1 John Fridays-When you need him most…

I hit 1 John 2:1-2 briefly in my last 1 John Friday post.  The “if” clause there continues as a fitting conclusion to the 5 “if”s carried over from chapter 1.  But it also opens a few things that are worth exploring on their own.

1) One of the titles Jesus gives to the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John is “the comforter.”  In fact, that forms a major part of his concluding words to his disciples on the night before he was betrayed, letting them know that His return to the Father was better for them, because the “Comforter” would come.  We may remember that the Holy Spirit is referred to as “another comforter”, in essence implying that the disciples currently had a comforter with them already. Here, John lets us know that Jesus is still our comforter, or advocate.  Here, specifically, Jesus comes alongside us in the times of our sin.  This is Jesus, the word of Life, from the Father.  We would expect him to be as far away from our sin as possible, but he is not.  “If someone sins, we have an advocate with the Father.” And John reminds us of the condescension involved, it is “Jesus Christ the righteous one” who is our advocate in our lowest moments. (In chapter 1, John also describes God the Father as the “righteous”…again in the area of forgiving and cleansing our sins.)

2) “Not for our sins only, but also the sins of the whole world.” I think John is doing a couple things here by adding this:

-First, he is highlighting the magnitude of Jesus’ propitiation.  It is more than enough.  Lest we think our sin abounds too great for us to confess, too great for even the faithful and just God who promises forgiveness to follow through on, John reminds us His grace is more than enough because Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf was more than enough.

-He is also reminding the huddle of its external obligations.  John will later emphasize acts of love.  He also will warn against the dangers of loving the “world” (same word for world here). But remember this is a church that has experience abandonment from their so-called brothers and sisters following the false teachers. Their tendency will be to huddle up, to go into their shells for self-protection.  And John, while giving them a great amount of encouragement, gently reminds them that there is more at stake than just their group.  There is a world outside that Christ also died for that they should keep in mind. (and yes, this verse would make the stricter, unqualified forms of “limited atonement” Biblically untenable).


1 John Fridays- Ifs, ands, and buts…

This week, I want to take a brief look at 1:5-2:2.

There are noticeably 6 big “if” statements in this section:

v. 6- “If we say we have fellowship with him but walk in darkness…”

v. 7- “If we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light…”

v. 8- “If we say we do not have sin…”

v. 9- “If we say that we haven’t sinned…”

v. 10- “If we say that we have not sinned…”

2:1- “If anyone sins…”

What can we see from comparing these? Well, a few things:

1) Talk is cheap.

Notice that all 3 conditions that John ends up critiquing involve our “saying” something. (v. 6, 9, 10) The danger John sees is not in underestimating our spiritual reality, but in saying more than is actually true of ourselves.  Talking big about a non-existent relationship with the Father, talking up our current sinlessness, or denying our past sins.  John does not believe in some weird kind of “spoken” spiritual magic.  What we choose to say about ourselves does not actually create spiritual reality (sorry, televangelists of today).  Heretics that John will deal with later in the letter apparently are known by how much talking they do.

2) “Walking in the light” is not sinlessness, but “needy authenticity.”

This one requires a little logic, but notice how the only spiritual perfection here is found in the misguided statements that John condemns.  Which means that what John must mean by “walking in the light” can’t simply be “not sinning.”  The three “positive” conditions together are “walk in the light”, “confess our sin” and even “sinning” itself.  John wants us to make sure to see that true spirituality, walking in relationship with the Father, is not characterized by our greatness but by our neediness.  Walking in the light means our sin is followed by confession; walking in darkness is hiding our sin.  John is by no means declaring that the more we sin the more spiritual we are.  But he is saying that more we confess our sin, the closer our walk with the Father in the light really is.

3) There are beautiful rewards for needy authenticity.

-fellowship with one another. -every sin cleansed from us by the blood of Jesus his Son. -we experience the faithfulness and righteousness of God. -sins forgiven, cleansed from all unrighteousness. -We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one. -we have propitiation for our sins.

4) Inauthentic, proud spirituality is condemned in the strongest of terms.

-we are lying. -we are not practicing the truth. -we deceive ourselves. -the truth is not in us. -we make God a liar. -God’s Word is not in us.

John is encouraging these faithful Christians by reminding them that the neediness they feel after being deserted by the false teachers and the others who left their fellowship is not a bad thing, but is actually what is required for true spirituality, a relationship with God the Father. What is not good is the proud talk of those who have claimed sudden spiritual superstardom.

