Tag Archives: 1 John

‘Walking In The Light’ – 1 John 1:5-2:11 – March 24th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, turn with me to 1 John, chapter 1, verse 5 through chapter 2, verse 11:

“Now this is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light, and there is absolutely no darkness in Him. If we say, “We have fellowship with Him,” yet we walk in darkness, we are lying and are not practicing the truth. But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say, “We don’t have any sin,” we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.

My little children, I am writing you these things so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ the Righteous One. He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world.

This is how we are sure that we have come to know Him: by keeping His commands. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” yet doesn’t keep His commands, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly in him the love of God is perfected. This is how we know we are in Him: The one who says he remains in Him should walk just as He walked.

Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old command that you have had from the beginning. The old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command, which is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.

The one who says he is in the light but hates his brother is in the darkness until now. The one who loves his brother remains in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and doesn’t know where he’s going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.

*

Let’s pray.

The Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo had a saying that roughly translates into English as, “God is your father, but he’s probably not like your dad.” As a Christian living in Japan in the early 20th century, Endo kept running into the same problem when he would talk to “potential converts.”

The problem was that throughout the Bible, the authors refer to God as “Father.” When Paul is preaching at the Areopagus in Acts 17, he quotes a Greek philosopher who says, “We are all God’s offspring,” and instead of arguing with it, Paul signs off on it. He says “You are God’s offspring – You’re this God’s offspring. The old gods you were brought up hearing about are not your parents, they are not your friends. But this God, the God of Israel, is your Father.”

When Paul was evangelizing, that went a long way. Because in a culture like Rome, everyone was starved for something like “fatherly affection.” Every human being on planet Earth needs more love than any one person can give them, and that extends to your kids, right?

If you have kids you already know that – they need more fatherly love than you have within yourself to give to them, just like you needed more fatherly love than your dad ever had inside him to give you – and it’s not because they were bad, it’s because we need a “Fatherhood” that goes beyond what human fathers are capable of.

Our “human fathers” are a shadow of our “heavenly Father.” And we need the shadow, but we also need “The Thing That Casts The Shadow”: We need “Our Father in Heaven.” And people were starved for that during Paul’s lifetime, so he told them about “Their Father in Heaven,” and then he introduced them through Jesus Christ.

But Shusaku Endo wasn’t evangelizing in first-century Rome, he was evangelizing in early 20th century Japan. They were still recovering from the Second World War, and one of the obstacles that he faced was the rigid “patriarchalism” that still ran through Japanese culture. That’s a big word, and what it means is that in Old Japan, like a lot of places, the father wasn’t just the “head of the household”; he had more or less absolute authority.

According to Shusaku Endo, “Old Japan” was very much an “authoritarian” society: You didn’t “earn” your authority, you just inherited it. You “stepped into” authority based on your “place in society,” and if your place was “father,” you just claimed your authority and then enforced it ruthlessly.

As a result, nobody was particularly interested in hearing about their “Father in Heaven,” because if you had one father you probably didn’t want another one. And so Shusaku Endo would tell people that God was their Father, but that he probably didn’t bear much resemblance to their dads.

Because God’s authority is absolute. It’s not negotiable. But he is not a “fragile patriarch” who would erupt at every “imagined slight.” It’s quite the opposite: If you read through the Old Testament, the thing that will catch your attention is not the violent stuff that everybody likes to talk about, it’s how God patiently walks alongside Israel amidst Israel’s disobedience and insubordination.

He says, “Israel is my son, and I’ll take him by the hand, and train him up in the way that he should go, and mold him as he blossoms into adulthood.” God is our Father, but for some of us he is not like our dads, because John says that “God is light, and there is absolutely no darkness in him.”

And because our “Father in heaven” is “light” and “there is no darkness in him,” having “fellowship” with him is going to cause us to stop “walking in darkness.” And if it doesn’t, something’s wrong, because John says that “If we say we have fellowship with him, yet walk in darkness, we are lying and are not practicing the truth.” And that’s a hard word, but it’s also a necessary word, because if you own a television, or you’ve read a newspaper this year, you know that at least once a month, some Famous Professional Christian gets outed as a scumbag:

The Roman Catholic Church has taken a hit because of the revelations that have come out over the last few years about the horrifying extent of the sex abuse problem that is plaguing their communities. And just a few months ago people were smugly trotting that out and claiming it as points for “Team Protestant.” You know what I’m talking about? There were articles in popular Baptist magazines and periodicals declaring that the Roman Catholic sex abuse scandals were definitive evidence that Evangelicalism was from God while the Roman Catholic Church was from the Devil.

