Crash-Course In John: Pre-Reqs for Paul, Part Three

For the last two weeks, we’ve been studying the general epistles. Here are links to the posts on James’s and Peter’s letters. As I mentioned in those posts, there’s evidence that when the books of the New Testament were first put together the order had James, Peter, John, and Jude’s letters between Acts and Romans (click here to learn more). This meant that if you read straight-through the New Testament, you’d read the general (also called “catholic”) epistles before getting to Paul’s letters. That reading order makes sense, since the letters that James, Peter, John, and Jude write are phrased in simpler language than Paul’s writings. The general epistles also give us a foundation for understanding the connections between Jesus’s teachings, the Old Testament, and our lives as New Covenant believers. You can think of the general epistles as a kind of pre-requisite course to help us with understanding Paul’s writings, similar to how you’d need to take intro to composition courses before specializing in teaching writing.

In today’s post, we’re going to focus on John’s three epistles. The first of these epistles begins without addressing a specific group, though from the context of the letter it’s clear he’s speaking to Christians–those who whom the gospel was preached and who chose to believe it. James’s letter addressed those of Israelite descent who believed in Jesus, Peter’s letters addressed Jewish and Gentile believers, and now John’s letter is written to everyone. The purpose he gives for writing this letter is “so that our joy may be complete” (or “your joy” depending on the Greek manuscript you use) (1 John 1:4, all quotes from NET).The mention of joy comes at the beginning of all three of his letters, and frames the encouraging and weighty subjects he’ll be covering.

Walk in the Light

The strongest theme throughout John’s three epistles is love. Here is where we learn “God is love,” and are reminded over and over that because God loves us we must love one another. Though John brings up other topics as well, he ties them all back to this core message. God is love, and because we’ve received God’s love we are duty-bound to respond to God and to other people in certain ways.

We’ll return to love before the end of this post, but that word actually doesn’t show up in John’s first letter until the second chapter. Originally, of course, there wouldn’t have been chapters dividing up the text of this letter, but that fact does make me curious about what things John felt it was important to talk about before diving into the main theme of his letter.

Now this is the gospel message we have heard from him and announce to you: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him and yet keep on walking in the darkness, we are lying and not practicing the truth. But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us.

1 John 1:5-10, NET

This recap of the gospel is what John starts his letter with. “God is light” is something that he wants to establish for his readers before sharing that “God is love.” If he just started off with “God is love,” then perhaps his readers might make the mistake that so many modern people have of assuming that because God is love, His love doesn’t come with any expectations placed on us. We who’ve received God’s love and who’ve been cleansed from our sins by Jesus’s sacrifice must walk in the light as well as live in God’s love. In short, we must “walk just as Jesus walked” (1 John 2:6).

John’s instruction to walk in God’s light is not a new commandment (1 John 2:7). It echoes all the commands from the Old Testament that could be summed-up as “love your neighbor as yourself” (Rom. 13:9-10; James 2:8). On the other hand, John also describes this as “a new commandment” because the darkness of old has now passed away and we have a far clearer picture of the true light shining through Jesus Christ (1 John 2:8). As Jesus said, he came to fill the “law and the prophets” to their fullest extent. Doing that magnifies what obedience looks like now as we follow the spirit of God’s commands. With that background, John moves into talking about love.

The one who says “I have come to know God” and yet does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in such a person. But whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has been perfected. …

The one who says he is in the light but still hates his fellow Christian is still in the darkness. The one who loves his fellow Christian resides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him.

1 John 2:4-5, 9-10, NET
Image by Pearl from LightStock

Be Warry of Dangers

John’s not writing about the contrast between people who are in God’s love and light and the people who are living a lie in order to scare us. Indeed, he has some very reassuring things to say to his readers (1 John 2:12-14). He’s writing to them, and to us, because we’ve been forgiven, we know God, and we are already overcoming the evil one. But John also knows that Christians face many challenges, and it’s easy to slip away if we don’t have reminders for how to follow God. So he writes to us about the wonderful life that God offers. He reminds us of all the wonderful things that await us as people who God calls His very own children. He also talks about the fact that if we have that hope inside us, we will work to purify ourselves just as God is pure (1 John 3:1-3). Alongside all this talk of love and light, John highlights the need to keep God’s commandments and stay faithful to Him in spite of the dangers we face.

