Reading: 1 John 5.1-21.
Our generation forever seeks things that “work”. If Christianity seems to be in the process of being pushed out in the modern world, the reason may not be primarily that the modern person cannot reconcile the idea of God with his scientific thought – for many there is indifference rather than antagonism. However, there is much evidence that humanity still has the same basic needs in spite of our intellectual progress. Thus, in reference to the idea that humanity is now “come of age”, A. Leonard Griffith has written, “I prefer General Omar Bradley’s phrase about ‘nuclear giants and ethical infants’ which compares man to an 18-month old child who has suddenly achieved the physical and mental proportions of adulthood but in his attitude still acts like a helpless baby. A civilization that spends billions to put a man on the moon and simultaneously sponsors a tear-jerking ‘Freedom from Hunger Week’ is hardly a civilization come of age, capable of finding within itself the means of its own salvation”.
The message of Christianity has the potential to transform the lives of people and the history of the world. Yet so often we, who claim to be the people of God, do not live in such a way as to challenge people that this might be true. But, someone protests, we profess faith, we know and use Christian phraseology, we participate in certain Christian ordinances, as far as in us lies we seek to order our lives by Christian standards. I do not deny this. But do we live by faith? do we know the realities to which the words we use in speech and song point us? do our Christian ordinances lead us in utter humility into the presence of God to receive his grace, or do they merely satisfy our sense of religious duty? are our lives and the principles by which we live the fruit of love in us -God’s love for us in Christ which constrains us to love him and to love our fellow?
The first epistle of John makes some great – indeed extraordinary – affirmations. The affirmations of this chapter centre around the person who has faith in Christ. Our text forms one of these outstanding affirmations – “This is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith”. This is to be seen in “terms of (a) a new relation to God and (b) a new relation to the world.
The argument leading up to our text runs like this: whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God; whatever is born of God overcomes the world; it is the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God who overcomes the world.
new relation which a person has with God on becoming a Christian is characteristically described in this
epistle as being “born
of God” and hence as being “the
children of God”. These phrases are not merely formal symbols but point to the
deep and radical change involved in becoming and being a Christian. They remind
us of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, recorded for us by John.
The question Nicodemus came to ask will ever remain a mystery to us. Had he
come, as one rabbi to another, to ask an “opinion on some intricacy of the Law?
Or was he fascinated with the great personality of our Lord? “You must be born
again”, said Jesus. The person who would enter the
Some have sought to call Christianity just another of the “Mystery” religions of the Greek world of the first century. The State religion had become a cold formality and these secret Oriental religions were offering salvation to those who were initiated into their sacred rites. The initiation involved the re-enactment of the legend of the god by the initiant. By initiation the person was seen as becoming a new person, thereafter living in and deriving strength from the god.
Perhaps John may have written against such a background, but how much in contrast his teaching was! This birth, far from being based on myths, was based on realities of which this writer could testify – “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled” (1.1). This same concern for the realities on which the faith is based is seen in those strange words in John’s account of the crucifixion, “One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water. And he who has seen has borne witness, and his witness is true: and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe” (Jn 19.34-5). Why this emphatic mention of this point? “The Word became flesh…”, he had written, and here is the central fact of the Christian proclamation. He wanted to assert what he had seen “with his own eyes” – that he, Jesus, was truly a human being. He picks up the same thought in this chapter. Some refused to acknowledge the reality of the incarnation – the Spirit of the Christ descended on the man Jesus at baptism but left him before the crucifixion. No! says John, He came not only with water but with blood, Again the point is emphasised – he was a real man. It is on this event that this “birth from above” is based.
Characteristic of the new relation with God is life. God’s witness to his Son is that he has given us eternal life in his Son – “He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life” (1 Jn 5.10). John records our Lord’s saying, “I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly” (Jn 10.10). What is “eternal life”, “abundant life”? Again, John records the saying which gives the key – “This is eternal life, that they know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent” (l7.3). To the daring affirmations of this chapter of this epistle he adds, “And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding, in order that we might know him who is true, and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life” (1 Jn 5.20). True life is fellowship with God and walking in his light. Everyone who believes in Christ is born into this new relation to God.