The problem is that we have the same issue. Over the last over the last 40 years, there have been upwards of 700 reported cases of abuse by Southern Baptist ministers, deacons, youth pastors, and so on.  And those are just the ones we know about.

So, just a few months ago the lesson that we were trying to take from the Roman Catholic scandal was that there’s something very wrong with Catholicism and that the answer is to become Protestant, but the lesson that we should have been taking was that “If we say we have fellowship with God, yet we walk in darkness, we are lying and are not practicing the truth.”

John says that “If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” But that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

The problem is that you can get away with living in denial for a pretty long time. It’s the easiest thing in the world to tell yourself that your sins are small, that you’re on “the low end of the totem pole”; that other people are the ones committing the sins that actually catch God’s eye. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, too, but folks who are consistently walking in unrepentant sexual sin almost always point to things like “corporate greed,” or “prejudice,” and so on, and say, “Look, that’s what you really need to be worrying about – not my sex life.”

And on the other hand, people who are consumed with the kind of greed that eats away your soul will make hefty donations to Focus On The Family, or they’ll teach a Sunday School class about “The Dangers Of Sexual Immorality,” or they’ll head up a “non-profit” designed to overturn the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage at the federal level, and they’ll point and say, “Those are the people you need to be worrying about.”

– So if you preach a sermon out of James chapter 2, on how “the gospel changes what we do with our money,” he’ll come up to you after church and say, “How could you possibly waste your time talking about something as abstract as ‘greed’ when these people are trying to ‘redefine marriage’ in our country?”

– Or, if you preach a sermon series on Song of Solomon about “What Sexuality Might Look Like When It’s Surrendered To God’s Design,” you’ll get an angry email from a college student about how pointless it is to talk about “sexual sin” when the Walton Family is still decimating local communities by putting all the shops out of business and then siphoning most of the Wal-Mart money back to Bentonville, Arkansas.

And so people will point to The Sins We Don’t Really Struggle With and demand you spend more time preaching about them instead, because those are The Real SinsTM. We never think that The Sins We Struggle With are a “top priority.”

But John says that if that’s our mindset, that “If we say we have no sin,” we are “deceiving ourselves,” and “the truth is not in us.” So when you get an email like that, the only particularly worthwhile response is to say, “I would really like people to repent of their greed and their lust.” You’ll write back and say, “I’m glad you don’t struggle with that particular pattern of sinfulness, but you’re struggling with something, and John says that ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’.” So you’ll say, “I’m glad that you don’t struggle with ‘destroying rural economies for personal gain,’ Derek, but I do still want you to stop viewing pornography.”

And the good news is that we don’t have to lie ourselves anymore. We don’t have to try to convince ourselves that we aren’t every bit as sinful as we’ve always half-suspected that we were. Because John says, “I am writing you these things so that you may not sin.”

That’s pretty straightforward. And it’s weirdly something you don’t hear very often anymore, right? How often have you heard me, or anyone, step up into the pulpit and say, “My sermon this morning is called ‘Don’t Sin’”?

We tend to assume it’s a waste of time to even bring it up. We know that everyone still struggles with their “sin nature,” so we assume that no one’s actually finding freedom from the sinful patterns that they struggle with. We assume that the guy who’s been addicted to pornography since George Bush’s presidency is going to stay that way till he kicks the bucket. You assume that your mom is never going to stop Being Mean To Waitresses. You assume that your uncle is going to continue Narrowly Avoiding Getting Busted For Tax Evasion until the day you preach his funeral.

These things are not autobiographical, by the way.

But John says “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.” That’s big. Because among other things, that means that not sinning is an option. When your server hasn’t offered to refill your water in over five minutes, you don’t have to ask for the manager to complain about them. You don’t have to yell at your spouse. You don’t have to under pay your employees, like James ranted about a few weeks back in James chapter 5 – because not sinning is an option for us now, in a way that it wasn’t quite an option beforehand, because Jesus Christ was crucified and resurrected to “raise us up” from our “deadness in sin.”

So John says that, “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one.” John says, “He himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of whole world.”

