Family ties - 1 John 3:11-24
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Ten-year-old Phineas was up before the sun was. He'd scarcely slept the night before. And long before a sound was heard in the house, he was downstairs with his bag packed, ready to climb into the wagon. The year was 1820. And Phineas was about to see an island; his island. The island promised to him at birth. The day he was born, his grandfather presented newborn Phineas with a deed, a sizable portion of Connecticut land called Ivy Island. And today, for the first time, Phineas was to see it.
Not every boy is born a land owner. Phineas's parents were always quick to remind their son of this. They urged him not to forget them when he came of age. Neighbours feared that the young landowner wouldn't want to play with their children. Their concerns were legitimate. Phineas was different from his playmates. While they dreamed of dragons and knights, his fantasies were of Ivy Island. Someday he would be lord of his own territory. He'd build a house. Start a farm. Raise cattle. Rule his domain. The fact is when you own an island you feel important; when you own an island, you want to see it. And Phineas had yet to see his. He pleaded with his father to take him to the island and, finally, in the summer of 1820, his father agreed.
Three sleepless nights preceded the expedition. Then, early that morning, Phineas, his father, and a hired hand climbed into the buggy and began the long-anticipated journey. Finally, Phineas would see his land. He could scarcely sit still. At the top of each hill he would ask, "Are we nearly there yet? And his father would encourage him to be patient and assure him that they were drawing near. Finally, his dad pointed north beyond a meadow to a row of tall trees stretching into the sky. "There," he said. "There is Ivy Island."
Phineas was simply overcome. He jumped from the wagon and dashed through the meadow, leaving his father far behind. He raced to the row of trees into an opening from which Ivy Island was visible. When he saw the land he stopped and his little heart sank. You see, Ivy Island was in fact five acres of snake-infested marshland. His grandfather had called it the most valuable land in Connecticut. But it was worthless. His father had told him it was a generous gift. It wasn't. It was a joke . . . a cruel joke. As stunned Phineas stared, the father and the hired hand roared with laughter. Phineas was not the fortunate beneficiary of the family. He was the laughingstock of the family. Grandfather Taylor had played a vicious practical joke on his heir. Phineas didn't laugh. Nor did he forget. That disappointment shaped his life. He, the deceived, made a lifestyle out of deception. The little boy fooled made a career out of fooling people. He is not now known as Phineas but he is known as P.T- the man who coined the phrase "There's a sucker born every minute." And he spent his life proving it. Such was the life of -P. T. Barnum.
And such is the life of many others who have been told they'd be taken to the Promised Land only to find themselves taken to the swamp. Some have found this to be so in the religious sphere. They have been promised that on becoming a Christian all would be glory, glory all the way. And when the set backs have come, the disappointments have been too much to handle. The result is that some give up. Others look to those who will promise heaven on earth, whilst still other become leaders who make the promises, turning from being the deceived to being the deceivers. Such was happening in John's day- antichrists he called them. And for those whose faith is being made uncertain because of such con men, John is at pains to steady them by offering some tests by which to measure whether their faith is real or not, to hold out to them what is called 'assurance.' So, as he puts it in chapter 5:13 they 'may know they have eternal life.' And tonight we are taking a close look at one of these tests- the test of love. Back in chapter 3 and verse 10 John has already said, '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.' Now he wants to develop this more positively-v 11, 'This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.' This is basic to what it means to be a Christian-loving other Christians. So do you sometimes wonder whether you are a Christian? Whether what you are going for is no more than a swamp for the gullible? Then, says John, take this test and measure yourself by it.
