Behold God’s love

I preached the following sermon at Signature HealthCARE of Bremen on Sunday, October 3, 2021.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. (1 John 3:1-3)

See what kind of love

Let me read that first verse again. The apostle John writes, See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God (1Jn 3:1). If I were to choose a favorite verse in this entire epistle, I think this would be the one.

The King James Version of the Bible renders the verse this way: Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us.” See, behold— The idea here is that we take the time to study the kind of love God has for his people. Stand back and look at it. Let yourself be in awe of it. Charles Spurgeon, perhaps my favorite preacher in church history, offers this commentary on the verse. He says, Pry into this secret.” Meditate on it. Let yourself dwell on God’s amazing love for a while.

Elsewhere, the apostle Paul describes God’s love as a love that surpasses knowledge (Eph 3:19). His love is so great that we can only begin to comprehend its breadth and length and height and depth (Eph 3:18). Even so, we should try. Here, John encourages us to look at it, study it, ponder it. Consider it until you find yourself astonished by it.

Let me see whether I can help you with this.

Consider how God created us without sin or corruption. Consider how he made for us a perfect world, where we could enjoy perfect fellowship with him. Consider how he watched us turn against him in sinful rebellion. Despite our betrayal, consider how he mercifully chose to redeem us from the just consequences of our sin. Consider how he humbly offered himself as an atoning sacrifice on our behalf. Consider his willingness to bring us, his unrighteous, unholy enemies, into his family. Despite everything we’ve done, consider how gracious he is to call us his children (1Jn 3:1).

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God (1Jn 3:1).

I once heard the story of a young boy who, years ago, was picked on by the school bully day after day after day. The bully terrorized him. Then one day, the bully got caught by their teacher. She discovered what had been going on, and she decided a just punishment would be a few lashings across his back with a yardstick.

She tells the bully, Come to the front of the class and take off your coat.” Naturally, he hesitated. He froze in fear. Just then, the much smaller boy, whom he terrorized every day, stood up and said, Let me suffer his punishment.”

The teacher was stunned. Why?” she asked. Why would you volunteer to take the punishment of someone who has wronged you so many times and made your life so miserable?”

The boy replied, Because that’s what Christ did for me.”

What does the Bible say? Romans 5:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. (Romans 5:6-9)

John says, Marvel at this.”

In the Ancient Greek world, people would get excited to see a foreign ship approaching the local harbor. They’d stop what they were doing and gather to watch it arrive. They’d study the configuration of its sails at a distance to determine where it came from. Of what country?” they’d ask. What new things will they bring us?” They didn’t have television or the internet to dull their eagerness for learning or having new experiences.

John uses the same language here. See, Behold,” he says, what kind of love the Father has given to us (1Jn 3:1). Study it closely with urgency and astonishment. Marvel at God’s love the way the disciples marveled at Christ when he calmed the sea (Mt 8:27). Do you remember that story? With their jaws on the floor, they asked, What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him? What sort of God is this, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life? (Jn 3:16).

Children of God

As you meditate on the astonishing love of God toward sinners, you should also consider what it accomplishes. See what kind of love the Father has given us,” John writes, that we should be called children of God; and so we are (1Jn 3:1).

The Bible uses lots of different analogies to illustrate the concept of salvation for us. What is salvation like? In one case, it’s kind of like God is redeeming slaves from a terrible, wicked master. In another case, it’s like a marriage between a man and his bride. In another, it’s like God legally adopts us out of Adam’s fallen family into his own. And sometimes it’s like we are born all over again into an altogether new life where God himself is our Father.

There’s something special about the designation in this passage where John refers to the redeemed as children of God (1Jn 3:1). When we think of God as our new master, for instance, we probably think of him as an authority figure. Maybe we think of the ways he provides for us and protects us. But when we think of him as our bridegroom, as another example, we might have a slightly different view of him. If he’s our bridegroom, we probably think of the relationship as being more intimate.

How does our view of God and relationship with him change when we think of him as our Father? It seems to take all of the best characteristics and combine them. Doesn’t it? If he’s our Father, it implies he’s our authority, our provider, our protector while also implying that we have an intimate relationship with him. There’s a little bit of everything in that description of God.

