The longer I serve the Lord, the more I gain an appreciation for the cunning of the devil. I don’t like it one little bit, of course, but I have to give him credit for how effectively he works, even in the lives of Christians. His ultimate goal for all of us is to lead us to hell, but short of that, he labors tirelessly to make all of us less effective disciples than we ought to be.
In this effort, one of his primary tools is distraction. He would prefer to distract us with the worries and cares of life, but if he can’t do that, he will use even the smaller commandments of God’s law. This is what he did with the Pharisees. They got so caught up in the details of the law that they forgot justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
This certainly can happen to us, so what I’d like to do this evening is to examine the greatest commandment of all: love. A couple of weeks ago, Landon suggested that I ought to preach on 1 John 5:3, but as I looked at the context, I decided there were things there that I had to tie in too. As part of our yearly focus on living for Jesus, then, let’s consider living God’s love.
In the passage that we’re going to be looking at, which stretches from the end of 1 John 4 through the beginning of 1 John 5, I see three major themes. The first of these is LOVE AND FEAR. Look at 1 John 4:16-18. The first thing that we learn in this context is how essential love is to our spiritual lives. John tells us that if we remain in love, God remains in us, and we remain in God. Here’s what I think this is saying: If we live lives that are filled with love, our actions show God to those around us, and we remain in fellowship with Him. On the other hand, if we do not remain in love, we fail to glorify Him, and we stray from Him.
John then goes on to point to two consequences of remaining in love: confidence in the day of judgment and casting out fear. The first calls us to a global let’s-be-honest check. Right now, considering my life as a whole, does my life express God’s love, or does it express selfishness? If the former, we can be easy in our minds about the state of our souls. If the latter, we desperately need to change!
Finally, let’s consider the interplay between love and fear, not only at the judgment, but throughout our lives as well. Often, we think of love and hatred as opposites, but John wants us to understand that love and fear are too. Love values others, but fear values the self. As a result, the devil is able to use fear to lead us to harm others in ways that we think protect us. I think this is evident in the news right now. As fear increases, evildoing does too. In God, though, we don’t have to be afraid. He will protect us, so His love frees us to love others.
This takes us to our second main theme, the relationship between LOVE AND THE BRETHREN. Here, let’s read 1 John 4:19-5:1. I said that the previous section had a let’s-be-honest check. I think this one is a check on our honesty. It’s very easy to blithely say that we live a life filled with love, but actually living that love-filled life is not easy!
John zeroes in on one litmus test: our love for our brothers and sisters in Christ. Sad to say, the relationships between brethren are not always marked by unfailing love. All of us who have been Christians for very long have seen brethren get into it. Maybe we’ve been the brethren who have gotten into it!
Regardless, all of us need to pay attention here. All of us claim to love God. That’s why we’re here tonight. However, John tells us that if we make that claim but don’t love our brother, we are lying, we are making loving God impossible, we are breaking God’s commandments, and we are rejecting His spiritual family. Basically, failing to love other Christians is a spiritual train wreck.
This tells us, then, that if we want to go to heaven, we have to get down there in the mud and do the backbreaking, heartbreaking work of loving one another. The problems don’t come when we’re dealing with Christians who are lovable. As Jesus said, even the sinners and tax collectors love people who treat them well.
Instead, this gets difficult when we are faced with Christians who do not behave well and are not particularly lovable. Because the devil is hard at work, this happens all the time. Our brothers and sisters frequently say offensive things, gossip, behave rudely, and generally make nuisances of themselves!
Even then, we still are called to love them. We must not become angry or hateful ourselves. We must not return evil for evil. We must put on a heart of patience, compassion, and kindness. By our willingness to imitate the perfect love of God, we show our love for Him.
Finally, let’s contemplate LOVE AND OBEDIENCE. Our reading for the day concludes in 1 John 5:2-3. We see 1 John 5:3 quoted by itself a lot as a way of emphasizing the importance of obedience. I don’t think that’s a misuse of the passage, exactly. Indeed, I think it generally is true that love for God and commandment-keeping go together. You don’t have commandment-keeping without love for God, and you don’t have love for God without commandment-keeping.
