This sermon is part of the sermon series "Living Deep". See series.
Story behind the sermon series (Bryan Wilkerson)
This fall series was prompted by some listening sessions with congregation members the previous spring. In conjunction with a vision and stewardship campaign, we asked folks to tell us how the church could serve them better. One of the recurring themes was a desire to "go deeper" in faith and knowledge of the Scripture.
With this in mind, we wanted to launch the new ministry year in September with a series that would be exegetically strong and focused on personal spiritual vitality. For a variety of reasons, 1 John seemed to fit the bill. The subject matter is simple and straightforward: truth (right doctrine), obedience (right living), and love (right relationships). The cyclical structure of the book invites deeper reflection on these themes. And the letter's original purpose was to strengthen and assure new believers.
We chose the title "Living Deep" in order to communicate that spiritual depth isn't simply about knowledge (a common misconception,) but about everyday life and relationships.
The challenge of preaching 1 John is that it is predominantly conceptual in content and lacks an obvious narrative element. No persons are named, no specific problems or situations are addressed, and there are few practical applications. (Several pastor-friends I spoke with shuddered at the memory of preaching through 1 John!) In order to bring a human element to the book and to create a weekly narrative, we introduced each week's message with a "Dear John" letter, written by an imagined contemporary person as if responding to that week's text. The diverse group of letter writers included a young adult just getting a taste of "the world," an active church mom who feels like she's just going through the motions of faith, a seeker from another culture, and an older saint wondering about his readiness to meet Christ. These were presented in video format so that each week's letter would reflect the writer's unique and personal voice.
In response to some of the feedback we received from the congregation, the preaching was a bit more textually-focused than in previous series. We unpacked the internal structure of the letter, explored the struggles and situation of the original hearers, and leaned into lexical and grammatical elements more explicitly. This was well-received by more mature listeners without overwhelming or intimidating seekers and new believers.
The final message included not only a video-letter introduction, but brief "notes" from each of the letter-writers in the series, reflecting on their deeper experiences of faith. It brought a personal and satisfying feeling to the conclusion of the series.
Deep is good.
If there's one thing that no one wants to be, it's "shallow." If there's one kind of life no one wants to live, it's a superficial life. A few years ago, there was a movie called Shallow Hal about a guy who was so fixated on women's physical appearances that he never saw or cared about their inner beauty. No one wants to be a shallow Hal or a superficial Sue. We want to be deep.
Deep is good, right? Friends want to have deep conversations. Philosophers want to think deep thoughts. Coaches want to have a deep bench. Fans want their teams to go deep into the playoffs. Investors are hoping for a deep recovery. Gardeners want their plants to have deep roots.
"Deep" implies substance. If something is deep, it's profound, it's sufficient, it's real, it's enduring. We want to be deep people. We want to live deep lives.
If that's true for people in general, it is especially true for people who call themselves Christians. No Christian wants to have a "shallow" faith. No church wants to be described as, "a mile wide and an inch deep." A few months ago, I saw a book advertised in a Christian catalogue entitled, Deep Church. I ordered it, and the elders are reading it this fall. When we asked the Grace Chapel congregation last year what they wanted from their church, the thing we heard most was, "We want to go deeper."
And so this year we are going to focus on going deeper in our faith: deeper in our knowledge of God and his Word; deeper in prayer; deeper in the Holy Spirit; deeper into Christlikeness.
We also want to get closer this year—to strengthen our relationships in this Body of Christ. And we want to reach wider this year—to extend the love and truth of Christ to our community and region and world. Deeper. Closer. Wider. These three words express our vision.
So as we cast about for a passage of Scripture to begin the journey, we found our way to the book of 1 John. This little book tucked away toward the end of the New Testament is actually a letter from the apostle John to a community of believers probably in Ephesus. It's a simple book. He doesn't cover a wide range of topics, as Paul so often does in his letters. John chooses to focus on a few simple truths and to drill down into them.
We get the gist of John's message in a couple of verses from 2:24-25, especially as they appear in The message translation: "Stay with what you heard from the beginning, the original message. Let it sink into your life. If what you heard from the beginning lives deeply in you, you will live deeply in both Son and Father." We took the title of our series from that verse: "Living Deep."
So with that goal in mind, we'll be digging into John's letter this fall. Each week we'll introduce the message with an imaginary letter from a contemporary Christ-follower writing as if she or he had received John's letter in the mailbox that day.
