Sermon Message: Passing the Tests of Love
Sermon Message: Extravagant Devotion
Sermon Message: Even the Death of the Cross
Sermon Message: God Is For Us!
Sermon Message: Fellowship in the Light
Sermon Message: O Worship the King
"Loving As God Loves"
1 John 3:16-18
(Delivered Sunday, April 7, 2002 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
A very reliable story has been passed down in church history. It concerns the apostle John; and it has been preserved for us by the ancient historian Eusebius in his famous history of the early church1. I'd like to share this story with you, because it gives us an excellent introduction to this morning's passage.
John had been sent into exile by the Roman Emperor Domitian because of the apostle's fervent preaching of the gospel. And according to this story, after the emperor had died, John was released from exile and returned to his ministry to the churches of Asia Minor. In time, he was requested to travel to a church that was some distance from Asia, and to give it some special care and to help it get established. While there, his attention became drawn to a young man who displayed definite leadership potential. This young man was characterized by fine stature, a graceful countenance, and an ardent mind; and so, John turned to the bishop of the church and said, "Him I commend to you with all earnestness, in the presence of the church and of Christ." The bishop, understanding that John was officially and publically ordering him to train up this young man for ministry, promised to take him into his home to nurture him and educate him for service to the church. Having received that promise, John entrusted the young man to him, went on his way, and returned to his ministry in Asia Minor.
The bishop did as he promised. He baptized the young man and began to train him for the ministry. And the young man certainly appeared to be growing strong in the faith. But after a while, the bishop began to relax in his diligence to his promise; and the young man fell under the influence of bad friends who were well-schooled in sin. At first, they were able to draw this young man away by encouraging him to merely "dabble" in the things of this world. But soon, they persuaded him to participate in open acts of crime with them. By degrees, they drew him further and further away from his former commitment to Christ. He was led by them to embrace increasingly greater levels of wickedness, until - at last - he completely denied his faith and renounced his salvation in Christ.
This young man had been led into such deep levels of sin that he believed himself to forever be lost to God. And so, his slide down the slippery-slope really began to take up speed. He gave himself completely over to wickedness and sin. He became the ring-leader of this wicked bunch of trouble-makers. He formed them into a band of robbers - himself being their captain; and he surpassed them all in violence, cruelty, wickedness, theft, and murder.
As time passed, the aging apostle John returned to this remote church. After dealing with some other matters of business, he finally asked the bishop, "Come, bishop, return me my deposit, which I and Christ committed to thee, in the presence of the church over which thou dost preside." At first, the bishop didn't know what John meant. Was John talking about some money that he entrusted to the church? Was he talking about something he left with the bishop for safe-keeping? John explained, "I demand the young man, and the soul of a brother." When the old bishop finally realized John was asking for the young man he entrusted to him, he wept and said, "He is dead."
John was shocked! He asked how it could be that the young man died; and the bishop explained through his tears, "He is dead to God. He has turned out wicked and abandoned, and at last a robber; and now, instead of the church, he has beset the mountain with a band like himself." When John heard this, he tore his garment, beat his head with his hand, and said, "I left a fine keeper of a brother's soul! But let a horse now be got ready, and some one to guide me on my way." Immediately, John saddled up his horse and rode off in search of this wayward young backslider.
The band of bandits that this young man ruled over was hiding out in the country; and when John drew close enough to them, they captured him and took him prisoner. But he told them that he came out to them precisely to be captured by them; and demanded that they take him immediately to their leader.
The young man was waiting in the woods, deep within the robber-camp. He stood arrogantly and fully armed - prepared, as he thought, to intimidate just another common victim. But when he saw that it was the apostle John that was being brought to him, he was overcome with shame and fear, and began to run away. John, however, completely forgot about his age and broke into a run after him; crying out, "Why dost thou fly, my son, from me, thy father; thy defenseless, aged father? Have compassion on me, my son; fear not. Thou still hast hope of life. I will intercede with Christ for thee. Should it be necessary, I will cheerfully suffer death for thee, as Christ for us. I will give my life for thine. Stay; believe Christ has sent me."