I’ve always thought it was interesting how the Bible uses two different analogies to illustrate how God brings sinners into his family—adoption and birth. As for the apostle John, he seems to prefer the birth analogy. He uses the expressions born of God and born of him at least six times in this epistle (1Jn 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18). And if I’m not mistaken, he uses the adoption analogy only once in all of his writings, and even then he can’t help himself but to mix his metaphors and begin talking about the new birth.

Let me show you.

In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, he writes:

To all who did receive Christ, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12, 13)

Obviously, John doesn’t use the word adoption in that passage, but his language describes the legal process of becoming children of God (Jn 1:12). To all who did receive Christ, who believed in his name, he gave the right—that is, the authority, the power, the license—to become children of God. In other words, they are not members of his family until this legal process is complete, and only then do they become his children. In short, he adopts them.

By the way, adoption is such a beautiful portrayal of salvation in the Bible. It makes me think of all of the kids in the world who don’t have a loving home, who don’t have parents, who don’t have a family. Then, someone comes along and adopts these kids into their own family, raising them as their own flesh and blood, loving them, providing for them, though they had absolutely no obligation to do so. Is there anything more kind, more selfless than that? It’s nothing short of godly because that’s what God himself did.

Getting back to the passage in John’s Gospel, John describes God adopting his children, but then he writes, They were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:13). As I said, John loves the birth analogy, and I think I understand why. It seems to add a level of depth to the relationship between God and his children. God doesn’t just adopt us, though that would be enough. He also considers us his own as though he gave birth to us himself, which he did by imparting life to us. When we were dead in our trespasses, he made us alive together with Christ (Eph 2:5).

C.S. Lewis wrote a book titled Screwtape Letters. The premise of the book, and it is a fictional book based on true, biblical concepts, is a seasoned demon writing letters to a younger, inexperienced demon, explaining to him the best methods for stealing people away from God. In the book, Screwtape tells his apprentice, The Enemy—“ He’s referring to God. The Enemy has a curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into sons.” Amen, Screwtape. That’s precisely what God does, and we praise him for it.

I once read of a converted Hindu man who went on to translate 1 John into his native language. As a reminder, here’s what John says in our passage: See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God (1Jn 3:1). Now, here is how the Hindu-turned-Christian gentleman translated this verse. He wrote, See what kind of love the Father has given us, that we should be allowed to kiss his feet.”

When someone finally asked him why he had strayed so far from the text in his translation, he replied, Children of God! That is too much, too high!” But according to God’s word, it’s not. That is precisely the reality for God’s redeemed people. We are born of him (1Jn 2:29). He has made us alive together with Christ (Eph 2:5). He makes all these disgusting little human vermin into sons.”

To know we are saved is enough. To know God has mercifully redeemed us is enough. But God’s love doesn’t stop there. He calls us his children. The implications are astounding. He cares for us as his children. He loves us as his children. He protects us and provides for us as his children. We share profound intimacy with him as his children. Furthermore, it’s implied that we inherit his traits and nature as a child inherits the traits and nature of his or her father. The book of Ephesians says, We are created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:24).

The world does not know us

To understand what John says next in the passage, we need to know the circumstances which prompted him to write this letter in the first place. The early church was devastated by the emergence of false teachers and insincere believers. Unfortunately, these people didn’t always leave quietly. Previously, John says, I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you (1Jn 2:26). They embedded themselves in the church, then they attempted to tear the church apart from the inside out by speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them (Ac 20:30).

The results were conflicts in the church and lots of confusion. And we get a clear sense of this conflict when John writes, The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know Christ” (1Jn 3:1).

I think this paraphrase by J.B. Philips is helpful. He writes:

Consider the incredible love that the Father has shown us in allowing us to be called children of God”—and that is not just what we are called, but what we are. Our heredity on the Godward side is no mere figure of speech—which explains why the world will no more recognise us than it recognised Christ.

The defectors turned their backs on the church only because they turned their backs on Christ. This wasn’t a mere clash of personalities. This wasn’t a superficial conflict between people. They were not arguing over the color of the carpet. Christ himself is the dividing line. These people didn’t know Christ despite their original claims.

