John 3 The Currents of Righteous Living

The Apostle John’s writing style presents a number of difficulties for the modern reader.  The primary audience knew what he sought to convey due to immediate conflict they had with false teachers in their midst and the cultural setting.  These false teachers plagued the church in Ephesus for decades since the Apostle Paul warned the elders prior boarding a ship to leave them for the last time (Acts 20:17-38).  Paul informed these elders,

“I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (20:29-30).

These false teachers had a very different message, one that rejected the righteousness of God and depended on self-reliance.  They twisted the knowledge and nature of God and sought to stir up dissension with members of the Christian fellowship in Ephesus.

With this history in before them, the audience of 1 John recollected both Paul and John’s teachings on righteous living, brotherly love, and caring oversight both exhibited during their times in Ephesus.  When John recalls these teachings in his letter, they connected them to the time he dwelled with them.  John appealed to his interaction with them while with them.  He wanted to remind them that they knew the truth (1 John 2:13-14, 18, 21), and the Holy Spirit imprinted that knowledge in them (2:20).  Although John’s writing style appears meandering to us, it did not appear that way to his original audience because they knew John’s teachings.

The Flow of John’s Message

However, a closer look of the flow of John’s writing reveals more than a meandering style.  An analogy can assist in our understanding of the flow of his message in 1 John 3 as well as with the entire letter.  The strong waves seen on the surface of the ocean represent his message.  The water through these waves appears powerful and overwhelming as we see each wave strongly reaching their peaks and then gushing robustly toward the shore.  However, beneath that surface exists a number of unseen undercurrents that drive the waves.  Some undercurrents flow strongly and appear periodically on the surface of the waters, acting as large cresting waves.  Other undercurrents flow more subtly.  One may not see their strength when viewing the surface from a distance.  However, to one in the water, they brush strongly against the body and act like unseen undertows attempting to sweep the person to the bottom.  John’s writing style resemble this ocean.  His dominant message appears like the strong waves on the surface of the sweeping ocean.  The corresponding themes show up like undercurrents, sometimes subtly and sometimes forcefully, as they support the primary message.

In the case of 1 John 3, John stresses righteous living as his primary message.  Living righteously is the message of power much like the ocean waves.  Several corresponding themes appear like undercurrents in support of this message.  They consist of the following:

  • Appear (2:28; 3:2, 5)
  • Hope, faith (3:3, 23)
  • New birth (2:29; 3:9)
  • Loving others (3:1, 10-11, 14, 16-18, 23)
  • Abide (3:6, 14, 17, 24)

He connects these themes into a single forceful message through a series of comparisons and contrasts.  He also uses them as counterarguments against the false teachers who disturbed these believers.  For example, when John writes of the two appearances of Christ (His birth and second coming), John counters the false teaching that Jesus was simply an illusion and not real.  John replies with a NO!  That is, Jesus did appear physically, and He will appear once again at His second coming.  The theme of the appearance of Christ represents John’s counterattack toward the false teachers.

John’s Message and Supporting Themes

As a thematic undercurrent for his message, John bring up appearance three times, once referring to believers and twice to Jesus.  His first use speaks of His second coming (2:28; 3:2-3).  With his second use, he refers to the historical event of His first coming or the incarnation (3:5).  These two events act as two anchors for hope, faith, the new birth, and loving God and others.  The third time John uses the word “appear” he speaks of the believer’s new unknown state when Jesus comes again (2:28).  Although the future of our state of being when Jesus returns is unknown, we do know that we will be like Him (3:2).

In his typical style, he reverses the historical order for emphasizing that the motivation for the life of righteousness has its grounds in the hope of Christ’s second coming.  For this reason, his writing style appears somewhat meandering.  The connections of these themes are subtle in support of his message.  Notice how he connects the two.  He first states,

“…what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is.  And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure” (3:2-3).

The false teachers (the early stages of Gnosticism) could not comprehend this physical appearance, because their philosophy of matter as evil and impure caused them to reject the incarnation and the second coming of Christ.  The appearance of Jesus, to them, was an illusion.  Jesus could not inhabit evil flesh.  John emphatically counters their false beliefs about Jesus.  Their idea of purity/impurity rested on materialism and not on God’s declaration.  God created everything and pronounced them good.  Evil entered the picture with humanity’s willful rebellion against and rejection of God.

The false teachers failed to distinguish between the good God created and the act of human rebellion.  Rather than seeing the individuals created in the image of God as good, they saw this material creature as evil.  Furthermore, rather than recognizing rebellion against God as evil, they rejected such rebellion and consequent sin.  Purification according to John is not about the false teaching of separation between the body and spirit but the distinction between living righteously (purity) and living lawlessly (3:3-6), which is the true biblical category.  The life of righteousness solidifies hope (3:3).  This hope is the anchor of the soul (Hebrews 6:19).

