Marks of the Believer Part 1: 1 John 2:1-17

[Note: This is part 2 in a six-part series looking at the First Epistle of John. Some of the material is adapted from my commentary as.That You May Know: The First Letter of John During this series, we won’t necessarily touch on every single verse, but will look at the major messages that 1 John presents.]

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.

    Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.

    I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.

    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. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever (1 John 2:1-17).

As we continue our study of 1 John, we start to look at the marks or evidences of a believer. Having set his purpose, John now begins to list these evidences. As we said last week, it’s important to remember that John’s emphasis is on consistency and growth, not a single act of obedience or disobedience.

An Encouraging Word to Start

John begins this section with another word of encouragement. He tells them why he is writing these [particular] things: “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin” (v. 1). The attitude is almost like a teacher preparing his students for an exam. “Here is what you need to know in order to pass the test. This is what will be looked for.”

Now, lest his readers discover they have sinned (and think they have already failed the test!), John reminds them: “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (v. 1b). We have One who will speak to the Examiner (the Father) on our behalf. What gives Him the right to do that? Verse 2 tells us: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” The word propitiation means “an appeasing of God’s wrath.” Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf paid the penalty and satisfied God’s just demands against us. Thus, we can rest in His grace.

Evidence #1: Keeping His Commandments (vv. 1-6)

John begins with a simple statement: “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments” (v. 3). It’s like an equation: 

We have come to know him = We keep His Commandments

Now, as pointed out many times, that equation can’t be reversed. We keep His commandments because we have come to know Him. Reversing the equation becomes trying to know Him through simply keeping His commandments.

Next John gives us one of the many contrasting statements that his writings are known for. They are often written almost like a proverb:

Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments
       is a liar, and the truth is not in him,
but whoever keeps his word,
       in him truly the love of God is perfected (vv. 4-5).

This description contrasts strongly with 1:5-10 (which we looked at last week). Here, the idea that “the truth is not in him” suggests that such a person is not a believer. In 1:5-10, however, he uses the phrase “does not practice the truth,” in the context of a believer refusing to acknowledge he has sinned, leading to a hindrance of fellowship with Christ.

The believer who keeps Christ’s Word (lives in it, practices it), however, is one who has the love of God perfected in him (v. 5). This word “perfected” does not mean morally perfect without sin. The Greek word is teleioo, which means “to make perfect, complete; to carry through completely, to accomplish, finish, bring to an end.” The idea is one of completeness or wholeness.

As Jesus did, John also equates keeping Christ’s commandment’s to “abiding in Christ” (v. 6): “[W]hoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” This is really a summary of this passage. He is saying, “Therefore, if we claim to be in Christ, we should walk in the same way He did, by keeping His commandments.”

Evidence #2: Loving the Brethren (vv. 7-11)

The words of verses 7-8 can be a little confusing.  John first says that what he is about to tell them is not a new commandment, but the same which they have already heard. Then he says it is a new commandment. It is both old and new. The commandment to love the brethren (vv. 9-11) is taught in the Old Testament (for example, Deut. 19:18). At the same time, however, Jesus clarified what that love actually looks like. He practiced sacrificial love, ultimately giving His life for us, and in fact taught that “greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

John returns to a theme already introduced to explain love for the brethren, that of walking in the light. With another series of contrasting statements, John tells his readers:

Whoever says he is in the light 
    and hates his brother is still in darkness.
Whoever loves his brother abides in the light,
    and in him there is no cause for stumbling.
But whoever hates his brother
    is in the darkness and walks in the darkness,
and does not know where he is going,
    because the darkness has blinded his eyes
(vv. 9-11).

Why is there “no cause for stumbling” for the one loves his brother? Because as he walks in the light, he can see anything that might cause him to stumble, and love removes those things from within him that would cause him to stumble. For the one who harbors hatred in his heart, however, that is not true. He is in darkness. The hatred within him causes him to not be able to see those things which cause him to stumble. Hence, we are commanded to walk in the light.

Evidence #3: Growing in Faith (vv. 12-17)

At first, verses 12-17 might seem to be out of place in John’s writings. However, once we consider the context, they are quite natural.  In these verses John is talking about the cycle of growing in Christ. We start as “little children” (the young in the faith), and progress to “young men [and women],” finally maturing into fathers [and mothers] in the faith. We start out as disciples, learning at the feet of another, and now as fathers and mothers we are able to teach and disciple others, continuing the cycle.

The point of this is that growth is natural in the life of the believer. While it does require effort on our part to be disciplined, it is not something that is forced. If one is a believer, he or she will grow. The claim of salvation by one who has had no spiritual growth may be suspect. Jesus mentioned much the same thing in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1-9). The one who grows in his faith in 1 John is like the good soil who produces a harvest. Note that it is not the size of the harvest that counts, because Jesus did indicate that different people bring forth different harvests.  The point, however, is that all true believers grow and produce fruit.

In this context, how does one continue to grow and produce fruit?  John gives this explanation: “Do not love the world or the things of the world” (v. 15). This is the same idea that Jesus taught when He cautioned against storing up earthly treasures. As the believer focuses his life on the things of God, it will be natural that he grow. Believers are not to love the world for two reasons. First, the things of the world (“lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life”) are not from God, and we should be focused on things of God. Secondly because the world “is passing away.” It is temporary. But, as John reminds us, believers will abide forever.

Takeaways from This Passage

The takeaways from this passage are the evidences we have discussed. If we claim to know and be in Christ, we should see the fruit of His transforming work in our lives. We should endeavor to keep His commandments, love the brethren, and seek to grow in the knowledge of Him, His love, and grace. He gives us these guidelines not to condemn us but to keep us from stumbling as we walk in the light with Him.

Continue to Part 3 of this series ===>>


The Shepherd and His Sheep (Psa. 23)

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
-- Psalm 23

Psalm 23 is one of the best-known and most-loved passages in all the Bible. It is read time and time again, with no end to the relevance of its message. In these days of troubled times, when it seems that evil is winning on all sides, we need the truths in this passage more than ever. They tell us of God’s care for us.

