“Fellowship through the Word of Life” (1 John 1:1 – 2:2)
Today on this Second Sunday of Easter, we begin six straight weeks of Epistle readings from First John. This is quite appropriate for the Easter season, since First John is all about a real crucified-and-risen, flesh-and-blood Savior for real flesh-and-blood sinners. In his epistle John is telling us that this is the only way to have fellowship with God and with one another: It is through Christ, the eternal Son of God, coming in the flesh, shedding his blood for us, and rising from the dead bodily, to give us eternal life. We have fellowship with God and with one another only through the enfleshed and proclaimed Word of Life, Jesus Christ. And so at the beginning of this epistle, John announces his theme: “Fellowship through the Word of Life.”
First, though, a little background on this epistle. What we learn from church history is that around the time that Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70, the apostle John left Jerusalem and moved to the city of Ephesus, in western Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey. By this time Peter and Paul were dead, many of the other apostles were dead, and before long John would be the last one left, the last living link to the Lord Jesus Christ. He who had been the youngest disciple was now the last apostle. John developed a strong bond with those churches in Asia Minor. He was affectionately known as “the Elder,” “the Old Man.” And he in turn called the Christians in these churches “my children,” “my little children.”
Now it was the late first century, and John himself was probably in his 80s. He was still busy teaching the pure apostolic doctrine. But there arose in Ephesus and elsewhere, certain false doctrines and false teachers who challenged the right teaching about Christ. They drew off followers for themselves. They withdrew from the fellowship of the church, in order to form their own groups. These false teachers were influenced by philosophical ideas that said that physical matter was evil, that one had to ascend from the material to the spiritual. And this secret “knowledge” made you “super-spiritual,” advanced and superior, and really without sin.
One of the false teachers who was popular in Ephesus at this time was a guy named Cerinthus. Cerinthus taught that the man Jesus was not really God, that he was just a man born the ordinary way, the son of Joseph and Mary–but a really good man, very wise. At his baptism the spirit of the Christ came upon this man Jesus, and thus was he was able to do miracles and teach about God and so on. But the Christ-spirit left Jesus before he suffered and died, since of course God cannot suffer and die. That was what Cerinthus taught. Like most heretics, he couldn’t get God and man together in the one man Jesus Christ. How could God become man? How could God come in the flesh? How could God suffer and die and rise from the dead, bodily? This didn’t make sense to Cerinthus, and so he tried to explain it away.
But John, the old apostle who had been with Jesus, knew better. Only a flesh-and-blood, God-in-the-flesh Jesus, who is the Christ in himself, the eternal Son of God–only this Jesus could be the Savior who saves us from sin. It isn’t by us ascending from the physical to the spiritual. It’s by the spiritual–namely, the divine, heavenly Son of God–descending to us and taking on our physical flesh and suffering and dying and shedding his blood for us–this is how we are saved. It is not by us “super-spiritual” ones attaining to some higher level of secret knowledge. No, it is by the blood of Christ cleansing us from our sins.
History tells us that the old man John strongly opposed the heresies of the false teacher Cerinthus. So much so that, one day when John was at the public bathhouse in Ephesus and he heard that Cerinthus was in the building, John ran out, exclaiming, “Let us fly, lest even the bathhouse fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.”
Well, that seems to be the backdrop for this epistle from John. He’s writing to the churches in and around Ephesus, warning them of the false teachings about Christ that were going around. John explains how these are really harmful. They’re divisive of fellowship with God and within the church. These wrong views about Christ cannot save you. And then on the positive side, John teaches clearly the right doctrine of Christ and how this truth does bring about fellowship with God. It cleanses from sin. It produces love and fellowship with one another in the church. So you can see that this letter has tremendous implications for us here today.
