September 5, 2010

A Final Word on Reality

Well, we finally reach the end of our journey through 1 John.  And what a journey it has been!  We have come a long way and have covered a lot of ground since the beginning of July.  Some of it has been very encouraging and some has been pretty hard hitting.  What I have tried my best to do, though, throughout this series is to leave you with a clear outline of the boundaries of reality.  Surely not all of this life is black and white, but life according to the law of the kingdom is a simple thing.  It’s not easy, but it is simple: believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God and act in the light of that belief in every circumstance of your life.  Piece of cake, right?  Riiight.  Let’s be real here—that is, after all, what all of this has been about.  Reality is rarely a breeze, but it is always right.  And the call of not only this letter, but of our entire lives is to live in God’s reality, not the world’s fantasy.  Before finishing out the letter this morning, let me quickly review for you where we have come so that what we are tying up this morning is fresh in your minds.

A full two months ago I introduced to you the idea of living according to the reality of the kingdom.   We talked then about the fact that living in God’s light, God’s reality, means embracing the reality of the darkness of both this world and our own souls.  Part of that means recognizing that while sin is grossly inappropriate for the one who has been born of God, we still have a sinful nature with which to contend.  This isn’t a very comforting reality, but the purpose of reality isn’t to be comforting.  It’s to define what is so that we can stay away from what isn’t.  Well, if we are going to be living according to what is, we need to be obeying God’s word and not the world’s.  The world makes all kinds of promises to get us to pursue its empty life, but these will carry us nowhere in the end.  God’s word, however, will stand and endure forever.  The way in which we go about establishing a resistance to the Siren songs of this world is to cling to the truth of the Gospel.  When we cling tightly to the identity and authority of Christ and its implications, the world’s lies are revealed for what they are…lies.  In fact, the lies of this world form the jumping off point for much (if not all) of the sin we commit.  We believe something false about ourselves or about God and so we act in ways contrary to His commands.  Such a life is not, however, appropriate for the one who has been born of God.  We are called not to sin, but to righteousness.  Let us live in God’s reality, not the world’s fantasy.

Moving forward, a month ago Cody Bishop walked you through some of the implications of this call to righteousness.  It can be fairly summed up with a simple phrase: love one another.  This love we are to have for one another is not a simple thing, though.  It is a rich and deeply spiritual practice whereby we consciously act in the best interest of those around us.  This should be the primary content of our obedience of God.  In the end, such obedience gives us confidence of our standing before Him because of the presence of His Spirit in us.  After jamming on the theme of love for a while, at this mention of the Spirit John took a few verses to unpack exactly how we can know whether or not we are acting on behalf of God’s Spirit or one of the spirits of this world.  The evidence for this plays itself out ethically as we had seen previously, but here John reminded us that what we believe matters too.  Those who have been born of God are not performing milquetoast good deeds in the name of a wimpy Christ who came to remind people to behave, as if He were a stuffy teacher.  No, they are compelled by a vision of a Christ who is at the same time fully God and fully man, thus bridging the gap between the two.  They are driven by a vision of a Christ who came and proclaimed a kingdom that radically departed from anything ever seen on earth before and then died to throw open the doors to it.  The following two weeks, then, we started putting all this together.  Because of God’s incredible love for us as demonstrated in Christ’s life, ministry, death, and resurrection, the only reasonable thing we can do is to show that love to others.  All of that brings us to the present.  Quite a journey, has it not been?  Reality is a hard thing, but it is beautiful.  Let us live in God’s reality, not the world’s fantasy.

With all that said, this week I want to get out of the way and let John tie things together for us.  He starts out by presenting once again, in concise fashion, the reality of Jesus Christ and proclaims the life available in Him.  From there he closes with a variety of warnings and encouragements that at first seem rather disparate, but after some thought prove to be intimately connected.  Let us, then, turn to the word as we take the final steps of our journey.  Grab your Bibles and find 1 John 5:6 with me.  Let’s start out by reading verses 6-12.  “This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood.  And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.  For there are three that testify; the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.  If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God[:] he has borne [witness] concerning his Son.  Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself.  Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony[:] God has borne [witness] concerning his Son.  And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.  Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

