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
"By This We Know"
1 John 5:2-5
(Delivered Sunday, August 4, 2002 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
Much of John's first letter deals with the matter of our love toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. The great theme of this letter is the assurance of fellowship with Jesus Christ; and you might say that one of the main supporting themes of that great theme is love for our brothers and sisters. John makes it very clear to us that we cannot enjoy fellowship with Christ, nor say that we walk in the light as Christ is in the light (1:7), if we don't also love our brother or sister who is in Christ.
John has developed this supporting theme of love in a large section of his letter; and our passage this morning brings us to the closing verses of that section. Before we come to our passage, let me read the larger section of scripture that precedes it and remind you of all that it says. Listen carefully at what John teaches us in it about love.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 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. Beloved, if God so loved us we also ought to love one another.
I have to admit that, each time I read John's letter, I'm overwhelmed by its depth. There are far more profound truths being expressed in it than is possible to take in at once! And I can't help but feel especially overwhelmed by what a marvelously deep theology of love John gives us in this particular portion of his letter! I'd like to attempt to give you a broad summary of what John is saying about love in this passage; and though it isn't possible to say all that can be said, I'd like to try to sum it up in these seven affirmations:
(1) Love is an essential aspect of God's being. It's such an essential aspect, in fact, that John can very simply and profoundly say, "God is love" (4:16). Love, then, isn't something that can be separated from God; but rather, it's something that is absolutely intrinsic to who He is and what He does. All that He is and does is love. You can't know God without knowing love; and you can't walk with God without walking in love. "He who does not love does not know God," John says, "for God is love" (4:8).
(2) If we have any experience of love toward God at all, it's because God first loved us. As John says, "We love Him because He first loved us" (4:19). John carefully defines God's demonstration of love toward us in these words: "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" (4:9). Many people mistakenly believe that they are the one's who took the initiative in the love relationship with God; but such a thing is simply impossible for us as fallen sinners. The actual fact of the matter is that, if we love at all, it's because God Himself took the initiative toward us, and first demonstrated His love toward us by sending His Son to die for us. "In this is love," John says, "not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (4:10). In a love relationship with God, we are nothing but humble responders to God's love because we were, first of all, unworthy recipients of it.
(3) We respond to His love toward us by abiding in Christ. To "abide", in this case, means to remain in continual fellowship with God through a persistent faith in all that He says about His own Son Jesus Christ. John puts it this way: "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" (4:13-16). It's impossible to be in a love relationship with God apart from faith in His Son Jesus Christ; because it's through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for us that God has manifested His love toward us. We must respond to His love by abiding in Jesus by faith.
(4) We abide in Christ when we love others who have also trusted Him. John says, "Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him" (v. 5:1). If we love God for having first loved us, and if we understand that the same love that He has shown to us has also been shown to other unworthy sinners like us, then - by necessity - we will also love those others that He has so loved. If we sincerely believe that He has made us His children, then we will put that faith into practice by calling these others our "brothers" and "sisters"; and we will obediently love them as such.
(5) When we love our brothers and sisters, God's love is perfected in us. John reminds us that "this commandment we have from Him: that whoever loves God must love his brother also" (4:21). And we're told that, "If we love one another," - that is, if we faithfully keep this command to love - "God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us" (4:12). To say that His love is "perfected" in us means that His love has been brought to a state of completion in us. It has reached its intended goal. Amazingly, this means that God's love comes to us intentionally incompleted; and it is only brought to a state of completion when we become the willing conduits of His love, and love our our brother and sister as He loves us.
(6) When we love one another as He has loved us, we prove that we're born of God. John affirms, "No one has seen God at any time" (4:12). But that doesn't mean that God has left this lost and dying world without a clear witness of Himself. John goes on to explain that our love for one another testifies that God abides in us, and that His love has been perfected in us. Earlier, John says, "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" (3:10). By contrast, he says, "We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren" (3:14).
(7) It's impossible for us to love God and at the same time hate our brother or sister. John says, "If someone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?" (4:20). God's love toward us obligates us to love one another; because, as John affirms, "Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another" (4:11). We cannot be born of One who, Himself, is love; and at the same time not love others who have also been born of Him. And so, a persistent life-style pattern of refusal to love our professed brother or sister in Christ is far more than merely a sin. It is, in actuality, a spiritual indicator that puts the lie to our claim to be in Christ at all.
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So there you have it. These seven affirmations give you as tidy a summary as I can give of what John says about love in this section of his letter. But a very practical question comes up in all this. We willingly submit to the testimony of the Holy Spirit through John that we must love one another. But how do we go about doing it? How do we "love" some particular brother or sister in Christ that - to be perfectly honest - we don't even "like"?
