Wisdom for life

Sometimes I really want to write something, but tiredness and the rhythm of life means that words don’t quite come out. Today is one of those days, so instead of my random thoughts come a set of key quotes from two of my favourite authors that I have come back to at key moments of crisis through my life.

I don’t think it is any exaggeration to say that really grasping their truth will give us the realism we need to keep on trusting God in the midst of life’s difficulties and darkness. Both writers write in times of their own difficulties – but both draw out lessons that give us key wisdom for life.

We may be frankly bewildered at the things that happen to us, but God knows exactly what he is doing, and what he is after, in his handling of our affairs. Always, and in everything, he is wise; we shall see that hereafter, even where we never saw it here. Meanwhile we ought not to hesitate to trust his wisdom, even when he leaves us in the dark.

Knowing God: J I Packer p109 (the chapter titled ‘God only Wise’)

Then, speaking of Ecclesiastes:

The world we live in is in fact the sort of place he has described. The God who rules it hides himself. Rarely does this world look as if a beneficent Providence were running it. Rarely does it appear that there is a rational power behind it all. Often and often what is worthless survives, while what is valuable perishes. Be realistic, says the preacher; face these facts; see life as it is. You will have no true wisdom till you do.

Knowing God: J I Packer p118 (the chapter titled ‘God’s Wisdom and Ours’)

And then, one I have come back to time and again:

For the truth is that God in his wisdom, to make and keep us humble, and to teach us to walk by faith, has hidden from us almost everything we should like to know about the providential purposes which he is working out in the churches and in our own lives…

… We can be sure that the God who made this marvellously complex world-order, and who compassed the great redemption from Egypt, and who later compassed the even greater redemption from sin and Satan, knows what he is doing and ‘doeth all things well’, even if for the moment he hides his hand. We can trust him and rejoice in him, even when we cannot discern his path.

Knowing God: J I Packer p118-119 (same chapter)

Or if you prefer a different style, the same truth is expressed by OT theologian John Goldingay in his excellent reflections in “Walk On” discussing calamity and the book of Job in the context of his experience of caring for and walking with his wife Ann’s experience of MS:

Job himself never knows about chapter 1 and 2 of “his” book. So he goes through pain the same way we do. And he illustrates how the fact that we do not know what might explain our suffering, what purpose God might have in it, does not constitute the slightest suggestion that suffering has no explanation. After all Job could never have dreamt of the explanation of what happened to him.

I cannot imagine the story that makes it okay for God to have made Ann go through what she has been through. But I can imagine that there is such a story. I do not know whether we will ever know what the story is.

John Goldingay – Walk On p32 (“Calamity”)

And the last word in relation to that goes to Rich Mullins who I think was right when he sang “And I know that it would not hurt any less, even if it could be explained”.

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The dishes do need doing

I was struck again this week by another of those posts that go round and round on Facebook. That call to parents, in particular mums that the dishes can wait, that the laundry pile will be there another day. That we say yes to sitting on the floor playing lego, reading another book, saying yes to our children before saying yes to the housework. That before we know it our children will have grown and gone, the dust and dishes can wait. I get it, I get the importance of being present to our children, but actually while the children are at home the dishes do need doing, the laundry does need sorting and some of it does need ironing. Dusting isn’t a bad thing. Families need meals, clean clothes, a house that doesn’t leave everyone sneezing. Yes be present to our children but part and parcel of that presence comes in putting meals on the table on clean plates, extending a clean glass with a refreshing drink. Being present is in providing clean clothes, it may be their combination and a fashion statement you wouldn’t make but it is clean. And maybe dusting isn’t so bad. So often we swing from one end of a spectrum to the other and both ends tend to be places that leave us or others with guilt that we are not enough or too much, that we are getting it wrong whichever way we turn. As I read today one mum’s advice to another was to compare the child’s work during the year to her exam efforts. Not to compare her to where others were at but how was she doing herself. Let’s look not to social media to see how we are doing as parents and how our children are doing alongside others. While doing the dishes lets watch our children at play and enjoy their delight. Welcome them to the table and engage in conversation over a meal. There are so many moments when attending to dishes and laundry to actually be studying our children and learning about them and discovering areas to encourage, to praise and areas we might want to note that needs working on.

