A Call to Love
Series: Christmas Words
Love is a popular word not just at Christmas time, but year-round. That said, it’s actually difficult if you try to live it out. John shows us why it’s worthwhile to do so.
Citylight Center City | December 12, 2021 from Citylight Church on Vimeo.
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We’re continuing our series of sermons today leading up to Christmas on words commonly associated with Christmas, in hope of understanding what they really mean and how we can experience them. Today we come to love, a word that’s popular not only around Christmas time, but year-round. It’s an idea that almost no one rejects, whether Christians or not, but it’s also one that’s poorly defined. How often do people claim to love only to act in ways that seem very contrary to it? How often do people claim to love only to not act at all? How often do we? As glamorous as the concept is, the actions that should flow from it are often difficult, and not very glamorous at all. Nonetheless, we see in this passage that it is commanded of Christians, and that it is really possible to sincerely love one another. So Beloved, let us love one another, because it’s what Christians do, God is love, and God loved us.
It’s what Christians do
Our passage begins with the big idea: “Beloved, let us love one another.” Notice how John, the author, includes himself in the command. He first addresses them as beloved. He loves these people. And can I just say, Citylight Center City, I love you. Thabiti Anyabwile, a pastor I admire, regularly addresses his church as “beloved,” and that feels kinda out of my range personality-wise, but I can honestly say that I love you. And I want to join you in obeying this command. Let us love one another. Now immediately we’ve got a challenge: What does it mean to love one another? A danger any time we’re reading the Bible is when we come across a word and simply read into it our own sense of what it means. And culturally today, there is a popular sense that to love someone means to affirm whatever they say they want, whoever they say they are, and to meet whatever needs they say they have. The idea is that every individual is best suited to determine what they need and who they are, so that to love them is to affirm whatever they come up with and act accordingly. However, if we really want to respect John, the author of this letter, and ultimately God, under whose inspiration he’s writing, we’ll instead ask what he meant by the word when he wrote it. So let’s allow John to tell us what he has in mind when he uses the word “love.”
Here’s what he writes in chapter 3, verses 17-18 – “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” So right away we can notice a way this is different from our popular sense of love: It starts with your brother genuinely being in need. It doesn’t say, “If your brother says he has a need, you must meet it.” In fact, there are other passages of Scripture that give us situations where we should say no to requests for assistance. We should of course listen to people who say they have a need because they very likely do, but love is not synonymous with affirmation. That said, it is truly demanding. This text is telling us that love, if it is truly love, love “in truth,” it will be love in deed. Love is an affection whereby one is dear to another, where we desire the good of another. So when we see someone we love in need, love proves itself to be in truth when it is love in deed. Actions speak louder than words. If a brother is in need, and you can meet the need, loving them means you meet it. When Sonya needed help getting her new mattress into her apartment, Michael and Tryone saw their sister in need, and helped her get it in there and set up. When Mark and Cait’s bikes were stolen, their Citygroup saw their brother and sister in need, raised money, and bought them new ones. When Phil saw Matt in need of a ride to church so he could get here early to practice music without having to pay a crazy amount for an uber, Phil drove from South Philly out to West Philly and back here to bring him.
So when John says, “Beloved, let us love one another,” he means, “Let us hold one another so dearly that we do those kinds of things more and more.” And it is a “one another” command, so that he has in view here the love of church members for other church members. Recall that in chapter 3 he specifically says if any of you sees your brother in need. Elsewhere in the Bible we are commanded to love all people, so this isn’t to deny that, but we have to start somewhere, and I think we all sense it would be a little weird for us to meet the needs of our neighbors while members of our own family are starving. If you think of love as an outward orientation that seeks the good of another, on your way out from yourself, as you are looking for needs to meet, the first people you should “hit” as it were are your immediate family if you have one, so spouse, children, but then John is showing us here that the next group of people you should hit is your church family. For us to love one another, then, is for us to be constantly on the lookout for needs we can meet. It’s for us to be saying, “How can I help?” a lot, not only to people, but to ourselves. You hear about a situation and ask yourself, “What could I do?” You start to ask other church members, “What could we do?” And then you do it.