Plenty of people spend their whole lives beating themselves up because they can’t purge themselves from all sin, no matter how hard they try. But this is different: When you have been raised up with Jesus, you live in a forgiveness that never runs dry, and that endless supply of mercy sets you free to devote yourself to obeying God’s commands instead of breaking them.

And that’s counterintuitive. Because there’s no “threat of punishment” there. John says that “Jesus is our Advocate with the Father,” and that means that we’re not in danger of “condemnation” when we stumble. Because the righteousness of Jesus is “credited to us,” and his righteousness takes away any threat of punishment from God.

And I’ve had a handful of conversations where this was the hang-up we ran into: Somebody would say, “I don’t think I can worship a god who doesn’t threaten to punish me when I fail him.” They’d say, “I don’t want a God who forgives me preemptively.” People will say, “I have no reason to obey that God.”

In some cults, they teach that it would be “reckless” for God to forgive us “fully,” “freely,” and “forever” on the basis of Jesus’s death and resurrection for our sins. But the substitutionary death of Jesus in our place is anything but reckless: Because think back to your own life – be honest with yourself, here – how many times has the “fear of punishment” actually changed what you are? Can you think of a single time?

Sometimes, the “threat of punishment” can change your behavior – it can cause you to not do something instead of doing it – but it can’t change your nature. Our problem is not that “Sometimes, We Fail God.” Our problem is that there is something deeply, horrifyingly crooked in us, and that “deep, horrifying crookedness” shows up in every single corner of our lives. Our problem isn’t that we have a flat tire, it’s that we’re hemorrhaging transmission fluid.  

You’ve probably met somebody with an old beat-up car who had to open up the hood and shake their engine a little bit get it to start. That was my first car, there towards the end. You can do that for a while. It won’t fix the car, though. The “threat of punishment” can change our behavior, but it can’t change our nature. It can’t fix what’s wrong with us. It won’t “cure what ails us.”

But Jesus changes our nature by forgiving us before we had a chance to “clean up our act,” so we obey him out of gratitude instead of fear. That’s why John says that “The way we can know that we’ve come to know God is by keeping his commands”: When God saves you through faith in Jesus, he gives you the Holy Spirit, and you start to want different things than you wanted when you were “walking in darkness.” You start to “love what God loves.” You start to “want what God wants.” Over the course of your life, you’ll start to “keep God’s commands,” almost on reflex, because that’s the thing the Holy Spirit is training your heart to gravitate towards.

So John says that “Whoever keeps his word, truly in him the love of God is perfected.” Friendship with the “God of Light” will ruin your relationship with the darkness that you used to love. So John says that “The one who says he remains in him should walk just as he walked.”

And none of what John is telling us here is new: “Love thy neighbor” goes back to Moses and beyond, right? But there’s a way in which it is new. Because “the darkness is passing away.”

Since “The Fall,” in Genesis chapter 3, the world’s been filled with “a thick darkness.” And we were part of that darkness. It wasn’t just that “there’s evil in the world.” We were part of the evil that’s in the world. We participated in the darkness and kept it going.

So The Problem Was Us. But Jesus Christ is “cleansing us of all unrighteousness,” so we’re not only forgiven for our part in keeping the world dark, we’re also being healed of all the darkness left in us. So these commands that used to do nothing to keep us from sin are different now that God is “cleansing us from all unrighteousness.”

And if God’s changing us from the inside out, one of the things that’s going to happen is that we’re going to “love our brothers” in a way that we couldn’t when we were “walking in darkness.” Because if we’re “abiding in God,” like John says, it’s kind of like gutting that old car your friend used to drive: He replaces our old “parts” with new “parts.” He replaces our old idols, our old, addictions; whatever it is that keeps you from loving your brother – I don’t know what it is, but you do – God’s coming for it.

Whatever “causes you to stumble,” whatever that thing is that helps you to not love your brother, God’ll purge it from you, because he promised to. When you asked him to “cleanse you of all unrighteousness,” you put your idols on God’s hit-list, and he will heal you in ways you didn’t know you needed to be healed, because like John said at the beginning of the passage, “God is light and there is absolutely no darkness in him,” and when he’s finished with his work in us, we will be “light,” and there will be “absolutely no darkness” in us. And your role in that is just to “turn over the keys” to that process while God opens up your eyes to idols you never knew you had.

