We begin this morning a series of Lord’s Day morning sermons on the first letter of the Apostle John, undoubtedly one of the most beloved and often read books of the Bible. First John, as it is called, is treasured by Christians for its simplicity, its pastoral warmth, and its encouragement, the lovely graces we have learned to associate with the disciple that Jesus loved.
We most recently completed a series of sermons on Paul’s Letter to the Romans and now we begin this new series. It is no longer possible to preach through books of the Bible – particularly books of the New Testament – that I have never preached through before. I have made my way with you through the entire New Testament and, over more than 32 years, through a number of its books twice. Little remains of the Old Testament either that we have not made our way through in either the morning or the evening service on the Lord’s Day.
But who cares whether some twenty-one years ago we went through First John over twenty morning services here at Faith Presbyterian Church? As with all the teaching of the Bible, John’s wonderful letter cannot be read or studied too often. Its teaching is both timeless and bottomless. We can never hear it too often or read it too much because the truth it contains is vital to our lives as Christians and here that truth is put in a particularly winning and memorable way. I suspect that most of us have a warm feeling in our hearts toward this letter. We understand John, so we think; he makes sense to us. We don’t find in his writing the complicated argument, the difficult ideas that we are used to facing in the letters of the Apostle Paul. There aren’t as many big words or technical terms as we find in Paul. There isn’t an argument among the commentators over virtually every line he writes as there seems to be with Paul’s letters. John is, so we think, straightforward. If Paul’s letters are like a lecture, John’s are more like a conversation. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that we find it easier to listen to a fisherman than a philosopher!
But don’t mistake John. There are hidden depths in his writing; having been an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, having walked for three years with the Lord, having heard all of his sermons, seen all of his miracles, having been given that greater measure of the Holy Spirit for his equipment as an apostle, John became a very deep man and a very deep thinker. We read the Gospel of John in our family devotions in the Colorado mountains this past month and more than once we found ourselves scratching our heads over what we read and having to ponder his meaning,
The opening statement of the letter is quite unusual. No greeting as with most NT letters, no identification of the recipients of the letter. The letter begins with a rush and the main verb of the first sentence, proclaim, does not appear until verse three. But there is no doubt about the purpose of this opening statement: it identifies the theme of the letter, viz. the gospel of Jesus Christ, and there is no mistaking that what is said here has immediate and obvious parallels with the opening paragraph of the Gospel of John.
“That which was from the beginning…” Jesus Christ always existed. There was never a time when the Son of God was not. The pre-existence of Christ is the presupposition of the incarnation. He came into the world, that is, he was somewhere else before he was born to the Virgin Mary. John began his Gospel, you remember, with a grand affirmation of the incarnation. The eternal God, the creator of heaven and earth, entered the world and dwelt with men as a man. He begins his letter with the same affirmation.
That which was from the beginning, John says, he and others have seen and have even touched. In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, you remember, John says of this one who created the world, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory.” Same idea here. Only later in the letter do we learn that false teachers had troubled these believers and particularly by denying the incarnation of the Son of God, denying, as he says in 4:2, that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh. No wonder the letter should begin with a ringing affirmation of this fundamental teaching of the Christian faith.
And that person, Jesus Christ, was and is life, life itself. John saw life with his own eyes and touched eternal life with his own hands because he saw and touched Jesus of Nazareth, the Prince of life.
Notice that John says three times in the first three verses that he saw the incarnate Son of God. He is an eyewitness and that is where the authority for what he is about to tell them comes from. He was there and he saw it all; this is what he is emphasizing.
What the apostles saw and heard was not for their own benefit only. It was for the salvation of the world and, accordingly, they proclaimed what they had seen and heard and touched to the world of their day. And so they had proclaimed it to these Christians to whom John was now writing.
