Sermon Message: Extravagant Devotion
Sermon Message: Even the Death of the Cross
Sermon Message: God Is For Us!
Sermon Message: Fellowship in the Light
Sermon Message: O Worship the King
God's Love Made Complete
1 John 4:12-16
(Delivered Sunday, May 26, 2002 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
I read recently about four pastors who, many years ago, were discussing Bible translations. The first pastor said that the King James Version stood out as the very best translation, because of the beauty of its style and because of its historic significance. The second pastor thought that the American Standard Version was the best, because of the reliability of its textual support, and because of its word-for-word accuracy. The third pastor voted for a particular modern translation, because of its wide acceptance throughout the English-speaking world, and because of the ease with which it could be read.
Finally the fourth pastor spoke up. "I like my mother's translation the best. She translated it into life, and it was the most convincing translation I have ever seen."1
I don't know for sure whether or not that's a true story; but I do know that it's a very biblical idea. The apostle Paul once wrote to the Corinthian believers and told them, "You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart" (2 Cor. 3:2-3). Wherever we go, and whatever we do, we who are believers are "living letters" - known and read by the people of the world. We may well be, in fact, the only "translation" of the Bible that some people will read.
The question is, then, are we good translations of God's changeless message? Do people learn the truth about God and about His Son Jesus Christ from what they see in us? To be more specific, when folks watch the way we live, are they seeing the love of God through Jesus Christ being translated for them into a message they can perceive, understand, and believe, through our everyday lives?
I think of that question as we come to this morning's passage. This particular passage deals, I believe, with the idea proclaiming to others the truth about God's love through the way we live our lives. In it, the apostle John writes;
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To prepare us for our look at this passage, I'd like to begin by taking you to the very beginning of John's little letter. There, we find John's purpose in writing it for us. He writes;
As he points out in the beginning of the letter, John and the other apostles were eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus Christ - God's Son in human flesh. Likewise, at the beginning of his gospel, John wrote that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). The twelve apostles lived with Him, walked with Him, ate with Him, heard His voice, touched Him, watched Him perform miracles, and saw firsthand the divine character of His life. The Son of God became a Man and lived among men, and these particular men "saw" Him.
They even quite literally "beheld His glory". John Himself was among those disciples that were with Jesus on the mountain, during the night when He was transformed before their very eyes. They saw His face shine like the sun, and His clothes become as white as the light (Matthew 17:2). They beheld with their own eyes Moses and Elijah appear to Him, as they spoke to Him of the death He was about to accomplish on the cross (Luke 9:31). They heard with their own ears the voice of God the Father, as He said to them, "This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!" (Mark 9:7). And the apostles who saw these things have borne witness of them to us. Peter spoke of these things when he wrote, "For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty" (2 Peter 1:16).
For the apostles, then, there was no question of the reality of God's love. They saw, up close and personal, the eternal love of God expressed for them in the Person of God's own Son Jesus. It was by sending His own precious Son to come to earth and die on the cross for us that God demonstrated, once and for all, that He truly loves us. Those apostles bore witness to the world of the love of God in His Son; and that witness has been passed down to us, being recorded for us under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit in the books of the New Testament. John himself says he wrote these things, so that we could enter into the fellowship the apostles themselves enjoyed - a personal fellowship of love with God the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And John wrote these things so that, as a result of that fellowship, our own joy may be made full.
One of the great themes of John's letter is God's love; and he's answering a very important question in this letter. Now that Jesus has been raised from the dead and has ascended back to the right hand of the Father, how is it that we can we still experience the ongoing impact of that love? Can we point it out to one another? Is it revealed today to the lost people of the world? This morning's passage shows us that God's love, first shown us through Christ, is exhibited in an ongoing way through those of us in whom Christ dwells. It's exhibited through people that have believed the apostles' testimony of Jesus, and in whom He now personally abides through His Holy Spirit.
The wonderful truth John shares with us in this morning's passage is that God's love, which has come to us through the ministry of His Son Jesus, comes to us - if I may put it this way - intentionally "incomplete". To be sure, from God's standpoint, His love for us is forever complete in Christ. He has made us "accepted in the Beloved" (Eph. 1:6); and He could never love us more in His Son Jesus than He does right now. But it was not God's intention that we become recipients of His perfect, complete love, and then do nothing more with it. If such a thing were to happen, then His love would fall short of its intended, life-transforming purpose. Though it's true that God's love for us is complete in Christ, God's love in us comes to us as something that needs yet to be completed through us. As John puts it, God's love is "perfected" (or "completed", or "brought to a finished state") in us, when we love one another as Christ loved us.
Have you believed the testimony of the apostles? Have you placed your trust in the Jesus they beheld? Have you become a recipient of God's eternal love through Him? Then this morning's passage calls you to do more with God's love than merely receiving it. That love is only "completed" in us when we love one another; and until that love is brought to completion in this way, our joy in the fellowship of Jesus will not be what God intends for it to be. God's love for us in Christ only becomes completed in us when it becomes expressed through us to each other.
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As we look together at this passage, we first can see ...
