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The Marks of a Christian

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did. (1 John 2:1-6)

What John says here suggests to me that there are at least three marks of a Christian. John is a realist. He recognizes Christians are not perfect, just forgiven. Thus, he also recognizes that Christians are not complete. In this life, we are always in process. Therefore, as we look at the marks of the Christian life we must always remember that these marks are signs that are beginning to appear in the life of every Christian. These marks are not full blown, and will not be evident in their full glory, until the day we stand before Jesus and he makes us whole in his presence.


With these thoughts in mind, let us look at the marks of the Christian life that John presents to us here. First, a Christian is one who is beginning to know who Christ is.


John tells us a few important things here that we can know about Christ. First off, Christ is the one who speaks to the Father in our defense. The Greek word used here is παρακλητον. We saw this word used in John’s Gospel in reference to the Holy Spirit. It means, literally, “one who is called to come alongside”. Jesus is our advocate before the Father, our helper, and our counselor. 


Therefore, what John is saying, is that if we sin (it really should be when we sin; John knows we are going to sin but he does not want to encourage it) when we sin we have an advocate before the Father; we have one who speaks in our defense. That advocate is Jesus. Jesus does not condemn us. He does not despise us. He does not reject us, even in our sin. No, he opens the way for us to the Father; he heals and restores. That is who Jesus is: healer, restorer, helper, advocate, counselor, and comforter. Jesus is the one who comes alongside of us, even in our sin; he puts his arm around each one of us and says: “Here, let me help you.”


Think about what Jesus’ name means. His name does not mean “Yahweh hates us” or “Yahweh condemns us” or “Yahweh rejects us”. Jesus’ name means “Yahweh saves”. Our God is always the One who saves, restores and heals.


Christ means Messiah, anointed one. Among the Jews, three people, especially, received anointing: prophets, priests and kings. Jesus is our great prophet speaking to our needs. He is our high priest, interceding for us and sacrificing himself for us. Jesus is our benevolent king: always loving, always caring, always guiding, and always providing for us.


Jesus is also “the Righteous One”. Back when I was growing up, in the days of the Jesus movement, in the days of the hippies, people used to say: “That’s righteous!” or: “He’s righteous!” or: “She’s righteous.” To call someone or something “righteous” was a complement like saying it, or she, or he, was right on! I think we need to recover that sense of “righteous”. 


These days we tend to think of “righteousness” only in terms of someone who is self-righteous, sanctimonious, or holier-than-thou. Jesus was none of these things. With whom did he spend his time? Jesus was famous for hanging out with sinners, with prostitutes, with tax collectors, with all the people that the religious leaders did not want to have anything to do with. In his righteousness, Jesus did not separate himself from people in need. Rather, he identified with them. He loved them. Furthermore, Jesus still loves people who recognize their need and he wants to show us the right way of living. I believe that is what we should think of when we think of the righteousness of Jesus. He was right on! If we want to know what righteousness is, then we look at Jesus. He is the definition of it. His picture should be next to the word in the dictionary.


Do we know this Jesus of whom John speaks? Are we, at least, beginning to know him? 


As William Barclay explains, in the ancient world, there were three different pathways delineated for knowing God. The great Greek philosophers, like Plato and Socrates, thought they could arrive at knowledge of God by reason alone. The later Greeks, around the time of the events recorded in the New Testament, believed they could come to knowledge of God through emotional experience. Greek drama sought to produce a cathartic experience, an experience of cleansing and healing, but primarily emotional. Then there were the Jews, who believed that human beings receive knowledge of God not primarily through reason, nor through emotion, but rather through revelation. In a sense, knowing God really involves all three of these things. Ultimately, we cannot know God unless he reveals himself to us. Christianity claims that God has revealed himself supremely in Jesus of Nazareth, and because God has revealed himself in Jesus we can come to know him in a way that involves our reasoning powers, our emotions, and our will—more on the last point in a few moments.


However, again, the question is: do we know Jesus, or do we just know about him? Is our knowledge personal? Is it relational, or is it just a thing of the mind?


George Mallory was an English mountaineer who took part in the first three British expeditions to Mount Everest in the early 1920s. Mallory and his climbing partner both disappeared somewhere high on the northeast ridge during their attempt to make the first ascent of the world’s highest mountain.


Before his disappearance, someone asked Mallory, “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?”


His famous answer was, “Because it is there.” 


On another occasion Mallory expanded his answer. He said,


If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds

to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life.


In a letter to his wife, Ruth, Mallory revealed even more about what drove him to climb the mountain. “Dearest,” he wrote, “You must know that the spur to do my best is you and you again…. I want more than anything to prove worthy of you.”

However, though George Mallory became famous for his achievements, his son John had a different perspective. Proud of his father but sad too, John Mallory later wrote, “I would so much rather have known my father than to have grown up in the shadow of a legend, a hero, as some people perceive him to be.”[1]

I wonder, do we know Jesus merely as some distant legend, or do we know him personally and intimately? Jesus longs for us to know him, and to know his heavenly Father, not as some distant, famous person, but as a close and loving parent. A Christian is one who is at least beginning to know Christ in this way.


Second, a Christian is one who is beginning to trust what Christ has done.


