Home » Sermons » New Testament » 1 John » John’s First Epistle


John’s First Epistle


1st John    ( in its entirety)


Erasmus was the most brilliant figure in the Reformation era.  He was also the wittiest. He was also the shallowest theologically. It was said of Erasmus that when he looked out over the dreadful abuses in the church he laughed and called for another glass of wine. Luther, on the other hand, Luther went home and cried all night.

Yet Luther did more than weep, since weeping alone is useless. Luther wrote. He wrote tracts: brief, pithy, pointed pamphlets that people could read in one sitting. A tract is easily remembered, easily copied, easily distributed.         Luther wrote dozens of them. The Freedom of the Christian. Two Kinds of Righteousness. Preface to the New Testament.. I love them all.

John Knox, another Sixteenth Century Reformer and closer in some respects to this congregation, wrote tracts too. His most notorious tract has a wonderful title: The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. And how many women were numbered in the “monstrous regiment”?  Two, only two. But two “biggies”: Mary Queen of Scots and Mary Tudor (“Bloody Mary” of English infamy.) Knox’s pamphlets, like Luther’s were effective beyond anything anyone imagined.

A tract has an intensity, a concentration, a relentlessness that a letter lacks.  John’s first “letter” (so-called) isn’t really a letter at all: he isn’t sending it to an individual or a specific congregation. It’s a tract written for all the churches in Asia Minor ( Turkey today). Like all tracts, it’s condensed; and like biblical tracts, it addresses a specific problem in church life.

Whereas John’s gospel aimed at striking fire in the hearts of those who hadn’t yet owned Jesus Christ in faith, John’s tract was written for people who were already part of the Christian fellowship. Some people in that fellowship were causing a major disruption.  Who were they and what were they saying?   In other words, what was the problem in church life that John had to address?


I: — The congregation was fragmenting under the false teaching of a cult called “Gnostic”.  The Gnostics regarded themselves as religious elitists.   They alone were “in the know”.  They had special illumination.  Their extraordinary illumination gave them spiritual privilege.    They possessed a knowledge of God that the “lower” types (so-called) didn’t have.

One feature of Gnosticism: it insisted that while God is good, the creation is bad, evil in fact. Therefore God couldn’t have created it. Matter is evil. God couldn’t have created it. History is evil.   God couldn’t have fashioned it.  Then who had? An inferior spiritual being had (inferior to God, that is); an inferior spiritual being that could afford to dirty itself with dirty matter and dirty history, since God was too pure to soil himself with the “stuff” of creation.

There were many implicates of the Gnostic perversion of Christian truth. Since the entire created order is evil, the human body is evil too; loathsome, in fact. The body should be shunned.

And since the human body is loathsome, Incarnation is impossible. God would never have polluted himself by incarnating himself in human flesh.

Now in the past several years you Schombergers have learned from me how the Hebrew mind thinks.  The Hebrew mind insists that the creation is good.  It may be (and is) distorted as a result of the Fall, but it is and remains good in itself just because it has come forth from the hand of God who is good. The Genesis stories reiterate tirelessly, “And God saw what he had made, and behold it was good.” Because everything God makes is good, Paul insists that the Christians in Corinth should “glorify God in their bodies”.  In other words, the human body is a fitting vehicle of the glory of God.

But the Gnostics denied this. The human body is vile, they said.  Not surprisingly, then, the Gnostics fell into two different patterns of behaviour, both of which are foreign to the Hebrew mind.

[i]    One was a rigid asceticism. Pleasure of any kind was to be shunned. No Hebrew thinker would ever consent to this.   The book of Ecclesiastes tells us we are to take pleasure in food and drink and work. The psalmist reminds us, “At God’s right hand are pleasures for evermore” – and if at his right hand, then so at ours.  King Solomon, reputedly the wisest person in Israel , imported apes and ivory and peacocks – but not because they were useful; simply because looking at them brought him pleasure.  And of course Israel always upheld what it euphemistically called “Sabbath blessings”, “the way of a man with a maid.”

Rigid asceticism – it surfaced again centuries later with hermits who lived in a shoe-box and didn’t wash for twenty years so that vermin swarmed them – is simply foreign to the Hebrew mind.

[ii] Another kind of behaviour rooted in the Gnostic contempt for the body was just the opposite. Since the body is bad, invariably bad, incurably bad, why not indulge it?  Since God didn’t create our bodies, surely we can dishonour our bodies and glorify God at the same time, can’t we?   These Gnostics fell into the most vulgar wantonness, the grossest degradation.

Now if you give people a choice between rigid, pleasureless asceticism and gross self-indulgence, 90% are going to choose the latter. It was this latter outlook that infected the churches to which John sent his tract.

