Here, at the beginning of the fifth chapter, John answers again the single most important question we will ever ask ourselves -- who is Jesus? Interestingly, the answer to that question is intertwined with a second question -- what does Jesus have to offer us?
On the first point, we are told that Jesus is the Son of God. We are also told that he is the one who came by water and blood. To emphasize the importance of this duality, John repeats himself: "He did not come by water only, but by water and blood." 1 John 5:6.
Throughout the ages theologians have wrestled with the precise meaning and significance of all of this. Some think that "water and blood" refers to Jesus being pierced with a spear while on the cross -- "bringing a sudden flow of blood and water." John 19:34. Others think it refers to the sacraments of Baptism and Communion. Still others would say it refers to the baptism of Jesus himself and His death on the Cross.
This question will no doubt continue to be debated until Jesus returns, and we can certainly dwell on such things if we so choose. At the same time, we should not let such debates distract us from the point John is making -- Jesus is the Son of God.
The catalyst for John's first letter was that some people had left the fellowship, believing that Jesus was different in some way than the Jesus John knew and testified to. Perhaps they had embraced some form of gnosticism.
In any event, John tells us that "there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement." 1 John 5:7. Whatever else John is trying to tell us, I think he is making clear that Jesus, while on the earth, was fully God and fully man. It is this Jesus, and this Jesus alone, who must be the object of our faith. He is the one who came to earth in human form, was born of the virgin Mary, who died on the Cross for our sins and who rose again. He is the one who will come again to judge the living and the dead.
To conceive of Jesus as a great teacher, or a great philosopher, or a great person will not do. He is the living God, and understanding him to be such is the only way to obtain what Jesus has to offer.
And what is it exactly that Jesus has to offer us? The first offer, of course, is eternal life. "And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son." Put differently, the first offer for those who believe is eternity in the presence of God. But "belief" here is not mere intellectual assent. The Greek word is πιστεύω (pisteuō). It means to believe, to trust and to submit to the power of. We must make Jesus the Lord of our lives to be saved.
The second offer is the power to carry out God's commands -- and particularly his command to love others. Obeying God's commands is impossible through our own strength. The pull of the world is diametrically opposed to the pull of the Spirit. The world calls us to selfishness while God calls us to selflessness. Anyone who is honest with himself recognizes this tension. We all struggle with even the idea of putting others ahead of ourselves. And, the problem becomes compounded when the "others" of whom Jesus speaks are our enemies -- or His enemies.
But with true faith in Jesus comes the power to overcome the world: "In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God." 1 John 5:3-5. What is impossible for man becomes possible through the power of His Spirit. Indeed, His power is so great that commands that are impossible to keep in the flesh are not even burdensome for the spirit.
I hope you see the unmistakable parallel between what John is telling us here and what Jesus tells us are the two greatest commands:
One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
It is interesting to me that in the past few decades much of the Christian community has focused on the "moral decline" in America. Indeed, a great deal of time, effort and money has been spent trying to legislate morality through the political process. The two observations I would make about this are (1) those efforts do not seem to have had much success; and (2) legislating morality, were it possible, would not achieve the only really meaningful goal that we should have as Christians -- leading other people to a relationship with Jesus.
Looking back now, I am afraid that our attempts to legislate morality actually played into the hands of our enemy. Our efforts alienated many, and probably diverted our attention away from the real battle -- the battle for hearts and minds.
In fact, I would say that the real battle, and the one we largely missed, has been taking place at the core of our faith. It was, and is, a battle over exactly what John has been talking about in this letter -- the truth of who Jesus is and the war that rages within between loving ourselves and loving others.
According to research from The Barna Group published in 2015, while most American adults at least agree that Jesus was a real historical figure, there is increasing disagreement about who Jesus was and is. In fact, for the first time in American history less than 50% of one generation group (millennials) believe that Jesus is God. Moreover, there is a clear, negative trend from generation to generation.
According to the same research: "[f]ewer than half of Millennials believe Jesus was God (48%), compared to 55 percent of Gen-Xers, 58 percent of Boomers and nearly two-thirds of Elders (62%). Young adults among the youngest generation are also less likely than older Americans to say they have made a personal commitment to Christ. Just 46 percent say they have made such a commitment, compared with six in 10 Gen-Xers (59%), 65 percent of Boomers and seven out of 10 Elders (71%)."
In short, the greatest battle we have faced in America over the last fifty or so years has not been one of declining morals, but instead one of declining faith. It is the greatest commandment itself, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, that has been at the epicenter of the enemy's attack.
The call of Jesus to love others more than ourselves, the second greatest commandment, has similarly been under siege in recent decades. We hardly need statistics or a study to confirm that as a culture we are increasing becoming a selfish, self-centered people. And, I am afraid the pattern is little different in the church than outside of it.
Even the secular world understands the basic problem. As one psychologist noted, "The characteristic that perhaps most distinguishes non-narcissists from narcissists is empathy. Empathy refers to a capacity and tendency to experience life not just from one’s own point of view but also from that of others, to feel others’ joy and sorrow, and to care about others’ well being. Specialists in moral development consider empathy to be the foundation for human compassion and morality." Peter Gray, Ph.D., "Why Is Narcissism Increasing Among Young Americans? Play deprivation may underlie the increase in narcissism and decline in empathy." Posted in Psychology Today, Jan 16, 2014. [Think Romans 12:15 -- "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn."]
Again, it is no great surprise where the culture, in and outside the church, is heading. Commenting on questionnaires given to college age people over the last thirty years or so, this same psychologist made this observation. "Over the years, these questionnaires have been administered to many samples of college students, and analyses that bring all of the data together reveal that the average narcissism score has been steadily increasing and the average empathy score has been steadily decreasing ever since the questionnaires were developed. The changes are highly significant statistically and sufficiently large that approximately 70 percent of students today score higher on narcissism and lower on empathy than did the average student thirty years ago."
What do I take away from all of this? At the end of the day, I think as God's people we need to repent and return to our first love -- Jesus. We need to take seriously his call to put him first in our lives and to love others with the infinite love of Jesus.
Our willingness to obey God's commandments is not just a reflection of our individual love for Jesus. It is not a call that has implications limited to our own salvation or spiritual maturity. Rather, it has wide-ranging implications for our families, our friends, our places of work, our communities and beyond. It is the epicenter of the attack of an enemy that has come to kill, steal and destroy.