‘We Love Because God First Loved Us’ – 1 John 3:21-4:21 – April 14th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, turn with me to 1 John chapter 3, verse 21, through chapter 4, verse 21. John writes:

Dear friends, if our conscience doesn’t condemn us, we have confidence before God and can receive whatever we ask from Him because we keep His commands and do what is pleasing in His sight. Now this is His command: that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another as He commanded us. The one who keeps His commands remains in Him, and He in him. And the way we know that He remains in us is from the Spirit He has given us.

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. But every spirit who does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist; you have heard that he is coming, and he is already in the world now.

You are from God, little children, and you have conquered them, because the One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world. Therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Anyone who knows God listens to us; anyone who is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of deception.

Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent His One and Only Son into the world so that we might live through Him. Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another. No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God remains in us and His love is perfected in us.

This is how we know that we remain in Him and He in us: He has given assurance to us from His Spirit. And we have seen and we testify that the Father has sent His Son as the world’s Savior. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God—God remains in him and he in God. And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and the one who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him.

In this, love is perfected with us so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment, for we are as He is in this world. There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment. So the one who fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because He first loved us.

If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen. And we have this command from Him: The one who loves God must also love his brother.

This is the word of the Lord.

*

I grew up in Dallas, which sociologists have dubbed “The Center of Evangelicalism in America,” and it’s crawling with churches that take the first part of our passage today, where John says, “We have confidence before God and can receive whatever we ask from him,” and teach that “If you really have faith, God will give you all of the things that you want.” Ever heard that one?

These groups go by a lot of different names: Some of them refer to themselves as the “Word Of Faith” movement, some of them refer to themselves as the “Prosperity Gospel,” but wherever you see it, you see exploitation. 

So you’ll hear a sermon where they’ll say 1 John 3:21, “We have confidence before God and can receive whatever we ask from him!” And then they’ll turn to Psalm 37:4, and say, “Delight in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart!” And then they’ll turn to John 14:13 and say, “Anything you ask in the name of Jesus will be given to you!”

And they’ll pull out a $100 bill and throw it in the offering plate and say that “God needs you to ‘show him your faith’ right now!” That you need to “sow the seed of faith” with your check book, so that God can see that you really mean it and “send you a plentiful harvest.” You know what I’m talking about?

And so folks watching Benny Hinn run to scribble out a check for $2,000 and send it in to Benny Hinn Ministries, or they’ll spend their whole two-week check to get into a Convention Center where Creflo Dollar is speaking, and then unload everything in their wallet into the offering plate, because they’ve been indoctrinated into the idea that if they really have faith, and they show that faith to God, he will “pay them back tenfold,” and he will “give them whatever they ask for.”

But look at what John actually says here: John says that “If our confidence doesn’t condemn us, we have confidence before God and can receive whatever we ask from him because we keep his commands and do what is pleasing in his sight.”

So you will not “speak a Rolex watch into existence.” You will not ask for- and receive- a new European car in your driveway.

But you might have an experience like Mother Teresa: When she was collecting donations for a relief effort that she was running after a famine hit a remote village she was ministering in, no one would give her anything, because there was no telling when a famine would hit the cities, too, so folks would need their extra supplies.

And after her thirty-somethingth rejection, she sat down outside the business that had just rejected her and prayed for several hours that God would find a way to meet the needs of the people she was collecting supplies for.

And over the course of those few hours, according to the stories, people just started arriving with baskets of food and water and supplies, saying that they were just going about their day, and that, suddenly, something in them started demanding – not asking, but demanding – that they gather up their excess goods and bring them to the woman sitting on the curb at this location.

Because when Jesus rescues us, the Holy Spirit molds us into his image and we begin to ask for things “in his name” that the Father is pleased to give to us. God is molding us into people “whose consciences don’t condemn us,” and that changes What We Ask For.

So the prosperity preachers love Psalm 37:4, “Delight in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” And they love John 14:13, “Anything you ask in my name will be given to you.” And they love today’s passage, where John says, “When our conscience does not condemn us, we can ask anything of the Lord and it will be given to us.”

But that doesn’t mean the thing that the prosperity preachers say it means, because the thing that we will ask from the Lord in Jesus’s name, when our delight is in the Lord and our consciences do not condemn us is that we would love one another in a way that does not come naturally. What John wants us to ask from the Lord is that we would love one another with a supernatural love that God gives to us.

And when I say it doesn’t come naturally, I mean it doesn’t come naturally. We spent the first part of our lives deceived by what John calls the “spirit of deception.” Some people think that there’s literally a spirit, whose job description is literally deception. And there might be, but John’s point is that the sin we are born into turns everybody into “Cain” – that “loving our neighbors” is not our default mode.

Last week we talked about how, ever since Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the garden, we’ve been, kind of, doomed to repeat the same sin that got them banished from God’s presence:

Adam and Eve rebelled against God and unstitched the community of God in the garden; Cain murders his brother and unstitches the community that they’ve built outside the garden; the people at Babel rebelled against God by building a tower to go “take over the heavens,” and so on. We are “made in God’s image,” but all throughout the book of Genesis, Moses chronicles the way that we have refused, in one age after another, to “image” the love of God on Earth, because demanding our own way is easier.

