Preaching Series on 1 John

Preaching Series on 1 John

Psalm 23
"Psalm 23," John August Swanson. Used by permission from the artist. Image © by John August Swanson.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

July 13, 2014

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Commentary on 1 John 1:1—2:2; 4:1-21

Preaching Series on 1 John

July 13, 2014

Preaching text: 1 John 1:1-4 God’s Tangible Word of Life
Gospel: John 1:14-16 The Word became flesh

The short book known as 1 John re-proclaims the message of John’s gospel in a changed context. The gospel recognized that both Jesus’ followers and his foes agreed that he was human, but not everyone could see God’s work being revealed in him. So the gospel emphasized the divine side of his identity. 1 John, however, speaks to a context in which some have taken that emphasis too far, and saw Jesus only in spiritual terms. So the epistle emphasizes Jesus’ humanity.

Most people today certainly agree that Jesus was human, yet many have trouble with the particularity of that claim. They may find it plausible to think of Jesus an expression of spiritual or ethical ideals, but have difficulty with the particulars of his life, crucifixion, and resurrection. So 1 John focuses on the embodied word of God, and calls for an embodied faith.

The opening line of the gospel spoke of “the Word” that created all things in “the beginning,” and the epistle shifts the focus to the “Word of life” as the Christian message, which finds its “beginning” in the incarnation. The point of that message is to create fellowship or “koinonia” between God and people, and among people themselves.

1 John recognizes that God “speaks” an embodied word, which will repeatedly be identified as love. Authentic love is not an abstraction. It comes through speech, action, and presence. That is the manner of God’s communication. That will characterize authentic faith and authentic community as well.

July 20, 2014

Preaching text: 1 John 1:5 — 2:2 If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves
Gospel: John 1:29 The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world

Integrity involves consistency between words and actions. When we follow through with the commitments that we have made, it shows integrity. When we say one thing and do another, it creates dissonance. We generally do not like to live with the contradiction, so we become experts in spin control. Initially we may wince at what we have said or done, but we go on to tell ourselves and others that it really was okay. It might have appeared to be a contradiction, but with a few tweaks to the storyline, we can show that we were right all along.

1 John provides language that has often been used in liturgy. It speaks of the contradiction between saying that we have fellowship with God, and yet live in ways that contradict that relationship. It names the propensity for kidding ourselves about ourselves. The writer says that acknowledging the problem is the first step toward moving beyond it. Things become more specific in later chapters, which speak of the contradiction between saying we love God, while conveying a lack of love by what we say and do.

Forgiveness is the mending of relationships. The basic idea is release. It is the point at which one can be honest about the damage that has been done, while saying that what has happened does not determine the future. Forgiveness is the moment when a future that has been blocked by something that has damaged relationship is opened up by the word that offers release for new relationship.

July 27, 2014

Preaching text: 1 John 4:1-6 Testing the spirits
Gospel: John 14:15-17 The Spirit of truth

In the context of 1 John, there were many ways to be spiritual. The basic issue, according to chapter 4, is whether spiritual claims are centered in the Word that Jesus embodied. For the writer, the incarnate Word cannot be reduced to spiritual abstraction. Divine love is not simply an idea. It takes tangible form in the life Jesus lived and the death that he died. In John’s gospel and epistles, the death of the human being named Jesus is the most radical expression of divine love for the world. If God’s Word was not embodied, there is no reason for faith to be embodied.

The writer uses the word “antichrist” for the view he opposes. In the popular imagination, the antichrist is a political figure who is coming to dominate the world at the end of the age. But in 1 John, that is not the case. The Greek prefix “anti” means both “against” and “substitute for.” The writer uses the term “antichrist” for a form of the gospel that circulated in his own time. It is “against” Christ because it offers a thoroughly spiritualized “substitute for” Christ. And the writer notes that the world finds the disembodied message more appealing than the incarnate one.

Yet the passage says that believers “overcome” or “conquer” the power of the antichrist. Note that there is no description of apocalyptic destruction. Instead, victory is won wherever faith is professed and lived out in love (1 John 5:1, 4).

August 3, 2014

Preaching text: 1 John 4:7-21 We love because God first loved us
Gospel: John 15:9-11 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you

This section of 1 John is one of the Bible’s great “love” chapters. At its core is that “God is love” (4:8, 16). God is the subject and love is the descriptor. God is a living being, whose identity is defined by love. We might want to reverse the sequence and say that “Love is God,” but that would mean elevating love — as a principle — to divine status. But here love characterizes God, whose expressions of love create relationships between himself and others.

The love that defines who God is, finds expression in what God does through the sacrificial death of his Son. In the Johannine writings, sin separates people from God. In human terms, the highest manifestation of love is to lay down one’s life for another (John 15:13). Therefore, to convey love in a manner accessible to human beings, God gives himself in love through the crucifixion of Jesus. That message is designed to overcome the separation that sin has created by awakening a new relationship of love.

Many translations say that God’s love is “perfected” when people love one another (1 John 4:12; cf. 4:17, 18). The Greek words here are based on the word “telos,” which means “goal.” The idea is that God’s love reaches its goal when it creates relationships of love with people and relationships among people. As an abstraction, love falls short of that goal. It is imperfect. When the love of God finds expression in human love, there the goal is reached.