Actions Speak Louder than Words

The Bible does not offer long winded definitions about what love means. The reason is due in part to the more precise language used in both the Old and New Testaments (Hebrew and Greek). In English however, our word ‘love’ is defined by its context. For example, I love ice-cream, I love my dog and I love my wife. You would not for one moment think I loved each exactly in the same way or to the same degree.

The Bible prefers to give illustrations of what God’s love looks like in action. For example, there is the parable of the farmer searching for his lost sheep (Matt 18:12-14); the husband who is willing to take back his adulterous wife (Hosea ch. 1), the father who waits at the farm gate daily, looking down the road into the distance waiting for his wayward son to return (Luke 15:11-32). In our reading of 1 John 4:1-21 today, John does not give a definition of God’s love; he also prefers to tell us how this love is demonstrated. Actions, as the saying goes, speak louder than words.

God, John tells us, showed his love by sending his Son into our world, a world which is rejecting him and disinterested in him, so that we might live through him (1 John 4:9). Love is demonstrated by God making the first move; he sought us out before we were interested in him, and he gave his only Son to atone for our sins (4:10). The sacrifice we see in Christ’s death is the hallmark of genuine love. For this reason, John calls us to express our love for each other as God has for them (4:11). In contrast, those who have split from John’s churches, do not. Love is the mark of a genuine disciple of Christ (John 13:34-35).

Love is the Hallmark of a True Believer

It sounds pretty easy doesn’t it? Love one another. John’s letter (1 John 3:11-20), merely reinforces what Jesus himself had said in John 13:34. One minister I heard of stood up on Sunday morning and preached just this text for his sermon. Then he sat down. The next week, he preached the same message, ‘love one another’ and sat down. By the third Sunday, his congregation were getting uneasy. Then he did it again. Finally they understood. They had to actually practice what they had heard. Love is shown by our actions (1 John 3:16-17). The church became transformed and grew.

John makes a contrast between the person who loves their fellow Christian and those who claim to be a member of the church, but hate their fellow believer (1 John 3:12-15). They are like Cain who hated his brother Abel and murdered him. To hate is as good as murder. It also shows that the person who hates, remains in a place of death, not living in the life of God through his Spirit.

Why does John state things so bluntly and starkly? Because how we speak to each other, how we treat each other and how we fail to care for each other, indicate our love or lack of love. Those who speak ill and mistreat their fellow believer, do not demonstrate that they have passed from ‘death to life’ (1 John 3:14).

Love is the hallmark of a true believer. Jesus said: ‘By your love people will know you are my disciples.’ (John 13:34) No love, no indication that you are a disciple of Christ, and this in turn, is no indication that you really belong to God, or live in Christ. (1 John 3:23-24)

The World and the Love of God

For many years, Australia’s economy has grown without a recession. To all appearances, our prosperity has increased (if we ignore the unemployed and poor). Living in the ‘most liveable city in the world’, Melbourne, is good, and people are generally law abiding and neighbourly. It might come as a surprise then, to read John’s view of our society and our relationship to it. He is negative about it and critical of those who ‘love’ it. He describes our society as ‘the world’ (1 Jn 2:15). His use of this description refers to a quality within our society which is in rebellion against God and coolly indifferent to him. It is not a criticism of the material world that we live in, or else Christ himself would not have taken on our flesh (materiality), and lived amongst us. It is criticism of the spirit which animates our society and all those who do not belong to God. The ‘world’s values’ are expressed by our preoccupation and love of things and pleasure (1 Jn 2:16). It is one which celebrates ruthless ambition and success, yet it is indifferent to the poor and disadvantaged (1 Jn 3:17). The world, for John, stands in stark contrast to the love we are to have for God. A love for this world creates within a disciple of Christ a divided loyalty to opposing and irreconcilable claims.

Those who do the will of God will live for ever; those who do not, dwell in the darkness, and will perish with this world (1 Jn 2:17). But, as God’s children who are called to live in the expectation and hope of seeing Christ, this hope leads them to purify themselves from this world’s empty promises, so that we might not be ashamed when we meet Christ again (1 Jn 3:1-6).

What Are We to Believe?

In an age, long, long ago, before Christianity was legally recognised by the Roman Emperor, before there were church buildings and Christians met in homes and huddled outside after sundown on the Sunday when their work was finished; before dioceses existed with a bishop to oversee them, before there was a pope, before there was general acceptance of the Apostles Creed and what books were considered orthodox and complied into what we would now call, ‘The New Testament’; the fledgling early church relied on prophets, teachers, itinerant evangelists and the ‘memoirs of the apostles’ (the NT letters), which were read at their church services. A sense of orthodox ‘tradition’ guided local church leadership in their practice and doctrine (1 Cor 15:3; 2 Thess 2:15)

But it was a free for all religious world, with charismatic Christian leaders establishing their own churches. Often they broke away from a church which could trace its foundation to one of the apostles, or a second generation leader who had been instructed by that apostle (Heb 2:2-3). What was to be done when a group of Christians leaves an established church over a disagreement about who they believed Jesus Christ to be? How could a Christian identify a ‘true’ church from one which was heretical and had ‘dodgy’ practices and beliefs? Does it matter? Today, we face the same issue. What are we to believe? Is the church down the road part of the big ‘Church’ or just doing their own thing? Does the behaviour by people in any church tell us something about their beliefs? John believes it does. These issues are what the First Letter of John deals with.