And that’s actually a very sweet process. Because the “threat of punishment” can make you guilty in ways that make you scared, but when God is “cleansing you of all unrighteousness,” that’s a different kind of guilt. It makes you “happy” with a kind of happiness you never knew to want, because it purges you of “misery” you never knew was misery. It’s a sweet guilt, not a bitter guilt.

We do something called the “altar call” here. The altar call is never not awkward, but here we are: If you feel like I’ve been talking about you for a half-hour, then, without knowing it, I probably have. “God is light, and there is no darkness in him,” and when we “turn over the keys,” he will heal us from the darkness that we’ve been walking in, that we were “born into.”

And if you’ve been “walking in darkness,” then we’ve been praying for you, that you’d throw yourself on the mercy of Jesus, that you’d “turn over the keys” to be rescued from the “darkness,” since John says that “the darkness is passing away.” So as we start to sing, I’m going to awkwardly stand at the altar for a few minutes, and you can come talk to me.

The altar isn’t magic. What happens when you “come to the altar” is that we have a conversation. I’ll walk you through the process of throwing yourself on God’s mercy, and then we’ll pray together. If you don’t want to come to the altar, that’s okay. You can flag me down after church. We can nail down a time to meet. And we’ll talk through the process of laying your sin and your pride and your brokenness at the feet of Jesus.

Let’s pray.

‘What We Lost In The Garden’ – 1 John 1:1-4 – March 17th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, turn with me to 1 John, chapter 1, verses 1-4.

“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have observed and have touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life – that life was revealed, and we have seen it and we testify and declare to you the Eternal Life that was with the Father and was revealed to us. What we have seen and heard we also declare to you, so that you may have fellowship along with us; our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”

Let’s pray.

*

John opens his letter saying that “Jesus was from the beginning.” That’s a strange sentence. But it’s something John fixates on in nearly everything he writes, whether it’s the Gospel of John, or these letters, or the Book of Revelation. Revelation is basically “protest literature,” like the Letter From A Birmingham Jail, or something, but it’s all built on the idea that “Jesus existed before all of this stuff,” kind of like Paul says in Colossians, that “everything is created through Jesus, and for Jesus,” John says that “Jesus was the lamb slain before the foundation of the world” in Revelation 13:8.

And if you were a Jewish Christian, like John, you’d immediately recognize that Revelation is talking about the “Passover Lamb.” Like in the book of Exodus, when God was springing the Jews out of slavery under Egypt, God sent a series of “plagues.”

Each of the plagues serve two purposes: The less important purpose was that each plague targeted a different cornerstone in the “Egyptian economy” – so the Nile filled with blood, and it’s hard to get by without that; flies swarmed throughout the countrysides, which ruined most of their crops, and so on.

But even more importantly, scholars in the field of “comparative religion” have shown that each of the plagues that God enacts on Egypt roughly corresponds with one of the pagan gods that the Egyptians worshipped. And so a message comes through, if you are an Egyptian living during the time of “The Exodus,” that it doesn’t matter how powerful you are, it doesn’t matter if you’re the “Global Superpower” right now, you can only be “The Baddest Kid On The Playground” for so long, because the God of Israel is coming to liberate your slaves, and your gods can’t help you.

And so the final plague that God enacts on Egypt is to put to death the firstborn children in every household throughout the entire land. That’s horrifying. The nausea that you felt when I said that was the correct response. That’s the idea.

It wasn’t “fixed.” You weren’t doomed to lose your firstborn just by virtue of being an Egyptian. You don’t really get this from movies like “The Prince of Egypt,” but not one Egyptian needed to die in the process of freeing the slaves from their clutches.

God said, “I will spare anyone who covers their door post with the blood of a lamb on the night of the plague” – he would “pass over” their household – so Moses goes to Pharaoh and he warns him, and God gives Pharaoh one final chance to free the Israelites from slavery, and Pharaoh declines.

And so the Israelites spread the word about what’s happening, and the Book of Exodus doesn’t really go into details here, but reading through the history you get the sense they must have gone “street preaching” or something, because a bunch of their Egyptian Neighbors have caught on – after nine plagues – and said, “There is a God in Israel, and I want that God to be my God.”  So the Israelites and the Egyptians who listened to them cover their doorposts in “lamb’s blood,” and when midnight strikes, every firstborn in Egypt dies.

But for the Israelites, and for the Egyptians who believed, not one child was harmed. In “Southern-Baptist-speak,” they were “saved by the blood of the lamb.” That’s what religious Jews celebrate every Passover. It’s what we celebrate every Easter. And it’s what John frames his gospel around.