John uses the undercurrent themes to reinforce living between the two comings of Christ – the incarnation as the first coming and Christ’s return to claim all who believe in Him as the second coming.  Righteous living occurs between the two appearances of Christ as shown in the following illustration.  The events that occur after Christ’s first coming find their source in the work of the Holy Spirit.  John earlier wrote,

John 3 Living Between the Appearances of Christ
Living Between the Appearances of Christ

“But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie— just as it has taught you, abide in him” (2:27).

He affirms this truth later when speaking directly of the Holy Spirit,

“By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (4:13)

As the Holy Spirit directs our lives through the process of living for God, we exhibit confidence and assurance (2:28; 3:21; 4:17) so that we will not show shame when Jesus returns the second time to claim all believers.  The events between the first and second appearance of Christ lead to righteous living.  Righteous living is the primary message John conveys in John 3 and that he threads throughout the letter.  It is the mighty and majestic display of the God who gave us birth to His dear children.  The events John discusses to support this message are the undercurrents that support and strengthen righteous living.  They demonstrate to the world the difference between the children of darkness and the children of God.

Future articles will explore the undercurrents shown in the illustration:

  • The new birth
  • Knowledge and truth
  • Hope & faith
  • Abiding
  • Loving God & others
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Did Jesus Come Back to Life?

While some assert that Christianity stole the idea of resurrection from various mystery religions featuring a dying and rising figure, the Gospel accounts breathe a far different air – the air of factual actuality, of datable, verifiable history” (Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics).

Consider the claim of theft.  Someone in the distant past develops a religious teaching about people coming back to life.  Another religious teacher elsewhere at a different time or concurrently speaks of people returning to life.  Still another guru or religious master passes on what he heard from another about  a cycle of death and life then death again and life in another form.  Today, we refer to this type of teaching as reincarnation.  As oral traditions arise from the past from a number of sources, the stories in those traditions change through secondary and tertiary retelling of the stories.

Inseparable Essentials: God and Resurrection

cropped-2016-02-24-10-12-12.jpgWhile these secondary sources arise from an original, the primary thought of someone returning to life is a common theme.  Is the theme just as false as the stories surrounding the theme?  Is there any evidence for the original claim although details change over time through a variety of sources?  Was there an actual event that gave rise to the various stories?  If not, how did the idea of someone returning to life enter individual thoughts?

These questions about resurrection from death is similar to the question, “If God did not exist, would we have to invent Him?”  That is, if the idea of resurrection did not have its source in reality or history, would someone have to imagine it and spin it into a legend, fable, or myth?  If nothing existed to give rise to the idea of resurrection, how could one spin a legend, fable, or myth around non-existence?  The same thinking arises concerning God.  If someone invented God, as atheists claim, how did the notion of God even arise in our thoughts if He were simply an invention and not part of existence?  The parallel between an actual resurrection and the existence of God are worth exploring for arriving at the truth about them, especially the resurrection of Jesus.  They are two indispensable claims underlying the Christian faith.

If they can be shown to be valid, then such faith has solid and sure support.  If no evidence exists for either, then the Christian faith would be vain as Paul noted (1 Corinthians 15:13-17).  Both claims depend on history and not imagination or fiction.  Truth cannot arise from fiction.  Such foundations are unlike other world religions because historicity is not so instrumental to them.  One could remove the idea of reincarnation (fiction) from the religions that claim it, and those religions would not necessarily fall.  They would simply revise their teachings to accommodate another idea and integrate this idea with existing beliefs.  That occurs frequently in religions over the span of time as religious teaching change over time.  Their tenets change to integrate current philosophies.

On the other hand, the teachings of God and resurrection have never departed from biblical faith.  Granted, many who bear the name Christian have ceased to believe in the historical resurrection (i.e., Paul Tillich (1886-1965, John Hick (1922-2012), John Shelby Spong (1931-)).  However, it does not depart altogether.  Resurrection echoes from the beginning of time.  This article will later explore this fact.  In many Christian segments that reject the historical resurrection, it still remains as a symbol and attaches to a belief system within those Christian segments.  However, does such symbolic attachment discount or rule out God’s existence and the resurrection?

