May 11, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
“You’re only as happy as your unhappiest child.” That is a saying of my former Pastoral Care colleague Ron Nydam. And he’s right. But the truth is that parents all know that as a matter of fact you cannot insure the happiness of your children. And that truth is married to another undeniable fact and that is this: the wider world in which we want our children to be happy most assuredly cannot be counted on to make that happiness a reality. In fact, the wider world has millions of jagged edges ready to tear into any given person’s happiness and success and stability at a moment’s notice.
Jesus is not the “parent” of his followers but his love for them is at least as fervent as a mother or a father. Thus as he looks ahead to his own departure, realizing that he’d have to leave his friends to keep working in the midst of a highly challenging world, Jesus knows that among the things he must pray for them is protection from the evil one, from the destructive forces of life that seem calculated to knock the stuffing out of us more days than not. Jesus knows, too, that the success of his mission depends precisely on the disciples’ not being transported out of this world nor cocooned away somewhere far away from society or from the people in this world who need to hear the Gospel message.
No, the only way this thing was going to work was if the disciples continued to labor smack in the middle of the very same world that was about to reveal its character that very night when no less than the Son of the Living God would get arrested and accosted and then nailed to a spit of wood. That was the world in which they’d have to work and that was why Jesus had to spend so much of this prayer begging his Father to give them all the help, all the protection, all the support he could provide.
If ever we in the church needed a reality check as to what we should expect in ministry and in service to this world, the fervency of Jesus’ prayer here should remind us that we should not expect smooth sailing. Yet so many people seem to expect just that. Too many in the Church are just shocked when they encounter resistance to the Gospel. It’s as though we simply cannot believe that there could actually be atheists around or people who would prefer we not pray in public schools or those who take a view of sexuality or money that just is so clearly at variance with what Christians regard as God’s own truth.
But why should any of this surprise us? Jesus knew what we’d be facing. Yes, he prayed for protection and strength but he did so precisely because he did not necessarily think the world was going to be any more receptive to God’s kingdom than it had been in his own lifetime. The truth is we need all the prayer we can get as followers of God but we need it because Jesus knew that the evil one still has some kicks. We ought to expect no less. But the Good News is that Jesus is—right now—still praying this same prayer at the right hand of his Father.
Of course, Jesus first prayed it in front of the disciples too and there was no doubt a reason for also this. Haven’t we as pastors occasionally prayed for our congregations—and prayed in front of our congregations—in ways that expressed both our genuine gratitude for these members of our flock and yet prayed somewhat aspirationally for a few things we wish were more true of that same flock? All things being equal, we’ve all surely prayed things about the congregation as a whole that we know full well are not true for the congregation in its every detail!
The truth is, Jesus was the only realist in that upper room that night. He alone was ready to face the events John will tell us about in chapter 18 and beyond. And he alone knew he’d face his trials alone—he knew not only of Peter’s impending implosion but of the failure of them all. Yet here is how he prayed about those very same people.
The good news is that post-Pentecost, everything Jesus expresses here about his band of followers would come true. But even at the moment, it was finally an act of love that Jesus prayed the way he did. When you love people, you want the best for them and you express this in also your prayers for them. You want to give thanks for the things worthy of gratitude and you also want to see them so singularly through a lens of love and compassion that you’ll say things that may not be totally accurate at the moment but that will be true by and by and that will be gloriously true when that comes to pass.
Jesus is about to be brutalized by this world. And his dearest friends on earth would do nothing to stop it or even to stand with him in his agony and dereliction. Yet far from rebuking them or being angry with them, Jesus prayed for them and he did so in the best possible light at that.
There are oodles and oodles of vignettes in the New Testament that display how much love Jesus had for his people and for his most devoted followers. But as displays of love go, this prayer surely counts as one of the finest!
In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Frederick Dale Bruner makes the claim that it’s possible to view John 17 as a whole as John’s expanded version of the well-known “Lord’s Prayer” that Jesus presents more straightforwardly in the Synoptic Gospels. Verse 1 contains the equivalent of “Our Father in heaven.” Verse 2’s talk about glorifying the Son that he may glorify the Father can be a gloss on “Hallowed be your name.” Verses 11-12 contain talk of the ongoing presence of the disciples in the world and this could be a version of “Your kingdom come” even as verse 15 can be seen as a “Your will be done” and also a “deliver us from evil.” Just beyond this lection in verses 20-24 one can also locate versions of “Forgive us our debts” and “Lead us not into temptation.” Whether Bruner’s idea works exactly here is open for debate but at the very least the similarities he notes shows that Jesus was indeed very consistent when it came to his own prayer life, his view of his Father, and what we need to pray for in this world.
