Personal Notes on 1 John

Notes on 1 John

My devotional reading has recently taken me through 1 John. I found some things in the book particularly edifying and decided the thoughts they inspired might be worth sharing. So here are my lightly edited notes straight from my journal. (After this, you should totally reread 1 John if you haven’t done it in a while, because it really is a great little book.)

1 John 1

  • Summary: John has seen and knows intimately the light that is Jesus Christ, and wishes to make Him further known to his audience, that they all together may walk as one in the light with Christ, cleansed of sin and united in joy.
  • Details
    • First off, John does not separate at all between the historical and the theological Jesus. As far as John is concerned, the Jesus he touched and heard and saw in the flesh was indeed even in the flesh the Word of life, the eternal life and Son of God, by whom man has fellowship with the Father.
    • Everything about eternal life for John is oriented around Christ. He is eternal life. He is the Word of life. Eternal life comes through faith in Him. Knowing Christ is the essence of eternal life. Jesus Himself is the way, the truth, and the life. Any conception of eternal life that is not ultimately part of our conception of Jesus is broken.
    • God is light, as is Jesus, and in Him is no darkness. Therefore if we walk in Him, in His light, our sin is exposed and burned up by His radiance. Yet this painful process leads some to hide from God’s light, and they deceive themselves if they say they walk with God. Only if one is in darkness can his sin be hidden, even from himself, and thus those who claim to lack sin are indeed in darkness, for the light exposes more and more sins. Yet only this exposure can cleanse sin, and in fact this paradox is precisely the paradox of justification by faith: our only hope to be made right with God in Christ is to own up to how badly we are wrong with God in ourselves.

1 John 2:1-27

  • Summary: The true believers, unlike the heretics, keep God’s commands and love each other, even in the midst of trouble, because they know the Father and have victory in Him. The ungodly world is passing away, and so we must cling to Christ rather than any of this age, in spite of all the false teachers set to lead us astray, who would sever us from Christ by denying Him.
  • Details
    • The true Church can be known by its fruit, to at least a degree. We follow God’s commands, rather than living unlike Christ.
    • In the midst of controversy, love is still essential, and perhaps more essential than usual, for the Church.
    • The world under the evil one is conquered and passing away. All of its structures and delights are fading, so we best not get caught in them, a trap the world-denying Gnostics could easily and ironically fall into.
    • The spirit of the antichrist is alive and well, energizing false teachers, but true believers remain faithful in spite of them. God teaches His Church the truth.

1 John 2:28-3:24

  • Summary: In Christ we are righteous children of God, though the true fullness of this is yet invisible as we wait for Him to be revealed, since our life is hidden in Him. Yet in present, we see the change brought about by this new life in righteous living and active love, for those who lack such things but instead sin and hate are of the Devil.
  • Details
    • Can Bobby Grow’s claim that there is no warrant for a spiritual test here be completely supported? I’m not sure about that. Nonetheless, I do get a generally corporate and “in Christ”-ian feel from this passage, so certainly the focus is shifted away from individual assurance to identifying the true Body of Christ against the false.
    • Christ’s life is a life of radically self-giving love, and of righteous living, for this is exactly what He did from birth to the Cross. That life is also the life into which we have been born again as His people.
    • Our true nature is mostly invisible, even to ourselves, in this time-between-the-times, for it is the nature of Christ, who is hidden from our sight until His return. Thus we still sin and see ourselves in sinful terms, despite our true nature as children of God. Yet we are children of God, who do not sin but rather love.
    • Love is only love when it is real and active. That is the kind of love Christ showed for us, which even animated His Passion.
    • I should make every effort to abide in Christ, which practically means in specific devotion, worship, and Church life, so that I may share in the revelation of His life when He returns. If I want the good resurrection, I must be found in Him. If I am to be found in Him, I must stay connected to Him by the means He has provided.
    • I should always have hope even in the midst of my deepest sinfulness, because what I truly am is God’s child, and something too wonderful to know yet, hidden in Christ. No matter what I see in myself now, the new reality is there and will be revealed.

