“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves everyone who has been born of God.” With that line, John begins his final turn, into the conclusion of his letter. The people of God are those who believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God born as an ordinary human baby to live and die and rise from the dead on our behalf, so that we might be ransomed from death and given new life, and that true life is found in Jesus Christ alone and no other. Those who believe in him do not merely have someone else to follow or someone else to worship, we have been reborn, spiritually, by the will of God the Father and the power of his Holy Spirit; he is alive in us, his Spirit fills us, and we have been given his love. By his love, we love each other—everyone else who believes in Jesus is family, and we love them even when we don’t like them very much.
And then John throws us a bit of a curve. He’s been saying that the sign that we love God is that we love our brothers and sisters, which we see in verse 1 as well, but now he flips that; in fact, he closes the circle by saying, “This is how we know that we love God’s children, when we love God and obey his commandments, because obeying God’s commandments is how we live out his love.” We know we love God because we love each other, we know we love each other because we love God—if one is there, the other is, they can’t exist without each other, because love for God necessarily produces love for his people. And the sign of that, the practical heart of that, is obedience to God.
Which is interesting, because we aren’t accustomed to thinking of love in that way. We tend to define it subjectively, in terms of whether the other person feels loved. Understandable, certainly, and if nobody feels we love them, that should probably tip us off that something’s wrong; but those perceptions are not always accurate. People aren’t always going to receive loving statements and actions as loving, because as we’ve said, loving each other well has to involve challenging each other at times and calling one another to repentance. The final measure of whether we’re loving God and each other is whether we’re doing what he told us to do.
Now, against that, we have a lot of voices in the church insisting that following the commands of Scripture is burdensome, and that whatever commands they consider burdensome must not really be God’s commands anymore, because his commands aren’t supposed to be burdensome. If the Bible tells me I can’t have sex with that person I want to have sex with, or that I’m supposed to give generously to the church and to the poor and vulnerable, or that I have to love and serve that person over there who hurt me deeply, well, that’s burdensome, and so God can’t really mean that. Which makes a lot of sense, from a human perspective, and so a lot of people happily buy in to that approach, and happily follow teachers who present this as God’s word. John wants to change our perspective on what “burdensome” is, by changing our idea of what life is.
To give you an idea, one of the joys of being a Seattle Seahawks fan back in the days when there were any was the play of our great left tackle, Walter Jones. Normally, watching a left tackle isn’t what you’d call “fun,” but Big Walt was an exception. He’d drive defensive linemen back ten yards before they knew what had happened; on pass plays he’d stretch out one arm, grab a pass rusher, and put him flat on his back. He was as big and strong as a truck—and he got that way by pushing them around. Literally. Part of his workout every offseason was pushing a three-ton Escalade around a big parking lot near his house. You’d see pictures, and from his face the man was in pain. That hurt to do. But was it burdensome? No, it wasn’t. He did it gladly, even joyfully.
Why? Because that’s part of what it took for him to be what he wanted to be—a dominant, Hall-of-Fame force at one of the game’s key positions. That struggle wasn’t a burden, it was a blessing, because through it, he grew, he got better, and the physical gifts God gave him were realized in his performance on the football field. Walter Jones could easily have avoided all that pain and turned aside from all that struggle; but his life would not have been better for it, as he would have been far less than he had the ability to be.
We tend to go to God and say, “I want the world.” Maybe not all of it, but at least this part of it. When we don’t get the world, we complain and say bad things about God. When the Bible tells us we can’t have that particular part of the world we want, we try to explain it away or get rid of it; when other people call us on it, we say they’re unloving. But the fact is, God doesn’t promise us the world; in fact, he doesn’t even offer us the world. God offers us something completely different in Jesus Christ: a whole new kind of life, and a victory that overcomes the world.
I was thinking about this the last few days, not in quite these terms but in terms of our freedom in Christ; John doesn’t use that language here, that’s Paul in Galatians, but it connects. You know, the freedom I want in Christ—the freedom I believe we’re promised—is freedom from myself. Hear me carefully on this, I don’t mean freedom to be somebody different, I’m not talking about different talents or abandoning my commitments or anything like that; I mean at a deeper level.
I want freedom from the fears that cripple and paralyze me—I know God’s love has not been perfected in me yet, because there’s a lot there still to drive out. I want freedom from the desires that drive me—and I don’t just mean the sinful ones; I don’t want to be controlled any longer even by those that are perfectly appropriate. I want to be free from my bad habits, and more, I want to be free from my idols. I want to be able to stop putting myself first in my life, and thus to be free to love. I want to be unchained from my ego, and my need to make everything happen by my own power, so that the power of God may flow freely in me and through me. I want to stop flapping my puny little wings and just soar on the winds of God’s joy and grace and love. I’m not there yet, but before God, that’s the freedom I want. That’s the life I want.
And my hope—even as it’s also my frustration at how often I submarine myself—my hope is that that’s the life I’ve been given. It’s the life we’ve all been given, by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Our faith is the victory that has overcome the world—including the influence of the world in our hearts—not because there’s anything special about our faith, but because it is through our faith that we confess Jesus as the Christ and have been born again, from above, of God. It is by faith that we have turned from the world to the life of God in Christ, whose life has overcome the world, and is overcoming it, and will overcome it.