Abiding in God’s Love, Lesson 13

This is the final “missing lesson” from the series I wrote from the study of 1 John. May the Lord use these faltering words of mine for his own glory as I point to him and his immeasurable love.

We come now to one of the most love-saturated passages of Scripture in the entire Bible. If you take a moment and count how often love is mentioned in any form (Beloved, love, loves, loved) in our passage above you will find it 29 times. We also find one of the most well-known declarations of the nature of God: God is love (4:8). Indeed, even many unbelievers can quote that, but without understanding what it means that God is love, believers will not be able to live out the love to which we are called. Our focus in this lesson is love, and we have a lot of ground to cover, so let’s dive right in.

The Character of Love

If we are to have any discussion of God’s love for us and our love for others, we must begin with the character of this love. John tells us that “love is from God” (7), and this is so because “God is love” (8). And yet, in much of the church today, and in the secular world, the statement that “God is love” is misused. Oftentimes, when people speak of God being love, they mean that he is extremely tolerant of our sins, he is non-judgmental, his love basically emotional, and everyone deserves his love. That “God is love,” means that he is obligated to give his love to everyone—which stands in direct conflict to the rest of Scripture. Sisters, if we are to be wise students of the Word, we must not pluck one verse out of the Bible upon which to build our theology.

If we are to properly understand God in one of his attributes, we must understand (as far as we are able) how all of his attributes work together, for they are inseparable. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines God in the answer to question 4, “What is God,” with, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” Each and every one of his attributes, therefore, are infinite, eternal, and unchangeable.

When God was establishing his relationship with his chosen people whom he had freed from Egypt, and was impressing upon them how they should therefore live, he revealed himself to Moses with this breathtaking declaration:

“The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7)

Later, in giving the Law to Moses, he said,

“I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.” (Lev. 11:44a)

The Law revealed God’s holiness as he revealed in it how his redeemed people should live unto him, separated from the pagan world around them and walking in a manner entirely different from how they had walked before he called them out of bondage. They were set free, not to live however they wanted, but draw near to God. “The point of God setting them free was to bring them to himself.”[1]

Moses was not allowed to see God in all his glory, but Isaiah was given a fuller vision of the LORD in heaven.

“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the trainof his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”” (Isaiah 6:1-7)

Isaiah describes the LORD as high and lifted up, seated on a throne—and therefore royal and majestic—and HOLY. His glory could not be contained in the heavenly temple, but spilled out to fill the whole earth. In response to this, Isaiah realizes, with psychologically-disintegrating clarity, the magnitude of his own sin. “Woe is me!” he cries, “for I am lost!” He is the prophet called by God to speak God’s words to the people of Israel, and even the means of his heavenly vocation is tainted: “I am a man of unclean lips!” There is no escaping the corruption. Isaiah is no better than those to whom he prophesies: “and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” The remedy to Isaiah’s dilemma was removal of his guilt and atonement for his sins, which only comes from the altar of sacrifice.

Because God is holy, we must therefore conclude that the nature of his love is holy. Being holy, God’s love does not excuse sin, but it makes a way for our guilt and sins to be dealt with. Our sins aren’t swept under the rug or tolerated as mere foibles: they require atonement, so God, in his holy love, provides it.

When God loves, his loving is not merely something he does when he isn’t exercising wisdom or power, or manifesting his holiness, or rendering justice, or being good, or speaking truth. That “God is love” means that his wisdom is exercised in love, his power is displayed for his loving purposes, because he is holy his love is a holy love, his justice is rendered in and because of his love, his goodness is an expression of love, and his truth is spoken in and because of his love. “Everything that God is and does is coloured by this; all God’s actions have this aspect of love in them.”[2]

The Degree of Love

In our passage we learn that God’s love for us is the reason, cause, necessary motive, and origin of the obligation of our love for others (4:7-8, 11, 19, 21). For believers to truly love others with more than a superficial sentiment, we must understand the degree to which God loves us. Fortunately, John tells us how much God loves us:

“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:9-10)

Writing this in his epistle, John is echoing the words of Jesus, as recorded in his Gospel:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Note how Paul expressed the importance of our knowing how much God loves us in the following passages:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;

    we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father… so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:14, 17-19)

Knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ, we are strengthened for the inevitable trials and persecutions which come our way. Knowing the strength of God’s love for us makes us conquerors, because nothing that the enemy throws at us with the design of separating us from God’s love will succeed. Nothing. We must know God’s love for us in order not to be crushed by the difficulties of life. So, as Paul prayed, we must pray that Christ would dwell in our hearts through faith, rooting and grounding us in his love, so that we would have the strength to comprehend his love and to know it even beyond the limits of knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God! That’s a mind-blowing purpose for God’s love for us. Rooted in in his love, we will be filled with all his fullness. I cannot comprehend it, but, oh, how I long to.