1 John 4

  • Summary: We who believe in Jesus as the Christ come in the flesh are from God, just as Christ and therefore this doctrine are from God, and those who reject this are of the spirit of the antichrist. That spirit works not love, but deception. True love is bound up with God’s self-revelation of His love in giving His only Son for us, so to reject the identity of the Son is to reject love, and thus the God who is Himself love.
  • Details
    • The spirit of the antichrist has been in the world for at least these past 2000 years, always trying to deceive and draw people away from Jesus as the Christ come in the flesh. He still does this today, but he is restrained by the overcoming power of God, Father, Son, and Spirit.
    • Those who have been born again believe in Christ. Period. Those who do not listen to the truth of Christ are of the antichrist, or deceived by him.
    • Love is bound up with this doctrine, and remains our first and foremost imperative. The God who has revealed Himself as love in Christ’s flesh has given us new life out of love, and therefore our life now ought to be shaped and driven by His love.
    • “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God — God remains in him and he in God.” This is the great ecumenical truth. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” is the binding prayer behind all true Christianity.
    • Fear makes no sense in this context of love, trembling over judgment. If we are in Christ by faith, and we share in His love, by what means will we not be freed from condemnation by that love?

1 John 5

  • Summary: All of us who believe in Jesus as Christ are God’s children, and so most rightly love each other and obey God’s commandments, for by faith in Christ we are able to overcome the sinful world. We ought to believe this, because God has testified about His Son in His baptism and crucifixion, and by believing this we have life in Christ. If we have life in Christ, our prayers are powerful and unhindered, and will deliver those in sin. Yet Christ does protect us from sin as children of God, unlike the evil world under Satan’s power. Therefore let us be children of God, loving each other, believing in Christ, and keeping away from idols.
  • Details
    • Faith and love are inseparable in Christ, and thus all who truly believe in Christ also truly love Him, the Father, and everyone else who is in Christ. There is a natural communion of love and truth in God’s new household.
    • Obedience also naturally belongs in this overall category of faith and love. By faith, we obey God, in particular His command to love, and as these effects work themselves out we overcome the sinful and hostile world around us.
    • God Himself testifies that Jesus is the Son of God in whom we have eternal life. Therefore all are bound to believe it. Those who deny it lie.
    • Baptism and crucifixion were the most public acts of Jesus’ life. Of course they were God’s testimony. And yet it is a counterintuitive testimony, indeed, for in both Jesus was treated as a sinner. He became sin for us, and precisely doing this is an act of the Son of God.
    • Eternal life is simply life in Christ. This says nothing, to be honest, about whether it can be lost, for it is not clear from this passage whether one can leave Christ.
    • God answers our prayers which accord with the love, faith, and obedience which ought to characterize life in Christ. He may even rescue a dying soul by such prayers.
    • Christ protects us from sin, making a sharp divide between us, born of God and knitted together in faith and love, and the evil world, which includes idolaters who deny that Jesus is the Christ in the flesh.

Psalm 23: The Lord Is My Shepherd

A brief new series of mine: Psalm 23. It’s just a little devotional series, designed to be used precisely as that: a devotional. In particular, this shall be a weekly one, taking the psalm one line at a time.

The Lord is my shepherd

Psalm 23 starts off with a familiar and beloved beginning. God, Yahweh, is my shepherd. Such a lovely and peaceful image.

Mostly, that is. There is more to God as shepherd than meets the eye. In Bible times, shepherds were not imagined as young boys playing with sheep. Instead, they were, well, like David. The sheep were huge financial investments, and very vulnerable ones. So the shepherds had to work in the elements to physically protect the sheep at all costs. It was not a coincidence that David the shepherd boy was already in great shape to be a warrior when he joined the army, for his duties had previously involved killing a lion and a bear with his bare hands to protect the sheep.

In fact, this that part is the main Biblical meaning to shepherding. The shepherd protects his sheep from all the terrifying and violent dangers which would kill them. He even uses violence himself to do so. The shepherd fights for the flock, even to the point of death.

This is, of course, exactly what God has done as our shepherd. He has fought and continues to fight for us. “He protects the lives of His godly ones; He rescues them from the power of the wicked”1, and “You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen2. Just as the shepherds like David did, God is our valiant protector. He even gave us His life to protect us, as Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”3.

