…these things we write, so that our joy may be made complete.
– 1John 1:4
I always (well, as a low-level hoarder I should say sometimes) like to ask the question: do I really need this? What is cake, and what is frosting? Here I’m asking the question in a church context: Do I really need brothers and sisters in Christ? I have Jesus, at the end of the day, aren’t other believers just icing on my spiritual cake? John wrote his first epistle not just for the sake of those to whom he was writing, but in order that the effect of the letter would grant to him a kind of joy he could only find in other believers: “These things we write that our joy may be made complete.”
Perhaps that sounds odd. I’ve labored in three parts prior to this to set forth some groundwork. The two propositions that have been laid forth so far are these:
But 1John 1:4 isn’t strictly about union or love. They are the foundation upon which John is building his case for a completed joy. So our third proposition, buttressed by the other two, is this:
Joy in Jesus can never be divorced from joy in my brother.
To begin with, let me show you how this mindset expressed itself in the writings of Paul.
But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you––I, Paul, again and again––but Satan hindered us. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.
Here Paul asks a question which in his mind is rhetorical – the answer is a given. He answers it anyway, and I’m actually glad he did, because I’d probably get it wrong if he didn’t. “What is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming?” What is our hope and joy and crown? Simple. Jesus is, duh! Our joy is the gospel, it’s the love of God. Our boast? Easy: “If any man boast, let him boast in this that he knows and understands me, I am the Lord!” That’s straight up from the text – so that’s a slam dunk.
Paul, what is your hope? “Is it not you, Thessalonian brothers?” What is your glory, Paul? Is it not salvation in Christ? Yes – except that’s not the answer he gives here. He says, “Is it not you?” What is your joy, Paul? “You are our joy.” Is it not Jesus? Yes, of course in the ultimate sense it is, but that’s still not what he says. “You are our glory and joy.”
Then into chapter 3 Paul begins to talk about how he sent Timothy up to Thessalonica to help ground and establish this young church so they wouldn’t be carried off course and abandon the gospel. There were no cell-phones and no texting and no Facebook, and you get the feeling from v.1-5 that Paul is nervous and agitated and worried about the church there. He says in v.1, “we could bear it no longer,” and in v.5, “I could bear it no longer.”
The great apostle who admonished us to be anxious for nothing was almost driven out of his mind by what he calls in another place, “concern for the churches,” specifically here the church he loved so much in Thessalonica. So what does Paul do when he can’t stand not knowing how the church is doing? “I sent to learn about your faith.”
In v.6 Timothy comes back and Paul says that he “has brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always think (and here I would sound really spiritual and write “you always think highly of Jesus,” but Paul doesn’t think like me, to my shame) [you always think] kindly of us, longing to see (and again, how about “longing to see Jesus??) [longing to see] us just as we also long to see you, for this reason, brethren, in all our distress and affliction we were comforted about you through your faith; for now we live, (here’s another great setup… now we live because of Jesus!) [now we live] if you stand firm in the Lord.”
The negative of “now we live if you stand firm in the Lord sounds something like this: “If you are not standing firm in the Lord, we would die.”
Paul’s life was hard. It was painful. And he says as much in v.7 in the words, “distress and affliction.” But hearing of the faith of the Thessalonian church brought “comfort.” Paul, it seems, found “life” in the life of the Thessalonians. They were, 2:20, “his joy.” Pastor Eric Anderson has a phrase he uses to refer to those times believers spend together that are centered on the encouragement of the gospel – he calls them “life giving.” And that’s a good phrase, and I think it’s one that Paul would use to speak of his relationship with the Thessalonian believers.
Paul tells Timothy in 2Tim. 1:4 that He is “longing to see you, even as I recall your tears, so that I may be filled with joy.” Some really spiritual person is going to say, come on, Paul, isn’t Jesus enough? Don’t you have full joy in Jesus? And I think to that Paul would say, “My joy in Jesus is inseparable from my joy in my brothers. I have joy in my brothers because of my joy in Jesus, and I have joy in Jesus because of the joy I have in my brothers.”
And it’s that same heart that beats in the breast of John as he writes, “These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete.” John’s joy remains incomplete so long as those he’s writing to are unstable in the gospel.
