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. (1 John 1:5–2:2 TNIV)
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.”
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:
2 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. 3 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.
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/