And this is the beauty of it. Our Shepherd died for us, and now lives again, to never cease protecting us. With God as our shepherd, we never need to fear, for, as Paul says:

If God is for us, who is against us? He did not even spare His own Son but offered Him up for us all; how will He not also with Him grant us everything? Who can bring an accusation against God’s elect? God is the One who justifies. Who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is the One who died, but even more, has been raised; He also is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us. Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or anguish or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: Because of You we are being put to death all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than victorious through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, hostile powers, height or depth, or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord!

Romans 8:31b-39

Does this look like a family?

Does Anyone Really Believe in the Church Family?

A few weeks ago, I ran across a question on Reddit about Christians giving preference to helping Christians. Someone, who if I recall consider herself a Christian, had heard Christians wishing to especially help Christian refugees moreso than others. She was horrified by this, and asked if anyone agreed and how they could.

Does that thought make you uncomfortable at all? Are you alright with giving special treatment to Christians, at least in your personal life? Some of you probably feel fine about that, while I’m sure at least some of you find this a bit disconcerting, at least in some corner of your mind or heart. 

I’ve thought about this lately, and realized that this must stem in part from one Biblical belief which has largely forgotten (at least at a practical level) in the modern American church. What is this basic belief? The family nature of the Church.

In most evangelical churches, there is a sentiment about the Church as a family, but that is usually all it is: a sentiment, a feeling. People in close churches “feel” like a family. That’s not the point of the Biblical teaching, though. Here’s what Jesus said about family:

If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, and even his own life — he cannot be My disciple.

Luke 14:26

The person who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; the person who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.

Matthew 10:37

But He replied to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven, that person is My brother and sister and mother.”

Matthew 12:48-50

The Old Testament also demonstrates the primacy of covenant and worship over natural family:

“If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, ‘Let us go and worship other gods’—which neither you nor your fathers have known, any of the gods of the peoples around you, near you or far from you, from one end of the earth to the other—you must not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity, and do not spare him or shield him. Instead, you must kill him. Your hand is to be the first against him to put him to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone him to death for trying to turn you away from the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery.”

Deuteronomy 13:6-10

Romans 9 also makes a point about the primacy of grace over natural family relations, but it is somewhat tangential, so I will not look much at it for now. Feel free to peruse it later.

All of this in mind, the Biblical teaching should be clear. Natural family is superseded by the Church family. We are now not, firstly, sons of our fathers, daughters of our mothers, brothers of brothers or sisters of sisters. Rather, the first and most fundamental relationship we have is the new birth from one Father, which makes us children of God and siblings of Christ and each other1 This displaces all of our other relationships. When we become a Christian and enter the Church through baptism, we are re-related. All our previous relationships of family and friends become secondary to our new true family in Christ. We are to, in comparison to Christ and His family, hate them all.

These words, alas, make many people uncomfortable in this day and age, probably because of the liberal (in the classical sense) underpinnings of American society. Embedded in our Constitution and culture is the sense of the individual as the fundamental unit. Every person is his own person and thing, defined by himself apart from all other people. What matters is your own self-determination and preferences.

Most people think this way, even Christians, to some extent and on some level. It is reinforced by the wider culture and legal structures which surround us, embedding itself into our hearts and minds. This has particularly poisoned people’s view of religion. In most people’s minds, religion is a preference, a personal interest. It is no more or less substantial than your interests, careers, or passions. Those are important to you, but are freely chosen and no objective standard really matters. What is sacred is not the religion, but your choice of religion.

If this is the framework, then your religion can’t be a new and superseding family. Religion is a preference! It can’t create obligations to other people, or override any relationships you already had. More importantly, it can’t be used to treat some individuals any differently than others, because it’s all a matter of personal preference, and you can’t discriminate among people based on personal preferences.

We must drop this nonsense. God has recreated us, given us a new birth and identity in Christ. Our old persons and identities are passing away, and only those which join with us in the new life of Christ will last. All of our families and friends outside the Church are not family in the same way that even strangers in the Church are. Our foremost obligations are to the new family, not the old which exists by the flesh.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we are to neglect or not love the others. Rather, if we love them, we must seek by all means to bring them into the Church, to make them a part of the new family. Our children, parents, cousins, friends, and acquaintances outside the faith need us to love them into it, that they might in fact receive the high place we wish them to have.