I graduated from college two states away and almost 15 years ago now, and once in a while I’ll get a wild hair and jump on Google or Shelly’s Facebook and try to track down a friend from those days, and it brings me pain when I find they’ve walked away from the faith; I have no fellowship with them anymore. But oh the sweet joy to find that they’re still standing firm in the gospel, they’re serving Jesus, they’re growing, and our relationship picks up as though hardly a day had passed by, and it lifts my heart and encourages me, because I’ve worried about them, I’ve wondered if they’ve proven true to the faith thus far, and there’s a tremendous joy to find that we still have sweet fellowship in Christ.
John’s heart is a heart that can never rest easy, can never be fully happy, until those little ones in Christ enter into the sweetness of fellowship with him. Or, as he would say in his third letter, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in the truth.” No greater joy? The joy accompanying this news apparently rivals the joy of heaven, the joy of being a child of God. In fact, they must be interconnected for John to say something like this.
Children walking in truth are children with whom John has fellowship, and thus provide him a “complete” joy. Children who aren’t walking in truth render agonizing pain – like the pain of childbirth (Gal. 4:19) until Christ be formed in them, when they are changed into our glory and our joy.
Here then are some final thoughts by way of what the Puritans might call “uses.”
First, resist the temptation to find a church identity in anything but union, love, and joy for Jesus and each other. We mentioned this before, let me just reiterate it. We live in a day in church history when the term “target audience” is being used. Churches have a primary identity as being a hip church, a diverse church, a contemporary church, a right-wing church, a progressive church, and on and on and on.
In some ways, identifications like this might be almost impossible to avoid if not inevitable. But as much as lies within you, strive to make the primary point of your unity your union in Jesus, rather than union in ideology, demographic, or lifestyle. All those things must be forced into the backdrop, because if we don’t consciously put forth Christ and put behind us all those other things, we can never really appreciate the fullness of the blessing of being first and foremost in union with each other because we are first and foremost in union with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” I can think of so many instances where people, myself included, have thought “people will know I’m a Christian because I’m so happy.” That may be true enough, but happiness isn’t what Jesus said would mark His disciples. The mark of a true church isn’t a happy church, though that’s all well and good, but the mark of a gathering of Jesus’ disciples is a group of people loving each other at a net loss. One of the first activities we see in the church in Acts is a radical thing like selling property and giving all the money to the poor in the church. Maybe we could explain that away as not normative, but what you can’t deny is that it’s without a doubt “loving at a net loss.”
Second, resist the continual temptation that all of us face to think we can do the Christian life without each other. You need each other. The members of the body are necessary. The Christian walk is not a solo proposition. It’s okay to need help, God knows you would, and that’s why He put you in union with other believers. And it’s necessary that you help others, however you have been equipped to do so. All are not preachers, but there are times when someone needs a different kind of ministry: they need to be encouraged; they need an ear to listen to them; they need groceries to feed the kids or the oil changed on the minivan. If the Christian life is life, then not a day goes by when we don’t need each other in some way, and that means you, believer, have a responsibility to minister to those you are in union with. There is no divorcing the church Monday-Saturday any more than you can divorce Jesus those six days.
Finally, give and get joy from each other. This is the wonder of fellowship. One may pray alone, sing alone, and even hear preaching alone. But you and I can’t have complete joy alone. The only part of a church worship service that can’t be reproduced by technology and enjoyed in private are the other people required for fellowship and complete joy. Make your gatherings of worship and service together a deep well of joy from which all may drink freely. Don’t settle for cheap joy. Oh, enjoy the common grace of God and the happiness that comes from living in a beautiful neighborhood with fun activities. I’m not suggesting that we become so spiritual we look down our noses at a good time fishing or shopping or even time spent alone in prayer and meditation on the things of God, but I am saying that there is a deep joy that can only come from our union with Christ and with each other and our love for Christ and for each other that dwarfs anything this world has to offer. Create joy for others, that’s what John was essentially asking, that’s what Paul asks in Philippians 2 – “make my joy complete!” so create joy for others, and get your fill of completing joy from them as well.