"Knowledge from Obedience" on 1 John 2:3-14 by Joe Ellis — February 6, 2022
Say you wanted to know what addiction is. How would you go about finding out what addiction is? I can think of a number of ways. You could read clinical books describing the changes that take place in a person’s mind and body when they’re addicted. You could have a conversation or be in relationship with someone who openly struggles with addiction. You could watch some movies, or read some novels that portray characters who are trapped by addiction — all those give you a certain type of knowledge. But they don’t necessarily impart intimate knowledge of addiction — Remember, loving someone who struggles with addiction is an altogether different experience than being the one who has the addiction.
I don’t for a second recommend this, but if you wanted intimate knowledge of addiction, you would need to obey the commands of addiction. In order to be addicted there are certain rules you need to follow. The simplest rule for addiction is that you need to do the thing you are addicted to. If you want to experience what it means to be addicted to alcohol, but don’t drink, you’re not going to understand it. So you’ll need to start by regularly having a glass of wine or a beer every night. Start your search for knowledge of addiction with simple, small steps of obedience to addiction. After obeying that command for a while, you can begin to take bigger steps towards obeying the commands of addiction. Addiction will demand greater obedience. Eventually, one drink isn’t enough, so you move to two, maybe three, maybe four, or maybe six. Eventually, you might find the people in your life are worried about the addiction. You yourself might be worried and find yourself waking up in the mornings with a headache and a mix of fear and shame — you promise yourself that you won’t drink that night. Yet, as the day goes on, you begin to feel the anxiety increase as the command of addiction gets louder and louder. You make excuses. You make your drinking more discrete, pouring rum into your Coke so people won’t notice. After a time of obeying the commands of addiction, you’ll begin to know what addiction is. You’ll know addiction, not just with a cerebral knowledge. That’s the frightening problem — you’ll know addiction with a knowledge that pervades your mind, your heart, your will and your body. Your relationships will be shaped by addiction. You will begin to smell like addiction. After a while of obeying the commands of addiction, you will know addiction intimately.
Let me offer a more positive illustration. Say you want to know what romantic love is. There are a lot of ways to grow in intimate knowledge of romantic love — you can read about it from a clinical perspective, you can watch any number of romantic comedies. But if you want to intimately know romantic love, then you’ll need to obey the commands of romantic love. Those commands are often not experienced as onerous. Hopefully, you find a willing, suitable person, who also wants to know romantic love. The commands of romantic love are fairly well known — one command is to spend way too much time together — romantic love, especially young love, commands spending hours together, writing letters and texts, talking on the phone. As the love grows, other rules of romantic love emerge, like cultivating physical closeness — so you hold your beloved’s hand, cuddle them as you watch a movie. Eventually as your relationship matures, you might even steal a smooch here and there. Another command of romantic love that some people like to obey is to show your affection with gifts — like flowers, tasty baked treats, or even a new mountain bike. Over time, as you obey the commands or rules of romantic love, you begin to know what it is. You know romantic love not just with your head, but you know it with your heart, you know it with the warmth that floods through your body, you know it by the way romantic love looks, smells, and tastes. As old married couples, we need to be careful — we often think we can get by without obeying the rules of romantic love. So we fart and scratch instead of going in for a snuggle. After a long season of ignoring the commands of romantic love, you begin to forget what it is.
We get to know that which we desire to know by obeying the commands of it. If we ignore their rules, our knowledge fades away — happily, as in the case with addiction, and sadly, as with the case of romantic love.
So, why am I spending so much time on this? I spent so much time on these two examples of knowledge acquired through obedience because of what 1 John says in 2: 3-6. In verse 3 John says, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.”
For me, this verse was like a splash of cold water early in the morning — it more than woke me up. Up to this point I have mainly stressed that obeying God’s commands is the result of intimacy or knowledge with God. I get really nervous whenever I hear anyone talk about their work bringing them closer to God, or earning God’s favour. I’ve argued, and still do, that obedience flows out of relationship. That’s the way I’ve read John 14:15 where Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” Obedience flows from love. It follows love. We love God, and for that reason we obey God. Yet John is saying something more. Yes, obeying Jesus is one of the signs that we know Jesus. Yet John is also saying that we get to know God through keeping the commands of Jesus. If we want to know God, we need to keep his commands. If we want to know God, we need to obey his rules. This is confirmed in the next two verses when John says, “The one who says ‘I have come to know God’ and yet does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in such a person. But whoever obeys his Word, truly in this person the love of God is perfected. By this we know that we are in him. The one who says he resides in God ought himself to walk as Jesus walked.”