Over and over again in these letters and in the gospel he wrote, John links love with commandment keeping. Alongside that, John highlights the importance of living according to the truth. This idea goes along with walking in the light, keeping God’s commandments, and practicing righteousness. In both of his two shorter letters, John says that he rejoices to learn that his children (apparently referring to those he taught this faith to) are living in the truth (2 John 1:4; 3 John 1:4). Living and walking in the truth ought to be our intention as well, but there are many things that try to work against that goal.

Many dangers face God’s people, and a lot of them are spiritual. One example that John talks about is people who are “antichrist.” Though there is a figure known as “the antichrist” coming in the end times, Johan says we’re currently in “the last hour” and that “many antichrists” have already appeared. These are often people who were once part of the Christian body, but have now left and who deny both the Father and the Son (1 John 2:18-19, 22-26). Much like Peter did in his second epistle, John warns that the most dangerous antichrists are those who are working from inside the church to subvert people into denying the Father and/or the Son. For that reason, we need to “test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1-6; see also 2 John 1:7-11).

Even though John is very reassuring to his readers and continually reminds them of things like “we have eternal life” (1 John 5:12-13), he also does not soften the strength of his warnings. In the second letter, he even says, “Watch out, so that you do not lose the things we have worked for, but receive a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not remain in the teaching of Christ does not have God. The one who remains in this teaching has both the Father and the Son” (2 John 1:7-8). John wants us to take these warnings seriously and let them inspire us to remain in holiness. Whether or not we choose light, love, and commandment keeping is a choice that has eternal consequences.

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Love Always

It’s in the context of all these reminders, reassurances, and warnings that John highlights the vital importance of love. In these three letters, “love” is translated from agape or its root word agapao. This is a selfless, benevolent love that always seeks the good of the one who is loved. Agape is often described as “godly love,” although other words, like philos are also used of God’s love in the New Testament. As we read through John’s letters, we’re warned not to “love the world or the things in the world,” but rather to focus our love on God as we practice the things which are in accordance with His will (1 John 2:15-17).

John tells us, “Everyone who does not practice righteousness—the one who does not love his fellow Christian—is not of God” (1 John 3:10). From that, we can infer that practicing righteousness involves loving our brethren. Indeed, John goes on to say, “We know that we have crossed over from death to life because we love our fellow Christians” (1 John 3:14). It’s worthwhile at this point to go and read all of chapters 3 and 4 because that section of the letter goes into so much depth on this particular topic. Because of God’s love for us–which results in us being redeemed by Jesus’s sacrifice and being called the Father’s children–“we also ought to love one another “(1 John 4:11). If we don’t genuinely love each other, we can’t even say that we love God. Unless our love includes other believers, we have no concept of what God’s love truly means. And our love must also include keeping God’s commandments (2 John 1:5-6).

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As John wraps up his letter, he looks back on everything discussed so far and says this:

We know that everyone fathered by God does not sin, but God protects the one he has fathered, and the evil one cannot touch him. We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us insight to know him who is true, and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This one is the true God and eternal life. Little children, guard yourselves from idols.

1 John 5:18-21, NET

I find John’s writings some of the most poetic and inspiring of the New Testament. His emphasis on God’s light and love is beautiful, and I love the way he talks about God welcoming us into His light and His family. In a compassionate, empathetic way, John also writes about the need for Christians to live and walk in a certain way. We’re not to be fearful, worried that God will cut us off and cast us away if we slip-up, but we must at the same time commit to practicing righteousness instead of sin. God has given us everything we need for salvation. He loves us and He wants us as part of His family. We just need to be on guard to make sure we don’t let those good things slip away from us through neglect or rejection. We know the truth of what’s going on in this world and behind the scenes, including that the world lies under the power of the evil one. With that in mind, we can be vigilant in order to guard against putting any idols before God or falling prey to the influences of those who are antichrist.

