When persuaded to preach on the Johannine materials in the New Testament, most of us center our preaching on texts from the Gospel of John or the Revelation of John. We can easily overlook the Letters of John.
They are short. If the pages of one’s Bible stick together, one can bypass them altogether. They are uncomplicated. Yet their simplicity keeps us from taking them as thoughtfully as we do the imposing monologues of Jesus from the Gospel, or as we do the visions from the Revelation that shatter our imagination.
The letters of John are filled with memorable phrases. Those words are so easily remembered that most of us are skeptical that our words can augment their clearness. The Letters of John can be a quarry for forceful sermon materials.
John Wesley, in his Journal, refers to the Letters of John as “the deepest part of the Holy Scriptures…. Here are sublimity and simplicity together, the strongest sense and the plainest language.” An English preacher of our century has noted that “Johannine Christianity emphasizes precisely those insights beloved of evangelicals — the fullness of individual experience, the promise of the Spirit, the ‘abiding’ of the believing heart in Christ, the assurance of cleansing through the cross, the certainty of hope, and the fellowship of believers in love.”1
If these reflections from others are not enough to induce one to turn to the Letters of John for preaching, more contemporary reasons may be conclusive. The Letters of John pulsate with the echoes of a harsh church debate and potential schism. The three letters deal with the realities of church life when a separating group leaves the fellowship, denouncing those who remained as second class Christians.
The bitterness that comes to the hearts of persons on either side can be devastating to any church. The anger of others will encourage anyone to act in a manner that leads ultimately to being embarrassed by the thoughts, attitudes, and actions taken in response to them. The Letters of John address just such feelings.
The Letters of John emphasize a personal faith. If the church today faces any vital issue, it is the necessity of a vital, living faith. How, what, when, where, and why are the questions which must still be asked about a personal faith.
If you are stimulated to want to preach from the Letters of John, there are several excellent books that can assist the preacher (see bibliography). The commentary by Raymond Brown in The Anchor Bible is the one essential contemporary resource. However, nothing can substitute for reading and pondering the three letters in our own personal meditations and devotions. These texts come alive when we focus on the feeling as well as the meaning of their words day after day. Read with empathy, one can almost hear the emotion in the voice of the writer and can almost see the tears in his eyes.
The Letters of John do not escape the scholarly disputes over authorship and date so prevalent in New Testament studies. All of the Johannine literature has been the center of such debate. It is most commonly agreed that the Gospel of John is the last of the four Gospels to have been completed in their present forms. Dating varies from as early as 70 A.D. to as late as 110 A.D. The Book of the Revelation fits into the same time frame.
The Letters do not seem to have come from a period when the structures and organization of the churches was as highly developed as we understand to have existed by the beginning of the first century. Many scholars date the letters more confidently in the ’70s or the ’80s.
There is a notable lack of consensus about the identity of the author of the five documents. The most conservative scholars will determine a single writer, the Apostle John. One can move all across the scholarly landscape to the opposite extreme to those who propose that the Apostle has no connection other than to lend his name.
Whatever view of the literary and textual debate is chosen, one discovers in the Johannine literature a distinctive and commanding interpretation of the reality of Christ. It is an interpretation, although innovative, that is based resolutely on the eyewitness accounts of the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth and the common traditions of the early church.
A study of the Letters of John provide several possible sermon directions:
(1) Faith in a Time of Conflict
Sermons on the entire collection of the three letters are possible, and may be helpful to many listeners. Many of them may remember some particular sayings from the letters but few of them will have an understanding of the facts facing the church which underlies them. Rather than to become enmeshed in the technical data regarding authorship, time of writing, the intended audience, and the settings in Asia Minor, one can be more creative.
Here is an excellent opportunity to create a narrative sermon about the Secessionists and the Faithful, the ideas which separated them, the assumed anger and hostility, the concern of the Elder for the unity of the church, and the frustration of holding together two groups who cannot condone one another. With so many contemporary churches on the edge of hostilities — and with so many denominations struggling with dramatic differences among the leadership — such a sermon might be most helpful.
(2) That Great, Great Love (1 John 3:1-8)
“We are called the children of God” That is the evidence for John of the love which God lavishes upon His people. Of the many images describing the relationship between God and humans, none is more powerful, more personal, or more poignant than the image of Father and Child.