Can I tell you about a time I failed at this? There was a couple who were not members of our church, but who were getting involved and who I was getting to know. They got COVID this past January. They also had 3 young kids. They let me know, I prayed for them, but then it kinda fell off my radar. I didn’t take the next step to ask, “How could I help?” I didn’t go to my Citygroup and say, “Hey so and so has COVID; how could we help?” And why didn’t I? Honestly, I just had too many other things going on. Here’s something you’ve got to make peace with: Love is inconvenient. It means taking real time, energy, and money away from serving our own private interests. Serving our private interests is always convenient, but some of you may recall from when we preached through 1 Corinthians 13 last year that love seeks not its own. We often have an intuitively positive response to the idea of love, but to love not only in word or talk, but in deed and truth…it’s hard when you actually try to do it. So why bother?
The first reason John gives us in verse 7 is basically, “That’s what Christians do.” Look at what he says, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” He’s saying that if anyone truly loves, it can only be because they’ve been born of God. Let’s pause there for a moment, because that may surprise you if you think about it. I’m sure you all know people who aren’t Christians who seem even more committed than you to loving in deed, but they haven’t been born of God, nor do they know God. So how can John say that whoever loves has been born of God and knows God? Because he’s thinking of love the way Jesus does. Remember what Jesus said when asked what the greatest commandment was? He said it is first to love the Lord your God, and then to love your neighbor. The love that is first directed toward God and only then directed toward neighbor is the love that John has in mind when he says, “Whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.”
That kind of love is from God, John tells us. If someone has it, it can only be because they’ve been born of God and know God. It isn’t in us by nature. But when the Holy Spirit gives us the gift of new birth, He pours love into our hearts, and that stream then flows out first to God, then to our church family, and then beyond. It’s why when Scripture lists the fruit of the Spirit, the first is love. And as we know God, we become more like Him. This is what makes someone a Christian: They’ve been born of God and know God. Now John is saying, “Act like it.” I have family members who are very politically liberal and other family members who are very politically conservative. So if I ask them what they think of a certain policy, let’s say increasing taxes on wealthier citizens, I kinda know already how they’re going to respond. My liberal family members are going to say, “Of course we should do that. It’s unjust that such a small number of people control so much of the wealth in our nation,” while my conservative family members are going to say, “Of course we should not do that. They worked hard for that money and should have the liberty to spend it as they see fit. Allowing them to invest it in their business ventures will ultimately provide more jobs and money to the poor anyway.” I know they’re going to answer those ways, because that’s what liberals and conservatives do. Well, John is saying, here’s what Christians do: They love one another.
GEICO made a whole ad campaign on things like this: “If you’re in a horror movie, you make poor decisions. It’s what you do. If you’re Salt-N-Pepa, you tell people to push it. It’s what you do.” John adds this: “If you’re a Christian, you love other Christians. It’s what you do.” So when we love another not just in word or talk, but in deed and truth, we aren’t working to be born again and know God; we’re showing that we have been born again and know God. We don’t perform for our identity; we are who we are because God has given us a new birth. But our actions do reveal and reinforce our identity. And, verse 8 goes on tell us that the converse is true: Anyone who does not love must not know God, because God is love.
God is love
What does that mean, that God is love? Notice it doesn’t say that God is loving. It simply says, “God is love.” There isn’t some other thing out there, outside of God, called love, to which God then conforms or does not conform. That’s another problem with bringing to God our definition of love and then judging him by it: Are you saying love really exists? Then where are you getting your definition of it? And why should God have to submit to it? God is true love, the love that truly exists. The doctrinal term for this is divine simplicity, which teaches that God is His attributes. He’s not composed of parts, part love, part justice, part holiness, part kindness, etc. He is love, He is justice, He is holiness, He is kindness, and so forth.