Our children will grow up and there will be things I wish we had done differently, but I also know we are parenting with the resources we have to hand, externally and internally in the moment. Different seasons will see those resources change, expand or reduce but we seek to live in the moment. Some days I am able to be fully present with the children and do things around the house. Other days I know our children need me to be fully present to them in each moment, that they are going through a developmental growth spurt emotionally, academically, physically and I need to be attentive to those moments. There are days when my internal and external resources are low and actually the wisest decision is to throw myself into ensuring we all eat and have clean plates to do so from because my fuse is short and being fully present with the children is not going to bless any of us. There are days when we muddle through with a mix of both to some extent.

For us seeing dishes, laundry, dusting as house blessings rather than chores helps. Not perfectly and not all the time but it helps overall to understand that living requires a whole mix of activities and sometimes some may appear less exciting but necessary. If the dishes and menu planning and shopping never get done the reality is meals will grind to a halt. We will run out of clothes to wear, I appreciate that is not a worry every child has; either the lack of clothes or the state of clothes. If we want to invite others over, is not about having a house that cannot be played and lived in, but we want our home to be a place of welcome to others, somewhere for others to stop and unwind, to feel at home, to not politely work out how to not drink that cup of tea as the cup is not clean as the dishes have never been done or creates a cloud storm as the dust is unsettled when it is put down.

So fellow companions on this road of raising families, don’t be harsh on yourself when you take up the dishcloth or the iron. Invite your children to join you, it may take some time before the bathroom sparkles the way you dream. One day they will grow up and leave and you will know that they can stand on their own two feet, cook, clean and extend the blessing of hospitality to others.

Revelation: Chapter 1 of the Great Story…

To attempt a short summary of Revelation is completely ridiculous. And yet it is important for us all to read this book, and to rejoice in the truth it displays to us so vividly, rather than being scared off by those who have distorted its message.

Revelation is a book that uses the previous 65 books of the Bible, and the images and pictures they contain, to paint a vivid picture of the world, and of God’s actions to bring redemption to this world. It is impressionist rather than still life – with brush strokes that are best appreciated as we step back and see the whole rather than get bogged down in the detail.

I think it helps to have a rough map of Revelation in mind when reading it – there are lots of nuances involved, but should give an overall idea:

  • Revelation 1 – Introduction – John sees the risen Christ
  • Revelation 2-3 – Letters to the churches
  • Revelation 4-5 – Heaven unveiled – the Lamb on the Throne
  • Revelation 6-7 – 7 seals and an interlude
  • Revelation 8-11 – 7 trumpets and an interlude containing:  7 thunders, a mighty angel and a little scroll and 2 witnesses 
  • Revelation 12-14 – A dragon & a woman, 2 beasts, the lamb and 3 warning messengers
  • Revelation 15-16 – 7 plagues from 7 bowls of God’s wrath – the song of Moses & The Lamb
  • Revelation 17-18 – The fall of Babylon
  • Revelation 19 – The Last Battle
  • Revelation 20 – Millenium and Last Judgement 
  • Revelation 21-22 New Creation, New Jerusalem, the face of the Lamb

The book paints pictures of the world in between Jesus’ first and second comings.  The 7 seals, 7 trumpets and 7 plagues cover similar ground, but each time the imagery intensifies and the destruction increases. It is unlikely they are intended to be read as consecutive but rather as overlapping pictures of the catastrophes that mark our present world. 

The seals remind us that nothing in history operates outside of God’s purposes.  The trumpets point us to the mystery of the interworking of the prayers of God’s people and God’s judgement working out in history.  The 7 thunders (see chapter 8) remind us that we are not told everything. John sees the 7 thunders, but is told not to write down what he saw.  We know there is more to God’s plans and purposes in this world than we can know. The 7 plagues following the song of Moses and the Lamb remind us that God is once more rescuing his people through judgement on their enemies.