The result is that history is a series of “Cain and Abel” stories, just with different players, in different places and different times. But John says that Jesus “laid down his life for us.”

That Jesus is the true Abel whose blood “cries out from the ground” with forgiveness instead of condemnation. That we were all Cain, and Jesus came to be our “Abel,” and that by being the “Abel” to our “Cain,” Jesus took all of our sin onto himself so that we could be forgiven and set free from the slavery of our sin.

So John says that “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: That God sent his one and only son into the world so that we might live through him.” So he says that “love consists in this, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

So God’s love is imaged truthfully in Jesus dying on the cross to bring us from “death to life.” And the thing that we will ask from the Lord in Jesus’s name, when our delight is in the Lord and our consciences do not condemn us is that we would love one another with a love that looks like the love that God has shown us in Jesus Christ.

So we see a Jesus who loved us before we could love him. We see a Jesus whose love is not earned or merited, who doesn’t distinguish between people who deserve love and people who don’t. And one result of that is that when we see God in the final judgment, we will be joyous, rather than ashamed. Because God’s love replaces our fear with familiarity.

And then John says that “if God loved us in this way, we must also love one another.” The example that we used last week was that laying down his life for us jams a spoke in the wheel of that pattern that you see developing in the early chapters of Genesis, so when we “confess” Jesus, the Holy Spirit begins the process of overcoming the “spirit of deception” we’d been walking in since we were born. He starts sanding down our edges, replacing our old parts, changing our very natures, until we are “conformed into the image of Jesus.” We’ve been “born of God” by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and so God is creating a supernatural love in us that was not there beforehand. So the thing that we will ask from the Lord in Jesus’s name, when our delight is in the Lord and our consciences do not condemn us is that we would love one another with a love that looks like the love that God has shown us in Jesus Christ.

So the last sentence of verse 12 used to confuse me, but now it might be one of my favorite verses in the Bible: John says that “No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God remains in us and his love is perfected in us.” Because for John, God is “visible” through the love that he creates in us for one another.

He turns us from brothers who compete with each other to brothers who cooperate with one another; from brothers who hate each other to brothers who help each other; from brothers who look like Cain and Abel, fighting over our inheritance, or feuding over old slights and clinging to our bitterness, to brothers who care for each other even at great cost – because the Holy Spirit that “abides in us” is molding us into “walking images of God’s love.”

So John says that “The one who keeps God’s commands remains in him, and God remains in him. And the way that we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit he has given us.” As usual, when you flip John’s confusing statements around, they become a little bit clearer: So “Because God ‘remains in us’ and we ‘remain in God’, the Spirit God has given us will move us to keep Gods commands.”

Now that we’ve been redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus, our love for each other is rooted on God’s love for us, so the world “sees God” by seeing the love of God at work through us.

Because our love for God and each other comes from God’s own love for us. We love God, we love one another, and we love ourselves with a love that comes from God and not ourselves. And the love of God, whom we can’t see, causes us to love our brothers whom we can see. The Holy Spirit molds us into a community of brothers who love one another on reflex. So this is not just the sort of love you see in Hallmark movies and Thomas Kinkade paintings; John is talking about the sort of love that will un-wreck the world.

*

It’s hard to tell which parts of history are factual and which parts are legendary, but there’s a really interesting story about a guy named Prince Vladimir from the 10th and 11th centuries. Vladimir is usually referred to today as “Saint Vladimir,” because he is a large part of the reason Russia was predominantly Christian for most of a millennium.

When he first came into power, he was as pagan as the next fellow, but the story goes that he sent out a handful of scouts to investigate the religious life of the neighboring territories. A few of the scouts visited the Bulgars, who were Muslim, and when they came back they said the folks there were friendly enough but that their religion was too dreary because they’d all taken a vow to boycott wine. We’ve come a long way since then.

Some of the other scouts went out to Germany and they were going to the church services they were doing in Latin, but when they came back they said they couldn’t piece any of it together and nobody seemed interested in explaining it to them, so that was a bust as well.

But the last scouts found themselves at the Hagia Sophia during one of their “Divine Liturgies,” and when they came back, they told Vladimir that during the service they “no longer knew whether they were in heaven or on Earth” because the things that they had seen and heard were too beautiful to process.

So Vladimir began to study and eventually converted to Christianity. Not long after that, he married the sister of Emperor Basil II from Constantinople, which was kind of the center of the Christian world in the East at that point in time, and was baptized into the faith – both on account of his conversion and because the emperor would only marry his sister to a baptized person.

But the most interesting part of the story is the way that his family reacted to his conversion: He had three sons, and two of them became passionate converts just like their father. Their names were Boris and Gleb, which was probably a very normal set of names at that particular point in time. And his third son’s name was Svyatopolk, and by most accounts he was bad news.

