“…this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”
-1 John 1:1
“Light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings”
-Charles Wesley, “Hark! The Herald Angel Sings”
You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride
You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side…
…but you’re gonna have to serve somebody
-Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody”
*For this year’s Advent writings, I will be reflecting on 1 John 1:1–2 by going slowly, line-by-line, through each clause, in order to contemplate the beauty of Christ’s once and future coming
Christianity makes a strange and bold claim. Because of the arrival of Jesus Christ, those who follow him are demanded an unequivocal loyalty, a singular devotion. A Christian’s “yes” to Jesus implies a consequential avalanche of “no’s.” This is something Jesus said often in more ways than one, but it was not new at Jesus’ coming. Throughout the Old Testament, this same God reveled in Christ steadfastly demanded his people (Israel) to worship, serve, and obey no other gods, idols, or ideals. When Jesus demanded complete devotion, he was simply repeating what he has been saying to Israel all along: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).
The very next commandment prohibits carved images and idols, which allows God to expound upon his reasons: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:4). Later in this book, God commands the people saying, “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14). God actually says that one of his names is “jealous.”
Many have responded to concerns over this term, “jealous,” which might make God sounds like a needy boyfriend. But God’s jealousy is rooted in his love for his people, not an insecurity within himself. We human beings cannot imagine life without self consciousness, which is often why we assume God to have just a little bit of it. But God is the only being in the universe without any needs in order to remain ever-alive.
The Hebrew word for “jealous” has been defined as “a desire for exclusivity in relationship” (Dictionary of Biblical Languages). God desires to be our exclusive God. He even equates himself to a husband who would be rightly jealous for his lover’s affection (Jeremiah 3:1–2, c.f. the entire book of Hosea). In Deuteronomy alone, Moses warns his people twenty times to not serve “other gods” (examples include Deuteronomy 6:14, 7:4, 11:16, and 13:1–13). The prophets speak harshly to Israel in their adoration of gods other than Yahweh (Jeremiah 7:6–9, Hosea 3:1, Amos 2:4). No one would fault a husband or a wife who desired exclusivity. Why would we fault God?
And this is not only an Old Testament image of God. Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God of the Old Testament. They are one in the same, which is why Jesus makes such strong remarks of exclusive worship (Matthew 8:18–22, Luke 14:25–33). His logic is as follows: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say” (Luke 6:46)? Put another way: why give me the title and not behave like it?
The entire Biblical witness should cause us to wrestle with what Bonhoeffer so famously called “the cost of discipleship,” that is, what we will lose as we receive fellowship with Jesus Christ. There is “cheap grace” and there is “costly grace,” says Bonhoeffer. One requires nothing but a little attention here and there; the other requires our very life. What is it that Jesus is truly inviting us into? During Advent, we remember that Christ came as “the word of Life” (1 John 1:1). Jesus does not just provide life or know a lot of things about life, he in his very nature is the definition of life itself.
As a younger Christian, I believed this to be a very, very difficult teaching to swallow: how can God ask so much? But the more I reflect of the gospel — the vast riches of his grace in Jesus Christ — my question has changed. Instead of asking, “how can God ask so much?” I have begun to reflect and ask, “How could he ask any less?”
Look at the baby born in Bethlehem. This is God. The Triune Living God limiting himself to a fragile body. The Word of Life now unable to speak. The Creator becoming created. The Word now flesh. His life was not one of royalty, power, and privilege, but he instead had no home, no assets, no “career” or riches. He came lowly. He taught and was ignored, he healed without thanks, he gave without notice. And he was betrayed, killed, and stripped of his dignity. At his execution, he pronounced forgiveness to his killers and to a criminal beside him. How can God ask so much? Because God has given so much. God gives it all. Now he can ask for all.
When I experience this — the gracious gift of Christ — I am reminded that what looks like “exclusivity” is actually not exclusive at all. When we see true love, there really are no other options. Who of us, on our wedding day, thought through every woman or man we said “no” to instead of the partner to whom we were about to say “yes” to forever? (If you were, you probably had a rough wedding day). When love like this appears, there’s everything and nothing exclusive about it. When we see the true and living God in Christ and we place his work next to the gods of this world, they really look like nothing at all. There’s no where else and no one else to serve once we see the True Master for who he is. This vision is available to everyone, which is why it is not necessarily “exclusive,” but not everyone will have the eyes to see such things.
The disciples have this experience early in Jesus’ ministry. They get a glimpse of his incomparable power and its divisive nature. But after a particularly tough teaching, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66). They did not see. Jesus asks his twelve: “Are you going to leave as well?” Simon Peter answers for the group: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68–69).
Jesus has the words of eternal life because he is the Word of Life. Hearing and seeing Jesus, the rest of life can be released. None compares to Jesus. Christmas exposes this: when we place God inside the fabric of the material world, we see how weak the fabric really is. The choice becomes all the clearer. It actually becomes so clear it is not really a choice at all.
Jesus arrives in Bethlehem upon the landscape of “the gods.” All the things that demand our attention are included in the very world where the Christ Child lay. And when he came, what happened? Or, when he has come into your life, what has happened? Did he come as a polite option, a promising potential of religious affection? Or did he come as a thunder? Did he come in a power so inescapable you could not deny it?
The scholars Richard Bauckham and Christopher J.H. Wright talk about this when wrestling with the Bible’s mentioning of other “gods.” Concerned Christians ask, is this not pantheism? No, they contend, because the Bible sees the “gods of this world” as nothing in relation to YHWH. “Though called gods, the other gods do not really deserve the term, because they are not effective divinities acting with power in the world. YHWH alone is the God with supreme power…” (Bauckham, Out of Egypt). The gods described in the Old Testament “are nothing in relation to YHWH; they are something in relation to their worshipers” (Wright, The Mission of God). I am a basketball player when I am alone with a hoop or even playing with my friends in a pick up game. But the minute Steph Curry shows up on the court, I am no longer a basketball player. When the true and living God appears on our landscape, all other gods are, for all intents and purposes, nothing.
When he arrives, Jesus does not come hoping you’ll pick him, wishing he’ll be seen as the best possible choice. When we truly meet Jesus the choice is made even before we “make” it. God does not come down to a decision inside limited options. He is not the sad leftover after all the good things were taken, or an option in the buffet line. Instead, he comes as the Obliterator of All Other Options. When you see The God, the gods become non-existent.
This certainly does not mean we will forever be free from the power of the gods. They are liars. Satan is crafty. But that’s all they are. Because they lack power, they simply lie about it. The battle is waging, for sure, but the winners and losers are decided. Our struggle now is not between power and control, but between truth and lies. This is why we are warned, “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (Hebrews 2:1). We have heard this “word of Life” (1 John 1:1), but we probably will need to hear it again…and again. Why? To remind us of his unmatched power, his complete dominance, his ineffable majesty.
Jesus has, according to Paul, “disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). Advent is the reminder of what happens when the Creator God enters a created world. Beware of making this child a kind of affectionate nostalgia. He is something more, something inescapably brilliant. He is Someone that, if you were to see him for who he truly is, would destroy any possibilities of alternative devotions. Christmas invites us to once again see this baby upon his true location: not a manger, but a throne.