I John 2
I John 2:1-6: The writer continues to reflect on the Christian life as a life in which we work against sin while acknowledging that we never quite get there. In the last chapter, forgiveness was emphasized, here the call to work against sin in one’s life. The author writes to encourage the readers to live the Jesus way, to avoid sin, to walk as Jesus walked. Yet when we fall short, there is forgiveness – the writer uses the image of Jesus as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. That forgiveness is found in Jesus is a central Christian affirmation, but the image used here is but one possible image for describing that, one that may have been more relevant to that time than ours. God’s love working in human lives shapes those lives so that they walk the Jesus walk. Again, the author is portraying the Christian life as one of both forgiveness and striving to live a new way. Those words ring true for us today. We seek to live the Jesus way, yet fall short and need forgiveness. But forgiveness is not an end in itself – we move on, we let God’s love continue to form our lives, to shape us. Forgiveness that does not lead us on toward new life might be considered “cheap grace,” a term used by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
I John 2:7-11: The essence of the Jesus way of life has not been specified to this point. The writer has only told the reader that we should walk as Jesus walked. Here he gets more specific. He is giving them an old, yet ever new commandment – love. It is old in that the command comes from Jesus and was apparently taught to this Jesus community already. It is new because it is part of the new creation God is bringing into being, part of the kingdom of light. If you really want to live in the light, love. The writer often uses plenty of words, and sometimes confusing turns of phrase, to make his point, but the point here is clear – the Jesus way, the way of light, is the way of love.
I John 2:12-17: These verses probably use metaphoric language to direct particular comments to distinct groups within the church. The writer may be referring to people in different places on the Christian spiritual journey. If so, it is a helpful reminder to all of us that we have different needs along the journey of faith, and at different times, different words are needed, or different modes of prayer. Many testify that their practices, their spiritual disciplines change over time, or that one method of prayer becomes more important at different times in life. For me, personally, silent prayer has become much more important in my life, though there are times when verbal prayer remains vital. In Buddhism, there is the concept of skillful means, which means something like teaching the spiritual tradition in a way the recipient of the teaching can understand, in a way helpful to her or him. Perhaps the author is here engaged in a Christian version of skillful means. Whatever different groups might need, there is a shared responsibility to resist the world – meaning not the planet but that which is contrary to the reign of God, contrary to God’s dream for the world. The world as God’s creation is… not evil. Evil arises in the inordinate desire for what one can acquire and possess, things visible not spiritual. From such acquisitions come the proud illusion that life has been attained. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, everything created is transitory, as is the appetite for it. It is entirely foolish, therefore, to make such an investment of one’s life. (People’s New Testament Commentary) It is important to note the phrase, “inordinate desire.” These verses are not a rejection of the world nor the legitimate needs for food, clothing, shelter, and the like. Desire is not the problem, it is desire uncontrolled, desire unwisely fed, that is the problem. Here is verse 17 from The Message: The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out – but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity.
I John 2:18-28: The theme shifts in these verses. Apparently there has been a split in the community of faith to which the author is writing, and the author attributes this to the work of “antichrists.” The writer connects the idea of the last hour with the congregational split and the presence of antichrists. The phrase “antichrist” is peculiar to I John, but it certainly has made an appearance in more modern Christian end time narratives. The linking of suffering, evil and the end times is familiar – it is a part of “apocalyptic literature,” a style of religious writing not uncommon to that time. Recall from our discussion of certain parts of the gospels that apocalyptic literature is often symbolic and has, as its basic conviction that God’s deliverance will arrive after a period of intense suffering. There are apocalyptic themes looming in these verses.
One can only imagine how painful this congregational split must have been for it to evoke apocalyptic themes – antichrists at work, the end being near. Those who left “did not belong to us” the writer asserts. The author assures the readers that they have been given the Holy Spirit, and should stay true to their faith. Then he introduces the issue that seems to be central in the community split – the nature of Jesus and of how God was working in him. Apparently, those who left (antichrists or persons influenced by antichrists) did not understand that Jesus is the Christ, or that the Christ is Jesus - - - that God was at work in a special way in the life, work, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. “What specifically is being denied is not clear at this point” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Later, the problem seems to be that some deny Jesus as the Christ was a human being (4:2). There were a number of contested ideas about Jesus and his relationship to God that emerged in the early centuries of Christianity – the technical theological term for the doctrine about Jesus as the Christ is “Christology.” As with all Christian doctrine, there was and remains a certain elasticity to Christology, that is, not everyone needs speak of who Jesus is and how he is God incarnate in the same way. Yet Christology is not infinitely elastic, that is, some views of Jesus seem to take one beyond Christian faith. The basic Christian affirmation is that in the human Jesus, God was present in a unique and special way. We speak of Jesus as fully human and fully divine. How we do that varies, but Christologies that leave behind one pole in this tension or the other are usually deemed unacceptable.
