This evening, let me begin by asking a question. It is this: "why has John's first letter to Christians in the ancient Roman world (towards the end of the first century AD) something important to say to us, as Christians, in May 2019 in 21st century Britain?" One answer is this. The storm had broken out that Paul predicted would happen to church leaders in Ephesus (a town associated with John). For in Acts 20.29 Paul said this to these leaders:
"I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore, be alert."
John's letter was probably written after AD 70. That was when Jerusalem had been sacked by the Romans. The temple was no more. And the Christian Church was now the main vehicle through which the Holy Spirit could work in the world. But the main temptation for the Christians was not at this point coming from persecution. It seemed to be coming through false prophets (teachers of what is false from outside the Church) and false professors (those claiming to be orthodox from inside the Church but whose lives did not match up to their profession). And according to the conclusion of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount we heard in our Gospel reading, false prophets and false professors are likely to be a problem in any generation – hence this letter's relevance in 2019.
So without more ado perhaps we will look at 1 John 2.1-6, our verses for this evening.
And my headings are first, The Aim Of John; secondly, The Remedy For Sin; and thirdly, The Evidence Of Reality and finally some words in conclusion.
1. The Aim Of John
But first something about what John has already been teaching. John has already laid out his argument that Jesus Christ, our risen Lord, is really human and really divine at the same time. John actually saw him, heard him, touched him and lived with him – he was really a man. And also he was really the divine Son of God, the second person of the divine Trinity. For John had witnessed his empty tomb and met him after his Resurrection and saw with other witnesses that amazing event we know as the Ascension. And on Jesus' authority John is now teaching what he has learnt from him. And the first thing that at this stage he needed to teach these folks he is writing to, was this. Yes, God is love, but most importantly they needed to know that God is light (1.5).
He is a holy God and so hates sin. But some he was writing to, denied sin was a real problem. They denied that sinning breaks fellowship with God and is inbuilt from birth. So you don't have to teach a child to disobey its parents (it does it naturally). And some denied they had actually sinned. This was so wrong. But John teaches that all that can be forgiven, because, as we read in chapter 1 and in that wonderful and familiar verse 9:
"If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
So now in chapter 2 John wants to make things crystal clear in case some thought that because there is this forgiveness, how we live morally or immorally, doesn't really matter. And so chapter 2 opens with these words that express John's aim:
"My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin."
This is John's aim, and to use the theological word, "sanctification". He doesn't only want people to think they are in fellowship with God and "justified" (to use that other theological word). Yes, getting right with God is essential before you can start really living for Christ. You need to be a forgiven sinner through faith in Christ and his Cross, with the Holy Spirit dwelling within you, guiding and strengthening you. But John doesn't want people to stop there. That is simply the beginning. For growth in our ability not to sin is absolutely vital. So John writes: "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that may not sin."
And it's worth noticing before moving on, where that process starts? It starts for these people with the reading of God's written Word – the Bible. It is John's written word they need to heed – he says: "I am writing these things so that you may not sin." But what did John mean by sin? John tells us in chapter 3.4: "Everyone who makes a practice of sinning, also practices lawlessness." It is going against God's will and his moral law. And that is so serious. For it leads to individual, family, church, national and international suffering, chaos, death and ultimately eternal death in hell! It is utterly devilish. 1 John 3.8 says:
"Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil."
So John's goal or aim is that we should not sin as we are united with Christ by faith and so with God the Father and the Holy Spirit who strengthens us. But how can that all come about? How can sins be forgiven and how can we be cleansed of our sin in the first place? Well, John explains and that brings us to our second heading,
2. The Remedy For Sin
John tells us next in verse 1b:
"if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous."
Yes, this side of heaven we all will sin while trying to live for Christ, and obey God; but our situation isn't hopeless. For we have one who is our advocate – one who speaks to the Father in our defence. The original word refers to someone in court arguing someone's case. And Jesus is doing that with his Father on our behalf, says John, when we sin. The Apostle Paul puts it like this in Romans 8.34 saying that when we might be condemned, "Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who is interceding for us." That is a wonderful fact. But are we to think that the Father to whom Jesus speaks can just say, "OK, no problem! I forgive you"? No! For sin is a great problem. Jesus had taught that personal sin defiles us before God:
"from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person" (Mark 7.21).
But God is light and he is a holy God. "Holy" means everything good about God that makes him different from us and makes us stand in awe and fear of him. And that includes his absolute fairness and justice. So God's judgments both now and on that great day of judgment obviously involve distinguishing what is right from what is wrong. This may be hard to believe in 2019 when the notion that there is such a thing as morality has gone out of the Western World's window! Words like moral guilt hardly have any meaning for many today. We have substituted shame for guilt - that embarrassment we feel when someone sees us as we are or in a context we wanted to keep private. But moral guilt is real because God is real and sin is real. And because it is not fiction, but desperately real, we need someone to plead on our behalf before the Father – someone who speaks to the Father in our defence – and that someone is Jesus Christ the Righteous.
But he needs some grounds for that plea or defence. And says John, there is such a defence, verse 2. He, Jesus Christ the Righteous …
"… is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world."
Propitiation means something that appeases someone's anger or wrath. And Jesus deals with the wrath of God. Some find the idea of God's wrath difficult. But with God the Father, this is not like human anger which can be totally unreasonable and out of proportion. No, this is a judicial, utterly fair, reaction to wrongdoing that deserves a penalty. If God was as pleased with the Holocaust as with freeing slaves that would be horrific. But the action God, our Father takes, in his wrath is utterly loving. For the suffering of the punishment is endured not by us men and women who do wrong. It is suffered by Jesus Christ, the divine Son – who shares the divine nature with God the Father, in our place, as we remember at this Communion Service. Peter put it quite simply, 1 Peter 3.18: "Christ … suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God." And that is why John could say in our previous chapter 1 verse 7, "the blood of Jesus [God's] Son cleanses us from all sin." For Jesus Christ the Righteous,
" … is the propitiation for our sins."
