I was away last week at a hugely encouraging Cornhill+ conference. I love these residential stays with 10 or so guys: really good conversations, prayers and so on. We did a session of book reviews and I thought it would be good to list the books that guys were reading:
Expositional preaching, David Helm
True Friendship, Vaughan Roberts
Whiter than snow, Paul Tripp
The good God, Mike Reeves
The greatest fight in the world, CH Spurgeon
What is the mission of the church, Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert
The creative gift, Hans Rookmaaker
Serving without sinking, John Hindley
Streets paved with gold, Irene Howat
The Holy War, John Bunyan
One or two observations:
– These are all good books, and contain useful truths. I’ve read most (though have never tackled Rookmaaker, but would like to). I would commend any of higher happily
– They are all, for the most part, relatively simple books. There’s a place for those in ministry reading such books, but I’m a firm believer that we should read such books alongside those that stretch us. What are you reading that’s stretching you. Some of that stretching needs to be reading outside our comfort zone, even things we might disagree with. I find the discipline of reading something I don’t know if I will agree with more useful than the latest book from a conservative stable.
Go on! Let’s ignore history. Not.
When I’m studying a passage, I try to work things through on my own first of all. I don’t read a commentary before I’ve done any study. But I do read them. I am not certain enough of my own understanding and spirituality not to listen to other voices. I do so critically and thoughtfully. But to ignore the past is to ignore the giants God has given me.
The argument that something has been understood historically carries some weight with me. Some weight, I say. Just because something has been held, doesn’t mean it is right. The Reformation would never have happened otherwise. Such an approach is Catholicism which gives the Magisterium great authority. But even Calvin did not ignore the Scholastics – they are some help, he said.
I’m nervous of Evangelicals who don’t want to engage with the past. Let’s just see what the Bible says, is the mantra. Well, yes. I see that. I believe that – but to try to understand what the Bible says ignoring the interpretative past that God has given us seems to me to be the height of arrogance and a complete ignoring of God’s providential care of the church.
So, after studying the passage, I do open my commentaries – old and new. I want to know what they say precisely because I want to know what the text says.
Convictions about ministry
We’ve just finished our small Cornhill+ conference for Cornhillers who are in ministry and want to do some extra training, but for whom college is not appropriate or practicable. We had a great time in Ezekiel 1-2, 2 Cor 4-5 and 1 Thess. It was also good to have Trevor Archer with us, and we had a ‘fireside chat’ session where he shared some convictions about ministry that he said he wished he had learnt earlier in life. Here they are. Not rocket science. Nor Bible exposition, per se. But foundational and challenging nonetheless.
- Need for personal holiness. Character comes before gifting. 1 Tim 4.16.
- Personal relationships of care and accountability, including those within the church. Isolationalism is the seedbed of failure and scandal. Even Christ did not work alone. The NT is replete with ‘one anothers’.
- Personal attitude of servanthood, Mark 9.35. Leadership is not about me.
- Expectation and experience of weakness, 2 Cor 4.12. This is in the inescapable equation of Christian ministry.
- Resolve to invest in people. If we are to be faithful under-shepherds, following the Great Shepherd, we have to love the flock. But this also means investing in the next generation, 2 Tim 2.
- A personal responsibility to lead. Leaders are called to lead. That is the biblical pattern.
- A personal commitment to the teaching of the word of God. This is the lifeblood of ministry. It is not the only thing, but it is the main thing and the agenda setting thing.
Food for thought.
Not everyone is a preacher and that’s fine
This week has been the first week back for our Cornhill students. I love working with them – even though it’s not the main part of my job. I have the job of tutoring some, teaching a little, and leading a small preaching group. In the group, I regularly think that there are those whose ministry I would happily and healthily sit under. Thank God for raising up such preachers.
There are others who will serve the church well. But they’re not preachers. Sometimes, it’s only when you get going and try it out that you discover this. It’s part of the process we have. Some churches are so eager to raise up workers (perhaps this is their first) that they sometimes can’t see this. They haven’t had a worker off to college in 50 years: this guy must be the one! Not always.