And God never changes, which means He has always been love. Now how can that be? Love requires an object, another who is dear to you. It’s why in Islam, it cannot be said that God is love, for before God created, there was only an undifferentiated, solitary, static being called God. And so love occupies a less central place in a Muslim ethic than in a Christian one. For Christians God is love because while He is one God, He exists eternally in three persons: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And as the Son is the image of the invisible God, and God loves the highest good, He loves His essence, reflected in the face of His Son, a love that thus spirates a third person, the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. God is one eternal, pure act of love.
Do you see why, then, love is from Him? He is love. Do you see why whoever loves must be born of Him and know Him? Because the only true love that exists is Him. And do you see why whoever does not love must not know Him? Because He is love, and to know Him is to become like Him. In other words, just as you can’t jump in a river and not get wet, you can’t be in relationship with God and not have His love rub off on you. You ever watch a TV show a lot and then notice you’re talking and thinking like the characters in it? That’s a dim image of what John is talking about here. He’s saying if you know God, you will begin to think and act like Him, and His very essence is love.
That means, by the way, that if you notice love is lacking in you, do you see what you need? You need to get to know God better. While every Christian will have love for God and one another in their heart, we all have room to grow. And mere moral exhortation won’t get you there. The sentimentality of Christmas won’t get you there. Those aren’t what John gives us. Instead, he points us to God Himself, and says, “Think about who He is. Consider His very essence as love.” Draw near to Him through these worship gatherings, through prayer, through meditation on Scripture that reveals this God who is love.
But when you do that, an observation emerges: There are passages that may seem to us to reveal a God who is not love. What’s one of the most common objections to Christianity you hear? If God is love, why is there so much evil in the world? Why even in the Bible do we see Him wiping out whole people groups? So John Owen, commenting on this passage, points out how in Romans 1:18 we read that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” Look at the Bible and the world and there is no shortage of evidence that God is wrathful. If He is love, though, how can we know it? That’s where our text goes next. We can know that God is love because He loved us.
God loved us
So verse 9 says here’s how the love that is in God, His essential love, was made manifest, that is, revealed, among us: He sent His Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. 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. Remember that love desires the good of another, and when one who loves sees a need, if they can, they meet it. God saw a need of ours: We didn’t love Him. And because we didn’t love Him, we were under the curse of His judgment, destined to perish under His wrath forever. We had no hope of living forever with Him if left to ourselves. But because He is love, though there was nothing in us requiring Him to love us, He chose to. He desired our ultimate good: To live with Him forever, and He met our need by sending His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Propitiation is sometimes translated “atoning sacrifice,” and the idea is that our sins were legally imputed to Christ, so that when He died on the cross, He bore the wrath of God for our sins, while never ceasing to be the beloved Son of God. At Christmas time we think of Jesus’ birth, but this is what Jesus was born to do. God sent Him into the world so that He could be a propitiation for our sins, so that He could satisfy the demands of God’s justice in our place, and so that through Him we might be forgiven of ours sins and live forever. God did not send Him merely to be an example of love for us, or merely to teach us how to love. If that’s all Jesus was, we’d still be dead in our sins, not loving God, not knowing Him, not born of Him. Can we deny, then, that He is love? I mean how can you tell when anyone is truly loving, when they truly love you? You can tell when they are willing to meet your needs at great cost to themselves without getting anything in return from you. That’s how the love of God was made manifest among us. He loved us when He wasn’t getting love from us, at the cost of His very Son, to meet our greatest need. To whoever believes in Jesus, the wrath of God against all your failures to love has been propitiated on the cross. Have you come to know and believe this love? Believe in Jesus today and you will come to know the God who is truly love. Not only is He love, but He loved us by sending His Son for us.
