Who are we?

In this blog, there will be a variety of material: thoughts on Bible books, book reviews, historical characters, aspects of Scottish church history and other things.

Monday, 30 November 2015

1 John 5:18-19 – Recognise the limits of the enemy

John has provided three remedies that will help each Christian deal with the problem of indwelling sin. We have already considered two of them – (1) the doctrine of regeneration and (2) the activity of Jesus. Today we will think about the third, which is that each Christian should recognise the limitations of the devil’s power.

John here writes that the devil ‘does not touch him’, that is, the Christian. By ‘touch’, John does not mean a minor contact. We get an idea of what is meant here when we observe that the word is used of Mary Magdalene in John 20 when she clung to the body of Jesus on the resurrection morning. It is a word that contains a lot of force, energy and power, here used with the aim of assaulting a believer.

We can see that John makes a contrast between the control the devil has over the world and the way he attempts to deal with the children of God. The world is content to be under the devil’s power whereas the devil is not content that the Christians are not under his power. Therefore, he will attack them, usually by temptation. An obvious example from the Bible is the experience of Simon Peter whom the devil wanted to assault badly, but for whom Jesus prayed effectively when he denied his Master.

The reality is that we need the intercession of Jesus in order to obtain victory over the temptations and other assaults of the devil. His aim is to get us to live a life of sin, to make us like the world over which he has power. In contrast, Jesus works in order to preserve us from such a tragedy.

Of course, we have to ask how Jesus does this. Does it happen without our participation? The answer is that in order to have victory we have to follow the instructions of Jesus in the Bible. We can briefly mention three requirements for dealing with the devil.

The first is specific, regular prayer and this requirement was taught by Jesus when he gave what is called the Lord’s Prayer to his disciples; ‘And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil [the evil one]’ (Matt. 6:13). The Lord’s Prayer is a picture of daily prayer and if we want to avoid defeat we need to pray.

The second is the putting on of the spiritual armour listed by Paul in Ephesians 6:10-18. It would be wise for us, as Christian soldiers, to make sure we have on the right pieces and that we are ready for the onslaught.

A third requirement is mentioned in James 4:7: ‘Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.’ How long do we resist for? Until he flees, and that description is a reminder that a believer can have victory over the enemy. Peter uses the same word ‘resist’ with regard to the devil in 1 Peter 5:8-9. There, Peter says that the attacks of persecution, instigated by the devil, are the common lot of believers and the task of each is to resist him.

So we have to use the helps that Jesus has instructed us to use. When we do we should remind ourselves that power will come from Jesus in heaven to make them effective in our spiritual conflicts. Perhaps the first readers of this letter were concerned that the false teaching would destroy the church. John assures them that Jesus is always ready to help them and he gives the same assurance to us, no matter what new strategies the devil may be using.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

1 John 5:18 – The activity of Jesus

John wants his readers to think about divine remedies for the problem of sin in the life of a Christian. He mentions three remedies: the doctrine of regeneration, the activity of Jesus, and the limits of the devil. Yesterday, we thought about regeneration and today we will think about the activity of Jesus, described here as the ‘One who was born of God’ and that he keeps believers. This sounds rather cryptic, but the choice of words could have been chosen to make readers think carefully.

First, we need to ask what we are being kept from and the answer is in the next line – we are being kept from the devil. So it is straightforward to recognise that we need a divine person to keep us because we cannot keep ourselves in this area of spiritual living. Alexander Ross, in his commentary on 1 John, says that ‘The Eternally Begotten keeps him who is begotten by grace.’

Second, why does John refer to Jesus as the one who is born of God? There could be two answers to this question. One could be that John was referring to the incarnation of Jesus and stressing the genuineness of his humanity. The other is that he is indicating that there is a connection between Jesus and his people, one that is very close.

Third, in what way does the Son of God protect his people? It looks as if John is referring to a current activity of Jesus rather than a past or a future one. Therefore, what John has in mind is the intercession of Jesus in heaven, a reminder that the intercession is focussed on protection of his people from the power of the devil. In John 2:1-2, Jesus is described as our advocate who defends his people in the courts of heaven from accusations and defends them on the basis of his propitiation (his payment for the penalty for sin).

