True love - 1 John 4:1-21
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
I wonder if you have ever watched the film Superman? If you have then you'll know that the film begins with Lois Lane having just climbed into a helicopter on a landing pad at the top of a sky-scraper. The helicopter takes off, but is snagged on a cable. It crashes and is left hanging precariously over the side of the building. The door on Lois's side swings open and she stares horrified at the crowds 50 storeys below. Now you know it's too early in the film for Lois to be killed, so you relax. Something will happen. And sure enough it does. The helicopter shifts again. It slides further over the edge of the building, and Lois falls out. She catches one of the chopper's runners and is left hanging in space. But you still refuse to invest any emotional energy in her plight. She can't have been paid $1.2 million just to fall out of a helicopter after 5 minutes, can she? But fall she suddenly does. And at that moment as she plummets down the side of the building, a red blur streaks upwards from the street. Just in time, after a hasty change in a telephone kiosk, Superman is airborne. He catches her, and they glide gently upwards back towards the helicopter pad. "It's OK, Miss," says Superman, "I've got you." To which Lois -clearly terrified - replies, "You've got me? So... who's got you?"
Now that all goes to show that it is possible to be secure but actually to feel insecure. And what you need at that time is to trust the person who's carrying you and to have some reassurance. And if you've been with us over these few weeks in our evening services, then you'll know that assurance is one of John's big themes, whose letter we are continuing to study tonight. Our key verse, which I trust we'll be able to recite together by the end of the series, comes in chapter 5 v 13: "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you might know you have eternal life." John says that they do believe the truth about Jesus, but they need reassurance that they truly do know the truth. Because, quite frankly, that assurance was under attack from false teachers who had infiltrated these churches to which John was writing. They were undermining the Christians' hope by teaching falsehood and sowing seeds of doubt. And in contrast to three tests of genuine Christians, a moral test, a love test and a doctrinal test, the false teachers failed on all three. So the false teachers were marked by moral indifference, in that they taught that it really doesn't matter how you behave. Sin is not really that serious at all. Their teaching was also marked by arrogant lovelessness. In other words, they were harshly unloving to those in need. And thirdly their teaching was marked by theological error, that is defective views about Jesus, not believing he was truly the Saviour of the world.
Now when you have people telling you week in week out to play with sin, be selfish towards others and soften on the exclusive claims of Jesus, is it any wonder that assurance begins to waver, that these Christians began to doubt their salvation? And if we are honest, we feel those pressures too. We know what we believe, and yet there are so many pressures on us to ignore the call to battle with sin, to live for yourself and not love others, to soft peddle on the person of Christ. And whilst we might know in our heads that we are secure in Christ, don't you have that nagging doubt in the back of the mind that you might not really be a Christian. Or you don't suffer from those sorts of doubts, at the very least, you feel as if your faith is pretty weak and you might fall at any moment? Like Lois Lane in Superman's hands, we can see the theory, God will never let us go, but sometimes we just don't feel it. There's just so much pressure on us and we feel we're going to fall. Well John is a wise pastor, and he writes to us to help us be confident in our salvation. Not presumptuous, but trusting the one who has made firm promises to us. And in our passage John gives us two challenges to help us see how we can stand firm and have confidence that we are the children of God. For whilst there is no doubt God will never let us go, yet the proof for John that we are genuine Christians will be seen in the way we respond to what God has done for us. So he challenges us with two resolutions:
1) Resolve to Walk in the Truth (Vv 1-6)
2) Resolve to Walk in Love (Vv 7-21)
1) Resolve to Walk in the Truth (Vv 1-6)
First, says John, resolve to walk in the truth. Now we saw at the end of last week's passage in chapter 3 v 24 that the sign of a genuine Christian is that the Spirit of God is at work in their lives. But John immediately says in verse 1 of chapter 4: "Dear friends, don't believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God." In other words John is telling us not to be gullible. Yes, the mark of the Christian is that the Spirit of God is at work in their lives. But not everyone who claims to be speaking for God and who claims to have the Spirit is actually from God. Don't be gullible. Why not, we might ask? Because, he says in the second half of verse 1, "many false prophets have gone out into the world". In other words, there are plenty of people who would claim to be speaking for God but actually are not, many who even seem to wear the spiritual clothes of Christianity. They talk the talk, they may even walk the walk to a certain extent. But don't be fooled says John. Not every is who they say they are. So how are we to test the spirits? How can we tell who is genuine and who is not? How do we even know whether we are walking in the truth? John says two things:
a) Look at what you say- First, says John, look at what you say. Verse 2-3: "This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world." It's actually very simple says John. It all depends on what you make of Jesus. If you acknowledge that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, that is if you believe that Jesus is truly God in the flesh, and not someone special man who happened for a while to carry the divine spark, then you are from God. The first step to becoming a Christian is to bow the knee before Jesus Christ and confess him as Lord and Saviour. And that was something that the false teachers denied. They said Jesus was just an inspired man, not fully God, and not really fully human either. He was a sort of mish mash. But the Christian confesses Jesus to be fully God and fully man. Any less is the work of the antichrist, says John, which as we saw when we looked at chapter 2, is the work of the devil. The antichrist is he who is opposed to Jesus and seek to replace him with something else. That's what the word "antichrist" means. And whilst in the future we will see someone who embodies all of those qualities par excellence, at the moment the spirit of such antichrist sentiments and teaching is very much at work in the world. So if you want to know whether you are a genuine Christian or not, then look at what you say. Is Jesus Christ, in all his glory as the perfect God-man, right at the very centre of your heart and belief? Do you acknowledge him as your King and Saviour? Then the Spirit of God is at work in you. If not, then another spirit is at work in you, the spirit of the antichrist. Look at what you say if you want to be sure.
And friends, this issue of proclaiming and defending the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ is just a pressing issue today as it was in John's day. Now the precise details of the debate have changed. Cerinthus and his cronies have gone, although they can be found. But perhaps the issue we face on a daily basis is the pressure to soften Jesus' claims and just make him out to be one of a number of ways, or perhaps one of a number of religious leaders the world has known. And especially so more and more in our country, as laws are passed which those with malicious intent could use against us to prosecute us for proclaiming the exclusive claims of Jesus. And we need to ask ourselves if we have the courage to stand for Jesus' as The Way, The Truth, The Life. For salvation is found in no-one else apart from Jesus Christ. And there will come a day when it will cost us greatly to say that. And the way to know if we will stand on that day is if we proclaim him boldly now, when things are a little easier. But still people don't like it, however graciously we put it.
So for example, on the uni campus this year, I got into a conversation with a girl who was doing an MA in law, who believed that there was no such thing as absolute truth. Things got a little heated when I asked her how she could practice law when she didn't believe in absolute truth. And things got even more heated when I explained to her about Jesus' exclusive truths claims, that he is the only way to God. In fact, so irate was he that she stormed off mid conversation. But for the genuine Christian, there is no other option. Either you stand for Christ, and display the marks of the Spirit. Or you deny him and display the marks of the antichrist. Which will it be? We need to look at what we say.
b) Look at how you live- But another way to check you are walking in the truth is to look at how you live. Because walking in the truth does not just mean speaking and believing the truth. It means doing it. And that is what these Christians have done. Verse 4: "You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world." These Christians have overcome the false teachers by not believing their message and in that sense they have overcome them. And they have done it with God's help who is at work in them. He's greater that the evil one who is at work in the world. But notice what John says next in verses 5-6: "They [that is the false teachers] are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood." The false teachers are from the world, that is they are marked by that evil, rebellious nature which opposes God. And not surprisingly, the world listens to them. Those who oppose Christ want to listen to false teachers who oppose Christ. And their standards, their lifestyles, and their teaching is thoroughly worldly. But not so the true teachers. Because verse 6, these teachers are from God. They speak the truth. If we listen and obey the apostolic teachers of the NT, those who have been given authority by Jesus, then we show ourselves to be men and women of God.
Now at this point we need to ask if our lives are marked by the truth we profess to follow, or are they more marked by the world which we profess to have overcome? You see if we claim to listen to and follow the apostle's teaching, then we must live according to that claim. We will renounce the sinful world in which we live and instead seek first God's kingdom and his standards. Because those who know God listen to his teachers and live according to the truth.
