RPM, Volume 14, Number 47, November 18 to November 24, 2012

1 John 2:7-11

Loving Christians

By J. Ligon Duncan III

Let's ask the Holy Spirit to give us illumination and understanding in the word that he has caused to be written. Let's pray together.

Our Father, we come before you now as a needy people. Lord Jesus, we want to love You and to emulate Your love. Holy Spirit, would You to come and to make this word which we are about to read, Your word, clear to us. Come and pour light in dark places, for Jesus' sake. Amen.

This is God's word. "Beloved, I am not writing a new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word which you have heard. On the other hand, I am writing a new commandment to you, which is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true Light is already shining. The one who says he is in the Light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now. The one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes." Amen.

May God bless to us the reading of His holy and inerrant word.

I go back to the 60s—I go back further than that, but I'm just going back to the 60s now—and the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love." Some of you may remember, and don't admit it, Tina Turner's little ditty "What's Love Got to Do with It Anyway?" Well, for John it had everything, everything to do with it. Last week, Ligon introduced the general principle that John is beginning to expand here in chapter 2. Namely, that if we are Christians, if we walk in the light, if we are in union with Jesus Christ—then we will have a desire to keep and obey His commandments. Now comes a specific example of it, a social test: we are to love on another as the people of God. There's a piece of doggerel: "To live above with those you love is undiluted glory; to live below with those you know, that's quite a different story."

Let's get into this text, shall we? And I want to look at it along three lines of thought. First of all, I want us to see the command of love; secondly, the example of love; and, thirdly, the specifics of love.

I. The command to love.

Firstly, the command: John is saying that this command isn't new. It's an old commandment which they had heard from the beginning. Now, John may be saying one of two things, and he may be saying both. He may be saying that they have heard this, over and over and over and over, from John himself. Every preacher has pet themes. Oh, yes, they do. Rosemary will tell you mine is Job. It's a switch, and if you mention Job or if I happen to mention Job in a sermon—and I've now got to switch it off—but if I happen to mention it, there's a file and out comes all of this stuff. John's was love. John is always preaching about love. He loved to talk about love. He was an example of love. You remember what they called him before he became a disciple? "The Son of Thunder." And the Son of Thunder became the "Apostle of Love." Jerome—and we know Jerome because he is the man who translated the Old and New Testaments into Latin, and it became "The Bible" for about a thousand years, right up to the period of the Reformation. And Jerome says about the Apostle John that in his old age, when he was in the church at Ephesus but he wasn't able to preach anymore, they would carry him on a chair. And he would say to the congregation, "Love one another. Love one another." And when they would ask him why he said this, he would say, "Because it's the Lord's commandment and if you do this, it is everything." John is saying, "Look, you've heard me preach on this. If there's one thing that you know, if there's one thing that isn't new to you, it's this: love one another." He'll return to it in the course of this epistle; he'll have several things to say about love. And he'll expand it a little further, because he's not done with it; he's just beginning to introduce it now.

But he may mean by it something more than that. He may mean it's not new because it's old, and it's old because it's in the Old Testament. John is certainly conscious, I think, in part of the presence of a Jewish audience: a converted Jewish audience, Jews who had become Christians, Jews who knew their Old Testament, Jews who knew the book of Leviticus. Leviticus is a difficult book. Gandhi began to read the Bible—you know the story—he began in Genesis and got to the book of Leviticus and he gave up. But right in the heart of the book of Leviticus is the "the Holiness Code" as it's sometimes called, with all of the legislation for the church in it's infancy as to what holiness might mean, in terms of not touching and not tasting, and sacred places and sacred times. And it is right in the middle of it all that you have that commandment in chapter 18 to "love our neighbor as we love ourselves." It's an old commandment; this isn't something new. I've not brought something new for you this morning. Out of this treasure of Scripture, I've brought something old, and it's a commandment and it says, "Love one another."

II. The example of love.

Secondly, I want us to see the example of love. John—and we were looking at this last week. Ligon was explaining to us verse 6: "The one who says he abides in Him, that is, in Christ, ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked." "The one who says he abides," and here John is thinking of our union with Christ, our communion with Christ, our fellowship with Christ. He loves this little word "abide," or "remain," however you translate it. He uses it forty times in the course of the gospels. He uses it 25 times in the course of his epistles. He loves this word. John had thought over and over as to the consequences and as to the meaning and as to the depth of what it means to be in union and communion with Jesus Christ. And one of the consequences of being in union with Jesus Christ is that you will want to walk like Jesus Christ; you'll want to be like Jesus Christ. He's appealing to Christ, and he's saying to them, "But you've heard this."

