I John 2:3-6
We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.
Today’s brief section begins John’s letter in earnest. He barreled through his introduction skipping all the niceties of traditional letter openings–no “hello,” no identifying himself or even the ones to whom he’s writing, and no affectionate expressions. Instead he begins with a direct statement affirming the incarnation of Jesus the Christ followed by a statement summarizing Jesus’ message that through him we can have fellowship with God and with his people.
There is an urgency in his form (non-traditional letter) and tone (more on that later). We come to understand his urgency as we read through the letter. We see that false teachers were disrupting this band of Ephesian churches with their rejection of clear apostolic teaching. They made the same claims as the apostles–we have life with God too!–but then proved themselves liars with their doctrinal and moral failures.
It would have been very confusing for the church to see these people–people they loved, people who had sat under the teaching of John with them, and who had lived life alongside of them–begin to cast doubt on his teachings. They would have tempted others to doubt the truth, even fully persuading some. And they likely preyed first on the weak and newly converted. Had their heresies spread unchecked, they would have been devastating. But John, determined to clear up the confusion, restore truth, and provide assurance to true believers, picked up his pen and urgently began to write. In his letter, he administers a series of tests to divide the proverbial sheep from the wolves so that God’s people could be reassured that they have the truth and that the marks of that truth are apparent in their lives. Today’s text introduces the first test. It is the test of obedience. This test revisits the foundational description of life with God from his opening remarks–that christians walk in the light. But here he’s going to drop the metaphorical language of “light”and “darkness” and speak more directly, more concretely. “Fellowship” or life with God is described as “knowing” God or being “in him.” And living in the light is equated with obedience to God’s words.
Those who truly have fellowship with God obey his commands, just as Jesus did, even when he was tempted. (Hebrews 4:15) And with their obedience they demonstrate their love for God–which of course is the demand of the first and greatest commandment. This obedience is so important, so foundational to the Christian life, that John not only talks about it in his introduction and uses it as his first test of true life with God, but revisits it over and over again throughout his letter.
But why so much talk about sin and obedience? Sin was the original problem. It is what cut us off from the life of God in the first place. Jesus died to remove that sin and bring us back to God. When God raised Jesus from the dead, he raised our souls from spiritual death and gave us new life–lives empowered by God himself to resist sin and obey him. Dead people sin. It has no place among the living.
But sin is still deceitful and devastating. It has the same spillover effect as those heresies in Ephesus. It’s unlikely that one false teacher stood up in corporate worship on a Sunday and announced that Jesus wasn’t really human or fully divine or that he didn’t believe they were sinners anymore. More likely he first entertained these lies in private before slowly revealing them to others, over time gaining traction within the church. There is no private sin. It honors no boundaries. What we coddle in our hearts and minds will inevitably bleed out. It will expose itself in our attitudes, and out itself in our speech. Our behaviors will change too–subtly at first and then more boldly as we continue to nurture sin. Over time the sin deceives us so that our view of life, God and truth changes. And it won’t stop there. Our sin will tempt those around us toward reactive sins. It will encourage their watching eyes to model our thinking and behavior. It will cast doubt on our profession and encourage others to doubt their own. Sin will build a vast network of tunnels and roads and channels and attempt to reestablish its dominion in the lives and hearts of all it touches. But God’s people have been set free from sin’s enslaving effect. True believers, though “tempted, tried and sometimes failing”* will not be mastered by its power. Believers will confront that sin with the truth, confess it to the God they love and go on living in the light. True Christian lives are lives of obedience.
*from “Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners“