Love Like God

Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, 10 for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, 11 and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12 so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. – 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 ESV

Paul has just reminded the Thessalonians that they have been sanctified or set apart by God. According to His divine will, God has consecrated them for His use. And Paul added the clarification that “God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (1 Thessalonians 4:7 ESV). In other words, God had set them apart to something: holiness, and from something: sexual immorality. Paul is not saying that sexual immorality was the only thing they needed to avoid, but it was obviously a problem among them.  They had been raised in the Greek culture where sexuality permeated everyday life. There were few taboos regarding sex and, therefore, adultery, prostitution, homosexuality, and sex outside of marriage were a normal and expected part of life. There were even cases where the worship of their gods involved what Yahweh had deemed sexual immorality.

All kinds of immoralities were associated with the [Greco-Roman] gods. Not only was prostitution a recognized institution, but through the influence of the fertility cults of Asia Minor, Syria, and Phoenicia it became a part of the religious rites at certain temples. Thus there were one thousand “sacred prostitutes” at the temple of Aphrodite at Corinth.1

The Greek culture was steeped is sexuality and it was not considered immoral for one to fulfill their natural physical passions. So, the Thessalonian believers found themselves juggling God’s call to set-apartness and the siren call of society to compromise their convictions.

For Paul, God’s call to sanctification was not to be viewed as a list of things not to do. Yes, he clearly states that they were to abstain from sexual immorality. But notice the context. They were to control their own bodies and manage their passions so that they would not transgress and wrong their brother. This was really about brotherly love. Adultery is a lack of love. It is an expression of lust, envy, and greed; taking what does not belong to you. Sex outside the God-ordained boundaries of marriage is not love. It’s little more than lust, a willing surrender to physical drives with little regard for the other individual’s needs or wants.

But Paul commends the Thessalonians for their brotherly love. They had “been taught by God to love one another” and they were doing it. But that did not mean they were immune to the temptations all around them. That’s why Paul urges them to love more and more. They were to grow in their love for one another, expressing that love in tangible ways. And those expressions of love can take both positive and negative forms. They could love by caring for the needs of one another. But they could also love by not taking advantage of one another. Their love could show up  in the form of an act of kindness or a decision to not spread a false rumor.

Paul provided the believers in Galatia with a sobering list of actions that emanate from a life driven by the sin nature.

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these.  – Galatians 5:19-21 NLT

Look closely at this list. Every one of these characteristics are selfish in nature. They are expressions of a loveless, self-centered life where any care for anyone else is absent. These are the actions of someone who loves self more than anything else. But compare this list with the one that describes a Spirit-led, Spirit-controlled life: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23 NLT).

These attributes are other-oriented, not self-centered. They are expressions of love because they are the fruit of the Spirit of God. God is love and we love because He first loved us. We have been set apart for the purpose of expressing His love to one another. And Paul provides the Thessalonians and us with three concrete expressions of what it looks like to love others.

First, he says they are “to aspire to live quietly” (1 Thessalonians 4:11 ESV). This is an interesting one, because it could be translated, “strive to live a non-frantic life.” Sounds counter-intuitive doesn’t it? But the Greek word translated “aspire” is philotimeomai, and it can also mean “to be fond of.” The first half of the word is philos, and it means “friend.” The second half of the word is timē, and it means “to honor.” So, Paul is telling the Thessalonians to honor their friends by living quiet, peaceful lives. It is not a call to isolationism, but an encouragement to live in a way that brings the most good to others. It is a life of selflessness, not selfishness.

Secondly, Paul says, “to mind your own affairs.” In other words, manage your own life well. Don’t attempt to fix everyone else’s life by controlling or correcting them. It is not love when you find fault in others. It is not love when you constantly criticize and complain about others. Jesus warned, “why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5 NLT). 

Paul is calling them to a life of self-examination, where they are slow to judge others, but quick to assess the condition of their own hearts. Because, as Jesus said, “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander“ (Matthew 15:19 ESV). How easy it is to focus all our attention on the faults of others, while ignoring the condition of our own hearts. And when we do, rather than love others, we judge, envy, slander, and take advantage of them. In other words, we fail to love them.

