If I were to ask you for a good working definition of love, what would you say? A working definition is different from a dictionary definition. The dictionary tells you what a word means. But that’s not what I’m asking for. When I say a working definition of love, I mean what does real love look like when you see it in action? That’s a question that was asked of several children in a recent survey. They were asked, “What is love?” and their answers turned out to be more profound than anyone imagined. Here are just a few examples. See what you think.
Chrissy, age 6, said: “Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your French fries without making them give you any of theirs.” Noelle, age 7, answered, “Love is when you tell a guy you like his shirt, and then he wears it everyday.” Karl, age 5, explained: “Love is when a girl puts on perfume, and a boy puts on cologne, and they go out and smell each other.” Danny, age 7, said, “Love is when my mommy makes coffee for my daddy and she takes a sip before giving it to him, to make sure the taste is OK.” Lauren, age 4, claimed, “I know my older sister loves me because she gives me all her old clothes and has to go out and buy new ones.” Tommy, age 6, noted, “Love is like a little old woman and little old man who are still friends even after they know each other so well.” And Rebecca, age 8, explained, “When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her, even though his hands got arthritis too. That’s love.”
I think they came up with some pretty good definitions. Don’t you? But as I studied this week, I came across what I believe to be the best working definition of love ever given, this time not from a 7 or 8 year old, but an 87-year old, for that’s about how old the Apostle John was when he wrote his first letter to the churches. In it he said (1 John 4:10): “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” That, in my opinion, is the quintessential definition of love and what people are starving for today—a love that’s willing to sacrifice its own wants and needs to meet the needs and even lay down its life for another. And that’s what we enjoy here because of Christ.
But how do we make this love grow among us so that it overflows and draws other people to Jesus, so they too enjoy what we have? Because that’s what we want, and that’s God’s purpose for His children! He wants a big family filled with love for Him and one another, and it is through that love that He also draws others into His family. I’ll never forget a saying I heard years ago as a youth pastor. It went like this: “People go where the action is, but they stay where the love is.” I’ve never forgotten that because I believe it’s true. It’s Biblical.
Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” (John 13:33-34). I believe that’s true, and because I believe that’s true, I believe it’s also the most important thing we can do as Christians. So what I’d like to do over the next several weeks is take time to study the most loving book in the New Testament, and that’s what? The book of 1 John! Because here John tells us how to cultivate a community of love which is so winsome that it just naturally draws other people to Jesus Christ. And that’s what we want! So open your Bible, if you will, to 1 John chapter 1—almost at the end of the Bible—and this morning I want to look at just the introduction (verses 1 to 4), where John describes the new life and love we share in Jesus, and he describes it in 3 different ways. The first way he describes it is as—
1. It’s a Truth that has been revealed.
Listen as I read verses 1 to 4. John writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life—the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us—that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full.” Two times in 4 verses John uses the word “manifested,” describing something that has been revealed which was hitherto unknown. Prior to this, God had revealed Himself in His creation and Old Testament Scriptures. But no one had ever actually shared His life.
But that’s what we long for! Pascal said that every human being has a “God-shaped vacuum” in his soul which only God can fill. Saint Augustine prayed, “Lord, you have made us for Yourself, and the heart of man is restless until it finds its rest in You.” I can say “Amen” to that because I can still remember how as a college student I wanted so badly to know God that I studied religion after religion trying to find Him. In fact, I even started out as a religion major in college in an attempt to find him and spent many lonely night driving around the city of Tacoma thinking about what I’d studied, looking for a church that might be open, and begging God to reveal Himself to me, but with no success. Because you cannot find God on your own!
God’s truth is like a window with the shades drawn. Life-changing joy is on the other side, but you’ll never know until He lifts the blinds. But that’s what John says God has done! He has torn open the curtains and revealed the greatest truth in the universe and what is that? Verse 2 says it’s “the Word of Life!” referring to who? Jesus the Son of God who’s existed with the Father how long? Eternally! He says, “We declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us.” That’s why he also begins this letter the way he does. He says, “That which was from the beginning,” taking us all the way back to his gospel and Genesis, the first book of the Bible, emphasizing that Jesus has existed with the Father from eternity past, but has only now been revealed to us through His life on earth. Prior to that, His existence was a mystery hidden in the heart of God.
How can John claim to know all of this? Because he was Jesus’ closest friend on earth—a commercial fisherman by trade and an early follower of John the Baptist. But when Jesus said to him, “Follow me,” he left it all behind forever and spent the next 3 ½ years by Jesus’ side, seeing Him walk on water, feed the multitudes, heal the blind, cast out demons, die on the cross (In fact, he was the only disciple who took the risk to see Him die on the cross!). He also saw Him resurrected and even took care of Jesus’ mother Mary after He had ascended into heaven. Now he takes everything he eye-witnessed to battle a very serious heresy that was threatening the church at the time.