The Lord as Shepherd

We in the west don’t quite fully grasp the concept of the Lord as our shepherd. The reason is that western shepherds are different from traditional Middle Eastern shepherds, especially those in the Bible.  Western shepherds today drive their sheep with sheepdogs. The oriental shepherd, however, leads his sheep. Thus, Jesus’ words make sense: “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” The shepherd walks ahead of his sheep, leading them.

In the same way the Lord leads us. He does not drive us, does not force us. He invites us to journey with Him. While leading His sheep, the Shepherd cares for them, and thus they lack (are in want of) nothing:

He leads them to a place of provision. “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters” (v. 2). The Shepherd leads His sheep to a place where there is plenty of grass in which to find sustenance, but also to lay down in peace and safety. The grass is not only plentiful, but it is green, meaning that it is healthy grass, not dead. Likewise, the sheep find not only water, but still water. Still water is that which is calm. The environment is peaceful. And it is in that environment that the Lord restores our souls (v. 3a).

He heals them and restores them to righteousness. “He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (v. 3). The Shepherd restores our souls. What does that mean? The Hebrew word can mean not only “to turn back, bring back,” but also “to refresh, repair.” When the soul is restored, we are healed of the wounds of our past, and we are turned again to God. We are able to walk with Him in the paths of righteousness in which He leads us. No matter the wounds we have, He is our healer.

He guides and protects them in the valleys. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (v. 4). The paths on which the Shepherd leads the sheep do often go down into valleys. Some of them are deep, dark, and dangerous. Yet, the sheep are never left alone. He is always with them. And because He loves the sheep, the sheep need not fear the evil that is there.

Shepherds use both a rod and a staff.  According to former shepherd Phillip Keller, the rod is used to protect the gentle and harmless flock from predators or reprimand unruly sheep that pick on others, eat the wrong plants, or are oblivious to danger. The shepherd parts the sheep’s wool using the rod to look for wounds, disease, and the overall condition of the skin. The staff, which is long and slender with a crook on the end, can be used by the shepherd to return a lamb to its mother, bring timid sheep closer to him or guide the flock into new pasture or through a gate, free sheep from bushes, lift them out of water when they stray too far and get into trouble. Both, David says, are a comfort to the sheep.

He shows his care for the sheep to all. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (v. 5). The Shepherd wants all to know that the sheep are His, and that He cares for them. Thus, He “prepares a table” in the very presence of enemies. We can enjoy goodness and grace of the Shepherd even when enemies are all around us. The anointing with oil is to signify His pleasure with the sheep. He wants all to know, “He is mine, and is greatly beloved by Me.”

A Permanent Dwelling Place

Because of the love and care of the Shepherd, the sheep have a permanent dwelling place—in the very presence of the Shepherd. We are assured that we shall never lose the love, goodness and mercy of our Shepherd. He cares for us so much that now, as we follow Him, goodness and mercy will always follow us. They will always be there, just as He is.

On Faith: Part 1

There is a lot of talk about faith these days, both inside and outside the church. We speak of, “having faith,” “having enough faith,” “faith-based [instruction, care, etc.],” and others. It seems that much of the general population believes that faith is an okay word to talk about. It also seems that working definition of faith would including having faith in faith.

As believers, we are called to live in the truth. That certainly includes a right understanding of faith. What exactly is faith? Is it some mystical force? Is it something we can measure? What can it do in our lives? In this post, we’ll begin to look at some of the answers to these questions.

Defining Our Terms

I’m always a proponent of defining terms, so that everyone knows what I am talking about. The same is true when discussing an idea such as faith. The dictionary defines faith as: Complete trust or confidence in someone or something. Synonyms of faith thus include trust, belief, confidence, conviction, credence, reliance, dependence; optimism, hopefulness, hope, expectation. Do any of those words sound familiar? They should. Many of them are found in the Bible when speaking of faith.

Let’s look at this definition a little closer. Faith means that we have trust in someone or something. Faith always has an object. We place our faith in someone or something. Those who say, “You just have to have faith,” without identifying the object are not teaching true faith. They are trying have faith in faith itself, and to quote a series of popular commercials a few years back, “That’s not how this works!”

The other part of the definition says complete trust in someone or something. Ideally faith is perfect, without doubt. In our world, however, that is rarely the case. Such is the nature of a fallen world. But, incomplete (or “weak”) faith is still faith.

Faith is Real

From this definition, we can conclude that faith is not some mystical, impersonal force that’s just “out there.” Faith is real and objective. In fact, faith can be measured. How do we know that we (or someone else) has faith? Let’s look at a couple examples, first an everyday example, and second an example from the Bible.

Example 1: My chair

This is an often overused, but just as much overlooked and dismissed, example of faith.  When I go to sit in my chair, I have faith that the chair will support me without breaking. I have some evidence that it will (past experience, maybe the weight limit of the chair shown on a label or in the instruction sheet, etc.). But in truth, that’s not 100% proof that the chair will hold me. It’s a very reasonable basis on which to believe the chair will hold me, however. How am I to know for certain that it will? I must sit in the chair.

Now, I have two choices. I can choose to sit in the chair, or not sit. If I choose to not sit in the chair, then I don’t trust the evidence (and thus, at the very least my faith is not strong enough). On the other hand, If I believe the evidence, I will have faith, and thus I will sit in the chair. Now, if I choose to sit in the chair, two outcomes are possible: the chair either will or will not support me. Is it possible that the chair fails to support me even though I have evidence to believe it will support me? While it’s unlikely to happen, it’s entirely possible. Faith is not, as we have said, 100% proof, but a reasonable basis for my belief (we’ll come back to the implications of this in a bit).

Example 2: Peter and the lake

Our second example comes from the life of Peter, the well-known time when he walked on the water (at least for a short period). This is often held up to people as an example of a lack of faith on Peter’s part. However, it’s in fact a perfect example to use in understanding faith.

To refresh our memory of the story, we are told that after feeding 5,000 men (plus women and children), Jesus had the disciples get into a boat and go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, while He dismissed the people and went to pray by Himself. While the disciples were rowing the boat to the other side, night fell, and along with it came a storm. Suddenly, the disciples spotted something on the surface of the water. They thought at first it was a spirit, but Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid, it is I.” (Matt. 14:22-27). Matthew picks up the rest of the story:

And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God” (vv. 28-33).

