Deeply Simple Theology

"God is Love." 1 John 4:8

The easiest Greek in the Bible is 1 John. Any new student first taking the language will likely be directed to this little book. Readers Digest has something called a “Fog Index.” I don’t recall the specifics but you count the number of lines in a paragraph, the number of words in each sentence, the number of words that have more than three syllables, or something like that, and you end up with a number slightly corresponding to the grade level reading for your target audience. Use a lot of long sentences, long words and you risk becoming pretty foggy.

Readers Digest aims for 8. I did the same test on the Greek language of John and came up with 8. John wanted to be readable. He wanted everyone to understand. The most mysterious event in the history of the world, the most staggering concepts anyone ever dealt with, and John wanted to clarify rather than confuse.

That’s why you have rather simple and somewhat repeatable statements in John. ‘The eternal life was made manifest to us,” is John’s way of saying “we saw God.” He clarifies it by adding, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched.  . . . We saw Him” (1:2). You can’t be much more straightforward than that.

John also has simple and memorable sayings about forgiveness, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1:9). Forgiveness, according to John, is not esoteric and obtuse. If you sin, ask forgiveness. God takes care of the rest.

Also John was pretty straightforward about sin itself. “If you say you have no sin, you’re deceiving yourself, and the truth is not in you” (1:7). Questions?

How about the manner in which we should live? Don’t we  need a fairly good size booklet with a study guide to pin down all the ways to be a Christian? Not according to John. “He who abides in Him ought also to walk the way He walked” (1:6). That was WWJD before we even had a W (that would come several centuries later).

Of course, love is the reigning theme in 1 John, and we should not be surprised that we find that simple phrase “God is love” twice in the letter (4:7, 16).

So we have a very simple book, studied by very confused Greek grammarians, who begin among its verses to tease out the simple meanings of what can be an extraordinary language. All students of Greek owe a great debt of gratitude to John who desired to communicate simply and succinctly.

But John did not always have this goal. Early in his life he could be quite a pain. He tended to see the world in typical ways for the day, that is, his race on the winning side, all other races ran a distant second. We have that rather embarrassing scene where an entire Samaritan village has declined Jesus’ offer to enter and John came up with a very practical solution: “Do you want us to call down fire from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:54).

This sounds kind of like the teacher’s pet trying to come up with the perfect answer. Jesus’ response? He rebuked them and turned away.

Then there was the time he came with his brother James and asked Jesus a rather uncomfortable question, “Can we have the seats at your right and left hand when you come back in glory?” (Mark 9: 37). This occurred near the end of Jesus’ life when the disciples had pretty much come to grips with the fact that He was not going to overthrow the Romans. This coming really did not satisfy John and James so they were already making plans for the next coming and assuming it would be more to their tastes.

So John was not always so simple, and we have the benefit of seeing his growth and maturity over a period of perhaps 50 years from the gospels to the letters. And what grace had wrought during those times! We don’t see any of the brashness. None of the competition with the other disciples, or trying to get ahead of the other disciples.

By that late stage of his life, John made a few basic decisions. Jesus was God. We were with Him. He taught us to love, forgive, get along with one another.

Hemingway wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are stronger in the broken places.” I think life broke John because he needed breaking. He needed to learn a few things, like depth comes from simplicity. So out of those grace-filled scars came some the most beautiful  and clear theology we find anywhere in the Bible.

That’s just the kind I need.


Terry Ellis

October 31