The Bible states: “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 … We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:10, 19).
We didn’t love God, but He loved us. We didn’t deserve this gift of love. In fact, we proved by our actions to be God’s enemies. Every gift, every blessing He offered, we threw back in His face. He offered affection; we countered with rebellion. Yet He proved the greatness of His love by continuing to lavish it on us in spite of our rebellion, even sending His Son to take the punishment for our sins.
Just as the sun is our only source of daylight, God is our only course of love. Sun rays reflect from all objects they strike, permeating the air with light and making it possible for us to see. In a similar way, God’s love enters the world and reflects off our hearts, making it possible for us to love Him and others. We have no inborn, innate capacity, no self-originating store of love to give. We can give only what we receive from Him.
When we receive God’s love, it does not merely lie inert on our hearts as a warm, fuzzy feeling. That same Son who gave His life for us also shows us a new way to live. Through the indwelling Holy Spirit, He lives within us and makes it possible for us to return love to Him as He originally created us to do. Because He first loved us, we are enabled and empowered to love Him in return.
Taking this a little further we will see…
- Because God loves us, we can love ourselves
- Because God loves us, we can love one another
- Because God loves us, we can love our neighbour
- Because God loves us, we can love our enemies
So simple but not easy. So basic and yet we often fail to adequately respond to His love. So foundational as we simply take the love we have encountered and experienced and love others. His love changes everything. And will change the world as we walk in His love and give it away.
Because God loves us we can love ourselves
Matthew 19:19 states, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
So, because God loves us, we can love ourselves. Sounds simple. However, for some, there is no person more difficult to love, to forgive, to tolerate than the person who appears before us in the mirror every morning. Yet when Jesus says, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” the clear implication is that proper self-love is good. In fact, it is necessary. We will never love outside of ourselves as long as we’re at war within ourselves. We cannot give to others what we refuse to accept and thus don’t possess.
To have contempt for someone Christ died for (including yourself) is an insult to God. He died for you, and you are precious to Him, so you must regard yourself as highly valued — not arrogantly, but realistically. Paul instructs the believer “… not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3). We can have personal peace because God loves us. We are new creatures in Christ; the old is gone, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17).
The whole notion of “self-love” has been seriously abused in the self-absorbed, narcissistic culture in which we live. And even some well-intentioned Christians have used the term “self-love” in ways that can be confusing.
But what did Christ mean by loving ourselves? He simply meant that we are to love ourselves the same way God loves us — as creatures made in His image, for His purposes, and fo His glory. To love ourselves as God loves us means to seek after His best for our lives; we conform ourselves to His expectations; we live according to His guidelines; and we learn, over time, to yield our natural, carnal impulses to the control and counsel of the Spirit of God in us. When we do that, we begin to live functional, instead of dysfunctional lives. We find peace and joy — indeed, all of the fruit of the Holy Spirit begins to characterize our lives (Galatians 5:22-23).
Once we have a proper self-love, based on our identity in Christ and the fact that we are being gradually remade in His image, then the good part begins. We can become distributors of the most powerful force in the universe — the love of God for His children. We can love one another with the same love we love ourselves.
Because God loves Us we can love one another (Christians)
Because God loves us, We can love one another. 1 John 4:11 states, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
Here is the progression of love we have explored so far: God first loves us, which empowers us to love Him in return, and then to love ourselves. This progression is to continue. Loving ourselves is a necessary step, but we don’t live in isolation; we live in community. As we look through the lens of love at the faces surrounding us, we see them in an entirely new light. These are people for whom Christ died. Now that we have received God’s love, we are empowered to love, and we even want to love. We long to embody Christ and take His love to those around us.
The New Testament is an “us” book written for people together, not for individuals in isolation. This becomes apparent when we consider the “one another” concept that is so significant in the New Testament Epistles. That phrase occurs some sixty-one times, almost all of which have to do with how Christians relate to one another. For example, we read that we are to pray for one another, encourage one another, greet one another, and forgive one another. These statements form a kind of road map of godly relationships, showing the little highways of caring that connect us. All those roads lead to this destination: “Love one another.”