Let’s break this down a little bit. Peter decides to test the “It is I” statement of Jesus. If it’s Jesus, Peter must have thought, then He can call to me and I can in faith walk on the water to Him. Imagine such a thought! He had seen the evidence of Jesus feeding the 5,000 earlier—and the other things that Jesus had done previously. He had a reasonable basis to believe that Jesus could grant His request (I’d say more than reasonable, actually). I daresay few others would have tried such a thing, even in light of the evidence (and as we know, Peter was the only one to attempt it).

Peter exercises His faith when the Lord called out, “Come.” He begins to walk on the water toward Jesus. I often wonder what that must have felt like for Peter. After a bit, though, Peter looks around and sees all the wind and the waves. He begins to sink! Of course, we know that he cried out to Jesus and Jesus grabbed him up and brought him to the boat, with just a question: O you of little faith, why did you doubt?

So, what happened to Peter there? Did his faith fail him? Not at all. His faith was strong in the beginning, as we see. How do we know he had faith? Because he acted. He put out a test: If it’s Jesus, then He will call to me and I will walk on the water to meet Him. Jesus did in fact call to him, and thus Peter had a choice: Get out of the boat or stay. We know he had faith because he got out of the boat! What happened to his faith? Was it misplaced? His faith was not misplaced. He simply began to believe the other evidence—the evidence of the wind and the waves that said, “You can’t do this! You’ll drown!” Like in the first example, if I didn’t believe the evidence that the chair would hold me, I wouldn’t sit. In Peter’s case, he believed at first, but then he doubted.

Lessons of Faith

What do we learn about faith from these examples? Our faith can be weak or strong. As we exercise our faith and it is confirmed, our faith grows. (That is to say, the more I sit in the chair and the more it supports me, my faith in the chair’s ability to hold me grows.) Peter had faith because of the evidence he saw. Yet, his faith wasn’t quite strong enough to counter the other evidence.

But….but…. he got out of the boat! He exercised his faith. Even though he doubted and began to sink, keep this in mind. In order to sink, he first had to get to the water. And his faith DID grow, based on that and other evidence, culminating in the resurrection. His faith grew so much that he walked up to a lame man in the temple and said, “What I have I give you. In the Name of Jesus, rise up and walk,” and the man jumped up and started walking! And…and…. His faith grew even more. We are told that as Peter walked around, people “even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them” (Acts 5:15). That’s faith!

Do we have misplaced faith? When we place faith in anything or anyone but God and His Word, our faith can be shaken. People and things of this world will let us down. The chair breaks, the friend hurts us. God, however, will never reject us. His Word is a solid foundation on which to place our faith.

Next week, we’ll continue talking about faith, as we examine what biblical faith is and how it works. (On Faith Part 2)

Walking in the Light: 1 John 1:1-10

[Note: This is part 1 in a six-part series looking at the First Epistle of John. Some of the material is adapted from my commentary That You May Know: The First Letter of John. During this series, we won’t necessarily touch on every single verse, but will look at the major messages that 1 John presents.]

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

       This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (1 John 1:1-10).

“Can I know for certain that I’m saved? If so, how?” This is a common question for many believers, whether young or old in the faith. It often springs from a time when a believer falls into sin sometimes repeatedly. They begin to wonder, “Maybe I’m not saved after all. After all, aren’t I supposed to have victory? How can I know?” First John was written for such a person, and John’s answer is an unequivocal “Yes! You can know.” (By the way, the phrase know that appears some 18 times in this short letter.) Before diving into the letter and learning what we can know (and how we can know), a few preliminary matters:


Though some critics dispute that the apostle John, the “Beloved Disciple,” wrote 1 John, there is no real debate about the letter’s authorship among serious biblical scholars, and no valid reason exists to reject the evidence of his authorship. John probably wrote this letter about 85-95 A.D. (or about 50 years after Christ’s death and resurrection).

By the time of John’s writing, many false teachings had emerged, and John sought to combat them, by laying down evidences that would distinguish true believers from the false teachers. Along those lines, we must be careful in reading this letter. John uses many familiar contrasting themes such as love/hate, light/darkness, truth/lies, belief/unbelief (themes which he introduces on the book of John). He often uses stark, direct sentences to contrast these ideas, and if one is not careful it would be easy to miss the fact that John speaks of consistent practice, not individual events.

Jesus: The Word of Life

John begins his letter in the same way he starts the Gospel of John—focusing on Christ. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us” (vv. 1-2). There are several things we should notice here, even in his introduction.

He portrays Jesus as the Word of Life. In John, he called Jesus ‘the Word’ (John 1:1-18), and Jesus proclaimed Himself as the Life. Here, John combines those two, giving us the idea that Jesus speaks life into a dead and fallen world—and a dead and fallen soul. He alone is the source of life—He is life itself. The life that John speaks of here is zōē. It refers not to the biological functions of life (bios), but to the spiritual. When God created man, He breathed “the breath of life” into Adam. It’s this very life that Christ has along with the Father, and that man has lost because of sin. It is “life to the full” (John 10:10), the way life was meant to be lived, in vital dependence on and communion with the Father.

He identifies Jesus as being uncreated. As he does in his gospel, John asserts that Jesus was “from the beginning.” Uncreated, He exists as the eternal Word of God. This is in contrast to false teachers of the day who claimed that “Jesus” was a created being, and the “Christ” was a spirit that came upon Him (but more on that later). As he does in all his writings, John says that to understand Jesus, we must take Him as He is—both God and man.

He claims that he and the other apostles were eyewitnesses of the things they speak. Why is this important? Contrary to those today who discount the value of eyewitness testimony, the testimony provided by John and the others is valuable. John is not writing about some fanciful legend. He is writing about that which he (and others) have seen, heard, lived with, walked with, and touched. He is subtly telling his readers, “I was there. I know what Jesus is like.”

He clearly states his purpose for writing. He tells his readers, “What we have seen and heard we are proclaiming to so that you may have fellowship with us—and thus with the Father and the Son” (v. 3, paraphrase). John wanted his readers to be in “fellowship” with the apostles and with God. The Greek work is koinōnia, which denotes a sharing with, communion with. Those in fellowship with the apostles, the church, and God are sharing and participating in the very life of Christ. When people join that fellowship, John says that it makes their (his and the other believers’) joy complete.

