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
"The Assurance That Comes From Love"
1 John 3:19-24
(Delivered Sunday, April 14, 2002 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
Real love gets noticed. We live in a world in which love for self, bitter resentment toward others, and malice toward enemies, is so prevalent that genuine "love" cannot help but stand out. It's so contrary to the spirit of this world, that its presence testifies to a source that is truly out of this world.
The ancient world found the love between the ancient Christians such an odd thing that they didn't know what else to do but ridicule those Christians for it. An ancient Greek satirist named Lucian wrote these words about Christians:
The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day - the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account ... You see, these creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property.1
Think of what it was about these early Christians that Lucian was mocking: (1) that they had such great confidence in eternal life that they no longer feared death; (2) that they believed, as their Master taught them, that they were all brothers; (3) that they denied the immoral god's of Greece and worshiped the crucified Jesus instead; (4) that they lived according to His command; (5) that they no longer cared for the things of this world; and (6) that they shared what goods they had with one another as "common property". A mutual, practical love like that - springing forth, as it did, from genuine faith in the risen Savior - is something absolutely alien to this world. Lucian didn't know what else to do but make fun of it.
It was because of the "out-of-this-world" character of this truly Christ-like, selfless, self-sacrificing, self-giving love that Jesus once told His disciples, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35). Wouldn't it be wonderful if the visible evidence of such love between us was the cause of the world's ridicule today! How often does the world see such a thing, however? The sad fact is that the world gets more comedic material about professing Christians from their selfishness, bitterness, and malice, than from any evidence of a distinctively Christ-inspired love.
This leads us to this morning's passage. John's theme is genuine Christ-like love, and of what the evidence of it proclaims. But here's a surprising twist. The presence of genuine love isn't just meant to be a testimony to the world. It's also meant to be a testimony to us! John says,
And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him. For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God. And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight. 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.
Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us (1 John 3:19-24)
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There was a famous Puritan pastor whose preaching, it was said, had this remarkable characteristic: it comforted those who were troubled, and it troubled those who were comfortable. I think that's a good way to describe this morning's passage on love. This is one of the most "pastoral" portions of John's little letter. For those who "comfort" themselves with the thought that they are followers of Jesus simply because they believe a set of doctrines or have observed a set of religious duties - and yet who do not have the testimony of genuine Christ-like love in their hearts toward their brother or sister - then this passage means "trouble". For them, it's an urgent call to self-examination and repentance. But to those who have professed a faith in Jesus Christ - and yet know all too well their failures and faults, and who suffer with doubts about their salvation because of them - then this passage offers "comfort". For them, this passage describes the pathway to the assurance that they really are "of the truth". To all of us, it's a call to a standard of sincere, sacrificial love that our Lord Jesus Himself modeled for us.
We assure our hearts before God when we look into those hearts and find Christ-like love present and active. As we examine this passage together, may the Holy Spirit minister its message to our hearts - whatever the need of those individual hearts might be. And may all of us who profess the name of Jesus today be brought to greater assurance in Him as a result.
First, as we look at this passage, we find that ...
I. THE PRESENCE OF CHRIST-LIKE LOVE IN US LETS US KNOW WE'RE OF THE TRUTH (v. 19).
John writes, "And by this we know that we are of the truth ..." To say that someone is "of the truth" is another way of saying that they are truly saved and enjoy genuine fellowship with Jesus Christ (1:5-10). But what "this" is he referring to when he says that, "by this we know that we are of the truth"? We find the answer in the passage that immediately proceed this one:
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.
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 3:10-18).
The "this" John speaks of, then, is the presence in us of the same sort of practical, self-sacrificing love for our brother or sister in Christ that Jesus Himself exhibited toward us. In other words, John is saying that if we find the evidence of genuine Christ-like love in our hearts and in our lives toward our brothers and sisters, then the presence of this love testifies that we are, indeed, "of the truth".
The kind of love that Jesus calls us to isn't a mere emotion. It's a love in action. It's a love that shows itself in laying-down one's life for the sake of the one that is loved. And John is arguing that the presence of such love in our hearts is the clear demonstration that we are of the truth. This is, of course, an uncommonly high level of love; but someone might protest that such a self-sacrificing love isn't exclusive to Christians. It could be argued that there have been lots of people from lots of different cultures throughout history who have willingly laid down their lives for others - and they certainly weren't doing so out of Christian motives. How can it be claimed that self-sacrificing love is proof that someone is truly a man or woman in fellowship with Christ?