First of all, John points out that the opposite of love is seen in Cain vv 11- 15. Just take a look at v 12, 'Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his own brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother's were righteous.' Then v 15 'Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.' Did you know that according to the Bible the first child to be born into the world was a murderer and the second child was his victim? The murderer was Cain and his victim was his brother Abel. Both had the same physical father- Adam, but different spiritual fathers- the one was a child of Satan, the other a child of God. And both showed their pedigree by what they did. Cain decided to offer a sacrifice to God which was the product of his own labour instead of obeying God and offering a blood sacrifice which God gave as the grounds for coming into his presence. And in this sense, his actions were evil. Like his Father the devil, Cain was full of pride, he would come to God on his own terms, not God's and that is sin- lawlessness, substituting our own laws for God's and so taking the place of God. But Cain also decided to take God's place in another sense too. When he saw that Abel's sacrifice was accepted - doing God's work, God's way- he decided to take Abel's life. He simply murdered him. God is the life giver and life taker- Cain decides that is his job too. And what led him to do such a monstrous thing? Jealousy- he saw that his brother's actions were righteous and he could not cope with that. He didn't want his brother around as a perpetual reminder of his own failure- he hated that, and so the source of his discomfort had to be got rid of. What began as a grudge gave birth to a thought and finally gave way to a deed. And John is saying: make sure that isn't happening to you. If you are nursing that anger towards someone in the fellowship because they seem to be in a position you aren't; if you simply wish see a person out of the way- and so in effect as good as dead, filling your heart with hate- then you do need to wonder whether you are converted-v 14b 'Anyone who does not love remains in death.' No matter how noble your pedigree (Cain was from Adam)- your spiritual pedigree is in doubt.
But uncertainty can come from another quarter too. What happens when someone does become a Christian and tries to do what God wants and all they get from it is flak from friends and family who aren't Christians? The thought then comes that maybe they are taking it a bit too seriously and some compromise is in order or that the price is too high to pay. Not so says John, that is exactly what you are to expect-v13 'Do not be surprised if the world hates you.' Do you think that Wilberforce was popular for the stand he took against slavery? He was not, he was publicly portrayed as a hypocrite and Lord Nelson wanted to see him flogged. You take a stand for righteousness, you wish to promote Christian teaching in the public sphere and you will be hated for it- even suffering the ultimate irony of having a religious hatred law being used against you which in itself becomes an expression of religious hatred, which is the way it looks like we are heading.
But of course this raises a further question for the troubled Christian seeking assurance: how do I know I am being loving? This is an especially acute question in our day when the notion of love has been reduced to a feeling. What if I don't feel gushes of love towards fellow Christians, does this mean I am not a Christian? No it doesn't mean that at all, what it might mean is that you have not properly grasped what love is for a Christian. And to find out what that is we turn to the next section in which we are told that the measure of love is seen in Christ- vv 16-18. Look at verse 16: 'This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.'
John is making a deliberate contrast between Cain on the one hand and Christ on the other and the contrast could not be greater. Cain sees Abel in his righteousness and is filled with hate; Christ sees us in our unrighteousness and is filled with pity. Cain offers a sacrifice on the basis of what he wants; Christ offers as sacrifice on the basis of what God wants. Cain out of hate moves to take away life; Christ out of loves moves to give life. And where is this love displayed so clearly for all to see? Why at the cross of course- 'Christ laid down his life for us.' Why, the very shape of the cross spells love. One beam is horizontal and reaches out like God's love. The other beam is vertical and reaches up- as does God's holiness. One represents the width of his love; the other reflects the height of his holiness. The cross is the intersection- the place where God forgives his children without lowering his standards. God does not merely mouth, 'I love you' from the security of heaven, he shouts 'I love you' from the agony of the cross. God does not simply remonstrate about his love, he demonstrates it - his life is given for our life as a sacrifice of atonement- removing our sin and placating God's anger. That is what the cross achieves and without it we are lost. Jesus faces it so that we needn't- and that is love.
And that is the sort of love we are to copy, says John. This love is not simply an attitude it is an action. It is not primarily about the way we feel about each other but the way we deal with each other. Yes, says the anxious Christian, I might even say I am prepared to die for others in the church, but how do I know I ever will, perhaps I am simply kidding myself and so not a proper Christian after all? Well, John anticipates that objection which is why he goes on in v 17 to say 'If anyone sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children let us not love with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth.' Can you see what John is saying? Look at what you are doing and why you are doing it- actions and truth -and from there draw confidence of the change Christ has wrought in your heart. Do you see some children needing some Christian teaching? Then help out with the children's programme. Do you know of some Christian who is sick and housebound-then arrange to visit them. Are you aware of a Christian struggling at the moment? Then get alongside to encourage them. It is as down to earth as that. But of course all of this presupposes that we will be meeting with God's people so we can show love to them. I am not surprised in the least when people for whatever reason cut themselves off from Christian fellowship- meeting like this on a Sunday or in a special group that they do begin to doubt. Not only are they starving themselves of the spiritual oxygen they need to keep going- the ministry of the Word, but they are not allowing themselves to do one of the most vital things which above all else will enable them to have the assurance they have been born again- namely, show love to fellow believers. If there is no desire in you to serve Christians which involves meeting Christians then I certainly can offer no words of comfort that you are a believer at all, whatever you might say- and more importantly neither would John. If you will not meet with God's people then you have every reason to doubt whether you are one of God's people because you are not showing love to God's people. But on the other hand if you are here tonight and in whatever way you do find that you are putting yourself out for Christ in doing something for him in his family, then that provides legitimate grounds for you to humbly say , 'You know, God is doing something in me, because I certainly would not been doing this otherwise-thank you Lord.'
