Sometimes it feels to me as if there are problems in every direction in which you look. Even though we have many blessings, many God-sends, many things to be thankful for but on another day I may have much brighter glasses on than I do, and there are days where difficulties seem to be part of every direction and every section of our lives. I know that many unbelievers feel this. I know that many Christians feel it and I know that many Pastors feel it.
There are two directions where we ought to be able to look for great comfort, support, acceptance and hope and one of those directions is upward. We ought to be able to look up to our Heavenly Father and find in his fellowship a very great welcome and real support and a sense of security and some hope. Think of the human person who does this for you. The person who you just love to drop in, because when you are with them, they actually give you some sense of hope and purpose and everything that’s needed. Now multiply that by one million or so, and we are thinking towards the greatness of the fellowship that we can have with God.
That’s why John writes this first letter. He says in chapter 1 verse 3;
“I am writing this so that you would have fellowship with God the Father and the Son and with us”
His great desire is that Christians would have this experience. Now we know that it’s wrecked or poisoned by many things and John draws our attention to this. This fellowship with God is ruined and infected by a sin and by heresy and by fights and if you think John is exaggerating when he talks about the greatness of fellowship, I would suggest if you can find a Christian who is gladly turning from their sin and is loving the promises and is in peaceful relationship with other believers, I’m pretty sure you’ll be finding a joyful Christian.
On the other hand, if you find a Christian who’s hanging on to their sin and believing half-truths and angry with other believers, I’m pretty sure I can show you a Christian who is under dark clouds. Just as the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son loved having the Prodigal Son return, God loves fellowship with his people, and Christians to be in close fellowship with him is one of the great, great privileges.
Listen to John Patton, Missionary in the 1840s on the Island of what is now Vanuatu, and he’s just being advised by friends to escape to the top of the tree to prevent being captured and eaten by the cannibals of the land. He says in his diary;
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“being entirely at the mercy of such doubtful and vacillating friends, I though perplexed, felt it best to obey and I climbed into the tree and was left there alone. The house which I spent there lives all before me as if it were yesterday. I heard the yells of the savages, yet I sat there among the branches as safe as in the arms of Jesus, never in all my sorrows did my Lord draw nearer to me or speak more soothingly in my soul than when the moonlight flicked among the chestnut leaves and the night air played it on my throbbing brows I told my heart to Jesus”.
“Alone, but not alone, if it be to glorify my God, I would not grudge to spend many nights alone in such a tree. To feel again my Saviour’s spiritual presence, to enjoy his consoling fellowship – if thus thrown back upon your own soul, alone, all alone in the midnight, in the bush, in the very embrace of death itself – have you a friend that will not fail you then?”
Fellowship with God. Now the second direction that we might look for some support and some security and hope is the comforting fellowship of God’s people. It’s the local fellowship. It’s the group of people who can do for us what only Christians can do, and that is to tell us that there is a King and there is a Saviour and yes, although we are sinful and although we are weak, we must keep trusting and keep following and keep obeying.
This loving fellowship is the theme today because it’s our section in 1 John 3:11-24. You know that if you have been here in the series, that John keeps rotating the issues – holiness – love – truth – helps to fellowship, but there is the opposite – sin – heresy – anger – the destruction of fellowship.
It’s our theme today, the subject of love and we are thinking about this loving fellowship. Now I come to the section this morning honestly with a great sense of weakness and a great sense of incompetence. The more I think about this, the more it seems to be that whatever I’ve done in the many years that I’ve been here, I have not created or properly nurtured a fellowship where we can say as strongly as we would like to say – “See how they love and they serve each other”.
I come to this section this morning with some humility, to listen to what John tells us in chapter 3 verse 11.
God’s Call To Great Loving
You see what he says in chapter 3:11, “This is the message you heard from the beginning: we should love one another”. He’s talking to the Christians about loving the Christians as he said in chapter 2 “love the brethren” and now he says “love one another”.