In Jesus’ last great address to His disciples, delivered in that Upper Room with His closest companions, “Love one another” was a major theme. In fact, He established it as “a new commandment” (John 13:34-35). What was new about it? It was the fact that the source of all love had personally modeled the way to love. Jesus practiced “loving one another” perfectly in His three years with those men. He cut a highway of love through the wilderness of a broken world and demonstrated the sacrificial nature of love for others.
Now, on His last night on earth before His crucifixion, Jesus urges His disciples to carry this love forward. He repeats the commandment (John 15:12-13) and tells His disciples (and us as well) to imitate Him in our love for one another. “I have shown you My love,” He is saying. “Now you follow My lead. You love one another in the same way.” He is identifying love for others as the trademark of His true disciples. In other words, people will know we are Christians by our love.
Peter, who was present for this discussion, got the point. Later, he wrote, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). Peter learned the truth of this verse through a bitter experience he would never forget. In a moment of fear, he denied that he even knew Jesus. The overcoming power of love was driven home when Jesus later sought him out and forgave him.
It’s obvious that Jesus’ command to love one another also deeply impressed John. After reiterating the commandment twice in chapter 3 of his first letter (1 John 3:11, 23), he says in chapter 4, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us (1 John 4:11-12).
In other words, God is invisible, but His love flowing through us makes His presence tangible to others, much like the rustling leaves gives tangible evidence to the presence of the wind. When we truly love, John says, God lives within us and builds up our capacity for love, making it more powerful and dynamic all the time.
Clearly Peter and John came away from that evening meal with Jesus with the impression that love was their lifelong assignment. They were to reach the nations with the message, and love would be the wind that carried it from God to an inattentive world. If we love, it will get people’s attention. If we don’t they will never listen.
According to John, there is no alternative to love. It is no less than a litmus test for our faith. He who does not love his brother is simply “not of God” (1 John 3:10). Even more clearly, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love (1 John 4:8). Twelve verses later, unloving believers are called “liars.” Such people are walking “in darkness” (2:11) and abiding “in death” (1 John 3:14).
Loving one another, in other words, is not a discipline reserved for advanced Christians or a gift belonging to naturally tolerant people. It’s not an option or an extra or a frilly wrapping to make religion more attractive. Love is the heartbeat of our faith; and if we detect no pulse, there is no faith.
In his book, The Mark of a Christian, the late Francis Schaeffer pointed out that Jesus gives the world the right to judge believers by their love for one another:
“Jesus says, “By this shall all men know that you are My disciples, if you have love one for another.” In the midst of the world, in the midst of our present dying culture, Jesus is giving a right to the world. Upon His authority He gives the world the right to judge whether you and I are born-again Christians on the basis of our observable love towards all Christians.
That’s pretty frightening. Jesus turns to the world and says, “I have something to say to you. On the basis of my authority, I give you a right: you may judge whether or not an individual is a Christian on the basis of the love he shows to all Christians.”
In other words, if people come up to us and cast in our teeth the judgment that we are not Christians because we have not shown love towards other Christians, we must understand that they are only exercising a prerogative which Jesus gave them.
And we must not get angry. If people say, “You don’t love other Christians,” we must go home, get down on our knees, and ask God whether or not they are right. And if they are, then they have a right to have said what they said.
This means our number one priority in fulfilling our commission to bring the world to Christ is to love one another.
This can turn out to be a pretty tough task. We can heartily agree with one Christian writer who describes how nothing in the world is more important or more difficult than truly loving other people:
That odorous person with the nasty cough who sat next to you on the plane, shoving his newspaper into your face; those crude louts in the neighbourhood with the barking dog; that smooth liar who took you in so completely last week — by what magic are you supposed to feel towards these people anything but revulsion, distrust and resentment, and justified desire to have nothing to do with them?
