THE VOICE OF EXPERIENCE
By Pastor Glenn Pease
James Thurber tells the fable of the bear that use to go on a spree of drunkenness, and come home at night and break up the furniture, and frightening the children and drive his wife to tears. One day he reformed and decided to never drink again, and from then on he would come home and demonstrate how fresh and vigorous his new way of life made him feel by doing gymnastic exercises in the living room. In so doing, however, he broke the furniture, frightened the children, and drove his wife to tears. Thurber is pointing out that one extreme is no better than another in its practical outcome in life. One has little to boast about who has escaped falling flat on his face by bending over so far backward he falls on his head. It is the man who keeps his balance, and falls neither way that represents the Christian ideal. Neither the rider who falls off the horse on the left or the right side is to be compared with the man who stays in the saddle.
Albert Schweitzer said, "No man ever gets a great idea without carrying it too far." He illustrates his statement as he makes it, for he certainly went too far when he said, "No man," for Jesus as a man showed perfect balance. What he said, however, is a valid judgment on most men and movements. The Apostle John in writing this first Epistle is combating a movement that has gone to an extreme and has become a dangerous heresy. The Gnostics, as they were called, were not trying to destroy Christianity, but were trying to make it an intellectually respectable philosophy that would appeal to the contemporary mind.
They were doing the same thing that we see being done in our day. There are men and movements within the framework of modern Christianity who are saying we need to cleanse the church of old ideas, and make its message relevant to the contemporary mind. Such things as the virgin birth, miracles, and the literal resurrection of Christ are not acceptable to many modern minds, and so they are saying we need to cut them off as branches that will bare no more fruit.
The Gnostics in John's day had the same idea, and there have always been men in movements to promote this way of thinking. That is why you notice this Epistle is not addressed to anyone in particular. It is called a Catholic Epistle, which means, it is a universal Epistle. It is God's perpetual answer to all believers in all generations who are being thrust into turmoil and confusion by the muddled thinking and speculation of men. God gave the church this teaching and guidance through the Apostle John, who was one of the first chosen by Christ; who was uniquely loved by Christ, and who lived longest in the service of Christ. When we listen to John we listen to the voice of experience, for no man who has ever lived has had, either in quantity or quality, a greater experience with Christ. John does not answer the heretics on the level of debate and theory, but on the level of experience.
The Gnostics were very spiritual people. In fact they fit into the category of those who are so heavenly minded they are no earthly good. The Gnostics were so spiritual, so fanatically spiritual that they became anti-Christ, for Christianity is based on the fact that Jesus, the very Son of God, did not remain Spirit, but came in human flesh. The Gnostics were too spiritual to accept this. They said that God was spiritual, but they wrongly concluded that all that is not spirit is evil. They said flesh is evil, and all that is material is evil, and, therefore, the Son of God could never become a real man. He only appeared as a man. He was like a phantom. He seemed to be a man, but was really not. They denied the incarnation, and that is why John is so emphatic when he says, "Every spirit that confesses not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God."
The Gnostics had such a high view of the spiritually of Christ that they actually became anti-Christ. They refused to balance their high view with the belief in the incarnation, and so even though believing Jesus to be divine, they were not Christians, but enemies of the church. They illustrate that half the truth can be a whole lie. Half truths are even more dangerous than lies, for they are often so plausible. They deceive so many more people. Never be content to ask is it true of a teaching, but go on to ask is this the whole truth. Heresy is almost always based on half truths.
The Gnostics proved that even the best things of life, and God's greatest truths can become curses if not kept in balance. The reason the Bible is so full of paradoxes is to keep us ever mindful of the need for balance. Fishing nets are only of value when they have both lead and cork; the heavy and the light. If all the net had was cork, it would float on the surface and catch no fish. If all it had was lead, it would sink to the bottom and catch no fish. But with cork and lead to make it both sink and float, it accomplishes its purpose and catches fish. The Christian who is weighted down with the duties of the Christian life is too gloomy to be an effective fisher of men. The Christian who is super-spiritual, and floating on cloud nine, is also too irrelevant to attract the fish. The effective Christian life is the balance life.
The Apostle John is the great Apostle of balance. He was a profound theologian, and also a man of great personal piety. He was deeply profound and highly practical. Bernard Ramm wrote, "How to put together theology and spiritual life has been one of the main concerns of my life. Theology ought to lead to the depths of spiritual experience. It certainly did with Paul. Spiritual experiences ought to create a great hunger in the soul for the truth of God. But how fractured we are! Theologians are frequently spiritually snobbish or over-sophisticated. And men who emphasize the spiritual life can be so theologically naive and Biblically illiterate. Great theology and great spiritual experiences ought to go hand in hand.
