Knowing that We Know

Sunday School Questions – 1 John 2 part 1

NIV 1 John 2:3 We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. 4 The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5 But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: 6 Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.

NRS 1 John 2:3 Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. 4 Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; 5 but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: 6 whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.

NLT 1 John 2:3 And how can we be sure that we belong to him? By obeying his commandments. 4 If someone says, “I belong to God,” but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and does not live in the truth. 5 But those who obey God’s word really do love him. That is the way to know whether or not we live in him. 6 Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Christ did.

The verb “know” occurs 27 times in the five chapters of I John. This level of repetition tells us that knowledge is pretty important to John. Consider the two types of knowing depicted in v. 3. The central knowing here is knowing Jesus. Secondary to this act – maybe “practice” is a better word – of knowing Jesus, is knowing that we know him. Apparently it is possible to think one knows Jesus, to make a claim either to oneself or to others that one knows Jesus, and be mistaken.

God desires that we know Jesus, not just have mental constructs or sets of beliefs about Jesus. If we know Jesus as he intends, it will be more accurate to say we know a person than that we know facts about a person. Of course, when you know a person, you do know facts about that person. But in normal circumstances these facts lie in the background – you simply describe yourself as knowing the person.

How often do we find ourselves questioning our knowledge of a person? I’ve heard people say, “I feel like I barely know you,” or, “After all these years I don’t really know you.” These comments are often provoked by two types of experiences. (1) The experience of the great depths of a person’s personality. We’ve known them and interacted with them for years, but in a moment we glimpse that what we’ve seen is akin to the tip of an iceberg. There is more to know than we’ve ever imagined. The second kind of experience is quite different: (2) We experience something of the other that is at odds with our previous understanding of the person. I think the disciples felt this about Jesus when he submitted to arrest, trial and execution. Sometimes such an experience causes to reject knowing that person – “We had thought he was the chosen one of God – but now we know better. He’d deceived us.”

I think there is a third kind of situation that provokes the question in this text. Some times when we know a person our relationship has significant, even life-changing consequences for us. In this situation the knowing, though we might talk about it as a unidirectional action (“I know him”) what we really have in mind is a bi-directional action (“I know him and he knows me”). As we read the New Testament, we see that it is good for us to know Jesus. More important, however, is that Jesus knows us. Consider Matthew 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” Here are people who know Jesus. Evidently while Jesus has knowledge of them – he’s acquainted with them – he does know them in the essential sense.

Notice also the other commonality between 1 John 2:3 and the passage in Matthew. In both cases real knowledge – a real relationship, that is – is demonstrated by obedience to Jesus’ commands. This is not simply, “I’m doing good things, therefore Jesus knows me.” The chain of causation runs the other direction. Our knowledge of Jesus – and his knowledge of us – has practical consequences for the way we live. Faith has three dimensions: (1) Believing that (certain things are the case); (2) Trusting in Jesus (trust often describable as resulting from the things we believe are the case, for example: “God demonstrated his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”; and (3) Faithfulness (or obedience). While some consider it controversial to consider “faithfulness” as part of what the bible means by “faith,” there are at least two good reasons for doing so. First, the Greek words underlying the concepts are the same. How do we know how to translate the occurrences of these words? By the context. Second, including “faithfulness” or “obedience” as a part of “faith” makes sense of the the way it is used in the New Testament. In John 3:36 “Believing” is contrasted with “not obeying,” leading one to think that if one believes one will obey, and if one does not believe, one will not obey. Also, in Hebrews 11, one of the great chapters on faith, people are described as “having faith,” and the illustration of each person’s faith is what their faith led them to do.

So let’s turn 1 John 2:3 around for a moment. If I do not obey Jesus, I do not know him. I might think he’s a great guy, I might think that he holds the keys of life and death, and is the only way of salvation. But if I have not trusted him enough – that is, not just for a “get-out-of-Hell-Free Card” but also that what he says about life and living here and now is the truth from God our Creator – then I’m missing something really important. I know about Jesus, but I don’t know him.

In v. 5 we see that love is part of this picture. While the Incarnation – the reality that Jesus is God become flesh and gave his life for us – is part of the expression of God’s love toward us, God’s love is not just outside of us in historical reality, but seeks to be operative in our lives. This obedience we do is not something we do out of fear: “Oh, if I don’t obey God he’ll send me to hell!” Instead, the biblical picture is that God’s commands are good for us and for the people around us. As people who are “in Christ,” we are part of the vanguard of the Kingdom. As we live in the new reality brought about by the resurrection of Jesus (think of 2 Corinthians 5:17), we become extension agents of God’s saving love. In our actions of obedience we join in God’s project of healing people’s relationship with God, with themselves, with others, and with creation as a whole. (You might also think of Romans 5:1-5 at this juncture.)

We live in a broken world. Sometimes we experience this brokenness as brokenness. At other times, however, we and others have reached an accommodation with it. Though its like a bed of nails full of scorpions, it’s what we’re used to. We’ve developed coping strategies. We know how to game it for our own advantage. When someone points out the reality of our sin and brokenness we get angry and defensive. When Jesus did it, people were so upset they killed him. In v. 6 we see that our claim to “live in him” must be accompanied by “walking” like Jesus did. This “walking like Jesus” doesn’t mean we wear a robe and sandals, or that we must go to the holy land and find the roads he walked. It means that as his people we take his lifestyle as our own. When we live that lifestyle the world – those who have achieved a measure of comfort and perhaps a working relationship with sin and brokenness – will not be happy. We will find that Jesus meant what he said when he said we’d have to take up our crosses. Walking like Jesus walked tends to take us to destination Jesus reached. (I think this whole idea is what Paul has in mind in Philippians 3:4-11.)

Questions for discussion:

  • Do you believe in Jesus – not just some sort of facticity of his existence or personality – but do you believe enough about him that you trust him? That you give him your allegiance?
  • What does giving Jesus your allegiance look like in your life? How does living out your allegiance to Jesus demonstrate (or incarnate) God’s love?
  • How can we teach our children to not only know facts about Jesus, not only trust him with our lives, but also give him allegiance in our daily existence?
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