Some while back during the 2012 presidential campaign Jon Stewart played a video clip on The Daily Show of a Christian leader who lamented the possibility of a Mormon being elected president because, this person went on to say, it’s just inconceivable to have a man in the White House who worships a different god. Stewart then rather cheekily replied that as an American but also as a Jew, he could assure this man “You get used to it!”
Not to make too big a deal out of this but . . . sometimes Americans in particular seem to view the world through a lens quite different from the one ground for us in the New Testament. Jesus on the night he offered his wonderful prayer, and then later Apostles like Paul, did their work and wrote their letters and preached their sermons in a world where it was merely expected that the powers-that-be would not be friendly to the Christian cause. That’s just the way the world works. And if we are blessed to have like-minded believers in positions of power, that is a blessing without a doubt but until Jesus comes again and the kingdom of God is all in all, we followers of Jesus for whom Jesus prayed what he did in John 17 should probably expect that now and then—if not on an ongoing basis—this old world of ours will provide us with challenges to our faith a’plenty and we’ll need all the help from our Father in heaven that he can graciously give us.
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Note: The Common Lectionary during Eastertide substitutes readings from Acts for Old Testament lections.
Pentecost hasn’t happened just yet and so maybe we can give Peter a break for an exegetical exercise that you simply have to assume would not pass muster in the average seminary Bible course. Replacing Judas was a sensible idea, perhaps, but proof-texting it by sliding in a Psalm 69 quote next to a Psalm 109 quote just should not cut it exegetically. Granted both psalms were speaking of “the wicked” (as the Psalms generally are wont to do) and granted that the disciples were probably sufficiently peeved at Judas as to want to lump him into that general category but still, I’d worry about anyone who tried to prove something with this kind of textual assemblage.
Small wonder the Revised Common Lectionary would have us skip over the part of this chapter where Peter invokes those two Psalm snippets! But facts are facts and the Lectionary isn’t fooling anyone: this is what Peter said!
As a Lectionary preaching text, this one seems to be little more than a placeholder in between the period following Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit. What, if anything, can the preacher say about a text like this? It seems a small matter of housekeeping rather than a lyric text full of grace and truth and Gospel Good News. Jesus told the disciples to stay put in Jerusalem until something big would happen and so as they do so this was just one item on their “To Do” list for that meanwhile stretch of time: “Replace Judas.”
Still, this glimpse into the thinking of the disciples—framed as it is by a verse we should include here, Acts 1:14—is lovely and revealing in its own small way. First, we see that although still bewildered by the events of the last two months and still not at all sure what was to come (remember: earlier in this same chapter the disciples still were thinking Jesus was going to make a big political splash on this earth by restoring the kingdom to Israel by—one presumes—snatching it away from the Romans), even so they are remaining fervent in prayer AND they have an expectation that they have a future.
Jesus had floated clean off this earth in a departure they just had not seen coming. Some angels assured them that this thing was not finished yet, and they believed it. They believed it so much that they knew a replacement for Judas was in order because, apparently, there would be work to do for their Master Jesus and they wanted to be as prepared to hit the ground running in that work as they could be. There is some real faith in all that, some real hope, some real trust that the Jesus who had prayed for their role in this world (cf. the Gospel Lectionary passage in John 17) would indeed be enabling precisely that work and so they wanted to be in the best possible position to do it.
Of all the things the Church does to this day, electing and selecting elders, deacons, committee chairpersons, and the like hardly is headline-grabbing stuff. Even many church members (most?) skip the Annual Meeting in favor of grabbing a post-worship cup of coffee at Starbucks. Electing new officebearers in the church has all the excitement of running to the store for milk, eggs, and cheese.
However . . . if there is work to be done for God’s kingdom—if we have a Gospel that is every bit as worthy of proclamation today as it was 2,000 years ago in the Mediterranean Basin—then we need to be ready to do that work. Part of such readiness is having people around to do the work and making sure we continue to rely on the Holy Spirit of God to steer us toward the right people at that. As such, the event narrated at the end of Acts 1 most certainly does not count as the most astonishing story in the New Testament. But neither is it a mere blip of boring unimportance. In the maintenance of a well-led church there is at bottom a deep and abiding faith in the One who promised to be always with us and to always provide so long as there was work to be done.