I believe that one of the things that makes true Christ-like love so distinctive is the nature of the one being loved. It's true that many unbelieving people have laid down their lives for others; but whenever it happened, it was a sacrifice made for others who were, in some sense, worthy of such a sacrifice. There was some "bond" present between them that provided the motivation for the sacrifice. The distinctive nature of Jesus' sacrificial love, however, is that it was a sacrifice for those who were utterly unworthy - we who were His enemies because of sin. It's a love that reconciled His enemies to Himself and made them into His friends, His family members, His bride, and ultimately His co-regents in eternal glory. And it's a love that then keeps on giving to them from that point on and forever. Paul described the distinctive nature of Christ's love toward us in these terms:
For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a good man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation (Rom. 5:6-11).
To be perfectly honest, anyone can die for just about anyone else - so long as they don't have to keep on living next to them! But the love that Jesus calls us to exhibit is one that reflects His own love for us. He died for us so that He can redeem us and thus ever live with us. His example of love is such that it reconciles us to one another in Himself - as much in enmity with one another as we may have once been; and then calls us to sincerely love one another, to share our lives and our goods with one another, to actively meet one another's needs, and to be ready to go so far as to lay down our very lives for one another - even toward those that, apart from Christ, would be our enemies.
Let me put it another way. We are hearing on the news every day about certain people who are sacrificing their lives in order to kill their enemies. There's nothing distinctive about that. Anyone can love their country or their cause so much that they'd be willing to die in an act of hatred toward their enemies. The world has produced many such people. But when we lay down our very selves in order to be reconciled to those who are our enemies, and to then live a life of ongoing sacrificial service to them in love as brothers and sisters - that's something the world can't produce! That's a love that can only come from God! Surely that's what Jesus was talking about when He said,
John's point in these opening words, then, is that the existence of such a love in our hearts is a proof - not only to the world, but to ourselves as well - that we are genuinely "of the truth". He says, "... By this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him."
* * * * * * * * * *And this leads us to our next point. When the presence of Christ-like love in us let's us know that we are of the truth, ...
II. THIS KNOWLEDGE GIVES ASSURANCE TO OUR HEARTS.
As we read through this passage, we see three ways that this knowledge assures our hearts. First, John tells us that it assures our hearts through the agency of our conscience. John writes, "For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God" (vv. 20-21).
My family and I sometimes watching those "judge" shows that you see on TV. Have you ever noticed how most of those judges have a bailiff - an officer who stands by the bench? They serve the court by calling the guilty party to stand before the judge. When the judge steps into the court, the bailiff announces, "All parties rise." In a sense, the bailiff serves as an intermediary between the judge and the person on trial; often calling the guilty party to receive the judgment of the judge. If they are released from the court, the bailiff announces, "All parties are now free to go."
I sometimes think of our conscience as an internal "bailiff". Our conscience calls us to stand before the law of God. If we are guilty of sin, our conscience - if it's a healthy conscience - calls us to stand before the commands of God that we have violated and be accused by them. If we're innocent, or if we confess our sins and are forgiven of them, our conscience stands by God's bench and tells us, "You are free to go." Our conscience is not always perfect. It can be seriously weakened and distorted after years of neglect and misuse. After we're saved, our conscience needs to be "reinformed" and "retrained" by continual exposure to God's word, so that it can correctly discern right from wrong. I believe that John is here describing the function of a healthy conscience.
