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Know the Signs – 8/27/23

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Know the Signs – 8/27/23


Steve Kaminski


August 28, 2023


1 John, 1 John 2:3-11


About seven months ago, back in January, I had open heart surgery, a quadruple bypass. Now, I’m fine now. The whole experience was actually a gift in many ways. But one thing I found curious about the whole thing was how the doctors knew that there was a problem. I didn’t have any symptoms — no chest pains, no shortness of breath, certainly no heart attack. And they don’t go cutting into somebody like that just to take a peek.

So, how did they know that there was a problem? Well, my doctor had me get a coronary artery calcium scan that measures the amount of plaque in the blood vessels around your heart. It was no big deal — just a few minutes lying on a table under a machine. But when I got the result (I have it for you here) it said I had a score of 2800. And at the time, I had no idea what that meant. But it also said that I was in the 99th percentile for calcium buildup, and I knew that did not sound good. And I found out later that if your score is over 1000, then you have a problem. So, that gave the doctors a reason to look more directly by giving me a heart catheterization, where they actually go inside and look for the blockages, and this is what they found. And when you look at this (it may be hard to see the black areas there, but you can see the numbers) there were blockages. There was a problem there. They had to go in and fix it. The doctors knew the signs. If someone has a calcium score over 1000, then they probably had some kind of a blockage. A month after I had this heart cath, I was in surgery.

Now, what if somebody had told me, “Look, you don’t have any symptoms. So, don’t worry about those numbers; they’re probably wrong.” Or “It’s all in your head, man; just focus on thinking positive thoughts, and this will all go away.” Or, somebody may have said, “Okay, here’s what you do — try to hop on one foot while holding the other foot and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance backwards. If you can’t do that, then you’re fine.” Well, obviously, that advice is either goofy or plain dangerous because none of those things would unclog my arteries. And if the doctors had told me something like that, they’d be committing malpractice. This is how the doctors knew what was going on in my heart. They knew how to read the signs so they could know what was happening on the inside.

We’ve learned in the last two weeks that John wrote this little letter of 1 John to tell Christians how they can know what’s going on in their hearts. There were some people who were giving them bad advice, who ignored the warning signs or focused on the wrong signs. They were committing spiritual malpractice. And John wanted to counter those errors and explain the true signs of spiritual life so they could stay spiritually healthy. We here today still need to know these signs of a healthy spiritual life because we too can be led astray with some dangerous advice.

So, let’s remember what John is doing here, why he’s writing. As Peter’s explained In the last couple of weeks, there were some groups among John’s readers who were causing divisions because they held to an early form of Gnosticism. That word Gnosticism comes from the Greek word for knowledge, and it had a couple of main ideas. The Gnostics, first of all, believed that to know God, people needed to gain some special secret, mystical knowledge that wasn’t available to most people. And they also believed in a dualism between the spirit and the body. The spirit, or the non-material world, was good no matter what, and the flesh, or the material world, was evil no matter what. Now, these ideas actually led to some dangerous errors. Since the flesh was evil, Jesus could not have come in the flesh because that would make him evil. So, they denied Christ’s humanity and had to come up with all sorts of workarounds to get around that issue. And since the spirit was always good, what we do in our flesh really doesn’t matter. Since the flesh is evil, it really can’t taint my spirit because my spirit’s always good; so, it doesn’t matter. They did whatever they wanted. And this special knowledge that you needed to know God is not available to everyone, but only to a few, and it comes only through the non-material world. And in fact, what they were saying was what you know is more important than what you do. These people claimed to know God, to abide in Jesus, and to walk in the light, and they thought they were without sin.

To correct these errors. John focuses on three big themes. We’ve talked about these in the last couple of messages. These are, in effect, signs of a healthy spiritual life. First of all, there’s belief — that’s a theological sign. Then there’s obedience — an ethical or moral sign. Then there’s love — a relational sign. We’re going to look at all of those. We’re going to fill them out just a little bit more today. To teach these signs, John does a couple of different things. First of all, he repeats them over and over again in slightly different ways, just to drive the point home. And he lays them out in a conspicuous if-then pattern. This is really striking when you start to focus on it. We said there’re a lot of words that John uses a lot like “love” and “know” and “abide,” but one of the words that he uses a lot is the word “if” because he’s putting together this if-then pattern. That pattern, explicit or implied, happens over fifty times in this little book. So, John really wants us to get this. If you see this happening, then, you know, this is what’s really going on. That’s how these signs of life are laid out in 1 John. So, all three of these signs of a healthy spiritual life are in our passage today. You’ll find them many more times, but here we get to see how they all fit together. In this passage, John uses seven if-then statements to teach these three big signs. Some of them are positive. Some of them are negative. And we’ll see how they lay out here as we go through the text.

