Big Idea: We get Christianity right when we make it about the real Jesus as the solution to our real sins.
That’s not the normal way that we begin a sermon. Usually I try to come up with an introduction that grabs your interest and that ties into the passage that we’re going to study. I don’t usually start by punching you in the face like that. That was intense. It was in your face. You may have liked that, or you may have hated that, but I guarantee you one thing: it provoked a reaction. You can’t watch a video like that and not have a reaction.
And that’s a little like the book that we’re going to look at starting today. It’s an important book for us because it explains to us what true Christianity is all about. It’s going to cut through all the clutter and get to the heart of the matter: what does it mean to be a Christian? How can we make sure that we’ve got the real thing? The worst thing in the world would be to get to the end and to realize that we’d missed the point, that we’d based our whole lives on a counterfeit faith. So 1 John has an important message for us, and we need to pay attention.
So let me tell you a little about 1 John, and then we’ll get into what today’s passage says to us today. You’ll notice that 1 John is one of a set of books named, not very creatively, 1, 2, and 3 John. We have a series of letters written to the church in Ephesus. The author isn’t named anywhere, but tradition says that it was written by the apostle John, the one of Jesus’ chosen disciples, the son of Zebedee, and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” of John’s gospel, and that was written near the end of his life. We don’t know for sure, but I tend to think that tradition is right. What we do know is that it was written by someone who claimed to be an eyewitness of Jesus’ life and ministry.
We also know that it was written to the church in Ephesus, a great center of Greek culture in that day. Ephesus would have been a place like Toronto: an urban center with a variety of religious beliefs. And when the gospel arrived there, it exploded. But there were also issues. When the apostle Paul visited with the elders from Ephesus, he warned:
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. Therefore be alert…
He was right. By the time John writes this letter, perhaps around the years 90-95 AD, controversy has torn through the Ephesian church. A group within the church had seriously misunderstood and distorted the gospel. Things got so bad that a group had left the church, but they were still trying to influence the church.
So when John writes this letter, he’s writing to a church that’s been split by very different views of the gospel. First, there’s a lot of relational pain. Second, there’s a lot at stake. Why bother with Christianity if you can’t be sure what the message is?
And so John writes these letters. They’re not the normal letters we read in the New Testament. In 1 John he doesn’t follow the normal formula for writing a letter, and as you get into it you realize that John comes on a little strong. I’ll get a little technical here. He writes using an epideictic style. It’s in your face. It’s not meant to try to convince you of anything. It’s in your face. He writes in absolute, black and white terms. He wants to strengthen your belief in what you already believe to be true. It’s written to people who already believe the right things with the purpose of strengthening them in those beliefs so that they don’t wobble. It’s like the video we just watched: it probably wouldn’t convince anyone who didn’t already believe those things, but it will strengthen those who already believe.
So John has an important message for us about what true Christianity is all about. And in today’s passage, John makes it clear that, as opposed to what the false teachers taught, Christianity is about two things.
How do we know we’re getting Christianity right? John gives us two ways to know if we’re on the right track.
We Get Christianity Right When We Make It About the Real Jesus
Listen to John:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)
Do you want to be sure that you’re on the right track with Christianity? Here’s the first way you know that you’re on track: when your Christianity is all about the real, historical Jesus. It’s all about him. If you get that right, everything else will eventually fall into place. If you get that wrong, we’re in a whole heap of trouble. Everything rises and falls on this point.
Here’s what the first few verses of 1 John teach us: that Christianity is about an actual person who lived in history. Christianity is rooted in the dust and dirt of history. If an actual man existed whose name was Jesus Christ, and if he actually walked on the dusty roads of Judea and Galilee, and if people like John actually heard, saw, and touched him, then Christianity stands. If the historical person named Jesus didn’t exist, if he’s just a myth made up by early Christians, and if he’s just a truth in our hearts but not in reality, then Christianity is bunk and is a waste of our time. Christianity is all about the real, historical Jesus.
I was on Facebook the other day. A friend of mine was asked about the truth of the stories of Scripture by his daughter. He replied:
Did Frozen happen?…But does the story of Frozen teach us something?…So…look at these old, old stories from the Bible. Stories about God and people. "Did they happen?" is not the right question. The better question is, "What do they teach about God and how we can live best?"
I know where he’s coming from. He wants us to learn from the stories of the Bible, and he rightfully identifies that some of them are hard to believe. He wants us to learn from the stories of Scripture while not actually believing that they happened quite the way they’re written.
I know where he’s coming from — but 1 John won’t let us away with this. According to John, Jesus either existed or he didn’t. If he existed, then we have something worth believing. If he didn’t, then don’t kid yourself. You have nothing worth believing. That would be a fatal blow to Christianity.
But John says: we can believe. John heard Jesus. He saw Jesus. He touched Jesus. We can believe in Jesus, John says, because the eyewitness testimony about Jesus is so compelling.