1 John Fridays- No Green Lantern Here

Begin 1 John and your mind should jump to other Biblical passages, namely John 1 and Genesis 1.  “That which was from the beginning…” mirrors the opening phrases of Genesis “In the beginning, God created…” and of John’s Gospel “In the beginning was the Word.”  In Genesis the focus is on the God who speaks, calling out creation each day and exercising creative kingship over the universe.  In John’s Gospel, the focus is not on the God who speaks as much as the God who IS speech, the Word (logos) who was before God and who is God.  Now in this first letter of John, the focus is not on the Word’s Speaker or the Word Spoken directly, but on the the Word experienced by John and the apostles.  The Word is not impersonal or merely some kind of cosmic energy or the good side of the Force…but rather is heard, has been seen by “our eyes” (not the eyes of the mind, mind you, or the great “eye of faith”, but real round human eyes), was touched by their hands as they walked the shores of Galilee and through the crowded streets of pilgrim-populated Jerusalem.  Here (as opposed to the Gospel where John takes 14 verses to bring the Word out of eternal glory into a real tabernacle of human flesh) John orients us to the reality of the Word.  Yes, the Word is life, but this is not to be thought of as a kind of impersonal spiritual power that can be tapped into (perhaps with secret “knowledge”?) as we pursue our own spiritual perfections.  The Word isn’t a sacred Green Lantern for a quick spiritual recharge to escape and fight this evil material world on our way to demigod status.

No, the Word is Jesus.  One touched by hands, seen by eyes, heard, witnessed.

And the reason John reminds us of all this not to brag about his great experiences or remind us that we can no longer see Jesus like he could.  Because this Jesus was real, their proclamation to us now, those once removed (or 2000 years removed) gives us fellowship.  The connection between John and these readers is that they have shared in experiencing Jesus, the Word of Life.  One experienced directly, but now we share in it as we accept the apostolic proclamation of the Word of life to us.  And this fellowship goes deeper than readers-apostle, no, “our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” We may not touch Jesus as John did, but as we receive his word about the Word, we share fellowship with this manifested Life as well.

And by writing to remind us of such, our joy indeed should be filled.

Shooting the wounded- 1 John Fridays

It’s Friday, so time to jump into 1 John.  Some of these posts will be more textual, others more like riffs or tangents from my studies in this letter. Today is a little introduction, so I don’t know which category that fits in.

Last week I teased you with my concerns about the pastoral handling of a Biblical text like 1 John.  After all, most of us have been taught in pastoral or counseling training to love nuance and treat situations uniquely.  Then we run into some texts in Scripture that apparently have no use for nuance.  Everything is black/white, good/evil, love/hate.  The Johannine literature (1 John is no exception) is full of this, as well as are many Psalms (the Psalmist prays rescuing judgment for the good guys and punitive judgment for the wicked), many of Jesus’ parables (Wise man and the fool), and wisdom literature like Proverbs or James.  Ok, so maybe these types of polarized statements aren’t so strange to students of Scripture.

But, where we run into trouble in 1 John, is that many of the polarities are placed as test cases.  If X, then Y, not X, then not Y.  “If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.” or “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness.” Well, what about when I got mad at my spouse the other day (hypothetical of course) or what about someone who was abused by a family member and is struggling with strong feelings that aren’t warm and fuzzy love in reaction to that?  See, nuance would be nice, we think. At least it would make us feel better in most of these test questions.  After all, it would be easy to read through the polarities of 1 John and see ourselves on the negative side of most of those.  And of course it is easy for us to preach or teach this letter in such a way that our feelings of failure as followers of Jesus are shared by those within earshot.  Misery loves company.

But that doesn’t seem to be John’s goal in writing this letter (or transcribed sermon).  In fact, the love and attention he shows towards the audience (terms of affection and familiarity like “little children” are easy to find) makes us think he does not want them to come out of this hearing with the weight of failed Christianity hanging over them.  We don’t know much about the situation, but apparently a significant group had recently deserted this Christian community (2:19), were teaching false doctrine (2:26, the doctrinal tests of chapters 4-5), and apparently were causing these believers who stayed behind to have some doubts (1 John 5:13 assumes a congregation in need of re-assurance of their faith.)  There are a lot of polarized statements, but these are aimed at those who left, perhaps who are still seeing the faithful Christians at the marketplace or homes and are pressuring them to leave as well.  John’s readers may have been wondering, “Were those who left really wrong, or were we wrong to stay? Does the fact so many left undermine all we have now believed?  How can we even tell who the true followers of Jesus are when we have been taught 1 thing by John but a pretty convincing teacher has managed to persuade our friends, people we called “brother’ and “sister”?”

