Not so for today's youth. The pressure to work is still upon them, but the prospect of tertiary entrance gives no confidence that a placement will be available. And the completion of qualifications no longer guarantees a job at the end.
How are we to tackle life when nothing is certain, even when we have put in our best effort? These uncertainties can lead to a deep disturbance at the core of our growing young people. In more ways than we realise, their emotional health and stability are vital to the well-being of our whole society. The problems of unemployment have become entrenched. Society and the politicians have "accepted" the situation with too much "wait and see" and not enough strong caring action!
Already our society shows the serious consequences of living with fundamental uncertainties - evidenced in increased drug use, break-ins, marriage breakdown, crimes of violence, murders, suicides... Yet, even without those uncertainties, none of us has a crystal ball or can "see around the corner".
Of course, there are people who try consulting crystal balls - or tarot cards, or the stars, or numerology, or one of the other ways in which people are promised insight into the future... It is all a symptom of the uncertain times in which we live - an unhealthy symptom, because people miss out on the real certainties and end up living on phoney promises instead of by faith in the living God.
John is writing about some solid certainties that can give us strength at the centre of our being. Henry Francis Lyte expressed this in these words,
"earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
change and decay in all around I see:
O thou who changest not, abide with me." (AHB502)
That hymn, though often used at funerals, is full of affirmations that are important for life itself.
John has already indicated that we are involved in a struggle. In chapter 2, he said that the "young men... have overcome the evil one" (2.13-14). We noted there his reference to "the world" - "there is a world system of thought and behaviour which is contrary to God's ways and is opposed to God. With this the Christian can have no part." Our present-day "feel" of the world is not just that some people don't have time for God or Christianity - we are facing much more active opposition than there has been for a long time. John also writes about "the antichrist" (2.18,22) and many "antichrists". In chapter 3 he tells them not to be surprised that "the world hates you" (3.13).
Now in chapter 5, he is affirming that, though the struggle is very real, the outcome is certain.
"Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well" (v. 1). Faith in Jesus Christ is not just an optional additive to our life. It leads to a radical change within us that Jesus, in his conversation with Nicodemus, called being "born again" (John 3.3,16).
Unfortunately, this term has been hijacked by some groups to describe a particular spiritual experience expected of all members. True, Jesus was speaking about change, radical change. But he was also affirming the reality and certainty of our new relationship with God as members of his family, as his children. That reality within will lead to changes affecting every part of our life and personality. But it is already true - it has already come - because we believe in Jesus.
"This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands" (vv. 2,3b). God's love towards us is to lead us to the response of loving God and obeying his commands. John is quite specific - we cannot separate our love of God from obedience.
Do you love God? Are there some hymns that send a thrill down your spine? Do you experience a warmth of faith welling up in you when you read the Bible? Are you sometimes carried along with expectation and excitement in a service of worship? Do you obey God? That's the "bottom line" test - not the set of emotional experiences that we may or may not have, but whether we obey God! That's the test of whether we love God!
"And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith" (vv.3b,4). God doesn't expect us to walk on our hands or live under the sea - though some may do these things for short periods! God's commands set out how he, the Maker, always meant us to live. Living as a child of God means living normally - as life was meant to be lived. We may well have a rebellious spirit and bad habits of living to overcome in ourselves. We may be rowing against the stream of public opinion and of accepted behaviour patterns. But we are living the normal life, the wholesome life. That is why we are able to "overcome the world."
"Our faith" is the means of winning the victory over that "world system of thought and behaviour which is contrary to God's ways and is opposed to God" - within ourselves and within our environment. "Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God" (v. 5). We recall John's earlier words, "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work" (3.8b) and the words of Jesus himself, "I have told you these things [that the Father will be with me, even when you scatter and leave me alone], so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (Jn 16.33).
Believing in Jesus we share his victory! We might well wonder as we look at the early disciples - or at ourselves - but Jesus has already won the battle! The victory is certain!