Now in case that seems a little bit boring, and it’s effortless for us to tune out of that moment, isn’t it? He basically asks us as readers to check and see what river is flowing through us.
What system is operating as we live our lives? He’s really asking us ‘what is moving through you’? So just imagine to humour me you are a bulldozer. Is someone driving you?
Says John for construction or is someone driving you at the moment for destruction? Now I know the illustration of being a bulldozer is faulty and challenging for some of the delicate girls who are here this morning because we are not a lifeless machine that someone gets into and just operates, we are responsible human beings. But you see John is teaching that a person is being driven either by self-interests or self-sacrifice. Or we might say they are being driven by their sinful nature or being driven by their new nature.
And this is the genius of John’s letter you see. He’s asking his readers – check yourself, see if a new drive has begun in you so that you are beginning in a new way to fight sin.
You are beginning in a new way to love truth. You are beginning in a new way to love believers. And if those things are at work in you, says John, I want you to be very assured because a new life seems to have begun in you but at exactly the same time that he says ‘check yourself and see if there is a new life operating inside you’ he turns very skilfully and says ‘I want you to do this’. It’s a very clever balance you see.
He’s asking the question ‘have you got the new life’? And then he says “live the new life’. ‘Is there a new life kicking in you’? Says John. ‘If there is, that’s likely to be the Spirit of God’. ‘Are you pursuing love, truth, holiness’? says John, because you ought to be.
And as John contrasts this self-interest and this self-sacrifice he traces verse 12 of self-interest right back to its origin. Where does self-interest come from? It goes right back to the evil one. The evil one is the promoter of, and then he uses an Old Testament illustration of the first man in the Bible, Cain, who expressed self-interest with such passion that he actually got rid of somebody who is in the way of his self-interest.
So John taking us back to the very roots of self-interest and then giving us an illustration in the person of Cain who expressed it in full-blown capacity and full-blown capacity for hatred is murder. It’s wanting somebody right out of the way. Then he introduces the complete opposite, which in verse 16 is Jesus, the original lover, the supreme lover. The life giver, who took his love for his enemies to the absolute full-blown extreme, died himself. And because, says John, he died for us. The believer who puts their confidence in Jesus, moves from death to life and when you move from death to life, you move from death to eternal life and when you move to eternal life, that eternal life begins to work in and through you and enables you to love the brethren in ways that are costly but will serve and benefit them.
Now there’s the distinction that he draws. There is something called self-interest which goes back to the devil, is illustrated in Cain, expresses itself ultimately in hatred which when full-blown leads to murder. Then there is love which goes back to Christ, expressed in his own death which in full-blown measure means that he sacrifices his very self for enemies like us.
I don’t want to say too much about that because there is the simple principle except to say that if we treat our brothers and sisters as if they don’t matter much and if we treat them as if they can all disappear from us as far as we are concerned, it does sound, doesn’t it, more like Cain than Christ. It sounds like no transformation has really taken place. It is certainly irresponsible Christianity.
If however, we treat our sisters and our brothers as if they matter very much to us and their service becomes our priority, it sounds very much like Christ, not Cain. It sounds like a transformation has taken place. It sounds like responsible Christianity. I wonder if many of us have kind of got to the point of absorbing so much of the pressure that we live in and under and so many things that we have to do and so many messages that appear to our self-interest. I wonder if we have got to the point where we just deal ourselves and say “this is what I want to do and I’m going to do it” and then I’m going to think of some reasons why I’ll do it, and that settles it. But we are told in this wonderful passage that Christ gave up his soul for us, and therefore we should be willing to give us our minutes and our matter for our brothers and sisters. This is God’s call to great loving.
God’s Comfort To Not So Great Lovers
The second point this morning is the comfort. God’s comfort to not so great lovers.
Look at verse 19,
‘this then is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us”.
This is what Stott calls in his Commentary “a remarkable passage”. It’s almost unparalleled in the New Testament because the ‘love test’ which is going to give the believer some encouragement and some persuasion that their heart has been changed and that they, therefore, do belong to God, and they do have the Spirit of God at work in them, nevertheless there are going to be those times (v 20) where the heart condemns us.
