Bible reading: 1 John 5: 1-13.
I. What does it mean to believe?
Brothers and sisters, this is not an easy passage, and I need your help to discover the treasures of this passage. I did my homework in preparing, but how can I grasp the height and depth, the latitude and longitude of the grace of God in this passage without you, brothers and sisters? I do my best to explain and you do your best to understand. Let it be a common effort to understand what the Holy Spirit wants to say to us today. I already prepared the main part of the sermon in the first half of the week before the news came of the horrible accident with the Malaysian plane. We will give attention to it in our prayers later in this service, and will refer to it in my sermon as well. It is a big shock for our nation and several other nations and it brought many families in deep sorrow.
I think that the apostle John doesn’t introduce completely new subjects in this chapter, but he is like an eagle circling over the fields, with a sharp eye for the most important issues in Christian faith and Christian life. As a good teacher he is not afraid to repeat very central issues.
–> Let us look at the passage again. What do you consider main subjects, or key words in this part?
- to believe; faith (the same root in Greek: pisteuo, pistis) in vs. 1, 4, 5, 10 and 13. This is closely connected with Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God (vs. 1, 5, 6, 10, 12, 13)
- to love, love (both verb and noun): vs. 1, 2 and 3
- to be born of God; vs. 1 and 4
- testify; testimony (Greek: martureo, marturia): vs. 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11
- to overcome the world” vs. 4, 5
- (eternal) life: vs. 11, 12, 13.
- to know: vs. 2, 13.
We see that the most frequent words are: ‘to believe, to have faith’, and: ‘to testify, testimony’. This brings us to two main points: (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? The second point will be the topic of the sermon next week.
–> Associations with ‘faith’ or ‘believe’ ?
(If I ask you to circumscribe ‘faith’ or ‘to believe’, what is your immediate thought? ).
You will notice that there is a big difference between the daily practise (in which it expresses a kind of uncertainty) and in the Christian church (where faith is the expression of a conviction and a trust). ‘I believe’ = ‘I am not quite sure, it could be so’. I believe that I passed my exam, is quite different from: ‘I passed my exam’.
But in the Bible faith is a key subject with a very different connotation. Two very important examples of faith are:
(1) In the life of Abraham (Gen. 12, 15, 17 etc.), who heard the voice of God to leave his fathers house and his country and believed that what he heard from God was true and reliable, although he didn’t have any visible security about it. He trusted God’s promise to bring him in a new country and to make his offspring numerous as the stars in heaven and the sand at the shore. Abraham’s faith shows two aspects mainly: confidence and also obedience. He trusted and acted, that is why he is called the father of al believers.
(2) The other example of faith is in the letter of Hebrews, especially chapter 11 that starts with a sort of definition of faith: ‘Now faith is being sure of what we hope and certain of what we do not see’. But in the context of the whole letter, you see that faith has another important aspect: to keep on, to hold on, not to give in despite all kinds of temptations and tribulations. Faith as a competition or a match. In Hebr. 11 you find the list of all heroes of faith who completed the race. The author mentions this as a great exhortation to his readers, to you and me to follow their example. The row of believers isn’t finished. The champions of faith of all ages wait for the moment we have completed the race.
Now let us look at John. John gives another perspective of faith again.
–> Here I want your response. What is important for John speaking about faith? About what he wants to convince his dear children?
1 John 5: three perspectives of ‘faith’:
- Faith is closely connected with: to be born of God (vs. 1, 4). This is a main point in John’s gospel and in his letters. Remember the talk of Jesus with Nicodemus in the night. Jesus says to him: you have to be born again (‘from above’, from God). Let us think about it: we all have been born. It means that we received the gift of life. We didn’t decide for our existence. (Who decided for it? Did your parents decide for it?) You inherited your life from your parents, actually from your forefathers. You are a son of man and a daughter of Eve. You know that you live, and you notice the signs of it: you breathe, eat and drink, you grow, you communicate, you develop your identity. Signs of life! Now, you should know that you and I inherited more than that. We inherited corruption, decay as well, and we cannot escape the loss of life sooner or later: this is the reality of death. Death, loss of glory, loss of our life in God, touched humankind because of sin. 1 Cor. 15:56 ‘The sting of death is sin’. Life can come to an end very suddenly, as we have noticed in the horrific accident last week.
