Last week we spoke about Jesus’ words that we must be born again of the Spirit to see the kingdom of God. We recalled from the first Chapter of the Gospel of John that, “12 To all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12). To be born again involved an action by the Holy Spirit to transform us from one creation into another.
When people speak about the Holy Spirit or if you are old enough to remember people spoke instead about the Holy Ghost, there is often a sense of confusion in the conversation. Often, it is not clear what exactly it means to be moved by the Holy Spirit. Along with this confusion, studies suggest that Americans are adopting in greater numbers the idea of spirituality without a relation to a particular theology.
In that construct of “spirituality,” many Americans believe in a higher power that may be the God of the Bible or may be Mother Nature or may be simply a philosophy of life. All those manifestations, God, nature, and philosophy are encompassed by the modern term “spirituality,” making it less certain what Christians mean when we speak of being transformed by the Holy Spirit.
Understanding what it means to be a Christian and the work of the Holy Spirit was also a concern for the early Christian church. Even during the life of the Apostles, it was a concern. The Apostle John, extremely late in his life, recognized this concern and authored letters to the churches he had pastored offering a deep understanding of spirituality as conveyed to him by Jesus.
We read from one of John’s letters today. We call that letter 1 John because it is organized in the Bible as the first of three such letters from John. By all appearances, John’s community was struggling because some of the members were preaching a spirituality that eliminated the person and the work of Jesus.
John wrote to the church, “20 You have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. 21 I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. 22 Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist—denying the Father and the Son. 23 No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:20-23).
People were preaching a spirituality without Jesus. The circumstances in John’s community are not unlike the circumstances we find in our nation today. People are preaching a spirituality without Jesus and even more than that, they are preaching a spirituality without God.
John shared with his community that, “26 I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. 27 As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him” (2 John 2:26-27).
John wanted his churches not to be led astray by people who were powerful speakers and persuasive personalities, but instead to hold onto to the simplicity of what they knew to be true in their heart about Christ. John did not suggest his church debate or challenge the spiritualists but instead hold onto what was real and remain in Christ.
I think sometimes there is a desire or “need-like” feeling in the Christian community to examine every spiritual fad or philosophy that comes along give it consideration and to incorporate parts of that spiritual thought that is not offensive into their own life. John was saying do not consider what is counterfeit.
Think of what John is saying this way. Suppose you were in a store, purchased an item for $9 and paid for it with a $50 bill. That $50 bill is all the money you have for the next few days and you still need to buy food with the change. The cashier hands you back $41 in change, two twenties and one dollar bill. You look at the two twenty-dollar bills and it is apparent to you that both bills are counterfeit.
The bills look perfectly fine except the image of the president is not that of President Jackson. Would you want to keep those counterfeit bills? I suspect the answer is “No.” You gave the cashier real money with which to meet your needs and received in exchange counterfeit money that is not usable. This is the key part. When a bill is counterfeit in one regard is counterfeit in all regards. You know is real and counterfeit with these bills and so you reject the counterfeit bills.
John was saying the same thing here. When we receive Jesus, we receive an anointing of his spirit that teaches us what is real. Because we know what is real, then we should reject everything that is counterfeit. We should not try to keep the parts of a counterfeit set of beliefs even if they sound nice. We are to use the anointing of the Spirit and reject entirely counterfeit beliefs in their entirety just as we would reject a counterfeit bill. We should keep no part of what is counterfeit but should continue to hold fast to what is real.
Now, from a practical standpoint we understood the $20 bills were counterfeit because they had an incorrect image on the bills. John, for his part, offered the church some practical markers to know if the spirituality they were following or listening to was real.
From our reading today, John said, “11 For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another” (1 John 3:11). John was bringing out a foundational point of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Namely, that from the very beginning the Jesus preached love and the Apostles taught love and that the prime mover, the source of love, in the Christian context, was God.
John wrote, “16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God sent Jesus in love not because He was compelled by an external force, since there is no force exerted on God. Instead, God sent Jesus in love, the most powerful force. We see the power of love repeatedly in the New Testament.
In the Gospel of Matthew, a religious teacher asked Jesus,“ 36 ‘Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ 37 Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment’” (Matthew 22:36-38). Love is the central theme.
In the Gospel of Mark, a rich young man, observant in the religious practices, asked Jesus what he must do to enter the kingdom of heaven. Mark wrote, “Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). Jesus loved the man and shared that the young man’s love of money overshadowed his love of God and his love for others.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said, “32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that” (Luke 6:32-33). The kind of love Jesus was talking about was sacrificial not self-serving.
The Apostle Paul famously wrote, “3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13:3-8). Love is a force that compels us toward a voluntary obedience to the inner spirit.