If our "heart" - that is, our conscience as it operates in our inner man - condemns us, then we would be wrong to ignore it. If our conscience condemns us, we should know that God is greater than our heart and has an even greater grasp on the truth than our conscience. And the point John is making seems to be this: If our hearts condemn us because we look inside and find that we don't love our brother or sister with Christ's love, then we should listen to that condemnation. That lack of peace within us is a messenger sent from God - a bailiff calling us to stand up and face the truth of our sin. We should not run from the truth, or deny the truth. We should face the truth and turn to God in repentance. As Augustine wrote, "If thou wouldst flee from [God], flee to Him. Flee to Him by confessing, not from Him by hiding: hide thou canst not, but confess thou canst."2
We might be able convince other people that we are "of the truth" and that we walk in genuine fellowship with Jesus. But God Himself knows the real score. Of Jesus it was said that "He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man" (John 2:24-25). He knows what is in us too. The real source of "assurance" in our hearts is not whether we can assure our hearts before other people, but whether our hearts are assured before the all-knowing, all-seeing God with whom we have to do. And He lets us know the truth, in part, by the conscience He has put in us. John is saying that, when we look into our hearts for the evidence of genuine Christ-like love - and if our hearts do not condemn us as a result, and we truly see this Christ-like love in operation in genuine and active ways - then we can have assurance before God that we truly are in fellowship with His Son.
* * * * * * * * * *
Another way that we have assurance is through the evidence of our practical obedience. John says, "And whatever we ask we receive from Him" (which, certainly, is a manifest sign of being right with Him), because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight. 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" (vv. 22-23).
Earlier, John said, "Whoever says, 'I know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him" (2:4-5). One of the greatest evidences that we are of the truth is that we walk in obedience to Jesus' commands and do the things that please Him. "He who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk just as He walked" (2:6). We could also say, "He who says he abides in Jesus ought himself to love just as He loved"; because John reminds us that the commandment of Jesus is "that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another."
This, of course, is not to say that we will be perfect in our obedience to this "new" commandment. We will never be perfect in our expression of Christ-like love so long as we are on this earth. Even our best efforts to love as Christ loved are tainted with sin. But if our life-conduct demonstrates a progressive, consistent, on-going practice of seeking after this commandment, then we can take it as proof that we are of the truth. It, too, assures our hearts before God.
May I add a practical word here? It might be possible that we could convince ourselves that we see the evidence of Christ-like love in our lives - when in reality, what we're seeing is nothing more than "selective expressions" of love. We may find that we love certain Christians; but we ignore the fact that we're utterly unloving toward certain others. Many boast in a love for Christians that are outside their family circle, for example; but the same people harbor hatred, bitterness and cruel resentment toward the Christian to whom they're married, or to the brothers and sisters in Christ that might be in their family.
If there is a brother or sister in our lives to whom we are not loving, then we shouldn't fool ourselves. We are NOT keeping Christ's commandment - no matter who else we might be "loving". Christ's love toward us was such that He laid down His life for His "enemies"; and He commanded us to love one another as He loved us. We have no right to be selective in our keeping of this command.
Perhaps, even as you're reading these words, God's internal "bailiff" is speaking to you about resentment and bitterness you've been harboring toward a Christian brother or sister - and perhaps that brother or sister is your Christian wife, or Christian husband, or Christian children, or Christian parents, or a Christian relative. Christ's command means nothing if it doesn't mean loving them too. If that's your case, then this would be a good time to stop where you are, repent of this sin, and allow God to take all the bitterness, wrath, anger clamor and evil speaking away from you - along with all malice - toward that brother or sister. This would be a good time to allow the Holy Spirit to empower you to become kind to that person, tender-hearted toward them, and forgiving of them - just as God has forgiven you in Christ (Eph. 4:31-32).
* * * * * * * * * *
That leads us, to consider the assurance we can have of our salvation through the indwelling Holy Spirit. John says, "Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us."
There are two ways that John tells us that we can know that the "spirit" within us is, indeed, the indwelling Holy Spirit of Christ Himself. The first way is by our confession of faith in Christ. Do we confess the truth that the Bible tells us about Jesus? John writes, "By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God" (4:2-3a). The apostle Paul wrote elsewhere that "no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:3). If the genuine confession of your lips is that Jesus is Lord, and if the sincere belief of your heart is that God has raised Him from the dead (Romans 10:9-10), then you can be assured that the Holy Spirit abides in you and you are a child of God. You could not make such a profession apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit. "The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs - heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together" (Rom. 8:16-17).
And a second way is by the fact that this same indwelling Holy Spirit empowers us to love one another with genuine, sacrificial, Christ-like love. John writes,
No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in Him, and he in God. And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him (4:12-16)
Paul says that "the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us" (Rom. 5:5). The presence and activity of that love in our hearts and in our lives, then, is objective proof that the Holy Spirit abides in us. And if the Holy Spirit abides in us, we can be assured that we are "of the truth" and truly are in fellowship with God.