What’s more, since the Gnostics denied the importance of history, they denied the importance of obedience to God, since obedience, yours and mine, is always exercised in the wider world of history; our obedience to God is what we do “out there”.   Not surprisingly, the Gnostics ignored the cruciality of obedience in their (mis)understanding of the Christian life.

Needless to say, the end result of Gnostic false teaching was a broken-down church fellowship.   Because the Gnostics looked upon themselves as a spiritual elite possessing “insider” information, they were contemptuous snobs.  Because they cavalierly indulged their appetitive nature, they turned the church premises into a brothel.         Because they disdained obedience, they were a terrible example to right-thinking Christians who were struggling with assorted temptations.

John could take it no longer.  He had to act. He wrote a tract, a pithy, pointed pamphlet that addressed the problems in the congregations the Gnostics had infected.


II: — What did John say to his people then? Why does he say to us now?

[i] First, John underlines the truth of the Incarnation.   Jesus Christ is Emmanu-el, God-with-us.  Jesus Christ is the human embodiment of the Word and Way and Truth and Power of God. The Gnostics said that Jesus couldn’t be God-Incarnate since he wouldn’t soil himself with human flesh. John said Jesus had to be God-Incarnate or else the gospel disappears and we are still in our sins.

John was right.   Jesus is God-Incarnate or else you and I remain unsaved and face a fearful prospect. Unless Jesus Christ is God, he can’t save us, since only God can save sinners. Unless Jesus Christ is human, he can’t save us, since only his sinless humanness can restore ours. He is wholly divine and wholly human simultaneously.  “This Word”, says John ; “This Word – God’s self-utterance and self-bestowal rendered Incarnate in one man from Nazareth – we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands.”

For decades I have been aware that if Jesus Christ is wholly divine and wholly human there is a gospel; if he isn’t, there is no gospel. I’m always moved at the story of the Unitarian speaker in Glasgow , the roughest city in Europe , who stated in an open-air service that Jesus was a good man; Jesus was a kind fellow; Jesus was a sensitive person.         (This is as much as Unitarians will ever say about Jesus, since Unitarians deny the Incarnation.) A streetwalker who listened for a while turned away saying to the Unitarian spokesperson, “Your rope isn’t long enough for me”.

How long do you think the rope has to be?   The church catholic knows that in Jesus Christ God has let down a rope that never dangles just above our humanness; which is to say, never dangles just above our suffering, and worse, just above our sin.  More than let it down, God has descended the rope himself; in fact, in Christ Jesus our Lord, God is that rope which reaches all the way down to us precisely in order that we might reach all the way up to him. Incarnation means that in the Son who is flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, God’s love doesn’t “love us from a distance” (Do you remember a few years ago when every radio station was playing that wretched blasphemy, “God is watching from a distance”?)  In the Incarnate One God has humiliated himself for our sakes and identified himself with everything about us that saddens him, angers him, disgusts him – and this precisely for the purpose of rescuing us from all of it and relieving us of all of it.

Because the Incarnation is truth, we have a gospel. Without it we have, like the Gnostics, religious ideas that are never better than mere ideas (salvifically useless); what’s more, ideas that aren’t even true.

Let me say it again.  Because Jesus Christ is wholly divine there’s no limit to God’s condescension, humility, even humiliation, for our sakes.  And because Jesus Christ is wholly human there’s no area, aspect or dimension of our existence that God hasn’t absorbed for the sake of healing it.

Preaching the gospel thrills me just because the gospel itself thrills me.  Just think: the gospel of the Incarnate One Crucified for our sakes is sufficient for sinners who are otherwise lost and sufficient for sufferers who are otherwise unrelieved.


[ii] The second emphasis in John’s tract concerns our aspiration after godly obedience. Again and again John bristles in the face of Gnostic indifference to behaviour.  John is horrified at the cavalier way the Gnostics in the congregation glibly provide a rationalization for sin.  He knows that genuine disciples long to please the Master they love. Followers of him who is the Way want to walk the Way. Walk?  The Gnostics would rather wallow.  John watches them wallowing and describes them in one word: lawless. They are lawless.

For this reason John repeats himself tirelessly in his tract: “We may be sure that we know God if we keep his commandments.” “Whoever says ‘I know God’ but disobeys his commandments is a liar.”  In case we’re slow to get the point, John adds, “Whoever says she abides in Christ ought to walk in the same way he walked….If we know that God is righteous, we may be sure that everyone who does right is born of God.” Having made the one point five times over, John crowns it all with his declaration, “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.” In other words, we don’t genuinely love God unless we keep, aspire to keep, the commandments of God.

Then John adds a line that describes the atmosphere of our obedience: “And God’s commandments aren’t burdensome.” Not burdensome. Godliness isn’t grim. Obedience isn’t onerous.

Think of what our Lord said decades before John penned his tract.  “Come unto me, all of you who are sick and tired, frazzled, frenzied and fed up; come to me, and I will give you rest.  For my yoke is easy, and my – burden – is light.” “Yoke” is commonest Hebrew metaphor for obedience.  Obedience to Jesus Christ – a burden, you say? – but it’s light.

