Walking in the light - 1 John 2:1-14
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Light is amazing. Any ability to see that we might have is only possible at all because of this energy bouncing around the universe at 186 000 miles per second - light! But the significance that people attach to 'light' can be more complicated than just it's description.
Very soon after September 11 there was an attempt to rebuild the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, just a stones throw from ground zero. The building material, however wasn't bricks or any of the usual materials. It was light. From when it was set up, the 'tribute of light' lasted for 32 days - you may have seen it. It consisted of 88x 7000 watt searchlights, arranged in two banks of 44. Each bank created a 50 foot square column of light that was directed upwards to evoke the image of the former twin towers. But the imagery of these 'towers of light' strikingly set against the darkness of the Manhattan night time also expressed other sentiments. It displayed America's desire to recognise and remember those who lost their lives. It suggested the possibility that some good - some light - could rise from the ashes of destruction, perhaps in the collective resolution to rid the world of terrorism.
Light, both literally and metaphorically, was used on that occasion to express a whole range of sentiments... and it did so movingly and powerfully.
None of that would be lost on the apostle John who wrote the letter that we read from earlier, because the idea of 'light' (and darkness for that matter) is one of his favourite devices for teaching Christians about God. And as we approach the second of our series in this letter, it is thinking about light, literally, that will help us understand why he uses light metaphorically not only to describe God but also to describe Christians too.
Last week we saw in 1v5 that 'God is light' - speaking of purity and holiness - attributes that are impossible to miss as God's light is brought to bear on human lives, bringing into sharp relief all of our stains of impurity and wrongdoing!
Just imagine an actor who walks onto a darkened stage. It is only when he steps into the spotlight that you can see what he looks like and in fact what he is doing. Things that could not have been seen up until the point when he stepped into the light are now on show to all.
All human lives are on show to God in a far more profound way, not just our outward appearances and behaviour, because his light penetrates to the deepest level, exposing even our thoughts and motivations.
If you could put that up on a TV screen I dare say it would make a great reality TV programme... But that is the point isn't it?... if we think extrovert 'wannabe' celebrities brazenly airing their dirty laundry is rubbish... what do you think God has to put up with as he sees the total reality of each of our lives... including the stuff we'd never ever want to be broadcast! You can't find a blind spot where God's light doesn't penetrate!
But it's not entertainment for God. It's tragedy. He sees all the filth. And it sickens him. He can have nothing to do with it. And yet he loves what he has created to bear his image... he loves you and me... and he offers the only possible solution
It's not for people to scuttle back into the darkness and be lost forever... It is the Christian life. John describes it as 'walking in the light' 1v7. It necessarily involves owning up to all the stains that have and still do permeate our entire livesbut critically, it depends on the blood of Jesus Christ to purify us. That is how the Christian life begins. And that is how it continues.
It's the same idea in chapter 2, where John talks about 'being in the light' 2v9 and 'living in the light' 2v10.
And what we are faced with here in Ch2 are effectively tests. Tests that will help each of us to examine ourselves to see if we really are 'walking in the light'.
Tests that force us to be honest with ourselves and God, but also tests that challenge us to be authentic in front of other people.
Because we can easily delude ourselves that we are walking in the light. And we might even delude ourselves that God is happy with our idea of 'walking in the light'... but it is a simple fact that if you have God's light in your life then it will be seen by other people. It can no more be missed than the mile high beams of the 'tribute of light' could be missed in the Manhattan twilight.
So the first test is regarding our perceptions:
1) God's light is seen in a Christian's perceptions v1-6
2:1 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence-- Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.
2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
3 We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.
4 The man who says, "I know him," but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.
5 But if anyone obeys his word, God's love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him:
6 Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.
To function properly and healthily as a Christian requires the following:
The right perception of who you are v1.
John is concerned that his people will not sin. But last week, in Ch1 we were left in no uncertain terms that we are all sinners. And to deny that and say that you have not sinned is in fact to sin by lying! But that is not to say that we should condone sin, less still that we should be comfortable with it.
On the contrary, 'God is light'. As we've seen 'that light' first 'spotlighted' our desperate need so that we were in no doubt whatsoever that should we find ourselves in the court of God's justice we would have no chance at allExcept for the 'one who speaks to the Father in our defence!' v1.
So 'walking in the light' will forces us to admit that we are sinners. We cannot walk proudly, puffed up in our own merit. Rather we will be utterly dependant on God's undeserved love - his grace - toward us. Consequently we need
The right perception of who Christ is v1.
he is the one who speaks to the Father in our defence.