The Gnostics were spiritual, but very poor theologians. Those who stress the deity of Christ and deny His humanity fall on their face, and those who stress the humanity of Christ and deny His deity fall on their head. The Christian is committed to stand with John with his unwavering balance based on historical revelation and personal experience with the God-Man, Jesus Christ. Let us listen to his authentic and authoritative voice first of all concerning-
I. THE HISTORICAL REVELATION verse 1.
John here, as in his Gospel, begins at the beginning. The source of the Christian faith goes back beyond history into the realm of eternity where Christ was eternally before the beginning. John only goes back to the beginning, for that is as far back as creatures of time can go. John is conveying to us the fact that Jesus was from the beginning. He did not begin then, but was then. All else and all others have entered the scene later, but he was the Alpha-the first to be on the stage for the drama of history.
It is as if I said, Henry Ford was from the beginning of the Ford Motor Company. This tells us nothing about what was before that except that Henry Ford was in existence before the beginning of the Ford Motor Company. He did not begin at the beginning of his company. He only began his role as founder and creator of the company at that point. Likewise, Jesus did not begin at the beginning, but already was, for He was eternally with the Father before the beginning. Jesus did begin at this point, however, as the founder and creator of the universe. The eternal Christ did have a beginning as Creator just as He had a beginning as a child, and as a sacrifice for sin, and as a resurrected Lord and interceding high priest at the right hand of the Father. The eternal Christ has a variety of beginnings in various roles, because He left the realm of timelessness and entered the realm of history.
John is making clear that the foundation of the Christian faith is indeed the foundation. It is not secondary in any sense, but goes right back to the very beginning of time and history. Whatever is really new is not really true, for He who is the truth was from the beginning. How could we trust our eternal future to anyone that did not have an eternal past? There is no end to the newness of the experiences we have in Christ, and new are His mercies each morning, but all that is new is our personal experience of the eternal grace of Christ. In other words, all we experience in time has its origin in eternity. The Gnostics would not object to this, but John then leaps immediately from the beginning right into the present historical setting of his day and says that we have heard and seen and even handled with our hands this one who was from the beginning. He not only made the stage of history, but He came on the stage to play a role Himself-the role of redeemer.
Now if John would have kept it more general he still would not have been offensive to the Gnostics, but when he talks about actually handling Christ with his hands he has gone too far for them. John is saying that the eternal Christ actually entered history and was manifested in human flesh. Westcott said, "A religion that is to move the world must be historical." The world has had more than enough philosophic speculation about God and religion. If speculation could save the world, we would have been in paradise long ago, but only a real, literal, actual historical Savior can really, literally, actually, historically save us, and this we find only in Jesus Christ. The God of eternity and the God-Man of history.
Often as Christians we speak of God being seen in His handiwork of nature, but let us never forget that the Bible stresses far above this the fact that God is a God of history. All the great acts of God and revelations of God have been historical, and His final, fairest, and fullest revelation was in the Incarnation when God became man. This is so basic that to doubt it or deny it is to reject the Christian revelation as a whole. John goes even further than emphasizing that Jesus became man; he also stresses-
II. PERSONAL EXPERIENCE.
Jung once said, "The best of truths is of no use...unless it has become the individuals most personal inner experience." Even truth is not an end in itself.
Even the Bible is not an end in itself. John in all of his writing makes it plain that the eternal Christ not only became the historical Christ, but that he must become the experienced Christ to fulfill his purpose and our salvation. It is not enough to know Jesus as eternal and historical if one does not know Him as personal.
John says we have personal contact with Christ. We knew Him through the avenue of our senses, and we bear witness of Him. John is an eyewitness conveying his experience to those who were not. Almost everything we know about any of the great personalities of the past is known on the same basis as this: Personal testimony by contemporaries. He who would doubt the historicity of Christ would on the same grounds have to doubt all that is written about Plato, Socrates, and all the Ceasars, as well as all the kings and queens, philosophers and statesmen, and poets of the past. The very knowledge of their existence is based on the same evidence that we have concerning Christ.
John is no arm chair speculator, for he is an eye witness contemporary of Christ. He was writing this 50 to 60 years after the cross, but he makes it clear that Christ was still his contemporary. In verse 3 he talks about present fellowship with the Father and the Son that he and all that believe can have. His experience with Christ is not a mere matter of memory, but a matter of continuous day by day fellowship. This is the goal for every believer. This is the ultimate in Christian happiness, for when we have come to this experience, John says then our joy will be complete.