Finally, Paul tells the Thessalonians, “to work with your hands.” This is not a call to hard work and industry. Keep it within the context. He is calling the Thessalonians to grow in their love for one another. And a big part of what they are called to do is express that love by doing the things God has called them to do. Remember what Paul wrote the believers in Ephesus:

…we are his [God’] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. – Ephesians 2:10 ESV

Earlier, in the very same letter, Paul had told them: “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love…” (Ephesians 1:4 ESV). Notice those last two words: in love. That’s the key. Love is to be the greatest proof of our holiness and blamelessness. And later on, he gave them further instructions “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24 ESV).

As God’s children, set apart by Him for His use, we are to emulate His character. We are to bear His image by behaving according to His will for us. And as Paul stated earlier, God’s will is our sanctification, our holiness lived out in everyday life. And the greatest expression of that holiness is our love, because God is love. This is what Jesus meant when He told His followers, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 ESV). And the apostle John so rightly states, “We love each other because he loved us first” (1 John 4:19 NLT).

Paul summarizes his statements, telling the Thessalonians that their adherence to these three things: to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, will allow them to “walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thessalonians 4:12 ESV). The image Paul paints is that of brotherly interdependence that mirrors for the lost world what it means to be part of the body of Christ. There is a love that is expressed in selflessness and mutual care and concern for one another that is like nothing the world has ever seen. And it should result in a lack of need among the family of God. But not just a lack of physical need. This brotherly love should create a overflowing sense of acceptance, significance, worth, and purpose in life.

The love we express for one another as fellow believers in Christ is the greatest proof of God’s existence. When we love as He has loved us, selflessly and sacrificially, we demonstrate the depth of love with which He loved us. And in doing so, we make God known. And the apostle John calls us to lives lives marked by that kind of love:

Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. – 1 John 4:11-12 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

1 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 64. All abbreviations of ancient literature in this essay are those used in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed. (OCD).

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Truth and Love.

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. – Ephesians 4:15-16 ESV

Some Christians thoroughly enjoy speaking the truth. They get a sort of perverse sense of joy out of correcting others and showing them they’re wrong. These kinds of people can use the Bible like a baseball bat to pound the truth into the lives of those with whom they disagree or deem errant in their views. And while the Scriptures are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16 ESV), they are not meant to be wielded like a weapon. Yes, Paul will later on in this same letter describe the Word of God as “the sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17 ESV), he intended it to be used against “the schemes of the devil”, not one another.

The truth is vital to the life of the church. In fact, Paul told his young protege, Timothy, “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:14-15 ESV). The church of God is to be a defender and champion of the truth. In a world mired in relativity and immersed in the lies of the enemy, the church is to be the bastion of truth, based on the Word of God. It was Jesus who said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32 ESV). The truth as it pertains to sin can be painful and difficult to hear. But God has revealed the antidote or remedy to mankind’s sin problem: Jesus. The Bible reveals the truth about man, sin, God, and the means of being justified with Him. As the church, we have the truth regarding God’s plan of salvation wrapped up in the gospel of Jesus Christ. And we have the Scriptures, which contain all the truth we need regarding everything from how we got here to where we are going. It is the sole source of truth regarding life and death, sin and salvation, God and man, meaning and hopelessness, right and wrong, and every other issue relevant to our existence as human beings.

But the truth must always be accompanied by love. Truth without love can be hurtful and harmful. One of my favorite passages in the Scriptures is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church. He told them, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14 ESV). For years, I only focused on verse 13. I loved its blunt, direct way of commanding men to step up and act like men. It was an in-your-face sort of verse that had a testosterone-laden feel to it. Then one day I happened to notice verse 14: “Let all that you do be done in love.” Oops. I had conveniently overlooked that vital part of Paul’s command. If I attempt to stand firm in the faith without love, I will tend to come across as dogmatic and prideful. I will care more about how I am perceived by others than how much I care for others.