Maintaining Fellowship

Before launching into the marks of a true believer John touches on a very important issue. Once in fellowship with the Lord and His disciples, how does one maintain that fellowship? Or does one even need to maintain it? John assumes the answer to the second question is “yes,” since he immediately starts with a discussion of how to maintain fellowship.

His first statement, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (v. 5), is not just an axiom to be remembered. It has relevance. Since God is [the source of] all light, if we claim to have fellowship with Him, we must walk in the light. God does not have fellowship with darkness, John says. So, we come to the first of many “if/then” statements that John gives us.

If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (vv. 6-7).

His argument is clear and to the point. If we are to have fellowship with God, we are to walk in the light. If we instead walk in darkness, “we lie and do not practice the truth.” As long as we walk in the light, however, our fellowship remains, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.

One might ask John, “What do you mean by walk in the light?” His next statements, in verses 8-10, explain what he means. There has been much controversy surrounding these statements, so we are going to look at them carefully.

The first thing we should notice about these statements (and in fact all of this chapter is John’s constant use of we. He does not say “you” or “I”. He includes himself in the group of people he is talking to. With that said, verse 8 tells us, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” That statement seems clear. If “we” (again John is including himself) have no sin, we are self-deceived. Period. No believer of Christ can rightly claim to have no sin.

Verse 9 continues with another statement in the same logic: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” There could be a ‘But” starting the sentence, since it is contrasting the previous one. In any case, John’s message is clear. If we say we have no sin, we are self-deceived, and the truth is not in us—therefore we are not walking in the light. However, if we confess our sin (agree that it is sin and forsake it), our sin will be forgiven. Not only that, but we will continue to be cleansed of unrighteousness.

At first, verse 10 seems to be a repeat of verse 8. However, the thrust is on the last part of the sentence instead of the first. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him (Jesus) a liar. Why is that so? Because He has declared that all have sinned, and even believers still sin. John’s logic in verses 8-10, then shows that Christians are not perfect, and should not ever attempt to claim sinlessness. While some denominations teach that possibility for the believer, such a teaching is foreign and in direct contradiction to John’s message.

Takeaways from This Passage

What’s the primary takeaway from this passage? The most important one, in the life of the believer, is this: We will all stumble and fall in our journey with Christ. We are learning and growing. To maintain fellowship with Him is to walk in the light, admitting that we are not perfect, we don’t have it all together. To do anything else is to deny the need for His grace. And His grace is offered to us abundantly. Grace, of course, is not a license to continue to sin, but it is a warm hug of accepting who we are and encouraging us to continue the journey. In His grace, we will grow, we will mature, we will become like Him. But along the way, we will fall—ideally less and less as time goes on. The next time you are tempted to pretend that you have it all together in His presence, remember to first turn on the light.

Continue to Part 2 of this series==>>

Introducing a Friend: Meet Billy

Allow me to introduce you to my friend Billy Charles (not his real name, but we’ll get to that later). Billy has been in my life as long as I can remember. I can’t think of a time when he wasn’t there.

Billy is the kind of friend that many people have. He’s very spiritual. He inspires me with words like, “God will heal that person that you pray for, if it’s His will.” He also reminds me that “God never changes, so you should be skeptical of new things.”

Billy has a lot to say about many topics. For example, “People are always out to get what they can. Don’t trust them.” He also reminds me that “Love has its limits. Sooner or later, you’ll get booted.” And finally, he encourages me, “No one is perfect. So don’t worry about it.”

Perhaps you have met this “friend”. Really, he’s not a friend. I had a moment where I saw what he was clearly; it was during a recent discussion with a friend. Father was gracious enough to pull the blinders off my eyes for me to see what was really going on. I introduced him to you as Billy Charles, but really, he has another name–I call him the Believing Cynic.

The Believing Cynic hides easily in Christian circles–and in many churches. He masquerades as a “reasonable” Christian who does believe the Bible and does believe God. Yet, there is something different about him. It’s not that he doubts at times, but rather that he lives a life of quiet doubt. Even his so-called statements of faith hide the cynical side of his nature.

For example, “That person will be healed if it’s God’s will.” Does the Word of God ever tell us that it’s not Father’s will to heal? We do ask that question, and many people have developed that argument, but it’s a clever trick to hide their unbelief. We are not called to answer why people are or are not healed. We are only called to assert that Father is the Healer and declare “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”

Another example, “No one is perfect. So just accept God’s grace and move on.” It’s true. No one is perfect. But does that make God’s Word any less truthful? Not at all! What someone is really saying when they say that is this: “Don’t expect me to be able to live according to how God wants me to live. I’m a failure and I will mess up.” It’s true, only one Person was ever perfect on this earth. He taught us what love looks like. We are often afraid to try and love like that. We are afraid first of failing, and second of being hurt. For if we love like Jesus truly loved, it invites someone to attack us.

Faith is often hard. It is often a mystery. There is much we don’t understand, but we do ourselves a disservice when we make assumptions. We are called to believe God’s Word and stand in faith. Pray for healing. Pray according to His will. Ask. Seek. Knock. And keep on knocking until He makes His answer clear to you.

The next time Billy comes to your door with his words of encouragement and inspiration, do what I plan to do: shut the door in his face, and keep it shut. Bolt the door and declare what the Word of God says.

From Slave to Prime Minister: Lessons from Joseph

If you’ve been in church or read the Bible for any length of time, you’re probably acquainted with the story of Joseph, the boy with the coat of many colors (Gen. 37, 39-50). As children, that’s sometimes the only thing we remember about him. But as we read more of the story, we find that there is a lot to learn from his life, this boy who went from slavery to Prime Minister of all Egypt.

Be cautious when sharing God-given dreams.

Joseph was already the favorite of Israel (a bad start to his life, though he may not have thought so at the time). And then God gave him some dreams. In the first, his brothers bowed down before him. In the second, not only his brothers but also his mother and father bowed down before him. Now, let’s be real: If your younger brother had told you something like that, how would you have reacted?

