Monday, April 27, 2015

1 John 3:11-24 – “Luv Is A Verb”

“The need of the world is not for heroic acts of martyrdom, but for heroic acts of material sacrifice.”[1]

Lesson Focus:
God’s love for us enables us to love others like God has loved us.  More often than not, we are called to express our love for others through our care for those who do not have. 

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lessons students should:
1.     Understand that an important part of Christian love expresses itself through material care for others.
2.     Examine the quality of love that we have for one another in the church.
3.     Identify ways in which we might grow in our practice of love for one another and for the world. 

Catch up on the story:
John has been describing for us what it means to be a child of God.  We have been and are in the process of being changed into the likeness of Jesus.  While Jesus is for us the fullest revelation of who God is, we still do not yet know Jesus in his fullness.  When he returns we will finally know him fully and, as children of God, we will become like what he is. 

Another important aspect of being children of God is our freedom from sin.  We have had our sins taken away and so, we should not continue to commit sin. John made a startling statement that those who have truly been born of God cannot sin.  We explored what this means, and came to the conclusion, with a little help from John Wesley, that indeed we do not need to sin, and will not as long as we are attentive to authentic prayer and worship in mind, body and spirit.  As the Spirit breathes into us, we are transformed and empowered so long as we continue to breathe the Spirit in and out.  Finally, John tells us that doing right means loving our brothers and sisters.  John will continue discussing what this kind of love looks like. 

The Text:
This week’s text can be split into two sections.  The first, 3:11-17 defines the sort of love that Christians should have for their brothers and sisters in Christ.  The second, 3:18-24, gives us some assurance in the midst of our shortcomings in love as well as helping us to understand the link between belief and love. 

Section #1: Love From the Beginning…
John begins this section declaring that this command to love is what “we” have heard from the very beginning.  This statement, “from the beginning” harkens back to the opening line of the epistle where John declares that what was from the beginning was the person of Jesus Christ.   This message of love then, is tied tightly to the work and person of Jesus. John may be referring to Jesus’ words in the Gospel: “A new commandment I give you: love one another” (John 13:34).  As such, the command to love spoken of here is nothing new.  

What is the nature of this love that we have been commanded to show and to whom is it to be given?  Most commentators believe that John is referring to love for one’s Christian brothers and sisters.  Love for neighbor, as Jesus defined for us in the parable of the Good Samaritan, must begin with love for one’s fellow Christian.  The community of faith is the place where we learn and practice the love that we are called to have for the world.  Without loving our Christian brother or sister first, it will be impossible for us to share with the world the love that we have received. 

As John has done throughout the letter, he compares and contrasts a negative example of love with a positive one.  He begins first with the negative in the form of an admonishment.  We are not to be like Cain, who you will remember from your elementary Sunday school class, killed his brother Abel.  John claims that Cain was from the evil one.  This is not to discount Cain’s personal responsibility in the matter.  Rather, it is to display that those who engage in murder, and even hate are still under the influence of the realm of evil and death, the realm, John says, that we have been freed from because of Jesus. 

Verse 14 can be taken the wrong way.  John is not asserting that love is how we cross over form death to life, but rather that love is the result of our being freed from the power of death.  The proof that a person possesses eternal life is displayed through expressions of love for one’s brothers and sisters.  Love expressed in concrete action for others is the evidence of Christian faith. 

If love is the evidence of Christian faith and love, then hate, and the murder that springs from it, is the evidence of lack of faith.  Most, if not all of us, are not, nor will become murders.  John’s description, however, should not fail to convict us and call us to examine our inner thoughts towards our Christian brothers and sisters (not to mention the world at large).  Something as simple as hate can derail our Christian life.  Hatred is the wish that another person were not there.  It is the denial of a person’s right to live in full connection within the community.  Nowhere is hatred expressed more, by Christians at that, than on social media.  Our posts in support of this or that cause, or our posts in opposition to this or that movement, often reveal to us and the world around us just how much hate lives in our hearts.  Those who hate, John says –and he draws on sayings of Jesus in Matthew 5:21 and in other places -- do not “have eternal life abiding in them.” 

John now moves to the positive image of love.  He goes straight to Jesus and his actions for the best and clearest picture of love.  We know what love is because Jesus, in love, laid down his life for us.  It was not just that Jesus sacrificed himself for us, but that in Jesus’ death he said no to his own life so that we might live.  It was for our benefit.  Love that does not work for the benefit of the other is not love. 

