John begins his first epistle with his powerful testimony.
"Brethren, this is the testimony which we give that that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;
"(For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;)
"That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.
"And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full" (1:1-4).
This is the purpose of testifying: to bring joy to others--not just a bit of joy, but complete joy.
POETRY AND IMAGERY
John is good at imagery and poetry. After all, he's the same guy who wrote Revelation. "An important characteristic of poetry is compression, or concentrated language" (Creative Writing Now). John is not verbose (his two epistles are among the smallest in the New Testament), but as a poet, he uses words with concentrated meaning and imagery to instill in us more deeply the truths he wants to teach. "Often what causes the strongest emotions is not what the poem describes, but what it makes the reader imagine." With well-written poetry, it is not the literal meaning of the words that matters, but what kinds of intangible feelings those words provoke.
"'Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar' (Percy Bysshe Shelley). Here Shelley points out an important aspect of poetry, which is to find fresh ways of looking at things we think we know well" (ibid.).
"Sir Philip Sidney [said], 'Poetry is a speaking picture' (ibid.).
Ask the class members to take 1 minute to come up with a one-word, all-inclusive description of their mothers.
It is difficult to describe a person with only one word, and cover all the various aspects of their complex personalities. But John is a poetic genius and his subject (God) is simpler than most people realize, so twice in the first epistle John is able to describe God completely with only one word. What are these two one-word descriptions he gives of God?
God is Light (1:5).
God is Love (4:8).
With these words, John links us with images and feelings that help us understand God in a fresh way. What images and feelings do you get when you think of light? And what about love? How is it that each of these words can completely describe such a powerful being as God? I'd like to say that we'll figure that out in the next few paragraphs, but actually the depth and meaning of those words and their relation to God could be studied productively for many years.
But we'll give it a start...
GOD IS LIGHT
"This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all" (1:5).
To make this metaphor clear to us, John elaborates with alternating verses about what it means for us to be in darkness and then how God can be as a Light that dispels that darkness.
Darkness: "If we say that we have fellowship with [God], and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: (1:6)
Light: "But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin." (1:7)
Darkness: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." (1:8)
Light: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1:9)
Darkness: "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us." (1:10)
Light: "If any man sin and repent, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the world. And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments." (2:1-3 JST)
Darkness: "He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him." (2:4)
Light: "But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him. Brethren, I write a new commandment unto you, but it is the same commandment which ye had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which ye have heard from the beginning. Again, a new commandment I write unto you, which thing was of old ordained of God; and is true in him, and in you: because the darkness is past and the true light now shineth." (2:5-8)
Darkness: "He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even unto now." (2:9)
Light: "He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him." (2:10)
Darkness: "But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes." (2:11)
(See also D&C 88:6-13.)
So, to summarize, if we follow the new commandment (which is really just the old commandment) to love, we will no longer be in darkness but will be walking in the Light--Light with a capital L. Which leads us to John's second one-word description of God.
GOD IS LOVE
John uses the word "love" and its variations 46 times in the first epistle. Although by the time of Christ the Law of Moses had morphed into a huge conglomoration of rules and regulations, many of which had completely lost their original meaning, the Law of Moses was originally based on love. The phylacteries which the Hebrew bound upon their foreheads as they prayed contained the words of the Shema, the central prayer of the Jew and often the first scripture that a Hebrew child learned. They were the first words uttered in the morning and the last at night. Shema means "hear." (Blair G. Van Dyke, "Profiles of a Covenant People," Covenants, Prophecies, and Hymns of the Old Testament: The 30th Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, p. 37)
Click on this link to hear the Shema sung in Hebrew, and to learn more about its meaning to the Jews.
The first part of the Shema is Deuteronomy 6:4-9. "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart." (Deut. 6:4-5).
"In Hebrew thought, the heart (not the mind) was the source of thinking, willing, and deciding. Therefore, to love God with all one's heart was to make a deliberate commitment to steadfast loyalty and unwavering obedience. To love 'with all thy soul' was the demand for the [servant] to be prepared to die for the [master]. It denoted full devotion. To love 'with all thy might' meant that a [servant] would come to the aid of the [master] with all his force, with his army and chariots." (ibid.)
