(1Jo 3:5 ESV) 5 You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.
This passages has confused many a teacher over the years, largely due to the difficulty of translating the Greek. The KJV, for example, translates,
(1Jo 3:4 KJV) Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.
That sure sounds like John expects us to be sinless! And yet John plainly declared that to be impossible in 1 John 1:7-9. I think the New American Standard translates it the best —
(1Jo 3:4 NAS) Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.
The Greek is in the present tense, and so suggests habitual, ongoing sin. John knows we’ll sin, of course, but he expects us to resist it and to grow in our ability to overcome it.
Now, notice his logic: Jesus came to take away sins. We usually think that refers to forgiving sins, and it does. But John says he also intended to “take away” sins in the sense of getting us to stop sinning. We are forgiven so we can be in relationship with God so he can help us, through the Spirit, stop sinning. Forgiveness leads, not to license, but to transformation.
(1Jo 3:6 ESV) 6 No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.
This is parallel to these passages —
(John 1:10 ESV) 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.
(John 10:14-15 ESV) 14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
(John 14:7 ESV) 7 “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
(John 17:3 ESV) 3 “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Only the saved can know Jesus, and God can only be known through Jesus. This is not book knowledge. It’s the knowledge that a sheep has for its shepherd.
(John 10:16 ESV) 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
The test of being a sheep of the Good Shepherd is whether you recognize and listen to his voice. In the Middle East, there are no fences and no brands. Rather, each shepherd has a distinct call. At times, several shepherds may share a pen or a pasture, and the sheep will be hopelessly mixed together. But each sheep recognizes his shepherd’s call, and when the shepherds call, the sheep follow their own shepherd.
Just so, the true sheep of Jesus are those who hear his voice and respond by following. An outsider may struggle to tell the difference — until Jesus calls. And then even an outsider should be able to see his sheep follow him.
To “know” Jesus is to know his voice, to be able to distinguish his leadings (via the Spirit or by other means) from countless false voices. And there are many, many voices that call us to follow. If we know Jesus, we’ll recognize and follow the right one.
Now, how do we learn to do this?
* We spend time with Jesus in prayer
* We study the Gospels. A lot.
* We study the rest of the scriptures. They all point to Jesus and give essential context for the Gospels.
* We hang around people who’ve already met him. We learn from the experiences of others.
* Most importantly, we walk in his sandals. We teach the good news to others. We do good for others. We live sacrificial lives of service. We allow ourselves to be co-crucified with Jesus. There’s no other way to know him.
If you want to know me, you’ll spend time with me. And that means you’ll spend time doing what I’m doing. To know Jesus, we have to let Jesus mentor us as we live as he lived.
(1Jo 3:7 ESV) 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.
We’ve covered “righteousness” before. Let’s go a little deeper.
(John 16:8-11 ESV) 8 And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
In John’s and Jesus’ thinking, it’s either sin or it’s righteousness. We therefore tend to define “righteousness” as the absence of sin. That’s exactly backward. Sin is the absence righteousness. The question isn’t so much “what is sin?” as “what is righteousness?”
In the Old Testament, “righteousness” is almost always paired with “justice.” But the two words are translated by the same word in the Greek. Therefore, we should think of both “righteousness” and “justice.”
It all begins with —
(Gen 18:19 ESV) 19 “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”
The God’s covenant with Abraham calls for him to do “righteousness and justice.” The mere absence of sin is not enough. Rather, he must “keep the way of the LORD.” Now you should understand why we can define “righteousness” as “covenant faithfulness.”
But there’s more. Righteousness is the character of God. To be faithful, we must become like God — taking on his passions and character.
(Lev 19:15 ESV) 15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.”
Justice and righteousness include honest government.
(Amo 5:11-12, 22-24 ESV) 11 Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. 12 For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins — you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate. …
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos finds that the opposite of righteousness is to “trample the poor” and impose burdensome taxes on the poor.
(Isa 1:18-23 ESV) 18 “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. 19 If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; 20 but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” 21 How the faithful city has become a whore, she who was full of justice! Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers. 22 Your silver has become dross, your best wine mixed with water. 23 Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them.”
The righteous care for the fatherless and the widow. The righteous provide honest government.
(Jer 9:3-6, 23-24 ESV) 3 They bend their tongue like a bow; falsehood and not truth has grown strong in the land; for they proceed from evil to evil, and they do not know me, declares the LORD. 4 Let everyone beware of his neighbor, and put no trust in any brother, for every brother is a deceiver, and every neighbor goes about as a slanderer. 5 Everyone deceives his neighbor, and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongue to speak lies; they weary themselves committing iniquity. 6 Heaping oppression upon oppression, and deceit upon deceit, they refuse to know me, declares the LORD. …
23 Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.”
This may well be the root of John’s teaching. God calls us on us to “know” him, and we do that through “steadfast love, justice, and righteousness.” This includes, of course, rejecting confidence in the intellect, in power, or in wealth. Our confidence must be in God.
Jeremiah cries out to the king —
(Jer 22:13-17 ESV) 3 “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages, 14 who says, ‘I will build myself a great house with spacious upper rooms,’ who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar and painting it with vermilion. 15 Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. 16 He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? declares the LORD. 17 But you have eyes and heart only for your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence.”
Ezekiel teaches —
(Eze 18:5-9 ESV) 5 “If a man is righteous and does what is just and right — 6 if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity, 7 does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 8 does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, 9 walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully — he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord GOD.”
The point of “righteousness” is to obey the Law of Moses (during this time), but the emphasis was on fair dealing and charity for those in need. Rather than emphasizing the Sabbath, the feasts, and food laws, the prophets focus on the poor, relieving oppression, honesty, and charity. (Lending was a means of subsidizing the poor under the Law.) Compare this kind of righteousness to the “righteousness” of the Pharisees who were worried about hand washing and not healing on the Sabbath.
Therefore, we aren’t surprised that Jesus taught —
(Mat 25:34-40 ESV) 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
Who are the righteous?