Real Love - 1 John 4:7-12

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 4th May 2003.

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How do you find true love? Well in a new twist of the age old dating game, an American Internet site is offering women the chance to recycle their old boyfriends by recommending them to other potential partners. Greatboyfriends.com allows women to post pictures of their ex boyfriends on the website along with a candid assessment of his potential. 'Too good to be true' reads one advertisement. 'All my friends said I was mad to split up with him.' Every man then receives a ruggedness rating, a male ego rating, a handsomeness rating, and a ring buying rating. So one man comes up with the following profile. He's a cross between a Boy Scout and a rogue, he's conceited but adorable, your mother would call him nice looking, and he'd buy you a small but stylish diamond engagement ring. It seems that some people will do anything to find true love.

Now today we're beginning a new sermon series in which we are looking at some Big Issues which face us as Christians living in the world. Over the next few weeks we're going to be looking at topics such as War, Self Worth and Gender Issues. And the question before us as we approach every topic will be 'who will we listen to?' The world, or the Word? What the culture and society around us say, or what God says? And we may well find ourselves differing very seriously from what the world around is saying.

And it's especially important in this topic of real love to find out what God is saying first and foremost. Because if we were to look elsewhere we will find a poor understanding of what real love is. Sadly in Britain today millions of children grow up in homes where true love is never shown, or at the very least where the model of love in marriage, God's gift of selfless, sacrificial love for life has been broken for whatever reason. If we look to our movie screens, we find so called love stories which have little if anything to do with love as the Bible teaches it. Over the Easter weekend the film The English Patient was shown on TV, and it was advertised as a real love story. And yet what was it in reality? A catalogue of adulterous affairs and lust driven encounters. What is often portrayed as love on our TV screens is no more than immoral lust. And sadly human beings are often very poor models of what love is supposed to be. Love is often distorted to become more like selfish gain, than selfless giving. And it's no surprise therefore to find that many people are simply crying out for love, not the mushy, often sexually driven lust of the TV screen, but the caring, selfless love which human beings can show because they are made in God's image. Bertrand Russell, not someone a Christian would naturally quote as an ally, once wrote: 'The root of the matter is a very old fashioned and simple thing; a thing so simple that I am almost ashamed to mention it for fear of the derisive smile that will greet my words. The thing we lack, and the thing I need, is love.'

No, what we need to do, if we are to understand what true love is all about is to look at the Bible, and to look at God. For in him, we will see the full and complete understanding of love, and not only in theory but in practice as well. And that is what the apostle John is teaching us about in this passage from 1 John 4. Here he is explaining that God is love and he teaches us some wonderful truths about God's love. And it needs to be said too that it is not just non Christians who are often confused or misled about true love, but also Christians. We too so quickly forget God's love for us. It is all too easy in the bustle and troubles of life to forget what God's love is really like. If we go through tough times it is tempting to doubt God's love for us. If we are struggling with a particular sin, we're tempted to think God's love will be taken away from us. And if we are simply feeling drained and dry spiritually, then it's easy to think that it is God who has grown cold of us. But none of those things are true. Rather we need to come back to the Bible and see just how amazing God's love really is. Many of the difficulties we go through as Christians would at the very least be more bearable if we were to remember God's love for us. It's no surprise that one of the Paul's prayers for the Ephesians church is that they might have the power to grasp how great God's love for them in Christ really is. Understanding God's love is no side issue in faith. It is central, it's vitally important. It is the very heart beat of the Christian faith. Not just that we might reflect God's love in the world around us, but that we might know the love of God and that God is love. For only when we look at God will we understand fully what real love is all about. So let's turn to 1 John 4, and we will see four aspects of God's love that John teaches us there. For God's love is:

