Since January, the teacher of a class I attend challenged all of the attenders to memorize the entire book of 1 John, two verses a week.
A small group of 5 coalesced in sort of a random way, whose collective plans morphed into corporate challenge and accountability for accomplishing the memory work. Somehow I was included in this five.
We’ve been meeting every Saturday morning to recite to each other.
Have you ever read 1 John?
There are about 2000 times that John repeats some form of the following phrase: “and by this you may come to know you know him”. Okay maybe not 2000. At least 20000 times he contrasts dark and light, and walking in it or not, and sinning or not, abiding, overcoming . Okay maybe not 20000, but enough so that at a little more than 1/3 of the way and I can’t for the life of me remember which version of which phrase goes where!
Remember when I wrote about the piano lessons last week? Okay so maybe, I don’t practice like I should.
But as it turns out I am the worse at memorizing, for a bunch of reasons, part of it being I don’t do much of that anymore. My memorization skills are lax. I am only slightly mollified that the other four, who are excellent at the recitations, complain about how hard this particular book has been to commit to memory. Compounding all of this is that the translation that we were told to use, the English Standard Version, is said to be stilted without much rhythm or easy flow of language.
Doesn’t sound all that much fun yet, does it?
So let’s think about this for a minute. 1 John was a letter written around 90 AD. The letter was news worthy because it was addressing something very ‘current events’ for the time. It was meant to be passed around and sent to other cities. (Remember there were no news papers or social media venues. That doesn’t mean that people were less intent upon hearing or knowing what was going on.)
If you think that religion is a topic of news and conversation these days, believe me, it certainly was late in the first century. Which is why John wrote 1 John and probably Revelation. (It’s less clear if this was the Apostle John although Christian tradition holds this view.)
The Middle east was a cauldron of religious fervor during the first century. As much as Islam is part of our world view today, Mohammed would not come on the scene until roughly 400 years later, so Islam was not part of the religious discussion at that time.
But the pantheon of Greek gods were.
And so where the Jews and their belief system that insisted there was only one God who was not the sun nor Thor. Dispersed all over the Roman empire as they were, the Jews built synagogues and businesses wherever they lived, influencing the culture as they attempted adherence to a multitude of old testament laws that included everything from not working on the Sabbath to kosher foods.
On the other hand, not very much was required of Roman religious adherents in the way of moral behavior, as long as you saw the Emperor as God and prayed to Jupiter and Mars so you could curry favor and prosper.
Buddhism had spread to the Roman empire and must have had some influence, offering a non-theist (other than Buddha himself) ‘right way of living’ philosophy as well as the belief in reincarnation.
In the middle of all of this, out of the middle of nowhere, a nobody Jewish carpenter came on the scene.
About the age of 30, he started publicly talking (you can voice your opinions/ideas today through social media but back then you went to a public place and spoke). Jesus amassed a huge following.
This back water carpenter knew the old testament books by heart, could logic with the most scholarly members of any local synagogue, and yet had a radically different take on what the old testament was saying. This put him at odds with his own people. He claimed he was the son of God, performed miracles, went through a series of court systems, was found guiltless of everything but claiming to be God and sentenced to death anyway. It was then being reported that he arose from the dead, appearing to multitudes until some days later, he ascended to Heaven.
Not very long after Jesus was crucified, written eye witnesses to the events of this Jesus were being disseminated.
As a a matter of fact, the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke were reports of Jesus. They were written in a way that the reader or listener could locate where the events happened. They wrote them with references to eye witnesses that could be contacted.
Even if you aren’t a Christian, you have to be a little bit enamored with this story. It’s quite incredible. The point of all those facts is to try and get you to think in context about how you feel about various religious thinking now and what happened back then. People back then were trying to understand and get the truth. Just like today. There was a great deal of conversation about being tolerant and accepting of all views of religious practice just like there is now and there were a lot of people who wanted to take truths and put their own spin on things. Sometimes so they could make better sense. Sometime for selfish reasons. Just like now.
So old man John, writing in Turkey, with at least the very strange book of Revelation on paper (or more properly scroll) or a least in his mind, writes 1 John because of all that turmoil I described above. None of the debates were about whether Jesus was married or did he have a child, but were still centered on his own claims, that he was God. People weren’t denying his presence, his miracles, or his influence. At least a good portion of the people throughout the Roman empire were trying to understand the conundrum that he was a man that had lived and done supernatural things. They had nothing else to compare him to. He wasn’t like Caesar who wanted to be counted God for political reasons. He wasn’t a statue someone placed over their door jam and he certainly wasn’t a faceless, bodiless god like Zeus or Mars.
John was trying to address the explanations that were being banded about concerning Christ, so he wrote the epistle of 1 John. He was trying to right wrong thinking. He was trying to get back to the purity of what Christ had said and meant and what Christ had promised. He wasn’t adding to so that he could command a following, he wasn’t pandering to what people wanted to hear, and he wasn’t making stuff up so that he could say he had a revelation of his own.
There is value in getting something perfectly right.
As I get older and less able to remember, I think that John could have made it easier on us to not be so repetitive, among other things.
Probably what I ought to be thinking is that no matter what your age or ability, doing something exactly right has value, especially when it is something true. It keeps you on the right track, or as John would have it, “and by this we may know we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.”
And how very cool is it to be memorizing a current event from 2000 years ago that set the known world on edge and promised what life after this was really like!
I’m going to try harder.