Below is the text of a talk I gave yesterday at Lancaster University CU. Any feedback is welcome as usual (it was tricky speaking on such a dense passage!).
I want to start this evening in asking you a question. It’s this: how would you feel if a smartly dressed person came into the CU meeting tonight and at the end of the meeting stood up at the front and said this, “I’m afraid you all haven’t got the real deal there. Your Christianity – well, you’ve got a good start, but to truly experience what God has for you, then you need to move onto something else.” How would you feel? It’s always a horrible feeling to be told that what you have is deficient, isn’t it? Would you know how to respond?
1 John was probably the last book of the New Testament to be written, and is written into exactly that sort of context. John is writing to churches that were established on the apostles’ testimony to Jesus, but whose confidence has been rocked by false teachers. And so John’s purpose in writing the letter is twofold. The first reason is to spot the counterfeit teaching. Look down at 2:26. John says this: ‘I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray.’ John writes so that the Christians he’s writing to, who’ve evidently been shaken by the false teaching, can spot it and reject it. John is often called ‘the apostle of love’ – love is the preoccupation of so much of John’s writing. But notice that, in his love, John is prepared to warn his readers away from false teaching. In fact, we’ll see in future weeks that he calls such false teachers liars and even antichrists. But that’s what true love does – it’s lovingly concerned for the truth, because, as we’ll see truth and eternal life are closely bound. So that’s the first reason John is writing: so that the false teachers and their false teaching can be seen for what it really is.
The second reason that John writes is to reassure those who’ve been shaken by the false teaching that, if they are building their lives on the authentic and apostolic teaching, they can be sure. Look down at 5:13. John writes this: ‘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.’ In other words, he’s speaking to this group who are perhaps concerned that their belief is just a delusion that they got swept along in and he’s saying: you can be sure. You really do have eternal life that starts now, and goes on eternally. In other words, his second reason for writing is to reassure true believers.
All this means that, throughout his letter, John provides a series of tests. How you respond to the tests shows whether you are trusting something substantial or something insubstantial. A helpful metaphor of what John is doing is perhaps shown by these guys. You know how it goes in all of the Road Runner cartoons. As per normal, Wile E. Coyote is chasing Road Runner around and, at some point, the road runner disappears. The coyote realises that something is up, looks down and then realises that there’s nothing under his feet. And then we all know what happens next: the coyote looks straight at the viewers, he knows that he can’t dodge gravity forever. Then he takes a gulp – and plunges gracefully below to a big crash. And what John is doing throughout his letter, including in tonight’s passage, is to expose false assurances. He doesn’t want his readers to think – like the coyote – that they are OK, duped by the false teachers, only to fall to a crash. He’ll then show what it means to be trusting something substantial.
So tonight we’re going to look at three false teachings and then one reassurance.
False teaching 1: “The Bible’s testimony about Jesus isn’t enough” (verses 1-4)
John probably wrote this letter in the mid-90s AD. By now, he’s a very old man and all of the rest of Jesus’ apostles have died. In fact, by tradition, they’ve all been martyred. All except John. And look at how he opens his letter. Verses 1-2: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, we which have seen with our own eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim to you concerning the word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.”
Do you see what John is doing in these verses? He’s countering the false teachers. The false teachers have come along, claiming to tell the truth about Jesus – but John is doing a very bold thing. Speaking as an apostle, he’s saying this: I am telling you the truth about the real Jesus. He says I was one of those that heard him: my recollection of Jesus’ teaching isn’t second-hand, I heard him myself. Then he says I saw him with my own eyes. ‘I saw him throughout his ministry’ says John, ‘even in his resurrected form.’ And then I have looked at and my hands have touched. This all reminds us of Thomas, who said he’d never believe until he saw the resurrected Jesus. And then Jesus appeared, telling Thomas to put his finger in the wounds of the nails and in his side. And you can imagine John and the other apostles huddled around Jesus, embracing him, touching him. The real Jesus.
And then John says this: ‘this we proclaim to you concerning the word of life’. ‘I was there,’ says John. ‘I saw the authentic Jesus. I am telling you the truth.’ And this is true, because to know God, you must know the real Jesus, and the apostles of the Bible are those who tell the truth about the authentic Jesus. Look down at verse 3: ‘We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” Do you see how important it is to believe the apostolic testimony about Jesus, the testimony of people like John? Because it’s a matter of fellowship, of relationship. The apostles speak about the genuine fellowship, the genuine relationship with God. To turn your back on the apostles’ testimony about Jesus is to turn your back on the real Jesus and the life he offers.
