March 18, 1990
The apostle John issued a clear warning to the early church against those who professed Christ yet maintained sinful, self-centered lifestyles. Alistair Begg explains that in contrast, genuine faith is marked by love for God’s commandments and love for others. As Christians, our obedience should not feel like drudgery. Instead, our moral character should reflect our joyful belonging to Christ.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to take your Bibles, and we’ll turn again to 1 John and the second chapter. I know that a number of you are still maintaining the discipline of reading this through on a daily basis, because you’ve been telling me discoveries that you’ve made in it and things that you’ve noticed that you hadn’t found before. And I want to encourage you and encourage myself not to become “weary in well doing.” It is possible to commit a tremendous amount of this to memory without even realizing that one is doing so, simply by the faithful reading of it and the ability of our minds to absorb so much of it as we come back to it on a daily basis.
Our focus this evening is on the portion that was read for us from 2:3–11. Last Sunday evening, we noted that John had provided for us three spurious claims that might be made by people living on the fringes of faith and perhaps even participating in religious activity. The first claim was a relationship—to claim a relationship that was devoid of righteousness—in verse 6; and then, in verse 8, to claim to be without sin in our persons; and then, in verse 10, to claim to be without sin in our practice. And we saw how in each case, he addressed not only the claim but, if you like, the antidote to it.
We should keep in mind all the way through our study that just as John had an express purpose in writing his Gospel, which he gives to us in 20:31—remember, he said there are many other things that have been written, “but these [were] written that you [might] believe that Jesus is the Christ …, and that by believing you [might] have life in his name.” He was very clear as to his evangelistic purpose in his Gospel. And he’s equally clear concerning the purpose in this letter. And it’s in 5:13, where he says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” So as he writes his Gospel, he’s writing that men and women might come to discover eternal life. And as he writes these letters, he is writing in the realm of assurance.
But the very obvious thought which follows from our study of last time and which follows in John’s exposition here is simply this: If it is possible to make claims about knowing God which are invalid, then how may we be sure that we know him at all? If it is possible to make invalid claims about knowing him—spurious claims that may pass the superficial tests of those who look from the outside but do not pass the test of the all-surpassing gaze of God—then is it possible for us to be assured of a knowledge of him at all?
Now, to state it in those terms is to immediately remind one another that we’re not dealing here, therefore, in the realm of superficial theory. We’re actually talking about a matter of life and death. We’re talking about the difference between spending eternity in heaven or spending eternity in hell. We’re talking about the difference between living in communion and fellowship with God through Jesus Christ or living in ignorance of him and in the darkness of our own meanderings. So it is not that we’re engaged in some theological exercise, in dipping into 1 John, that is a kind of rarefied treat for those who may be tuned in to such matters. No, we’re dealing in a realm that is vital to our physical and spiritual well-being.
Now, we need always to be reminding ourselves again of the context in which John is writing these words. We’ve mentioned before this whole problem of Gnosticism, which comes from the Greek word gnōsis, meaning knowledge, and we have sketched in, at least minimally, the background to this. And some of the people who were the heretical teachers whom John is addressing—the individuals who were coming with their spurious claims—were speaking of a knowledge of God that was primarily of one or two conceptions. Some spoke of a knowledge of God which was simply an intellectual awareness: that somehow God could be known by a process of logical thought, and if one was bright and able enough to think logically through certain premises and subpremises, then they would be able to arrive at this knowledge. On the other hand, and within the all- and overarching gnostic notion, some were teaching that a knowledge of God was really just a mystical or an emotional experience—that your awareness of God somehow came as a result of managing to clear yourself and to divest yourself of all these different things and kind of transcendentally tune in to God.
The interesting thing is that in both cases, they were absent one vital characteristic, and it was this: that while some said knowledge of God is akin to an intellectual awareness, and others said knowledge of God is akin to an emotional experience, both said that either of those knowledges may be known and experienced by individuals while at the same time being separated from moral consequences at all. In other words, it is possible to know God and to live as you like.