The main thing John tells us that Christ has done for us is that: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”


The goal of most religions is for human beings to know God, to have fellowship with God. However, there is something in the way; it blocks our access to God. The Bible calls that impediment “sin”. In ancient times, every Jew learned from an early age that fellowship with God was restored through sacrifice. 


The word that is used here, that is translated as “atoning sacrifice”, is ιλασμος. The word can mean “to pacify the wrath of God”.  It can also refer to God’s forgiveness. Thirdly, the word may refer to some deed that is performed by which guilt, the taint of sin, is removed. C. H. Dodd said that we need to be “disinfected” from our sins so that we can enter into the presence of our holy God. John is probably bringing all these meanings together when he says that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.


Paul uses a form of this same word in Romans 3:25 when he says that God presented Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement. The word as Paul uses it is the same word that is used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures for “mercy seat”. The mercy seat was the place on top of the Ark of the Covenant, between the golden carved wings of the cherubim, where the High Priest sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. Paul is telling us, and I think John is saying the same thing, that Jesus is our mercy seat. Jesus is the place where we find atonement, at-one-ment with God. Jesus is the place where our sins are covered.


William Barclay says, “Jesus is the person through whom guilt for past sin and defilement from present sin are removed. The great basic truth behind this word is that it is through Jesus Christ that man’s fellowship with God is first restored and then maintained.”


John was probably writing, at least in part, to Jewish Christians, who were tempted to think that Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, was the sacrifice for their sins and theirs alone. John quickly corrects any such notion. He says, “No, Jesus is not simply the sacrifice for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world, not just for Jews, but for everyone.” Everyone is included.


When I was in high school, I taught a fifth-grade Sunday school class. On one particular Sunday we were talking about the death of Jesus and how, at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, the curtain in the Temple that divided the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies was torn in two from top to bottom.


Immediately, one of my fifth grade boys shot up his hand. He said, “Do you know why the curtain was torn from top to bottom?”


I said, “No, why?”


This ten-year-old boy replied, “Because God did it. Only God could have reached high enough to tear the curtain in the Temple from top to bottom.”


I said, “You are absolutely right!”


My ten-year-old Sunday school student understood the truth that Bible commentator David Jackman expresses so well:


The thick veil, or curtain, which separated the worshipper from the holiest place of all, which only the High Priest was allowed to enter once a year on the Day of Atonement, was torn in two, from top to bottom, by the hand of God, not man. It is as though God was saying to the whole world of sinners, “You may come in now.”


John says that the Christian is one who is at least beginning to trust in what Jesus has done to open the way for human beings to enter into God’s presence.


Finally, John tells us, a Christian is one who is beginning to walk as Christ walked.


How do we know that we know Jesus? John says that we can know that we know Jesus if we obey his commands. Knowledge of Jesus involves our minds, it involves our emotions, our hearts, but it also involves our will, it involves actions. Anyone who says that he or she knows Jesus, but who does not do what Jesus commands, is, according to John, a liar. However, if we do obey Jesus then God’s love is made complete in us. This is how we know we are in Jesus (those two words, in Jesus, provide a wonderful way of describing an intimate relationship with Christ): we can know we are in Jesus if we will begin to walk as Jesus walked.


How did Jesus walk? What are his commands?


According to Matthew 22:36-40, a Pharisee once asked Jesus,


“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘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 neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”


That is how Jesus walked. That is how he lived his life: Loving God the Father with all his heart, soul and mind, and loving his neighbor as himself. That is how Jesus lived and that is how he wants us to live. Love is the sum and substance of his commands.


Author and speaker Brennan Manning has an amazing story about how he got the name “Brennan”. While growing up, Manning’s best friend was another young man named Ray. The two of them did everything together. They bought a car together as teenagers, they double-dated together, and they went to school together. The two young men even enlisted in the Army together; they went to boot camp together and fought on the frontlines together. One night while sitting in a foxhole, Manning was reminiscing about the old days in Brooklyn while Ray listened and ate a chocolate bar. Suddenly a live grenade came into the foxhole. Ray looked at Manning, smiled, dropped his chocolate bar and threw himself on the live grenade. The grenade exploded, killing Ray, but Manning lived.


When Manning became a priest, his teachers instructed him to take on the name of a saint. He thought of his friend, Ray Brennan. Therefore, Manning took on the name “Brennan”. 


Years later, Manning went to visit Ray’s mother in Brooklyn. They sat up late one night having tea when Manning asked her, “Do you think Ray loved me?”


Mrs. Brennan got up off the couch, shook her finger in front of Manning’s face and shouted, “What more could he have done for you?” 


Manning said that at that moment he experienced an epiphany. He imagined himself standing before the cross of Jesus wondering, “Does God really love me?” and Jesus’ mother Mary pointing to her son, saying, “What more could he have done for you?”


On the cross, Jesus did all he could do to show his love for us. Still, we often wonder, “Does God really love me? Am I important to God? Does God care about me?” All we have to do is look to the cross to see God’s answer, God’s great “Yes, I love you!”[2]

[1] Zack Eswine, Sensing Jesus (Crossway, 2012), pp. 62-63.

[2] Lee Eclov, Vernon Hills, Illinois; source: adapted from James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God (IVP, 2009), p. 142


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