Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 10, 2015
1 John 5:1-6 Commentary
Comments and Observations
This is a hard text to preach in our day, not only because of the complexity of John’s argument, but also because his argument runs counter to the prevailing cultural currents of our age. That’s precisely why we should preach on it. Here’s what I mean.
The postmodern philosophy that dominates the thinking of our day has no use for absolute truth claims. All truth claims are seen as products of a particular culture promoting the values of that culture. Such truth claims are often/always used to oppress members of another culture. In this intellectual climate, all we can say is that something is true for us, not that it is true for everyone. In response to that philosophical perspective, many Christians have stopped talking about the truth claims of Christianity. Instead, they describe the Christian faith as a relationship of trust or as the practice of a certain way of life. Doctrines are out, devotion is in. Instead of preaching the truth claims of the Christian faith, many preachers focus on creating a community of love and justice where we practice the ancient disciplines of the church and follow its liturgy for worship. Now, of course, love and liturgy, community and creation care, trust and devotion are good things, extremely important dimensions of the Christian faith. But de-emphasizing doctrinal truth runs counter to the message of our text, which is a sample of the truth claims of apostolic Christianity.
Indeed, our writer brackets this passage with strong truth claims. “Everyone who believes that (emphasis mine) Jesus is the Christ is born of God….” “Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” It is important to note that John begins with a universal word—pas in the Greek, meaning all or everyone. There should be no cultural or racial or social exclusivism in the Christian faith. It is for everyone on earth, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, everyone. But there is an exclusivity to the Christian faith as well. “Everyone who believes… is born of God” and is a child of God. While we might argue (correctly) that everyone on earth is a child of God by virtue of being created in God’s image, John makes a distinction between those who believe and those who don’t. The world is divided into light and darkness, between those who are of the world and those who are of God, between those who are children of God and those who aren’t, between those who believe the right things and those who don’t.
John is very insistent about what we must believe. His firm use of “that” in verses 1 and 5 is not by accident. He is battling Gnostics who have challenged the apostolic teaching by introducing new ideas about Jesus that were based in contemporary philosophy. In the face of the uncertainty and confusion those Gnostic truth claims have produced, John takes pains to help these Christians be sure about the Gospel and about their own faith. So, he says, here’s a test of assurance. What do you believe about Jesus? True children of God believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Those words echo the conclusion of the resurrection story in John’s Gospel. “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) Of course, those words in John’s Gospel are the echo of Peter’s original confession back in Matthew 16:16, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
In the face of the Gnostic heresy, John is even more precise about the content of the Christian faith. He opens his letter by claiming that Jesus is the Word of Life, the eternal life who was with the Father, and that the apostles had actually seen and heard and touched that eternal Word of life in the body of Jesus. In I John 2:22, he connects the claim that Jesus is the Christ with a reference to the relationship between the Father and Son. Denying that Jesus is the Christ amounts to denying both the Son and Father. In 4:2 John skewers the Gnostic claim that the divine Christ could not have become truly flesh by saying, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.” In other words, what you believe about Jesus matters a great deal.
Perhaps a little lesson in historical theology will help here. Many scholars believe that John is tilting at Cerinthus, a very early Gnostic who taught that the divine Christ descended on the man Jesus at his baptism. But then, because his philosophy insisted that the divine cannot die, Cerinthus insisted that the divine Christ left Jesus before his death. Only the human Jesus died, not the divine Christ. The Christ was in the flesh only for a time, not permanently. John knew that if Jesus were not fully human and fully divine from birth to death, the whole idea of hilasmos (cf. 2:2 and 4:10), of atoning sacrifice that expiated our sins and propitiated God’s wrath was destroyed. These truths are probably behind the perplexing words of verse 6. “This is the one who came by water and blood. He did not come by water (baptism) only, but by water and blood (crucifixion).” What seems like theological hairsplitting to us was in fact a battle for the heart of the Gospel. The effectiveness of Jesus death for our sins depends on whether he was the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Many in our congregations may be uneasy with John’s claim that what we believe about Jesus is what makes us children of God or reveals that we are. That implies, of course, that those who don’t believe the “right things” about Jesus are not God’s children. Such a claim seems counter-productive in an age of interfaith dialogue. And it might seem downright dangerous in the face of terrorism committed in the name of exclusive truth claims. How can we possibly engage in honest dialogue with devotees of other religions if we are convinced that they are simply wrong about the most central elements of our faith? And how can we make such exclusive claims when we see what other “extremists” do in the name of their exclusive religion. ISIS says, “If you are not part of us, we will kill you.” And they do, even as the Christian crusaders did in the Middle Ages.
