For an introduction to this series, click here.
January 15, 2008
This epistle is from John the Apostle, who also wrote the Gospel of John and the Revelation. This first epistle is quite complementary to John's Gospel. It is probable that they were originally sent to the same recipient, whether that was a church or an individual.
John's writing is much later than the other apostles, at least 50 years, likely closer to 60 years, after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The church was more mature, but it also faced new and dangerous problems. Thirty years earlier, it was enough for Paul to set forth the basic doctrines of the church in his epistles. But there were new false doctrines to be addressed by the time John took up his pen.
The most pressing issue was the cult of gnosticism had crept into vogue with many in the church. This is the idea that the flesh is sinful and the spiritual part of man is good. Now that kind of makes sense in a very general way, and I am sure the gnostic teachers found verses in Paul's writings to back up their teachings. The fact is though (and Jesus clearly taught this, see Matthew 15:16-20), that it is man's sinful soul that is the problem. God created man with a desire for friendship and for procreation, it is the evil of man's heart that abuses this desire in adultery and other sexual sins. God gave man a need and desire for food and drink; it is man's soul that decides to indulge in gluttony and drunkenness.
Anyway, beyond that, the gnostics went even farther and taught that Jesus did not inhabit a fleshly body while on earth. They taught He was a purely spiritual being. Of course if He were only a spiritual being and not a physical man, He could not be a substitute for our sins, but they didn't bring that up. We will see this theme of Jesus coming in the flesh over and over again throughout this epistle, beginning in the first verse:
"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—" (1:1-2)
Notice in the very first verse that John says, among other things, that he touched Jesus with his hands. This is a direct affront to the gnostic teaching that Jesus was a spirit. John is clearly stating his position as an Apostle, which among other qualifications includes being a witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, to attack this false teaching.
"This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin." (1:3-7)
This is one of my favorite passages in all the Bible: it gives us the purpose of the church in particular and of Christian fellowship in general. Notice the vertical and horizontal pattern here. We are all to grow in our fellowship with God and in our fellowship with each other. John teaches here that these two relationships complement each other. As we grow in fellowship with God, we will also grow in fellowship with our fellow believers. Imagine a triangle with you on one point, God on another point and fellow believers on the third point (this works a lot better on a chalkboard). As you move closer to God, you are automatically moving closer to the other point, that being fellow believers. And hopefully as you grow in fellowship with God you will encourage your brother in the Lord to draw closer to God, and that will bring the two of you even closer together.
"If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us." (1:8-10, ESV)
Another popular but false teaching of this time was that a Christian could live above sin in this life. Of course there are people who still believe this today, so little has changed in 1,900 years. John is not excusing sin here: he just wants us to recognize that we do still have sin in our lives, as much as we may not like to admit it.
In context, I think verse 9 is not saying as much as some people think it does. I have heard lots of preachers tell stories about people who could never live a victorious Christian life until they claimed I John 1:9 and got forgiveness for a sin they committed years ago. I could be wrong, but I think in context John is saying we simply need to acknowledge our sinfulness and our need for God's grace instead of arrogantly claiming perfection. I think it is taking that scripture too far to say that if we don't name every sin we commit each day, that somehow God will hold that against us. God already has forgiven us of all our sin and made us righteous before Him. The problem may not be unconfessed sin as much as it is a guilt trip laid on us - and unfortunately encouraged and fomented by well-meaning preachers and teachers - for things we have done for which we have already received forgiveness.