1st John 1:1-2:18
I think Quakers should be able to understand the religious tract named 1st John better than most. It is the declaration of a common experience, something experience by a ‘we’ not an “I. ” The author isn’t an “I.” And for that if for no other reason 1st John is anonymous. There has been a lot of ink spilled arguing over its authorship but it really isn’t that important. It seems to come from a collective – a writers group – who felt drawn to share their experience and what it means to be a community of faith.
“It was there all the time, from the beginning.” What an interesting way to start. It’s like saying ‘how could we have missed it?” It’s like Oracle Jones in the movie Hallelujah Trail “I see it. I see it now!” But now we see, we hear, we feel and we testify to that experience. “The Word of Life.” While the Gospel of John begins by proclaiming Jesus as the Word, here the connection is sketchier and broader than the historic Jesus. The Word of Life isn’t limited to an individual it is about a life shared with the “Father and his Son Jesus Christ” and with us.
What’s the message? Well, despite Jesus saying “I am the Light of the World” the tract says “:…that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” No darkness – you can’t be in the light and yet for some things be out of the light. Your walk, your life much more than your voice declares whether you are in the light. The role 1st John plays for us is setting up for us a set of queries – a challenge to evaluate our lives and our relationship with God and the faith community.
1st John isn’t a letter like the Epistles in the New Testament. And it certainly isn’t a Gospel. What it is is a religious tract and as such it is a testimony of a faith community. And it is written to a vastly different world than the Jewish world to which most of the New Testament is directed. There’s a section on knowing God. Now the Jewish understanding of how we know God is through revelation. God is the initiator. Not so for the Hellenist. The text reads: “Here is the test by which we can make sure that we know him: do we keep his commands?” A bit later the text reads: “Here is the test by which we can make sure that we are in him: whoever claims to be dwelling in him binds himself to live as Christ himself lived.” These are questions about knowing God and being in God. These are not new categories of thought for the Greek mind. Hundreds of years before this time the Classical Greek person was convinced that they could arrive at God by the sheer process of intellectual reasoning and argument. This philosophic mind examined everything – all the world is the proper study of man; no question is wrong to ask; God must explain God’s self for did he not make man so?” The way to know God was intellectually. But an intellectual approach isn’t necessarily ethical. If your religion is a series of calculations to be solved and God is the solution it may give you intellectually stimulation and satisfaction but it does not necessarily result in moral action.
Later Greeks, in the period of the New Testament, sought to find God in emotional experience. These were the mystery religions whose goal was union with the divine. They were played out in passion plays about some god who lived and suffered terribly and died a cruel death and rose again. The candidate would be prepared by a long course of instruction, ascetic disciplines to practice and would be worked up into a pitch of expectation and emotional sensitivity and then invited to witness in a passion play the suffering, dying and rising god. The whole event was carefully staged with lighting effects, sensuous music; incense and a marvelous liturgy. Being worked up into such an emotional frenzy the candidate would cry out “I am thou and thou art I” and he shared in the god’s suffering and shared in his victory and immortality. This accounts for the sacrificial language and the identification of some as having been “initiated.” Feeling God in this way was a way of escaping life and its ethical challenges.
As a tract 1st John doesn’t intend to provide a complete theology, and regardless of the theology of the reader it challenges expressions of faith that lack an ethical element.
When this tract was in circulation in Christian circles those of whom the faith in the resurrected Messiah consisted were second and third generation followers. Christianity had become habitual for many, traditional and nominal. There were many for whom living ‘like Christ’ had become burdensome. They didn’t want to be ‘saints’ in any New Testament sense. It’s a big concept at work in the Greek word hagios. It meant set apart – like the Temple; it meant being of a different character like the Sabbath. The expectations of being part of the faith community set people apart from the values of the world. There was a new standard of personal behavior that was to take over one’s life, a new kindness the permeated relationships, a new call to service, a new forgiveness and all of that was difficult to live out in the culture of the day. People didn’t want to stand out, be different. They didn’t want to refuse to conform to the generally accepted standards and practices of the age.
You see, the challenge being faced by the faith community didn’t come from without – it came from within. Actually those to whom it is addressed sincerely thought they were making the church more accessible to the general population. Couldn’t it be more intellectually respectable and more socially amenable?
And wouldn’t it be great if it all didn’t seem so contemporary.
1 John 1:1 – 2:5
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— 3we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
5This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7but 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.
8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
3Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. 4Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; 5but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him:
6whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.
7Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you have heard. 8Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. 9Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. 10Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. 11But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.
12I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of his name. 13I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young people, because you have conquered the evil one. 14I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young people, because you are strong and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one. 15Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; 16for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.