And so we discover that the fruit of love is confidence- vv 19-24. Even after all of this it is still possible that though a person is trusting in Christ, is willing to lay down their life for fellow believers, is showing an inward change by outward action, there is an unruly conscience which condemns, which says, 'Yes, but you are not loving enough, You failed again' and so the uncertainty as to whether I am a true child of God remains. What is the answer? V19 'This then is how we know (there is that word again) that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts and he knows everything.' You see, John is not encouraging us to deny the condemnation of our hearts, for even that is a sign that God is at work in us for it is if we say we have no sin that the truth is not in us; rather it encourages us to see that God knows even more than our hearts and still he loves us and that he has already demonstrated by sending his Son to die for us. If we were in some moral beauty contest and were to see ourselves as God sees us our souls would appear so disfigured and grotesque that by comparison Quasimodo would win first prize. God sees the beast, not the beauty and says, 'You are mine. I sent my Son to secure you, he bled to forgive you- however much your hearts may condemn you such a condemnation will not be coming from me for I am greater than your hearts.' Now this verse is so important to remember when you are feeling crushed by sin and failure. It is meant not to turn you away from Christ but to propel you to turn to Christ.
And once we have dealt with our condemning heart on the basis of what Christ has done for us we find ourselves in the position of v21, ' Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us (because they have been calmed by the blood of Christ) , we have confidence before him.' Then God strengthens that confidence by answered prayer '... we receive anything we ask because we obey his commands and do what pleases him.' That is, as a result of knowing that there is no barrier between ourselves and God- our sins having been removed, we can come into his presence with a bold confidence in prayer and as we start to pray for the things he wants- then answered prayer is further evidence that we are true believers. Don't you find that to be so? I can think of times when I have fallen into sin and wonder if I can dare show my face to God in prayer ever again, I am so ashamed, I am sure he will not bother listening. But I come to him anyway and then I discover that he is the God he has said he was all along, a God of overwhelming grace and miracle of miracles he hears me, he hasn't abandoned me. And so very gently he lifts me up off the floor to get on with serving him again.
And what he wants of us is not at all complicated, it is there in v 23, 'And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son; Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.' A single command which is double barrelled: Trusting and loving- that is the Christian life in a nutshell. If you are not trusting you will not be loving; if you are trust then you will love. Faith in Christ is the root, loving Christians is the fruit and if we are doing both authentically, if not perfectly, then we can rest assured we are his. What is more if we are doing both those things we can also be confident that we have God's Spirit dwelling in us- v 24, for both are a result of his work in our lives.
Let me tell you something: In his later years Beethoven would spend hours playing a broken harpsichord. The instrument was quite worthless. Keys were missing. Strings were stretched. It was out of tune and harsh to the ears. Nonetheless the great composer would play until tears ran down his cheeks. To look at him you would think he was hearing the sublime. Well, he was; for he was deaf. You see, Beethoven was hearing the sound the instrument should make, not the one it did make. And maybe you too feel like Beethoven's harpsichord; out of tune, inadequate, your Christian walk ill timed and insignificant. But do you ever wonder what God does with the instrument which is broken? How the Master responds when the keys don't work properly? Does he turn and leave? Does he demand a replacement? Does he just junk it? Not according to what we have been hearing tonight he doesn't. By his Spirit he patiently tunes it until he hears the song he longs to hear. Let us pray.
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