In part two of our teaching series, A Word on Reality, we talked about how we can know with assurance that we are close to God by looking at 1 John 2:1-17. What is the evidence of a life spent in Christ? Read on for the answer.
Whose Word Is Final?
Close your eyes for me for just a minute. I’m going to say some words and I want you to internally react to them. Whatever your reaction is, I want you to just dwell on it for a moment and then we’ll talk about it in a bit. Heaven. Grace. Love. The world. Sin. Submission. Obedience. Okay, open your eyes. Now, by a show of hands, how many of you reacted positively to all of those words? Anyone react negatively to all of them? How many were split between some of the words? How many of you reacted positively to the first couple of words and more negatively to the ones after that? Okay, how about this one: how many of your reactions went from most positive to most negative in the order of the words as I spoke them? That last word, obedience, leaves a sour taste in the mouths of a lot of people today. I think part of the reason for this is that we have been fed since birth a worldview by our culture that believes the highest good is achieved when we are singularly in control of our lives. Now, while there are a few people in the world who have personalities that are very comfortable in a setting where we simply do as we are told, I suspect they are more the exception than the rule.
Thinking about this issue of having ultimate control over our lives, when people take time to really think about what their aspirations are, no one aspires to middle management. No one is encouraged to desire a position where there are a few people subordinate to you, but not really, and where there are a number of people who have power over you. Even fewer aspire to simply be a cog in a much larger wheel. Our culture isn’t satisfied with that. “Don’t you have any bigger dreams than that?” we might hear. “I don’t want your middle-of-the-road dream, I want your wildest dream,” someone might throw at us. When school children are told they can be anything they want to be nowadays, the list of examples doesn’t often include vocations like: night janitor at a big box retailer, plumber, construction day-laborer, or seasonal produce harvester (all of which are noble professions). No, the list includes things like: CEO of a major corporation, astronaut, movie star, and, of course, President. Our society encourages people to strive to be the top dog, to be in a position where as few people are telling us what to do as possible.
Let’s face it: not many people like the concept of obedience, let alone the practice of it. And this isn’t a trend that’s going anywhere. I suspect that teachers who have been at it for very long can attest to this. Students today are not nearly as readily and unquestioningly compliant to instructions as they were even a few years ago. Why is this? When did obedience become such a bad thing? There are some circumstances in which obedience is a good thing—such as when you are doing something for the first time alongside someone who is much more experienced. There are even some circumstances in which obedience is absolutely necessary for survival—like on a field of battle when a commander with greater experience and intelligence on the enemy is issuing commands to lower-ranking soldiers.
Well, this morning finds us in the second week of our journey through the first letter that John wrote to the church in Ephesus, more familiarly known as 1 John. And as we talked about last week, this letter is geared at helping believers deal with reality. As I said then, reality is defined by God, His character, and His plans for this world. Everything that doesn’t fit within these broad lines is fantasy. As we talked about further last week, acknowledging this line between reality and fantasy is an important part of getting close to God. If we are going to do that, if we are going to get close to God in order that we might experience the life for which we were designed in the beginning, we’ve got to be honest about our attempts to live in fantasy worlds where He is not Lord. To put that more directly: Getting close to God takes being honest about sin. Well, after establishing the reality of God’s light and the fact that sin can keep us from it, the next thing John talks about is how we go about living in this light. Once we’ve gotten close to God, what does it look like to stay there? That’s what John is going to show us in the passage we are going to look at this morning.