Revelation 12 gives us a behind the scenes glimpse of the Christmas story as the dragon (Satan) attempts to get rid of the woman and her child.  Revelation 13 uses the imagery of the beasts to show how the dragon is at work in the world. The beasts draw on imagery from Daniel 7 to remind us that the rise and fall of empires goes on.  The beasts represent political and religious power distorted to oppress and control people – the religious may speak the right language, but can still be following the beast.. Revelation 14 reminds us that those who belong to the Lamb are secure – and are called to faithful, persistent obedience in the face of the rule of beastly empires.

Revelation 17-18 talks about Rome as Babylon – although the language applies not simply to the Roman Empire of John’s day, but to every human system of government and economics that operates without submission to God.   One day every human system that has exalted itself above and beyond God will be brought low. Revelation 19 reminds us of the joy that will come at the wedding feast of the Lamb, as the final judgement on all evil is celebrated by God’s people (see Isaiah 24).

Revelation 19-20 then describe the final destruction of evil, the last ‘battle’.  We think of it as a battle, but if we read Revelation 19 it becomes clear that there is no actual fighting involved.  Jesus simply destroys the evil armies by a word (the double edged sword coming out of his mouth must surely be the word of God).  The beast and the false prophet are captured and thrown into the lake of sulphur. The much argued over term ‘millennium’ appears – where the devil is bound, before being released again and then finally destroyed.  

Then at the end of Revelation we see the final judgment scene.  The judgement at the end of chapter 20 prepares the way for the renewal of all things in chapter 21 and 22. In our world where the ultimate good is often seen to be ‘inclusion’ it comes as something of a shock to read of the ultimate ‘exclusion’.

But God is utterly good and utterly holy. There is no shadow of turning in him. He cannot tolerate evil, and so only those whose robes have been ‘washed in the blood of the lamb’ (to use Revelation language) can stand in his presence. Throughout the Bible we have seen God’s utter commitment to getting rid of all that ruins and spoils his creation, and of all who oppress and hurt his people.

It is God’s loving, passionate commitment to creation and to people that means he must judge sin – and must judge sinners. As we look honestly at ourselves that means we all stand in danger. It is only by the cross, where the Lamb of God was slain for the world, that we can stand before this God – and it is by the cross that we stand forgiven, and where we will one stand as people made new in a renewed world. It’s best to listen to John’s vision at this point:

“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.”

(Revelation 21:1–6 TNIV)

Then there is a description of the city of God, a bride dressed for her husband – note the clashing of images – a city dressed as a bride, and follow the images back through the Bible to see how God has longed for this day for so many years.

There is no temple in the city – the Lord God Almighty (Yahweh of hosts) and the Lamb are its temple. There is no sun or moon – because the God who is light gives light to this new world. Remarkably though, this does not mean that human achievement and diversity is all wiped out. No, into the city is brought all the best things of this world:

“I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”

(Revelation 21:22–27 TNIV)

The glory and honour of the nations will be in the new creation. We will hear music we know and love. We will see artworks, resplendent in heavenly glory. We will see the fruit of the labours of those who sought the good and the beautiful and the true. But greater even than these things it the ultimate reality:

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.”

(Revelation 22:1–5 TNIV)

The water of life. The tree of life. The tree we are barred from in this life East of Eden will be there. We will be able to eat of that tree. Healing will come from that tree. There will be no more curse. The lion will lie down with the lamb. Isaiah’s beautiful visions of harmony will be fulfilled. No more sin. No more sickness. No injustice. No more death.

But that is not all. The throne of God, and of the Lamb will be in the city, and we will serve him forever. In a perfect world. Where we belong. And yet that is not all either. They will see his face. We will see his face. The face that Moses longed to see, but could not see. The face of God himself. We will know him as we are known.

And that is not all either – because there is no night to bring an end to that perfect day. God himself will be the light that never ends. The term will be over, and the holidays will have begun. The shadowlands give way to the brightness of the noonday sun. This is the reality that John points us to.