As children of God, we have an intimate relationship with our Heavenly Father, a relationship the unbeliever does not have (1Jn 3:1). We know him in a profound sense, in part, because we share his nature. We have been born of him (1Jn 2:29). We have been created after his likeness in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:24). The same isn’t true for the unbelieving world, though. They do not know him, so they do not know us.

Furthermore, apart from the atoning work of Jesus Christ and the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, there can be no reconciliation between us. Paul says of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles:

Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace. (Ephesians 2:13-15)

But as God said of unbelieving Israel, All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people (Ro 10:21). The real tragedy is not that false believers sometimes join themselves to the church. It’s that they can remain so blinded by the god of this world they never see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ (2Co 4:4). God mercifully holds out his hands to them, saying, Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price,” but they don’t come (Rev 22:17).

Needless to say, when unbelievers refuse to come, the dividing wall of hostility stays in place (Eph 2:14). The tension between them and the church continues. They may feign peace for a while, pretending to be Christians and maybe even deceiving themselves, but it can’t last as 1 John makes evident.

We shall be like Christ

So, what happens when your once-Christian friends begin abandoning the faith? What happens when the animosity of the world around you begins to increase?

Well, for John’s original audience, it seems they began to question their own salvation. What if I’m next? What if I’m one of them? What if I’m a goat masquerading as a sheep, and it’s only a matter of time before my wool falls off? To be clear, that’s the primary reason John writes this letter. In the final chapter, he says, I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life (1Jn 5:13).

Here are the tests John offers. (1) Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ? (2) Do you love his word and strive to keep his commandments? (3) Do you love the church—that is, God’s people?

The problem is, even if you can answer yes to all these questions, you may still have nagging doubts about your salvation. Why? Well, first of all, believers and unbelievers don’t look that different on a superficial level. Our houses look the same. Our clothes look the same. Our cars look the same. We work the same jobs. We eat the same foods. At a casual glance, there doesn’t appear to be much difference between children of God and children of the devil (1Jn 3:10).

Second, even children of God continue to sin. That’s a subject John goes into great depth about in this letter, but I won’t take the time right now. Suffice it to say, at least from a superficial standpoint, the believer, the unbeliever, and even the apostate look very similar to one another. So, how does the believer gain confidence in his or her salvation?

In what I interpret to be a word of encouragement, John responds this way: Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is (1Jn 3:2).

First of all, John says if you are a child of God, you are a child of God now. Your nature has changed. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2Co 5:17).

Second, John reminds us this transformation we undergo as God’s children is not yet complete. According to Romans 8, we groan right along with all of creation as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption—that is, the resurrection and glorification—of our bodies (Ro 8:23).

We long to be completely free of sin. We long for the certainty of salvation, but we’re not there yet. Even so, we are God’s children now (1Jn 3:2). Better yet, our complete redemption is coming soon enough.

Ultimately, when Christ appears at the end of time, we shall be like him (1Jn 3:2). We shall be perfectly conformed to his image (Ro 8:29). There won’t be any confusion on that day. Any differences between God’s children and everyone else will finally be tangible. It will be abundantly clear for all to see.

Everyone who hopes in him

In the meantime, we hold on to hope that Jesus is coming again. John says, And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he pure (1Jn 3:3). The Christian’s life is characterized by his or her unyielding desire to see Christ and to be like him, and these two things have a direct correlation with one another (1Jn 3:2).

In the previous passage, John shows us the connection between practicing righteousness and having confidence at his coming (1Jn 2:29, 28). Here, he tells us that everyone who anticipates his coming—everyone who thus hopes in himpurifies himself as Christ is pure (1Jn 3:3). We are currently striving to become like him, though we won’t be completely like him until he appears (1Jn 3:2). And we will be like him, because, interestingly enough, we shall see him as he is.

What does that mean?

First John 2:28: And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. When the full brightness of Christ appears, God’s children, those born of him, those who practiced righteousness and purified themselves will see him and have confidence while everyone else turns away in shame (1Jn 2:29). They’ll hide their eyes while God’s people behold their Lord and Savior.

In all his beauty, majesty, and splendor, we shall see him as he is (1Jn 3:3).

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I encourage you to marvel at the love of God, which has made all of this possible.