Let’s take a look at how John makes this point. Last week, our passage ended with John issuing a warning to those who might try and claim in one way or another that sin is not affecting their life; that their fantasy worlds aren’t actually fantasies at all. But, as we made clear together, the reality of this world as well as human nature is that we are all impacted by sin and will continue to be so until Christ returns. Jesus’ blood makes us clean and able to stand in God’s presence, but we still struggle with sin from time to time. Still, for John to stop there left things feeling incomplete. Fortunately, the letter doesn’t end after the first chapter. After issuing these warnings about sin, John continues smoothly in the second chapter by stating another of his reasons for writing. Grab your Bibles if you haven’t yet and turn with me to 1 John 2:1. Let me read for you the first couple of verses of chapter 2. “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
So, John’s point here is pretty straightforward. All these things he is writing are to keep us from a lifestyle of sin. But, if we do sin, we have a pretty powerful advocate in our corner. You see, John’s goal for his readers is a sinless perfection. He doesn’t want for us to spend even a second of time in the fantasy worlds we create. He wants us to enjoy the real thing to the fullest extent possible. He was standing there listening when Jesus set the standard for His followers in the Sermon on the Mount. That being said, John is a realist. He understands that even though believers are born again by the Spirit, we still have a sinful nature and we still sin. Because of this, we have the second half of 2:1. The great hope of reality is that we have Jesus’ advocacy before God on our behalf. When we have sinned, we can and should place ourselves in His hands so that we can be reconciled once again to the Father. But I should note that grammatically speaking in the Greek, when John says he doesn’t want us to sin what he has in view are isolated sins. If we’ve got a pattern of sin going on that’s a bigger issue. The life of a follower of Jesus should not be characterized by sinful behavior. A life characterized by sin is not a life in God’s hands. That’s a life that’s spent in a fantasy world. Rather, the sin John has in mind is the isolated, occasional sin. John has in view the believer who is genuinely struggling to overcome her sinful nature along the lines of Paul in Romans 7, not the so-called Christ-follower who has simply given up and given himself over to sin.
There is one other thing worth a quick explanation before we go on and I had told you last week that we’d come back to this today. In v. 2 in the translation I’m using this morning, John calls Jesus the “propitiation” for our sins. If you have an NIV in front of you, you see the phrase “he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” The NIV translation team chose that phrase because “propitiation” isn’t exactly a word we throw about casually in modern culture. The literal translation of the Greek word there is “the means by which sins are forgiven.” Though there is some debate as to exactly what these “means” are resulting in some translators using a different English word here, most evangelicals come down in favor of the translation as I read it to you and is found in the ESV. So, what does it mean? Propitiation describes the satisfying of God’s wrath over sin. Now, we don’t much like to think about God as having wrath, but all wrath is is a righteous anger over sin. Well, God is rightly angry about our sin. This idea really shouldn’t bother us too much. Jesus’ actions on the cross did not merely result in God waiving the penalty for our sinfulness as some argue, it resulted in God’s wrath being satisfied. He was rightly angry about sin before the cross, but afterwards He wasn’t.
Let me see if an example will make things clearer. Let’s say that I have stolen your car. You are understandably, rightly angry with me. That’s wrath. I rightfully owe you a new car and deserve to go to prison. But, let’s say that someone else comes along and offers to serve my prison sentence for me. This would pay the price I owe society for my transgression, but it would not abate your anger at me because you still don’t have a car. But, let’s say this person went one step further and gave you a new car in my name. This would take care of both the criminal aspects of my offense as well as the civil part. Granting the limitations of human nature, this is what Jesus’ death did for us on behalf of our sin. His death covered the rebellion and His life returned to God what was rightly His, thus paying the price and abating the anger.
The big idea is that God has dealt with our sin. John, the realist, recognizes that we nonetheless still sin, but he knows the greater reality is that we have an advocate before the Father on our behalf. People who have been transformed by God’s grace live their lives in light of this reality. In other words, they stay close to God. What John is trying to show us here is how we know this is happening.
Indeed, if this is the truest and greatest reality the world has ever known, how can we be sure that we are living in it? I mean, can we fool ourselves into thinking we are living in the light when we are in fact living in the darkness? Can we confuse fantasy and reality? John seemed to make clear in chapter one and experience assuredly tells us that this is a distinct possibility. Indeed, there are many who wonder loudly and regularly about their standing before God. Maybe you’re one of those. With this in mind, listen to the next four verses. “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”
Got all that? Let us not underestimate the incredible importance of what John is saying here. Our actively doing what God says, our obedience to His commands is the means by which we know we are close to Him. It gives us assurance of our standing before Him. As I said, one of the temptations believers have faced for generations is to doubt our salvation. The devil will introduce these thoughts to our minds and let them run rampant. The logic in these situations often flows in one of a few ways: “If I can’t be sure of my salvation, then I might not have it. Well, if I might not have it then it really doesn’t matter too much how I live. In that case, I’ll just go about doing the things I want to do and will make sure I ask forgiveness regularly to cover my bases.” Or, “If I can’t be sure of my salvation, then I need to work extra hard to make sure I have it. I’ll study the Scriptures really hard and try to do exactly all the things Jesus did. All those people who aren’t living up to this standard of behavior must not really be Christians.” Or, “If I can’t be sure of my salvation, then I’d better not be judging anyone else. I should just keep my mouth shut when I see people doing things wrong because I don’t want to invite them to cast judgment on me.” None of these and other similar delusions are a proper response to the grace of God. We can and should have a humble, but unshakeable confidence that we belong to God and nothing can change that. John wants for us to have that. How we do is what he’s talking about here.