I can’t really ever think about the reality of the new creation without a quote or two from CS Lewis’ Last Battle – and here are the closing words:

“And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

The Last Battle – CS Lewis

Resources:

There are lots of really helpful books on Revelation to read which will help navigate through the book. The internet is a wonderful thing, and there are some good resources out there, but do read them with one or more of these books to help you get a good grip on the book.

Here are my suggestions for good guides:

Bible Speaks Today – Michael Wilcox – This is a really clear and helpful introduction to Revelation – well worth reading

Reversed Thunder – Eugene Peterson – excellent to help you get an idea of the book as a whole, and especially of the way John uses words and images

The Theology of Revelation – Richard Bauckham – an excellent overview at a (slightly) more academic type level

The Throne, The Lamb and the Dragon – Paul Spilsbury – excellent introduction to the book

Discipleship on the Edge – Darrell Johnson – collection of sermons on Revelation

Not quite Revelation, but based on one of the Isaiah passage John has in mind in Revelation 21, is ‘When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem’ by Richard Mouw as a great starting point for what it means for heaven to include the glories of earth.

Jude: Kept – keeping on

Jude is another short letter. We know very little about Jude – other than the fact that we could equally call the letter “Judas”, as that is his Greek name. Jude was the brother of James – so presumably also a brother of Jesus – but, like James he doesn’t refer to himself in this way:

“Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James,
To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ:
May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.”

(Jude 1:1–2 ESV)

Jude begins his letter with a key statement about his readers identity in the world. Here called, beloved and kept all fit together into one complex description of what it means to be a Christian. Christians are those who are called, who are loved in (or by) the Father and who are kept for (or by or in) Jesus Christ.

Pause on those words for a minute.

Called – we are wanted and we are known by name.

Beloved. We are loved by the Father.

Kept. In Jesus, because we are called and loved by the Father we are kept safe and secure.

It sounds from the next verses that Jude would have loved to focus on those words a bit more – but instead he changes tack at this point, and explains why:

“Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that the Lord has once for all entrusted to us, his people.”

(Jude 1:3 TNIV)

Jude wanted to say more about their salvation, but he needs instead to urge them to contend for the faith entrusted to all God’s people. Notice how we are all responsible for truth – we can’t leave our thinking to someone else. God has entrusted all of us with the faith.

And sometimes that means contending – taking a stand. When we realise something is being taught that is not right, or being done that is wrong we need to be courageous enough to lovingly point out the error. In Jude’s case it was people who changed the grace of God into a license for sin.

God’s grace and mercy are never to be used to excuse or justify sin. Whether that is to say that it is OK to sin because God will forgive, or to say that God is so gracious he doesn’t even call a particular behaviour sin.

Jude is clear that such thinking is wrong, and spends the next chunk of his letter calling out such attitudes, based on various OT examples. God loves us so much that he tells us about the best way to live, and gives us boundaries that we should not cross. Jude condemns those who deny this reality and then tells us what our attitude should be:

“But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold. They said to you, “In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.” These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit.
But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.
Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.”

(Jude 1:17–23 TNIV)

We are to be realistic. We are to expect scoffers to come who do not appreciate what God has done. We are not to be swayed by them but instead we are to build ourselves up in the faith and pray in (or by) the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to pray, and prayer is absolutely vital for all of us who seek to grow in our faith and stand firm on the truth. We don’t grow, we don’t stand firm and we don’t keep ourselves by our own efforts. It is by the Holy Spirit and therefore prayer is critical.

As God keeps us in Christ Jesus, so we are to keep ourselves in God’s love as we wait for his mercy to bring us to eternal life. We are kept by God, safe in him – yet we also keep ourselves – because if we are passive we will drift away. Because we are aware of that danger to drift in ourselves we are to be merciful to those who doubt. We are to save some by snatching them out of the fire – and to others we are to show mercy, all the while being fearful of falling into the same traps.

Finally Jude praises God in words that have immense power to encourage us. I love these last words of Jude:

“To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.”

