In the first epistle of John, the writer uses the same grammatical structures over and over again, which, when translated into English, gives the text a slightly hypnotic sound. It helps to build the illusion that this epistle is just a theoretical, even simplistic, essay on Christian love.
It is not.
1 John is actually a sermon against Gnosticism, especially since it begins by asserting that his message is not about some sophisticated philosophy, but comes from physical reality. He adds “with our hands” to “touched” to emphasize that it is not a metaphor and “with our eyes” to “saw” to emphasize that it was not a vision. It was physically real.
Gnosticism versus Christianity
The Gnostics taught that spirit was created by a benevolent high god and that matter was created by a junior prankster god, and that the prankster god trapped us spiritual beings in material bodies. The goal of Gnosticism was to prepare the spirit for separation from the body at death by teaching it an arcane and complex belief system. It also involved the worship of minor deities and angels—which is why the New Testament writers consistently emphasize that Jesus is higher than the angels and why the angel in the Apocalypse refuses worship. Jesus on the other hand rebukes satan, saying that one should only worship God, yet accepts worship Himself [in Matthew 28] from the community of believers, and promises to answer prayers directed toward Him [John 14:13], both claims of deity. The New Testament writers are advocating Jesus against a background of Gnostic beliefs.
Gnostic Ethics versus Christian Obedience
Gnosticism led to two schools of ethics. If the body didn’t matter, the deeds of the body didn’t matter, and that led to licentiousness. On the other hand, if the spirit needs to free itself of the body, it needs to start practicing now, and that led to extreme asceticism; in other words, personal purity. Paul preaches against each extreme in different epistles. Some see him as contradicting himself, but he is really arguing the middle against both ends. John preaches against the Gnostic ethic, in that it consists entirely of sentiments, not actions; or they are personal purity, not interactions with others. That is in line with Jesus’ preaching that ‘by their fruits you shall know them’ and His rejection of the rich young ruler’s ethic that consisted solely of not doing bad things.
John says that Jesus is real, the resurrection is real, we talk about things we saw with our eyes and touched with our hands, this is not a fancy philosophy, and we did not make it up in the sense that philosophers, ethicists, and the Gnostic teachers reason out their philosophies. We are not preaching theorems derived from postulates, but actual, real events. Our rubber hits the road, theirs does not, because they deny the relevance of the road. God created matter and pronounced it good; God is incarnate in human flesh in Jesus, thus consecrating and redeeming matter. So matter matters!
Doing Good, not Just Being Good
This means also that our ethics, or rather our Christian obedience, is more than just personal purity. Jesus teaches us that, taken alone, abstaining from bad things is not enough (Luke 18:18-22). John asserts that piety and action are not alternatives or separate from each other. Action without piety is misguided; piety without action is dead, as James observes. John puts it this way: if you can’t love the people you can see, then you can’t love the God you cannot see. He does not say that serving others is synonymous with worshiping God; he says that you cannot worship God without serving others, because the others stand in the way. Taken another way: You can’t go to church to worship on Sunday without passing other people on your way through the week, and that means that when you arrive at church, you have either served others or not, and if you have not, it invalidates your worship, because you have disobeyed the commandments of the God whom you are attempting to worship! Action is not a substitute for piety, rather a failure to act providentially in other people’s lives is a barrier to piety.
I use the word “action” to include any virtuous deed that benefits others. If your neighbor’s child dies, it is not enough to have the parents “in your thoughts and prayers,” you must also take them a casserole. Even if the neighbors are outcasts whom no one likes or people of whom you disapprove, and especially if you’re the one everyone rejects and hates.
If you make it a habit to carry casseroles to bereaved neighbors, eventually you will trip and drop one on the way. That’s just life, and that is why John notes throughout his epistle that even a principled person messes up now and then. The task is not to be perfect, but to be in the process of being perfected. People who live unprincipled (lawless or sinful) lives are not walking in the light, but those who walk in the light sometimes trip (sin) and need to get up (confess) and need a hand (forgiveness). Living an examined, principled life of Christian obedience can lead to guilt and remorse, and the remedy is confession and repentance; that is, admit it, learn from it, and go from there. If you walk in the light, everything is visible, and some of that is embarrassing.
Notice he says “walk.” It is the Christian walk, not the Christian limousine, not the Christian been-there-done-that.
Being good is enough for Santa Claus. Jesus requires you to do good, too.
“What Would Jesus Do” Is not a Christian Question
If you witness a crime and ask yourself, “What would the police do?” and then do it, you will get into a lot of trouble, not just with the law, but with the consequences of your conduct. Instead, you should ask yourself, “What would the police tell me to do?”
In the same way, “What would Jesus do” is not a Christian question, because it asserts that Jesus isn’t here and isn’t doing it, and that we must step in and take over His prerogatives. This can lead to all sorts of evil, because “what Jesus would do” includes raising the dead and judging all flesh. It leads to the sort of conduct that causes Jesus to say to us, when He sits on His throne to judge us, not “thou good and faithful servant,” but “get out of my chair.” Rather, we should ask ourselves, “What does Jesus command me to do?” and that consists of loving our enemies and doing good things to those who harm us—and if love were a sentiment separated from action, it would be Gnostic, against which John is preaching. We love them and do good things for our enemies because they need it the most, and because we can only make ourselves vulnerable that way if we trust Jesus to make it all right in the end.
If we ask “What would Jesus do?” then we withhold things from people we deem unworthy. If we ask “What does Jesus command me to do?” then we give good things to people we deem unworthy, because we know that Jesus is grading us on our love of people, not our discernment of sin.
Who is “One Another”?
When we read the phrase “love one another,” we immediately think that this commandment is limited to fellow Christians. But who is a Christian?
Jesus prophesies one aspect of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46. He describes two groups of people. The first group trusted Jesus unwittingly, as is evident in their obedience to His commandments. They are Christians, but they don’t know it. The second group talked about Jesus, but didn’t have enough faith in Him to obey His commandments. They think they are Christians, but they are not.
From this we learn that Jesus is the only one who decides who is a Christian and who is not. “Love one another” does not mean the people in your Bible study group, or the people in your church, or the people who believe the same doctrines, or the members of all the churches in the world, except maybe this or that one; it means the entire human race. God created them all, Jesus died for them all, how can anyone be excluded?
Even if I’m wrong about that, what’s better: accidentally loving someone who is unworthy (if there is such a person), or failing to love someone who is? Think of the person you most admire and love, then treat everyone like that person.
The Christian Life
Just as God is incarnate in human flesh in Jesus Christ and the love of the crucifixion is incarnate in the resurrection, our faith must be incarnate in our obedience. That takes the form of Christian service and activism on both a personal and corporate level.
Christianity is not about having the right goosebumps. It is prayer and Bible study, worship and singing, incarnate in deeds of kindness and providence, ranging from taking the neighbors a casserole to finding a cure for AIDS. It means giving good things to people who harm you, loving people who hate you, and doing good deeds for people who seem unworthy.
We cannot earn our salvation, but we can please our Lord. So we strive for that by obeying his commandments and doing all the good works that are the purpose of our existence (Ephesians 2:10).
For you see, “Christian” isn’t something to be so much as it is something to do.
As John might say, get busy. Think of something wonderful, and do it.