"Light and Life - or Lies?"
April 19, 2009 1Jn.1:1-2:2
SHADES OF SPIRITUAL GRAY: THE NEW GNOSTICS
As the decades pass and Christendom fades further into the past, we see an increase in immorality, discontent, and unfaithfulness. We become what we worship; as society gives proportionately more of its time to media watching, our lives come to resemble the heartbreak and violence that undergird much programming. As moral standards deteriorate, it becomes harder to say anything's right or wrong or shameful - for fear of making somebody feel bad.
In some ways, culture is reverting to the lies of Gnosticism that began in the first century AD. Some false teachers 'approved of gratifying every physical lust because the body was going to be destroyed anyway' (Life Application Bible). That would be similar to today's materialism, that says, "You only go around once - might as well grab it while you can!"
Other false teachers back in late New Testament times taught that "people had no natural tendency toward sin, that they were 'without sin', and that they were then incapable of sinning...[they] refused to take sin seriously." (ibid.) That sounds like the optimistic humanism of the 20th Century, influential people like educator John Dewey. Secularism tends not to talk about 'sin' - it's hardly in the modern person's glossary! "Maladaptive behaviours" maybe, addictions and syndromes resulting from unfortunate home environments, but not 'sin' - that's a meaningless concept because there's no point of reference. The motto on the street today would be, "People can do whatever they like as long as [what?...] they don't hurt anybody else".
In the vacuum created by The Enlightenment's eschewing of religion, subtle Gnosticism has even wormed itself into the philosophies undergirding what your children will be taught at university, and this generation's pastors are taught in counselling. The New Bible Dictionary notes, "Salvation for the Gnostic...is to be alerted to the existence of his divine pneuma [spark] and then, as a result of this knowledge, to escape on death from the material world to the spiritual...The Gnostic was trying to discover his own identity, and the appreciation of this fact led the eminent psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, for example, to base many of his observations about human nature on an understanding of ancient Gnosticism...In a Gnostic context, 'salvation' is not understood in terms of deliverance from sin, but as a form of existential self-realization." Think, for example, of Abraham Maslow's pyramid of human needs: at the base you have basic needs such as food, physical safety; at the top you find "self-actualization" - that's the ultimate goal of existence for a secular worldview. Me, me, me - realizing my full potential. Which is what makes the first line of Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life so arresting: "It's not about you."
Thankfully, the lies of materialism and secularism are not new; Gnosticism was saying similar things when the apostle John, probably at least in his 70s by that time, penned his first letter to the churches around 85 AD. He confronts the falsehood head on, debunking the untruths, reminding the Christians of his generation and ours what life is really supposed to be about, and how to keep in touch with the most fulfilling relationship we can have.
THE SCANDALOUS FACT: GOD WALKED AMONG US
Gnostic teaching hinged on a radical dualism, the belief that the created world was evil, and was totally separate from and in opposition to the world of spirit. Gnostics believed the supreme God dwelt in unapproachable splendour in this spiritual world, and had no dealings with the world of matter, which was the creation of an inferior being who kept mankind imprisoned within their material existence. In this system, a real incarnation of God in man was impossible and was only apparent or temporary. For instance, a man named Cerinthus taught in Asia Minor around the same time and place when John was writing; Cerinthus held that Jesus was a good man who was indwelt by the heavenly Christ from the time of his baptism until just before his crucifixion.
Today you may encounter folk who allow that Jesus lived and taught and maybe even healed some people through psychic ability; but that's as far as it goes. They'll suggest Jesus 'was a good moral teacher' but that's about all. That view parallels Cerinthus - treating Jesus' teachings as inspiring, helpful even, but His death as totally irrelevant.
However a careful reading of the gospels shows Jesus won't allow that possibility. His claims to be the Son of God and emphasis on His death and resurrection put Him in a totally different category than 'good moral teacher'. To say what He did makes Him a liar, a lunatic - or Lord.
The apostles hold that God's presence in Jesus Christ wasn't just an appearance or a temporary takeover: instead, God-the-Word did in fact become flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. The particularity of Jesus embodying divinity right up through to His death was a problem for preachers from the get-go: Paul in 1Corinthians(1:23) says he preached Christ crucified, 'a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.' This God-incarnating Jesus didn't fit their categories.