However, contextually, there’s more going on than simply that. V. 3 isn’t just an unconnected proverb floating in space. Instead, when we look at v. 2, we see that it ties back to the discussion of loving God’s children. This is another honesty check. Just as we show that we love God by loving His children, we show that we love His children by keeping His commandments, especially with respect to them.
Here too, it’s easy to see how we go astray. Plenty of Christians duck the force of the end of chapter 4 by insisting that they do love other Christians, really they do! However, once you start comparing what they’re doing to other Christians to their claim of love, a different picture emerges.
They say that they love other Christians, but they get in arguments with other Christians all the time. They say that they love other Christians, but they are rude and abrasive in what they say to them. They say that they love other Christians, but they insist on getting their own way instead of allowing other Christians to have theirs.
It may be that at this point in the sermon, we’ve got this little smile on our faces, and we’re thinking of names of brethren who were like that. Let me tell you what, brethren: we need to be thinking of our own name. I think it’s fair to conclude from John’s words here that godliness is most difficult within our own family and within our own congregation. If we will struggle with anything, we will struggle with this. We need to be vigilant against the appearance of sin in our hearts and our lives, and we need to dedicate ourselves to living out the love of God with respect to one another.
Since the beginning of this year, the coronavirus has dominated the news and our attention like no other story in my lifetime. I suspect we probably haven’t seen an event this consequential since World War II. The problems brought by the pandemic are obvious: serious illness, death, economic disruption, civil disorder, and brethren arguing endlessly about masks on Facebook.
However, even though God, for reasons of His own, periodically allows the devil to wreak havoc, this still is God’s world, not Satan’s. Thus, every tragedy or disaster we encounter has something in it that we can learn from and use to grow spiritually. COVID-19 is no different. I don’t claim to know the purposes of God, but I do know that He always has a purpose, and the arc of history always will bend toward His glory.
Last week, Rufus suggested, and I agree, that we ought to consider how we should be learning and growing through the pandemic. This morning, then, let’s examine at least some of the blessings we have received from COVID-19.
The first of these is that WE ARE HUMBLED. Look at the words of David in Psalm 39:3-7. As a society, the United States tells lots of lies to itself, but the biggest probably is the lie of our own sufficiency. We live in the country of the American dream and the self-made man. According to our national narrative, it’s possible for any of us, using our own abilities, to ensure happiness for ourselves forever.
Of course, this is not true, but we go to great lengths to preserve the myth. Everything from Botox injections to nursing homes works together to hide the reality of aging and death from us. The store shelves always are full, the credit card always swipes, and the party never ends.
Well, 2020 has been the year the party ended. Death is an inescapable feature of the national conversation. A few months ago, those store shelves didn’t have any toilet paper on them. We laugh about it now, but I think all of us know in some corner of our minds that next month it could be bread and beans and rice that aren’t around. Our brightest political and scientific minds have tried to solve our problems, and they have failed to protect us.
In short, we have been stripped of our illusions of self-sufficiency. That’s why, I think, there’s an undertone of terror in the nightly news reports. People have spent their lives trusting in themselves, and now they have realized that they can’t.
I think David’s conclusion in v. 7 has to be ours. Because our lives are so short and fragile, because we are so powerless, we must put our hope in God and wait for Him. That’s a hard realization for many. When you bow before your Creator, you also must admit that He has the right to tell you what to do. That doesn’t sound as much fun as a life of sin and selfish pleasure! Nonetheless, in this time, it is plain to see that hoping in anything else or anyone else is vain.
Second, the coronavirus has DRAWN US CLOSER TOGETHER. Consider Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:21-22. Now, I recognize it sounds weird to say that this is a time of greater closeness in the church when our Sunday morning attendance is 2/3 of what it was, but I think that when all this finishes shaking out, that’s how things will be. I fear that there will be some, not many, but some, who will fall away because of it, but I think the rest of us will be closer than we were before.
I was brought up by godly parents, and ever since I left home, I’ve been faithfully attending services someplace. That means that the time of the lockdown a couple of months back was the longest time that I ever have spent without assembling with a congregation. I recognize that I was better off than most—at least I got to go to the church building and see a few Christians!
Nonetheless, the longer that time went on, the less I liked it. I heard preaching and teaching. I heard prayers. I partook of the Lord’s Supper. However, I wasn’t doing those things with all my brothers and sisters, and even though online services were the best we could do, it felt like the difference between eating a meal and pretending to eat off an empty plate. It didn’t satisfy me. Indeed, I know that right now there still are many members here who are staying at home because of health concerns, who are still trying to do the best they can with empty-plate Christianity.