These words sunk into the young man's ears; and they broke his hardened heart. He ceased from his running and hung his head in grief and sorrow. Throwing down his weapons, he ran to the old apostle, embraced him, and - with trembling and bitter weeping - poured out all his sin and shame to John in confession.
John, the beloved apostle, promised to do all that he could to help this young backslidden criminal. He assuring him that Jesus Christ Himself stood ready to pardon and forgive him. As he spoke words of comfort to him, John noticed that the young man kept his right hand hidden under his cloak. Perhaps this young man had pledged that hand to the service of Jesus Christ; but now that he had used that same hand as a tool of sin, murder and evil, he was ashamed to let it be seen. But John knelt down, took that hand, and kissed it as if to show that it had been cleansed from all iniquity. The young man, it was said, cried so much that it was as if he was being baptized in water all over again.
The ancient historian Eusebius tells us, "Then supplicating with frequent prayers, contending with constant fastings, and softening down his mind with various consolatory declarations, he did not leave him as it is said, until he had restored him to the church."
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The wonderful story of this young man, as Eusebius says, gives us a powerful example of true repentance. It teaches us that no backslider is so far gone from Jesus that he or she cannot return to the Savior for pardon, cleansing and restoration. It teaches us that the resurrected Lord Jesus truly is alive and powerful to save and transform anyone.
But there's another thing that this story teaches us - particularly with respect to the part that the apostle John played in it. I refer specifically to what John said to the young man when they finally met in the robber's camp, deep in the woods. We see a powerful example of Christ-like love in John when he spoke these words to the young man, "I will intercede with Christ for thee. Should it be necessary, I will cheerfully suffer death for thee, as Christ for us. I will give my life for thine." It's through this wonderful story of sacrificial love - love that moves the lover to follow the example of Jesus, and lay down his or her own live for the one loved - that I would like to draw your attention to these three verses from John's letter:
By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth (1 John 3:16-18).
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Why did the Holy Spirit lead John to include these words in his letter? I believe that the verses that proceed it provide the answer. In these verses, we read,
In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother. For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, not as Cain who was of the wicked one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother's righteous. Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him (1 John 3:10-15).
The purpose of John's letter was so that we, who have trusted Jesus as our Savior, can know that we truly enjoy fellowship with Him. "Fellowship with Jesus" is the great theme of this letter. In it, John provides us with some ways to test whether or not we truly do walk in fellowship with the Son of God. One of these tests is whether or not we love those who Jesus also loves. If we genuinely love our brothers and sisters in Christ, then we can be assured that we walk in fellowship with Jesus.
And that brings us to this morning's passage. If one of the tests of our fellowship with Jesus is whether or not we love our brothers and sisters in Christ as He loves them, then it becomes very important that we rightly define "the love of God".
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I was curious to see if I could find a definition of love anywhere on the internet. I searched (very cautiously, I might add); and I was certainly not disappointed. I found, among others, this definition of love:
A set of circumstances or attributes characterizing a person or thing at a given time in, with, or by the conscious or unconscious together as a unit full of or having a specific ability or capacity in a manner relating to, dealing with, or capable of making the distinction between right and wrong in conduct, or an inclination to move or act in a particular direction or way, having the state or quality of being strong in moral strength, self-discipline, or fortitude, or the act or process of volition for, or consideration, attention, or concern full of fond or tender feeling for, or the quality, state, or instance of being faithful to, those persons or ideals that one is under obligation to defend or support, or the condition, quality or state of being worthy of trust, or a strongly felt fond or tender feeling to a creature or creatures of or characteristic of a person or persons, that lives or exists, or is assumed to do so, particularly as separated or marked off by differences from that which is conceived, spoken of, or referred to as existing as an individual entity, or from any living organism inferior in rank, dignity, or authority, typically capable of moving about but not of making its own food by photosynthesis.2
The author of this detailed definition concludes by asking,"Isn't it romantic?"
In our day, "love" is typically associated with an emotion, or a feeling. And of course, it should be. But it wouldn't be hard to imagine someone reading this morning's passage from John's letter, and believing that they are indwelt by the love of God because they "feel" loving toward others. John's words show us that simply having "feelings" alone is no indication of that the love of God truly abides in us.