The heresy was called Docetism, which taught that this whole material world including the human body is evil, and therefore Jesus couldn’t have been a real man. He was only a spirit that appeared to be human, which means He didn’t really suffer and die on the cross. But then that would destroy His whole work of salvation, wouldn’t it? Because in order to be our Savior, He had to live a real human life and die a real human death in our place! So in order to combat this lie, John brings out his whole arsenal saying, “I not only heard Him, I saw Him, and I not only saw Him, I touched Him with my very own hands.” So I don’t care what the world says or how crazy it sounds. Jesus is the eternal Lord of Life who took on humanity to become our Savior and share God’s life with us.
I know there are no parallels to the fantastic truth that God the Son became a man. But it did bring to mind a story I read about a British woman who took her husband to a psychiatrist because she was sure he was suffering from delusions of grandeur. She explained, “He keeps saying he’s expecting a letter that’ll make him owner of 1,000 acres of rich farmland and another saying he’s inherited a diamond mine in South Africa.” Sure enough, they diagnosed him as insane and put him through 3 weeks of intensive treatment. Then the letters arrived. And as crazy as it may sound to the world around us, Jesus is our living love letter sent from the heart of God to share His life with us. But notice it’s more than a truth to be understood with our minds. John says it’s also—
2. It’s a Fellowship that’s to be enjoyed.
14-years old is when most teenagers are confirmed in the Methodist Church! At least that was the case when I was 14! I was christened by my parents as a baby but at age 14, my friends and I were expected to confirm the decision our parents made for us as babies. So we attended classes with the pastor, learned the Apostles Creed, memorized Bible verses, and then, several weeks later on Confirmation Sunday, we stood in front of the congregation and in response to the minister’s questions: “Do you believe this and that about God?” we said, “Yes.” After all, at age 14, we didn’t have anything better to believe in, and we certainly didn’t want to disappoint our parents. So we all said, “Yes,” even though (at least in my case) I had no faith in Jesus Christ at all and wasn’t even convinced that He had risen from the dead.
That’s why you’ll sometimes hear preachers say you can miss heaven by 18 inches—because salvation involves something far more than agreeing with the right set of doctrines with your mind. It means investing your faith in Jesus as Someone who is alive and powerful and loving enough to forgive your sins and answer your prayers. And that’s what John is offering here.
The key word in verse 3 is “fellowship” referring not to small talk around the coffee pot after church, as good as that may be. The word is koinonia referring to the deepest things in life you share with only a very close friend. And who wants to enjoy that kind of fellowship with us? John says, “That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. It’s God Himself who’s offering to share His life with us, which should cause us to jettison any ideas we’ve had of Him as an impersonal force or distant deity.
George Lucas, as great a story-teller as he is, distorted a whole generation’s idea of God with one phrase: “May the force be with you!” Do you know how devoid of life and power that is compared to what John is offering us? John says, “I’ve met Jesus the Lord of Life and it’s changed me forever! And you can know Him too if you’ll believe the message I’m writing you.”
You say, “That’s fine for John! He saw Jesus with his own eyes, heard Him with his own ears, and touched Him with his own hands. But I’m never going to get to do that. Too bad, so sad! I guess I was born 20 centuries too late!” But that isn’t true! It wasn’t John’s physical proximity to Jesus that made the difference. After all, Judas witnessed everything John did, and it didn’t do him any good at all! It was John’s spiritual closeness to Jesus that made the difference, which means you don’t have to travel back in time to find the real Jesus, because He’s right here with us this morning, confirming everything we’re reading in the Bible and encouraging each one of us to open our heart to His Spirit!
That’s what Jesus meant when He said, “Unless you are born of the Spirit, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” He was saying, “It is not enough to subscribe to the right set of beliefs, belong to the right religious group, and do a lot of good deeds. I’m looking for something far deeper than that. I want you to open your heart to my Spirit and submit to my Lordship. So that’s what the rest of this letter is about—John giving us several tests to make sure our faith is real and that we know Jesus in a personal way.
Somebody likened it to a counterfeit bill, which looks real, so you use it to buy fuel at the gas station. Next the station owner uses it to buy supplies for his mini-mart. The supplier in turn uses it to pay his bill at the warehouse, and finally, the warehouse owner bundles it up with 49 real bills and takes it to the bank. But the teller says, “I’m sorry. I can’t accept this. This bill is counterfeit.” The bill looked good, and it even did some good things along the way, but when it arrived at the bank, it was exposed for what it was and taken out of circulation.
