Speed bumps in the Bible

Walking in the Light

     That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.
     This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
     If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
     My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
—1 John 1:1-2:2, NIV

John is an eyewitness!

When I was in seminary, one of my classmates related that in the course of her psychological screening for ordination, the psychologist asked her if she had ever received a message or a visit from a recently deceased loved one. She was afraid that if she answered this question honestly, it might count against her, but she said yes anyway. The psychologist must have sensed her anxiety, because he glanced up from his clipboard and said, “By the way, your answer to that question is normal.”

During a Bible study in my church, I discovered that almost all of the people who have experienced the death of a close loved one or friend had an experience in which they appeared to receive some sort of communication from them after they died. Such phenomena are not acceptable in the socio-economic class to which most of my congregation belongs, so they were very careful to explain that it was a dream, that they were just waking up from nap when it happened, that it was a strong feeling, or that it was just a stray thought that had entered into their minds. Some even wondered if bereavement had caused them to lose their grip on reality for a short time.

You see, in the days immediately following a death, it is normal for the close friends and relatives to experience such things. In some social or cultural contexts it is not acceptable to talk about them, and if that is your case, you probably might not hear about these experiences even though they are quite common.

So when we read the accounts of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have to ask ourselves if it isn’t the same phenomenon. Is the resurrection just a subjective, heartwarming experience His followers had, like the time that Aunt May said she could swear she saw Uncle George out of the corner of her eye, sitting on the porch swing, smiling at her?

Normally people say, “I saw a vision,” or “it was as if she were there,” or “I looked again and it was just a shadow.” I have never heard of an experience like this involving physical contact. John says something that completely breaks the mold. He says, I looked at it and saw it with my own eyes, I touched it with my hands. Not: I saw it with the eyes of faith, I felt it in my heart, or It turned out to be something I saw in the corner of my eye, but it brought me to new realizations.

John is trying to overcome the objection that any reasonable person would bring to the gospel message that Jesus rose from the dead. He is responding to the person who listens to the story and says, “You must have loved Him very much to have an experience like that after He died.” John says, “No, it wasn’t like that at all. I looked at it and saw it with my own eyes, I touched it with my hands.”

The apostles were humans, and I am quite sure they had the same heart-warming experiences involving the recently deceased as we do. They insisted in the strongest possible terms that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was something entirely different. On the Sabbath after the crucifixion, we find them hiding like cowards, fearing that the Romans would torture them to death for being Jesus’ associates. Only fifty days later on Pentecost, we find them publicly proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which for most of the apostles guaranteed the very fate they were trying so fervently to avoid in the first place.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ was something quite different from those heart-warming anecdotes you read about people receiving encouragement from loved ones who have passed on. The resurrection of Jesus Christ was so substantive, so stupendous, so shocking, that it transformed cowards into evangelists. In less than two generations, despite persecution, opposition, and adversity, there were Christians as far west as Spain and Britain and as far east as India.

I think Jesus really did rise from the grave.

There is no darkness in God!

A comedian once noticed that scientists had determined the speed of light, so he wondered, “What is the speed of dark?” The answer, of course, is that ‘dark’ doesn’t have a speed, because it doesn’t even exist; ‘dark’ is just our word for the absence of light. To make a room brighter, you increase the light. To make a room darker, you decrease the light. There is no device for removing darkness, but there are devices for adding light—they are called lamps.

This is also true about heat and cold. If you buy a furnace, the heating capacity is measured in units of heat. If you buy an air conditioner, the cooling capacity is also measured in units of heat. You would think that an air conditioner would be measured in units of cold, but there are no units of cold, because cold doesn’t really exist; it is just our word for the absence of heat. The furnace makes heat, typically by burning some sort of fuel, and adds it to your house, while the air conditioner doesn’t create cold, it just takes heat from your house and puts it outside. Notice the difference: your furnace doesn’t have an outside part that emits the cold it removes from your house, but your air conditioner does have an outside part that emits the heat it removes from your house.

When John says that there is no darkness in God, he is not just being poetic; he is making an important theological point. Or maybe it is a philosophical point. Perhaps even a cosmological point. In this universe, there is only good. Evil, like darkness and cold, does not really exist. It is not the presence of badness; it is the absence of goodness. Just as you can’t remove darkness without adding light, and you can’t remove coldness without adding heat, you can’t remove evil without doing good things. That is why Jesus was not impressed by the rich young ruler whose lifestyle consisted solely of not doing evil.

Don’t get me wrong: just because darkness, cold, and evil don’t exist, it doesn’t mean they are not real, and it doesn’t mean they are not dangerous. We say, for instance, that we stubbed our toe because it was too dark, but we really mean that there wasn’t enough light. We say that a person died of the cold, but we really mean that there wasn’t enough heat for their body to survive. And it is possible to die of evil, because there wasn’t enough goodness to sustain your life.

