False Religion and Love for God

Our Lord and Savior, Jesus, the Christ, whose followers we were called to be, left a warning for his disciples of what was to come in the future.  He told them to:

 

“Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying I am Christ; and shall deceive many.”  (Matt. 24:4-5)

 

The greek word translated as “take heed” can mean to have the power of seeing, to perceive and discover by use, or know by experience. It can also mean to turn the thoughts or direct the mind to a thing, to consider, contemplate, to look at, to weigh carefully and examine.   

 

Next, the word translated as “deceive” means to cause to stray, or to lead away from the truth. When Jesus said take heed that no one deceive you, what was the deception he was cautioning his disciples to be on guard against? It was that many would come in his name, teaching falsely about him.  Those false teachings encompass not only his identity and nature, but also his purpose, his message and his second-coming. There have been many anti-christs in the world since the Lord departed, and they still exist and are currently at work in it today. An antichrist is not necessarily just someone who denies that Jesus was and is the Christ; it is anyone teaching in his name who superimposes their own doctrine over the Lord’s teaching.  For example, suppose someone taught that Jesus was the Son of God, who suffered and died for our sins so that we might live a life of peace and ease in this world. Would you accept that statement as fully true?  In recent history alone, we can observe that many have believed and embraced it — because there are several mega-churches which have been built upon preaching a gospel of “health and wealth”.  It may be somewhat of an oversimplification, but the essential premise of their teaching is that all that is required in order to have an abundant life filled with worldly success and the desires of the heart is that a person “accept Jesus” into their heart. These types of appeals to the flesh will always be popular, but did Jesus ever promise his followers a life of ease? What did he have to say about how his disciples should live, and the focus they were to have?

 

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. … Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Luke 9:23 and Matt.10:34,38)

 

That is but one simple example which I include to illustrate how a false theology can become pervasive, but it’s not the focus for my message today, so let’s return now to Matt. 24:4-5 and put it all together. Those two verses mean that we are to examine, consider and contemplate everything God has made known in his Word; putting it into practice so that we know by experience that it is true, in order that we be known as the Lord’s flock — those sheep who listen to his voice and follow him.  Although he is absent in body, he should be present with us in spirit, to the extent that we are figuratively able to “see” him alive and at work in our lives. And when we do so, he will keep us from all deception.

 

Regarding that deception, we can continue on with Matt. 24:6-11.  To summarize those verses, Jesus is describing what the by-product of the false teaching referenced in verse 5 will be. To whom did/does his warning apply, and when would/will these conditions become manifest? Did it pertain only to those few disciples who were present with him during his short time on earth? Were they intended only for those who would live at the time just prior to his return? Might it not rather be that he is explaining the conditions that will always exist whenever false religion grows strong in the world, which would indicate he is addressing anyone and everyone throughout history who would seek to be known as his follower? Those are important questions, because your answer to them determines how you interpret verses 12-13.  When the Lord prophesied in verse 12 that the love of most would grow cold, do you believe he is saying that most people in the world will no longer practice natural love — or does he mean that most Christians will lose the love that sets them apart and identifies them as such?  False religious teaching certainly can influence and diminish both, but verse 13 makes it clear that verse 12 is a warning intended for those true followers of the Christ, who possess the love of God dwelling within them.

 

If we desire to be amongst those who stand firm to the end, I believe it is important to understand why the love of most Christians grows cold.  Our Lord provided the outline in these very verses we’ve been discussing so far. First, false religion becomes prevalent, which leads to a general, societal increase in wickedness. Next, true Christians, those who labor against that tide of wickedness and call attention to sin and false teachings, become persecuted. And, finally, due to persecution, many tire of the fight and abandon the faith.  And the Christian calling truly is a fight.  We can begin to grasp the magnitude of what we are fighting against when we read the apostle Paul’s prophecy of the rise of pseudo-Christianity, as described in his warning to Timothy.  It’s found in 2 Tim. 3:1-5.  He wrote:

 

“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days.  People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous,  rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power.  Have nothing to do with them.”  

