"How can we be sure 'God is Love'?"
April 26, 2009 1Jn.4:7-18
FALLEN ATTEMPTS TO FIND PURPOSE AND ORDER
"No one has ever seen God..." the Bible says. So, what does natural man - without Scripture and the Holy Spirit - what does natural man have to go on? What sense can one make of the universe apart from God choosing to reveal Himself to us?
Well, just looking around at nature, the stars in the sky, the orderly rhythm of sun and moon, the complexities of nature on a macro- and micro-level - one might suspect that there is 'something out there' greater than oneself, more powerful as originator, spectacularly intelligent to design a planet so impressive. But it would be hard to decide whether this Supreme Being was actually good or just ambiguous, because we see both the beauty of a sunset AND the perversity of premature deaths due to earthquakes and disease. We might surmise a ying and yang, a cosmic dualism like the Gnostics of the first century when John was writing.
Apart from God showing Himself, how might we order our existence in a meaningful way? By what principles would we organize our families and society? An entirely 'natural' approach is on the basis of power and fear. Jesus observed, "those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them." (Mk 10:42) Call it the bully approach, 'throw your weight around'. In the first 3 months of this year, the Vancouver area experienced close to 50 shootings, nearly half of which were fatal. Police attribute the rise in homicides to rival gangs fighting for a share of the dwindling supply of cocaine smuggled in from Mexico.
In Uganda, an estimated 157,000 traditional 'healers' or 'witch doctors' may ask their customers for impossibilities for certain body parts. Ritual murder is on the increase; bodies, often of children, are found in places from pit latrines to golf courses, dumped by those asking the gods for favours like health or love or money. Headlines read, "Girl beheaded in ritual murder", "Family killed over ritual murder". A 10-year-old boy is sold by his fther to a witch doctor; another is found beheaded with tongue, heart, and other body parts missing. People without God go to extreme measures to try to manipulate the powers-that-be.
Other societies turn to the principle of conscience and develop laws, consensual codes to preserve a sense of order. However in our fallenness, law is perverted by man's effor to conform, perform, and be seen as more religious than the next person. Judaism received the Ten Commandments and law of Moses by divine inspiration, but over the centuries this was added to and codified and interpreted minutely to the point where the Pharisees of the first century AD were in bondage. Jesus criticized their hypocrisy harshly and termed them 'sons of hell' (Mt 23:15). Islam today is another prominent world religion, spreading in popularity. It means 'submission'; its holy book the Koran is static, thought to be a divinely-given meteorite from heaven. In some countries there's a push for Sharia law to be put into effect; it's harsh - recently a couple was executed for merely eloping - but at least you know where the boundaries are.
No one has ever seen God. Apart from God showing Himself we resort to power and fear to give order, meaning, and purpose to life. John writes, "fear has to do with punishment; the one who fears is not made perfect in love."
The good news is that we don't need to be imprisoned in bondage to fear - to gangs and witch doctors and hyper-
Pharisaism. John suggests existence finds purpose and meaning, not in power-over, but in a special kind of love that we come to know only as it's shown to us by God.
A SPECIAL KIND OF LOVE AT THE CORE OF BEING
What's the essence of being? Is it power? Intelligence? 1Jn 4:12 says, "No one has ever seen God; BUT if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us." We saw last week that John and the other disciples were eyewitnesses of the Word of life that was with the Father from the beginning and became flesh - Jesus appeared to them, He who said if you'd seen Him, you'd seen the Father. Jesus' 'new command' was to love one another. John now writes that in loving one another, God dwells in us and His Agape is made perfect, complete, reaches its goal in us.
When God detoured Moses at the burning bush, He revealed His unique name as "I am who I am", or Yahweh, from the Hebrew verb 'to be' (Ex 3:14f). God is the God of Being, He brings everything into existence, nothing happens apart from Him. The universe and time itself ARE because God created them. At the heart of His being, a key aspect of how God reveals Himself to us is by His agape-love. Later God hides Moses in a cleft in the rock and declares His glory or splendour in these words: "YHWH, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin..." (Ex 34:6-7) Abounding in love - maintaining love - compassionate, gracious: the Almighty's definition of Himself is shot through with love.
