RPM, Volume 15, Number 17, April 21 to April 27, 2013

What Love is

1 John 3:11-24

(Series on 1 John: No. 12)

By Robert Rayburn

The Bible is characteristically very repetitive. What is considered to be important is discussed over and again. In this central section of his letter, the Apostle John is elaborating in greater detail the three 'tests of life' which he first introduced in chapter 2, the three marks or characteristics of genuine life in Christ by which we may judge the integrity of our own or anyone else's claim to be a Christian and to have eternal life.

Having discussed a second time the test of obedience, or what has been called the moral test, he comes, in the verses we just read, to discuss once again the test of brotherly love, or what has been called the social test of salvation.

Now, in speaking of love, there are fundamentally two issues, or two questions if you will. The first is 'why?' and the other is 'what?' John will address the first of those two questions: love's motive, cause, and impulse in the second half of chapter 4 (the text the elders have used in our recent visitation of the congregation).

Here in our text John addresses himself to love's definition, precisely what love is. And it is a most necessary effort on his part. For we are always mistaking love, we are always confusing it with something else, we are always deceiving ourselves into thinking that we are practitioners of love when in fact we are not.

The Scripture is well aware of this. It often uses the word 'love', in a powerful irony, in the same cheap and shoddy ways in which mankind so often debases this greatest word. Amnon, we read in 2 Samuel 13 'loved' Tamar. And in pursuit of that love he deceived her and then raped her. And when he was finished, the Scripture tells us, he hated her with an intense hatred, he hated her more than a few moments before he had loved her. What Amnon thought was love was nothing of the kind! And when Elizabeth Taylor reports that she and Richard Burton divorced because 'they loved each other too much' we are reminded that 'love' in our day can also mean many things to many people.

John is aware of this. He so much as says in v. 18 that it is a chronic sin of men and women, including Christians, to mistake the meaning of the word, to say and to think that they have love for others when, actually, they do not. So it is imperative that we have clearly in our mind exactly what love is, what love requires and involves. I am not aware of any passage in Holy Scripture in which love is actually defined, furnished with a definition. For example, John defined sin as lawlessness in v. 4 of chapter 3. Sin is breaking God's law; but nowhere in the Bible is so simple a definition of love to be found.

But the Scripture does not, for that reason, leave us in any doubt as to what it understands love to be. It is always describing love and explaining what love requires and how love must be practiced. We have such a passage before us this morning. And it is a text, which if we will ponder it and, at the same time, be honest with ourselves, will take us right down to the bottom of things.

Love, John is saying, is giving ourselves to others, as Christ gave himself to us. And he mixes the indicative and the imperative together throughout. He will say that genuine Christians do love one another, as he does in v. 14; but he also says that we should love one another, as in vv. 11, 16, and 18. You may expect to find brotherly love in any genuine Christian's life, but not to the degree that it should be found; it is there, but it must always be still sought and will be still sought by a true follower of Christ who wants to do his Master's will. It is, this brotherly love, at one and the same time, what we have and what we seek.

I. And so, in the first place, John says, we cannot give ourselves to others if we do not do so first in our hearts. Love is first an attitude of sympathy, fellow-feeling, and benevolence toward one another.

John says in these very verses that 'God is greater than our hearts and knows everything.' That is a comforting truth in many ways. Our consciences are often too negative about our lives; we see nothing but our sin, while God sees down to the fundamental convictions and desires of our reborn hearts and acquits us when our own consciences would condemn us. But it also means that God knows what is in our hearts regarding others. He judges our love as a single whole. He is not deceived if we pretend to love someone while hiding animosity toward that person in our hearts.

John addresses himself to our attitudes regarding one another, our hidden feelings, when he speaks in vv. 11-15 about hate. We should love one another, he begins in v. 11, and that means, he then immediately says, we should not hate one another, as Cain hated Abel, and as the unrighteous, in their jealousy and their guilty consciences, will always hate the righteous.

Hate is all around us. And the world's hatred of Christians is everywhere to be seen. I received a personal letter this week from a local businessman whom I had never met taking violent issue with me for lending support to Tacoma's Proposition 2, which repealed the City's statute protecting homosexuals from discrimination in housing and employment. He had seen my name amongst many others in a newspaper ad for Proposition 2. This letter was filled with hate and anger and in it I was, for the first time in my recollection, referred to as a "son of a bitch."

But, by telling believers that we should not hate one another as the world hates us, John is warning us that just that same hatred lurks in our hearts and must be banished from them. The Bible is always painfully realistic; it speaks to realities. If it commands us not to hate, it is because we will and we do. We may say--'well, that is obvious; I don't need to be told that; of course we ought not to hate; I don't hate anyone.' But, of course, we do, all the time.