 

Why do I say this is describing a pseudo-Christianity?  Because verse 5 is very curious.  It would be reasonable to imagine that people possessing such ungodly attributes would be obviously, outwardly, atheistic and irreligious.  But Paul says they have a form, or semblance, of godliness.  The greek word used is morphosis, which conveys the sense of a shifting of form in order to take on another appearance.  In other words, who these individuals are outwardly, by creed or profession of belief, is very different from who they are at heart, by practice.  Paul is describing people who may believe they are living lives pleasing to God, but who, in actuality, are Christian in name only.  Figuratively, you could say these false-believers whom he is describing wear a mask to disguise their true self from the eyes of others.  And they may indeed succeed in fooling some, but masks like these, once put on, are difficult to remove: and the end result of wearing them is that when they look in the mirror, they are also unable to see themself as they truly are.  

 

A Christian must have the light of Christ, the light of truth shining out from within them and, when they encounter others stumbling in the darkness of deception, they must be willing to walk into that darkness to help others find their way out of it.  That’s what preaching the Gospel is: being a light.  It’s one of the ways that we show we possess the love of God.  In application, the love of God is not just some vague warm and fuzzy feeling toward people. It’s not the type of love that sends “positive vibes” to someone who is sick. It’s not even about being perceived as someone who is “nice” to everyone.  Those are simply a few examples of what natural human affection is, and even as corrupt as our present day is becoming, we still see many examples of this type of love being practiced in the world today.  But that’s not the love of God as it’s modeled in Scripture.  Jesus told his followers:

 

“A servant is not greater than his master.  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:20)

 

Jesus was not persecuted for being “nice;” and people who consistently exercise human affection towards others are not generally persecuted for doing so either. Our Lord was put to death by the world because he revealed sin for what it is, and he exposed the guilt of the people — not to condemn them, but to bring them to repentance.  And many who came to him did acknowledge their guilt and repented.  But others resisted having their “masks” removed and, like Cain, they hated the Lord for confronting them with their guilt.   Why then are the Lord’s followers warned that they must and will face persecution? It’s because they have been entrusted with the responsibility of contending against falsehoods.  The apostle Paul spoke of this responsibility in 2 Cor. 10:3-5, which states:

 

“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.  The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.  On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.  We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

 

In other words, he is saying that when a kingdom or nation of the world fights a war, they use the power and authority they have been given by God, which is administered through their governing bodies, in order to destroy their enemy’s physical strongholds.  But a Christian is to use the power and authority given to them by God, administering the words of God through the spirit of God, in order to deconstruct erroneous reasoning, overthrow lies and destroy falsehoods.  Christians need to care about that enough that they are willing to speak the truth of God to people so they can see sin for what it is.  A Christian strives toward the goal of freeing others from their slavery to the prince of the powers of this world – and continues to care despite being persecuted and hated for it.  (2 Tim. 2:24-26)  Isn’t that the example we have recorded for true followers of God throughout all of Scripture? So then, ask yourself: “If I died today, is that what I would be known for? Is that what I lived for?  

 

There is only one way we can love in such a way. The type of love that is required is that which is only available through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is something for which we must continually go to God. In my two previous messages, I spoke of the love of God.  Now I’d like to shift to a discussion of love for God.  To begin, consider the Lord’s admonition to the Ephesian church, found in Rev. 2: 4-5.  There he said:

 

“Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen!  Repent and do the things you did at first.”

 

What was the first love they had forsaken? What do you suppose it was that they were no longer doing?  The answer to those two questions might be found by asking another: Why does false religion exist in the world?  Simply because the world does not know God as He truly is.  All false religion arises from false conceptions about God.  Therefore, although the purpose of our Lord’s death was to atone for sin, the purpose of his life was to reveal the Father; and he has called all of his disciples to carry on that same purpose. (John 17:18)  But how is that to be done?  How do you show God to someone?  Certainly it requires that we be filled with His love in us and that we consistently function as models of that love.  And it involves many things beyond that as well — like preaching the gospel — all of which are to be done over the course of a lifetime.  But doing so requires an understanding and application of the entire gospel message.  Anything added to or subtracted from the Gospel of Christ leads to false concepts about God.  

