One of my favorite commentaries as I have studied the book of 1 John has been David Jackman’s The Message of John’s Letters. Repeatedly, Jackman has synthesized a passage and drawn out its relevance for today’s church. This was true again this week as he related the truth about the world, its ruler Satan, and our relationship to the world (1 Jn. 5:19):
Christians know that they belong to God and not to this world. John’s second great affirmation focuses first on the personal relationship that exists between God’s children and their Father. Literally, ‘we know that we are of God’; the construction stresses that God alone is the source of our life. This explains and justifies the NIV’s inclusion of the word children. All that we have comes from him and so we belong to him totally; body, mind and spirit. That is something a Christian knows, not presumptuously, but because of the positive evidences in life and behaviour of the new birth, as John’s letter has outlined and described them. By definition, then, God’s family is separated out from the whole world. Children of God live differently from the non-Christian society surrounding them.
It is a matter of lordship. The world is under the control of the evil one. It is dominated by the devil, who controls it with tyrannical authority, organizing and orchestrating its life and activities to express his own rebellion and hatred against God. You have only to read today’s newspaper or listen to the next news bulletin to know that that is true. In contrast, God controls his children in a rule of light and love, so that they offer no allegiance to this world. Of course, we also need to remember that the devil is a creature, subject to God’s authority, who is not allowed to go an inch further than God’s permission sanctions (see Jb. 1-2), and whose ultimate doom is assured (Rev. 20:10). That is why the world’s freedom is slavery, and the devil’s offer of autonomy from God, which lies at the root of all sin, an illusion.
All the major compulsions of twentieth-century living — alcohol, sex, drugs, gambling – are in fact attempts to escape from the slavery of sin into a world of personal fulfilment and satisfaction. But the raging thirst of men and women without God confirms that such short-term, selfish means of ‘satisfaction’ are like drinking salt water. The more you have, the more you want; the more you want, the less you are satisfied. That is always the devil’s way.
And what is true at the individual level is becoming frighteningly true at the international and global level, not only politically and militarily, but ecologically too. The tyranny of sin is selfishness. It is self-love that opposes true love. Thoughtful and concerned people articulate the problems, but the world is not free to solve them. It lies in the destroyer’s grip. Sir Peter Scott, the naturalist and conservationist, has suggested that we need an ‘ombudsman for generations unborn’ to try to head off their doomed inheritance of a dying planet. ‘I think that vast disasters will overtake mankind unless we all look further into the future than we do at the moment and put long-term benefit above short-term advantage.’ But that requires a moral courage and ability which mankind does not have.
Christians know that these things are so, and they know why. What is inexcusable is for the church to concentrate on trying to preserve its distinctives in a hermetically sealed environment of detachment from the world and its problems. That is a luxury Christ has not afforded us. Indeed, it is not a luxury at all, but a quick route to death by suffocation. If we live under Christ’s lordship we must remember that he has commissioned us all to go into the world, not to withdraw from it. Our new attitude is not one of indifference or separation, but one of involvement and compassion, after the model of our Saviour. If these things are certainties in our thinking, they must be seen in our commitment to being salt and light in our communities, and above all to communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the words of Jude, ‘Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them’ (Jude 21-23).