So John starts tying all of his letter together by talking about water and blood and then says something about the Spirit.  I would have to say that there is definitely grace for not immediately understanding anything John is saying here.  But let’s think about this for just a minute.  Where in Jesus’ life do we find water and blood?  Well, perhaps most importantly, in His baptism and in His crucifixion.  These two events formed the bookends of Jesus’ ministry and provided some of the clearest public examples of His identity for all who cared to look.  Okay, that makes some sense, but why would John so emphasizes the importance of the blood?  Today as in John’s day, there are a lot of people who would accept Jesus’ ministry, but not His atoning death.  John makes clear here, however, that both are valid and necessary.  One makes no difference without the other.  There are nonbelievers and believers today who in the name of relevance have sought to supplant Jesus’ atoning death in order to make the Gospel nicer, more therapeutic, more tolerant, and frankly, more pagan.  It makes my heart sick that any could fall prey to such utter nonsense, but my queasiness is only worsened when the perpetrators of such lies are ostensibly claiming the title of Christian in the process.  Moving from the water and the blood, John also affirms the greater importance of the testimony of the Spirit who is the truth.  Jesus’ baptism and atoning death on the cross may have been the bookends to His ministry, but it was the Spirit who was the force giving it power and holding everything together.  Think about it this way: there have been many folks who could speak biblical truths very eloquently and who by all accounts lived godly lives.  But unless their hearts belong solely to God, unless the Spirit was filling and undergirding everything they did, it was all a burdensome charade that profited them precisely nothing.  Ultimately it is only the Spirit who enables us to come to a saving knowledge of the truth.  You see, the fantasies of this world would like little less than to take our hearts and minds entirely off the cross and the Spirit empowering its message as they are the only ways to truly escape their power.  This is precisely why we must never lose focus on them.  Let us live in God’s reality, not the world’s fantasy.

The next thing John does is to argue from the lesser to the greater to make it even clearer why we should accept the testimony about Christ.  Let me see if I can explain this way.  Do you know what one of the most fundamental assumptions forming the basis of any society is?  Honesty.  Show me a society not built on the assumption of honesty from most people and I will show you a society that will not last long.  We make this assumption without even realizing it.  This is part of the image of God (who is truth) residing in us.  We assume that we can take people’s words at face value, that they are telling us the truth.  Patterns of dishonesty tear apart the fabric of any society.  Well, if we are willing to be so trusting of other people, should we not also be willing to be at least as trusting of God?  The reality is that His testimony is greater than ours because He’s God and we’re not.  If we believe simple human testimony regarding a variety of things, then given what we know about God from this letter alone, we should have no trouble believing God’s greater testimony on the most important of things.  And the content of God’s testimony is an invitation to live within the confines of reality.  Let us live in God’s reality, not the world’s fantasy.  Because as it turns out, to do otherwise is to take up a position that’s tough to defend.  Because God has testified concerning the reality of Christ, if we claim an alternative reality (or a fantasy as we have been calling it throughout this series), then both parties can’t be right.  In the realm of logic this is called the Law of Identity or the Law of Noncontradiction.  Basically, something can’t be itself and at the same time something else.  This is a pulpit.  It cannot also be a pencil.  If God has testified that Jesus is Lord and we testify that He’s not (whether through words, or, more commonly, actions), someone isn’t telling the truth.   If we insist that we are the ones telling the truth, then we are calling God a liar.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to call God a liar.  I want to live in reality as He defines it, not me.  I want to live in God’s reality, not the world’s fantasy.

The last thing John says in these few verses is the Gospel in a nutshell.  What God offers us is eternal life through the sacrifice of His Son.  Whoever has the Son has life and whoever doesn’t, doesn’t.  What about those who’ve never had a chance to hear about Christ?  Unfortunately, this is a much bigger question than we could possibly answer this morning.  Suffice to say now that God is just and His ability to reveal Himself and the reality of life through the Son to folks we consider to be outside the current scope of the Gospel is thankfully not limited by our imaginations.  All John is doing is offering us a picture of reality.  Paul is clear that the reality of God (including our inadequacy to save ourselves) is easily knowable through simple observations of the world—just study some history.  The tougher reality for modern believers is that we live in a culture in which it is increasingly taboo to say that any belief is better than any other.  In a culture of tolerance anything can (and must) go.  The problem with this kind of tolerance is that it waters down all belief into a muddled soup without any discernibly clear flavors.  Everyone is forced into a bland existence worthy of little more than being tossed out with the garbage.  For when sameness and fairness are the driving forces of society instead of truth, the only hope to achieving them are to appeal to the basest, lowest common denominator.  Thankfully, the Bible is not a tolerant book in the terms many of us have been taught to understand it (and, ironically, neither is a society built on tolerance).  Let us then live in God’s reality, not the world’s fantasy.

With the testimony of Jesus firmly established, John next goes on to make a few concluding points.  Ultimately, they all point to the implications of embracing the testimony of Christ and making it the most permanent and pressing reality in our lives.  Let me read all of these together for you and then we’ll talk about them for a bit.  Follow along with me starting in 5:13: “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.  And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.  And if we know that he hearts us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.  If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death.  There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.  All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.  We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.  We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.”