Because according to John, “Jesus is the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world.” Jesus is like the “Passover Lamb.” What God is doing in Passover points to what God is doing in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

So Jesus, obviously, wasn’t sacrificed for our sins before the world was created, but the way that John puts it, the decision was made: Jesus decided, before he “created the world for himself,” that he would come to Earth as a human, live a life that fulfilled all of his own requirements for us, and then allow us to murder him for our own sins. So Jesus becomes our Passover Lamb.

Because, on our own, we are like Egypt, because we work hard to keep the brokenness of this world on “life support.” If we’re totally honest with ourselves, we spend an astonishing degree of time and energy making sure that the world stays horrifying, right? And as with Egypt, a just God will see to it that we Get What’s Coming To Us. But Jesus is like the Passover Lamb, and when his blood covers us, we become like “the Israelites who were spared,” we become like “the Egyptians who believed them.”

So Jesus’s plan, from the creation of the world, was to rescue us from our sin by sacrificing himself for us: He is “The Lamb Slain Before The Foundation Of The World.”

And few weeks back I had a conversation with some Jehovah’s Witnesses who were evangelizing in downtown Wake Forest, and our hang up ultimately came down to exactly this. Because in some sense, they have very good theology: They make a big deal about Jesus as our sacrifice; they place a lot of stock on the fact that Jesus was a perfect human being who was able to take our sin onto himself because he didn’t have any sin of his own – and that’s right, but it isn’t right enough.

Because it’s absolutely true that Jesus is a “perfect human being.” It’s absolutely true that he’s able to take our sin on to himself because he has no sin of his own. But he is also God himself: Everything was created through Jesus, by Jesus, and for Jesus.

In verse three of John’s gospel, he says that “Not one thing that has been made was made apart from Jesus.” Jesus wasn’t a “creation,” he is “the creator.” So God couldn’t have just grabbed any “perfect man” or “perfect woman” off the streets and said “I’m going to punish you for the sins of humanity.”

When people say that God is unjust because of the Cross, they’re usually thinking about something like that: When people say that the death and resurrection of Jesus is “divine child abuse” – maybe you’ve heard that one – they’re usually thinking of something along those lines.

But Jesus wasn’t just an exceptionally good man that God plucked out of his living room and then punished for our sins. That would be horrifying. That’s the sort of thing that the Egyptian gods would do. That’s an awful lot like that short book The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, where there’s a thriving city of people but their “thriving city” depends on there being one child, selected at random, who is tortured underground. This is not like that.

This is God himself. This is the God that we sinned against. Jesus is the God that we betrayed in the garden. He is the God whose face we bloody every time we sin against somebody else. Jesus is the person that you have personally wronged every time you’ve broken God’s commands, or broken somebody’s trust. Jesus is who you sinned against. So he’s the only one who can die in your place.

This is a stupid analogy, but I’m running with it anyway: The cross is not like catching your firstborn son breaking all your China plates and then punishing your secondborn son instead. It’s like catching your firstborn son breaking all your China plates and punishing yourself.

*

Throughout John’s life, he had a sworn enemy – which is funny, because John’s not really the kind of guy that you’d expect to have a “sworn enemy.” Every time his name comes up throughout the gospels or Acts, you get the sense that he was the “Fred Rogers” of the group, and what we know from the rest of history pretty much confirms that.

But there was a guy named Cerinthus who managed to find his way into his “crosshairs.” Cerinthus was a heretic from the first century who traveled around the empire knocking over most everything John and the other Apostles would build up.

Cerinthus and his cronies would set up camp in a village that had been evangelized and pretend to be associates of the Apostles. So they would tell new converts that they had a “unique revelation” that the apostles “hadn’t known about yet” when they first evangelized them, then they would spend a few weeks “hammering it into their heads.”

And so Cerinthus and his entourage would teach that “When Jesus came to Earth, he wasn’t actually a human”; that he didn’t really “put on human flesh and blood and bone,” subject himself to “disease and fatigue”; he didn’t actually “live in someone’s womb for nine months” and then go through the process of being born; that he didn’t really have to learn how to ride a bike, or build a table, or tend to the family farm.

