1 John Chapter 2 – If you know God then you’ll love each other

  • This is based on a Sunday talk given by Jon the freelance theologian at Glenwood Church, Cardiff, on 14 August 2011

    The talk began by reading out 1 John chpater 2 in the New International Version of the Bible.

    There’s always a danger when we read Scripture that we only see the bits that we want to see. I’m sure like me you’ve heard plenty of sermons when it seems the point the preacher is making bears little relation to the text.

    So, what is John trying to tell us in the second chapter of this letter to his friends? It’s not always clear to see, so out of a sense of curiosity I ran the text through a website called Wordle to see what the key themes were – creating this image.

    Wordle fo 1 John 2

    Wordle counts the number of times certain words appear and gives them a certain weight in how they are visualised. You can see three of the words that appear the most often have been grouped together quite neatly there: Know, Father and Children.

    The word ‘know’ is interesting. To know something is more difficult than you’d imagine. There’s a whole branch of philosophy related to knowing about knowing – it’s called epistemology.

    I recently did a study course that included a module on W Edwards Deming’s ‘Theory of Profound Knowledge’ which at its most basic level says there are four things that enable us to know things. It was a bit too profound really, because I felt quite confused by the end.

    So ‘knowing’ can be a bit difficult to pin down.

    John had a real fondness for the word ‘to know’ and he often linked knowing to the word ‘love’. In the gospel of John, Jesus says this to his disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” [John chapter 13, verses 34-35]

    So, according to John, our knowledge stems from love and specifically being in a loving relationship with the person who John mentions most frequently in this chapter: our Father; God. As God’s children our knowledge of our Father comes out of knowing we are loved and loving our Father in return, and this affects the way we live.

    The American writer Frederick Buechner says:
    “Knowing somebody isn’t the same as knowing about them. More than just information is involved… To know is to participate in. to become imbued with, for better or worse to be affected by. When you really know a person, the knowledge becomes part of who you are.”

    John links what we know to what we do, and what we do to our love for God.

    About Jesus, John says: “We know that we have come to know him [Jesus] if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him.

    John continues: “I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning… Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble.

    Incidentally, there’s something going on here in the language that John is using. You may have already picked up the juxtaposition of certain key words – there’s light and darkness, truth and lying, love and hate, obedience and not obeying. In the field of Biblical studies this is called Johannine parallelism and is all very interesting and scholarly, but the important point is this:

    John is saying that if you want to know whether a person really knows the Father then you look at what they do and how they live and see if they obey the command to love their Christian brothers and sisters. And if they don’t do that, then they don’t love the Father and are not the Father’s children.

    In life, I do take after my dad in some respects. Most of us do – we might not want to; we may kid ourselves that we don’t. Not all of us know our human dads that well. But if you’ve had the good fortune to grow up with your father around, and your father loved you, then you naturally take on their characteristics.

    I personally find what John is saying here very challenging.

    Do I take after my heavenly dad enough? Would it be evident that I love him? The evidence is in whether I follow his command to love other people.

    Now at this point some people may feel a bit uncomfortable. It may sound like I’m saying that our salvation is based on what we do and how we act. Is it enough just to love people? What about ‘praying the prayer’ and stuff? Surely getting right with God is a matter of believing the right things. This whole idea that we have to love people makes it sound like we can earn our way into heaven.

    Well, that’s the objection. I’ve had an interesting experience in my life in the past year that has kind of thrown that issue into perspective for me.
    After six and a half years working in a Christian organisation I went to work somewhere else – it’s the public sector, actually it’s the healthcare service.

    Now a lot of people have asked me about that transition. ‘How are you finding it working in a non-Christian organisation?’ My answer surprises most people. I mean no disrespect to that that organisation, but truthfully, I’ve actually found it great. I love the work I do and it’s meaningful.

