Family likeness - 1 John 2:28 - 3:10
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
I came across a true story recently about a couple who were fishing in their boat off the coast of Florida. Well it was a hot day and the wife decided to go for a swim, but soon found that the current had taken her far from the boat. She shouted to her husband, who thought she was telling him to come in. So he dived in and he too discovered that he was being carried away. He was a strong swimmer but not she. So they worked out a plan. He would swim against the tide and try and stay as close to the boat as possible until the tide turned and he could swim to the boat. She would just let herself be carried by the current and then he would come and get her. Well six hours passed before the tide turned and the husband could get back to the boat, now on the distant horizon. But the sun had almost set and he could not search for his wife. Well the following day a search party was called and just as they were about to give up they found her, twenty miles out to sea and still alive. Because when you're out of the middle of the ocean, in the midst of tidal currents and at the whim of the waves and the winds, it's very hard to swim against the tide. And when you drift away, you are placing yourself in very grave danger.
Now if you have been a Christian even a little while, then you will know in your own experience that this feeling of swimming against the tide is very much the Christian's experience. In every area of life, it seems, what we stand for and who we follow will cause us to go against the tide. There are the flagrantly non Christian values practised in our places of work, the sometimes anti Christian sentiment of the popular media, and the drip, drip, drip of popular culture telling us to do what we want as opposed to what God wants. And it feels like we are swimming against a very strong tide.
Now we've seen over the last few weeks, that John's letter was written to Christians under pressure in a world opposed to God. And we saw last week that this is the world we live in, humanity opposed to God, living life their way without reference to the God who made them. And we Christians are called to be different. For John's letter is all about the need to know the truth and then to put into practice. If you remember, the heartbeat of his letter is found in chapter 5 v 13: "I writer these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you might know that you have eternal life." That's his aim in writing. He wants his readers to be sure they are Christians. And to that end he gives us three tests throughout his letter of the mark of authentic Christianity. How do you know you are a Christian? Well because you believe certain truths about God Son Jesus Christ. Second you love those in your church fellowship. And third you live a certain way, God's way, the way of holiness. And all this was against a backdrop of false teaching. And the false teachers, led by a man called Cerinthus, failed on each of those tests. They didn't believe the truth about Jesus. They didn't love one another and those in need. And they failed dismally when it came to holiness. In fact some of them were saying that they weren't even sinful. They were perfect. And others of them were saying that sin didn't matter anyway! So you can live how you want.
And it's against that backdrop that John writes this passage before us tonight where he tackles the third of those tests, the moral test. Because he urges his readers to take sin seriously. He reminds us of the fact that if we claim to be children of God, if we claim to be Christians, then we must live a certain way. And yes it will be hard Yes it will feel like you are swimming against the tide. But we can do it. We can make progress. And we can grow in holiness, becoming more like Christ. Indeed we must if we claim to be children of God. Because the temptation for us as Christians is to think that holiness is an added extra. Holy people are the top notch Christians. Becoming like God is a great thing if you can get there. But its too hard, too tiring swimming against the tide. But John will have none of it. Because as usual his message is very black and white as chapter 3 v 10 shows: "This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother." Holiness, you see, is a mark of the child of God. It is normal Christianity. And John's lesson for us tonight will be very straightforward. Quite simply he's asking us: Do you display the family likeness? Do you act like your heavenly Father. Because if not, serious questions need to be asked. So let's turn to John's letter and we'll see that he'll give us three incentives to be holy, three reasons why we should display this mark of the Christian. And we'll take them in the order John teaches them to us:
1) Our Present Status (2 v 29- 3 v 1)
2) Our Future Hope (2 v 28; 3 vv 2-3)
3) Our Past Rescue (3 vv 4-10)
1) Our Present Status (2 v 29- 3 v 1)
So the first incentive to holiness is our present status. Chapter 3 v 1: "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him." So what is our present status? It is that we are children of God. Now it's important to see that becoming a Christian or a child of God is not something we can do or inherit. Just because we live in England, or come from a Christian home does not make us a Christian. Rather becoming a Christian is a supernatural thing. As John hints at in verse 29, we must be born again. We must undergo a new birth. And that simply means admitting our sin and need for rescue and accepting Jesus' death and resurrection for us, turning round and going God's way, living with Jesus as our Saviour and King. And if you have done that then you are a Christian. You are a child of God.