Jesus Christ attracts many descriptions today, and has done over all the 2000 years since he was among us. The old chestnuts seem to be 'a good teacher' or 'a helpful example'. And you can easily see why... because if he is merely those things, you can take him or you can leave him and actually it doesn't really matter if you do or you don't anyway!
But if he is Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, then he is perfect. He is the human embodiment of 'God is light'. He alone could say that he was without sin, and not deceive himself. He alone has lived the only life in history that pleases God. And that unique qualification enabled him, alone, to bear in your place and mine, all of the consequences of God's prosecution case against our lives!
But that is only half the story... for who Christ is and what he is qualified to do are a world away from what he actually did... We need to have also
The right perception of what Christ did v2.
He sacrificed himself to bring 'atonement' - that is the change from being 'at loggerheads', opposing, enemies, to being 'at one'.
Because of this sacrifice there is no-one in this world who need not be in heaven, forgiven by God, welcomed into his family and guaranteed, because of Christ's death and subsequent new life, a destiny that no-one wants to miss out on.
v2 couldn't really be any plainer could it? But that hasn't protected it from attack today as in the past.
There are those today who would play down man's enmity with God, and empty the cross of Christ of it's power - turning it into just an example of God identifying with us rather than God pronouncing just sentence on guilty people and having done so, then stepping himself into the dock and taking on himself that same sentence that we deserved.
People want to make sin less serious. But God cannot. The eternal perfect relationship of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was ripped apart because of sin, yours and mine. Sin is serious. It makes us enemies of God. And the more serious we take it... the more good we will find the good news about Jesus Christ who, only because of that cross, can make atonement - 'at-one-ment' - with God.
So the right perception of what Christ did leads to
The right perception of knowing Christ v3-6.
So if we are like we are, and Christ is like he is, and he did what he did, and we can know him in personal relationship... and that's what many, if not all of us here tonight would claim... then John whips out the sledgehammer with an almighty blow to test the integrity of our claim. For he says v3 'We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.' Did that make you sit up?
It's pretty simple really. If we understood disobeying God to be what makes us his enemies, then, having been forgiven and made friends - at-one with God - we'll obey his commands!
look at v4! Could that be you and me? 'I know him!' we claim!'
But could we be liars here? Yes we could, if we don't do what he commands! Are we liars? Only ourselves and God really know that!
Well actually No. That's not quite true
This can happen. In fact it may have happened to you. Someone 'accidentally' finds out that you claim to be a Christian. And instead of concluding 'Ah! I knew you were different!' they are shocked. They never had the faintest idea, and they would never be able to get the faintest idea, because outside of the church meeting there is no attempt to obey what Jesus commands. It's egg on the face for you, and worse, its egg on the face for Jesus Christ, the Rightoeus One... and you are seen to be a liar.
And that is why perceptions, although vitally important, are not enough'whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did!'
2) God's light is experienced in a Christian's actions v7-11
7 Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard.
8 Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.
9 Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness.
10 Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble.
11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him.
Ie. The true test of your perceptions are your actions.
To make his point, John directs his readers not to a new command but to an old one 'which you have had since the beginning'. From what he goes on to say in this section it is clear that he means God's command to love others. It was right there in the Law that God gave to Moses in Leviticus, back at the start of the OT
19:18 'love your neighbour as yourself.'
It is also given by Jesus when he taught about the greatest commandments that summarise the whole of God's law in Mark 12 as we read earlier
Love the Lord your God
31 your neighbour as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."
That is why John can say to his people that this command is the message you received. The message from Jesus.
But John is also writing a new command, the truth of which is seen in him [Jesus] and his followers. So what is this new command? Well actually it turns out to be exactly the same as the old command... here's Jesus in John 13
34 "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."
Jesus himself gives the old command as a new command, having modelled par excellence what it looks like in action in his life and as he would shortly demonstrate, taking it to its absolute maximum in dying on the cross.
All of which means that you simply cannot sidestep what John confronts us with. If you claim to be a Christian, not only will your perceptions find their origin in Jesus Christ but your behaviour will reflect that of Jesus Christ.
Vv9-11 are a worked example of the challenge that faces us. It's a challenge that concerns how Christians relate to Christians first and foremost.