Of course it’s possible to put up with people. We can manage to keep our mouths shut, perhaps, when certain folks annoy us. But Christ did not command us to “put up with one another.” He specifies love, and love is not passive or restrained. It’s a powerful, aggressive, positive force that serves, affirms, cares, persists, and gives of itself. We all agree that we should love. But given the presence of all these unlovable people who surround us, how exactly do we get there?
The Bible answers that question…
- We love one another by edifying (building up) one another (Ephesians 4:29)
- We love one another by encouraging one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
- We love one another by entertaining one another – being hospitable (1 Peter 4:9)
In Love – Build Each Other Up
The Bible states that we love one another by edifying one another. Ephesians 4:29 “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.”
We can better understand the word edification if we take it apart and put it back together again. In Greek the word is oikodome, which is a combination of two words: oikos, meaning “house”; and dome, meaning “to build.” So to edify means “to build the house.”
Paul took this common Greek term and applied it metaphorically. We are called to edify, to build up one another just as a house is built brick by brick. We are called to promote spiritual development in other believers.
Along the roads of our culture we encounter decrepit, decaying lives. They can’t fix themselves; they need people filled with the love of Christ to come along side and perform the ministry of holy renovation. Sadly, I have seen too many churches filled with demolishers instead of renovators. They judge, they exclude, they condemn. Like residents of exclusive neighbourhoods, they tolerate no substandard structures within their boarders. Tearing things down requires no thought, no skills, no care. A few angry vandals can do it. We who have received the love of Christ must be builders and not demolishers.
Even believers who have been renovated need continual repair. The building that is my life needs your hammer and nails, and the building that is yours needs mine. We must help each other simply because God designed the church to work that way.
We flourish when we are under the loving care of each other and we wither away when we try to go it alone. We must be about the intention business of renovating one another. As Paul said, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding … So also you seek to abound for the edification (building up) of the church.”
Erwin McManus observes that we seem to have lost sight of this core value of the church, allowing the self-absorption of the world to infiltrate the body of Christ. People want to talk only about themselves, and they’re interested only in the parts of the church experience that do something for them. They seek tingling sensations in worship, classes that help them cope with their problems, and sermons that make them feel good about themselves. It’s a consumer mentality based on what’s in it for me. Though we are sheep needing to be fed, we must also learn to be shepherds who feed others.
McManus pleads for us to get away from the “meet my needs” mentality, stop church-shopping, and start looking for ways to minister to others. Our battle cry should be, “We are the church, here to serve a lost and broken world” and not “What can your church do for me?” Just as we are a physically obese society, we may also be a spiritually gluttonous one fixated on consuming rather than serving.”
The ultimate tool for building one another up is the unchanging Word of God. The immortal book has changed lives for thousands of years, and it has lost none of its power. When we feel ineffective and fear that we have no encouragement to offer those whose heads are down and hearts are broken, maybe the problem is that our Bibles are closed.
In Love – Encourage One Another
“Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
The New Testament word most often translated “encouragement” is parakaleo. This term comes from two Greek words: para, meaning “alongside of”; and kale, meaning “to call.” When people come alongside us during difficult times to give us renewed courage, a renewed spirit, and renewed hope — that’s encouragement. That is love, pure and refined.
William Barclay tells us that parakaleo is a call to arms, a rallying cry from a sergeant leading us into battle. The encourager sees hesitation and fear and he comes alongside and says, “Follow me.” He exhorts ordinary people to perform noble deeds. Life, Barclay says, “is always calling us into battle.” And for us, it is parakletos, the Holy Spirit, who leads and encourages us to move from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
The most powerful source of encouragement is the Bible. Paul tells us that those ancient chapters of the Old Testament inspire and encourage us for today’s living. “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). The New Testament also is jam-packed with inspiration and encouragement for Christians. It contains a number of passages exhorting us to encourage other. For example:
“And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
“But exhort [encourage] one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13).
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
We are to soak up God’s Word in order to maintain our own courage and keep in step with the Spirit. And we are to be diligent in passing on that encouragement to others.