I love how The Message paraphrases 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s great chapter on love:

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. – 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 MSG

Even good and seemingly godly things, done without love, are worthless. Which is why Peter warned, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8 ESV). Telling someone who is lost that they are a sinner might be true, but it could also be harmful and hurtful. Revealing their sinful state without lovingly introducing them to the hope of the Savior would be nothing short of cruel. In the body of Christ, we are to speak truth to one another, but always in love. Our motivation should not just be for conviction and correction, but redemption and restoration. Which is why Paul told the Galatian believers, “Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path” (Galatians 6:1 NLT).

Paul’s goal for the churches to which he ministered was their growth – not just numerical growth, but spiritual. Certainly, he wanted to see more and more people come to faith in Christ, but he also wanted to see all those who did so grow in their knowledge of and relationship to Christ. And there is really no way for a believer to grow outside the context of the body of Christ. It is together that we make up the body of Christ, with Him as our head. And Paul emphasized that when each part of the body is working properly, according to the Spirit’s gifting, the body grows and builds itself up in love. Love isn’t a feeling. It’s an attitude. It is a relationally-based, God-given power to impact the life and spiritual well-being of another person. Neither truth or love are relative or subjective. God has not left either one up to us to define. We are to speak His truth, not ours. We are to love according to His terms, not our own. And when we blend His truth with His kind of love, the body of Christ grows. Like sun and rain, truth and love are vital to the spiritual well-being of the church.

 

Love = Holiness.

Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. – 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13 ESV

Paul had an obsession with love. He prayed for it constantly. It seems that in virtually every one of his prayers, he requested that God would increase the love of those for whom he prayed. For Paul, love was synonymous with being a Christian, because the kind of love he was referring to was not of this world. It was from above. Along with the apostle John, he could say, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7 ESV). There is an earthly kind of love and then there is godly love. God’s love is sacrificial and selfless, while the love of this world is selfish and self-centered. God’s brand of love gives. The love of this world gives to get. God’s love doesn’t show favoritism. The love of this world is based on convenience and reserved for those who are lovely or deemed loveable. So when Paul prayed that the love of the believers in Thessalonica would increase and abound, he was praying for something supernatural. That’s why he prayed, “may the Lord make you increase and abound.” It would have to be a work of God. We are incapable manufacturing the kind of love God requires. When Jesus commanded His disciples, “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12 ESV), He knew that they would find it an impossible command to keep – without help. Which is why He sent the Holy Spirit. It is only with the Spirit’s divine assistance that they would find the strength and motivation to love like Jesus loved. And when the Holy Spirit descended upon them that day in Jerusalem, it was a game-changer. They were transformed from timid, self-centered disciples who lived with a what’s-in-it-for-me mentality, into selfless, sacrificial servants of God who had a lay-it-all-on-the-line attitude concerning love and life. They would willingly and eagerly take the message of God’s love, as expressed through the gift of His Son, to the world. They would spend their lives spreading the good news about Jesus to anyone and everyone who would listen. But they would also grow in their love for one another.

And that was Paul’s prayer for all believers – that they increase and abound in Christ-like love for each other. And that should be our prayer today. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 ESV). It is our love that sets us apart or makes us holy. It is our capacity to love like Jesus loved that marks us as His followers. The kind of love Paul has in mind is a jaw-dropping, eye-popping love that is inexplicable and impossible to replicate. It comes from God. The apostle John wrote, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8 ESV). Obviously, everyone loves. But not in the way that God demands. And if our brand of love is not the love of God, then we don’t really know God. I find it interesting that the disciples once asked of Jesus, “Teach us to pray.” But you never read of the asking Jesus to teach them to love. Why? Because I believe that, in their minds, prayer was a ticket to getting things from God. Like many of us, they viewed prayer as a kind of resource that would allow them to tap into God’s power and put them on the receiving end of His blessings. But they had no desire to learn to love. Partly because they probably thought they already knew how. But also because love, even on a purely human level, requires giving. Love in its very essence is an act of giving. You give yourself away. And you don’t always get something in return. To love and not be loved in return can hurt. To have your love refused can be devastating. But that is the very kind of love Jesus and Paul were talking about. The love of God. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV).