So basically, let us remember that the Church is our true family, over and (when necessary) against all other relationships. This isn’t just a negative fact against the rest of the world. It is a positive one, the beginning of the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that His followers would receive more than enough to replace all they gave us for Him. In fact, I had something else to say, but I think I’ll let Jesus finish for me:

“I assure you,” Jesus said, “there is no one who has left house, brothers or sisters, mother or father, children, or fields because of Me and the gospel,
who will not receive 100 times more, now at this time — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions — and eternal life in the age to come.

Mark 10:29-30

In Support of Weekly Communion — Part 2

In my last post, I addressed the direct Biblical evidence for weekly Communion as a proper practice of the Church. In this one I want to pick up where I left off and examine the actual theological rationale for having the Supper every week.

Reasons from Theology

So, if we take it that Scripture indicates weekly Communion, and indeed Communion as a central piece of church gathering, then why? What is the reason for coming together weekly to take the Lord’s Supper? What makes the Supper so important?

The Presence of Christ

There are essentially three major theological themes which give Communion its significance. The first is the most discussed in Christian history, and the most central. Basically, the first is that Jesus is there in the Supper in a way He is not always present. When we take the bread and the wine, we—in some way or another—experience Christ’s body and blood given for us. The Church has always believed this, that in the Supper Jesus is present. Now, there has been disagreement about what this means. The Orthodox Church holds a rather ambiguous and mystical belief that the bread and wine become Jesus’ actual body and blood. The Catholic Church teaches with transubstantiation that the bread and wine transform in reality, but not in appearance (to oversimplify), into Christ’s full body and blood, including His divine presence and power. The Lutheran Church simply teaches that they are the body and blood, and that Christ’s body and blood are “in, with, and under” the bread and wine, without detailing how this works. Reformed Churches vary in their beliefs, but John Calvin believed that in the Supper we ascend through the Spirit by faith to Christ’s heavenly presence and are spiritually nourished by His body and blood. Most Baptists believe that Jesus is simply present insomuch as we remember Him in the symbolic action.

However we slice and dice it, the truth remains that Jesus is there in Communion in a way that He is not always there1. So to take the Lord’s Supper frequently, indeed weekly as the Church, is to accept an invitation into the presence of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. If we love Him, is this not what we wish to do?

Heaven Here and Now

The second major theological dimension to the Supper is its role in eschatology. The end times, the final climax, the coming kingdom—all of this from the future comes into the present through Communion today. There are multiple dimensions to even this. On the one hand, this tails off of Jesus’ presence. Right now Jesus is ascended and absent from the world in a real way. In Communion, He is present, anticipating the day when He actually will physically return to earth. This entails not only an anticipation of the return of Jesus Himself, but also the benefits which His return includes.

What benefits do I mean? There are many. There is the benefit of eternal joy and celebration. The use of wine for Christ’s redeeming blood points to this, for God has given wine to make men glad2. When we eat and drink, a basic act of celebration, we rejoice that Christ is coming back, and indeed His coming and kingdom is already present in the Church because of the sacrifice He made.

In fact, what is really happening here is the pre-enactment (rather than reenactment) of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb3, the time when all the redeemed will rejoice and celebrate the return of the Bridegroom for His bride. And if this is the meaning of eating and drinking together as the body of Christ, eagerly awaiting His coming, then we do well to do it often, that we may be sustained in hope and always reminded of our mission and purpose in light of His imminent return.

One Body, One Body

The final major aspect of Communion is the unity of the Church. As we all find ourselves nourished by the one body of Jesus Christ given for us, we are all bound together as His one body in the world. The simplest place to go for this theme is 1 Corinthians 10:14-21. In these verses Paul rebukes some of the Corinthians for participating in feasts to idols, and he does so in contrast with the Lord’s Supper. What he says is revealing:

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I am speaking as to wise people. Judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we give thanks for, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread. Look at the people of Israel. Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in what is offered on the altar? What am I saying then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but I do say that what they sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to participate with demons! You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot share in the Lord’s table and the table of demons. 

Here Paul teaches clearly that the one bread and one cup we share, sharing in the same body and blood of the same Lord Jesus Christ, bind us together as a single body. It is not called “Communion” for nothing. In Communion we both commune with God through Jesus Christ, and we commune with each other through Jesus Christ. We are made into one body through one Supper.