What Jesus has done for us, the love that we have experienced through Jesus we ought to share with others.  This is more than a mere telling of the love of God through Christ; it is a concrete, lived out expression of love for the other.  It is a self-sacrifice for the benefit of another.  No doubt, due to the nature of Jesus’ sacrifice for us that resulted in his death, we will champion the kind of love that actually leads one to literally give up one’s life in martyrdom.  For some, in some contexts, this might be a close reality.  This is not so here in America or most of the developed world.  We might, at some point, be asked to lay down our life for our Christian brother or sister, but this is not what John has in mind. 

The last verse in this section, verse 17, displays for us John’s intention, and that intention is much more mundane than dying as a sacrifice.  The love that is expressed in laying down one’s life for another person is love that sacrifices one’s material goods, time and money so that another might live.  Here John speaks of love that is displayed through compassion and mercy for those who do not have adequate means of caring for themselves. 

The NRSV’s phrase “yet refuses to help” fails to communicate the true nature of what John is expressing.  The NIV’s “but has no pity” is a little better, but still misses the mark.  What these two translations render as “refuses” and “no pity” comes from the Greek phrase that means, “to close the bowels.”  The intestines were regarded as the seat of emotion and compassion.  To close off one’s intestines means to shield their inner selves from the suffering and want that takes place around them.  The language is active in nature.  This intentional shielding oneself from the very real physical reaction that takes place upon seeing someone in need and refusing to help.  It is a conscious choice.  The image is vivid and describes something we almost all certainly have felt.  We have seen great and small human need and felt the knot in our stomach that is compassion.  Yet, we all have, at sometime or other, shut off our minds to those feelings and have gone on our way.

John’s point is that, “Christian love is love which gives to those in need, and so long as we have, while our brothers [and sisters] have little or nothing, and we do nothing to help them, we are lacking in the love which is essential evidence that we are truly children of God.”[2]  John concludes the section with the admonition, based on his argument to this point, to love not just in speech and word but also in the truth of love expressed through action.  I’m sure that, if the popular Christian rock band from the ‘90’s, DC Talk, would have been around in John’s day, he would have quoted their song, “Luv Is A Verb.          

So What…?
The question that John poses in verse 17 should stop to give us pause.  How can the love of God truly remain in someone if they choose to turn from the needs of their brothers and sisters in Christ?  While it is true that John is speaking about the love that members of the community of faith have for one another, this community is the place that we practice our love for the world at large.  If we cannot seriously take care of one another we will not be able to exercise our love for the world, and if we cannot exercise our love for the world then we fail at being the body of Christ, the physical hands and feet of God in our world.

What is at stake here is more than just the nature of our own community of faith, how we might love and live together, it is the very nature of our witness to the larger world.  If we are to take seriously the part of our mission statement, which says, “…to bear witness to the kingdom of God,” then we must intentionally and tangibly express our love for our Christian brothers and sisters, so that we can better express our love for those in need in our community. 

This is not to say that our church does a bad job with loving one another and caring for each other’s needs.  I know our church to be just that kind of place, a place of love and generosity.  It never hurts, however, to be reminded of the true nature of the love that we are to exercise.  We can always do better.  I’ll leave you with the words of DC Talk,    

Words come easy but don't mean much
When the words they're sayin' we can't put trust in
We're talkin' 'bout love in a different light
And if we all learn to love it would be just right

Critical Discussion Questions:
  1. What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?
    1. This message that we have hard from the beginning, that we should love one another, is intimately tied to the One who was from the beginning, Jesus.  The nature of love has always been about God’s self-sacrificial care for his creation. Love itself is born in God’s creative act.  It is expressed through God’s promise to a barren Abraham and Sarah.  It is manifested in the Exodus, and it is exemplified in the incarnation, in Jesus’ becoming one of us.  Love seeks the good of the other.  God is always seeking our good.  God is love. 
  1. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
    1. Our sanctification is bound up with our willingness to allow the Spirit to perfect us in love.  We will only be a holy people, who call others to be holy, when we allow the Spirit to help us to love in intentional and tangible ways.  There can be no salvation without our reciprocating God’s love.  There can be no holiness with out expressing our love to one another and to the world. 

