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TEXT: I John 4:17-21
SUBJECT: I John #14: Perfect Love
Did Peter have a nickname in the Early Church? Did Paul? James, Matthew of Philip? Nobody knows if they did or not, but we do know that John had one, and what a wonderful nickname it was. He was-
The Apostle of Love.
Who named him? We don't know that, either, but we do know why he got it. John was called the Apostle of Love because Jesus had a special love for him, a love even greater than what he felt for the other disciples. People have speculated on why He felt this way about John, perhaps because he was the youngest of the Twelve, an almost a son-like figure to Christ. This may be it, but, once again, we don't know.
We do know the other reason he came by this name, however. It's because John emphasized love more than the other Apostles. They all preached the same message, of course, but every preacher focuses on some things more than others. What John focused on most was: Love!
God's love for us; our love for God; and our love for one another. These three loves-like Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-are One. They can be distinguished, but they cannot be separated! John has touched on this several times already in his First Epistle, and nowhere more clearly than in today's New Testament Lesson.
LOVE IS PERFECTED
The passage is obviously about love, but which love is it that John has in mind here? Is it: (1) God's love for us, (2) our love for God, or (3) our love for each other? All three come up in the passage, but only the second interpretation makes any real sense. Here, at the start, he is talking about our Love for God.
What he says about it is really strange! He says it has been-
Perfected among us.
Not that it will be when we're in Heaven, but now, in this world. This makes me wonder if John has lost his mind, or if he's writing to people totally different than we are. Perfected love? Among us? There's a real head scratcher!
Until you remember that perfect in the New Testament usually means something like 'mature'. This is what it means here. John says that our love for God has flowered; not that it's sinless or cannot be improved on, but that it is grown up, to some degree. Not fully grown-for that's only true after the Resurrection-but, still, it has ripened in us or matured. We have become-you might say-adult Christians, no longer-as Paul says-
Carnal, babes in Christ, behaving as mere men, living only on milk.
When a male turns 21, he is probably not at his peak physically, mentally, or morally, but he is a grown man. That's how John thought of his first readers. And, hopefully, what he would think of us. Disciples of Christ are supposed to grow in grace; by God's Spirit, we grow in grace, and-if there is no growth over a long period of time, we can only conclude, there is no life; we're not disciples at all. This solemn truth ought to pull us up short: it should cause us to examine ourselves, to repent of our spiritual stunting, to make every effort to grow, or, perhaps (for some of us) to admit we're still dead in our sins and find the Only Life there is for the spiritually dead, in Jesus Christ, for as John said elsewhere-
In Him is Life and His Life is the Light of men.
BOLDNESS BEFORE GOD
Wouldn't it be wonderful if your love for God were perfected? Can you imagine a blessing greater than this one? To know that you love God means that God loves you and God's love for you guarantees your salvation beyond any and all doubt? Wouldn't that be wonderful?
It sure would be. And we don't know the half of it! John doesn't give us all the benefits of this mature love for God, but the two he gives us? They're pretty good! Pretty darn good!
Your mature love for God (however imperfect) takes away your fear of death and what lies behind that fear-the terror of God's Judgment!
It is commonly thought that insane people live in perpetual fear of death and/or judgment, while sane people don't. Oh, we all know we're going to do, and-deep down-that we're accountable to God for how we live-but.sane people can lay these unpleasant things aside and live relatively happy and healthy lives. While the crazies among us can't!
For people outside of Christ, I can think of no common belief that is less true than this one! For the unsaved, this is a big, fat, hairy lie, coming from the Big, Fat, Hairy Liar-the devil himself. The truth is: if you're not in Christ you'd be crazy not to live in the crushing fear of death and what comes next!
But people in Christ, in whom this love is perfected-
Have boldness in the Day of Judgment.
It's not that we're just 'less scared' than others, but that we're not scared at all. Paul assumes this in II Thessalonians 1, where he sees the Day of Judgment-not as a trial for the People of God-but the end of all trials, as the day of our vindication, or Final Justification before men and God alike!
John Newton makes the same point in his great hymn, Day of Judgment, Day of Wonders! For him-
The trumpet's awful sound will.
The sinner's heart confound.
But, for you who love His appearing will then say, 'This God is mine!'
PERFECT LOVES CASTS OUT FEAR
How does this work? How does your love for God allow you to sleep at night or give you confidence when you stand before the Bar of Divine Justice?
V.17 explains. Referring to God, it says-
We love Him because He first loved us.
To know that you love God means to know that God loves you. And this knowing of God's Saving Love means you can die in peace and face the Judgment without fear.