Now, when we think about that for a moment or two, we realize that it has strong parallels with our day. Because if we go out and hit the streets, there are tons of people who will speak about a knowledge of God. There are people all across our nation who are unashamed about saying that they know God. But of course, what they mean by the statement “I know God” may be very, very different from the knowledge which John is about to introduce us to here. They may simply be talking about the fact that they have responded to the apologetic arguments of the truth of the gospel. Someone has said, you know, “Have you considered this and this and this and this?” And they said, “Oh yes, that seems eminently sensible to me.” Or perhaps somebody took them along to a meeting somewhere, and they got really hyped up, and their spirits got all kind of stoked, and they got emotionally charged—a bit like the man that I was telling you about the other night, when I told you about being in the airport in Baltimore or wherever it was. Remember, I told you about the bearded man that started to hug me and all those things? It got much worse. My story went on. It got much worse. The man started to use expletives and shout in the airport lounge and announce to everyone that he knew Jesus Christ as well. And he cursed, and he swore, and he used the name of Jesus. And I sat him down, and I said to him, “How can you claim to know Jesus Christ? Don’t you know that a knowledge of Jesus Christ has moral consequences?” “No!” He fitted the necessary truth which John conveys in our section this evening.
Let us be in no doubt at all tonight that there is a knowledge of God which is enjoyed by the demonic powers in our universe. They believe in God, but they’re not saved. They believe in God, but they’re never going to be in heaven. And it is possible for people to have a knowledge of God which is no different than the knowledge which demons have, which is an awareness that truth is true, but it has never transformed their lives. That’s why, you see, it’s so very, very important.
Now, in the remainder of the whole of 1 John, John is going to draw his arguments around these three tests. And you’ll find that this book, as you’ve been reading it, is fairly repetitive, and it virtually defies one’s ability to break it down and move it on. And it’s as if he just weaves again and again back around these things. The three tests which he provides, we’ve noted before—and let me reiterate them for us—is first of all the moral test, or, if you like, the obedience factor. The second test is the social test, or the love factor. And the third test is the doctrinal test, or the belief factor. Now, he deals with the first two of these in the verses before us. And it is to these two tests that we’re going to give our minds in the remainder of our time tonight.
First of all, then, test number one is the moral test, or the test of true obedience. Verse 3: “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.”
Now, the Bible teaches that no one has ever come to know God by means of human speculation nor as a result of investigation but rather as a result of revelation—namely, that God “is [here] and he is not silent,” as Schaeffer said in an earlier day; that God has spoken, that the claim of Christianity from the very beginning is that we have a God who reveals himself, and had he not chosen to reveal himself, we might never know him. “In the beginning God…” Genesis 1. John’s Gospel, chapter 1: “And [that] Word [became] flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory).” And that, of course, was the opening section of 1 John, as we noted here.
So the believer, looking back on the events of his life, when the Spirit of God started to stir within him and the Word of God was quickened to him and he realized, or she realized, that she was sinful, he was sinful, and in need of a Savior, and they look back to that event, which has abiding consequences and significance for today—“We know,” he says, “that we have come to know him.” We know that the event at that time, when we placed our faith and trust in Jesus Christ, was a reality and not a sham. We may know that to be true—a past event with abiding consequences—“if we obey his commands.”
Now, flip it around and understand it: If we do not obey his commands, then we bear no testimony in our lives that would give credence to the fact that whatever happened in the past was in fact reality, so that the abiding consequences of the Spirit’s work within us gives credence and reality and hope to the professions that we have made.
Now, we will return to this. But let us notice for the moment that the first indicator of it all lies in obedience. J. B. Phillips paraphrases it in this way: “It is only when we obey God’s laws that we can be quite sure that we really know him.” Now, that is a word for our generation, loved ones. It’s an unspoken word. It’s an unheard notion. Because we are consumed with the idea that anybody knows God any way, anytime, anyhow, and as long as they have said something or done something, they must know him! John says, “No, no! Hold up!” he says. “Take test one: you may know that you have come to know him if you rest fully in his saving work and display it fully in the abiding life.” You see, the absence of a knowledge God in a generation or in a nation or in a life won’t be made obvious by the absence of verbal testimony. It will be made obvious by the absence of the moral characteristics which accompany a knowledge of God.