We too, like my letter-writing friend, hate people we don't even know. Say it isn't so, brothers and sisters. Do we not positively hate many public figures whose political views are in opposition to our own? Do we not think cruel thoughts of them and wish them ill, in a way we would want no one to think of us or wish for us?

A homosexual rights advocate hates me for nothing more than my allowing my name to appear in an ad, but is it not true that we often really hate, have an active animosity in our hearts for them, and for abortion rights advocates, feminists, liberal ministers, and the like. Answer before the Lord who sees into your heart: is there not hatred there, hatred which darts out of our viperous hearts to settle a thousand miles away on persons who don't even know we exist!?

Would that it were only for such, however. Still worse, we must admit that John is speaking the truth about us when he tells us not to hate one another. For we do; far more than any of us wishes to admit, we hate one another. It can be enough for our ill-will that another person is praised in a way I wanted to be praised; that another is well-paid, or prosperous, or talented, or successful; even, so utterly shameful to admit, that another is holy and does holy things. Yes, we can even hate the grace of God in another man or woman, when that grace, in our twisted view of things, raises the other at our expense, or, more honestly, lowers us in comparison.

And this hatred is so real and so deep that very often it will accompany a man or a woman to the grave. I know a Christian minister who harbors a deep animosity toward another Christian minister and has for many years; and, unless the Lord intervene, that animosity will accompany him into the casket and down into the ground.

And, from time to time, you will suddenly run across a brother or a sister, here in the church or out on the street and you will in that moment discover that the same devil lives in them that lives in you. There will be light in his eyes or hers and a carefree spirit until he or she caught sight of you. And suddenly the light dies on her face and darkness comes up out of her heart all from one glimpse of you. What is the matter? What have you done, you ask yourself, that anyone's heart should be so dark because of you? And as you walk past in the oppressive cloud and darkness she has left behind her you recollect that once you disagreed with her, or once you were given a place she wanted for herself, or folks who used to spend much time with her, now spend more with you, or the like such small things as these. And, unless you ward off the growing resentment with an arrow-prayer to God for a loving heart and for the forgiveness of her sins and your own, you will not have walked twenty steps before you own heart is as black with hatred as hers was made at the sight of you.

Oh No! John is not exaggerating. He knows very well that he must tell us straight out that love requires that we banish from our hearts the hatred we so often entertain toward one another; and that we must put on--in obedience to Christ and in recognition of his great love for us in defiance of our sins against him--a spirit of good will, interest, sympathy, kindness, and benevolence toward others.

You may remember the famous remark of the Austrian statesman, Metternich, regarding the horrible bloodshed and violence and hatred which accompanied the French Revolution and which was all defended and practiced in the name of 'brotherhood.' Said Metternich: 'Having seen what was done in the name of brotherhood, if I had a brother I should call him my cousin.' And so it can be in the church. There is love, yes, love far beyond what exists as a rule in the world, a love which marks real Christians as different from those who are not. But, even at that, there is still in your life and mine a long, long way to go, before we are loving one another in the church as Christ would have us and as our own happiness and holiness and fruitfulness require.

And, says John, if we are to grow in love as we should and must, we must first clean hatred out of our hearts and not rest until every piece of ill-will we discover there is repented of and put to death, is argued into shamed silence by considerations such as God's love for us in defiance of our sins, and such as the evil and foolishness of sinners such as we are hating others for their sins or, still worse, for what are no sins at all. No, says John, we must not rest until we have clean, all-men-loving hearts, such a heart, that is, as our Savior has.

II. Second, John says, love being the extending of ourselves to others, we must also offer our hand. Love is, in addition to the attitude of the heart, an active and determined kindness, help, and generosity.

Love is, John says in v. 16, doing what Jesus did; laying down our lives for others, that is spending ourselves for their sakes. Meeting people's needs, doing them good: that is love, says John; that is the love which ought to abound in a community of people who look to Jesus of Nazareth as their example.

And then, he provides a practical example of such love in verse 17. But right at this point is a great danger. We may very well read v. 17 with approval and indeed, in all honesty, fully intend to meet such a need for material possessions if a brother or sister has such a need. But, in the subtle workings of our flesh, we have made an example into the thing itself. We can even go on to think that v. 18 makes such practical gifts of food or shelter or clothing the essence of love.

The problem is, of course, that in our fellowship there is comparatively rarely such a need to be met. We are not a poor congregation. I do not want to minimize the obligation to help the poor which obligation we have for the poor in our own midst, the poor we come into contact with, and the poor to the four corners of the earth. But, I don't want anyone to hear this text and think that you have met the requirements of love because you stand ready to give to a poor person if, in the unlikely event, you happen to find one sitting next to you in the pew.

