In lieu of my regular post on 1 John, I want to share a very helpful podcast. This week on The White Horse Inn, Michael Horton interviews Sam Allberry, the author of Is God Anti-Gay: And Other Questions about homosexuality, the Bible, and Same-Sex Attraction. Sam offers a helpful perspective on the many issues involved in this discussion. You can find the podcast here along with a host of other helpful resources.
Archive for September, 2015
The sermon recording from September 27,2015. The sermon manuscript is available at http://christchurchconway.org/9-27-15-manuscript/ .
“Fruit Trees and False Prophets”
15Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus you will recognize them by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-20, ESV).
After instructing his disciples in gate selection, Jesus gives them a warning against false prophets. We find such warnings throughout the Bible. Moses wrote in Deuteronomy,
If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst (Deuteronomy 13:1-5, ESV).
The Biblical prophets regularly call out the false prophets in Israel with words similar to those used by Jeremiah,
Then I said: “Ah, Lord GOD, behold, the prophets say to them, ‘You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you assured peace in this place.’” And the LORD said to me: “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds. Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the prophets who prophesy in my name although I did not send them, and who say, ‘Sword and famine shall not come upon this land’: By sword and famine those prophets shall be consumed” (Jeremiah 14:13-15, ESV).
We learn from the Lord’s words to Ezekiel what a prophet was to do.
So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul (Ezekiel 33:7-9, ESV).
A prophet was to faithfully communicate the Word of God to the people of God for the glory of God and the good of the people. Prophets could go wrong by message or by motive. They could preach something false, such as calling the people of Yahweh to follow other gods, or promising peace and blessing when there was no peace and blessing. They could preach for their own gain and not for the people’s salvation and good. Often the false prophets did both, they preached false messages that they knew would please the people, and they did so for their own gain.
The people of God were to be looking for and listening to God’s prophets. The people needed God’s Word. They needed to hear from God through his prophets. They had promises in their Torah of a prophet like Moses who would come, as we see in Deuteronomy 18.
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen—just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’—when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him (Deuteronomy 18:15-22, ESV).
While the people of Israel were to be waiting for and looking forward to a prophet who would come and speak a better word than Moses, God had instructed them to pay attention because he knew false prophets also would come. There were natural checks and balances built in to the system of God revealing himself to his people through his prophets. On the one hand the prophets were to be faithful to proclaim what Yahweh revealed. On the other hand the people of God were to listen with discernment and reject those prophets who lead the people of God away from Yahweh no matter how enticing their message of present blessing may have been.
But I want us to notice something about this passage in Deuteronomy 18. The people of Israel were not just waiting for any prophet, there were waiting for a prophet like Moses who would intercede for them with God. Notice that the Lord says, in response to their wanting someone to go before God for them, “They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.” God had promised a prophet who would reveal God’s will for salvation, the way of life, to his people, and he says they were right to not try to come before God on their own. The people needed this ultimate mediator prophet, and they needed to not be fooled by false prophets claiming to be him. Hebrews chapter 3 tells us explicitly that Jesus is the One who is better than Moses. The whole book of Hebrews shows us over and over again how Jesus is a better Mediator of a better covenant. Jesus told his followers, in John chapter 5 that he acts and speaks as commanded by and with the authority of his Father, God. Notice the blatant fulfilment we have of Deuteronomy 18 in the New Testament. The promised prophet who would reveal God’s life giving Word is Jesus.
Now, let’s go back to the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says to the congregation gathered there with him, “Beware of false prophets.” Why is he saying this? Because he knows, he is the one they have been waiting on, and if they lack discernment and follow a false prophet they will miss the One they have been waiting on. Jesus knows that if his followers listen to false prophets they will miss him. Jesus is warning his disciples not to get led astray by false prophets and miss the true prophet standing right before them. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2, ESV). Don’t miss Jesus.