Let me illustrate it from the Old Testament again. It’s somewhere in Hosea: “There is … no [knowledge] of God in the land … only cursing, lying … murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.” Okay? So how do we know that there is a knowledge of God in the land? It is as a result of the moral fortitude of those who name his name. And the Israelites claim to know God. And God, by his prophet, says, “You think you know me? I want you to know you don’t. There is no knowledge of me in the land. And I’ll tell you why I know: because instead of the land being marked by righteousness, it is marked by rebellion—marked by cursing, lying, murder, stealing, and adultery,” the kind of things that sell magazines and make television programs and movies number-one hits.
So let’s face the facts about our land, loved ones. Let’s be honest about where we are. There is an absence of a knowledge of God in our land. There’s not an absence of people talking about God in our land. There is not an absence of people claiming to know God in our land. I’m telling you, there is an absence of a knowledge of God in our land. It’s the same absence as was true in the day to which Hosea spoke prophetically.
So, for John’s readers and for us, the truth comes home with great conviction: it is only as we obey him that we can claim to know him. Because, he says, “the man who [makes the claim], ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” In other words, verbal profession minus moral persistence is self-delusion. Verbal profession minus moral persistence is self-delusion. That’s what John is saying here. This is the Apostle of Love! And this ought to correct once and for all the notion that pervades many of our minds that somehow, loving and being loving and speaking loving is telling everybody that everything’s great. John is the Apostle of Love, and he speaks so clearly, it chills your back: “The man who says, ‘I know him,’ but does[n’t] do what he commands is a [downright] liar, and the truth is[n’t] in him.”
Isn’t that exactly what Jesus said? Turn to John 15 for a moment—John 14. You see, the real test of the apostles was that they were reiterating the ministry of Christ. So we need to go back to the Gospels and find out if what’s written in the Epistles correlates. Well, let’s just listen to Jesus. John 14:15: “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” Sounds the same, doesn’t it? Verse 21: “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he[’s] the one who loves me.” Verse 23: “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.”
And then he goes on to make this tremendous statement: “My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” You want to live with Jesus? Do you want to drive in your car with Jesus? Do you want to know that he loves you with an everlasting love? Here it is: “The man who loves me obeys my teaching. And the Father loves him for doing what I said, and me and my dad are going to come and live with that man.” The ground of our salvation is the atoning work of Jesus on the cross—1 John 2:2. The evidence of our salvation lies in our obedient lives.
That is why—and I said this to somebody after the service last Sunday or the Sunday before—that is why when we are being disobedient as believers, we don’t have a strong assurance in our hearts. We shouldn’t! We shouldn’t! It’s kind of like a thing going off in your body to tell you you need to take your medicine or something, or to tell you need to go to the doctor for an examination. It’s like a toothache that sends you to the dentist. It’s good that it hurts! It hurts so that you may be healed. And when we are disobedient—those of us who are truly in Christ—we don’t have a strong assurance, do we? No, because we know that obedience is correlative to love. And the man who loves Jesus passes this moral test.
Now, the proof of love, then, is loyalty. “Well,” you say to me, “dear me; I’ve got a problem here, Alistair. Because I’ll tell you, there’s a couple of his commands I looked full in the face this week, and I didn’t do ’em. Does that mean I’m a liar?” No. Because obviously, John here is not talking about a-hundred-percent success. He’s not talking about men and women coming into a state of sinless perfection. If he were, he would already be contradicting himself in the first twelve verses or so that we’ve looked at, because he’s already said, “If you start going around saying that you don’t sin, you’re a liar as well.” So don’t go around saying that you’re sinless, either in your preconverted state or in your postconverted state, because the only day you’ll be sinless is when you see Jesus, you’re made like him, and you’re removed from the realm of sin. So in other words, it is about the disposition of our hearts. The man who says “I know him” but doesn’t give a rip for his commands, doesn’t follow after him, doesn’t have a watchful, obedient disposition to Jesus Christ is just a liar. Those of us who are walking out desiring to be obedient to Jesus Christ know that we’re not scoring a hundred percent every day we live our lives, know what it is for the clouds to come down and mar our fellowship, know what it is for us to have to get back on our knees and redress and regroup and get up and go on. But when we have said that, it does not denude the force of what John is saying here.