John starts out: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life–the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us–that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”
Fellowship through the Word of life: We have fellowship with God and with one another only through the enfleshed and proclaimed Word of Life. John had been with Jesus throughout his ministry. He had been there at the cross, too, when Jesus was suffering and bleeding and dying. And John had been there with the disciples on Easter evening, when he heard the risen Lord say, “Peace be with you.” John saw Christ’s hands and his side, where the nails had gone in and the spear had been thrust. This was a physical, resurrected, flesh-and-blood Savior. This was no phantom, no ghost, no hallucination. No, Jesus himself had really risen from the dead, bodily–Jesus, the Christ, the same one John had heard and seen throughout his ministry. And John was there also a week later, when Jesus came in their midst again, this time with Thomas present. Jesus spoke his word of peace to them again. And he invited Thomas to touch and see his hands and side. Thomas worshiped the risen Lord Jesus Christ, saying, “My Lord and my God!”
John was there for all of that, all those years earlier. And now he is bearing witness to the truth about Jesus, contrary to what the false teachers were saying. John is saying that Jesus is indeed God in the flesh, the eternal Son of God. Jesus is the Christ. John starts out this epistle like he starts out his gospel, asserting the divinity of Jesus. In his gospel, John states: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” And then he says: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Now in his epistle, John says the same thing: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life–the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it.” John emphasizes that the eternal Son of God, who was there in the beginning, really did come in the flesh. We apostles were there. We saw it with our own eyes. We even touched and handled his crucified and risen body. Those who tell you otherwise, guys like Cerinthus–they are lying. You will not find life or fellowship with God by listening to them.
Dear friends, we have life, eternal life, and fellowship with God only through the enfleshed Word of Life, the Lord Jesus Christ. It takes a flesh-and-blood Savior, crucified and risen, to rescue sinners like us. You see, that’s the problem with Cerinthus and his modern counterparts. They downplay the person of Christ, his divine and human natures in one person. They downplay the work of Christ, his shedding his blood for our sins. These false teachers would rob you of the only life-giving gospel there is. For Cerinthus and his ilk hate the idea that we cannot save ourselves by our own wisdom or knowledge and by attaining to a higher level of spirituality. All Cerinthuses, ancient and modern, hate the idea that it takes the death of God himself to save us from our sins. They don’t want to hear that our sins are that bad and that we are in such bad shape. All of us, by nature, want to think of ourselves as not that bad, not that lost. We want to be able to compare ourselves to others who are not as advanced as we are. At heart, then, we are all like Cerinthus.
But God has a better idea. It’s the only idea that works, and old man John is the faithful witness who tells us about it. He tells us it is this God-in-the-flesh Jesus who gives us life. John tells us that we are sinners. We are not so advanced that we can get to the place where we are without sin: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” But at the same time, John tells us that God’s Son, Jesus Christ, shed his blood for us to cleanse us from our sin: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
That’s what it takes to save a world of sinners like you and me. It takes a bloody Savior. It takes the eternal Son of God dying for us. “He is the propitiation for our sins,” meaning, Jesus is the one who takes the wrath of God against sinners upon himself in our place. Jesus Christ satisfies God’s justice. Now risen from the dead, this same Jesus is our advocate in heaven, pleading our case, so that God declares us not guilty for Christ’s sake. This is what Jesus has done and is doing for you! “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
Brothers and sisters, we have fellowship with God and fellowship with one another through the enfleshed Word of Life, Jesus Christ the Son of God, our flesh-and-blood Savior. And we know and believe in the enfleshed Word of Life through the proclaimed Word of Life. John and Thomas and those other eyewitnesses could actually see and hear and touch and handle Jesus “up close and personal.” You and I were not there, but we are at no disadvantage. Christ proclaimed is as good as Christ seen and heard. Jesus himself says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” And that’s us.
Today the Word of Life has been proclaimed in your hearing. Through this proclamation, you do indeed have fellowship with God. You do indeed have eternal life. And in this sacrament, with the bread and the wine, we do indeed receive the very body and blood of Christ by which our sins are forgiven.
Dear friends, it’s Easter here once again today! Because Jesus is here with us, in our midst, speaking his word of peace and life to us! In this we rejoice, because we have fellowship with God and fellowship with one another through the Word of Life–the Word of Life enfleshed, the Word of Life proclaimed. And we are proclaiming these things to you today so that our joy may be complete.