If you have been introduced to another person, you can rightly say that you know them, in the sense of being aware of their existence. But if you never go beyond that introduction and don’t know anything else about them aside from the fact that they exist, you can’t truly claim to know them in the sense of understanding who they are. This is a truism which applies to man’s relationship with God as well: just because a person professes belief in God, that does not mean they know Him. So how does one come to know God, especially given the fact that, while we are physical, we do not have the benefit of a face to face introduction, and cannot converse with God in the same way we can with our fellow man?
Because God is an infinite spiritual being without limitations, He can never be completely and perfectly known and understood by flesh and blood. But if an attempt to do so were to be made, one might begin by describing His character. And I believe no single characteristic would be able to provide greater insight and understanding into who God is than the one found in 1 John 4:8, which states, “God is love”. What an amazing statement that is! It doesn’t merely say God loves, it says He is love. Love is not simply an attribute or quality that God possesses; rather, His entire being is founded upon, and declared or made known through, love! So we begin to come to know God through understanding His love — and I would argue that all sincere efforts to know God more perfectly should inevitably lead to a more accurate and mature understanding of what love is — but since no one has ever seen or heard God at any time, how is His love made known?
The Father is made known through His Son and His love was and is ultimately expressed through what the Lord did:
“…the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:18)
“And this is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us”. (1 John 3:16)
There is no action possible in this world that reveals more about God, the Father, than this sacrifice by His Son. The entire gospel message is built upon that singular foundation. But the good news that Jesus died so we could have the opportunity to live with him forever also sets a lofty standard for love, and carries with it a daunting expectation — for all who profess Jesus to be their Lord and Master are required to live as he lived, and do as he did. (1 John 2:6)
Because of that, it’s important for us to understand all that the Son of God did. He did indeed die so that we might live, but he did much more than just laying down his life. In truth, our Lord and Savior gave of himself, in service to others, without holding anything back for the full duration of his life. His death only speaks to the sacrifice of his physical life, but there was also a spiritual sacrifice he had to make — one that is at least as poignant, if not more than, that which occurred at his crucifixion. Before he suffered death, he first had to experience separation from God. Those who love deeply in this life know the pain that separation can bring; but even the closest and best relationship you could imagine enjoying in this present world pales into insignificance when compared to the one shared by the Father and the Son. Prior to his earthly incarnation, The Only Begotten One had spent a previous eternity enjoying perfect unity, harmony and communion with his Father, in His presence. No two other beings in all of Creation will ever know so perfect a bond or experience that degree of closeness (John 1:18), yet our Saviour was willing to experience a temporarily diminished intimacy with God, as a means of expressing his love for us and the Father, by being obedient to His will. Why was this necessary? Partly because it was paramount that “… the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.” (John 14:31)
This act of obedience was for our benefit in many ways. In addition to obviously being the way in which the penalty for sin was paid, which opened the way to eternal life, it also serves as a model and a lesson for us of one of the key ways we demonstrate our love to God. Here are a few of the Lord’s own statements on the subject:
“If you love me, you will obey what I command.” (John 14:15)
“Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.” (John 14:21)
“If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.”
“You are my friends if you do what I command.” (John 15:14)
“In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world.” (1 John 5:3-4)
From these and other statements, Jesus made it clear that unless we obey God, we cannot claim to love him, or even know him. So another key way we come to know God better, and understand the nature of His love more perfectly, is to obey Him. What then are those commands we are to obey, which John says are not burdensome? We can turn to the Lord’s own words for the answer. They are:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Regarding these commandments John wrote, “Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning [since the Law had already been known for centuries by that time].” But he goes on to say,
“Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him [Jesus] and you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.” (1 John 2: 7-8)
What was this new command, whose truth is seen in Jesus, applicable for all who accept the title of “Christian”? It is still: “Love one another.” But it is now to be understood in a new light, one which began to shine when our Lord and Savior bled and died on our behalf. The fullness of the law’s requirement to love your neighbor as yourself, is only realized in the command: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. As I have loved you (In the same way as), so you must love one another.” (John 13:34-35) The love that Jesus had was a self-less love — one that was always ready and willing to sacrifice on behalf of others — and so the love we are to have is also one that is put into practice without consideration of “self”. How critical of an issue is this for those who seek to know God and serve the Lord?