The 1st Century false teachers were probably teaching that Jesus wasn’t really human; that he was only in appearance a man, but not actually fully man. And John says: listening to that sort of teaching is dangerous. It would deny two of the key parts of the gospel: Jesus’ birth as one fully God and fully man, but more importantly it would deny his death on the cross for us. If he were not fully man, he wouldn’t have rightly been able to be our like-for-like substitute on the cross. We’d still be in our sins. So, says John, to hold onto life, you must listen to the truth about Jesus, which is the apostles’ testimony about God. False knowledge ignores the real Jesus.
Of course, this is all very relevant to our culture. Liberal theology speaks about the search for the historical Jesus, but ignores the Bible’s testimony about him, thereby excluding those who knew Jesus best. Other religions and cultures – including the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims – say that other revelations were needed to know the true Jesus. Even in popular culture – in books like the Da Vinci Code – readers are encouraged to move away from the Bible’s testimony about Jesus. Even some Christians say that to truly know Jesus, you need to move away from the Bible and onto other experiences to know Jesus. But John says: move away from the Bible’s testimony about Jesus and you break fellowship with the Bible writers. And break fellowship with the Bible writers and you are following an imaginary Jesus. And an imaginary Jesus can’t save you.
So, John says, if you want life from God, you must go to Jesus – and the Jesus you must go is the Jesus of the apostles. They were there, they testified to Jesus as he really is. Put it very simply: we go to the Bible. And our hearts sink; we think, “I want a relationship with a person – not a relationship with a book!” And what’s happened in recent years is that Christians have polarised into ‘Bible people’ and ‘experience’ people – and people at both poles have ended up miserable. The people who’ve emphasised the Bible have often been in danger of teaching a system, and they come across as saying, “These are just truths we need to assent to,” forgetting the message is about a person, and often ended up dry and joyless. And the people who have rightly wanted a relationship with a living person have reacted and said, “That’s unreal. That’s just words.” And they have sought reality through experiences – and they too have ended up impoverished. They’re confused when the experiences don’t happen any more and unsure of the grounds of their relationship with God. And we need to know that John is not saying, “Stop all that experience stuff!” In fact, the whole of his letter is about an experience of the living God. Eternal life is not just ticking a box saying you agree. But here’s the thing: he doesn’t want us to have any old experience and go calling that ‘God’. He wants us to have a true experience of the living God, one that bears fruit and is life transforming. Authentic experiences come when we experience the authentic Jesus in Scripture, and so experiencing the authentic Jesus means coming back to Scripture.
False teaching 2: “Sin doesn’t matter” (verses 5-7)
Well, we need to move on. The second false teaching is found in verses 5-7, and it says that sin doesn’t matter. Look down at verses 5-6: “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him, yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.”
Walking in darkness is walking in the ways which are the opposite of God’s ways, here what is called God’s ‘light’. John’s not talking here about the days when we mess up. He’s talking about deliberately going against what God has revealed about himself. It’s playing fast and loose with God’s truth, it’s sneering at God’s rather old-fashioned sense of purity, it’s manipulating people, it’s putting yourself first, it’s walking in a way that trips other people up and hurts them. It’s rejecting God’s blueprint for our lives and it’s what the Bible calls sin.
And evidently the false teachers are walking in sin, but they don’t think it makes any difference to their fellowship with God. John says, “How can you have fellowship with the light if you walk in the dark?” It’s like he’s saying this: if you and I walk down a street, and there’s a sunny side and there’s a shady side, and you want to walk down the sunny side and I want to walk down the shady side, then we can’t walk down the street together. And if we want to walk in the dark, God is light, and if we want to walk in the dark, then it means we can’t be walking with him. And so John says, “These people say they have a relationship with God – but they are liars.” They’re fakes: they lie, they do not live by the truth. If they lived by the truth of what God is really like, if they saw that God was holiness and light – then they’d see that sin matters.
The trouble for these people is that, as far as they’re concerned, their relationship with God is just a sort-of ‘spiritual department’ of their lives, and they don’t really see how that connects with the world of Monday morning in lectures, or in their student house, or on the sports field. And John is saying: God is not into mere spirituality. He’s into a 24/7 relationship. So what we do on a Sunday, or in college group, or on a Tuesday night is not a separate compartment of our lives. It’s all about how we are going to live in God’s world on a Monday morning. And John is saying, “Real relationship with God is about in his world and loving the things that he loves and hating the things that he hates.” And, of course, that’s how we do all our relationships.
My wife Linda, she hates bananas; she hates them, the smell of them, the taste of them, the texture of them, everything about them. If I want to eat a banana so that my potassium levels don’t get dangerously low, I have eat them right at the other end of the kitchen! And so loving Linda means that for her birthday I won’t make her banana splits for a special surprise! If I did, you’d begin to wonder if I really loved her. In fact, you would wonder if I really knew her. If I knew her, I would know not to force her to eat bananas. And John says, “God is light. He hates all darkness.” And if you think you can fool in the dark, John says, “You don’t know God.”