Confidence in life.  And not just any life, but eternal life.  Joyful and abundant life here and now and a life of unrestrained glory extending on into forever then.  This is the confidence all of us long for but so few of us actually have.  As a result, many look with skepticism on those who do have such confidence.  “Well, if I don’t have it, and I’m a pretty good person, why should they have it?  They don’t seem all that much better than me.  They must just be putting on airs.”  After a time, this skepticism turns into contempt and doubt.  “How dare they be so confident!  Shame on them for being so prideful.”  These thoughts are paired with this one: “I’ll just do my best because you can’t ever really be sure what God is going to do…”  Many today would argue that being so confident in our personal salvation is haughtily presumptuous.  This is a common reaction in our world by those without confidence towards those who have it.  The direction this seems to point is that no one should have confidence in their standing before God.  We are too unworthy.  We can only rely on His grace and hope to make it through in the judgment.  This sounds holy.  This sounds humble.  This sounds righteous.  And it’s a load of…I’ll stop myself there.  Remember what I said two weeks ago is one of the most dangerous temptations the Devil can throw our way?  The feeling that we don’t measure up to grace and should live our lives in a perpetual state of doubt.  Why would God have had John include something like this if He didn’t really mean it, or even if it was only intended to be reserved for a few of the “most holy among us”?  Want the simple answer?  He didn’t.  The worldview that says we can (and should) never be totally confident in our possession of eternal life isn’t humble; it’s petty and dishonest and gives license for spiritual abuse.  This doesn’t mean we should be prideful or that we should take grace for granted.  It means we should be humbly (which is a simple acknowledgement of reality; nothing more or less) and gratefully confident in our ability to stand clean before the Creator and Judge when we are covered in Christ.  This ability to have confidence in our standing before God is reality.  And I’m going to be honest: I’d much rather live in that than in the fantasies of this world which encourage a constant state of uncertainty.  Live in God’s reality, not the world’s fantasy.

What comes next has been taken by many to be an invitation to pray for anything and everything and God has to answer as long as we are praying “in His will.”  Well, again, we can and should have the confidence John commends, but neither is this a carte blanche for all kinds of selfish requests on our part.  What this is saying is that the reality of the kingdom is that the one who is dwelling fully within its spacious bounds can go before the throne of God with boldness and make requests with the confidence that God will hear them and as His wisdom dictates, grant them.  Well, given all he says about prayer, John next offers us a little case study.  Perhaps you read vv. 13-15, heard my explanation, and are now wondering for what kinds of things it is acceptable to pray.  In vv. 16-17 John suggests that we pray for fellow believers who have fallen under the seduction of sin, but are still able to repent.  Now, these couple of verses are the subject of enormous debate and interpretive spins because John is talking about unforgivable sins here which is pretty intimidating stuff.  What exactly are some of these?  How do we know when we’ve committed them?  How close can we get without crossing that line?  All of these and more are questions people ask regarding this issue and most of them are the wrong question.  They result from a fundamentally wrongheaded view of sin.  The thing that lies behind questions like this is a desire to commit as much sin as possible without tipping the scales in the wrong direction.  Let’s step back and look at the bigger picture.  In the community of believers that is the local church there should be a level of intimacy and boldness and openness that when one member is struggling with some sin, at least one other person knows about it and can be interceding before God on his or her behalf.  Ideally, the entire community can help gently, humbly, lovingly call the erring believer back to faithfulness.  Because of our confidence in prayer thanks to our confidence in our possession of eternal life we know that God will hear our prayer and as His wisdom dictates will respond by calling this struggling believer to repentance Himself.  In this God will give him life.

This doesn’t answer the question of unforgivable sin, though.   Here’s the thing for those of you who genuinely struggle with this issue.  There is a point at which someone has intentionally strayed so far from the life of God that repentance is no longer possible for that person.  This is not solely because God has finally granted them their heart’s desire by removing Himself from their life entirely.  It is also because the person is no longer able to desire repentance.  Such an idea has become hateful to them.  It’s like the person who refuses some food for so long that it no longer tastes good to them.  So why does John seem to say not to pray about folks who have reached this point?  Well, consider this: when someone has crossed that line of rejection in which they can no longer repent—a point which varies wildly from person to person—praying for them will do no good.  God has already made up His mind regarding them.  If we continue to intercede on their behalf (which is a natural thing for say, the parent of a child in this situation to do), then we are asking God to act against His character by granting life to someone who has emphatically rejected it.  How do we know when this is?  That’s ultimately got to be between us and God.  I would say it’s better to error on the side of praying for someone.  But let us ask for God’s wisdom on this and never assume knowledge we don’t have.  The bigger issue here is that we all do ourselves a favor to live within the bounds of reality as it actually is, not reality as we would have it.  Let us live in God’s reality, not the world’s fantasy.

