sinners by God until we choose to sin. I wonder if he has had any children of his own. But from time to time you do get movements within the church which claim that as a result of a second blessing then you have the victory and you will never fall into sin again. I kid you not. The Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon met such a man who made such a claim, he was a perfect Christian, he said, 'So Spurgeon kicked him on the shin' and the profanity which came out of his mouth as a result put an end to that idea. Whether it is sinless perfection or attaining a higher level of spirituality there are movements making such offers.
Now John is realistic to know that we do sin as Christians, sometimes terribly. We can backslide, we can fall into temptations which grieve us and scar us and so undermine our assurance even further. And maybe tonight that is where you are. You are haunted by a memory of sin which shames you. Maybe you find yourself trapped in a sin which makes it difficult for you to come to a place like this. For you the truth that God is light is a painful one and not comforting at all. But the wonderful thing is this: it is because God is light that he has made a glorious provision which enables us to come into his light v 7 'But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.' And then v. 9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.' We are back to why Christ came into the world in the first place-the Gospel- and here is the beautiful balance between a wrong condoning of sin and a wrong despair about sin. John is saying God's ultimate desire is to rid you and me from sin but if we do sin then don't let that drive you away from Jesus, instead let it drive you to Jesus. And why? Because he alone has the power to purify us from all sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. I don't see any exception there do you? The true God is one who stoops down to meet us in the mire to lift us out of the mire. He shines in blazing purity and in his Son poured out his own blood to make us pure. And tonight he wants to extend to us that same assurance that the blood of Christ shed once and for all in time has the power to cleanse us and keep us for all time. And this is the faith we are to stand by and this is the faith we are to live by. Let us pray.
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