As I was preparing for this message, I realized that I was going to be teaching on probably the most famous portion of the Bible that says “…God is love…” in 1 John 4:8. Of course, the reason it is famous is not because people actually understand what love means. It’s famous with many men and women who actually hate Christianity because they have their own ideas about what love is. Love seems like an idea that anyone can define personally and, so, the idea that God is love makes them very happy because it fits exactly with their idea of who He should be. What they don’t want from God, however, is the love that He has offered. They also only want love if it’s how they’ve defined it and not necessarily how God has defined it. They want love on their own terms and they want God on their own terms.
I’ve told a number of you a story about something that happened on the Oprah Winfrey show a number of years ago. There was a discussion about God. Of course nobody in the room, including Oprah, seemed to know much about who God is. One woman said this: “I don’t think I believe in God.” Oprah responded by asking: “Do you believe in love?” The woman stated that she did. Oprah replied, with all the wisdom of the world: “Then you believe in God.” Is this true? By saying God is love are the Scriptures really saying that love is God? Is anything that we decide is love is what God is?
Well to answer this, we should listen to John at the beginning of this chapter again: 1Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.
John is warning Christians of something we need to be careful to listen to. The plain fact is that there are many false prophets and teachers in the world that are claiming to represent the truth. We are commanded by the word of God to test every spirit. We are commanded to take captive every thought to the Word of God and measure it against the Word to determine if it is true.
Life would be much easier if false teachers had red horns, sharp teeth, tails, and looked really mean and evil. In classic American films, the bad guys always wear black and have evil eyebrows. But in the real world, false teachers often sound very convincing, look really nice, and smell really good. They might even have a huge following and be on TV claiming to teach the Gospel. They tug at our heart strings. They seem to be saying things that must be true because so many people follow them, listen to them, and even proclaim how their lives have been changed.
Now, I love the Internet and e-mail as much as anyone but one thing that I really do not like are those e-mails you get with stories created to make you cry or feel good. A few years ago, I received an e-mail from a close female friend of the family. The story was designed to make everyone feel really warm by telling a tale that Jesus one time found Satan with a world full of sinners and asked Satan how much he wanted from Jesus so that Jesus could “buy” them from him. It seemed like such a beautiful tale of how much Jesus loved these wretched creatures that Satan owned and that Jesus would be willing, in fact, to give His life to Satan for them.
The problem with the story is that it was a lie. Jesus didn’t save men from Satan ultimately but He redeemed them from the wrath of God. Jesus didn’t give His life to Satan, He offered Himself to His Father. I lovingly responded to the friend instructing her that this was not the Gospel and that central to the Gospel was that we know what Christ has actually done. She responded in a way I’ll never forget because it is the spirit of our age: “I know, Rich, but it’s just a good reminder of how much God loves us.”
What? It’s not a reminder at all if it’s not what happened. Love rejoices with the truth. Right?! But, you have to understand that many of us are not really testing the spirits that are making us feel good against the Truth. Many of us are led astray by many false ideas because we’re not testing the things we hear or read. Just because it feels good doesn’t mean it is.
John gives us a very basic test in verse 2 by declaring: “2…every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God….” At first, it might seem like everyone you meet could be trusted because, after all, who denies that Christ has come in the flesh? This is the season, after all, when the whole world is celebrating the birth of Jesus. All over are trees and Christmas lights and people are giving each other “seasons greetings”. The reality is much different though.
When John wrote this, there was a heretical group called the Gnostics. They were named after the Greek word for knowledge, which is gnosis. The difficult thing for Greeks to believe, due to their philosophers, was that Christ could have come in the flesh. Death was, to them, an escape from physical things. Flesh was evil. God could not take on human flesh because that would corrupt Him. Many believed Jesus was God but they taught that Christ only seemed to come in the flesh. This is why John, in his Gospel and his epistles, makes such constant reference to Jesus’ real humanity. You see, to John and to all Christians, we must testify to the truth that Christ was fully God and fully man in one person. Those who deny his humanity are false teachers and we know they are false because they deny this.
But the sense of what John is saying is not merely that we believe that God once took on human flesh in a manger two thousand years ago. The verse literally says that Christ has come in the flesh meaning that He still is in the flesh. The divine nature and the human nature of Christ are still united in the one person of Christ as He reigns on high. False teachers always deny one or both of these very central truths.
Modern liberal scholarship about Jesus can best be summed up in a single word: unbelief. It is so common that it pervades the Churches and many of us today are infected in very subtle ways. There is a tendency in the Church today to think of God and our relationship to Him as completely spiritual and something that the mind or flesh does not participate in. But God redeems us in the whole person when we are born again and is redeeming our flesh as well as our mind. Our flesh was created good in the Garden but it was our hearts from within that defiled from the inside out.
An Anglican bishop was recently asked what would happen to his faith if conclusive proof was found that Christ was not raised from the dead. He responded, foolishly, that his faith did not depend upon the physical resurrection of Christ. Now, I’m not suggesting we should expect evidence to be coming out that disproves the resurrection but, beloved, the physical resurrection means everything to our faith. That Christ’s physical body was raised from the grave means the difference between being alive with Him or still dead in your sins! Christ’s humanity is central to our salvation.