Faith is the proof of the gift of a new and everlasting life. A new birth, a spiritual birth that gives us a new identity, a new future. It is life from God through Jesus Christ, His Son. This is a wonderful gift! Faith, according to vs. 1. means: that you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Saviour, that in Him you will find fullness of life, a new and everlasting life (vs. 12). Do you really believe that?
- 2. Faith is closely connected with love and obedience (vs. 2, 3). Faith without love is empty and love without commands is blind. Without love faith is only a conviction, a theory. Love puts faith in practice; it gives it hands and feet. Now we have touched the whole subject of love in the sermon on 1 John 4. You may have noticed that John doesn’t speak about love without mentioning obedience, as the Lord Jesus did as well. ‘Who loves Me obeys my commands’ Jesus said. Now here we experience a tension. In our thinking ‘love’ and ‘obedience’ are often opposite concepts. (Love= passion and obedience=following a rule, doing an obligation.) The real test of loving God –John says- is that you love the brothers and the sisters. And then verse 3: ‘If you love God, you carry out his commands. A clear sign of faith is: that you have a new love (and you may call it passion) for God. We should reflect about this and search our life. Why? Because it is possible that we might know about the existence of God, or even believe in Him that He is up there and that we admire Christian teaching, we even can have strong doctrinal convictions, and that we still don’t know the love for God. If you love God – says John- you also love his children. This love is very concrete, it is not just good feeling, or good thoughts, or good intentions. John adds in verse 3: If you love God you carry out his commands. You do what He wants you to do.
Now we all know how many commandments God has given to the people of Israel. If you read through the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy: there are many rules, obligations, and commands. It is very clear what God wanted his people to do and how to behave. For the Jews the Torah is an expression of life. It gives them the rules for personal, social and religious life. But if you ask what is the focus, what is the heart of it, you can say: how you deal with God, how you respect and love Him, and how you deal with your neighbour, how you love and respect the people around you. This is what every Jewish boy and girl learn at young age: the ‘shema’ in Deut. 6. ‘Hear Israel, the Lord is our God, and the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. And Jesus added to it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matth. 22:37). The command of love! commands are a certain guide, a pathway to help you to express your love in the right way. So again: faith without love is not active (it is only theory). But love without commands is blind.
When Jesus explains the heart of God’s commands, He puts it very radical (in the Sermon of the Mount). He says that it might be easy to love the one who loves you, your friend, but that you should do all efforts to love your enemy. That is real love. Let us make it practical. For example somebody has stolen something from you: like a robber, who came in your house to steal your computer or some precious objects. You may start to despite and to hate him. You want to see him punished. But can you still try to love such a person? You only can do it in Christ’s name. When you see the example of Christ. How everything was stolen from Him, still He didn’t stop praying for his enemies. He considered them still precious and brought them for His Father. Yes, you want your possessions back, but why cooking anger toward a person who badly needs God’s grace? If you keep your anger, if you continue to see him as an enemy, you treat yourself as an enemy (St Augustine). Love yourself, don’t treat yourself as an enemy. Don’t you know that you are precious in God’s eyes? That He gave everything to you? That He is the Owner of everything. He knows how to distribute it among his children. Maybe it is more difficult if somebody steals your good name, steals your reputation, or handles you as if you are only part of his or her tool box. Pray for those who persecute you, Jesus says. This is the radicalism of love. Jesus said: take My yoke, my burden on you. My burden is not heavy. He gives you wings to carry. St Augustine considered Jesus’ commands as the wings of a bird. The bird carries the wings, it is a little burden for him. But he needs to carry it. Sooner or later, after some exercise, he knows to use the wings, and then he experiences that the wings carry him in an easy way. Faith = not only new life, also new love, and new obedience.