  1. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
    1. We must become a people who gather to practice love for one another so that we can love our world.  We must love in word and deed.  We must seek and find ways in which we can better and more fully love each other.  We must identify the things, attitudes, structures and the like that keep us from loving one another. 

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
  1. John says that we must not be like Cain who was from the evil one.  What does that mean?  What does Cain do that might show that he is from the evil one?
  2. Why does Cain kill Abel?  Why does John say that we should not be astonished when the world hates us?
  3. John says that we have passed from death to life because we have loved one another.  What does John mean by that?  Do we receive life because we love?  Or, do we love because we have received life?  Why would that distinction matter?
  4. How are hate and murder connected? Has there ever been a time when you have hated someone?  How did that come about?  Have you moved on from that?  If so, how? 
  5.   According to John, how do we know what true love is? Who shows us what true love is?  What is our proper response to an encounter with that love?
  6.   In verse 17 John asks this question, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and see a brother and sister in need and yet refuses to help?”  What do you think  
  7.  John is addressing a community of believers and in encouraging them to care for one another.  Why is it important for us to care for each other, as brothers and sisters in Christ, first?  How might our care for one another impact our witness to the world around us? 
  8. As a church, how good are we at tangibly caring for one another?  How might we be better at it?  What are some specific and intentional ways we might practice our love for one another so that we can love our world better?

[1] I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), 195-196.
[2] Marshall, 195.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

1 John 3:1-7 –Children of God

Lesson Focus:
We will remain children of God as long as we continually seek to return to God the love and faithfulness that God has breathed into us. 

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lessons students should:
1.     Understand that we are children of God.
2.     Understand that we do not need to sin.
3.     Seek to participate in spiritual exercises and disciplines such as acts of service and mercy, prayer and worship, as a means of remaining in fellowship with God and neighbor.

Catch up on the story:
John continues to instruct those who are the intended recipients of the letter.  As we recall, John’s intention, first and foremost, is to remind us that Jesus, the one the believing community of faith has seen, heard and touched, is really fully God as well as human.  We are to have fellowship with God through Jesus so that we might have fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Sin, on the other hand, keeps us from both forms of fellowship. 

John goes on to warn us about deceiving ourselves.  If we say we love God, but don’t follow God’s commands, then we are liars.  If we obey God’s word, however, then the love of God has reached perfection in us (2:5).  The chapter we have skipped, 2:1-29, can be broken down into two sections.  The first, 2:1-15, deals with God’s command for us to love our neighbor.  John makes it really clear that we cannot walk in the light of God’s fellowship while hating our brother and sister.   The second, 2:16-29, warns us about the “antichrist.”  Here, John is not making specific claims about who the antichrist is.  In fact, he claims there are many who have been “antichrists,” that is, deniers of Christ.  Anyone who has denied that the Son and the Father are one is an antichrist.  We are warned not to listen to their teaching, but to remain (abide) in fellowship with the community of faith and in fellowship with the Father through the Son. 
The Text:
Section #1: Who are we?
Verse 29 of chapter 2 acts as a bridge between the two chapters.  The proof about who enjoys true fellowship with the Father through the Son is found in their deeds and their teaching.  Those who believe and obey have been born of God. 

Throughout the letter so far John has addressed his hearers as “little children.”  Now, John will help us consider more fully what it means to be children of God.  First and foremost, being called children of God is rooted in the initiative that God has taken in calling us to be children of God because of his love for humanity.  In the Father’s great love for creation he sends forth his Son so that we might be adopted into God’s family.  We are God’s children because God wants us to be God’s children.  In love God has called us.  John is speaking to those who have heard the loving call of God and have responded in mutual love.  The initiative is God’s.  We respond to God’s love and we are thus adopted into God’s family, which begins our transformation into a people who look like the Son. 

Our status as children of God, who are becoming more and more like Jesus, creates for us a bit of static with the world around us.  We are misunderstood, rejected, harassed and the like because, in our Christ likeness, the world does not recognize us as something it needs.  This is precisely how the world responded to Jesus.  It rejected him because it did not know him. 