1) Personal Love

2) Gracious Love

3) Sacrificial Love

4) Shared Love

1) Personal Love

So the first thing John teaches us about God's love is that it is personal, and by that we mean that love comes from God, as John puts it in verse 7. God is himself loving, in fact more than that, he is love. According to verse 8. Now what does this mean? There is down Holderness Road a take away called KFC, Kentucky Fried Chicken. Now KFC is not very big in the UK but in America KFC is big. And the man who started KFC was a man called Colonel Sanders. He was the man who invented the combination of spices which goes on top of the chicken to make it 'finger lickin' good.' Now when KFC started in America, you could have said, without anyone misunderstanding you: 'Colonel Sanders is KFC'. There is no KFC apart from Colonel Sanders. Such was his recipe and skill that you could make such a statement. Now John here tells us that God is love. There is no true love apart from God. He is the source of all that is true love. If you want to see what love is then you must look at God because God is love. But John is not saying that love is God, so that wherever there is love there is God. That would be saying that wherever there is a lump of chicken there is Colonel Sanders. Rather John is making a statement about God. God's very being and nature is to love. And of course the primary place where God shows his personal love is within himself, within the Trinity. Now here we get into very deep water, since we will spend all eternity fathoming out this profound mystery. But the point is that the Bible can say God is love, simply because God is loving in his own person, in his own character. For we are told that the Son loves the Father and the Father loves the Son. The Son loves the Spirit and the Spirit loves the Father. In other words in God's very self, in his very being there is a depth and quality of love that is complete and perfect. For God is love. His very being and nature is love.

Now in the NT there are three other statements whereby the author says that God is something. Two of them are in John's writings. In chapter 4 v 24 of his gospel, John says that God is spirit, and then in chapter 1 v 5 of his first letter he says that God is light. And in Hebrews 12 v 29 the writer says that 'God is consuming fire'. Now when John says here that God is love, he is not saying that John is a little bit loving sometimes and then a little bit holy, like consuming fire, then a little bit light. He doesn't alternate between these qualities depending on what day it is or what kind of mood he is in. Love is not a number of options that God can choose from. Rather God is 100% loving, he is 100% holy, he is 100% light, hating all that is darkness, all that is sinful. All these qualities are to be affirmed together. So that means when God judges, he judges with love. When God disciplines us, he disciplines us in love. When God shows us what to do and how to behave, he is not bashing us with a big stick, he is lovingly telling us what pleases him and how we can delight the God who made us. Love, as John sees it, marks all of God's activities, however he is acting whether be in justice, in salvation, or in judgement.

Now what better assurance do we have than that we are dealing with a loving God, a God who fundamentally, in his very nature, loves us? Many people today cannot believe in God who judges, they cannot believe in a God who lays down moral boundaries and sets up a moral framework for us to stick to. 'Oh, I can't believe in a god like that,' they say. 'All rules and no freedom.' Well the God of the Bible is a God of love. So when he says: 'I don't want you to sleep with your boyfriend or girlfriend,' he's not saying it because he's a killjoy God who hates us having fun. Rather he is a loving God who knows that the proper context for sex is a heterosexual, lifetime commitment called marriage. When he says that he will punish those who reject him forever, he does it with tears in his eyes because he is a loving God, but he knows that such arrogant denials of him must be punished, otherwise his loving justice is denied. You see, such a loving God is a God who always has our best interests at heart. To love is his very character. Are you finding some of God's ways tough this week? Well take heart, they come from a loving God who knows best and who wants the best for you. Do you feel yourself going through a testing period in your faith or maybe you know you are being disciplined by God for whatever reason, then take heart. God is a loving Father. He knows best, even if we cannot fully understand his ways. That's the first thing we learn about God's love this morning. It is personal, it comes from God's very nature. For God is love.

