The person I want to be
We never stop longing to be better people, do we? There's always some aspect of our behavior or personality that we wish we could change.
I spent a few minutes browsing through the self-improvement section of the bookstore and found a variety of intriguing titles: Personal Development for Dummies, Reinventing Yourself, Becoming a Life-Change Artist, and this ominous title, Change or Die. I found books to help you get organized, improve your memory, be more assertive, stop procrastinating, overcome anger, stop being late, and even how to make people like you! If you're really committed to change, there's a 500-page volume entitled Building the Best You: A Two-Year Discovery Journal. If you don't have that kind of time, you can pick up a much thinner volume that promises to Change Almost Anything in 21 Days. It all sounds so simple and promising, but is that kind of change really possible?
Can an introvert become the life of the party? Can a procrastinator ever learn to work ahead? One psychologist has his doubts. He says, "You can train a poodle to bark, but it will never be a German shepherd." Can we change who we are, deep down, on the inside?
And what's true for people in general—this desire to become a better person—takes on special meaning for people who call themselves Christians. We not only want to become better people, but we want to become Christ-like people. How does that happen?
Take Albert, our imaginary letter-writer this week. He's an older man who's been following Christ his whole life. He has certainly grown in his faith over the years. He's made progress in some areas, but there are still things he'd like to change. He's still not the man or the Christ-follower he longs to be. At times he's energized by that possibility, but other times it feels like a burden or a pipe-dream. And the older he gets, the harder it seems. Sometimes he wonders if it's too late to change—if it's worth the effort.
These are questions we all struggle with, no matter how old we are or how long we have been following Christ. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? Is that kind of change possible? Is it realistic for people like you and me and Albert to imagine becoming "like Christ" someday?
These are the questions we're going to consider as we dig deeper into this letter called 1 John. Last week we considered the doctrinal test of our faith and discovered Deep Truth—that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man and the only way to eternal life. This week we'll return to the ethical dimension of our faith and discover Deep Hope. Let's jump into John's letter in 2:28-3:3.
Confident at his coming
John introduces two new ideas in this section of his letter. They're not new to John, of course, as he's already written about them in his gospel, but they are new to this letter.
The first new idea he introduces is the Second Coming of Christ. Let's look at 1 John 2:28: "And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming." In this one verse, John uses two distinctive New Testament words to describe the Second Coming of Christ. The first is the word appearing: "… so that when he appears …" It's the same word he used back in chapter 1 when he spoke about Christ's first coming. He wrote, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared. …" This particular word describes the invisible becoming visible—something hidden being revealed.
For thousands of years, throughout the Old Testament period, God was there but could not be seen. He was hidden, so to speak, behind a pillar of fire or a smoke on a mountain. But in Jesus of Nazareth, the invisible God became visible. He could be seen, heard, and touched. But then, just when his followers were getting used to having him around, he disappeared and returned to heaven. And while he was still with them by his Spirit, he was invisible—hidden—once again. But someday, John says, he will be visible again. He'll be revealed, and we'll see him "just as he is."
The second word John uses is the word coming: "… so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed at his coming." This word was used to describe a king riding into one of his territories to be welcomed and honored by his subjects. Remember that in the ancient world there was no CNN broadcasting images of the king on the nightly news, no photographs to look at, no YouTube videos of his latest speech. Most people would live their whole lives without ever actually seeing their king. So a king visiting one of his cities was a rare and glorious event. People would line the streets—'There he is! That's him!" Sometimes they would go out to meet him, to join his entourage, and accompany him into the city. (Now that raises an interesting possibility about the so-called "rapture" of the church. When Paul describes the church being caught up to meet the Lord in the air, is he describing the rapture of the church to heaven? Or is he describing the church meeting Christ to accompany him on his triumphant return to earth?)
In any event, in this letter John wants his readers to have no doubt that the Jesus who was brutalized and humiliated on the cross, the Jesus who vanished from the earth amid rumor and speculation, would one day return in power and glory for all the world to see. His readers needed to know that. Remember, they were two or three generations removed from Christ's first appearing. It had been 50-some years since Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth. They had never seen him. They needed to know that one day he would come again to be seen and heard and experienced.
And we need to know that, too. We are 50 generations and 2,000 years removed from Jesus of Nazareth! It's hard to believe, sometimes, that God really walked the earth in the person of his Son—and harder still to believe that he will come again to this earth to be seen and heard by all people everywhere. But John wants to assure us: it will happen.
Hope or fear?
What strikes me about John's description of the Second Coming is how positive and inspiring it is. He wants us to look forward to that day "confident and unashamed." And in 3:3 he describes it as our "hope." I don't know about you, but that's a different take on the Second Coming than I was raised with in the church. As I remember it, the Second Coming was a source of fear, not hope.
I happened to catch portions of the PBS special report recently on "Religion in America." They showed footage of Billy Graham crusades back in the 50's and 60's. I was struck by how central the doctrine of the Second Coming was to his message and by the urgency that brought to his preaching. He wagged his finger at the crowd, warning them that Christ could return at any moment. "Are you ready to meet Christ?" he asked, with fire in his eyes.
