I have yet to meet anyone who actually likes to take tests. In fact some people have a phobia about taking tests, they freeze up as soon as the test is passed out, suddenly the light seems brighter, the room seems smaller. Recently I ran across some impossible test questions that are sure to strike fear into the heart of any test taker.
For the final exam of a history class: Describe the history of the papacy from its origins to present day, concentrating on its social, political, economic, religious and philosophical impact on Europe, Asia, America and Africa. Be brief, concise, and specific.
Or how about the final for a medical student: You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze, and a bottle of Scotch. Remove your appendix. Do not suture until your work has been inspected by the professor. You have fifteen minutes.
Or how about this question: Define the universe; give three examples.
Even when we come across test questions that seem simple on the surface, we find that they’re often not as simple as we first thought. For instance, the answer to the question, “How long did the Hundred Years War last?’ seems obvious, but the answer is 116 years. When a test asks, “Which country manufactures Panama hats?” the correct answer is Equador. Here’s another: From what animal do we get cat gut? From sheep and horses of course. In which month do Russians celebrate the October Revolution? November. What was King George IV’s first name? Well, everyone knows it was Albert. Ah yes…many test takers are glad to be out of school…far away from trick questions like that thought up in some teacher’s lounge.
But as far as we try to get from the rigors of the academic life, we find our lives are filled with other kinds of tests. We take driver’s tests, drug tests, polygraph tests, eye tests, entrance exams. People in law enforcement have to qualify on the shooting range at least four times a year, many of you have to take a test for your chosen profession. Like it or not, tests are a part of life.
But is there a test to determine whether a person is on the right track spiritually? Two weeks ago we started a new series through the New Testament book of 1 John called A ROADMAP FOR THE JOURNEY. We’ve been treating the Apostle John’s little letter to the Christians living in Asia Minor as a kind of map for the spiritual journey. We started by looking at our need to have the right foundation, the right companions, the right source, and the right goal in the spiritual journey. Then last week we looked at the purpose, the power and the promise of confession.
Today we’re going to look at three tests we can use to determine whether our spiritual walk is pleasing to God. These three tests are reliable indicators we can use in our lives to gauge our spiritual journey. As much as we don’t like taking tests, we must admit that they’re helpful and good sometimes, that a test can help us evaluate where we are. So let us approach these three tests as ways of doing some self-assessment this evening, as we seek to make sure our spiritual journey is a walk that’s pleasing to God.
As we’ve talked about in the previous weeks, the churches in ancient Asia Minor the apostle John was writing to were being torn apart of internal strife and division. God’s Church–a place meant to be a refuge, a family, a safe place to grow spiritually–had become a bitter battleground. Many of the church members who’d once been viewed as spiritual leaders had dropped out of the church and were now pursuing their own private spiritual life apart from the rest of the church community. Maybe some of you can identify with the pain and confusions John’s friends were experiencing, maybe someone you know once had what appeared to be a strong walk with God, but that person’s turned away from his or her faith in Jesus Christ now. Now when you look at that person’s life you don’t see any evidence of God’s work, and you struggle because they once seemed so close to God. That’s what John’s friends were struggling with. Many false ideas about Jesus were being taught, and this was causing confusion about what was really true about Jesus Christ.
In this setting John gives us the first test for us to evaluate whether or not our spiritual walk is pleasing to God in vv. 3-6. How can we know that we’ve truly come to know God in a life changing way? Is it the church we go to? Or the size of the Bible we carry? Or the length of our hair or the way we dress? Or is it having some sort of supernatural spiritual experience, like falling on the ground in front of a TV evangelist, or speaking in another language?
John says, No…the way we can be sure we’ve come to know God is by obeying God’s commands. Now this word “obey” is a very interesting word, because its focus is on doing something over and over again. Bible scholar Raymond Brown says that the emphasis of this word “obey” is on the continuous nature of the action (252). One Bible teacher has called it, “daily, detailed, and disciplined obedience” to God (Jackman 49).
Now John doesn’t specify which of God’s commands we’re supposed to live lives of obedience to. Is it the detailed Jewish food laws of the Old Testament, or the laws about what’s ceremonial clean or unclean? Are these commands of God a lengthy list of religious rules and rituals, detailed ceremonies, and religious hoops to jump through. People in Jesus Christ’s generation often debated the question of which of God’s commands were the most important. Jesus himself was asked this question. Jesus’ answer was, Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-31). The heart of God’s commands are summed up in the command to love God wholeheartedly and to love other people sacrificially. This is what matters to God, because a life that loves God and love others will obey God’s other commands. These are the commands John is referring to here, love for God and love for people.
