Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 26, 2015
1 John 3:16-24 Commentary
Comments and Observations
Rarely is taking a test a joyful experience, but the author of I John has woven four tests into his letter/sermon designed to bring his readers joy. “We write this to make our (yours and mine?) joy complete.” (I John 1:4) The way to complete joy, he says, is to be sure of our salvation. “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (I John 5:13) How much of the unhappiness we experience as believers can be traced to an uncertainty about our salvation? A Christian who is uncertain about God’s love will be an unhappy Christian. So, to increase our certainty and our joy, John gives us four tests. To locate them, just look for the word “know” throughout I John.
In connection with last week’s lectionary reading, we looked at one of those occurrences in I John 3:10, where two of the tests are woven together. “This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are. Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God, nor is anyone who does not love his brother.” That kind of interweaving of tests is common in I John; we’ll find it again at the end of our reading for this Sunday.
At one time I wondered if this clumping together of different thoughts could be traced to John’s advanced age. As happens with many older folks (one of whom I am rapidly becoming), his thoughts jump around and run into each other, in spite of the Spirit’s inspiration. (Inspiration is organic, after all). But now I think that the intermingling of tests is very intentional and ingenious. To keep us from becoming prematurely sure of our salvation just because we passed one test and to keep us from despair when we barely pass another test, John wants us to see the total results of taking the tests. It’s a bit like taking a battery of psychological tests as part of entering seminary. Different tests tell us about different parts of ourselves. Taken together the psychologist will hopefully get a more accurate picture of the student. To be really sure that God loves you and that you have eternal life, John gives us these four tests.
Today he zeroes in on the second test, the social test mentioned in 3:10, loving our brothers and sisters. The verses between that verse and verse 16 underline the impossibility of a true child of God hating a brother. Then John repeats the test. “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers.” Now in our reading, John answers an implied question, asked perhaps by his Gnostic opponents. What is this love for brothers? They might have defined it in fine philosophical terms related to some secret gnosis. But John cuts through their fancy language with a simple picture.
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” John doesn’t offer up little vignettes from daily life to help us define love for fellow Christians; he hangs a masterpiece portrait of love in our mind’s gallery. Love is nothing less than this picture of Jesus hanging on the cross, the long promised Christ crucified with common criminals, the very Son of God emptying himself of not only his dignity, but even his very life. That’s what it means to love other believers.
That picture of Jesus is like one of those old Renaissance paintings that cover an entire wall. It is so overpowering that we can hardly see ourselves in it. That’s why John gives us a miniature of it for our own mental gallery. After saying, “And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers,” he shrinks the picture further. “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can God’s love be in him?”
With those words, John takes the radical command to lay down our lives for each other and makes it more practical and plausible and perhaps even more painful. Instead of laying down our life, Paul talks about our material possessions. But the word there is bios, meaning life, or the means of life. John isn’t talking about the luxuries of life; he means the bare necessities, what it takes to sustain your life. “If you have such things and you see you brother in need….” The word “see” has the sense of a sustained look—not just a glance in which you barely see him, but a careful examination.
If you really see the needs of your brother, and “you have no pity on him….” Again, the words here are pictorial– “have no pity” is a colorless translation of kleise ta splangchne, which means literally “to close, or shut, or bar your bowels.” The ancients saw the bowels as the seat of emotion because when we are emotionally moved, our intestines are moved. We feel love in the pit of our stomach or our bowels are roiled with anxiety or we are moved to feel pity at the pain of another. John says, if you have the ability to help another Christian and you take the time to really see him in his need but you “bar your bowels” from feeling anything for that brother, “how can the love of God be in you?”
John’s words are sharp, but he doesn’t use them to undercut their assurance. He intends to move them to real love and deeper assurance. We know that because his next words are an encouragement to people he sees as God’s children. “Dear children, let us not love in words or tongue, but with actions and truth.” Love is more than merely understanding the problem of poverty. It is more than being moved by compassion for the poor. It is more than being able to talk a good line about what love requires. Love means actually doing something about the needs of your brother or sister. Love takes what you have in your own life and goes to work with it to alleviate the needs of a fellow believer. John calls us to take pity on the poor not as a guilt trip, but as a labor of love in response to Christ’s labor of love for us.