John truly loved that wayward young man. I believe he had strong feelings toward him. But John didn't simply have emotional feelings about him. John demonstrated love toward him in measurable deeds of self-sacrifice. He expended great effort in reaching that young man and in wining him back to the Savior. And he was fully prepared to follow the example of Jesus, and even lay down his own life for the young man. He said that he was willing to "suffer death" for him, "as Christ did for us."
John's words in this morning's passage teach us what John himself had learned. John teaches us that, if God's love truly abides in us, and if we truly walk in fellowship with Jesus Christ - the greatest "lover" of all - then it cannot help but transform our actions. John teaches us that the impact of God's own love for us in His Son Jesus Christ is to so transform us, that we will love one another as He loves us - even to the point of laying down our lives for one another.
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Notice first ...
1. HOW THE LOVE OF GOD IS MODELED FOR US (v. 16a).
John writes, "By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us." Notice the details of this short sentence.
First, John affirms that the love of God can be "known". The word that he uses is in a tense of the verb that indicates a complete, once-for-all "knowledge". Many poets and philosophers have sought to understand the meaning of love. Some - as we have seen - have even ventured a definition of love. But John here affirms that we can now actually, objectively "know" the love of God.
Second, John affirms that this "love" is known to us through the sacrificial action of Jesus. Jesus, God's own Son, has forever objectified "love" for us by demonstrating it before our eyes. He gave us the defining example of love when He laid His own life down and went to the cross.
One of the great mistakes we make in seeking to understand God's love is by defining it from the bottom up. We sometimes look at our own experience of "love" and at the experience of other people, and then seek to define the love of God in terms of our own experience. But this isn't the way to understand understand God's love at all. John says, later in this letter,
In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His son to be the propitiation for our sins (4:9-11).
The defining principle of "love", then, is not to be found in our own experience or in the experience of other people. It's not even to be found in our own expressions of love toward God. It's to be found - first of all - in God's initiating act of unmerited love for us through the cross of Jesus Christ.
And third, John teaches that the love of God has the benefit of an object in mind. John says that "He laid down His life for us" - literally, "on our behalf".
Love is self-sacrificial; but a mere act of "sacrifice" - all by itself - isn't a demonstration of love. Suppose I was strolling along the Willamette River with a friend of mine. And suppose I got into an argument with this friend over whether or not I truly loved him. And suppose I really wanted to convince my friend how much I loved him. So I say to him, "Look; I'll show you how much I love you!" - and then, I dive head-first into the icy river. Even if I splash about for a while in the freezing water, and even if I go so far as to drown in the river's strong currents, it still wouldn't prove that I love my friend. It might be called a sacrificial act; but it would be a completely meaningless sacrifice because it had no logical connection to my friend. It did nothing to serve him. For all anyone could tell, it might show that I can't stand my friend and would rather jump in a river than be with him one minute longer!
But then, suppose it wasn't a friend I was walking with, but an enemy - an enemy who can't swim. Suppose he falls into the water first. If I jump into the freezing water, and even drown in the attempt to save him, no one would need to be convinced that I truly love him. That sacrificial act - because it had, as its objective, the saving of my enemy's life - would have been proof enough of my genuine love for him.
Some have pictured Jesus' sacrifice of dying on the cross for us in that first way - as a sacrifice that has no real connection to us. We were God's enemies because of our sins; and some have suggested that Jesus died on the cross in order to "break our hearts", and to show us "just how far He would go" in loving us and winning us back to Himself - even to the point of dying on a cross. Indeed, His death does show us how far He'd go in loving us; and indeed, it should break our hearts. But if His sacrificial act of dying for us didn't have - as its practical objective - the real salvation of our souls, then it would have been a completely meaningless act of sacrifice. We'd never really "know" God's love by it at all.
But John affirms that we can now "know" God's love - once and for all - through the fact that Jesus willingly laid down His life as a sacrificial act; the intention of which was to rescue us from our lost condition and save us from sins. Paul says that God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died "for us" (Romans 5:8) - that is, "on our behalf".