In his book, A Simple Blessing, singer Michael W. Smith tells of Justin, a high school freshman who was walking home from school one day when he saw a group of students bullying a smaller boy. They knocked him to the ground, scattering his books, sending his glasses flying. Justin started to walk on, but when he saw the hurt in the boy’s eyes, he stopped, found his glasses, and helped him pick up his books. The boy was so overloaded with books that Justin offered to help him carry them home. On the way, he learned that the boy, Kyle, was a recent transfer to the school, had no friends, and was often harassed by those bullies.
Out of sheer pity, Justin invited Kyle to come over and toss a football with him. The two became fast friends, and at the end of his senior year Kyle emerged as valedictorian of the graduating class. As he began his valedictory speech, Justin was stunned. Kyle told of his early misery. Uprooted, friendless, bullied, and hopeless, he had decided to end his life and was taking his books home so his mother would not have to clean out his locker. But this time when the bullies attacked, Justin came along with kindness and encouragement, which turned Kyle away from despair and gave him a new grip on life and hope.
Encouraging words carry a special power, and it’s a power you can exercise every day. Think of those around you who may have a deep need for one word of positive inspiration that you, in the service of God, could provide. How many of these opportunities do we tragically overlook every day? I am constantly thankful for those who encourage me in my life. I can think of many times when someone sent me a note or called me to offer a word of loving encouragement precisely when my spirit was dragging and I was down and almost out. Their words lifted me from drudgery, fueled me in the spirit, and spurred me onward. Encouragement puts the wind in our sails.
In Love – Be Entertaining (Hospitable)
“Be hospitable to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9)
I don’t know what you thought when you read the word entertaining in this third way to love one another. You may have begun to put on your dancing shoes, pick up your harmonica, or dust off your old Reader’s digest book of jokes. That’s because we have lost the primary meaning of the word. Today, entertainment brings to mind “amusement.” The classic sense of the word, however, has more to do with the ministry of hospitality.
Paul uses an interesting word when he encourages the Roman Christians to be “given to hospitality” (Romans 12:13). Given is the word for “pursue.” It is an active, energetic idea. The Church father Origen wrote about Paul’s use of the word for “pursue” in this context:
“How finely does Paul sum up the generosity of the man who pursues hospitality in one word! For by saying that hospitality is to be pursued, he shows that we are not just to receive the stranger when he comes to us, but actually to inquire after, and look carefully for strangers, to pursue them and search them out everywhere.”
I like Paul’s phrase “given to hospitality.” It’s not something we force ourselves to do; we are driven by a passion for the welfare of others. We go above and beyond the required minimum and dedicate ourselves to meeting the needs of those who come into our midst.
When we are given to hospitality, we see beyond the road-ragged clothing and travel dust on our guests and recognize them as eternal creatures whom God loves and created in His own image. C. S. Lewis eloquently made this point in his famous observation from The Weight of Glory:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest, most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature to which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You never talk to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are all mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.
It’s an astonishing observation. How would we treat other people if we fully realized that we were “helping each other to one or the other of these destinations”? Would we offer more hospitality? Would we be a bit more patient with people in traffic? With coworkers? Family members? It’s not always easy, but Peter tells us to muster up a little humility and do it: “Be hospitable to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9).
You may feel that you stack up pretty well in this department. Most of us believe ourselves to be loving people. When I preach a “love one another” sermon, I never get the idea that people think I am stepping on their toes. The first generation of Christians in the early church probably felt the same way. Yet Paul challenged them to increase and perfect their love for one another. To the Philippians he wrote: “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more” (Philippians 1:9). He wrote a similar message to the Christ-followers of Thessalonica: “You yourselves are taught by God to love one another … But we urge you, brethren, that you increase more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10).
