Beyond the Lectionary Text: 1 John 2
by Chelsey Harmon
I find the letter/sermon in 1 John to be exceptionally pastoral and truthful. Scholars have helped us piece together the conflict that prompted all three letters with John in the name: it’s clear that the community of believers were being bombarded with challenges to core beliefs about Jesus and the nature of things by people who used to be part of their community. From the very beginning of his letter, John works very hard to unite himself with the community and to root their message to the good news of Jesus himself. (1.1-5) John seems to be constantly reminding them that they already have what they need to know, it’s more a matter of putting that knowledge to practice (hence his heavy use of the perfect tense, especially for the verb ‘to know’). And, as part of his pastoral sensitivity, John gives the community a few different rubrics that can be efficiently used when they are presented with challenging viewpoints and lifestyles. He also continually paints a picture of a community committed to life together.
First things first for John. He sets all that he is about to say in the confines of the gospel message of God’s grace. Throughout the letter, it becomes clear that the opposing voices are claiming to have reached some sort of moral perfectionism; John wants the community to strive for perfection- but as it is gifted by God’s love. He also knows that all humans have already failed to be perfect, so instead of chastising or belittling the believers for not being perfect, he reminds them that Jesus is our advocate and the one whose love covers over the multitude of our sins.
Then in verses 3-11, he provides a series of scenarios that follow the pattern of: what you say – what you do – and what is therefore the truth. John’s intent is that the community of true believers will see that when there is a discrepancy between what someone says and how they actually live, one must wonder about the truth they are trying to share. If the actual truth (how they act) is different than what they are proclaiming, their message lacks integrity. Those who were claiming to know God but were practicing moral perfectionism were really saying that they believed that they were able to save and perfect themselves. John wants the community to see that true perfection is borne out of obedience to the commands of God and is ultimately the work of God bringing his love for the world to completion within each believer.
This rubric is a good test to use on ourselves as well. We too can fall into the temptation of having what we proclaim with our words tell a different truth than the one we live with our lives. Throughout his reasoning, John points to Jesus as the one who melded the two together perfectly: he did not sin, but out of love, atones for the sins of the world; he was perfectly obedient and was sent to the world to sacrifice out of God’s deep love; Jesus is the love of God perfected and lived on earth, so whoever has fellowship with him would do well to live (walk) as he lived (walked). As more of Jesus comes to have rule and reign over/within us, the more obedient and loving and ‘perfect’ we become.
The old adage “actions speak louder than words” is written all over this section of the text — and notice how much of the action isn’t about moral perfection, but about obedient love.
A challenge to not be avoided
I think it very important to remember that the context of the letter is to a community of believers— a peculiar community whose life together tells the story of God’s light and love. John’s encouragement and teaching subtly shapes a communal witness through the transformation of the individuals in the community. This subtly is felt most sharply in verses 10 and 11: whoever loves a brother/sister is in the light (fellowship with God), whoever hates a brother/sister is in the darkness. By sheer addition, the more people in the light in a community, the more the community is in the light, able to encourage and proclaim truth through word and deed. It would be easy to get this call to love within the community lost among the task of weighing the voices from outside. But to do so would be to deny the effects of sin in the church and the need for Christ’s atonement and the Spirit’s sanctification.
It is hard to love people who manipulate, who are selfish, who seem unreasonable, who hurt those we care about. But to have the love of God perfected in us (v 5) is to love others as God loves them. Though this movement from hate to love can happen miraculously through the work of the Holy Spirit, it has more often been my experience that my growing into more complete obedience is a slow one through a number of discernable steps. As I pray for someone whom I hate, not to change them, but to have God’s will be done in their life and for them to experience the love of God, I have found myself going from hating them to being indifferent towards them. Over time, that indifference has morphed into the realization that they are someone whom God loves and I gradually find myself hoping that they realize this. Sometimes, I’ve even found that God has brought me to a place of loving them as God loves them— to the place where God’s love is perfected in me. But I don’t always reach, nor do I always stay, in this lifestyle of perfected love and when I fail, I am drawn back to my advocate, Jesus Christ.
