This is How We Know – 8/13/23

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This is How We Know – 8/13/23


Peter Hubbard


August 13, 2023


1 John, 1 John 1:1-4


If you’re not already there, you can turn to 1 John. We’ll be all over the place. Dave, if you need some seats, there are some up front here. It’s so good to worship with you and online.

In the book 1776, Pulitzer Prize winning author David McCullough vividly describes the tenuous birth of our nation. Everything seemed uncertain. The commander in chief, George Washington, had never led an army in battle. His most qualified general, Charles Lee, would turn on him, and one of his most loyal generals, Nathanael Greene, had never actually seen military action. Everything he knew about war, he learned from reading books. Now, he would become a very successful general, winning many Southern battles, and a little city you might have heard of was named after him, Greenville.

In that first year, Washington’s greatest challenge was not military strategy but merely trying to keep his ragtag army together from quitting. As McCullough writes,

“Nearly all his efforts and those of his senior officers were concentrated now on trying to hold the army together. The Connecticut troops, whose enlistments were to expire on December 9, were counting the days until they could start for home. Nothing, it seemed, could change their minds.”

Many soldiers knew they were needed back at their farms. Others were wracked by disease from the filthy camps. As one visitor observed,

“They desert in large bodies, are sickly, filthy, divided, and unruly. Putrid disorders, the smallpox in particular, have carried off great numbers.”

Besides, the overwhelming power of the British military motivated many soldiers by the thousands to desert and go to the British camps. One farmer, John Bray, wrote to his family,

“You can come down and receive protection and return without molestation on the part of the king’s troops. And you best know, the situation of the provincial army [like Washington’s army] is in trouble. Do advise cousin Johnny and Thomas and cousin Thomas Jones, for if they do stay out to the last, they will undoubtedly fair the worst.”

In other words, jump ship while you can; desert. And they did by the thousands. As McCullough wrote,

“As if they were leaving a sinking ship.”

Joseph Reed, who would himself later undermine Washington wrote,

“A spirit of desertion, cowardice, plunder, and shrinking from duty when attended with fatigue or danger prevailed but too generally.”

Even Washington at this time, who was remarkably buoyant, wrote one of his cousins, September 30, 1776.

“Such is my situation that if I were to wish the bitterest curse to an enemy on this side of the grave, I should put him in my stead with my feelings. In confidence, I tell you that I never was in such an unhappy, divided state since I was born.”

And this is the first year. The war is just beginning. Washington described himself as unhappy, divided. Do you ever noticed those two often travel together? Unhappy, uncertain, divided in the sense of I’m being pulled in multiple directions — troops are deserting, the enemy is closing in, options are shrinking, and you begin to question everything. Am I on the right side of history? Are we going to make it? Everything seems uncertain.

And although the context was obviously totally different, many Christians battle with those same feelings. An avalanche of articles perpetually explaining why people are leaving their churches. Reddit earlier this year, “Why Young People Are Leaving the Church.” Wall Street Journal, last week, “Why Gen-Xers Aren’t Going Back to Church.” Now, obviously, some people are, maybe in an unhealthy way, but in a way of trying to rethink what they believe that can be good. Do I really believe what I say I believe? But a lot of people are just unsettled, and when we as humans feel uncertain, we often want to be on the move. You begin to ask yourself if you’re completely wrong about everything … doubts, uncertainties, unanswered questions, and then add to that hurts and disappointments. How do I know if we are real followers? How do I know if I’m a real follower of Jesus? Or am I just conforming to this cultural moment or to the way I was raised?

The little letter of 1 John, most likely written by John the apostle — also known as John the evangelist, the elder — addresses uncertain Christians. Many in John’s day were deconstructing their faith, rethinking what they believe. Many had walked away. Some now, like farmer John Bray, are reaching out to their friends and family and encouraging them to switch sides. Most of what we know about the background of 1 John we know from reading 1 John what is implied by the emphases in 1 John. His purpose is clearly not to present an apologetic argument to the people who have left. He’s not trying to convince them of the veracity of Christianity. He’s writing the people who remain and who feel like they’re drowning in a sea of uncertainty, unhappy, divided. And John is telling these Christians one primary message — this is how you know. This is how we know. Now, even when things are uncertain, even when we can’t know everything, we can know some things.