When this time is over, none of us should forget that feeling. Whenever we start taking our brethren for granted, we should recall 2020 to our minds and remind ourselves how vital they are in our spiritual lives. Even now, there are things I want to do that I don’t feel like I should do. I don’t think it’s wise to try to pack 30 people into our home to study right now, and I miss that too. The fellowship that we have here is priceless, and I think God has used the virus to show us how priceless it is.
Finally, I think the events of this year should have RENEWED OUR SENSE OF MISSION. I couldn’t put that mission any better than Jesus did in Matthew 5:14-16. We are the light of the world. Through our good works, we are supposed to shine so that others will glorify God. We must remember too that the greater the darkness becomes, the more brightly our lights will shine.
Times are hard now, and they’re going to be harder in the future. There are lots of hurting people out there, and there are going to be more: those who lost loved ones to the virus, those who lost jobs, those who suffered from these times of loneliness and isolation. I don’t care who wins the election in November; no human being is going to be able to make all the pain go away.
We can’t solve everybody’s problems, but we can solve the problems that are before us. We can be generous to the poor and hungry. We can comfort the bereaved and the lonely. We can be the visible sign of the compassion of Christ.
Most of all, though, we can point those around us to God. Let’s be honest, brethren. The answers that the world has been dishing out to the coronavirus problem haven’t been very good, and increasingly, people with eyes to see will start looking for different answers.
We have answers. We have very good answers. Indeed, we have the only possible answers. The troubles of our time are too big for anybody but God. When we find people who are humbled and mourning, with compassion and love, we can lead them to Him.
I think it’s probably true that 2020 will prove to be a transformational year in the history of our country. I don’t know what the future will look like, but I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility that it will prove to be a time of spiritual transformation, a third Great Awakening. It may well be that never again in our lives will we have an opportunity like this one. Let’s take advantage of it!
It probably won’t surprise most of you to learn that I’m a worrier. I come by it honestly; my father before me was a worrier too. Nonetheless, I’m apt to lose myself in fretting over the future of the country, the future of the church, the future of my family, and all sorts of other things I can’t control.
It was with great interest, then, that I saw a Facebook friend posting the other day about the book of Habakkuk. Just as we do, Habakkuk lived in a time of great turmoil, and just like me, he worried about the future. However, unlike any of us, Habakkuk got to engage in a direct dialogue with God, and the conclusion he reaches afterward is both profound and as relevant to us as it was to him. This morning, then, let’s consider the faith of Habakkuk.
When I look at the book, I divide it into four unequal sections. The first stretches from Habakkuk 1:1-2:1. It teaches us that GOD CAN USE THE WICKED TO JUDGE THE WICKED. The Chaldeans were even more wicked than the Jews they were about to conquer, and we see Habakkuk struggling with that. However, God still was in control, and His judgments still were just.
So too for us. If we feel like Christianity in our country is under threat, both from internal and external enemies, we should understand even the triumph of those enemies as a judgment from God. Nothing less than the Babylonian Captivity could humble and purify the Jews, and it may well be that God has decided that His people today need to be humbled and purified too. He continues to direct the course of history, and even the people who think they have rebelled against Him will end up carrying out His will.
I see a second main section in Habakkuk 2:2-17. It shows that ONLY FAITHFULNESS CAN PROTECT US FROM WRATH. In Habakkuk’s day, the Chaldeans looked unstoppable. However, God promises him that their judgment was coming too. They would be repaid for all the wrong they were doing. In fact, the only ones who were going to make it through were the righteous, who would live by their faith. This idea, which is found in Habakkuk 2:4, is so important that the passage is quoted three times in the New Testament.
The lesson is plain for us. We might get outraged about how the enemies of God in our day seem to be prospering, but we can be sure that He has His eye on them too. Their time is coming. Rather than worrying about how things should turn out, we should focus on staying faithful. The math here is simple. The faithful will live, but the proud won’t.
The third section of the book runs from Habakkuk 2:18-3:15. Part of it is prophecy, and part of it is prayer, but the message of all of it is that GOD IS MIGHTY AND WILL ACCCOMPLISH HIS PURPOSE. Indeed, the text draws a contrast between the idols of the nations in the first section, who can’t do anything, and God in the second section, who can do whatever He wants to.