(Jude 1:24–25 NIV)

It is a prayer of blessing addressed to God, yet telling us what God does for us. As we seek to keep ourselves in God’s love, we falter and we fail. Time after time we do not do what we should. But He is able to keep us from finally falling. He will keep us to present us before his glorious presence. When he does that we will be without fault, and we will have great joy.

Our assurance is found in coming back to this God, to his mercy and his love. Our assurance is founding in looking forward to the day we will stand before his presence.

One of the great joys I’ve had over the years is that of leading services. I particularly appreciate the ability to choose words and prayers to lead people into an appreciation of God’s presence, and in anticipation of or response to God’s Word. When I lead services I love to finish on these words of Jude, because I think they contain such power to penetrate deep into our hearts and assure us of the reality that God is for us, and that one day we will be found before him, without fault and with great joy.

When I was at Regent, one of the years the person responsible for the music in chapel had put these words to music, and I loved finishing chapel on a Tuesday lunchtime with these words ringing in my ears:

3 John: The Joy of walking in the truth

Ever wondered what such a short, and at first sight non-remarkable letter as 3 John is doing in the Bible. It doesn’t contain any new doctrinal insight.  It is written to one individual about whom we know nothing else. It is therefore easy to miss.

But if we stop and read it then I think it gives us a mirror to our own hearts, and to the hearts of our church communities.  It will help us to be healthy. It will help us to discern well when impressive individuals gain prominence in our communities, so that we know when their influence is good, and when their influence needs to be checked.

3 John is a short letter and unusual in that it is written to a named individual, rather than a church community.  The reason for this becomes clear in the body of the letter – the main church community has rejected John’s leadership because it has come under the sway of a man called Diotrephes, while Gaius continues to be faithful to the apostolic message.

Sometimes we have a rather ‘rose tinted’ view of life for the first Christian believers, as if there was some kind of golden age of the church.  Letters like 3 John show us that such a time never existed in that way. Here we see a church going astray, under the sway of a man with a strong character who casts doubt on other true believers.  

John begins with encouragement for Gaius:

1 The elder,

To my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth.

2 Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well. 3 It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth, telling how you continue to walk in it. 4 I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

1-4

Notice that John is praying not only for ‘spiritual’ things but practical matters like health and daily life – we can bring all of life to God in prayer.  John is delighted to hear how Gaius is getting on spiritually – he is faithful to the truth, and walks in the truth. For John there is no greater joy than knowing those he has brought to Christ are walking in the truth.  Notice not only that John feels this way, but that he tells Gaius he feels this way. If we are praying for people, and if we are excited to hear good things of what they are doing, do we also tell them?

John’s encouragement continues:

5 Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers and sisters,[a] even though they are strangers to you. 6 They have told the church about your love. Please send them on their way in a manner that honors God. 7 It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. 8 We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth.

5-8

Gaius is faithful in helping his fellow Chrstians, showing hospitality to those who come to share Christ.  Supporting those who are working to spread the good news and discipling others is part of the way that we can share in their work.  We can support such people financially of course, but just as important is to support them with prayer and with friendship. How loved do you make your minister feel?  How cared for and prayed for are they? How loved and cared for are your churches mission partners – and how can you be a part of that?

9 I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. 10 So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

9-10

John has also written to the church, but there is a character called Diotrephes, who loves to be first and so will not welcome the apostles.  Notice here that there is no hint of anything directly related to teaching. Diotrephes may be a heretic, but John does not say that – it is equally possible Diotrephes is completely ‘sound’ in theology. Sadly experience tells us that it is quite possible to believe all the ‘right’ things, but still be someone who ‘loves to be first’.

By force of his personality Diotrephes has come to dominate the church – and he is even prepared to slander others in order to establish his position.  It is a complete contrast to the importance of love for others and obedience to God that John stresses. Diotrephes shows the opposite of love, and by deliberately slandering others also breaks God’s laws.

John therefore calls Gaius to avoid the pattern of Diotrephes and those like him:

11 Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God. 12 Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone—and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true.

13 I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. 14 I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.

Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name.

