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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Resurrection and Freedom

More often than not, Easter messages focus on the gospels, the first four books of the New Testament, and rightly so.  These are historical accounts narrating the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  Less frequently do messages arise from the various New Testament letters and the Acts of the Apostles.  Luke, Paul, Peter, James, and John take up the historical event of the resurrection and bring its significance to bear on the life of faith.

One cannot read these letters without recognizing the resurrection’s strong strand.  It weaves through the message of the authors as they show how this historical event proclaims liberty to the captives and “the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (Isaiah 61:1) as Jesus announced (Luke 4:18).

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The Empty Tomb

One of the great truths of the resurrection is freedom.  Before the resurrection of Jesus, His disciples failed to understand such freedom.  They viewed it in terms of a material kingdom rather than spiritual life.  Tradition dictated their view of the external rather than the internal.  However, afterwards, they could not hold back this lofty truth.

Historical Basis for Freedom

A walk through the New Testament reveals narration of the historic event of the resurrection and its application to a life of faith.  Truth stands on history and not fiction.  History builds a mountain of evidence on which biblical faith rests.  Without historical evidence, faith would be futile and freedom would be a mirage or relative to how one defines it.  Biblical faith leads to freedom because God intervened in history, interacted with humanity through Jesus, and brought Jesus from death to life through His unsurpassed power.  Freedom stands on this mountain of evidence.

What then is this freedom?  The gospels narrate the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  Jesus also left traces of the meaning of freedom through His sermons (Luke 4:18-19).  However, the apostles expanded at length on this freedom arising from Jesus’ resurrection.  Throughout their letters, resurrection dominates.  It is the center of their messages.  However, how does resurrection link to and bring freedom?

In the middle of presenting the gospel to the Church at Rome, Paul gives a sublime example.  He takes the reader from an intentional self focused to a resurrection focused excursion. This self focus serves to make a point at the conclusion of the chapter,

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)

What death?  The death to which Paul refers is that which prevents him from living upright, good, and pleasing to God.  This body of death is that which sin rules.  Notice the number of times Paul uses “I” and “me” prior to crying out this statement and question.  Immediately following these, he pivots from the “I” and “me” to gratitude for the resurrection.  He boldly pens,

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1-4).

He crowns his declaration of freedom with the following statement,

If the Spirit of a him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (8:11).

Resurrection is the pinnacle of the argument Paul applies and the foundational doctrine for living the Christian life.  The resurrection means no longer being in debt to the flesh but living by the  teaching and guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Resurrection life now is a mere taste of the glory reserved for us when we meet our Savior face to face.  The song “Blessed Assurance” highlights this taste in its lyrics:

“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!  Oh what a foretaste of glory divine!

The resurrected Jesus imparts to us the resurrected life to whet our appetite for all God has prepared for us in His presence.

Beginnings of True Freedom: Resurrection and Salvation

Resurrection brings life and liberty.  Easter is an everyday occurrence and not just once yearly.  The same power that raised Jesus from the dead brings about a different life than the self-focused one.  The old life bound us to the disdainful beatings we may give ourselves of hopelessness, despair, shame, dread, and trash talk under which we bury others and ourselves.  At times, the old life also attempts to elevate us above our peers through boasting, smugness, strife, anger, envy, greed, and division.  This, too, is bondage to fantasy and self.  However, Paul claims that the same power that raised Jesus from death enables us to be free from those things that hold us in bondage.

When we cry out like Paul, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” the answer immediately registers, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ out Lord!” (7:25).  The answer does not stop there, just as the Easter message does not stop with one day,

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do” (8:1-3).

How often do we live under self-condemnation, ripping others and ourselves apart when others or we fail, fall, or falter?  Christ’s resurrection took care of this condemnation and corresponding way of life.  While in this present body, we continue to struggle with these burdens of our existence.  However, hope in the Easter message illustrates faith in Him for continued deliverance and assurance that Christ paid the price for all our sin.  The Easter message proclaims that through the new birth we possess resurrected spiritual life from God.  Consequently, the power of resurrection and its corresponding new life increasingly energizes and spurs us to live for Him.  “Increasingly” suggests missteps along the way, but these missteps do not stop God from conforming us to the image of His resurrected Son.

Freedom begins with salvation.  Salvation is almost a lost word, because many have lost sight of what precedes it: the gravity of the human condition.  Humanity is in bondage.  We understand bondage from looking out on our world.  It exists visibly in human slavery that still prevails in many nations.  People take others into captivity and strip them of everything they have.

A more insidious bondage survives that of human slavery: bondage to internal evil we afflict on ourselves and others resulting from spiritual death due to natural rebellion against God.   This natural rebellion results in known and seen characteristics in everyone throughout the world: hatred, greed, rebellion, immorality, murder, strife, deceit, and maliciousness.  The Bible calls this sin.  It all begins from within us.

Salvation is deliverance from all this sin and the power to live right with God.  This is a liberty greater than freedom from human slavery, because it is spiritual freedom exceeding the material and lasts for an eternity.  The power God gives to live in freedom is the same power God exercised for raising Jesus from death.  When God imparts a new spiritual life (resurrection) from spiritual death within us, He gives the power to live that new life.  Freedom begins for us with that power.

The Good and Freedom

Good Friday precedes the resurrection, just as our good God existed from eternity before He pronounced His created works good.  Goodness in God precedes the greatness of His works, especially the grand finale of the resurrection.  The Apostle Paul declared this resurrection arrived at the proper time, in the proper place, and through the proper Person – Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5-6).  Goodness does not stand alone, but it is bound to our good God.