And so with Jesus standing right before them, we have to ask, How could they miss him? How could they be so foolish as to follow a false prophet? They’re literally listening to Jesus preach. Well, look at Jesus’ description of these false prophets. “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15, ESV). False prophets don’t come with horns growing out of their head and a tattoo across their forehead that says “False Prophet.” False prophets don’t come spewing hatred of God and daring people on the internet to take the blasphemy challenge. False prophets don’t come with any of that. They come in sheep’s clothing.
False prophets come in white dress shirts and black ties knocking on your door asking if you’re prepared for Jehovah’s return or talking a big game about family values leaving literature full of pictures of happy, smiling people to infect our minds and hearts over time.
False prophets come with great hair and a disarming Texas draw and a never-ending smile promising you your best life now and questioning your faith if you’re not blessed with what you believe God for.
False prophets come with stellar reputations of piety and an inability to live long with other believers because no one else ever quite measures up.
False prophets come with an inspiring gospel message but can’t cope with any call to holiness because their gospel isn’t actually transformative.
False prophets come to town with profound personality and gifts of communication on private jets they crowd funded.
False prophets come with a message of love that excludes any possibility of ever telling anyone they are in sin if they are acting in sincerity with how they feel they were created.
False prophets come picketing funerals with signs that say “God hates fags” as if they are taking some grand stand for the glory of the triune of God.
False prophets come, not rejecting the Bible but reinterpreting it to fit contemporary demands.
False prophets come with a thousand demands for great social causes that you dare not question unless you desire to have your own faith questioned and be buried in an avalanche of proof texts for their cause.
False prophets come with values but no hope.
False prophets come questioning your salvation based on how you dress and vote and educate and eat and drink and pray and study and save and spend and work and sleep and breathe,
but Jesus, Jesus comes and looks you right in the eye and says, Oh, you sinner. You great and terrible sinner. You doubting and struggling sinner. Oh, you tired and pathetic sinner. Look. Here are the holes in my hands and feet. Here are the scars on my back and head. Here is the gaping wound in my side where water and blood flowed out. Here is the cross where I breathed my last as I suffered the awesome wrath of God poured out on me for your sin. Here is the grave where my body lay for three days, kept by the power of death, before I rose in victory. Here I am. Come with me, and I will give you rest.
See the false prophets about whom Jesus warned his disciples and us come looking like us. They come with the smiles we wish we had, doing the things we wish we could do, saying the things we wish we could say, and we so desperately want to prove to God and everybody else who we have convinced ourselves are watching that God made a good choice when he chose us that we listen to these false prophets and try to mimic them instead of listening to Jesus and following him. These false prophets come looking just enough like us that they’re able to coax us away from the flock, away from the Shepherd, before we realize they’re actually a wolf.
Paul was aware of these folks and their deceptive ways. He wrote to the Galatians, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8-9, ESV).
And he wrote to Timothy,
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:1-5, ESV).
So how can we recognize the false prophets before they have our necks in their jaws? Jesus says, “You will recognize them by their fruits.” Then Jesus explains this analogy in two ways. In the first explanation, in verse 16, Jesus simply points out that a tree bears fruit according to its kind. You don’t get grapes from thorn bushes. In the second explanation, in verses 17-18, Jesus points out that a tree bears fruit according to its quality. Healthy tree? Healthy fruit. Sick tree? Sick fruit. The analogy is simple enough, but what is the fruit? There is one line of thinking that says the fruit is good works, but there are a number of problems with this line of thinking.
The first problem with thinking the fruit is good works is Matthew 7:21-23.
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:21-23, ESV).
If the was good works, surely prophesying in Jesus’ name, and casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and doing many mighty works in Jesus’ name qualifies. But, Jesus explicitly says it doesn’t. What then is the will of his Father in heaven that they are supposed to do? John records Jesus’ answer to that very question for us.
For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day (John 6:38-40, ESV).
Doing the Father’s will begins with believing in Jesus whereby we are made a new creation in Christ Jesus, in whom we were created for good works. We can’t circumvent that first crucial step as the false prophets attempt to do. Apparent good works not carried out by faith, even apparent good works done in Jesus’ name but not by faith, are not good works at all and merit nothing and at the end of the day prove nothing.
