Tuesday, October 12, 2010

For the Love of Christ Compels Us

I was musing very recently about Jesus’ ceaseless care for the Jews, and for anyone else that crossed paths with Him during His ministry on earth. It was said that even when He went to find rest apart from the crowds that they followed Him, and when He saw them He had compassion on them. If I could ask Jesus to sum up what He was doing for the crowds with this kind of tireless ministry, I wager He might have said, “Loving them.” For Jesus, love was a constant state of selfless, self-sacrificing, self-abasing action that transformed Him into a servant to meet the needs of all who encountered Him. Now that, I have to say, is an amazing picture of love.

In John’s first epistle he commands Christians to love our brethren; it is not optional. He uses our love toward fellow Christians as a test as to whether or not we truly love God: “He who does not love does not know God,” 1st John 4:8. It is irrelevant if the Christian in question is lovely from our point of view; John doesn’t even entertain this concept. Our love does not originate in its recipient; it springs forth from our abiding love of God, and His wonderful love and mercy that He demonstrated toward us in Christ. Our love toward our fellow Christians originates in us and we lavish it on other believers whether or not we personally find them lovely or not. Love in deed and in truth, John reminds us, not with mere words, 1st John 3:18. God so loved us that He gave His only begotten Son to die on our behalf. The love of God did not find anything lovely in us to merit Jesus’ death! No, the value and beauty of His death stemmed from the fact that we were unlovely, dead in sins and trespasses; despite that God loved us anyway and sent His Son to be our propitiation. John says that such inspirational love should motivate us to an active love that is demonstrated naturally toward other believers, 1st John 4:11.

Jesus told us that if we only love those essentially worthy of our love, or that reciprocate our love, said love is not of God. God loves those who don’t deserve His notice, He lavishes love on the unworthy and rebellious; He bestows such perfect love on those who run away and spurn Him. John says: “He who abides in Him (Christ) ought himself also to walk just as He walked,” 1st John 2:6. Jesus loved the rich young ruler that rejected Him. He wept over Jerusalem even knowing that the city was filled with men that would shortly condemn Him to death and kill Him.

John writes that the acid test for our faith’s authenticity is our genuine love toward the brethren. “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love the brethren.” Why is that? “Everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him,” 1st John 3:14; 5:1. This has caused me to reevaluate my conduct toward other believers in light of my relationship with God. Do I love the brethren as I ought to? How often are my actions self-serving rather than God-serving? How often are my prayers filled with earnest and honest supplications for other believers rather than a “give me this, give me that,” mentality? A pastor I know and admire once said, “You don’t have to like me; you just have to love me.” It’s true that we all know fellow Christians that are saved as we are, but we cannot get along. It’s like family; you have siblings that clash and can’t always play nice. Sometimes they grow to loathe one another. John disregards this notion. Love is not feelings or sentimentality; it is action and willful choice to place the welfare of someone else before your own desires. It is the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself fulfilled. Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law, Romans 13:10. Paul also wrote: “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves one another has fulfilled the law,” Romans 13:8.

The two great commandments, on which hang the Law and Prophets, were to love God with all of our faculties, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, Matthew 22:37-40. The first commandment is an internal declaration of one’s relationship with the Lord. Jesus and John will not allow such a statement to go unchallenged. Jesus laid down the second commandment so that a genuine love of God would reflect in a life of selfless, action-oriented love toward others. John agrees when he writes, “If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God, whom he has not seen?” 1st John 4:20. John tells us that love as God defines it should prompt a Christian to lay down his life for the brethren, 1st John 3:16. He also warns us that a heart closed to giving to those in need is likewise closed to receiving the love of God; the love of God cannot abide in a heart that holds no interest in the welfare of God’s children, 1st John 3:17.

Do we as Christians love with the intensity that John describes in his epistle? I regret to say that I fall short often. God’s love is lofty; it is foreign and it is beautiful. When we are born again we receive this love into our hearts, because we receive God the Holy Spirit, 1st John 3:24. Such a rebirth should invest us with a new outlook and interest in God’s will and our brethren’s welfare. John writes that everyone who loves is born of God and knows Him, 1st John 4:7. Again we are confronted with the reality that love for God should translate into daily life, manifested by a love for fellow believers that prompts action.

Not a grudging action that stems from necessity, but a joyful action, knowing that those who we minister to have received the Savior as well. They are brethren! We are part of the same family of God, and John insists that as one family we love one another and place personal feelings aside. Do I dislike some Christians? We have personality clashes, to be sure. But I am told that I answer to one who wants me to cease being selfish, absorbed in “self” and its gratifications. Petty differences or even possibly profound differences cannot annul the fact that I am in the presence of someone Christ died to save. They are forgiven and reconciled to God; can I not learn how to be reconciled to them, and to live peacefully?

I am convinced this is what Paul meant when he wrote, “I…beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” Ephesians 4:1-3. When the disciples were gathered together and had all things in common, I do not take this to mean that everyone had a perfectly amicable relationship; I take this to mean that they were all saved by faith in Christ. Their mutual salvation and like-mindedness in spiritual matters gave them the same mind in Christ. As several thousand Christians they had all things in common and recognized the bond they shared in Jesus was infinitely more valuable than personal or material differences.

Note in Acts that Luke’s wording alludes to this fact. If it were doctrinal issues at stake he could not have written that these men had all things in common. No, they had Christ and Heaven in common and so temporal issues became a trivial matter. Here were men in love with their Savior, and such love became a vehicle of immense spiritual power as they selflessly shared their goods and preached the gospel to the lost. Here was the function and purpose of the church: to witness to the love of God with every word and deed, that we might bring the lost to our loving Father, who desires to give them new life in Jesus’ name. If my love waxes cold, I have lost my usefulness in reaching the lost; how is the love of God demonstrated in me if I cannot love my brethren?

Is there a fellow Christian you can’t forgive or be reconciled to for personal reasons? “He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now,” 1st John 2:9. Jesus commanded that a Christian forgive his brethren their trespasses, or else the Father would withhold forgiveness from us. We have been forgiven an infinite debt, and John holds up the remembrance of such a debt to encourage us to love even when it is difficult to do so. We have been so forgiven, so reconciled, shown such great love that we should be ashamed of our lack of reciprocation. Jesus never said that this path we walk is an easy one; He only said it was the right one. The Spiritual gifts that come as the fruit of the Spirit will find rich ground to take root in when we have a heart that is filled with the love of God; we will be empowered and capable of performing the will of God when we are willing to love the brethren. It is not a choice: the love of God in us demands to be shared with those who need it. Who are those? Fellow Christians who need comfort and cheering, and the lost who need to know the lengths our God has gone to in order to redeem them to Himself. Truly brethren, God is love, 1st John 4:16.

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