In verse 2, John leaves the world behind to further the conversation about who we are and what we will become as God’s children.  John reminds us that we are now God’s children, but explains that this status as children has consequences for all of eternity.  We will not stop being children of God at our death.  We will, however, change.  Even now, as we are becoming more and more like Jesus, our transformation is not complete and will not be complete until Christ returns.  John says, “what we will be has not yet been revealed.”  We do not yet know what we will be like in the end because we do not yet fully know Christ.  When Jesus returns he will be fully revealed and we will finally and fully see who he is.  This revelation of the fullness of Christ will transform us into his likeness.[1]

Section #2: “Those who have been born of God do not sin…”
In this section, John’s main concern is to set up the first negative condition for those who seek to live as children of God.  That is, the renunciation of sin.[2] For John, everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness.  In fact, John says, sin is lawlessness.  Sin is a rejection of the law of God, and Jesus has summed up the law for us, that we love God with all we are and that we love our neighbor as ourselves.  We are guilty of lawlessness when we reject the notion that our fullest response to the love of God is expressed through love of God and neighbor.  John will make this connection more directly at the end of the passage. 

Indeed, John says, Jesus was revealed precisely so that sin might be taken away.  In Jesus we find the fullest completion of the law as Jesus obeys and loves the Father and creation by giving himself up for us.  There is no sin in Jesus because he loves fully and perfectly.  As children, we are called to “live” (NIV) or “abide” (NRSV) in Jesus.  Conversely, no one who remains or lives in sin can be a child of God.  This entire section has very much to do with actions.  The “live” and “abide” of verse 6 is less static than our English translations might suggest.  Often the images that are evoked by living, abiding or remaining are passive.  We remain somewhere until a force causes us to move.  The Greek, as it is used here, however, connotes an active posture, to “keep on, continue in an activity or state, as an aspect of an action…”[3] Those who actively remain in sin cannot be children of God, but rather are children of the devil who has been sinning from the beginning. 

It’s at verse 9 that we run into an apparent contradiction with what John has said earlier.  As you will recall, in chapter one John warns us that if we say we are without sin we are liars.  Remember, John is speaking to believers, not unbelievers.  How now can John say that those who have been born of God cannot sin?  John Wesley devotes an entire sermon to just this verse from First John.  In, The Great Privilege of Those That Are Born of God, Wesley helps us see what John really means.  In Wesley’s opinion, John is not contradicting himself.  You can find the sermon here. 

We, who have been born of God, have been transformed from the inside out.  Our existence is changed. “The Spirit or breath of God is immediately inspired, breathed into the new-born soul; and the same breath which comes from [God], returns to God: As it is continually received by faith, so it is continually rendered back by love, by prayer, and praise, and thanksgiving; love and praise, and prayer being the breath of every soul which is truly born of God."[4]  What Wesley is saying here is that as we receive God’s Spirit our constant response is to exhale it in a response of love, praise and prayer.  It is this continual respiration of the Spirit of God that keeps us from sin.  As long as God’s breath is in us, as long as we take it in and continue to respond to it, we cannot sin.  This spiritual breathing is not entirely natural to us, and so, it becomes a choice for us to continually respond to God’s grace.

Our ability to not sin, First John’s “they cannot sin,” is less a determined thing than it is a continued choice on our part.  This living or remaining as children of God, as we said above, is not a passive or static thing; it is active.  We remain as children of God by choice.  But, Wesley says, when we cease to breath back God’s Spirit in love for God and others, in prayer and praise, sin creeps back in. 

Wesley uses two examples from scripture to demonstrate what he means.  The best known one is that of King David and Bathsheba.  If there were anyone who was “after God’s heart” it was David.  But, Wesley argues, David does not keep himself in God through the continued discipline of love, prayer and praise.  As David lets the temptation into his heart, it gains mastery over him and sin is born.  Wesley describes the process like this:

You see the unquestionable progress from grace to sin: Thus it goes on, from step to step. (1.) The divine seed of loving, conquering faith, remains in him that is born of God. “He keepeth himself,” by the grace of God, and “cannot commit sin.” (2.) A temptation arises; whether from the world, the flesh, or the devil, it matters not. (3.) The Spirit of God gives him warning that sin is near, and bids him more abundantly watch unto prayer. (4.) He gives way, in some degree, to the temptation, which now begins to grow pleasing to him. (5.) The Holy Spirit is grieved; his faith is weakened; and his love of God grows cold. (6.) The Spirit reproves him more sharply, and saith, “This is the way; walk thou in it.” (7.) He turns away from the painful voice of God, and listens to the pleasing voice of the tempter. (8.) Evil desire begins and spreads in his soul, till faith and love vanish away: He is then capable of committing outward sin, the power of the Lord being departed from him.[5]  