This is, in fact, is half of the sacramental unity of the Church. All of us who perform baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one Church, bound together by union with Christ. When we participate in these acts, all divisions crumble. Nothing makes one baptized man better than another, nor does anyone do anything more than simply receive God’s gift in Communion. They are greatly equalizers and unifiers. When we share a meal, the Lord’s meal, we become the community of Christ. Is it not usually the case that eating with someone draws you closer to them? Indeed it is, and even more so when what you eat and drink is provided by God to enjoy His Son through His Spirit.

Of course, is Communion is at all about unity, we must do it every time we meet together, for that unity is the basic foundation of meeting together at all. Can two walk together unless they be agreed? By no means! When we gather, then, we must gather in not only the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, and prayer, but also in the breaking of bread. Only in this way will we be fitted together as a whole body, of whom Christ is the head.

Conclusion

This has already gone on way longer than I intended. Hopefully I’ve made my point. I believe weekly Communion is Biblical and essential to healthy church life. I hope at least someone is persuaded of this as well. I’ll end with this early Christian prayer:

We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David your servant, which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be the glory forever.
We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be the glory forever.
Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. To you is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.

In Support of Weekly Communion — Part 1

Unlike most of my Baptist brethren, I believe in having Communion every week. Moreover, I do not merely think it is a good idea. I think it is an essential one. But most of my fellow Baptists have never done this, or seen any reason to, or really ever considered why it is only done rarely (quarterly in most Baptist churches I’ve seen). And all of this applies not only to Baptists, but to their wild Pentecostal cousins and the homeless non-denominationals. Weekly Communion is, I suggest, a vital part of what church should be. Without further ado, I’ll move into why.

Reasons from the Bible

The first relevant text—not counting those when Jesus instituted the Supper before He died, since He said nothing about when, where, or how to observe it then—is Acts 2:42. This is basically the first description of the New Testament Church. After the initial conversion of 3000 people, they become a new community marked by four things. Here’s the verse:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers.

Three of these are obvious elements of true church. The teaching of the apostles, Christian fellowship, and prayers certain define and shape what meeting together as a church involves. But what of “the breaking of bread?” What is this about? While some people argue that it is merely a reference to eating together (and it may involve that), traditionally it has been understood as referring to, or at least including (cf. the NLT), the Lord’s Supper. Calvin, for example, comments this:

My reason why I would rather have breaking of bread to be understood of the Lord’s Supper in this place is this, because Luke doth reckon up those things wherein the public estate of the Church is contained. Yea, he expresseth in this place four marks whereby the true and natural face of the Church may be judged. Do we then seek the true Church of Christ? The image thereof is lively depainted and set forth unto us in this place.

In Calvin’s view, “breaking of bread” is a defining element of the true Church and probably what Luke was talking about here. Whenever the Church came together, they participated in all that defines the Church, which includes Communion. 

In addition to 2:42, Acts 20:7 also refers to a church service in which Paul is preaching, but specifies that they “came together to break bread.” If breaking bread is indeed meant to be a Communion reference, as seems likely and was historically believed, then this again suggests Communion is a key part of why churches are to meet at all.

More Biblical reason comes from 1 Corinthians 11. In verses 17-34, Paul gives instructions about the Lord’s Supper. Interestingly, if you pay attention you’ll notice that he seems to assume they do this all the time, and in fact every time that they come together as a church. Pay close attention to 18-20:

For to begin with, I hear that when you come together as a church there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. There must, indeed, be factions among you, so that those who are approved may be recognized among you. Therefore, when you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper.

In this passage, Paul speaks of their meeting together as a church, and then rebukes them because they don’t really come to eat the Lord’s Supper! Surely this implies that, when a church comes together, in at least part it should actually be to eat the Supper. This reinforces the “came together to break bread” from Acts 20:7.

Until Next Time

I was originally going to make this all one post, but it turned out to be almost 2000 words, twice the suggested length for reader attention. So I’m splitting it here. The next post will look at the theological rationale for the Biblical practice of weekly Communion. Why should it be done? That’s the question I’ll seek to answer.