But what’s goal of this kind of love? Well, God’s love results in eternal life. He gave His Son so that those who believe in Him might receive forgiveness of sin and salvation from condemnation and death. God’s kind of love produces holiness. Which is why Paul prayed, “so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness.” As we love as God loves, it transforms us. It changes us from the inside out. We learn to become less self-obsessed and more selfless. We discover the joy of giving without the nagging need to get something in return. We experience the life-transforming joy of loving another person for the sole purpose of seeing them come to know the love of God. Again, the apostle John puts this thought in very simple terms: “No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us” (1 John 4:12 NLT). God’s love is made complete, it comes full circle, when it flows from Him to us and on to others. God’s love was not intended to stop at us, backing up within us like a stagnant pool. It was intended to be shared and to flow from us like a life-giving stream, refreshing all those to whom it touches. So our prayer should be that our love increase and abound. We should desire to see God produce in us a love that is beyond measure and imagination.

Love Like God Loves.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. – 1 John 4:7 ESV

1 John 4:7-21

Throughout these 15 verses, John repeatedly reminds us to love one another. But he has not left it up to us to define what that love should look like. He has gone out of his way to make sure we know that the standard for the kind of love we are to show one another is a high one. It is the love of God. And that love was not simply an emotion or a response to something lovable in us. It was the outflow of His very nature, and an expression of His character. As John says, God didn’t love us because we loved Him first. It was the other way around. He loved us when we were at our worst. He loved us when we were in rebellion against Him, existing as His enemies, and stubbornly content with our lot in life. Paul puts it this way: “you who were once far away from God. You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions” (Colossians 1:21 NLT). Yet, in spite of our unlovely condition, God loved us. “Yet now he has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault” (Colossians 1:22 NLT). God loved the unlovely and unlovable. And that love was costly. It required the death of His one and only Son, Jesus Christ. But that priceless payment was necessary in order that we might be restored to a right relationship with God. He paid the price we could not afford to settle a debt we owed. Now that’s love. And it is that kind of love John has in mind when he says, “Love one another.” It was the kind of love Jesus had in mind when He told His disciples, “just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” ( John 13:34 ESV).

God loved us in order to restore us. Jesus loved us enough to die for us, so that we might live as sons and daughters of God. Their love was focused on our holiness, not our happiness. Their love was focused on our eternal well-being, not our temporary satisfaction. Jesus died to deliver us from this world of sin and death. His prayer in the garden on the night of His betrayal says it all. “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.  They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:14-17 ESV). His love was focused on our sanctification, our ongoing transformation in His own likeness. Ultimately, God’s love and that of His Son is all about our future glorification. And our love for one another should have that same focus. Do I love my brother or sister in Christ enough to speak truth into their life? Do I love them enough to give up my own rights in order to see that they grow in Christ-likeness? Do I love them enough to want God’s best for them? Do I love them enough to sacrifice my time, my resources, my comfort and my self-centered conveniences in order to see that they live lives that are pleasing to God?

