Bible reading: 1 John 5: 1-13.
How can we be sure that our (Christian) faith is true? (About the assurance of faith)
Last Sunday we have discovered that the most central words in this passage are: ‘to believe, to have faith’, and: ‘to testify, testimony’. This brought us to two key issues: (1) What does it mean to believe? What is faith? (2) How can we be sure that Christian faith is true faith and not one of the religious convictions? Last week we dealt with the first issue. Now we come to the second point.
How can we know that our faith is true, how can we be sure about it? For the apostle John this is very important point. He emphasizes that his spiritual children should be sure about their faith. That they should know (vs. 2 and 13). He is concerned about the assurance of their faith! That is a main reason for him to write them (vs. 13). Why is Christian faith not one of the many options among all kinds of other religions?
John’s battlefield and ours (vs. 5).
John’s opponents were not atheists, but Gnostic teachers (cf. 1 John 4: 1-6). These teachers were very religious and spiritual people. They said that Christ was a spiritual power from God given to purify and enlighten us and make us free from earthly uncleanness. So they insisted to the congregation to feed the Godly fire in them, to ‘cultivate the soul’ and to ‘neglect the body’. But they denied the central point of Christian faith: that Jesus from Nazareth was the Son of God, who came in human flesh, died for our sins and was resurrected from the death. That’s why the complete reality of salvation was at stake, and you feel from his whole letter that John is very concerned.
I think that our battlefield (in the West) is different from John’s, although the key issue about Jesus being the Son of God is there as well. Also today it is impossible for many to believe that Jesus from Nazareth was and is the Son of the living God and not just a wise spiritual man, a good teacher around the year 30 AD. However we might say that our battlefield is not so much in the challenge of certain religious convictions, but rather in the challenge of doubt because of atheism or agnosticism. Every honest Christian knows this kind of questions and problems and I need to pay some attention to it here. If you are a true believer, all of a sudden severe doubts can possess you. Is there a God finally or is all religion a nice projection of human thoughts and human desires into the screen of heaven? A lady (widow) in my previous congregation, who was healed from cancer herself, lost her son, grandson and son in law in roughly one years time. She was desperate for some moments. ‘Why did God help me, and passed by my children? Can he be a good God?’ Isn’t it all accidental? Maybe we have thought there was somebody up there, but cannot we better give up that thought? If God foreknows everything, could He have given the Malaysian plane an escape from evil attack with Russian weapons? What if you look at your colleagues who are friendly, human, clever, but don’t support the idea of a God who created and who sustains heaven and earth. Who am I to say that they are wrong? Etc.
Although the questions in John’s church may differ from our questions, I believe that the way the apostle deals with it is still very relevant for us. It all concerns the evidence for (Christian) faith.
Christian faith isn’t a blow in the air, not an outburst of religious feelings. No, it is based on strong evidence. We don’t believe because it feels good, because it makes us happy, or even – as some Christian teachers say- it makes us healthy and rich. Not at all! We believe because it is based in reality, because it is true. It is the living God who gave Himself fully and truly in the Lord Jesus to take away our sins! (vs. 5b) The evidence for this truth is based on the testimony (Greek: marturia – witness). We find the word ‘testimony’ and ‘testify’ in many verses: vs. 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11.
The importance of witnesses (vs. 9)
We all know how important witnesses are to state a matter. We know this from daily life. Consider a court case fro example. The judge only can make a true verdict if he has reliable witnesses. Even in natural science witnesses are crucial in the form of reports, articles. We need to trust those who did research before us; we cannot repeat every research. We continue our research on the basis of what others did. Christian faith is incomparable with natural science. It is not a theory, or the result of a number of tests to verify the truth, etc. Christian faith however deals with reality in a deep sense. Here witnesses are essential as well. Christian faith– as well as Jewish faith- deals with the reality of God based on the testimonies of the eye- and ear witnesses. It is proclamation of what God has done and what people have heard and seen from Him: Abraham, Moses and the prophets, the evangelists and apostles in particular.
The witness of two historical events in Jesus’ life (vs. 6-8)
Two events in the life of Jesus made a deep impression on the witnesses. John mentions this in verse 6. There are several explanations of these verses. St Augustine brings it back to one event, referring to the death of Jesus. When the soldier came after Jesus has died at the cross and pierced his side with a spear a sudden flow of blood and water came form his side. It indicated the real death of Jesus. The explanation emphasizes that Jesus the Son of God died a real death. In opposition to the Gnostic who said that Jesus’ Godly nature was accepted by the human body at the occasion of his baptism and left Him just before his death. Augustine mentions also that in the temple services in the Old Testament both water and blood played a big role in the purification of sinful people. The symbolic meaning of both elements should be in our thoughts as well. The blood of Jesus reconciles the sins of the world (cf. Hebr. 9: 11-22), water is the symbol of the Holy Spirit (cf. John 4:14) who cleanses and sanctifies God’s people.
Although I like St Augustine much, I prefer to see two historical events in verse 6. (1) The event of Jesus’ baptism in river Jordan. It is mentioned in all the gospels, including John’s gospel. There was a voice from heaven and a symbolic figure in the form of a dove, representing the Holy Spirit. For John the Baptist it was a very convincing event: this man Jesus from Nazareth appeared to be the Son of God, the Lamb given by God to carry away the sins of the world, and certainly he has passed it on to his disciples. The other event was Jesus’ suffering at the cross. This must have made a big impression to the disciples. Only later they began to understand the full meaning of it. The disciples were eyewitnesses and later they gave testimony of all what happened with and around Jesus. That is what John indicates in verse 6.