As I was preparing this talk, I came across a story told by the writer and speaker Don Carson. He tells of when he was a student and he was seeking to win some of his friends for Christ. But at various times, he would get stuck on some question his non Christian friends would ask, and at that point he'd take them to see an older and wiser student who was doing further studies at the university. And one time Don took two of his non Christian friends to see this older student who was called Dave. And as they sat in Dave's room having tea or the like, Dave asked the first non Christian why he'd come. And the young man said: "Well, I have a lot of intellectual questions about Christianity. I'm just not sure I can believe it!" And Dave turned to him and said: "I'm sorry, I am very busy and I don't have time to talk with you. But I can offer various books, and you can write down your questions and I can answer them. But I just don't have time" Don Carson was a bit flabbergasted by this response. But then Dave turned to the second student and asked him why he'd come. So the student said: "Well I come from a very moral upright home, where I was taught about right and wrong. But it's not a Christian home. But I just don't see what Christianity has to offer me. I think I am fine without it!" And then Dave paused and Don Carson wondered what was coming next! And then Dave said: "Watch me!" And then was staggered silence." "Watch me, he said. Come and live with me if you want. Watch how I talk and spend my time and money and the way I behave with people. And then tell me being a Christian makes no difference." Well it sounds astonishingly proud doesn't it? But isn't it just normal Christianity? Should we not be able to say to our non Christians friends: "Watch me. See how I live. See if there is no difference between you and me!" Could we say that to your friends without embarrassment? Would our lives testify to Christ in such a powerful way? Well in Dave's case, his life so shone with the love of Christ that that young man did become a Christian having spent a good deal of time with Dave. And he went on to become a medical missionary serving Christ overseas. Because Dave was not lonely speaking the truth. He was living the truth as well. And John says to us tonight. If you want to be sure you are a Christian, resolve to walk in the truth- Take a good look at what you say and how you live.
2) Resolve to Walk in Love (Vv 7-21)
But John gives us a second challenge in verses 7-21 and that is resolve to walk in love. And it's love that is the main theme of these verses.
a) The Source of Love- So let's look first at the source of love. John, where does love come from? Verses 7-8: "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 says that the source of love is God himself. For love "comes from God." But he goes further in verse 8 to say that God is love. Now what does this mean? Well let me explain by way of illustration. There is down Holderness Road a take away called KFC, Kentucky Fried Chicken. 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. And what he means is that 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. All God's actions and words will be marked by love. And that gives us great confidence when he says and does things which we might not agree with or we might find hard to swallow. We know they are marked by love for God is love. So for example, his moral demands on us, his judgement are all marks of his love. And where do we see that love most displayed. Well it's in the cross of Christ, which brings us to the demonstration of love.
b) The Demonstration of Love- Verses 9-10: "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 showed his love amongst us by sending his one and only son to die for us on the cross. And what was staggering about this event was that we did absolutely nothing to deserve it. "Not that we loved God," says John. Jesus Christ actually died for his enemies. People like you and me. And even more staggering was that this death was performed by God's one and only Son. It wasn't as if God the Father had several sons. No, Jesus is the only Son. It's an act of incredible costly sacrifice and devotion to us. Such was God's love for us that he went through with such an awful punishment. And what did it achieve? Well although it was a great demonstration of love, primarily it was a rescue mission. John says that the result was that we might live through Jesus. In other words, he died in our place bearing the penalty for our rebellion, so that we might be forgiven. Jesus willingly lay down his life for each and every one of us so we could be forgiven. Now if ever you needed a deep and profound picture of God's love for you, then look at the cross. Have you ever doubted God's love for you personally? Look at the cross. Are you ever tempted to think you're a nobody, worthless and unloved? Look at the cross. Do you ever think that you have done something so awful that think you could never be forgiven or loved by God again. Look at the cross. The cross pays for all our sin, if only we will accept that rescue for ourselves. This is how God showed his love among us.
c) The Challenge of Love- But John won't let us rest there. Because the demonstration of love leads to the challenge of love. The whole point of what John is saying in this part of chapter 4 is this. He wants us walk in love, because God our heavenly Father is love. If God is love, and if he demonstrated that love to such an incredible degree on the cross of Christ, then we who claim to follow and know this God must be people of love too. Otherwise we prove ourselves not to be his children. So verse 11: "Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another." And then let's skip on verse 19: "We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, 'I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother." 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." The point is that we who claim to know this God must display the family likeness. We cannot claim to have the work of the Spirit amongst us if we do not love one another. 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.