In 3:8, John wrote that the mission of Jesus included his purpose to destroy the works of the devil. Jesus did so at the cross and will do so at the second coming. He also does so in the present when he enables his people to resist the devil by sending the Holy Spirit to regenerate them and then to strengthen them throughout life. It is good for us to consider that our conversion took place as a consequence of the intercession of Christ and that our sanctification continues because of the intercession of Christ.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

1 John 5:18 - Think about regeneration

John has urged his readers to think about divine remedies for the problem of sin in the life of a Christian. The first that he mentions is the doctrine of regeneration. What do we mean by regeneration?

Regeneration is an action of God whereby a spiritually dead sinner is made alive by him. It is a gracious action because the sinner does not deserve it, nor did he ask for it. It is an action that affects the whole person – his mind is enlightened about God and his ways, his affections are changed and he loves God, and his will is subdued in the sense that he no longer opposes God by sinning against him with full intent.

Moreover, regeneration has definite effects in each person who is made alive by God. A regenerated person no longer loves sin. Instead he loves holiness and wants to obey God. He has new desires. God has written his law on that person’s mind and heart and he reveals that he is a new creature. It is impossible for a regenerated person not to live a holy life. 

The first activity of regeneration is faith in Jesus accompanied by repentance for sin. This faith is an expression of enlightenment, that the individual understands the gospel; an expression of new affections, that the individual loves the Saviour; and an expression of new desires, that the individual wants to be a disciple of Jesus.  This is why he does not keep on practising sin.

John makes it clear that a person who has experienced regeneration does not practice sin. This does not mean that he is sinless and that he cannot become a backslider for a time. It does mean that a spiritually healthy Christian usually flees from sin and does not wish to get involved in sinful activities.

A regenerated person is justified by God and adopted into his family, is being sanctified, and is on his way to being glorified. It is important that believers remind themselves about who they are and what God has done for them in his great salvation.

Friday, 27 November 2015

1 John 5:18 – The Christian and personal sin

One of the big problems in the Christian life is the presence of sin in believers. When we think about the great change that occurs at conversion it is important that we judge it from biblical statements and not merely on a personal assessment of how we feel about our sins. Judging it according to the latter does cause problems because we can be selective about sin, sensitive to some sins and scared of what sin can do in us.

With regard to being selective about sin, it is a fact that we are liable to excuse or tolerate some sins. Those type of sins may belong to our character traits and we may be inclined not to regard them as sinful. But sin does affect our character traits. Also there may be sins connected to our interests and we may imagine that such sins do not affect us, yet they do. So I may tolerate sins that you may not because I have convinced myself that they are harmless. But there are no harmless sins.

The issue of being sensitive concerning sin is connected to the light we now have on ourselves. Before we were converted, we were totally depraved. That does not mean we were as sinful as we could be. Instead it means that sin had affected every part of our human nature – our minds, our affections and our actions. After conversion, it still does. No Christian has an area of life in which sin is not found. Even their holy actions are contaminated by their sin. The one big difference, in this regard, is that they now see sin differently than from how they regarded it before they were converted. The healthy Christian is appalled by the sight of sin and can imagine that his current sinfulness is a lot worse than what it was before he became a believer. This is because he sees sin with new light.

One of the devil’s tactics in such circumstances is to use them to frighten believers into inactivity regarding their spiritual walk. He may suggest to them that since they are such great sinners God will be highly offended with them and not forgive them. Or he may suggest that such sins will make them useless in his service. Instead of talking to God about their sins they talk to themselves and that is never a wise path. If we probe our sins it is inevitable that we shall see more details. It is fair to conclude that the difference between the conviction of sin that the Spirit causes and the conviction of sin from other sources is that the Spirit always points us to the blood of Christ as the ongoing means of cleansing.