We need to be able to say in our churches that God gives different gifts and that’s fine. What is more – our theology of equality says that serving God in some unseen way is no less valuable that serving God from the front. In other words, not everyone is a preacher and that’s just fine.
When the passage overwhelms
Last week I preached Luke 4.1-13 (the temptations of Jesus). I found it an overwhelming passage. There is immense truth in it: deep, deep things which search the very nature of salvation determined for all eternity. Here is the second Adam (hence the genealogy) rejecting the way of the first Adam, tempted in the same way, but standing firm. Here is the Son of God where every temptation threatens his very sonship loudly acclaimed by the first three chapters of Luke (and also hinted at in the genealogy). Here is our High Priest being tempted as we are, in every way, yet without sin.
I had 25 minutes.
What do you do with such a rich passage where words seem barely able to convey the depth and enormity of what is going on? What do you with such a rich passage where you have been moved to tears in your preparation and you worry that you will be totally unable to convey that intensity in an evening sermon at the end of a long weekend.
Here’s what you do: you do what you always do. You prepare faithfully. You pray diligently. And you trust that the Spirit who made the text live for you will make the text live for your hearers. You don’t try to artificially stimulate a reaction. Nor do you worry that your words will be insufficient. As with every other sermon, you realise that you can’t say everything about everything, and that is OK. You don’t – in other words – prepare the purple passage in any different way than the other passages. For, you see, they are all purple. They all proclaim Christ in a deep, significant way. Perhaps you see it here more than you did in Isaiah 55. But it is the Scripture, nonetheless.
1 John (talk 1, part 4)
A rival Christ
Let me define antichrist a little further. When you see the word ‘antichrist’ written down, you immediately think of someone who is an opponent of Christ and of course that is undoubtedly true. Some who leave evangelicalism do sadly become opponents, even bitter opponents of the gospel they once embraced. But antichrist has, as well, (I think this is very important – I twigged it rather late in the day) the idea of a rival Christ. We use that of the antipopes in the medieval times. I think I’m right in the saying that in the course of church history, there have been 25 antipopes, that is, rival popes, set up in Avignon or somewhere else like that who claim to be the true pope over against the one at Rome. So when the word ‘anti’ is used it means not only an opponent but a rival. So the term does not mean simply opposing; it includes the idea of counterfeiting. Plumber again: “The antichrist is therefore a usurper who under false pretences assumes a position that does not belong to him and who opposes the rightful owner.” For example, 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 where Paul talks about deceitful workers whom Satan sends into the church who appear to be genuine but are actually fraudulent. So it does mean opponents and adversaries and enemies and they can do us much harm; but our opponents may frighten us but they won’t deceive us. It looks certainly as though increasingly our government is becoming hostile to Christian claims and that was certainly true in the first century. That may alarm us as we see some of the stupid things being done by ministers at the moment in the imagination that they can curtail the witness of Christians, but I don’t think they are counterfeiting Christians. The counterfeit claims superior powers, advanced knowledge, and deeper spiritual experiences and I don’t think any of these government ministers would claim that.
Now obviously, these kind of claims – “If we claim to be without sin…” – what a claim! “If we claim to know him”, “to be in him” – these tremendous claims, which apparently some of the antichrists were making, shake the assurance of the ordinary Christian. Chapter 1:6, 8, 10 and chapter 2:4, 6 and 9. On 1:6 “If we claim to have fellowship with him…”, Michael Eaton (whose little commentary in the Focus series is excellent and I recommend it but here I think he makes a small mistake) says, if it had been the antichrists who had made these claims it would run: “if they claim”. Now there may be some truth in that. They may have had effects in the churches, so John writes “if we claim”. But that doesn’t follow grammatically at all, does it? If I’m giving a talk to some young people and I say, ‘If we claim that there is no hell we contradict the teaching of Christ’, that’s a normal way of talking, isn’t it. I don’t mean that I’m claiming that – I’m just saying, ‘If we claim that, then we’re making a mistake’. And there obviously are people who do claim that, so when John says, “If we claim to have fellowship with him”, he’s actually talking theoretically in a sense but his finger is pointing at the antichrists.