John reminded his readers of this new commandment, which was just a restatement of the old commandment that had been obscured by rabbinic law.
"And this is his commandment, that we should 1) believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ [faith in Christ is of course based on a love for Him] and 2) love one another, as he gave us commandment." (1 John 3:23). "If we could not love on command, the Lord would not have commanded us to love" (Ester Rasband, Confronting the Myth of Self-Esteem, p. 54).
"He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love." (4:8).
(Please note the great information on love in the first reader's comment at the bottom on this entry.)
KEEPING COMMANDMENTS ALLOWS US TO FEEL LOVED
In John's gospel, he wrote the words of the Savior: "If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love." (John 15:10).
Isn't the love of the Savior unconditional? Does this scripture say that the Lord will only love those who keep his commandments?
But what if you haven't felt the love of God, or if it has been a long time since you have?
First, you must check your obedience to his commandments, which can all be summarized into two: loving God and loving others. "And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in [God] and [God dwelleth] in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us' (1 John 3:24).
Second, you must check your willingness to receive God's love.
"I attended a seminar a few years ago where a questionnaire led us to a conclusion about the expressions of love that we accept. Some of us accept and recognize love when it is expressed verbally, some when another labors in our behalf, some when a loved one offers demonstrative affection, and some when material gifts are given to us. There were still other ways. The series of questions helped us to examine our behavior to see how we are willing to receive love. The director of the seminar suggested that each of us has the right to receive love in the way that we recognize it and accept it. His goal, he said, was that we would use this self-revelation to tell our partners how they should give love to us.
"At the end of the quiz I'm sure that I was not alone in feeling more self pity than self-discovery. No one ever gets all they want from others...
"How valuable it would be to our mental health to examine the ways that others give love to us instead of the ways we are willing to accept it. Inasmuch as we have a great need to be loved--indeed, a survival need--it seems to me that the great benefit would be in recognizing love that comes to us in ways that are perhaps not our way at all.
"God's love is perfect, but we are not. Things of the world which we ignorantly would prefer as an expression of love may not be for our best good. They may even be destructive and therefore would not be an expression of love at all. We must be so humble that we trust the way our perfect Father in Heaven expresses his love for us and be grateful for it without condition. If we don't do that, if we are unwilling to receive it, we fail to collect it. Unrecognized and therefore uncollected, the love does not strengthen us, does not energize us, does not bless us...
"I have heard the same formula repeated many times: 'A loving God would surely see that all of his children were equal in comfort.' 'A loving God would see that all his children were treated fairly.' However the complaint ends, it is the same: man telling God how to love him instead of seeing God's love in God's omniscient expression of it and being grateful.
"Gratitude is the key to collecting God's love." (Rasband, p. 60-62)
By keeping the covenant to love, and by gratefully recognizing God's hand in our lives, we then are blessed to dwell in His love. In Hebrew this love of God's is called hesed, a word which, unfortunately, has no English equivalent. It has to do with love that never fails, with compassion, with mercy and grace. It is a love that translates into action, a rescuing kindness (Van Dyke).
"Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God. And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God and God in him." (4:15-16)
The benefit to us personally of dwelling in this love is the removal of possibly the most debilitating condition of our latter-day existence: fear.
As Paul stated in one of his epistles, "God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind" (2 Tim. 1:7).
At the very low point of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President of the United States. In addition to being elected president of a country in crisis, FDR had faced serious challenges himself, being a paraplegic, and having narrowly escaped an assassination attempt three weeks before his inauguration. (Five shots were fired, four people were wounded and the Chicago mayor was killed.)
"In his first address as president, Roosevelt spoke directly to the mood of the day...'First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.'
"Of course Roosevelt knew there were plenty of things to fear aside from fear itself. But he also knew that as serious as the nation's problems were, 'unreasoning fear' would make things far worse by eroding faith in liberal democracy and convincing people to embrace the mad dreams of communism and fascism. The Great Depression could hurt the United States. But fear could destroy it.