I confess to you that this became a very practical question for me just the other day. I was finishing up my work at the church office when one of my sons called on the phone to tell me that dinner was ready. I was just closing up a commentary that I was reading in preparation for this morning; and I was struggling so hard to understand what this morning's passage meant that I was really kind of glad for the call to stop. But it just so happened that, as I was closing my commentary, a wandering visitor stuck her head through my office door.
She was dressed in old, dusty clothes that were held together in spots by safety pins. She smiled and said, "I just need to use your restroom. Don't get up - I'll find it." She seemed very disoriented; and wandered around into every doorway looking for the bathroom - even though I got up from my chair and told her I'd gladly show her where the bathroom was. It took forever, it seemed, to convince her that the bathroom was downstairs in the other building. Finally, I got her downstairs and directed her to the correct door.
I really wanted her to hurry up and be on her way. I was pretty hungry and was eager to get home for dinner; and what's more, I honestly didn't feel comfortable having her here. While she used the restroom, I called home and told my family that I'd be a few minutes late; then I locked all the other doors and paced around the parking lot waiting for her to finish. I waited for quite a while, it seemed, until - I hope in as polite a manner as possible - I hollered into the building that I really needed to lock things up for the day. She came out and thanked me; and asked me directions to the coast because she was on her way to Seaside. She said, "I suppose that if I go in the direction of the setting sun, that will put me on the Sunset Highway; don't you think?" I said that made sense, and told her how to get to the highway; but I couldn't help noticing that she didn't have a car. "What was she up to?" I wondered. "Was she hoping I'd offer to take her there?"
She kept following behind me and asked if I was the pastor. (There are times, dear brothers and sisters, when I'm not so sure I'm prepared to answer that question!) When I said (hesitatingly) that I was, I added, "You know; I'm really very sorry, but I have to go."
"Do you live in that house?" she asked - pointing to the parsonage.
When I said I did, she said, "May I ask one more question? This church building of yours - beautiful building, by the way - is it paid for, or are you on credit for it at a bank somewhere?"
"Paid for," I said - sort of warily.
"I ask that same question at every church," she said. "So far, it's about 50/50. Goodbye!" And with that, she was off.
Now I need to tell you that, after I got home and told this story to Marilyn, we both agreed that we should probably call the Hillsboro Police and ask that they go out and check on her. She didn't look healthy, and didn't at all seem like she was aware of the length of the trip she was about to make. There was certainly no way she could reach the coast on foot; and I was afraid she'd be in danger walking along the highway. Besides; it may have been that she had wandered off from somewhere nearby, and that someone was out looking for her.
I'm not entirely sure what else I could have done for her. But what bothered me the most about this encounter - to be perfectly honest with you - was what it revealed to me about me. On the outside, she was smelly and dirty and a little bit strange; and I was hungry and in a hurry to see her move along. I don't know whether or not she was a believer; but I didn't even take the time to find out. I didn't love her. I didn't particularly want to love her. There wasn't anything that struck me as lovable about her; and I didn't even know how to begin to love such a person as her. My conscience convicts me that I didn't respond to her as I believe Jesus would have responded to her. And in the end, I think that I was the one who was really the most unlovely of the two.
I talked with God about this later; and I confessed what I believe was a hard-hearted attitude and an unwillingness to learn how to love such a person. And in preparation for this morning's message, the Holy Spirit used that experience as a far better commentary than any other commentary I could have read in my study.
And so, back to our question. How do you go about loving a brother or
sister who may not be so lovable? How do we know when we're loving someone
as Jesus would love them? John, I believe, gives us a rather surprising
answer to that question when he says,
* * * * * * * * * *
First, please notice that ...
1. WE KNOW THAT WE LOVE THE CHILDREN OF GOD BY OUR LOVE FOR GOD (v. 2).
John says, "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments." And in saying this, he seems to be reversing the order of things as he had already expressed them. He had just gotten through saying, "Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him" (5:1). In other words, we know that we really love God if we also love our brother. But now, John is saying that we really know that we love our brother if we also love God.
It seems as if John is arguing in a circle, doesn't it? But I believe this apparent circular argument is intentional. John's argument shows that I can't love God if I don't also love my brother or sister; and that I can't love my brother or sister if I don't also love God. To the degree that I fall short in loving my brother or sister, I am failing to love God; and to the degree that I fall short in loving God, I am failing to love my brother or sister. I can't separate the two. They are a packaged deal.
John says that we can "know" that we "love" the children of God; and both of the verbs he uses - to "know" and to "love" - are in the present tense in the original Greek. John is saying that we can "know" - in a progressive, ongoing, continual way - that we ongoingly, progressively, continually "love" the children of God. The rule that we use to measure our love, and thus affirm that love to ourselves, is our own love toward God.
