Near the beginning of the first century, a Roman soldier named Hilarion wrote to his wife, Alis. And he did two main things: one, promise to send money, two, pleaded with her to take care of their child. And then, because she was expecting another child, he just casually threw in these instructions.
“If it is a boy, let it be. If it is a girl, cast it out.”
This practice is known as infant exposure. And in the Roman world, it was considered normal. Throwing a baby in a dumpster, a live baby in a dumpster in our culture would be considered by Christians and non-Christians today, unthinkable. And most Americans would think, yeah, anybody would think that’s unthinkable.
Actually, that’s not true. Throughout most of history, many would consider that quite thinkable. And in the Roman world, it would have been normal. So, we read a story like that, an actual ancient letter, and we might assume Hilarion is a moral monster. The problem is, he’s not. When you read the whole letter, he writes with such sensitivity to his wife, checking on her and concern for her ongoing struggle with anxiety, caring about their other child. It doesn’t make sense to us.
Now, most of us rarely step out of our cultural assumptions to think about how we think about things. Again, in the Roman world infanticide, infant exposure, was normal. Abortion, common. Gladiator contests were popular. It was not unusual for 50,000 spectators to gather in the Roman Coliseum for a multiple-day event featuring blood-drenched contests where thousands of contestants over several days would literally fight to the death. And the bloodier the event, the more the crowd roared. These are real people. Prostitution was accepted. Brothels were everywhere. After participating in some archeological digs in Rome, Helen Dale explains how you identify the red-light districts.
“First you find the erotic statuary. And then you dig a bit more. And you find the male infant skeletons.”
Why male infant skeletons? Well, they were cast aside near the brothel, and the female babies were kept to be raised as prostitutes. None of this was culturally contested. If you lived in Rome at that time, you would have assumed that that was fine. I know we have a hard time thinking that. But you would have been okay with that until Christianity started growing in Rome.
In his book, The Destroyer of the Gods, Dr. Larry Hurtado, who was a longtime professor at the University of Edinburgh, he demonstrates that one of the key distinctions of the early Christian Church was its connection between what you believe and the way you live. Now all of us go, duh! But that was not a Duh! That was revolutionary in that day. Hurtado explains,
“Today, people tend to think of religion as typically involving a set of behavioral requirements, ‘dos and don’ts’ about how to live; but in the ancient world, that was not the case.”
Roman religions were built on a foundation of social shame and honor. It’s not necessarily right or wrong, it’s just don’t bring shame to your family and cultic requirements to try to appease the gods, those two things. But as Dr. Hurtado explains,
“Christian teaching made everyday behavior central in one’s religious responsibility to the Christian God and thereby replaced social shame with a theological basis for life.”
Now that means something way beyond any of us today can imagine – “replaced social shame with a theological basis for life.” So, it’s not just something’s right or wrong, depending on the shame you bring or don’t bring to your family or community. But it is now what Kyle Harper calls,
“… a transformation in the deep logic of sexual morality,”
also morality in general. A transformation in the deep logic of morality. In other words, your faith shapes your morality. Well, what does that mean? It means what you do with your body now matters, whether you’re male or female. In that day, there was a separate standard for men and women. Jesus comes along and says, no. There’s a right and there’s a wrong. It matters what you do with your body. It matters how you treat your neighbor, whether your neighbor is of high status or low status, whether your neighbor is big and strong and can reward you with wealth, or whether your neighbor is vulnerable and weak and won’t benefit you at all. It matters how you treat your neighbor.
We see this deep moral logic in the passage we’ve come to today in our study of 1 John. 1 John 2:28 through 3:10. And again, this passage is so densely packed with significant truths. The only way I could get my arms around it was to read it over and over again and look for some repeated themes. And three big word groups began to emerge. See if you see these. I mentioned the three could be summarized, if you like alliteration – it is sin, seen, seed – that’s hard to say fast. Sin, seen, seed, or get rid of the alliteration.
Number one, “sinning,” or “sin” – that is to sin or not to sin – kind of words. Here are some examples. “Righteous” appears in verse 29 and twice in verse 7; the noun “practice righteousness” appears in verse 29, 7, and 10; the verb “purifies himself” in verse 3, the adjective “pure” in verse 3; “practice lawlessness” twice in verse 4; “sin, sins, sinning” twice in verse 4, twice in verse 5, twice in verse 6, twice in verse 8, twice in verse 9; and the “works of the devil” verse 8. Do you think there’s a theme here? Okay, sinning.
Second, “appearing” or the word groups of “seen.” The word “appears” appears in verse 28, twice in verse 2, 5 and 8; the word “evident,” another form of the same word, verse 10; the word “coming,” verse 28, is our typical word for the second coming of Jesus “parousia,” coming, presence; and the word “seen,” verse 6, “to look upon, to perceive, to know.” So, that’s the second big group.
