The Christian landscape is very confusing, isn't it?
For example, down at Haymarket Metro are the Jehovah's Witnesses, hoping to talk to you. And their website says: 'We want to honour Jehovah, the God of the Bible and the Creator of all things. We do our best to imitate Jesus Christ and are proud to be called Christians.' And yet ask them, 'Do you believe Jesus is the Son of God who's always existed with his Father?', and they'll say, 'No.' Or ask them, 'Do you believe Jesus' death on the cross can forgive you everything and put you right with God?', and they'll also say, 'No.' In other words, they deny essential Christian beliefs – but are still (quote) 'proud to be called Christians'. Confusing.
Talking of proud, go down to the Cathedral later this summer and you'll find them flying the rainbow flag again, in support of LGBT Pride. And one LGBT journalist wrote that Pride is a chance (quote), 'to head down town to celebrate gay rights and gay sex.' Which means the Cathedral – in other words, the bishop – is saying gay sex is good sex. Whereas the Bible says the only good sex is loving sex within heterosexual marriage.
So it's a confusing Christian landscape, because people are calling themselves Christians and yet denying essential Christian beliefs and behaviour. Which can leave you wondering, 'Who is really right and really a Christian; and am I one – or I have got it wrong?' (which is certainly what the Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons would tell you).
Well, we're in a series on 1 John – which was originally a letter from the apostle John to Christians in an equally confused landscape. So would you open a Bible to 1 John chapter 2, verse 19, where John is talking about a group of people who've left the church, and are denying essential Christian beliefs and behaviour, but still say they're Christians. John says these people:
"… went out from us, but they were not of us [in other words, weren't really Christians]; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us."
Now skip to verse 22 – because the confusing Christian landscape left John's readers thinking, 'So who is telling the truth, and who isn't?' And John says, verse 22:
"Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father."
And these people were basically denying what the Jehovah's Witnesses deny today. And what 1 John does is to give us some ways to test who and what is really Christian.
So in chapter 1, John gave us the sin test (see 1.5-10). He said you can tell a real Christian by their attitude to sin. Because real Christians don't deny their sin or say it's OK. Instead, they confess it, ask forgiveness for it and try to turn from it – continuously.
Then, at the beginning of chapter 2, he gave us the obedience test. He said you can tell a real Christian by the way they want to obey Jesus as Lord and, albeit imperfectly, do. So turn back over to chapter 2, verse 3, to remind yourself of the obedience test:
"And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. [Which doesn't mean perfectly – remember 1.8, 10 – it means obedience is the direction we're aiming for.] Whoever says 'I know him' but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him [in other words, says he lives in relationship with Jesus] ought to walk in the same way in which he [Jesus] walked."
And what way was that? Well, read John's Gospel, and he says: Jesus walked in love – and loved us enough to walk all the way to death on the cross for us. And John could never remember that without remembering what Jesus said the night before he died. He said:
"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another." (1 John 13.34)
And that's what John had in mind in the verses we're doing tonight. So look on to verse 7:
"Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard."
And my first heading, for that verse, is:
1. Check what you're being told against the apostles' teaching (verse 7)
That's tonight's lesson number one in this confused Christian landscape – which you could call the apostolic test. Look at verse 7 again:
"Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning [in other words, from the time when you first heard the gospel from me and the other apostles]. The old commandment is the word that you have heard."
In other words, 'To deal with all this confusion, I'm not saying anything new. I'm just taking you back to what you heard from the very beginning – to the old, old apostolic gospel. Which for us is now the New Testament. So just turn over and look at chapter 2 and verse 24, where he says:
"Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you."
So that's saying explicitly: stick to the apostolic gospel. And now turn back to verse 7, which is saying the same thing implicitly. It's saying: stick to the apostolic gospel (which in a sense is 'old stuff'), and don't accept something new, or in addition to it, or that 're-interprets it in line with today's culture'. Why not? Because, with Jesus' first coming, God has now revealed all he needs to for us to come into relationship with him, and then live in relationship with him. Jesus, if you like, was God's last word to the world, before his second coming. So we shouldn't be surprised that, in that sense, Christianity is 'backwards-looking' – looking back to Jesus, God's final word to us, whom we find in the completed Bible. And we shouldn't be expecting anything new or in addition to that. And nor should we think it needs 're-interpreting in line with today's culture' – as though if Jesus were to come to earth again now, he'd say something different, something more 'culturally accommodated' on what we need to believe about him or the behaviour he wants from us. He wouldn't.
By contrast, listen to this quote about the Bible from Steve Chalke, who's a Baptist leader and author, and would call himself an evangelical Christian:
"[As I see it] the Bible is the account of an ancient conversation, initiated and inspired by God with and among humanity. It is a conversation where various, sometimes harmonious and sometimes discordant, human voices contribute to the gradually growing picture of the character of God, fully revealed only in Jesus.