What’s John talking about? I think what he saying is that even though there is a new love at work in your heart, and it brings you some reassurance that you are a changed person and you may be comforted that God has given you a new concern and even affection for fellow Christians. It’s also possible however especially in the light of the stand of the Lord Jesus and given the selfishness and the sinfulness in our own hearts, that we will often feel condemned, that we’ve failed, been inadequate, been selfish, that we’ve not served our brothers and sisters as we could or should.
In that very time of condemnation, God is greater than our hearts. This means God is greater than our hearts in that he gives a verdict which is bigger and better than our hearts verdict about ourselves;
“the blood of Jesus cleanses from all sin if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”
God speaks a word which is more objectively powerful about our forgiveness and our acceptance than our very condemning heart may do. But also our faltering attempts to love the family are meant to bring some comfort, and this is how Dr Jim Boyce puts it in his Commentary. He says
“Christian remember some things when you doubt. Don’t look at your failures – you will have many of them – look rather at those specific actions which the Holy Spirit of God has led you to perform. Let those be evidence of his grace at work and cease your doubting”.
In some ways, it is a similar argument to the writer of the Letter to Hebrews who has a powerful passage in chapter 6 talking about people who carelessly and ruthlessly walk away from the work of the Lord Jesus done for them on the cross and continue in their sin. The writer says “we feel sure about you and God who knows what you are like will not forget what he has done through you”. So there’s this comforting argument.
What John is basically saying is that we need to remember that our fellowship with God is based on the cross (3:16). It’s his performance which is our hope and our guarantee, not ours. But our fellowship with God is also evidenced by new love (3:19) which provides some reassurance. He goes on to say in verses that follow (21-22) we have gospel confidence, confidence in the gospel but we also have encouragement from this new life which is at work in us which helps us to pray and to pray in line with his will and his will is primarily of course (v23) to believe in Jesus and to love his people which we’ve just been told and again (v24) this means we live in Him, and He lives in us, and this is because of his Spirit (v24).
So these last verses of John’s remarkable section (19-24) is almost as though a group of friends has surrounded us and is urging us to take heart in the face of failure in the gospel of Jesus who has loved us and forgiven us and also in the little signs of a changed life and it’s as if this crowd of people have gathered around us to say ‘don’t give up’. Do not be accused unnecessarily. Do not be intimidated. Do not give up on the fellowship. It is a treasure. It is valuable. Even if there are failures, God is at work.
That leads me to some interesting applications in these last couple of minutes this morning. As I’ve prepared for this particular subject, and I’ve done a little bit of wider reading, it’s been surprising to me to learn that there are literally a hundred books that have come out in the last 10 years, mostly from America, which are written by people which are basically called ‘church is terrible’ and they are urging people to leave the institutional churches and the traditional churches and to seek community in homes and cafes and nature or wherever else it works for you. So at the very time where Christianity in the West is under the greatest attack and is under the greatest amount of criticism and desertion, at the very moment the visible church is becoming increasingly invisible under the impact of sort of rampant individualism and consumerism. So the very moment where the church ought to gather to make a visible stand with believers, the church is dissipating into invisibility.
Someone told me that it’s now a general percentage agreement that across the Western church that if a person is a committed regular member of a church, they will get to that church 19 Sundays in the year. If you are preaching a series in the Book of Philippians, you can guarantee that in a series of 8 or 10, people will get 3. You see you can’t teach the Book of Philippians!
Now the aim I guess is that we should set ourselves to get to the fellowship 40-50 weeks of the year, not because we think it’s the fun place for us although it may be, but we ought to get to the fellowship for the witness of God’s people in the world, the strengthening of a lot of frailty and discouragement in the church and for our own growth and progress. We’ve really got to take 1 John 3:16 seriously haven’t we? That when Christ lay his life down, and it cost him a massive amount, we, therefore, must be ready to do the same.