Someone “on the ball” is going to say, “but Christ’s invitation is just that: invitation.  It’s not a command.” Oh, isn’t it? “Come.”  Isn’t that what grammarians call the imperative mood?  It’s a command. “You come. Come right now. Don’t procrastinate. Don’t pretend you don’t need to come. Come.”  Plainly it’s a command. But the spirit of the command is invitation.  His commandments are not burdensome.

This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.”  Surely this isn’t difficult to grasp.  After all, it’s our love for our children that fuels our patience with them and our kindness to them.  If we didn’t love them, patience and kindness would boil dry under the fires of frustration. It’s our love for our spouse that inspires our faithfulness.         To say this isn’t to deny that we all need to be reminded, in periods of temptation or apathy or carelessness, which a promise was made and a commitment must be honoured.  Still, who is going to remain faithful forever in the absence of love? Who is going to remain faithful out of grim, joyless duty?

Not the apostle John this time but the apostle Paul: he urges young Timothy to train himself in godliness.         Training. It sounds onerous. It sounds grim. But is it?  Is it necessarily? Since I’m an ardent cyclist myself, I follow closely the “life and times” of Lance Armstrong, winner of the Tour de France seven consecutive times after being almost dead from testicular, lung and brain cancer. Lance Armstrong trains eleven months a year, seven hours per day, uphill and downhill in 90 degree heat. There’s only one way he is able to train like this: he loves it.  Nothing we have to do is onerous if we relish doing it.  So far from onerous, training in godliness is exhilarating if we are attracted to it.

It so happens that when Jesus says “I am the good shepherd” the word he uses for “good” (kalos) means “attractive, inviting, compelling, comely, winsome.”  “I am the good shepherd” means “I am the fine shepherd: if you truly apprehend me, you can’t help falling in love with me.” For this reason his commandments are not burdensome.


[iii] Lastly, John corrects the Gnostics inasmuch as they have fractured the fellowship, or at least have wanted to, and certainly have come close to fracturing it. The Gnostics, remember, regarded themselves as a spiritual elite that disdained lesser folk, the unillumined, who of course made up most of the congregation.  John states bluntly that we can’t love God and disdain our brother or sister. The Gnostics maintained that they had privileged access to God and elevated intimacy with God and “insider” information about God.  John tells them starkly that their contemptuous superiority – their lovelessness, in other words – advertises their spiritual impoverishment.

Whereas the Gnostics maintained that they were spiritually reborn inasmuch as they possessed “insider” information and all it implied, John states simply “We know we have passed from death to life because? – because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.”

John is no fool.  He’s aware that a congregation gathers up (rightly gathers up) people of every sort, in the same way a net pulled through the water gathers up fish of every sort. He’s aware that within the congregations to which he writes there are sound believers; there are sound believers who are vulnerable to false teaching; there are Gnostic snobs who think they’re on the right track but who in fact disrupt the congregation; and there are out-and-out nasty troublemakers, any troublemaker in a congregation being a big toad in a small pond. John is aware of all this.

When John insists we love them all, the whole grab-bag, he’s not waxing sentimental. After all, he knew our Lord insisted we love our enemies.  And John knew that the enemy we are to love really is our enemy; not an irritant, not a nuisance. The person who is mere irritant or nuisance is a pain-in-the-neck, to be sure, but he isn’t dangerous. The person who is enemy, however, can actually harm.  Even this person is to be loved.

The point is this. John could have written to his people, “You know the Gnostic snobs among you who think they’re superior to you?  Always remember that thanks to your better theology you are superior to them.” John could have written, “Do you know the most effective way of coping with people who dismiss you? Dismiss them.” Had John written like this, he would have denounced the Gnostics as spiritual elitists only to substitute orthodox believers as spiritual elitists.  But to do this would be to gain nothing.  When John says, “The sign that we’ve passed from death to life is that we love one another”, “one another” includes the person whose theology is deficient and whose attitude is snobbish and whose presence is disruptive.  After all, how are the snobs going to be helped if they are made unwelcome? “We know we have passed from death to life just because God mysteriously enables us to love the person we otherwise can’t stand.”


Conclusion: — So much for John’s impassioned tract. He wants the truth and power of the Incarnation reinforced.         He wants godliness encouraged.  He wants the fellowship infused with a patient, hurt-absorbing love that refutes elitism.

He wants all of this because he wants the truth upheld. Yet he has another motive too: he says he writes “So that our joy may be complete.” “Our joy: his joy, plus the joy of the people to whom he’s written his tract, plus the joy of the people who are going to read his tract.  Then today, as we read his short tract, may the profoundest joy be magnified in your heart and mine.

Rev. Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    October 2005