The second problem with seeing the fruits of Matthew 7:16-20 is that to which the analogy refers. The analogy is referring to prophets. If this analogy were on a standardized test it would say something like, “Trees are to fruit as prophets are to ______.” And there would be the answers: A) Words; B) Priests; C) Works; and D) Miracles. And we would all be tempted to pick C because when in doubt choose C and we’ve been told that is what this analogy is about anyway. But let’s think about this for a second. Trees were called by God to give fruit, so what were prophets called by God to give? Words. That’s the prophet’s job. The tree’s job is to give the fruit. The prophet’s job is to give the Word.
So how do you test a prophet to see if he is a true prophet or a false prophet? By his words. Are his words God’s Word. Or are his words God’s words distorted. That was the issue with the false prophets in the Old Testament that the Lord warned Israel of, their words would lead you away from Yahweh. That is the issue in the New Testament when we are warned against false teachers, their words lead us away from Jesus. That is the issue we have already said was at the heart of Jesus’ warning. Jesus was warning his disciples against false prophets because the false prophets would lead them away from him. Recall the words from Deuteronomy 18:20-22 we read earlier.
But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’—when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him (Deuteronomy 18:20-22, ESV).
What is the test the Lord gives his people? Are the prophet’s words true? If they are? Listen to him. If not? “You need not be afraid of him.” Don’t sweat him. Jesus is the One whose words came true. He said he would die, he died. He said he would rise, he rose. Any prophet, no matter how compelling his or her words may be, who leads you to rest in anything other than Christ for standing, security, hope, identity, forgiveness, mercy, grace, justification, or anything else promised freely in Jesus Christ is a false prophet. Period. Don’t be fooled. And just like the prophets of the Old Testament would be put to death, so too these false prophets of whom Jesus warns us will be cut down and thrown into the fire in their time.
Now, when we come to the book of Acts, we find this brief story of some believers from a town called Berea who I believe had taken the many biblical warnings to watch out for false prophets to heart. Listen to what they did when the apostles came to town.
The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men (Acts 17:10-12, ESV).
Note two things.
First, they checked Paul and Silas’ words against God’s word.
Second, the result was that they believed.
There are many true prophets who teach us God’s Word faithfully. There will be false prophets who seek to lead us astray. When we take the words of those claiming to be from God back to the text, they will either be confirmed by the text, causing our faith to be strengthened, or they will be revealed for what they truly are and we will be spared the bite of their ravenous wolf jaws. We should heed our Lord’s warning to beware false prophets and rejoice at those he gives us whose words drive us to Jesus and to spur us on to love and good deeds prepared for us in Christ. And we should boldly reject those who lead us anywhere else, no matter how well groomed that hellish destination appears to be. Let us pray.
Today we will continue our study of 1 John 5:16-17 looking at the next few layers of context, trying to answer the three pertinent questions.
1. Who is John saying is sinning?
2. How are they sinning?
3. What is the life that God is giving?
We are still in the first category, Biblical Context. Yesterday we considered the first four layers of context. Today we will look at layers 5-8 as we have defined them.
Category 1 – Biblical Context
Layer 5 – Other books in the same section of Scripture:
1. Who is John saying is sinning? We saw consistently in John’s writing that he recognized that any given group of believers on earth could have in it those who were not true believers but appeared so in some ways. As we look at other authors we can ask, is this a category of people they dealt with or is this something unique to John. If it is unique to John, that might be a reason to step back and take another look at what we saw in John to make sure we are understanding things correctly. However, we find that it is not at all unique to John. Paul instructs Timothy with the following words,
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth (1 Timothy 4:1-3, ESV).
Here Paul has an understanding of the church having people in it that will leave, rejecting the simple gospel, having had their consciences seared by deceitful teaching. We see similar statements in other letters as well.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain (1 Corinthians 15:1-2, ESV).
Notice that Paul’s understanding is not that they lost their salvation but that their faith was never true faith, it was vain.