John here in this verse reminds his readers about certain truths about sin that we should remember when we sin. He mentions three details. First, we should remember the reality of regeneration – we have been born of God. Second, we should remember the activity of Jesus, referred to here in a rather cryptic way as ‘he who was born of God’. Third, we should remember the limitations of the devil in regard to God’s people – the devil does not touch them – which is very different from the grip that he has on the world; in the next verse John reminds his readers that the unconverted are all under the control of the evil one.

So what we have here is a reminder that in order to have a successful Christian life we must know what our doctrines are. We might assume that God will keep us despite our ignorance. This might be the case when we are first converted, but discipleship requires that we know what we believe. None of the three doctrines that John mentions here is difficult to understand. We will think about them in coming readings.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

1 John 5:11-12 - Eternal Life in Jesus

The witness that a Christian bears is that, through the work of the crucified Christ and the twofold testimony of the Spirit, he or she now possesses eternal life. This life is both a gift from God and is located in Jesus himself. But how can we describe it? 

Some focus on the word ‘eternal’ and limit its meaning to the idea of endlessness. Of course, it will never end, and that is wonderful to know. But the meaning of the adjective ‘eternal’ includes much more. We can think of it in this way. If the words were ‘human life’, how would we describe the life intended? We would produce a list of all the features that compose authentic human life. Or if the words were ‘Scottish life’, we would have a list detailing the many qualities that compose our national existence. We would not say that Scottish life is only found in a certain geographical area of the world. In a far higher sense, eternal life is far more than endless existence. It also includes an infinite range of spiritual blessings. So what is eternal life like? 

To begin with, we can make some observations about how this life comes to us. First, it is the type of life that God experiences – God gives out of himself when he gives life to us. This means that it is spiritual life. Second, the place where God has located this life is in his Son. In this regard Jesus is like a secure bank where spiritual riches are stored safely. Third, Jesus conveys all features of this God-given life to his people. This is true today and will be the case in the new heavens and earth as well. By the Spirit, Jesus gives life continually to his people. 

What makes our daily existence into life? Many answers could be given, but here are five suggestions: security from danger, social interaction or living in a community marked by mutual love, freedom to develop, a sense of peace and satisfaction, and joy from future prospects as well as from current experiences. Do Christians have these features of life day by day? Do they enjoy Life? 

Security from danger. Is there an enemy that can prevent them having eternal life? Their enemies are sin, the world and the devil. There will be spiritual battles, even wounds, but no one or nothing can take them out of God’s grip. They have security, even although they are not yet in heaven. 

Social interaction or living in a community marked by mutual love. The community of which they are members is the family of God. In this world, there are occasional fall-outs within the family, yet in the main it is marked by brotherly love expressed in shared prayer and care. Further, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit also live within this community and spread God’s love throughout it. 

Freedom to develop: there are some countries in which citizens are not free to go where they wish or improve their own knowledge. In the spiritual country in which God’s people live, they can go where they wish within God’s inheritance and extend their understanding of God’s divine provisions and intentions, with Jesus himself as their guide. 

Sense of peace and satisfaction: This awareness of security, experience of love and opportunities for spiritual development bring about within their souls peace and contentment. They are experiencing what they are made for as the peace of God is given to them by Jesus. 

Joy from future prospects as well as from current experiences. In addition they receive from God, through his Word, great assurances about the future. As they scan the distant horizon, using the telescopes of God’s promises, they see a future bright with the glory of God. This expectation, combined with their present enjoyment, leads to joy unspeakable and full of glory. 

Those five features are known in a measure in this world, and will be experienced in their fullness in the eternal state. This life is given to believers in Jesus. But note the awful straightforwardness of John’s words in verse 12: ‘Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.’ It’s as simple as that, and one day, when Jesus returns, the division will be even clearer than it is today. 

Monday, 23 November 2015

1 John 5:6-10 – The witness of the Spirit

John is exhorting his readers to bear witness to the real Jesus. He now adds another aspect to the testimony of Christians when he says that the Holy Spirit also testifies. We should not be surprised at the inclusion of the witness of the Spirit because Jesus told his disciples that when the Spirit came permanently at Pentecost he would bear witness to Jesus: ‘But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning’ (John 15:26-27). In what ways does the Spirit do this? No doubt, several answers could be given to that question. Here are two ways in which we see the witness of the Spirit. 