Like Jesus, John wants people to be judged by their fruit. If someone is influential in the church does this influence lead to good?  Does it lead to an increase of love? Are people more Christlike? Or is there somehow an atmosphere of backbiting, of gossip, of one-upmanship?  Is the desire to be first, or at least to be among those who are first creeping in?

John’s third letter encourages us to ask such questions.  We can use it as a mirror to see the health of our own lives, and of the congregations we are part of.  Will we be like Demetrius, and like Gaius, listening and submitting to God’s authority – or will we be like Diotrephes who loves to be first?

Look into the mirror that John holds up for us, and learn to show hospitality and honour to those who work hard in Jesus’ service.  Look into the mirror that John holds up for us and watch out for those who love to be first, and watch for that tendency growing in our own hearts too.

And go back to the start of the letter and re-find the joy of walking in the truth and hearing that those we love are continuing to walk in the truth:

3 It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth, telling how you continue to walk in it. 4 I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

2 John: Truth and Love

2 John and 3 John both begin ‘the elder’ – but the similarities with the 1 John suggest that the author is the same. In 2 John he writes to ‘the chosen lady’ and ‘her children’ – a reference to the church community. It is worth pausing on the first few verses:

“The elder,
To the lady chosen by God and to her children, whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth— because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever:
Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in truth and love.”

(2 John 1:1–3 TNIV)

Notice the key words for the letter here: truth and love. John loves this group of believers ‘in the truth’. Indeed all who know the truth love this group. They love because of the truth which lives in them, and is with us forever. Truth here is not an abstract concept. Truth is personal, indeed truth is a person. Jesus is the Truth who lives in us, and is with us forever.

It is in him that we know God’s grace – his undeserved love towards sinners. It is in Him that we know God’s mercy – as he looks on us with compassion in our brokenness. It is in Him that we know God’s peace, as he brings wholeness into that brokenness.

It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.

4-6

John is filled with joy to hear of Christians walking in the truth, and writes that they might love one another – and show that love for one another by obeying Jesus’ commands. As we saw in 1 John love, truth and obedience go together. Love for God, and love for truth requires that we have the humility to walk in obedience to his commands. Love is walking in obedience to his commands, and his commands are that we walk in love.

We must not break the circle. Love for God obeys God, love for others obeys God. Obedience to God is to love God and others. Loving someone else means we get to know them and find out what pleases them, and try to do that. It is no different with God. We seek to know him, and to do what pleases Him.

John continues with a warning:

I say this because 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 that you do not lose what we[a] have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. 11 Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.

7-11

John warns his readers against deceivers who denies that Jesus was a real human being. Their version of Christianity sounded ‘spiritual’, but meant that God had no real interest in the here and now. It gave Christians an excuse not to worry about practical love in action, because really following God was about ‘spiritual’ things. It denied that God really became a man. Such teaching, however ‘spiritual’ it may have sounded was false.

John does not want his readers to welcome them into their fellowship. If we know people are denying a fundamental aspect of truth we should not welcome them into our churches as teachers and leaders.

John isn’t saying that we avoid anyone who falls into error. John is talking about people being welcomed into a position of teaching others, of leadership in the church.

If we let people lead and teach in our churches who do not believe that Jesus was God himself making his home among us then we are asking for trouble – because such teaching give us a guide to enlighten us, or a philosopher to teach us rather than a rescuer to save us from our sins.

It is not loving to welcome such people into teaching ministries in our churches – indeed it is the opposite of love, because it will lead people away from Jesus. We must not become people who love theological fights, but we must also be ready to stand firm on truth about the Truth.

Love and truth belong together – and what God has joined together, people should not tear apart. We must be those who walk in truth and love – who do not run ahead, thinking we know best, but who humbly submit to what God has said, and to Truth revealed in the one who was and is the Truth.

John’s second letter then reminds us in particular of the need to hold firm to truth as we seek to love God and each other well – and it reminds us of the need to be alert to those who would distort the truth in such a way that we lose love for God and cease to obey his commands to love.

1 John: Light and Love

Two stories are told about the apostle John’s last days. One is that, old and stooping, needing to be carried to the meeting place, but determined to preach a final message, his final words to the church were ‘little children: love one another’. When questioned whether he was going to say more he said ‘this is enough’.

