Doing Righteousness

Whosoever is begotten of God doeth no sin, because his seed abideth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is begotten of God. In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother (1 John 3:9-10).

Righteousness and sin are always at odds. You cannot hold to one and court the other; you cannot be fully devoted to one while having affection for the other. John wants his fellow Christians to be very clear on this.

The context of 1 John 3:1-10 is the same as that of 1 John 2:18-29: John is greatly concerned about the “antichrists” who would lead Christians astray. John sets out boundary markers to both assure Christians of their standing before God while making sharp and stark distinctions between them and their opponents. The impetus in 1 John 2:18-27 involved doctrines and teachings: Christians could have assurance in their standing before God by holding firm to the message they heard from the beginning and remaining strong in the instruction provided through the Spirit. Those who confessed the truth of God in Christ as revealed to the Apostles by the Spirit from the beginning remained in God in Christ; those who denied Jesus as the Incarnate Christ, the Son of God, were antichrists (1 John 2:18-24).

John does begin a slight shift in 1 John 2:29 that informs 1 John 3:1-10: doctrine is one means by which one can have either assurance or warning, but the practice of righteousness is another such marker. John fleshes this out in 1 John 3:1-10, particularly in 1 John 3:4-10. Those who sin do lawlessness, and Jesus became flesh in order to take away such sin, and in Him there was no sin (1 John 3:4-5). The contrast is set: those who are in Christ and begotten of God do not sin but do righteousness, and those who do not know God in Christ but are of the devil persist in sin and do not love their brethren (1 John 3:4-10).

John speaks in very black and white terms; unsurprisingly, many have taken his messages out of context, interpreting them in the most absolute terms, and have caused confusion, disharmony, and inserted contradiction into Scripture by so doing. One who has read all of 1 John until this point can see the tension and challenge inherent in John’s strong language: did John not say in 1 John 1:8 that those who say they (presently) have no sin deceive themselves, and the truth is not in them? Did he not speak of the need for confession of sin in 1 John 1:9? What of 1 John 2:1, where “if we sin” we have an advocate before the Father in Jesus Christ the righteous? How can John in one verse allow for the possibility of Christians sinning, or declaring that Christians presently struggle with sin, and yet a few verses later say that true Christians will not sin at all?

We can make sense of what John says first by considering those against whom he speaks and then by considering what he might mean by his language. Those whom John characterizes as “antichrists” are at least docetists if not incipient Gnostics. Docetists believed that Jesus was not actually human but only seemed to be human (from Greek dokeo, “to seem”). In their view, God would never humiliate Himself to the point of taking on flesh; to accept such a view would deny the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:12-20), and such is why John denounces this view with such force in 1 John 2:18-3:10. Perhaps their docetism was part of incipient Gnosticism, a view which would become popular in later centuries. The Gnostics were docetic and believed they had special, secret knowledge of the “story within the story” in the Bible. In either case, many times adherents of such views would either start out in Christianity and depart from it or would visit Christian assemblies, perhaps attempt to join with the Christians, and seem to be one of the Christians, but only in order to get a chance to speak privately with individual Christians in an attempt to lead them astray from the faith (cf. 1 John 2:19, 26). Such is why John emphasizes the need to hold to the message Christians heard from the beginning (1 John 2:24), but it also is why John must emphasize righteousness (1 John 2:29-3:10). Throughout the New Testament, one consistent condemnation of false teachers involves their attempt to satisfy desires of the flesh through the proclamation and substance of their messages (Philippians 3:18-19, 1 Timothy 6:3-6, Titus 1:10-14, 2 Peter 2:1-20, Jude 1:3-16). Whereas Jesus in His life and death practiced and exhorted toward righteousness, and the Apostles sought to proclaim and practice righteousness, these antichrists would use their proclamations and practice to practice greed, sexual immorality, and a host of other sins, and justified themselves on account of the fact that the flesh was irrelevant, to be destroyed in death, and the spiritual realm was all that was important. Little wonder then why John emphasized the resurrection of life as the foundation of hope that leads to purity and holiness in 1 John 3:2-3: when you understand that God is about redemption and reconciliation, you will seek to be pure and holy even in the flesh so as to be like Him. In terms of the language used, some modern versions do well to flesh out what John means by “doeth sin”: “making a practice of sinning.” The difference is not between people who never sin versus sin a little or a lot; the contrast is between those who continually or repeatedly sin versus those who do not have such a practice. In so doing we can reconcile 1 John 3:9-10 with 1 John 1:8-9, 2:1: Christians are not to continue in unrepentant sin and must not make sin a habit, but when they stumble in their walk with Christ, they can confess that stumble and be forgiven so as to continue to pursue righteousness in Christ.