Now, today’s message is going to feel a little scattered. Some of you are like “Is that any different than …” Okay, it’s going to feel more scattered than normal because we’re not going to look just at one passage, even though we will end and do a little work in 1 John 1:1-4, but I want to introduce the book as a whole by giving you samples from the letter as a whole that will help us know why John is so concerned that we know. How do we know, John? And the way I want to do that is by answering … And we’ll also do a little background mixed in there so we can understand what’s happening behind the scenes of this letter. We want to answer four questions — Can we know? (Is it possible to have a certain level of assurance? Can we know?) What do we know? How do we know? And why do we know?

So first, can we know? When the room is spinning, people are leaving, false teaching is spreading, does John give us any indication that we can know? I want first of all … There are so many ways we could illustrate this from 1 John, but to begin with, I want us to look at words of assurance. What words does John use repeatedly, some often, more often than others, in 1 John to communicate assurance? The first one is obvious. The word “know.” “By this we know” … [Chapter and verses] 2:5, 3:2, 3:5, 3:16, 4:2, 4:6, 4:13, 5:2 … over and over again. Something like that. “We know. By this we know.” He uses two primary verbs — “eido,” which is a little verb that means “to know,” 17 times; “ginosko” 25 times, combined for 42 times in five little chapters — “to know.” Let me give you one example, 1 John 2:21,

“I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth.”

You can know. Second word is “evident.”

“By this it is evident who are the children of God” (3:10).

This word “evident,” “phaneros” in the Greek, means “visible, clear, obvious plainly recognized.” It’s from the word “phaino,” which means “to shine.” So, it’s communicating the fact that when everything is grayish, shadowy, you can’t really tell, there are things that are evident, obvious, that shine.

Third word is “reassure.” 1 John 3:19,

“By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him.”

1 John is very concerned that Christians be reassured.

Another big one is “abide,” abide, “meno.” Twenty-four times “meno” appears. That means “to remain, to stay, to abide.” A few examples,

1 John 2:17, “And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”

1 John 2:24, “Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father.”

1 John 2:19,”They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have [meno] remained, continued, abide with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”

Another one is “confidence.” Remember, we’re looking for words of assurance in 1 John. Confidence.

1 John 2:28, “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have [boldness/freedom/openness — that’s what that word means] confidence and not shrink from him in shame.”

In the Greek that’s one word — “not shrink in shame.” John wants us to be shrink-free so that we are not shrinking in shame when he returns. Can we know?

Another way of seeing how it is possible to know in 1 John is through the word “anointing, anointing.”

1 John 2:20 says,

“But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge.”

But the Greek, “Y’all have knowledge.” The anointing is when the Holy Spirit mediates the presence of Jesus to us, when we believe the gospel.

Now, this idea of anointing can sound weird and be easily misunderstood. So, this is where a bit of background can help. Most scholars believe John is writing a group of churches near Ephesus, second half of the first century. These are the churches the letters in Revelation were written to. There are more right near Ephesus. John is writing to those churches. Many of the Christians were struggling against false teaching and lots of uncertainty. Specifically, they were battling what is often called Gnosticism. Have you ever heard of that term, Gnosticism? Technically, what John is writing against is not formal Gnosticism. That really doesn’t develop until the second century when you get all those Gnostic gospels that people all get rattled about — the Gospel of Thomas and all those — second century, much later, beyond the apostles. At this time, technically it’s what’s called Proto-Gnosticism, which is an earlier form that has some of the characteristics but hasn’t fully developed into the heresy it would become.

What do Gnostics teach? Let me give you two examples. Typical Gnostic teaching: 1, they believe they have secret knowledge. That’s why they call themselves Gnostics. It’s from the Greek word “gnosis,” which means “knowledge.” Now, what Gnostics taught is that all you regular Christians don’t get it. You don’t have the secret sauce. We have the secret sauce. You don’t know the password. You don’t have the handshake. And you can imagine how this would rattle Christians in that day if you were being told that if you were just baptized by that ordinary pastor, you know that pastor who’s just regular and kind of bland, he doesn’t get it. He doesn’t have the secret knowledge that we have. Then you’re a lesser Christian, maybe not a Christian.

And the reason I think this is relevant is there are a lot of Christians today that live with a perpetual sense of spiritual FOMO, fear of missing out. Somehow if you didn’t go to the right conference and you don’t say it right and you don’t have the secret knowledge, then you’re on the outside. You may be a Christian, maybe, but you’re lesser. So, there’s always that perpetual sense of uncertainty. Now there’s a part of that can be good, right? I always want to learn more. I love reading, investigating, and hearing new perspectives. But that’s different. Wanting to grow is different from living with a perpetual sense that “I just can’t find it. I just can’t know it. Somebody out there has the secret recipe. There’s got to be something more.” And in John’s day, there were many, like today, who lived with a low-grade sense of uncertainty perpetually.