1 John is meant to be an answer of comfort and assurance to these questions. His tests are designed to assure those who stayed that this is the real deal, they are truly “Christian”, assured by one who saw and spoke with and touched the incarnate “Word of life”.  They can see these tests not as measures of their perfection, but as signposts of the change the Spirit of God is working in their lives.

So we should preach and teach 1 John accordingly.  It is not a text for raising more doubt for our people or scaring them out of what we might perceive as complacent Christianity (there are such texts…Hebrews or Mark’s Gospel, for example).  Rather it is a text to build up, to strengthen faith and provide assurance.  We should not hold John’s tests over their heads as pass/fail exams, but as hopeful signposts that change has happened.  Even in the hard cases mentioned above, perhaps hate has given way to thoughtful wrestling over the implications and applications of forgiveness and justice.

1 John is meant to be an infirmary for Christians wounded in the battles of faith, perhaps by what looked like friendly fire even. Don’t use it as boot camp for whipping your church into shape or as a place to shoot the wounded.

1 John Fridays…

Well, to get myself back into this writing stuff,  I will be starting a weekly series of posts on 1 John (and 2nd and 3rd), which I studied some last year. (This year I’m going through Luke’s Gospel. I felt a lot better about my Greek when I was in 1 John, I will admit!)

So next week, look forward to an introductory discussion on how the message of 1 John can be abused.  After all, this letter is filled with polarities between good/evil, light/dark, love/hate.  John rarely has a phrase that “dies the death of 10,000 qualifications.” That makes it difficult for us, especially as pastors, to apply its message to the deeply nuanced situations of our own hearts and people. And of course, the irony there is that John (I’m using the traditional author’s name for shorthand) has a Pastor’s heart, clearly loves his people, and in fact seeks to encourage and strengthen their faith in this writing.  So how do we reconcile his absolutism with his intended pastoral concerns?  (And by extension, how can we appropriate it as well?)

Not done yet…2 Kings 25

I just finished reading through the history of Israel from creation to exile in the year-long Bible reading plan I’m doing.  My heart warms every time I read the last few sentences of this massive historical train of books that begins in Genesis and ends in 2 Kings. OT Scholars have often called this the “Deuteronomic history” of Israel, precisely for the way in which the latter books especially view the actions and events in Israel’s history in light of the covenant blessings and curses promised by Moses back in Deuteronomy.  A king is faithful to the Law; God blesses the nation.  The kings and people are unfaithful; covenant curses come upon them.  Of course, the bad kings, it seems, always outnumbered the good, the high places and idol worship remained more than they were removed, and the ultimate covenant curse of the Exile was brought first in devastating fashion to the 10 Northern tribes of Israel by Assyria and then later to the kingdom of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.

2 Kings 25 is a terrible chapter.  The author recounts how the army of Judah is defeated, the walls are broken down, the kings’ palace and Solomon’s temple are burned, all the wonderful objects of worship (some going back to Israel’s glory days under Solomon) are melted down and/or carried off to Babylon like plastic rings from a Chuck E. Cheese evening. All is lost.  Israel failed the covenant.  The curses have come.

But it doesn’t end there.

27 In the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the year Evil-Merodach became king of Babylon, he released Jehoiachin from prison on the twenty-seventh day of the twelfth month. 28 He spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat of honor higher than those of the other kings who were with him in Babylon. 29 So Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes and for the rest of his life ate regularly at the king’s table. 30 Day by day the king gave Jehoiachin a regular allowance as long as he lived.

The glimmer of hope.  This is that scene after the credits of the movie where it’s alluded to that the main character hasn’t really died, that hope remains still in the darkest hour, and that good is not finished.  Of course, the main character isn’t Jehoiachin.  It’s God.  And he’s still working.  He’s not done yet.  The pattern of Genesis where God’s chosen people (Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, the Israelites at the Exodus) stumble and trip over themselves into what appears to be accidental blessing is resumed here in these few verses.  The failed king is pulled out of prison and banquets at the table of a Gentile king.  The candle that was snuffed out by Assyria and Babylon and wicked kings re-ignites just before the curtain closes.  Israel may have failed YHWH’s covenant, but YHWH hasn’t failed Israel.  He’s not done yet.

“I only read the Bible by myself.”

