This story is only funny because there is an element of truth to it. Our churches are typically characterized by this divisive kind of spirit—a spirit that is contrary what we are called to here.
Unfortunately, our churches are not typically characterized by love. That is why it is good to return to the subject this morning.
I began last week by saying that the passage that we are looking at is here in the heart of John’s epistle. It is, you might say, the core of his message. The message of love is sprinkled throughout the letter. But here in the exact center he devotes his attention in to the topic in greater detail.
It is good that I didn’t have time to cover all the material last week. It is good to come back to it again because it is important to stress this message as much as possible. This is to be a place where love thrives. Love is to emanate from us in abundant measures. It is to be our defining trait as Christians.
Jonathan Edward preached a famous sermon entitled, “Heaven is a world of love.” In that sermon he explains how love is perfected in heaven. As you read it you can’t help but think how grand the world to come will be. But we must never forget that we are to make every effort to replicate that realm here on earth. John says here that the church is to be a world of love.
We can see that in the verses with which we began this morning. In verses 16-18 John deals with the practice of loving one another. He dives right into the practical ramifications of this love. And he puts it in no small terms.
I. The practice of loving one another [16-18]
When it comes to the practice of loving one another, you can sum what John says in these verses with just one word: sacrifice.
In verse 16 he points us to the quintessential act of love—the atoning sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. He says, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us.”
It is interesting the way he puts it too. He’s saying that this is not just the highest expression of love, but this is how we know what love is! This is what defines love for us.
Now understand that this is the answer that man has been searching for since the beginning of time. John has solved one of the most perplexing philosophical questions that has ever faced mankind. The greatest thinkers throughout time have tried to define and understand this thing called love. However, it has been an elusive mystery. And the reason is because love cannot be truly understood by intellectual examination alone.
To really understand love (to really be able to show love!) you have to experience the divine manifestation of it. You can’t look it up on Wikipedia. You can’t simply go to Webster’s Dictionary and think that you know what love is. The only way to know what love is to understand it by way of personal encounter with the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. You have to experience the overflow of God’s love as it is found in the crucifixion of the Son of God.
I wish I could say more about how important this is. Because there could be so many marriages that could be saved if people only knew what love was. There are so many children who would not be estranged from their parents if those families had only grasped this truth. I see so many today who just don’t know what love is. And all their relational problems would be solved if they simply came to understand what Christ has done on our behalf.
So many in the world today define love in a different way. They define it more in terms of infatuation. They think of love as attraction. Somehow something or someone catches their fancy—it makes them feel a certain way, and they are attracted to it.
But as soon as the emotion wears off the attraction dies. The relationship disintegrates.
John’s saying here, that’s not love. Real love goes way beyond personal attraction. John’s saying that the kind of love that we are to share is sacrificial in nature. It doesn’t give a hoot about your personal feelings or level of attraction. Real love isn’t even about you. The orbit is completely different. It is focused on the gain or good of someone else. And if it does have anything about you, it is about what it may cost you.
That’s what we see in Christ, is it not? Jesus laid down his life for you! He demonstrates love in that he was willing to sacrifice his very life for your eternal welfare.
I thought about this in terms of my vacation that I just took. There were some days that were just excessively hot that week. Temperatures were sitting in the 80’s and 90’s. When it was the most uncomfortable part of the day, I didn’t want to venture out of the house at all. On the other hand, Lake Michigan’s temperature was in the 60’s! It was a lot like swimming in a bucket of ice! I couldn’t get up the gall to go in it with my daughters most of the time.
If you think about it, the conditions were much worse for Jesus Christ. Do you think it was easy for him to step out of his domain in heaven? Waiting for him beyond those doors were the ice cold hearts of men and the scalding hot blaze of God’s wrath and curse.
Yet out of his love for you he left his heavenly home. He underwent all the miseries of this life, even death itself; in the form of crucifixion, and he did it for you.
This is the love we know, and that is the kind of love we are to show. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.”
When it comes to the practice of loving the brethren, it is to be extended in the same manner. Hopefully you grasp the full weight of this. I don’t want you to let those words pass by lightly. We are to be ready to imitate our Lord and give our very lives for one another.
You might say, “Yes, I’m ready to give my life for them.” But what John says next really gives some definition to what he means. In verse 17 he gives a practical illustration. He says, “But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?”
In other words, you can die daily by making these smaller kinds of sacrifices for one another. And if you think about it, if we are not willing to make these smaller sacrifices, could we really be willing to die for someone?
I think that John chooses one of the hardest things one can do next to giving up your life. For some people, parting with some of their hard earned income can be like parting with a limb.