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Finding Treasures, New and Old, in the Pages of Scripture

Have you ever been reading a familiar part of the Bible–one of the gospels, for example–and came across something you’d never noticed before? I don’t know how many dozens of times I’ve read Matthew, and just a few weeks ago I noticed a verse that I don’t think I’ve ever thought about before. It comes right after a collection of several parables about the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus says,

“Have you understood all these things?” They replied, “Yes.” Then he said to them, “Therefore every expert in the law who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his treasure what is new and old.”

Matthew 13:51-52, NET

As I’ve pondered this verse over the past few weeks while studying the kingdom of God, one thing that jumps out at me is the importance Jesus puts on the old and the new. Treasuring both seems like a different recommendation than what some other scriptures teach us about how to relate to the old and the new. But Jesus also makes this sound like something we’re supposed to do. An “expert in the law” (also translated “scribe” or “Torah scholar/teacher”) who is trained (or “discipled”) for the kingdom seems like someone who has paid close attention to Jesus’s teachings and understand them. So how can we imitate this disciple-scholar’s approach to the kingdom of God?

An Old and New Commandment

Describing someone who is trained or discipled for the kingdom as bringing out old and new treasures can seem strange in light of Jesus’s other teachings. The parables of the new patch on an old garment and new wine in old wineskins make it seem like the new and old is incompatible (Luke 5:36-39). Later, Paul writes about cleaning out the old so we can be new, and of the old passing away because we are new in Christ (1 Cor. 5:7; 2 Cor 5:17). Part of figuring out this puzzle involves asking the question, “Old and new what?” because not all these passages are talking about the same old and new things. In addition to keeping that in mind, I think the key to unlocking this mystery is found in John’s writings:

Dear friends, I am not writing a new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have already heard. On the other hand, I am writing a new commandment to you which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.

1 John 2:7-8, NET

Jesus did not do away with the old commandments and words of God (Matt. 5:17-20). He did, however, bring something new to add to it, including a new covenant which would supersede the old (Heb. 8-9). Part of participating in this new covenant involves us cleaning old things that are incompatible with godliness out of our lives (that’s what Paul was talking about in the Corinthians passages). It also involves properly balancing and appreciating the new and old treasures of God’s word.

Called into the New, Founded on the Old

People often think of Christianity as something new that Jesus started. The way scripture talks about it, though, “Christian” is just a new name applied to believers who were continuing to follow the teachings of the one true God and align with His unfolding plan as Jesus revealed the next steps. Our faith’s roots aren’t found in the first century C.E.–they’re found “in the beginning” when God created the heavens and the earth. Jesus coming as the Messiah was the next step in the plan God had laid out even before He laid the foundations for the earth (Matt. 25:34; Eph. 1:4; 1 Pet. 1:20).

As part of His work here on earth, Jesus revealed more fully how to worship God and invited us to “serve in the new life of the Spirit and not under the old written code” (Rom. 7:6, NET). Now, is Paul saying here that the old has no value? “Absolutely not!” Rather, he argues that “we uphold the law” when we live by faith” (Rom. 3:31; 6:15; 7:7).

For God, who said “Let light shine out of darkness,” is the one who shined in our hearts to give us the light of the glorious knowledge of God in the face of Christ.

2 Corinthians 4:6-7, NET

The work God is doing in us and the knowledge He gives us are amazing treasures. Part of this treasure of understanding involves an appreciation of the value both of the new and old things that God has given His people. Through His extraordinary power and mercy, we are called into a new thing founded on very old truths.

Finding and Keeping Kingdom Treasures

If we go back to the kingdom of heaven parables that Jesus shared before making the statement where we started this post, we find that He talked about treasure there, too.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid. And because of his joy, he goes out and sells all that he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. Upon finding a pearl of great value, he went out and sold all that he had and bought it.” …

Then He said to them, “Therefore every Torah scholar discipled for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure both new things and old.”

Matthew 13:44-46, 52, TLV

God’s kingdom is a treasure so precious we should be willing–and even joyful–to give up whatever is needed to get the kingdom (Matt. 10:21; Luke 18:22). And we should be collecting and treasuring things related to the kingdom, such as the “treasures of wisdom and knowledge” hidden in Jesus (Col. 2:3, see also Matt. 6:19-21). As we continue to learn and grow, let’s appreciate the rich history of our faith and our own personal experiences, as well as the new things God teaches and the glorious future He has planned.