Yes, and we praise God and it should motivate us to believe that God is good; so obedience and not sinning is simply sensible. But the verse goes on to say that Christ's propitiation is,
"for our sins and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world."
It is valid and sufficient for everyone on this planet and throughout history, but, sadly, effective only for those who by faith are united with him. So no sin or crime or omission is too great or terrible for Jesus to forgive. However, it also means that no sin is too little to need to be forgiven – considered in the light of God's utter perfection and glory. In that list of Jesus, in Mark's Gospel, there are not only such sins as murder and adultery, but the more respectable sins of evil thoughts, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. Who here tonight (or watching on Clayton TV) needs to seek God's forgiveness and trust Christ for all he's done for you? For as you trust Christ and seek God's forgiveness you can start with his help to defeat the sin problem, which is John's aim. And that is, even little by little, becoming more like Christ and living more as God intended. And that – and this is so important - is the only way to avoid that verdict, Jesus said, some would receive on the final judgment day: "I never knew you, depart from me, you workers of lawlessness."
But that brings us on thirdly,
3. The Evidence Of Reality
As we heard earlier, Jesus gave that verdict at the end of the Sermon on the Mount when he said this:
"Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord', will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me you workers of lawlessness" (Matt 7.21-23).
Now John is facing, similarly, people claiming to belong to Christ – claiming to know Christ, but their persistent behaviour says they have a false profession of faith. And John is facing other people who say, how can I be sure I'm not like that? So what does John say about this? First, he states the basic principle, verse 3:
"We know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments."
He says that knowing Christ gives rise to obedience; so you can be assured that you know him, if you obey him, and seek to walk in his ways. Yes, Jesus says no one will snatch his sheep out of his Father's hand, in John's Gospel. But persistent, unrepented, disobedience to God's plain commands shows they are not "sheep"! So, yes, it is easy to say that you know Jesus Christ and call him Lord. But how can you know, and others know, it is for real? Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, and John is teaching here, that the test is in "keeping his [Jesus'] commands". The test is obedience – so you take seriously those words in Mark 7 for instance. And you take seriously the Ten Commandments which Jesus endorsed, and you seek to obey them and apply them in all sorts of different situations. And you think of your sins of omission – the good you have failed to do. And in this immoral world, with God's strength, you have to make an effort to obey Jesus' and his Apostles' teaching. So Peter in 2 Peter 1.5ff says:
"Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness and steadfastness with godliness and godliness with brotherly affection; and brotherly affection with love."
How are you on "self-control"? Do you let your reactions get the better of you? How are you on steadfastness or perseverance, or do you give up too easily? How are you on simple godliness? What about brotherly kindness and love (that is God-like self-sacrificial love)?" And this is addressed by Peter to professing believers. And he says, "Make every effort" about this.
But back to 1 John 2. John states the General Principal in verse 3:
"By this we [plural 'we in the church'] know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments."
He then by way of contrast says in verse 4:
"Whoever says, 'I know him,' but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him."
John doesn't mince words. This is someone who is publicly professing to be a Christian. "Whoever says [so it's not private] I know him [Christ] but does not keep his commandments is a liar and the truth is not in him [he is so blind to the truth]." Now, John is not teaching sinlessness. He is referring to someone who persistently and stubbornly does wrong and does not admit it. He says he is not real. That is to say he doesn't allow the truth of Christ and his commandments to regulate his thoughts, his words and his behaviour. But then in verse 5 comes the good news:
"but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected."
The nuance is different. John now talks about keeping Christ's word – not his specific commandments. These people want to live by Christ's teaching treated as a unity. We could call it, using modern jargon, Christ's "world view", which a person tries, at any rate, to apply wherever they are. And regarding such a message, we are told: "in him truly the love of God is perfected." Scholars differ over its meaning. But it may mean that such obedience contains evidence of God's love [God's self-sacrificial love] in that person's life. Whatever it means, that person is certainly assured that his knowing Christ as Lord and Saviour is real.
Now to conclude this part of his letter, John mentions another public profession which could be hypocritical. This is not the profession that we know Christ personally, but that we are "in Christ" – so united with him. This relates to Jesus' ministry and his teaching the Parable of the Vine. That is recorded in John's Gospel chapter 15. In verse 5 of that chapter Jesus said:
"I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me, he is thrown away like a branch and withers, and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned."
In that context, John writes here in this letter, verses 5b and 6:
"By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked."
It is vital that we are united by faith with Christ and so being "in him". For this is another factor in effective living and fruitfulness. Yes, this is a metaphor, but the gist is clear. It is a picture of what spiritually is going on when we trust and then obey Christ. But to repeat, it is so important that we are united with Christ by faith and by his Holy Spirit in him. For, as Jesus said: "apart from me you can do nothing." Again John is adamant. Look at verse 6: "whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked." So the reality of "being in" or abiding in Christ is that we follow his example. And what was the great example Jesus himself set for his disciples? It is in John's Gospel chapter 13 when, like a servant of the household, he washed his disciples' feet. And then relevant to us, in John 13.15 – Jesus says:
"I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you."
Are you servant-hearted? That is one piece of evidence of being really united with Christ. And the good news is that as you trust Christ and are united with him, you will be able to act like that.