Even though we must resist making John’s language absolute, we still must come to grips with the force of his words in terms of our lives as Christians. John is sharply and starkly re-stating Jesus’ principle regarding false teachers in Matthew 7:15-20: by their fruits you shall know them. If doctrines lead to righteousness, they likely are true (although even in this case we must be hesitant to speak in absolute terms, for many people do a lot of righteous things yet believe very different things about the nature of God in Christ). But if the people who promote a teaching persist in sin, or the doctrines themselves justify persistence in sin, then they are clearly false and of the Evil One. It is easy to always project this concern onto others; after all, we believe we teach the truth and are in the right, yet who would ever honestly claim to be a false teacher? We must first consider ourselves: do people know we are Christians by how we speak and act? Are we producing the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24)? We may intend to practice righteousness, and that intention may be well and good, but a big difference remains between intending to do righteousness yet persisting in sin and actually doing righteousness and thus avoiding sin. We might attempt to take solace in the idea that we have the true teachings, but John’s words should expose that assurance as a lie: it has never been enough to just know the truth, but it must be practiced. To not practice the truth you know is sin (James 4:17); you have no excuse. We know we are children of God when we do the things we know are true!

Many good-hearted, sincere, and conscientious Christians read 1 John 3:9-10 and are pricked in heart, concerned they may not be good enough to be the children of God. Such people most likely have the least to fear; a heart so tender to God’s message remains open to all He says and seeks to accomplish them. We must remember that John writes these things to assure Christians that they remain in Christ when they hold to the Gospel as proclaimed from the beginning and practice righteousness, not to upset their faith. Yet we must be doing righteousness; just knowing it is never enough. Let us demonstrate that we are born of God by practicing righteousness, assured that we will be known by God, Jesus, and those around us by the fruit expressed in our words and deeds!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Conformed to the Body of His Glory

[The Lord Jesus Christ] who shall fashion anew the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, according to the working whereby he is able even to subject all things unto himself (Philippians 3:21).

The centerpiece of Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus and the hope of the resurrection of all on the final day, has always been a stumbling block in culture. Among the Jews of the first century, some sects like the Sadducees denied the resurrection entirely, while those who did believe in the resurrection envisioned it only in terms of the last day (John 11:24, Acts 23:8). To the Greeks the resurrection was sheer folly (Acts 17:32): while the different philosophical schools among the Greeks had their many differences, all were agreed about the betterment of the soul than the flesh. Philosophers like Plato wished to leave the physical world behind; to them, to be raised from the dead would be more akin to “hell” than “heaven.” One thing was certain to them: the dead stay dead.

Ever since there have been many who have questioned and challenged the resurrection on various grounds, but one of the most pernicious challenges to the resurrection of Jesus involves its over-spiritualization. Many share many of the same doubts as the Greeks regarding the profit in the creation and yearn to live in a purely spiritual state. So it was among the Gnostics in the first and second centuries, suggesting the resurrection was already past, understood only in terms of spiritual enlightenment or regeneration (2 Timothy 2:16-18).

It is true that Paul does speak of baptism as a resurrection in Romans 6:3-7; the soul is dead in sin and is brought back to life in Christ through faith in conversion and discipleship. Yet Paul is quite clear that, for believers, the “spiritual resurrection” has already occurred (note the past tense in Romans 6:3-7), yet there remains a resurrection that has yet to take place (1 Corinthians 15:1-58).

We get some understanding about this resurrection from Paul’s exhortations to the Philippians. Paul has spoken about how he proved willing to consider all the credentials he obtained under the old covenant as garbage to know Christ and the power of His resurrection in order to obtain his own resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:7-11). He insists that he has not yet obtained that resurrection (Philippians 3:12). At the end of this section he declares that our citizenship is in heaven, from which we await the Savior, the Lord Jesus, who will “fashion anew” (Greek metaschematisei, “change the figure of, transform”) the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of His glory (Philippians 3:20-21). This “fashion[ing] anew” and “conform[ity]” to the body of His glory is the bodily resurrection of the believer and his or her transformation for immortality!