Featured image by Oliver Eyth from Pixabay

Drawn To God

My new favorite Bible Study tool is the New English Translation with its 60,000+ translator’s notes. As I was perusing the pages (you can get a print version or access the whole thing for free online), I noticed the translation notes on Song of Songs take up more space than the actual text. Apparently, not only is this text’s interpretation widely debated, but it is also notoriously difficult to translate. As you might know if you’ve read some of my other posts or my short book God’s Love Story, I favor the interpretation that the Song is both a celebration of human love and an allegory of Christ’s love for the church. With that in mind, here’s one of the verses with a footnote that I found intriguing:

Draw me[a] after you; let us hurry!
May the king bring me into his bedroom chambers!

[note a] The verb מָשַׁךְ (mashakh, “draw”) is a figurative expression (hypocatastasis) which draws an implied comparison between the physical acting of leading a person with the romantic action of leading a person in love. Elsewhere it is used figuratively of a master gently leading an animal with leather cords (Hos 11:4) and of a military victor leading his captives (Jer 31:3). The point of comparison might be that the woman wants to be the willing captive of the love of her beloved, that is, a willing prisoner of his love.

Song of Songs 1:4, NET

Another translation for mawshak in this verse is “Take me away with you” (NIV, WEB). There are nuances of meaning for this Hebrew word (as the NET footnote points out), but the basic one is “to draw, drag, seize” (Brown–Driver–Briggs; Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament). Here in Song, and in a few other places as well, it can be understood as “entice, allure, woo” (TWOT). In those verses, it is connected with one of the many pictures God gives us for relating to Him–as a lover alluring, wooing, and drawing His bride to Himself.

Alluring us with Love, Kindness and Grace

Hosea is one of the books that makes the analogy of God as bridegroom and husband most clearly. God instructs the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute because ancient Israel “continually commits spiritual prostitution by turning away form the Lord” (Hos 1:2, NET). God used Hosea’s marriage and his writings to teach that, even though Israel was unfaithful, God still promised “in the future I will allure her,” and then “you will call, ‘My husband’; you will never again call me, ‘My master'” (Hos. 2:14, 16, NET).

Later in Hosea, God talks about how He “drew” (mawshak) Israel out of Egypt “with leather cords” (NET), “with cords of a man” (KJV), or “cords of human kindness” (NIV). Though the NET presents a compelling case for the “leather” translation, I favor “human kindness” because it connects more strongly to the overall theme of God wooing His people that is found so often in Hosea. It would also echo the language God uses in Jeremiah 31:3.

Yahweh appeared of old to me, saying, “Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love. Therefore I have drawn you with loving kindness.”

Jeremiah 31:3, WEB

Alternate translations for this passage include “That is why I have continued to be faithful to you” (NET), “That is why I have drawn you to myself through my unfailing kindness” (NET footnote), and “This is why in my grace I draw you to me” (CJB). God’s drawing of us to Himself is prompted by His everlasting love, and it is done with faithfulness and kindness.

Longing for God to Satisfy Us

The time Jeremiah speaks of when God draws His people to Him is followed by a time “when watchmen will call out … ‘Come! Let us go to Zion to worship the Lord our God!’” (31:6, NET). Those who claim the Lord as their God are eager to be drawn, rescued, and gathered by Him (Jer. 31:7-9). Their response here is much like the Beloved in Song of Songs–take me away! draw me after you!–and like that of David in this psalm.

How precious is your loving kindness, God!
The children of men take refuge under the shadow of your wings.
They shall be abundantly satisfied with the abundance of your house.
You will make them drink of the river of your pleasures.
For with you is the spring of life.
In your light we will see light.
Oh continue (mawshak) your loving kindness to those who know you,
your righteousness to the upright in heart.

Psalm 36:7-10, WEB

We can find all we need to satisfy us in the great One who loves us, the Lord our God. We can call on Him to draw us closer, and He will faithfully respond to our longing for Him.