2) Gracious Love

But secondly we discover that God's love is gracious love. Verse 10: 'This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved usThe staggering fact that John puts before us here is that God's love is gracious love. We did nothing to deserve God's love, in fact we did everything to warrant him not loving us forever! But still he loves us. That is gracious love. The danger for the Christian is that we get sucked into thinking that God loves us because there is something loveable about us. But the fact is as sinful fallen human beings there is not. We are outright enemies of God. We're evil rebels. Take for instance what John says elsewhere in his gospel. 'God so loved the world that he sent his one and only son in to the world that whosoever believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life.' When you think of love, what do you think of? A nice romantic walk by the beach, a beautiful couple, skipping happily through the waves as the sun sets behind the ocean and as the waves lap the beach of some idyllic paradise island. It may be love, and a precious type of love, but it's not the kind of love that God has for the sinner. When John says that God loved the world, was not because there was something loveable about the world. It wasn't the nice cosy walk along the beach type of love that John is referring to here. Rather the gracious love God has for the sinner is the kind a boy might show to a girl who quite frankly is the most repulsive woman you could ever bear to meet. No only does she smell terribly and have the most repulsive bad breath, but she spends most of her time in the clubs and pubs of her local town trying it on with the other men. She delights to share her bed with whoever she finds and degrades herself frequently in public. And yet this young man loves her. She never gives him anything, nor does she respond in kind. But he loves her. That's gracious love. Love given when none can be returned. And when God looks us on human beings in our natural sinful state without God he sees enemies against him, people who spiritually speaking are the worst. And yet God has set his love on us. We did not seek him. He sought us. This is the God who pursues sinners, who seeks and saves them, the one who sets his love upon them in spite of the fact that we have not loved him. This is love, says John, not that we loved God, but that he loved us. We don't naturally love God, and yet he loves us. And that is what the Bible calls grace. Free, undeserved love.

Of course to many people grace is offensive. For many it is a huge stumbling block to becoming a Christian. Our natural inclination is to think God owes us one, that he'll save us because we're nice and haven't done anyone any harm. But that's not grace. Grace says that although you are a wretched sinner utterly and wilfully opposed to me, yet I am still going to rescue you. I love you anyway. Can you get your head round that? That God would love you despite all the terrible things you have done against him. The more we see our sin, the more we realise how deep and fathomless God's love is.

Or let me put it another way in the form of a question. Can you imagine Saddam Hussein being in heaven? Can you imagine him praising God and enjoying heaven forever? Can you imagine him being sat next to you at the great wedding feast in heaven, this man who has tortured and murdered thousands in the last two decades, who has terrorised his own countrymen? Can you imagine him in heaven? Well if not then I suggest you have not understood grace properly. Because it is possible for a man like that to be in heaven, just as it is possible for men and women like us to be in heaven. He may have shown his rebellious nature in more outwardly destructive ways, but in the heart there is no difference between him and me. And the staggering news is that God's gracious love is available as much to Saddam as it is to me. For God is a God of incredibly gracious love.

3) Sacrificial Love

But John also explains to us a third aspect of God's love and that is his sacrificial love. Because we might ask how it is that people like us or Saddam could be in heaven. Will God simply sweep all those sins we have committed under the carpet? Will God ignore the injustices done in Iraq over the last twenty years? Well no, for God is also consuming fire and perfect holiness and light, and he will not stand sin in his presence. So he has provided a way for sinners to be in heaven justly and rightly. And it comes at a huge price. For God's love is also sacrificial. Have a look at verse 9: 'This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his One and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.' God's love is sacrificial- that is, it comes at great cost and also to great effect.

a) At great cost- It comes first at great cost. In order for God to rescue you and me from an eternal destiny of being cast out of God's presence, it takes the death of God's one and only Son. God sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Jesus had to go to the cross to take the punishment that we deserve. He died in our place, where we should have rightfully been. Now what does John mean by an atoning sacrifice? Well the older versions have propitiation. To make someone propitious is to appease someone's anger. So if a husband makes his wife angry by doing something wrong, then he can make his wife propitious by giving her some flowers. Her wrath is dealt with by the husband's apology and giving her a present. But God's wrath against us can only be dealt with by a perfect sinless sacrifice. Jesus steps into our shoes as the sinless sacrifice and not only bears the physical pain of the cross, but also the spiritual pain, the pain of having to bear God's anger for sin. That is the atoning sacrifice of the cross. The cross atones for or pays for your sin and mine. And the price? The death of Jesus Christ. Do you want proof that God loves you? Well all you have to do is look at the cross. The cross on which Jesus died proves God's love- a sacrificial love shown at great cost. But it's a sacrificial love to great effect.

b) To great effect- There are all sorts of ways I can prove my love for my wife. Perhaps the most stupid would be for me to go to the Humber Bridge and in a fit of rash love say 'I love you' as I hurl myself off. Well what's the point in that? There is no point. Some think Jesus' death was like that- simply a display of his love. Well it is not like that. Rather Jesus' death is for a purpose. John says in verse 9 that it is so 'that we might live through him'. He died that we might live through him. That's why Jesus came, to give us life. To bring us back into friendship with God again, to take away the penalty of eternal death that hangs over us.