The fellowship that the apostles and John himself had with the Lord Christ again was not simply for themselves; it was something to share with others and to bring others into. Christ had fellowship with those men and now he has fellowship with others who have come to trust in him and they in turn have fellowship with all other believers. This is the heritage of faith, the long line of loving community stretching back to those very days when a group of disciples gathered around the Lord Jesus Christ and lived and walked with him for three years. This is salvation in its largest sense: reconciliation, friendship, fellowship and communion with God and so with all those who love God.
The joy John is speaking of is the establishment or re-establishment of these believers in the confidence of the Gospel and in their fellowship with John and other believers. He wants to be sure that the unsettlement that this church or these churches to whom he is writing had experienced as the result of false teaching is left behind them and they are centered once again in the heart of the believing church.
It will not surprise many of you to learn that doubts have been raised about the authorship of this letter: whether it really is the work of the John whom we know from the Gospels, whether it is really the work of the same man. Those sorts of things are doubted now almost as a rule. Perhaps this was a disciple of the apostle writing under John’s name (a member of the Johannine circle as scholars are wont to put it), or perhaps the author of this letter is a different John altogether as it wasn’t that uncommon a name. Perhaps the author of this letter is somebody else named John, not the John we have come to know through the Gospels, or perhaps it was someone not named John at all who wanted his readers to think the letter had been written by the apostle himself. I won’t trouble you with the details but I’m quite sure you have every reason to be confident that this letter was written by no one less than the man who once described himself as “the apostle whom Jesus loved.” There are three primary arguments and all three are worth a great deal more than the instinctive skepticism one finds in some circles of biblical scholarship and the arguments put forward to justify it.
First, the evidence of early Christianity is decisively in favor of Johannine authorship. Christians in the centuries immediately after Pentecost thought that John wrote this letter and all the copies of it from that early time bear his name as the author. Second, scholars have demonstrated the striking similarity, literarily and theologically, between First John and the Gospel of John, a similarity we immediately notice in the opening verses, and the simplest explanation of this is that both books were written by the same hand. And, third, the author claims to be an eyewitness of the gospel history as John was but as one of his disciples would not have been, a claim that we know was fundamental to the authority of apostolic writing in the first century and a claim that was taken very seriously by the early church. Were the author not an eyewitness of the gospel history his work would have been immediately discredited because the church would have known and cared whether he was or was not. As we read this letter, we will hear the characteristic tone of an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, a man who had seen and heard the Lord, was witness to the great events that had been narrated for us in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; a man who knew of what he spoke and wrote. That man was John, the brother of James, the close friend of Peter, and one of the first disciples of the Lord Jesus. He was there from the beginning. Most believing scholars take the Apostle John to be the author of this letter and more than a few are tartly critical of what they take to be largely specious arguments to the contrary.
The letter John wrote to his unidentified Christian friends, in one church or in several, has a distinctly pastoral tone. I think that is one of the reasons we take to this letter as quickly as we do. It is written to those John repeatedly calls “My little children” (2:1) and again and again his “beloved” (2:7). And like all the other letters of the New Testament the letter was occasioned by things that had happened to these believers. They had been shaken by events and John wrote to help them regain their feet and to give them back their Christian confidence. What had happened was that some teachers had arisen – whether from outside or in – who cast doubt on some of the fundamental convictions in which the Christian faith of these believers had long been nourished. Men of their time as they were, influenced, overly influenced by the prevailing philosophies of their day, these men undermined the believers’ confidence in some of the most basic beliefs of the Christian faith: that Jesus Christ was both God and a true man and that the salvation that we receive from him through faith involves not only the forgiveness of sins but a new life of holiness and righteousness. We’ll have occasion to talk about their teaching in greater detail but it appears that the Christians to whom John wrote his letter saw the serious error in what was being taught and either sent these false teachers packing or convinced them that they would find no welcome there and so the teachers left. But the whole experience had left its mark and John knew that. He letter is not only designed to assure them that they did the right thing, but that they need have no doubts about the truth that they have been taught and that they are right to continue in the faith and love of Jesus Christ. It is the kind of encouragement we all need lots of times in our lives.