1. GOD'S LOVE MADE COMPLETE IN PRINCIPLE (v. 12).
John writes, "No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us" [or "made complete in us" as it's translated in the NIV] (v. 12).
Consider that beginning sentence: "No one has seen God at any time." That sentence needs some explanation; because, if we're students of the Bible at all, we immediately recall what seems like lots of times in which God appeared to people in the Old Testament. We remember that God walked in the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve lived (Gen. 3:8). We remember that Abraham interceded face to face with the Lord for the city of Sodom (Gen. 19:16-33). We remember that Jacob wrestled with a Man all night long one evening; and when it was over, named the place in which he wrestled "Peniel" (that is, "The Face of God"), saying, "... I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved" (Gen. 32:30). We remember that God appeared to Moses in the burning bush (Ex. 3:2-6); and that it was said that God spoke face to face with him, "as a man speaks to his friend" (Ex. 33:11). We even remember a remarkable incident in which seventy of the elders of ate together with Moses and Aaron on the mountain of God, and that, "they saw God, and they ate and drank" (Ex. 24:11)
Didn't Menoah and his wife (the father and mother of Samson) once tremble in fear after they were miraculously informed by God that Samson would be born; and didn't they say, "We shall surely die, because we have seen God" (Judges 13:22)? Didn't Isaiah, at the very beginning of his prophetic ministry, have a vision, concerning which he said, "I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up ..." (Isa. 6:1)? Wasn't Ezekiel once given a vision in which He saw "the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD" (Ezk. 1:26-28)? There seems to be lots of times in which people saw God. So then, what does John mean when he says, "No one has seen God at any time"?
I think it's helpful to remember that this isn't the only time John has used this unusual phrase. He used it once at the beginning of his gospel; and there, he adds something important to our understanding of this phrase. He writes, "No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten of the Father, He has declared Him" (John 1:18). In other words, those appearances of God that we read of in the Old Testament were appearances of none other than the pre-incarnate Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity.
The Bible teaches us that God the Father is only known as He is revealed to us by the Son. Jesus once told His disciples, "'If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him.' Philip said to Him, 'Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us.' Jesus said to him, 'Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father ...'" (John 14:8-9). In fact, when John speaks of the vision that Isaiah saw of the Lord "high and lifted up", he tells us that it was actually Jesus, the Son of God in His pre-incarnate glory, that he saw (John 12:41). This is because, as the writer of Hebrews tells us, Jesus is "the brightness of [God's] glory, and the express image of His person" (Heb. 1:3).
And so, it's true that "no one has seen God at any time" - if we understand this to be with reference to God the Father. But the Father has let Himself be "seen" through the Person of His Son. The Son of God, who was from the beginning, became flesh in a point of time and was born into this world - never ceasing to be God, yet becoming fully human. He walked upon this earth and lived among us. He was heard by human ears, seen by human eyes, and touched by human hands. And now, He has been declared to us by those who saw Him.
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No one, then, has ever seen God, except as God has been revealed through His Son. And this leads us, secondly, to why John is making this point. He asserts that no one has ever seen God; and so, no one could ever know about God's love unless God somehow reveals it. But God has revealed His love to us through the Person of His Son, who took our sins upon Himself and died in our place. And now, two thousand years after Jesus has ascended to the right hand of His Father in heaven, how do we enjoy the ongoing witness of God's love and fellowship? John tells us that, "If we love one another, God abides in us ..."
John isn't telling us here that, if we have strong feelings of emotion toward one another, we could persuade God to take up residence in us. No amount of love that sinners could ever muster up, no matter how great, would ever be sufficient to make God want to dwell in them. Rather, he is saying that, if redeemed and forgiven sinners love one another with the same sort of sacrificial, self-giving love with which Jesus loved them, it stands as evidence that God already truly abides in them! Just a few verses prior to this one, John writes,
To love as Jesus loved is to love with a supernatural love. It's beyond our limited ability to create such a love. But this Christ-like love is made possible in us because God truly does abide in us through the Person of His Holy Spirit. The unmistakable evidence of His presence in us is found in our obedience to His command to love one another. John says, "Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us" (3:23).
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And so, if we love one another, God Himself abides in us; and if this is so, then "His love has been perfected in us." This speaks of a wonderful truth - that God's own love is in us. It's not merely saying that our own love toward God can be found in us; nor even that God's own love toward us can be found in us. It's saying that nothing less than God's own love - as an essential aspect of His own being - is found to have been placed in us. I repeat: this is saying that God's own love - the kind of love that can only come from Him, because He Himself is love - is in us and at work through us because of the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit. And the truth being asserted to us - almost too wonderful for words - is that God's own love is only "made complete" or "perfected" in us, when it's expressed through us toward one another. The love of God that has been put in us accomplishes its intended purpose when we respond to it by loving one another as He loved us. It reaches its goal - that of conforming us, together, to His own image.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the world does not see God. It cannot see God. The people of this world do not even want to see God. But it cannot escape the evidence of His love when it is present in us, and perfected through us. Jesus said, "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34). You and I are living testaments of that love in this world.
Again I ask: Are we faithful translations? We only are if we are truly loving one another as our Savior has loved us.