There’s more than a little something to be thankful for in all that after all!
Somehow Acts 1 and its depiction of a band of believers numbering 120 put me in mind to relay Frederick Buechner’s definition of “The Communion of the Saints” whose reality we confess each time we say The Apostles’ Creed. This is taken from Buechner’s Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized, Harper & Row 1988, pp. 30-31.
At the altar table, the overweight parson is doing something or other with the bread and his assistant stands by with the wine. In the pews, the congregation sits more or less patiently waiting to get into the act. The church is quiet. Outside a bird starts singing. It’s nothing special, only a handful of notes angling out in different directions. Then a pause. Then a trill or two. A chirp. It is just warming up for the business of the day, but it is enough.
The parson and his assistant and the usual scattering of senior citizens, parents, teenagers are not alone in whatever they think they’re doing. Maybe this is what the bird is there to remind them. In its own slapdash way the bird has a part in it too. Not to mention “Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven” if the prayer book is to be believed. Maybe we should believe it. Angels and Archangels. Cherubim and seraphim. They are all in the act together. It must look a little like the great jeu de son et lumiere at Versailles, when all the fountains are turned on at once and the night is ablaze with fireworks. It must sound a little like the last movement of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony or the Atlantic in a gale.
And “all the company of heaven” means everybody we ever loved and lost, including the ones we didn’t know we loved until we lost them or didn’t love at all. It means people we never heard of. It means everybody who ever did—or at some unimaginable time in the future ever will—come together at something like this table in search of something like what is offered at it.
Whatever other reasons we have for coming to such a place, if we come also to give each other our love and to give God our love, then together with Gabriel and Michael, and the fat parson, and the Sebastian pierced with arrows, and the old lady whose teeth don’t fit, and Teresa in her ecstasy, we are the communion of the saints.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 1, in combination with Psalm 2, introduces the entire Psalter that is the book of Psalms. James May suggests that the combination of those psalms invites hearers to read and use the entire psalm book as God’s guide to a what constitutes a “blessed” or “happy life.” Some modern translators prefer “happy” over “blessed” as the best rendering of the Hebrew word asre. After all, to call someone blessed may seem to imply that God showers material blessings on her. “Happy,” by contrast seems to refer to the “righteous” person’s outlook on life in God’s world.
Those who study Psalm 1 carefully may be quickly struck by the bold, dark lines it seems to draw between “wicked” and “righteous” people. It seems to leave no middle ground, no room for the recognition that the line between good and evil runs not between people, but right down the middle of each person. That’s why James Mays is helpful when he suggests that the psalmist drawing a line not between people, but between ways of living. Concern with and the search of God’s teaching is the kind of pattern of life that pleases and honors the Lord. On the other hand, the psalmist asserts that a concern with and the search of one’s own interests is the kind of way of living that dishonors God.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 1 will do well to note that the psalmist fills it with many both “action verbs” and vivid images. It’s almost as if we can scarcely keep up with the breathless pace of all that walking, sitting, standing, meditating, yielding, prospering, blowing, watching over and even perishing. The psalmist’s palate is full of the vibrant colors evoked by terms like mockers, a tree planted by streams of living water, fruits, leaves and chaff. So those who exposit it will want to use lots of evocative and lively verbs and images. Psalm 1 offers no invitation to flat, dull, heavily analytical preaching.
Psalm 1’s “man” or “person” is like a hiker who has reached a kind of branch in her trail. Which way will the person walk? Will she lurch down the trail sinners and wicked people hike on? Or will she scramble up the path the righteous follow?
We might also say that this psalm’s person is like someone who’s entered a crowded classroom, looking for a place to sit. Will he sit in the back, along with the mockers? Or in the front, next to people who study God’s teaching day and night? Psalm 1 also invites hearers to imagine themselves as plants. What kind of plants will we choose to be? Worthless chaff? Or a flourishing tree? Those who preach and teach Psalm 1 may benefit from spending time looking for other metaphors for faithful and rebellious ways of living.