Now, imagine for a moment what these words would sound like to a Christian struggling with spiritual FOMO. 1 John 2:26 — this is from John the apostle.

“I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you.”

Pause. John is not negating healthy teaching. He’s actually doing it, right? He’s teaching them as he’s telling them they don’t need teaching. His point is not we don’t need to learn more. He’s countering this false teaching that says you’ve got to learn it from us, and it’s a secret kind of knowledge. It’s not open good news. It’s the secret code, the recipe. But John goes on,

“But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie — just as it has taught you, abide in him.”

Isn’t that beautiful? How about we abide in him? That’s where our confidence comes. So, he is opposing Gnostic teaching that is promoting the lie that you can’t know Jesus apart from our special knowledge. And John is simply saying “Remain in him.” So, they believed they had special knowledge.

Secondly, they believed the physical world was evil. They taught that the material world was made by a different god, the demiurge. “Demiurge” just simply means in Greek “architect.” So, there was an original architect, and they throw the whole Old Testament God as this demiurge, and therefore they reject the Old Testament. They believed Jesus did not come in the flesh because he wouldn’t touch flesh. They deny the bodily resurrection. Why would you want a bodily resurrection if all matter is inherently evil? They viewed sexual intimacy as either one extreme or the other, either evil to be abstained from even in marriage or irrelevant to be indulged in. It’s just a body. Whatever. Both extremes.

So, with this background, it’s not surprising that John begins his letter with these words. 1 John 1:1,

“That which was from the beginning…”

Notice the sensory words.

“which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.”

What we have experienced is audible, visible, physical, not ethereal or mystical, but historical. Jesus was not merely a ghost, but God in the flesh. Christianity is not a code to be cracked, but good news of real people and real events and a real Savior who came died, buried, rose bodily.

Two more words that help us know we can know — “identity.” John is really big on identity. He uses the very intimate expression “beloved.” Six times he calls his readers “loved ones.” He also confirms their identity as children of God. For example, 1 John 3:1,

“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.”

Just take that in. “And so we are.” Let that sink in. John’s not just rolling over this. Oh, yeah, let that rumble around the back of your mind, and be uncertain about that.

“So we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now.”

You can know. Can you say that with me if you’re a follower of Jesus? We are God’s children now. Does that feel proud? Does that feel like “Who do you think you are?” Many people believe that. And a real Christian will never say those words like “We are God’s children; you are not,” because if you are a child of God, you know it has nothing to do with you. We’re going to see this next week …

1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, [we are] faithful…”

Is that what it says? No.

“He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

So, if any Christian is a child of God, it is only because he is faithful. He sent his Son, who washed away our sin. We merely confess what he provides, and we can actually say, “We are God’s children now.”

The final word — and there are many more; I’m just giving you a sample — is the word “victory.” 1 John 5:4 and see if this sounds uncertain.

“For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world — our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

Confidence. Assurance. Can we know? Is it possible to know? Yes.

What do we know? Well, many things in 1 John. But here’s the main thing. The main thing John wants us to know is that we have eternal life. He starts the little letter, ends the little letter with eternal life.

1 John 1:2, “The life was made manifest, 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.”

Look how he ends.

1 John 5:13, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.”

Well, what is eternal life?

1 John 5:11, “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

So, John is saying I’m talking about a new kind of existence, not just a life of length, which it is, but you’re in Jesus. That eternal life begins now when you put your faith in Jesus, and it’s a new way of living. That’s what we know.

Well, how do we know? And this is John’s big burden. By the way, if you try to … Have you ever tried to outline 1 John? I don’t enjoy that because the way my mind thinks. I love Romans because Paul just begins a point, builds on that point. You see exactly where he’s going, what his conclusions are, and he reaches the climax he’s heading for. Outlining 1 John is like watching your kid learn how to mow the lawn. It’s just painful. He’s all over the place. Could we do some straight lines here, please? That’s how it feels to me. We were talking about love, and then we’re over here talking about love and then good works and then belief in Jesus. And it seems all over the place. But it’s not. It’s just not a linear way of outlining.

Robert Law, in the early 1900s, identified and developed this idea of three big themes in 1 John. And what John does — and as you read 1 John, you’ll see this — he grabs a hold of one of those themes like belief in Jesus, and he develops that a little bit. And then he goes on to obedience, and then he goes on to a discussion of love, and then he’s back to belief in Jesus, and then obedience and love, and not necessarily in that order. Sometimes he’s intertwining them, but it’s called amplification. It’s when you grab a subject, you touch on it, and then you move on to something else, but then you come back to it and ramp it up. It’s like climbing a spiral staircase. That’s 1 John structurally. You’re building, but you keep coming back to the same three themes.