Coming back to the text, as John hinted at in 1:6, there are folks out there who claim to be close to God but whose practice does not match their preaching. We call these folks hypocrites. John here calls them liars. Now, in our modern, touchy-feely culture the word “liar” seems so harsh to some. John isn’t trying to be excessively pejorative here, he’s simply stating a truth: the person who claims to know God but doesn’t do what He says is telling a lie. If you really know who God is, you do what He says. Well, a person who tells a lie is a liar. That’s just the adjectival form of the noun. John’s just using consistent grammar. But for the person who does what God says, who keeps His word, His command, John says the love of God is perfected in him. This person sticks so close to God that eventually she comes to offer a perfect reflection of His love in her life. This is our goal. It’s what John wants for us: to stay close to God and to have confidence that we are. And right here he has just told us how we can have that confidence. The person who sticks close to God does what God says, and this not in order to make it happen, but rather because it is the natural result. When we stay close to God, we do what He says.
Yet if doing what God says is the clear overflow of our staying close to Him, what has He said? Almost as if John expected this question look at where he goes in v. 7. “Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.” So this thing God has said that our keeping is the natural result of our being close to Him is both old and new? Huh? Some of the things Jesus said—most of them, frankly—were not new things at all, but restatements of old things set in a new light. They were both old and new.
Okay…that makes a little more sense…but what are they?!? When we stay close to God, we do what He says…but we still don’t know what He said. Verse 9: “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.” That doesn’t seem all that helpful. Well, look a bit more closely. We’ve seen this argument pattern before. If we say one thing, but do another thing, the first thing isn’t true. Right! That’s what John said back in 1:8: “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.” But look again at how he phrases it here: Whoever says he is in the light—and thus close to God—but hates his brother is still in darkness. Now we’re getting somewhere. We think of hate primarily as an emotion today. Throughout the Scriptures, though, hate had little to do with emotion and much to do with intention. To hate someone was to work intentionally for their harm. Stay with me here: What’s the opposite of this? To work intentionally for their good, understanding that good is defined by God and His character. Okay, well what does it mean to work intentionally for God’s character to be experienced more fully in someone else’s life?
We’re almost there. First, jump down to v. 11: “But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” Harboring hatred (or resentment or bitterness or anger or malice or just about anything else along these lines) toward another believer blinds us to the light. That’s John’s point here. Anyone who hates a fellow believer walks in darkness and is in fact blinded by the darkness. That’s a really hard-hitting truth. We react to something like that. We react and most of us would quickly say, “Well, I don’t really hate anyone. Whew! This must not apply to me.” Here’s the thing, though: if we are blinded because of the darkness, then we can’t see in order to fix the problem. We may not even be able to see that there is a problem. The danger here is that we cease to be able to discern between reality and fantasy. In such a case we are truly lost. We become the final end of all our thinking. We can only ultimately choose ourselves in such a place. In other words, according to John’s definition, we hate everybody. This won’t lead to life. It won’t lead to staying close to God. When we stay close to God, we do what He says. We need to actively pray for God’s wisdom on this. We need to actively seek His light in order to be able to see where we have gotten off track, where we might be “hating our brother.” We need to stick close to Him so that we can do what He said.
And what did He say? Verse 10: “Whoever loves his [or her] brother [or sister—and he’s talking specifically about the church here] abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling.” What God says is to love one another. He says to intentionally choose to see His goodness unfold in the lives of the people around us. Living in obedience to this basic command to love our neighbors (and specifically our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ) comes out of being rooted deeply in the life of Christ. It is the natural result of our staying close to Him. When we stay close to God, we do what He says.
We do what He says both in the lives of the people who are like us, and also in the lives of the people who are nothing like us; who we might even be tempted to count as our enemies. Indeed, John’s words here go right along with Jesus’ command to love our enemies—even and especially our “enemies” in the body. Sometimes, when we have a disagreement with a fellow believer, we are sorely tempted to treat him as an enemy. If we carry the idea that we should hate our enemies (one which the world still very much pushes on us today), then we can find ourselves in the position of justifying hatred of fellow followers of Christ and all the not-so-savory things that go along with this. If, however, we stick close to God such that the fruits of this proximity—most notably love—begin working themselves out in our lives, then even when we have disagreements we will not act toward each other in disagreeable ways. But if we’re making the rules; if we’re the ones in charge, then we’re going to be drawing from the cesspools of our sinful nature rather than the deep, clean well of the Spirit of God. We’ll be stumbling around in darkness of our fantasy world rather than walking confidently close to God, safely residing in His light, and enjoying the results of that. This is not the life of one who is close to God. When we stay close to God, we do what He says.