And the third is “children,” seed. The word children appears in verse 28, 1, 2, 7 and twice in 10; and God’s seed appears in verse 9, which has the idea of descendants, offspring, children, progeny; and born of God or born of him, verse 29, twice in verse 9.
Let’s see if we can put our arms around those three big ideas in this passage and say it in a sentence. Here it is. The appearing of Jesus transforms the living of God’s children. The appearing of Jesus transforms the living of God’s children. His coming shapes our becoming. And John communicates this two different ways. He begins with the second coming. And then he goes back to his first coming.
So, let’s start. Number one. And if you’re visiting, what we’re about to do now is just kind of work through the passage to see if what I’m saying is actually what God is saying in his Word. Let’s walk through this. If you want to grab a Bible near you and follow along in verses 28 through 3:10. 1 John is way near the end of the Bible.
So, number one. His second coming. Verse 28.
“And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.”
The protognostics – these are the false teachers that were trying to invade the churches that are receiving this letter – they were teaching that it doesn’t matter what you do with your body. As long as your spirit worships God, your body can do anything. And John is saying, no, it actually does matter, what you do with your body. And throughout this letter, he gives us three diagnostic tools so that we may have what he just described, confidence. The first one is belief in Jesus, the second one is obedience, and the third one is love. So, the second one, obedience, is the diagnostic tool that John is explaining in most detail here in this passage. Tool number two, obedience. It’s one of the signs of life. Let’s focus on that.
Have any of you ever had a wardrobe mess up? I’m not thinking so much a malfunction, but a total mess up where you went to an event thinking it was casual. And when you got there, you realized, “Oh, my. I am underdressed.” You feel like Senator John Fetterman or something (except he has no problem with that). I’ve talked to several people who actually have a lot of dreams like this. So, I assume there are more of you out here who dream on a regular basis of arriving at a big event, and walking in, and suddenly realize, “I forgot to put my clothes on!” A major oversight. If you can channel that feeling, that sudden burst of shame, like, “Oh, what what am I doing here?” John is saying, you don’t want to be like that. When Jesus returns, and you’re like, “Ahhhh!” That’s not … that word in verse 28, “shrink from him in shame.” No! I’m writing to you so that you will not have that experience.
Now that statement can launch us into two pitfalls if we’re not careful. One we could call legalism – and that is, some of us could say, “No way. I’m not going to be experiencing shame at his coming. This week I’m going to work hard and prove that I am pure.” It’s called legalism. It never works.
Or we can fly over to the other pit we often call license. “Hey, I prayed a prayer. I’m good to go. It doesn’t matter how I live.” John is confronting both of those.
He’s recommending what we could call likeness, a family likeness. Rather than legalism or license, this is the deep logic of Christian gospel-centered morality. It is family likeness. You’ll see it in verse 1. Keep reading. And this is why the chapter division here is not helpful. Verse 1.
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.”
Don’t you love that? “And so we are.” You can’t earn it. You can’t lose it. He goes on.
“The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”
Because it did not know him, and we are like him, it will not know us. And just as the Roman world was baffled by Christians – they didn’t understand them, and they typically despised them – John is saying, if you experience the deep logic of likeness, your unsaved friends are not going to get you. And if they do totally get you, something’s wrong.
He’ll make this point even stronger down in verse 13.
“Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you.”
You say, “Well, how do I go on if I’m living in a culture that doesn’t understand me? In one sense, I am a perpetual outsider.” Look what John says next in verse 2.
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”
Four big ideas here. One identity is secure.
“Beloved, we are God’s children now.”
If your faith is in Jesus, you are a child of God now, Not if you do enough. Not if you give up enough. But now.
Second, our future is unseen.
“What we will be has not yet appeared.”
Until Jesus returns, our true identity will always, in some ways be camouflaged. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:12,
“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
So, when Jesus returns, number three, our faith becomes sight. This is the ultimate beholding and becoming.
“We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”
And then finally, in light of that, our hope is purifying.
“Everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”
Have you ever gone on a long, exhausting journey to see a loved one you haven’t seen for a long time? Like a long road trip or even flying a far distance. Throughout the journey, it’s long. It’s hard. It’s exhausting. But you wouldn’t trade it for anything. Why? Because you have this hope of seeing the light in her eyes, of seeing the look on his face when you arrive. Of embracing this loved one you haven’t seen for so long. Of laughing and telling stories and catching up and enjoying one another. That long, tedious, painful, expensive drive is worth it, because of that hope.