Actually, you know, I think John is saying, "You know, you've heard this in my book." You know, John had written a gospel, and it was known now in the church in Ephesus; they knew John's gospel. They'd read it, and it had been read to them over and over, and they got it on the Lord's Day. John is perhaps signaling to us here from his gospel, "I've told you what love looks like. I've told what's written to you about the One who came into this darkened world and brought light into this world." That's the metaphor that John is implying here, isn't it, along with love: the metaphor of light and darkness? Because the one who doesn't love is in darkness, and the one who does love is in the light. And the way that you know that you're in the light is because you love. So, he's mixing these metaphors together, and as he wrote his gospel he did the same. He alluded to Jesus on the Day of the Feast of Tabernacles, which lasted for about a week. In John 8, Jesus said, "I am the light of the world." And in the Feast of Tabernacles there was this little ritual: they would come, and they would light candles and place them on the floor of the outer courts of the sanctuary. And the temple on the last day of the Feast, especially at night, would be lit up with this sort of glow of light. And Jesus says, "I am the Light of the world." And if you abide in Jesus Christ, you're not in darkness, but you're in the light.

And do you remember how John goes on to describe, in the second half of the gospel of John, that extraordinary thing that Jesus did when He took the disciples aside into the Upper Room and divested Himself of His outer garments and wrapped a towel around Him and began to do the unthinkable, to wash the disciples' feet? And you remember, as He portrayed Himself in terms of a lowly servant of God, you remember what Jesus said to the disciples, that's recorded at the end of John chapter 14? "A new commandment I give unto you: that you love one another."

John is picking up that thought that he had written, a word that he had remembered Jesus saying in the Upper Room to John and the other disciples, and now he's inserting it here in the second chapter, and he says, "Remember this old commandment that you've heard over and over, that you love one another. And that love is exemplified for us in Jesus Christ. Love like Jesus loved, because the light has come." John is saying, "Whenever you think about love and what love means, and when you want to define what love looks like, and you want a template for what love might look like in the body of Christ, well, look to Jesus!" John is saying. "Think of Him who thought it not robbery to be equal with God but made Himself of no reputation and humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even a death on the cross." Love like that: a self-denying love.

III. The specifics of love.

But in the third place—and this is where I want to get to this morning, but before I get to the third place I want to quote a hymn to you, and we're going to sing it together. It's in your bulletin, in the guide for the morning worship. The last hymns are in the guide for the morning worship in your bulletin. And it's a hymn by John Wesley: "O for a heart to praise my God, a heart from sin set free; a heart that always feels Thy blood so freely shed for me; a heart resigned, submissive, meek—my great Redeemer's throne; but only Christ's is heard to speak, where Jesus reigns alone. A humble, lowly, contrite heart; believing, true, and clean; which neither life nor death can part from Christ that dwells within." And then a fourth verse: "The heart in every thought renewed and full of love divine, perfect and right and pure and good"—listen—"a copy, Lord, of Thine." That's it. That's it exactly. That's it exactly. That's what John is saying here. "I want you to love one another, and I want you to love like Jesus loves." If you pray that prayer this morning, "I want a heart like the heart of Jesus," what will that look like?

Let me get specific. Let me move into my third part this morning. The specifics of love: what will that look like? Let me suggest, first of all, that we begin here with the people around us. Do you even know who's sitting next to you or behind you or in front of you? I know we do this little ritual every week—and whoever's assisting, Brad did it this morning—we do it every week: the importance of greeting one another. And Jim Stewart has this little line that he always says: "You'll introduce yourself to someone, and you never know but you might introduce yourself to someone who's already a member, and you never knew it." And isn't that wonderful? It's a huge problem in a church of this size, just trying to get to know each other. And that's why I'm going to suggest this morning after the service—we don't do it in the service here. I know there are churches that do it in the service and everybody stands and hugs and kisses and shakes hands and all of that stuff. We're about worship in this part, and so we don't do that in the service. We want to focus on God. We want to give Him praise and glory. We want our admiration to be God-centered in this part of the service.

I've always had this tension. You know, when you come in at about ten 'til? There's a lot of noise in the sanctuary. I used to have an elder in the church in Belfast; he used to go ballistic about all the noise before the service. It used to upset him every single week. And I understood it. I understand that need to try and get folk to calm down and to be quiet and to prepare and worship God. And we need to prepare, and that's why we have a little prelude on the organ, and that's why we tell you to read the first hymn and so on: to get your mind and your heart and your soul ready for the worship of God. But we also need to greet one another; we need to know each other; we need to be friendly; we need to love one another. So, afterwards—do it this morning—afterwards, greet the people in your pew or behind you or in front of you, and tell them who you are, and tell them how much you are glad that you're here. Whatever way you do it, it doesn't matter. But love one another.

And let me suggest that in the second place, and at the risk now of sounding sycophantic, let me suggest that you love those who minister to you. Right, I know that sounds terribly self-serving, so let me put myself out in the picture for a second and speak about Brad. But, what I want you to really think about is Ligon, because he's not here. And I'm going to speak about him now behind his back, and he doesn't know I'm going to do this. He didn't pay me or anything. You have an extraordinary senior minister. You do. I've been a minister for thirty years; I've never, ever seen anyone with a work ethic like your senior minister. I can tell you without any equivocation that he loves you with all of his heart, that he gives his life for you. I wonder if you've ever told him or written to him and said how much you loved him. Don't misunderstand what I'm saying here. I'm just trying to apply the text of scripture here.