A few years ago, Debbie and I visited the site of an amazing act of self sacrifice. It was in Washington on a bridge over the Potomac River. In December 1982, a plane took off from Washington airport but shortly afterwards developed engine trouble and crashed into the icy waters of the Potomac River. There were only five survivors. As the helicopter flew over head, it let down a rope to pick up the survivors. A man grabbed the rope and then swum and gave it one of the survivors. Then he was winched up to safety. The rope was let down again. Again the same man swam and grabbed the rope and gave it to another survivor, and they were winched up. The rope was let down five times in all and every time the same man grabbed the rope and swam and gave it to another person. Well when the helicopter let down the rope for a sixth time, there was no-one there to receive it. That man had drowned, overcome at last by sheer exhaustion and cold. It was an extraordinary act of self sacrifice. One man dying so that others could live.

And on the cross, Jesus died so that we might live. He died not just to rescue us from a perishingly cold river, but from an eternal destiny facing God's anger all by ourselves. What amazing love! It a sacrificial love at great cost and to great effect. 'How deep the Father's love for us, how vast beyond all measure, that he should give his only Son, to make a wretch his treasure. How great the pain of searing loss, the Father turns his face away, as wounds which mar the chosen one bring many sons to glory.' You see, when you look at the cost, you realise how precious you are in God's eyes. Do you think he'd go to all that pain if there was another way to save us? I'm sure he'd have found it if there was. But in his gracious and sacrificial love he was willing to do all that for us. If you are going through a difficult time, can you really believe that the God who gave his only son would take his love away from you? If you're going through a period of doubt or spiritual dryness, can you really believe, when you look at the cross, that God would have distanced himself from you? This is a love which is everlasting, a love which is wiling to place our sins as far as the east is from the west. That's the sort of love God shows to the sinner. But like all offers of love, it is not automatic. You can take it or leave it. Do you want it? Jesus' nail pierced hand is outstretched, waiting for your acceptance. God's sacrificial love.

4) Shared Love

But there is finally a fourth distinctive of this love and that is shared love. For once we have received God's personal, gracious and sacrificial love, he does not expect us to remain the same. His love shown to us is to be passed on to others. Have a look at verse 7: 'Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love, does not know God, because God is love.' John's point is very simple. If you claim to be a son or daughter of the God of love, then you must show it by your actions. The person who says he is a son of God and yet does not love does not know God because he does not love.

Now he is not saying that everyone who loves in any sort of way is a Christian. John makes it clear in his letter that the love he is talking about is the love that God shows. It is selfless and sacrificial, and it is tied to a relationship with God through Jesus. And he's not saying that you cannot love outside of being a Christian. Clearly there are a lot of non Christians who love in some way. But if you claim to be a Christian and do not love your fellow Christian, then you are not acting as a Christian. For love is the mark of the Christian, because the Christian reflect his heavenly Father's image. And what is the motivation for this love? John tells us in verse 11: 'Since God loved us, we ought to love one another'. You cannot look at the cross for long and not fail to be moved by the extraordinary love that God showed us in his Son's death on the cross, can you? Surely if you have understood the cross properly then you will long to love others. John Stott, commenting on this passage says: 'No-one who has been to the cross and seen God's immeasurable and unmerited love displayed there can go back to a life of selfishness.'

And in verse 12, John takes the challenge a step further. 'No-one has ever seen God; but if we love each other, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.' He is saying this: Where else will the non Christian see God except in the loving Christian community. You cannot see God, but you can see his character in Christians, or at least you should be able to; you can see him at work. And his characteristic of love, says John, is to be seen among Christians. See the way they love one another, people should be saying of us. The church should be a shop window onto God's character. And in this way, God's love is made complete. It is brought to its full function when we love other Christians. For God's love is to be shared.

When we looked around us, we see many distortions of real love. Often human love is selfish and grasping. But it's only when we look at the God of the Bible do we see real love as it should be. For God's love is a personal love, a gracious love, a sacrificial love. And after coming face to face with love like this, it is to be shared love.

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