The other story is that he was at the public baths when a notorious heretic, famous for denying that Jesus had truly come in the flesh, entered the building – John apparently fled, unwilling to stay in the same place as such a teacher.

Preacher of love – or fierce defender of truth? I don’t know whether either of these stories is actually true, but reading John’s letters I can believe either and both. John’s letters are hard work for those of us accustomed to western linear logic. Commentators often describe John’s letters as structured like a spiral staircase. As we read on in the letters we cover the same ground, but from a subtly different perspective.

Part of this structure comes because John is so keen to hold together things that we tend to separate out. John is passionately concerned for truth – that the believers believe truth about God, and in particular truth about the person of Jesus. At the same time he is passionately concerned that the believers love each other, caring for each other and supporting each other. He is equally passionately concerned that believers obey God’s laws, that they live holy lives.

These three concerns: truth, love and obedience, come from the character of God himself. Here too John is concerned to hold together things we too often separate. Jesus is completely God – yet Jesus is also fully human. Most fundamentally: God is love, and God is light.

First of all John talks about God being perfect light:

“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 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.
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.
My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”

(1 John 1:5–2:2 TNIV)

This passage is burned on my brain to some extent, thanks to the order of service we used to use at family services in the church I grew up in. It is also a passage that needs to be burned into all of who I am. There is no darkness in God at all. Darkness here symbolises sin, and it symbolises hiding sin.

When we do things that are wrong, and when we try to cover up that sin we are walking in darkness. We need to come into the light. The question is how? If God is pure, unbreakable light, how do we as sinful people who so often walk in darkness come into the light?

John speaks clearly into this. The route to walking in light is to confess sin. To be open and honest about the reality that we have all sinned, and that we sin. In particular contexts that will mean not only confessing sin to God, but to one another also. To confess sin to those we have hurt is vital. We can, and often should, confess sin to trusted friends and pray for each other to know the reality of God’s forgiveness.

I still remember someone asking me a question. They asked me if they needed to confess private sin to other people as well as God. I said that they didn’t need to. About a week later I was strongly convicted of the need to actually confess my private sin to a trusted friend so that they could pray for me (I think I was trying to dodge this conviction when I answered the original question).

Sometime later I said to the person whose question I had answered that I would now answer differently. Sometimes we only need to confess to God – but sometimes it helps to confess to someone else and stand together praying for God’s forgiveness.

To walk in the light we come to God and confess to him. He is faithful and just to forgive us, and purify us from all unrighteousness. This is such a vital promise to get hold of. Whatever we have done, however far we have wandered. However far into darkness we may feel we are. Forgiveness is available. The God who is light has provided a way for us to be forgiven.

He does that through Jesus. He does that through Jesus death on the cross. Jesus is the way to forgiveness. He is the atoning sacrifice – the propitiation – the means by which God’s anger against sin is turned away. And just in case you have a brain that is like mine and capable of saying ‘true for someone else and not for me’ John throws in the important line – and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

In other words if we ask the question: “Is there anyone whose sin Jesus has not died for?” the answer is a resounding “no!” Of course some will reject Jesus’ offer of life, but for all who confess their sin there is life, and there is peace. For all who turn back to the light, confess their sin and trust in Jesus he has paid it all. We can walk in the light.

For John walking in the light is critical. It becomes how his readers know that they have eternal life. It is how they test who the false teachers are. False teachers are those who deny that Jesus is God, and who walk in darkness. True believers are those who turn away from the darkness, and come into the light.

John writes about that in stark terms. In chapter 3 he speaks with words that have caused much concern for many of us at different points of how true Christians do not commit sin. The words he uses are challenging and deliberately arresting. We know that Christians do in fact sin – John would not have need to write chapter 1 if they didn’t – so what does John mean by this?

The best answer I have for that right now is that he is pointing out that sin in a Christian is utterly out of place. It simply does not go together. A short illustration might help (if it doesn’t please skip on!).