Well, after a brief pause in vv. 12-14 to reassure and encourage his readers, John closes this section of the letter by offering us a warning. Here’s the thing: to say something as simple as “staying close to God takes doing what He says” is easy. Understanding the reality of the world in light of the reality of God is not. You see, the reality is that when it comes to God and the world, there is no middle ground. There is no room to maneuver. Either we are totally for God or we are totally for the world. In the end, all those who try for some middling position will be revealed to have been for the world all along. If we are going to live a life of obedience to God’s word, if we are going to do what He says, then we need to understand the reality of the world. John spells some more of this out for us in vv. 15-17: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”
Now, when John talks about “the world” here we need to make sure we understand him carefully. What he has in view is not the people around us who are not yet followers of Jesus. He doesn’t even have specific organizations in mind. Rather, he has the systems and ideas of this world that are intractably opposed to God and His kingdom. There may be people or organizations or governments serving as the face of all of this, but ideas are the real enemy. We can’t work for the advancement of ideas which stand in opposition to the reality of God’s kingdom. We will only be advancing the narrative of a complex fantasy in which everyone dies in the end.
Put more simply—and directly—love for the world is not reconcilable with the life and love of God. Think about what John’s saying here. Love for the world precludes one from the love of God: If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. Well, is this saying that someone who is devoted to this world is removed from God’s love? In a word, yes. But, it’s not God saying, “I’m not going to love you anymore because you’ve chosen the world.” It’s us saying, “God, I don’t want Your love. I want the world.” This is a big idea to try and wrap our minds around, particularly in our culture of tolerance that encourages us to love the sinner and to love the sin because it might not be a sin for the person committing it and who are you to judge anyway. Furthermore, in a culture that is so infused with pictures of an all-loving God such that many people forget about His being just and holy, the thought that we might do anything resulting in our having God’s love removed from us runs roughshod over the line of anathema.
This is all a result of wanting to have it both ways. We want to have eternal life, but we also want to have as much of this life as we can muster. We want to live in reality, but maintain enough fantasy off to the side that we can escape when the going gets tough. We want to have God and the world. But the consistent witness of Scripture is that the two are mutually exclusive. One cannot exist where the other is. One cannot have dominance where the other reigns. Jesus made very clear that we cannot serve two masters. As the title of this sermon asks: Whose word is final? We cannot paint a wall both black and white at the same time. We cannot have all the benefits of something without the costs. Even if it doesn’t appear so in the short term, in the long term the costs are going to come to bear. If we want the world and the things of this world and give our chief allegiance to them, we cannot have God. We can strive for them now, but in the end we will wind up losing everything. Or, we can stick close to God and His words and in the end inherit everything. Seems like a pretty simple choice to me. When we have made the decision to leave our fantasy worlds behind in order to get close to Him through the work of Christ, it is a choice we have already made. When we stay close to God, we do what He says.
But here’s the thing: This isn’t some kind of heavy burden that is placed on your back and which then slowly grinds you into the dust. The Scriptures are often imagined to be little more than a series of dos and don’ts which are designed to suck all the real fun and joy out of life. “You need to get out there and experience different things (read: things which hare defined as sin in the Scriptures) in order to taste the full measure of what life has to offer,” goes one of the complaints about Christians calling people to a particular and morally restrictive way of life. Yet what do you suppose is the end of the things God calls us to do? It is life, sweet, lasting, and eternal. How could there possibly be a lighter duty than that? His commands are given for our joy. They are given to enliven our hope and bring us peace. The engine driving them is one of love. God doesn’t insist on us doing life His way if we are going to stick with Him in order to keep something from us. He does so because He has something for us: Eternal life. It’s ours for the taking if only we will leave our worlds of fantasy behind and stick close to Him. When we do, when we have experienced the life, the joy, the peace, the hope, the love found in getting close to Him in Christ, doing what He says begins to come naturally because we understand that this is where life is found. Obedience becomes easy because we recognize its worth. When we stay close to God, we do what He says. And when we do what He says, we come to better recognize when a fantasy world is calling us so that we can stay in the real world. That’s what we’ll talk about next week.