The reason Jesus said the world would know we were His disciples because of our love for one another was due to the nature of that love. It would not be the kind of love with which the world was familiar. And let’s face it, the world does love. Those who live in this world without Christ love their kids, express love towards one another, give their money to worthy causes, feed the hungry, help the needy, do service projects, sacrifice their time, and show love in a thousand different ways. But the love we are commanded to show is different. It is what sets us apart. It is what gives proof that we are His disciples. When John says, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11 ESV). In the same way. With the same focus. The reason we love is so that those we love might be restored to God. Any temporal aspect of our love should have an eternal focus. Meeting physical needs should always have a spiritual focus. Feeding the hungry, while failing to give them the bread of life, will provide temporary relief, but leave them with a much more serious problem. That’s why Paul wrote, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3 ESV). The greatest love we have to give away is the love we have received. A love that was focused on our greatest need. The love of this world is temporal in nature. It seeks to solve immediate needs with temporary fixes. We attempt to fix broken relationships with flowers. We try to remedy sadness with some form of temporary gladness. We give the hungry a meal or a job. We give the poor a handout. But the kind of love the world needs is far more lasting and long-term in nature. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35 NLT). He said this in response to those who had demanded, “give us that bread every day” (John 6:34 NLT). They had been part of the crowd that He had fed the day before. They wanted more bread. They wanted their physical needs met. But Jesus was offering them more. His love was focused on something far greater. Their salvation from sin. Their restoration to a right relationship with God. And that should be the focus of our love. I love others most when I desire for them God’s best.

Abide In God (Love)

So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. – 1 John 4:16 ESV

1 John 4:7-21

In the verse above, John makes the statement that “God is love.” It is His essence, not just a characteristic of who He is. For John and the other apostles, to have experienced the love of God was to have experienced God Himself. Why? Because God expressed His love for mankind by sending His own Son to die on their behalf and in their place, in order to satisfy the judgment of God against their sins. So when they accepted that gift by believing in His Son, they experienced a love like nothing they had ever known before. They became the recipients of an other-worldly kind of love, the love of God, and through Jesus, came to know God better than they had ever known Him before. They discovered what true love really looks like and they found out what it feels like to abide in that love. And their strong belief was that, to abide in God was to abide in His love. And vice versa, to abide in His love was to abide in Him. Remember, John has said, “No one has ever seen God” (1 John 4:12 ESV). But those of us who are in Christ have experienced and known His love. And when we love one another in the same way that He and His Son have loved us, we abide in that same love. We experience the love of God all over again. The love that we are commanded to share with one another is the same love we have received. But we must be careful to ensure that we do not redefine love to fit our temporal, human sentiments.

One of the dangers we face is when we wrongly conclude that if God is love, then love must be God. Notice that John did not say, “Love is God.” When we flip this around we end up with love as the supreme good, not God. And because we are human, we tend to make love all about us. We end up putting ourselves at the center of that love. And that love is best expressed in terms we define and dictate. In other words, we conclude, “I feel most love when __________________.” You fill in the blank. In other words, we make a list of things we believe will make us feel loved. If God gives me a good job that pays me good money and makes me feel fulfilled, then He loves me. If God heals my disease and gives me a long life, then I will know that He loves me. If God gives me someone to marry who is highly attractive and fun to be with, then I will feel loved by Him. But what’s the problem with all of this? The natural conclusion is that if we don’t get what we want, we feel unloved by God. We have defined love on our terms and if God doesn’t love us the way we want to be loved, then He is unloving. Frederick Buechner wrote, “To say that love is God is romantic idealism. To say that God is love is either the last straw or the ultimate truth.” Sometimes the love of God will come across as hate to us. We will not feel loved. Because God’s deepest concern for us is not for our happiness, but our holiness. There will be times when God does not give us what we desire. Because He does not love us? No, because He DOES love us, and He alone knows what is BEST for us. Paul prayed repeatedly that God would remove “the thorn in my flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7 NLT). But God did not answer those prayers. At least not in the terms Paul was expecting. But what was Paul’s conclusion? “So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud” (2 Corinthians 12:7 NLT). Each time Paul had prayed for what he believed he needed, God had lovingly told him, “‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NLT). God had something far greater He wanted to do in Paul’s life. His love is always redemptive and restorative, but with an emphasis on the future. God did not promise us our best life now. His love has an eschatological or future aspect to it. These bodies are impermanent. They will not last and were not designed to do so. He has something far better in store for us. Ultimately, God’s love is focused on who we are in Him and what we will be when His Son returns.