The focus of God’s love is not on the whole of humanity, but on each individual. The quality of the love from God is everlasting and eternal. Jeremiah 31:3 uses this image to describe God’s love for Israel. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s love for persons.
It is said that cats rub against persons for their own benefit. The cat is in fact caressing itself. “Cat love” is not a sufficient love for the people of God. God’s love does not use humans for self-fulfillment. The love of Christians cannot use others for self-gratification.
This great, great love provides the Christian communities with the realities that enable us to survive the worst.
(3) The Foundations of the Faith (1 John 1:1-3)
To have an essential foundation for life is essential. We must have a foundation of faith. Our world makes such a foundation even more essential. We live in a world which seems sane but has lost its stability. We have more power and less control. We know almost everything but have so little wisdom. Just as a sports team rebuilds by returning to basics, so can the Christian faith.
The foundation of our faith is historic fact. Only the most obtuse persons would deny the reality of Jesus of Nazareth. But there is more to His meaning than a photographic presentation of His life. The meaning of Jesus Christ is the truth of God Himself. Jesus is the Son of God sent from the Creator to be in the world, with the world, for the world.
The foundation of our faith is unique fact. There is no other self-revelation of God comparable to Jesus Christ. Jesus is the incarnation of God. Jesus is God wrapped up in a human being. One of the church fathers wrote: “The incarnation is the way that God broke His silence.”
The foundation of our faith is ultimate fact. As one grows older, one concentrates on the essential. In Jesus Christ, we discover the ultimate facts about life, about God, about the world. Henri Nouwen wrote, “God became like us, so that we might become like Him.”
In a time of doubt, confusion and uncertainty, returning to the foundation of our faith should enable all to affirm, “We have seen and heard and touched and experienced the life which was with God and has come to live among us.”
(4) Looking for an Easy Burden (1 John 5:1-5)
The Amplified Bible translates the last part of the third verse, “But these orders of His are not irksome — burdensome, oppressive, or grievous.” Aren’t we all looking for that — a burden that we can carry, not one that defeats us before we begin?
The Scribes and the Pharisees were accused by Jesus of making the burdens too heavy in religion. We have often made the rules so strict and so numerous that we have frustrated persons before they could ever begin to respond to Christ. Sometimes the search for an easy burden is because of our limited human vision and understanding.
The will of God is not burdensome because we are never asked to do anything without the gift of strength to accomplish it. We may not be able to cope with the problems we create, but the aspirations God has for us can be completed. We do need the strength that God gives.
The will of God is not burdensome because love never finds any duty or task too hard or great. God loves humans so much that no sacrifice is too much. Love cannot demand too much. God gives persons the capacity to love as God loves. The boy who replied, “He’s not heavy, he’s my brother,” is the classic example of this truth.
Serving God is an easy burden. Easy because with the call comes strength. Easy because with the opportunity comes the love which can bear all things.
(5) The Match Game (3 John 1:11)
We model our actions after the actions of others. A child duplicates the actions of the parents. Students match their actions to those of a teacher. Actions of a family correspond to the deeds of past generations. A Christian models his or her actions upon the actions of Christ. It is concerning this matching of ourselves to others that John the Elder writes: “Do not imitate evil, but imitate good.”
The imitation of the good is the imitation of God’s love. It may be difficult to imitate God whom we cannot see. But we can imitate the love we see in Christ. We can imitate the love we see in the lives of those who follow Christ.
The imitation of the good is the imitation of love for persons. It is not easy to love some people. Loving other persons can be expressed in not doing any harm to others. Loving other persons can be expressed in doing good for others.
We can see in those who imitate good the love of God. John 1:11 reads: “Beloved, do not imitate evil, but imitate good. He who does good is of God; he who does evil has not seen nor experienced God.”
The Letters of John are a deep well from which the preacher can draw many refreshing and encouraging words for people who are troubled about the church, about their faith, about their hope, about life. The Letters of John face the most difficult of times and experiences. Such messages, properly presented, can enable our preaching to provide support for the difficulties of life and faith that face our hearers today.
1. R.E.O. White, An Open Letter to Evangelicals. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1964. 276 pages, page 12.
F. F. Bruce, The Epistles of John. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1970. 160 pages.
Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John. (The Anchor Bible, volume 30) Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1982. 812 pages.
Amos Wilder, “The Epistles of John,” The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 12, pages 209-346. Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1957.

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