Joseph’s brothers didn’t take it kindly. They already hated him, so then they decided to get rid of him. Thankfully, that was not the end of the road for him. God had other plans. But, we must ask the question: Was it really a wise thing to tell that to his brothers? Some of the things God gives us are meant to be kept in our heart to hang onto. Like Mary, we should keep them in our heart. There’s no suggestion that she ever told anyone the things Gabriel told her.

There’s a popular saying today that suggests you have to “speak your dreams into existence.” That’s a fairytale, and that’s not how God works. If He gave you the dream or vision, then it’s His responsibility to bring it to fruition. Your responsibility is hold onto it and act in faith.

God honors acts of faithful obedience—in His time.

So, Joseph was sold into slavery to a man named Potiphar in Egypt. The Lord was with Joseph, and He caused all Joseph did to prosper. Potiphar’s thinking, “I’m glad I found this guy! He’s taking care of everything and everything is running smoothly!” We’re told that Potiphar had no worries while Joseph was there. But then came the test. Potiphar’s wife decided she liked Joseph (yes liked, in “that” way). There’s no reason to believe she was anything less than beautiful. She kept urging Him until one day she grabbed the sleeve of his garment—and he left it in her hand. He ran out of the house. Why? He gave a great answer:

Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God (Gen. 39:8-9)

Joseph realized that Potiphar had given him a position of not only power but trust. He would not take advantage of that trust. And he recognized that he was bound to the God of his fathers, when he acknowledged that breaking that trust would be a sin against God. So, Joseph fled from Potiphar’s wife. He kept his integrity—but ended up in prison. She made up a story that Joseph tried to force himself on her. It seems that Potiphar might not have entirely believed her. He could have executed Joseph, yet he only sent Joseph to prison—and again God took over. It was at least 2-3 years, but God not only brought Joseph out of prison but set him over all Egypt. Joseph had proven himself faithful in smaller things (of his character), and thus God gave him responsibility over larger things (the whole nation).

God is the Redeemer of your past.

In societies that condoned slavery (virtually all societies at that time), a slave was on the lowest rung of the ladder, no better than property—in fact slaves were property. That’s why Potiphar could have executed Joseph at will and not faced any sanctions. So, Joseph may have had a colored coat, but his past was checkered. Yet, God, in His timing used that very past—the life of a slave—to fulfill His plan to not only save lives but also to bring Israel into Egypt, just as he foretold to Abraham. It was through Joseph that God fulfilled His purposes, slavery and all.

That’s not just true of Joseph, by the way. Look at his brothers. They sold their brother into slavery. They lived with the guilt of their actions for years, even after Joseph forgave them and even after Israel died. (One can just imagine what they were thinking, “Now that our father is dead…. what will Joseph do to us?” And they reminded Joseph, “Dad said to be nice to us.”)  Their sins were forgiven, though, and they became the great nation of Israel, so much so that in just a few generations, the land was literally teeming with Hebrews!

No matter what you have done in the past—or what was done to you—God is not finished with you and will not be finished until He accomplishes His purpose in you.

The Supremacy of Love (1 Cor. 13)

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Cor. 13:1-13).

This is a very well-known chapter of the Bible, for more than one reason. It is often quoted when speaking of or describing love. It is also sometimes quoted when speaking of certain spiritual gifts, whether they are or are not still in operation today. This week we will take a close look at this much-beloved passage of Paul to see what we can learn from it.

The Context

As always, we must start by placing the passage in its immediate context. This letter focuses on problems in the church of Corinth and certain questions that the church asked. The beginning of chapter 12, “Now concerning spiritual gifts. . .” tells us that this is one of the subjects that the church had questions about. Paul continues the discussion in chapter 14, and thus, chapter 13 might seem like an interruption. However, that’s not the case.

Chapter 12 focuses on a few facts about spiritual gifts: 1) It is the Holy Spirit that gives gifts to believers; 2) though gifts differ, they are given with the same purpose—to edify the church; 3) everyone does not possess the same gifts; 4) those who have certain gifts should not think themselves more spiritual than those who do not. It seems that the Corinthians had gotten in the habit of arguing over which gifts were the most important, and thus should be sought after. At the end of the chapter, he writes these words:

Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way (12:29-31).

The last sentence is the transition statement to chapter 13. Love, then, is the “more excellent way” that Paul shows the Corinthians. Chapter 13 can be seen to answer the question, “Why is love the more excellent way?” Paul gives three answers: 1) Without love, nothing else matters; 2) love embodies the fruit of the Spirit; and 3) love is eternal.

Without Love, Nothing Else Matters

Paul starts out by reminding the Corinthians what he has reminded other believers: Love is the most important thing (vv. 1-3). He then gives some examples of what he means:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal (v. 1). It doesn’t matter how eloquent I speak if I do not do so in love.

If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing (v. 2). Even if I am the most super-spiritual person, directly connected to God and His knowledge, if I don’t have love in my heart and my actions, none of that matters. I am nothing.

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing (v. 3). Even if I do good deeds and sacrifice myself as a martyr, I am still nothing and I gain nothing by it without love.

In truth, anything done without love is done for self. Love is the central issue, the defining character of a believer.

Love Embodies the Fruit of the Spirit

Paul’s second reason that love is the more excellent way is that love, when properly understood, embodies the fruit of the Spirit (vv. 4-7). He then proceeds to tell what love “looks like.”

If you look at the traits of love and compare them to the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), you find remarkable overlap in the traits. Paul goes farther here, though. He gets even more detailed:

Love is not rude (v. 5a). There is no place in the life of a loving Christian (a redundant term, yes) for rudeness.

It is not stubborn, irritable, or resentful (v. 5b). This corresponds with the fruit of the Spirit where Paul mentions patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.

It does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth (v. 6). Love takes no pleasure in wrongdoing, even if the wrong is done to one’s enemy. Love speaks the truth, not in condemnation but with an aim to restoration.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (v. 7). Like Christ, love bears all hurts and wrongs, always believing that there is something more beyond the moment. Love endures the hurt, pain and rejection in the same manner as Christ did.

By contrast, spiritual gifts have nothing to do with character. King Saul actually gave true words of prophecy during the time of his downfall, but would we call him loving during that time? Hardly! Spiritual gifts are given as tools. Like tools, they can be misused. They neither confer nor spring from character. We have all seen those who seem to be the most spiritually gifted people turn out to be the most unloving. Jesus said that the world would know we are His disciples by our love, not our gifts.