Zooming out even more, the real call on and encouragement for believers is that we are not to be characterized by the sin that marks so much of this world.  We have a different nature in us.  When we are abiding fully in God and living out of the nature of Christ residing in us, we won’t sin because it’s no longer in our nature to do so.  We who belong to God need not fear the sins that lead to death.  We need not worry about how close we might or might not be getting to some imaginary line over which repentance is no longer possible.  Folks getting close to that point in their journey from God aren’t asking questions like that anymore.  This is part of why giving us confidence is so important to John.  Remember: we’re never going to be worthy of grace so we might as well quit worrying about it and start living out of it.  Now, someone might take issue with John’s saying that the evil one does not touch the one who has been born of God.  I mean, it sure seems like a lot of bad things still happen to believers, and frankly, they sometimes seem to happen with an even greater frequency than for unbelievers.  Well, how many of you, when thinking about the way Satan messes with people, call to mind physical or emotional harm?  That’s totally normal and most of us fear these most.  But, given the broader context of this letter, John probably has spiritual attacks in view here.  Those born of God are free from the fear of Satan leading them astray with a cache of beguiling lies intended to take them from the path of life to one of death.  You see, the fantasy of this world is that what we see is all there is.  The physical world is taught to be primary above all else.  If this is indeed the case, then taking care of our bodies runs right up along the line of highest good.  If we have let this fantasy (lie) taint our understanding of the reality of God’s kingdom, then it’s only natural that we would read this and wonder about all the bad things that happen to us through physical means.  Yet any physical harm that might befall us at the behest of the enemy is only a means to an end: spiritual harm.  The reality of the kingdom is that while our bodies are immensely important and are in fact part of what makes us truly human, God’s concern over what happens to our physical bodies in this life pales in comparison to His concern for what happens to our spirits.  And when we are born of God the Devil can’t touch us there.  He can only deceive us into thinking that’s not a very big deal.  As long as we remember who the real ruler of our souls is, the one who has power in this world has no power over us because we are merely in the world and no longer of it.  Let us live in God’s reality, not the world’s fantasy.
So then, we finally come to the end.  Where does all of this leave us?  John states it very plainly in the last two verses of the letter: “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ.  He is the true God and eternal life.  Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”  After everything is said and done, we know that the Son of God has come.  The Savior of the world has come and has opened the door to salvation to everyone in it.  No longer do we need to continue being bogged down by the lies and clever fantasies of this world.  The Truth has come and negated all of that.

Now, over the course of this series I have made reference several times to the “Siren songs” of this world.  In Greek mythology, the Sirens were these monsters who fed on sailors that drifted too near their island prison.  Now, why would any sailor in his right mind go anywhere near an island with monsters looking for some fresh sea-faring food?  Well he wouldn’t, of course.  Bu these monsters had some bait to lure them in.  They had beautiful voices.  The most beautiful voices, in fact, anyone had ever heard.  Their voices were so beautiful that when the sailors heard them, their ears overrode their sensibilities and they convinced themselves that the monsters were gone and were replaced by an island full of voluptuous maidens ready to cater to their every desire.  So they steered their boats right on over to the island and were promptly gobbled up.  The calls of this world to a life characterized by sin are indeed the songs of the Sirens.  The fantasies of this world call to all of us with hauntingly seductive melodies, yet if we drift near their shores, we will find only death and destruction.  It may not be immediate as we reckon time, but it will come.  The wiser choice is to stay away from them altogether.  When we hear the songs of this world we serve ourselves best if we turn our ships around and sail in the other direction as fast as the winds will carry us.  This is why of all the things John could have left us with at the end of this masterful letter he says very simply, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”  You see, anything to which we give our devotion that is not God is an idol.  Idols bring only death.  They are fantasy worlds that will never live up to their promises, never ultimately meet the deepest desires of our hearts.  The only hope we have of seeing our needs met is to immerse ourselves fully in the reality of God’s kingdom.  Only within the bounds of reality will we find the freedom we long for to pursue our heart’s deepest desires.  Only within the bounds of reality will we find the hope to face each day with the confidence of meaning and eternity.  Only within the bounds of reality will we find the strength and drive to love and be loved in ways that make us fully ourselves.  Living according to the laws of reality is not an easy thing, but it is a good thing.  It is in fact the best thing.  It is the only thing in which we will find the abundant life we long for.  The reason for this is simple: reality is defined by God.  The futility and frustration of this world are not reality.  They may be very real for us and we may have to deal with them here and now whether we like it or not, but they don’t define it.  This is why the call of this letter and of truly the whole of Scripture is to live according to God’s reality, not the world’s fantasy.  Let us together navigate the waters of this life very carefully in order that we might, though our practice of love, keep ourselves on the straight and narrow path.  Let us guard our ethical and doctrinal purity with the utmost of jealousy in order that the world’s fantasies are made readily apparent.  And with all the grace and power of the Spirit, let us live in God’s reality, not the world’s fantasy.