Category Archives: Pursuing Love

Jesus commanded us to love one another. The pursuit of love is the highest priority in our Christian lives: without love, all our achievements are worthless.

The Unity of the Spirit

“All these men of war, who could keep ranks, came to Hebron with a loyal heart, to make David king over all Israel; and all the rest of Israel were of one mind to make David king. And they were there with David three days, eating and drinking, for their brethren had prepared for them.” (1 Chron 12: 38)

When David was at Hebron, the men of Israel came to make him King. We too are going into battle, to see our King installed. The commander of our army is calling us, too, to “keep ranks.” But our unity is not of the flesh, and as we prepare for war we need to understand what it is in the Spirit:

Unity is the garment that covers the body of Christ when we love and serve one another in meekness and humility. It is held out to all who are of one mind to make Jesus King. It is the psalm 133 anointing on the royal priesthood that comes when the Father sees our love and answers the prayer of His son in John 17. It does not come about by preaching or prophetic utterances or by doctrinal argument; it is not a work of the law but of the Spirit; it is spoken in a gentle whisper and not a strident shout. Unity is in the heartbeat of the Holy Spirit joining the hearts of every believer who understands that we love and serve the Lord when we love and serve one another (Matt 25:40), and that we can’t draw near to Him when we close our hearts to our brothers and sisters. Unity is  not a robe that we can put on with our own hands and parade in our churches and our streets: it is the wedding gown of the bride of Christ, and the bridegroom will see it reflecting His glory when He comes to receive His own.

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in you all.”

(Eph 4: 1-6 NIV, except NKJV adds in “you” all)

Strengthen the things that remain

From a model of the molecular structure of DNA

“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, ‘These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you. You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” ’ (Rev 3: 1-6)

I include the whole message to the church in Sardis here to put the heading in context. I do believe that the Spirit is saying to the churches today to “strengthen the things that remain;” I don’t believe He is saying that every church today is as dead as Sardis was. (Having said that, I believe that we all need to be humble enough to say, “Lord, is that me?” For if David could say: “I will be more lightly esteemed than this and will be humble in my own eyes,” (2 Sam 6:22) and if Jesus described Himself as “meek and humble of heart,” (Matt 11:29) then the precedents are there, and it can only bring us blessing if we are open to the possibility that the whole of the message to Sardis is for us. However I want to focus here on just the one line.) So what does it mean to strengthen the things that remain?

I used to think, particularly when I Iistened to Bob Dylan’s rendering of these words in his song “When you gonna wake up?” that the things that remain were the things that were still left when everything else had died. In a sense of course they are, but I believe that the focus of these words is the context given to them in 1 Cor 13:13:  “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. … But the greatest of these is love.” The church at Sardis was “dead” because it was weak in these three things. The foundations of church life – the molecular structure of its DNA – are our faith in Jesus, our hope of eternal life, and our love for one another. As we know, the greatest of these is the final one. And since we know from 1 Corinthians 13:2  that if we “have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and … have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love”  we are nothing, I think we can reasonably guess that it was the third  and greatest of the “things that remain” that was most lacking at Sardis. Are our churches alive because of the worship, because of the prayers, the preaching and the prophesies, and even the manifested power of the Holy Spirit in signs and wonders – or are they alive because we are loving one another?

It’s only God’s love that connects Heaven to Earth, and it’s His love that connects us to one another. I think that Jesus is saying to His church today – certainly His church in the West – that we are fragile in the “things that remain,” and that we need to be stronger in them to face the challenges ahead. The picture above is of a model of the molecular structure of DNA, the carrier of life. If each molecule is an individual within the Body of Christ, it is the “things that remain” that are the connectors which hold us together. Without them there is no life – it is “without form and void,” (Gen 1:2) in fact. Jesus promised, more than once, that persecutions would come upon the church. When they do, it will be the connectors that are going to be important. When it seems that our provisions are threatened, we will need to encourage one another in faith in the God who keeps His promises of provision. If we find ourselves in a situation where our life itself is threatened, we will need to tie ourselves to the anchor of our souls, the promise of eternal life in Christ, to face that threat. And to hold each other up in that faith and that hope we need to love one another. Without the connector of Love, the promise “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” (Matt 18:20) loses meaning, because His name is Love. If we are not gathered in Love, we are not gathered in His name, as I have written in the article “The testimony of Jesus (2): when two or three are gathered in my name.”

