The epistles of John are probably not written by the same person who wrote the gospel according to John. It was probably written just a little later than the gospel. There is, however, one characteristics that is present in both, and that is the strong dualistic language. What I mean by that is that it is black and white, it is either one thing or the other, there is no grey area: above and below, dark and light, good and evil, spirit and flesh, for example. There is a substantial shift from the gospel, the focus is not about the opponents to Jesus and the gospel who are outside the life of the believers, “the world”, “the Jews”, but the false teachers that are amongst the community of believers and what they are teaching.
I had a member of one of the congregations in my previous parish who believed that John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” was an error. How could God love the world, which was so sinful that he had to send his Son to die in order to save it and, I guess, how could he love a world that would do what it did to his Son.
These false teachers, about which John is writing to the church, are those Christians who have taken this kind dualism to the heart of their understanding of God. These false teachers believe that the world and the flesh were essentially evil, therefore, God could not have taken on human flesh in the incarnation as Jesus. Consequently, Jesus maintained his true spiritual nature and only appeared to be in the flesh. This is the basis of the heresy “docetism”, from the Greek meaning “I seem”; Jesus only seemed to be human.
So it is that we heard in the reading from the epistle, last week,
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 Jn 1:1-3; NRSV)
In other words, we heard, we saw, we touched with our hands, Jesus was not simply a spirit presence, he was a fully fleshed human being.
It would seem that the false teachers, if they were arguing that Jesus was not in the flesh, then the purpose of being a Christian was to free oneself from the world, to seek to become a truly spiritual person. This is a theology that we see present in the Eastern World Religions such as Buddhism, the desire to achieve Nirvana, other worldliness, what our young people have described as being so super-spiritual they are of no earthly good.
The epistle of John, however, calls his readers, and us, to an understanding of what it means to be a person of God, a person in Christ, based on the reality, the truth, the light, that Jesus was God in human flesh present in the world. John’s epistle it is defining what Christianity actually is and describing the life of a Christian, that is, how we understand God to be is the determining factor of how we behave, and we will be able to determine someone’s knowledge of God by their behaviour. In other words, how do I understand the nature and person of God, made known to us in the historical person of Jesus, what response does that invite me to enter into and what behaviour does that create in me?
This is nothing new, John goes on to say, but the essence of the old, as we hear it, uniquely, in the Gospel of John,
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35; NRSV)
This is the “word that [they] have heard.” What John is going to add, as new, is a sermon on the last part of Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel. It is new “because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.” When Jesus first gave his eleventh commandment, he was looking to the future, now it is the present, and because Jesus is no longer physical present but with them by his Spirit, the disciples are to live out the commandment.
So John makes a contrast to the false teachers who would be encouraging those who listen to them not to worry about those things that are going on around them, not to be concerned about the needs of the people who around them, because their only task was to have knowledge of God. You cannot, according to John, be a person who really knows Jesus and not respond in love toward the world and those around you. If you say you know Jesus and you do not respond to the needs of those around you, you are lying about knowing Jesus.
John warms his readers that there is a fine line here. We are not to despise our human flesh, for if it is good enough for God in Jesus, it is good enough for us. Because God took on the material in the incarnation of Jesus, Christianity is the most material of all the world religions. There is, however, a difference between having love toward the world and loving the world. Sex is a wonderful thing, but it if we are controlled by our lust it is of the world. I have always wanted to have a flash sports car, but to envious of those who have one is of the world. It is OK to have a nice house to live in, but to set your status in the community by the size of your house is of the world. Without thinking of the material world is purely evil, we are not made right by these things.
John is writing to the infants in the faith, “your sins are forgiven”, “because you know the Father”. He is writing to the elders in faith, marked as elders because they “know him who is from the beginning”. He is writing to the young ones, “you have conquered the evil one”, “because you are strong and the word of God abides in you.” There is nothing else but having a relationship with God, as he is revealed in Jesus, that can mark us as belonging to God and this is what determines our behaviour.
Those who argue anything else, according to John, are the antichrist. The antichrists are those who deny the Father and Jesus as his anointed Son. The antichrists are not those who have thorns in their head and forks in their hands, they are simply those who consider themselves believers, but, by their actions, reveal that their belief is based on something other than a real knowledge of God. They are those who might argue that Christianity is concerned with teaching morality and citizenship, where a church youth group leader will gather the youth group in the church hall while worship is taking place in the church building, sending subliminal messages to others that God is not important.
Finally, for this portion of John’s first epistle, today, he gets to the base essence of how he understands the nature of God to be, as one commentator put it, “[The epistle’s] greatness consists in the penetration with which it expounds a single thought, that God is love,” John writes, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” (1 Jn 3:1; NRSV)
The essence of Christian faith is this, having just celebrated the death and resurrection of Easter, we are affirmed that by that death and resurrection we have a relationship with God are God’s children now and those who do not yet have that relationship with God, can be one of God’s children. The reason for Easter, the making of us his children, is because God is love, because God has immense love for us, so much so, that he was willing to die in order to make that happen.
If we understand the immensity of this love, if we know that God loves us, then we know God and this will effect our behaviour. A study some time ago revealed that we are more inclined to be attracted to people because we knew they were attracted to us, that physical attractiveness as secondary. The first behaviour that the knowledge of God’s love for us brings about is a desire to respond to that love. A desire to accept God’s invitation to become one of his children, to make a commitment to God through Jesus Christ. This commitment continues in our desire to get to know God as he is revealed is the Bible, in the prayer of conversation with God and as he is revealed in action and word by our fellow believers.
We are confronted by John’s final words in our portion of Scripture today, “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” (1 Jn 3:6; NRSV) If we are honest we know we are still sinful, we are still inclined to damage our relationship with God and others. This does not mean that we do not know God. It does mean that we do not know God completely yet, nor will we know God completely in this life, “what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is”. (1 Jn 3:2; NRSV) Even having given ourselves into the love of God, committed ourselves to him, our acts of sin, by what we do and do not do, reveal those things we do not yet know about God. For when we do know God completely, as he is, we will be like him.