When Vladimir was on his deathbed, he divided his territory among his three sons and told them to devote themselves to the concerns of the modest expanses of land that they had been placed as stewards over. And while Boris and Gleb saw their father’s decision as an opportunity to pour themselves into governing their own people with more care and attention than they could have if they were spread thin over all of Russia, Svyatopolk saw it as an opportunity to take over the whole territory.

So he started waging military campaigns against his brother’s territories, and Boris was advised to march on Kiev and overthrow his brother before he got an opportunity to strike. But Boris and Gleb both vowed that they would never use violence against their brother or spend the sheer quantity of human lives that it would cost to go to war with him purely for the sake of “worldly power,” so they refused.

And when Svyatopolk heard about this, he realized that stealing their land would be easier than he thought, so he sent a couple of assassins to kill Boris. And the story goes that when the assassins arrived, Boris was in his “prayer tent,” which I guess was the medieval version of the “prayer closet.” He heard the assassins coming but refused to stop praying, and instead started praying out loud that God would forgive his assassins and forgive his brother.

Then he laid down on his bed and the assassins stabbed him to death. But the story goes that as they were transporting his body back to show it to his brother and collect their payment, he started breathing again. According to some versions of the story, he picked up where he left off praying for them. So they had to drive a spear through his heart, and that finally got the job done.

While all of this was happening, the same thing was going on with Gleb. Svyatopolk sent a messenger saying that their father had gotten even sicker, and begged him to come as quickly as possible. So Gleb made his way towards Kiev.

On the way, he learned that his father had already died when Svyatopolk had sent for him, and that Boris had been assassinated. While he was crying by the river bank, an assassin came for him, too. And he went out praying for his assassin and his brother, just like Boris had.

And as the story goes, when Boris and Gleb refused to participate in Svyatopolk’s game – when they refused to allow him to turn their inheritance into a “game of thrones,” when they decided to die the sort of death Jesus died instead of cursing the folks who betrayed them – it changed Russia.

Because the old gods had nothing that would move you to pray for your persecutors, nothing that would move you to submit to death before participating in darkness, nothing that would cause you to love the people who hate you just as much as you love the people who love you. The old gods assumed that everybody was Cain and all you can do about it is “harden yourself” so you don’t get got like Abel did.

But Boris and Gleb understood that Jesus had become the Abel to our Cain, and that his death had “put a spoke in the wheel of that cycle” where Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the garden, Cain rebelled against God by killing his brother Abel, the people at Babel rebelled against God by building a tower to go “take over the heavens,” and so on.

They understood that when Jesus allowed us to murder him on the cross, he died “in our place” and that when we have been “raised up with Jesus,” not only is his faithfulness given to us in God’s eyes, but also that Jesus begins to set us free from our enslavement to that rebelliousness that curses everything that we do.

Boris and Gleb understood that when God has “caused our conscience no longer to condemn us,” we can “ask God” to heal us from the darkness in our souls “and it will be given to us.” That the Holy Spirit will purge the darkness from us and instead cause us to “walk in the light,” to use John’s words from earlier. The world “sees God” by seeing the love of God at work through his people, and so the thing that we will ask from the Lord in Jesus’s name, when our delight is in the Lord and our consciences do not condemn us is that we would love one another with a love that looks like the love that God has shown us in Jesus Christ.

Sometimes, like Boris and Gleb, that’ll get you killed. But it always changes the people who encounter it.

Depending on who’s telling the Boris and Gleb story, sometimes the assassins kill themselves out of guilt, and sometimes they convert out of sheer astonishment that anybody would conduct themselves the way that Boris and Gleb conducted themselves in the face of their own deaths. But in every version of the story, the gospel spreads across medieval Russia in a way that’s difficult to explain within the bounds of modern sociology.

Because when people start to “imitate Jesus,” it becomes contagious in ways that get away from you, in ways you couldn’t plan for, in ways you couldn’t “engineer” or force to happen. So John tells us that “we can ask anything in the name of Jesus and it will be given to us,” but he’s not talking about a Rolex or a private jet or even good things that actually matter, like a “great new job” or a wife; he’s talking about the holiness that the Holy Spirit engrafts onto us from the outside when we are saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus for our sins.

And the result is that we can pray for a holiness that does not come naturally to us, and be confident that God will give it us.

If you’re new or you’re visiting, we do something called the “altar call,” here. What it means is that, as we worship the Lord in song, I’ll be at the front, next to the altar. If I’ve been talking directly to you for the last 30 minutes, you’re welcome to come to the front and I’d be glad to literally talk directly to you. We can pray together, or have a conversation. If you’ve never thrown yourself on the mercy of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, to be rescued from the darkness that’s in you and adopted into the community of God, I’d love to walk you through that process. Or, if you just want to cry, I’m a “sympathetic-cryer,” so if you cry, I’ll probably start crying, too, so we can just cry for however long it takes to sing “O, My Soul.” But come talk to me.

Let’s pray.

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