2. How are they sinning? As we saw with John, we see with the two verses above that the issue is not a particular sin necessarily, but the manner of sinning seems to be the issue – ongoing, willful sin seems to be the issue, in particular it is a false faith leading to ongoing, willful sin.
3. What is the life that God is giving? Ideally, we would look at each use of divinely given life and note what they were referring to. We do not have the space to consider every text that deals with the life that God gives, but 1 Peter 1.3-5 is a good example of how such life is discussed.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Peter 1:3-5, ESV).
Layer 6 – other biblical writings of the same genre:
In this case the section of the canon and the genre of the writing overlap so extensively that this would needless repetition.
Layer 7 – The New Testament as a whole:
1. Who is John saying is sinning? Just as we sought confirming information of what John seems to be teaching in Epistles, so now we seek confirming (or contradictory) information in the rest of the New Testament. Having consider the Johanine literature and the Epistles previously we are left with the three synoptic gospels, and Acts. Do we find the category of people appearing to be “in” who are not actually. We need only look to the Sermon on the Mount to answer this question.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:15-23, ESV).
2. How are they sinning? As we have seen before it is their ongoing, willful sin. Particularly, in the verses considered above, it is their failure to teach the true gospel or believe the true gospel.
3. What is the life that God is giving? Again, we do not have the space to consider every passage, so we will consider a typical passage. In Matthew 19, we have the record of Jesus interaction with the rich young man. The pertinent part of this story for our purposes is that the rich young man comes asking Jesus, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life” (Matthew 19:16, ESV)? This young man comes to Jesus seeking eternal life because that is precisely what Jesus was clearly offering throughout his ministry.
Layer 8 – The Bible as a whole:
1. Who is John saying is sinning? Are there categories in the rest of the Bible, the Old Testament in this case, for people who seem to be included in the people of God but are not because of their ongoing sin? Yes, this is the message of the prophets to Israel over and over again. We read statements such as,
And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden” (Isaiah 29:13-14, ESV).
2. How are they sinning? As we have seen repeatedly at this point, we see again in this passage and many others like it that the issue is their false faith shown by their ongoing, willful sin.
3. What is the life that God is giving? Going back to the very beginning of the story we read in Genesis 3,
Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life (Genesis 3:22-24, ESV).
In this passage, as a result of their sin, eternal life and the freedom to eat of the tree of life is exactly what was lost in the fall. It is this reality that sets up the rest of the story of the Bible. A story that records how God, through the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus, made a way back to the tree of life for his people that we might have eternal life yet again. This is the life that God offers his people by faith from the beginning to the end of the story.
Our study of this broader context affirms precisely what we found in the more immediate layers of context. We could very confidently give our conclusions and our interpretation of the passage at this point; however, for the sake of the exercise we will push deeper into the context, considering the cultural context next.
If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life – to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.
As I said yesterday, on the one hand this verse is very straightforward, but on the other hand it raises lots of questions. The questions it raises come from John leaving “sins that do not lead to death” and “sin that leads to death” as well as the “life” that God will give undefined. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that John seems to be talking to Christians (those people Jesus speaks of in John 6 saying, “I will lose none”), as indicated by his use of the word “brother” which has referred exclusively to Christians throughout the letter. Explanations of this verse abound. Here are a few of the options:
1. John is talking about non-believers remaining in the deadly sin of unbelief and believers being saved through faith even though they sometimes sin as Christians.
2. John is talking about Christians losing their salvation based on committing some specific, but undefined sin.
3. John is talking about true believers having hope and people who self-identify as Christians but whose lives prove otherwise based on a specific sin they commit.
4. John is talking about Christians sinning in a way that leads to physical death, but not spiritual.
Each of these four interpretations answers three important questions in a variety of ways.
1. Who is John saying is sinning?
2. How are they sinning?
3. What is the life that God is giving?
Let’s try to answer these questions by thinking through this passage using the categories and layers of context we discussed yesterday. We’ll take a few days to do this, so we can see the value of careful study.