And that is something which is very special indeed. In fact it is the most precious gift we could ever imagine receiving. So just look again how John puts it in verse 1: "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!" Now this is the language of total astonishment. John is staggered that you and I could be called children of God. In fact, the expression which John uses here for "how great", is the same expression Matthew uses in his gospel when he describes the disciples' reaction to Jesus when Jesus has just calmed a raging storm with one word. There we read that the disciples said: "What kind of man is this that the winds and waves obey him!" What kind of man is this, they say? He's extraordinary! We've never seen anything like it! And here, says John, what kind of love is this? It's extraordinary! We've never seen anything like it! That's the language John is using. This love is staggering that we should be called children of God. And that is what we are says John, as if we need reminding! We are children of God.
And so what does that mean? Well in John's culture, to be a son, or child, meant that you were the heir. You inherited the father's estate, and that included adopted sons as well. Adopted children had just as many rights as natural born children, in fact sometimes more! And spiritually we have been adopted into God's family and we too will become heirs of God's kingdom. And it's the love of God that so amazes John when he considers this. What kind of love is this that we should be called children of God. I mean quite frankly, when I take time to consider the state of my heart and the sin within it, then it disgusts me. Why should anyone love me? And yet God still loves me. I am astonished by God's love for me! And it's even more amazing because God can see far more of my sin that I can. He knows me better than I know myself, and he still loves me. And if you are a Christian tonight, trusting the death of Jesus for you, then you are a child of God. You have been lavished with God's love. You are a very precious child of God, someone for whom God's Son died for, a promised heir of the kingdom of God, someone whom God will never ever let go of.
Now it's worth us pausing here to ponder just what an extraordinary truth this is. That God should love us to such an extent that we should be his children. Because it is so easy to become blasof this fact, to become complacent. So we say: "Oh yes God loves me. I know that", without truly considering what an amazing thing that is. Or else we simply forget the depth of love that God loves us with. Or else we fear that one day God will simply get fed up with his. We'll finally annoy him so much that he'll boot us the family. We'll be found out for the frauds that we are. I wonder, have you have forgotten or simply grown complacent of this incredible truth. That you are a child of God if you are a Christian. Do you know how much you are loved? You are very precious! Greatly loved! Nothing can separate you from the love that is in Christ Jesus. Your name is engraved in the palms of his hands. And the more you understand that staggering truth, the more you will mature in your faith and deepen in your love for God in return. Because to know that you are a precious child of God deeply loved is the engine of the soul on fire for God.
Billy Bray was a man who knew he was deeply loved by God. Billy Bray was a drunken and loose living miner from Cornwall, born in 1794. He was always getting involved in fights and quarrels. But at the age of 29, he became a Christian by the grace of God. He went home and told his wife: "With the help of God, you will never see me drunk again." And she didn't. He became an evangelist to the miners and many were converted through his preaching, which had a magnetic and powerful quality to it. But although he was a great evangelist, yet his deepest joy lay in his personal relationship with God. And he would always be praising the Lord, to the great upset of many people who opposed him. To those who objected to his shout he would say, "If they were to put me in a barrel, I would shout out "Praise the Lord!" through the bung-hole!"dying word was, "Glory!" But right before he died he said of death, "What, me fear death? Lost? Why, my Saviour conquered death. If I was to go down to hell I would shout glory! glory! to my blessed Jesus until I made the bottomless pit ring again, and that miserable old Satan would say, 'Billy, Billy, this is no place for thee: get thee back!' Then up to heaven I should go, shouting glory! Glory! Praise the Lord!"what was the engine that drove such joy and thankfulness? It was knowing that he was a son of God born again by a divine gift. He knew he was a much loved child of God and he called himself "the young prince." And his favourite expression was: "I am the son of a King." And it was that that gave him his deepest joy and fired his great passion for God.
But the fact the we are children of God means that we have on obligation. Because if we are children of God, then we will display the family likeness, chapter 2 v 29: "If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him." What John is saying here is that there is a spiritual paternity test that you can do to see who are the true children of God. It seems to be happening more and more now doesn't it, that the paternity of a child is determined by a DNA paternity test. So four or five candidates turn up at the doctor and their give their samples of DNA and one of them is the lucky father. Well, says John, there is a spiritual paternity test that we undergo. And that is seen in how we behave! Because if God is righteous, if he acts rightly and in a holy and godly way, then his children will act in the same way. Everyone who does right has been born of him. The fact that you claim to be a child of God means that there must be some evidence in your life. There will be growth in holiness over the years. You will become less proud, more loving, more gracious, more patient, you will use your tongue to build others up, not tear them down. In short, if you claim to be a child of God, then you'll behave like you're spiritual father. Like father, like Son. Yes, as children of God we are very precious indeed, greatly loved. But a new family brings with it a new set of values. And if you are not displaying the family likeness, then you need to think long and hard about your Christian life. Because the child of God will display his Father's characteristics. So are you displaying the family likeness? Because the first incentive to holiness is our present status. We are children of God.