The first set of if-then statements are in verses 3 and 4. And the first one, the way John says it is.

“And by this we know that we have come to know him if we keep his commandments.”

You can flip it around to get the if-then. “If we keep his commandments, then we know that we know him.”

Second one, verse 4,

“Whoever says [or you could say ‘if someone says’] ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments, then he is a liar and the truth is not in him.”

So, he’s focusing here on knowing God. How do we know that we know him? John says we keep his commandments. “Knowing God. That’s a little bit of a fuzzy phrase for us. What does that mean “to know God”? Well, it doesn’t just mean book knowledge or simple information, and it doesn’t mean this mystical vision of God that the Gnostics talked about. It doesn’t mean something that’s in the spiritual realm apart from this material world.

If you want to get a sense of what this knowledge is, look at how the prophet Hosea uses the word “knowledge” in Hosea 4.

“Hear the word of the Lord, O children of Israel, for the Lord has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or steadfast love, and no knowledge of God in the land; there is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, committing adultery; they break all bonds and bloodshed follows bloodshed.”

Look at where the word “knowledge” is in that verse. Look at what’s in the neighborhood there — “faithfulness, steadfast love.” And what’s the opposite? “Swearing, lying, murder, stealing, committing adultery, breaking bonds, bloodshed.” That’s a different sense of knowledge sometimes from the way we use it, something that’s just academic.

What this view of knowledge reminds me of is an idea that I learned a long time ago in a class that I took at Michigan State. It was Interpersonal Communication, and the professor was talking about how our communication changes as a relationship becomes more personal. It moves from impersonal to personal. And he said the level of knowing changes. There’re three levels of knowing. At first there’s a descriptive level, he said, where you know somebody; it means you can just describe him — “I know Steve. I know what he looks like.” The second level is predictive — “I know Steve, and I know that he’s probably going to walk into the service five minutes late.” The third level is explanatory — “I know Steve. I know what he looks like. I know what he’s probably going to do, and I know why. He’s going to be late because he and his wife are trying to do too much in the last few minutes before they leave for church.”

Now, this kind of knowing that John is talking about here is close to that explanatory level of knowing, not because we can explain everything about God, but because we can know what he’s like and what he values. We know him because of Jesus, the living Word, his Son. So, here’s a key — we can know God because he’s made himself knowable to us. Remember back a couple of weeks ago when Peter preached on the introduction of 1 John? The first three verses are really unlike anything else in the book, and it sounds like it’s just some flowery theological introduction until you really start to look at it and think about what John’s trying to do. Here’s what it says.

“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 [apparent], 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 to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

John says all this to counter this Gnostic idea of special knowledge beyond the physical world. He tells us that he himself saw, heard, and touched Jesus. Jesus is real. He took on human form and became a human being. He came to this dirty physical world, and we can know him through his life and words. God through his Son has made himself knowable. So, knowing God is not mystical; it’s personal. It’s not reserved for a few, but it’s open to all. And it’s not removed from this world; in fact, it’s revealed here. So, let’s build on that first big sign of belief. We believe in a God that we can know, a God that has made himself knowable.

So, let’s go on to the second sign, obedience. Now, you may say, “Well, wait a minute, did we finish with verses 3 and 4? There’s some important stuff there.” Verse 3 says that we can know him if we keep his commandments. And verse 4 says that if someone knows him and doesn’t keep his commandments, he’s a liar. This idea of knowing and keeping the commandments are right there together. So, that’s … yes, that is part of this second sign, belief. As a matter of fact, that first sign, believe, and the second sign, obey, are so tightly connected for John, you really can’t separate them. So, they’re both there in verses 3 and 4. The second sign comes out more clearly … He says it again in verses 5 and 6. John says,

“Whoever keeps his word [or if] someone keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.”

And then at the end of 5 and 6,

“By this we may know that we’re in him: whoever says he abides in him [or if] someone says that he abides in him, then he ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”

That phrase “in him truly the love of God is perfected” doesn’t mean that love in us is … we’re going to be perfect, we’re going to be without flaw. But what it means is that in us, as we abide in Christ and obey and keep his commandments, his love is fulfilled; it’s brought to completion. And this is another correction of Gnosticism. Love isn’t something that you just find out in the physical realm through the secret knowledge of God. It’s right here in this world, lived out by real human beings like you and me. So, let’s build on this second sign. We believe God, we said, because he makes himself knowable, and we obey because we know what he values. To follow Jesus, we should order our lives by the things that are important to him. That’s how we live like him.