How much influence they are having no one can tell. This shaking of assurance happens, of course, within the boundaries of the real Christian church. If a Pentecostal friend of yours who is as sound as a bell on the person of Christ and the atonement, tells you that unless you speak in tongues you’re not experiencing the Spirit of God, that will shake your assurance, will it not? I can remember a dear friend of mine from college days who told me that we’ve all been missing the best and explained to me the new charismatic experience. When people do that, it does shake your faith. You think, ‘Have I missed out? Am I properly founded? Have I really known the Spirit?’ So these superior claims can shake Christian confidence, but in that case with the Pentecostal it’s well within the boundaries of orthodoxy. So it was with the Full Gospel Business Men International who at one period began to come to our Tuesday lunchtime services. They espouse that Jesus bore our sicknesses as well as our sins on the cross and, therefore, if we put our faith in Christ crucified, we shall be perfectly healed. And they stood at the back after the service and drank coffee and chatted with young Christians and said something like this: ‘What Dick has been telling you is wonderful – but there’s more to it’. Now, that shakes your confidence in the preacher and in what you’ve heard. In the end, sadly, I had to ask them to go because they were causing a great deal of difficulty with many young believers, recently converted.
21st century parallels
Now, can we identify these false brethren with the heretics of the first century? This is a very important question for those of you who have a great sheaf of commentaries at home and know something about the problems of the first century. Moving around in the first century church were the Docetists, the Syrinthians and the proto-Gnostics, as Carson calls them. It was in the second century that Gnosticism was fully developed, but there must have been some seeds of it in the preceding century. And this kind of quasi-Gnosticism is, of course, always with us. It’s the brother who comes to you and says he’s had some great experience and he knows. No argument will ever reach him; he knows, he’s superior, God has shown him. That is the characteristic mark of Gnosticism which has been with the church for 2000 years.
It does seem that the heretics of 1 John are not precisely the same as the docetists, the Syrinthians or the proto-Gnostics. In other words, the cap does not fit well enough. This is the conclusion of Howard Marshall, whose commentary in the New International Series is a very sound and good one, and it’s the conclusion of Colin Kruse. So if I may quote from a very learned theologian called Schnackenberg, a Roman Catholic commentator who gives us some very fine work on these letters, he says, “The heresy which occasioned 1 and 2 John cannot be paralleled with any other manifestation of heresy known from that era. Yet [this is important] it has affinities with more than one such movement.” Now I think that’s very balanced. Yes, it does have affinities, as we shall see when we look at some of the problems in chapter 5. All those heretics played down the historic person of Christ and his atoning sacrifice. And that person of Christ is absolutely central of course to 1 John.
The person of Christ
Many of you will be experts in the various creeds, like the Creed of Constantinople, which we know as the Nicene Creed. I remember taking up a prayer book and simply adding up the lines. As you know, the Nicene Creed tells us about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. About the Father we have three lines: I believe in God the Father almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, and so on. About the Holy Spirit we have nine lines – of course it will be different according to difference printings. There are nine lines about the Holy Spirit and the church and the resurrection and so on. About the person of Christ in the middle: 16 lines. Isn’t that striking? 3 lines; 16 lines; 9 lines. Now what the Nicene Creed tells you is that for the first three centuries that was the battleground. That every phrase you’ve got there – light of light, very God of very God, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made, who for us men and for our salvation – every one of those was a battleground. Every one of those has been fought for. Every one of those has been defined until finally it is precisely what the leaders wanted to say is the teaching of the Bible. Now I didn’t need much persuading on this business because I for a long time have had the conviction that God, providentially, doesn’t allow us to make a tight connection between the heresies we read of in the New Testament and the heretics of our day. What he gives us is sufficient evidence to gain the principles of heresy, which we shall apply in a number of different ways.
