I often get asked where to start when reading the Bible for the first time, or even just what I’m reading in the Bible, personally, as of late. Of course, if someone is asking where to start I usually direct them to one of the Gospels so they can read about Jesus’ life and ministry. But, what I’ve been reading personally lately is also something I like to recommend to folks just starting out or even those who are looking for something different to read. It’s the first epistle (letter) of John and I think this piece of Scripture is something that everyone should have on their reading list for the summer. I believe this so strongly, that I’m going to take the summer and go through it with you in a series of blogs for you to keep up with, discuss with your Life Groups if you’re still meeting, and/or enrich your own personal study. I hope you’re able to follow along!
If you’re a fan of soul music (or have seen the Austin Powers movies and heard Burt Bacharach’s version) you’re familiar with the song “What the World Needs Now” by Dionne Warwick. The main line of the song is, “what the world needs now is love, sweet love.” Those lyrics couldn’t be truer today than any other time in the world and I believe those lyrics encompass the message of 1 John.
The letters of John were written during a time of division within the early church. The church was growing and getting more established across Asia Minor at that time, and with so many different cultures and backgrounds coming together, you could expect that there were likely to be disagreements. That’s a major reason for why John was writing to these churches and it is driving the message he’s trying to get across, which is to love one another as God has loved everyone. As we’ll see, this love can be shown in different ways, but it is the foundation on which to build everything else. Here’s how the letter starts:
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.
Have you ever got the sense that the world is not what it could be or should be? I think that is something that everybody has felt at some point or another. And I’m pretty sure that we’re not the first generation in history to think such things. In fact, I know we aren’t. The Jewish people of the Old Testament, and into Jesus’ day, thought there were two sides of history: the present and the future. The present, they thought, was full of suffering while the future, or the “age to come” as is often translated in the Bible, was where God makes everything new sets things right. When Jesus came, these two sides of history collided into one. Through what John refers to as the “Word of Life,” (and echoing what he mentioned in the beginning of his Gospel) we now have access to true life.
But, what does this true-life entail? John explains this and it seems to be his entire purpose for writing the letter. John and his companions knew Jesus. They didn’t just know who he was; they lived with him and did ministry with him. As Jesus passed on to them, now John is passing down to his audience and this cycle has continued on down to us today, including you who are reading this blog. True life comes in community, in a tight-knit, intimate family who shares life and ministry together. When we share life, we are also sharing in the life of God. When we share life, we are “communing” with the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. How spectacular is that!?
Even more spectacular is that we get to invite others into this life and they can join us. God spoke through Jesus and is still speaking through Jesus, and through us so that our “fellowship” keeps growing. When this happens, the future continues to break into the present and give us hope that the world is getting made right by God’s grace and love. Despite whatever divisions, disagreements, or whatever else is seeking to turn us against one another, the love of Jesus is what is constantly keeping us bound and unified.
Too many times, we are “unified” on the wrong things. You can tell because these are the things that often lead to disunity! But, when we’re all unified by love, and when that is our primary motivation for living and relating to one another, our joy can be made complete, too. Not everything will go right, and not everyone will agree on everything, but we come back to love and when we do so, we not only honor God but we live up to our namesake: the body of Christ.
Keep all this in mind as we continue to journey through this incredible letter of the early church, together.