We cannot know God if we do not obey his commands. As we obey God we come to know God — not with some sort of bookish head knowledge — but with the sort of knowledge that pervades our minds, our hearts, and our spirit. Just as you (thankfully) cannot intimately know addiction to alcohol if you never touch alcohol. Just as you cannot be said to know romantic love if you only admire your beloved’s picture from afar — so we cannot know God if we don’t walk in Obedience to Him.
Obedience brings intimate knowledge. It brings a frightening intimacy. Obedience shapes the type of person we will become — an addict is shaped by their addiction, a lover is shaped by their beloved, and we, the worshipper, are shaped by God. We become what we worship. So, as we walk as Jesus walked, our obedience walks us into deeper intimacy with God.
I want to highlight what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that obedience earns our way into God’s favour. God isn’t like a father who withholds his love unless his daughter gets straight A’s. We can never earn our way into God’s presence — it is impossible.
This shapes how we obey God’s commands — we aren’t trying to be really good in order to earn our way into God’s approval. Our sins have been forgiven on account of His Name.
Rather, we obey God’s commands out of a sense of curiosity, wonder, and desire, because we know that obedience is one of the primary ways you get to know anything. Just as by obeying the commands of romantic love, the lover gets to know their beloved — so we obey the commands of Jesus and journey towards deeper intimate knowledge of God.
So, which commandment does John have in mind when he talks about obeying God’s commandment? Verses seven and eight in 1 John 2 are kind of fun because of how confusing they are. John confusingly says that he is not writing a new commandment but an old commandment — yet in the next verse he says, “On the other hand, I am writing a new commandment to you.” And then he never actually says which commandment he’s talking about.
As I began to study 1 John, I was surprised to learn that some commentators are actually a little annoyed with John in this letter. “John, make up your mind! Is the command new or old, what is it?” I think that’s refreshing. After all, Christian community is all about learning to love the people who annoy you! One of the commentators who was annoyed by John said, “We need to keep in mind that John’s first letter itself is a commentary on the Gospel of John.” We can only understand this letter by reading it along with John’s Gospel. So, when John says, I am writing “a new command,” he is anticipating that we will remember John 13:34-35, when Jesus says: “A new commandment I give to you: Love one another. As I loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Of course, this new commandment is also very old. After all, Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commands.”
So why did Jesus say that this was a new command? What’s new about it? Perhaps the way that we are to love is new. Remember in the Sermon on the Mount how Jesus said, “You have heard it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
Jesus says essentially this in his “New Commandment” when He commands us to love one another as he loved us. Remember as he was speaking in John 13, he was soon to be crucified. He was soon to give up his life for the life of the world. That is “Love your enemy.”
We see Jesus live out this new command in other ways. Immediately before giving this new command to love, Jesus, with staggering humility, washes the feet of his disciples. For Peter this was not a sign of humility, but of humiliation. Yet Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” When he is finished washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus teaches his disciples, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” In this way we are also commanded to Love one another.
We are to walk as Jesus walked. As we walk in obedience to this command, we come into intimate knowledge with the one who gives the command. We discover what it means to be children of the Father. We begin to find ourselves changed as we walk in obedience — as the addict becomes transformed by the power of addiction, as the lover is transformed by the influence of romantic love — we are changed through Him that we worship and obey. Through obedience we discover an intimate knowledge of our God.
John is writing to his community as they recover from a deep conflict — those who left had argued that our obedience to God has no bearing on our relationship with Jesus. John counters with a hard “No!” As we obey, we are acted upon by our God. As we obey, we come into intimate knowledge of our God. Obedience leads to love and intimacy.
How is Jesus calling you to walk in loving obedience? I’ll read again from the most famous passage on Christian love ever penned. As you listen to what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, invite the Holy Spirit to show you where He is calling you into deeper obedience, and into deeper knowledge. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
May we grow in intimacy with Christ as we love one another. Amen