So what if we loved one another the way God loves us, the way Christ loved us? What if our greatest expression of love for one another was focused on God’s desire to sanctify those that are His and redeem those who are not? I am NOT suggesting that we do not meet physical or emotional needs. John has made it clear that love must be practical and tangible. But as children of God, our love must have a greater, deeper focus than the alleviation of temporal suffering. To love as God has loved us is to care deeply about one another’s spiritual well-being. It is to sacrifice all that you have in order to see another human being reconciled, made right with God. Paul reminds us, “Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19 ESV). Our love for others must ultimately be about their reconciliation to God. God’s love is always redemptive, restorative, and regenerative in nature. It is about far more than our happiness or temporal well-being. And we must remain in, abide in that kind of love – embracing it, sharing it, displaying it, and spreading it to all those around us.

God = Love.

So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. – 1 John 4:16 ESV

1 John 4:7-21

John has already told us that God is light (1 John 1:5). Now he lets us in on another significant reality about God’s divine character. He is love. He doesn’t just love. He is love. It is His very nature. In fact, all that He does is done as an expression of His love. But that raises some interesting and somewhat mind-boggling contradictions for us as human beings. It causes us significant confusion because we have a hard time reconciling the images of God’s wrath, judgment, and punishment as revealed in the Bible. These seeming contradictions raise questions that usually begin with the words, “But how could a loving God …” We wrestle with stories from the Old Testament that picture God as demanding the annihilation of entire groups of people. We struggle with the concept that God would punish people by condemning them to an endless existence in a place of perpetual torment. Trying to comprehend these two extremes has caused many to either reject God altogether or to attempt to rationalize and reconstruct their image of God. Many believers, uncomfortable with the concept of God as a judge who metes out justice and judgment, have simply re-imagined Him, eliminating His less-attractive characteristics and recreating Him as the all-loving, all-accepting, all-inclusive, all-for-us, all the time God. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar and popular author and speaker, represents many who have chosen to rethink their view of God. “We must get this clear, together, to see real progress. Is God good? Is He Loving, Peaceful? Does God look like Jesus, who forgave 7×70 times, even to the point of death, and lived a non-violent, non-retributive life? Or… Is God angry? Is He violent and warring? Does God look like the god portrayed in the Old Testament, commanding wars, genocide and destruction? Does He look like a retributive, end-times Jesus who will ‘kill millions upon His return,’ seemingly having a cut-off point’ to His own teaching on forgiveness?” Unable to reconcile the two seeming extremes of God as portrayed in the Scriptures, Richard Rohr and others have simply chosen to construct their own view of God. They prefer to camp and count on the all-loving version. Why? Because they are uncomfortable with what they refer to as the schizophrenic God of the Bible. They say, “He cannot be a warring, genocidal maniac, and then a loving servant Savior who forgives and includes all – especially the most undesirable – and finally a bloodthirsty, horse-riding, sinner-slayer who enacts ‘justice’ in ‘the end.’” So they recreate Him in their own image. But doing so requires that they view the Sciptures no longer as God’s revelation of Himself to man, but as man’s attempt to reveal their marred and somewhat immature understanding of God. The Bible becomes nothing more than a collection of human stories revealing mankind’s growing and progressively enlightening view of God. And Jesus becomes no longer a Savior from sin, but a seer who helps man see the truly loving side of God.