Alexander Maclaren, one of the great preachers of nineteenth-century England, described what happened when the followers of Jesus began to live out His commandment to love one another. Maclaren’s oft-quoted words have been called the most eloquent portrayal of Christian love found outside Scripture itself. He first described the terrible gulfs of language, nationality, gender, and philosophy that separated people in the ancient world. It was a world of unveiled hostility. Then Jesus came and told us to love one another:
“Barbarian, Scythian, bond and free, male and female, Jew and Greek, learned and ignorant clasped hands and sat down at one table, and felt themselves all one in Christ Jesus. They were ready to break all other bonds, and to yield to the uniting forces that streamed out from His Cross. There never had been anything like it. No wonder that the world began to babble about sorcery, and conspiracies, and complicity in unnameable vices. It was only that the disciples were obeying the new commandment, and a new thing had come into the world — a community held together by love and not by geographical accidents or linguistic affinities, or the iron fetters of the conqueror … The new commandment made a new thing, and the world wondered.”
Because God loves us we can love our neighbours
“And Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).
Because God loves us, we can love our neighbours!
I’m confident that every believer knows that we Christians are commanded to love our neighbour. And most understand that this does not mean just the family next door. Who does it include? When Jesus was asked that question, He answered by telling the parable of the good Samaritan. Your neighbour is anyone you encounter who has a need that you can fulfill.
Here Jesus greatly expands the field on which our love is to operate. Love is not limited to God, yourself, your family, or your church. It must be freely extended to everyone you encounter. No longer must you confine your love only to those who love you and can repay it; it must be given even to those who can never repay it.
Godly love changes the rules for loving one another. We don’t worry about the results because we have no motive other than to spread the love that God has given to us. We are not manipulating or trying to earn points or even loving for our own personal gratification. We are simply treating others in the light of how God sees them. We can love from sheer bounty, just as we have been loved. We become channels of this new living water.
The apostle Paul knew just how critical our neighbour is to the authenticity of our Christian life. He twice repeated Jesus’ command in his letters. To the Romans he wrote, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Romans 13:8-9). And to the Galatians, he stressed the overarching importance of this command: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14)
Because God loves us we can love our enemies
Matthew 5:43-45, 48 “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust … You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
So far we have seen the circle of love expand step-by-step. First we love God, then ourselves, then our fellow believers, and then our neighbours. Now Jesus tells us to take one more step and love our enemies. This is where it gets interesting. For many, it is a step too far.
Knowing the difficulty in loving our enemies, Jesus gives us an excellent rationale for the command. He says that if we love only our friends and family, we are no different from unbelievers who don’t know Jesus or His commandments. What we can offer that they cannot is love for our enemies.
If I knew the name of your worst enemy and suggested that you go serve that person in some good way, you might say, “I just can’t!” But Jesus knows it can be done because He did it. He found a way to love that race of enemies known as humanity, and we must be eternally grateful that He did.
Christ could have said, “Those men are driving nails into My hands. They’ve beaten Me, gambled for My clothing, and deeply grieved those who love Me. I just can’t love them!” No one would have blamed Him — or remembered Him.
Instead, from the agony of the cross, Christ looked down on those who had brutalized Him and asked God to forgive them (Luke 23:34). Stephen, the first Christian martyr, did the same (Acts 7:60). Peter points out that Jesus, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). Because Jesus loved His enemies, we live forever. Because Jesus loved His enemies, we can love ours.
God’s love …
Paul, who built friendships with his prison guards, wrote: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them … To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head” (Romans 12:14, 20). It may seem that Paul is urging us to be “passive-aggressive,” until we understand a certain custom of the day. As an act of public contrition, some Egyptians wore a pan of burning coals like a hat to express their shame and guilt. Paul is simply urging a bit of human psychology: Return gentleness for aggression, and your persecutor will be shamed into being contrite. It will be as if he is wearing such a hat.
As Jesus pointed out, God sends sunshine and rain to both the good and the bad — to those who love Him and those who don’t (Matthew 5:45). It’s known as God’s common grace. He does not shut out people who might be deemed unworthy, so we don’t have that right either. We love people not for who they are, but for who they can become — not for the value of their behaviour, but for the value of their souls. That’s when the world knows we are serious.