The Eleventh in a Series of Sermons on John's Epistles
John has written a rather impassioned defense of our Lord’s incarnation–Jesus is eternal God manifest in human flesh. Throughout his first epistle, the Apostle has reminded us that the reason why Jesus came to earth was to save us from our sins. Our Lord’s incarnation is no mere curiosity. Our salvation depends upon it. But the sad fact is that through the efforts of false teachers, a number of people in and around Ephesus (where John was living as the last apostle) had become convinced that while Jesus was truly God, he only took the form of a man. John calls this destructive false teaching the spirit of antichrist. This is known as the docetic heresy and it completely undermines the Apostles’s testimony about Jesus. This heresy also completely undermines John’s gospel. If Jesus is not truly human, as well as fully God, then we are still in our sins. For John’s reader, the truth of Christianity stands or falls based upon the truthfulness of John’s testimony about Jesus, whom John claims to have seen, heard, and touched.
As we wrap our study of 1 John, we will make our way through the closing verses of chapter 5 (vv. 13-21). While John brings this letter to a close, he continues to emphasize the same theme which dominates this epistle’s final chapter–a believer’s assurance of God’s favor toward them in Christ. In order to assure Christians of God’s favor toward them, John continues to flesh out his basic point about knowing–“how do we know that we know?” This is an especially important question in light of the fact that the false teachers plaguing the churches to which John was writing, were claiming to “know” certain things about Jesus which previously were hidden or secret. The false teachers were claiming (in light of this secret knowledge) that Jesus was not truly human. This meant John’s readers faced a choice. Do they believe the testimony of John? Or do they accept this secret teaching which contends that since matter was intrinsically inferior to pure spirit, God could not take to himself a true human nature (a material body), and that Jesus, who was truly God, only appeared in the form of a man, much like someone puts on a costume. This, supposedly, accounts for Jesus’ physical appearances in the gospels.
This conflict explains why John opens this epistle with a truth claim grounded in his own experience and his testimony about Jesus. Jesus is God manifest in the flesh. John testifies to the truth because he saw Jesus, heard Jesus, and touched Jesus. Indeed, this is what all the apostles taught (i.e., why we call it the “catholic” or universal faith), and this is that truth to which the Holy Spirit will bear witness just as Jesus had promised before he ascended into heaven. Therefore, the question of how a Christian “knows that they know,” along with the assurance they have of God’s favor toward them in Christ, becomes a very important matter–especially in the presence of those who claim to have “knowledge” which contradicts the testimony of John. How do we know the basic Christian claim that Jesus is God manifest in the flesh to be true? And can we be assured of God’s favor toward us, without committing the sin of presumption?
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