And here they are, and we’re going to call them through this series Three Signs of Life: This Is How We Know. What are the three signs of life? Number 1, belief in Jesus. This could be described as the theological sign, that what you believe about Jesus matters.

1 John 4:2, “By this we know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.”

Second sign, obedience. This is more of a moral or ethical sign. John is arguing you can’t say, “I’m a follower of Jesus. I just don’t want to follow him.” That doesn’t make sense.

1 John 2:5, “But whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”

Follow him.

And third sign, love. This is a relational or social sign.

1 John 4:7, “[Loved ones] Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

Years ago, Kevin DeYoung wrote a blog on these three signs of salvation. I’m not sure he used the exact same words, but he was emphasizing these three signs from 1 John, and he was shocked by some of the responses. Many were quite upset. I think some of us can relate to this response. Here are a couple of samples.

“As someone who’s been struggling with [assurance] for some years, I am sorry to say this brief explanation can be so misleading. Not to be hateful. I follow your blog regularly and respect what you do. But who out there can confidently say they live without wickedness within or love their fellow Christians without fail?”

Here’s a part of another response.

“And Mr. DeYoung, as well-intended as he may be, ultimately makes salvation rest on me and my efforts rather than on Christ and the cross.”

Now, there are many more, but all of them consist of one or more of these three main objections.

Number 1, they are arguing that we should never look at ourselves for assurance.

Number 2, we never really love God or never really love our neighbor.

And number 3, this approach to assurance actually makes me doubt my salvation.

The reason I bring this up is I think this is really important to talk about at the beginning of our journey through 1 John because even though a quick read through 1 John communicates clearly John’s goal of providing assurance. John can rattle you. Anybody have that experience? I’ve talked to people who say “I don’t read 1 John. It messes with me.” And that’s what I think some of these people are pushing against. I go to 1 John for assurance, and I come away with more doubt.

DeYoung concludes,

“At the heart of all three objections is the assumption — more unstated than argued from Scripture — that living an obedient Christian life is not possible, that the only two options before us are [number 1, either] trusting in our own works for salvation or [number 2] admitting to unrelenting spiritual failure. If, however, these two options present us with a false dilemma, then the three objections fall away.”

Could it be that John does not want us to fall into legalism — wondering perpetually “Have I done enough? Have I loved sincerely enough? Have I forgiven enough? Or am I going to hell if I haven’t done enough?” a kind of frantic legalism — or unrelenting spiritual failure. “I just stink as a Christian, I’ve always stunk as a Christian, and I will continue to stink as a Christian. There are people who actually feel spiritual by feeling uncertain. The more uncertain I feel, the more I trash-talk myself, the more spiritual I am. That’s a little bit confusing.

So, what is John doing with these signs of salvation? I think a lot of us, when we read 1 John, we confused signs of life with steps to life, as if we could earn it. What John seems to mean by “signs of life” … It’s like when you give directions to someone if you want to send them to whatever, Spartanburg down Wade Hampton, and you say, “Listen, as you’re driving down Wade Hampton, if you see the big orange building, Home Depot on the right, and then you see its competitor Lowe’s on the left, and you keep going, and eventually you’re going to see a Wal-Mart on the left and a car dealership …” You know, you’re heading in the right direction. That’s what John is saying. He’s not laying out a standard of perfection to where if you don’t keep all of this enough perfectly, then you’re going to burn. His point is to say, “These are some of the signs of life.” And so, for someone living in hypocrisy, presumption (“I can do whatever; I prayed the prayer, and it doesn’t matter”), 1 John will fry you. It will expose your hypocrisy, and it will rattle you because it’s intended to. But if somebody is seeking to imperfectly follow Jesus, 1 John will tell you I’m heading in the right direction. This is how we know.

Well, why do we know? Why do we know? I just want to give two examples of this from the very opening of the letter.

1 John 1:1, “That which is from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, 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 also to you…”

And here are two purpose statements. Number 1,

“so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

And number 2,

“And we are writing these things [here’s the second purpose statement] so that our joy may be complete.”

Now, these aren’t all of the answers, but two big ones. Why do we know?

Number 1, fellowship.

“So that you too may have fellowship with us.”