The point is obvious, isn’t it. Supposing actually this heresy was docetism, denying the real humanity of Christ. Well then, that’s the end of the matter – is anyone here a Docetist? Of course not. I’m sure there aren’t any Docetists in your local church, so we don’t need 1 John. Throw it into the wastepaper basket; the warning is redundant, we don’t need it. But we can see that some of Docetus and Syrinthius’ principles turn up here in modified form, causing trouble in John’s churches in all sorts of different ways. In fact, one of the difficulties I’ve found in 1 John is that the errors of the secessionists, (I’m now going to call them secessionists following Kruse – I think that’s a good name for the antichrists, the secessionists: people who have gone out) seem to be mutually contradictory. On the one hand they believe this and then they believe something that seems to be contradictory, and yet you find it applies so much to things today. So you don’t see Docetism today. So you see, God has prevented us from labelling these people in a way that would stop 1 John being useful to us and therefore we are not able to apply it to things today, which we can so easily do.
1 John (talk 1, part 3)
Exposing the false and encouraging the true
Now what it shows is that in this letter (and this is very important for the preacher) that John both exposes the false and encourages the true. He does the two together all the time. I would suggest to you that that is an ideal for anybody who is speaking in Christian service. All good Christian teaching must encourage the faithful but must also expose the false. I want to suggest to you that that is the perfect pattern for the Christian preacher and it is fascinating how John does this. For example, “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.” (1:6) There is a plain exposure of those who make that bogus claim. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”(1:7) There is a great encouragement. Then we have another exposure: “If we claim….” And then verse 9, an encouragement: “If we confess…” He does this alternating: first an exposure, then an encouragement. Don’t listen to that, do listen to this. There is a hard evangelical preaching that exposes unceasingly but doesn’t do much positive encouragement. On the other extreme there is a soft evangelicalism that encourages wonderfully clearly and warmly but seldom if ever exposes error. John does both all the time.
So one very interesting characteristic of John in this letter is the use of the negative. You’ll find exactly the same in John’s Gospel. It is something I think we need very badly today on the fringes of evangelicalism where often the negative is avoided. John says, quoting Christ: “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6) Then comes the negative: “No-one comes to the Father except through me.” You see, the negative interprets the positive. You can’t have the positive without the negative. Otherwise you’re not being a faithful preacher. And so he does that exactly in 1 John 1:5, 6 and 8. He shows the negative and then the positive, the negative and then the positive, and you’ll find that he does that all the way through his letter. We lie and do not practise the truth – those two are different, aren’t they? They balance each other. It means we’re telling a lie about ourselves and we’re not in accordance with the truth of the gospel. They’re the same thing, but there’s a balance there; they are two sides of a coin.
John’s principle is first century truth
Now let me make a comment here having given you these five signs of the antichrist, without which we would get into a dreadful muddle. The concept, of course, that they have left the orthodox churches must not be institutionalised. We live in a time of churches grouped together in formal denominations and so on, and there’s a very great danger of institutionalising first century truth in a way that’s quite improper. For example, the Exclusive Brother is taught that if anybody leaves their assembly they are going out into the world and are no better than pagans. This has led to infinite suffering because people have left the Exclusive Brethren Assembly and therefore have had to leave all their relatives who remain behind. I remember going to see one of the chief mandarins of the Exclusive Brethren in 1960 when there was the break-up in Reigate and some of the men were coming to St Helen’s, Bishopsgate. They were an enormous help because they were used to hard work and they knew their bibles. I remember a senior member of the Exclusive Brethren, saying to me, “Mr Lucas, when you receive the Holy Spirit you will agree with us.” The implication is very plain. ‘We are the true church and nobody outside these boundaries will ever understand the things of God.’ Now, that is wicked really, isn’t it? Technically and historically, of course, Rome has taken the same position, though they wouldn’t say so largely today. Nevertheless historically they have said, ‘Move outside these boundaries and you are outside the true church.’
