One of my kids once had an assignment for a high school religion class: they had to find at least one Bible passage in the New Testament that matched each one of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. There are probably multiple options for each of the commandments but most students—including my child—quickly settled on the very last verse of 1 John to match the Second Commandment’s prohibition on idolatry, on graven images, and on worshiping anything other than the Lord God of Israel.
“Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”
That is 1 John 5:21 and it is perhaps the oddest last line of any book in the Bible and certainly of the New Testament Epistles. You are tempted to turn the page to see if there is something more still to come. That verse is also about 8 verses beyond where the Lectionary stops this reading from John’s last chapter but I want to draw attention to this verse anyway because I think it unlocks a lot of what is both in this particular Lectionary reading and this entire Epistle generally.
Again, it seems like an odd, abrupt ending to a letter. It’s like some random new thought occurred to John and he scribbled it down just before sticking the letter into the envelope and licking it shut. Today if you got an email that concluded seemingly in mid-thought, you would wait for a follow up message that would begin “Ooops, sorry about that. I accidentally hit ‘Send’ before I finished the email!”
But let’s assume this really is how John wrapped up this letter. Why would he do that? Perhaps because as bottom lines of letters go, this one does a pretty good job of summing up what had been a concern of John’s all along: identifying and then worshiping the one true God and that God only. Throughout this letter John says God is love. God the Father is love and he sent his Son to this world out of love.
And that Son is love and everything he did was for the sake of love. And now the Spirit of that Son lives in us and so if we know and understand and perceive our God in Christ correctly, we will love all our sisters and brothers. Failure to display such love demonstrates merely that we don’t understand God at all. In fact, if we think we can lead hateful, spiteful lives in the name of God, then maybe it turns out we are worshiping a false god after all. An idol. Something we concocted but NOT the true God whose core nature got revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.
In this particular passage in 1 John 5 the emphasis is on being one with the Son of God because if you are, you have life. You have eternal life. And apparently it’s the only place to get such life, too. This is not some widely available commodity on the open market. You cannot buy knock-off imitations of this gift. The name-brand of “Life in Jesus the Son” will never have a generic alternative available on the cheap someday. Life eternal comes only when we “have” the Son.
That’s a curious way to put it if you stop to think about it. How could any one of us mere mortals “have” the eternal Son of God? That makes it sound on a par with “having” a car, a house, a spouse, a dog. “Do you have a dog?” we might ask someone. “Yes, I have a Boston Terrier.” Or, “I have a 2013 Honda CRV,” we could say in another setting. Or, “Back at my house I have the most gorgeous painting of the Sleeping Bear Dunes that a friend of mine painted for me.”
So is that the idea: in my life I “have” a CRV, a Boston Terrier, a painting, and the Son of God? Well . . . that last item on the list seems less “have-able” than the others. Surely they are not all on a par. Yet that’s how John puts it. Not, please notice, not the “the Son of God has you.” No, you have the Son. I realize this is just a locution, just a way of putting things, and yet perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to see John’s having put it just this way as itself another instance of the amazing grace of God.
Earlier in this epistle John made a big deal out of believing that Jesus really had been incarnated as a true human being. Indeed, if you deny that Jesus came in the flesh, then you are an antichrist. Affirming the reality of the incarnation is a very big deal for John (and may have been increasingly important as the first century wore on and the early heresy of Gnosticism started to take hold with its shunning of all things earthly and earthy and material). But, of course, the incarnation was also an enormous gift of grace. God the Son condescended to our level, took on our human flesh and frailty, willingly made himself into a being who could be tempted, who could get hungry, who could get sleepy, who could get hurt, and ultimately he willingly let himself become a being who could die. And he did.
Jesus, we read elsewhere in the New Testament, “gave himself up” for us. And he also flat out gave himself for us. He laid down his life for us and gave us his whole being, his whole self. And so there is a sense in which when the gift of faith comes to us by grace alone, what we receive is nothing short of Christ and all his benefits. Christ clothed with the Gospel. We receive Jesus. We have the Son and all the eternal life within him because that is exactly what Jesus wants for us.
What a revelation! What a truth to savor!
Dear children, keep yourselves from idols because really, when you know who the true God is and what his love has made possible for you in Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, why in the world would you want to turn to some other—to any other—fake god?
The writer Simone Weil once observed that when you read the creation accounts in Genesis 1-2 one of the most striking things you should notice is the revelation that the Almighty God of the universe is not self-centered. Despite possessing incalculable glory and righteousness and holiness within God’s own self, God is always interested in the other, in that which is not God. You see it all through the creation of the universe: God delights in making not a few fish but oceans brimming with life; not just a few birds but skies blackened with vast flocks of every kind of bird imaginable. And God takes delight in just staring at these creatures, reveling in their antics, clapping his hands together in joy. Indeed, the seventh day of creation as a day of rest was instituted not because God was tired but because it was a day when God could kick back and enjoy watching everything he had created across the first six days.
That is how the Bible begins. And God’s penchant to be invested in the other, of taking delight in others, climaxes in the New Testament when God the Son becomes a part of this creation by being born as a real human being whose sole purpose would be to extend himself into the lives of others, to give himself to others, to let the Life that was in him get shared with all who would believe.
Even as from all eternity the Father existed for the Son and the Son for the Spirit and the Spirit for the Father and the Son for the Father and . . . . so also God then took that effervescent life within his Triune Self and shared it with a whole universe of creatures. God is not God-centered. That is a thought worth pondering. A lot.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 13, 2018
1 John 5:9-13 Commentary