Telling Evidence

Differences between eyewitnesses are by no means an uncommon phenomenon.  It makes for good drama in a criminal trial on the television.  The evidence of the various eye witnesses is tested under examination until a general impression or conclusion is reached about a particular event and the reliability of the eyewitness’s account or the guilt of he accused. When we read both Mark’s account, the other three Gospels, the report by Luke in Acts 10:34-48, also Paul’s account (1 Cor 15), we are left with witnesses who collaborate each other’s testimony, even if they differ in certain details. It would be in fact be suspicious, if each witness’s account agreed exactly. The discrepancies are good evidence that we do not have in Mark’s account (ch 16:1-9), a carefully fabricated one of deceit, or collaboration designed to pass off an agreed on position. When eyewitness accounts agree, it is often a sign that the course of justice is being perverted.

One telling piece of evidence of the truthfulness of the eyewitnesses is that they are women. It is this feature which the early Church would not be likely to invent. Entrenched prejudice existed in both Judaism and Greco-Roman culture due to patriarchal attitudes toward women. Yet it is women who are the first eyewitnesses of the empty tomb, not the disciples.

When we remember the resurrection of Christ, it does fill us with hope: death does not have the final say. We will be like Christ when he comes again, as he has shown in his own resurrection, that he has the power to transform our bodies, so they are like his glorious body (Phil 3:21; 1 John 3:2).

Jesus Prepares for his Death

Before the big events in our lives, we prepare. From the arrival of our first child, to their first day at school, we prepare them (as much as ourselves), to ensure the transition will go smoothly. Getting married is another big event requiring months of planning and preparation, as does moving house, and for some, downsizing. But what about the final stage of life – especially when it is coming and must come and cannot be pushed away or denied? Jesus faced the fact that he would die young – but for a reason, not a cause. (He is no anti-hero like James Dean.) In Mark’s Gospel, we see Jesus preparing for the inevitability of his death.

On numerous occasions, he tried to prepare his disciples but they received this news with disbelief, even anger (Mk 8:31; 9:30; 10:32-34). They had a different idea in mind about their future with Jesus. It was one of glory, sitting on thrones next to him and ruling over the Israel (10:35-44). A few ‘got it’ though. They knew that not only death would come too early to Jesus, but it would be a violent one. A woman anoints him with fragrant oil as preparation for his death (Mk 14:3-9). Yet Jesus knew his death would be a meaningful one – and tried to prepare his disciples by taking the symbolism of the Passover Lamb, with its bread and wine, and applied it to his own (Mk 12-26). Jesus then tried to prepare Peter for his failure and denial (vs 27-31). Finally, in the brief time remaining, he sought to prepare himself in the quietness of prayer in the garden of Gethsemane (vs 32-42). His death is not too soon, or for a cause, but a reason: to die as our Passover Lamb, for our sins and to redeem us from death so we may be God’s treasured possession.

God Gives us a “New Heart”

We are familiar with the expression, ‘a broken heart’, or ‘a heart ache’, to describe the profound depth of emotions associated with longing and grief. Conversely, a young man courting a woman is said to ‘win her heart’, and those who are said to have ‘no heart’, have no sympathy. We might also say, ‘take heart’, meaning, to have courage or enthusiasm. There is its opposite as well, ’to have my heart in my mouth’, to describe being frightened. I like the expression in particular, ‘to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve’, meaning, to reveal one’s feelings or intentions.

There is a particular problem with the heart though: it can be deceitful. We are often unable to see the deeper motivations which others see in us (Jeremiah 17:9-10). God himself can see the true condition of our heart with its mixed motives and fickle commitment to him. Despite Israel’s well intentioned motives to love God wholeheartedly (there’s another use of the word!), she kept on breaking her commitment to him and took other lovers – the idols which surrounded Israel and trusted in her military alliances for protection. Her heart was deceitful; she adhered to God’s law superficially, but her heart was far from him (Isaiah 29:13). This cold hearted, superficial religious adherence, dogged Israel in the time of Jesus too, and he condemned it, quoting the Isaiah passage (Mark 7:6-7).

What is the solution then, to our tendency to be cold-hearted toward God, to call on him and use him in a time of need as a convenient prop or idol who will save us, only to ignore him until the next disaster strikes?