And, verse 11: Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. What can we learn from how God loved us about how we ought to love one another? We can learn first that our love for one another should not depend on the love others have for us. God loved us when we didn’t love Him. So here’s a good goal that I once heard from counselor Ed Welch: “Aspire to love others more than you want to be loved by others.” Consciously I’m guessing we’d all agree with that, but subconsciously it’s often not how we function, and you can see it in all kinds of relationships. Who do guys tend to ask out? Girls they think are already interested in them. When’s the easiest time to love your kids? When they’re all cute and smiley. When’s the times you struggle to love them? When they’re disobeying or throwing a tantrum. And so also in the church, we tend to move toward those who are already moving toward us. We gravitate to people who look like us because we think they’re more likely to love us. We ask, “How can I help?” of people we sense are likely to help us in the future, or who maybe already have. Sometimes we even tell on ourselves when someone thanks us for a deed done in love and we say, “Well it’s the least I could do after all you’ve done for me.” Really? You loved them because they loved you? And if they hadn’t, I guess you wouldn’t have? To love our brothers and sisters when they don’t love us, when we aren’t feeling loved by them, that’s how God has loved us. And it’s such a freeing thing. You can just take revenge and avoidance off the table, and resolve, “Hey whatever you do, I’m going to keep seeking your good.” Who could you love that doesn’t love you this week? Who could you move toward who isn’t moving toward you?
We also learn from how God has loved us that love is willing to sacrifice. We hinted at this earlier, right? We said love is inconvenient. Having the world’s goods, seeing your brother in need, and meeting that need means you no longer get to use those goods on yourself. But how much clearer do we see the sacrificial character of love in the way the love of God was made manifest among us? God didn’t give some worldly good for us; He gave His Son. And His Son is one in being with Himself, so that we can very properly say that God gave Himself for us. Propitiation is an idea that’s there in all kinds of other religions; the sacrificial system was not unique to Christianity. But only in Christianity does the God become human and offer Himself as the sacrifice. And we’re so often more like the pagans, demanding that others sacrifice for us. If you rearrange your schedule, give up all the other things you could be doing, and it happens to fall at a time when I have nothing else to do, then maybe I’ll spend time with you, but I’m certainly not going to rearrange my schedule to spend time with you or come to church or Citygroup. And I don’t mention church or Citygroup as boxes you need to check, but it’s just a fact that you can’t love people you’re never around, and those are the things we have in place at Citylight for us to be around one another. You’ll never see your brother in need if you never see your brother. You may need to sacrifice your comfort. That’s a way the Lord pressed on me through my study of this passage: Why do I feel like I’m not often in scenarios where I see my brother in need? There are some cultural reasons that are out of my control, but part of it is because I tend to gravitate to people who don’t seem very needy. They’re more comfortable. And maybe part of the reason we don’t have more needs in our church family is because we often aren’t moving toward needy people and inviting them in. I need to sacrifice my comfort. What do you need to sacrifice to love one another?
Many of you are going to say time, but can I ask you to dig a bit deeper? Consider this: If you find you don’t have time to love other church members, what are you spending that time on? And why? Maybe you really are spending a lot of it loving others already; I’m not here to beat you up on that. But let me tell you some things I waste time on: Social media, fantasy football, and TV. Why is watching a TV show such an attractive use of time? Because when you watch a TV show, you’re basically receiving love, though in a kind of distant sense. Those actors, that director, the producers, they all sacrificed their time to put that thing together so you could enjoy it. And that’s a gift; there’s nothing wrong with receiving love. But if you find you always have time to receive love, but never have time to give it, something’s wrong with that. Consider how much love you’ve already received: You’ve been loved by God. He sent His son to be the propitiation for your sins, He gave you new birth, He enabled you to know Him, and He is love. If you don’t believe that, if you think He’s kind of angry with you, you will be a kind of angry person. If you think He’s kind of distant, you’ll be kind of distant. If you think He doesn’t care, you’ll feel a need to fend for yourself, and you won’t love others in deed and in truth. But if you bask in His love, if you go back again to how His love was made manifest among us on the cross, if you get to know the God who is love, you will love one another. Beloved, if God so loved us, let us love one another.