There's a practical way. I have a blue file—it's actually blue—it's for days when I'm feeling blue. I taught my students at the seminary: keep a blue file. And in that blue file I put cards and notes that people have sent me over the years and little pictures that children have drawn of me as I was preaching. And I put them in this blue file because it's enormously encouraging on blue days—and there are blue days. It's a very small file. I wonder, dear people of God, this morning, I wonder if you could write to your senior minister a note and express how much you love him and admire and thank him for what he does for you.

But let me go a little deeper. Let's meddle a little, because John wants us to meddle with this text. "Love one another." What does this text have to say to criticism? Right, let's get some guidelines here. John isn't saying when he says, "Love one another," that there will never be any disagreements. No, there will be disagreements. There are disagreements in this church. There are always disagreements. There will be disagreements until we get to heaven. John isn't saying that you can never be angry. But if you're going to be angry, be careful about anger, because sin is lying right on the doorstep; and be careful that the sun doesn't go down on your wrath. John isn't saying here that all emotions of dissent are to be suppressed. John isn't saying here that you don't care about doctrine --of course not. John is as concerned about that as any man. John isn't saying that there are times when you actually have to endure the fellowship from a certain person. And he'll talk about it in this epistle, and he'll talk about it in the second epistle, and we'll get to that.

But let me speak for a second—actually, let me quote something to you from John Miller, not John Reed Miller, but another John Miller. He once overheard a visitor to a dedication service saying these words to a young father. He said, "This morning you've brought your child to be given over to the Lord. I did that once too. But let me urge you from the bottom of my heart; don't do to my child what I did to mine. As he grew up, he listened to me criticize the minister and the members of the church year after year. As a consequence, I turned my boy off the church and the minister, and today he's far from God." With something like a physical spasm, he added, "I plead with you, don't ever criticize like that or you'll destroy your son too." Isn't that a powerful statement?

I wonder what you do, dear brothers and sisters. I wonder what you do when you go home on a Sunday afternoon for Sunday lunch, and I wonder what's on the menu: this one and that one? And really John is saying here in this epistle, "If you criticize like that for no good reason, you're really attacking yourself, because we are one body in Jesus Christ. To attack others with your tongue is really to attack Christ, the Head of the church." What's really at stake here? What's really at stake here—and let me suggest to you what John might be saying here—what's really at stake here is that this is a symptom of your heart. And John is saying, "There is something desperately wrong in your heart if you live your life like that." I've seen it. I'm not actually talking about First Pres. for a minute, but I've seen it; I've seen it in another church. I've seen it in a church where the people of God are torn apart and can barely speak to each other anymore. I've known Christians who have borne grudges, not about primary things, but about secondary things and tertiary things and things of no significance whatsoever. I've seen them bear those grudges for thirty, forty years, and do you know they are miserable people? They are truly miserable people. They're miserable to be with. They're lonely people, and they will die in loneliness, because it's like a cancer—it's like a cancer that eats you up. "Lord, it is my chief complaint that my love is so weak and faint."

What would First Pres. look like if it began to adopt what John is saying here? It would be a congregation where everyone is patient and kind and doesn't envy, where folk are not proud or rude or self-seeking, where no one is easily angered, nor does anyone keep a record of wrongs. They don't delight in evil, but they rejoice in the truth. Where folk protect and always trust and always hope and always persevere. You understand, I'm only quoting 1 Corinthians 13—that's what I'm doing—where Paul talks about what love actually looks like.

But let me get even more personal. If I haven't offended everybody so far, I'm about to, because John doesn't mince his words here. This is the Apostle of Love. And John says, "Do you want to know how serious this is? Do you want to know how serious this is? If you don't love your brother and your sister, you're in darkness." You see, there's this possibility; I can't escape it. I'm sorry I can't escape it this morning because John forces me to say it. There's a possibility that someone here this morning may actually hate another brother or sister. That's the possibility that John is speaking about. He's talking about it in the church of Ephesus. And it's possible that that's true here, too. A relationship that has gone so sour, you can't think about that person any longer without thinking negative thoughts and, perhaps, wishing them ill, or perhaps—more subtly because we're southerners—rejoicing when ill comes to another. And, my dear friend this morning, do you see that John is saying, "The problem is you. The problem is your heart. The problem is your unwillingness to be reconciled, your unwillingness to say, 'I'm sorry'"? The fragrance of Jesus doesn't hang about you, and John says—this dear, old man in a chair who can't preach anymore says, "You are in darkness, my friend. You are in terrible, terrible darkness."

John would come to you this morning and point, and he'd say, "Look to Jesus. Look to the form of the dying Son of God. That's how much He loves you." With all of your sin, with all of our ugliness, He loved us to the very end. "Having loved His own that were in the world, He loved them to the end." Love like that. Love like that.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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