Leaving gospel churches
But what John is saying is in principle. He’s not talking about denominations; presumably they didn’t exist. He is saying in principle, ‘If you leave gospel churches and gospel beliefs and gospel people, that is a very serious sign that something is wrong.’ I want to make that clearer. If a person who professes to be a real Christian leaves a gospel church and gospel beliefs and gospel people, that should be to them and their friends a very serious sign. It’s not a matter of leaving a particular denomination – a Baptist or a Methodist church; it’s a matter of leave behind a bible church. A real Christian church.
Remaining in the Son
That’s why you get so many comments in 1 John about ‘remaining’. It’s a key word. He loves this word and he plays with it in all sorts of different ways. For example, in 2:24-27, “See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he promised us – even eternal life. I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you.” Well, he doesn’t mean that they don’t need pastors and teachers in their church. The secessionists were saying, ‘You need us to teach you this new way’. And John is saying, ‘You don’t need these new teachers – the teachers you have always had have led you into the truth’. “But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit – just as it has taught you, remain in him. And now, dear children, continue in him…” (2:27-28)
It’s the same all the way through. It’s a key word and of course, it is in close connection with what the New Testament is saying all the way through. One of my favourite verses in Colossians is 2:6 “So then, just as you have received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” What Paul says there, John also says in his letter. So, remaining in the truth and letting the truth remain in us is the same idea as remaining in these true communities in which people first heard the gospel and were regenerated by the grace of God.
Again, we’ve got to be careful. I’m going to make little warnings as I go along so you won’t misunderstand me. If you’ve been around as long as I have, you will know many who have at one time professed the faith of the gospel but have, as they would put it, moved on, grown up beyond these elementary beginnings. I think of the Cambridge University Christian Union Mission of 1949 with Dr Barnhouse. What a wonderful mission it was, with many people in the university being really converted. I think of one of the men I knew who was converted. I think he did move on from the truths that brought him face to face with Christ at that mission, but I would be very surprised to hear that he had denied the Son. He’s still within the boundaries of the orthodox church so I don’t want to push him outside those boundaries. So it is possible, isn’t it, to grow beyond those early truths that led you to Christ and still be a Christian. On the other hand, it’s a dangerous signal and may mean that you’re moving out further and further, and will then cross the boundaries. We shall have to have discernment here. We shall have to be clear what is secondary and what is primary, and we shall discover that the antichrist cross primary boundaries, not secondary boundaries.
1 John (talk 1, part 2)
Who are the antichrists?
So, the anti-Christ. What a startling title it is! I wonder what your understanding of the anti-Christ is. I suppose I had in my mind the man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians – that monstrous figure who will stand at the end of time. Is that what John is talking about? Well, not exactly. I want to say that we hear about these only in John’s epistles and so if we don’t know 1 John we’ll be ignorant of who the anti-Christs are and what sort of danger they bring to the churches. They were present in the first century; therefore presumably they are present in the 21st century as well. So 1 John is a particularly important warning about these miserable men.
I am only going to dart into various verses in these first two lectures. Let’s turn to chapter 2. “Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going shows that none of them belonged to us.” (2:18) The references to the antichrist in 1 and 2 John are as follows: 2:18; 2:22 “Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is antichrist”. 4:3 talks about the false prophets, who are presumably the same. “…every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist”. And then 2 John 7-8, “Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch out…” So those are the references in 1 and 2 John. These are the troublemakers who are causing so much confusion and disturbing the peace of the Christians.
