By RaJean Vawter
The world is currently mourning the death of "America's Pastor," the Reverend Bill Graham who died February 21. At the same time, many are rejoicing for the life he lived and the example he provided. Personally, I believe that he was a true brother of the Apostle John. Why would I say that? John self-identified as "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (John 13:23; 20:2; 21:20). Both his account of Jesus' life and his letters exude the love of Christ. So did the life message of Billy Graham. In fact, the last time Billy Graham was filmed, at age 99, right before he died, he talked about the incredible love of Jesus Christ. Graham began his ministry preaching about the reality and dangers of hell. As his relationship with Jesus grew, his focus turned to the incredible love of God. Conversely, John focused on the love of God but was eventually able to receive Revelation about God's judgment in the last days. Both men came into balance in their own way and in their own time.
Neither John nor Graham were ignorant of the fact that while God's very character is love, consistent and pursuing, we must access that love if we want to obtain the promise of abundant joy, abundant life and the fruit of positive significance. They both knew that it's not an either/or situation. It's both/and. Neither is God's love conditional. God's love and provision are not contradicted by His requests that we respond appropriately to His commands to show that we truly love Him without any trace of entitlement. Each of us must accept responsibility for ourselves. He offers; we must accept. And obey.
Billy Graham knew and preached this. The apostle John knew and wrote about it. In fact, the book of I John gives us insight into the how and why of God's love and our responsibility. This letter to a group of churches dealing with false teachers and doctrines is a literal textbook on basic Christian theology. It covers so many themes, insights and truths, it is, in my opinion, a short summary of the message of the entire Bible. Unable to cover everything, this lesson is focused on John's use of the word "if" (as translated in our English versions). Nineteen times this word is used! So, in sequence, let's examine them.
1. "If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth" (1 John 1:6). What a blunt thing to say! Obviously, it's not enough to say we're Christians, attend a church and give money to good causes. We must practice the truth. And what is truth? Pontius Pilate asked this same question. Jesus didn't answer because He'd already preached the message that He himself was the Truth. Pilate had Truth standing right in front of him! And Pilate knew it. Unfortunately, he attempted to compromise what he knew to be truth because of the pressures of his office. Though turning Jesus over to be crucified aligned with God's purposes, it didn't work out well for Pilate. Plagued by his gross sin, various accounts indicate that he followed the path of Judas and committed suicide. And that's the choice we have still today - life or death. The remedy can be found in the second "if."
2. "If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7). Wow! What a promise! Fellowship with other believers. Cleansing from sin. But notice that both are conditional. If. Since God is described as Light personified in Jesus in the previous verses, our part is to walk in the Light. That means living, breathing, talking and walking the air of heaven. Pure, unadulterated Light.
3. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). Every person on the planet believes that they are OK, that what they believe is right. Oh, we know that we're not perfect, but it doesn't matter because we're basically good people. We all just have different world-views and each is acceptable. Or so we think. But that is deceptive thinking. If we're going to truly walk in Light, we must come to grips with who God is and who we're not. Scripture says, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9). I once quoted this verse to a group of children. A little girl in the front row blurted out, "We're not that bad!" And that's the mindset of most people. When a woman once questioned me about salvation, I asked her if she died and was asked why God should let her into heaven, what would she say. Her answer: "Because I deserve it." According to John, she was deceived.
4. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). This is the first step necessary to come out of darkness and into the Light of Christ. Such confession does not gain God's acceptance, it is us acknowledging that we are sinners and cannot save ourselves and are in need of God's forgiving grace. Unfortunately, in my experience, many people only follow the first part of this verse: confession. Consequently, they continually feel guilty and ask God's forgiveness over and over again. The remedy is to finish the verse. After confession, we need to stay in God's presence long enough to receive not just His forgiveness but His cleansing. We need the "washing of water by the Word" (Ephesians 5:26).