On that first Good Friday, the tragic circumstances of the death of Jesus left the disciples in deep despair.  All they could think about immediately following Jesus’ death was themselves, their predicament of being a dead man’s disciples, and their own prospects of death.  That despair festered like an ulcer.  They initially saw no good in Jesus’ death but certain bondage to chains and ultimately the grave.  They forgot their good God and His sovereign hand.  They cast aside all they heard from Jesus.  Fear ransacked their spirits.  They could not fathom how Jesus’ words could ring true: His return, His Father’s house, His kingdom.  Good Friday was not good for them.  They later discovered the truth of resurrection.

God’s goodness transcends despair, tragedy, hopelessness, weakness, tears, fear, failure, and frailty.  Just as God raised Jesus from the dead the third day, His power also raises us up from the bondage of emotional turmoil, doubt, dismay, and unbelief.  Liberty means God refocusing our eyes off ourselves and on the resurrected life He gives when He raises us from spiritual death to new life He promised in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Easter celebrates the resurrection life and turns despair and dismay into hope and joy:

Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5)

Easter is that morning that took the disciples ( and us with them) from mourning to joy.  God wakes us up through a new life to smell the freedom air of the resurrection.

Jesus: Life in Himself

The life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us—” (1 John 1:3).

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John takes us to his next thought after introducing us to his eyewitness account of Jesus. This next thought is the revelation of God’s Son come in the flesh or the incarnation. This revelation is the life of all things. John speaks of life in a special way – eternal life. In His gospel, John informed his readers and us that Jesus is unique in the possession of life. He has life in Himself (John 5:26). Nothing in all creation possesses this attribute. All that exists in creation dies or decays. Plants and animals die. Humans have a lifespan. All other things deteriorate. They do not possess life in themselves. Rather, they depend on that which is external to them to give them life and to sustain them. God gives to them.

One exception exists – God. In the same place where John points to Jesus as having life in Himself, he also says that the Father also has life in Himself. He states, “For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself” (John 5:26). John expands his claim to the Father, affirming the divinity of the Father and the Son. Now, since the Bible (and John) claims there is one God, we come to understand from him that the Father and Son share in that divinity (John 1:1). They are two of the three persons of the divine essence, that is, God.

Jesus manifested His divinity to His disciples when he lived with them and also when He rose from the dead. His resurrection demonstrated that He has life in Himself. All others who lived also died, even those whom Jesus called back from death to life, such as Lazarus. Lazarus finally died permanently. Jesus rose from the dead and lives today in the presence of His Father.

John declared the eternal life of the Son of God, Jesus. He also announced that Jesus was with the Father prior to His incarnation. In stating this, John informed us that Jesus existed before His birth as the baby of Joseph and Mary. He took on human flesh at a point in time and became like one of us so that He might bridge the gap between God and humanity. He became “God with us.” The Creator of all things took on the form of the created to bring those who believe Him back to the Father. This is the good news and the hope all have who placing their faith in Him.

Jesus Claimed to be the Life, John 14:6

This claim is stunning when seen from the viewpoint of His humanity.  Humans die, and their bodies decay in the grave.  Given that Jesus is not just human but divine, He is eternal.  He also conquered death through His resurrection to demonstrate the durability of His endless life (Hebrews 7:16).  The claim Jesus makes that He is the life rests again on His divinity.  As God, He has life within Himself in the same way the Father has life in Himself (John 5:26).  This truth claim has significance beyond the life He possesses on His own that death cannot take away.  Rather, this claim exhibits His absolute authority to give this same eternal life to those “to whom He will” (5:21).

Furthermore, since Jesus claims to be the life, all life in the created order has its source in Him.  Paul makes this astonishing claim when he writes,

“For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth…All things were created through Him and for Him.  And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (Colossians 1:16-17).

Consequently,since Christ is the source of all life, He alone determines the reality or truth for guiding it, as He is the source for that truth.  This claim has no equal in creation but is unique beyond anyone in the created order could make” (from “Nothing But the Gospel,” Floyd Talbot, Action Faith Books Press, 2014, pp. 77-78).

Is it little wonder that Jesus could call Lazarus back from the dead (John 11:1-44)?  As the source of life, Jesus imparts and restores it with a word.  Life resides in Him unlike the way it resides in the creature or creation.  Our life depends on other created things, such as plants, animals, and the atmosphere and environment of our planet.  Their life depend on a greater source – Jesus.  He has life within Himself.  We do not.  Initially, God breathed His life into a human being, Adam, and he became a living soul (Genesis 2:7).  One might ask, “Was Jesus not the source of life?”  YES!  Then how could Jesus be the source of life when God created all of life.  The answer is that Jesus claimed to be God when He claimed He was “the way, the truth, and the life” who was from the beginning as the second person of the Trinity.  It is for the reason that Jesus could claim,

For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself” (John 5:26).

The life that God has does not depend on anything else.  God as the Trinity is independently life.  That independent life resides in all three persons of the Trinity.  For this reason, Jesus could impart life to whom He wishes (5:21).  We cannot impart life to another because we are of the created order and must depend on an outside source for our own life.  That outside source is Jesus.  Jesus stated,

Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life” (5:24).

Jesus grants life to all who believe.  Do you believe Him?

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