Actually they are not just mentioned here, although they are given a name here. We shall find that we meet them in every part of 1 John. They are on every page and in every paragraph. They are almost in every line; echoes of them are to be found everywhere, even though we may not realise it. For example, when we start in chapter 1 and verses 6, 8, and 10 to read those familiar claims, “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.” He’s talking there about the antichrist and their influence on the churches. Verse 8: “If we claim to be without sin…” Again, he’s talking there about the antichrists who not only try to deceive others but are deceived themselves. Verse 10: “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar…” That’s not the ordinary Christians – that’s the antichrists, the trouble-makers. We shall meet them again in chapter 2. There’s a little Greek phrase which simply goes: ‘he who says’. Verse 4, 6, and 9. Verse 4: “The man who says, ‘I know him,’…” That’s a tremendous claim isn’t it? ‘I have a real knowledge, I’ve been enlightened, and the impression is, beyond you ordinary Christians.’ Verse 6: “The man who says he lives in him…”; verse 9: “The man who says he’s in the light but hates his brother…” All those references are to the antichrist and the influence they have on the little churches – if indeed they are having this influence, as we shall come to see later.
Five hallmarks of the antichrists Well, it’s time to get a handle on them and I think the best place to start is in 2:18-19. I’m going to give you five hallmarks of these men.
1. They are already present in the first century, as early as that. See 2:18. Paul’s man of lawlessness, 2 Thessalonians 2:4, is one man, a monster, at the end of Christian history. These people are already present in the first century. They are at work with their propaganda in these little Christian communities in John’s lifetime. They are already present. That ought to chill us. It means they will always be in the churches.
2. There are many of them. Verse 18: “…the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come.” And 4:1 “…many false prophets…” Not one trouble-maker, though one can be enough in a church as some of you know, not like Diotrephes in 3 John, who obviously was a pain in the neck, and there are people like that, aren’t there. But here there are many pains in the neck, many Diotrephes or whatever they are, so they are already present, point one, and there are many of them, point two.
3. This is very important: they had been professing Christian believers, 2:19a. Remember Paul’s warning? “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth” (Acts 20:30) They came not from the outside, like wolves descending on the flock, but deceitfully, from within and therefore unsuspected.
4. They had, however, left these little orthodox gospel assemblies, 2:19. The person who helped me most on this is Colin Kruse and if I’m going to recommend one commentator to you it would be him. I think it’s very thorough and really very good indeed; that was the one that really woke me up and my debt to Colin Kruse is enormous. He showed me many things about the way in which these people, for example, had left their communities and what that actually involved. So they had left these little early Christian communities but they didn’t leave them alone; they wanted to draw away the disciples after them.
5. Finally, and obviously most important of all in 2:22-23: they did not acknowledge Jesus as the God-man. “Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist – he denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.” These tremendous words seem to me to be foundational to our understanding of 1 John.
We shall see later on that he describes this particular denial in a number of different ways. It’s not just in one way and that has caused a certain amount of dispute among the commentators as to what he really meant. 4:2 for example: “…every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God”. Then in 4:15 just simply: “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him…” So we mustn’t take one to the exclusion of the other. Later I will put them all together and to get some idea of what these men were saying. I will leave that until later, but I do want to reassure you with 2:20 which is remarkable: “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth.” So John is saying there that every born-again Christian has an experience of the Spirit, a spiritual provision, the necessary equipment to be kept safe from this kind of antichrist. So we’re not talking now about the brilliant young pastor; we’re talking about Mrs Baggins in your congregation who may have had no theological training but she’s a dear Christian woman and has been so for many years. She too has the anointing and is just as able as a pastor to understand that the antichrist is not teaching the true faith. That’s very important. Since in recent literature in Christian evangelical circles we hear a good deal of nonsense about anointings, it may be worth turning to 1 John and asking what he has to say. And here he says that every Christian has an anointing – the most important anointing you could imagine because it keeps him or her safe from error.