True love for God—as it is for one another, as we’ll see in a moment—is not sentimental language. It isn’t mystical or emotional experience. It is moral obedience. And you know, a lot of us have been really suckered into assessing our Christian lives by wrong things. Some of us go through dreadful times in a week because we vacillate on our feelings all the time: “I don’t know if I feel really Christian today. I don’t know if I feel saved today. I don’t know. I think I need to sing ten choruses in a row! Then I’ll get back to that feeling again—that saved feeling.”
Well, let me ask you, men: How many of you wake up on a Monday morning and hit the jolly little alarm clock on the right-hand side and go, “Yabba dabba doo, I feel married this morning!” Well, whether you do or you don’t, I got news for you: you are married. And how you feel about it and how you don’t feel about it and how it ebbs and flows, and wings and wongs, and ups and downs is not the issue. You’re married. And the test of your marriage is in your obedience to the commitments that you’ve made, not the fluctuating feelings of your moods.
And it’s the same in the life of Christ! Don’t let’s assess ourselves. Don’t let’s be taking our pulses all the time, find out if we’re alive: “It’s Tuesday. I wonder if I’m still saved.” No, here’s a good test: Are you doing it? Are you saying no to ungodliness and yes to righteousness? Are you walking in the light as he is in the light? Are you obeying the truth? Do you have an inner disposition to say, “Jesus said it, and I’m going to do it”? Or are you running around making up big, elaborate excuses as to why you shouldn’t be baptized? “If a man loves me, he will do what I command”—end of story. And that which is plain and obvious and is set aside in our lives will have vast ramifications for many other arenas which are unseen by the watching world.
Now look at verse 5: “If anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him.” Some have used this—Wesley was one of them—to teach perfection in this life. And there have been disciples of Wesley since, and some are lingering today. And they teach that this notion—God’s love being made truly complete in us—means that we come to him complete, and entire sanctification, that sin is eradicated, and we don’t have to deal with anything anymore. Well, we can have a kind of seminar on that one night; I’m not going to camp on it in the moment. Let us just say what John 5 is laying out, and it is this: that believing in him and belonging to him is vitally linked to behaving like him. Okay? Believing in him, belonging to him, means behaving like him. That’s my own paraphrase of verses 5–6. “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.”
How do I know tonight that I am in Christ? Two Corinthians 5:17 says, “If [any man be] in Christ, he is a new creation; the old [is] gone, the new has come!” or “the old has passed away, and all things have been made new!” And we know that verse, and we say that’s ours. How do we know that’s true? How do we know tonight that we’re in Christ? That’s what John is getting at here.
And again I want to say to you that many of the things that we’ve used as criteria of assessment are actually unhelpful rather than helpful. Some of us are saying, “I know Christ tonight because I prayed ‘the prayer.’” Well, I’ve read my Bible through and through, and I didn’t find that Jesus gave a “the prayer.” Some are saying, “I am in Christ tonight because I went at a meeting, and I went somewhere,” or “I did something,” or “I have a card somewhere in my Bible, and I know that it says, ‘If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation,’ and I am in Christ because I have a card in my Bible.” Well, I’m glad you have a card in your Bible. But John never said anything about a card in your Bible. He never said anything about praying a prayer. He never said anything about walking an aisle. He said, “Here’s how you’ll know that you’re in Christ: if you keep his commands.”
Now, you see—you come to me afterwards, and you say, “You know what? I didn’t like that, because I do have a card in my Bible, and I did do this, and I did do that.” Hey, I’ve got cards in my Bible. I’ve walked aisles. I’ve prayed prayers. I’ve done the whole nine yards along with you. But I’m reading 1 John as well, and this is what I’m discovering: the Word of God says to me, “You want to know, Alistair Begg, that you are in me tonight? Here’s how you will know: that you live the obedient life.” That’s it! Whether you’re a pastor, a priest, a prophet, an elder, a deacon, a singer, a testifier, a speaker at women’s clubs—I don’t care who you are—here’s the test: the moral test of the radical claims of Jesus Christ.