That’s what John is saying, is when you get a glimpse of who you’re going to and what will happen when you get there, and how one piercing look from the eyes of Jesus, which should melt us, will remake us by his grace, and we will be transformed into his image. Nothing but love, nothing but forgiveness, nothing but embrace. John is arguing, follow this deep logic of likeness. Because of that hope, you’re going to purify yourself. That doesn’t mean you’re trying to earn anything or prove anything. It means you’re not passive. You’re making real choices to run to Jesus, to begin experiencing this purifying, transforming work that will climax at his return. That’s number one, his second coming, appearing.
Number two, his first appearing. John does something very interesting. He goes from looking forward now to looking back and explains that Jesus came for many reasons, but two of them are to take away sin and to destroy the works of the devil. And both of these purposes explain why Christians live differently. John starts with, “He appeared to take away sin.” Now, again, there’s so much here. What might help us is if we understand that under each one of these two purposes for Jesus’s first coming, he gives the concern, the coming, and the consequence. Let’s look at those.
First, he appeared to take away sin. What is the concern? Why is this a big deal? Verse 4.
“Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.”
Now, the false teachers in that day were trying to reclassify sin as something other than sin. And John is pushing against that. We do the same thing today, don’t we? My selfishness to me seems reasonable. My anger seems justifiable. My unkindness seems environmental. In other words, the only reason I’m unkind is because I’m around all of you unkind people. Put me with really kind people, and you’ll see my kindness. The assumption is my problem is you. It’s not here. And John is saying, “No, actually if you’re practicing sin, it’s lawlessness in the sense of it’s not just some justifiable or reasonable or environmental mistake. It is lawlessness in the sense of you’re in defiance to the giver of the law, the Lord Jesus. So, he’s wiping out the excuses and reclassification of sin. That’s the concern.
Look at the coming. Why did Jesus come? Verse 5.
“You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.”
He was the only one who could take away sin because he’s the only one without sin. Everybody else is in the quicksand of sin. They can’t help you get out of the quicksand of sin.
And look at the consequence. Verse 6.
“No one who abides in him keeps on sinning;”
Now stop there for a second. He doesn’t mean no one will ever sin. He’s already explained that back in chapter one, verse eight. “If [you] say you never sinned, [you] deceive [yourself].” But you will not continue in this pattern of sin.
“No one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children. Let no one deceive you.
Now pause there. Take that in. We should not be surprised. John is warning us, that there will be podcasts. There will be influencers. There will be teachers who will say the opposite, that it’s fine. Jesus is okay with this reclassification of sin. We know things now that he didn’t know. We’ve got new interpretations now. John is warning us.
“Let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous as he is righteous.”
He appeared to take away sin.
Number two. He appeared to destroy the works of the devil. He appeared to destroy the works of the devil. And again, under this, same thing: the concern, the coming, the consequence.
First, the concern. Why is this a big deal? Verse 8.
“Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil.”
That’s why it’s a big deal.
“For the devil has been sinning from the beginning.”
Now, if you want to do a deep dive on this this afternoon, read John 8, and you’ll see Jesus’s “two families” logic. Who we trust will result in what we do. And if you follow what we do backwards, you’ll get to who our father is. Our father is the devil, or our Father is God. Jesus maps that out. It’s intense. Here’s the concern. Whoever makes a practice of sitting. Is showing they are of the devil.
Why did Jesus come?
“The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”
Not to reinforce them, not justify them, not to join league with them. You see, in Matthew 4, when Jesus was tempted by the devil, he was saying, no. And through his perfect life and his ultimate resurrection from the dead, he was destroying the power of the devil.
What’s the consequence? Verse 9.
“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.”
Now commentators are all over the place about what this seed refers to. Is it the Spirit of God? The Word of God? The nature of God? And I think you can wrestle with that all day long. And I think it’s probably all of those. The point is, when you are related to God through Jesus, you can’t continue on as if nothing happened. The life of God within you is going to begin to bear fruit. You can’t sign a treaty with sin. That’s what John is getting at. Join in an alliance with sin. You know, I used to fight it. I’ve just kind of come to the place where I realize, sinners sin. That’s who I am. John is saying no. A child of God never signs a treaty with sin.
Look at his conclusion. Verse 10.
“By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”
Now, that last statement, “who does not love his brother” is launching us into diagnostic tool number three. Next week we’ll deal with that – love. Powerful description of that tool. Before today, we’re talking about diagnostic tool number two, which is pretty straightforward, right? His coming transforms our becoming. It changes the way we think and live.
But here are a couple of things we need to observe. One is, this is a dangerous tool to someone who has a prohibitive conscience, right? If you have a hypersensitive conscience, and you read 1 John 2:28 through 3:10, it can send you spiraling. What exactly do you mean by practice sin? I know I’ve committed this sin. Am I not a child of God? So, this diagnostic tool can quickly cause true believers to doubt their salvation. If you’re in that category, let me encourage you to do something this afternoon. Talk to someone you know who knows you really well, follows Jesus, knows his Word, and ask them, “Do you think I am practicing sin?” Not “Do I ever sin?” Yes. We all fail. That’s different from what John is talking about, “Do I practice sin?”