We live in a day, in some respects, very like the day in which this letter was written. There is about us in society a fundamental instability and insecurity. People don’t call it that, they don’t identify it that way, but that is what it is. The world is changing rapidly all around them. People are aware of the welter of opinions that exist about the world and human life. How are we to know what is right when bright and thoughtful people have such different opinions about even the most basic things? Who are we to say that we have the truth and that everyone else is in error? Well John sets out to answer just those questions. For a 21st century citizen of the western world First John is like a bucket of cold water in the face, at least in one way. It is all about knowledge and certainty and sure conviction. It is all about the confidence with which Christians should hold their convictions, no matter the unbelief, no matter the positive scorn of the unbelievers around them.
First John trades in certainties and in the arguments that underlie them: both the certainty that the Christian religion is true and that these Christians and we with them actually possess eternal life and the salvation of God. We know the Christian faith is true, John will say, 1) because of the historical event that lies behind us, the incarnation and the appearance of the Son of God in the world, 2) because of the apostolic witness – Christ’s life, death, and resurrection did not pass unnoticed; the gospel was preached first by those who had themselves seen and heard the Son of God and had themselves witnessed the great events of the world’s salvation –, and, 3) third, because of the work of the Holy Spirit by which men and women come to know the truth of these things with conviction that cannot be gainsaid. The result of this triple evidence is knowledge, certainty, conviction. And it is the same today, if you stop and think about it. You know that the Christian message is true, that you are not believing a story or a myth, but have, in fact, embraced the truth about God, about man, about time, about existence, about the future, about the meaning of life, and you believe for the same three reasons: because of the historical events of the Gospel themselves that bear witness across the ages with their own self-authenticating power, because of the witness of the apostles to those events as that witness has been written down in the Word of God, and because of the illumination of your mind by the Holy Spirit, an illumination you did not invent or cause to happen and which you cannot undo. The Holy Spirit has shown a light in your soul you could not turn off if you tried. There are things that you know as a Christian; know for sure. You know the Christian message is true! [Cf. Stott, 54-56]
But you can know something else: you can know that you yourself are a child of God and are in possession of eternal life, that you have been saved in other words. You know, or can know, not only that there is such a thing as salvation or eternal life, but that you have it! And, once again, you know that, or can know that, for the same reasons John urged upon his readers. After all, being sure about one’s own salvation is not a small thing. There are many people who think themselves Christians who are not. The Bible makes that very clear and so does John in his letter. For example, the false teachers who had troubled these believers were sure they were Christians and were sure they were even a more authentic type of Christian than the people to whom John is writing, but they had very different views about Jesus Christ than John’s readers had been taught and John will say, in fact, they were not Christians. We ourselves have had doubts, you know you have, about whether that church-goer or that person in the same sanctuary with yourself on a Sunday morning is really, genuinely a Christian. And to one degree or another most of us have had a doubt, perhaps fleeting, perhaps far more serious, about whether we ourselves are Christians. Am I play-acting or am I truly a follower of Jesus Christ? Am I one of those who will be welcomed at the feast or one against whom the door will be shut? Can we say that some folk are not Christians no matter their protestations to the contrary? Can we be sure that we are Christians? Yes, says John. You can know those things. For it is possible to know who a real Christian is and what a real Christian is. It is possible to put somebody’s claim to the test.
In 1885 an English scholar by the name of Robert Law published a study of First John that he entitled The Tests of Life. In that book Law argued that in this letter John presents us with what he calls “the three cardinal tests” by which a man or woman may judge whether he or she possesses eternal life. [Stott, 57] It is very interesting and exceedingly important what those three tests prove to be. For much is missing in I John that Christians have often taken as proof of salvation. I read sometime ago in the magazine of a prominent Christian youth ministry the story of a Christian grandmother who longed for the salvation of her teenaged granddaughter. This dear woman tried to talk to her granddaughter about the Lord Jesus but was rebuffed. And then, tragically, the teenager was killed in a car accident. Before her death the girl had been going with a friend to the meetings of this youth ministry and folks from that ministry had led a memorial service for her in her school gymnasium.