But it is a conversation that, rather than ending with the finalisation of the canon [in other words, the completed Bible], continues beyond it, involving all of those who give themselves to Christ's ongoing redemptive movement."
(The Bible and homosexuality – Part (1), article for Premier Christianity, February 2013)
So he's saying that what the Bible calls us to believe about Jesus and what the Bible says about the behaviour Jesus wants from us is only provisional – it's only where this 'conversation' between God and humanity got to 2,000 years ago. And our knowledge today (for example of the possible causes of same sex attraction) means that we can improve on what the Bible says.
But that wasn't Jesus' view of the Bible. And so it wasn't what his apostles taught, as John was teaching here. They taught that the Bible is God's word through human authors, as opposed to just human thoughts about God – and that it's therefore all we need, and has authority for all time.
So that's lesson number one. Check what you're being told against the apostles' teaching. And don't just do that if you're talking to a Jehovah's Witness in Northumberland Street. Do it here, all the time. Don't believe anything or act on anything just because someone up here has said it, or because a CYFA leader has said it, or because you read it in a book from the Resources Area, or because you heard it at Word Alive or on the ClaytonTV website, or whatever. Check what you're being told against the apostles' teaching, and only believe and act on something if you're convinced it's a right understanding and application of the Bible.
And that's why we ask you to open the Bible Sunday by Sunday, and to do the hard work of following it and asking, 'Is this really getting the Bible right?' Because although we try to be trustworthy, we're as human and fallible as you. Which is why the trick in the Christian life is to find the most trustworthy Bible teachers you can – in person and online and on paper – and then not trust them.
So: check what you're being told against the apostles' teaching – in other words, against the New Testament; and in fact against the whole Bible which it completes. That's the apostolic test. Then lesson number two is:
2. Look for the evidence of God's Spirit making people love like Jesus (verse 8)
So remember: back in verse 6 John said:
"whoever says he abides in him [Jesus] ought to walk in the same way in which he [Jesus] walked."
And that way was love – which took him to the cross for us. And John could never remember that without remembering how Jesus said:
"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another." (John 13.34)
And in verse 7, John has just said: in one sense, that's not a new commandment. It's old stuff – as old as the gospel, which is now 2,000 years old. But look on to verse 8:
"At the same time [in another sense], it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining."
So one new thing about Jesus' new commandment was that a new standard of love was being set. So the classic Old Testament love command was:
"You shall love your neighbour as yourself." (Leviticus 19.18)
And there, the standard is the love I naturally show myself. And it's calling on me to extend the love I naturally show myself – shocking thought – to you, because in God's eyes – shocking thought – you're as important as I am.
But in John 13.34, the new standard of love is Jesus' selfless self-giving on the cross:
"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another." (John 13.34)
But verse 8 is saying there's an even bigger new thing here, thanks to Jesus. And it's that love like Jesus' love is actually being created in those who know him, in a way that the Old Testament law simply couldn't do. So look at verse 8 again:
"At the same time, it is a new that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining."
So look at this picture:
The crown stands for God. Underneath is the box of time and space, where we live. And reading left to right: first of all came creation. And the stickman there stands for the original man, made to love God and live under his rule.
But then came the 'fall', when human beings said to God, 'We don't want you ruling our lives, we'll run them our own way.' So now the stick people have little crowns on their own heads, and are living as if God wasn't there – which the Bible calls sin. And since then, by nature we love ourselves first instead of God, and so by nature we either love others for what we can get out of them, or we don't love them at all. And John calls that situation 'the darkness', because instead of living in the light of what God is like and what he made us to be, we're living in the darkness of our own ideas.
And into that darkness, God gave his Old Testament law – including Leviticus 19.18, which says:
"You shall love your neighbour as yourself."
But that could only challenge human sinfulness. It couldn't change it. Because telling people to be loving doesn't make them loving, does it? You know that in your own experience. God's law can tell you what you ought to be, but it can't make you what you ought to be.
So then next in my picture comes Jesus' death on the cross, where the new commandment's standard of love was (to quote verse 8) 'true in him' – in other words it was seen in him, perfectly.
But then to the right of Jesus' first coming, you get people like Edward and Nana and Sarah (who were baptised tonight). And they've heard the gospel – the heart of which is God's amazing, all-forgiving love at the cross. And God's Spirit has brought that love home to their hearts, and that's changed them into people who (albeit imperfectly) want to love Jesus in response, and to love others as he's loved them. Which is what John means in verse 8 when he says the new commandment is,
"true in him [Jesus] and in you"
He's saying: the new standard of love isn't just seen in Jesus at the cross – it's also seen in real believers who are in the process of being made like Jesus. So look down at verse 8 again:
"At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you… [in the sense that it's] true in him [in other words it was seen perfectly in Jesus] and in you [in other words: you're being made imperfectly like him], because [in your lives] the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.