So Jesus warned, “Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name, cast out demons in your name and done many wonders in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me you who practice lawlessness!” The reason He says “I never knew you” and calls them lawless is because they’ve never submitted to His Lordship in their lives. Have you? Have you opened your heart to Jesus and begun to enjoy the incredible new life He wants to share with you?
It’s a Truth that’s been revealed. It’s a Fellowship to be enjoyed. And one more way John describes it. He says it’s also—
3. It’s a Love that’s to be shared.
John doesn’t actually use the word “love” in the first 4 verses but he will throughout the rest of the book. That’s why I say this is the most loving book in the New Testament. 37 times he uses the word love in this letter, which really does make it a love letter from the Father heart of God. But that’s a very different focus than John’s concerns earlier in his life.
Do you remember what Jesus’ nickname was for John and his brother when he first met them? He called them Boanerges, which translated means, “Sons of Thunder.” Why he would call them that? Was it because they talked so loud? No, it was because they had anger management problems! Luke tells us on one occasion that Jesus and the disciples entered a Samaritan village, but the people wouldn’t receive Him. So what did John and James ask? “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” (Luke 9:52-54) John was a hothead who’d just as soon turn you to toast if you got into a religious argument with him. Ever found yourself reacting like that?
But John changed! By the time he writes this letter, he’s become the most tender-hearted shepherd you could ever hope to meet. And in his later years, his sermons became very short and simple. He’d say to his people: “Little children, love one another; love one another; love one another, love one another.”
But don’t misunderstand! God doesn’t want His family to become a closed circle, for He not only wants a loving family; He wants a BIG loving family! And when I say a big, I don’t mean a big Christian organization where all the Christians flock to get their needs met. You know what they say about missionaries who gather in one comfortable spot to serve the Lord? I can say this because I’ve been a missionary. They’re like fertilizer, and what does fertilizer do when you gather it together in one big pile? It stinks. But if you spread it around, it does a tremendous amount of good. And the same is true of Christians in general. If your goal is comfort and finding a place where you can make a few friends and forget the rest of the world, God isn’t in that! And it won’t be long before your joy begins to dry up. For John says this isn’t just a truth to be revealed and a fellowship to be enjoyed. It’s also a love to be shared with others.
The late Oscar Hammerstein had it right! “A bell is not a bell ‘til you ring it; a song is not a song ‘til you sing it. Love in your heart wasn’t put there to stay. Love isn’t love ‘til you give it away.”
And that’s what John is saying here. Listen one more time to what he says in verses 3 and 4. “That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us (he’s widening the circle to include us and anybody else who reads this letter), and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full.” The point is: Sharing Christ’s love with others and seeing them find new life in Jesus brings joy to everyone in the process and puts everything in its right perspective. Someone has wryly noted, “There’d be a whole lot less whining in the pews if there were more babies crying in the spiritual nursery.” And how true that is! When new believers are being added to the church and mature believers are moving out to serve the Lord, there’s a joy and excitement that nothing in this world is able to extinguish.
I’m thinking right now, for example, of one of our experiences as missionaries in Romania. We were helping with 3 small churches. The largest averaged 100 in attendance. The newest averaged only 25 in attendance. So after praying about it with the pastor, we decided that one way we could help that church grow was by starting a Sunday School there on Sunday afternoon, because the church had a large basement that wasn’t being used at the time.
But with only 25 members, most of them elderly, there weren’t any adults to help us. So we started training several high school and college students from nearby churches, most of them with no ministry experience prior to this, and a few of them didn’t yet know the Lord in a personal way and accepted Christ in the process of training. And we poured our lives and love into those kids.
And then we started knocking on doors throughout the village, handing out invitations to our Sunday school. And you know within two months, we had 100 children and teenagers attending that little church of 25 members—45 of those children and teenagers going on to accept Christ as their Savior. And let me tell you the joy and excitement in that place was absolutely incredible!
That’s not to say we didn’t have problems. The Orthodox priest in that village was very unhappy with what we were doing and threatened to lower all the children’s grades who attended our Sunday school. Orthodox priests have great influence in the villages of Romania. But we prayed about it, and a few weeks later, his church burned down. We didn’t pray for that, but he did stop making problems for us after that. We also faced lots of interpersonal conflicts along the way. And yet, the work went forward and continues to this day, 17 years later.
And I pray we’ll experience the same joy and excitement and a lot of that new life and love in this place. For that’s the kind of spiritual family I want—one where the truth is revealed, we enjoy intimate fellowship with the Father and the Son, and where we share a winsome love not only with one another, but with those the Holy Spirit is ready to draw to Christ? Over the next several weeks, we’ll look at the factors involved in growing as a community of love like that.