Though we don’t see people worshiping statues too much today, we live in an idolatrous time. Just as the Scripture discusses, there are people around us who make an idol out of money. So too, there are those who make idols out of politics, government, and even science. The stock market jumps up every time there’s a successful COVID vaccine trial, but even if a vaccine will keep us safe from COVID, it can’t keep us safe from death. Whatever the idol, though, idolatry is vain. In the end, only God will prevail.
This takes us to our final section, which appears in Habakkuk 3:16-19. Its point is simple: TRUST IN GOD, NO MATTER WHAT. Notice the contrast. On the one hand, Habakkuk is terrified of the invasion that he knows is coming. On the other hand, though, even if things get so bad that there isn’t any food left, he will continue to rejoice in God.
I don’t know what the future holds. It may be that the present distress is just a blip on the radar screen, and we’ve got an era of prosperity and peace stretching ahead of us. It may be that things will be worse than I can imagine, and that’s pretty bad!
This I know, though: the future still will have God in it, and for all of us, that’s enough. We do not know how He will save and redeem and care for us, but we know He will. Like Habakkuk, we always will be able to rejoice, because we have the one thing that matters.
For those of you who aren’t aware, right now, there is a brotherhood-wide split occurring in mainline churches of Christ. I have friends who attend mainline churches who believe the split already has occurred. The sources of division are questions that we would consider fundamental. Can churches of Christ use musical instruments in their assemblies? Is it permissible for women to lead in the assembly? Can you belong to a church and join in its work if you haven’t been baptized for the forgiveness of your sins? Those in progressive churches of Christ these days will answer “Yes,” to all three of those questions.
To be honest, brethren, I find this shocking. How can it be that these churches have gone so far so quickly? How can it be that even the one baptism of Ephesians 4:5 has come under attack? Of course, a little bit of thought provides the answer to the question. Consider 2 Timothy 1:13. It tells us that we are to hold on to the New Testament pattern of sound teaching. Clearly, these churches have failed to do that.
The same thing can happen to us. Indeed, if we are not vigilant, it will happen to us. Lest we drift away, we must concern ourselves with clinging ever more tightly to the Scriptures. This evening, then, let’s contemplate the subject of sound teaching.
First, let us note that sound teaching DEMANDS HUMILITY from us. Look at what James says in James 1:21. He tells us that if we want the word to implant itself in us and save our souls, first we must humble ourselves before it.
This statement probably would draw amens from across the religious spectrum, but let’s pause for a moment to think about what it means. Humility means that we care about what the word of God says instead of what we want to do. Humility means that we place all of our confidence in the wisdom of God and none in our human wisdom.
In practice, humility means that we will do what God says and only what God says, because that’s the conclusion to which submission and trust lead. If it’s in the law of Christ, it doesn’t matter how little we like it or how unwise we think it is. We will obey.
Without this humility, there’s really no point to studying the Bible or trying to serve God at all. Pride is all the opening that the devil needs. When we run into one of those hard sayings of Jesus, he will whisper in our ear that we don’t really have to listen to the Lord. When we find apparent foolishness in the word, he will pat us on the back for how wise and understanding we are. Every time, he will use our pride to lead us straight to destruction.
Instead, we should adopt the sentiments of Solomon’s prayer in 1 Kings 3:7. We all are little children. We all do not know how to go out and come in. However, if we humble ourselves completely before our heavenly Father, and we do only what He says to do, everything will work out all right.
Second, sound teaching DECLARES THE WHOLE PLAN OF GOD. Consider Acts 20:26-27. There’s a warning here for every preacher and teacher of God’s word. Paul says that because he declared the whole plan of God to the Ephesian elders, he will be innocent of their blood. If they go astray, it won’t be his fault. However, if he had taught them only the easy parts of God’s plan, he would have destroyed himself along with them.
I think this highlights one of the more difficult features of the gospel. It is often the case that the parts of the Bible that we most need to hear are the parts we least want to hear. They demand that we admit unwelcome truth, and they require us to give up cherished parts of our lives.
However, this gets back to humility. Are we going to listen to God all the time, or are we going to listen to Him only when the listening is pleasant? If the latter, we’re not really serving God. We’re serving ourselves and applying a Christian gloss to our selfishness.