Category 1 – Biblical Context
Layer 1 – Immediate:
1. Who is John saying is sinning? Nothing gives any further information regarding the word “brother.” Perhaps John only sees those as brothers who commit sin not leading to death, since he does not say who is committing the sin that leads to death. However, that make his distinction about sin leading to death pointless.
2. How are they sinning? The only potentially helpful explanatory clause in defining the sin that leads to death is the final sentence, “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.” However, this sentence only restates what has already being said in a way that assures the readers that John is not begin soft on some sin.
3. What is the life that God is giving? Nothing gives any further information regarding the word “life.”
Layer 2 – Pericope: A new section begins with John’s purpose statement in 5:13 where he reminds us that he is writing to give those who believe confidence in their possession of eternal life. This section runs through the somewhat abrupt ending to the book in 5:21.
1. Who is John saying is sinning? John is writing to those who believe; however, in 5:18, he reminds us of the fruit of true faith, namely, that those born of God will not keep on sinning. We have seen the “keep on sinning” language earlier in John and established that it is referring to ongoing, willful sin.
2. How are they sinning? Two points in the pericope are potentially helpful. First, is the distinction noted above in 5:18. John says there is no place for believers to continue in ongoing, willful sin. Second, John encourages little children to keep themselves from idols. Perhaps John has idolatry in mind; however, this reads more like the final warnings that are common in New Testament letters.
3 What is the life that God is giving? In 5:13 and 5:20, John refers specifically to eternal life. It is reasonable to assume that John is using life, without the “eternal” qualifier, to reference the same idea in 5:16.
Layer 3 – The entire book of 1 John:
1. Who is John saying is sinning? Throughout his letter, John calls brothers not to sin (2:1), announces that if any do sin they have an advocate with the Father (1:9, 2:1), proclaims that all do in fact sin (1:8, 10), teaches his readers to distinguish between true and false believers based on whether they continue in ongoing, willful sin or not (1:6), and teaches his readers to distinguish between true and false brethren based on the particular sins of hating the brothers, loving the world, going out from the brothers, and denying that Jesus came in the flesh (2:9, 15, 19 & 4:3). From this we can say, throughout the letter John says true brothers sin in ways that do not nullify the work of Christ and false brothers sin in ways that do.
2. How are they sinning? People are sinning in all kinds of ways; however, those who are true brothers are not sinning by ongoing, willful acts of walking in darkness, hating the brothers, leaving the brotherhood, and denying that Jesus came in the flesh. Those who are false brothers are sinning in these ways in an ongoing, willful manner.
3 What is the life that God is giving? Throughout his letter John writes in reference to eternal life. At times, as in 5:12, he uses “life” without the “eternal” qualifier in a way that clearly refers to eternal life.
Layer 4 – Biblical writing by the same author (Johanine Literature):
1. Who is John saying is sinning? Throughout his writing, John consistently leaves room for Christians to sin and be restored while at the same time recognizing that some who walked with Christ as disciples are ultimately on the outside because of their sin. John records Judas’ tragic betrayal, Thomas’ doubting and subsequent faith, and Peter’s restoration to ministry after denying Jesus in his final hours. We see similar realities in the first three chapters of Revelation where John records Jesus words to the seven churches in Asia.
2. How are they sinning? As in his first letter, John records people sinning in all kinds of ways and being restored; however, those who continue in ongoing, willful sin are lost despite their self-identification. The letters to the churches in the first three chapters of Revelation shows this clearly.
3 What is the life that God is giving? While John sees God as the giver of both life in this world and eternal life, he is consistently writing that people might be born again, that is have eternal life.
We are only four contextual layers into our first contextual category, and we already are finding very consistent answers to our three pertinent questions. In fact, we could easily stop here and give a confident interpretation of this difficult passage. Nonetheless, we will continue our careful study tomorrow.
If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life – to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.
On the one hand, this is a very straightforward and heartening passage. We should pray for those who commit sins that do not lead to death and God will answer such prayers by giving life. On the other hand, this is a very difficult passage because John leaves a key issue undefined, namely the distinction he makes between sin not leading to death and the sin that leads to death.