But the problem with all this is that John and the other apostles tell us, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10 ESV). John is not afraid to talk about sin. And he is most certainly not afraid to testify that mankind needs a Savior from sin. In fact, as far as John was concerned, the greatest expression of God’s love for mankind was the selfless, sacrificial, undeserved death of His own Son. The brutal execution of Jesus was God’s love on display. Hard to understand? Difficult to comprehend? You bet. Sounds harsh and barbaric doesn’t it? It assaults our sensibilities. But just because we can’t reasonably rationalize how a loving God could require the brutal death of His own Son in order to pay for sins He didn’t even commit, doesn’t mean we should totally reconstruct the scenario to better suit our sensibilities. Jesus Himself told us, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 ESV). Death as an expression of love. It is God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice that make His love all that more incredible. Paul reminds us, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ESV). Our sin separated us from God. Our sin required a just and holy God to do the right thing and mete out judgment and the deserved punishment. But God loved. When man couldn’t live up to the holy standards of a righteous God, He stepped in and did something about it. He loved us when we were at our worst. But His love didn’t overlook our sin. He didn’t just dismiss our guilt and ignore our debt. To do so would have required Him to be less than God. No, God remained just, holy, and righteous while loving us at the same time. But to do so, someone had to die. Someone had to pay the penalty. His own Son. The sinless Son of God. And it is that remarkable act of LOVE that should motivate and inspire our love for others. We don’t make God more loving by attempting to make Him less judgmental. For God to ignore our sin would not have been loving, anymore than a father to ignore the rebellion of a child. God’s love shines greatest when we see man’s sin at its darkest. Man is sinful. Sin is rebellion against God. The penalty for sin is death – eternal separation from God. But God loved. He paid the penalty by sending His Son to die – out of love. As an expression of His love. Because He loves. Love is at its most beautiful when juxtaposed against a backdrop of unloveliness and undeservedness. Loving the unlovely isn’t just hard. It’s impossible. Without the love of God.

Perfect Love.

No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. – 1 John 4:12 ESV

1 John 4:7-21

Twenty seven times in 16 verses, John references “love.” He tells us to “love one another,” that “whoever loves has been born of God,” that “God loves us first,” and that “God is love.” He also speaks of love being “perfected” and “perfect.” Those two words, when associates with love, come across as unachievable and impossible in this lifetime. How in the world are we, as believers with active sin natures, to love perfectly? Can our love really be perfected in our lifetime? Or is it something we have to wait for until Christ returns and we are glorified and made to be like Him?

John gives us the answer to these questions and more. He commands us to love one another. And where did he get that command? From Jesus Himself. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34 ESV). We are to love one another in the same way that Jesus loved us: Selflessly and sacrificially. Jesus reminds us, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 ESV). And this love that Jesus expressed came directly from God the Father. It was God’s love lived out through Jesus’ life. “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 NLT). Jesus gave His life as an expression of the love of God. God loved the world through Jesus. He was the conduit of God’s love. And God wants us to do the same thing through us. Starting with our brothers and sisters in Christ. He wants His love to be perfected through us. That word in the Greek is teleioō and is means “to carry through completely” or “to bring to an end.” God wants His love to flow through us to one another and not simply end on us. In fact, it was for this very thing that Jesus prayed in the garden on the night of his betrayal. “I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me” (John 17:22-23 NLT). Jesus’ death has made it possible for God’s love to flow through us to one another. The same love God has for His Son has been poured out on us so that we might pour it out on each other, and so prove that we are His disciples. John reminds us, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10 ESV). As a result, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19 ESV). And when we love one another, we make visible the love of God. In fact, we make the transcendent, invisible God tangible and knowable. “ No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12 ESV). Men can’t see God, but they can see God’s love through us. Paul tells us that Jesus was “the visible image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 NLT). John, in his gospel, wrote this regarding Jesus: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known” (John 1:18 NIV). But the most radical expression of God’s love was through Jesus’ death. John puts it this way: “In this is love…that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10 ESV). Jesus’ selfless sacrifice of His own life was a declaration and proof of God’s love for man.

But let’s take it back to us. Can we love like Jesus loved? Can we love perfectly or completely? I think the answer lies in our understanding of what John meant by “perfect love.” He isn’t talking about something we manufacture or create. He is talking about God’s love being carried through us to its intended destination: others. God’s love was not meant to dead end with us. He loved us so that we might love others. Again, John puts it in very clear terms. “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16 ESV). How do we know how much God loves us? Because of His Son’s death in our place. We live in that love, counting on it daily, trusting in it regularly. “By this is love perfected with us” (1 John 4:17 ESV). As we live in His love, it begins to flow out of us. As we remember and rely on His unconditional love for us, we realize that there is no legitimate reason we should not share that same love with others for whom His Son died. We are not having to conjure up love for others. We are simply sharing or passing on the love that God has shown to us through His Son. I love the imagery Paul uses to explain the power that we have available within us. “For God, who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness,’ has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ. We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves” (2 Corinthians 4:16-17 NLT). It isn’t our love that is perfect, but His love being made carried through to completion through us. Most often, in spite of us.