Pizza Hut, Suffering, Resurrection, Fasting, and the Flesh

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 

Philippians 3:10-11

Suffering and Resurrection

In my studies recently, I have come more and more to see suffering as key to the broad concept of salvation. Don’t get me wrong; right off the bat I want to point out that I don’t think suffering is some kind of requirement to be saved, or believe in something like “justification by suffering” rather than by Christ. But what I have seen is a basic order and connection being a major theme: suffering and vindication, death and resurrection.

What do I mean? Throughout Scripture, one of the ongoing realities is the suffering of God’s people at the hands of enemies, and His promise to both save them and vindicate them, prove that they were in the right, against their enemies. This can be mostly clearly seen first in the Exodus. God sees His people suffering under Egyptian oppression, declares that He is their God and they are His people, and proceeds to rescue and vindicate them. This continues to be the pattern as Israel faces many other enemies, especially those who taunt them and boast. In the Psalms there are repeated prayers for God to alleviate suffering and prove the righteousness of His people or His chosen king. This theme is also present very much in the prophets, especially Isaiah, though certainly in all the rest as well.

In between the Old and New Testaments, the theme of martyrdom in this regard grew especially strong. The Maccabean revolt etched into the Jewish worldview the importance of individuals who heroically suffered for God, even unto death, in the hope of future vindication and even resurrection. This set the context well for Jesus, who completely fulfilled this ideal of suffering and vindication in His own personal, physical death and resurrection, as the Scripture says:

He humbled Himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death —
even to death on a cross.
For this reason God highly exalted Him
and gave Him the name
that is above every name.

Philippians 2:8-9

And as well:

Therefore I will give Him the many as a portion, and He will receive the mighty as spoil, because He submitted Himself to death, and was counted among the rebels; yet He bore the sin of many and interceded for the rebels. 

Isaiah 53:12

I could produce a host of other texts, but that shouldn’t really be necessary. God has always saved His people as they patiently endure suffering, and ultimately proves them right over and against their enemies. The final climax of this is resurrection to undo the suffering and shame of death, a fate which so far only Christ has experienced in fullness.

This last part is the key. Jesus in His own self summed up the redemptive motion that God had been up to with His people since the beginning: He suffered, He died, and He rose to new life. We have been saved by Christ’s fulfillment of this dynamic between God, His people, and the world.

The significance of that for our own lives in particular is the realization of how Scripture connects these things to Christians. Just as Christ suffered, those who are in Christ are expected to suffer1. Yet this suffering is not seen as simply an isolated kind of event, a problem that will happen to us with no inherent meaning or significance. Our sufferings are directly connected to the suffering Christ experienced. His death is our death, and our sufferings are His. This means that the same end that Jesus experienced after His suffering—public vindication and physical resurrection—will also be applied to us through the Holy Spirit2.

I’ll step back and sum up the idea. We are saved through Christ’s suffering and vindication, His death and resurrection. We are united to Christ by the Holy Spirit. Therefore our sufferings as Christians assure us that we are involved in His life, His saving life, and so our story will end in the same way as His: new life and eternal glory. Moreover, our sufferings can produce fruit in us of Christ’s resurrection life here and now, not just on the last Day.

Suffering and the Flesh

I want to look at that last statement a bit more. First Peter 4:1-2 say this of suffering:

Therefore, since Christ suffered in the flesh, equip yourselves also with the same resolve — because the one who suffered in the flesh has finished with sin — in order to live the remaining time in the flesh, no longer for human desires, but for God’s will.

What does this mean? Does suffering sanctify, and if so how? Why does it say that the one who has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin? The answer to these questions, I believe, lies in a proper understanding of the “flesh.” Contra the NIV, “flesh” should not simply be taken as “sinful nature.” The flesh appears to be, Biblically speaking, a reference to the merely natural aspect of human nature and existence, the part of human life which is not truly distinguishable from animal life. The one who lives according to the flesh lets natural desires run his life: the drives for sex, food, survival, security, etc. None of these things are evil things, but when the desires for them are unchecked by anything higher than mere man, they run rampant and destroy. Yet “flesh” in this sense can also be used more neutrally. Jesus being descended from David according to the flesh merely means that David is His ancestor from a natural, physical point of view.

