1 John 3:19-22; 5:16-17 Preaching God’s Word and 1 John Loose Ends (Rev. Erik Veerman)
1 John 3:19-22; 5:16-17
Rev. Erik Veerman
Preaching God’s Word and 1 John Loose Ends
This morning’s sermon will be a little bit different. As you may know, we finished 1 John a couple of weeks ago. However, there are two passages that I want to go back to. You could call them loose ends. I didn’t have the time to adequately address them back when we were going through the related sections.
The other thing I’d like to do is talk through our philosophy of preaching. I’d like to answer the question, why do we usually work through books of the Bible? Why don’t we preach themes from the Scriptures every week? What are the reasons?
Some of you are probably sensing the irony, here. “So, you are saying that you’re going to preach a topical sermon on why you don’t preach topical sermons.” That’s true. The only thing I’ll point out is that we occasionally do topical sermons. We’ve done a few here for different reasons. But the large majority of our sermons are what we call “expositional.” That means expositing or explaining a scripture text.
This morning may feel a little more like a lecture than a sermon, at least at first. But rest assured. Next week we’ll be getting back to our normal pattern. We’ll be in 2 John, then following that, 3rd John.
Let’s begin by coming to God’s Word.
Please turn to 1 John 3, verses 19-22. You can find that on page 1212 in the Pew Bibles. After those verses, we’ll read 1 John 5:16-17.
Let me invite you to stand as we give reverence to God’s eternal word.
Reading of 1 John 3:19-22 and 1 John 5:16-17.
Preaching God’s Word
A well-known pastor from Atlanta recently said that pastors who preach verse by verse are lazy. In fact, to quote him, he says we are “just cheaters.” Why does he think that? Well, he believes that growth in the Christian life happens when the “bottom line” (as he says) or overarching principles of Christianity are taught. He also emphasizes being really really practical.
That sounds good, and to be sure, understanding the bottom line and being practical is important. There is a place for studying principles in the Scripture. Last year we did 2 sermons on church officers. One about elders and the other about deacons. In those sermons, we surveyed what the scriptures taught. Even two weeks ago, on Easter, we considered Evil and Suffering and the Resurrection. That sermon was grounded in a few verses of Philippians 3, but touched upon broader themes in the Bible.
But our week-in and week-out study, our primary sermon diet consists of working through books of the Bible. We dig in to the details of what God is saying through the original author to the original audience. And then, we apply that to our situation today.
Well, first of all, this is God’s Word. The Scriptures themselves testify to their inspiration and authority.
•The apostle Paul put it this way in his in his second letter to Timothy: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”
•The apostle Peter wrote something similar in 2 Peter 1. He said, “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” When we focus in on God’s Word, the very words on the page, we are examining the message that God has for us. God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit, is at work in that endeavor …because he is the one who worked through the human authors to give us God’s Word.
You’ve probably noticed that our worship service is full of Scripture. That’s because we believe it is the way through which God speaks to us. When we mine its depths, we are enriched, and God is at work. Let me put it this way: the Scriptures are the most relevant and powerful message for everyone and every generation. As the author of Hebrews puts it in chapter 4, “…the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart… no creature is hidden from its sight.” When we study and meditate on God’s word, it changes us – it conforms us to Christ. Through it, we grow in God’s grace, our understanding of God and salvation is expanded, and our faith is strengthened.
To be sure, a topical sermon can be very faithful to God’s Word. Absolutely. I hope and pray that this sermon meets that standard.
However, a steady diet of topical sermons comes with serious risks. Let me give you two primary risks:
1. First, in topical preaching, there is a great temptation for the pastor to impose his thoughts upon God’s Word. He can pick and choose verses that support his views and emphasis and leave out others. The message can focus more on a human agenda rather than what the Bible is saying. To be sure, that can happen in expository, verse by verse, preaching, as well. The text can be a spring-board to a topic, if the preacher doesn’t consider the true aim and purpose of the passage. But the risk of imposing our agenda on Scripture is greater when week after week, the sermons originate from a list of subjects or current cultural matters.
Instead of starting with a subject and then going to the Bible, we should primarily be starting with Scripture and then seeing what it says for our current situation.
2. The second risk is very much related to that. Every pastor has hobby horses and blind spots. When every sermon or series is focused on the pastor’s list of what’s important, there will be gaps. Important matters will be overlooked. Difficult subjects unintentionally avoided.
I’ll have to say, some weeks when I’m starting my preparation, I think, “Can I just skip over this?” But even though it’s hard work and at times, challenging, we are blessed because of it. By Sunday, I find myself very grateful for every verse that we come to.
Earlier in the service we read from Acts chapter 20. Paul had stopped near Ephesus on his journey back to Jerusalem. And he called the Ephesian elders to come to him. He exhorted them to stay focused on their shepherding role - protecting the flock and continuing the work he began. And he said this, “for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” You see for over 3 years, Paul taught them, day and night. They studied the prophets, and the law, and the psalms, and the teachings of Jesus and the other apostles. He did not “shrink” from it. In other words, he did not shy away from teaching unpopular truth, nor did he omit essential doctrine. Rather, he declare to them the “whole counsel of God.”