2) Our Future Hope (2 v 28; 3 vv 2-3)
But John's second incentive to holiness is our future hope. And what is that future hope? John tells us in verses 2-3: "Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure." John tells us that whilst we have wonderful blessings now, yet there is much more to come. Now we are children of God, he says. We are God's children, adopted into his family, co heirs with Christ. But what we will be has not yet been made known. It's not that our salvation or inheritance is in doubt. Rather John is uncertain exactly what it mean for us. The Bible gives us enough information to be sure that we are going to heaven, but it doesn't tell us exactly what that experience will be like. The apostle Paul says that it's like looking through a dark mirror. We can only see a few things at best unclearly. But one thing John does know. Verse 2: "We know that when Jesus appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." The staggering future for the Christian is that we shall see the glorified Christ and be like him. We are going to be transformed to have bodies which are perfect like Christ's. We shall be like Christ. And in fact that is the only way we can look upon the face of God and live. If we are 100% perfect and holy. It's a mind blowing truth to think about isn't it? No, we don't know the precise details of heaven. But we know that we will be like Christ and that we shall see him. Because the best thing about heaven is being with God forever.
Now let me ask you: Do you long for that day? Do you pine and yearn to see your Lord and Saviour face to face. Do you desire more than anything else in the world to be with Christ? Because that's the Christian's desire. He or she longs to go home. Because heaven is our home. To be with Christ and to be like Christ. That is what we have been rescued for! And if that is your longing, if that is what you seek and desire above all things, then, says John, that future hope will have an impact on the way you live your life in the present. So verse 3: "Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure." If you know that you are heading for such a destination, then you will long to prepare yourself now. You'll want to purify yourself, because the one you love and follow is pure. John doesn't mean purify ourselves in the sense of wash our sins away. Only Jesus can do that through his cross. He means it in the sense of battling against and getting rid of prevailing sin in our lives. We will learn to hate sin and love holiness. We will loathe the way that we are so entangled in our foibles and failings. And we will long to purify ourselves, because he is pure.
You see the challenge is simply this. Christians should never be satisfied with their present level of holiness. The Christian will always long to grow in purity and holiness. They will always want to become more godly and Christ-like. Why? Because Christians have their true home with God. So how will live now is a preparation for that new home as we reflect its standards of holiness and godliness. A few years ago I visited some friends in Kenya. And this trip needed a lot of preparation and planning. I had to take a series of pills to stop me getting malaria. I had to have some injections. I had to buy some new clothes and a sun hat. I decided it would be good to learn a bit about the culture. I learnt a few useful phrases in Swahili like 'Hello', 'How much', 'Is it poisonous', 'Where's the embassy' and words like that. I was preparing for culture shock. I knew that the moment I stepped off the plane at Mombassa airport, things would be very different. And sure enough it was! Now it is the same for us Christians. We are to be preparing for our new destination. We are no longer citizens of this country, this world. We are heading for heaven. And so we should be preparing for culture shock. We should be clothing ourselves with God's clothes of righteousness, qualities that he has. We should be learning the language of heaven, so to speak, and displaying it in our everyday life, learning to hate sin and love God's way of holiness. Prepare for the culture shock of heaven. That's where we are going. And if we are at all pleased to be going, then we'll be beginning to live God's way now.
And how do we do that? How do we grow in holiness and godliness? Well verse 28 of chapter 2 gives us the answer. "And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming." We need to continue in Christ. That is keep trusting him and his sacrifice and keep walking his ways. Because if, as we saw last week, you succumb to the message of the false teachers who would love to draw you away from Christ or simply add to him, then you will be ashamed on the day of his coming. If you move away from Christ, then you can have no confidence on the day of judgement. And if you make no effort to purify yourself and prepare for that day, if you don't desire to battle against sin, then you are not displaying the family likeness and you have no confidence. You will be ashamed before Christ. It's a warning to us to remain in Christ and grow in Christ. Go Christ's way, root yourself in his word and in the power of the Spirit, the anointing that John talked about in chapter 2. That is how we grow in godliness. For everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure. Because the second incentive to holiness is our future hope.
3) Our Past Rescue (3 vv 4-10)
But there is a third incentive to holiness that John gives us in this passage and it's our past rescue. Now in verse 4 John explains why it is that we need rescuing. "Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness." John is explaining to us how morally repugnant sin is. Because here he gets to the very heart of the matter. You see, we tend to see sin as little personal foibles, peccadilloes which trouble us but which really we can nothing about so why bother taking time and energy to get rid of them. But here, John says that sin is lawlessness. If you are acting lawlessly then you are saying the Law Maker is a total irrelevance. You are snubbing God in the most horrific way. You are defying God and saying that his wise and beautiful law stinks. You're thumbing your nose at the creator of the world. That's lawlessness. Now perhaps one of the reasons we don't have a hatred for sin in our lives is because we don't really see the effect it has on God. We don't see our sin from God's perspective. We don't see how it degrades and humiliates us and it totally dishonours God and his glory. To use an illustration from last week, it's like drinking from the fetid, polluted, stagnant water that is the River Cam in Cambridge where I grew up. There's no way in the world you'd do that. But we do it morally each day. Can you see how disgusting sin is? And we need rescuing from that!