I think that it should not take much detailed explanation and defense to show how this makes sense of the use of “flesh” in Scripture. So if we tie that the concept of suffering for Christ, it is not difficult to see how suffering kills sins. When we share in Christ’s sufferings, we learn from experience to deny the desires of the flesh, and indeed the more you actually suffer and deny the flesh, the more you become able to do so, just as is the case with all learned behaviors. When we learn to deny the flesh by our sufferings for Christ, we find that we are more inclined to seek satisfaction in Him than to fulfill our natural desires. We become liberated from the constant compulsions to satisfy our desires for food, sex, security, and survival which so inhibit our abandoned pursuit of Christ as we continue to deny these desires in suffering for His sake.

Suffering and Fasting

This brings me to the most recent realization in conjunction with these themes. See, not all of us experience Christian suffering. Most of us do suffer at some time or another, death or sickness or poverty or broken hearts. Yet few of us suffer for Christ, voluntarily accepting suffering precisely because of our commitment to Him. Instead of by choice for God, we suffer by external factors which we try to escape or mitigate. This kind of suffering, while empathetic and in need of grace, is not the suffering that trains us to kill sin. But this is something of a blessing. We do not suffer for Christ because we have a degree of religious liberty, and are allowed to worship as we please. So we are free to pursue holiness and share the Gospel. On the other hand, we miss out on something, because God gives His people blessings through suffering3.

So what? Are we forced to miss out on these blessings as long as live in a safe place for Christians? By no means! For if indeed suffering for Christ sanctifies us by training us to deny the desires of the flesh, there is another way to experience these same benefits. This can be done by a discipline taught and practiced by Christ, used widely in the Church’s past, but mostly neglected today. What is this? Why, fasting, of course. 

See, fasting makes it possible to deny the flesh and seek Christ in a very tangible, voluntary, and powerful way. When we fast, we make a commitment that binds us for a time, pressing us to neglect our natural desires (particularly food, which is easily the most powerful) so that we might instead devote ourselves to prayer, Scripture, and love. When we do this regularly, we develop the habit, enriched and sanctified by the Spirit through these devotions, of denying self for Christ’s sake. This is, in fact, what Christ Himself did to prepare for His ministry. In order to maintain His strength, resist all distracting temptations, and train for the hardships of His ministry which would climax in death on a cross, He spent 40 entire days fasting. No food for over a month, denying His natural desires, His flesh, for the sake strengthening His resolve in the Spirit. This was the very first thing the Spirit led Him to do after His baptism, and the foundation of all He would do later. If He could actually dedicate Himself to God for 40 days without food—if He could push through that kind of intense hunger and desire—then He could withstand anything else He would need to do, even be crucified.

Following this pattern that Jesus Himself set down is exactly what we need. When we fast, we participate in Jesus’ life and death, His saving sufferings, and by this we kill the power of sin in our lives by the Holy Spirit. When we fast, we experience in part the benefits of godly, Christian suffering. Fasting is a powerful and necessary part of our spiritual disciplines by which we grow in Christ through the Spirit, alongside prayer and Scripture.

Oh, and Pizza Hut

I should add one more thought to this before I finish. See, while fasting is criminally neglected among modern church practice, it’s not altogether absent. It still does happen. Yet even when it does, I’ve noticed that it is rarely the traditional practice of abstaining from eating, or even any other basic human desire. I see people fast Facebook, sweets, sodas, Twitter, or sometimes even the entire Internet. These are useful and sometimes necessary fasts which can benefit our spiritual health. But I get the uneasy feeling from the sheer flood of these kinds of fasts that the full fasting of food has become a rarity, and that this is because in the American church we, well, have an idolatrous love of food. We are widely and deeply guilty of the sin of gluttony.

I believe this applies to most of you reading this, along with myself. We love food too much. We let it drive and control us. There’s a reason I often crave a Pizza Hut buffet, and every time I go I eat more by myself than many families get for a whole day around the world. There’s a reason that I cringe, fear, and delay when I think about fasting food. I am an idolatrous glutton, and for that I repent and impose upon myself a fast that I might learn to deny the flesh for Christ. Yet I am not alone, and I can only pray that more of us will gather the conviction to crucify our natural desires, even the desire for food, that we may be freed for holiness.

In fact, that last sentence is pretty much the whole point of this post. So with that I’ll end with a good quote:

Fasting is wonderful, because it tramples our sins like a dirty weed, while it cultivates and raises truth like a flower.

St. Basil the Great