These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete.
– 1 John 1:4
When we study the Bible, we become rather quickly aware that with the exception of the book of Romans and some other scattered portions of other books, the Bible is not strictly a theological treatise. The Bible is a collection of history, poetry, of communications from God to specific men or a specific people, (think Old Testament Prophets) and written correspondence between persons, rather ordinary save for the fact that it is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Examples of this are the writings of Paul or the letters of John.
So in that sense, the Bible is not written first-hand personally to you or me, nor is it written as an encyclopedia of theological positions or propositional doctrinal statements. It’s written by men of God inspired by the Spirit of God who are going about their business of helping their fellow countrymen or brothers in Christ, recording history for the sake of future generations, or in the case of the Psalms, expressing in a poetic way their thoughts and emotions in their given situation.
This means that when we study the Bible in order to construct a good and true understanding of God, self, and the world around us, in a sense we have to reverse engineer the mindset and worldview of those writing the Bible, and distill propositional, doctrinal truth out of the things they say. This tells us something of the genius of God who used this method to write a book whose meaning would be understandable in all languages and cultures over the past 3,500 years, so that all men could read, understand, and be delivered from Divine judgment. By making the Bible sound nothing like a systematic theology, we can look at inspired truth in a variety of situations and settings and systematize the truths explicitly or implicitly stated.
That’s why when the Westminster Divines set about to write their Shorter Catechism, they began with the question, “What is the chief end of man?” They answered their question, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” So here are men of the 17th century who are exceptionally serious about the things of God, probably far more serious about instructing their children in the things of God than most of us are, to our shame, and the very first thing they teach their children to ask is a question the Bible doesn’t directly ask, and they answer with a phrase you won’t find explicitly stated in the Bible. Instead, what they do is point us to a handful of places in the Bible where we can get little words, phrases, and hints that the writers of the Bible really did believe that man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, even if the Bible doesn’t directly say that.
And that’s not something unique to the Westminster divines. Jesus and Paul used the Old Testament that way. When Jesus wanted to express the mind of God when His disciples were accused of violating the Sabbath by eating some grain from a field they were walking through, He pointed to a historical narrative when David and his men ate bread that really wasn’t made for their consumption, but served a different, sacred purpose. Jesus takes from David’s account certain principles underlying what David and his men did and applied it to His own situation, making the convincing case that He and His disciples were innocent of law breaking, even though the Bible doesn’t explicitly say “threshing a handful of grain on the Sabbath is ok.”
It’s also why we today firmly believe in the Trinity, even though the Biblical authors never mentioned it, or never said anything directly about it. The Trinity is a core belief that we hold, and without it the rest of our beliefs begin to fall apart one by one until we’re left with a religion that is in no way Christian. How can we be so certain that we need to believe in something the Bible doesn’t directly address? If you want to prove the Trinity from the Bible, you have to take words, phrases, and lines of thought from multiple places all over the Bible and again, reverse engineer this doctrine in order to understand that even though Paul never said “God is three persons in one essence,” he and the other writers most definitely believed that, even if they didn’t express it that way. Further, a little study and comparison of texts and we realize that the Trinity is so critical to understanding the God of the Bible that if we deny it, we actually come up with a different God.
Now all that is to say then, that as we read the Bible, we’re getting a window into a world in which we’re not the central character. First John was written by a man who didn’t have you or me specifically in mind. He was writing to some friends of his, perhaps a particular group of people who met together as a church similar to the way we are this morning. And as he writes, we get a feel for how John thinks, what’s important to him, how he feels about his friends, etc. And so long as we’re sort of tracking with John, thinking along the same lines he does, or so long as we have the same worldview he does, we just sort of read along and anticipate the things he writes, or at least aren’t terribly surprised by them, because it is, in some ways, the same things we might write. “God is love.” We like that; we would write that, wouldn’t we? “He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.” That’s may be shocking for an unbeliever or a new believer who has a fresh sense of the awfulness of sin, but it’s not shocking to hear that come from John’s pen, really, because this is the heart of the gospel we love so dearly – God forgives sins in Christ Jesus.
But as I was reading through First John 1 a couple weeks ago, something did shock me. It was a single word. Actually it was a single letter in English that seemed to me was missing. And the word is the little word “our” in v.4, and the missing letter is what I would have expected to be a “y” in front of “our,” to make “your.” In other words, I’d have expected John to write, “These things we write, so that your joy may be made complete.”
After all, John is a servant of Jesus, a servant of the church, and he’s writing in order that these people (and us by extension) will have a fuller, clearer picture of the work that Jesus did on the cross, a clearer, fuller picture of what being a believer looks like, and when that happens, they’ll be happier people. And after all, isn’t that what the Bible does – tells us about God and how to be happy in Him? In fact, without getting lost in some of the academic work of textual criticism, it seems so obvious that v.4 should read “your joy” that somewhere early on in church history someone who was writing copies of 1 John thought he had a bad copy and changed the Greek “our” to “your,” so if you have a King James Version you actually still have the reading “your joy.”
What does it mean that John wrote “so that our joy may be made complete?” Well, in a very simple sense it has to mean something like this: John’s joy isn’t complete. There’s a sense in which he could be more joyful. And what would increase and indeed fill up his joy is found in v.3: “what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us…” In other words, what’s going to increase John’s joy is fellowship with those to whom he’s writing.