And that's why John goes on. For how has God rescued us? Well first he's dealt with sin by dying on the cross. And this actually confirms how dreadful sin is. For surely God would not have gone to this length in sacrificing his own Son if there was another way? So see what John says in verse 5: "But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin." The very reason Jesus came into the world was to deal with sin. To die in our place on the cross as a perfect sacrifice in whom there is no sin. But Jesus' rescue had another effect as well. And that was to destroy the works of the devil in the second half of verse 8: "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work." Jesus dealt with sin and death, the devil's greatest works, for good when he died on the cross! And why did Jesus have to destroy the devil's work? Because the devil is the lawless one in all its fullness. He opposes God with every fibre of his being. And so those who engage in sin show themselves to follow their father the devil! Beginning of verse 8: "He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning." So, John says, if Jesus came to deal with sin and to destroy the works of the evil one, then what does that mean for you and me who claim to follow Christ? What is the application for us?
Well says John it is very clear. That past rescue of Jesus on the cross means a present command. To have nothing whatsoever to do with sin. So we are back to the spiritual paternity tests in verse 7: "Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning." The way you live reveals whose child you are. A child of God or a child of the devil. And John sharpens his application first in verse 6: "No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him." And again in verse 9: "No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God."
Now these verses beg all sorts of questions. What exactly does John mean? Does it mean that if I sin, then I am a child of the devil? Does it mean that I need to be perfect to show myself a real Christian? Well some in the church's history have taken it that way. But that cannot be right, for John has already said in chapter 1 that if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. And if we do sin, we need to come back to Christ for forgiveness. Well maybe he's saying that habitual sin is out for the Christian. Gradually we should be able to get rid of those besetting sins. So if you continue to lie and cheat people, then you need to question whether you have been born again. And there's certainly some truth in that. But I actually think that John is saying something far more challenging and profound. Because literally verse 6 reads: "No-one who lives in Jesus sins. No-one who sins has either seen him or known him." And in verse 9, again it's the same: "No-one who is born of God sins, because God's seed remains in him." John is saying that sinning is no longer an option for the Christian. If you have accepted the rescue of Christ and been born again, then sin is no longer on the cards. Sinning is not done any more. Sin is unacceptable and inexcusable.
Let me give you an illustration of this by sharing what would happen at our family dining table when we were children. By and large meal times were happy occasions, but my mother in particular had a few pet hates, one of which was talking with our mouths full. And my brother and I were always keen to share the days' events, and inevitably we'd explain them with a mouth full of fish and chips or shepherds' pie or the like. At which point my mother would say to us: "You don't speak with your mouth full at this table. That is not done in this house." And if we replied: "Yes, Mum it is done because we've just done it!" then it would be to miss the point. No, speaking with your mouth full is not done. It is inexcusable. And John is saying the same of sin. If you've been born again, you don't sin, simple as that! Sinning is not done amongst this people. It is inexcusable. And if we pipe up and say, "Yes, sinning is possible because I've just done it", then we miss the point. We fail to see the force of John's argument.
And if we do not grasp this total incompatibility of the Christian and sin, then we will nurture bitterness in our hearts, we will allow our minds to wallow in the gutter of lust, we will nourish hatred for another person, we will lie to our neighbour, and time and again we will continue to sin without for a moment pausing to reflect what we are doing. We are being lawless again and again. We're thumbing our nose at God every time we sin. And for the Christian that just cannot be. And if we do not see that, then we will never develop that disgust and hatred of sin that demands we fight the battle. All because we've failed to see that sin is totally incompatible with the Christian life. No, God's seed, his nature given to us through the work of the Spirit means we cannot go on sinning. If you have accepted the past rescue of Jesus, then you have made a break with sin. You're a child of God. You've done with sin. So don't do it. The past rescue of Jesus reminds us that sin is no longer an option.
You see the message of 1 John 3 is actually very simple and it's summed in verse 10: "This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother." John's question is this. Are you displaying the family marks? Does sin disgust you? Do you long to be like Christ? Well John has given us ample incentive to be holy. He's told us to remember who we are- children of God. To remember where we're heading, heaven our true home. To remember what we've been saved from, a life of lawlessness, and what we've saved for- a life of holiness. For you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him.
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