We are not told much about Jesus and His resurrected body, but we do know that after He arose from the dead, death had no more power over Him, and he would die no more (Romans 6:8-9). He was recognizably Jesus, able to eat and no phantasm, yet different, able to walk through walls and be in different places at inhuman speeds, indicating transcendence of the space-time continuum (Luke 24:31-43, John 20:19-20). Paul speaks of the transformation in the resurrection of the corruptible and mortal body into an incorruptible and immortal body, the transformation of the body empowered by the breath of life to the body empowered by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 15:35-53). John assures us that even though we do not fully understand what we will be, we know we will be like Jesus on that day (1 John 3:1-3).

Paul, therefore, provides a message of hope for the Christian: Jesus will return one day, and through the power of God, He will raise our bodies from the dead and transform them so as to be just like His glorified, resurrected body. This is part of the ultimate redemption of the creation envisioned by Paul in Romans 8:17-25 and seen in a figure in Revelation 21:1-22:5: a place where futility, decay, corruption, death, violence, suffering, sin, and all evil are no more, where God dwells with man and provides him with eternal comfort and glory. This takes place when the new Jerusalem, the holy city, the Bride, the church, comes down from heaven (Revelation 21:1-4); this redemption is not the rejection and denial of the creation of God, but its restoration to the condition in which God intended it from the beginning, accomplished perhaps through fire (if 2 Peter 3:1-13 maintains primacy) but most assuredly through the power of God. God did not give up on His good creation when it suffered decay and corruption when sin and death entered it; He did not give up on humanity once they sinned against Him. Instead, in Christ, He makes all things new (2 Corinthians 5:17, Revelation 21:5). The old world of sin and death meets its end and the new world of righteousness and glory takes its place (Romans 8:18, 2 Peter 3:13); the old humble body is raised, transformed, and obtains the glory of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:35-53, Philippians 3:21). That will be the final victory over sin and death!

It would have been very easy for early Christians to minimize or spiritualize the resurrection; their message would have been much easier for the nations to accept that way. Yet even though the bodily resurrection was an embarrassment to the Greeks, the early Christians continued to insist on it, rather bearing the insult and shame of such a view rather than to conform to the popular opinion of the day. They knew that the ultimate hope of the Christian is not in the spiritual resurrection which can be obtained now by finding eternal life through trusting in and serving the Lord Jesus Christ; their ultimate hope was the resurrection and transformation of the body and the final victory over sin and death on the last day. Early Christians knew they already had the redemption of the soul, and adopted as children into the family of God (Romans 8:1-16), yet they hoped for the full adoption as children of God in the redemption of the body in the resurrection (Romans 8:17-25). The resurrection of the body was non-negotiable in their eyes, and for good reason: their hope was in the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:23); if we do not share in a resurrection like His, we will not be like Him! On the first day of the week after the Passover in 30 CE, the tomb was empty, and the disciples of Jesus saw Him in His resurrected body. They then proclaimed that the day would come when the tomb of believers will also be empty and they will be forever with the Lord in their resurrected, glorified bodies (John 5:28-29, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58, Philippians 3:21)! Yes, we must experience spiritual resurrection, and must do so quickly before the Lord returns. Yet we ought to look forward to the day of the resurrection of the body, as the early Christians did, looking forward to the transformation of the body toward conformity to the glorified body of Christ, when death will be finally vanquished once and for all! Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Abiding in the Teaching of Christ

Whosoever goeth onward and abideth not in the teaching of Christ, hath not God: he that abideth in the teaching, the same hath both the Father and the Son (2 John 1:9).

Whereas the essential human condition and challenges remain consistent throughout time, many things have changed over the past two thousand years. Empires have come and gone; the Gospel message has spread throughout the world; people who believe in Jesus today often come from very different places and cultures than that of first century Jewish Palestine. Different people with different societal and cultural norms have looked at Jesus for the past two thousand years, and unsurprisingly, we now have all sorts of different views about who Jesus really is and for what Jesus stood.