Of course, Psalm 1 suggests that the “wicked,” “sinners” and “mockers” are hard to avoid as we walk along life’s sidewalk. They seem to be almost everywhere. Wicked people are generous with their advice. Sinners stand along the way. Mockers even sit in various places. So is the psalmist calling worshipers to a kind of splendid isolation, to life spent crouched with other believers behind the walls of Christian “ghettoes?” Mays suggests that the psalmist is inviting worshipers to isolate themselves not from sinners themselves, but from wicked influences and affects on our ways of living. After all, while Jesus himself sat, walked and even ate with sinful people, their way of living and thinking didn’t negatively affect how he lived.
Yet Psalm 1 also offers thoughtful preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect with hearers on the affects of socializing with those who rebel against God and God’s good and loving purposes. Who is influencing who as Christians interact with family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers who don’t share their commitment to the Lord of life? What does it take for believers to walk, stand and sit with rebels, positively influencing them rather than being negatively impacted by them?
Psalm 1 compares the “happy” person to a tree that the Master Forester has planted by streams of living water. Its imagery is reminiscent of Jeremiah 17:7-8: “Blessed is the man that trusts in the Lord … He will be like a tree planted by the water.” Each passage emphasizes the work of transplanting, suggesting that the happy person doesn’t naturally stand by those life-nourishing waters. She may even have originally been planted among the “wicked.” Psalm 1 implies that the happy “tree” isn’t by that water by accident, but because of the loving hand of someone who has transplanted her there. It implies that it’s the work of the tranplanter God, though the psalmist doesn’t even explicitly identify God until verse 6.
The “happy tree” draws his nourishment not from the advice of the wicked, but from the life-giving “law of the Lord.” So he makes it his priority, his delight to spend his time meditating not on sinners’ teachings, but on God’s teaching as it’s found in God’s law. This teaching presents Psalm 1’s preachers and teachers with opportunities to reflect on how busy citizens of the 21st century can make God’s teaching such a high priority in the lives of those they love and them. How do we clear out time and space to meditate on God’s law for just an hour or so a day, to say nothing of all day and night long?
It’s a vital question given the stakes involved. Psalm 1 insists that those who make God’s teaching a priority in their lives do what God created them to do, yielding “fruit” in its season. Their leaves don’t wither, even in the drought of suffering and adversity. “Happy trees” that draw their nourishment from God’s teaching are fruitful. What they do brings glory to God and blessing to God.
Yet the psalmist insists that the lasting, we might say eternal stakes are even higher. After all, God watches over the way of those who make God’s law a priority. Nothing, not even the final judgment, can separate them from God’s love for them in Jesus Christ. However, the psalmist suggests that those who persistently and finally make their own ways their priority will not stand at the final judgment. Those who have permanently chosen to stand with sinners and their ways of life will not, in the end, stand in the assembly of the righteous. They’ll be blown away like chaff by the hot breath of God’s holy anger.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 1 may have to be careful not to even imply a kind of works righteousness that suggests that our meditation on and obedience to God’s teaching saves us. Read in the light of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, it presents an opportunity to reflect on what it means that God has already raised God’s children to life with Jesus Christ.
Few farm chores were traditionally more onerous than putting oats into storage. After all, oat chaff has a tendency to fly everywhere. Even the tiniest puff of breeze can send chaff swirling to land on a person’s clothing, as well as in her hair, eyes, nose and even open mouth. Sweat serves as a kind of adhesive that glues the chaff to skin. Such chaff feels very prickly once it’s latched onto human skin.
The psalmist compares wicked people to such bothersome chaff. She suggests that they’re so insubstantial that even the slightest hint of a breeze blows them “away.” Might it be too much of a stretch to suggest that their relative weightlessness also renders wicked people a nuisance to the people around them?
1 John 5:9-13
Author: Stan Mast
Comments and Observations
Many scholars have noticed that I John reads more like a sermon than a letter, since it lacks so many of the elements of other New Testament letters: the greeting that usually identifies both author and readers, the introduction that so often previews the issues to be covered in the letter, and the conclusion with personal notes to the readers. As we’ve worked our way through John’s long and intricate sermon I’ve often thought that it might be a big dud with our postmodern audiences—not just because it is so complicated, but more because of its theme.