God, Resurrection, and Naturalism

Let us consider these two claims.  One, the resurrection, depends on the other, God’s existence.  According to naturalists, both seemingly defy the way the natural world works.  Notice the disclaimer in the previous statement: “seemingly.”  Does the material order refute God and the resurrection?  Do the laws of the natural order rule out God and resurrection?  Douglas Groothuis does not believe the natural order rules them out.  He makes the following statement:

But miracles do not break natural laws. The day Christ raised Lazarus, people all over the world were still dying and staying dead. The law of nature had not changed. But natural laws speak only to natural events. Supernatural events are outside of their purview” (Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, IVP Academic, 1988, Kindle, Location 5764-5765).

C. S. Lewis expands on the issue of miracles of which the resurrection of Jesus is one,

“The divine art of miracles is not an art of suspending the pattern to which events conform but of feeding new events into the patterns” (C. S. Lewis, Miracles, Harper, 1974, Kindle, p. 95).

Lewis provides the example of natural law’s pattern of cause and effect to support his claim. That is, one of the laws of nature is cause and effect (If A then B).  He claims that a miracle does not suspend this law but rather has a cause with a corresponding effect and therefore abides by it.  The “new event” is not A in this case but A2, that is God as the cause with the corresponding event as the miracle (B2).  This miracle occurs “according to Natural law,” Lewis claimed.  However, he goes on to say,

Its peculiarity is that it is not in that way interlocked backwards, interlocked with the previous history of Nature” (p. 95).

He adds that naturalists have a problem with and cannot tolerate such logic.  The reason why is that they begin with rejecting God as the Creator and believe that Nature is the sum of existence.  In rejecting His existence, they refuse to accept that this God they consider non-existent could intervene in Nature with an event consistent with Nature (birth, death, and life).  Consequently, they lock themselves into a closed system that excludes anything that does not fit their materialist worldview.  That is, material is the sum of all existence, and there is nothing beyond the material.  That means the supernatural.

What About Resurrection?

Let us consider the question, “How did the idea of someone returning to life enter individual thoughts?”  We know that ideas of resurrection came about prior to Jesus.  Religious leaders (Pharisees) of His time believed in it.  Did the resurrection of Jesus arise from myth or was it a true historical event given the preexistence of the idea of resurrection?  We need only return to the beginning of creation to discover seeds of resurrection.  Consider the creation.  God created life from nothing (lifelessness) by speaking (Genesis 1-2).  We read of a parallel when Jesus spoke and raised Lazarus from death (John 11).  Abel presents a motif of resurrection.  The letter of Hebrews reads,

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4).

We also discover the theme of resurrection in the historical account of Abraham of which the letter of Hebrews also testifies,

Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore” (Hebrews 11:12).

Again, the author writes of Abraham,

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”  He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead” (Hebrews 11:17-19).

Elijah brought a widow’s son back to life (1 Kings 17:17-24).  The creation was not myth.  Abel, Abraham, and Elijah were not myths.  History left traces of resurrection that all pointed to the single historic event of Jesus rising from death.  Individuals embraced the resurrection because God Himself left traces of it in His own works and through actual events.   Creation, Abel, and Abraham represent God’s works while Elijah exhibits an actual ancient biblical event.  Jesus’ resurrection did not depend on myths, fables, or legends.  God intervened in events prior to Jesus’ resurrection.  The history of the resurrection of Jesus rested on God and His intervention in historical events.  This intervention confirms that God works in history to demonstrate His power not only in events that preceded Jesus but also with the resurrection of Jesus..

God and Nature

We may ask those who reject God to explain chance and accidents and how the principle of these events is any different from explaining miracles.  Are “accidents of nature” and chance just as inexplicable as a miracle from their perspective?  Many new occurrences today baffle scientists and doctors just as others did centuries ago.  However, new discoveries explain the inexplicable of a century or two ago, but today’s undiscovered or unknowns remain just as puzzling as unknowns did to those in the past.  However, one variable could always exist: there may never be a discovery that explains all unknowns due to the temporal restraints of our finite being and the limitations of the tools available now or in the future. Speculation rules over unknowns among the finite.  Just because the resurrection cannot be explained today by known natural laws does not mean that it can never be explained by any existing laws.  God’s laws of all existence exceed natural laws.  If scientists cannot explain chance and accidents they consider within the the natural world, how then can they explain laws beyond the natural existence?  To reject God is just as irrational as believing in chance or accidents.

His intervening acts with us are of a supernatural sort that requires a different kind of explanation, the supernatural, just as those beyond our grasp as so-called accidents or chance does to the naturalist.  By the very definition of accident and chance, naturalists seem to suspend cause and effect, whereas miracles do not.  Chance cannot cause anything unless it has intelligence to give direction and will things to happen.  An accident is its corollary.  Neither can cause anything.  Yet naturalists want us to believe that chance prompted (caused) an evolutionary outburst (effect).