According to Cerinthus, all of that would have been “beneath” the God of the universe. So he taught that Jesus was kind of like a “projection” of “God’s personality,” thrown up on a “projector screen” here on Earth. So according to Cerinthus, when villagers would encounter Jesus, they weren’t talking to a flesh-and-blood human being, they were talking to a “spirit,” like a “ghost,” or a “disembodied soul.”

Because Cerinthus and his people didn’t think that anyone with “human flesh,” and “human feelings,” and “human thoughts” could be perfect. Cerinthus believed that human persons were “damaged goods” that ought to be returned rather than repaired.

But John says that he “Saw Jesus, and he heard him, and touched him with his hands.” And that’s important, because you can’t touch a “ghost.” If Jesus couldn’t have flesh and blood and bone, John and the Apostles couldn’t “touch him with their hands.”

Jesus walked the Earth. He wasn’t a “magic spirit being.” He became a human like you and me. So when he obeyed God’s commands, he did it as a human like you or me.

It wasn’t like a video game; he didn’t do it on “cheat mode.” He obeyed by deciding to obey instead of sinning. He obeyed by following the guidance of the Holy Spirit and submitting to the commands that God had given through Moses and the prophets. So when he was crucified, sinless, it wasn’t a “cop out.” He didn’t save our souls “on a technicality.” The fact that he was God himself didn’t “cancel out” his humanity.

He played the same game we play, he lived the same life we live, on the same terms that we live in, with the same limitations that we face. But Christ was obedient where we were rebellious.

So when we crucified him, he wasn’t punished for his own sins – because he didn’t have any sin to be punished – he was punished for ours. All of my sin, for all of my life, was nailed to the cross with Jesus. And when Jesus was resurrected from the dead, we were raised up with him – and all of his obedience, over all of his life, was given to us. So as far as the scales are concerned, it’s as though you and I have always obeyed just like Jesus obeyed.

And that’s possible because Jesus came to Earth as a human. And we know that because John saw him and heard him and touched him with his hands.

*

John says, “We testify and declare to you the “Eternal life” that was with the Father and was revealed to us.” And that’s interesting, because a lot of us grew up memorizing John 3:16, which says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have ‘Eternal Life’.”

And when you isolate the verse off from everything else, and when you’re 6 years old, you get the sense that the verse is saying that “If you believe in God, instead of dying, you’ll not die, and you’ll keep not dying forever.”

I remember being six and hearing a rumor that “If you asked Jesus into your heart, God wouldn’t light you on fire for all of eternity.” We’d just learned “John 3:16” in our Children’s Sunday School Class, and the message was spreading quickly. And I didn’t really understand what the kid meant when he said “Ask Jesus Into Your Heart” – because what would you think that meant if you were six? – but I was excited about the prospect of Not Getting Lit On Fire, so I told my parents that I wanted to “Ask Jesus In My Heart.”

We talked to the pastor, he asked some probing questions that I apparently stumbled my way through answering correctly, and then he said it was time to get “baptized.” I didn’t really know what it meant to get baptized, but I knew that water was the opposite of fire, so it seemed like the obvious measure to take in my quest to not get lit on fire for all of eternity.

Because it’s easy to get that idea about “Eternal Life” when you bracket off verses like John 3:16 from the rest of the Bible. As though “Eternal Life” amounts to Not Getting Lit On Fire For Eternity, And Not Much Else. But reading through 1st John you get a very different idea: John writes that the “Eternal Life” was “with the Father” and then he “came to Earth,” and “we saw him,” and “we heard him,” and “we touched him with our hands.” “Eternal Life” is a person.

“Eternal Life” is Jesus Christ, and because God “loved the world,” he “sent his only son” so that “everyone who believes” in Jesus “won’t perish,” but instead they get Jesus.

You’ve heard this enough times already, but you’re going to hear it again constantly: The thing you get when you’re “reconciled to God” is you get God. The thing you get when God “sends his only son to keep you from perishing” is you get Jesus. When you get “Eternal Life” you’re getting God himself. You’re getting a person. You are getting What We Lost In The Garden. And what we lost in the garden was God.

Cerinthus didn’t care about that. Being reconciled to God wasn’t even on his radar. For the heretics that John was facing off against salvation meant not burning. It meant “overcoming your body.” It meant “enjoying a pleasant afterlife.” It didn’t have a blasted thing to do with being reconciled to God. And if you don’t want to be reconciled to God, you won’t be.