So, then John moves on to his third big sign. But on his way there, he’s going to give an introduction in verses 7 and 8.

“Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you’ve had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I’m writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.”

It’s both old and new. This is one of the things that John says that at first may sound a little bit confusing.

It is old because it was part of the Old Testament teaching back in Leviticus 19 —

“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

So, it’s old, but it’s also new because Jesus himself called this a new commandment. John 13 —

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.”

Here in this epistle, John says that this commandment is new because darkness is giving way to the light. In other words, the kingdom of God has begun to dawn already, and love is the greatest law of God’s kingdom. We’re already seeing it. This is this new commandment.

So, let’s see how he talks about it then, and there’re really three events statements — 9, 10, and 11 of chapter 2.

“Whoever says [or you can say ‘if someone says’] he’s in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother [or ‘if someone loves his brother’] then he abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother [or ‘if someone hates his brother’] then he is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he’s going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”

There are a few striking details here. John says, “hate … whoever hates his brother.” That’s a strong word. What do you mean, “hate”? Well, simply put, for John, whatever isn’t love is hate. One commentary says,

“There’s no twilight here [you know, halfway between darkness and light] in this spiritual world. Where sympathy does not exist, hatred inevitably follows.”

So, for John, anything short of love is the same thing as hate. That’s powerful. We can’t treat love lightly. It’s a serious command. “But if we love our brother, we abide in the light,” John says. That “abiding” assumes an intimate and committed relationship with him through Jesus which is both permanent and continuous. It’s part of knowing God. And also, John says that in this loving person, there’s no cause for stumbling. What he means is that unlike when you’re walking around in the dark, when you’re walking in the light, there’s little chance that you’re going to trip over something and stumble, and there’s little chance that you’re going to lay something in someone else’s path that’s going to cause them to stumble. But the person who hates his brother is walking around in the dark and is prone to stumbling.

So, let’s build out this third sign a little bit. And there’s one very important difference here between this sign, love, and the other two, belief and obedience. With those, they’re mainly signs for us as believers to recognize. We look for those signs. They’re meaningful to us. But this third sign isn’t just for believers; it’s for everyone, for the whole world. When Jesus gave this new commandment in John 13, he said,

“By this will all people know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.”

This sign is just as important as the others. But it’s a sign for the whole world to read. It’s a sign to them. It’s a sign so that the world will know. The theme of the series is “This is how we know.” With this third sign, that’s true. And it’s also true this is how they will know. So, we believe, first of all, in a God that has made himself knowable. We obey because we know what he values. And we love so others will come to know him.

Let’s summarize a lot of this. The Gnostics thought that what you know is more important than what you do, and that the spirit is always good, and the flesh is always bad. So, Jesus couldn’t have come in the flesh. John corrects this spiritual malpractice by explaining that what you know and what you do are inexorably linked … the First Gnostic Church of Greenville. So, what does all this mean for us? Are there signs that we misread or ignore that could lead to some danger?

I think there are about three things that we need to be careful about. First of all, we may think that following Jesus is all in your head. Believe it or not, we still do have elements of Gnosticism in our culture in the form of a dualism between spirit and flesh, belief and behavior, thought and action. Just think about it. If you were to ask most Christians or most people probably “What does it mean to be spiritual?” they’ll probably describe something as if your feet don’t touch the ground, like you’re separate somehow from being human. But John and all of scripture teach us something different. Being spiritual is being human the way God intended humanity to be. Jesus was both absolute deity and perfect humanity. He shows us what it means to be human, flesh and blood, the way God intended. So, we still need to remember this sign and recognize it — If you know Jesus, then you’ll live like him in flesh and blood, in all the muck and murk of our sloppy lives. Following Jesus isn’t just in your head. The signs of following Jesus should be written on our hearts and our hands and in every action that we take.

The second problem we’ve got to be careful about is that we may assume that we can confine our Christian duties to a manageable list. Let me explain. This error, I think, crops up in a few different ways. We live here in Greenville in a fairly Christian part of the country. There are sinners here like everywhere else, but there’s enough residual Christian culture around here that you can sort of go with the flow and feel like you’re doing pretty much everything a follower of Jesus would do.