"It's an insight older than the United States itself. Roosevelt's line was lifted from Henry David Thoreau, and Thoreau in turn got it from Michel de Montaigne, who wrote, 'the thing I fear most is fear' more than three and a half centuries ago." (Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear, Kindle Edition, chapter 1, paragraphs 3-5.)
FDR knew that fear was a grave danger, and so does the Lord. He knows that fear will incapacitate us and leave us open to the influence of the devil. It will cause us to retreat rather than to advance. That is why he has commanded us repeatedly in the scriptures to "fear not." "For I, the Lord thy God, will hold thy right hand, saying unto thee, fear not; I will help thee." (Isa. 41:13)
But we live in the latter-days, the "perilous times" when "men's hearts shall fail them!" (See 2 Tim. 3:1; D&C 45:26.) How are we supposed to avoid being afraid? Perhaps, more than anything, it is the peril of fear itself that causes men's hearts to fail. Because of our worldwide media, we are subject to an endless parade of fearful images right in front of our eyes. Why? Because fear sells. Newscasters focus on scary stories, and ask "could this happen to you?" Most advertising is based on fear that our lives will not be safe or good or we will not be happy without the product in the ad. Politicians prey upon our fears, offering to resolve the frightening problems they present. Thanks to these "merchandisers of fear," despite the fact that we have more democratic societies than ever in the history of the world, more babies survive to adulthood even in underdeveloped countries, civil war and war between countries are both at a low point, and a longer and healthier life can be expected on every continent, we have become a "culture of fear." (Gardner)
How do we overcome the fear that is being force-fed to us? By simply and specifically keeping the great commandment to love. We can love our God and trust in him, we can love the people we fear, we can love the circumstances we are in, we can infuse love into our environment, our reactions to others, and our basic approach to life. John taught that when we are filled with the pure love of Christ, it is not possible to be afraid.
"There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love." (4:18)
Mormon lived in a more evil and frightening day than did we, as he witnessed the depraved condition of his people and the destruction of an entire civilization. And yet he wrote in a letter to his son Moroni, "I fear not what man can do; for perfect love casteth out all fear" (Moro. 8:16).
We may not be facing the total annihilation of our civilization (even though the "fear merchants" may like us to think so), but this principle also has a a very real and very useful daily practical application that can literally change our lives. If we are feeling "stressed" (stress is just fear by another name), we can ask ourselves what we are afraid of, and then we can see how to overcome that fear with love. The result is that our stress can turn to joy. Love is the greatest energizer, and the greatest bringer of peace. Those very situations that bring us stress can be sources of happy excitement or joyful peace if we can train ourselves to face them with love instead of fear.
Ask class members to share something that stresses them--minor or catastrophic--and see if the class can brainstorm a way that love could overcome the fear. Example: I am afraid of walking down the halls in the high school because I think everyone is judging my appearance. Possible antidote: Focus on others, smiling and saying hi to people who seem to need it. Example: I am so stressed out trying to keep my house clean. Possible antidote: Express gratitude for each aspect of your home as you work, for the mere fact that you have shelter, for all the items you are putting away. Example: Fears produced by catastrophic life events can also be overcome by trust in the Lord (another aspect of love for the Lord), a hope to learn valuable lessons from the experience, and a desire to love and serve others also affected.
"God has given us the power of the gospel to lift us above our fears.
JOHN'S TESTIMONY AND ADMONITION
At the end of the first epistle, John again shares his testimony:
"And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life" (5:20).
After bearing this testimony of the Savior, he adds this curious little sentence:
"Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen." (5:21).
It seems disjointed or tacked on but actually it relates directly to, and even summarizes, the entire point of his epistle. To know God and to be one with him is Eternal Life. But to achieve this state, we must keep ourselves from idols, or from anything that may compromise our loyalty to the Lord. The key is to closely control our love. As he advised earlier:
"Love not the world, neither the things that are of the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him" (2:15 JST).
We must examine our pastimes, our passions, our use of resources, our goals, our desires, and make sure they all come up based on getting to know and be one with the Lord. If they point in any other direction, our hope for Eternal Life as well as daily peace and joy is being frustrated. We will fail daily, weekly, and eternally if we allow ourselves to be limited by fear, or if we love anything more than the Lord.