And I say again, we’ve soft-soaped the gospel to such a degree that every Tom, Dick, Harry, and Mary that is found trundling along somewhere in a vast, cavernous gap somewhere behind Jesus Christ is swept into his life. Well, we made a new gospel—certainly not the gospel of Jesus, nor the gospel of John, nor what he is driving home here. The relevance or the irrelevance of what happened in the past needs to be assessed in light of what is going on in the present. This is how we know we are in him: “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.”
There’s a great challenge in that as well, isn’t there? Doesn’t say, “Must talk as Jesus talked.” For most of us, talk is cheap. We can talk it up good. We can talk it good enough to pass the inspection of blind guides. He says, “It’s not the talk; it’s the walk.” Whoever claims to live in him must walk the way that Jesus walked. He walked in obedience to his Father. He walked in such obedience to his Father that he didn’t care what anyone else thought. He knew what it was to say, “Father, I wish there was some other way. But not my will; your will.” And he walked steadfastly towards the cross.
Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned he stood,
Sealed my pardon with his blood:
Hallelujah, what a Savior!
C. T. Studd, the great missionary spokesman and leader and founder, had that dawn upon his life, and then he said, “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice that I can ever make for him will ever be too much.” And tonight, the evidence is in the conduct of our lives, not simply in the content of our lips.
The second test moves from the moral realm of true obedience to the social realm of genuine love.
And notice how striking come these two words—that is actually one word in Greek—in verse 7: “Dear friends.” You find all the way through 1 John—I’m sure you’ve noticed this already—that there’s a real, genuine warmth about what John is saying. Time and again he says, “Dear children.” Time and again he says, “Beloved,” “Dearly beloved,” and so on. And we ought not to miss the loving tone of the apostle even when he is driving home some very hard sayings.
“Dear friends,” verse 7, “I[’m] not writing you a new command but an old one.” Verse 8: “I am writing you a new command.” Well, let’s sort it out. Is he writing an old command or a new command? Which is it?
Now, again, we need to see this in context. Some were suggesting newfangled ideas. And it may be that some were suggesting that John was coming up with newfangled ideas. And they may have been suggesting that John’s notions as he was writing them in this letter were actually a kind of whole new-age movement, as it were. And so John wants them to realize, “No, no, that’s not the case. What I am writing to you is an old command.”
In point of fact, if any one was coming up with newfangled ideas, it was these heretical teachers. And it’s not unusual. Take every cult or sect you’ve ever read about, and there’s a whole bunch of new stuff in it, isn’t there? You take your Bible, and then take what they say, and there’s all a bunch of newfangled nonsense that attaches to it. Go to the Christian Science Reading Room, and what do you see? You see your Bible and a bunch of newfangled stuff. Go and see the Mormons, and what do you got? You got the Bible, but it won’t do on its own; it’s got to have Joseph Smith hanging on the back of it. Go to the transcendental meditation conventions, and they’ll say, “That’s fine. That’s okay if you want to read the Old Testament prophets. But we have some new things that we’ve added in here.”
And is it happening still today? You bet your life it is. Did you see the quote from the New York Times that was carried in the Plain Dealer this Thursday? “Three Thousand Cultists Seek Haven from a Nuclear Attack.” Did you see that? Our friend, the lady there—Guru Ma, as she’s called, or the “Mother,” Elizabeth Clare Prophet (that is, p-h-e-t, not o-f-i-t, although there is fair amount of o-f-i-t involved in what she’s doing). This is what it read:
[Up to 3,000 religious zealots] have streamed into [the] majestic Paradise Valley here from around the world, preparing to spend years in underground shelters safe from the nuclear Armageddon they believe is imminent.
Heeding a call from their [woman] leader [Guru Ma], members of the Church Universal and Triumphant have sold their homes, closed their bank accounts, bade goodbye to relatives and headed to the valley and … elaborate system of concrete and steel shelters that the church has built there. Many have paid up to $10,000 to reserve a spot guaranteeing them a role in planning the future after most of the world is dead.
And it goes on to tell us how Elizabeth Clare has pointed out that we’re in a very dangerous period, and particularly around the twenty-third of April. (Make a note of that.)