5. "If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us" (1 John 1:10). This is the first thing we must accept. He spoke and the world came into existence (John 1:3). He spoke and His "word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). He spoke to holy men of old (2 Peter 1:21) who wrote those words down for the benefit of posterity (2 Timothy 3:16), giving us what Christians call the Old and New Testaments. We either believe - and follow - the words of scripture or "we make Him a liar," proving that "His word is not in us." The Bible does not give us an alternative; it is a black and white issue not open to any other so-called interpretation.
6. "My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. (1 John 2:1). Notice that in this verse, John is talking to "little children," i.e. baby Christians. From the get-go, new believers need to understand that from the moment they receive Jesus into their spirit, it doesn't mean that their soul (mind, will and emotions) become perfect. Like any baby, they need to learn how to walk in the freedom granted to their spirit. Yes, they will sin, but they have an Advocate, a Lawyer, who will present Himself to the Judge on their behalf. In this verse, John begins to explain the progression of the Christian life. He goes on to address young men and fathers. In this book, John takes us from the "milk" of the word to what is appropriate for the mature Christian.
7. "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him" (1 John 2:15). This is a standard that, as we grow in the Lord, we must have hanging on the door of our hearts to help us get and keep our priorities straight. Anything and anyone that we place before obedience to the Lord is an idol, a big no-no. It is also the subject of another lesson. (If you wish to explore the subject of idolatry in believers, I recommend the book, "Killing Kryptonite" by John Bevere.)
8. "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us" (1 John 2:19). In context, John is talking about those whom he called "antichrists" - those who oppose the word of God and lead people astray. Such people may come into our fellowships or our lives but they won't stay as long as the uncompromised Word of God is taught and lived. The next two verses let us know that as we walk in the Light, we have the anointing to discern such people and such mind-sets so there is no reason for such deception to remain (1 John 2:20-21).
9. "Therefore let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father" (1 John 2:24). Jumping up a bit, we learn that what abides in us from the beginning of our walk with God is the truth that "He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also (1 John 2:22-23). The word "abides" is critical to understanding this verse also. Abiding has to do with the Truth living inside, not just head knowledge.
10. "If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him" (1 John 2:29). A simple but good definition of righteousness is what many of us were taught as children in Sunday School: righteousness equals right standing with God. And this is obtained by the previous verses discussed. While there are many "good" people in the world, only those who are in right standing with God with Him abiding within are righteous.
11. "For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things" (1 John 3:20). This is so comforting. God knows the where and what-for of our lives. When we feel condemned, His grace is there waiting for us. As we grow in our ability to recognize His voice, He gives us understanding about ourselves. I am reminded of a lady who asked for prayer concerning what she thought was the origin of a sinful emotion that had taken root in her life. She'd already prayed about it and forgiven the people involved but hadn't experienced breakthrough. As we prayed, God showed her that the feeling she was focusing on wasn't rooted in the event she thought it was. It was rooted in another event that she'd forgotten about. Yeah! She acknowledged His all-knowing, forgave the people connected to the root of her sin, asked and received forgiveness and cleansing from God and was set free. God knows us better than we know ourselves. He is truly "greater than our heart, and knows all things."
12. "Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God" (1 John 3:21). This is a key verse to remember when others judge us unfairly. It's like I told my children when they were upset because someone called them a bad name or accused them of something that wasn't true. "If what others say about you is true, you have a problem but you know what to do about it with God. If what they say isn't true, you don't have to worry about it. Hand it over to God and let Him deal with them."
13. "Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another" (1 John 4:11). True love begets love. The more we love God, the more we love one another. However, because we live in an often harsh and unloving world, we usually have to be reminded of this command and learn how to show love to others.
14. "No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us" (1 John 4:12). Basically, I hear John say, "If you want to see God in the flesh, just look at your brother or sister 'cuz God lives in them." Sometimes we may have to look past the crusty exterior or the prickles but if we look hard enough, we'll see God. And that's what we need to focus on.
15. "If someone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? (1 John 4:20). Oops! Talk about a verse that can cut to the quick! Especially in our world today where we see and hear such animosity and hatred displayed in the media: people expressing hatred of opposing political parties, ethnic groups, religious beliefs, gender and gender-identities, ages. I even had someone tell me they hated an entire state! Not much love there. And yet many of these same people claim to love God. This can easily become a slippery slope because loving another does not mean compromising our beliefs as some would say. It's a matter of the innermost part of our heart. Jesus was so opposed to the money-changers in the temple, He literally took a whip and drove them out. But a few days later, He laid His life down for those same people. He is our example and standard. Can we follow it?