As long as we are willing, cooperating with God’s Spirit by breathing back the love and grace we have received from him, he will help us resist the temptations that lead to sin.  When, however, we fail to keep ourselves in God, we give temptation a hold in our lives and are thus pulled into sin.  “For it plainly appears, God does not continue to act upon the soul, unless that soul re-acts upon God... He will gradually withdraw, and leave us to the darkness of our own hearts. He will not continue to breathe into our soul, unless our soul breathes toward him again; unless our love, and prayer, and thanksgiving return to him, a sacrifice wherewith he is well pleased.”[6]

Finally, John tells us that we will know who are children of God or children of the devil by their actions.  Those who do what is right, which John defines as “love their brothers and sisters” are children of God.  Those who do not love their brothers and sisters are not children of God.

So What…?
The beautiful truth of this passage is that sin no longer needs to have mastery over us.  The very purpose that Jesus the Son has been revealed to us is that sin might be defeated.  Using very strong language, John declares for us that sin has been defeated.  We have been born again as children of God.  This means that we breathe a different sort of air than we did before.  The air we now breathe as children of God is the air of God’s Holy Spirit.  We take it into our lungs and it is transported throughout our body, transforming us, strengthening us just as does normal air. 

As with our body, this spiritual respiration is not engaged in passively by us.  No, we take this new spiritual air into our bodies and then we exhale it back out.  God longs for us to continually bring in his Spirit, but will not make us do it.  We must continually react to God’s love and grace by tending to the things that help us love our neighbor and God.  Our part of this spiritual respiration is acts of service and mercy toward those around us.  It is our continual engagement in worship with the Body of Christ, as well as personal and communal prayer.

As Wesley would say, we must “keep ourselves.”  Our resistance to sin is only as good as our willingness to allow the Spirit to keep us from sin.  When we fail to engage in spiritual practices like acts of service and mercy, prayer and praise, we seriously limit the Spirit’s ability to keep us from sin and our status as children of God comes into danger. 

So, let us persist in the practices and disciplines that we took up during Lent.  May our practices of denying ourselves; our practices of loving and serving our neighbor, our practices of worship and prayer continue to lead us into fellowship with God and with others.  

Critical Discussion Questions:
  1. What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?
    1. God, through Christ and the Spirit, is constantly engaged with helping us live into our status as children of God.  God is working in us and with us so that we might not sin. 

  1. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
    1. Our salvation and subsequent holiness rely on our response to God’s Spirit-given grace.  We are children of God when we, as Wesley says, breathe in and breathe out God’s love and grace. 

  1. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
    1. Our fellowship with God and neighbor is not static or passive.  It is a continual breathing in the Spirit of God and breathing out of God’s Spirit through service and mercy, love, praise, and prayer.  As we engage in continually giving ourselves to spiritual practices and disciplines such as these, we are strengthened to go and sin no more.   

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     John states in verse 1 that the world does not know us because it did not know Jesus.  What does he mean by that?
2.     What does John mean when he says that we will know what we will be like when Jesus is revealed.  When will Jesus be finally revealed? 
3.     In verse 4, John says that everyone sins is guilty of lawlessness.  What is the law to which John refers?  (For a clue, see Matthew 22:36-40).  What are practical ways that we often fail to keep this law?
4.     John says, in verse 6, that “No one who abides in him sins.”  The word “abide” can have the meaning, “keep on, and continue in an activity or state, as an aspect of an action.”  How is “abiding” in God a continual action?  What types of habits or practices might help us abide in God in an active sense?
5.     Respond to John’s statement, “Those who have been born of God do not sin…they cannot sin.” (Verse 9)  How could it be possible to not sin?  Keep in mind the active nature of abiding with God. 
6.     John tells us at the end of the passage that those who “do not do what is right are not from God.”  Given all the things that First John has already said, how do you think John would define “what is right”?
7.     How are you doing personally with abiding in God?