1 John (talk 1, part 1)
1 John – lecture one
This was prepared primarily for pastors and teachers who want to do a series in their churches and so my aim was to help the preacher, rather than to comment on commentaries. In other words, what I am really trying to help you do is to wield the sword of the Spirit. It seems to me the commentator describes the sword, tells you what it’s like, looks at it from every angle, but it is not the commentator’s business to use the sword and plunge it in. There is a great difference, and so you often find with commentaries that at the end you are left with a lot of questions. You could not preach them just like that; you have to make up your mind what indeed is the Spirit saying through the word of God to people today.
In the first lecture we are going to look at the occasion for the writing of 1 John. That is, the circumstances that led the aged apostle of love to put pen to paper or whatever you did, to the churches in Roman Asia. There’s usually a crisis that causes these letters to be written. It’s very seldom that an apostle sits down and writes just because he’s got nothing better to do. And there was certainly a crisis here. So first of all, we are going to look at the original occasion that caused John to write to these little apostolic churches.
In the second lecture we are going to look at the ultimate message of 1 John. That is, the decisive or final word that makes this little letter so important, both for them in the first century and important for us in the 21st century. Westcott says in his classic commentary of about 1881: “This comprehensive warning [the last verse of 1 John] is probably the latest voice of Scripture.” Well, final words are often intended to be important and if this is the final apostolic word to the churches, then it’s obviously very important.
Why was 1 John written?
So we start, then, with reasons for writing this remarkable little letter. As I go along, I will mention one or two commentaries that have been a help to me. I started my study on this last year on January 1st and I’ve been working on it more or less ever since but I haven’t gone into all the commentaries, but one or two have been especially helpful. Not least helpful is the Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges. It is by Dr Plumber and dated 1884, which goes to show that the orthodox Victorian commentaries are still worth reading. The standard explanation for the writing of 1 John is Chapter 5:13 and you hear this quoted over and over again: “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 this is what Dr Plumber says. Normally I entirely agree with him but on this occasion I don’t. The object of John’s Gospel, St John tells us himself: “…these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). The object of the epistle he tells us also: “I write these things to you… so that you may know that you have eternal life.” The comment is that John’s Gospel is written to show the way to eternal life through belief in the incarnate Son; the epistle is written to confirm and enforce the Gospel and to assure those who believe in the incarnate Son that they have eternal life.
I think this is the standard attitude about the gospel and the epistle, but it was not long into January and February last year that I discovered that this is not so much wholly wrong but wholly inadequate. In fact, John gives several different clues in the course of his little letter as to why he wrote. And it is unwise to take these verses as though it applies to the whole letter. Usually these little sentences when he says “I write” refer just there to the paragraph before it. Chapter 2:1 “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anyone does sin…” Well, that is obviously not the main purpose but it is one purpose: he does not want to encourage sin. 2:12 (a strange little parenthesis we will address later) “I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven…I write to you, fathers…” and so on. And perhaps most important of all, 2:26 “I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray”. So you see there are a number of times when he says, “I write”, more than the ones I have quoted, and we shouldn’t pick out 5:13 as being more important than the others. I would put 5:13 as being alongside 2:26, for example.
Reassurance for believers
We will get a much more accurate picture if we say that John wrote to these little gospel churches and communities not to assure them about their standing but to reassure them. These three letters of John were not written at the time of the founding of Christian house churches but by then many of these churches had been established a good many years. John is writing at the end of the first century. Isn’t he the only surviving apostle? I think I’m right in saying he’s the only one who died in his own bed. We are here right at the end of the first century and these churches have been going strong for a long time. So the message of simple assurance of faith and confidence in God through Christ is one that they have known for many years. And he says that, actually, in that little parenthesis I mentioned: 2:13 “I write to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning.” He means there by ‘the beginning’, the beginning of the preaching of the gospel, the beginning of the whole Christian explosion in Acts, and so on. So John is writing to reassure believers whose confidence has been very badly shaken.