The next Christmas the grandmother happened to meet the local leader of the youth ministry in an ice cream shop and she asked him if her granddaughter had ever accepted Christ. “Was she saved?” she asked him. I’m quoting the article now:
“He grinned at me. ‘Oh, didn’t you know? She gave her heart to God two years ago at one of our weekend retreats. She never really established a close walk with the Lord, but she’s OK. Don’t you worry about Kimberly.”
The grandmother continues, “Christmas bells began to ring out the joy of the season in my heart. I’d just received a most magnificent gift.”
Here was a Christian worker telling a grandmother that her granddaughter was in heaven because she had claimed to have become a Christian at a youth meeting. But in the two years following that event the girl’s life did not change in a noticeable way, she showed no interest in Jesus Christ that was detectable to a grandmother who loved her and cared about her soul, she never told her Christian grandmother who knew her well that she was now a follower of the Lord Jesus. The grandmother was all that time praying for her granddaughter’s salvation because she didn’t suppose she was a Christian. Who can say; God alone knows the heart. But when John tells us how to know that we are the children of God, he doesn’t say anything about a person having once made a profession of faith in Jesus. The false teachers did that much. Many people have done that who don’t meet any of the three cardinal tests that John will set out by which we might know who is and who is not a Christian.
Those three tests Robert Law said, and I think correctly, were 1) the doctrinal test: do you believe the teaching of the Word of God concerning Jesus Christ, the God-man, and his saving work? 2) the moral test: do you live as a Christian will? And 3) the social test: do you love God and because you love God do you love your Christian brothers and sisters? These “tests”, as Law called them, are not haphazard or coincidental. They arise naturally, inevitably out of the gospel itself, out of the saving work of God in Christ. God loved his people and sent his beloved Son to save them. Love is the principle of salvation, its great motive force. No wonder then that it should produce love in those who experience it. They have been loved and will love in return. They have come to know God and God is love. That is the social test of salvation.
In the same way, salvation is deliverance from sin, which John says is lawlessness. It is God’s interest in saving his people to renew them in righteousness and goodness and holy behavior. And so it must be, inevitably will be that real Christians live a different life, a righteous life, a good life. That is the moral test of salvation.
And insofar as salvation itself has been accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ and insofar as he and he alone, the God-man, could have delivered sinners such as ourselves from the guilt and power of sin, true conviction about Jesus, who he is and what he did, must lie at the root of all salvation. Salvation is not a thing; it is a person, a life and a death and a resurrection from the dead: one person, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That a man or woman knows this, takes him and his supernatural life with true seriousness, has committed his or her life to Jesus, looks to him for salvation: this is the doctrinal test of salvation. We will have opportunity, Lord willing, to go over all three of these tests in some detail in the weeks to follow.
Summing everything up, John writes in 5:13, that he wrote his letter that we might know that we have eternal life; that we are saved in other words. He wants them to know that they are saved. Mutual sharing of that salvation in the confidence of it is the fellowship of which he spoke in verse 3.
So let’s conclude this introduction to John’s letter by making sure that we are on the same page as the great Apostle. John is concerned that these believers, unsettled by false teaching about Christ and salvation, be settled once again, made sure of their salvation in Christ. It will be joy for him and for them to know, really to know, again, afresh, that they have eternal life. So the question for us is do we think about salvation the way John thought about it? Do we feel about this the way he felt about it? Is the knowledge of your salvation uppermost in your mind? Surely you are thinking about other things and have to through the day; but if you were to stop and think about your life – about the life of your mind, about your attitudes and about your convictions and about the shape of your life morally, spiritually – is salvation uppermost in your mind? Is it the matter of all matters, the supreme interest of your life and the supreme interest that you have for the life of your children? As the Lord Jesus himself once put it, “what will it profit a man if he gains the entire world and forfeits his soul?” Forfeiting one’s soul is the opposite of salvation.
