1 Jn 1:1-2:2
“Suffered under Pontius Pilate.” We speak this phrase of the Apostles’ Creed again and again. In doing so we speak the name of the Roman prefect in Judea during the years 26 to 36 A.D. We are so used to saying his name, that the surprise he is even mentioned two thousand years later never occurs to us.
You see, in the setting of the leaders of the Roman empire Pontius Pilate was nothing. He was just one of thousands of governors who ruled over provinces during the history of the empire. He wasn’t even of the senator class. Instead, he was of the lower equestrian class – wealthy but no big deal. He didn’t rule an important province. Judea was a second rate province – a point revealed by the fact that its governor was chosen from the equestrian class and not from the senators. Pontius Pilate didn’t have any Roman legions under his command. The three closest ones were in Syria under the command of that governor – now there was an important province. Pilate only had the command of some Roman auxiliary forces.
When considered on his own merits, there is absolutely no reason that anybody would remember Pontius Pilate today. But there he is in the Creed, and he is there for a very specific reason. The name Pontius Pilate anchors the confession about Jesus Christ in history. This is not like Star Wars – a fictional story that took place “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” Instead the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ took place at a real time and place in this world. It occurred at the beginning of the first century A.D. in Palestine.
Today is the Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist. Just as the reference to Pontius Pilate anchors the confession of Jesus Christ in a specific place and time, so also the term “apostle” anchors John in that same place and time. When it came time to replace Judas in Acts chapter one, Peter said the candidate for this position must be “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.”
John as an apostle was an authorized representative for Christ. But he was also someone who had heard Jesus’ words and seen his miracles. He is someone who had seen Jesus die on the cross, and then had encountered the risen Lord on multiple occasions during the period of forty days, before he then also saw Jesus ascend into heaven.
We hear John emphasize this fact at the beginning of his first epistle: “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.”
John speaks with authority about Jesus Christ because he heard these things; he saw these things; he touched these things. And so in his writings John emphasizes the truth of the incarnation. It is John who has given us the classic statement that we heard in the Christmas Gospel reading. After saying that the Word is God who created all things he writes, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Heresy is nothing new. Already there were in the first century teachers who denied the incarnation. And so John says in this letter: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.”
In this letter, John confesses the incarnation of the Son of God. And along with this he has a strong emphasis on how Christians live – words that pick up what Jesus says at the Last Supper in John’s Gospel.
John begins our text by saying, “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.” At first glance this seems daunting. God is light. There is not darkness – no sin – in him. But to say we have fellowship with God while walking in darkness means that we are lying. Of course, the problem is that we do sin. We know we do.
But then John goes on to say, “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.” The apostle says that if we walk in the light, the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin. So fellowship with God, his Son, and the apostles is not about a perfect life. The life of walking in the light is one that is lived in relation to Jesus. It is life lived by faith in Jesus Christ.
John leaves no doubt that sin is a continuing struggle for the Christian. In words that we know so well from Setting One of the liturgy in the hymnal, John says, “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.”
Sin is a reality for us. It’s there. We can’t deny it. To do so is it deceive ourselves. Often this occurs by explaining sin away. We justify our actions – yes I got angry, but that person caused it. Or we follow the way of the world, which defines away sin. Yes, lust breaks the Sixth Commandment, but it’s not like the things I am watching and looking at are hard core porn.
John is also clear that sin is something that we are to avoid. We are to live in ways that seek to follow God’s will. This means that we need to be intentional about avoiding things that are temptations. To fall to a temptation that we placed in front of ourselves is just plain dumb. John says, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.”
But we do. And so in our text John also adds these comforting words: “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.”
John declares that the good news in the face of sin is Jesus Christ. He is our advocate. He speaks on our behalf with the Father because of who he is and what he has done. He is the only begotten Son – begotten eternally of the Father. He is righteous. He has no sin, not simply because he is true God, but also because he lived as the incarnate One in our world and did not sin.
And he is the propitiation for our sins. Propitiation is an interesting word. To “propitiate” is to make favorably inclined; to appease; to conciliate. It describes the act of gaining a favorable disposition from another, usually when something a person has done threatens this disposition. This is how the word was used in the ancient pagan world. The gods needed to be propitiated so that they would be favorable towards people.
But the Old Testament background for the use of the term is very different. Here it describes the sacrifices and the cover of the Ark of the Covenant itself, that were given by God to remove sin. True, the wrath of God is in the picture. That is why the sacrifices are needed. But it is God who graciously gives them to Israel with the assurance that through them fellowship with God is maintained.
In our text, John applies the language of propitiation to Jesus. Jesus himself is the One who has received God’s wrath against our sin as the one great sacrifice. Because of Jesus, we are now reconciled to God. But this is not our doing. Instead, it is the means that God himself has provided. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God does forgive us.
But for the apostle John, things don’t stop there. They can’t. He writes later in this letter: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
It is the same thing that Jesus said at the Last Supper. After washing the disciples feet our Lord said to them, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”
And then later he added, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The loving service of our Lord’s death for us now leads us to act in loving service towards others.
The apostle John carried out his ministry as an apostle – a member of a unique one time only group who had been with Jesus. He writes about what he had heard, seen and touched – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God.
He writes about the truth. And the truth is this. God the Father sent his Son Jesus Christ into this world in order to be the sacrifice for our sin. He sent him as the propitiation by which God’s judgment is averted from us and we are reconciled to God. Through faith in Jesus Christ we have forgiveness and fellowship with God. This love now leads us to love one another with acts of service. We love, because God loved us in Christ.