I remember my pastor preaching a sermon series on the Book of Revelation, with scary-looking charts and even scarier words like "tribulation" and "Armageddon" and "the mark of the beast." I remember a scary movie they showed in church called "Thief in the Night," and a scary song that we sang in those days: "Children died, the days grew cold, a piece of bread could buy a bag of gold / I wish we'd all been ready / Two men walking up a hill, one disappears, and one's left standing still / I wish we'd all been ready / There's no time to change your mind, the Son has come, and you've been left behind." Sing that tune around a bonfire, and you're ready to come to Jesus! Well-intentioned youth speakers used the Second Coming to scary us into godly living: "What if Christ returns and finds you smoking?!" We knew the Second Coming was supposed to be a good thing, but it inspired more fear than hope.
How do you feel about the Second Coming? Does it fill you with hope or with fear? Are you ready to meet Christ, if he should come back today? John wants us to look forward to that day with great joy and anticipation. In the next few verses he tells us why.
Born of God
Let's pick it up at 2:29: "If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is righteous is born of him." With this verse John introduces his second new idea to this letter: the "second birth." Up until now he has described relationship with God in terms of fellowship and belief. Now he uses the language of birth and family.
Once again, this isn't a new idea for John. It's central to his gospel. Remember his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3? "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." He goes on to explain that just as every person must be born physically into an human family, so every person must be born spiritually into God's family. The first birth results in earthly life; the second birth results in eternal life.
How exactly does this second birth take place? John explains it in chapter 1 of his gospel: "Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God" (John 1:12). Contrary to popular opinion, we are not all children of God, automatically, simply because we're human. We become children of God when we're born again from above—when we turn to Christ in repentance and faith and ask him to save us and make us into sons and daughters of God.
So this idea of a second birth isn't new for John, but as he reminds his readers of it in this letter, he's struck afresh by the wonder of it. Every once in a while I'll be working on a sermon alone in my study, and I'll stumble upon a truth so wonderful or surprising that I'll just put my pen down and throw my hands in the air and praise God for it! And I think that's what happens to John right here in the middle of his letter! Look at 1 John 3:1: "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God. And that is what we are!" He can hardly believe it! And if that's what we are—children of God—then we have no reason to fear his coming. On the contrary, we look forward to it!
Picture a military family standing on the tarmac, waiting for their father to step off a troop transport, home from war. As soon as he appears, the kids pull away and rush toward their dad, throwing themselves with abandon into his arms. And then, having hugged him as tightly as they can, they lean back and just look at him. They want to see him just as he is: his smiling face, his loving eyes. In the same way, if we're children of God, we look forward to Christ's return. We don't have to worry about being "left behind." We don't have to run for cover. We'll welcome him. We will behold him.
But notice I said if—"if you are a child of God. … " That's a big "if." Billy Graham was right: If you have never been born again—born of God—the Second Coming is a scary proposition. Your first step toward becoming a better person, the person you long to be, is to invite Christ to be your Savior.
Becoming like him
As he's writing, an even more wonderful thought comes to John's mind, under the inspiration of the Spirit. When Christ returns, we'll not only see him, we'll be like him! Look at verse 2: "Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him just as he is." You see, when you're someone's child, you don't just belong to them; you resemble them. You can't help it. You carry their DNA, for one thing.
I came across a fascinating study of a pair of identical twins who were separated at birth and raised by different families about 40 miles apart, with no knowledge of the other's existence. At the age of 39, they met each other for the very first time and discovered some remarkable similarities. Both of them had been named James by their adoptive parents. Both liked math and hated spelling. Both of them were married twice, first to women named Linda, and the second time to women named Betty. Both had sons they named James Allen. Both of them owned dogs named Toy. Both were chain-smokers—Salems. Both had high-blood pressure. Both drove Chevys. Both worked in law enforcement, and both vacationed on the same beach in Florida!
I'm not sure how to explain all that, but it illustrates the power of family likeness—it gets passed on from one generation to another. So once we've been born of God, we have the life of God within us. We will be like him.
But it's not just the DNA that gets passed along. The values and habits and passions of the family get passed along, too. So if your last name is Manning, you probably play football. If your name is Kennedy, you know politics. If your name is Clooney, it's no surprise you're in show business. And if your name is Christian, you're destined to be like Christ. It's in the genes. It's who you are.
Look back at 2:29: "If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him." John uses the language of "begetting"—of parents imparting life to a child. Not just life, but likeness—the family traits. If we've been born of God, we have the "righteous" gene. We've inherited this propensity, this capacity, for doing good and doing right.
Unfortunately, we still have that old nature with us, too—the one we inherited from our natural parents and from Adam and Eve. It's a struggle sometimes to live by the new nature rather than the old one. But the fact remains that we are now God's children; we have his life, his nature, at work within us. So becoming like Christ isn't just a possibility, it's a promise.