We know the weakness of the church, we know the weakness of ourselves. If I collect some of the things from the books which talk about the weakness of the church, you’ll resonate with this: Poor vision, to comfortable, out of touch, too political, judgmental, negative, male dominated, homophobic arrogant, immature, irrelevant preaching, unfriendly, shallow, money hungry, dull, passive membership – on & on it goes.
And we ought to be good at listening to criticism because some of it will do us a lot of good. But not all critics are consistent. Some critics say ‘there are too many activities going on this church but why isn’t there something going on for this?” Some say they don’t like the hierarchy in the church but where’s the leadership? Then some say we want diversity and they hang out with their own little self aged crowd. Some say we ought to be doing more social action, but we don’t want to get to be political. We want better music but it ought to be like my type of music. There is a need for more community, but if the community doesn’t work for me, I’m going to leave until I find a community that works for me.
There is also a lot of pressure today to go into the house churches not realising that house churches have massive problems and difficulties not least in the leadership, who takes the responsibility? Who is equipped for care? Who teaches with preparation rather than just some sort of half-done talk? And the invisibility of the house churches is a huge problem too as people stay in a sort of a cozy and irrelevant room of their house.
Now one young writer has written to the young Christians in his particular age group urging them to love the church and not just themselves, and he says in the book,
“I see many leaving the churches instead of loving her, for better for worse”. “I see lots of my peers who have 20/20 vision for the churches failings but are nearsighted to their own pride, self-importance,and mutual congratulation.” “In all honesty,” says this writer “I can say that in the times I’ve been hurt by the church or been disheartened, the biggest problems, in the end, prove to be those that came from my own heart. I’m not worried for the church, her services her sermons will survive, but I’m worried for church leavers, especially that in leaving the church, they are leaving the faith of the church and the Christ of the 2000 years of church history. I feel sorry for their hurts, but I worry about their hearts”.
It is impossible for the church to be boring. It is impossible for the church to be boring or irrelevant if we know the significance of what it means to gather as the Body of Christ. We are the Body of Christ. The King of kings has his people gather, and when we gather we learn his ways, we sing his praise, we love one another, and we grow. There is nothing to match the gathering of the Body of Christ especially in the face of a world that is increasingly shallow, empty, vacuous and fading away.
The secular forecast for the church I’m told is mostly cloudy but the Biblical forecast for the church according to the Lord Jesus is “I will build it”. I understand that in China more people are studying New Testament Greek at the moment for the potential of their teaching ministry than are studying New Testament Greek in America, Europe and Australia put together.
If the church in China continues to grow at the rate that it has been going, it will influence a country which will influence the world. God knows how to do his work. Somebody said to me, ‘it’s possible that God is treating the West the way God treated the Jews, giving them their opportunity, finding that they dropped their opportunity, turning and giving it to someone else’. This is not the time for us to drop the precious gospel and all its implications. This is the time to hold it more firmly in the face of a very individualistic and consumer-culture which is walking away from anything which is difficult and is also failing to witness to a church which is completely in the dark when it comes to things of importance.
I want to urge you in the words of 1 John 3:16 to remember that Christ has given you eternal life at huge cost, and you and I must be willing to express something of that not because it’s fun and not because it’s easy and not because it’s exactly what we want to do but because we’ve been called to do. A new life is operating inside us which will enable us to do that.
Let’s pray, let’s bow our heads. Our Heavenly Father, we thank you for bringing us into your family at such expense. We pray that you would forgive us for forgetting, undervaluing and we ask that you would strengthen us by the Holy Spirit to receive the resources you have and to express them in care for one another. We pray for your forgiveness and we thank you too even in the very midst of failure and weakness, we have this encouragement from you that you forgive and that you make new and we pray that you would lead us in ways and paths and practices which would express more profoundly and powerfully the love of the Lord Jesus.We pray this to your glory. We pray this for a needy world. We pray this for our own relationships, and we pray this for our own deep encouragement.We ask this in Jesus’ Name – Amen.