First, the Spirit bears witness to Jesus in the Bible. The Word of God has come to us by the work of the Spirit, guiding those who wrote the various books of the Bible. We are aware that the Bible speaks about many issues, yet its predominant and uniting theme is Jesus Christ. Every book in the Bible has something to say about him; once we realise that he is the Key that opens the treasures of every book. And he is the uniting theme of the Bible because he is connected to all of its contents. The genealogies of the Bible ultimately lead to him, the commandments are given so that people can live for him, and explanations are given of his life and work so that readers can understand who he was and what he did. 

Second, the Spirit bears witness to Jesus by illuminating sinners within their minds and hearts regarding their personal need of Jesus and of his suitability to be their Saviour. The Spirit instructs them about the beauty, glory and fitness of Jesus as the Saviour. Millions have experienced this testimony of the Spirit and rejoice in what he has told them. 

It is important to retain the emphasis John has here – he says that the Spirit testifies to the One who came by water and blood, to be the crucified Christ. The Spirit lovingly and gently unfolds before the minds of sinners the significance of Jesus and creates within their hearts a warm love for Jesus, a whole-hearted dependence on Jesus, and a focussed devotion to Jesus that affects every aspect of life. 

What a marvellous blessing it is to have the outward witness (the Bible) and the inward witness (conversion and communion) of the Spirit! How thankful we should be if we have received them! 

But what about those who do not believe in Jesus? What has John to say about such? He says that they regard God as a liar. Perhaps some will be appalled to read John’s description. Yet when we think about it, we will realise that any person who does not immediately believe the gospel is saying this about God. The Lord, in the Bible, tells us that Jesus is the only Saviour of sinners and that they will be lost for ever unless they repent of their sins and trust in Jesus. The proof that they take God’s testimony seriously is that they will immediately respond in repentance and faith.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

1 John 5:6 - Witnessing about Jesus

John encourages his readers to remain loyal to Jesus. Their congregations had been infiltrated by false teachers. The erroneous teaching had been connected to their opinion of Jesus as to who he was and what he had done. Presumably the false teachers were still spreading their views in the public arena, which meant that the public would have been informed of at least two different opinions about Jesus – there was the opinion of the Christian church and there was the opinion of the false teachers. Therefore, John proceeds to remind his readers who Jesus is and how they have come to have this knowledge. This is a reminder that is not enough to say that we are bearing witness to Jesus – we also have to make it clear concerning which Jesus we are bearing witness. 

In describing Jesus, John uses terminology that may appear unusual to us when he says that Jesus ‘came by water and blood’. What does John mean? First, we can say that they were the means by which he made his journey, which was to become our Saviour. When we travel on a journey we all recognise milestones – the water and the blood refer to milestones in the life of Jesus. Is there an event in the life of Jesus that can be classified as him coming by water? The obvious event is his baptism when he began his public ministry. Is there an event in his life that can be classified as him coming by blood? The obvious event is his sufferings on the cross which climaxed his public ministry. 

In order to appreciate John’s point, we have to recall what the false teachers taught. They agreed that Jesus came by baptism, that he had made a public announcement at the beginning of his three years of ministry in Israel. However, they did not want to speak about his death, which they regarded as a defeat. John obviously disagreed with their emphasis and insisted that the true Jesus, to whom we must be bear witness, is the Jesus who was crucified at Calvary, and who died on the cross as the sinbearer. 
Of course, that ancient heresy as long since disappeared. Nevertheless, we are still called to testify to the crucified Jesus because the value of his death is still contested today. Many people are willing to have a Jesus who gave profound teachings and who lived as a good example, which is almost the same as saying that he came by baptism. Such a testimony is not half-correct, rather it is a complete distortion of who Jesus is and why he came. We have to tell all the truth about Jesus.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

1 John 5:1-5 – Two evidences of new life

In an earthly family, it is natural for children to love their parents and one another. If they do not, then that family will have lots of problems. In a sense, it is not difficult to love God, especially when we recall what he has done for us as sinners. We know that he will give us all things that we need for our spiritual journey. Yet we also know that at times we do not love all his people, even although love for them is a clear evidence of new life.

