I’ve spent the last few weeks working through 1 John. My goal is to become more proficient in reading the Bible devotionally in Greek. First John is recommended as a beginning place to read because the vocabulary is simple — and as I am discovering — a bit redundant.
Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of the language — John’s message is disturbingly deep.
Reading John reminded me of a friend from Romania. He had a PhD in agronomy. He taught at a University in Bucharest and in the United States years before I met him long ago while living in Austria. After a lengthy stay in a refugee camp outside Vienna, he immigrated to the United States.
Those not aware of his professional career and his background dismissed him as an illiterate foreigner — simply because his vocabulary was simple and limited. They failed to see beyond the superficial and missed the depth of his character and skills.
I have the sense John’s letters are like that: easy enough to read in English because the vocabulary is simple, easy enough to read in the Greek, as well. But far too easy to miss the depth of his message — especially if we read it superficially.
Reading the Bible devotionally has proven more challenging than I originally thought. I am repeatedly asking too many questions. Yet, I’m convinced these questions require some sort of resolution. My concern is to the best of my ability grasp hold of the meaning of the text so as not to misapply the text in today’s context.
Why does this matter?
We have learned from history — and I from my own personal experiences — how easy it seems for leaders and teachers to use Scripture passages (out of context, in my opinion) to dominate, subjugate, and eliminate anyone who presents an obstacle to maintaining the status quo or who are a direct threat to an individual’s power. This is nothing new!
Social media overflows with the sordid details of moral, ethical, and spiritual failures of religious celebrities who devised clever ways to conceal their own fall from grace. I often wonder if those of us sitting in the pews have unwittingly played a part in this? In failing to study and to know the Biblical text for ourselves, we set ourselves up as easy targets to be led astray by others.
John’s ancient letters have something to say about this!
John writes of truth tellers and liars. Of those in the know and those deceived that they know. Of those walking in light and walking in darkness. Of lovers and haters. Of law-abiders and law-breakers. Of those having fellowship and those not sharing in fellowship. Of those who are frauds and those who are the genuine deal. Of those who have passed into Life and those yet living in Death.
Yeah! The text is a simple read, but the message is profound! I’ve managed to get to chapter three. It’s slow work because I am writing out the text, word by word, then translating as I go.
Already I have a sense I’m receiving a spiritual tongue-lashing from John — and oddly enough, this comes in a letter that brims with loving one another.
Our Sinful State
The only way to meaningfully sort out what John intends to say to his first-century audience is to delve a bit into the historical context of his day and to take a look at the words he used to convey his message.
It’s impossible to miss subtle references to the works of Plato, especially when John writes about God who is all Light without any darkness whatsoever (1 Jn 1:5). Anyone claiming to have fellowship with God who still walks and lives in the ways of darkness has deceived themselves.
There can be no fellowship of Light with Darkness. But for John, there is hope.
If you confess your sins
there is One who is Righteous.
That One will forgive your sins.
That One will wash away
all your filthy unrighteousness.
1 John 1:9
Ah, those words of comfort! If only we could close John’s letter right there and rest in this place, all would be well.
We are forgiven! We’ve been baptized, right!? Our sins have been washed away! What a relief! We are saved!! Now we can get on about living! Not so fast.
What might John mean by the Greek word (homologeō) translated into English as confess? What does he mean by sin (hamartias)? How did his audience understand them? What do they mean for us today? What images might they have evoked for that ancient audience? What images do we imagine when reading those words?
Surely there is more for us to imagine than what we envision today — walking down the aisle of the church, confessing before a room of fellow believers, in a safe environment, that we are sinners and we too believe Jesus is the Savior. Then after being immersed into the baptismal waters we partake with everyone of that small wafer and teeny cup of grape-flavored water passed around the congregation once a year, once a month, or once a week, depending on which group you fellowship with.
Nah, that’s too simple! John has so much more to say and it is much more disturbing than I realized.
His letter may be an easy one to read, but that’s where the easy ends! His letters call us to a dangerous life — calling us to follow in the footsteps of the One who laid down his own life for all sinners and for the world (1 Jn 2:2).