This morning we heard from Marissa, a woman who's been a Christian since she was a child but is now feeling as though something is missing from her Christian life. She's not experiencing the fullness and joy that John writes about—at least she hasn't for a while—and she's wondering if she ever will. Maybe you feel the same way sometimes.
Let's read John's opening lines again, and then consider what he might say to Marissa and the rest of us:
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; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.
This isn't an easy passage to read or teach. For one thing, it's a run-on sentence. Our English translation breaks it up into four verses, but in the original language it's all one thought. For another thing, John begins the sentence with a series of dependent clauses and buries the main subject and the main verb all the way down in verse 3. If John had written this for a high school English class, he would have gotten an A+ for content and a C- for grammar! Rather than try to untangle it verse by verse, let me suggest to you that John is telling us three things in this opening paragraph of his letter.
Jesus Christ really lived.
The first thing John wants to tell us is that Jesus Christ really lived. John was writing at a very precarious time in the life of the early church. This letter was written late in the 1st century (probably between 70-90 AD) so it's been about 50 years since Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth. The first generation of believers, those who actually encountered Jesus, have just about died off. John was one of the last living apostles. So he's writing to what we might call 2nd and even 3rd generation Christians.
By "2nd generation," I mean people who never personally encountered Jesus of Nazareth but heard about him from someone who did. 3rd generation believers were those who heard about Jesus from someone who heard about Jesus from someone who actually met Jesus. You get the idea. After three generations, things can get a little ragged. Questions come up. Doubts creep in: Did it really happen? Is it really true?
I'm curious: how many of you are 1st generation Christians? In other words, your parents or grandparents were not Christ-followers. How many of you are 2nd generation Christians—that is, your parents were committed believers, and you came to faith as a child or young adult? How many are 3rd generation believers—both your parents and grandparents were Christ-followers?
The good thing about being a 2nd or 3rd generation believer is that you have a rich spiritual heritage—you grow knowing Christ and the Bible and the Christian life. That's good. I'm very thankful to be a second generation Christian. It gave me a head start on my spiritual journey, and saved me a lot of grief.
The downside of being a 2nd or 3rd generation believer is that you don't typically have the kind of dramatic conversion experience a 1st generation believer has. You probably can't point to some powerful transformation or flash of insight. You just sort of grow into it. The gospel, the church, the Bible—they've always been there for you. It's easy for the wonder to wear off after a while or to find yourself asking if it's all really true after all, like Marissa, who's beginning to wonder if she's really a Christian, and if she is, why it's not as satisfying as everyone says it should be.
Well, John is writing to people like that. They weren't there when Jesus lived and taught and died. They're going on hearsay. Not only that, but enough time had passed that people were beginning to mess with the message. Some were questioning the humanity of Jesus. Others were questioning the divinity of Jesus. A particular strain of false teaching going around was that Christ wasn't really human. He just appeared to be human. He appeared to have a body. He appeared to die.
So John writes to these 2nd and 3rd generation believers at this precarious time in the life of the church to set the record straight. Jesus Christ really lived. We saw him, he writes. By "we" he means not only himself, but any other apostles and first generation believers who might still have been alive. We saw him heal the sick and multiply the loaves and fishes and calm the storm at sea and raise Lazarus from the dead. We heard him, he writes. We heard him say, "Blessed are the poor in spirit," and, "I and the Father are one." We even touched him, he writes. Maybe he's remembering how he leaned up against Jesus at the last supper. Maybe he's thinking of these post-resurrection appearances, when Jesus said to Thomas and to all of them, "Touch me and see! A ghost does not have flesh and blood like I have."
Remember when iPhones first came out? It wasn't enough just to see them advertised and to hear people talk about them. You had to actually hold one in your hands. When you met someone who had one you said, "Let me see that." What you meant was let me feel it, let me handle it, let me see if it's everything it's cracked up to be. That's the language John is using here. We saw him. We heard him. We handled him. And we're telling you, he's everything you've heard him to be.
And here we are, these two thousand years later, being asked to believe the same things. We're not two or three generations removed, we're 50 generations removed! That's a lot of time for questions and doubts to creep in—for the message to be corrupted. So John would say to us what he said to his first century readers: Jesus Christ really lived! We saw him, we heard him, and we touched him.