And, contrarily, what if life is difficult in many ways; what if you have been disappointed in many hopes, if only you have eternal life; if only the day is soon coming when all that is wrong will be put wonderfully and forever right? What is a lifetime of punishing sorrow if it is to be followed by an eternity of pure unmitigated bliss? Do you know how few people there are, at least comparatively, who think this way? For whom salvation is the supreme interest and consideration of life?
We worship on Sunday mornings in Colorado at the Cripple Creek Baptist church, a small congregation of faithful believers, maintaining a testimony to the gospel of Christ in a town nowadays given over to casino gambling. During church, often at the most inopportune moment, we hear the whistle of the little train that takes tourists on a short ride through the old gold fields. And as we drive to church and drive home after church we pass the people on the street walking from casino to casino, often with little cups of quarters in their hands, hoping against hope that they will hit the jackpot. Not a one of them is conscious that it is the Lord’s Day, a day for the worship of the Savior of the world. Hardly a one gives him or her salvation even a single thought. The music in the background is not the hymns of Christian worship but the metallic sound of slot machines turning over and dispensing the occasional winnings, a few dollars here or there. Just enough to keep the fools playing! Perhaps there is a poorly instructed Christian among them who doesn’t know better than to think that if he or she is on vacation it doesn’t count to miss church. But most of them haven’t a thought for their eternal souls. They are utterly unmindful whether there is such a thing as salvation or not. They think about almost everything else but eternal life. But not so John and for the obvious reason that he had seen that eternal life, he had seen it in flesh and blood, in the person of Jesus Christ. He had seenthat life in the holy conduct and perfect goodness of the Son of God. He realized what a human being could be and will be if only he entrusts his life to Jesus Christ.
He had seen that life in the resurrection of the Lord. Seen him die – remember, John was standing before the cross as the terrible drama played itself out – and then saw him alive again on the third day. He had seen with his own eyes the conquest of death and the beginning of new and perfect human life in another form of life, a form of life much the same and wonderfully different from that form of human life you and I know in this world. He had seen the Lord walk through walls but also seen him eat a piece of fish. He had heard him speak and touched him. He was still a real human being but wonderfully different, fit for eternal life.
He had seen that life in the ascension of the Lord Jesus, his leaving this world but not before promising to return someday to bring salvation in its fullness to those who were waiting for him. John had seen all of this with his own eyes. He had seen life with a capital “L,” eternal life. He had seen it and heard it and touched it.
He knew how real it was; and how wonderful it was. And with that knowledge it was impossible for John to think of anything else as comparable to this salvation, this eternal life. To obtain the life of Jesus oneself, to become like him in every way a mere human being can, to know the surpassing peace and joy of the conquest of death, to have fellowship with God himself, the living one; to have a life of the highest purpose to live now and know that that life will go on forever, great things to do with our heart and our hands, things to accomplish through unending years; I say, compared to such things there is nothing that matters in heaven or earth. If one does not have this what he has is only so much sound and fury signifying nothing. Do you find yourself from time to time envying the unbelievers around you, or at least some of them for what they have and what they can do, even, perhaps, for the sins they can enjoy that you cannot? Why? Put the question to yourself. A few years driving a better car, living in a bigger house, and enjoying the pleasures of the flesh, but never to know God, never to know that soon you will be with him; never to know the hope of perfect human life, good, pure, loving all the way down to the bottom of the heart—perfection; never to have the glorious expectation of awaking after death in a sinless world, there to enjoy the love of other sinless people, and to rejoice in the glory of God forever. Now you ask yourself: what is there possibly to envy?
“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.
John thinks knowing that makes a huge difference. What an extraordinary offer John is making to us; what an extraordinary opportunity for us to make sure of the one thing that matters for time and eternity. To think: there is such a thing as eternal life, life to the full, life worthy to be called life, life with a capital L, and that we may have it and know we have it! Extraordinary! Wonderful beyond words! The greatest thing in the world!