In fact, I think this is exactly what is going on in those progressive churches. We know that Bible teaching on baptism is unpopular. There are many in our community who would have no problem joining our church—if only we didn’t demand that they be baptized for the forgiveness of sins first. If we let anybody become a member, regardless of their salvation experience, a big stumbling block has been abolished.
Bible teaching on the role of women in the church is unpopular too. Lots of people in the world are going to write us off as a bunch of chauvinists because we won’t let women, even talented women, get up in the pulpit and preach.
The thing is, though, that unless we teach on these controversial subjects, and unless we practice what we preach, we are not declaring the whole plan of God. No women in authority in the church is part of that plan. Baptism for the forgiveness of sins is part of it too. We cannot change God’s revealed will. All we can decide is whether we are going to honor it or not.
Finally, sound doctrine REMAINS IN CHRIST’S TEACHING. Let’s read from 2 John 8-10. John makes clear here that this is a very real danger. It is all too possible for Christians to go beyond the teaching of Christ and so lose their reward.
This should lead us to ask what going beyond the teaching of Christ means. I think the concept here is pretty simple. When we teach and practice the things that Christ and His apostles taught, we are remaining in His teaching. On the other hand, when Christ and His apostles didn’t teach something, and we teach and practice it anyway, we go beyond His teaching, much like the deceivers mentioned in v. 6.
This is simple to understand, but through the centuries, it has proven to be quite difficult to apply. The devil loves to convince God’s people to go beyond God’s teaching. Here too, he appeals to our pride. He seeks to persuade us that adding something to the divinely inspired pattern will be an improvement.
He also seeks to minimizes the consequences. Surely God wouldn’t condemn someone to hell for doing that! I don’t know about y’all, but when the devil tells me it isn’t dangerous, and the Holy Spirit tells me in 2 John 8 that it is dangerous, I’m going to go with the Holy Spirit!
This, I fear, is what is going on with churches of Christ that are adopting instrumental music. We all know what is written in the Scriptures about our song worship. There is nothing in the New Testament that permits us to adopt the instrument. Bringing the instrument in, then, is going beyond the teaching of Christ.
At this point, some brethren want to ask if I’m sure that everybody who uses the instrument is going to hell. I think that’s the wrong question. We need to worry less about the precise extent to which something is wrong and worry more about devoting ourselves to what is right. Let’s ask if we want to submit humbly to God, if we trust that His way is best, if we want to remain faithfully within the teachings of His Son. If the answer to those questions is “Yes,” the instrument never will make an appearance.
During the church leadership meeting last November, one of the suggestions that was made to Clay and me was that we look for opportunities to preach timely sermons about topics that were on everyone’s minds. Then 2020 happened, and lo and behold! Opportunities to preach timely sermons have abounded!
Many of these opportunities have to do with the relationship between the Christian and the government. For instance, I have seen Christians who live in states that have made mask-wearing mandatory insisting that they are going to refuse to wear a mask anyway. Similarly, there are some who, in the light of the recent racial tension in our country, are arguing not merely that the police should be defunded (which can mean any number of things) but that the police should be disbanded (which means what it sounds like).
Where, as children of God, should we stand on these issues? What guidance does the Bible give us? Let’s answer these questions tonight as we consider the law and the Christian.
In this regard, we first must examine what the Scriptures say about THE ORIGIN OF GOVERNMENT. Here, let’s look at Romans 13:1-4. Right from the very beginning, Paul tells us where governments come from. No authority exists apart from God, and every government has received its authority from God. Thus, along with the family and the church, the government is an institution created by God.
Additionally, this text tells us what the government primarily is supposed to do. Our government today does all sorts of things, from issuing fishing licenses to supporting National Public Radio. Paul, though, regards government as doing two main things: terrifying would-be criminals into good behavior and punishing those who do wrong. Thus, it is not only true that the government is instituted by God. Law enforcement also is instituted by God.
Against this Biblical truth, I want to set a claim advanced by the disband-the-police people and even repeated by some brethren: that the police departments in our country were originally created to track down and capture escaped slaves. Though this may be correct in some places in the South, countrywide, it generally is not. The Los Angeles Police Department, for instance, began in response to a crime wave following the ’49 California Gold Rush. Now, certainly, the LAPD has plenty of racist incidents in its history, but to claim that it was founded as an act of racism doesn’t fit the historical facts.