When I started preparing this talk, I began thinking of all the other people that this is a warning to. And of course, this point illustrates why we must talk about sin over the next fortnight. People will never realise their need of the cross until they realise that they are sinners. But I’ve also realised that these verses are a warning to me, and to each one of us, because all of us are liable to keep God in just one compartment of our lives. We stand in the light on Sundays or Tuesday nights, and then we walk in the dark the rest of the week. And sometimes we don’t even think that it matters. What shows us that all is not well is when our lifestyles blend into the darkness of the world so easily so that there are things that God hates which hardly bother us. We gossip like everyone else, we want to have what everyone else has got. Greed and lust just aren’t issues for us. We fight for our rights like anyone else. We laugh at the same jokes as everyone else. We get in a huff like everyone else.
I think John would say, “Check that you’ve not lost sight of God’s purity.” We think we can have a relationship with him and walk in the dark – and John says that if that is what we think, then we don’t really know God. He is light. He hates the dark. So verse 7: “If we want to walk with him, have fellowship with him, we must walk in the light.” This is the second false teaching: the false claim that says, “Sin doesn’t matter.” John says, “If that’s what you claim, then you don’t have a relationship with God."
False teaching 3: “You are not sinful” (verses 8-10)
The third false teaching is tied to the second one, but it’s slightly different. It’s when a person thinks that they’re not themselves sinful. Look down at verses 8: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Or verse 10: “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.” This person is saying, “Yes, sin does matter. God is absolutely against evil but he’s not angry against me, because, well, I’ve led a pretty good life.” And when we do this, we draw a scale; and at the top it’s Mother Teresa, and at the bottom it’s Hitler and Stalin. And we think that God draws a line, and that everyone below it is not really accepted by God and everyone above it is OK. We’re not saying that we’re at the top, but we’re certainly not at the bottom. So we reckon God will draw his line just below where we are. And so we are pretty confident we are the sort of people that God will have as his friends. But John says: “That is misplaced confidence.” Do you see the second half of verse 8: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Again in verse 10: “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.”
He’s saying that if that’s what we think, we are calling God a liar and we’re not taking on board what he has actually revealed about himself. See the only way to get to the sort of conclusion that says, “We’re OK” is to ignore what God has said about himself. It’s to boil all of God’s ways down to, “No adultery, no theft, no murder.” By that reckoning, we’re OK. Sin is what those other people do. And John says, “Listen to what God is saying about himself.” In Jesus, he makes it clear that he is light. And so the question is not, “How do you stand alongside that lot over there?”, but “How do you stand before the God who is light?” The God who is so good that he hates all evil and every hint of it is an offence to his purity. That’s how good he is. Stand before him in his light and we see the truth about what we’re really like.
A few months ago we decided to redecorate our front room. It’s part of being married. You have a lovely front room – but then your spouse decides it’s time for a change! And so Linda and I decided that it would change to dark red and white. And so when my mother and brother were up one weekend, we decided to repaint the whole room. And it was going pretty well and as Sunday night approached, and we hadn’t quite finished – so we paused, grabbed some food, and started again after fish and chips. And it’s not a very easy thing painting in artificial light, but we reckoned that we’d done a pretty good job. Unfortunately, the following morning, in the sunlight of the new day, what we thought had been well-done turned out to be a less good job that we’d thought. There were patches that we’d missed and other parts that were streaky.
And John is saying this: that by our own dim light, we think we’re fine. But when we open the curtains and God’s light comes flooding in, we see what a mess we are. By our own dim light, it’s just twisting the truth. In God’s light, it’s lying. By our own dim light, it’s standing up for our rights. In God’s light, it’s selfishness. By our own dim light, we never did anyone any harm. In God’s light, we see we’ve hurt the people we most loved, and we’ve never said sorry. By our own dim light, we’re not hurting anyone looking at those images. In God’s light, it’s sexual impurity.
And so John is saying that if we face the truth about what God is like, then we wouldn’t pretend that we hadn’t sinned. We would confess our sins. And I tell you, this pulled me up short as I prepared this talk. Because a measure of how well we know God is: when did you last confess my sins to God outside of a church or CU meeting? I’m not talking about being in a permanent state of beating ourselves up; I’m talking about realising what we’re really like. It’s a worrying characteristics of Christians of our generation in how slow we are to confess our sin. Perhaps that is a measure of the extent to which we’ve forgotten about the purity and blazing holiness of the God of the Universe. And the dangerous thing about that is that we start to drift towards thinking that the reason we are friends with God is that, “Hey, I’m not too bad.” And John says if that is what we start to think, then we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
The Reassurance and Antidote
Well, so far, John’s told us that God is light, and he hates the dark, and we are full of darkness. So, you might be thinking, where does that leave me? Well, fortunately, John is not British. He’s not going to allow people to muddle on when they are in danger of being led astray. He loves them too much. And John doesn’t want any of us to read his letter and go home tonight thinking we know God, if in fact we don’t. And so he’s exposed false claims – and now he lands on the one true claim that means we can have real confidence that we really do know God. And that claim is Jesus.