Remember what Peter said in his introduction today about drifting? Well, the thing about drifting when you’re in a nominally Christian culture is that it’s like a lazy river at the water park. It just kind of guides you. You’re not drifting out in the open ocean. There’s a path there. At least it feels like it. And you can kind of just go along. But if it’s easy for you to be a Christian, you’re probably not doing it right because the things you can do by floating along with a Christian culture make up a pretty short and inadequate list. “Go to church every now and then. Give money. Hang out with the right people. Don’t do anything to excess.” That’s all good, but if that’s the list that you’re following, you may be like the rich young ruler who said he kept all the commandments but was still lacking love. The signs that you can show by passively following a cultural Christianity don’t include the deeper, more personal signs of knowing Jesus that require active obedience and love. No matter how Christian the culture around us may be, we still have to struggle with the sin in our hearts and actively love others.

Another way that this comes up is the error that some Christians have of thinking that they can limit their Christian obligations to believing in certain doctrines and a defined list of do’s and don’ts. Now, believing in teaching right doctrine is critical. John tells us that it’s the first sign of life. But sticking to only a narrow list of outward do’s and don’ts often misses what Jesus called the weightier matters of the law, things like love. Sometimes we say that believers like this put an emphasis on a list of do’s and don’ts. When they do this, they’re majoring on the minors. I suppose that makes sense. But if you pursue purity without love, you’re not messing up with minor commands. You’re messing up with the greatest command. And sometimes I think we’re tempted to get our list of do’s and don’ts from the headlines of the culture wars. Some of those issues may be serious, but they rarely address the more important sign of following Jesus — love. So, if we only look for the signs that you’d read there, we may excuse ourselves from showing the true signs of life.

And then I suppose also one other thing. We may assume that the list of our Christian duties is pretty familiar to us. We’ve got it down, and we don’t really need to change it. We’ve been doing it, and we’re satisfied with what we should ever be growing. Continually abiding means we’re continually becoming more like Christ. So, we may think that these signs are just in our head, not in our hands or heart. We may think that we can confine them to a manageable list.

And third, we may assume that following Jesus requires only grand sacrifices. Now, that may sound odd because, of course, following Jesus requires sacrifice. We must take up our cross. We must spend and be spent. We must lay down our lives for our friends. But giving your life most of the time doesn’t happen in some single, noteworthy sacrifice. Most of the time, our sacrifices wouldn’t make a good sermon illustration or podcast episode. They’re just too small, too subtle.

When I was in grad school at a Christian college, my wife Sarah, whom I was dating at the time, had a friend, Janet, who didn’t like me. Janet must have thought that I wasn’t going to make a good husband for Sarah. So, at some point she asked Sarah in a very earnest tone, “Would Steve die for you?” When Sarah told me that, I thought, “Good grief, woman. What are you doing? What are you talking about?” That’s a real dumb question, and I had a hard time with Janet. Now, at this point, I’ve been married thirty-six years. And it dawned on me a few years ago that Janet was right. I do need to die for my wife, not necessarily in some grand, self-sacrificing act, that might happen, but every day, many times a day, almost in everything I say as I put aside my stubbornness and these little seeds of defiance and love my wife. If we limit our acts of love only to grand dramatic gestures, we’re really letting ourself off too easily. We’re ignoring the daily, common, unnoticed signs of love that most powerfully point to Jesus.

Do you remember how Jesus described the judgment in Matthew 25? He said,

“The king will say to [the righteous], ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’”

And then he goes on to explain.

“‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ [And the righteous asked him, Lord, what are you talking about? When did all that happen?] And the king will answer them. ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

We have a sacred duty for little things, the small things in life. It is not just the grand gestures. It’s not just the big moments. Those righteous didn’t even realize that these small acts of love were not small to the king. God’s economy measures value far differently than ours. We have subtle sacrifices to make that we can scatter as signs of life indiscriminately as we go through our daily lives. Yes, we should die. But don’t put off dying till the end of your life. Do it every day.

So, if we ignore these true signs of a healthy spiritual life or try to substitute others, the world will suffer for our malpractice. Here’s how Francis Schaeffer describes these signs, “The Mark,” as he calls it.

“This means showing love to our brothers in the midst of our differences — great and small — loving our brothers when it costs us something, loving them even under times of tremendous emotional tension, loving them in a way the world can see. In short, we are to practice and exhibit the holiness of God and the love of God, for without this we grieve the Holy Spirit. Love — and the unity it attests to — is the mark Christ gave to Christians to wear before the world. Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father.”

Since my heart surgery, I’ve learned a lot about the signs of a healthy heart. I know better what to pay attention to, and I know when I need to get out of my comfort zone and make a change. And since I have been spending time in 1 John, I know better the signs of a healthy spiritual life. I know better what to pay attention to and when I need to get out of my comfort zone and make a change. May we all know what matters most and show the love of Jesus in every step.