There are three important hermeneutical lesson to be reminded of based on these verses – 1) we need the help of the Holy Spirit to understand and accept the Word of God, 2) not all Scripture is equally clear, and 3) context is king. We will think about context today, and apply it to the verses at hand tomorrow.
First, the Bible is the Word of God not the word of man. We can, in fact must, ask for his help in understanding his Word. Part of the ministry of the Holy Spirit is illumining our hearts and minds so that we can understand the inspired Word. Peter reminds us, “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20, ESV). The Spirit who indwells all believers and is our helper, knows what he meant when he lead these men to write even the difficult passages. We can apply a system and arrive at a meaning, but true understanding and acceptance of the passage will only come with the help of the Holy Spirit.
Second, while we do believe in the doctrine of the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture, we recognize that this doctrine does not mean that all of Scripture is equally clear. There are some passages that are very easy to understand and some that are quite difficult. The Westminster Confession of Faith states,
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them (WCF 1.7).
Third, when we come across a difficult passage, such as the one before us, wherein key terms are left undefined in the most immediate context, we must consider the various categories and layers of context to see if any answers are found. The temptation that must be avoided is skipping various categories and layers of context in order to speed up finding the answer we seek. So, what are the categories and layers of context that demand our attention? Different folks organize these categories and layers of context with various nuances. What follows is a way of thinking about context that I have found helpful.
There are three broad categories of context: Biblical, Cultural, Theological. For our purposes today, we will proceed through the categories of context in a linear fashion; however, it is important to understand that the three categories inform each of the other categories. For instance, the cultural context of Genesis is different than the cultural context of Romans, and this must be kept in mind when comparing how common themes are developed in each book. Let’s look at each category and layer of context.
The biblical context can be broken down into 8 layers, and is a good place to begin your study when digging into a difficult passage. There is a certain amount overlap between various layers, but when dealing with a difficult passage (or any passage for that matter) it is helpful to think through each layer systematically.
Layer 1 is the most immediate context, the verse(s) that you are trying to interpret. Are there explanatory clauses that help?
Layer 2 is the section, sometimes called the pericope, within which the verse is found. The vast majority of Biblical books have some obvious organization to them. Rarely does a single verse stand entirely on its own. Look at the section in which your verse is found for clues. The relevant section may be fairly short – just a few verses, in the case of epistles and more didactically focused writings, or much longer – several chapters, in the case of narrative writings. Are the difficult ideas or words fleshed out in other parts of the discussion?
Layer 3 is the entire book within which the verses are found. An author often will develop a theme early in a book and make a shorthand reference later (0r vice versa). Is the word, idea, or theme further developed in another part of the book or letter?
Layer 4 is other Biblical writings by the same author. One author will often have common themes and vocabulary running throughout his writings. Is this an ongoing theme for the author?
Layer 5 is other books in the same section of Scripture. The Bible is highly organized in six major sections (law, prophets, writings, gospels, acts, epistles) with Genesis and Revelation serving as an introduction and conclusion. Are there parallel verses where the difficulty may be addressed from a different angle?
Layer 6 is other Biblical writings of the same genre. Genre is not necessarily unique to a particular section of Scripture, and there may be common linguistic, thematic, or literary ideas that are used in a particular genre (poetry, prophetic, apocalyptic, epistolary, narrative, etc.) that extend beyond a particular section of Scripture.
Layer 7 is the Old or New Testament. Are there particular ideas in the passage you are studying that are uniquely developed in which ever testament your passage is found?
Layer 8 is the Bible as a whole. The Bible tells one story of God establishing his Kingdom through his Christ according to his covenants. How does the passage you are considering fit into the broader story? Does this overarching story of Scripture shed light on the passage your are considering? Do other passages that fall outside of the previous layers of context shed light on the passage you are studying?
Cultural context can be difficult to get at without various primary and secondary resources available for your use. There are numerous free tools online, study Bibles, and commentaries that are quite helpful. In addition, this is a good opportunity to sit down with your pastor and ask him to help you understand how to work through a difficult passage. There are four key layers of cultural context.