I was once part of a youth group that did all sorts of slightly (very) crazy things. It had something of a reputation for being a little (a lot) mad – especially on camps and residential activities.

But one thing that never happened on our camps and residential activities was throwing food in food fights. A number of leaders objected very strongly to the waste involved in such antics in a world where so many are dying of hunger. If someone did throw food at a meal time they would be told off – and they would likely be told “We don’t do that here – you cannot throw food at meal times”.

Now, they could have responded “But I just did, we can do that here” but that would have been to miss the point. The point was that being part of the group and being someone who threw food around just did not go together – to throw food was utterly outside of what meant to be part of the group. So with being a Christian and continuing in sin. We can sin. But we should not – and sinning is not part of what it means to be a Christian.

When we do sin, as we all do, because the old patterns are so ingrained, John has already assured us that we can be forgiven. We come into the light, confess our sin and seek more and more to show God’s love in our lives. As someone has put it: “The Christian will never be sinless this side of eternity, but we should all sin less”.

As we live this life of continual confession and continual seeking to show God’s love we will become more and more confident of God’s love. We can grow in that confidence because God, John assures us, is love.

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”

(1 John 4:7–12 TNIV)

Love comes from God, because God is love. It is striking here that both ‘God is light’ and ‘God is love’ are associated with Jesus being the atoning sacrifice (or propitiation) for our sins. God’s holiness and God’s love are both supremely seen in his act of coming in Jesus and standing in our place, as our substitute.

So never let anyone tell you that believing that Jesus died in our place taking the penalty for our sins somehow denies God’s love. On the contrary the cross is the supreme place where we see what it is for God to show his love.

Here at the cross God the Father willingly gives his Son to be the means by which our sins can be forgiven. Here, at the cross, God the Son willingly chooses to take on himself the punishment I deserved. Here, at the cross, God the Spirit opens my eyes to see the love on display as Father and Son together achieve the salvation of sinners like me.

That love God has for us sends us out to show love to others. Somehow in that showing love to others we make the invisible God visible to a watching world.

This is John’s letter. Written so that his readers may know they have eternal life. Not because eternal life is a possession, but because is eternal life is a relationship with Jesus that starts now, and goes on forever. A relationship with Jesus means acknowledging that he is the Truth by which we judge all claims to truth and all claims to rightness.

A relationship with Jesus means acknowledging that God is light. God is holy. God is the one who decides what is right and wrong. And as those who claim to know Jesus we must walk in this light. Not pretending, but being real about our sin and confessing it to God, so that we may know his faithfulness and righteousness which cleanse us from every sin because of Jesus’ death.

A relationship with Jesus means knowing that God is love, and that as those who follow a God who is love we must love others too. In those lives of love the invisible God is made visible to a watching world.

At its root a relationship with Jesus has this as its fundamental hope:

Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

1 John 3:2-3

We shall be like him. For we will see him as he is. I can’t help but have the song “There is a day” in my head: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dPJQ8Jve1E

Right now I am not like him – or not like him anywhere near as much as I should be. But one day we will see him fully. And that sight will transform us. That begins now. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians that as we contemplate Jesus more and more now we become more and more like him. The more we see Jesus now, the more we will be like him. The more we love others now and show them Jesus, the more they will be like him.

John’s letter reminds us that to know how to love, and to know what Jesus is really like we need the light of God’s truth. We need the God who is light to show us how to live. We get to see by that light as we open up the Word that is a lamp to our feet, and a light showing our path. We don’t yet get the light of the full day – but we get the light to show the way for our feet in this moment – and we sense that the dawn is coming when the sun will rise and we will see him as he is.

So read John’s letter and meditate on it. Let it seep inside your soul and hunger for the reality of God’s light, of God’s truth and God’s love to be yours each day.

Resources:

Bible Speaks Today – David Jackman – clear and warm exposition of John’s letters.

Tyndale IVP – John Stott

If you like to listen this sermon series from St Helen’s Bishopsgate was one I found really helpful a few years back (you might spot I’ve stolen one of the speakers ideas in this blog post) https://www.st-helens.org.uk/resources/series/1283/