When we work through different books of the Bible, different genres, Old Testament and New, we are experiencing the whole counsel of God. And it is a rich and deep blessing to us.
A couple years ago, a Facebook friend of mine posted his criteria of what makes a good sermon. To him, a sermon is good if it speaks to the pain and suffering we experience. If it doesn’t include that, then it’s a bad sermon. I didn’t post a reply, but I wanted to! I would have said this “I agree that the Bible speaks to our heartache and grief and affliction -certainly it does in the Psalms, parts of the epistles, in various narratives…. And, of course, the suffering of Christ. However, the Scriptures give us so much more. God’s Word speaks into all areas of our lives. It reveals our idolatry and sin, directs us to give God the glory, it shows us the path to life, the wisdom and holiness of God, the folly of selfish pursuits, true love contrasted with hate, life and death. It speaks to the history of God’s relationship with and promises to mankind.
Through all of that, God speaks to the breadth of life experiences, that we may know who we are, who God is, and how to know and trust him.
Beloved, when we begin with the Scriptures, seeking to study the whole counsel of God, from the first page to the last, then God’s priorities and message will become our priorities and message. God will use his Word to shape and mold us through the Holy Spirit. And a big part of that is week after week Sunday morning sermons focused in the Scriptures. We begin with God’s Word, and see what Lord has for us from his Word.
Let me add this. The pattern of preaching in the New Testament is this pattern. The sermons recorded in Acts expound upon the prophets and the law and the history of Israel. The book of Hebrews is like a series of sermons. Next time you read Hebrews, notice the verse-by-verse exposition of multiple Psalms, Genesis, Leviticus, and a couple of prophets. And guess what they all do? Every single one of the example sermons in the Bible points to Christ. Every single one of them reveals how God’s promises are fulfilled in Jesus and what that means for you and me.
And let me respond to the opening critique! Expository preaching is not lazy and it’s not cheating. In fact, tilling the soil of the Scriptures is often hard work. I spend hours every week studying and considering this Word – what it meant to the original readers and how it applies to us, today. It’s my number one job. I can’t think of anything else I would rather focus on. God changes us through this. He changes me through this.
You’ve probably noticed this, when we are deep in the Scriptures, I often ask you to look down at specific verses. I do that on purpose. I don’t just want you tell you what I’ve learned. No, I want you to see and read the Word yourself.
One of my goals in preaching is to help each of us better study the Bible. To know how to dig deep into the text, and let it speak to us.
Ok, I’m going to leave it at that! More could be said, of course! At some point, I’d like to have a class on how to study God’s Word.
Well, let’s shift our focus now. If you are not there, please turn to 1 John 3. We’ll look at verses 19-22 and then chapter 5 verses 16-17.
These are two of the three most difficult texts to understand in 1 John. I think they will be an example of the blessing that comes from the work of studying God’s Word.
1 John 3:19-22
So, loose end #1. 1 John 3:19-22.
Back a couple of months ago, when we worked through these verses, we focused on love and hate. You may remember that sermon. It contrasted Cain who murdered his brother, and Jesus who laid down his life for his brothers. In there was a call to lay down our lives for one another. That was part of John’s broader message in chapter 3. When we display a love that comes from God’s love for us in Christ, then we know that God’s love abides in us.
And right in the middle of these verse on love and hate, are verses 19-22. Look down at verses 19 and 20. It says, “By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.”
One commentator I read pointed to three interpretive difficulties here.
•First, the Greek word for “reassure.” It could also be translated “convince” or “persuade.”
•Second, the word “whenever.” That word could also be translated “if” or “because.”
•And third, the meaning of the phrase “God is greater than our hearts.” That’s a difficult one. Related to that, the word for heart could also be translated “conscience.”
If you mix and match those various words, the meaning changes.
One historical interpretation has leaned more negative. It goes something like this: because our hearts condemn us, and God knows our hearts, therefore God’s condemnation is greater. In other words, our sin condemns us, and God sees the sin in our hearts, therefore he is just to condemn.
On the other hand, another historical interpretation has leaned more positive. It goes like this. Our conscience often condemns us. However, God knows all. We can have confidence in our true faith because of him. In other words, even when we feel condemned, God reassures us because he is greater than our sin.
That second interpretation aligns so much more with what John has been saying in chapter 3 and really, his letter as a whole. When our faith in Christ is genuine, when the pattern of our life testifies to our genuine faith, we can know that we are not condemned. No, God is greater.
I believe that word “reassure” in verse 19 captures the apostle John’s emphasis. And remember, the church, to whom John was writing was struggling with assurance. They had gone through a painful period where false prophets had taught false Gospels. Now that those “antichrists” as he calls them had left, John needed to clarify what was true and to reassure them of their true faith.