Layer 1 is the general cultural context of the actual writing of the book. Was the passage written during the exodus, the exile, the period after Pentecost?
Layer 1a is the cultural context of the author. For instance some of Paul’s letters were written from prison, some weren’t. Understanding Paul’s perspective on life as he writes from a prison cell can have a tremendous impact on how we understand various passages in a book like Philippians.
Layer 1b is the cultural context of the original audience. Was the passage you are dealing with written to Jews living in exile, to gentiles who are just beginning to grow in their faith as new Christians, or to some other group? How might understanding the original audience shed light on the difficult passage? Does the passage raise or answer particular questions for the original audience? Does the passage address particular issues for the original audience?
Layer 2 is the cultural context of the events and people in the passage. There may not be a particular event or character in passage. If there is, when did that event take place or character live? For example Genesis was likely written in the time of the wilderness wandering, but Abraham lived long before that period. How might the context of the events or characters impact how we interpret a passage?
There are three primary layers of theological context. As with the cultural context, various primary and secondary resources are of great value, as are conversations with your pastor.
Layer 1 is historical theology. How has the difficult passage been handled throughout church history? Is there historical consensus when it comes to the passage, or has every age and scholar brought a new thought to the table? If you have worked through the biblical and cultural context you probably have some ideas concerning the passage. Does anyone share your ideas about the passage, or are you out on a limb on your own? If your ideas are shared, are they shared by a known heretic or by someone in good standing with the church? If your ideas are not shared, is there some overwhelmingly compelling reason to think you are the first person to have ever gotten this passage correct?
Layer 2 is systematic theology. Systematic theology is traditionally broken down into seven division: Revelation (doctrine of knowledge and Scripture), Theology Proper (doctrine of God), Anthropology (doctrine of man), Christology (doctrine of Christ), Soteriology (doctrine of salvation), Ecclesiology (doctrine of the church), and Eschatology (doctrine of last things). Are there particular systematic ideas that your passages addresses or is addressed by? Most systematic theologies have various indexes such as Scripture indexes in the back. These can be very helpful.
Layer 3 is practical theology. Is the passage directed primarily at the mind – teaching us to believe something specific or think a certain way, the will – leading us to act or not act in a certain way, the emotion – calling us to feel a certain way (e.g. rejoice!), or some combination of the three?
A Word of Caution
The two most common mistakes I see in dealing with a difficult passage is skipping to the systematic theology layer or skipping to the practical theology layer without giving proper consideration to the other important layers of context. Skipping to the systematic layer typically works out as follows.
I don’t understand “X” passage. I know I believe “Y” doctrine. Therefore “X” must mean “Y”.
To be sure, having a solid grasp of theology serves as a good protection when dealing with difficult passages; however, it does not need to serve as the rule for our interpretation. It may be the case that our systematics need to be brought more in line with the teaching of Scripture. If we skip the other categories and layers of context, then we essentially make our system, with whatever strengths and weaknesses it may have, the rule by which we interpret the Bible, which is a bad plan.
Skipping to the practical layer typically works out as follows.
I don’t undestand “X” passage. I know the Bible tells us to do things. What can I find to do in “X” passage?
To be sure, some passages are calling us to action; however, not every passage is calling us to action. If we take this approach we often end up making whatever cause we are particularly passionate about the rule by which we interpret Scripture, which is a bad plan.
There will always be difficult passages with which even the most sound, Spirit-led, brilliant scholars will struggle. However, learning to be careful students using of the Word by thinking in the categories presented above will give us a solid basis on which our faith will grow.
The sermon recording from September 13, 2015. The text is Matthew 7.13-14.
And this is the confidence that we have towards him,
John is writing not to inspire a vain, faith-against-the-odds kind of confidence but a true confidence based on the reality of who God is and what he has declared and accomplished for his people through the finished work of Jesus Christ. John wants his people to know they belong to God and therefore belong before God. It is one thing to have confidence before the world, it is quite another thing to have confidence towards God almighty who created and sustains the world according to his will.
that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.