Here’s what this does for me: It opens a window into John’s thinking that tells me that my brothers and sisters in Christ and my fellowship with them is probably far more important to John than it is to me. In other words, John isn’t writing only so that he can help these other people on their merry way to heaven, he’s writing because he’s never going to be quite as full of joy as he could be unless he is connected to these brothers and sisters in gospel fellowship.
One of the things we live with as children of the Reformation and its reaction against the Roman Catholic Church, and live with as children of modernism with it’s emphasis on individuality is a worldview that says, in the words of a song I know, “And now it’s Jesus and me, for each tomorrow, for every heartache, and every sorrow. I know that I can depend upon my new-found friend, and so to the end, it’s Jesus and me.”
In a sense, that’s true. I love the song, “Hallelujah, all I have is Christ. Hallelujah, Jesus is my life.” But that line of thinking is also why I’d assume that John is writing so that “your” joy may be made complete. Hallelujah! all you have is Christ, and you don’t need me, and you don’t need anyone else. But what that ultimately does is makes the church, or other believers, more or less window-dressing on the story of my life with Jesus.
So when I read John writing, “these things we write, so that our joy may be made full,” I say, “Come on John, doesn’t that somehow diminish the all-satisfying nature of Jesus?” I mean really, how could John dare to suggest that his joy is somehow diminished apart from fellowship with those to whom he is writing? Is Jesus not enough?
And of course the answer must be, “Jesus is enough.” We can’t say otherwise. Paul says, “I count all things loss that I might know Christ.” He doesn’t say “I count all things lost that I might know Christ and some other people too.” But John says what he says, and we have to make something of it.
There’s a couple other words here that John seems to have gotten backwards: Look in v.3, “what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you may have fellowship with…” and here if John was a good American Individualistic Protestant he’d write, “so that you may have fellowship with Jesus.” But he doesn’t say that, does he? He says “so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.”
How often have we urged someone toward obedience to the gospel “so that you may have fellowship with us.” It’s rather odd that John should talk this way.
The other apparent goof-up John makes here is in v.7: “If we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with…” and again, what he should write, it seems, is “we have fellowship with Him.” After all, it’s true enough, right? If we walk in the Light, (and the Light, v.5, is God) then naturally we have fellowship with Him, because we’re walking in Him. But what John actually writes is this: “if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another…”
And again, this is such a surprising twist of terminology that many great theologians have looked at that phrase “one another” and said it refers to fellowship with God. But the only reason, I think, you’d say that is because you don’t expect John to say, “walk in the Light so you have fellowship with one another.” We walk in the Light because that’s where God is; at the end of the day, who really cares if anyone else is there walking with us or not? “Though no one join me, still I will follow!” John, apparently, cares, because the reality is, you’re joining others when you follow Jesus.
So that makes three instances in the opening verses of 1 John in which John says some fairly surprising things, at least to my mind. Verse three, “fellowship with us,” verse 4, “our joy,” and verse 7, “fellowship with one another.”
Now here’s what I think, see if you agree: If these words are surprising to me, I must not be thinking quite like John is thinking. I expect him to say something different, so I’m not quite tracking with him; our worldviews, if you will, are somewhat at odds. I must not think something is normal that John thinks is normal. John, it seems, by the ministry of the Spirit, is placing an incredibly high value on Christian fellowship. And since we haven’t defined fellowship, let’s at least say here that it’s pretty clear that when John uses that word koinonia, or “fellowship,” he means far more than hanging out in the church narthex drinking coffee. He doesn’t mean less than that, of course, but to use v.7 as an example, “walking in the Light as He Himself is in the Light” must be more significant than half an hour a week standing and talking about the weather and our jobs, yes?
What is also apparent as you sort of ponder these verses is this: John doesn’t have a category in his mind for a walk with God that is divorced from a walk with the other children of God. That is, he doesn’t think of his relationship with God as a private matter. Personal, yes. Private, no. Personal in that he has a real relationship with the Father. But never private in the sense that his relationship to God excludes other believers.
I believe one of the reasons church attendance is generally declining in this nation that has been immersed in gospel preaching is the mentality that other believers are more or less icing on my spiritual cake, but they’re in no way the cake. That is, you can, at the end of the day, take fellowship or leave it. You won’t find this line in Scripture, but you will find it near to the lips of every American, “I can worship God in nature,” which really only means, “I can have a complete and full relationship with God apart from any relationship with the church.” And because that’s the case, there’s really no sense of urgency or compulsion for us to be a part of a local church, and that leaves the church in the rather unfortunate position of having to come up with other reasons to justify its existence beyond just being the fellowship of God’s people.
“God doesn’t really require you to go to church, but come anyway, we’ll make it worth your while,” seems to be the most compelling message the church is left with. And I have to say that it’s easy for that sort of mentality to creep into even my own thinking. Just a couple of clicks away on my phone I have access to preachers who may be far more eloquent and profound than my pastor, who preach at my convenience. I can find studio-quality “worship” music that is far better than I can find at my little church, and on top of it all, I don’t have to talk to anyone. I have my own private relationship with God, and unless you can convince me that you can offer me something that enhances my private relationship with God, I really don’t need the church!
In part two, I want to unpack three propositions that I think are driving John’s thinking, and make it perfectly natural for him to say “these things we write, so that our joy may be made full.”
note: this is taken from a message preached at Providence Community Church. Thanks to Pastor Ken for allowing me to spend a Lord’s Day with the dear saints in Crosslake and to work through this text together with them.