And so, in a scene that looks like a page from a modern-day “Grapes of Wrath,” her believers, many of them heavily armed, have been streaming toward the 33,000 acres of church property along the Yellowstone River in the Northern Rockies in … trucks loaded with [their] personal possessions.
Now, we need to go out and tell people, because they ask us all the time, “What is the Chapel, for goodness’ sake? The Chapel? What’s that about? Is it unity? Is it this? Is it that?” And all the time, I’m disclaiming and disclaiming: “No, we’re not these. We’re not them. We’re not, we’re not, we’re not…”
“Well, what in the world are you?”
“Well, this is what we are, here. We don’t have any new commands. We don’t have any newfangled ideas. We’re in the mainline of historic Christianity. We’re glad to say the Nicene Creed. We might have to change a little bit here and there to keep some people happy, but we are right in the mainline of historic Protestantism. We are out of the Reformation. We believe in sola scriptura, sola fides, sola gratia—that a man or a woman may only be saved solely by grace, solely by faith, and solely grounded on the Scriptures as the Holy Word of God. And actually, we were discovering just on Sunday night, as our little Scottish pastor tried to make it clear to us with a multitude of words, that in point of fact, what we were involved with was not some newfangled notion, but we were involved with an old command which was there from the beginning—the old command, the message we have heard.”
And that’s what he was actually saying. Leviticus 19:18. I’m going to turn to it in the hope that it’s actually there. Leviticus 19:18: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” And so John says, “I’m writing to you not a new command but an old command. You’ve had it from the beginning.” It was old insofar as it was in the Old Testament. It was old insofar as it was there at the outset of their Christian lives. First John 2:24 here: “See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you.” Verse 11 of chapter 3: “This is the message you [have] heard from the beginning.” And in his second letter, in the sixth verse: “And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.” And so he says, verse 7, “I’m not here to lay on you a bunch of newfangled nonsense. I am here to expound the old command: that you would love one another just as God in Christ has loved you.”
But then in verse 8, he says, “But you know, come to think of it, there is a sense in which I am writing to you a new command. I’m writing to you a new command in the sense that Jesus Christ took the command of Leviticus 19 and elevated it to a vastly different status.” Jesus took it and embodied it in such a way that it came with vital relevancy to his day and to everyone who meets Christ, in the same way as an old piece of music that has been around for years may strike you as new when you play it on your stereo. It comes to you with a freshness. It’s not a new piece of music—in fact, it’s very old—but your experience of it is like brand-new. Or when you were a kid, you know, and you put your bicycle away for the winter, and you got it out sometime around the end of March, and you road it—felt like a new bike again! But it’s just your old bike. But the experience of having it in your hands and riding it down the street had a newness about it.
And John is saying, “I am writing you a new command in the sense that its truth is seen in Jesus Christ.” John Stott put it in this way: he said it is new in terms of its emphasis, its quality, and its extent. And so Jesus comes, born of a Jewish lineage—comes out of Judaism and speaks the truth in a whole different dimension. He takes Leviticus 19—it’s an old command—and he makes it brand-new. He said to them, “Hey, I want you to love your neighbor.” They thought they’re being smart, and they said, “Who’s my neighbor?” And he said,
A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves. And they stripped him of his raiment and departed, leaving him half-dead. And by chance, a Levite who was going past that way came and looked on him and buzzed off, and then a priest came and walked by on the other side.
And then, “But,” he said,
a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was, bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow, when he departed, he took out his wallet, and he said, “There’s enough for the next few days. And if we overspend, when I come again, I will repay you.”
And Jesus laid down that as the dimension for genuine love in the believer’s life.
So we don’t have any right not to love anybody at all. When we’ve covered the fact that we can’t even love people who name the name of Jesus Christ, we’ve still got a whole world that doesn’t name the name of Jesus Christ we’re supposed to love: to love the ugly people, according to us; to love the people who don’t speak the way we want them to speak, who don’t believe what we want them to believe. Alas, the priests and the Levites still walk by on the other side, and the Samaritans come and do what Jesus said must be done.
