We have been exploring the Epistles of John.
Jesus was a real fleshed human being
The first thing that we have noted is that John is responding to the presence of false teachers who are proclaiming that Jesus was not truly human, but retained his “heavenly” spiritual nature and only appeared human. Our knowledge of God determines our behaviour
The second thing that we explored is that we are not saved by simply having knowledge of God nor are we made right with God by our good works. John is making it clear that good works are determined by how we understand the identity and nature of God and it is our knowledge of God, having an intimate relationship with God that determines the righteousness of our behaviour and actions.
There is right and wrong knowledge of God and, therefore, right and wrong behaviour
As a counter argument to the false teachers, John is affirming that the human person is essentially good and is not evil. Having said this, he is arguing that we cannot be ruled and controlled by the desires of the flesh.
“Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.” (1 John 3:7-8a; NRSV)
The freedom we have in Christ Jesus does not mean anything goes! The question is how we understand righteous and unrighteous behaviour, or right and wrong action, and how to work out the difference.
I have to confess being a little puzzled as to how to reconcile,
“Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God.” (1 John 3:9; NRSV)
The reality is the human condition is corrupted by the sinful nature, and we do go on sinning. I would like to suggest that, in the same way that I can’t imagine life without Sandy, my wife, friends, people in this church and from previous churches, and communities in which I have lived, who have had an influence over my becoming who I am, I can’t imagine life without God in it. Those who have truly entered into a relationship with God cannot later say that God does not exist, cannot afterwards choose not to have a relationship with God. So, perhaps John is speaking about sin as the particular, and only unforgivable, sin of not having a relationship with God and his Son, Jesus Christ. Those who have been born of God cannot commit the sin of denying him.
So, the determining factor of righteousness, according to John, is our knowledge of God, “The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8b; NRSV) If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus, he is God in the flesh, and knowing Jesus is knowing God, and knowing God is what enables us to discern what is right behaviour and this destroys the works of the Devil, our bad behaviour.
There is no lack of responsibility here. “The Devil made me do it,” does not stand up in the court of heaven. However, remember John’s black and white language, we can know God and choose to act according to that relationship, but to not know God is to choose to know the Devil and we are, then, choosing to act according to that relationship.
There are only two options, according to John, those who know God and those who do not, and this equates to knowing the Devil. “The children of God and the children of the Devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.” (1 John 3:10; NRSV)
There are different pictures, or roles, given of the Devil through the bible. Job sees him as a kind of legal prosecutor. I think it is clear that John understands the Devil to be one who is working in opposition to God, “sinning from the beginning.” (v 8) According to biblical legend, the Devil was one of the first creative acts of God. His role was like that of heavenly Prime Minister. What led to his being cast to earth was his desire to be God. He wanted to be the one with who people had their most important relationship. In the story of the Garden of Eden, we read of how the Devil continued that desire. Even though Adam and Eve had a relationship with God, who walked with them in the Garden, the Devil invited them to listen to him rather than God. They chose to take more notice of the Devil than God. He had won their relationship and Adam’s hiding from God revealed how his relationship with God had become broken.
Sin, for John, seems to be those things, in thought, word and, particularly, action, which express our lack of relationship with God, our lack of righteousness. He goes on, then, to express the fruit of that lack of relationship with God in the brothers Cain and Abel. What is interesting is that, even though John recognises murderers “do not have eternal life abiding in them” (v 15), it is not the murder that he wants to identify as the evil and unacceptable behaviour. Cain murdered his brother Abel, “Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.” (v 12) There was something in him before the murder that was considered his base sin.
We could be mistaken in thinking that it was very unfair of God to accept Abel’s offering of lamb and not Cain’s offering of grain. But there is more to it than this.
For Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Gen 4:5-7; NRSV, italics are mine)
Remember that John seems to understand sin as being those things which express a broken relationship with God. What makes Cain’s offering unacceptable, is not that it was a grain offering, but that he made an offering when “sin’s desire was for him”, when he was predisposed to not accept relationship with God. God cannot accept an offertory from Cain because Cain has no relationship with him. It is God who ought to be angry, not Cain. It is God’s countenance that ought to have fallen, not Cain’s. It is because Cain did not know God that his action was unacceptable and led him in misplaced anger to take his brother out and murder him.
Not all behaviour is acceptable to God. Things which may be in themselves good, such as coming to worship or financial contribution to the life of the church, are not acceptable to God, even if they are done in God’s name, if they are done without a relationship with God. Although we are not inherently evil, we mortals do not have the power or freedom to determine what is and is not acceptable to God.
Growing in our knowledge and love of God, our relationship with God, is a process and a journey to which we must commit ourselves, as Jesus committed himself to us.
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. (1 John 3:16; NRSV)
It is a journey that needs to be undertaken with others for their, and our, mutual benefit and growth.
He goes on to say,
And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God. (1 John 3:19-21; NRSV)
If we are created in the image and likeness of God, there should be, within us, this working out of a relationship with God is not a religious one, separate from our human one, but a normal and part of who we are. It is truly human to desire and have a sense of peace with God and be able to stand before God in boldness.
Even though Jesus is no longer present on earth, seated at the right hand of the Father, “by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us,” (1 John 3:24b; NRSV) we are given the Holy Spirit to continue that work of revealing God to us and by the Holy Spirit “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,” (1 John 4:2; NRSV) helps us to have security in the knowledge of God in which we are growing.
Finally, and what sounds like it carries a tinge of arrogance, John says,
Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 John 4:6; NRSV)
I find it curious that, once upon a time, if I heard or saw a Christian programme on the radio or television, I would turn off or onto another channel. Today, I am inclined to listen. I may not agree, but those who know God will be willing to discuss and work it out together.
For those who truly know God, they understand that, although everything is permissible because we have freedom in Christ, not everything is beneficial, it is not anything goes. What is righteous, and is right behaviour, is that which is consistent with the nature of God. And God has not left us alone to work this out, he has given us his Holy Spirit to help us grow in our knowledge and love of God, and of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord and express that knowledge in action.