Our actions must match our professions!

I like to say that “Christian” is not just something to be, it is also something to do. That is what John means when he talks about walking in the light and walking in the darkness.

It is not really possible for you to separate your beliefs from your actions. Essentially, you do what you believe, and you believe what you do. However, you can deceive yourself and lie to others about what you believe, and you might get away with it for a while, because no one can look in your head to see if it’s true. Eventually, however, your actions will give you away.

The bottom line is that if you claim to be a Christian, but you are merciless, fraudulent, and nasty toward other people, if you are filled with hate and intolerance, then you are obviously walking in darkness and you are either lying or you are self-deceived. But if you are perfecting your faith in your obedience to Jesus’ commands, if for instance you are filled with the kind of love that lifts sinners into sainthood and saints into glory, then you are walking in the light, you have fellowship with Jesus and with other Christians. And if you are obeying Jesus’ commands, then you obviously have faith in Him, and His blood cleanses you of your sins. Which is a good thing, because none of us are perfect, no matter how hard we try.

Notice that there is no fellowship in the darkness. To follow the metaphor, that is because the people in darkness can’t see each other. If you walk in darkness, you are your own ultimate authority and everything you do is to benefit yourself. Those who walk in darkness are inherently wrapped up in themselves. It’s not possible for selfish people to build a community, because it is a contradiction in terms.

So yes, you are saved by faith, but if that faith is real, it goes beyond your armchair. If your faith is real, there is no way you can stop it from spilling over into your behavior.

The Christian life is an endless carwash!

I still remember learning to ride a bicycle, even though that was back in the middle of the last century. It was a painful experience. Twice I fell on the asphalt and knocked myself silly. Once I rode straight into a rural mailbox and had to endure the laughter of the other kids as the mailbox wobbled back and forth, as if to mock me.

Being a Christian—both the trusting part and the obeying part—is a lot like learning to ride a bike. Just as you think you have the thing mastered, you come crashing down! You get up and find yourself covered with the dirt of your sin, you brush yourself off, and you are frustrated. Will I ever get this right? Why should I even bother to try? Should I go inside and work on my coloring book instead?

Sometimes I fall off my Christianity like I used to fall off my bike. For instance, I said I trusted Jesus, then I was afraid for my life. Why should I be afraid for my life if I truly believe that in Jesus, my death is at worst a temporary condition? Or I said I obeyed Christ, and then I was nasty to people when I should have helped them instead.

There are times in my Christian life when I feel so dirty from my doubts and misdeeds, that I should go through a spiritual carwash. You know, the kind where they hook your car up to a chain and drag it through? Only in my case, I need a carwash that lasts my whole life.

John says, Jesus has made a provision for our human weakness. John is writing to Christians, not to prospective converts when he talks about confessing sins. He does not mean the sinner’s prayer you prayed way back in nineteen umpty-ump when you accepted the Lord.

Jesus gives us that lifelong carwash we need. If we fall down in our Christian life, all we have to do is admit it to Him, and He will clean us up.

Just what I need in my daily walk with Jesus!

Jesus is the remedy for the sins of the whole world!

John says that Jesus is the remedy, not just for our sins, but for the sins of the whole world. That’s a pretty large group of people, wouldn’t you say?

Most of us can think of a few outstandingly good people who were not professing Christians during their lives. So at this point, even in a seminary class, someone raises their hand and asks one of two questions:

The answer to the first question is that no one goes to hell on a technicality, and no one gets into heaven on a bribe. Jesus is the judge, and He is has all power and authority. Do you really imagine that on the last day, Jesus will say to a person, “You’re a really nice person, and you lived a good life. If it were up to me, I’d send you to heaven, but the rules force me to send you to hell”? No, that can never happen. Jesus decides who goes where, it is a personal judgment, and if we truly trust Him, we can trust Him to make this judgment fairly.

In one way, the second question is silly, because if we believe that Jesus is the incarnate God of the universe, then when we say that the only way to God is through Jesus, we are saying that the only way to God is God, and that makes perfect sense. In another way, the question is arrogant, because it presumes we can judge who is a Christian and who is not. Jesus is the judge, not us. If we take Matthew 25 seriously, we find that many people will be surprised to find out that they are going to heaven. If we believe that only Christians go to heaven, that means that many people will be surprised to find out they are Christians! At the end of the world, when the lights are turned up, and everything is revealed, many people will be very pleasantly surprised about themselves.

When John says that Jesus is the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, he means that Jesus is an equal opportunity savior; He loves and cares about people who never hear of Him. If we, who are but mortal, sinful flesh, can find something to love in other people, then Jesus who is infinite mercy, grace, and love, can find even more. And we can trust Him to make right judgments.