Yet this is not a new challenge. Within a hundred years of Jesus’ death, many of the Greco-Roman world, profoundly influenced by Greek philosophy, also looked into the claims and life of Jesus of Nazareth. They found Him compelling, but there were certain things that the Christians were saying about Jesus unacceptable to them. The Christians claimed that Jesus was the Son of God and God the Son (Acts 8:37, John 1:1); well and good, but they also claimed that He was God the Son in the flesh (Colossians 2:9, 2 John 1:7). Surely God would never humiliate Himself to the point of becoming flesh. No; it was not truly flesh; He only seemed to be flesh, these Greeks would say.

These Greeks influenced by Jesus but still holding onto many Greek philosophical principles were forming the various groups called the Gnostics; many of the “gospels” that are promoted with great fanfare today, like the “Gospel of Thomas” and the “Gospel of Judas,” were written by these Gnostics. They viewed Jesus as a most superior teacher of philosophy, a divine being who only seemed to be human, advocating (depending on the group) either complete asceticism or license to satisfy the desires of the flesh in the name of superior understanding and a complete division between the flesh and the spirit, among other things. Sure, there were a couple of similarities between the picture of Jesus promoted by the Gnostics with the picture of Jesus promoted by the Apostles and the early Christians, yet the differences remained stark.

What did all of this mean? A lot of people today think that different views of Jesus can be maintained acceptably before God, but such was unthinkable in the first century. John perceives the threat Gnosticism poses to the work and identity of Jesus of Nazareth: the power of the Incarnation is denied, the ability of Jesus to identify with humans and their suffering is rejected (cf. Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-8), and the Biblical presentation of man as body and soul combined is being thoroughly undermined (cf. Genesis 1:26-27, 2:5-9). The differences between the Apostolic presentation of Jesus of Nazareth and the Gnostic presentation are real, and critical aspects of the faith are rejected by even tolerating the Gnostic view. John will have none of it: those who do not abide in the teaching, or doctrine, of Christ, do not have God; those who abide in that teaching have the Father and the Son, since the Son is the exact imprint of the nature of the Father (John 10:30, Hebrews 1:3). Those who have left the teaching of Christ engage in evil works, and they are not even to be greeted (2 John 1:10-11).

These are very sharp words, and to many modern ears, it sounds intolerant. His words are designed to be intolerant to a significant degree, mostly because of his desire to maintain the integrity of the teachings regarding Jesus. It is one thing to believe the principles of Greek philosophy; it is quite another to attempt to re-imagine Jesus as a Greek philosopher and in the process distort His message and His identity. None of us were given the right to make a Jesus of our own image according to our own desire; therefore, it is right to defend the teaching of the Christ who actually lived, died, and was raised (1 Peter 3:15).

To understand the true nature of the Christ is always a challenge. We are all creatures of our time and age; we are programmed by our environment, family, friends, culture, and society to think in certain ways and to accept certain propositions as true. None of us can completely transcend those ways of thinking; in various ways, we will all see Jesus somehow in ways more like us than like a first century Palestinian Jew. Since Jesus is for all men, this is acceptable up to a point; Jesus is compelling precisely because He speaks regarding the human condition in general, and not merely to first century Jewish concerns (e.g. Matthew 5-7). That is likely why John emphasizes the need to abide in the teachings of Christ: we did not walk with Him and talk with Him, but we all can learn the things He taught and the things taught regarding who He was and is and ever will be (cf. 2 Timothy 2:2).

The challenge is for us as much as it was for those in the first century: we must abide in the teachings of Jesus. Some of the things Jesus said and did are easily acceptable; those should be a given. Yet in every society and in every age there are aspects to Jesus’ existence, nature, life, death, resurrection, and instruction which stand completely against the commonly accepted wisdom of the day. It is hard to fight against cultural norms; little wonder, then, how so many have not abode in the teachings of Christ, but have instead invented a Jesus better suited to their own desires and more consistent with their own expectations. That tendency has not changed; nevertheless, we must stand against it. We must accept all of the teachings from Jesus and regarding Jesus in Scripture, no matter how consistent they are with what we already believe or how popular they are with our fellow man. Let us strive to abide in the doctrine of Christ and not deviate from Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Jealous God

Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them, for I, the LORD thy God, am a jealous God…(Exodus 20:5ab).