Let’s explore the dimensions of God’s love:

To  reach the heights of God’s love, we read Isaiah 57:15; 1 Kings 8:27; Job 22:12; and Colossians 1:15-19, where we learn that our God is high and lifted up, he inhabits eternity, dwells in a high and holy place (and yet also with contrite and lowly spirits). He is so high that heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain him. Jesus himself, the image of the invisible God, is the means by whom all things in heaven and on earth were created—all things were created through him and for him; he is before all things and in him all things hold together and in everything he is preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell. The passage from Colossians describes so much more than vertical height, but the indescribable immensity of our Savior is certainly higher than our minds can grasp.

From these dizzying heights we looked at the depth into which this uncontainable God reached in order to save us, by reading Romans 3:10-18; Philippians 2:6-8; and Matthew 27:46. Jesus Christ went from the lofty realms of glory and reached into the darkness of our depravity and sin—we weren’t seeking him, but he came seeking us. Though we didn’t understand, had turned aside, become worthless, not even one of us doing good, so entirely unrighteous that our paths were ruin and misery and without the fear of God before our eyes we could not know the way of peace. But Christ did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, humbling himself and being born as one of us, and then in obedience to the Father he submitted to the cruel death of the cross. And then, the Son of God, perfect in righteousness and spotless in holiness, who had enjoyed uninhibited loving fellowship with his Father for all eternity past, now bearing the awful weight of all the sins of his people, cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!” To such a depth he went, because of his love for his Father, and his love for his people.

The length of God’s love we found in Psalm 103:17; Ephesians 1:4-5; and Psalm 139:24, where we learned that his steadfast love is from everlasting to everlasting, which means, all eternity going backwards to all eternity going forwards—a distance which is literally immeasurable. Then, Paul tells us that we were chosen for salvation from before the foundation of the world and predestined—in love—through Jesus Christ. And the Psalmist tells us that God searches our hearts for the purpose of leading us in the way everlasting—onward into the immeasurable eternity before us.

Finally, the breadth of God’s love we found in Psalm 33:4-5; and Revelation. 5:9 and 7:9. There we see that God’s love fills the entire earth, and by his love he ransomed people from every tribe, language, people, and nation, and in heaven we will find ourselves among an innumerable multitude of God’s beloved children, standing before his throne and before the Lamb, clothed in the white robes of Christ’s righteousness—because of the love that moved him to take upon himself our filthy rags. We are cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, because God loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

The vastness of God’s love exceeds the ability of our minds to grasp, and yet John is telling us that this immense love moved the Almighty Creator and Sovereign Ruler of the universe to send his only begotten Son to die for our sins. John then tells us that this love does not leave us unchanged, but it transforms us from the inside out to such a degree that it must be shared and it cannot be hidden.

Love Made Visible

How does our love for one another make God visible? According to John, God’s love shines through our love for one another because he abides in us and his love is perfected in us (4:11-12). This is more than mere lip-service, it is the real love for our brothers and sisters in Christ which shows in our actions (3:17-18). Paul tells us that, together, we are God’s temple, with God’s Spirit dwelling in us (1 Cor. 3:16). And though we were once strangers to one another and alienated from God, we are now fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, being built upon the foundation of truth laid by the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone, placed into a structure, a growing and holy temple in the Lord—a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph. 2:19-22). Sisters, a temple is visible, and with the diversity of people from all across the world, of different shapes and sizes, economic status and culture, and every shade of skin tone, this temple is utterly unique and magnificently beautiful.