 

Which brings me back to the warning for the Ephesian church.  Collectively, their love had grown colder in certain areas, which led to a decrease in their willingness to labor for the gospel, relative to what they had been doing previously.  Individually, they could have forsaken their first love for a variety of reasons: some to avoid persecution, some because they grew weary of a life of self-denial, some because they became ensnared by deceptions and distractions.  Their example is evidence that the Lord’s warning regarding love growing cold isn’t limited to some unknown future day where nearly all society will be evil to an historically unprecedented degree.  That is an important fact, both collectively and individually.  Collectively, because if they were susceptible to having their first love wane, when they had the apostles still living and teaching among them as first-hand witnesses of the life and resurrection of the son of God, we should be doubly vigilant that we do not stumble in the same way.  And individually, because if we, as individuals, are weak, it is impossible for us to be strong as an organization.

 

How do we show our love toward God?  One important way is by obeying his commands. One of the two greatest commandments is that we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Therefore, as urgently as you desire to have eternal life and be a part of God’s family — as fervently as you desire to be a first-fruit in His Kingdom — the spirit of God in you ought to produce an equally powerful desire that everyone else partake of those indescribably wonderful blessings also.  In that regard, as far as my labor for others is concerned, I cannot say that has been true, nor can I say that it is now; and that is one of the ways I know that my love for God has not been, and is not, what it needs to be. If it was, my life would be significantly different than it is now.  Far too much of the time it’s only been true in an abstract way — a goodwill wish for others that has lacked the reinforcement of sufficient action — like the man who encounters someone without food and clothes and wishes them well but does nothing to address their need.

 

Passion always maintains a willingness to suffer for its object of affection. The Son of God willingly suffered many horrible things out of love for His Father and his love for us. Abraham was willing to suffer the loss of his son out of reverence for the will of God. Moses had to bear with the stubborn rebelliousness of nearly an entire nation and endure the ire of a people who, despite all the good he had done for them, were ready to stone him at one point. (See Ex. 17:4) And bear with them he did, out of love for God. Because of their love for God, all of the prophets suffered for speaking the truth. And there are many other examples like those, both in the Old Testament and the New.  Knowing that to be true, leads me to ask myself “What have I suffered for the sake of the Gospel?”  And if I haven’t suffered, have I really loved? Everyone wants to believe that they’re a good person, but the truth is that none of us are; so, if we are to “take heed that no one deceive us,” we should also be diligent to pray that God would keep us from being overcome by self-deception.  If you share my concern, here is another question which you can use as a litmus test of your own degree of love for God: as it pertains to the gospel, how big is the sphere of influence He has given you with others?  I believe that it is unavoidably true to say that as the love of God increases in you, so too will your power and influence in speaking the words of God.  

 

In conclusion, I  mentioned that the only way we can maintain love toward those who despise and mistreat us is by the power of the Holy Spirit — having the love of God dwelling within us.  And that love is something we must continually go to God in order to have it replenished.  Which brings me to my second point regarding love for God: in addition to showing our love for God by obeying His commandments, we also show our love in the same way we show love to anyone else — by spending time with him — and so that will be the topic for a future post.

 

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The “Mark” of a Christian

The topic of my last message was the love of God, and I put forward the idea that the purpose for the conversation that took place between Jesus and Peter, as recorded in John 21:15-18, was to reinforce the principle that human love alone is insufficient to serve God effectively.  I wanted to start off today by developing that idea a bit further.  Let’s begin by examining three of the Lord’s own statements, which establish that a clear distinction exists between the love of man and the love of God.  In John 15:18-21, he said:

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.  If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.  As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.  That is why the world hates you.  Remember the words I spoke to you:  ‘No servant is greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.  If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.  They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me.

Moving forward to chapter 17, in verses 25-26, he states:

“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they (all believers) know that you have sent me.  I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them, and that I myself may be in them.”

The first point I would draw your attention to from those verses is that the world does not know God, and His love is not in them.  The second is that although the love of God is not in the children of the world, the world’s children still are capable of exercising love, which is evident from Jesus’s statement that the world loves its own.  For the third scripture, please turn to Matt. 5:43-48, where Jesus was recorded as saying:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven (as opposed to children of the world).  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others?  Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Without further elaboration, those scriptures should be sufficient to establish that there is a natural love, common to all humanity, such as familial love and brotherly love.  Such love exists and is practiced even by those who do not believe in God, yet the various forms of human love are clearly distinct and separate from the love of God.  Why is that point important?  Because if you turn to John 13:34-35, you’ll read that Jesus has said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” What type of love do you think he had in mind when he said that?  Was Jesus saying that when someone practices natural, human love they are showing themself to be his follower?  Absolutely not!  Even pagans are capable of human love.  It is only having the love of God dwelling within oneself that marks a person as a true Christian!  A Christian is to love in the same way as Christ loved, and with the same type and degree of love.  Possessing and exercising this love is not only essential, it is the primary trait that distinguishes us from the rest of the world!  