The degree of this love at the core of being, God's agape-ness, is pivotal to knowing Him. John writes in vv7-8, "Everyone who loves has been born of God [is 'God-begotten'] and knows God.Whoever does not love does not know God, because God IS agape." Again further down in v16, "God is love.Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.In this way, agape is made complete (reaches its goal) among us...in this world we are like Him." Conformed to the likeness of His Son, Romans 8:29: when people look at us while we're practising agape, they see Jesus in and through us.
Love is at the very core of the being that's back of the universe and existence. Whatever catastrophes and cancers there may be, there's not a dualism, a tussle of ing and yang. Christianity teaches not a '2' but '3-in-1', a Trinity of loving fellowship and community within Godself as Father-Son-Spirit apart from anything that has been made. Yet it didn't stop there; it's 'made complete', 'made perfect', it achieves its purpose or reaches its goal, its fullest expression, in our loving-each-other.
Through Hosea the prophet God declares, "I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love." (Hos 11:4) Cords of kindness, links of agape bind this God-of-love to the objects of His affection. The devotional booklet Our Daily Bread once referred to naturalist S. L. Bastian who told of a certain kind of spider that builds its nest in the branch of a small tree or bush. In this delicate enclosure the baby spiders are hatched. If the nest is disturbed in any way, the little spiders will all rush out in fright. At once the mother goes to their side. She is alerted to their potential danger in a very unique way: each of the young ones has a thin silky strand attached to it, and all of these threads are joined to the body of the mother. When the babies are threatened by an enemy, they naturally scurry off, giving their lines a sharp tug, which is instantly felt by mama spider. Within seconds she pulls them back to the nest where they are protected from harm.
Along the same lines - Mary Slessor, missionary in Nigeria, would often rescue babies who were in danger and dying; often the infants filled her home by the dozens. How to care for them through the night became a problem especially when they stirred and cried. Mary learned to tie a string to each little hammock, lay in bed at night, and pull the strings as each baby needed soothing. So the Bible says we are linked to God with cords of love, cords that cannot be broken. The gentle cords of His eternal love bind all our hearts and hurts to Him.
LOVE THAT STOPS AT NOTHING TO SAVE THE BELOVED
Now, we've been using the word 'love' a lot; you'll notice that I've been substituting the New Testament Greek word 'agape'. Pop culture uses the word 'love' but wouldn't understand John's meaning. The lexicon defines 'agape' as 'to love, to feel and exhibit esteem and goodwill to a person, to prize and delight in a thing.' It's an unconditional love independent of 'lovableness' in its object. Other Greek words are 'phileo' - a friendship love, buddy-affection; and 'eros', sexual love. Pop love is more akin to eros - based on chemistry, natural attraction between members of the opposite sex (hence the expression 'love at first sight'). There's an inherent attractiveness or pleasingness in the other person that scores a 'hit' in the categories you (or your glands) are looking for. Sadly, the shallowness and imperfection of 'pop' love is revealed in the high rate of extramarital sex and breakups that plague Western society; eros is conditional on surface factors that fade.
How does God define love? How does He show or reveal to us what the REAL kind of love is like? John tells us 3 times in this brief passage, so we don't miss it! V10, "This is love [sounds like a definition]: not that we loved God, but that He agaped us [fallen sinners mind you], and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins." Parallels v9, "This is how God showed [made actual / visible, realized] His agape among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him." Our sin-nature made us objectionable, totally repugnant to and incompatible with a holy absolutely pure God, but He parted with what was most precious - His dear Son with whom He'd shared sweet communion from all eternity - just so we could be brought near.
