I John 4
I John 4:1-6: Believing that God was in Jesus as the Christ in a unique way and living in love are two sides of the same coin. The writer has written that we are to love not in word and speech, but in truth and action (3:18). There is, then, a deep connection between spiritual belief and a way of life. But there is a lot of spiritual talk about – there was in the Roman empire of the first century and there is in our day and time. Perhaps not everything that comes under the name of religion or spirituality leads to a healthy connection between belief and life, between thought and love.
The author knows this and encourages his readers to test the spirits, to test spiritual teachings, to see if they genuinely connect people to the God of Jesus Christ who seeks transformed lives. One way to test whether spiritual teachings are genuine is whether or not they teach that Jesus as the Christ was a human person. While the exact nature of the teaching of those who have separated themselves from the Johannine Jesus community is not clear, one thing that was problematic was a teaching that Jesus was some spiritual being and not really human. As noted before, what is at stake here is the idea that Christian faith means transformed living in this world, not an escape from this world. The writer again calls those who maintain such teachings “antichrist.”
The writer then goes on to assure the readers that they are on the right side, that they are from God. There has been a divide in the community, and those who remain have chosen the right side. Such language is better understood as words of assurance to a hurting community rather than words that would further divide people. Unfortunately, the history of the church is littered with the use of such language to exclude conversation partners within the Christian family. Again, in a point made consistently in this blog, there is a certain elasticity in Christian thinking and thus dialogue and conversation are imperative for Christian theology and life. Yet, Christian doctrine is not infinitely elastic. There are some teachings that take one beyond Christian faith, but great care needs to be taken in drawing lines. The writer’s language in these verses does not lend itself particularly well to such careful dialogue. He is convinced that some are from God and some are from the world, some have within the Spirit of God, and some the spirit of the world. In the context of the kind of pitched battle the writer finds himself, this language is understandable, but, again, its contemporary application needs to be thoughtful and careful. For many of us, our experience is that the dividing line between what is of God’s Spirit and what may be more “worldly” is found within our very hearts.
I John 4:7-21: The line of thinking shifts. The writer wants to focus on the way of life of those who have God’s Spirit. The primary focus of this writing is to delineate this way of life – and it is a life characterized by love. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” Love is central to a life lived in God’s Spirit because the very nature of God is love.
This God who is love shared this love and showed this love in Jesus as the Christ. God’s love is a love that God initiates. God sent God’s “only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” For Christians, a central affirmation is that we know this God of love because we know Jesus Christ as God’s son. The God of Jesus Christ desires life for us – new life. Our own actions have often gotten in the way of that life and God in Jesus as the Christ was able to cut through our sins. The writer uses the language of “atoning sacrifice,” a language that would have resonated with his readers. Other images, or additional understandings of that language may be more helpful to us. The point is that God is love. God’s love is an active love that reaches out to the loved ones and does what it needs to do to clear the way for a life-giving relationship. But that love is not just a theological construct – it is a model for our own love – reach out, clear the way for new life-giving relationships. The unseen God becomes seen when love is lived out.
These verses affirm without qualification that the very nature of God is disclosed in love – for God and for fellow human beings. The author flatly asserts, “God is love” (4:8). While the author may be thinking of love within the Christian community, these verses will come to be a touchstone for the centrality of Christian love for all persons, deriving from the experience of divine love displayed in the life and work of Jesus Christ. (New Interpreters Study Bible)
There is another shift here where the writer brings Spirit-language back into the flow of thought. When we love we are born of God and know God, the author asserts. Now he asserts that the Spirit’s presence in our lives is also an indication that our lives are in God – that God abides in us and we in God. We live life in God’s Spirit when we “confess that Jesus is the Son of God.” “Both Son and Jesus imply the physical quality of Christ, which the separatists deny” (New Interpreters Study Bible). The writer seems to feel the need to repeat himself in slightly different language in slightly different contexts. What makes the letter difficult in places is that we have only one side of the conversation. If we had a better idea of just what the separatists were teaching, some of this language would be clearer. Again and again, the basic point seems to be that God desires new life for human kind. This new life is life in God’s Spirit, but life in God’s Spirit is not an ethereal life which seeks to escape from the world. Rather, this new Spirit-life is meant to be world-transforming, because the one in whom we know this life was Jesus – who while Christ, and God’s Son, was also a physical human being. Believing this and teaching this are crucial given the teaching of those who have left the Johannine Jesus community. But along with this teaching, and even more important, is that this new life, this Spirit-life, is a life of love, because the God we know in Jesus Christ is love. The basic points are there to be grasped and grappled with, and sometimes they are stated with sheer beauty. At other times, the letter is frustrating in its repetition.