* * * * * * * * * *
It's a wonderful thing to have a heart that is assured before God. John, as a good pastor, wants all of us who profess the name of Christ to enjoy that assurance; and so, he calls us to look in our hearts for the tell-tale evidence of Christ-like love. The assurance of such love is affirmed to us by the conscience He has put in us, by our obedience to Jesus' command, and by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
And that leads us to our final point. Before we leave this passage, I'd like you to look through it with me once more, and see that ...
II. THIS ASSURANCE THROUGH LOVE BRINGS BLESSINGS.
First, John tells us that such assurance brings us the wonderful blessing of confidence toward God. John writes, "Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God" (v. 21).
Those who are not right before God cannot stand before Him with confidence. In Revelation 6:15-17, John tells us of his vision of the future time when God's wrath will be poured out upon the earth. He wrote that he saw that "the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come ...'" And take special note of their last words: "and who is able to stand?" Regarding those who are separated from God because of their sins and because of their refusal to trust Christ as the Savior from their sins, the Bible says "the wrath of God abides" on them (John 3:36). Such people cannot stand with confidence before God. They can only shrink back in terror.
But the presence of love in us assures us that we are right with God; and this gives us boldness to stand before Him. John writes, "Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love (1 John 4:17-18). If we look in our hearts and find that genuine Christ-like love is active and in operation there, then our heart does not condemn us. And John says, "Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God" (v. 21). What a precious blessing "confidence toward God" is!
* * * * * * * * * *
Second, John tells us that in such assurance, we have the blessing of the granting of our requests in prayer. If we look in our hearts and find that Christ-like love is present, then we can embrace this wonderful promise: "And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight" (v. 22).
When I was little, there were lots of times when I had disobeyed my father. (Shocking revelation, I know ...) Usually, when I had disobeyed my father's instructions, I knew that it would be pretty pointless to place a "request" before him. My request would not be "heard" by him until I had made things right, and had done as he had told me.
The same principle applies in our relationship with God. The Bible confronts us with this principle in many places. Psalm 66:18 says, "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear." In Isaiah 1:15, God says to Israel, "When you spread out your hands [that is, in prayer], I will hide My eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood." "Behold," Isaiah writes, "The LORD's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear" (Isaiah 59:1-2).
John is bringing this biblical principle to bear in the matter of love. And his particular emphasis is this: if we are disobedient to Jesus' command to love, and if we are harboring resentment and bitterness toward a brother or sister in Christ, God will not "hear" our requests. He will certainly hear them audibly; but He will not regard them nor answer them until we repent and begin to love as we should. Peter, for example, writes to urge husbands to love their wives; and he said, "Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered" (1 Peter 3:7).
The good news that John brings to us is that, if our hearts are right with God because we're being obedient to His command to love, then we can ask whatever we wish of Him with the confidence that He hears and honors our request. John writes, "Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that he hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him" (1 John 4:14-15).
* * * * * * * * * *
Finally, this leads us to how the assurance of love gives us the blessing of the enjoyment of fellowship with Jesus Himself. John writes, "Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him" (v. 24). The most wonderful aspect of obeying Jesus' command to love is that it's through the keeping of it that we walk where He walks, and do what He does; and in doing so, we walk in fellowship with Him.
John wrote, "This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:5-7). We cannot walk in fellowship with Jesus if we aren't walking where He walks; and Jesus always walks in love. "Therefore," Paul writes, "be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma" (Eph. 5:1-2).
* * * * * * * * * *
We can sum it all up in this way, dear brothers and sisters: there are great blessings that come from the assurance that comes from the knowledge that we truly belong to Christ. And we know that we belong to Him by finding His love in operation in our lives.
Do you find that love present and at work in and through you? I hope you'll make sure of it today. And as you do, may God show the world - and us - that we belong to Him, by His love being found in us.
1 Lucian, The Death of Pergerine, 11-13, in The Works of Lucian of Samosata, trans. by H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, 4 vols. (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1949), vol. 4; cited in Gary R. Habermas, Ancient Evidence for The Life of Jesus (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984), p. 100.
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