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Persevere, Grow, Love: Jesus’s Message To The End-Time Believers

A lot of people want to know if we’re living in the end times. Is this it? Have the events of Revelation started? Will Jesus return soon? And there are plenty of people willing to answer them by setting dates, making predictions, or identifying the mark of the beast. There’s much fear, much distraction, and an eagerness — sometimes almost a desperation — to figure things out. We often overlook that the apostle John offered a simple answer to this question nearly 2,000 years ago.

Little children, these are the end times, and as you heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen. By this we know that it is the final hour. (1 John 2:18, all quotes from WEB translation)

We are living in the end times, and have been for as long as there’s been a new covenant church. Whether Christ returns this year, the next, or 100 years from now the things He had to say about how His people should prepare for the end of this world do apply to us. An end will come for each of us one way or another (whether we die or Christ returns before that), and we are told to be ready.

Near the end of His human ministry, Jesus’s disciples asked, “tell us, when will these things be? What is the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3). In Matthew 24:4-41 He answered their question by describing what “the beginning of sorrows” will look like, how things will get worse, and signs that His coming is near. He also clarifies that we do not know “the day or hour” but that we can still be ready and watchful. He then expounds on how to do that through a series of parables. Read more

Do I Love God Enough To Obey Him?

The apostle John had a particularly close relationship with Jesus. Though Jesus loved all of “his own who were in the world,” John is identified in particular as a disciple “whom Jesus loved” (John 13:1, 23; 19:26; 20:2, 21:7, 20-24). If we want to know Jesus — and we do, because that’s part of salvation and eternal life (John 17:3; Phil. 3:8) — then who better to learn from than John?

We’re taking a short break from our series on godly wisdom because I really felt like this was the topic I should be studying this week. Love and relationship are so important to God. Knowing Him and being known by Him are central to salvation, Christianity, and our eternal hope. We have to know Him in His way, though. Jesus said there will be people at the end who think they know Him and yet never had a relationship with Him (Matt. 7:21-23). That’s a scary thought, but John makes sure to leave us guides in his writings for how to love Jesus and how to tell whether or not we truly know Him.

Knowing God is Essential to Life

John’s writings are among my favorite in the New Testament. He highlights Jesus’ power and divinity — the things that make Him so much higher than us — more than any other gospel writer, yet He also highlights Jesus’s love and His longing for relationship — the things that make Him closer to us. The way John talks about Jesus and the Father makes it clear that the powerful, eternal, creator God longs for a relationship with us.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him. Without him, nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. … The Word became flesh, and lived among us.  (John 1:1-4, 14, WEB)

Jesus came here not just to die for our sins and reconcile us to God, but also to get to know us. He is the good shepherd who knows His sheep and is known by His own, who choose to follow Him (John 10:14, 27). He calls us His followers, friends, chosen, and beloved (John 15:12-16). And He reveals that knowing Him and the Father is key to eternal life (John 17:3). The importance of knowing and being known by God cannot be overstated. Read more

Who Are You? How to Take off Your Masks and Live with Integrity in Your Godly Identity

How many versions of you are there? Are you a different person behind the wheel of your car than you are when speaking to your grandmother? Do you play one part at work and another part with friends on the weekend? Do you hide parts of yourself or change the way you present yourself based on circumstances?

We all do this. To a certain extent, it’s useful to make your behavior fit the context. You don’t want to wear the same clothes, for example, to grub out a stump in the backyard as to attend a wedding. But when the change is more extreme — polite to a date but angry and vindictive when driving in traffic — it can be a problem.

Integrity comes form the Latin word integer, meaning something whole and complete in itself. If you are a person with integrity then there is only one version of you (“The True Meaning of Integrity” by So-Young Kang). You act with honesty and live by strong moral principles whether or not someone is watching. People with integrity apologize when they are wrong or cause inconvenience, they refuse to act viciously even when fighting, and they give others the benefit of the doubt (“7 Signs of People With Integrity” by Seth Meyers).

It’s very difficult to live with complete wholeness and consistency. And it’s well-nigh impossible to do so if you don’t know who you are and what you believe. As the Biblical writer James said, “he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven by the wind and tossed” (James 1:6, WEB). We need an anchor for our identity if we’re to live with integrity. Read more