Who we will be
Look again at verse 2: "But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." Right now, in this life, we struggle to be like Christ. This is in part because of that old sin nature. But it's also because now we see him "through a glass, darkly," to borrow Paul's language. We can't always see clearly what Jesus would say or do in a given situation. We can't hear him over the noise of our world or the promptings of our sin nature. Sometimes we lose sight of him completely.
But someday we will see him face to face, in all his glory. And then we will be like him. We will become the people we long to be, the people we were born to be, when we were born of God. And that gives us hope, John says.
Look at 3:3: "Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure." Notice what John is saying here: the hope of Christ's coming doesn't just encourage us to hang in there; it actually changes us, shaping us into who we will be.
Let me illustrate what I mean. Prince Harry of Great Britain was in the news recently. Harry and his older brother, William, are the sons of Prince Charles and Lady Diana and grandsons of Queen Elizabeth. As such, they could one day sit on the throne of Great Britain. From the day they were born, that possibility—that destiny—has shaped them. Every aspect of their lives—their schooling, their friendships, their family life, their hobbies, their military service—has been shaped by the possibility of becoming king someday. That's why Harry was in the news. He was pulled from the front lines in Afghanistan when it became too risky to leave him in harm's way. He has a destiny to fulfill.
You see, when you call someone a "prince," you're not just describing who they are today, but who they could be someday. In the same way, when the Bible calls you a child of God, it's not just a declaration of who you are, but of who you are becoming, and who you one day will be, in Christ. That knowledge, that destiny, "purifies us," John says. It shapes us. It compels us to live every day of our lives in anticipation of the day when we shall be like him and reign with him.
How does transformation happen?
So how does this transformation into Christ's likeness, this purification from all sin, happen? It's certainly not automatic. You have to act towards it. But it's not a matter of gritting your teeth and trying harder, either. It's a matter of spending as much time with Christ as possible.
That's how it works in a family, right? Kids become like their parents by hanging around them, by spending time with them day in and day out and watching them do life. The Manning boys were born with some good DNA, but they learned the game of football by hanging around their Hall of Fame dad—playing catch in the backyard, watching games together, hanging around the sidelines—until one day they became what they were born and bred to be: NFL quarterbacks.
In the same way, the best way to become like Christ is to spend time with Christ. Spiritual formation isn't a matter of trying harder. It's a matter of getting closer. I'll repeat that because it's so important: Spiritual formation isn't a matter of trying harder. It's a matter of getting closer. It's a matter of relating to Christ as much as possible—spending time with him in the morning or at the end of the day, talking to him as you make your way through your day, worshiping him each Sunday, hanging out with his people, and joining him in his work in the world. Because the more we're with him, the more we'll be like him.
So what does this mean for Albert, the elderly Christ-follower? It means there's hope! It means it's never too late to change, to grow. It means that day by day he is becoming the person he longs to be, the person he was born to be when he put his faith in Christ, and the person he one day will be when he sees Christ face to face. Whether he has many years or few years left, whether it happens at his death or at Christ's return, Albert will one day be fully-conformed to the image of God's Son, and will live and reign with Christ forever and ever.
That same hope is available to everyone who has been born of God through faith in Christ. It's a deep hope that can carry us through all the years of our lives—through dry times and difficult seasons and disappointment with ourselves and one another. It's a hope that sustains us in our struggles with sin and the fallenness of this world.
This is what it means to live deeply. You know you're living deep when day by day you are becoming the person you long to be, were born to be, and one day will be, in Christ.
That life—that hope—can be yours, if you have been born again through faith in Jesus Christ. Remember, you can teach a poodle to bark, but he'll never be a German shepherd. You can teach yourself to be good, you can buy every self-improvement book on the shelf, you can grit your teeth and try harder, but the only way for a son of Adam or a daughter of Eve to become a child of God is to be born of God through faith in Christ. Once that happens, then becoming a better person, becoming more like Christ, is simply a matter of spending as much time with him as possible and looking forward to the day of his return.
Back in high school we had a teacher named Mr. Stopyra, who taught a class in Sociology. It was one of the most popular classes in the school, because everyone who took the class got at least a B. On the first day of class, Mr. Stopyra would look the class in the eye and say, "My job is to teach you sociology. And that's what I'm going to do. We're going to cover a lot of material. There will be two tests—a midterm and a final. But I promise that if you show up for class and do the few things I ask you to do, you will get a B or better." For obvious reasons, he had all kinds of slackers and jokers take his class. I remember looking around on the first day and thinking to myself, There's no way some of these guys are going to get B's. They've never gotten a B in their lives! But day by day, Mr. Stopyra walked and talked us through sociology. And day after day, those kids came to class and did what he asked. And sure enough, everyone in the class got a B or better.
You see what happened? The promise of getting a B inspired us; it purified us. Even slackers and jokers showed up for class and did their homework. So in the end, Mr. Stopyra didn't just give us B's; we grew into our B's. We became what we he told us we would be!
In the same way, Christ promises us that if we will just stay with him, if we keep showing up and doing what he asks, we will become the people we long to be and were born to be.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.