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So then, this is the principle: God's love is perfected in us when we love one another; and when that happens, He testifies of Himself in the world. But how does this come about? This leads us, next, to consider ...
2. GOD'S LOVE MADE COMPLETE IN PROCESS (vv. 13-16a).
First, you'll notice that John writes, "By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world" (vv. 13-14).
Although it's true that God abides in every believer (because every believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit), it's my belief that John is not speaking here of the experience of every believer. Instead, I believe he is here speaking specifically of the experience of the apostles. You'll notice that his wording is very careful and precise. He doesn't say that God has "given us His Spirit" - which would be a statement that would be true of all believers. Rather, he says that God has "given us of His Spirit". In other words, the "we" in John's statement is a reference to the apostles - of whom John was one; and John is saying that he, and the other apostles, have received something from the Holy Spirit.
What was it that John and the other apostles received "of the Spirit"? They received the Spirit's ministry of uniquely authorizing them and empowering them to be His apostolic witnesses to the world. Jesus once told them that He was leaving them; but He then assured them by telling them, "These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, all things that I said to you" (John 14:26). He later said, "... When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you" (15:13-14).
John, along with the other apostles, were allowed to live in the manifestation of the Word made flesh. They saw Him, and they beheld His glory. And when Jesus left them, the Holy Spirit came to empower them to faithfully proclaim what they saw to the world. This is what John meant at the beginning of his epistle by saying, "... That which we have seen and heard we declare to you" (1:3). And this is why John here says, "And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world."
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And this leads us, then, to our response to the Spirit-authorized, Spirit-empowered witness of the apostles. John says, "Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God."
Stop and consider that statement very carefully. Many people believe that being a Christian is merely a matter of adhering to a set of religious observances or accepting a set of beliefs. But they really underestimate the nature of true Christianity when they think that way about it. What it really means to be a Christian can be summed up in those two things: God abiding in us, and we abiding in God. True Christianity means that Jesus Christ has personally taken up residence in us through His Holy Spirit. But that's not all. It also means that we personally "live" in ongoing fellowship with Jesus Christ through His Holy Spirit. Both of those characteristics are supernatural; both of them are inseparable from one another; and both of them together define what it truly means to be a Christian.
And please notice how this experience of true Christianity comes about. It's true for "whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God". The word "confess", as John uses it in the original language of his letter, means "to say the same thing". And in this context, to "confess that Jesus is the Son of God" means to say the same thing as the apostles said in their witness of Jesus. It means to acknowledge their witness about Jesus to be true, and to place a sincere faith in the truth about Jesus that the Holy Spirit has revealed through them. This part of the process is very important, because the love that God is calling us to should never be seen, in any way, as separated from a sincere faith in Christ. John speaks of God's commandment to us in 3:23; and he says, "And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment."
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And look at the final stage of this process; "And we have known and believed the love that God has for us." Both verbs - to "have known" and to have "believed" - are in the perfect tense; the tense that expresses a past, completed act has an ongoing, continual impact. When we have heard the witness of the apostles in the message of the gospel, and confess that Jesus truly is the Son of God who has come in the flesh and died on the cross for our sins, then we it can be said that we know and believe the love that God has for us. The realization of that love in our lives, and our faith in it, becomes the transforming motivation for us to love one another.
This leads us, finally, to ...
3. GOD'S LOVE MADE COMPLETE IN PRACTICE (v. 16b).
John says, "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him."
Notice that John says that "God is love". This is the second time he has used this remarkable phrase. He used it once in verse 8, where he writes, "He who does not love does not know God, for God is love." In that verse, he was stressing that it's impossible to say that we know God if we do not love, because love as an essential aspect of His being. In verse eight, he was making the point negatively; but here, he's making the point positively. Because God is love, the man or woman who lives and operates in the sphere of love also lives and operates in the sphere of fellowship with God Himself.
To what degree should a man or woman of God abide in love? Perhaps a way to answer that question is to ask: To what degree is God Himself love? Isn't He eternally love? Isn't He love to an infinite level? Can there be any limit to love in His divine being? Likewise, if we would abide in God, then there can be no limit to the degree to which we will go in abiding in His love toward one another. When we so love one another, then God's love in us is made complete.
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Paul once wrote to the Colossians believers and told them, "I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church ..." (Col. 1:24). Prior to studying this morning's passage, I had always found that affirmation - that Paul was filling up in his flesh what was lacking in the afflictions of Christ - to be something of a mystery. Certainly, there was nothing lacking in the sufferings of Christ in an absolute sense. His work of atonement for us was complete. So then, what did Paul mean by saying that he 'filled it up in his flesh'?
But I think I now have a better understanding of his meaning; don't you? Christ's suffering for us was complete; but what is still "lacking" in His sufferings is our part in it, that we would allow His love in us to be made complete through us by our practical, self-sacrificing, Christ-like love for one another.
As we go about our business this week, God will no doubt bring us before others who needs God's love. We may be tempted, at first, to hold back in our willingness to allow God to love them sacrificially through us. But may this passage remind us that God's love is to be made complete in us by our love for one another. And may this passage cause us to become a good "translation" of God's own love to those around us.
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