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And so, the first thing John's words teach us is that God's love is modeled for us in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. But at this point, I have a confession to make to you. I had been thinking about this passage last week in preparation for my message; but somewhere in the middle of the week, I failed to measure up to what it says.
Our church, as you might know, received many requests for assistance from people in need. Sometimes, we receive several such requests in the course of a day. A particular person - a fellow believer - contacted our church who has been in need before; and as soon as I heard from them, I found myself immediately closing up my heart to them. I didn't want to have to deal with them. The Holy Spirit began to convict me of this, however. I was not displaying the love of God toward them.
This leads us to John's second point. He goes on to tell us ...
2. HOW THE LOVE OF GOD IS SHOWN TO BE IN US (vv. 16b-17).
He speaks of the love Jesus displayed for us on the cross; and then says, "And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren." We are obliged by His love to love others. "But", John adds, "whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?"
Jesus taught us that His sacrificial love for us was to be the abiding example for our actions toward others. We are compelled to love others as He loved us. He commanded us to love each other; but He didn't command us to do something that He Himself did not also do toward us. When He washed the feet of His disciples, on the night that He was betrayed, He then asked them,
Do you know what I have done for you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. for I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them (John 13:12-17).
Jesus gave us an example in His humble service to His disciples, so that we should do to one another as He has done to us. As Paul has said, we are to ...
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That love of God, demonstrated in the sacrifice of Jesus, should have been the example I followed. He laid down His life for me; and I ought, therefore, to have been ready to lay down my life for this fellow believer. The word translated "ought" has behind it the concept of a debt that I owe, or an obligation that I am put under. I was obliged to show sacrificial love to this fellow Christian, because I myself had been shown an infinite level of sacrificial love from Jesus.
But I didn't want to be inconvenienced right then by love's demands. And so, I closed my heart up to that person that God placed in my path. I sought to avoid them and their need. I did the very thing that John warns not to let happen. He wrote, "But whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?"
Have you ever closed up your heart in that way to someone else's need? I have to admit that the other day's experience was not the first time I ever did so. If God's love truly abides in us, then God would wish to see that love He has shown us passed along freely toward another person He puts within our sphere of service. We are intended by Him, if I can put it this way, to be the free-flowing conduits of His own love toward others. But when we close up our heart to them, then we're constricting the free flow of that love. And if that's our constant, continual practice of life, then John asks, "How can you make the claim that the love of God truly abides in you? Where's the evidence of it?"
John's words suggest a series of stages; and when I examine my own experience of the other day, I can see that I went through those stages. First, John says that we have this world's goods. The word He uses in the original language means "the material means of living comfortably in the world". He's speaking of the stuff of life: food, shelter, clothing, transportation and toys. At the time when God brought this other person into my path, I was right in the midst of enjoying "the stuff of life".
Second, John speaks of seeing our brother or sister in need. The word translated "to see" means to "gaze upon" or "behold" something. It isn't speaking of a passing glance, but of a considered "look". We have the stuff we need in order to live comfortably; and it's brought to our attention - with a considered "beholding" - that our brother or sister does not have what he or she needs to live comfortably. They may need food, or shelter, or clothing, or transportation. They may even need the little things that ease their burdens and makes life enjoyable - the "toys".
Finally, when we see their genuine need, John speaks of shutting up our heart from him. Literally, John says we close up our tender affections - our "bowels of compassion", as the King James Version has it. We refuse to let ourselves feel as we should feel about it; and we refuse to do what God's love toward us obligates us to do for them. We turn our heads away; and say things like, "Well if they hadn't been so foolish, they wouldn't be in this situation." Or, "I'm always helping people; let someone else help them for a change." Or, "If I give them what they're needing, then I won't have enough for myself - and we must take care of ourselves, or we're no good to anyone." Or, "If I help them once, I just know I'll be helping them every time I turn around." (Do any of these "shut-off valves" sound familiar to you? Personally, I think I've used them all at one time or another.)