So he's saying to believers, 'God is in the process of re-making you. Right now, you're just a work in progress, and will only be finished off in the new creation at the far end of the box. But you are being re-made.
So that's lesson number two in this confused Christian landscape: look for the evidence of God's Spirit making people love like Jesus. So we've had the sin test, the obedience test, the apostolic test, and now we have the love-like-Jesus test. And I've deliberately called it that, because if you just call it 'the love test', the problem is that 'love' can mean anything, can't it? So for example, many people get drawn into cults like the Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons by their apparent love – by the amazing level of attention and interest they show in you. But many a person leaving those cults has said that, in reality, the attention was controlling and manipulative and full of selfish motives. In other words, it wasn't love-like-Jesus. And liberal Christianity also presents a loving face, doesn't it? Liberal Christians who deny essential Christian beleifs and behaviour can be very nice. But again the test is: is it love-like-Jesus? And even if that's not clear, remember: John gives more than one test. So liberal bishops may seem very nice. But try the apostolic test on the beliefs and behaviour they teach, and it's a different story.
And John then unpacks the love-like-Jesus test a bit more, in lesson number three which is:
3. Look how people 'walk' – don't just listen to their talk (verses 9-11)
Look on to verse 9:
"Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.
So remember, back in chapter 1, John said, 'God is light.' So to say you're 'in the light' is to say you're in relationship with God and living in the light of what he's like. So now look at verse 9 again:
"Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother [in other words, fellow-Christian brother – or equally, fellow-Christian sister] is still in darkness."
And 'hates' is strong language, isn't it? So does John really think that someone who calls him or herself a Christian would actually hate a fellow-Christian? Well, the Lord Jesus once said,
"Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of [me]." (Luke 6.22)
And it may be that the people who'd left the church and were denying Jesus were treating the faithful Christians like that. So, for example, I was recently in a meeting with some people from more liberal churches. And I stuck up for a faithful Christian minister who was being attacked for his Biblical views about sex and marriage. And I got some pretty nasty letters afterwards. One said (quote): 'Opinions like this belong to the dark ages and should be kept quiet.' Another said he wouldn't want to be in a meeting with me again. And that may be the kind of thing John had in mind. And that may come our way, in which case, we are called to love back, not hit back.
But John typically used black and white language. So by 'hate' he may also have meant simply the opposite of love – a more general failure to love. So just turn over to chapter 3, verse 16, where John defines love. Chapter 3, verse 16:
"By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers [and sisters]. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother [or sister] in need, yet closes his heart against him [or her], how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth."
So loving you is when I lay down my life for you – like Jesus lay down his for us. In other words, it's when it really costs me – and probably more time and energy than part of me wants to give. So here's one test of whether our love is like that: When you ask someone you know at church, or in your small group, 'How are you?', what answer are you hoping for? Isn't the sin in us hoping for the superficial answer, 'Oh, fine, thanks'? Because then there are no needs for us to meet, no time and help being asked of us, no real involvement being called for. But that kind of arm's length 'fellowship' in inverted commas is miles from what John says our church family should be like.
Now I think these verses in chapter 3 scare us because they look like a recipe for burnout – after all, how can I lay down my life for all these people here tonight with all their needs? And the answer is you can't. I can't. But we can each start by doing this seriously for just one other person in our small group or circle of Christain friends. Or marrieds, we can start by opening our homes and families seriously to one student or one single person who really knows we're there for them and that they have a standing invitation. And so on.
I was talking to a Christian friend down south who's been dogged by deep depression. And he mentioned a Christian brother who's consistently texted, phoned, written to him and visited him despite living many hours' drive away. And my friend said, 'Second only to Jesus, that Christian brother has been my rock.' And back over to chapter 2, verse 10, that's what John is on about:
"Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling."
In other words, his walk shows that his 'talk' is real.
So those are John's three lessons tonight for navigating the confused Christian landscape. In addition to the sin test and the obedience test, he says:
- Check what you're being told against the apostles' teaching – that's the apostolic test.
- Look for the evidence of God's Spirit making people love like Jesus – that's the love-like-Jesus test. And to do that,
- Look how people 'walk' – don't just listen to their talk
And in the first place, John gave those tests to help his readers gauge who out there, in the confused landscape, was really Christian. But he would also want us to apply these tests to ourselves, to help us gauge how we are spiritually, and to check that, when we say we're Christians, we're not kidding ourselves.