This has significant implications for the way we should look at police departments nationwide. If indeed law enforcement were wholly evil in its origins, we ought to burn it down and start over. However, if what we’re dealing with is an institution perfect in its divine origin but imperfect in its human implementation, that should call us not to revolution, but to reform.
It is undeniably true that through the years, some police officers have trampled on the rights of black people in this country in many and serious ways. We must do better. However, if we abandon God’s plan for the ordering of humankind, that ultimately will help no one.
Second, let’s ponder the Christian’s responsibility to HONOR THE GOVERNMENT. Look at Romans 13:5-7. In v. 5, Paul instructs us to submit to the government, to obey its laws. Unlike would-be evildoers, we don’t abide by the law because we are afraid of punishment. We do so because we are subject to Christ, and those are His expectations.
This tells us all we need to know about mask-wearing. I live in a jurisdiction that encourages but does not require the wearing of masks in public spaces. That leaves us free to act according to our consciences. I personally choose to wear a mask as a show of respect for the government, but other Christians may decide to do differently, and that’s their right. However, when a state or locality requires mask-wearing, this text tells us that we don’t have any choice. Either we submit to the government, or we sin.
The only exception to this arises when a human government enacts a law that contradicts the commandments of God and we are forced to choose between the two. For instance, if Tennessee made singing in the assembly illegal as California has done, that might be a law that Christians have to seriously consider disobeying for the sake of conscience. When human law contradicts divine law, we must obey God rather than men.
However, our general duty to obey the government applies not only when the government is good and just, but also when it is tyrannical and oppressive. Paul wrote the book of Romans during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero, who was one of the most disgusting, evil, depraved human beings ever to sit a throne. Even when he took Christians and turned them into human torches to light his garden parties, Christians still were responsible for submitting quietly to the Empire.
Christians are not to be criminals. We are not to be rebels. We are not to cause civil disorder. We are to continue to live quiet lives and look to God to deliver us.
Honoring the government also extends to the respect that we show government officials. In similar language to what we see in Romans 13, Peter tells us in 1 Peter 2 that we are to honor the emperor as well as those who serve him. Anytime we encounter a member of law enforcement, whether we think they are worthy of the uniform or not, we are to treat them like someone who is doing God’s work.
This same honor should be evident in our speech when the government official isn’t around. Again, this is true regardless of who the official is. It has not escaped my notice that some Christians have been very loud about honoring the president for the past four years, while they spent the eight years before that saying abusive, insulting things about the previous president. Brethren, that’s hypocritical and ungodly! Lowering ourselves to the level of partisan strife is unworthy of the gospel of Christ.
Finally, though, let’s study what we can do as Christians in ASSERTING OUR RIGHTS. Turn here to Acts 22:23-29. If you’ll recall, Clay preached on the two verses right before this last week. It’s striking to see how issues of race and government arose together 2000 years ago too!
In any case, here’s what’s going on. The commander wanted to know why the Jews were rioting, so his solution was to scourge Paul until he started talking. However, Paul was a Roman citizen, and Roman citizens could not be examined by torture until they had been condemned of a crime.
Paul, then, as the soldiers are tying him down to start flogging him, asks if it’s lawful to do this to a Roman citizen, knowing perfectly well what the answer was. Once they figure out that he’s a citizen, the commander and all his men are terrified. Roman law was not kind to people who ignored the rights of Roman citizens! Thus, Paul uses his rights under the law to ensure just treatment for himself.
Today, Christians can do the same thing, even in response to unjust treatment at the hands of local officials. Under the Constitution, we have many rights that were not available to the Romans. We can elect our leaders. We can speak out against injustice. We can assemble peaceably to demand redress of our grievances. We can insist on due process of law before we are deprived of life, liberty, or property. We’re not being troublemakers when we exercise these rights. Instead, we are walking in the footsteps of the apostle Paul.
The only exceptions arise when our rights according to the laws of the United States exceed our freedom in Christ. For instance, the First Amendment gives me the right to say disrespectful, insulting things about the president. Christ, though, doesn’t give me that right, and ultimately, it is His will for our lives that must control us.