Having confidence towards God gives us great confidence in prayer. Throughout the Bible the people of God are called to come to God and ask. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught on prayer twice. First, he taught his disciples how to pray. Then, Jesus called his disciples to be diligent in prayer calling them to ask, seek, and knock. John calls us to prayer by declaring to us the confidence we have before God in prayer. Our confidence is first, that God hears us. There is of course a qualifying phrase which we will consider below, but first, we should give some thought to the fact that God hears us. The God of all creation, the sovereign of the universe hears us. The One who holds all things together hears us. That truth is phenomenal!
Now the qualifying phrase. John says we must ask “according to his will.” John is not promising that we can ask for whatever we want and be heard and blessed because we have enough faith. The Bible simply does not take the word/faith or name-it-and-claim-it approach to prayer at any point. What we are seeking is that God’s will would be done not that our will would be done or that God’s will would be changed to match our own will (Constable’s Notes, lumina.com). How are we to know God’s will? “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2, ESV). How are our minds renewed? This is the work of the Spirit through the ministry of the Word in which God’s revealed will is found. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, ESV).
And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.
It is not simply that God Almighty hears us; he also responds favorably and certainly. What confidence we have in the gospel! Again, this is not an issue of us using God as genie in a magic lamp who grants whatever we wish. This is God making us desire to do his will and then giving us what we desire.
The sermon recording from September 6, 2015. The text is Matthew 7.12.
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.
John is writing particular things to particular people for a particular purpose.
What are particular things that John has written?
There are, of course, multiple ways of answering this question. Some see “these things” as referring specifically to 5:12 or perhaps to 5:1-12; however, it seems best to take this statement as referring to the whole letter in parallel with 1 John 1:3-4 forming bookends on the body of the letter. John has written concerning the gospel and the Christian life to a group of people whose faith community had been dramatically impacted by what seems to be a church split. In the face of this split apparent opinions about the normal Christian life had sprung up resulting in folks questioning there position before God and in the church.
John provides us the pattern of giving the gospel to those who are facing some crisis faith or another. What do you tell people who have endured attacks from the enemy in the form of being told they were wrong or even outside of the household of God by people who used to be their friends and worship alongside them? What assurance can you give them? Do you point them to what their works, or do you point them to the finished work of Christ? John points them to the finished work of Christ writing things like, “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9, ESV). Or, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1 ESV). In announcing the gospel, John also pressed on to write of the necessary transformation that the gospel brings in one’s life, namely love for the brothers, always being careful to ground our works in the gospel and not the other way around. This had the effect of providing believers with one basis of hope, the finished work of Jesus Christ, that will have many sign posts in one’s life pointing back to that reality.
Who are the particular people to whom is John writing?
Time and again we have seen that John is concerned for believers loving believers. At times we have had to admit that certain verses are perhaps more narrow in their prescription for our love than we want to admit. All of this has implied a narrow audience as well. Here John gives us a clear statement regarding his audience, “you who believe in the name of the Son of God.” John is writing to Christians. This sets his letter in a decidedly different light than his gospel. John wrote his gospel “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31, ESV), a decidedly evangelistic focus. In his letter, John is writing to those who believe, or are believing, these things. It is important to note here, as we have before, that the Greek verbal behind the English believe is a present tense reminding us that belief is not a one time event.
What is the particular purpose for which John is writing?
John wants those who are believing to have assurance. It is important to note that John assumes belief of his audience but not assurance. Some have said that the two always exist together; however, John clearly sees that it is possible to believe and for one reason or another not have confidence in the possession of eternal life. This is a helpful reminder that our hope is in the finished work of Jesus Christ and not some particular feeling or passion or confidence we are or are not able to drum up in ourselves. The Westminster Confession of Faith acknowledges this point when it states, “This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of it” (WCF 18.3) before going on to encourage Christians to pursue such assurance through “the use of ordinary means” (Word, prayer, and sacrament). John wants his audience to be confident in their standing before God, even in the face of detractors seeking to undo their confidence, so he writes to them the gospel and shows what effects it has had in their lives.