Recently, in one of our Wednesday night Bible studies at church, one of our regularly attending high schoolers made a comment that I think illustrates something wrong with the way we do church/spirituality as American Christians.  We were studying a passage of Scripture, and I always encourage the students to have a copy of the Bible (we have extras provided for guests and the forgetful) to help them follow along and to check if I’m making stuff up or not.  Well, apparently this student had decided that they were done engaging with the group and had shut their Bible before proceeding to do their darnedest to disengage the people sitting next to them as well.  One of our adult leaders asked this person to stop talking and encouraged them to pay attention to what the rest of the group was discussing, and the leader insinuated that it might be helpful for them to open their Bible back up since that was the focus of our discussion. Which leads to the quote that spawned this blog and its title:

“I only read the Bible by myself,” the student replied in a matter-of-fact tone. The student may have said “I only like to read the Bible by myself,” but Snopes.com has yet to inquire as to which was the original source of this quote. Either way, I think the same underlying problem comes screaming out.

We have individualized the Christian life to a soul-destroying level.

Ok, so that’s not exactly a shocker for those who read my blog.  I doubt there’s many people who would outright disagree completely with that.  There might be some caveats and clarifications, but I don’t think there’s a lot of pastors, teachers, authors, etc. out there blatantly saying, “All that matters is your personal walk with Jesus, you don’t need to be a part of other people’s lives or care about them or help/be helped by them, etc.”   Especially not since those all important categories of giving and volunteering stem heavily from appeals for the betterment of people around us.

But it doesn’t take intentional sabotaging of the corporate dimensions of the Christian life to produce the narcissistic Christian culture we find in the West.  Mere neglect will perform adequately in sabotage’s stead.  For the sake of focus and brevity, let’s stick with this issue of Bible reading.

The student says, “I only read the Bible by myself” as an acceptable Christian attitude to Scripture.  There’s a couple reasons one might say this: first, if you only read the Bible alone, then no one knows if you’re actually reading the Bible.  So it’s a pretty much non-falsifiable statement that tries to give one positive spiritual reputation.  But dealing with a hypocritical slant on this is beyond my goal in writing this.

The second reason, however, is more at the heart of our problem of individualistic thinking.  “I only (like to) read the Bible by myself” attitude didn’t appear out of nowhere.  The thinking behind this probably follows from year and year of being drilled the importance of “personal” Bible reading.  Evangelicals love “personal” (by that we mean, “individual”) anything.   “Personal quiet time”, “personal prayer life”, “personal identity”, “personal holiness”, and of course, the big kahuna of the “personal” phrases, a “personal relationship with Jesus.”  Now, none of these things are necessarily wrong.  We would be wrong to discount “personal” implications of the teaching of Jesus, the guy who challenged people to “hate” their families and pursue Him above all.  You can’t simply follow Jesus in a “corporate” sense only.  The problem isn’t that the “personal”/individual dimensions of the Christian life are fasle; the problem is that the personal is all that many pastors and teachers ever get to.

By neglecting the role of corporate dimensions of our life in Christ, all those “us” and “we” and “our” passages, or the plethora of “one another” commands, we’ve individualized the Christian life in a way that Jesus never meant for his followers to.  Our individual Bible reading is preferred over corporate interaction with Scripture.  Note how most evangelical churches have resigned Paul’s instructions of “give attention to public reading, exhortation, and teaching” to merely the Pastor’s reading of that days’ particular sermon text at some point.  (I think we could learn something from the older liturgical traditions here who emphasize the public reading of several sections of Scripture together.)  Paul says “public reading.”  He doesn’t tell Timothy to have a really good quiet time, or even to tell the church to do so. (Granted, the lack of individual Bible ownership made public reading of Scripture even more vital.)

Emphasizing our individual reading of Scripture to our corporate experience of God’s Word reeks of pride.  My “personal” reading is more beneficial to me.  Why?  Perhaps because I am better at picking texts to read than my church is, or I am better at reading the Word and figuring out its meanings without other people’s ideas and objections slowing me down.  I’m not going to go full postmodern and say we need each other because everyone’s opinions about a particular interpretation of the text provide a valid perspective (teach 8-9 grade Sunday School sometime if you’ve bought into that; some ideas are clearly wrong, misinformed, and very unhelpful!), but we need each other precisely because all of our own opinions aren’t correct.  As CS Lewis wrote arguing for the importance of reading old books, we all go wrong at some point, but in a group, we’re all unlikely to error in the same place.  It provides a helpful humility for us as we read Scripture to do so corporately and provoke each other to love and good deeds, often ourselves being the ones in need of correction. That’s something you won’t get just having your “personal” Bible reading.

Even if you’re only reading the Bible for yourself, there is much of Scripture that emphasizes the corporate dimensions.  Which means that if you continue your whole life reading the Bible only by yourself, you’re not reading it very well.