We don't have time for a lengthy discussion of the historicity of Jesus this morning, but need to remind ourselves that we have compelling evidence. We have not one, not two, not three, but four eyewitness accounts of his life and death and resurrection, each written from a distinctive point of view, yet all telling the same story. We have more manuscript evidence for Jesus than we do for any other figure of antiquity.
But in addition to the Scripture, we have several remarkable non-biblical references to the life of Jesus Christ—the Jewish historian, Josephus; the Roman historians, Tacitus and Suetonius; and Pliny the Elder.
We have the worldwide movement that bears his name—Christianity—one of the most dominant and widely believed faiths on the planet. And then, of course, we have the fact that half the world marks time by the appearance of Jesus: BC or AD. Something happened back there. Someone lived who was of sufficient stature and substance to have changed the course of human history.
There's certainly room to question and debate exactly what it was that Jesus said and did. Every seeker and believer has to investigate the record for himself and come to his own conclusions. But of this you can be sure, says John: Jesus Christ really lived.
We have really experienced him.
The second thing John wants to tell us is that we have really experienced him. Jesus Christ didn't just live, John tells us, but he also changed our lives.
We need a quick grammar lesson to appreciate what John is saying here. Notice that John doesn't simply say "we saw Jesus and heard Jesus and touched Jesus." That would have been the simple past tense—reporting a past action. What he says is, "We have seen … we have heard … we have touched." He uses what's called the perfect tense, which describes past action with continuing results. He's not just reporting that something happened in the past. He's reporting something that happened that continues to have an effect right up to the time of writing.
An example: If someone says to you, "I saw Fenway Park," all they're telling you is that at some point in the past they made visual contact with the ballpark. That's the past tense. If someone says to you, "I have seen Fenway Park," that's the perfect tense. They're telling you that they not only saw it, but that the seeing of it has made a lasting impression on them. The Green Monster, the white lines, the red dirt of the infield—they'll never forget it. They've been changed by the experience.
That's what John is saying here. We didn't just see Jesus and hear Jesus and touch Jesus. We experienced Jesus, and the experience of seeing, hearing, and touching Jesus continues to shape our lives. His words are still ringing in our ears. His works are still vivid in our minds' eye. Our nerve endings still tingle at the sense of his presence.
In fact, John says, the experience is so real that Jesus has become our life. Twice he says it. In verse 1 he refers to Jesus as "the Word of life." Not the word about life, as if Jesus' words and actions have informed their lives. But "the word of life," as if knowing Jesus is life itself. He says it again in verse 2: "We proclaim to you the eternal life." Jesus isn't just a source of life. He, himself, is life. To know him is to live.
Again, an illustration might help. Brett Favre is back for another season of football. Favre is the quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings, who at 41 has come back from retirement a third or fourth time, who hasn't missed a start in 20 seasons, who still jumps up and down like a kid on a playground every time he throws a touchdown. There are a lot of football players in the NFL. Everyone one of them would tell you that football is an important part of their lives—some might even say the most important part of their lives. But Brett Favre would have to say, "Football is my life." He can't imagine his life—he can't imagine himself—apart from football.
In a similar but much more grand and comprehensive way, John is telling us that Jesus Christ is his life. The experience of seeing, hearing, and feeling Jesus Christ is for him life itself—not just any life, but the life God has in mind for every human being.
Let me pause here and ask: Is Jesus Christ your life? Are you experiencing Christ? We haven't had the privilege John had of seeing, hearing, and touching Jesus in the flesh. But the point of John's letter is that this life, this experience of Christ, is available to everyone, everyday.
We can still see Christ work in our lives and in the world around us. We see his handiwork in creation, as the green of summer gives way to the orange of autumn. We witness his healing, transforming work in the lives of people around us, and in our lives. We watch his people go out into the world to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and bring good news to the needy. We can still hear Christ speak through his Word, the Bible; through the still, small voice of the Spirit; through the voices of people he places in our lives. And even though Jesus no longer walks the earth, we can still feel him laying a finger on some sinful thought or habit, lifting us up with his strong hand, comforting us in his arms of love, brushing by us in a moment of worship.
I had a chance this week to attend a preaching conference up at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. There I was, sitting in the chapel along with a few hundred other pastors and students, feeling anxious about the start of the new year and burdened by my own unfinished sermon, and suddenly God is speaking to me through an 80-year-old man in the pulpit, Haddon Robinson. And what God tells me is that he loves me, not because of who I am or what I do, but in spite of who I am and what I do.