John's point is a broad one. Whatever a person's need is; love seeks to meet it. If it is food and clothing; love provides it. If it is a friend, a listening ear, some practical assistance, love offers it. We are always guilty of dodging our true responsibilities by emphasizing the importance of the duties which we are seldom required to perform. (We stand ready to hide Jews in our attack if Nazi's come looking.) And we accept the Lord's commandment: if someone comes up to us on the street, and, knowing that we are Christians, he slaps us on the cheek, demands our shirt, and orders us to walk a mile down the street with him, why, we will turn the other cheek, give him, not only our shirt but our coat also, and go, not one mile, but two. Now, the fact that no one has ever done that to us or asked that of us, well, we can hardly be blamed for that, can we?

No, Jesus' point and John's point is that every day, every week of our lives, people have need of possessions, people are slapping us on the one cheek and demanding our shirts and our miles' walk. It matters not what particular thing they need, or what they ask of us, or what their interest requires that we do. Love will do it and love will supply it.

Indeed, we must not misunderstand John in v. 18. He means that we must not just talk love but actually give love. But, love is very often given most helpfully and fruitfully with our words and with our tongues. Love is carried by speech more profoundly than by any other means. Speech which, as Paul puts it, builds up; speech which affirms, which compliments, which assures, which encourages, which expresses gratitude, which instructs, inspires, edifies, protects, and praises a brother or a sister. All of us need such loving speech from one another more than we need food and clothing. Words, the right words, are our most important deeds of love.

And then, whatever else would benefit our brother or sister: Paul says anything at all that would benefit them; he stood willing to do. Much as he loved meat, he would live as a vegetarian if it would build up his brother. Now that is laying down your life for another! But, says John, love always chooses its works not from its own interests, but always and only from the interests and the needs of others. Search your hearts, brothers and sisters; this is a passage which is designed to make us think long and hard about our lives. Is love of the brethren paramount with us; are we like our Savior in this holy consecration of ourselves to others, first in our hearts and then with our deeds?

You may remember that after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the protestants in France, the Huguenots, suffered terrible persecution. Some twenty years later, in the midst of that terrible danger for evangelical Christians, a young reformed minister, Antoine Court, organized a clandestine meeting of seven ministers and two elders, the first of the famous 'synods of the desert'--to organize more effectively the life and work of the now underground reformed church. By 1732, some 15 years later, all the members of that first synod, had been found and executed except Antoine Court himself and he was eventually as well. But successors were ready to take their place. In the course of those years, through Court's leadership, a seminary was established in Lausanne, Switzerland to train young Frenchmen who would then be sent back to pastor the scattered believers in France. Year after year the flower of French Christianity would graduate from that academy and sneak back into their homeland to begin their ministry and to face an almost certain death. In fact, the diploma of that seminary in those days was known, by a kind of wry and dark humor, as a Brevet de Potence, a "certificate for the gallows." One after another of those young men took their diploma in hand and went back to a French gallows all for love for God and for his people.

Have you such a certificate in your possession; such a Brevet de Potence? Beloved, God does not call us at this moment to the gallows; he does not even call us to give up meat! But he does call us every day, every week, to pay the price of love, to practice love, Christ like, self-denying, cheek-turning, coat-giving, extra-mile-walking love. He tells us here, through John, not to rest until our hearts are aflame with love for our brethren and until we can say plainly every day how it was that, in love, we sought after and met the needs of our brethren; until we can say plainly how we, following our Redeemer, have given up our lives for them, and can point to the weariness, and the disruption of our well-laid plans, and the emptiness of our pocket book, and to the tears of joy and or sorrow, to the completely mended friendships which sin had disrupted--all evidence that we have laid down our lives and kept nothing back when our brother's interest or our sister's interest was at stake.

And, if loving us is still hard for you to do--for all our unattractiveness and all our sins; and I can believe it is--then, do this, Christian friend. Take to heart what John has already said in chapter 3 verse 2. 'We shall all be like HIM because shall see Him as he is!' If you could see any genuine Christian in this house of worship this morning as he or she will one day be; however dull, however petty and small minded, however sinful he or she may now be; I say if you could see them as they will one day be, you would be strongly tempted, not to despise them or ignore them, but to worship them! These are not ordinary people, beloved; we are not! The Lord Christ thought us worth his infinite humiliation, his suffering and his death on the cross. And he has the most amazing future prepared for us. Surely in hope of what Christ will make us we must be worth your affection and your interest and your sympathy and your kind speech and your works of generous assistance.

Look about you at this company of sinners saved by the love and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ; ponder your life and how much more it must and it can be dominated by the love to which Christ calls us, and promise the Lord:

Lord Christ, give me the grace, and I will give myself to my brethren, my heart first and then my hand, and will love them, not in appearance only, but with whatever it takes to do them real good, whatever the cost to myself. Let me not fail to do and, finally, to excel at doing the main thing you have made me and saved me to do!

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