John tells us that if someone claims to have an intimate knowledge of God yet lives a lifestyle characterized by disobedience to God’s commands, that person’s doing a snow job on you. A person might say with his or her lips, “I have the inside track with God, God and I are on one-on-one terms” but if that person is half-hearted in their love for God or hateful toward other Christians, that person’s lying. Their actions are speaking so loud, that you can’t hear their words anymore. Yet a lifestyle characterized by obedience to God’s commands demonstrates that God’s love has had it’s proper effect on us. That’s what John means in v. 5 when he says, “If anyone obeys God’s word, God’s love is truly made complete in him.” The word translated “made complete” means to accomplish its purpose (Louw and Nida 68.31). You might say that an antibiotic is made complete in a person when that antibiotic kills off the infection it was given to treat. Or a person’s education is truly made complete when she graduates from college. In a similar way, the reason God gives us his love–its purpose in our lives–isn’t just to forgive our sins, or to make us feel good, or to heal our hurts, but it’s ultimately to lead us to obedient lives. When a person receives Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord, the Bible says that God pours out His love into that person’s heart through the Holy Spirit, yet that love doesn’t achieve its purpose–it isn’t’ made complete–until that person is living a life of obedience to God’s commands.
We learn in v. 6 what this obedient life looks like: It looks like the life of Jesus. You see, Jesus isn’t only our Savior and our Lord, but he’s also our greatest example, our supreme model of what an obedient lifestyle looks like. When we read about the way he conducted his life, the way he ordered his world, the decisions he made, the priorities he treasured, the habits he cultivated, the company he kept, this is a prototype for us of what an obedient life looks like. At the end of his life, Jesus could pray, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do” (John 17:4). Obviously we’re not going to be able to do that exactly like Jesus since he never sinned and we sin every day–some of us every hour–yet Jesus Christ is the prototype, the pattern, the model we’re to pattern our lives after.
In this section we find the first test of a pleasing walk with God. Our spiritual journey is pleasing to God when it is CHARACTERIZED BY LOVING OBEDIENCE.
Obedience to God’s commands that springs from a heart of love is a sure sign that our walk is pleasing to God, that God’s love is accomplishing its purpose in our lives. A life that continually seeks to walk as Jesus walked, to do as Jesus did, to live in his steps…that’s an obedient life.
I’ve read that when Edward VI, the king of England in the 16th century, attended a worship service, he stood while the Word of God was read. He took notes during this time and later studied them with great care. Through the week he earnestly tried to apply them to his life. A single revealed fact cherished in the heart and acted upon is more vital to our growth than a head filled with lofty ideas about God. One step forward in obedience is worth years of study about it.
Now it’s very important to clarify something here. We don’t begin the spiritual journey by obeying God’s commands, as if we could somehow merit or earn the right to have a relationship with God…that’s not what John is telling us here. The teaching of the Bible is that none of us can qualify for God’s acceptance, that all of us have failed, all have sinned, and therefore, we all stand in need of God’s grace. So obedience to God’s commands isn’t the door to knowledge of God; if it were then only perfect obedience to all of God’s commands would gain entry…and none of us would qualify for that. The door that opens to the spiritual life is faith–trusting our lives to Jesus Christ, believing that his death was for us, so we can come into an intimate relationship with God, that’s the only place where acceptance with God can be found. Now once we find that acceptance, God pours His love out into our hearts, and the purpose of that love is to lead us to an obedient lifestyle. Howard Marshall says, “Obeying God’s commandments is not the condition but rather the characteristic of the knowledge of God“ (124).
It’s also important for me to clarify that John is not talking about perfect obedience here. John’s already told us that the no matter how spiritually mature we become, we’ll still struggle with sin in our lives…that’s as sure as death and taxes. If we claim that our struggle against sin has ceased, that we’re obedient to all of God’s commands, we’re deceiving ourselves, and we probably just need to ask our spouse or our children and they’ll set us straight. What this test is describing is an overall direction of life, a lifestyle that’s characterized by obedience to God’s commands, not perfect obedience in every detail of life. If you’re here today and your lifestyle isn’t characterized by obedience to God’s commands, if you’re not making forward progress in the spiritual life, John would challenge you to evaluate whether or not you really know God through Jesus Christ. So this first test is the test of loving obedience…how do you score?