That was really the thing that kept me converting for 17 years: Once I was no longer terribly concerned that I was going to get “lit on fire,” I had no reason to go “groveling”  before that “Invisible Man In The Sky” that my grandparents talked about. I didn’t want to be reconciled to God, because that also meant obeying him. The problem with “believing in God” is that when you “believe in God,” it means that God isn’t you, and that your plans and hopes and dreams might have to change “according to his will.” And I did not want that.

What I wanted was to not get lit on fire. That was the extent of my interest in “God’s godness.” Because if being “reconciled to God” also means “submitting ourselves to him,” most folks have no particular interest in being reconciled. Encountering Jesus will either “Harden your heart,” like the Pharisees or the Rich Young Ruler, or it’ll “break open” the wall you’ve built around your heart, like it did with Zacchaeus, or the Woman at the Well.

When the Woman at the Well encountered Jesus, she went and told everybody in her village; she brought them back to meet Jesus and encounter him for themselves. Witnessing Jesus caused her to become a witness” to other people. When Zacchaeus encountered Jesus, he witnessed to everyone he’d ever wronged by “righting the wrongs” he’d done to them: He was a tax collector who stole money from the poor, so he righted the wrongs that he had committed against them by paying back four times what he had taken from them.

And this wasn’t just “guilt doing its work,” although I’m sure he felt plenty guilty for the things he’d done; this was what we call repentance. This is the way the Holy Spirit begins to mold your behavior when you’ve encountered the “Eternal Life” that is in Jesus Christ and responded in faith.

And for the same reason, John and the other disciples now “bear witness” to the things that they “saw and heard and touched with their hands” during Jesus’s ministry. The people who encountered Jesus became witnesses, and, as a result, the gospel spread rapidly into every corner of Galilee, and then into every corner of Palestine, and then into every corner of the Roman Empire, and beyond.

To this day it’s one of the great “anomalies of history,” sociologists and historians are still writing lengthy books and getting grants to research all the particular reasons why Christianity spread throughout the empire and pretty much swallowed up the culture.  

And the common denominator seems to be that the earliest Christians were disciples who made disciples who made disciples. It’s exactly that simple.

Like John says in verse 4, they would bear witness to the “Eternal Life” that is in Jesus Christ “so that their joy could be complete.” Over time, as the Holy Spirit works on your soul, different things begin to make you “joyful.”

God doesn’t just begin to take away your selfishness, or your cruelty, or your greed, he shapes you into someone whose joy can only be “complete” through obedience. So your joy can only be complete by “following God’s good commands,” by fellowshipping with God’s people, by immersing yourself in God’s word.

And eventually your joy can only be complete by sharing the good news of Gods great kindness to us through Jesus Christ with other people. And when a whole group of people have that posture, what happens is that the world starts to tip and then turn right-side-up.

If you want a bird’s-eye view of how this plays out, read through the book of Acts. Because what we see in the book of Acts is that believers would congregate and leverage their resources to canvas the whole city, regularly – even obnoxiously – adopting their nearby regions as a “mission field” of their own.

Because for every Paul, there were thousands of Priscas and Aquilas – folks who stayed home, and turned home into a place where God’s people were multiplying daily. We hear a lot about the “traveling missionaries” from the first century (like Paul) because they wrote most of the New Testament as aids for their traveling ministries. But the actual life-blood of the earliest Church was the normal folks with nine-to-fives and a relentless commitment to evangelizing their own city while Paul and his associates traveled the world.

As you read through the book of Acts and you read about what John and Paul and Peter and others have gone before us in doing, you see that the folks who turn the world right-side-up with the gospel are usually not the “Billy Grahams,” they are the “Bill Jeffersons,” who run a shop downtown and make $44,000 a year, and have no leadership position in their Church, and pay their taxes, and babysit their grandchildren, and regularly invite their neighbors and co-workers to their house, and regularly talk to them about the gospel, and regularly volunteer themselves to help in their time of need, and regularly force themselves into situations in which they “become witnesses to the Eternal Life that is in Jesus Christ” in their own home and their own neighborhood and their own city and their own community. What Louisburg, North Carolina needs from us is for us to be that.

I’ll be at the front, as we sing. If you are not friends with the Jesus that John is talking about, here, Come talk to me while we’re singing. I’d like to be the person who walks you through the process of turning yourself over to Jesus to be forgiven for your sins and adopted into God’s family.

Let’s pray.