The solution is that God will give us a new heart, one of flesh,  not stone (Jeremiah 31:33-34). This is God’s promise to us, and also a sign of the new agreement (covenant) he makes with us in Jesus Christ. It will be a different covenant from the one Israel entered into under Moses however. The Law will be written in our hearts, not on tablets of stone, like it was under Moses (2 Cor 3:3). How is this achieved? By the work of the Holy Spirit. He indwells us and changes us and takes what the Law prescribed, and outworks their values in our daily lives (2 Cor 3:17-18). We are transformed by His work, and love God ‘wholeheartedly’. The trick, like in marriage, is to daily spend some time with the one you love, and to make a determined decision not to be tempted to go after someone else.

Light and Darkness, Death and Life, Evil and Truth

There is a division which runs through the people of this world.

It is not the division between rich and poor; between men and women; white and black; educated and uneducated; the religious and non-religious; those who identify as Christian and those who don’t. It is a division which began in the past, is being made now in this very city and will one day be made manifest. This division is made by us, often without our awareness that we are making it. Sometimes the division is unintentionally made by those angry and feeling justified to blame others for the condition they find themselves living in.

This division is not one which God wants; nor is it one which the church community will rejoice in or leaves it feeling smug, assured of its superiority because it believes it stands on the right side of the division which runs through all humanity. Quite the reverse; often God’s people work hard to prevent this division from occurring. In hope and against the reality they know it will occur, they work tirelessly to ensure that all will have the opportunity to be aware of why the division occurs and a person’s participation in it.

John’s Gospel describes the division as one between light and darkness; death and life; evil and truth. (John 3:14-21) What is this division? It is the division over Jesus Christ which occurs in the heart of every person. No-one can remain sitting on the fence, indifferent, postulating that some other religious figure or political philosophy will save us. The coming of Jesus into this world, brought with it a division, the awareness that without Christ we are lost, unless we look to him to save us.

The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments are often viewed negatively as a series of ‘Thou shalt nots’. This view sees them as a control mechanism for our behaviour, a standard which marks a line between what we are tempted to do and our committing the act. But this misses their point. They are not primarily meant to control our behaviour or convict us of lawbreaking, which they certainly do as the New Testament makes clear. They are to state in a minimal way, what God’s expectations are of his people who he has redeemed. The phrase: “I am the LORD who brought you out of Egypt out of the land of slavery.” (Ex 20:2), is a way of saying: ‘I am the God who has redeemed you from slavery because I love you – now you belong exclusively to me. Therefore, this is how you are to act, so you reflect my values and priorities in life.’

Seen from this angle, the 10 Commandments are a guide on how to live according to God’s ways which will bring life, community cohesion and peace to those who accept the LORD as their God.

The first four commandments express how we are to demonstrate our love to God; the remaining six commandments show how we are to honour one another in love. We are to honour our parents, to honour human life by not committing murder, to honour marriage by not going outside of it to commit adultery; to honour private property by not stealing; to honour the truth by not slandering a person, which is to destroy their reputation by our gossip; to honour contentment and not covet your neighbour’s things or status or wealth.

What Christians overlook when they speak as if the 10 Commandments are irrelevant or say they are superseded by Christ’s law of love, is that they ignore the fact that virtually the entire New Testament teaching about our behaviour as God’s people is based on these commandments. Love is, as Paul highlighted, the fulfilment of the Law (Romans 13:8-10).

Are You Prepared to Follow Jesus and Pick Up Your Cross?

Peter, the well-known disciple of Jesus, grasped what the other eleven had missed. When Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, they speculated, reporting what the crowds thought about Jesus. But Peter had the right answer. “The Christ,” he said (Mark 8:29). At this point, with Peter’s confession fresh in their minds, Jesus began to teach them that he had to be rejected, killed and three days later would rise again. The Messiah, Jesus wanted them to understand, would not be the a military ruler and priest of popular expectations who would create a new and purified Israel.

Peter, on hearing Jesus’ redefinition of what a Messiah looked like – a suffering and rejected one, began to correct Jesus and objected to his explanation. Jesus corrected him. What Peter lacked was the insight to see Jesus and the purpose of his mission. Peter wanted to join a movement that provided fame and success (Mark 10:28). The reward he craved for the cost of following Christ would be validated when Jesus sat on his throne with the other eleven seated next to him. Jesus corrects this misplaced expectation (Mark 8:34-38). To follow Jesus would mean to pick up one’s own cross, like Jesus carried his own. The cross was a symbol of shame, the naked display of Roman power, a punishment that put fear into onlookers. Peter lacked the insight to see that Jesus suffered and died under the power of Rome, to display the power of God in his weakness. Paul however, understood this (2 Cor 12: 9-10 & 1 Cor 4:9-13). Are you prepared to follow Jesus and pick up your cross? Or do you serve him to gain validation or to gain what he potentially offers in the popular imagination?