As we preach this text, it is important to admit that there is some truth in the charges against religious exclusivism. Christian warriors did abuse many people in the name of Christ. And the abuses of the crusades are no more justifiable than the abuses of the jihadists. But, even as most Muslims insist that Islam itself does not call for such violence in the name of Allah, so we Christians must insist that our adherence to the truths of the Gospel does not necessarily lead to violence. The crusades were an aberration, a distortion of the Gospel. Love for the “other” does not require dropping our fundamental convictions. Rather, if we really believe that the Gospel is true, love for the other requires proclaiming that Gospel to them so that they can become disciples of Christ (as per Matthew 28:19). Interfaith dialogue is a good first step toward reconciliation in a hate filled world, but there can be no true peace until all human beings are united under the one head, Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10). And, according to our text here in I John 5, that requires faith in Jesus as the Christ. “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” Thus, in spite of abuses that can arise from exclusive truth claims, we must share these truths about Christ out of love for all humankind.
That having been said, we must point out that John does not preach a doctrinalism that cares more about propositions than people. Indeed, John goes on to show that true faith must issue into true love. His argument in verses 2-5 is so complicated that some have called it arguing in circles. But it is really a very sophisticated interweaving of the tests he has talked about throughout the letter. The Christian faith is not only about the truth; it is also about love. It is not only about love for God, but also about love for others. It is not only about doing the right thing, but also about being spiritual.
John is not confused; he is trying to help confused people find assurance. (“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.”) That assurance lies not in a single slogan: “all you need is love,” “be filled with the Spirit,” “love God and do what you want,” “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved,” etc. We can be sure of our salvation when we believe essential truths about Jesus and live out that faith in love for God and others, as the Spirit enables us and bears testimony with our spirits that we are God’s children (more on that next week).
Watch how he interweaves the four tests. After talking about believing that Jesus is the Christ and, thus, being born of God, he says, “and everyone who loves the Father (begetter in Greek) loves his child (begotten) as well.” Is he talking about Jesus there? No, the next verse talks about loving the children of God. How do we know that we love God’s children? In the previous chapter, John has said that you can’t claim to love God if you don’t love his children. Here John turns that around and says that you can’t claim to love God’s children if you don’t love God. The love God calls for is not mere humanitarianism. There is a theological dimension to it.
Further, this love for God is not an emotion or an idea. It is obeying God’s commands. John does not substitute law for love, being righteous from being loving. In John 14:15, Jesus had said it very clearly. “If you love me, you will keep my commands.” Because we have been born of God, God’s commands are not burdensome. They are not easy, but we are able to keep them precisely because we have been born again by the Spirit of God. Everyone born of God overcomes the world, that is, all the forces that war against God and his children.
This is not a call to jihad, to kill our enemies. It is a call to overcome the sin within ourselves. How can we do that? “This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith.” What is that overcoming faith? Is it mere trust, having a loving relationship with God, depending on God, regardless of how we think of God? John returns to the thought with which he began this section. “Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” Every child of God will be characterized by orthodoxy and orthopraxis born of the Spirit.
There are at least three ways to preach this text. You could focus on the importance of doctrinally sound faith. In a world that disparages such faith, such a sermon would be a bracing and challenging word, and even a call to share the Gospel with our “enemies” of other faiths. Or you could focus on the interweaving of the themes, showing how John wants to take away our uncertainty about our salvation by giving us sure tests. Rather than that doubting our own salvation or simply presuming that we are saved because we are in church, we can know for sure that we have eternal life. Yes, it’s a bit complicated, but then so much of life is that way. John isn’t trying to give us a snow job.
Or you could focus on that bracing message about overcoming the world. This would call for some careful distinctions, so that people don’t think John is calling us to some kind of culture wars in which faith gets mixed up with politics. But many Christians are deeply discouraged about living according to God’s command to love. We would be doing our congregations a real favor by assuring them that they really can overcome, and that the secret to overcoming is not sheer teeth gritting effort, but mere faith in the truth of the Gospel. Jesus is, indeed, “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and that means victory for God’s children. When that confession was first made in this world, Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church. And the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) In a sermon on that text an old friend of mine claimed that Jesus was talking about an offensive war in those words to Peter. He entitled that sermon, “Let the church go to hell.” We shall overcome.
As a way of highlighting John’s words about the relationship between having faith in Jesus and being children of God, it might be helpful to talk about the contrary idea of “anonymous Christianity” first proposed by Catholic theologian Karl Rahner. “Anonymous Christianity means that a person lives in the grace of God and attains salvation outside of explicitly constituted Christianity… Let us say, a Buddhist monk… who, because he follows his conscience, attains salvation and lives in the grace of God; of him I must say that he is an anonymous Christian; if not, I would have to presuppose that there is a genuine path to salvation that really attains that goal, but that has simply nothing to do with Jesus Christ. But I cannot do that. And so, if I hold that everyone depends on Jesus Christ for salvation, and if at the same time I hold that many live in the world who have not expressly recognized Jesus Christ, then there remains in my opinion nothing else but to take up this postulate of an anonymous Christianity.” How does that comport with the words of I John 5:1 and 6?
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