Love is Eternal

Finally, Paul shows that love is eternal (vv. 8-12). God created the universe and mankind in love. Love thus will continue into all eternity. These verses have often sparked controversy, but as with many controversies, the point of the passage often gets overlooked.

He starts out in verse 8: “Love never ends.” That is a fairly obvious statement. Love will have no end. It will continue throughout eternity. However, prophecies will “pass away,” tongues will “cease,” and “[the gift of] knowledge will pass away.” He says these things, which in the context represent all spiritual gifts, will end “when the perfect comes.” Whatever this phrase means, whether the close of the canon of Scripture or the second coming of Christ, the point is that the gifts were given until no longer needed.

He reminds his readers that “we know in part and we prophesy in part” (v. 9). To Paul, even the knowledge he had was incomplete. Even the gifts were not complete. He compares the gifts to a child’s way of thinking—incomplete. A child hasn’t grown up yet, and so he needs certain things to help him mature. The gifts, then, were given to help the church mature. Right now, Paul says, we only know partially. “Then,” he says (when the perfect has come), “I will know fully, even as I am known.” At that time, there will be no need for the gifts.

Of course, the question is raised, “What does ‘the perfect’ refer to?” The simple answer is that Paul doesn’t elaborate. It’s clear from his writings that Paul believed the Lord’s return would be “soon.” But, it’s like when one is walking in a wide plain toward a huge mountain. The mountain seems so close, but we seem to not get any closer—though we are in fact making progress toward it. A plausible case can be made for either side of the argument—and since this post is about love, we’ll save that topic for another time. For now, it is important to grasp the main point of the chapter—love is greater than al.

We must not compare ourselves with others, particularly in terms of spiritual gifts or talents. Each is given His gifts by God’s good pleasure and how best to serve the body. Yet, those gifts function as intended only when done in love.

Scared of Grace

Several years ago, I took part in an Easter Outreach with a local church. For several hours, we drove through local neighborhoods delivering a potted plant and asking people if we could pray for them. No donation, no “hey, come to my church” speeches.  We just wanted to bless the folks of our neighborhoods. The response was….. well, unexpected.

Many people were shocked and asked questions like, “Are you selling them?  Do you want a donation,” and other such questions.  The bottom line was, “Why? I don’t understand why you’re doing this.”  Some were almost afraid to accept the gift, for fear that they would also be accepting some type of commitment.  This was really an eye-opener to me.

How is it that such a “churched” nation as ours, with a church on every corner, is afraid of accepting a truly free gift?  Isn’t Christianity based on “grace through faith”?  Or, have we re-defined both what grace means and what it means to be a Christian?

What is grace, really?  I learned, as a young Christian, that grace stood for “God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense.”  It seems simple enough, but very profound. Grace is something that we are given that we do not deserve.  It goes beyond “mercy” (where we don’t get what we do deserve).  Grace is “God’s riches”.  “Riches, did you say?”  The Bible does say that we have been given God’s riches.

We were bound for hell, but now we are given Heaven.

We were condemned, but now we are declared righteous and holy.

We were aliens and cut off from God, but now we are adopted as sons and daughters.

We were in bondage to the power of sin and death, but now we are set free in Christ.

We were dead in our sins, but now we are made alive in Christ.

We were under the wrath of God, but now we have peace with our Father.

We were under the law bound by its rules, but now we are under grace, free to serve Christ.

Can this really be free?  Don’t I have to do something to show God I’m worthy of it?  If that’s the way you are thinking, I have bad news for you.  You can’t ever do anything that is worth enough to earn the grace of God.  The truth is we are just not good enough to earn the grace of God.

Why?  Because to do that, we would have to be perfect.  I don’t mean 98%, 99%, or even 99.999% perfect.  I mean 100% perfect, spotless and blameless.  And I don’t know about you, but I fall somewhat short of that–okay, WAY short.

But guess what?  That’s GOOD news!  If we were perfect and got everything right, we would only get what we deserve.  But Father gives us FAR more than we would ever deserve, even if we kept the demands of the law.  That’s grace.  That’s going over and beyond.  That’s showering us with affection.  That’s like asking for a bicycle for Christmas and getting a Porsche (or insert the model of your favorite car here).

Why are we so scared of grace?  Knowing that grace is an absolutely free, can’t-earn-it-if-you-tried gift, why do we shy away from it?  Perhaps because it makes us seem weak and vulnerable, like we are helpless and can’t do anything.  I have news for you, if you feel that way.  You’re right!

In reality, we are “as little children”.  We wouldn’t even be able to take our next breath without Father.  The Bible calls our attempt at righteousness “as filthy rags.”  We think we score about a 75%, 85% or more on God’s test, when, in reality, it’s far less.  

And, sometimes we think we’re just “sick” and need a little help.  Not so! The Bible says we were “dead”.  A dead man can do nothing to help his situation.   That’s as true of us.  We really cannot do anything to help our situation.  Even our attempts at self-righteousness fall short.

I know…. I know…. we don’t like to hear that kind of talk.  Maybe you’ve been raised on the Bible verse that says, “God helps them who help themselves.”  (No, it’s not in there!), or the more familiar Americanism, “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”  In reality, our bootstraps are broken, and we can’t help ourselves.

We fear vulnerability because we fear being weak.  But Father says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).  Wait, His what?  His grace is sufficient for us, and our weakness shows His great power and love for us.

Why does He want to shower us with His grace?  Because that is His nature.  He wants to give us more than we can ever ask, think or imagine.  He loves us THAT much!  No matter what we do, it will never be enough to earn His grace.  But His grace is more than enough for us to hold on to.

So, in the moment of weakness, which will you choose?  To “buck up” and suck it up?  Or will you climb on Father’s lap and cry out to Him for more of His grace?

Lessons from Abraham (Pt 2)

This week, we continue looking at the life of Abraham, the man of faith, to see what we can learn for our own journey of faith.

God is able to redeem our past (Gen. 16:1-16; 21:8-21).