Decades later, John is addressing the first generation that has grown up completely in the church. Doubts arose as distance in space and time from the original events in Palestine passed. Jesus' contemporaries, the eyewitnesses, had been either martyred or dying naturally of age for some time. So the elderly apostle begins by reminding them of first facts, which go right to the root in exploding the myths of the false teachers. Vv1-3 emphasize the actuality of Jesus' incarnation: what the apostles proclaim is the Word of life that was from the beginning - with the Father before creation, as in the start of John's Gospel. John reminds his audience the apostles "have heard...have seen with our eyes...have looked at and our hands have touched" the Word: hearing, seeing, touching - 3 senses involved there. This wasn't some mirage or ghost but a very real person, before and after the Resurrection. V2 "The life appeared; we have seen it...[it] has appeared to us." Again for emphasis in v3, "We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard..." John, like Paul, anchors the gospel in tangible space-time events. Christianity is fundamentally sens-ible, rooted in history and happenings such as judges seek evidence of in court cases today. It's not just theory or an interesting philosophy.
Dualism (which is behind Gnosticism) discards or writes off the material world; Christianity redeems it, the Bible treats creation as valuable because God made it and declared it 'very good', not inherently evil or inferior. Our bodies become not shells to seek escape from, but tools or equipment by which God's righteousness is exercised and His Kingdom communicated, temples for His Holy Spirit. Jesus the living Word was made flesh for our redemption as whole persons - not spirits isolated from bodies.
From the proclamation of this good news springs up a fellowship that is very precious - fellowship with other believers, and fellowship with the Father and His Son Jesus (v3) - a fellowship characterized by joy (v4).
DISTINCT FROM THE DARK
In the past couple of centuries, absolutes have given way to relativism. William Gairdner in The War Against the Family in a section titled "The Relativity Illusion" describes three 'blows' which "quickly persuaded Western civilization that there were no longer any absolutes, and therefore no truth and no morality worth discussing, except of a utilitarian or self-interested sort." There was the cosmological blow, under Copernicus and Galileo; the biological blow, launched by Darwin; and the psychological blow, launched by Sigmund Freud. Marx's economics and Einstein's theory of relativity further complicated matters. Of course, flaws have become apparent in some of these theories, such as the bankruptcy of evolution and debunking of Freud. But Gairdner observes, "For all these failed explanations of physical and human reality, we have gained mostly rampant moral relativism and, worst of all, the end of the idea of moral hierarchy. This should not surprise us, for in an egalitarian age we have declared that everything will be equal, including all moral values."
Relativism leaves each person the judge of what's right and wrong; in Gairdner's words, we've "made it acceptable for people to walk about designing their own moral schemes and dismissing what others considered absolute moral transgressions as the opinion of fools."
The early Gnostics muddied the moral waters, too. Vv6, 8, and 10 seem to refer to claims that were current at the time John wrote. V6 cites the "claim to have fellowship with [God] yet walk in the darkness..." How could that be? Gnostics considered the body evil; for some, that led to asceticism and treating the body harshly, but for others that led to licentiousness. They reasoned that since matter (not breaking God's law) was considered evil, breaking His law was of no moral consequence. They claimed "that because of their possession of special 'knowledge' they were released from the normal rules of society..." (New Bible Dictionary)
So there was a disconnect for them between their spiritual/religious life and their everyday actions. What about us? Even if we're not Gnostics, do we separate the spiritual and the material? Do we behave differently on Friday night than Sunday morning? Do we show the same integrity and stewardship when paying bills in our business as when we put money on the offering plate? Or do we mentally live in two different worlds - a 'church' compartment and 'not-church' compartment? Do we say or do things in 'play mode' we wouldn't in 'church mode'?
Vv5-7 refer to the absoluteness of God's revelation. "This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all." (V5) Not a hint of shifting shade, no grays or commingling of darkness and light. A commentary notes, "Light represents what is good, true and holy, while darkness represents what is evil and false." God is not the author of evil. "Give thanks to the Lord, for He IS GOOD," Psalm 118 begins and ends. God's not an ogre, but loving and kind, faithful and merciful, yet holding people accountable too. Jesus in His earthly life was perfectly good and holy, yet He could say that those who'd seen Him had seen the Father (Jn 14:9).
V7 speaks of the oneness believers in Christ share as they reflect God's light together. "But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another..." We're 'on the same page' when we're in harmony with God's light and goodness.
By contrast, v6 says, "So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practising the truth." (NLT) That's spiritual schizophrenia, supposing you can live in both kingdoms at once. Not so - that's being self-deceived, lying to yourself.
Walking in darkness blinds us to our true condition. Ravi Zacharias tells of the man called to meet with the principal of his son's school. The principal explained they'd caught the son stealing pencils - not once, but several times. The father became agitated and said, "Why would he be stealing pencils? I can bring him all the pencils he needs - I'll just bring them home from work!"