All the while, they reject the source (God) that gives way to the natural law of cause and effect.  They reject Him while calling Him to mind and making mention of him.  One cannot think or speak of that which does not exist.  Thinking assumes knowledge.  There is no knowledge in non-existence.  However, when those who reject God think of Him, they affirm what they deny.

The rejection of God in favor of chance places those who reject Him in the precarious position of also rejecting and suspending the laws of nature (that is, cause and effect).  God does not suspend the laws of nature with the resurrection of Christ from death.  Rather, He worked within those laws.  Douglas Groothuis asserts that people still die.  That law remains the same.  God (the supernatural Cause) intervened to raise Jesus from death.  On the other hand, chance remains chance regardless what naturalists desire to impute to it – some sort of causal agent.  We must ask ourselves which is the most rational, the causal agent of God or an event lacking cause and effect – chance.

Since God is the Creator, He is beyond the entire created order.  As the Creator, He then holds sway over the created (natural) order and its corresponding laws.  He created those laws.  Therefore, the natural order and the supernatural order both exist.  God consists of the supernatural order .  With such a scenario, chance and accidents are not options.  Cause assumes a determinant, which is an agent that places something in motion for the desired effect.  God has not endowed some event called chance with directional capacity.  Accidents do not just happen, because all things are within God’s purview and control.

God and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

God is not only the Creator but also the Redeemer.  What is a Redeemer?  Redeem means to purchase back.  The Law of Moses revealed the meaning of this kind of purchase (Exodus 13:13; 34:20; Leviticus 25:25-26; Numbers 18:15).  Why redemption?  The human condition called for it. All chose to go their own way, away from God.  God took the initiative to intervene and revealed His redemptive hand in the Law of Moses.  He also revealed the way through a Redeemer, His only Son, whom He sent into the world to purchase back those sold to slavery to rebellion and their waywardness.  Their penchant for rebellion and condition prevented them from coming to God on their own.  They needed a Redeemer.  Jesus came and lived in the form of man, was executed, and came back to life.

The resurrection affirms two truths for those who believe in Jesus.  First, death has died.  Jesus showed He had life in Himself by rising from death (John 5:26).  Death had no hold on Him.  This truth is a “far different air,” as Groothuis claims, than mythical stories of resurrection.  No material being has life in itself.  All life derives from God.  All other so-called stories of resurrections were myth while having their roots in historical reality.  There was no theft from other religions.  Rather other religions distorted the truth and created fiction.  That truth resided in historical events with the grandest truth being Jesus’ resurrection.

Second, Jesus’ resurrection was the true life from death, the historical event that changed all history.  Given His resurrection as a true historical event God determined from all eternity, what weight does that carry with us?  Faith in Jesus means all the world and eternity for us, for that faith also transports us to new life from spiritual death and after death.  Chance has no basis in history.  There would be no history by chance.  The living God controls history and set the course of redemption in motion with its fulfillment in Jesus’ resurrection.  The living God and the resurrection are inseparable essentials.  Are you willing to bet the rest of your life and eternity on chance?  Paul wrote,

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

Paul discusses two outcomes resulting from the resurrection of Jesus: judgment for those who reject Him and assurance of life for those who believe Him.  Place your wager.

Into Your Hands

Just before Jesus expended His last breath, He cried to His Father,Hope

Into Your hand I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

Those nearby who were well acquainted with the Scriptures, especially the Psalms would have recognized that He recited Psalm 31:5.  He had the word of God on His lips with His final breath.  It sustained Him throughout His life.  In one incident when He encountered Satan, Satan said to Jesus,

If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread” (Matthew 4:3).

Jesus replied from Torah,

Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (4:4).

Satan continued to try trip him by also quoting Scripture back to Jesus out of context.  However, Jesus knew the Scriptures well and would not be fooled by Satan’s trickery.  Jesus frequently used Scriptures in countering the arguments of the Pharisees and Sadducees and giving a defense for His Father and His decrees and declarations.  He taught the truth of the Scriptures to His disciples so they would gain strength from them in time of need and be able to offer a defense for the truth in the life of Jesus.  The Scriptures became Jesus’ sustenance in life and in death.

His example teaches us that the Scriptures are our authority and their content are lamp and life.  Relying on the Scriptures is relying on God.  Both God and His word are the content and strength of our lives.  The particular passage from Psalm 31:5 illustrates this assurance.  King David never knew that the Messiah, the Son of God, his offspring would quote from his psalm.  He never knew the vitality of his psalm for all subsequent generations.  He never realized that this truth would give assurance to so many.  Although he wrote it initially for himself, we recognize that he also intended it to be for the entire congregation of God.  The heading informs us of his purpose,

To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David.”