But what of John’s affirmation concerning the new relation of the believer to the world? The current attitude is not merely that we should keep religion out of politics, but also that we should keep it out of all the other “common things of life”. The disturbing presence of God must await our religious convenience.
However, the implication of the new birth is that the believer has something of the character of his heavenly Father. This is why John makes that often-perplexing affirmation, “We know that no one who is born of God sins; but he who was born of God (Christ himself) keeps him and the evil one does not touch him” (v. 18). So often we excuse ourselves for our “human frailties”, as if sin is something to be put up with. Why do we think Christ came? The Christian faith is realistic – if we sin, we have an Advocate with the Father – but sin is an alien, not a natural, part of the believer’s life and must always be regarded as such. Perhaps right in our own personal world we need by faith to step into the victory. Because we are in a right relation with the Father we can be assured that he hears us when we ask anything according to his will. Believing prayer is our trusty sword as we step forward to conquer. Frustration and defeat, anxiety and despair – these are the fabric of many lives today. But the Christian affirmation is, “This is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith”.
However, the bounds of “the world” must be extended beyond the personal life of individuals. St. Paul put it this way – “All things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come, all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God” (l Cor. 3.21-3). There were a number of factions within the Corinthian church. God had been pleased to bless them with the ministries of a number of faithful men. However, instead of seeing these men as God’s gift to the whole church, different factions claimed particular men for their own. But “all things belong to you”, not only all these men of God – Paul, Apollos, Cephas – but the world, life, death, things present, things to come.
A wealthy man had the services of a faithful widow, mother of a small boy. After some years, the lady contracted a fatal illness and died. The man and his wife were concerned for the well-being of the boy who by then was making good progress at school. In a short while their mind was made up – they would seek a legal adoption of the boy. They had grown to love him – they would make him part of their home. But what a difference for the boy! Once the son of a poor widow, now the son in a prosperous family! His financial security had changed. Others treated him with a new respect. The future unfolded before him with many new and exciting prospects.
What does it mean to us that we are children of the Father? “All things belong to you...” Remember that chapter in Hebrews on the great heroes of the faith – “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated… wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground” (Heb. 11.37-38). Were all things theirs? How easily we clutch at the materialistic! These who had so little from the world’s point of view had so much. Of “no fixed address”, they had the security of God’s promises. In poverty, they knew the riches of God. Ill-treated of men, they had the testimony of pleasing God. Dispossessed in the world, they sought God’s city. In these days when God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ, God still calls to adventurous living. We are not here to bargain with God – but we are in our Father’s world. “You belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God”. There is the key – our relation to God. This is the key to our text also. Overcoming the world? – “whatever is born of God”, “he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God”. Being in a new relation to the Father, we are in a new relation to the Father’s world.
In another sense we overcome the world – in doing the Father’s will. There is a struggle on in this world, says John – a struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness. The spirit of antichrist, the spirit of opposition to the work of Christ is abroad in the world. False teachers are spreading erroneous doctrines. They are from the world, but you are from God and have overcome them “because greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world”. This word applies not merely to our life as individuals, but as the people of God. It is only on the basis of the relationship between God and his people that we may affirm of the church, “The gates of Hades shall not overpower it”. It is only through that promise, “Lo, I am with you always”, that we can “go and make disciples of all the nations”.
What is the answer to a world which feels no pressing need to live the life of faith and yet which so obviously needs what faith can offer? The answer lies with those who claim to be God’s people – “This is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith”. So often we play around with God’s promises and find them a source of comfort. God calls us to live by faith, in trustful dependence on his promises. In Christ we shall overcome the inner world of conflicts and doubts, frustrations and fears. In Christ we shall overcome the world as others are confronted with the God of Love in us. Not that there is anything here for us to be proud of, for it is God who has made us anew and stamped his image in us. By faith in Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, may we enter into the victory!
© Peter J. Blackburn, c. 1965
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.
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