The confirmation of the Holy Spirit (vs. 6, 9, 10a).
Now, we all know that historical facts as such don’t mean everything. They need confirmation. They also can be denied, they can be distorted. Evidence is not something that works automatically. Every war in the world is also a propaganda war. In Ukraine as we see now, different parties accuse each other about the accident. In Middle East the main war is a propaganda war. How do we know the truth (evidence)? We need more witnesses to confirm. That is the case with all what happened with Jesus. We have four different witnesses, the four Gospels. And we need true witnesses. The word for witness in Greek is here: marturia. You hear the word ‘martyr’ in it. It means something like this: ‘The content of my witness is so important, it is even more important than my life. If necessary I will be ready to suffer and to die for it.’ Like the three young man in Babel who didn’t want to bow their knees and adore the golden image of king Nebukadnezar (Daniel 3). They didn’t want to accept a lie to save their life. They were ready to suffer a cruel death for the case of truth. They weren’t convinced simply of some historical facts, no the truth of God was stamped in their life. Truth must be accepted, grasped. It needs to be embraced. Actually that is what the Holy Spirit does. He makes us possessors, real participants. Verse 10 says: ‘Anyone who believes in the Son of God, has this testimony in his heart’. Truth of God needs to be part of our inner self, our heart. The Holy Spirit is the true Witness. He fixes the truth of Jesus in our life. He connects the historical events of God’s work in Jesus with our personal life.
Johns says: there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood. The Spirit used Moses and the Prophets to testify of God’s work in this world and they pointed at the coming of the Saviour. The Spirit helped the disciples to recognize Gods work in Christ, in his baptism and his death. Now the Holy Spirit through His Word, through the church brings this home with us. So that we may share in the faith of the prophets and apostles. So that we -through their witness- have fellowship with God. The truth is fixed in our heart, so clearly that –if we have to suffer for it- we will not abandon it. Do you agree with that? Or do still have doubts?
Water and blood remind us of the baptism of Jesus and the moment that He was offering his life. But they also remind us of our baptism and of Holy Communion. By these sacraments the Holy Spirit wants to confirm it, to make us owners. He connects the ‘objective’ (what God has done), with the subjective (our life, our experience). We are like children who look through the window of a shop and see all kinds of nice toys. You image: they long to play with it, but they don’t posses. They aren’t owners; there is glass in between. They (or their parents) have to pay before they can own it, before they can play with it. That’s what the Holy Spirit achieves. He makes us owners. The price has been paid already. He takes it out of the shop of Christ and gives it to us. Now we are sure, and we enjoy! And we may say: the hand that we use to accept the presents is faith as well. By faith we receive the blessings of God. So faith is in itself a gift (through rebirth), as we have seen last week. But is also an instrument, a tool to receive God’s blessing.
If you don’t believe (vs. 10)
It is possible –against all evidence- that we maintain our ‘personal truth’. Johns mentions this with pain in his heart verse 10. Why is it so shocking? In that case we disconnect ourselves from God and his truth, from eternal life and eternal hope. Yes, but we also dishonour God, indicating that he is a liar, says John. It is strange to say: ‘God is true, His way is truth and life, and at the same time: it doesn’t bother me, let me keep my own conviction.’ If you go to a pharmacist because you need a good medicine for a severe sickness, and he says to you: ‘This is the most excellent and proven medicine for your sickness’. And you say: ‘You might be right, but still I like my herb tea and I prefer to use that.’ It sounds strange. Somehow you ridicule the pharmacist. You more or less make him a liar. Truth isn’t an option: you can try to choose a little bit of it and also a little bit of other stuff, and all together try to have a good life. Actually we need to realise that we aren’t in a supermarket, but in a pharmacy, and our sickness is a matter of life and death.
Eternal life in Jesus Christ (vs. 11-13)
Eternal life is a gift from God, received by faith. Are you sure of that? We might think about what gives us life, hope, perspective, joy…There are many factors that bring a certain fulfilment. We may think about career, respect, relationships, influence, money or possessions…but we need to think about the final perspective. The famous pastor Martin Luther King once congratulated one of his parishioners, a high school student, after he had passed his final exam.
‘Congratulations, and what do you want to do next?’, he said.
‘I am going to study at university’, he replied.
‘And after that?’
‘I hope to find a good job?’
‘I want to have a good career and I hope to marry and to have nice family.’
‘Then I think we can find enough money to have a good house and build a good pension.’
‘Then I think I will retire and enjoy retirement.’
‘Then, I grow old, I hope.’
‘Then I die.’
‘Then I don’t know.’
Martin Luther King said to him: ‘Is this the perspective that you have heard from me? Is that all you remember? Didn’t I tell you so many times that there is life for you that surpasses everything what you mentioned?’
Dear brothers and sisters, through the testimony of John in this passage it is as if the living God says to us: ‘I have prepared so much more than you think. Infinite wealth, endless glory, joyful fellowship of brothers and sisters and a superfluous life. And the most precious is this: My joy in you and your joy in Me.’ That is the essence of faith in one word. It is the joy of eternal life that starts already here and now. In Christ you have it all and nobody can take it from you, now and forever. If you may know that (vs. 13), let not one day pass to thank the Lord for it, and to invite others to this fullness of joy. Amen.