I like what Martin Luther said regarding this. He knew how hard it was for people to begin giving regular offerings to the church. In speaking of converts to Christianity he said that it typically takes 6 or 7 years before God baptizes their wallets.
It’s true. It is very difficult to part with one’s money, especially after working so hard to gain it.
Of course, this is just one area where we can show this kind of sacrificial love. John generalizes it in verse 18, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” In other words, let’s not just say we love each other. Let’s really show it.
Mark and I were talking just this week about the whole health care debacle that has just transpired. We were talking about how this is the future for the church. Once again, Christians will be called upon to bear one another’s burdens when it comes to health care. Not just financial burdens (which I know this church has had a history of doing), but providing bedside service for those who are hurting or perhaps even dying.
Perhaps this is even why the Lord has allowed this turn of events: so that we may truly be knit together as we ought.
As these things begin to transpire, and even now, let us be thinking about how we can practice the sacrificial love that God calls us to display.
And as we do, I want you to know that you shall reap the benefits of it. Yes, don’t think that doing these things will not be without its reward. Loving the brethren will profit your spiritually.
In verse 19 John moves from talking about the practice of loving one another to the power of it.
II. The power of loving one another
He says, “By this [i.e. by these sacrificial deeds of love] we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him.”
He’s saying that your acts of love had a certain amount of power. As you love others, your love will in turn help you when you question your faith.
You may remember last week I talked about the principles of loving one another that John lays out in verses 11-15. One of those principles I mentioned was that love is concentrated in the true believer. John said up in verse 14, “We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the brethren.” I mentioned briefly the fact that our love for one another is evidence that we can look to when we are struggling with the assurance of our salvation. Or if we want to know if we really are a Christian or not, John says all you have to do is check and see if you are loving the brethren.
Now we went on to talk about how this implies commitment to a particular church. But I want to return to this notion of assurance. This is something that I want to make sure we are clear on. It is common to have doubts about your faith.
If you need proof of this, just look at verse 20. John says, “For whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.”
John says that our hearts, sinful as they are, can get the best of us sometimes. It is understandable why we go through this: We all sin. We all know that we are not supposed to sin. We all know that God hates sin and judges those who sin. If that is the case, it is obvious that deep down inside we will start to think, “How can I be a Christian?”
What’s important to see is that John seems to say that he himself goes through this. He says, “Whenever our hearts condemn us.” He uses the first person plural, and seems to say that he too knows what it is like.
So if you are struggling with whether or not you are a Christian, just understand that this is something that is not untypical. It is something that is quite common. And maybe even take comfort in the fact that the apostles (of all people!) struggled with it from time to time!
And what does John say that we should do? To get out of that rut John says look at your love for the brethren. “By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him.”
Our love for the brethren is to be an evidence of our faith. That we have committed ourselves to a local church should be an indication that our faith is real. That we do pray for them and are genuinely seeking to assist them should be something that confirms us in the faith.
John even goes so far as to speak of it in terms of our union with Christ in verse 24, “Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him.” This is not saying that our keeping of the commandments makes us to abide in God. No, that can’t be. If it were up to us, God would run from us. (After all, this is why our hearts condemn us. We are sinning too much).
He’s saying here that since God abides in you and you abide in God, the natural outworking of this is the keeping of the commandments. To some degree, the life of Christ is evidenced in you and that should be an indication that you are of that stock and breed.
There is a building in Constantinople called St. Sophia. Originally it was designed to be a church. Unfortunately, now it is used as a mosque. But when it was first constructed, it is said that the architect had them mix large amounts of musk into the mortar. Since they were saturated with the sweet smelling perfume, the walls of the church gave off a pleasing aroma to all who entered. And even now, after a thousand years, the fragrance can still be detected. Because the perfume abides in the bricks, the bricks give off the aroma.
John’s saying here that if the fragrance of love can be detected in you, then you have all the evidence you need to know that the source of love abides in you.
Loving acts of sacrifice will have that kind of power.
So if you find yourself wondering about your state of salvation, don’t wallow in it. Just look at the record of your life. Think about how these people. Think about what they mean to you. And let the fragrance of your love be that which sets your heart at ease.
It is said that every time Alfred Lord Tennyson went to publish a book of his poems the publisher had to purchase an extra supply of l’s and v’s. It was because this poet had an unusual infatuation with one particular word: love. You could say that the print shop was not used to that much love.
It is my hope that this church exudes love like Tennyson’s poems. May this place be so saturated with the sacrificial love of Christ. And because it is may it be that no one questions their eternal state.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.