What I’m saying is that these verses offer that deep reassurance. When we feel the shame of sin in our hearts, we can look to God who renews of our faith in Christ.
Our assurance of pardon this morning came from chapter 1. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
What a great promise! And even if on this side of eternity we don’t know every detail of what chapter 3 verses 19-22 means, I believe we can take away a great assurance from God through it. The condemnation that Jesus endured for our sin is immeasurably greater than the condemnation that our hearts feel when we sin. As the old hymn goes, His grace is greater than all our sin.
Hopefully that helps to tie up that first loose end and give you great assurance in it!
1 John 5:16-17
The last and final loose end is in chapter 5. Jump ahead two chapters.
It was 3 and 4 weeks ago that we looked at these final 8 verses of John’s letter. You may remember, verses 13-15 are a beautiful call to come to the Lord in prayer. We can have confidence to bring our requests to God. And we can know that he hears us. Those verses gave us that rich promise of God’s love.
Then we skipped verses 16 and 17 and looked at 18-21. In the concluding words, we saw how the apostle circled back to the themes of assurance. God protects those in Christ forever. He protects us from our sin, from the world, and from the devil. And that eternal protection comes through the true and living Son of God, Jesus Christ. It is a tremendous conclusion to his letter.
The reason we skipped over 16 and 17 is there wasn’t enough time to work through the interpretive hurdles. It would have distracted us from those great concluding promises.
So, let’s tie up that final loose end.
Look down now at verses 16 and 17. The challenge is two phrases. The first phrase is early in verse 16: “a sin not leading to death.” Do you see that? The second challenging phrase is at the end of verse 16. It’s the opposite. “there is a sin” he writes, “that leads to death.” The question is, what sin does not lead to death and what sin leads to death?
Answering that is the key! So, let’s take those one at a time.
And let me say, one of the most important things when interpreting the Bible is the context. So let’s go back to what John has already said in his letter up to this point.
First, multiple times in chapters 1 and 2, he wrote that Christians still sin. He said, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” On the contrary, we have sinned and do sin. When we sin, as John wrote, we have an advocate with the God the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous. That message has been very clear in this book. We talked about how Christians still have the presence of sin in their life, but the power and the penalty of sin have been removed.
So, when we read in chapter 5 about a sin that does not lead to death, in context, it’s talking about the presence of sin in the Christian life. And notice the word “brother” …verse 16. The point is to pray for your brother or sister in Christ who is struggling with a sin in their life. That connects to the previous verses on prayer. We’re to pray for one another when we see sin, knowing that we each have the remnants of sin in our lives. And by praying for one another, God will give life. That’s the emphasis here. In fact, John writes about sins that do not lead to death 3 times in these two verses. That’s because he wants them to understand the presence of sin in the Christian. It doesn’t lead to death, no, God forgives. Our responsibility is to pray for our brother or sister to overcome that sin.
So then, the big question, what is the sin that leads to death? Well, John has been talking over and over about those who reject Jesus or who’s lives display a pattern of unbelief. He has said they are not born of God, they do not know the truth. In other words, their sin of unbelief is the sin that leads to spiritual death.
These two verses are not saying you can lose your salvation. That interpretation goes against what John has been writing about over and over. In fact, the concluding verses of chapter 5 speak about how God protects those who are born of him.
Remember, all throughout, John has been drawing a line between true faith and false faith. True belief in Jesus and false belief about him. Verses 16 and 17 fit right into that pattern. Sin that does not lead to death –is the sin of a true believer. And sin that does lead to death – is the sin of rejecting Jesus.
And that helps us understand the end of verse 16. John writes that we should not pray for the sin that leads to death. The antichrists, who had been in the church, had revealed their rejection of Jesus – they were anti-Christ. John is calling us to focus our prayer on believers, who have made a true profession of faith in Christ. Should we pray for unbelievers? Absolutely! We were all unbelievers, and people prayed for us, and the Holy Spirit worked in us. What he seems to have in mind are not those who are seeking, but those who outright reject Christ.
He’s emphasizing to pray for brothers and sisters who have stumbled in sin. That is the primary emphasis. We should pray for one another in the sin struggles we each have. Not just praying for needs and burdens but asking the Holy Spirit to bring conviction from sin and praying that he would remove temptation.
We all need God’s grace to pursue his righteousness and give glory to him. We cannot do that in our own strength, and so we pray for one another, that God would open our eyes to our sin and draw us back to him.
In closing, God’s Word is inspired, powerful, effective, true, authoritative, and sufficient! When we spent our time reading and studying it, allowing it to speak to us, God will build us up. Through his Spirit, he will broaden our understanding of his nature and love. We will grow in hope and assurance. He will direct us to what is true and right and holy.
May we seek to be faithful to know and receive his Word. And may we be encouraged and challenged as we continue to study the whole counsel of God. Amen?