Consider the challenge Jesus posed to Peter, after Peter’s denial. He said to him, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these? Peter had previously made the statement, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will. … Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” (Matt. 26:33 and Luke 22:33) Peter had believed that his own love for the Lord was superior to the love the other disciples possessed for Jesus. Yet three denials in rapid succession proved his boast to be false, and showed that the comparative estimation of devotion he had made between himself and his brethren was unwarranted. In Luke 22:61 we read that as soon as the final denial issued forth from Peter’s lips, “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.” Could any words communicate more powerfully than the understanding that passed between them when they locked eyes in that moment? Clearly, Peter saw the truth about himself right then and there, because it is written “And he went outside and wept bitterly.” So now, because of that experience, in response to Jesus’s question, Peter simply acknowledged that Jesus knew him better than had known himself, and said, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”
But Jesus doesn’t stop there — he asks him again. The focus of the first query was on the comparative aspect of the question. Essentially he had asked Peter, Do you really love me more than anyone else does? But now the heart of the question changes to ask, Do you really love me more than you love anything else? Jesus used the verb agapao, which indicates an ardent, supreme love. And just as he did in response to the Lord’s first question, Peter replies that he has phileo (affection denoting personal attachment, as a matter of sentiment or feeling; while agapao has a wider connotation, embracing especially the judgement and deliberate assent of the will as a matter of principle, duty and propriety) for Jesus. By this, Peter showed he understood his denials revealed that he had loved his own life more than he had loved his Master, and therefore, he could not truthfully claim to love him above everything else.
Jesus then used the same standard of phileo love Peter had professed in his two previous answers, once again slightly shifting the thrust of the question. This time, it amounts to him asking, Are you even my friend?; and Peter was hurt that Jesus would ask him that. Was Jesus being cruel by doing so? Peter already knew he had failed, so why would Jesus press the issue like this? Was it simply to rub Peter’s failure in his face, or was there still a deeper lesson he needed to learn? I believe this last inquiry was intended to provide Peter with insight that would be crucial to his future success as the Lord’s servant. In order to persevere in all that he would face in the future, he first needed to have a deeply reinforced understanding of why he had failed. After Peter replies the final time, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you”, Jesus gives him the same instruction to “Feed my sheep.” The message in John 21:15-17 essentially had been, “Even if you only have brotherly love for me, my command to you remains the same: Feed my sheep. That is how you will show your love for me.” But notice what he says next:
“I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:18)
How was this relevant to the conversation they had been having? Before answering that, I think it is worth mentioning that throughout this entire discourse Jesus addresses Peter as “Simon, son of John”. Simon, son of John encompasses his identity more completely than simply calling him Peter. It carries a more serious tone, and conveys the sense that he is speaking to the very heart and soul of the man, not just the body in front of him. With that in mind, here is how I interpret what Christ was communicating in verse eighteen:
Simon, son of John, my dearly beloved disciple, brother and friend, since the day you were born you have always been strong-willed (insisting on dressing yourself and going where you wanted). But in the days to come, what will be required of you will exceed what you are able to accomplish by force of will alone. Of course I know that you love me, but just as human affection and brotherly love were not strong enough for you to remain faithful to me in Gethsamene, so too are they inadequate for the work I have yet for you to do. The reason you failed was because you relied on your own strength, rather than seeking and trusting in that love which can only be supplied by God. The reason I’m challenging you like this now is so you fully understand that the only way to truly follow me and walk the path that I have just trod is to seek the love from God which surpasses all that man can attain. That is how you will have success in feeding my sheep.
We’ve already read the passage in 1 John 5, which states that everyone born of God overcomes the world. Overcoming the world means triumphing over evil by vanquishing it. It has both internal and external applications, because before anyone can overcome the world, they must first overcome themself by having their essential nature altered down to its very foundation. A self-oriented nature never overcomes the world — it only joins with it. Over-comers are those who set aside concern for self and never let their love for others grow cold, in spite of all the evil and wickedness that occurs around them. Through their constancy and steadfastness in love, they exert a godly influence on others. By what means are they able to do this? Through faith that Jesus is the Son of God. The only way to persevere and endure hatred without becoming tainted by it, is to look to the example put before us by the Messiah’s sacrifice.
Peter had to learn that human love is insufficient to serve God effectively, because it is a fickle love, one that alters in response to the treatment it receives. His lesson is also our lesson. No one can manufacture godly love from within themself: not Peter, not you, not me. Godly love can only be obtained from God, and we must seek Him continually, in order to receive that which is to be our daily spiritual bread. Peter had believed he loved Jesus more than anything else and more than anyone else did, but He who knows the hearts of all men confronted him with the truth about what he was lacking. I cannot imagine that our Lord would hesitate to do the same with us. It is far too easy to lapse into the thinking that we are doing well as servants of God if, as a general rule, we go to church and are nice to people. But we can keep the Sabbath our whole life, we could become the world’s preeminent Biblical scholar, understand every prophecy, have faith to move mountains, even give everything that we have and earn the praise of all men — and yet if we don’t have the love of God dwelling in us, we are nothing, and all our service is mere self-deception.
Because of that fact, Christ’s propechy regarding the condition mankind will be in prior to his return is a chilling one to me. In Matt. 24:12 he says, “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” I’m confident that he wasn’t using hyperbole when he said that, which means true Christian, agape love will be nearly non-existent in the world at that time. Whether we have reached those days which will herald the end of the age or not, God alone knows, so we need not occupy ourselves with such questions. But we most certainly should be concerned about keeping the love of God alive within us at any and all times. So how do we make certain that we will be among those who stand firm to the end? That is a topic that I will save for my next post. Until then, may the love of God be in you, and actively at work in your life.