Summary: Truth matters. Truth in belief and truth in behaviour. It matters what we believe about Jesus. It matters how we live
John is a passionate writer. Maybe he realises that he’s coming to the end of his life and he doesn’t have much time left to get his message across. Maybe he looks around at the church and realises that the inexorable drift from the gospel to religion is impacting on those he’s spent his life pastoring.
It seems that at the time John was writing this letter there were some in the church who were suggesting that there were other ways of seeing things than the way the apostles had taught them. These people were saying let’s not worry about all that gospel stuff, let’s just get on with our spiritual life. They were looking for deeper spiritual experiences. They wanted to be transported into the seventh heaven, removed from these earthly realities, set free to worship and enjoy God.
But it wasn’t as simple as that. Sadly, the result of their false teaching was that people were confused. They began to question whether they were really saved. Was this new spirituality right? Were they missing out on something extra? Nothing’s changed in 2000 years has it? What’s more, this false teaching affected their evangelism. Why tell people about the cross of Christ, if there were other ways of coming to God that were just as effective, if not more so? Why worry about moral behaviour if all that matters is what we experience on the spiritual plane?
John at this stage is in the last years of his life, possibly in his 80s or 90s. He’s the last remaining apostle, the last witness to Christ, so he wants to ensure that the apostolic witness is preserved. You get a real sense of his concern for the people he’s writing to in the way he addresses them. There’s a real sense of affection in his words. (1 John 2:1 NRSV) “My little children, I write this to you so that you will not sin.” (1 John 4:7 NRSV) “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God;” And he writes to assure them of their salvation: (1 John 5:13 NRSV) “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
There’s a real warmth of pastoral concern in what he writes, yet at the same time there’s a solid assurance of the truth of what he writes. In fact there’s a hard edge to much of what he says. For John, truth matters. As we’ll see in a moment if we don’t hold to the truth, then we can’t really have fellowship together. Remember it was John who reported these words of Jesus in John 17 talking about his disciples: “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:16-17) He also reported these words of Jesus, talking to the Pharisees: “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44 NRSV) So truth is vital if we’re to be in fellowship with God and with one another, and one of Satan’s greatest weapons is to use lies to turn us away from the right path.
Well, that’s where John begins in addressing the issue of how we’re to have true fellowship with God and with each other. In fact he says that there are 3 things that are necessary if we’re truly to have fellowship with one another, and with God: we must believe the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ, truly human and truly divine; we must walk in the light; and we must admit our sins and ask God to forgive us and cleanse us from them. All have to do with the truth, as we’ll see in a moment.
Belief in the Apostolic Witness.
John begins his letter by reminding us of the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ. We lose something of the passion and emphasis of his opening in the NRSV translation. The NIV gets it a bit better: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched--this we proclaim - concerning the Word of life.” Can you see what’s at the centre of the proclamation of the gospel? It’s the Word of life. The Word of life who’s become one of us. The Word who’s lived among us.
He’s at pains to point out the ‘hands on’ nature of his witness, isn’t he? What he’s witnessing to he’s heard, he’s seen with his eyes, he’s looked upon, and he’s handled. He isn’t passing on a mythology or describing how the early church understood their spirituality. He’s speaking of what he’s witnessed in the flesh.