Now talking about God’s commands immediately makes John think about the greatest command, the command for Christians to love each other in the same way Jesus Christ loves us.
John 13:34-35–“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
John 15:12– My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.
Thinking of these words, look at what John writes in vv. 7-8. Now at first it sounds like John is contradicting himself, that this is not a new command but an old one–but on the other hand it is a new command. Now remember that John is writing to Christians who were being influenced by some pretty deadly false doctrine. Most likely these false teachers–who’d once been part of the Christian community–were claiming to have new and novel ideas, in fact that was part of the draw because their ideas seemed fresh and new. It’s against this background that we need to understand what John says here.
The command for God’s people to love each other has been around since the Jewish Old Testament Law. Leviticus 19:18 says, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.”
This command was reiterated throughout the Old Testament, so there’s nothing especially new or novel about the substance of the command. But when Jesus Christ came to this earth he demonstrated visibly and publicly–in a way never before imagined–what it meant to love. The cross was God’s public demonstration of his love, and no one had ever seen God’s love demonstrated in such an incredible, sacrificial, and wonderful way before Jesus Christ went to the cross. Jesus’ command is for us to love each other in the way we saw him love us by going to the cross, and that’s what made this command new when he told his friends at the last supper to “love each other, just as I have loved you.” But this command that was new in its depth and substance when Jesus said these words was well known and established by the time John wrote his letter. By the time John writes this letter, decades after Jesus had given that command, he wants to make sure that his friends know that he’s not advocating something new or novel, but he’s simply telling them what they’ve already been taught. So in this respect it was an old command.
The commandment “Love one another” is the fulfillment of God’s Law. When you love people, you do not lie about them or steal from them. You have no desire to kill them. Love for God and for others motivates a person to obey God’s commandments without even thinking about them. When a person acts out of Christian love he obeys God and serves others – not because of fear, but because of his love.
This is why John says that “Love one another” is a new commandment – it is new in emphasis. It is not simply one of the many commandments. No, it stands at the top of the list! It stands at the very beginning of the Christian life. The commandment to love one another is not an appendix to our Christian experience, as though God had an afterthought. No! It is in our hearts from the very beginning of our faith in Jesus.
Christian love is not a shallow sentimental emotion that Christians try to “work up” so they can get along with each other. It is a matter of will rather than an emotion – an affection for and attraction to certain persons. It is a matter of determining – of making up your mind – that you will allow God’s love to reach others through you, and then of acting toward them in loving ways. You are not to act “as if you loved them,” but because you love them. This is not hypocrisy!
John points out, was first true in Christ, and now it is true in the lives of those who are trusting Christ. Jesus does not ask something that He has not already done Himself. The four Gospel records are the account of a life lived in the spirit of love.
Jesus illustrated love by the very life that He lived. He never showed hatred or malice. His righteous soul hated all sin and disobedience, but He never hated the people who committed such sins. Even in His righteous announcements of judgment, there was always an undercurrent of love.
It is encouraging to think of Jesus’ love for the twelve disciples. How they must have broken His heart again and again as they argued over who was the greatest or tried to keep people from seeing their Master.
- He was patient with Peter’s impulsiveness.
- Thomas unbelief; and even
- Judas’ treachery
Consider too our Lord’s love for all kinds of people.
- The publicans and sinners were attracted to His love.
- The spiritually hungry rabbi named Nicodemus
- The common people would listen to Him.
- He held babies in His arms.
- Comforted women who wept as the soldiers led Him out to Calvary.
And perhaps the greatest thing about Jesus’ love was the way it touched even the lives of His enemies.
Jesus died not only for His friends, but also for His foes! And as they crucified Him, He prayed for them: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In His life, in His teachings, and in His death, Jesus is the perfect Example of this new commandment, “Love one another.” And this is what helps to make the commandment new. In Christ we have a new illustration of the old truth that God is love and that the life of love is the life of joy and victory.
A believer should live a life of Christian love “because the darkness is passing away, and the light is already shining (v.8). This reminds us of the emphasis on walking in the light. Those who walk in the light practice love and those who walk in the darkness practice hatred.
What is true in Christ ought to be true in each believer.
Is your spiritual journey characterized by love for others? How do you score?
Our passage continues the illustration of light and darkness. If a Christian walks in the light and is in fellowship with God, he will also be in fellowship with others in God’s family. Love and light go together, much as hatred and darkness go together.
It is easy to talk about Christian love, but much more difficult to practice it…that’s why I call this portion of this passage as the test of authenticity…True Christian love must be seen or demonstrated!