Maybe, like Marissa, it's been a while since you've experienced Christ like that. Maybe, like Marissa, you're wondering if you have ever experienced Christ like that. John wrote this letter for people like you. He was writing to people who called themselves Christians but for a variety of reasons weren't experiencing the fullness of life, the deepness of joy, that was available to them in Christ. They had a relationship with Christ, most of them did, but it was shallow. Some of them, it turned out, were not actually Christians after all. They were familiar with Christ's teaching. They were hanging out with Christ's people. But they had never really experienced Christ personally.
Could either of these be true of you? Is it possible that you've always thought of yourself as a Christian but have never actually experienced a personal relationship with Christ? Or is it possible that you are a Christian, but you're not experiencing the depth of life and joy that John is describing here? Either way, this letter is for you. In the weeks to come, John is going to show us how to live deeply in Christ.
We really want you to experience it too.
Jesus Christ really lived. We have really experienced him. And we really want you to experience him, too. That's the third thing John wants to say to his readers and to us in this opening paragraph. That's why he wrote this letter.
Look at verse 3: "We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us." That word, fellowship, or koinonia in the Greek, means "to share, or to have something in common." It's not enough for John to be experiencing this life himself; he wants others to share the experience with him. In fact, he wants it so badly that his own experience is incomplete without them.
Look at verse 4: "We write this to make our joy complete." That's a very interesting statement. If he had said, "We write this to make your joy complete," that would make sense. He wants his readers to have the same joy he had experienced. In fact, there are some ancient manuscripts that have the word "your" instead of "our," probably because that made more sense to some of the copyists. But "our joy" is probably the most reliable reading. John wants his readers and us to understand that his own experience with Christ will be lacking something unless and until he can share that experience with others.
One more illustration: Let's say you discover a great restaurant. The food is delicious, the service is stellar, the ambiance is truly unique. As you're driving home with your friend or spouse you say, "That was one of the best restaurants I've ever been to." That's joy. Now let's say you tell some friends about the restaurant, and the next weekend they try it and come back and say, "You were right! That's one of the best restaurants we've ever been to!" Well, now you have more joy, because someone you love has had the same experience you've had, and you can talk about it. But wait: let's say that the next weekend the whole group of you goes out together to that restaurant. You try everything on the menu. You sample each other's entrees. You share a couple of desserts and order another round of coffee and stay till the place closes. Now your joy is complete, because you have actually shared the experience with people that you love.
So it is with the Christian experience. It's incomplete until we've shared it with others. That's why it's not enough just to go deeper in your faith. If you're not careful, going deep can become very self-centered, even self-indulgent. This life, this joy, was meant to be shared.
Listen to what a commentator named Gary Burge writes about this passage: "Christian community is … the common living of people who have a shared experience of Jesus Christ. They talk about this experience, they urge each other to grow more deeply in it, and they discover that through it, they begin to build a life together unlike any shared life in the world."
So John's first lesson in Living Deep is this: You know you're living deep when your greatest joy is experiencing Christ personally and sharing that experience with others. That's why our vision for the year isn't just to go deeper in Christ, but also to get closer to those who know Christ, and to reach wider so others can come to know him.
If John were to answer Marissa's letter about why she isn't finding much joy in her Christian life, I think he would ask her two questions, the same questions he would ask each of us this morning. First: Are you experiencing Christ personally? Are you seeing him work, hearing him speak, and feeling his presence in your life on a daily basis? If not, then it's time to go deeper. And this year we'd like to help you do that. The second question he'd ask is this: Are you sharing that experience with others? If not, then maybe you need to get closer to folks who know him and reach wider to folks who don't. And this year we'd like to help you do that, as well.
Last week I was away on a study retreat to get ready for this series. I had a stack of commentaries on the table, and the first one I opened described the letter of 1 John as "a loving and anxious sermon" written by a pastor who loved his people and wanted God's best for them. I was struck by that phrase "a loving and anxious sermon." Maybe because there was a lot I was feeling anxious about concerning our church. But as I sorted through those things and spent time in John's letter, I realized that the thing I am most anxious about, the thing I am most anxious for, is for everyone in this flock that we call Grace Chapel to experience the fullness of life in Christ.
So my pastoral prayer for Grace Chapel this year, for every one of you, is that we would go deeper in our relationship with Christ, get closer to our spiritual family, the church, and reach wider to invite more people into the party. I'd like to ask if you'll make this your prayer, too. If you do, then your joy, and mine, will be complete.
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.