The sort of love Jesus and his apostles were talking about here was not a sentimental love. It was not an erotic love. It was not a utility love based on what each person could do for the other. The sort of love they were talking about here was a giving love. This type of love is based upon the regard for the other and not the incidentals such as how pleasant they are or how useful loving them may be to us. It is a love of the highest order and greatest virtue.
Now, here is a truth we need to keep in mind. Just because we believe Jesus’ teaching on love and receive even receive Jesus does not mean we are loveable or that we cease being annoying to one another. Becoming a Christian does not vaccinate us from becoming irritating, or too loud, or too passive, or too whiny, for the likes of another Christian. What it does mean is that we can love other believers simply because their faith is real.
How is it possible to love those who are at times may present themselves as unlikeable? We can love because when we receive Jesus, he gives us his Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is Jesus’ will working within us that allows us to love the unlikeable brother and sister in Christ.
When we extend love to another person, as Jesus described, we have not entered a two-person relationship. We have entered a three-person relationship. There is the one you are expressing love towards, there is you, and there is Jesus. Nothing in us would make it possible for us to be able to love in the manner of Jesus if it were not for the fact that his Holy Spirit is also in us, working in us and reaching out through us.
The first and most telling marker of Holy Spirit in anyone’s life is his or her capacity and demonstration of love for other believers. Our life with God becomes real when we receive Jesus, are anointed by the Holy Spirit, and we can love others who have likewise received Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
John contrasted the profound nature of the commitment to love other believers with profoundly disturbing story of the first human death. John wrote, “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.” The first recorded human death when one brother killed another. Love is the force of righteousness and light. Love is not found in the darkness of selfishness.
John’s point was that the love for other believers, other brothers and sisters, other children of God, is present within us because the Holy Spirit is within us. Therefore, John said, “15 Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him. 16 This is how we know what [that] love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:15-16). Love separates us from hate and indifference and that love is the force and power of Jesus’ all giving spirit.
As the words of the hymn repeat, “Jesus gave it all.” On the first Sunday of the month, we partake of the Lord’s Supper. It is then that we celebrate the type of love Jesus gave and John spoke about. We use bread and the cup as symbols of Jesus’ body and blood given for his followers. At the very moment Jesus shared that bread and cup, he knew then that one of the twelve, Judas, would betray him. Jesus knew one of the twelve, Peter, would deny him. Jesus knew the other ten would desert him. Jesus saw their individual and collective need to experience the love of God.
On the night of Jesus’ own betrayal and arrest, Jesus loved in a practical manner. John wrote we must do likewise. John wrote, “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). Having compassion on brother or sister and then acting is the love Jesus shared that evening of his betrayal and arrest. Jesus loved his apostles and gave to them because the love he was expressing was based upon the regard for them and not the incidentals such as how pleasant or loyal they were or how useful loving them may be to Jesus.
We cannot love like this absent the Holy Spirit. We cannot love like this believing in some amorphous higher power or the spirit of Mother Nature. Those belief systems no matter how appealing to the ears they may sound are counterfeit. The world genuinely dislikes Christians when they say things like that.
John forewarned his community of such dislike. John wrote, “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” (1 John 3:13-14). The world does not understand Christians who love but the prospect of Christian love, even though it is hated, does stir the hearts of the unbelievers.
John then unlocked for us the key of knowing the workings of the Holy Spirit within us. John wrote, “19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence” (1 John 3:19). John was setting the stage for his community which includes us to know that the Holy Spirit was working within us and that we were at peace with that; meaning we were not working or fighting against the Holy Spirit. John centered his thoughts and words on our heart as an illustration of peace within us.
John began with this phrase, “20 If our hearts condemn us.” What does he mean? John began with the assumption our hearts were attuned to God will through the Holy Spirit. This means we are presupposed to love as God would love. When we do not love as God would love, then, as I can attest, we feel a discomfort that can be felt not just in our mind but in our chest, in our heart. When we have been unloving toward a brother or sister, there is often a physiological change in our body. John point was in that experience, the heart, attuned to God, is condemning our actions. “20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:20). We know in that moment of disharmony that we have not maintained the peace of the Spirit through love.
The Apostle Paul saw the intended harmony of a Christian this way, “
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). When we allow the Holy Spirit to work there is within us peace and joy. Our hearts are settled.
John described it this way, “21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, [if we are at peace and have joy then] we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him” (1 John 3:21-22).
A true spiritual experience comes from God. All other forms of spirituality, even if they make us friends of the world or give us a feel-good feeling, will fail at the test of sacrificial love that approaches that expressed by Jesus. We should accept no counterfeit spiritual experiences or philosophies, either in whole or in part.
John gave us this conclusion, “23 [And this is his command: to] believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24 The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us” (1 John 3:23-24). Let us pray.