We can stay in this same 13th chapter of the book of John, back in verse 12, to find an excellent example of this love in practice:

“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place.”

Before continuing with the passage allow me to make a brief side comment: Intellectually, we understand that foot-washing was a task relegated to the lowliest servant; but in our present day, this once common function has been rendered obsolete — and the hands of time have eroded much of the context which made the Lord’s example so poignant.  Every year at Passover we may wash one another’s feet, but it is exceedingly unlikely that the 5 or so minutes we spend in doing so would ever be able to adequately approximate just how a slave would feel in the performance of the same chore.  To attempt to get close, let’s change the scene.  Think how your attitude would be different if, instead of washing a fellow-believer’s feet, as we do by mutual consent here in this room, you were approached by some co-workers, who demanded, “Hey. You. Worthless. Get over here right now and shine our shoes.” You might bristle and refuse: the slave, however would be subjugated to accept the humiliation. With that perspective in mind, let’s return to the remaining verses:

“Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.  “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.  I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.  If you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.””

We should ask ourselves the same question Jesus posed to his disciples here.  Do I understand the full implication of what the Lord did here?  

Reflect again on his words “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am.”  Our Lord’s rightful position is to sit enthroned at the right hand of his Father, the Almighty, Eternal God!  He is the King of Kings, and Lord of Lord’s!  He is the Only Begotten Son of God!  All praise and honor and glory are due to him — but did he insist upon any of those rights while on earth?  No.  Instead, he subjugated himself, and became the lowest of servants in obedience to His Father’s will.  He was willing to suffer greatly in order to teach us the right way to live. He consented to being hated, slandered, spit upon, beaten, even crucified.  He did everything, in service to God, for you. For me.  

But in doing so, he also said that he set an example that his disciples should follow.  It might be pleasing to human nature to believe that the alluded-to example in John 13:15 is restricted merely to the foot-washing; but the command, “as I have done for you” has the meaning of doing to the same degree, or proportion, and therefore carries the sense of encompassing all that Jesus willingly sacrificed during his transition from being ‘Lord’ and ‘Master’ to becoming the lowest of servants.

Human nature is opposed to being told, “no”.  If we desire something, we feel frustration if we are denied it.  But the lowest servant doesn’t get to live as they choose.  Their will is continuously frustrated, to the point where they become accustomed to carrying out the will of others, without considering their own.  No one asks or cares about what they would like.  That is their existence; and that was the attitude or spirit Jesus was demonstrating when he washed his disciple’s feet.  And you are called to be slaves to Christ in this life, so that you might inherit the Kingdom of God as free children.  With our Lord’s example before us, how can we ever be justified for demanding our rights, or for feeling disrespected if the world does not give us our “due”?  We shouldn’t be concerned with seeking worldly position or the esteem of men, and we shouldn’t be offended if we are judged to be a “nobody” by the standards of the world.  How different would the church be today, collectively, if we as individuals pressed beyond the letter of the law modeled in the physical activity of foot-washing, and truly embraced the spiritual attitude it was intended to teach?  What impact would we then have on a world that does not know God?  

Have we made progress in striving toward such a lofty standard?  In 1 Cor. 11:28-29, the apostle Paul was inspired to write, “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.  For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.”  In other words, when we take the Passover, we are acknowledging that Christ died for us, and we renew our covenant with him, indicating our willingness to die to ourselves, so that he might live in us.  So in examining ourselves, we should be asking, ‘Have I really been living as the Lord lived? I profess to be a Christian, so how well have I kept his example alive in the world by my thoughts, words and deeds?

Like our Lord, we are to go through life putting others above ourselves, in order to further the work of God’s Kingdom.  The sacrificial, selfless love modeled by the Messiah and manifested in the true Christian cannot be attained by human strength; it is only made possible through God’s Spirit.