16. "If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; for this is the witness of God which He has testified of His son" (1 John 5:9). By "this" John is referring to the previous verses that talk about the three witnesses in heaved: the Father, the Word (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit, and the three witnesses on earth: the Spirit, the water and the blood. The three in heaven are the Trinity. The three on earth are the baptisms we receive to enable us to live out the Christian life. Obviously, this verse is another topic for discussion. For our purposes here, John is saying that if we receive these six "witnesses" they all point to Jesus and to eternal life (1 John 5:10-11).
17. "Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us" (1 John 5:14). Oh, what a comfort this is! All we need to do is find out what His will is in a matter, then pray for it in faith and the Creator of the universe actually hears us! That is amazing! Especially if we move quickly to the very next verse.
18. "And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him" (1 John 5:15). Such a promise! These two verses are two of my very favorite verses. I once had a friend tell me with a bit of disgust, "I don't understand it, RaJean. You get everything you ask for!" My first reaction was, "I do not!" Because I always have a long list of prayer requests waiting to be answered. But as I later reflected, I realized that the things about which I searched in the scripture for how to pray, and when I followed the admonition in James 4:3, making sure my heart and motives were right, I had received what I'd asked for. Still do. Many times I've had to wait a long time - years even - for the answer to come. And sometimes I've even had to go through some suffering but in the end, I've received the answers I requested. I've also had to make some changes in myself. But, this is still a true formula for success. It gives us only three requirements:
- What is God's will in the matter?
- Is my heart right? If not, am I willing to change?
- Do I believe God's word? If I do then waiting isn't a problem.
19. "If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that" (1 John 5:16). Another comforting verse. When we see a flaw or sin in a fellow believer, we can pray about it - in love, of course - and God will dispense life to our brother. Warning: Rarely does God want us to confront them though, so we need to stay in the will and timing of the Lord. The sin leading to death that we are not to pray about is a matter of dispute. Some believe that such a sin is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-30; Luke 12:8-10). Others believe it is the sin of taking communion in an unworthy manner (1 Corinthians 11:27-30). And still others believe it is lying to the Holy Spirit as did Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). In context, however, John has been writing about those who receive the Lord, then turn away from fellow believers in order to follow the teachings of "antichrists." A full discussion of exactly what John meant is another topic by another person.
For our purpose here, this verse is an admonition to pray for one another as talked about in #18. I recall a time when a particular person I couldn't get away from, a believer, continually gave me a hard time. I knew her problem was rooted in insecurity and jealousy so I prayed concerning those issues. Nothing changed. I quoted specific scripture that I thought applied. Again, nothing changed. So I gave up. Then one day as I was driving along LBJ Freeway in Dallas, I clearly heard the Lord tell me what to pray for her. It wasn't a "should" or an "ought;" it was a very positive thing I was to pray as a blessing to her. It was something I would never have thought to pray. Within a very short time, her life situation changed. She was put in a position to be given what she so desperately needed. The result was a total change in her behavior not only toward me but to others as well. I just needed to pray according to God's will, not what seemed right to me.
The totality of John's "if" statements in his first letter to the churches presents us with a balanced view of God's love, His judgment and the progression we need to follow as we grow in the Lord. He began his letter talking about the beginnings of the Christian life and walks us through to maturity, so that we can remain true to our Lord and living in accordance with His plan and purposes. He does not purport to give a comprehensive teaching on everything we need to know about living the Christian life. Instead, with all of his "if" statements, he gives just enough to lay a good foundation to pattern our lives on and then grow into more. In my opinion, the need to pay attention to all the "ifs" is best summed up by a commentary Dr. Brian Simmons wrote in The Passion Translation of the Bible. He wrote, "Truth isn't only something to know in the heart; it's something we do with our whole heart" (p. 1083).