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.
Climbing the hills
We had a great holiday away by the shores of Lake Annecy in the French Alps – highly recommended for its stunning scenery and warm water. We were at the foot of La Semnoz, a 5,500 ft mountain used as an HC (beyond-categorisation) climb in the Tour de France. It is 20 km long with an average gradient of about 8% but some 22% ramps.
Why not, I thought? After all, as my keen cyclist neighbour David pointed out to me, all you’ve got to do is get in a low gear and churn away. He is, I should point out, a slim, lithe solicitor, untroubled by the cares of ministry.
I didn’t make it. There are lots of reasons for that:
- I ran out of water
- I was on my own, it’s better to do these climbs with somebody else
- I have a lot of baggage to get up a mountain and basic physics tells you that requires more energy
Excuses I know. Bottom line is that I wasn’t fit enough or able enough. It was just too hard. I felt a bit cross with myself (especially when passed by someone wearing flip flops), but more than that a little stupid to think I could do it anyway. I’m a sprinter, not a climber! It’s the same with ministry – and often mine, if I’m honest.
Ministry hills do come. They’re thankfully not all like La Semnoz. When they do come, they are not best faced alone, nor unprepared. Sure – some of us are climbers, we can get in the bottom gear and just churn away. But many (myself included) are not. Steep hills finish us off if we are not careful. I’ve learnt the hard way to make sure there are mechanisms and protections in place to ensure I don’t go off hill climbing on my own. It’s unwise, at best, deadly, at worst.
And next year, we’re going on holiday to the Netherlands.
What to make of Elihu?
One of the most perplexing things about the book of Job (and there are many) is what to make of Elihu, the “fourth” friend. His speeches are long and involved and it is therefore important, in the sweep of the whole book, to have some grasp of what he is doing here.
I’ve found Christopher’s new commentary on Job superb when it comes to this question (and many others). You might say, I would say this. But his new volume has been one of the most helpful devotional and pastoral things I have read in recent years. It really is. And he’s helpful on this point too.
He points out that most modern commentators take a critical view of Elihu:
Most recent commentators have been more inclined to respect [these chapters] place as integral to the book but have regarded Elihu’s role as essentially negative, perhaps a clown or a jester to provide comic relief after the intensity of chapters 29-31 or whose protestations are undermined by the author of the book.
Slightly hesitatingly (as he is going against the majority), Christopher takes the opposite view. There are a number of reasons, he argues, to take Elihu seriously:
- he is the only “friend” who is granted a backstory, a genealogy (Job 32:2)
- He is given four speeches to the others’ three
- No one is able to answer, he is not interrupted
- His speeches come at a critical position in the book and naturally prepare for the Lord’s speeches, there is an almost seamless transition
the natural reading of the text is that we should believe Elihu’s claims and take his words at their face value, as true prophecy from God.
And finally, another book what I read
Amongst some biographies I read was that of Sir Edward Pellew, naval captain in the time of the Napoleonic Wars, made famous today because he features heavily in the fictional Hornblower series. In fact, many of the Hornblower and Aubrey stories (if you know them at all) are based on his true life exploits. Pellew was not without his faults, chief amongst them was promoting his own relatives above their ability (a not uncommon fault in Nelson’s Navy).
I won’t bore you with naval history if you’re not interested, don’t worry. I loved it, but was left feeling a little cheated. Here’s why. Pellew was a great captain. But he was also, there are hints, a man of faith. Towards the end of his career, his official portrait contains “symbols of his career and his faith” says the author. No more is said.
After the Battle of Algiers (one of the Navy’s finest victories against incredible odds), Lord Exmouth (as he was by then) hosted an impromptu prayer meeting in his cabin for anyone who wanted to attend. At 2am. Hardly the sign of someone nominally Christian.
These two veiled references are the only ones made to a Christian faith that, I guess, might or might not have been. But I wanted to know more. It’s as though it was a subject that was hardly worthy of merit. A curio left over from a previous generation, perhaps?
We should not be surprised to see Christianity so marginalised. Increasingly we are not just a minority but a small minority. That brings with it great challenges but it’s good to remember that for most of history for most of the world, so has it ever been.
Some books what I read (2)
I also enjoyed Churchill and the Secret Service by David Stafford. Using recently released material, Stafford surveys the role and relationship Churchill had with the intelligence services, in particular. There is considerable focus on how Churchill used intelligence to bolster his own ideas. He particularly liked the raw data which he was want to interpret in his own way, not trusting those from within the services (sometimes rightly) to interpret it well. It follows Churchill from the Boer War through WWI, Churchill’s wilderness years (when he still had access to intelligence sources), through WWII and on into his last premiership.
It’s fascinating reading. Stafford is no Churchill acolyte. The leader is presented fairly I think – not always in a good light in the specifics, but overwhelmingly the leader Britain needed at various junctures.
It did get me thinking about how politicians today use data. I did some statistics training and I know how numbers can be manipulated. I also know that if I had a pound for every time there’s a statistical report on the effects of a glass of red wine a day, I would be able to afford a glass of red wine a day.
It’s easy to make things say what they do not. And that includes the Scriptures. It’s easy to promote a church vision by telling people that without a vision the people will perish when we know full well that’s not what the proverb means, and so on. Often our people are in no position to argue. We are, after all, the ones trained.
Twisting Scripture to suit our own ends is a terrible practice. We do it – on occasion – consciously. But sometimes we do it subconsciously to bolster a particular view. It’s too easy, in other words, to read into Scripture something we expect to see there, when it is not really there at all. If we need to show integrity in our relationships with others, we certainly need to show it in relation to the text.
