We are studying 1 John 3:11-27 for Sunday, November 15. This is a portion of a text instructing early Christians on doctrine, and the way to go about living that out. [Some notes on the text are here.] Here are some questions we might want to consider together:
Our various study materials tell us that 1 John was written to early Christians (late first or early second century CE), who formed what’s sometimes called “the Johannine community” – a community that shared an understanding of Jesus that emerges from the gospel of John and from these letters.
How are we ourselves related to the audience for this letter, would we say? That is: in what ways are we like them, in what ways are we unlike them, do we think? How might those similarities and differences affect the way the text addresses us, do we think? Or affect the way we read the text?
What difference will that make to our study of the text, do we think? Why?
In vv11, 14, 16, & 23, who is “one another,” do we think? Who is included? Who is excluded – or, is anyone excluded? On what grounds?
In particular, do we think belonging to “one another” is affected by believing in the name of God’s Son Jesus Christ, or abiding in him? And if so, how? Why do we think this? Is there anything in the text that gives us this idea? What?
In v12, the author brings up Cain, who slays his brother; later, he says anyone who hates a brother [or sister] is a murderer. Why would he say this? How do we understand it?
[Very personal] Do we see ourselves in this description? How? Do we want to talk about that? [That is, do we want to talk about whether we see ourselves as murderers, when we have had difficulties with hating specific people, why?] What steps have we ourselves taken, historically or recently, to address our attitudes towards “brothers [and sisters]”? What has worked for us?
In v12, the author says Cain slays his brother because Cain’s deeds were evil, and his brother’s were righteous. Does this explanation make sense to us? How?
In v13, the author seems to use this explanation to explain why “the world hates you-all.” Who or what is “the world” here, do we think?
Who or what is “the world” these days – that is, who or what do we ourselves think of as “the world”?
[More personal] Would we say that “the world” hates us? Why would we say that? Why do we think “the world” hates us? That is – what evidence makes us think “the world” hates us, and what do we think the reasons are for that hatred?
[A lot more personal] If we think “the world” hates us, do we think “the world” hates us for the right reasons?
[Still a lot more personal] How do we ourselves feel about “the world”?
V18 encourages us to “love not in word or speech, but in truth and action,” and then in v19 makes this a cause for reassurance. Why would that be reassuring, do we think?
[More personal] How reassured are we ourselves by this reassurance? Why?
[More theoretical] How perfectly or completely do people need to love one another, do we think, to participate in this reassurance? Does this matter? Why?
V24 gives “the Spirit” as another way people can know that God abides with them. What are the signs of having the Spirit, do we think? Why do we think that? [Maybe more personal] How reassuring is that?
It occurred to me I ought to say something about the general plan for class, for once.
I think we mostly read and study these texts because we think we hear, or are supposed to hear, God’s word to us in and through the text of scripture.
But we are not the kind of readers who think it’s possible to just read the text like it’s a cookbook or some other equally straightforward, immediately intelligible text, nor the kind of readers who think there’s such a thing as reading without interpretation.
That means hearing God’s word to us in and through the text of scripture calls for a specific kind of listening. That listening involves thinking about the text, and where it came from, and how that history affects the way we read it. It involves noticing that the text is literary and rhetorical, and paying attention to how that literature and that rhetoric does what all literature and all rhetoric does: affects us, activating some thoughts and feelings, suppressing others. It involves being aware of who we are, and maybe if we are being particularly alert who we are not, and how that affects the way we read the text, leading us towards some responses and away from others, for better or for worse.
Then, in light of all that, we can explore and try to discern what the text seems to be telling us, here and now, about God, and about ourselves. (Thinking of Calvin there, who says that all the good and true knowledge we possess is of two kinds, the knowledge of God and of ourselves. We are Presbyterians, after all.)
And then, of course, we also want to work out what we ought to do about that, assuming there might be something we ought to do in response to this word from God we hear through the text. Some of that working out happens in class, too, or begins to happen there.
Here’s how that almost always works in practice, for us:
- Open with prayer.
- Read the text.
- Look at what thoughts and feelings come to mind first: first impressions, initial questions or concerns, obvious first thoughts about “the moral” or “the message” of the text – that is, our “first cut” reading.
- Sometimes, from that initial conversation, we’ll identify questions or concerns that we need to address before we do anything else.
- Deal with our relationship to the text’s first audience, and maybe some of its important later audiences. [Especially if it’s an Old Testament text, we will often pay some attention to how the earliest Christians or important later Christians have read this text, and how the Jewish community reads it, usually differently.]
- Look at one or two or three big questions the text seems to raise for us, and explore those – where do they take us, what do we notice or learn when we look closely at those questions and at our answers to them.
- See where we’ve gotten to.
- Close with prayer. [We ritually use the one that comes in our published curriculum.]