For a printable version of this lesson and handout, click here and here.  

[1] John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, Fourth American Edition (New York: J. Soule and T. Mason, 1818), 661.
[2] Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), 153.
[3] James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
[4] John Wesley, Sermons, on Several Occasions (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1999).
[5] Ibid.
[6] Wesley.

Monday, April 13, 2015

1 John 1:1-2:2 –The Word of Life…

Lesson Focus:
John wants us to live lives that have been freed from sin.  To do this, we must first recognize that sin has had power over us, but that Jesus’ sacrifice frees us from that sin and enables us to walk in his light.

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lessons students should:
1.     Confess that there is no sin or darkens in God.
2.     Confess that we are sinful people who have been dominated by sin.
3.     Confess that Jesus has freed us from slavery to sin so that we might walk in God’s light.
4.     Be encouraged to go and live a life free from sin. 

Catch up on the story:
First John is categorized as an epistle or letter with other New Testament works just as the first letter to the Corinthians and the like.  It is categorized as such without the normal markings of a first-century letter.  For instance, unlike Paul’s letters, we have no greeting.  There is no mention of who the author is or to whom the letter is written.  Nevertheless, First John gets the epistle label.  While the work lacks these formal markings, what becomes clear as one reads the letter is that the author is speaking to a specific community of faith that is dealing with specific issues regarding Christology, or how one understands and talks about the nature and person of Jesus Christ. 

It is not crucial to spend too much time seeking to discover a definitive answer for both the author of First John and its recipients.  What we do know, however, is that the text presupposes the work of the Gospel of John.  The prologue (verses 1-4) strongly echoes the prologue of John’s gospel.  There are enough similarities between the Gospel of John and First John that one might suppose that John is the author of both.  At the very least, we can say that John’s followers might be responsible for the epistles that bear his name.  For simplicity’s sake, we will take the view that the author of the Gospel of John and First John are the same. 

The Text:

The Prologue (1:1-4)
By the nature of the way in which John structures the original Greek, we learn that the focus of this prologue, and the entire work, is the “word of life.”  What is this “word of life?”  It is that which was from the very beginning.  Here John echoes the opening to the Gospel that bears his name.  This “word of life” is none other than the pre-existent second person of the Trinity.  For John’s audience there seems to have been some tension concerning the nature of Jesus.  Some would have emphasized Jesus’ divinity while downplaying his humanity.  A heresy, Docetism, will spring up which describes Jesus as only appearing to be human.  Others will say that Jesus could not be fully God and still be human. 

John begins to address this tension by proclaiming that Jesus is this “word of life.”  He has been from the beginning.  In fact, John says, we have heard him with our ears, seen him with our eyes and touched him with our hands.  This brings a concrete reality to this “word of life” that at once brings together Jesus’ divinity and his humanity.  Jesus was someone that John and others could hear, see and touch. 

The “we” language of the prologue does two things.  First, it declares that this witness of Jesus as word of life is not an individual thing, but was witnessed by the faith community’s earliest believers.  This is not just one guy’s vision; it is the witness of the community.  The second thing the “we” language does is it invites his hearers to join, in a fuller sense, that community of faith by embracing both the humanity and divinity of Jesus.  We are not to suppose that the original hearers of John’s letter are non-Christians.  The rest of the tone of the letter will not support this.  Rather, the letter is addressed to those who already believe but are in danger of slipping into heresy. 

John’s intent is to proclaim the centrality of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  Jesus is both the message and the center of the message.  He has proclaimed to us the nature of the Father and we now proclaim what we have heard, seen and touched.  This proclamation is so that those who hear it might enter into fellowship with the believing community, whose fellowship is rooted and grounded in fellowship with the Father and the Son.  This fellowship, however, is not just any fellowship.  It is the fellowship of the Trinity, the love that the Father has for the Son, and the Son has for the Father.  It is a mutual love, a love that always seeks the good of the other person.  It is the love that is sent out, in the power of the Spirit, to draw others into its fellowship. 

In this prologue John is reminding us that God himself became one of us: a living, breathing, speaking person, so that we might fully know the Father and enter into fellowship with him.  For all of time at that! 