John is concerned that his “dear children” will recover their certainty about their salvation. He puts it various ways: he wants us to know that we are God’s children, that we are born of God, that God lives in us, that we are loved by God, that we have eternal life. Our text for today ends with his theme sentence. “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.” Woven through his sermon, John has given us four tests designed to help us arrive at such certain knowledge: the moral test (obeying God’s commands), the social test (loving our fellow Christians), the doctrinal test (believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God), and the spiritual test (having the Spirit within). With precision and passion, John wants to preach us to certainty about our salvation.
I fear John’s message might flop with our postmodern audiences because so many of them value uncertainty, questions, and doubt more than certainty, confidence and assurance. Indeed, being sure of what we believe and where we stand with God feels like arrogance and self-righteousness to many postmodern folks, including some Christians. Being certain can lead to the extremism that doesn’t love the other.
In a recent issue of the Christian Century, a United States Senator writes about his experience with attending Yale Divinity School. He speaks for many, I think. “I think there’s a broad misconception out there—and I came to divinity school believing it—that only those with unshakably firm conviction and profound faith belong in ministry. My divinity school training taught me that, in fact, the opposite is true. In order to be an effective preacher and faith leader, you’ve got to question. I came out of school more convinced than ever that doubt is essential to faith—that without doubt it’s not faith; it’s dogmatic belief that can become extremism. The whole essence—the definition—of faith rests upon a foundation of doubt, and if it rests on a foundation of doubt and questioning, then that demands of us humility as we interpret the text and serve the world.”
I’m sure that every preacher would agree with the Senator’s words about the importance of asking questions and being humble before the text and the congregation and the world. But what about his insistence that doubt is central to faith? We hear that so often these days that it is virtually orthodox doctrine, but how do we square that with the message of I John? Is there a way to navigate between certainty and arrogance, so that we both know for sure and stand humbly in the world? I want to humbly suggest that we listen carefully not to culture, but to Scripture, in this case I John, as we try to figure out our basic faith posture in a doubt filled world.
In this last reading for the Easter season, John returns to his fourth test (the spiritual one), introduced back in 3:24. “This is how we know he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” But how do we know the Spirit lives in us? How can we be sure that the Spirit is present? I can hear members of my congregations greeting me after a moving service with these words. “The Spirit was really here today, pastor!” How did they know? They were usually referring to some internal feeling—a fresh conviction of sin or a surge of love or a new assurance that the gospel is true, the kind of thing Jesus associated with the Spirit in John 16:7ff.
I remember visiting a local charismatic congregation a while back in which there was a great deal of demonstrative spirituality—arm waving, weeping, laughing, shouting, dancing. The pastor shouted, “The Spirit is really moving today!” I suspect he was thinking of I Corinthians 14. Other New Testament passages connect the presence of the Spirit with speaking in tongues (Acts 2 and 10 and 19), professing faith in Jesus as Lord (I Corinthians 12:3), developing the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5), and the internal testimony of the Spirit with our spirit that we are truly God’s children (Romans 8:16).
In our reading for today, John gives us another way to know we have the Spirit, namely, the doctrinal test. The lectionary reading begins with verse 9, but to understand what John is talking about there, we must back up at least as far as verse 6, and, even better, verse 1 of this chapter. John has been preaching in those opening verses about the doctrinal test, namely, what we believe about Jesus. At the conclusion of that section, in verse 6a, he characterizes Jesus as the one who came by water and blood, probably referring to his baptism and his crucifixion. John is tilting there against his Gnostic opponents. And now, in verse 6b, he pulls out his big gun against them. It’s not just me saying that Jesus is the Christ, who came by water and blood; it is, even more, the Spirit testifying. Not only do the water and the blood testify to the true character of Jesus, but so does the Spirit.
In other words, we know that we have the Spirit when we have a correct understanding of who Jesus is. John is undoubtedly echoing Jesus’ words in John 15:26. “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.” Jesus elaborated on that theme in John 16:14. “He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.” The early church arrived at the correct understanding of who Jesus was because of the testimony of the Spirit about Jesus.
Listen to the way John hammers away at this idea of the Spirit’s testimony. He begins by reminding us of the importance of testimony in human life. He is undoubtedly referring there to courtroom testimony, as well as the everyday testimony of friends sharing stories. And he is probably referring to the testimony of those who had heard and seen and touched Jesus, people like John the Baptist and John himself along with the rest of the apostles. As a matter of course, we accept the testimony of those we trust. How much more should we accept the testimony of God, the Spirit? The Spirit’s testimony is greater than any human testimony, because it is “the testimony of God.” This Trinitarian note is heightened when he says, “which he has given about his Son.” Lest there be any doubt about what the Spirit testifies about Jesus, John is explicit. “Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart.” Here’s how we know we have the Spirit and how we know that the Spirit is moving in our hearts: not emotion, not exuberant worship, not speaking in tongues, not the growth of the fruit, not a deep sense that we are God’s children (however valid all those things may be), but a certain knowledge of who Jesus really was. Does that seem too strong a statement? Listen to the clincher. “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.”