For a Christian to say or sing that he loves the brethren, while he actually hates another believer, is for him to lie. In other words, it is impossible to be in fellowship with the Father and out of the fellowship with another Christian at the same time.
Many Christians have been infected with the most virulent virus of modern American life, what sociologist Robert Bellah calls “radical individualism.” They concentrate on personal obedience to Christ as if all that matters is “Jesus and me,” but in doing so, miss the point altogether. For Christianity is not a solitary belief system. Any genuine resurgence of Christianity, as history demonstrates, depends on a reawakening and renewal of that which is the essence of the faith—that is, the people of God, the new society, the body of Christ, which is made manifest in the world—the church. [Harm of Radical Individualism, Citation: Chuck Colson, The Body (Word, 1992), p.32]
This is the reason why God established the local church, the fellowship of believers. “YOU CAN’T BE A CHRISTIAN ALONE!” A person cannot live a complete and developing Christian life unless he is in fellowship with God’s people. The Christian life has two relationships:
- The vertical (Godward)
- The horizontal (manward)
And each of these two relationships is to be one of love, one for the other.
Jesus deals with this matter in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21-16). A gift on the altar was valueless as long as the worshiper had a dispute to settle with his brother. Note that Jesus does not say that the worshiper had something against his brother, but that the brother had something against the worshiper. Even when we have been offended, us to come to us; we should go to him! If we do not, Jesus warns us that we will end up in a prison of spiritual judgment where we will have to pay the last penny (Matt. 18:21-35). In other words, when we harbor an unforgiving, unloving spirit, we harm ourselves most!
It is easy to practice a Christianity of “words” – singing the right songs, using the right vocabulary, praying the right prayers – and, through it all, deceiving ourselves into thinking we are spiritual. This mistake also ties into something Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:33-37). WHAT WE SAY SHOULD BE THE TRUE EXPRESSION OF OUR CHARACTER. So, if we say we are in the light, we will prove it by loving the brethren. Many Christians urgently need to be accepted, loved, and encouraged.
A man came to the pastor one time and said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with my life, but that first Christian joy I knew has passed by. I still live a moral life. I go to church. But how can I recover the lost radiance of my faith?” His pastor said, “this is what you should do: go to the store and buy a big basketful of groceries and go to an address of a poor family I will give you. Then when you have given your gift, you sit down with them to find out what they need. Let them know that you are interested in them and that you are their friend. Then lead them in the Lord’s Prayer before you leave, and the radiance will come back.”
When true Christian love flows out of our hearts, we will have a greater understanding and perception of spiritual things. A Christian who loves his brother is a Christian who sees more clearly. But hatred is what darkens life! Hatred is binding people today! And how we can counter hatred? We must practice what the New Testament is telling to us about “one another.”
- Wash one another’s feet (John 13:14)
- Prefer one another (Rom. 12:10)
- Be of the same mind one to another (Rom. 12:16)
- Do not judge one another (Rom. 14:13)
- Receive one another (Rom. 15:7)
- Admonish one another (Rom. 15:14)
- Edify (build up) one another (1 Thes. 5:11)
- Bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2)
- Confess your faults to one another (James 5:16)
- Use hospitality one to another (1 Pet. 4:9)
In short, to love other Christian means to treat them the way God treats them – and the way God treat us. That’s what makes our Christian life authentic – treating others the way God treats them!
Now, we must all admit that we cannot generate Christian love under our own power. By nature, we are selfish and hateful. It is only as God’s Spirit floods our hearts with love that we, in turn, can love one another. The Spirit of God makes the commandment, “Love one another,” into a new and exciting day-by-day experience. If we walk in the light, God’s Spirit produces love. If we walk in darkness, our own selfish spirit produces hatred.
There are other exciting truths in the rest of John’s letter, but if we fail to obey in this matter of love, the rest of the letter may well be “darkness” to us. Perhaps the best thing we can do, right now, is to search our hearts to see if we hold anything against a brother, or if someone has anything against us. The life that is real is an honest life – and it is a life of doing not merely saying.
Is your walk pleasing to God? Does your spiritual life pass these three tests? Is it characterized by loving obedience, a commitment to LOVE, and authenticity? If not, then don’t condemn yourself, but discover a commitment to Jesus Christ–perhaps for the very first time–and then launch your own spiritual journey that’s not just a wonderful adventure, but that also pleases God. Remember, this is the only kind of walk that you and I must remember.