There is no clear consensus among scholars as to whether or not John means for us to take the age breakdowns in verses 12-14 literally or metaphorically. The sense of the message is more important than being able to put people neatly into boxes of age or spiritual maturity. What John is wanting to get across is that everyone has something to offer based on what the Holy Spirit has made strong in them.
The ‘little children’, perhaps both actual children as well as those who keep a childlike faith, shine a posture of willingness to accept the Father’s forgiveness; they are the ones who the Holy Spirit uses to keep us seeking God’s face. The ‘fathers’ of the community, who might actually be brothers or mothers or friends, are the people who witness to the long-term story of God (what’s been happening ‘from the beginning) and therefore remind the community that it isn’t our story but God’s story; they are the ones whom the Holy Spirit uses to keep us on the strong foundation of Jesus. The ‘young people,’ full of passion and who know what it’s like to be freed from God from addictions and sins, encourage us through their testimony to the strength of the Holy Spirit to do marvelous things; they are the ones the Holy Spirit uses to strengthen us with God’s truth.
All of these strengths serve a number of purposes. One purpose is to love one another by teaching each other more about God. Another purpose is to help one another live in obedience to God when outside pressure to do otherwise runs high. This means we have to reject the love that we are taught in the world in order to embrace the love of God. Verses 15-17 focus on the love of self taught by the world, which is not the love of the Father we are called to become perfected in.
How the world and the Father’s love don’t line up
John pinpoints three particular ways in which the love that encompasses those who walk in darkness is contra to the love of the Father. (1) ‘The desire of the flesh’ promotes satisfying all your sensual and sexual urges and is driven by self-satisfaction; the love of God is driven by the desire to protect and safeguard others. (2) ‘The desire of the eyes’ leads us to judge others by what we see (what someone wears, where they work, what kind of house they live in) rather than what we know about God. When we see with the Father’s eyes, however, we see someone worthy of love and care and support. (3) ‘The pride in riches’ is a love for things that we accumulate and want others to be impressed by rather than be driven by the aim of expressing God the Father’s love. If we are known by these world expressions of love, then we are not walking in obedience to the way of perfected love, the way of Jesus.
By pairing this section on the love of the world with the section on the strengths in the community, John shows us how to live and love one another into a more holy community: the ‘children’ teach us to seek forgiveness; the ‘fathers’ remind us of the truth we strive to live; the ‘young’ tell the story of overcoming temptation and keep us accountable to living the way of God.
Finally, John packs a lot into paragraph about antichrists— a word that has been used far too often in the history of the church. When a topic has become such a hot button issue in the church, I find it helpful to focus on the biblical use in its original context. So, given that John is speaking to the community about outsiders who are speaking in their midst and preaching false things about Jesus, an antichrist is someone who denies that Jesus is the Christ and therefore rejects all that that entails about how we ought to live. What so many of us mean nowadays when we say, “The Antichrist” is not what John meant. John reveals a reality that can have multiple antichrists because he means it in the strictest of ways: someone opposed to Christ. In this way, we all become antichrists in our sinfulness because we reject Jesus with our words and our actions.
This simpler, or perhaps stricter, definition of antichrist makes the whole concept a little less scary or overwhelming and much more common place— though no less serious or challenging. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit inspired John to give the community of faith some discerning guidelines that can be inferred or taken directly from his letter:
(1) Does what you hear belong to God and his word? Or does it belong to the world?
(2) Does it proclaim Jesus as the Saviour, fully human, fully divine? Or does it add or take away from his atoning sacrifice?
(3) What is the fellowship or common purpose/goal that the teaching is calling you to? Is it one that builds or destroys the church? Is it one that professes and lives God’s love or one that spotlights an individual at the cost of others?
John prioritizes the gospel and its truth as the litmus test for what belongs or does not belong to God and the church. Notice that these aren’t the matters that we find ourselves disagreeing upon as Christians. John’s definition of antichrist doesn’t seem to include people with different views on women in office or how old the earth is; people of varying understandings of how God was/is at work in these things can still be united in proclaiming the truth of Jesus and loving one another in ways that shine God’s light. What is constantly present, however, is the importance of the community of faith as a corrective to the ways of the world, as the incubator of the love of God, and as the place where we can love one another with the unique work of God the Holy Spirit with abandon.