John continues by exhorting us with great affection: 4 You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
Paul notes in Ephesians that we all used to walk according to the pattern of this world. John is saying the same thing here. We are those who, at one time, thought just like the world thinks but, when God saves us from the world, He saves our minds too. Our minds are not instantly transformed, however, which is what Paul notes in Romans 12 as we are commanded to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. God transforms our thinking as we grow. We were once fools but He gives us wisdom as we grow.
I described it to the Wednesday night class this way. Our minds are like a tuning fork. If you’ve ever picked up a tuning fork, you can actually hum at the correct note and the tuning fork will start to vibrate in your hand. The fallen mind is like a tuning fork that resonates with the spirit of the world. We still have sin that abides within us and God is working in us to make us more like Him. In the meantime, however, we need to recognize that this sin nature is within us and clouds our thinking. Sometimes the world will send us really nice e-mails that make us cry and respond or make us say: “Why, that’s just common sense.” We need to be on our guard, however. Christ told us that out of our hearts proceed all manner of things including blasphemy. Hollywood tells you to listen to your heart while God tells you that’s the last place you ought to rely upon for truth.
We’ve been redeemed to overcome the world and its upside-down thinking about reality. We have been redeemed and the other tuning fork resonates with the things of God. We recognize that they are the things of God not by first testing with our heart but by going to His Word. Those that belong to God listen to His Word because their hearts respond as His Word resonates within them.
John says very simply: “6 We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
Do you want to tell truth from error? Read God’s Word. Do you want to know who belongs to God? They are those that listen to His Word. If you get a story from someone and they say “…this means so much to me…” but you point out that God’s Word says this is wrong but they don’t care about what God has to say then they do not know God and you should not be deceived. Now, you should certainly pray for them but don’t let your emotions carry you away in agreeing with those who disagree with the Word of God. Trust God’s Word first and last in all things. Don’t change the Word because your heart is commanding it but let your hearts be changed by the Word.
We are all prepared now, I hope, to learn anew from God on what He means by love rather than what we think it is. We are prepared to hear: “7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
I hope you have been really paying attention the last few weeks because this theme keeps coming forward like the refrain to a song. We love one another because we are born of God. We love because love is from God and we are from God. If we do not love then we do not know God. Notice that it doesn’t say this: “If you love then you will learn to know God.” No, we love because we know God, because we are born of Him. We love because we have life. If we do not love, we have no life and we do not know Him.
But what is love? What does it mean that God is love? John answers that question very directly: “By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.”
Oh! Do not miss the profound love found in this statement. What love is this! What love is it that God sent His one and only Son. His Son whom He loved from eternity and had perfect, unbroken fellowship along with the Holy Spirit. You see the profound truth is that if God had never created man He would have been perfectly content in Himself. He did not need us to express love. Love has existed forever within the community of the Godhead as Father, Son, and Spirit love each other with a perfect love.
But God sent His one and only Son, whom He loved, to a world that hated Him – to a world of men who were dead in their sins and trespasses. There was nothing that God gained by sending His Son to die for us other than a love that He decided to lavish upon us. This is a love that we cannot comprehend. A love that we will never grow tired of praising when we are in glory with Him as we contemplate the great grace of our God toward us.
He continues “10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Do you see this? God did not love us because we loved Him but it says that God loved us even though we did not love Him. His Son came to pay for the sins of a people who only had incurred wrath and judgment. He came because God cannot look upon sin. Every single one of our sins was added to Christ on the Cross and, before we even knew Him, before we loved Him, our sins were put on Christ and He who knew no sin became Sin for us. He who had never displeased His father took on the wrath for sin that we deserved. You see, that when God commands us to love our enemies it is because God loved us while we were His enemies and, by His love, we were redeemed to Him!
How can the following ever be read as a burden once we have really fallen at the foot of the Cross in gratitude: “11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.”
This isn’t Law, it’s the response of the Gospel. Of course I love those who you love God. How could I not love them for you have shown much more love and much more forbearance toward me.
It is very telling to me that the world right now is very content to proclaim “Peace on Earth and good will to men” because they think they know what it means. But, like most things, this is a spirit that needs to be brought captive to the Word of God where Christ states in John 14:27 – “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.”
That same Apostle who recorded those words of Christ tells us even more in 1 John 4:18-19: “18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. 19 We love, because He first loved us.”
There is no fear now. There is no condemnation. There is no judgment. There is peace. The world seems to constantly be seeking peace and to offer peace but the most important kind of peace is the kind that only Christ can give. That peace is peace with God Himself. The world believes in every kind of love except the love that God gives. That’s because the world thinks that what love is begins with us, but perfect love begins with God.
Because God first loved us, He sent His one and only Son to die for us. Because God first loved us, our dead hearts heard the Gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection heralded to the world and our dead hearts of stone began beating with life. Because God first loved us, our feet ran to the Cross and answered: “Yes Lord! I believe that you are the sacrifice for my sins and have satisfied the judgment of God that I deserved. I have peace with God through You, Lord!” Because God first loved us, we behold the wondrous salvation we have received and our hearts burst forth in joy. Because God first loved us our hearts answer back in love as God’s love resonates within us. We love God and we love others because God first loved us. Beloved, we know what love is because God first loved us.