Why? Because you no longer think of God as your Judge, Jury and Executioner. Knowing God's love means you know Him as your Father-and not just any father, but all that a Father ought to be. No better picture of that kind of father can be found than that dear father of the Prodigal Son. That father knew what his son was and how he had spent the last few years of his life. On this point, he agreed with his elder son-
This son of yours, who has devoured your living with harlots.
The money the father had worked and scrimped and saved for, had been wasted on prodigal living! The father doesn't pretend otherwise. Nowhere does he condone the runaway's sin! All he does in that story is what our Father does for us: He welcomes us home-and not through the back door or the servants' quarters-but at the party he had been planning since the day the spoiled, rotten kid left for Vegas!
That's our Father in Heaven! He's the God who-
Justifies the ungodly!
Blots out our transgressions!
Believing that this God is your God will make you love Him, and this love will let you face the prospect of death and judgment without fear. For this love, what John calls this-
Casts out fear.
Not 'godly fear' or reverence, but the fear of Hell, the fear of Damnation, of the-
Worm that dieth not
And the fire that is not quenched.
Your love for God does not free you from this fear, as though it somehow won His favor; it simply confirms God's love for you, and that love-displayed chiefly in the death of Christ for your salvation-that's what gives you confidence now and forever!
LOVING GOD CAUSES US TO LOVE OTHERS
This is the first benefit of loving God-and what a benefit it is! In vv.20-21, John names another, one he harps on in this Letter. It is brotherly love. In other words, people who are loved by God love God in return, but because we love God, we also love His people!
Here, I need to say a very harsh word to people 'fed up with the church'-not this church in particular, of course-but with all churches. It was Jean Paul Satre who said-
Hell is other people.
Some professed Christians feel this way about the church, I mean the local, visible church, with our very real follies and sins. John says such people, for all their pretended piety are.what? Misguided souls? Sincere people who got a couple of things wrong? No, v.20 is what he said-
If someone says, 'I love God' and hates his brother, he is a liar.
Hating the church puts the lie to your profession of faith-this is what John says-and in no uncertain terms. How can it be otherwise? If the Church is the Children of God and the Bride of Christ, how could the Lord be 'okay' with you not loving its members?
If you want to tell me my wife is wrong on this point, or my kids on that one, I may well agree with you. (If I'm in a bad mood, I might even add to your list of their faults!). But don't tell me that you love me when you hate the people I love most! My wife and sons and I are a package deal! So is God, Christ, and the Church!
John proves this by saying something that has always struck me as very peculiar, v.20b-
He who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?
This seems like an easy one to me: God is far easier to love than any of you! That brother is selfish; the sister is impatient, and we all know how stupid that family is! But God is none of these things. It seems, therefore, much easier to love Him than it is to love them.
And so, how does 'not loving God' follow from 'not loving your brother'? John Calvin says it's because your brother in Christ bears the image of God, which you claim to love. This is true, but not exactly what the (other) John says. In the last verse of the chapter, he explains how brotherly love necessarily follows love for God-
And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.
The reason you're to love every brother and sister in Christ is not because every one of them is intelligent and charming and easy to get along with, but because the Lord tells you to!
Calvin was right; there are other reasons to love one another, but John sets them aside for the moment, and zeroes in on the one that fits his argument. If you love God you want to please Him, and nothing pleases God more than-
Loving one another!
Not even the things Evangelicals put such a stress on: reading the Bible, praying, witnessing, not getting drunk, not looking at pornography, and all the rest. Don't get me wrong: these things are important, but our Lord's Great Mandate was not-
'This is my commandment, that you stay sober, as I have stayed sober.'
Rather, it is-
This is my commandment, that you love one another. As I have loved you, so love one another.
This is how we show our love for God: by loving His children, wrinkles, blemishes, spots, double chins, and all the rest. Brotherly love does not make God loves us; only God makes God love us! But His love works in us, changing us from the self-centered, proud and hateful people we were (in Adam) to the unselfish, humble, and loving people we are (in Christ).
If seems like a lecture in self-improvement, it's any but! For, a 'church-boy' myself, take my word for it: all the religious things you can do or resolve to do will not change you. I've said 'Amen' to a thousand sermons and really meant to follow through on them, only not to.
Nothing is going to get you to love others until you love God and nothing can get you to love God but God's love for you-not the love that got you your job or cured you of cancer-but the love put on full display at the Cross, where-
The love of God was demonstrated to us.
.not by setting you an example, but by sacrficing Himself for your salvation.
Only when you know-and believe-in self-surrendering love for you will you become a self-surrendering person to others. And this self-surrender, of putting others ahead of yourself, or thinking of others as better than yourself is what Brotherly Love is.
May God give it to us, for Christ's sake. Amen.
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