And the 3rd time, in v14: "And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world." Love then isn't primarily just a warm fuzzy feeling - love is a verb, it responds with action for the welfare of the beloved: in this case, SENDING what was most precious (Jesus, God's Son) to do something about the barrier that separated us from the Father. Note that love is not based on the apparent appealingness or attractiveness of the other: we were sinners deserving condemnation, "all our righteous acts are like filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6). The speaker from Word of Life at the Article One concert was talking about his two young children - how one liked to actually chew dirty diapers, and take them off and wipe them on the wall. We think, "That's disgusting!" But that's about how appealing our most righteous deeds done in our own strength are to God. Passages like Ezekiel 16 (6,32,39, 62f) picture God's amazing compassion for us when we were found kicking and naked in blood - but God restored us. Romans 5:8, "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
Most of us are familiar with John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son..." 1Jn 3:16 offers another definition of agape: "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers." Agape acts - sending, laying down one's life, extending oneself for the good of the one loved. Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche and one of our unsung Canadian heroes, wrote: "Love is the greatest of all risks...the giving of myself.But dare I take this risk, diving into the swirling waters of loving fidelity?" When we were hopelessly corrupt and lost, God took a risk on us - loving us by sending Jesus to save us.
HOW TO GET THIS SPECIAL LOVE IN US
V10 is very clear: "This is love: not that we loved God..." apart from Him, we don't know how to 'agape'; we can't in ourselves manufacture affection for that which is objectionable, revolts us, rejects us. How can we possibly come to have that special kind of love in us, then? V7, "Everyone who loves has been BORN [begotten] of God": similar language to when Jesus told Nicodemus he must be 'born again' (Jn 3:3). "...No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit." (Jn 3:5-6) It's this mysterious, invisible, extension of God filling our lives known as the Holy Spirit that births this dramatic change in us. 1Jn 4:13, "We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit." And what's the number 1 'fruit of the Spirit' in Paul's list in Galatians 5(22)? "The fruit of the Spirit is love..." Romans 5:5 describes the phenomenon precisely, "...God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us."
And how do we get the Spirit? John tells us that, too: v15, "If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God [dwells] in him and he in God." That is, if we trust and are convinced that Jesus really did (v9) come so we might live through Him; (10) is the atoning sacrifice for our sins; (14) is the Saviour of the world. Conviction of these facts is the Holy Spirit's 'specialty' - the Paraclete testifies about Jesus and convicts in regard to sin and belief in Jesus (Jn 15:26, 16:8f).
So, don't be surprised when in your soulish nature you find it hard to love someone; when you are tempted to reject or abandon or hurt them back because of their contrariness. It's not IN you, at least in the 'old [fallen] man'. Turn to God in prayer, be reminded how much He loved us while we were still afar off; acknowledge Jesus anew as the Son of God He is, Saviour for you in your need, and await fresh renewing in God's Spirit as He buds His agape in you. Of COURSE you find it tough to love another objectionable sinner - give it up! Let God do the loving through you; that's the core of His nature.
LOVE THAT GOES BEYOND THE NORM
In closing, I'd just like to point briefly to a story I don't have in print but have heard Ravi Zacharias tell on a couple of occasions (so I might not have all the details right, but the general outline of what happened). A man and woman were married in the United States. He was stationed overseas for a time in Japan. The letters became fewer. Finally came a letter in which he revealed he'd left her for a Japanese woman, and wouldn't be coming back to the states. His wife was shocked and devastated, but as a Christian she told her two children they needed to keep praying for Daddy. She sought God's grace in her heart to forgive her husband for dumping her.
Years passed. Then out of the blue came another letter. He'd contracted an incurable disease and was slowly dying. After he was gone, would she consider sending money to help his Japanese widow survive? What cheek! How many of us would throw up our hands right here and say, "Not on your life, mister!"?
But here again she discovered the reality of God's agape love. She wrote back that she couldn't afford to do that, but what she was willing to do was this: she would arrange for the widow and her children to come to the states after he was gone, help them learn English and find employment over here. And that's what she did. After he died, she carried through, and God put a genuine love for the Japanese woman and her family in her as she helped them get established in a new country. Amazing love! How can it be?
How can we be sure God is love - not some dualistic yo-yo? Vv15f, when we acknowledge Jesus is the Son of God, "God lives in him and he in God.And so we KNOW and RELY ON the love God has for us." Let's pray.