I have known some folks - and perhaps you have too - that pride themselves in how much they believe that they love people. They consider themselves "philanthropists" in the truest sense. And yet, these same self-professed lovers of humanity have absolutely no love in their hearts for God as He reveals Himself to be in the Scriptures. They flatly reject God as a God of holiness who must deal with sin justly; and they flatly reject any idea that Jesus Christ is God's Son, sent into the world to save sinners by dying on the cross for them. They reject the God who made people; and they reject the verdict of God concerning people's need for salvation; and they reject God's Son sent to save people from their lost condition. And yet, they say they love people.
I have asked this of myself since this meeting the other day: If my heart had been rightly oriented toward loving God, would I have treated the woman differently than I did? I believe I would have. If I had truly been loving God as I should have been in that encounter, I would have loved her as He loves her. I would not have been put out by her visit any more than God would be put out by her; nor would I have looked upon her needs as an inconvenience to me any more than God is inconvenienced by her. I would not have seen her for what she was on the outside; but rather for what God sees of her on the inside.
Here, then, is a new strategy that I have learned from this morning's passage with respect to my encounter with that wondering visitor. I have learned that we should not try to love each other by first focusing our attention on each other. We're not likely to find anything lovable if we do; and even if we should find something, it won't last. That's not the place to start. Instead, we should learn to love each other by making our own love toward God the beginning point. If we truly love Him as we should - that is, by recognizing the depths of His own unmerited love toward us, shown in the sacrifice of His precious Son for our sins on the cross - then we will love each other as He loves us, in spite of how unlovable each one of us may be. "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God ..."
* * * * * * * * * *
But even this can still be rather subjective. How can I objectify my love for God and thus objectify my love for my brethren? The answer is found in what John adds to the statement about our love toward God: "... when we love God and keep His commandments." This leads us, then, to another thing this passage teaches us ...
2. THE LOVE OF GOD DEFINED (v. 3).
The love of God is given practical definition through the keeping of His commandments. John goes on to say, "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome" (v. 3).
Jesus clearly taught this principle to His disciples: that if someone truly loves Him, they will show it by faithfully keeping His commandments. "If you love Me," He said, "keep My commandments" (John 14:15). "If you keep My commandments," He said, "you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love" (John 15:10). It doesn't do any good to say that we love Jesus or esteem Him as Lord, if we disprove what we say by living in disobedience to His commandments. "... Why do you call Me 'Lord, Lord,'" He asks, "and not do the things which I say?" (Luke 6:46).
My love for my brother, then, is inseparable from my love for God; and my love for God is inseparable from the keeping of His commandments. If I keep God's commandments, I show that I love Him; and if I love Him as I should, then to that degree I can know that I truly love His children. That's basically John's argument.
I see a wonderful affirmation of this in Jesus' teaching about the commandments. Perhaps you remember the story. A lawyer - that is, a man in Jewish culture who was an expert in the study of God's law in the Scriptures - once came to Jesus in order to test Him. "Teacher," he said, "which is the great commandment of the law?" (Matthew 22:36). In other words, he was asking Jesus what commandment stood as the foundational commandment on which all the other commandments hinged.
Jesus answered the lawyer by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5: "'You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment" (vv. 37-38).
Perhaps it came as a surprise to the lawyer that Jesus summed up the entire keeping of God's commandments under the principle of love. He didn't say, "You shall obey the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind." Rather, He quoted the passage that commands whole-hearted love for God. And He was saying that, in loving God, we will keep His commandments. We will have no other gods before Him; we will not construct an image of Him and bow down to it; we will not take His name in vain; and we will not fail to honor His appointed day of rest. We'll obey those commandments because we love Him.
But Jesus then answered more than the lawyer had asked. He went on to say, "And the second is like it ..." And then, quoting from Leviticus 19:19, He said, "'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets" (vv. 39-40).
As you can see, Jesus wouldn't affirm the command to love God without also affirming the command to love our neighbor; because the two are inseparable. He didn't make the command to love our neighbor to be the first and great commandment; but rather, made it the second and the command to love God first. But He connected the two to show that one flows naturally from the other. If we love God as we should, we will faithfully keep the commandments that govern our love for Him. And if we are loving God as we should, we will also keep His commandments that govern our love for our neighbor. We will not murder our neighbor; we will not commit adultery with our neighbor; we will not steal from our neighbor; we will not bear false witness against our neighbor; and we will not covet what belongs to our neighbor.
I think of this, again, with respect to the lady that came to our church. I was unwilling to love her, because I was looking at her first, rather than at God first. If I had loved God as I should at that moment, I would have loved her as He loved her. And if I was uncertain how to go about loving her, my love for God would have quickly lead me to the answer: keep God's commandments toward her. The command to love my neighbor as myself would certainly have been a place to start.
* * * * * * * * * *
I have always been fascinated by that little comment of John's at the end of this verse: "And His commandments are not burdensome." What does John mean by this?