Some books what I read (1)
Summer is my reading time. Not Christian books, particularly. I load up the kindle (cheaper and lighter than loading the suitcase) with some novels, biographies and histories and off on holiday I go. Mrs R says I rarely emerge from behind a book on holiday. I don’t think that’s quite true, but I do enjoy switching off by reading. And even though I don’t take Christian books away (I spend all year reading them!) I do try and reflect in a Christian way on what I’m reading. Here are three of the highlights amongst some of more trashy novels!
First, I really enjoyed Mud, Blood and Poppycock by Gordon Corrigan. It’s the second time I’ve read this book and it was every bit as good. It’s a series of relatively short chapters debunking various WWI myths – one example will suffice, the idea that troops spent months on end in sodden trenches. The average number of days in the front trench for any regiment was just under 4 days. Some call this kind of history revisionist, but as it happens, Corrigan shows how the original understanding of the war was like this – revised only in the 1930s following Basil Liddell Hart’s history of the war.
As we were stopping off at the Somme on the way home, it was fascinating – not least that battle which understood from an Anglocentric point of view made little sense, but when seen in the light of what was happening at Verdun – though immensely costly – made perfect military sense. Interestingly, this was also the view of the Somme museum at Thiepval.
I liked the book, because I like history and I like military history. But it did get me thinking of how events and people (especially Haig) can be misrepresented so easily. I guess we as evangelical Christians are often on the wrong end of such misrepresentations and find it frustrating when the media, for example, portray us unfairly.
There is not much, perhaps, that we can do about that. We need to be prepared for it. But we must be careful not to do the same to those we stand against. It is very easy to misrepresent others. Christian integrity and truthfulness demands that we do not.
Learning to lament
Lamentation is “one of the chief duties of the Christian in declining times. Christians are to weep over the sins of the church, the transgressions of the nation, and the fearfulness of the judgment to come.” I read these words by Philip Graham Ryken in his Preaching the Word commentary on Jeremiah, commenting on the words, “Teach one another a lament” (Jer.9:20).
I was struck and humbled by this challenge. It makes me think again about why we preach the Psalms. So many of the Psalms are laments, not only for individuals but also for the dire state of the people of God and the misery of a world under God’s curse. I do not by nature know how to lament in a godly way, and I take it that these Psalms are one of the main ways in which God can teach me to do so. In our preaching of the Psalms of lament, let us deliberately and explicitly tell our congregations that our purpose is that we may be equipped to know how to lament the way God wants us to lament.
Setting up the sermon
It is always refreshing and interesting to visit other churches, and we have had that privilege during the summer break. In a church we visited recently, I was particularly struck (and encouraged) by the way that the person leading the service and the preacher himself prepared us for the sermon. Before the preacher got up, the service leader took a moment to say something about the nature of a sermon and what we should expect to happen during the sermon. He told us that the living God would soon address us through the preaching of his word. So often we hear from the sermon leader that the preacher is going to ‘explain the passage to us’, as though the sermon were merely a reading comprehension exercise. But to be reminded that we were about to hear the living God speak to us – that prepared us for something much more significant to take place. The effect was not simply to capture our attention, but somehow to change the atmosphere in the room. This may overstate it, but it seemed that there was an atmosphere of reverential expectancy in the congregation once we had been reminded what was about to take place. Personally speaking, I found that I was not only engaged on a new level, but sobered as well as I considered the reality of hearing from the living God.
We were further helped when the preacher stood up and prayed, asking God through the sermon to do the kinds of things he has committed himself to doing through his word in 2 Timothy 3:16 (‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…’ ESV). After such an introduction and such a prayer, we as a congregation were well prepared to meet with the living God through his word.
It struck me that it would be good for all of us who lead services and who preach to give careful thought to how we introduce the preaching of God’s word – both in our comments and in our prayers – so that the people before us might understand the nature of what they are about to hear and might hold right expectations for it. This, of course, will be shaped by our own theology of preaching. But assuming that we hold high expectations for what God will do as his word is proclaimed, let’s consider how we can best prepare the people in our congregation to hear God’s word preached.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers #16 and last
Chapter 16. ‘Demonstration of the Spirit and of Power’
This is the most controversial chapter of the book, in which MLJ’s wider theology of the Spirit (which we won’t get into!) is applied to preaching. Here’s a summary:
Unction/anointing from the Spirit is the most important thing in preaching, in which the Spirit comes on the preacher ‘in a special manner’, allowing his work to be a channel of the Spirit’s work. He stresses that it is an anointing of what the preacher has prepared, not an excuse to be lazy in preparation.
He seeks to substantiate it from the NT:
– those places in Acts which speak of the Spirit’s presence in those who are proclaiming Christ
– those places where Paul speaks of the Spirit and power accompanying his preaching (especially 1 Cor 2 and 1 Thess 1).
He states: if it were all ‘left to us’ as preachers, we would be hopelessly miserable.
Then come historical examples, especially from times of revival when certain preachers were used powerfully, often for limited periods. This, says MLJ, is what the preacher should seek all the time.
The preacher knows it’s happening when he feels like a joyful onlooker of his own powerful sermon.
The people know it’s happening and want more of it.
First, some critique. The biblical texts he quotes are really not illustrating the same thing as the stories of revival he gives. Those texts talk about what was commonly expected and experienced, whereas time of revival, as he acknowledges, aren’t meant to be permanent. The chapter makes me suspect that MLJ’s love of stories of revival shaped his understanding of the NT rather too much.
However, once we filter out that particular viewpoint, there is much good here that ought to make preachers fling themselves on the Lord. How will any mind be opened to Christ or any will moved towards him by my words alone? They never can be. Praise God that, whether I experience it or not, and however my temperament leads me to express my experiences in preaching, the Spirit remains true now to the preaching of the word he once breathed out.