In the early centuries of the Christian faith Docetism was a Christology wherein the humanity of Christ was compromised beyond recognition. It was rooted in a Greek idea that bodily historical existence was somehow corrupt, so that divinity could not enter such existence. Jesus, as the Christ, would have been a divine being that only seemed to become human, sort of putting on a costume of sorts. While full-blown Docetism was a later development, some early form of this may have been the issue with the community to which this writer is writing. On the other side, Ebionitism was found in a community of early Christians who held firm to the Law of Moses. Their Christology emphasized the utter humanity of Jesus, again viewing the possibility that divinity could find a home in humanity as an impossibility.
At least a part of what is at stake here in holding together humanity and divinity in Jesus as the Christ is the value we place on historical existence. If somehow God touches the world, gets mixed up with the world, then the world matters profoundly. The point of Christian faith cannot simply be to escape the world, but needs to be living new life within the world. Even Christians have not held this tension very well over the years, but the writer of this letter is very concerned that all the ideas of Christian faith find expression in the life of the community – those who claim to live in the light should walk as Jesus walked.
Christians believe that God acted in the life of Jesus as the Christ in a special way, and so we live differently. This truth is what the author hopes will abide in each of those to whom he writes.
I John 2:29: The point of all this is brought home very practically in this verse. We are to live the righteousness of Jesus as the Christ. God’s new life is born in us as we do right, as we do justice. “All who practice righteousness are God’s true children” (The Message)
I John 3
I John 3:1-3: God’s life is born in us so that in God’s love we are considered the very children of God. In a society where one’s identity and status was tied up with one’s father, this is quite a statement. To call God “father,” was something usually limited to the emperor! The writer here says that we are God’s children. However, this is both something to rejoice in and something which can cause problems. “The world” does not know God and therefore does not understand what it means to live as God’s people. Such thinking sometimes seems strange to us, and we have seen its dangers – religious groups withdrawing from the world (Jim Jones and the People’s Temple; the Branch Davidians in Waco). The phrase can be misused, but it can also be illuminating. “The world” does not often understand sacrificing one’s immediate good for a greater good, often prefers revenge to forgiveness, can see compassion as foolish, often views power as zero-sum rather than something to be shared. Sometimes living rightly, struggling for justice, creating beauty, forgiving, living with compassion, loving, contradict the prevailing ethos of society. We are to live in that way anyway – live as God’s children. We live as God’s children NOW, the writer tells the readers, and us through them. We live that way now, trusting that in the future this will all make perfect sense. We live with a hope that purifies us.
I John 3:4-10: The writer returns to the theme of sin, here emphasizing the need to struggle against sin as children of God. This writer often sets up stark contrasts between light and dark, love and hate, truth and lie, God and world. Pushed too far, these contrasts can become unhelpful – but the writer’s point is to encourage living new life in this world. Perhaps those who have created such division in the community to which he writes make claims about some future state of sinlessness, neglecting to consider how one should live now. In frustration (?) the writer calls such people children of the devil. These verses are full of language that is open to a great deal of abuse, and great care needs to be taken with them. The bottom line is that God’s people do what is right and love their brothers and sisters in the community of faith (verse 10). “The one who won’t practice righteous ways isn’t from God, nor is the one who won’t love brother or sister. A simple test.” (The Message)
I John 3:11-24: The writer now expands on the theme of loving. From the very beginning, the message has included the message to love. We know we have new life within us when we love. Again, the writer sets up a stark contrast – living in love is life, and living with hate is death. The nature of love is found in Jesus who gave his life for love. Even more specifically, the writer says that love involves sharing with those who are in need of the world’s goods. If you see some brother or sister in need, and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear. (The Message)
The author writes beautiful words – “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” When we love in truth and action, not only do we do good, but our hearts are filled with a sense that God is indeed working in our lives. But, the writer goes on to say that if our hearts lack such assurance, then we should remember that God is greater than our hearts. Don’t let discouragement overtake the heart. The writer encourages, instead, a boldness in one’s life with God, including a boldness in prayer. Verse 21 can be read to say that God will give us whatever we want when our lives are in tune with God’s. That is probably a misreading. The writer is probably working in a narrower context – we receive from God what we need to live in love.
The author now connects two streams of thought – thinking about Jesus and loving. The essence of Christian faith is believing in Jesus as the Christ and loving others. Being a Christian involves belief and behavior, and each reinforces the other. Why do we love? – because we believe loving connects us with the God of the universe as we see that God in Jesus the Christ. What does it mean to believe that God was in Christ, that Jesus as the Christ is the face of God turned toward us? – it means to seek to live in love. This is life in the Spirit – the Christian spiritual life.