Indeed, John is so insistent on the importance of the Spirit’s testimony about the person of Jesus that he goes on to say, “Anyone who does not believe God (the Spirit’s testimony about Jesus), has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son.” This sounds almost blasphemous in our tolerant, pluralistic age. Is John saying that if you reject the Spirit’s testimony that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, you are calling God a liar? That seems to be exactly what John is saying. If that is true, then does it follow that a person can’t say she believes in God if she rejects the Spirit’s testimony about Jesus? Reject the apostolic, Spirit-led doctrine about Jesus and you are calling God a liar. Wow! That is tough talk. But John gets tougher yet. “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son does not have life.”
What are we to do with such black and white talk today? Well, we can simply reject it because it is so offensive toward other religions. Yes, the Bible talks that way, but we know better today as we’ve gotten to know other religions better. Here’s how an on-line sermon put it. Commenting on the phrase in verse 10 about having “this testimony in our hearts,” the on-line preacher says this about people who are outside the church. “There are a lot of people out there who have the light of God’s life in them. Whether we’re talking about Mohandas Ghandi, a Hindu, or the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist, or Mother Theresa, a Catholic nun, or Pearl Buck, a Presbyterian missionary. You can see the light of God’s life in and through their lives. They ‘have the testimony/witness in themselves.’ Instead of looking at others with shallow prejudices and dismissing their religions, if we will open our eyes we will see many people of all faiths who shine the light of God’s love all around them.” That’s a very generous and tolerant approach to those who do not believe the Spirit’s testimony about Jesus. But how does it square with the actual words of I John?
We could also deal with this difficult text by saying that it refers only to the specific historical situation that John addresses. He was arguing with Gnostics who were twisting the Gospel. His strong words were only for them. He is talking to people in the church, heretics who are disturbing the faithful. If we are talking to and about folks who are outside the church, we wouldn’t use this kind of exclusive language. Rather than say, “because you don’t have Christ, you don’t have life,” we should say, “if you come to Christ, you will find life indeed.” In other words, we should preach this text in different ways, depending on our audience. Well, that might be good homiletical strategy, but it begs the question of the truth of the Spirit’s testimony. Is Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, or not? If we waffle on that issue in the interests of being non-offensive, we are taking away one of John’s tests of assurance, not to mention removing the rock on which Christ said he would build his church (Matthew 16).
Or we could do what the church has historically done with the Spirit’s testimony about Jesus. Preach it boldly, but with a humble spirit. Being sure of the Gospel and being sure of our standing with God is not arrogance or presumption. It is the gift of the Spirit. The kind of certainty to which John wants to lead his dear children is not a strutting, judgmental, self-righteous certainty born of cultural imperialism. “We’re better than you are.” John calls his flock to a loving, justice doing, self-sacrificing certainty born of the Spirit. We can’t ever separate our assurance about the content of the Gospel from our devotion to doing the right thing in the world and our dedication to showing a sacrificial love to our brothers and sisters. The same Spirit whose testimony makes us unbending in our understanding of Jesus will also make us bend the knee in humble obedience to God’s will and in humble service to our fellow human beings.
While John’s four tests may seem like an overly rigorous approach to the whole matter of our assurance of salvation, his intention is to fill us with complete joy (1:4). Remember Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson crawling up the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park? It was the first time that wall had been scaled without the assistance of normal mountain climbing gear, a totally free climb. Oh, yes, there was that single rope that held them in case they slipped, which they did, often, in their 19 day climb. They were very grateful for that single rope.
But what a relief it was each night to get into their tents securely anchored into the rock wall with several ropes and other devices. The certainty of those tents with their multiple sources of support must have brought them great joy at the end of each rugged day. That’s the point of John’s multiple tests of certainty—to give us security as we struggle upward. John doesn’t mean to make life harder with these four tests. He means to make it more certain and secure, so that we can rejoice in the life Jesus gives.