COME CLEAN WITH GOD: C - B - A
So there was the claim to have fellowship with God yet walk in the darkness (v6). In vv8&10 we find another Gnostic claim: the claim 'to be without sin', or that 'we have not sinned'. John writes if we claim that, "we deceive ourselves" - the verb means 'to cause to stray', to wander. It's implied here that people might claim to be without sin for one of two reasons. Either (a) they're ignorant of God's word ('the truth is not in us' v8 / 'His word has no place in our lives' v10); or (b) we secretly know we're guilty and we're just stifling our conscience or the voice of the Holy Spirit - v10, "If we claim we have not sinned, we make Him out to be a liar..." Like Lucifer back in the Garden of Eden whispering to Eve, "Did God really say..." and "You will not surely die": casting doubt on what God's clearly revealed, making Him out to be a liar. (Gen 3:1,4)
What are some helps back to the light? How can we 'come clean' with God? "C" stands for Confessing our sins. V9, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." The verb 'confess' here literally means 'to say the same thing as another; agree, assent'. Agree with God's view of the wrong thing you've done, that wandering thought you entertained. See it as He sees it and admit it.
"B" stands for 'cleansed by the Blood'. V7b, "...the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin." V9, He will "purify us from all unrighteousness." The verb is to cleanse, a catharsis, letting it all go. John in His gospel records seeing the soldier's spear pierce Jesus' side and blood and water poured forth - a sure sign the man on the cross had really died (Jn 19:34). Later in this letter he writes about the Spirit, the water, and the blood being in agreement, testifying about how God's Son really came - not just in baptism but all the way to dying for our sins (1Jn 5:6ff). 2:2 notes, "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world." God made him a propitiation, an appeasing offering in the place of you and me.
And a 3rd step to come clean with God is "A", rely on our Advocate. 2:1 says that "we have One who speaks to the Father in our defense - Jesus Christ, the Righteous One." Now, 'speaks...in our defense' translates the word 'paraclete' in the Greek: 'one called alongside to help', as Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit in John 14-16. Another translation is 'advocate' (KJV/NRSV) - kind of like a lawyer presenting the case on your behalf.
Over the past few months I've had occasion to morally support someone in a court case. In my limited experience, we discovered that even if you can't afford a lawyer, you should be sure to get to court early that day so you can speak to the 'duty counsel'. It's important to speak to this designated catch-all lawyer for 2 reasons: they know the law and can coach you on courtroom protocol so you don't embarrass yourself in front of the judge; and, they may actually be able to do something to help your case, for example put you in touch with somebody that can arrange terms, maybe mitigate or lessen your sentence.
Jesus is our 24/7 'duty counsel' before Almighty Holy God, pleading our case, speaking to the Father in our defence. Our Advocate. This isn't some obscure doctrine, John's fanciful idea; Paul tells the Romans (8:34) Jesus is at the right hand of God interceding for us; Hebrews 7(25) says He always lives to make intercession for believers. That's special - we need that!
So, to sum up - there is absolute truth and standards because Jesus really came in the flesh. He demonstrated that God is light, absolutely good and holy and true. No darkness at all. If we claim to know Him but persist in sin, we're deceiving ourselves and lying. However we needn't be stuck there, cut off from God because of our past wrongs: God has provided the blood of His Son as a means by which we can be restored to fellowship with God, if we confess our sin, naming it for it is, and trusting in Jesus our Advocate at the Father's side.
Confession is humbling, but it's cleansing. Recently Trenton's mother Marge stayed at our place for a couple of nights while travelling with her daughter and son-in-law. Now, six years ago when Emily and Trent were married in our backyard, Marge and her daughter were eager to help get our place ready; Yvonne had just had her first brain surgery 5 months before, so they graciously offered to help clean windows, dust, vacuum, and so on. Marge has supplemented her farm income by cleaning houses, so she's very good at it. But we were already stressed by the wedding preparations, and there came a point where the vacuuming and moving furniture was just too much, so we asked them to stop. In the stress of the moment, I didn't say it as tactfully as I should, and feelings were hurt.
Now, that was 6 years ago; in the meantime we've been to their place in Alberta and had a good visit. But when she was here this time it occurred to me an apology might be in order. It would have been easy to ignore the whole incident and pretend it had never happened. But I took a hard swallow and plunged into an apology. Marge was very gracious and understanding and treated it as if it were no big deal. But confession did help clear the air and make way for forgiveness and healing.
Praise the Lord for the light and life He shines into our lives when we admit His truth about our condition and seek His cleansing! How precious to know Jesus is our advocate and atoning sacrifice, clearing away all that junk, so we can enjoy fresh fellowship with God and others! Let's pray.