Let me pause right here and tell you that our church rises and falls on the real, historical Jesus. We are not a church that tells you to check your brain at the door and take a leap of faith. Look at the evidence. We have nothing to hide. Look at the evidence. I think you’ll find that Greg Koukl is right:
People who think Jesus never existed are simply not acquainted with the ample research done even by secular historians that provide abundant evidence for his life. The idea that Jesus did not exist at all is drivel, and real historians know it. (The Story of Reality)
I'd encourage you to explore Christianity fully. Examine the evidence. Read books like Tim Keller's Making Sense of God. It's all about Jesus, the real man who walked this earth.
But there’s one more thing I want us to notice about the reality of Jesus. The truth, according to John, is not a system or a theory but a person. All roads to true Christianity run through Jesus. He is the beginning. He is the middle. He is the end. It’s all about Jesus. Once we deny Jesus, John says, we lose everything. We get Christianity right when we make it about the real Jesus.
We Get Christianity Right When We Make It About the Real Jesus As the Solution to Our Real Sins
It’s one thing to believe in the reality of the historic Jesus. John goes even farther. He makes a statement which becomes a major theme in this letter than he’ll repeat over and over again. What is this message? “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
What in the world does this mean? When you think about it, light is a wonderful metaphor for God. Light allows and sustains life. It makes life a lot more present and safe than if we lived in the dark. Light reveals. Not only that, but light is fundamentally incompatible with darkness. Light cannot coexist with darkness.
And that’s exactly what John means in this passage. God is light. He is characterized by absolute moral perfection. Because God is light, it’s impossible for God to be in relationship with darkness. God’s righteousness and our sin are fundamentally incompatible. That means that we have a very big problem, because there’s not a person here who’s not a sinner including me.
As I was preparing this sermon, I was on an airplane. The flight attendant came on and announced that someone on the flight has a severe peanut allergy. If someone ate peanuts on an airplane, that individual would be at risk because of airborne allergens in an enclosed space. That person is fundamentally incompatible with peanuts. In exactly the opposite way, God is fundamentally incompatible with sin — but it’s not his life that’s at risk, but ours. The fundamental standard of morality that God requires is perfection, and if we don’t meet this standard we can’t have a relationship with God.
Okay, so we have a problem. How do we deal with our sin problem? John explains two wrong ways and a right way. The two wrong ways are about denying that sin is a problem. The one right way is to admit that it’s a problem and to see Jesus as the solution.
There are two ways to deny that sin is a problem.
The first way to deny that sin is a problem is to think that it doesn’t matter. It’s to think that you can live however you’d like as long as you believe in Jesus.
It seems in verse 6 that some of the people thought that they could believe in Jesus and then continue to live in darkness. “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:6). Believe in Jesus and you’ve got a free ticket to live however you’d like. You’re a great sinner; God’s a great forgiver; what a perfect match.
No problem, right? But John says it’s a big problem. Your sin is a huge problem. If you claim to have fellowship with Jesus but continue to walk in darkness, John says that you’re lying to yourself. Don’t follow Christ on Sunday and sin like hell from Monday to Saturday. If you do, you’re kidding yourself. That’s not real Christianity.
The second way to deny that sin is a problem is to think that you don’t have a sin problem. Some people struggle with the opposite problem. They think they’re not sinners. The great Victorian preacher Charles Spurgeon is reported to have heard someone declare that he had achieved sinless perfection. Spurgeon said nothing at the time, but at breakfast the next morning he poured a jug of milk over the man to test his claim. It turns out the man wasn’t sinless after all.
Don’t ever think you’re beyond the need of God’s grace. The famous preacher George Whitefield understood that he needed God’s grace every day because he continued to sin every day:
I do not know what you may think, but I can say that I can not pray but I sin—I can not preach to you or to any others but I sin—I can do nothing without sin; as one expresseth it, my repentance wants to be repented of, and my tears to be washed in the precious blood of my dear Redeemer.
Our best duties are as so many splendid sins. Before you can speak peace to your heart you must not only be sick of your original and actual sin, but you must be made sick of your righteousness, of all your duties and performances. There must be a deep conviction before you can be brought out of your self-righteousness; it is the last idol taken out of our heart. The pride of our heart will not let us submit to the righteousness of Jesus Christ. But if you never felt that you had no righteousness of your own, if you never felt the deficiency of your own righteousness, you can not come to Jesus Christ.
So what do we do?
A friend of mine woke up one night and heard his cat retch. If you have ever woken up to the sound of a cat retching, you’ll know that it’s one of the best alarm clocks. They woke up, but it was too late. The cat threw up all over the blanket on their bed.
You know what you do with a blanket like that, don’t you? You clean it or you burn it. But imagine that he showed up at church today wearing it. You’d say, “What’s that blanket all about?” He’d say, “Oh! That’s my cat’s puke. Do you like it? How was your week?” And then you’d look at him like he’s crazy. You just don’t wear cat puke all around.
The reality is that we all showed up with cat puke all over us today. And John tells us what to do with it:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness…My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 1:9, 2:1-2)
He takes our filth. He cleanses us. He’s our advocate. He is the atoning sacrifice who paid for our sins.
How do we know we’re getting Christianity right? We get Christianity right when we make it about the real Jesus as the solution to our real sins.
So we don’t leave this at the theoretical level, let’s do something different today. Let’s sing. Then let’s move right into confessing our sin — our cat puke. And then let’s move directly to the Lord’s Table, where we come face to face with his answer to our sins.