Their confidence has been badly shaken by the emergence of men whom John calls the anti- Christs. 2:26 is, therefore, an important statement, although of course it refers to the paragraphs before. Seduction is in the air. And you’re not surprised to know that this kind of seduction had been prophesied not least by Paul in his farewell address to the Ephesians. So we read in Acts 20:29 these familiar words: “I know that after I leave savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” That suggests people from outside coming into the flock. Acts 20:30-31 is rather different: “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!” Now these are the verses that refer much more accurately to 1 John because these anti-Christs come from your own number. That’s one of the main things we’re going to see about them.
Introduction to 1 John
Some will have noted that Dick Lucas turned 89 yesterday. Beginning today, we re-publish as a mini-series of blog posts a paper by Dick from 2007 on 1 John.
1 John – an introduction
‘Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.’ 1 John 5:21
Westcott’s comment on the above was, “This comprehensive warning is probably the latest voice of Scripture.” If so, John’s final warning to the churches, now as then, is a solemn one.
Idolatry, in its numerous configurations is the normal religious condition of fallen mankind, whether in sophisticated first-century Athens or among the tribes of the Amazon forests today. In a world hostile to the claims of the true God for his Son Jesus Christ, it is the only form of religion that is acceptable (4:5). Satan’s masterpiece would be to lead Christian churches back into idolatry while they still retained all the outward form and structures of Christianity.
Not that this is an original plan (Satan was never a creative thinker) since Bible history is a record of declension from true theology and a pure worship until prophets and apostles expose religious seductions for what they are, and call God’s people back to Himself.
The enemies in 1 John are the Antichrists (2:18,19). Remember, they opposed Apostolic standards by providing a rich and attractive counterfeit Christianity. In truth, their claims to superior experience (1:6-10), and a higher knowledge of God (2:4-9) were such that faithful believers were badly shaken as to the genuineness of their own spiritual state – hence the strong strand of Reassurance (not first time assurance for new converts, as the tradition has it) in every part of John’s letter.
Fundamentally, the antichrists rejected what John describes as the historic Apostolic testimony to Christ (1:1-4). Again, remember that to lose fellowship with the Apostles and their doctrine (teaching) is to lose fellowship with the Father and the Son. Any form of Christianity that does this is by definition idolatrous.
The hallmarks of the antichrists were three –
1. They hated the brethren among whom they had once belonged (2:9-11; 3:11-15).
2. They espoused lawlessness, by which John means that they refused to live by the authority of God’s word – hence the repeated emphasis in 1 John on the necessity of obedience (2:3f; 3:21f; 5:2f).
3. They denied the Son, the Word made flesh, as the one indispensable mediator between God and men (1 Tim 2:7). Hence, the many references to the propitiating sacrifice of Christ (1:7; 2:2; 3:5; 4:10; 5:6f).
The most straightforward application of 1 John to the modern scene is to that hollowed out Christianity resulting from three or more generations of so called ‘liberal’ theology, in which the ‘modern mind’ believes only what it can accept on its own terms (this equals the essence of idolatry, where man is the measure of all things). Nevertheless it passionately believes in the ‘spirit’ of the age, as painfully demonstrated this month (Feb 2007) by the Episcopal Church of America. Riddled with political correctness it is riddled with idolatry, yet is confident of its ‘spiritual’ leadership.
What, however, comes closer to home, is when this contemporary version of the historic faith begins to make inroads into British evangelicalism. It has happened before, in the ‘liberal evangelical’ movements that had all but expired by the Second World War, but now shows every sign of re-inventing themselves (Dr O.R. Barclay’s ‘Evangelicalism in Britain 1935-95’ has valuable information and comment on this aspect of recent church history).
John’s warning is that any departure from the Apostles’ doctrine opens the door to new idolatry. The obvious signs of this will be a rejection of the authority of Scripture, a calling in question of the full deity of Christ (his virgin Birth and bodily Resurrection), a dismissal of substitutionary atonement, and a growing permissiveness in the moral sphere. Warnings of such declension have long been given; the situation is now upon us. What John does is to attach to these modern trends the right label.