- Faith overcomes the world. (vs. 4 and 5). What does it mean? Do you have an idea? How our faith can overcome the world? The Greek word for world is ‘kosmos’. It means: what is precious, a jewel. It is kosmos because it is created by God, but it is a kosmos that lost God’s glory and joy. It is clear in John’s letters that this jewel has come under the dominion of evil and in the grip of death. We realise the more after the tragedy with flight MH17 in Ukraine. The nation is in shock. What is ‘overcoming the world’?
(1) According to Genesis 1:28 we might think about overcoming, dominating the world with culture, art, knowledge or scientific research. Using the laws and principles in nature and applying them for human wants and needs. This is the answer of knowledge and science. But time and again we have to admit that this solution doesn’t save us from evil and pain.
(2) You can try to overcome evil by doing good deeds. This is a moral answer. Some time ago I had a long talk with somebody who agree with me that there is a lot of suffering and evil in this world. His answer was: I try all I can to be a good person, and hopefully my good deeds surpass my bad deeds. He was a very friendly person and I am sure that he was honest. But I asked how he knew that he did enough to solve the problems of humankind (He liked to use his money in traveling around the world just to visit interesting places). When you read Ecclesiastes you find that the king (Salomon) tried both the way of knowledge and wisdom, and the way of enjoying good works. He tried to make everything acceptable and enjoyable. Like Salomon you can try to make a nice physical world and you can try to make a nice moral world. His conclusion: it is in vain. You cannot overcome (govern) the world by these efforts.
John says: what overcomes the world is our faith. He might have thought about Jesus’ words in John 16:33: ‘Keep courage, I have overcome the world’. Our faith overcomes the world, because Jesus has overcome the world. How Jesus has over come the world? By the reconciliation that He brought, He prepared the way of God’s new Kingdom. His saving work is meant to bring us back to our original destination: to fulfil our God given task to be stewards of this earth, to dominate it in a very positive way, to explore it, to enjoy it, because it was and is God’s good world, endless in beauty, resources, reflecting the glory of its Maker. How many times we have used the world for our own benefit and for our own glory? The results of that are visible around. Technique has not simply become a beautiful tool to celebrate man’s dominion over nature. It also has become a cruel ‘Moloch’ eating its adorers and leading into destruction. It must be our great concern how God’s creation will continue now the earth is warming up quickly, and natural resources are consumed rapidly.
The world as it is doesn’t seem to have future, an everlasting and harmonious life. The world is under the dominion of evil, says John. Why should we partake in a project that has no future? At university you don’t do it. It is nonsense to put your energy and money in project of which you know beforehand that it fails…What does faith add? Faith in the living God, who sent his Son Jesus Christ as the Saviour of the world, means being joined in a project that has future.
You may be familiar with the stories of the 4 children (Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy) in Narnia in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. When they enter the beautiful land Narnia it is under the dominion of the witch. By her power everything is turned into a snowy landscape. The children note that there are still many activities in the land, the rules of the witch are kept, but there is no life, no future. Everything is kept frozen. Till the moment the rumour spreads that Aslan the great Lion will come. An indeed signs of spring are see here and there. The witch is loosing her influence gradually. Flowers burst from the spoil. Green is appearing in the trees and the sun gains power. The animals rejoice more and more in the return of Aslan. It is a metaphor of the new world that God has promised. By the power of the Lion who became a lamb a new future for the whole world will break through. A project full of hope. That is why faith is connected closely to hope. To believe is to be granted to share in God’s project with this world. So: new life, new love, new obedience, new hope. That is what faith is al about.
Do we recognize these signs of faith in our life? If you still have questions about it, if you are uncertain, please don’t let it go, because it is fundamental that you partake in a project that has future, that has life and not in one that will be lost sooner or later. Why hesitate to ask me or one of the elders to pray for you? If you ask God for the gift of faith honestly, He will not let you go. ‘I urge you’, the apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, ‘be reconciled with God.’ Yu cannot wait too long to bring your life under the authority of Jesus.
If you recognize these signs of faith, thank God for your new life, the change in your position. Praise Him for a new future and new hope and thank Him for his commands that show you the way how to please God, to enjoy His presence and to love the people around you. Let no day pass without expressing you thanks to God and inviting others to the beauty of a life with God. Amen.