We are being called into this fellowship with one another with the Father, with Jesus. “Koinonia.” You’ve probably heard that Greek word. Koinonia is the Greek word for fellowship, an intimate fellowship connection that overflows into a common task. That’s our relationship with one another through Jesus. And the common task is the testifying, the proclaiming that John just described.

The second reason we know, purpose we know, is full joy. Verse 4,

“And we are writing these things so that our joy [your joy, my joy, our joy] may be complete.”

Do you see what John is saying? He is not wanting to leave us in a perpetual state of uncertainty, suspended in midair, unable to land. No! As Psalm 16:11 says,

“You make known to me the path of life. You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forever more.”

Now, over the years, I’ve encountered many people who believe that uncertainty is a sign of intelligence and spirituality, and I want to make clear that, yes, we will all have moments or maybe even seasons where we will feel uncertain. Let me give you one example from the life of C.S. Lewis. He says he wrote a dear friend of his, Arthur Greeves.

“The trouble with me is lack of faith. I have no rational ground for going back on the arguments that convinced me of God’s existence: but the irrational deadweight …”

Remember he was an atheist, became a Christian, says, “I don’t want to go back on those arguments.”

“… but the irrational deadweight of my old skeptical habits, and the spirit of this age, and the cares of the day, steal away all my lively feeling of the truth.”

Isn’t that an interesting way to put it — “steal away all my lively feeling of the truth?”

“And often when I pray I wonder if I’m not posting letters to a non-existent address. Mind you, I don’t think so — the whole of my reasonable mind is convinced: but I often feel so.”

John is writing to those moments. What do we do when we feel or are flooded with questions? I think the biggest thing, whether you’re a young child, a teenager, an adult here today or watching online, I think the biggest thing to walk away with from this message — and I hope you get it throughout our study in 1 John over the next few months — is that God’s heart is to assure you, reassure you. His heart, what he’s communicating in 1 John, his goal is not, God does not delight in rattling you — he just wants to see you trembling in uncertainty. He loves to communicate reassurance. And 1 John is teeming with that.

Lately, I’ve found great encouragement from a Shane and Shane song (I’ve shared this with a few of you) called “You’ve Already Won.” First verse —

“There’s peace that outlasts darkness

Hope that’s in the blood

There’s future grace that’s mine today

That Jesus Christ has won

So I can face tomorrow

For tomorrow’s in your hands

All I need you will provide

Just like you always have.”

And here’s the chorus, the part I love.

“And I’m fighting a battle

You’ve already won

No matter what comes my way

I will overcome

Don’t know what you’re doing

But I know what you’ve done

And I’m fighting a battle

You’ve already won.”

Now, do you see the uncertainty there? “I don’t know what you’re doing.” Christians are followers of Jesus. Here’s a tough question. You got one more good answer in you? Tough question — what do followers do? Brilliant. Followers, by definition, follow, and that means you don’t always know where God is going to lead you. And I hate this, but I’m trying to get used to it. God rarely uses his blinker. You don’t know if he’s going to go left or right. He typically doesn’t give you heads up. But as a follower of Jesus, you say, “I’m with you.”

But that tension described there in the chorus … Let’s put that back up there.

“I don’t know what you’re doing.”

I don’t know all the details, where are you going to turn, what you’re going to do about this or that. My precious wife is having her fifth surgery Tuesday. There’s so much we don’t know.

“We don’t know what you’re doing, but we know what you’ve done.”

You’ve proven your love through giving your Son, and we know you’ve won. Unlike Washington. Washington had no clue how the Revolutionary War was going to turn out. We know who wins. We know now. He’s won! So, we know the end; we know the beginning; we are assured in that gap time when we’re wondering, “Lord, what are you doing?” We can have confidence, reassurance, and hope.

So, to celebrate that, we want to take the Lord’s Supper. If you’re a believer in Jesus, we encourage you to participate. If not, you can just pass the plates by. And the way you do that is simply take a piece of broken bread. This is, for the very first time, homemade, gluten free. So, everybody’s welcome. It’s more spiritual that way, people. So, we invite all of you to participate. And the bread and the cup will come. Receive those and use this time to do two things according to Scripture. One is, first of all, give thanks. Jesus gave thanks and blessed the bread. And secondly, make sure you’re not disregarding your brothers and sisters. 1 Corinthians 11. This is what we just read in 1 John — koinonia. We’re not doing this alone. So, if I have aught against a brother; if I’m disregarding a brother, if I’m holding bitterness, use this time to go. Pray. Let it go. Make it right. This the time of fullness of joy and fellowship with one another. And then in a few minutes, I’ll come back up, and we’ll partake together. Let’s worship him.


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