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Love and Hate.

For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. – 1 John 3:11 ESV

1 John 3:11-24

Love and hate. God and Satan. Dark and light. Faith and doubt. Belief and disbelief. Children of God and children of the devil. John paints a black and white portrait of life in this world. There are two systems at work and at war with one another. As children of God, we have been placed in the middle of an environment that is opposed to our very existence. The world, as a result of sin, is in rebellion against God. Many in the world reject that very existence of God. Others, unable to explain their own existence and desperate to find meaning for life, have concocted their own versions of God. But to make your own god is nothing short of the rejection of the one true God. The point that John seems to be trying to make is that those who have a relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ are going to find this world a place of conflict and contrasts. The very fact that we are His children puts us at odds with those who refuse to accept Jesus as the Son of God and the only way to be restored to a right relationship with God. The result is that the world hates us. John confirms that reality. “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you” (1 John 3:13 ESV). Jesus gave us a similar warning. “This is my command: Love each other. If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first. The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you” (John 15:17-19 NLT). “You will be hated by everyone because of me” (Matthew 10:22 NIV).

John used the example of Cain and Abel – two brothers who should have naturally loved one another – to drive home his message of contrasts. Cain brutally murdered his brother. His act was an outflow of his anger toward and hatred for Abel. But it stemmed from his disbelief in God. He lacked the capacity to love Abel because he was devoid of a love for God. Cain’s sacrifice was unacceptable to God because Cain lacked faith in God. “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain” (Hebrews 11:4 ESV). Abel was motivated by faith in God. He believed in God. “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6 ESV). John makes it clear a little bit later in his letter that God is love. “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8 ESV). Love is essence of God. But this is not some kind of sentimental, Hallmark-greeting-card kind of love. This is a selfless, sacrificial, lay-it-all-on-the-line kind of love that is not of this world. Without God, Cain couldn’t manufacture this kind of love. But this kind of love is what sets the children of God apart from one another. It was what caused the early church to stand out from the crowd and set it apart as distinctively different. In the book of Acts, we read of the early days of the church as thousands of people from all walks of life and a variety of ethnic backgrounds are coming to faith in Jesus. “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45 ESV). That day, there were people from all over the world who heard the good news regarding Jesus Christ. “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians” (Acts 2:9-11 ESV). And many of them came to faith and became part of a unique organism called the body of Christ. At that point, they became one in Christ. Their ethnic, economic, cultural, and idealogical differences were overshadowed by the love of God. Paul described the believers in Galatia in similar terms. For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28 NLT). 

Our adoption as sons and daughters by God have placed us all into one new family. God’s love for us manifests itself in a love for one another that is unique and distinctive. No longer is our love based on earthly standards. Our commonality and community is not based on ethnicity, language, economic status, country of origin or level of education. Our unity is based on our relationship with Jesus Christ. So Jews who love Jesus can love Arabs who love Jesus. Muslims who have come to know Jesus as their Savior can call Christians their brothers. Blacks and whites can love one another. Individuals who were once enemies can now worship together because of the transformative power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. “The way we know we’ve been transferred from death to life is that we love our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:14 NLT). Our capacity to love is our calling card. It is what sets us apart. And in this world, it is what sets us up for hatred. This world can’t comprehend that kind of love. It makes no sense. It sees it as a threat. It views it as a weakness. The enemy can’t stand it, because he knows its origin. It is of God. And anything of God is repulsive to him. But God is love and we are God’s children. Love is the greatest expression of our God-likeness. Which is why Paul wrote: “Three things will last forever–faith, hope, and love–and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13 NLT).