    And something really surprising – I have met people who are passionate about things that my reading of the Bible tells me God is passionate about. People who want to alleviate suffering, who care about the more vulnerable members of society, who want to restore dignity to people who’ve had it stripped away, who care about equality and justice and the fact that the poorer you are the more likely you are to die young and from a horrible disease.

    The majority of these people aren’t Christians – or at least they wouldn’t say they were. And yet… and yet they seem to have God’s agenda front and centre. I wish I could always say that I always did the same.

    Earlier this year the writer and preacher Rob Bell published a book. In the book, ‘Love Wins’, he questions the traditional understanding of hell.

    The reaction among Christians that spilled onto Twitter and Facebook and blogs and all over the internet really was crazy in the levels of condemnation for him.

    This is just the latest in a series of similar reactions that seem to bring out the worst in Christians – name-calling, accusations of heresy, personal attacks. Regardless of whether Rob Bell was right or wrong to publish the book, and whether what was in it was doctrinally correct or not, what are we to make of the reaction?

    These verses from 1 John 2 are suddenly very pertinent. “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light.” It felt like there was a lot of hate in the debate about Rob Bell. How we disagree as Christians is very important. How we react, respond, retaliate – it all matters much more than we seem to think.

    And John also says: “If you know that God is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him.” Apparently you can spot the people who are truly children of God. They’re the ones out there loving people.

    Recently a friend of mine tweeted this: “You are what you say you are.” You know what? I think that’s wrong. More and more I have this growing sense that you are what you do. I’m beginning to think that what you say is immaterial; what you do is evidence of who you are.

    There’s nothing wrong in emphasising right belief, or having a statement of faith, or trying to get everything cast-iron correct in our doctrine and our worship style and the way we make decisions as a church and the way we do baptism or communion or prayer or anything. It’s all important, but it reminds me of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians chapter 13:

    “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

    The point Paul makes is that we can do everything “right” and yet still, somehow, manage to get it wrong. If we lack love, the rest of it doesn’t matter much.

    And John goes a step further that Paul – you can have all the knowledge in the world, he says, but if you aren’t loving people then your knowledge is deficient because you don’t truly know the father.

    Now let’s be real. Some of our fellow Christians are difficult to love. It’s hard to love people who run you down, or wind you up, or grind on your nerves, or are just plain boring.

    That’s why we need the command to love our brothers and sisters, I suppose. If it was easy to do, then we wouldn’t need to be told to do it. I don’t need someone to command me to eat doughnuts, or watch Match of the Day. I can do those things off my own bat. They aren’t hard things to do.

    But loving people isn’t easy, which is why Jesus commanded his disciples to do it, and why John says that obeying that difficult command is the true test of whether we are Jesus’ disciples.

    I’d like to conclude this talk with a final verse from the chapter we’ve been looking at today – the conclusion of the chapter in fact:

    “And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.

    This command to love isn’t a one-off. It’s an on-going thing. Let us this week, as we seek to live as disciples, continually try to love each other so that we become more like our Father in heaven.

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    1. Ben Sep 6

      How does this link with the faith vs works as our means of justification debate? – from what I see, it links with the actions follow belief perspective. According to this chapter, it seems that immorality cannot come from those born of God because they do right – is it scripturally possible to be a believing Christian and yet continue to do wrong? Also flipping the coin, is it possible to not be born of God and really do right?

    2. Jon the freelance theologian Sep 11

      Well, that’s an interesting conundrum. My take on it is that your faith is evidenced by your works and your works are made perfect by your faith so you need both. In the talk, I made the point that saying you have faith is meaningless unless you have the works to back it up.

      So you need both.

      The New Testament implies that sin as a believer is a very severe issue. In the Early Church, post-baptismal sin was often regarded as unforgivable, which is why the tradition arose in the middle ages of being baptised on your death-bed to make sure you didn’t commit any more sins that would prevent you from getting into heaven.

      There are people described in the New Testament as ‘good’ who have not yet become Christians, for example, Cornelius is described as righteous before he became a Christian (Acts chapters 9 and 10).

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