This is our third week discussing the Apostle John’s letter to the early Christian Church. We call that letter 1 John. We have been using John’s letter of personal testimony to the church to help us understand our own personal testimony of who Jesus is and what Jesus means to us. Last week, I had summarized our testimony from the first two chapters of 1 John and said it might sound something along these lines: “I am a Christian and by that, I mean I know Jesus is the Son of God and that Jesus died on the cross to take my sins. This is grace and this is love. I now seek to obey Christ and be in fellowship with God. I know Jesus by living my life as Jesus would do by showing his love to others. But I am not perfect. So when I stumble in walking with Jesus in this life, Jesus is there to call me back to Him, and restore me to fellowship with God. I know without Jesus, I am lost.”
And so, we come to the third chapter of 1 John, and we want to explore John’s personal testimony and see how what John reveals to us might cause us to add to our testimony or alter what we have previously written.
Now John’s third chapter begins with testimony about our relationship with God through Jesus that grows with greater intimacy than he did in the two previous chapters. Up to this point, John had said that we had fellowship with God and Jesus Christ but now John refines that definition of fellowship making it much for personal. John said, “1 See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1a). John was reminding the early Christians that their relationship with God through Jesus was that of child to a father. But not just any father. Christians, John wrote, have a father who lavishes love on his children. There is a sense here of a father who just cannot help but love his children.
How might we get some sense of how John sees God toward those who have accepted the completed work of Jesus? I think a good picture of that sort of father who lavishes love comes from a story Jesus himself told that we have for us in the Gospel of Luke. That story is often entitled “The Prodigal Son,” which I believe is an incorrect title. I think a better title to that story, if a title was needed at all, would be “The Forgiving Father,” or for today, “The Father Who Lavishes Love.”
We know in this story that a man had two sons. The younger son demanded his inheritance from his father, even though the father was still alive. The father gave the boy his inheritance and the son left the father and began living life large, spending as though there was no tomorrow. Then, the money ran out and the boy became homeless, living and working among pigs. The boy decided to return to the father in the hopes his father would take him in as another one of the field workers the father employed and fed. Jesus said, “20 So he (the boy) got up and went to his father. But while he (the boy) was still a long way off, his father saw him (the boy) and was filled with compassion for him; he (the man) ran to his son, threw his arms around him (his son) and kissed him. 21 The son said to him (his father), ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate” (Luke 15:20-24).
The father in this story was looking, longing for the redemption of the child who had left his side. And when the father was in the distance that this child coming to home to him and the father could not wait for the child’s arrival. Instead, the father ran to his child and began to lavish love upon his child. He kissed his child and then dressed his son in the best robe available. The father put a ring on the child’s finger and sandals on his feet to show the father’s delight in having his child with him. Then the father began preparing a celebration party. The father was lavishing love. In Jesus’ story by whatever title, the father is to be seen as God, and we are to be seen as the returning child. The story gives us a sense of the joy God has when we come to Him through Christ. God is overjoyed at our redemption and membership into God’s family and therefore God wants to lavish his love upon us. John wanted his fellow churchgoers to remember this is the way God has treated them and will treat them for eternity.
John’s message would have resonated with the early churchgoers because family, particularly a child’s relationship with his or her father, was a key factor to their wellbeing. The father was responsible for the wellbeing of his family. The children were known by their father’s name. The social status of the children would not be higher than that of the child’s father. The father provided security, safety, nourishment, and identity. John’s message was that God will now provide the ultimate expression of security, safety, nourishment, and identity. John’s readers would have understood John’s words.
Sadly, John’s words may not resonate as well today since the number of mothers only family households has climb to about 8 million in 2022, that is about 15 million kids, or about 20% of all the children in the United States. Twenty percent of all children might have difficulty relating to having a father at all, and still others have difficulty relating to having a father who is loving.
But the good news is that God has not changed, and God will lavish love on all his children in the manner Jesus described in that homecoming scene. And because we become God’s children, we gain brothers and sisters. In my case, I was the youngest of four children and so I have a brother and two sisters, one of whom died in September of last year. I get along well with my siblings, but I see and talk with my biological brother and sister on occasion, not anywhere nearly as often as I have fellowship with my brothers and sisters who are found in the church, born of Christ. My greater relationship with my brothers and sisters in Christ, has been that way for the last 35 years or so and I expect it to remain that way until I die and for eternity. This is the nature of the Christian relationship. We have an immense family.
