How Will They Know We Are Christians? Part V

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
May 13, 2012

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

1 John 5:1-6 

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. This is the one who came by water and blood —Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth (NIV).

I want to begin by thanking those of you who offered up prayers and good wishes for my daughter’s wedding last weekend.  They worked.  The wedding was perfectly beautiful and beautifully perfect, and God even blessed it with a sprinkle of rain.  But I couldn’t quite figure out how to pull off a family wedding on Saturday and still be ready to preach on Sunday, and so, weeks beforehand, I asked Lynn Turner if she would step into the middle of this sermon series from 1 John and preach Part Four.

She said yes. 

I had a chance to listen to the sermon last week and I thought Lynn did an outstanding job of summarizing the series.  In fact, when she was finished, I understood better than I did before what it’s all about: it’s about how “they,” out there in the world, will know that we, in the church, are Christians.   One of the ways—as Lynn made clear—is by our love for one another.  Jesus said it himself in John 13:35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  But the other way the world will know we are Christians is if we believe that Jesus is the Christ.  In fact, if I could sum up the message of 1 John in two words I would say believe and belove: believe in Jesus and belove one another.  Last week Lynn talked about beloving; this week I want to talk about believing. 

Our text for today begins with a verse about believing that Jesus is the Christ, and that sounds easy enough.  Of course Jesus is the Christ!  Who else could it be?  But when 1 John was written it wasn’t that obvious.  There were some in the church, apparently, who had been seduced by some early form of Gnosticism.  They believed that the flesh was evil while the spirit was good.  They couldn’t believe that a good and holy God would come in wicked and sinful flesh; they said it must have only appeared that way.  Some of the Gnostics believed that the divine Christ was an apparition who left no footprints when he walked on the earth.  Others believed that when the human Jesus was baptized the spirit of Christ descended on him and remained with him until his crucifixion.  They would say that  it wasn’t Christ who died on the cross; it was Jesus.  And it wasn’t Jesus who rose from the dead; it was Christ.  Now, if you said to those people, “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ?” they would say, “Of course not.  There is the human Jesus, and there is the divine Christ.  But the two are not one and the same.  In fact, they couldn’t be.” 

You can see how a church might split over an issue like that, and apparently this one did.  The more I learn about 1 John the more it seems clear that it was written as a sermon for those who remained in the church after others had left.  And the more I learn about the Gnostics the more it seems sure that some of their views were the dividing issue.  I haven’t learned everything, but let me see if I can give you a brief and general summary of Gnostic beliefs:[i]

1.      They believed that there was a God, somewhere, a “transcendent and ineffable deity” who was pure spirit. 


2.      Because God was spirit, they concluded that the spirit was good while the flesh was evil.  This kind of dualistic thinking was common in Gnosticism; things were not “both/and,” they were “either/or.” 


3.      They believed that the material world in which we live was created by a lesser god they called the “Demiurge,” since the God who was pure spirit wouldn’t have dirtied his hands with something so physical.


4.      Nonetheless, they believed that a spark of the divine was trapped within the flesh of every human creature. 


5.      They believed this spark could be released, and returned to the divine realm, through enlightenment, or illumination. 


6.      They believed that Christ came to share the secret knowledge (gnosis in Greek) that would release the divine spark.


7.      They believed that salvation came about as the result of obtaining this secret knowledge.


You may have noticed as I read that there are some things in that list that sound familiar, especially if you have spent some time in the Gospel of John.  That first thing, for example, that God is pure spirit.  Didn’t Jesus say in John 4:24 that God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth?  And what about the idea that Christ came to reveal the secret knowledge that would release the divine spark within us?  Didn’t Jesus say in John 8:32 that we will know the truth, and the truth will make us free? 

This seems to be one of the problems: there are a lot of things in John’s Gospel that sound sort of…Gnostic.  And it’s possible that some of the people in his church twisted his teaching in a way he never intended, especially when he was no longer around to correct them.  The research that I’ve been doing suggests that Gnosticism grew out of the Jewish-Christian tradition and here in 1 John we may be getting a glimpse of how it happened.  Someone might have taken something good from John’s Gospel like, “God is spirit,” and pushed it further than it was meant to go.  “If God is spirit,” they might have said, “and God is good, then spirit is good and flesh is evil.”  It sounds reasonable enough, but as the old song says, “It ain’t necessarily so.”  You see, unlike the Gnostics, we believe that God (not some Demiurge—God!) made the earth and everything in it and called it good, that he made human beings—both men and women—and called them very good.  How can we say the flesh is evil if God made it?  Frederick Buechner says the doctrine of the Incarnation suggests “it was a uniform even God wasn’t ashamed to wear,” and the Gospel of John—the same one that says God is spirit—insists that the Word that was God and was with God “became flesh and lived among us” (1:14).[ii]

And so we do not think of Jesus as one thing and Christ as another; we do not separate his divinity from his humanity.  When we put those two words together in one breath we are making a statement of faith: we are saying that this man Jesus of Nazareth—who was born in humble circumstances, who plied his trade first as a carpenter and then as an itinerant preacher and faith healer, who died a criminal’s death on a cruel cross—this man was none other than the Christ of God, the long-awaited Messiah, the beloved and only begotten Son of his Heavenly Father.  And so when we read the first verse of today’s passage from 1 John 5 our faith is affirmed:  “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God,” John says, and we say, “That’s us!”  But do you see how it changes your understanding of that verse to know a little something about Gnosticism, to know that there were some people who were saying Jesus was not the Christ?

Let’s take a closer look.