In Old Testament Israel, the primary roles of the temple were sacrifice and worship. God’s people traveled to Jerusalem to visit the temple for many reasons, chief among them the appointed feasts and the yearly sacrifice of the atonement during Passover. But it was also a means by which God displayed the splendor of his glory, with building materials and decorations designed to showcase his royal majesty. The temple was the dwelling place of the name of God, and as such, it was the focal point of the prayers of the people, and a symbol of the joy, security, and peace of Israel (1 Kings 8:27-30, 38-43; Psalm 26:8; Psalm122).

Our role now, as the living temple of the Lord, is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the world, showing forth the grace and mercy of our great God and King. We who are called by his name are to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in his name, teaching these new disciples to observe all that Jesus commanded, secure in the knowledge that he is with us always, right to the end (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8, 26:15-18). No more sacrifices are necessary, because Jesus has made the final sacrifice to atone for our sins and bring us peace with God.

Solomon built a grand and glorious temple in Jerusalem to display the riches of God’s glory and as a geographically-fixed central location for the worship of God. Into the temple were brought the sacrifices of the people, toward the temple the people prayed, and to the temple in Jerusalem the people of Israel made pilgrimage in order to commune with God and participate in worshiping him together with one another. But now, the temple in Jerusalem is gone; there is no longer one, centrally-located, geographically-fixed temple to which we must travel in order to meet with God and worship him. As members of the New Covenant, we who are believers have become living stones in the living temple of God, and we are to go out into all the world and show forth the riches of his grace, sharing the gospel in love with a lost and dying world who, without the love of God are left in the death and darkness of bondage to their sin. “No one has ever seen God,” by our love for one another, we make him visible.[3]

Abiding in Love

As we dig even deeper into our passage, John tells us that, because God has given us of his Spirit, we can “know that we abide in [God] and he in us” (13). That we abide in him, and he abides in us becomes the repeated refrain for the next several verses. Here we reach a profound mystery, but not a hidden mystery, for it is a common theme in John’s writing. And it is a common theme for John because Jesus himself spoke of the necessity and the results of our abiding in him—or not abiding in him.

First: by analogy:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” (John 15:1-6)

Jesus spoke of himself as the vine and as believers as the branches who, unless they are connected to the vine, cannot bear fruit. Branches that aren’t abiding in the vine and therefore don’t bear fruit will be taken away by the vinedresser—the Father—who will gather them and throw them into the fire to be burned. But those branches that abide in the vine will bear fruit which it cannot bear by itself, but only by its connection to the vine. Moreover, these fruitful branches will be pruned by the vinedresser, that they may bear even more fruit.

Next: in real terms,

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:7-11)

Sisters, we are to abide in Christ, for only as we are connected to Jesus are we able to receive from him the life-bearing sap from the vine by which we will bear the spiritual fruit of love for God and for one another, and fullness of joy. As we abide in Christ, his will becomes our will as our desires are “pruned” by the trials and sufferings of sanctification, as well as by the work of the living word abiding in us, transforming our hearts and minds to desire the things which Christ desires for us. And then our transformed desires flow out into prayers which the Father delights to answer, thus bringing glory to God the Father, as he blesses and multiplies our fruit-bearing. Keeping Christ’s commandments and abiding in his love are only possible as we abide in him.

John wasn’t the only apostle to write of our abiding in Christ. Paul also wrote of this mysterious spiritual truth, repeatedly using the phrase, “in Christ.” Among the benefits he tells us are ours “in Christ” we find that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom. 8:38-39). We are blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ; we were chosen before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless, predestined for adoption, blessed with glorious grace, we gained redemption through his blood, and forgiveness, were lavished with the riches of his grace, and the purpose and plan for the fullness of time was set forth in Christ to unite all things in him; and in him we obtained an inheritance, and were sealed with the Holy Spirit until we gain possession of our inheritance (Eph. 1:3-14). Our hearts and minds are guarded by the peace of God in Christ (Phil. 4:6-7); and our life is hidden with Christ in God (a slight variation, but the same theme), and when Christ appears we shall appear with him (Col. 3:3-4).

In fact, we are, in a spiritual sense, already with Christ in glory. In Ephesians 1, after the glorious list of benefits we have in Christ, Paul declares that after God raised him from the dead he seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, thus setting him far above all “rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age, but in the age to come… (putting) all things under his feet” (1:20-22). If we keep reading into chapter 2, where we learn the depths from which we are saved, we learn that having been saved by grace, we are raised up with Christ and seated “with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (2:5-7). Sisters, this is a present and already blessing that we have now in Christ.