The reason for lack of love towards another child of God is always in ourselves. At times, the original cause may be in an action done or a word said by the believer whom we are finding hard to love. Yet we are responsible for our reactions, even when provoked. Still, the sad fact is that usually the original cause of lack of love is in ourselves.

How can we know when we love the children of God? John goes a clear-cut answer: it is by obedience to God’s commandments. Moreover, John reminds his readers that it is not a difficult thing to obey the commandments of God. The Lord does not place heavy burdens on his people as far as the demands of his commandments are concerned. At times, he can place heavy burdens in providence, such as illness or disappointments. But there are no heavy burdens in the commandments he has given.

John here is restating the same description that Jesus had given concerning God’s commandments: ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ (Matt. 11:29-30). Jesus was contrasting the loving demands of God with the legalistic requirements of the Pharisees. Their rules were burdensome, whereas the commandments of God are liberating. It is not a burden for a bird to obey God and fly a distance; but if it cannot fly, then it is a burden. The way for Christians to make progress is to obey the commandments of Jesus and to pay no attention to the legalistic notions devised by others.

John gives another evidence of new life when he writes that his hearers can have spiritual victory over the world. But what does John mean by victory here? A clue is given in verse 5. There he says that victory is equivalent to doctrinal fidelity, in this case by continuing to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. That doctrine was under attack at that time, but they won the victory by adhering to the truth about Jesus. The world wanted the church to compromise on what it believed. Determination to stick to the truth is a sign of new life. A willingness to compromise doctrinal fundamentals is a clear sign of the absence of new life.

So we need to ask if we have these two evidences of new life.

Friday, 20 November 2015

1 John 5:1 – Faith in Jesus as the Christ

In a survey that was done a few years ago, it was discovered that many people imagined that the word ‘Christ’ was the surname of Jesus – they thought his first name was Jesus and his surname was Christ. But Christ is not his surname. Rather it is the title of his work. We often see a sign which says Smith, Joiners or Smith, Builders. Similarly, when we see the words Jesus Christ, we should realise that the name ‘Jesus’ says who he is and the term ‘Christ’ indicates what he has done, is doing and will yet do.

Where does the term ‘Christ’ come from? It comes from the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word translated Messiah. In order to know what Christ means, we have to discover what was predicted of the Messiah by the Old Testament writers. These predictions have been summarised by the roles of prophet, priest and king. We have lost aspects of the meanings of those roles because we no longer see them functioning today as they did in Israel in the Old Testament. Perhaps we will get a better idea if we replace them with teacher, helper and ruler.

Those roles are performed by the Messiah in our relationship with God. We were ignorant of God and needed one to teach us about him; we were detached from God and needed one to bring us back to him; we were in danger from other spiritual powers and needed one to protect us and to govern us on behalf of God. What happened when Jesus engages in those roles?

The person who has new life will listen to Jesus as the teacher who can describe God in great detail. These teachings are now recorded in the Bible and there we discover that God is both full of love and completely just. We discover that he has a plan which has both a big story (the redemption of the human race) and individual experiences such as answered prayer and daily guidance. Those with new life love to be instructed by Jesus the teacher.

The person who has new life depends upon Jesus for help. He depends upon him both in a big way and in innumerable small ways. The big way about which he depends on Jesus are connected to his work on the cross. In addition, he will look to Jesus for sympathy and help for as long as he is needed, which is every day. Such a person confesses, ‘I gladly depend on Jesus Christ.’

Again, the person who has new life submits to Jesus as King. He recognises both the power and authority of Jesus as the sovereign. His power guarantees the eternal protection of his followers. Recognition of his kingship also demands that his followers become his servants, devoted to his cause. The individual who looks to Jesus as king gladly says, ‘I delight to volunteer in his service.’