"This is the one who came by water and blood - Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth" (v. 6). Jesus was a real person. He really lived in the history of our world. His ministry began with his baptism and came to a climax in his death on the cross. Not only did the Spirit come down on Jesus like a dove at his baptism (Jn 1.32-34), but the testimony of the Spirit continues to affirm the truth of what Christ has done and to bring conviction to the peoples of the world (Jn 16.8-11).
The Christian message is not based on a philosophy or a spiritual ideal, but on a real person whose life and death - as well as his words and example - are an essential part of the message.
"For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. We accept man's testimony, but God's testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son" (vv. 7-9). The evidence about who Jesus was and why he came is not just based on human eye-witnesses - it is confirmed by the Spirit and by the testimony of the Father given throughout the Scriptures. We recall the words of Jesus to the Jewish authorities, "And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life." (Jn 5.37-40).
"Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son" (v. 10). There is solid evidence as the basis for faith. There is very strong evidence concerning the historicity of Jesus, his personality and works. There is the Father's evidence through the prophetic writings of the Old Testament and (for us) the books of the New Testament. The Spirit is also at work and those who believe receive an inner conviction from God.
"And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life" (vv. 11-12). So this testimony focuses on what God has done - (1) his gift of eternal life (2) coming through his Son (3) to those who "have the Son" (a phrase conveying the same truth as "believes in the Son" in v. 10, "acknowledges the Son" in 2.23 and "remain in him" in 2.27).
"I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us - whatever we ask - we know that we have what we asked of him" (vv.13-15).
Those who believe in the Son of God are meant to live with a fundamental certainty at the heart of their being. This certainty does not come from our excellence, but from what God himself has done for us in his Son. We are not trying to prove ourselves to God - he has already welcomed us! He has already made his love for us quite clear! We come into his presence with courage and confidence. Paul wrote in Romans 8.1, "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."
The fundamental certainty that God has welcomed us flows directly into our prayer life. Jesus taught his disciples to pray in his name - "the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name" (Jn 15.16b). To pray in his name is to ask "according to his will." "Ask and it will be given to you;" said Jesus, "seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you" (Mt. 7.7). God hears our prayers and answers them according to his will.
"If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death" (vv. 16-17).
Paul states the general principle, "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 6.23). All sin is deadly, but through God's loving mercy sin is forgiven because of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. But our Lord Jesus spoke about an unpardonable sin - a sin which could not be forgiven and for which the death-penalty could not be turned back. Here are his words, "Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come" (Mt. 12.32). Why should a sin against the Holy Spirit be worse than a sin against the Son of Man (Jesus) himself? The context is the accusation that Jesus was casting out demons by Beelzebub, the prince of demons (Mt. 12.24). It is the Holy Spirit who brings us to repentance. Jesus warns that it is possible to have so rejected the work of the Holy Spirit that repentance, and therefore forgiveness, are no longer possible. This is reflected in what John is saying here.
John now comes to three affirmations that are central to his whole letter. Each of them begins with "We know...".
"We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him" (v. 18). For the child of God, sin is a foreign principle. There will be sins to be dealt with, but sin is no longer the way of life. The child of God is kept safe by the Son of God.
"We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one" (v. 19). The whole world may be under the rule of the evil one, but we belong to God.
"We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true - even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life" (v. 20). The Son of God came to bring us into a living relationship with the true God. Jesus himself said, "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" (Jn 17.3).
This God who has revealed himself in the coming of the Son, Jesus Christ, is the true God. Knowing the true God is eternal life. "Dear children, keep yourselves from idols" (v. 21). John is not just thinking about worship in pagan temples, but all those ideas that were beginning to be current and were diminishing the person and work of Jesus Christ. To worship an idea that is less than the real Jesus Christ is to worship an idol.
Do you live with basic uncertainty? or do you know...? We are meant to know with certainty that we have eternal life, that we are God's children. Put your trust in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That is the secret of certainty in an uncertain world!
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