As I read this—and I’m thinking of verse 8 now, and the second half of verse 8—I thought that I had a little bit of an in here for talking with people about the New Age movement, you know? Because I get asked a lot, and I’m sure you do, about this New Age thing. And there’s a sense—and don’t misunderstand me when I say this—but I think I could tell people that I was into a whole “new age” thing myself, just as a conversation starter. Because here it is: the whole of the Bible is between two ages, right? You read the Bible, and there is the present age and the age to come, all the way through. The age to come, to which the Old Testament looked, was inaugurated when? When Jesus was born in [Bethlehem], when he walked the streets, so that “in many and various ways, God spoke of old in the past through his prophets, but now, in these last days, he has spoken to us in his Son”; so that now Christ has ushered in a whole new age. “The darkness”—look at verse 8b—“the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.” The new age has dawned. In Christ, it has come. And the teaching of Jesus is new teaching for a new age. And the lights are already bright.
Now, finally, in verses 9–11, John provides an example of what he’s been referring to. And he says, “Let me illustrate it”: “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness.” So genuine faith and living in the light are equated, and then they are demonstrated in being in a right relationship first of all with God and then with my fellow man. For example, consider 1 John 4:20: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” So in other words, here in verse 9, there is another spurious claim: the claim to live in the light and hate my brother.
And then, conversely, in verse 10, loving and living in the light go hand in hand. And John says, “The guy who loves his brother walks around in a blaze of light, and there’s nothing in him to make him stumble and fall all over the place.” In other words, love sees straight. Love thinks clearly. Love frees us from stumbling into unbalanced judgments and conduct. However—verse 11—hatred blinds a man or a woman. Hatred obscures our judgment. Hatred makes it impossible to see issues clearly. And the man or the woman whose life is filled with hate, they don’t know where they’re going, because the darkness has blinded them. And John is writing, and he’s saying, “Some of these people whose lives are filled with hate claim to walk in the light. But it’s obvious that they don’t walk in the light, not because of an absence of verbal profession but because of an absence of loving reality.” And I must confess that I find these verses to be supremely challenging, and I hope you do also. You’ll notice that there’s no twilight zone here. There’s no in-between. It’s love and hate.
This brings me back to the point with which I began and which I’m now about to conclude. We said that a love for God was not some kind of intellectual awareness nor merely an emotional experience. And love for each other is neither of the two. Love, you see, is so difficult to speak about because it is such a devalued word. Christian love does not mean the absence of different perspectives. Christian love does not mean the absence of disagreement. Christian love is not obliterated by a downright, drag-out, knockdown, punch-your-nose brawl. The difference is that Christian love is able to stand up, to admit wrong, to embrace righteousness, to say sorry, and to begin to go on.
Now, do you hear what I’m saying? I’m talking about the love that exists, in human terms, between a brother and a sister, or a brother and his brother, which, at the apex of human love, does not mean that those kids are always going, “Oh, I love you, Johnny. You’re my brother. Oh, Mary, let me see you.” No, no, there’s a lot of stuff going on like “Johnny, you take my stuff again, I am going to come in, and I am going…” And John’s over here saying, “You know, some days I just can’t stand you.” But do they love one another? Of course they do love one another! Let anybody come from the outside and say one word about Mary, and John’ll be out there: “Don’t you say a thing about Mary. Mary’s my sister. You don’t know how much I love Mary.”
Now, listen, loved ones, nothing has disappointed me more in my experience of Christian living than this fact: that people who talk about Christian love and want to hug and want to kiss and want to smooth it over and want to make out that everything is great do not understand that love weathers storms, that love comes through the conflicts, that love does not mean never having to say you’re sorry, that love does not mean avoidance is the answer. You see, love within a home fights all those battles, closes the door, sorts it out, and then goes out to the world again. But what does the Christian church do? Packs its Bibles in its bright brown-leather zippers, zips them up, and heads for the hills.
You see, that’s not love, loved ones. Love faces the fights. Love deals with the disagreements. Love recognizes that Mary and John and Alistair and Fred and whoever else it is are sinners just like the rest of us. And love gets down on its knees and says, “God, I have offended so much against you that I don’t know why in the world I should elevate the offense of my brother against me to the degree that I no longer can sit and have Communion with him, that I no longer can hold hands and sing the songs of praise. And I thank you, God, that you didn’t do that with me, but you loved me with an everlasting love.”
