Comments and Observations
Many scholars have noticed that I John reads more like a sermon than a letter, since it lacks so many of the elements of other New Testament letters: the greeting that usually identifies both author and readers, the introduction that so often previews the issues to be covered in the letter, and the conclusion with personal notes to the readers. As we’ve worked our way through John’s long and intricate sermon I’ve often thought that it might be a big dud with our postmodern audiences—not just because it is so complicated, but more because of its theme.
John is concerned that his “dear children” will recover their certainty about their salvation. He puts it various ways: he wants us to know that we are God’s children, that we are born of God, that God lives in us, that we are loved by God, that we have eternal life. Our text for today ends with his theme sentence. “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.” Woven through his sermon, John has given us four tests designed to help us arrive at such certain knowledge: the moral test (obeying God’s commands), the social test (loving our fellow Christians), the doctrinal test (believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God), and the spiritual test (having the Spirit within). With precision and passion, John wants to preach us to certainty about our salvation.
I fear John’s message might flop with our postmodern audiences because so many of them value uncertainty, questions, and doubt more than certainty, confidence and assurance. Indeed, being sure of what we believe and where we stand with God feels like arrogance and self-righteousness to many postmodern folks, including some Christians. Being certain can lead to the extremism that doesn’t love the other.
In a recent issue of the Christian Century, a United States Senator writes about his experience with attending Yale Divinity School. He speaks for many, I think. “I think there’s a broad misconception out there—and I came to divinity school believing it—that only those with unshakably firm conviction and profound faith belong in ministry. My divinity school training taught me that, in fact, the opposite is true. In order to be an effective preacher and faith leader, you’ve got to question. I came out of school more convinced than ever that doubt is essential to faith—that without doubt it’s not faith; it’s dogmatic belief that can become extremism. The whole essence—the definition—of faith rests upon a foundation of doubt, and if it rests on a foundation of doubt and questioning, then that demands of us humility as we interpret the text and serve the world.”
I’m sure that every preacher would agree with the Senator’s words about the importance of asking questions and being humble before the text and the congregation and the world. But what about his insistence that doubt is central to faith? We hear that so often these days that it is virtually orthodox doctrine, but how do we square that with the message of I John? Is there a way to navigate between certainty and arrogance, so that we both know for sure and stand humbly in the world? I want to humbly suggest that we listen carefully not to culture, but to Scripture, in this case I John, as we try to figure out our basic faith posture in a doubt filled world.
In this last reading for the Easter season, John returns to his fourth test (the spiritual one), introduced back in 3:24. “This is how we know he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” But how do we know the Spirit lives in us? How can we be sure that the Spirit is present? I can hear members of my congregations greeting me after a moving service with these words. “The Spirit was really here today, pastor!” How did they know? They were usually referring to some internal feeling—a fresh conviction of sin or a surge of love or a new assurance that the gospel is true, the kind of thing Jesus associated with the Spirit in John 16:7ff.
I remember visiting a local charismatic congregation a while back in which there was a great deal of demonstrative spirituality—arm waving, weeping, laughing, shouting, dancing. The pastor shouted, “The Spirit is really moving today!” I suspect he was thinking of I Corinthians 14. Other New Testament passages connect the presence of the Spirit with speaking in tongues (Acts 2 and 10 and 19), professing faith in Jesus as Lord (I Corinthians 12:3), developing the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5), and the internal testimony of the Spirit with our spirit that we are truly God’s children (Romans 8:16).
In our reading for today, John gives us another way to know we have the Spirit, namely, the doctrinal test. The lectionary reading begins with verse 9, but to understand what John is talking about there, we must back up at least as far as verse 6, and, even better, verse 1 of this chapter. John has been preaching in those opening verses about the doctrinal test, namely, what we believe about Jesus. At the conclusion of that section, in verse 6a, he characterizes Jesus as the one who came by water and blood, probably referring to his baptism and his crucifixion. John is tilting there against his Gnostic opponents. And now, in verse 6b, he pulls out his big gun against them. It’s not just me saying that Jesus is the Christ, who came by water and blood; it is, even more, the Spirit testifying. Not only do the water and the blood testify to the true character of Jesus, but so does the Spirit.
In other words, we know that we have the Spirit when we have a correct understanding of who Jesus is. John is undoubtedly echoing Jesus’ words in John 15:26. “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.” Jesus elaborated on that theme in John 16:14. “He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.” The early church arrived at the correct understanding of who Jesus was because of the testimony of the Spirit about Jesus.
