Introduction to the series of sermons in IREF about the letters of John – Niek Tramper
Important reasons for choosing the first letter of John:
(1) John presents the essentials of Christian faith. He wants to make sure that we know the great eternal principles of Christian faith: fellowship with God, the atonement in Christ, regeneration, sanctification, sin, devil, fellowship of sisters and brothers….
The word ‘knowing’ is central in Johns letters. (e.g. 1 John 5 vs. 13, 19 and 20: ‘that you may know’. How do we know? According to John not because of scientific arguments, logical deductions, but because of the apostolic witness. We should know: 1. something about ourselves: that we are children of God, that we share in the eternal, Godly life. That is the unique position of Christians, taken out of the dominion of Satan. 2. something about the world. That it is under the control of the evil one. We live in a difficult, contradictory and challenging world and the world always has been like this. According to John Christians don’t have an optimistic, nor pessimistic view of this world, but a realistic one, and it means that we should consider the reality of Satan and of evil. The London 20th century Presbyterian preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones said: Our first reaction to all kinds of questions and problems of the world around is not: ‘let us pray’, but ‘let us think’. The Bible is not concerned to ease a situation. It looks at the world as it is, in its reality. Let us understand!
John shows that Christians don’t have a programme of improvement of the world, but they live in this world with a total different principle. By this they exercise hope for the future of the world and work with expectancy and joy in the midst of the world.
(2) John deals with the position of Christians in the world. The letters indicate that Christians are different from the surrounding world (5:19), because they have different roots. Like the apostle Paul says in Rom. 12:2 ‘You do not conform the pattern of this world’. Our culture has a certain scheme, a logical pattern and all people stick to that more or less. We are part of our culture and also contribute to the welfare of it. Still we aren’t dominated by the main values of the governing culture, because we belong to another Kingdom with its own values that are antagonistic to dominant values in society around. Still John doesn’t say that followers of Jesus should withdraw themselves from the world. He opposes a programme of world renunciation; instead they should ‘conquer’ the world (1 John 5:4)! Christians aren’t hermits, nor are they living in two worlds (a spiritual and a secular one). So main question from John’s letters is: how can we be a real and joyful follower of Jesus in our study, work at the university, dealing with responsibilities in our family an dour circle of friends as well as dealing with the political and economic reality of today?
(3) John touches the basic of a Christian fellowship. IREF is a fellowship. The word fellowship frequents John’s letters. John shows that fellowship with God is closely linked with the fellowship among brothers and sisters. He indicates how we relate to one another. He shows the essence of Christian love. We have to discern between physical, psychological motives (dealing with our character, personality, preferences etc) and the spiritual motive (who we are in Christ). John teaches us to respect and accept our brothers and sisters, because Christ, our Lord, has accepted us all as we are. The church as a Christ confessing community is an essential antidote to the 21 century’s Western individualism and self-centeredness.
About the author and the addressees
How do we know that these letters are from John, the disciple of Jesus? There is no author mentioned, nor addressees, nor you will find greetings (like in Pauls letters). The author starts immediately about Christ, the Word of Life. We may follow the church tradition that says: it certainly must be John. Right from the beginning of 1 John it must be clear that one of the apostles speaks as an eye and ear witness.
Style and way of thinking are very close to John’s Gospel. It is very different from Paul’s. Paul’s literary style is clear and direct, building a logical framework in his letters. John is more mystic, and repeats subjects. Het is more ‘spiral’ in his thinking. Key words both for the Gospel and the letters: light (versus darkness), truth (versus falsehood), life (versus death).
It is rather sure that John wrote to the church in Ephesus at old age, presumably after he had to go into exile to the island of Patmos. He worked there many years. You sense the close relationship with the church in chapter 2 (‘children’, ‘beloved ones’, ‘brothers’ ). He is concerned about his spiritual children, who are young in faith and are exposed to false teachers who go around and seduce the people to their attractive ideas.
The Gnostic teachers and the division between the spiritual and material world
John is called the apostle of love (Ch. 4), but he can be very sharp. He calls the wandering teachers ‘anti-christs’ (people who oppose Christ, or put themselves in the place of Christ). Who were they? It is all about so called Gnostic teachers, who claimed to have a special knowledge (mixture of philosophy and mysticism) and the claimed to have special spiritual insights (Gnostic is deducted from ‘gnosis’). You can compare it more or less with the various ways of New Age thinking. They said that there is a leading principle in the universe (in God and man) what they called ‘logos’. It is a spiritual power, a godly spark, and we need to discover that. They said that the physical, material world was not so important. It had a lower rank. So they gave all credits to the spiritual reality and despised the sensory reality (dualism). Several consequences: some withdrew themselves from day to day world into spiritual communities but actually despised Gods gifts in creation. They were operating as sects, cults. Besides to that (as usual in sects) they didn’t show real love but neglected the people around. They only wanted to use the brothers and sisters for their own spiritual goals. Others said: the physical, material is not so important. So you can do what you like with your body (libertinism). Actually, their teaching was very spiritual, but their attitude was selfish. You can understand that these Gnostics teacher claimed to have a special insight in the nature of Christ. They said that the spirit of the eternal Christ came on Jesus of Nazareth when he was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan, and left him before he died at the cross. So actually they denied that the Son of God became a real man and that he was both God and man. According to them Christ lived in an apparent, shadow body.
The apostle John warns the church not to be misled by these people. Their teaching is attractive but dangerous. John emphasizes: if Jesus hasn’t become a true man, our salvation cannot not be true and real.