The Lord gave a promise to Abram, that he would have a son. The only problem? Abram and Sarai were childless—and Sarai was getting well past childbearing years. Abram decided to take Sarai’s counsel and try to conceive through Hagar, Sarai’s handmaid. It worked. Now, legally, Abram had a son. But that wasn’t the way God wanted it done.

After Hagar conceived, the Bible says she “looked with contempt” toward Sarai. She probably became prideful, not remembering her current station in life. The Hebrew reads that Sarai “was dishonorable [or despised] in her eyes.” She now looked down upon her mistress with haughtiness. Sarai, in turn, treated her harshly. We don’t know what happened or how “harsh” the treatment was, but it caused Hagar to flee. But then “the angel of the Lord” found her. Many believe that is a reference to the pre-incarnate Christ. He told her to return to Sarai and promised that her offspring would be multiplied and be great. So, she returned to Sarai and bore the son, Ishmael.

Finally, the time came for the son of Promise, Isaac, to be born. On a day of feasting, celebrating Isaac’s growth, Ishmael “was laughing” Sarah then commanded that they be “cast out.” Though this displeased Abraham, he did so, at God’s command, for the Lord had promised to bless Ishmael also, since he was indeed a son of Abraham.

When we feel chained and held back by our past, whether it include things we have done, or things done to us, we can take courage and strength that the Lord can redeem our past and even use it for His glory.

God is pleased when we stand in the gap for others (Gen. 18:22-33).

The Lord revealed to Abraham that He was going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their great sin. Abraham interceded for the cities on behalf of the righteous. He appealed to God’s justice. “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” The Lord accepted Abraham’s words and said, “If I find 50 righteous people in Sodom I will spare the city.” For most people that would have been enough! But not Abraham. He said, “What about 45? What about 40? What about 30? 20? 10?” He did not badger the Lord but pled on behalf of others. And because of Abraham’s great faith, the Lord listened to him.

In the end, we know that the Lord did not find ten righteous people in Sodom, and it was indeed destroyed. There are many lessons that we can learn from this account, but on that stands out here is how the Lord is pleased to listen to the petitions of His people on behalf of others. He calls us to stand in the gap—I may be the only person praying for that one. He is pleased when we take that call seriously, even if it seems we are being a “pest” to Him. Notice that Abraham always appealed to the character of God, never his own righteousness or desires. As with Sodom, we are not guaranteed that the answer will be what we ask. But we are guaranteed that the Lord will stop and take notice of such great faith.

God keeps His promises, no matter how long it takes (Gen. 21:1-7).

The time had come. For many years, the Lord had promised a son to Abraham. They had maintained their faith, though they had stumbled once (and now the world beheld Ishmael). Abraham was 86 when Ishmael was born. Thirteen more years passed. God promised to Abraham, “I will visit Sarah this time next year and she will have a son.” Abraham stumbled: “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child” (Gen. 17:17). Then it seemed he gave up: “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” I wonder if he was afraid to believe, to dream that it really could happen.

The Lord answered, “No [meaning that Ishmael was not to be the son of promise]. Sarah will have a son, and you shall call his name Isaac [‘he will laugh’]. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.”  So, Abraham would be a father at 100 years of age, and Sarah a mother at 90. Impossible? Improbable? Not with God. There’s no better way to tell the story than Scripture itself:

The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age” (Gen. 21:1-7).

The Lord did it. He kept His promise, even in the midst of Abraham’s wavering and unfaithfulness. The Lord was faithful to His promise. No matter how long it took. We see that again in the birth of Jesus, Abraham’s descendant and the true fulfillment of God’s promise. God’s promise to the world had been kept—despite disobedience, backsliding, and attempts to wipe out the Chosen People. Nothing has changed. He still speaks to us today. He still gives us promises. And the promise He gives, He keeps.

Often our promises and dreams have to die before they come to fruition (Gen. 22:1-19).

Abraham had his son, the Son of Promise. God’s covenant would continue, and Abraham’s line would be blessed and would inherit the Promised Land. All seemed to be right in Abraham’s world.  Then one day, the Lord spoke to Abraham again. I can almost imagine the conversation:


Yes, Lord, here I am.

Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.

My son…my only son…whom I love…and …would You mind repeating that, Lord?

Despite whatever was going through his mind and heart, Abraham obeyed the Lord. We know the story. They went to the place. Abraham tied up Isaac and lifted the knife up to kill his son. How? How could he do that? Hebrews gives us the answer: “He considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Heb. 11:17). In his mind, Abraham had already given Isaac to God. He did not belong to Abraham. In a sense, Isaac was dead to him. Many times, the Lord brings us to a place where it seems the promises He made to us and the dreams from them die. They grow cold, and often we bury them. But then, like Isaac, they are raised up. They are raised up, however, not as our dreams, but as His. When they are His dreams and promises then, He gets the glory, and He provides the power. We don’t have to do it, we simply have to obey.

When the promises He made to you seem to be dead, go ahead and bury them, but remember Isaac, and the God who is faithful.

Pressing on to Maturity (Heb. 6:4-8)

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned. (Heb. 6:4-8).

This passage, in the letter to the Hebrews, has evoked much debate and controversy within the church. What does it mean? What does it teach? Many form dogmatic opinions and stick to them, no matter what, others decide the passage is too hard to understand, throw up their hands and move onto something else. In this post, we will look at some of those question, and attempt to determine the main thrust of the passage’s teaching.

To start out, we need to remind ourselves of this: God intended for us to know and understand His Word. While there are many things that we cannot know with certainty (“the secret things belong to the Lord,” Deut. 29:29), the things that are revealed in Scripture are meant to be known and understood. Will we know perfectly? Not on this side of eternity (1 Cor. 13:12). But that doesn’t mean we cannot know anything. We must act in faith that He intended us to be able to understand His Word. With that in mind, let’s begin.

The Context

This passage, like all Scripture cannot be rightly understood without understanding the context (what comes before and after). Going backward to chapter 5, we see that the author is engaged in teaching on how Christ was a priest after the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5:10). The author then picks up the argument in 6:12. Notice what he says in 5:11-14,

About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

The point here is that there is much more to be said on this subject (the order of Melchizedek), but his readers are not mature enough yet to take it in. Like Paul, the writer of Hebrews asserts that his readers need milk (like a baby) instead of solid food—spiritually speaking, of course. Then he gives this encouragement in 6:1-3,

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.