Here is the easy thing to do with these verses. Just focus on the negative. Do you hate any of your fellow Christians? Now this is very important, and if that is you... you are not 'walking in the light', in fact you are all over the place, blundering around in the darkness according to v11 - it doesn't get any clearer than that! But my suspicion is that that will prove a rare occurrence, and so we'll all tend to assume that just the absence of hate is enough to pass this test! Trouble with that is that the opposite example John uses isn't neutral is it? V10, whoever loves his brother lives in the light
Brothers and sisters we have got to love each other! And that is not getting easier when our culture and society are producing an ever-increasing individualism. Privacy and the right to it have become one of the rawest of nerves. Our homes are OUR homes! Our lives are OUR lives. But we are still British and there are still some manners if only in the church... and so we meet the 'platitude people'. These people are hard to 'love' because you never know how to. They tend not to share any struggles. On the other hand they will 'say' the right things in enquiring about others... but seldom does it translate into action.
Jesus himself thunders at a similar attitude toward God when he says in Matthew 13 'These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me!'... But couldn't that also be a description of how we might view our brothers and sisters? Isn't it embarrassingly easy to give an impression, even an intention of love with our lips but not with our hearts... and therefore not in our actions?
John's second test then is a searching one, but as Christians, claiming to 'walk in the light' we are to be defined by the strength and depth of our love for one another. And love will be seen more and more as we share our lives, our struggles and even our homes with each other more and more. And by that active love all people should know that we are Christ's disciples.
But then there is John's third test:
God's light endures in a Christian's convictions v12-14
12 I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.
13 I write to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one.
I write to you, dear children, because you have known the Father.
14 I write to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one.
When I was a student in Stoke on Trent I came to love getting out of the city into the Peak District. Fairly close was a rocky gritstone outcrop called the Roaches... a bit of a rock climbing hotspot. And I remember reading about a climb there called 'Bloodstone' which was rated at E6 - (and if you know anything about climbing grades you'll know that that is a stern test for the best!). Here is what it said
'Bloodstone's totally direct line up the centre of the slab cannot be protected after the difficulties start, and is quite dangerous!'
In other words do not try it in a half hearted manner. It is a serious test of conviction. You have to go at it convinced that you have the technique and experience necessary. If not, then forget it - you will not overcome it, it will overcome you.
So, in this somewhat poetic arrangement at the end of our passage, John brings together all the themes he has been at pains to address and does a lovely thing with them.
He encourages his congregation with them! He points them to what has been true of them so far - their convictions have had beneficial consequences... and his clear implication is that they should continue in these convictions
It seems best to take John's designations of the various groups of people as follows.
'Dear children' is his favourite expression for his congregation as a whole. And that fits with what he says about them. These people have been forgiven their sins on account of Christ's name v12 and as such they know the Father v13. It really is as simple as that! These are true of every Christian and every Christian will be convinced of them!
'Father's' would represent the older, more mature members of the congregation... including the leaders of the church. John's particular concern for them is to do with 'knowing him who is from the beginning' v13, v14. Immediately we are directed back to John's impassioned plea at the start of his letter for his congregation to ensure that the Jesus they claim to know, is the real Jesus - Jesus Christ... any other Jesus would be Jesus anti-Christ Ch4v2-3.
So in a spiritual climate of 'new ideas', where the temptation is to drift away from 'him who is from the beginning', the eyewitness directs us back to Jesus and knowing him.
One of the big NT marks of maturity is an ever deepening 'knowing' of Jesus Christ. Whereas the marks of immaturity, and common causes of disaster are either to think that you know Jesus completely or to be like a reed swayed by whatever current of thinking is around at the time, and finding yourself moving away from him who is from the beginning. Mature Christian's will be convinced of the continuing need to know Jesus more deeply.
'Young men', on the other hand would be those in the early stages of their Christian lives. The stages of running pitched battles and skirmishes with the evil one - the Devil - and lingering sin. These younger Christians, happily, have overcome the evil one in v13. And we find out how at the end of v14 'they are strong and the word of God lives in them'. That is to say that what makes them strong is that God's word is alive within them. That is also to say that no Christian can ever hope to overcome anything without feeding on and knowing and responding to what God says in his word, the Bible.
Yes, it's said often isn't it, but I know very few Christians who don't struggle with reading the Bible regularly let alone every day!
Because it all comes down to convictions. You see, the impressive thing about John describing his church like this, is that they weren't just doing what he told them. His church was facing opposition and persecution, and temptation left right and centre... and was finding out for real the importance of having strong convictions that are right.
That flow from right perceptions and are supported by consistent actions.
They were walking in the light and they were overcoming... and the question is will we do likewise.
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