 If… (1:5-10)
This message of good news and fellowship with the triune God that John received is now proclaimed to us.  The first message of this proclamation is that God is light, pure light, in which there is no darkness.  Light has significant meaning for John, both here and in his Gospel.  This description of God as light concerns both his nature and being.  It means that God is absolute in his glory, in his truth and in his holiness.[1] In other words, God is without deficiency in regards to his power and might, his truthfulness and his set-apartness from creation.  Because God is light there is not room for the darkens of sin and death. 

The next few verses are set off by a series of “if”s.  Because God is true light we must walk in the light.  If, John says, we are walking in darkness there can be no way that we are enjoying true fellowship with God.  Those who inhabit the darkness, that is walk in sin, yet say that they live in the light, deceive themselves.  They may say all the right things.  They may have all the right answers, but they do not do what is true.  Wesley says this about the verse, “If we say—Either with our tongue, or in our heart, if we endeavor to persuade either ourselves or others, we have fellowship with him—While we walk, either inwardly or outwardly, in darkness—In sin of any kind, we do not the truth—Our actions prove that the truth is not in us.”[2] But, John says, if we walk in the light we are able to have fellowship, not just with God, but with one another as well.  As we step out into the light of Jesus’ love, it exposes our sin.  Then the blood of Jesus cleanses us from those sins.  The light exposes us for who we really are.  Christ’s sacrifice brings us into full fellowship with God. 

John moves on by presenting a tension within the Christian life.  In the first place, as he has already said, if we walk in darkness of sin then we do not have fellowship with God.  We are liars.  But in the next set of conditional statements John says that if we claim to be without sin we are liars too!  Perhaps, John is speaking to those who are not yet in the faith but who claim to be without sin.  Keeping in mind that John’s letter is likely not written to those who have not yet come to place their faith in Jesus, this seems not to be the case.

If John is really speaking to a group of believers, then he is likely making a distinction between different kinds of perfectionism.  The first type, which it seems like some who have some influence in the community that John is addressing would espouse, asserted that they were sinless and not guilty of committing sins since their conversion.  Perhaps the form of perfectionism that John is combating is close to those older Nazarenes I grew up with who would say things like this, “I’ve been saved and sanctified and haven’t sinned since!”  Implicit in this kind of statement is that the movement toward Christlikeness is over.  The reality is, in my experience anyway, that those who made these kinds of statements failed to live out their Christlikeness.  In John’s words they deceived themselves.   

The second kind of perfectionism, of which John will speak and advocate for in chapters 3 and 5, deals with the stopping of habitual sin.[3] It is not that they are unable to sin, but that, through fellowship with one another, fellowship with God through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Christian is capable of not sinning.  This is the nature of perfectionism that John Wesley will promote.  As Christians we are to give ourselves over to the power of the Spirit’s work in our lives so that we may walk fully in the light.  Our walking in the light, by virtue of it being in the light, necessitates that our sins are exposed and done away with.  We once walked in darkness, but now that we walk in the light we have put away those habitual sins. 

Now, in the very next phrase, John will pen one of the lines that every student of evangelism will memorize, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleans us from all unrighteousness.”  In the context of the current conversation I believe that John is referring to the sins of those who are moving toward Christlikeness but who occasionally stumble because of the weakness of the spirit and the flesh.  When we do so, we must confess, that is, bring those deeds into the light of God’s love.  Here’s the good news: those sins will be forgiven and the Spirit will continue to clean us from all unrighteousness.

Here John confesses that it is because God is faithful and just that we will be forgiven and cleansed.  Often we hold these two ideas at odds with one another.  A proper reading of both the Old and New Testaments will show that God’s faithfulness and his justice go hand in hand.  God is faithful, 

Because he had promised this blessing, by the unanimous voice of all his prophets. [God is] just—Surely then he will punish: no, for this very reason he will pardon. This may seem strange; but upon the evangelical principle of atonement and redemption, it is undoubtedly true. Because when the debt is paid, or the purchase made, it is the part of equity to cancel the bond, and consign over the purchased possession: both to forgive us our sins—To take away all the guilt of them, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness—To purify our souls from every kind and every degree of it.[4]

John rounds out the section with one last conditional statement.  If we claim sinlessness of the first order we discussed above, we not only declare ourselves liars, but we make God out to be a liar as well!
Little Children!  (2:1-2)
Here John’s pastoral intentions come out.  He addresses his audience as his little children.  He is not talking down to his audience, but is addressing them with a term of endearment.  His purpose for writing is so that they may not sin by saying that they are without the possibility of sin.  In a way he is urging those who are errant in his audience to confess their arrogant sin of presumed sinlessness. 