The evidence of the past is effective in getting one on the road to belief, but the personal encounter with the present Christ is essential to get us to the destination of certainty and commitment. John knew the dangers that Christians faced in his day because of confused thinking in theology. He knew that the anti-christs were already come, and that believers would be in danger of being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine. That is why he gives this strong testimony as to the historical revelation and personal experience of the eternal Christ. He knows a Christian needs to have a solid and sure anchor when the storm hits. He knows a believer who is not in a state of fellowship with Christ and fellow believers day by day is in dangerous waters.
The same holds true for our day. It appears that there are rough waters ahead for faithful believers. Doctrines unchallenged for centuries are being rejected by leaders of the church. Men are reviving the Gnostic plan to update Christianity so it fits the thinking of our day. Subtle error is going to touch everyone of us, but if we take advantage of the light we have and walk in it, we need not fear the darkness.
Those men who became living torches in the garden of Nero, and those women flung to wild beasts in the amphitheater were not dying for any theory, or system, or vague hope. They were dying because they had encountered the eternal Christ in their own personal experience. James Stewart wrote, "Our religion is going to make absolutely no impact whatever on the world....is going to leave not the faintest impression on the paganism around, unless it is our own assured possession." We know Jesus is eternal by revelation, and we know He is historical by the witness of others, but we can only know Him as personal and contemporary by experience. It is time that we begin to take seriously our need for greater fellowship with the living Christ, and for one another in Christ.
The American Commentary says on these first two verses, "In the verses before us, we see a deep and vivid experience attempting to put itself in sentences. The life in Christ has become life in John, and he wants to make such a declaration, such a testimony of it as will lift up all his readers to the same plane of divine experience."Personal experience is vital both for enjoying the Christian life, and for sharing it with others. One woman said, "You can no more tell what you don't know than you can come back from where you ain't been."
What you have experienced is a reality that no one can deny. The Pharisees said to the man who had been made to see by Jesus, "We know that this man is a sinner." He answered in John 9:25, "Whether he is a sinner, I do not know: one thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see." The experience did not prove Jesus was the Son of God, nor did it prove He was not a sinner, but the experience convinced the man that he had encountered the supernatural, and no one could refute that, or deny the reality of his experience.
There's no way to escape the paradox of experience. It is both essential and inadequate. Josiah Royce wrote in The Source Of Religious Insight, "Without intense and intimate personal feelings, you never learn any valuable truths whatever about life, about its ideals, or about its problems; but, on the other hand, what you know only through your feelings is, like the foam of the sea, unstable-like the passing hour, doomed to pass away." We need the objective theology as a source of our authority, and the subjective experience as the source of our motivation.
Ruth Paxon in her classic Life On The Highest Plane writes, "The grave danger of fixing one's eyes upon an experience, however exalted and blessed, instead upon Him who bestowed it was expressed very tellingly by Spurgeon when he said,
I looked at Christ
And the dove of peace flew into my heart;
I looked at the dove of peace-
And it flew away.
Take you eyes off Jesus and you can have much religious experience, but it is not related to any objective revelation and thus it is unstable, and its value uncertain."
The craving for experience is both wise and foolish. During war time young men fear they will die and miss out on much of life's experience, and so they rush headlong into all sorts of immoral behavior in order to experience all of life before they die. This war mentality is becoming a standard philosophy for our world. You only go around once so get all you can out of it, and live with gusto. This is the modern version of, let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
An old sea captain told of how an inexperienced youth went to a hiring hall to get a job as a seaman. The hiring agent asked, "Have you ever gone around the Horn?" Well aware that the shipping companies preferred seasoned sailors who had made a trip or two around Cape Horn, the young man admitted that he had not made the trip. The agent said, "Follow me," and then led him into the next room. A horn of a steer was in the middle of the floor. The agent said, "Now just walk slowly around that horn." The startled would be sailor did as he was ordered. "You have now gone around the horn and I can get you a job on a ship going to India." The youth had been made a sailor in name only. He had the name, but not the experience.
There is a great deal of difference between calling yourself a Christian and being a Christian by the experience of yielding your life to Jesus Christ, and trusting Him as your Savior. Many take the name, but do not have the experience. It is the experience that saves and not the label. John had personal experience with Jesus, and his whole letter is urging all of us to enter into personal experiences with the Living Christ that we might like Him be able to speak with the voice of experience.