Now sometimes, to accept the relationship with Jesus, to become a child of God with many brothers and sisters, can cause issues and problems with our biological family. Sometimes people seek to accept Jesus but are discouraged and even threatened by their family members who have rejected Christ. Jesus once said of the that, “26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27). This is one of those disturbing statements of Jesus. We follow the first part of what Jesus said in that we must come to him and be prepared to be his disciples. But we struggle with the second part of what Jesus said in that it seems like Jesus is saying we must hate our entire family in the process. What Jesus was saying here was that we cannot let family loyalties of our family prevent us from following him. If our families would rather we not follow Jesus, then we must be willing to break with our families and their traditions and become children of God. In some ways, this would seem or feel like as though we had in fact decided to hate our biological families.
Jesus expressed this idea of breaking from the family, including one’s father in a rather cryptic response to the cost of discipleship. One of Jesus’ followers came to him and said, “‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ 22 But Jesus told him (the disciple), ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead’” (Luke 9:21b-22). Jesus’ response to this man at first sounds cold and uncaring. The man seemed to only want a few minutes to bury his father. But that is not likely what is going on here. What appears more likely to be the case is the man wanted to follow Jesus, but he knew that following Jesus is going to create problems with his father who is still alive because the father wanted none of his family to have anything to do with Jesus. So when the man says to Jesus, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father,” what he meant was that the man would be freed from family obligations to follow Jesus once his father has died and is buried. So, Jesus let me wait until my father is dead and buried before I follow after you. Jesus’ response then was, “Follow me (now), and let the dead (those who have rejected God’s Messiah) bury your father (who has rejected me) when he dies.” The exchange between this man and Jesus helps understand the significance of accepting God’s offer to become his child now even if our family of birth has rejected God’s offer.
John said that in the new family setting with God at the head and many brothers and sisters, there comes some new understandings. John wrote, “11 For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. 12 Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his (Cain’s) own actions were evil and his brother’s (Abel’s) were righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15 Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him” (1 John 3:11-15). John is equating hatred of another child of God as murder making the hater to be no different than Cain, humanity’s first murder who himself murdered his own brother, Abel.
John’s words are strong words indeed, but John’s words do not express an original concept. Jesus was said, “21 You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22). John’s words reconvey Jesus’ teaching that hatred toward a brother or sister in Christ will not be tolerated by God. It must be corrected. Jesus said, “ 23 Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). The message is simple. Jesus said before we presume to come and worship God our Father, we must first make things right with God’s other children. If there is a hatred toward another brother or sister in your life, do not wait to resolve it. Do it now.
John, for his part, also showed us that hatred comes not just in anger toward another brother or sister but also hatred comes in the form of indifference. Indifference is a lack of concern, interest, or sympathy. In fact, many believe that the opposite of love is not hatred. The opposite of love is indifference. John equates indifference to hatred. John began to explain that point first by describing love. John wrote, “16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). Jesus loved by giving his life. Jesus was not indifferent to you and me. Jesus saw that we could not help ourselves. Jesus saw we could not on our own conquer sin. We could not conquer death. We could not become children of God unless the matter of sin was dealt with once and for all. Jesus, who could gain nothing from us, was not indifferent to us, and so he gave his life to us in love.
John said, in recognition of and in imitation of Jesus’ love, “We ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:17-18). Hatred of a brother or sister in Christ can be expressed by indifference toward their circumstances. We cannot be indifferent toward one another, but we must act for the good of one another even if there is nothing for us to gain from acting good.
What then do we do with John’s words inspired by the Holy Spirit of God? How does what John talked about change our testimony about how Jesus has changed our lives? What is different about us because of Jesus? For me, the focus this week has been on family. We have become a child of God and part of a family with many brothers and sisters each of whom is to be committed to loving each other. We have become part of a family that seeks reconciliation not division. This is whole we are to be and if we are that way, then we have a powerful, bold, compelling story to tell that will resonate with all generations. Our testimony might sound something like this:
“I am a Christian, meaning I know Jesus is the Son of God, that Jesus died on the cross to take my sins, and that through Him I became God’s own child and part of a family devoted to loving one another. This is grace and this is love. I now seek to obey Christ, to be in fellowship with God, and to love my Christian brothers and sisters. I try to live like Jesus by striving to love to others who are in need as Jesus did offering comfort and compassion. But I am not perfect. Sometimes I miss the mark and do not act as Jesus asks. Fortunately, Jesus forgives me, restores me to fellowship with God, and shows me how to reconcile with others. I know without Jesus, I am lost.”
This week let’s focus on loving like Jesus. Let’s live out our testimony confident that doing so pleases our Father, God Almighty. Amen and Amen.