So what will this mean in practice? Well love is in the Bible is far more than feelings. It always leads to action. So change the word love to something a little more concrete like "commitment". Our love for one another will be seen in our total commitment to one another. Caring for each other's needs, supporting one another in tough times, bearing with one another patiently, not arguing over petty things. And it will mean a genuine commitment to each other in things like Homegroup attendance or commitment to church on Sundays, or Mark 2. True Christian love is marked by the same characteristics as God's love- committed, sacrificial, and costly. And if we are not displaying such love, if we are selfishly ignoring the needs of others, if we are not committed to fellow brothers and sisters, then John fires a real warning shot across our bows in verse 8: "Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love." If we don't show such love then we are calling into question our spiritual parentage.
One of the most moving films I have seen is a film called "To End All Wars". It's a true story of what happened to a bunch of mostly British soldiers who were captured after the fall of Singapore in February 1942. Many of the tens of thousands of captured troops were put in concentration camps run by the Japanese Army. They were terrible places, made worse by the fact that many of the soldiers were put to work on the Thailand to Burma rail line. The film follows the story of what happened in one camp. It was pretty clear from the start that the camp was divided into two factions. One, led by Major Ian Campbell, wanted to plan an escape from the off, and they began a seemingly suicidal mission to try and escape. But another faction led by a POW named Dusty Millar argued that they needed just to sit tight and work hard and wait for the end of the war. Well one night a group led by Major Campbell try to escape. They kill two guards, and almost make it to the armoury, but are found and arrested. All five men face death because they themselves are guilty of murder. And before the whole assembled camp four of the five are executed. But as the Japanese commander comes to the last, Major Campbell himself, one POW steps forward, none other than Dusty Millar, the leader of the peaceful faction. He's done nothing wrong himself. But he asks to speak with the Japanese commander. After a brief discussion, Campbell, the rebel who'd killed two Japanese guards is released. But Dusty Millar is taken away to be killed. But what motivated Millar to do it? Well earlier on in the film we discover that Millar is a Christian, and the Japanese know this. So how do they put him to death? Well the Japanese have read the NT in Millar's Bible. So what do they do to him? They crucify him.
You see here is a man whose love for others is motivated by his love for Christ. And in fact, the film is shot from the point of view of one of the prisoners who went on to become a Christian minister as a result of seeing Dusty Millar's actions. True love lays down its life for others, sometimes literally. For when Jesus gave his life for us, even when we were his enemies, then nothing could be more natural for us to love those who follow this same God. We need to heed the challenge of love if we claim to be the children of the God of love.
d) The Confidence of Love- And that leads us to see finally the confidence of love. For walking in love gives us absolute confidence on the day of judgement according to John in verses 16b-18: "God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." You see if you are displaying the family likeness of love for others and God, then you can have confidence on the day of judgement. For you can be sure that God lives in you and you in him. You can have confidence that you are God's child when you display the family marks. So we need not fear judgement day. We need not fear that when we meet God face to face he will turn us away. Because the way we live our lives now, and the confession which we make, something John mentions in verses 16-18, shows whose children we are. We are children of God. We don't fear God in the sense that we are afraid of his punishment. For there is no condemnation for the children of God. Now it's important to see that John is not ruling out a right fear of God, which in the Bible is respect and holy awe for his amazing character. But we needn't fear him in the sense that he will punish us. For he will not punish his own children. No if you are walking the walk of love, then you can have confidence that you are a child of God. And that is nothing better than being sure of where you are going. We're going home to our father. And he will receive us with open arms of love. So rejoice in the freedom of being a child of God. And resolve to keep walking the walk of love.
You see the great thing about being a Christian is that you can be sure. You can know you are a child of God and you can know you are going to heaven. And the way to be sure? Resolve always to walk in the truth. Keep confessing the truth about Jesus and keep living the truth about Jesus. And resolve to walk in love. Live a life of love for others, reflecting the family likeness of the great lover, God himself. And then when we stand before God on judgement day we can have absolute confidence that he will say to us: "Well done good and faithful servant. Welcome home my child."
Copyright information: The sermon texts are copyright and are available for personal use only. If you wish to use them in other ways, please contact us for permission.