Monday, April 09, 2018

Not a New Problem

When the apostle John wrote his first of three letters preserved for us in the New Testament, it’s quite possible he was attempting to address a very specific local issue, and that the letter’s intended recipients would have understood what he wrote primarily in their own local context.

If so, he wrote it in a remarkably broad and general way, touching on issues that have troubled mankind since the very beginning of its history.

It seems to me that in his thinking John goes right back to the first chapters of Genesis.

Desire and Pride

All that is in the world,” he tells his readers, “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life — is not from the Father but is from the world.”

In the Garden of Eden, when the first woman looked at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, she saw three things: (i) it was good for food (the desire of the flesh), (ii) it was a delight to the eyes (the desires of the eyes), and (iii) it was to be desired to make one wise (the pride of life). It’s difficult to imagine John unconsciously chose these very same three temptations — in the order we find them in Genesis, no less — to illustrate for his readers what he means by “all that is in the world”, especially when we look at all the other thematic allusions to the early chapters of Genesis sprinkled throughout his epistle.

A Not-So-Small World

And yet Eve’s “world” was a very small one, wasn’t it; bounded by a garden and beyond which it appears she had yet to explore. All the same, every temptation that exists today was offered to her in prototype, if only in the form of particularly attractive fruit. She met and succumbed to “the world” before “the world” was out there in its current form to be succumbed to. In an environment in which all was good, and all created by God, she was offered the one and only choice that was verifiably and conclusively “not-God”.

Our “new” problems — the specific temptations you and I experience today — are never really new, are they, no matter how we may feel that our circumstances are unique and that good reasons exist for us to set aside the principles we normally live by just this once, for this very special occasion in which God surely intends that we do something just a little different than what his word teaches. We might even say that despite the intensely personal impact of the world’s appeals on our bodies, intellects and spirits, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.”

The Sin Question

So I think John has something universal in mind here. He’s dealing, after all, with the very same sin question that raises its ugly head in Genesis 3. This is his very purpose in writing; that his readers might not do what Eve did: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin,” and “By this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.”

Eve had not come to “know” God. She had obviously experienced him, and received his commands to her through Adam. But she did not really know what he was like. She did not understand his love or his wisdom, or she would have trusted his word. She had not really digested his commands, or she would have reported his words accurately to the serpent. She thought she could put God off with lame excuses, implying she failed to understand the extent to which he can see right through to the motives of the heart.

It is only when we keep God’s commandments that we can retain any confidence we have come to know him at all.

Beginnings, Light and Love

What else do we find in John that reminds us of the first few chapters of Genesis? Five separate references to “the beginning”, the second and third words of our Bibles. Now of course I think John has a different beginning in mind. He’s not talking about the Old Creation but the new one, and what his readers have been told from the very onset of their experiences with Christ. And yet even the commandment they have had “from the beginning” is no new commandment but an old one. It is only new in the sense that it is given anew to them to be applied in new ways to new circumstances.

Then John speaks of darkness and light, calling us back to the third verse of the first chapter of Genesis. And he goes right on to talk about the love of one’s brother as fundamental evidence of being “in the light”, calling us back to Cain and his envious hatred of Abel that resulted in archetypal (and actual) murder.

While none of these allusions to Genesis is specific or pointed, we have compelling reasons to think John has something bigger than the specifics of some merely local situation in mind.

Learning to Abide

Finally now, the apostle speaks of “abiding” in Christ as the solution to the same old problem we find in Eden.
“And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.”
What did Adam and Eve do when they anticipated being confronted with their sin and failure? They shrank away in shame at the coming of God to visit his creations. They “hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees.” A sad picture, and John implores his readers not to do the same things. The secret to avoiding this same shame is “abiding”.

Whatever the Lord Jesus had in mind when he told his disciples to abide in him, what John has in mind here seems to be clear: we “abide” when, instead of acting in independence on the impulses that present themselves to us, we endeavor to bring the Son of God into every possible decision and every single aspect of our lives. We act in dependence on him, not with our own agenda in mind. And we do not delude ourselves, as Eve did, that when we miss the mark, what we are doing is somehow better than the alternative; or as Adam did, that the responsibility for our selfish and short-sighted choices can be neatly reassigned elsewhere.

To fail to abide in Christ is to risk, in our own small way, replicating the sin of Eden.

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