Pointing at this vivid picture of love in sacrificial action, John applies his test. “This then is how we know that we belong to the truth….” It’s not the possession of advanced knowledge or the ability to talk profoundly that bring us a sense of security and confidence before God; it’s actually doing something for the needy brothers and sisters among us. The ability to pass this “social test” will set our hearts at rest in God’s presence when our hearts condemn us. The grammar of verses 19-20 is almost hopelessly tangled, but I think we all know what John is talking about from our experience. When we fail one of his tests, when we aren’t righteous (his moral test) or we doubt the Good News about Jesus (his doctrinal test) or we don’t sense the Spirit’s presence in our lives (his spiritual test), our hearts condemn us. “You aren’t much of a Christian. Maybe you aren’t a Christian at all. Anyone who would continue to commit the same sin over and over, anyone who would question the Scripture, anyone who grieves the Spirit by living the way you do can’t be a child of God.”
When our hearts condemn us, says John, remember what God said about loving your brothers. Don’t let your oversensitive conscience take away your assurance. God says that if you love your fellow Christians the way Jesus loved you, even if you don’t do it perfectly, that is proof that you are a child of God. Our culture often says, “Listen to your heart.” Sometimes that is a good idea, as John says next. But when you’ve passed this social test, then don’t listen to your self-condemning heart. Listen to God who is greater than your heart and knows everything. If you really love, you can really know, no matter what your heart says. Rather than being a condemnatory text (as some of the Reformers thought), verse 20 is really designed to comfort.
On the other hand, says verse 21, when your heart does not condemn you (because you obey God’s commands and do what pleases him), then you can have confidence before God and you will receive anything you ask for. That’s a sentence that needs a careful parsing. Many Christians have been deeply shaken when they have understood those last words like a Twitter message. “You will receive from him anything you ask.” That’s true only when we “obey his commands and do what pleases him,” that is, only when we are so in tune with God that we only ask what is his will. John is not teaching that complete obedience is the cause or condition of answered prayer. He is saying that we can have confidence as God’s children when we pass the tests. Being obedient to God’s commands gives us confidence that God will give us what we ask.
John concludes this section on the social test by mixing all of the tests together in order to give us complete confidence before God. “And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ (the doctrinal test that will be developed in 4:1-6) and to love one another as he commanded us (the social test further developed in 4:7-21). Those who obey his commands (the moral test dealt with in chapter three) live in him and he in them. And this is how we know that that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us (the spiritual test that will be woven through the next two chapters).”
As I said earlier, John is not trying to make things harder by giving this multiplicity of tests. He is trying to help us become more assured, so that we can have complete joy in what God’s love has done for us in Christ. To prevent false assurance based on the fact that we are, for example, law and order people, John applies the test of brotherly love. On the other hand, to prevent discouragement based on the fact that I am not as loving as I should be, John applies the test of doctrine. I do believe in the name of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Taken separately, these tests can result in presumption or despair. Taken together, they give us a reasonable assurance based on the Word of God that we really are children of God.
Jerome tells this story about the apostle John. “When the venerable John could no longer walk to the meetings of the church but was borne by his disciples, he always uttered the same address to the church; he reminded them of that one commandment which he had received from Christ himself, as comprising all the rest, and forming the distinction of the new covenant. ‘My little children, “Love one another.”’ When the brethren, wearied of hearing the same thing so often, asked why he repeated the same thing, he replied, ‘Because it is the commandment of the Lord, and if this one thing be attained, it is enough.”
Regarding the connection between assurance and happiness, some time ago I read Therapy, a best-selling novel by David Lodge. It was about a man who is so deeply unhappy that he has immersed himself in therapy. He is in psychotherapy, aromatherapy, physiotherapy, cognitive-behavior therapy, and acupuncture therapy. His psychiatrist has him write down a list of all the things that are right about his life and all the things wrong. On the “things right” side, he lists: professionally successful, well off, good health, stable marriage, kids successfully launched into adult life, nice house, reat car, and as many holidays as I want. On the “things wrong” side he lists one thing: I am unhappy most of the time.
When I preached on I John many years ago, saying that an unhappy Christian is an uncertain Christian, one of my congregants challenged me. “I think there’s a great difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is tied to circumstances, joy is tied to Christ.” I completely and publicly agreed with her statement. As the character in Therapy discovered, your life can be filled with happy circumstances, but you can still be most unhappy. On the other hand, the Gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us that you can have many things wrong with your life and still be filled with joy, because you know for sure that you have eternal life through Jesus.
As we preach on John’s words about active love, many of our listeners will recall the poignant exchange between Tevye and his wife, Golde in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Their daughter is getting married to a man she loves. The marriage between Teyve and Golde was arranged; the first time they met was on their wedding day. So now Teyve wonders to Golde, “Do you love me?” She is annoyed by the question and refuses to answer at first, but then she sings these famous words. “Do I love you? For 25 years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow. Why talk about love now?” When he persists in his question, she finally answers, “Do I love you? For 25 years, I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him. Twenty five years my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?”
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