He saw commitment to God his lifelong vision and allegiance, even in death, because he recognized God was his redeemer (Psalm 31:5).  He gives a litany of distresses and troubles he encountered throughout his life and concludes,

But as for me, I trust in You, O LORD; I say, “You are my God.” My times are in Your hand” (31:14-15).

At the conclusion of his psalm, David turns to his audience, the congregation for whom he intended it and announces,

Oh, love the LORD, all you His saints! For the LORD preserves the faithful, And fully repays the proud person. Be of good courage, And He shall strengthen your heart, All you who hope in the LORD.”

He wants to assure them that commitment to God meant safety, because those whom God considers “saints” or set-aside ones are safe in His hands.  They can be courageous and hopeful, knowing that the strength and power to endure hardship comes from God.  God holds His saints tightly in His hand.  Jesus, our Savior set the example on the cross when He cried to His Father,

Into Your hands I commit My spirit” Luke 23:46.

God is our Father, also, and we like Jesus can trust Him to care for us.

Surprised by Grace: Simeon

The prophets of Israel longed to know about which they spoke. Peter wrote of them,

Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things which angels desire to look into” (1 Peter 1:10-12).

Suffering played a key role in the early church, and Peter wrote to these suffering Christians to encourage them so they would not lose heart. He used the role of suffering to illustrate that just as Christ suffered, so also must they in a world which sin turned upside down. We gather from what Peter wrote a deep sense of longing arising from both the prophets and angels of God for the coming of Messiah and the redemption He brings. However, God gave the prophets a limited message beyond which they could not speak or even know. God also informed the angels that even they could comprehend only so much.

God alone laid out His plan in perfect order down the corridor of time, and He alone would fulfill the promise of grace made in ages past concerning the ultimate grace He would bestow on humanity through Messiah. God used suffering to prepare the world for this Messiah event. He did so that people would not look to themselves or their resources for deliverance but to Him, the Mighty God, Deliverer, and Holy One of Israel.

The time finally arrived. Anticipation rose to its highest peak. God now commanded His angels to shout gladness and joy from the heavens, their desire fulfilled. A star announced the Consolation of Israel and the Gentiles. Magi arrived at the house in which the baby slept and bestowed gifts at the feet of this newborn (Matthew 2:11). They looked upon the grace of God with awe.

There is more. Grace awaited an old man who longed for Messiah. He knew he would not die or face Nunc demittis[1] or “Now you dismiss,”

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32, New Revised Standard Version).

Like the prophets of old and the angels, Simeon simply longed for Messiah. He knew God would fulfill His promise. But when? Signs pointed to a future time, but no one knew exactly not even the prophets. He lived to serve God. The Scriptures describe him as “just and devout,” or righteous and God-fearing. Luke emphasizes that he communed with the Holy Spirit and that the Spirit was his constant guide and companion. While Simeon walked with and in the Spirit, the coming of Messiah remained undisclosed.

One day, the Holy Spirit sent him to the Temple. To Simeon, this prompting must have been simply a normal one. His communion with the Spirit was a common occurrence from what the Scriptures suggest. Off he went down the dusty street, perhaps praying as he walked with the tentative gait his age conveyed on him. He goes about his worship, a custom he relished. He hears footsteps echoing down the Temple corridor. These were not the normal footsteps of routine visitors making their way in to offer worship.

His half-closed eyes widened. Is it…? Can it be? He straightens himself up as much as an old man could and makes his way to his feet from his knees. His anticipation heightens as he begins to tremble. He squints and sees two shadows coming closer and closer. A couple enters the light of the Menorah candles on the altar. The woman carries a baby in her arms. Yes! Yes! Surprised by grace. Messiah! He stretches out his arms with a soft smile and tears streaming from his eyes. The woman comes closer and hands him the baby as Simeon sighs with joy. He speaks,

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32, New Revised Standard Version).

He pauses, turns to the woman, and continues,

Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35, NKJV).

He performs his final service for his God. He declares Messiah and His mission. He prophesies the agony and pain His mother will experience. He tells of the promise fulfilled for redeeming the lost. He calls for God to give his Nunc demittis (“Now you are dismissing”) so he can rejoice with the angels in heaven. He passes the mantle to John to declare,

Prepare the way of the LORD; Make His paths straight” (Mark 1:3).

[1] Latin for Simeon’s words after he saw Jesus and translates into English as Now you are dismissing or Allow me to depart. It is often sung as an evening canticle at Christmas.