In further support of that conclusion, I ask you to consider the following rationale, starting with a question: how was it that in verse 38 (still in John 13), Jesus was able to prophesy that Peter would disown him?  The amplified version of the Bible translates Romans 5:7 as stating, “Now it is an extraordinary thing for one to give up his life, even for an upright man; though perhaps for a noble and lovable and generous benefactor someone might even dare to die.”  So although it would be an extraordinary thing, Peter’s professed willingness to lay down his life for Jesus was neither unheard of, nor beyond the realm of possibility (and when we partake of the body and blood of Christ, we make the same profession as did Peter).  Therefore, if Jesus could foretell Peter’s denial, he had to have insight into something Peter was lacking that would make his action a certainty.  What was Peter missing?  When he was asked if he was one of Jesus’s disciples, was he suddenly stripped of his free will in that moment in order to bring Christ’s words to fruition?  Did he not still have a choice as to how he would respond?  Far be it from God to compel man to sin, so of course Peter had a choice!  Take those questions a step further now.  Since Peter had a choice, and still denied the Lord, does that mean he consciously, deliberately disowned him?  Do you believe that is the choice Peter willingly wanted to make?  I would argue it was not, since when the rooster crowed the second time and Jesus turned and looked at him, he immediately regretted what he had done and wept bitterly.  What phenomenon was at work here, then?  This was a perfect illustration of the truth of the apostle Paul’s words from Romans 7:18-19: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing.”

Jesus knew Peter’s denial was a foregone conclusion because he was aware of the spiritual realities that apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:5); and when the shepherd is struck, the sheep will scatter (Matt. 26:31).   He also knew that the Holy Spirit had not yet been given, so when that moment of testing came upon Peter, he was inadequately equipped to meet it successfully.  He knew that although Peter intellectually, in his inner being, was willing to die with him, the natural inclination of concern for the physical body would also be warring within him; and a house divided against itself cannot stand.  Jesus knew that Satan desired to “sift” Peter (Luke 22:31), and because of all these things, he gave him counsel while they were in the garden of Gethsemane to “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” (Matt. 26:41)   It is noteworthy that Jesus had taken the two sons of Zebedee along with him, in addition to Peter, yet this admonition was directed solely to Peter.  What was the temptation he was to be on his guard against?  I think it reasonable to conclude that this was an allusion to the very denials which Christ had foretold, and which came to pass so swiftly after this warning.

The reason (at least in part, if not in totality) Peter failed was because when he was told to watch and pray so that he would not fall into temptation, his physical fatigue caused him to sleep instead.  Temptation can be understood to be a testing or proving of one’s integrity, or it can be any force that acts to oppose an individual’s accepted standard of right conduct: and in Peter’s moment of testing, he wasn’t able to do what he claimed he would do, or act consistently with how he believed he would act, because his thoughts weren’t anchored on what he should have been praying for — which is that God would deliver him from temptation and supply him with what he needed so that his faithfulness might not falter.  He temporarily lost sight of looking to God to uphold him in any situation and in doing so, he was left to rely upon himself, and the resources that were natural to him.  And although Peter could be considered an upright man even before he was given the Holy Spirit, even the best qualities he possessed as part of what made him who he was were not sufficient for him to overcome his adversary in the critical moment.  He was limited by his weaknesses — the same reality which confronts every single person who has ever lived.     

Consider that when God’s protection was removed and Satan was allowed to test Peter, he could not even acknowledge himself to be Jesus’s disciple, even though he had previously left everything to follow him!  Just like Peter, whenever we rely on our own strength to serve God, we will fail — but what is impossible for men is possible with God (Luke 18:27).  God is love and God is spirit.  One of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to increase our capacity for love by giving us access to the power of God’s love.  But once we receive it, we do not automatically have it in an unlimited supply.  Although the spirit of God is inexhaustible, the love of God can grow cold and His Spirit can be quenched within us.  In my last message, I referenced Christ’s prophecy that prior to his return, the love of most would grow cold.  I anticipated that would be my topic today, but that message is built upon an understanding and acceptance of the principle just expounded on: that apart from the power of the Holy Spirit — apart from having God’s love dwelling in us — it is impossible to serve God.  Therefore, I thought it best to establish that foundation more firmly before moving forward, and because of that I will have to once again leave you until next time to ponder the question I posed in conclusion to my previous message: “How do we make certain that we will be among those who hold fast to the love of God and stand firm to the end?”.   

The Love of God

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.