Sunday, May 17, 2015

Back to Basics (a sermon on 1 John 5.13-21)

A great English writer once said, “People don’t need to be instructed as much as they need to be reminded’, and I think that’s true. As I get older, there are no doubt new things that I need to learn, but what I most often need is to be reminded of the important things I learned in the past. That’s perhaps especially true if I’ve gotten old and cynical, which does tend to happen among us grey-haired people!

Over the last few weeks we’ve been exploring the first letter of John together, and today we come to the end of that series. You may have noticed as we’ve been reading it together that this is in fact a kind of ‘back to basics’ letter. Old John says several times, “I’m not giving you a new command, my friends: I’m just reminding you of the old command that you’ve known from the beginning” – from the beginning of their Christian faith, that is, which most of them would have been able to remember, as they were probably mostly adult converts.

I think that’s not a bad approach to take. Probably most of us who have been Christians for a long time can fall into the trap of neglecting the great central truths of Christianity; it’s so easy for us to get distracted by secondary issues. Today, at the end of his letter, old John brings us back to these central truths. He does it with a series of sentences beginning with the words, ‘we know’. You might find it helpful to have the Bible open in front of you this morning as I’ll be referring to these verses frequently throughout this sermon. Let’s quickly skip through the passage and note the occurrences of this word ‘know’:
·      Verse 13 says, ‘I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life’.
·      Verses 14-15 say, ‘And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him’.
·      Verse 18 says, ‘We know that those who are born of God do not sin, but the one who was born of God protects them’.
·      Verse 19 says, ‘We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one’.
·      Verse 20 says, ‘And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true’.

Now we might think that, in some cases, we don’t ‘know’ these things as thoroughly as John thinks we do. Just to give one example, he says, ‘We know that those who are born of God do not sin’, but that’s not our experience, is it? I think all of us who are Christians would admit that we fall short of God’s will for us; we don’t love God with our whole hearts, or our neighbour as ourselves. So we have to conclude that, in this case at least, John is talking in idealized terms: he’s reminding us of the purpose of the Christian life, that we might be set free from our sins and learn to walk in love as God has loved us. And something similar may be true with the other ‘we know’ statements in this passage too.

So what can we take from these statements? How do they bring us back to the basic Christian truths that give us life and joy and freedom? Let me suggest four things John wants us to ‘know’ here.

First, John wants us to know that it is possible to have confidence in our own salvation. He says in verse 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’. And in verse 19 he adds, ‘We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one’.

Is it possible to know that you are a Christian? Some people think it’s not, and that’s because they think that being able to call yourself a Christian is a reward you get for your own achievement. Obey God’s laws, achieve fifty percent plus one at the Ten Commandments, and you can call yourself a Christian. Those people have forgotten that Jesus was called the friend of sinners, and that he told the religious leaders of his day that the tax collectors and prostitutes were getting into the Kingdom of God before they were. And Paul says in Romans that ‘the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord’. Sin pays a wage – eternal death is something you earn – but eternal life is not like that – it’s a free gift of God’s grace, given to those who call on the name of the Lord in faith.

Let’s remind ourselves, though, that ‘eternal life’ might not mean what we think it means’; ‘eternal life’ may actually be a very unhelpful translation of what the original Greek actually says. Jewish people in the time of Jesus thought that human history was divided into two parts: the present age of evil, and the new age that God was going to bring about, when the world would be healed of evil and people would live together in love for God and their neighbour. The Greek for ‘eternal life’ actually means ‘the life of the new age’. It’s not about how we go to heaven when we die. It’s about the life of God coming to us now, filling us with his love, so that we become agents of his transforming power in this present world.

This is what John means when he says, ‘We know that we are the children of God, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one’ (v.19). His view is that the two ages are currently overlapping. The old evil age is still going on, as we can see by the hate and injustice and oppression and violence around us. But God has already planted the seeds of the new age, and people can choose to live into it, rather than living out of the old evil age around us.

This ‘life of the new age’ is a gift from God, but there are signs of its presence among us. As we’ve been reading through the first letter of John there are two such signs that he’s been pointing to over and over again. This is how we can know we are the children of God, he says; this is how we can be sure we have eternal life: if we believe in Jesus as the Son of God who God has sent into the world, and if we love one another. Faith in Jesus and love for one another are the two signs that we have received eternal life, the life of the new age.

So it is possible to be sure of our salvation, to know that we are Christians and that we have received eternal lie, the life of the new age. Secondly, John wants us to know that it is possible for us to pray with confidence. He says in verses 14-15: ‘And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him’.

The wording of these verses is very important. John is clearly not saying, “God will give you everything you ask for in prayer”, because he knows that we won’t always ask what is appropriate. No, what he says is, ‘if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us’. So we need to inform our prayer requests by a growing knowledge of God’s will. We do that by reading the scriptures and especially the teachings of Jesus, who has given us our clearest picture of what God is like. Paul calls him ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15), and at the beginning of his gospel John says, ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (John 1:18). So as we soak ourselves in the scriptures and the teaching of Jesus, we will have more confidence that the requests we are making are in accordance with the will of God.

