There’s a old joke older pastors used to make when they got close to the end of their sermon but didn’t feel like stopping. “I’m just circling the runway,” they say. This is usually followed by a recap of the main point of the message that launches the speaker into another diversion before almost touching down yet again. I’ve known preachers who could keep their message aloft for hours (literally). Sometimes I wondered if they ever really thought about how they were going to land the plane before they started speaking!
It’s tempting to lump John in with the rest who circle the runway endlessly. After all, he’s an aged—or, shall we say, seasoned—apostle. He has made his points well over the last three chapters, but he doesn’t seem to want to stop reinforcing them. In my cynical moments, I wonder if the old apostle was starting to forget what he had already said!
After looking at his writings a little closer and feeling his heart for his people, I think he’s just desperate to know that his people will “get it.” At his age, recognizing his own mortality, his greatest desire was for his people to obey, love, and abide.
. . .
In the last devotion, we looked at how we receive what we ask from God because we keep his commandments (v. 22). As we develop a life of obedience to God, our desires become God’s desires and we work with him in prayer. Now John gets a little more specific. After talking about commandments (plural) in v. 22, he defined more precisely what he meant: “This is his commandment” (singular) (v. 23 ESV).
Forget trying to live your life by a million and one carefully crafted rules for every situation. There’s only one commandment to be concerned about, albeit in two parts (v. 23, ESV):
- “Believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ”
- “Love one another”
We have already heard plenty about loving one another. Here John ties it to belief. Believing in the name of God’s Son, Jesus Christ and loving one another are inseparable. They make up one commandment. You can’t claim a belief in Jesus if you don’t love your neighbour. On the other hand, you can’t truly love your neighbour without that love first stemming from a belief in Jesus.
John’s talk about “belief” here is new to the epistle. It’s a word he will return to frequently in the final two chapters. It’s more than mere head-knowledge. Belief in God is a deep-rooted trust that grows. And you can’t say you believe Jesus unless you obey him.
The trust game, so popular at corporate retreats and youth conventions, demonstrates this. In the simple game, you fall backwards, trusting the person behind you to catch you. If you are unwilling to fall backwards, it doesn’t matter how much you say you believe the person—your actions have demonstrated that there’s no trust there. Obeying Jesus’ command to love each other is part-and-parcel of our belief in him.
. . .
Obeying God’s commandment to believe in his Son and to love each other has an incredible benefit: mutual indwelling. Let’s look a little more closely at v. 24 (ESV): The person who obeys “abides in God, and God in him.”
What a beautiful expression! We abide in God at the same time that God abides in us. This is the sort of relationship Jesus had with his Father:
How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? (John 14:9-10, ESV)
Theologically speaking, this interpenetrating relationship is called perichoresis. It’s a beautiful mystery that we are participants in. If you’re ever looking for a verse to meditate on for a long time, this is your candidate. God abides in us at the same time as we abide in him. That mystical truth has the potential to transform our every waking moment.
The confirmation of this mutually indwelling relationship is the Holy Spirit—a topic until now unexplored in John’s letter.
. . .
I’ve been training for a half marathon coming up next month. Part of my preparation includes a long run every Saturday. Last Saturday was particularly hot, so instead of running a big 18 kilometre loop around town, I ran 8km, 6km, and 4km loops sequentially. This allowed me to swing by my house for a drink of water along with a bit of peanut-butter sandwich for energy.
Perhaps that’s a better metaphor for what John is up to here, rather than simply circling the runway. He’s stopped back to emphasize what he had been teaching from the start of the letter (obedience, love, abiding), only to pick up some new themes for the rest of his letter (believe, Holy Spirit).
Whether circling the runway or looping back home, John is well worth following.