What is it all about?
It is often overlooked that following Jesus’ death and resurrection there were a raft of people who claimed either, they were the true disciples and apostles or, they knew more, were more knowledgeable than any others, about God and Christ and what it meant to be a Christian. They were a threat to the truths to which the disciples and others had been exposed by their personal contact with Jesus. They were a threat to the teaching through which these ‘Christians’ shared with, educated, others who themselves became ‘Christian’. But the false teachers were difficult to ‘shake-off’ because many of the teachers were respected, learned people.
One of the threats came from a group that became labelled as Gnostics. Gnostic means “learned”. And the Gnostics could be found in Ancient Greek, Judaism, Syria, Egypt, Persia. In each area a “learned” had a significant following.
But what were the Gnostics preaching?
Some preached that people should shun the material world. They should acknowledge that the world had been created by a “craftsman”, a “fashioner”. Such a “craftsman” was not thought as being the same as the creator figure, as in the familiar “one God” as captured in those words we know from the great Creeds: “I believe in God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of the heaven and the earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” In fact, some Gnostics had the “craftsman” and God. Further, the “craftsman” though was lower than God.
Then there were the followers of an individual known as Cerinthus. He argued for Christ as a heavenly spirit separate from the man Jesus. He also taught Christians to observe the Jewish law. Cerinthus claimed that his teaching, his authority for his beliefs, was given him by an (unnamed) apostle, so it must be right, proper and consistent with what the apostle was teaching. NOTE: It is believed the 1 John letter was written as a response to the heresies of Cerinthus.
Amongst the Gnostics were the Ophites. It was claimed that this sect worshipped the serpent of Genesis as the bestower of knowledge. After all, so they reasoned, it was the serpent who revealed to Adam and Eve their nakedness. The serpent, therefore, must have had a knowledge – given by God? – denied to Adam and Eve.
And if Ophites weren’t sufficiently strange, you could be members of the Cainites. (Nothing to do with Cain and Abel.) They believed in indulging in every form of immorality because since the body is evil, one must defile it by any means possible to gain salvation.
Against this background we have this letter of John, the apostle, son of Zebedee, brother of James.
To understand 1 John 3: 16-24 it is worth backtracking to verse 11. It is here that the discussion actually begins. The third statement which starts at verse 16 moves from Christ as an object lesson to the seizing on, taking for own use, appropriation of that lesson for the Christian community. Jesus laid down his life. Therefore, believers enact that same love, not simply for Jesus, but for one another in the Christian community. (Don’t forget that community was small and not necessarily wealthy and it was under threat. Without a community being truly a community it would fail.)
Take care with interpreting this ‘laying down your life’. John is anxious to stress that this ‘laying down your life’ was one Christian helping other believers who are in need. There is no definition as to what is meant by ‘need’ until you read and re-read verse 17. This verse, when picked apart, identifies one Christian seeing any ‘need’ – material, spiritual – and the other member of the community having the means of satisfying that need uses those means, no matter the personal pain. Not to do so means that the love of God is not present. Further, you can only respond to a material need if you have the material wherewithal with which to respond. (You will recall that amongst the Gnostics there were those who said that the material things of life did not matter.)
John stresses over and again that actions embody the truth about ourselves and in what we believe. Therefore, when our actions are motivated by love – God’s love, Christ’s love – has to be visible; one must see love and in more than words.
The three verses 19 to 22 have caused translators very real problems. On one hand they could be translated as God condemning humans if they do not both act correctly and condemn themselves. Or, is it that God’s love is greater than our hearts and God continues to love even the disobedient amongst God’s children? The latter is consistent with John’s teaching.
As we come to end of this passage of scripture we are faced with a summary of the teaching about the requirement for our being honest, truthful, honourable, reliable, upright, the integrity of the faith we have in Christ and life we live as Christians. You do not need anything more for a long-term future of happy, safe communication and relationship with God. John can make this claim because he has known and needed nothing more for fullness of life. What Johns saying is that all the other alternatives are for, offer, nothing. What is needed is faith in God’s Son.
John ends this set of verses by reminding his hearers/readers that action by the individual is needed. He argues that action is part of faith and both action and faith are as a gift of the Spirit granted to us by God.
What has this got to do with us today?
You will recall that to understand these eight verses you need to backtrack to verse 11 and read from there. When you do take note of the warning about the power of hate: hatred of individual people and groups, sects (including even the divisions within religious groups), races, nations. That power of hate produces death: spiritually, and even physically. Our television screens and newspapers all full of reports which testify to this.)
The hatred being shown in the TV, newspaper reports, which is bringing about ‘death’, is by the authority of teachers who are learned. Their learning is based on years and years referring to, and studying, and reinterpreting ancient texts. Furthermore, the teachers are respected as being the ultimate authority on what those texts are saying. But, if they have knowledge of all truths, then why the need for constant study?
Let’s not think these sentiments are aimed solely at non-Christians. We Christians, all of its branches, do not know ‘all the truth’ and are still working on learning more and more of the truth. For 2000 years, even down to today, there are instances of intolerance and even brutality of one Christian by another.
What then is the answer?
Christ did not just love humankind, all humankind, and therefore ‘laid down his life’. What Christ is demonstrating is that the action of loving in and of itself enables us to know what love is. What is key is not literally, the extreme act of love, laying down a life, but being prepared to lay down a life. That is, being willing to put aside our life on behalf of another. Our life? The material (goods, possessions, home, wealth) and the spiritual. It is all focused on being a community of God’s people in Christ.
Unlike some Gnostics, John has no hang-up over acquiring material goods. Without them John asks, how can you those with material goods help the needy? And, if the material goods are withheld then so is compassion i.e. love, concern for fellow believers.
Love then is not a matter of words or speech (I’m so sorry about (Syrian refugees/famine in Ethiopia/sleeping on the streets of London town) ….’ Love is action resulting from how one sees the need for love.
What is worth adding is that John was concerned with the community he was addressing at the time. The demand was to pursue God’s care for God’s own people, even those amongst those people who are less than perfect in God’s sight. If there is a ‘We can do nothing about Syria or Ethiopia or the sleeping rough’, we can do something for the community to which we belong i.e. start with the fellowship her at Agnew Road; the rest will follow.
We are part of a tradition convinced of the main, chief, most important, key, major, crucial, primary relationship between Jesus and God, however, faith in Jesus necessarily implies faith in and, indeed, love of God. To believe that Jesus is God’s Son requires not simply belief in God but love of God, because of God’s action in the sending of Jesus.
Much of the above suggests ‘works’ are important in obtaining salvation. That seems to contradict what Paul tells viz: [our] justification by faith. However, this letter of John’s tells us that action is part of faith. Both love in action and faith (or love of God in Christ) are gifts of the Spirit. They go together and are not separate.
Acknowledged with thanks for inspiration and information Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary … Walter Brueggemann et al published by Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky.