Unfortunately, because we have three assigned readings each day, there is much which I cannot reflect on each day. While I have been delving in Genesis, the Gospel of John and the letter of 1 John have also been part of our cycle.
Yesterday, while not explicitly stated, in response to 1 John 5 I wrote about the issue of the authority of the Bible. 1 John 5 emphasizes the central role of Jesus in the economy of salvation and the truth claims centered on Jesus. The scandal and offense of Christianity is our declaration that what Jesus says about Himself is true. He is the way, the truth, the life, the ONLY perfect revelation of God.
As we finished the 1 John today I wanted to more overtly reflect on the text, in particular, verses 13-17. Like most of the letter, it is not always easy to read and understand exactly. Like most of the letter, there is an almost circular return to previous themes. The writings attributed to "John" (a Gospel, three letters and Revelation) have a mystical quality not found in the other New Testament writings.
In v 13 the author declares that he writes so that his readers know that they have eternal life. Eternal means more than endless, though forever is part of the promise. However, living forever is no blessing (see the Vampire myth or old folks home reality). I have known people who longed for death, broken down by physical infirmities and emotional loss. There is life and there is existence. Fullness of life forever is the promise. This confidence should fill us with joy as we contextualize whatever else is going on. It is a reminder that "better days are coming!"
Next there is verse 17: All wrong doing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal (NRSV, RSV) Sin that leads to death (another way to translate it, see NIV) is a huge bone of contention for Evangelicals who dislike Catholic delineation of sin as mortal and venial. 1 John 5 serves as a basis for Catholic belief. All sin is bad, but everything bad is not deadly, seems to minimize sin to some. For others, the idea that God considers cussing at someone who makes you mad to be the moral equivalent of torturing them to death, is morally incomprehensible. There are degrees of wrong. In the end, like all such debates, it is hard to discuss with people because of their vested assumptions. I think the idea of non-mortal sin (sins which do not lead to death) is a helpful reminder that we can breathe a bit when we talk of sin. This is a key, for example, in debates on marriage. If it is not life and death, then we can talk about it, right?
A sobering thought is found in verse 19, 1 John 5 declares we know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. I have written about this before. Jesus refers to the Prince of this World. In the literature in the "John school of thought" there is a division between God's kingdom and the world. Jesus no doubt saw Himself as an invader into Satan's realm, a Savior come to deliver those imprisoned in satanic darkness. This, for me, makes better sense of the world. I understand God's creation to be an incomplete first step, redemption and renewal are the second and third. In my mind, Jesus has accomplished "the landing" (like D-Day) and He is now at work behind enemy lines. The war still rages even if victory is assured. It is hard to defeat someone who has returned from the dead. Yet Satan's fury continues unabated. The certitude of victory does not imply that the battle is done.
Lastly, John 5:18 repeats a theme found in 1 John 3:6&9. Those who are born of God do not sin. It is pretty confusing as He also says that not all sin is deadly and that implies we do sin. When he says everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil (3:8) it seems that there is no way out. In the either/or approach of John if you sin you belong to the Devil. [This is why tossing Scripture verses around is dangerous, things are often more complex than any one verse communicates...] Perhaps then we can say we have not sinned, we belong to Jesus? 1 John 1:8 blows that one out of the water: If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. John 2:1 also gives comfort, if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous.
So what to make of this? I think it is best to understand the declarative (we do not sin) to be an imperative. Here is what I mean. In setting expectations for children it is common to say "We do not push and hit here" or "We respect each other." Hitting, we may go on to explain, is bad. Then we exhort the children, "we are good boys and girls. we do not hit." Obviously, all the children do not always comply with this. Just as obviously, we do not tell a child who breaks the expectation that they are bad. We call them back to the standard. It is an invitation to a better way. Do Christians sin? No, they are in Christ. Yes, they fail to live their vocation. Is sin of God or Satan? Satan! Are we of God or Satan? God, but sometimes we fail to be who we are. The reality is that those who have chosen Satan (the anti-God party is everywhere) exist. It is equally true that Believers can follow their own hearts and engage in sin, or be seduced by the world and sin, or fall for Satan's temptations and sin. Sin is,sadly, every where in in the church. As 1 John reminds us, over and over, it should not be, so we should not sin, but when we do, Jesus is our hope for forgiveness.