Listen to the way John hammers away at this idea of the Spirit’s testimony. He begins by reminding us of the importance of testimony in human life. He is undoubtedly referring there to courtroom testimony, as well as the everyday testimony of friends sharing stories. And he is probably referring to the testimony of those who had heard and seen and touched Jesus, people like John the Baptist and John himself along with the rest of the apostles. As a matter of course, we accept the testimony of those we trust. How much more should we accept the testimony of God, the Spirit? The Spirit’s testimony is greater than any human testimony, because it is “the testimony of God.” This Trinitarian note is heightened when he says, “which he has given about his Son.” Lest there be any doubt about what the Spirit testifies about Jesus, John is explicit. “Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart.” Here’s how we know we have the Spirit and how we know that the Spirit is moving in our hearts: not emotion, not exuberant worship, not speaking in tongues, not the growth of the fruit, not a deep sense that we are God’s children (however valid all those things may be), but a certain knowledge of who Jesus really was. Does that seem too strong a statement? Listen to the clincher. “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.”
Indeed, John is so insistent on the importance of the Spirit’s testimony about the person of Jesus that he goes on to say, “Anyone who does not believe God (the Spirit’s testimony about Jesus), has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son.” This sounds almost blasphemous in our tolerant, pluralistic age. Is John saying that if you reject the Spirit’s testimony that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, you are calling God a liar? That seems to be exactly what John is saying. If that is true, then does it follow that a person can’t say she believes in God if she rejects the Spirit’s testimony about Jesus? Reject the apostolic, Spirit-led doctrine about Jesus and you are calling God a liar. Wow! That is tough talk. But John gets tougher yet. “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son does not have life.”
What are we to do with such black and white talk today? Well, we can simply reject it because it is so offensive toward other religions. Yes, the Bible talks that way, but we know better today as we’ve gotten to know other religions better. Here’s how an on-line sermon put it. Commenting on the phrase in verse 10 about having “this testimony in our hearts,” the on-line preacher says this about people who are outside the church. “There are a lot of people out there who have the light of God’s life in them. Whether we’re talking about Mohandas Ghandi, a Hindu, or the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist, or Mother Theresa, a Catholic nun, or Pearl Buck, a Presbyterian missionary. You can see the light of God’s life in and through their lives. They ‘have the testimony/witness in themselves.’ Instead of looking at others with shallow prejudices and dismissing their religions, if we will open our eyes we will see many people of all faiths who shine the light of God’s love all around them.” That’s a very generous and tolerant approach to those who do not believe the Spirit’s testimony about Jesus. But how does it square with the actual words of I John?
We could also deal with this difficult text by saying that it refers only to the specific historical situation that John addresses. He was arguing with Gnostics who were twisting the Gospel. His strong words were only for them. He is talking to people in the church, heretics who are disturbing the faithful. If we are talking to and about folks who are outside the church, we wouldn’t use this kind of exclusive language. Rather than say, “because you don’t have Christ, you don’t have life,” we should say, “if you come to Christ, you will find life indeed.” In other words, we should preach this text in different ways, depending on our audience. Well, that might be good homiletical strategy, but it begs the question of the truth of the Spirit’s testimony. Is Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, or not? If we waffle on that issue in the interests of being non-offensive, we are taking away one of John’s tests of assurance, not to mention removing the rock on which Christ said he would build his church (Matthew 16).
Or we could do what the church has historically done with the Spirit’s testimony about Jesus. Preach it boldly, but with a humble spirit. Being sure of the Gospel and being sure of our standing with God is not arrogance or presumption. It is the gift of the Spirit. The kind of certainty to which John wants to lead his dear children is not a strutting, judgmental, self-righteous certainty born of cultural imperialism. “We’re better than you are.” John calls his flock to a loving, justice doing, self-sacrificing certainty born of the Spirit. We can’t ever separate our assurance about the content of the Gospel from our devotion to doing the right thing in the world and our dedication to showing a sacrificial love to our brothers and sisters. The same Spirit whose testimony makes us unbending in our understanding of Jesus will also make us bend the knee in humble obedience to God’s will and in humble service to our fellow human beings.
While John’s four tests may seem like an overly rigorous approach to the whole matter of our assurance of salvation, his intention is to fill us with complete joy (1:4). Remember Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson crawling up the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park? It was the first time that wall had been scaled without the assistance of normal mountain climbing gear, a totally free climb. Oh, yes, there was that single rope that held them in case they slipped, which they did, often, in their 19 day climb. They were very grateful for that single rope.
But what a relief it was each night to get into their tents securely anchored into the rock wall with several ropes and other devices. The certainty of those tents with their multiple sources of support must have brought them great joy at the end of each rugged day. That’s the point of John’s multiple tests of certainty—to give us security as we struggle upward. John doesn’t mean to make life harder with these four tests. He means to make it more certain and secure, so that we can rejoice in the life Jesus gives.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 17, 2015
1 John 5:9-13 Commentary