In other words, the test of genuine love is loyalty. It’s not hugging. It’s not language. It’s not emotion. It’s loyalty! It’s saying, “You know what? You get up my nose. Do you understand that? Do you realize that you are in my face? Do you know what that means to me?” Fine! Good! Right? Let’s have that conversation. But don’t tell me you love me, then, and stick the knife in. Don’t let me tell you that I love you and then badmouth you. Don’t let’s tell lies with our lips, made obvious by our lives.
Let’s just get realistic: we’re a bunch of ugly people. (“Speak for yourself!”) We are a bunch of ugly people. We’re ugly on the outside, we’re ugly on the inside, and we’ve got so many things—promontories—sticking out of us that annoy other people that we’re going to have to take a long time before we get to heaven and, finally, God’ll chop the whole rotten lot off on the way up, so we’ll be fine when we get there. But until we get there, building a church is like trying to build your house with a bunch of bananas. You ever think of building a garage with bananas? Go down to the grocery store, get as many bananas as you can; try and fit those suckers together and build a garage. One’s bruised, one’s green, one’s poking up, one’s poking out, one’s poking everywhere. Now we’re going to build them… That’s what building the church is like. It’s like building with bananas. It’s not like building with perfect little bricks, perfect little Christians who never say anything wrong, who never offend, who never mess up.
So the first thing you have to do if you’re ever going to get to grips with Christian love is get downright realistic about things. And that is part of my problem. I don’t want to be realistic about what a bad actor I can be. I don’t want to be realistic about the sin in my life. I don’t want to be realistic about the fact that I know what it is to be horribly jealous. I don’t want to be realistic about those things. And then I can’t be realistic with anybody else.
So don’t let’s go home on a guilt trip because we’ve been feeling that somebody has been getting in our department. Let’s just make sure that we speak to that person—talk with them, share with them. We got two alternatives: either we love and walk in the light, or we hate, and we stumble in the darkness.
Christian love is ultimately not about feelings. It’s not about saying the right things. It’s not a Christianized version of Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw. Christian love weathers the storms, remains loyal to the truth, lives in the light, and says, “You know what? You let me down. You know what? I let you down, and I’m sorry. But I’m still your brother. Can we still play together? Can we still sing together? Can we still worship together? Can we still witness together?” Or is the evangelical church in America destined to become smaller and smaller microcosmic units—conglomerations of people licking their wounds and rubbing their misunderstandings, meanwhile talking about a love that is actually different from what John describes for us here: the new commandment that we’ve known from the beginning that’s so hard to apply and yet is the key to the world looking on and saying, “My, my!” ’Cause the world understands disagreement. The world understands aggravation. The world understands arguments that end in disparity. What the world doesn’t understand is reconciliation. Perhaps God has things to say to each of us concerning these things tonight.
 Galatians 6:9 (KJV).
 See 1 John 1:6, 8, 10.
 See James 2:19.
 Francis Schaeffer, He Is There and He Is Not Silent (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1972).
Genesis 1:1 (NIV 1984). Emphasis added.
 John 1:14 (KJV).
 1 John 2:3 (Phillips).
 Hosea 4:1–2 (NIV 1984).
 1 John 1:8 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42 (paraphrased).
 Philip. P. Bliss, “‘Man of Sorrows,’ What a Name” (1875).
 Quoted in Norman Grubb, C. T. Studd: Athlete and Pioneer (1933; repr., Harrisburg, PA: Evangelical Press, 1943), 145. Paraphrased.
 Timothy Eagan, “Thousands Plan Life Below, after Doomsday,” New York Times, March 15, 1990, https://www.nytimes.com/1990/03/15/us/thousands-plan-life-below-after-doomsday.html.
 1 John 2:24 (NIV 1984). Emphasis added.
 1 John 3:11 (NIV 1984). Emphasis added.
 2 John 6 (NIV 1984). Emphasis added.
 John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 98.
 Luke 10:25–35 (paraphrased).
 Hebrews 1:1–2 (paraphrased).
 See Jeremiah 31:3.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.