When you read Paul’s epistles, those two words need to leap right off the pages and into your hearts and minds. Being in Christ is abiding in Christ, and it was God’s plan all along. In his Great High Priestly prayer, Jesus asked his Father for this very thing:

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21)

In this, Jesus spoke of more than our being in him– Notice that he is asking for the very state of relationship which is enjoyed between himself and the Father—“just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you”—the mutual indwelling of the Godhead. Eternally in the most unified fellowship, unified as one essence, yet maintaining their distinctive personalities and roles. That is to be us: as we abide in Christ we share with him and with one another a love which transcends our distinctions, even while we retain our distinctive personalities, roles, and gifts which we use to serve one another, and thus bring him glory.

The results of this mutual abiding are: glory, given to us by Christ; union with one another, because of his love for us, which mirrors the union of the Godhead; Christ in us and the Father in him—perfectly one—so that the world may know that the Father sent Jesus Christ, and that the Father loves us even as he loves his Son (John 17:22-23). Oh sisters, the vision is glorious. Meditate on these truths, these desires of our Savior, and let them sink deeply into your bones, into your mind and heart, and be transformed and renewed by Christ’s loving desire for his beloved people.

Walking the Walk

Because “God is love,” certain things are therefore true about those who have been born of him, who abide in him and God in them, and are therefore unified as one as the Father and the Son are one. According to John, we love one another, we are born of God, we know God, we therefore ought to love one another, and God abides in us and his love is perfected in us (4:7-8, 11-12, 17-19, 21).

Now, looking at your own life, and the brothers and sisters around you, how are you to put into practice this one-in-Christ, mutually-abiding-in-God love to which you are called, and what might this cost you? For me, I can think of quite a long list as I tally the cost of this high calling to love. It will cost me my own self-centeredness, my pride, my time, my efforts, my idols, my presuppositions, my assumptions, my comfort… Others in class added that they would need to lay down their preferences, their plans, even their knee-jerk reactions to others. Rather than leaping to offense, we must ask, “did this sister sin against me, or did she touch one of my idols?” and then respond in love by either making the effort to reconcile, or allow God to prune away the attachment to the idol which stands between myself, my sister, and our Lord.

Did you look at this question from the perspective that you were the one being put-upon, or bearing with another who may be difficult to love? What if, dear one, you are the one with whom others need to put up or bear with. What if you make it difficult for others to love you? This command to love runs on a two-way street. What will it cost you to be more approachable, to be more kind, more gracious, more open to receiving the love of your brothers and sisters in Christ?

“We all know that though we are Christians we are not perfect; there are things about all of us that irritate others. God, forgive us for it. There are things that should not belong to us, but they are there, and this calls for patience in others, it calls for sympathy, it calls for understanding; and that is what John is pleading for at this point. He is asking these people to do all they can to help one another, to bear with one another, not to be antagonistic, not to become irritated. If you see your brother at fault, be patient with him, pray for him, try to help him, be sorry for him, instead of feeling it is something that is hurting you. See it as something that is hurting him terribly and doing him great harm and robbing him of so much joy in his Christian life.”[4]

Sisters, Christ has called us to come and die to ourselves and live to him by loving one another, and this is hard work. In fact, without the Spirit he has sent us, to sanctify us and make us holy, it is impossible work. But with God, all things are possible. Let us pray for God to work in us, transforming us in love, in Christ, as we attempt the impossible together with him and with one another.

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Phil. 1:9-11)

[1] Dr. Irwyn Ince, Image is Everything, sermon preached at New City Fellowship, Chattanooga, TN, Feb. 10, 2019, accessed 2/24/19: http://www.newcityfellowship.com/

[2] Martin Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John, (Wheaton, Il: 2002), 424.

[3] I am indebted to Courtney Doctor for this contrast of the Old Testament “Come and see,” with the New Covenant “Go and show,” which she taught at the PCA Women’s One Conference in Chattanooga, TN, October 5-6, 2018.

[4] Lloyd-Jones, 422.

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