What does that mean? A couple of signs you’re practicing sin. One is, refuse to confess. Two is creatively justify, find ways to excuse my sin rather than turn, repent. Another one is, when I’m stuck, I am more concerned about my reputation than I am about getting help. I would rather continue practicing sin than humble myself and shoot up a flare and say, “I need some help here. I’m stuck in a sin that has dogged me for a long time, and it keeps grabbing me and pulling me down. And I’m more concerned about the embarrassment of people knowing than about my saying, Help!” That’s a dangerous sign. You see, that’s why John links this all with likeness. Because when you’re a child of God, that is your identity. That’s who you are. And that gives you the security to say, “Help!” when you need help. Because walking with Jesus is more important to you than people thinking well of you.
Now, let’s go back to where we started. What did the early church do? If the early church lived in a context that was extremely antagonistic – in many cases, it cost them their lives. They were misunderstood. It’s a fascinating thing to read how the secular writers thought about Christians at the time. They were misunderstood. They were often despised. And yet they transformed the culture so much so that an atheist today thinks more “Christian-ly” about certain moral issues than an average person, God-fearing, polytheist of the first century. That’s how powerful the Christian influence has been. Transforming the way people think about people and life.
If that happened, how did they do that? They didn’t do it by capitulating. By thinking, “Now, how does our Roman culture think about sexuality, gender, and marriage? Let’s make sure we conform to that.” They didn’t do it that way. They didn’t do it by turning to political power. In the first three centuries during the time of their greatest growth, they couldn’t. They had no political power. Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a place for political engagement. There is. If you love your neighbor, you’re going to engage wisely. But Christians, our foremost, our paramount responsibility is not capitulating, not trying to coerce.
But this is what they did. And John describes it here. They looked to the appearing of Jesus. They looked to Jesus. They looked backward to his first coming, forward to his second coming. Their eyes locked in on Jesus. You say, “Well, I don’t know what to do. Our culture is changing so fast, and it seems like so much is happening.” Yes, just like back then. But where do our eyes go? That’s what we want to get clear. Not that there aren’t other things to do, but number one, where our eyes go? Where do we look? We look to Jesus. His first appearing, his second appearing. That orients us. Well, you say, “Well, how did they look to Jesus? He was already ascended.” Look at 2 Corinthians 3:17.
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
We are no longer slaves to sin.
“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
In other words, it’s not instant, it’s not automatic, yet.
“From one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
We behold and we become. His coming is our, shapes our becoming. That still feels a little high for us, right?
Where do I start on Monday morning? I challenge you to pray for a “Road to Emmaus” experience. What’s a “Road to Emmaus” experience? Do you remember when Jesus rose from the dead? He’s walking on the Road to Emmaus with some of his disciples. They don’t recognize him. But he begins to explain from Moses and all the prophets, himself. Whew! They didn’t get it at the time. It’s like me in the morning. The coffee hadn’t kicked in. The eyes were full of sleepies. Didn’t get it. And then they broke bread. And as soon as Jesus broke bread and blessed the meal, their eyes were opened, and they saw it was Jesus. And he disappeared.
And I’ve been thinking about that a lot in my morning time with the Lord, how often I’m in such a hurry to get through my passages that I’m reading, that Jesus is here.
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
But it’s like I’m blind. It’s just words. And when you say “Lord, help me to see you in your Word.” Those disciples on the Road to Emmaus, when their eyes were opened they said, “Hey, don’t you remember when he was talking about Moses and all the prophets, our hearts were warmed within us?” That’s a Road to Emmaus experience.
Where should I start? Pick any gospel. I’m in Matthew right now. And when you when you go over those passages slowly, and you say, “Jesus, I need to know more than just more information. I need to know you. Reveal yourself to me by your Spirit right now in these words. Sustain me. I’m walking through a really, really hard time. I need to know you are with me.” And Spirit meets us, reveals himself to us through his Word. This is what Jesus prayed. Look at John 17:15.
“I do not ask that you take them out of the world,”
Leave them in Rome. Pagan places like Rome, pagan places like Greenville. Leave them there.
“But that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
That’s our mission. Let’s pray. Father, we ask that that prayer would be answered this week in our hearts as we see more clearly how you have come and will come, and how that transforms what we become. Take away presumption. Break the chains of addiction, Lord. Shore up those who are in doubt and uncertainty, we pray. Continue to remake us for the glory of your beautiful name. Thank you, Jesus. Amen.