From Spirit back to love. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God” (v. 16). Love gets perfected in us as we become Christ-like in the world – “because as he is, so are we in this world.” Having love mature in us, become perfected in us, also means we do not fear God’s judgment. Here the writer seems to be telling the readers to quit worrying about the last judgment – that it will take care of itself if we are growing and being perfected in love. This is a refreshing message given the history of the church wherein eternal punishment was often used as a threat to motivate people to live Christian values, forgetting that fear is not one of those values. The author seems to be saying, “forget about judgment and punishment, work on letting love do its work in your life.” Love is very practical, to love means you cannot hate your brother or sister. “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both. (The Message) One might guess that there may be a polemic edge here. Those who have left the community are pictured as doing so for less than loving reasons.
I John 5
I John 5:1-5: The writer doubles back again – those who believe that Jesus is the Christ have been born of God. In 4:7, the writer has said that all who love have been born of God. For this author, both are necessary, beliefs about the importance of Jesus, a human person in whom we know God in a unique way, and a way of life characterized by love. At their best, these reinforce each other. We see God as love in Jesus, and so live lovingly. When we want to know what living God’s love is like, we look to Jesus. We love others when we love God and we love God when we love others. The first commandment is to love, but the writer hints that other commandments may be important as well. All should be seen as explications of love. The life of love is not burdensome. It is meant to be a way of life that conquers the world’s way of life.
I John 5:6-12: As if we have not heard it enough, the writer wants to again emphasize the importance of Jesus the Christ as a human being who lived and died (the blood). Life is to be found in following Jesus as the Christ, by living in love. “Whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” This verse is part of the on-going message of the letter, assuring the community that they are the ones who have new life, Spirit-life in God, rather than those who have left and in leaving claimed to possess such life – maybe exclusively. The writer is arguing that they do not. This verse should not be interpreted as a final Christian word about other religions. That is not its context.
I John 5:13-21: The writer’s context is spelled out – he is writing to those who believe, who are part of the Jesus community and believe that the community formed around a person who lived and died, fully human. He writes to assure the readers that they have new life in God – “eternal life.” Such life includes a certain boldness in relationship to God, and a trust that in God’s Spirit-life, God will give us what we need so that love might be perfected within us.
The author has not written much about sin for awhile, so why not throw it in before closing the letter? This testifies to the rather strange and difficult construct of the letter. Anyway, the writer asks for prayer and forgiveness and new life for those who have sinned, unless the sin is such that it leads to death. We don’t know what kind of sin this is from the context, though certain branches of Christian faith have made quite a history of determining mortal sins. Some find almost a contradiction in I John’s insistence on love and the refusal to pray for those who commit a deadly sin…. It is not arrogance to recognize evil and those who do it; but Christians should be careful about deciding that such people are radically evil in themselves and cannot be prayed for (Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 393).
Continuing on in discussing sin, the writer repeats an earlier assertion that those born of God do not sin. That is in tension with other things the writer has also written. Perhaps he means that sin does not characterize such lives, that Christians don’t continue to sin as a way of life. A rather sharp contrast is drawn between those who live as God’s children and those caught up in the way of the world. In Jesus Christ we know God and we know new life. We are not enamored with the world’s idols.
The letter ends abruptly. We are grateful for it many beautiful passages and relevant ideas. If we seek to love God and respond to God’s love, we need to love. The Christian life is a life wherein we seek to let God’s love be perfected in us. Focusing on Jesus as both the one in whom we know God and in whom we see full human life is important for Christians. For Christians Jesus is more than simply one among the number of great spiritual teachers. To be a Christian involves seeking God in Jesus as the Christ. While we are helped to consider such issues by this letter, the work itself is sometimes difficult to follow. It is not always clear what the writer’s flow of thought might be. Some of that has to do with the polemic context of the writing – the author is writing against others and we don’t know who these others are. The author is repetitive, and that can get in the way of his work.
One way to consider what is happening in this work is to think about jazz. Jazz musicians take a theme, a tune, an idea, and improvise around it. In some ways, that is what this author seems to be doing. He picks up a thread of thought, blows with it awhile, and then picks up another tune and blows with that. The works has a disjointed feel, but certain themes run through it, and sometimes they are beautifully and wonderfully expressed. On any given day, maybe only one riff or two connects with us and that is o.k.