God is not just providing commands for Israel on Mount Sinai– He also gives reasons as to why the commands exist. But the reason behind the second command may seem rather baffling. The Israelites are not to make an image of any thing in all the creation to bow down and serve it because YHWH is a jealous God. A similar declaration is made in Exodus 34:14 in a similar context– the reason that Israel is to not make a covenant with the inhabitants of Canaan is because they are all to be destroyed, lest they intermarry and begin serving other gods.

This statement, then, is clearly not an aberration. But what does it mean? How should we understand the idea that God is a jealous God?

Many people place the most negative spin imaginable on the idea. They make God out to be a very insecure and domineering deity, unable to stand the idea that Israel would shower another with affection because it would significantly dampen His self-image. In this view, all of the negative aspects of jealousy are highlighted. Such a view is a direct descendant of the Gnostic view of the God of the Old Testament– they imagined that “Yaldabaoth,” the “Creator God” of the Old Testament, was a minor deity, unaware of the existence of greater deities beyond him, who acted like a tyrannical despot, from whom the Logos came to set men free. Little wonder, then, that many who seek to challenge and question the faith turn to a passage like this and demand answers as to how God can be righteous and just while being jealous.

But there is no real need for us to imagine God as jealous in such a negative way. After all, in the very next verse, YHWH declares how He will show lovingkindness to those who love Him (Exodus 20:6). God loves Israel– that is why He led them out with a mighty hand from the bondage of Egypt (cf. Exodus 20:2). And, as Paul will later declare, love does not seek its own and is not provoked (1 Corinthians 13:5). Thus, perhaps God’s jealousy has less to do with God Himself and more to do with His desires for His people Israel.

Illustrations can be instructive. One of the prevailing images used in the Old Testament to describe the relationship between God and Israel is that of marriage (e.g. Hosea 1-3). Correspondingly, bowing down to other “gods” and serving them is described with the image of adultery (Jeremiah 3:1-3).

Therefore, an element of God’s jealousy for Israel does likely involve a desire on the part of the Husband to be the sole Beloved in the sight of the wife. But this jealousy is based more in a desire for the benefit of Israel than for the benefit of God.

Paul will later describe in Romans 1:18-32 the descent of man that begins with making gods out of the creation as opposed to serving the Creator. It is not a pretty picture, and it was graphically illustrated in the case of Israel in Ezekiel 16. Idolatry leads to sexual perversion, perversion among other human relationships, and the general degradation of society. Hosea 4:1-3 paints a dismal picture of Israel’s condition. And it all started because Israel did not respect the first and second commandments. It all went downhill from there.

In the New Testament, the prevailing image describing the relationship between God and Christians is that of Father and child (cf. Luke 15:11-32, Romans 8:14-17, etc.). There is also an natural jealousy in that relationship, and everyone who has ever been a parent can understand it. Good parents always want what is truly best for their child, and they earnestly desire that their children follow in that path. If that is the case with earthly parents, how much more so is that the case with our heavenly Father (Hebrews 12:5-11)? Is this desire not a form of jealousy? As it is written,

Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? (James 4:5 ESV)

To what end is this jealousy? Our betterment. God is jealous for us not because He is some insecure, megalomaniacal God, but because He wants what is truly best for us. Just as earthly parents beam with joy when their children follow in the good paths in which they directed them, so God rejoices when His children follow in the good path in which He has directed them (cf. 1 John 2:3-6). Likewise, just as earthly parents mourn when their children prove rebellious to their own hurt, God mourns when people rebel against Him to their own hurt and disadvantage, both in this life and in the next (Romans 1:18-32, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).

The same temptations exist then as now to divinize that which is less than God and to descend from there. Evidence of this is pervasive in our society, and tragically, even in our own lives. This is why God is a jealous God– He is jealous for us and for our betterment, so that we can have that which is truly life, both in this life and in the life to come. We must humbly understand that God loves us and seeks our own good even when we do not understand or prove to be rebellious. We should be thankful that God is jealous, earnestly desiring us to lead us in the good path that leads to life. Let us follow that path, serve God, and experience true life!

Ethan R. Longhenry