Of course, he’s been pointing to Jesus all the way through. Do you see verse 7? He’s saying, “You’ve got to walk in the light.” But how does that work? How can we walk with a God that hates sin? Well it’s because of the blood of Jesus, his Son, who purifies us from all sin. Or verse 9? It’s all very well confessing our sin, but if we’re sinful, how can we walk with God? Because he’s faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. And we say: how? Because of Jesus.
So the way John puts it in 2:1, do you see? “If anybody does sin, we have One who speaks to the Father in our defence, Jesus Christ.” See, there we are, trying to mount our own case, saying, “Well sin doesn’t matter too much” or “We’re not that sinful”. And before the God who is light, our case collapses. And so Jesus comes, and these verses say that he has mounted a case for us; he’s spoken to the Father in our defence. And his case rests of the facts of verse 2: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Atonement is the paying of the price that justice requires. The Hebrew background has the idea of covering something in the way that we might say in a restaurant, “Have you got money to cover the bill?” There’s a certain amount that needs to be paid and then it’s sorted, it’s covered. And God says that the amount that needs to be paid for sin to be sorted is death. That is what he in his justice requires me to pay. And Jesus comes and pleads my case. And what he says to the Father isn’t, “Well, sin doesn’t matter so much. He’s not so bad.” What he does say is, “Justice needs to be done. Peter Dray’s sins need to be paid for in death.” But then he holds out his scarred hands and says, “I have paid for him. There’s nothing more for him to pay. His sin is covered. Your justice is satisfied.” This isn’t Jesus twisting the Father’s arm, somehow getting him to love us. It’s because the Father loved us that he gave up his own dear Son precisely so that we who face death could be saved and brought into life in the light with him. And this means that when it comes to confidence, being right with God, the only plea open to us is the one God has given us. Our only plea is Jesus.
It’s a bit like when you enter passport control going into another country. Imagine coming up to a border check, and a guard blocks your path and stops you from driving forward. What do you do? Do you pull out your library card? Do you mention your GCSEs? Perhaps mention your highest batting score in cricket? Or mention the good reputation you have at Lancaster University? No, because all that stuff is obviously and totally irrelevant. The only way that you can get into another country is with a passport. That’s all you can plead. And when it comes to being right with God and having a place in his kingdom, Jesus is all that we can plead. There’s no other case I can make. I can’t try, “I’m not too bad.” I can’t try, “Well I’m a CU member, I help at Sunday school.” When you see that God is light, you see that you are sinful. You see that none of that will swing it.A lot of people I speak to resent this going on about sin. They think it’s somehow about trying to get everyone to feel miserable and feeling guilty. But ahead of a mission, a fortnight of focused evangelism, let’s realise that we can’t afford to be British about sin. Until a person admits that their sin is a serious problem, indeed until you admit that sin is a serious problem for you, then you will always think that God and what is on offer in the gospel is just average. You will always think that his love is no more than you deserve. It’s OK, it’s alright. But you will never truly have a relationship with him.
And John is saying: you are worse than you realised but you are more loved than you ever imagined. Despite what we are like, God loves us so much that he found a way for us to be restored to him. It cost him everything. And if a person wants to know the joy of having a real relationship with God, then they must go to him and change their plea from, “Will you have me because I’m OK?” to “Will you have me because of Jesus?”. And that is when true knowledge of God takes off. And so we can’t truly point people to God’s grace until we’ve pointed them to their very real need for forgiveness, because they have sinned and rebelled against God. Until we tell them otherwise, some people will bumble on through, thinking they are fine, when they are not.
But this passage is also a word to people with shattered confidence. It could be that you’ve emerged from the Christmas holidays – and you’ve messed up. You’re not sure where you stand with God any more, you’re not sure if he’ll have you back. If that’s you, then you need to remember that your plea was never, “Lord, I’m good enough”. Before the Christmas holidays, your only plea was Jesus. After the Christmas holidays, it’s the same plea: Jesus.
And God says, if we confess our sins, he will forgive us, not because we are good, but because of Jesus. Where we stand depends on Jesus, and every day, he is before the throne of God speaking to the Father in our defence. We messed up yesterday, we mess up today, we may mess up tomorrow – but he is there speaking in our defence, and his case is compelling. He has paid for our sin. It’s covered. And he is there for all eternity, the scars on his hands speaking on our defence. And that means for all eternity, the one whose plea is ‘Jesus’ is secure before God.