If Jesus was willing to lay aside His own life for us, we should be willing to go so far as to lay down our lives for our brother. Jesus commanded us to love one another as He has loved us (John 15:12). If Jesus' sacrifice of love obligates us to be prepared to lay down our lives for one another; then certainly we should be prepared to lay down some of the mere "stuff" of life for one another!
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The love of God, then, obligates us to a love that is more than feelings. It obligates us to a love that is active. This leads us, finally, to ...
3. HOW THE LOVE OF GOD IS TO BE EXHIBITED BY US (v. 18).
John says, "My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth."
If you feel a little bad at this point of the sermon, then believe me - you can just imagine how it feels to be preaching it! That's why I'm so glad that John speaks so tenderly to us in this last verse. He calls us, "little children". He is invitational: "Let's ..." God's goal in all of this isn't to leave us feeling bad. His goal is to urge us on to become the faithful, free-flowing conduits of His love that He wants us to be. John is very tender with us in our failures; and I believe it's because God Himself is tender with us in them.
The lesson in all this, then, is to move past "talking" about the love of God and to actually "do" the love of God. It isn't enough to simply say that we love our brother or sister in need. That would be similar to what James said about faith:
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says, he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Depart in peace, be warmed and filled," but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:14-17).
Words are important. We need to hear, "I love you." But we need to see "I love you" too. Mere expressions of love, without the necessary works of love, are "dead" too.
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It's important to notice that John speaks not only of love "in deed", but also "in truth". That can, I believe, be taken two ways. First of all, the love that God wants us to show toward our brothers or sisters in Christ must be the real thing. It must be genuine and sincere.
There's a danger in "doing" acts of love, but not really loving the person to whom we do the acts. I think a good example of this might be Ananias, and his wife Sapphira, whose story is told us in the Book of Acts. They sold a large plot of land, and merely pretended to bring the whole proceeds of that sale to the apostles for distribution to the poor. It was their money to do with as they pleased; and any amount they gave was, surely, a sacrificial act. But they conspired together to "lie to the Holy Spirit" and kept back a portion of the money for themselves. They wanted to be perceived as sacrificially "loving" in deed; but it was not love "in truth". God punished them for this by allowing them to fall over dead in the church (Acts 5:1-11); and everyone learned from this that God not only values love in deed, but also love in truth.
But there's another way I think we could take this exhortation to love "in truth". The love that God wants us to show toward our brothers and sisters in Christ should be an outflow of our encounter with the truth of the faith. Our act of love should be done in because our hearts have been warmed by the love of Jesus revealed to us in the truth of the Scriptures.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Suppose I were walking along and found you laying on the road - wounded and broken and in need. Suppose I came up to you and performed the "deeds" of love to you: I bandaged your wounds, gave you some water, and got you to the hospital where you would get better. Because all of this impressed you, suppose you said to me, "You're being so kind; ... why are you doing all this for me?" What if I said, "I'm doing all this because it's my duty, my friend. I'm a Christian; and Jesus has commanded that we should show love others. I'm simply doing what my Master has commanded me to do." It could certainly be argued that I'm showing you love "in deed"; but after hearing my motivation for doing so, I'll leave it to you to decide how you'd feel about it.
But what would happen, instead, if I were to say this to you? "I'm doing this because, not too long ago, I was laying flat on the road of life too - all broken and banged up by sin. But someone named Jesus saw my need, loved me and mercifully saved me. I didn't deserve His love, because I was His enemy. But He had mercy on me anyway; and I will never be able to get over the fact that He loved even me. His love has transformed my heart. And He loves you too, friend. When I saw your need, how could I help but love you as He loves you?" That would be an act of love both "in deed and in truth". If you were on the receiving end of such love, wouldn't you want to know more about the Jesus that had so transformed me?
The "deed" and the "truth" of love must go together. It's not God's will that we show "deeds" of love apart from "truth". Perhaps that's why John says, in verse 23, "And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as He gave us commandment."
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Dear brother or sister, do you see John's point in all this? The love of God shown to us in Jesus should so transform us that we love each other as He loves us. Would you ask Him today to help you come to grips with His love for you to a greater degree? And as He helps you to understand and appreciate His love for you more and more, would you allow Him to show His love to others through you too?
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