In doing so they give themselves over, not to a vengeful and vindictive God, but to Christ who is our advocate with the Father.  John will say that, by virtue of Jesus being our atoning sacrifice, Jesus is able to present our case before the Father who will forgive because he is faithful and just.  This is an open invitation for confession.  We can confess, not out of fear, but in the confident hope that one who is greater than us speaks on our behalf. 

Not only is God’s forgiveness of sins for those who are a part of the faith, for those who walk in fellowship with God, but for the whole world.  Part of what may have been at work in John’s context is that some might have presumed that due to God’s revealing of himself to them, that God’s salvation was just for them.  John dismisses this idea.  God has revealed himself to the believing community so that they might begin and continue to reveal God to the whole world. 

So What…?
Two things are important as we begin our journey though First John.  First, even though this letter is written mainly to those who are already, in some form at least, a part of the believing community of faith, it speaks to those outside of the faith.  With no apology, John points to the reality and nature of sin.  Sin is a part of who we are to the very core.  We are all sinful people.  Jesus Christ, the fullest expression of God, is light and life.  There is no sin, no darkness at all in him.  We cannot have life apart from the light that Jesus brings.  John invites those who are in darkness, those who refuse to believe that they are in darkness, to quit deceiving themselves and step into the light.  Our God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from it. 

Secondly, John’s message speaks to those of us who have been a part of the faith community for a long time.  It challenges us to look at our lives retrospectively.  Are we resting on work that Christ has done in our life in the past?  Do we think, that because of what Jesus and the Spirit has done in our life, we are without habitual sin?  Are we mindful of Christ’s call for us to grow in grace?  John urges us to bring our habitual and eventual slip ups to Christ in confession.  As we do so, we are able to enjoy continued fellowship with one another and with the Father.  At the end of the day, John wants us, and the whole world it seems, to walk in the light and fellowship with God.  We can do this because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us.  

Critical Discussion Questions:
  1. What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text? 
    1. There is a historical and tangible reality to God in Jesus Christ.  God has revealed himself to us.  He was something people could hear, see and touch. 
    2. God is inviting us to walk in fellowship with him and his church.  Confession is an important part of our continued fellowship with God and one another. 

  1. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
    1. Our holiness comes from the work of the Spirit in our lives.  It is contingent upon our continual confession of sin.  The Christian sanctified life is one of constant reflection on our actions and attitude. 

  1. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
    1. The call is to become a holy people who understand the holy nature of God and that we cannot walk in sin and remain in fellowship with God.  The Spirit gives us the power to be free from the need to sin.  Therefore, we should seek to walk in the light.

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     John begins by declaring what “we” have seen and heard and touched concerning the word of life.  What does John mean by this?
2.     John says that he is proclaiming what he has witnessed so that his hearers might have fellowship with him and with God.  How might fellowship with a believing community of faith and fellowship with God be connected?
3.     We confess that God is triune, meaning that God is three in one, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The Father loves the Son, the Son returns the love of the Father, and the Spirit is sent out by the Father and the Son, in love, to draw humanity into fellowship with the Triune God.  How might this be a model for us as a believing community of faith?  
4.     In verse 5, John declares that the content of the message he is proclaiming is that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.”  What does it mean that God is light?  What does darkness represent? 
5.     What does John mean by “walking in darkness?”  What does it mean to “walk in the light as he himself is in the light” mean?
6.     What kind of connection might there be between walking in the light and having fellowship with one another?  With God?
7.     John also says that those who say that they have no sin are liars.  It appears that John is contradicting his earlier statement in verse 6.  How might we reconcile that apparent contradiction? 
8.     John says that if we confess our sins, our habitual sins and our slip ups, God is faithful and just and will cleanse us from all unrighteousness. In what contexts can we be transparent and confess our sins?

For printable copies of this lesson and the participant's handout, click here and here

[1] Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, Revised edition (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), 20.
[2] John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, Fourth American Edition (New York: J. Soule and T. Mason, 1818), 656.
[3] Smalley, 30. 
[4] Wesley, 657.