So John is reminding us of some of the central truths of the Christian life. First, we’re invited to be confident that we have received the free gift of eternal life, and the evidence of that is that we believe in Jesus as the Son of God and that we love one another. Second, we’re invited to pray with confidence that God hears our requests, and the way to do that is to inform our prayers by a growing knowledge of God’s will as we soak ourselves in the scriptures and specially the teachings of Jesus.

Now comes the third thing: John wants us to know that it is possible to live a holy life. He says in verse 18, ‘We know that those who are born of God do not sin, but the one who was born of God protects them, and the evil one does not touch them’. As we’ve seen, John can’t possibly mean this statement to be taken literally: we all know that we fall short of God’s will for us, and John knows it too, because he’s already told us earlier in the letter that ‘if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’ (1:8).

So what’s he doing here? I think he’s reminding us that we ought not to get too comfortable with that sad reality. He’s reminding us that even though we will continue to struggle with our own imperfection our whole lives long, we should not give up on that struggle. He’s reminding us that our Saviour Jesus Christ, ‘the one who was born of God’, has promised to help us with this: ‘the one who was born of God protects them, and the evil one does not touch them’. We are enrolled as followers of Jesus in the School of Discipleship, and that school has a goal: ‘Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48). Fortunately for us, that’s not an entrance requirement of the School of Jesus, or none of us would be able to get in! But it is the goal of the School, and all of us who are enrolled in it are trying, with God’s help, to move closer to that goal every day. And over and over again, in this little letter, John has reminded us what the most important commandment is: to love one another.

One of my favourite characters from history is John Newton, the author of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. You may know that Newton had spent many years as a sailor and in fact had been involved in the slave trade. Later on, after he had become a Christian, he gradually came to see the error of his ways, and in later life he joined the campaign to abolish slavery. He eventually became a Christian pastor, and one of his famous sayings was, “I am not what I should be, I am not what I could be, I am not what I would like to be, but I thank God, I am not what I once was!” Hopefully all of us here today can echo that; we know we’re not what we ought to be, but each day we make it our goal to move closer toward it.

So John has reminded us that it’s possible for us to be confident that we have received eternal life; it’s possible for us to pray with confidence, and it’s possible for us to live a holy life. Finally, he wants to teach us that it’s possible, not only to know the true God, but also to be confident that our knowledge of him is true. He says in verses 20-21: ‘And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true, and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourself from idols’.

In the Old Testament God says to his people, ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (Isaiah 55:8-9). I think we all instinctively understand this. If God is truly the great Creator of the vast universe, then he must be a being so much higher than us that it is impossible for us to take in his greatness and glory. To think of him being outside of time itself - to think of him knowing our lives and our thoughts – to think of him working out his plan for the world, but also respecting the free will of human beings – all of this is far above our understanding.

So how can we know this God? We can’t see him or touch him; we can’t warm him up in a test tube or construct a computer model of his actions. Unless he reveals himself to us, we’re at a loss to discover what he is like. But fortunately for us, the Bible tells us that he has revealed himself to us. Partly this is through the creation he has made; Paul says in Romans that ‘Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made’ (Romans 1:20). But most of all, he has revealed himself to us in his Word, spoken through the prophets and then made flesh in Jesus.

John reflects on this at the beginning of this letter, in the passage we read on the Sunday after Easter. He says, ‘We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is the Word of life. This one who is life itself was revealed to us, and we have seen him. And now we testify and proclaim to you that he is the one who is eternal life. He was with the Father, and then he was revealed to us. We proclaim to you what we ourselves have actually seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ’ (1 John 1:1-3 New Living Translation).

So we can be confident that our knowledge of God is true because the Father’s only Son has come into the world and has revealed him to us. But this is not just intellectual knowledge; John says, ‘We are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life’ (1 John 5:20). This is the closest possible intimacy: to be ‘in’ God, and know that God is ‘in’ us. This is the heart of eternal life, the life of God’s new age. This is what God wants for all of us.

John ends this letter with a warning: ‘Little children, keep yourselves from idols’ (v.21). An idol is a god we make up for ourselves and put in the place of the one true God. It might be something else we turn to instead of God: money, power, success, and so on. Or it might be a false idea of the one true God: the idea that he’s pleased when we kill unbelievers in his name, for instance. John warns us to be careful about this: always be aware that we humans have this tendency toward making up our own ideas about God, rather than listening to the things God has taught us about himself. And the way to be sure of this, of course, is to keep close to Jesus, the Word of God who came to live among us.

Let’s go round this one last time. John has reminded us of these basic truths about our Christian faith. Yes, we can be confident that we have received eternal life, and the evidence of this is that we believe in Jesus and love one another. Yes, we can pray confidently, if we make it our business to learn the will of God and pray accordingly. Yes, we can learn to live a holy life as we ask for God’s help day by day to get closer to his goal for us. And yes, we can be confident that our knowledge of God is true, because God has revealed himself to us in the Word made flesh, Jesus his Son.


So let’s not forget these things: let’s keep coming back to them, and let’s keep finding joy in them as we grow in our faith in Jesus and our love for one another. As John would say, ‘This is the true God and eternal life’. In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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