To use a well-worn axiom of Bible study, whenever you encounter a “therefore,” you should always ask, “What’s the ‘therefore’ there for?” In this case, the author is referring us back to his previous statements in 5:11-14. It is an encouragement to press forward to maturity. He’s saying, “Look, we need to move forward, to grow up spiritually. We can’t stay stuck on the foundational truths of the faith.”

When the author then starts his argument in verse 4, he uses “for.” It is a connecting word, similar to “therefore,” but with a different goal. It has the thrust of “because.” He is saying, “Let’s move forward because . . .” Thus, the statements in verses 4-8 should be read in light of his statements of 5:11-6:3.

Then, beginning with 6:9, the author contrasts two groups. He contrasts the type of person in verses 4-8 with his readers. Notice the words, “. . . yet in your case . . .” This is a direct contrast to what has gone before. Whatever type of person is described in verses 4-8, the author is sure doesn’t apply to his readers. How can he be sure? “For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do” (v. 10). This verse holds a key to understanding the entire passage.

Now we turn to the passage itself. The writer makes three basic statements here.

  • First, he describes a certain type of person (vv. 4-5).
  • Second, he describes them as having “fallen away” and the consequences (v. 6)
  • Third, he defends the truth of those consequences (vv. 7-8).

We are first going to look at statement #2, that of having “fallen away.” The first question we must ask is, “What does fallen away mean?” The phrase translated fallen away is a Greek verb (parapiptō) that literally means “to fall aside” and is used to denote falling away from the true faith. It is not merely a sin or series of sins, but it is a open rejection of Christ, the gospel and the biblical teachings. It is what we might call apostasy.

Such a person had originally assented to the realities and facts of the faith, but then had rejected them and actively walked away. It is not what we today might call “backsliding.” Instead, it is consciously turning one’s back on Christ in hostility toward Him. The writer tells us that it is “impossible . . . to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” The clear teaching (that many seem to overlook) is that if a person truly commits the sin of apostasy, there is no turning back. We should take a moment to reflect on what that means. Whether or not this passage is a true believer or not (which we will look at), once he or she crosses that line, that’s it. It’s done. His or her fate is sealed.

What Kind of Person?

Now the question must be asked, “What kind of person is being described?” We must be objective and try to lay aside any preconceptions and let the text speak for itself. This is how the writer describes this person. This person:

  • had once been enlightened. The word used here is the Greek photizo, which means “to enlighten or illuminate.” It is used to signify “enlightenment” both to individuals (Eph. 1:18) and the world in general (John 1:9; Eph. 3:9). This latter usage appears to be the more common usage of the word.
  • had tasted the heavenly gift, the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come. The word used for “tasted” (geuomai) has two primary uses. When speaking of physical food, the word means “taste, eat, experience the flavor of.” When speaking spiritually or metaphorically the word generally has the meaning of “experience.” Thus, when Christ spoke of some who would not “taste death” until they see the Kingdom coming (Matt. 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27), He meant “experience” (see also John 8:52).
  • had shared in the Holy Spirit. The word for “shared” here is the Greek metochos, which means literally “partake” or “partaker.” In this and other contexts, it has a similar connotation of “experiencing.” Thus, to partake of the Holy Spirit is to experience His work in one’s life.

The question that most people ask here is, “Is the person described in this passage a true believer?” A plausible case can be made for either side of the question. The description seems to fit a true believer. Yet the terms lack the active engagement that the Bible puts forth as a mark of the believer. There is no mention of fruit in the person’s life. We are also told that it is impossible to restore such a person again to repentance. The word “again” might seem to imply that the person truly repented and saved. However, it could simply mean “to the point of repentance.” We are told in Romans that God’s kindness leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4), but it is possible to come to the point of repentance and yet not repent.

To prove his point, the author then uses a familiar analogy, similar to what Jesus taught on many occasions.  He says to his readers,

For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned (vv. 7-8).

What’s his point here? Just as Jesus said, the one who claims to be a follower of Christ will bear fruit in His life. He has been changed, from a bad tree (that produces bad fruit) to a good tree (that produces good fruit). If then, the fruit does not match the claim, then it was never a good tree to start with. As Jesus reminded His hearers, “Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit” (Matt. 7:17-18, in the context of false prophets). Thus, He concluded, “You will recognize them by their fruit” (v. 19). This is the point of the passage. Continue to grow. Bear fruit, and thus show that you truly are a believer.

As we mentioned earlier, the writer of the letter contrasts the person described in this passage with his readers. He is sure that they are maturing and producing fruit (if slowly). And he bases his certainty on verse 10, quoted earlier.

Takeaways From the Passage

As we said earlier, many people debate whether the description in 6:4-6 refer to a true Christian or not. Yet, the debate misses the point of the passage, and thus also implications of the point.

  1. The main thrust of the passage is an exhortation to continue growing in the faith. One who begins to be sluggish and stagnant is more likely to be the one who ultimately falls away. Whether or not the actual description in this passage was meant to refer to a true Christian, it is written to all. We are to continue growing and press forward. While we believe that the person described in the passage does not represent a true believer, we also must not go beyond what is written (1 Cor. 4:6).
  2. As we said earlier, a true believer of Christ will bear fruit. Why is this certain? Because his very nature is changed—from a bad tree to a healthy tree. While we will stumble and fall in this journey, we will continue to produce good fruit—and more and more.
  3. We should take seriously the warning in this passage. They are meant to encourage we who claim Christ to examine our lives. It is not meant, however, as a means of condemnation, judgment, or a guilt trip (“You better straighten up or you’re going to hell”). It is meant more for us to ask, “Holy Spirit, am I producing fruit? Show me the parts of my heart that need to be pruned so that more fruit may come forth.”

 Finally, there are many who have wandered from Christ or fallen and ask, “Have I gone too far?” We suggest that the question itself means the answer is “no.” A person described in this passage would not even bother with such a question, for his heart has been hardened to the point of no return. If you find yourself asking such a question, know that there is restoration, healing and hope in turning to Christ. For all of us, may we continue to grow in Christ until “we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).