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God,” John says, “and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.”  Here he is talking not only about Jesus, but about all of us who have been born of God and are the children of God.  And as you know, one of the ways the world will know we are Christians is by the way we love one another.  John says, “This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.”  God’s commands in this letter are to believe in Jesus and to belove one another, as I said earlier.  Those are not burdensome, but according to John they do identify us as the children of God.  He goes on to say, “For everyone born of God overcomes the world.” 

Let me say a little more about that. 

The Gnostics believed that they were stuck in this material world, that the divine spark within them was trapped in human flesh, but they also believed that that spark could be liberated by knowledge (Gk: gnosis), that if they learned the secret knowledge the Christ had come to bring then the spark within them would be released and returned to the divine realm.  This would be their salvation.  This is how they would overcome the wicked and sinful world.  But listen to what John says to these Christians.  He says, “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world?  Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.”  You see?  It’s not secret knowledge that saves us; it is our belief that Jesus is the Christ, that those two are one and the same, and that they are inextricably bound together.  

John says, “This is the one who came by water and blood —Jesus Christ,” and that probably needs a little more explanation.  John is saying that the spirit of Christ didn’t descend on Jesus in his watery baptism and then depart from Jesus in his bloody crucifixion.  He is saying that Jesus was the Christ when he was baptized and he was the Christ when he was crucified.  “He did not come by water only,” John says, “but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.”  So, take that all you Gnostics.

Now, you may be feeling pretty smug at this point.  You’ve learned a little something about Gnosticism and a little something about 1 John and you may be sitting there thinking, “Well, I believe that Jesus is the Christ, and according to John that means I have been born of God.  It means I’m a child of God, and since he says that ‘everyone who loves the parent loves the child’ it must be true:  I love all of God’s children and all of God’s children love me.”  But let me tell you a story.  Last fall my niece Sylvie came to live with us and she brought along a friend named Kristy.  They were both recent graduates of the University of Richmond and some of the most committed young Christians I have ever met.  They were always going out to teach a Bible study somewhere, or to counsel a troubled friend, or to work with disadvantaged children.  We talked theology at the dinner table and the breakfast table until I could no longer tell where work ended and home began.  But one night a friend of theirs named David came over and he was just gushing.  He’d been talking to his brother about Jesus for two hours.  Jesus!  For two hours!  His face was flushed with the excitement of it all. 

But later I asked Sylvie and Kristy: “How much does your friend David really know about Jesus?”  And they said, “Oh, he knows the Book of Romans backward and forward.”  And that’s when I wondered: How much would you know about Jesus if all you knew was the Book of Romans?  And here’s what I discovered: there’s nothing in there about the earthly life and ministry of Jesus.  There’s a lot about how we are justified by grace through faith, and not by works, lest anyone should boast, but Paul doesn’t say anything about what Jesus did before his death and resurrection.  He doesn’t mention him calling the disciples, or teaching the crowds, or welcoming children.  Now, you might say that it wasn’t Paul’s intent to write a gospel, that that had already been done.  But if you simply ask how much someone would know about Jesus if all they knew was the Book of Romans the answer is not very much. 

And for this young man, David, that might not be a problem.  He might not care that Jesus healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, raised the dead, and cast out demons.  He might not care that he went around preaching parables of the Kingdom and trying to bring heaven to earth.  He might only want to know, “What must I do to be saved?”  And in Romans 10:9 Paul tells him: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  “Well, there you go,” David might say.  “That’s all I really need to know.” 

Only last week did it occur to me how much that approach sounds like Gnosticism.  The Gnostics believed that Christ came to share the secret knowledge that would release the divine spark within them and return it to the realm of the divine.  They believed that in this way they could be saved from their own sinful flesh and the wicked world in which we live.  But they didn’t want to have anything to do with Jesus.  He was too earthy for them, too human.  He spent his time with sinners and tax collectors.  His enemies called him a drunkard and a glutton.  And so the Gnostics separated Jesus from the Christ.  They decided they didn’t need him anymore.

Is there a kind of Christianity today that does the same?  A kind of “Neo-Gnosticism” that says, “Really, all we need is salvation, and we can get that from the risen Christ.  We don’t need the earthly Jesus.”  I’m afraid that there is, and I’m not the only one.  N. T. Wright says there is a kind of Christianity among us today that is almost completely self-centered, that seems to care only about individual salvation.[iii]   And he says that if the 16th century Reformers had paid as much attention to the Gospels as they did to the epistles we might not have this problem.  We might have learned that Jesus was up to something bigger than our individual salvation, that he was trying to redeem all of creation, and that he was inviting us to join him in that effort.  Maybe that’s what he meant when he said, “Come, follow me.”

I wish N. T. Wright were here to explain that to this young man, David.  Or maybe the author of 1 John would do it.  Maybe he would say, “Son, you can’t separate Jesus from the Christ.  The two go together.  They have always gone together.  And so, if you want to know Christ you’d better get to know Jesus.  You’d better root around in the Gospels until you come face to face with him, until you see the fire in his eyes, and feel the strength of his grip, and smell the sweat on his skin.  And when he turns and heads off toward the next big challenge, leaving very real footprints on the ground, you’d better go with him.  You’d better come to understand that if you don’t know Jesus, you don’t know Christ.”  Maybe that’s what the author of 1 John has been trying to tell us all along—that this fellow Jesus who got nailed to a cross?  He was the Christ, and he is the Christ, and he will always be the Christ. 

You’d better believe it.

—Jim Somerville 2012

[i] From the “Gnosticism” article on the BibleOne web site.

[ii] Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words, p. 168.

[iii] From the Introduction to Justification.


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