I used to think that he meant something like this: "Now Greg; this is how a love for God truly works out. Simply put, you obey His commandments. And you love your neighbor in the same way; by obeying God's commandments toward them. And by the way, Greg; don't go around acting like God is asking anything unreasonable of you; because His commandments are not the big, huge burden you sometimes act like they are. After all, as you know all too well, you place a far bigger burden on your shoulders whenever you to try to make life work without obedience to God's commands! And besides, you remember what Jesus said: 'Come to Me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light' (Matthew 11:28-30)."
In other words, I used to think of John's statement "His commandments are not burdensome" as something of an "understatement". But as I look at this statement in the larger context of this passage, I see it not so much as an understatement as I do an affirmation of what is now true for the child of God in Christ.
In the strength of my own flesh, the keeping of God's commandments is not just "burdensome"; it's impossible! If it were up to my own resources, I'd never love God as I should; nor would I ever love my brother or sister as I should. I certainly would never have loved that visitor to our church as I should. Apart from God's help, I am a powerless, helpless sinner who is under the irresistible pull of the evil forces in this world - totally incapable of keeping God's commandments and walking in His love.
But look what happens when I read this statement in the context of the verses that follow it. "And His commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world - our faith. Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?" (vv. 3-5).
Apart from God's grace, I have no power in myself to keep God's commandments. They are an impossible burden to me. But whoever places their faith in Jesus Christ has overcome the world! They are no longer powerless, helpless victims of the values and priorities of this world, but are made victorious by the indwelling Holy Spirit. As John writes elsewhere in this letter, concerning the spirit of the Antichrist which is already at work in the world; "You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world" (4:4). Now, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Phil. 4:13). God's commandments are no longer a burden to me. They are a joy to keep, through His power and in His love at work within me.
* * * * * * * * * *
This leads us to consider, finally ...
3. THE CHILDREN OF GOD DEFINED (vv. 4-5).
John has said at the beginning of this passage that, "by this" - that is, by our love for God and the keeping of His commandments - "we know that we love the children of God". Who are the children of God that we're to love? John tells us at the end of this passage who it is that has been born of God. "Whoever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that overcomes the world - our faith. Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?"
I like to think of these closing verses in terms the "principle", the "practice", and the "persons" that we find in them. The "principle" is one that leads to a victory that overcomes the world; and that "principle" is faith in Jesus Christ". John puts it this way: "... This is the victory that overcomes the world - our faith"; and in the context of the passage itself, the faith it is describing is a faith in Jesus Christ as the saving Son of God. The Bible describes this principle in action in Revelation 12:13. There, we read of how the devil - "the accuser of our brethren" - is cast down upon the earth and rages against God's people. But we're told, "And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death."
Second, we see the "practice". That is, whoever overcomes the world does so by an active, progressive, persistent faith in Jesus Christ. John says, "Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?" As the apostle Paul writes, "The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord" (1 Cor. 15:56-58).
Finally, we see the "persons"; and this leads us directly to who it is that we're to particularly love. John said at the beginning of the passage that we're to love the children of God. Who are the children of God? John writes, "Whoever is born of God overcomes the world. ... Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?"
I pointed out that I didn't know whether the woman who came to our church was a believer or not. I'm ashamed to admit that I took no time to find out. But suppose that she was. On the outside, she may be dressed in rags and appear weak and insignificant. But if she placed her faith in Jesus Christ, then she is an overcomer! However she may appear to my eyes, she would be a delight to the Lord Jesus Christ, a cause for the angels to praise God for His amazing grace, and a reason for the devil to be frustrated and fearful! I'm obligated to have loved her for no other reason than because I'm to love my neighbor as myself. And perhaps God would have used that love to draw her to the Savior. But if these spiritual realities are true of her through an active faith in Jesus Christ, I am under an even greater obligation to have loved her; because she would have been a victorious sister and fellow child of God, under our wonderful Savior's loving care.
* * * * * * * * * *
Dear brothers and sisters, I may be able to construct a good biblical theology of love from this epistle of John; but I have a lot of growing to do in the matter of putting it into practice. But I believe I have learned some lessons from this morning's passage; and I pray that you have too.
Let's learn together to love one another by beginning in the right place - not by looking at each other and seeking something to love, but by looking first to God's amazing grace toward us in Christ and responding to His gracious love to us by loving Him in return. Then, in loving response to His love, let's love Him through a life of increasing obedience to His commandments as they are found in the Scriptures. And finally, under the enabling power of the Holy Spirit, let's show love to the children of God that He places in our lives by keeping His commandments toward them - ever seeking to see them as He sees them.
Love for our brother is inseparable from love for God and obedience to His commandments. By this, we'll know that we love the children of God.
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