James writes: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. (James 1: 2-4) And Peter writes: “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.” (1 Peter 4: 12-13) Unless we are strong in faith, hope and love we will miss that joy through times of trial which comes from perseverance. I think our faith, our hope and our love are tested in different ways, but one thing is sure throughout: we will need to be connected to one another if we are going to persevere.

Sometimes it can seem as though we are on an express train that rushes through a mixed landscape of pressures and of pleasures: there are demands and deadlines to meet, places to go, people to see, texts to write, things to buy, stuff to do, fun to have – and the train doesn’t stop to allow us off. But Paul writes: “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men. Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another.” (Rom 14: 17-19). Paul is exhorting the Romans not to prioritize that which feeds the flesh, but to pursue the things that feed the Spirit. The Kingdom of God – “Righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” – is built in the places where we connect with one another and strengthen the faith, hope and love that we share.

Jesus teaches us that if we “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, … all these things shall be added to you.” (Matt 6:33) If we are fragile in the “things that remain” we need to pursue the Kingdom of God in order to strengthen them. I think that means above all that we have to strengthen the love that connects us to one another: not because God will judge us if we don’t, but because we will break if we don’t. Seeking first the Kingdom of God means putting our relationships above our needs, our deadlines,  and our ambitions – even, and for some, especially – our ministry ambitions; it means that we “pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another,” as opposed to chasing after those things on the express train by which we feed ourselves. Sometimes we have to jump off the train, as dangerous as it may seem, in order to seek His Kingdom. But when we do, we find everything that we were looking for, and most of all we find Jesus waiting for us when we land.

“When you gonna wake up?” from Slow Train Coming, by Bob Dylan

Our eyes will see the King

The river of God’s mercy flows from Cross, and because we stand in that river we are able to come before a holy God. But as we stand there God is doing a new thing in us: He is bringing us to a higher level of sanctification. He is bringing us to a place where He will say “Take off your shoes, for the place where you stand is holy.” Our shoes have walked in the dirt of the world, but His presence in us will become so strong that we will be able to separate ourselves from the sin that has stalked our lives and so often overpowers us.

When that time comes we will be able to say with David: “I was also blameless before him, And I kept myself from my iniquity,“ but it will not be because of our own righteousness, but of the righteousness of the God that dwells within us.  Our eyes will see the King, and conviction of sin will be strong in all who are submitted to Him, as it was in the days of Azuza Street; but the Lord says that Azuza Street was just a forerunner of what is to come: as we stand in that place of sanctification He will lift our eyes to new heights of love that only a very few prophets and apostles have known until now. What a few have just glimpsed, many will grasp, and those who do will know His power going before them and into the fallen world to establish His Kingdom.

We are standing before the walls of Jericho, and He says to us now “I am drawing you into the Holy Place, where I will give you your instructions and prepare you for moving into the land ahead.” For when we obey the commander of the Lord’s army we will see the walls come down.

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
The whole earth is full of His glory!” And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke. So I said:

“Woe is me, for I am undone!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King,
The LORD of hosts.”
(Isaiah 6: 1-4)

“And it came to pass, when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, a Man stood opposite him with His sword drawn in His hand. And Joshua went to Him and said to Him, “Are You for us or for our adversaries?”
So He said, “No, but as Commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and said to Him, “What does my Lord say to His servant?” Then the Commander of the LORD’s army said to Joshua, “Take your sandal off your foot, for the place where you stand is holy.” And Joshua did so”
(Joshua 5: 13-15)

“For I have kept the ways of the Lord,
And have not wickedly departed from my God.
All his judgements were before me,
And I did not put away his statutes from me.
I was also blameless before him,
And I kept myself from my iniquity.“
(Psalm 18:21-23)

“The testimony of Jesus (2): when two or three are gathered in my name…”

We often quote the words of Christ: “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the mist of them.“  (Matt 18:20) I don’t think that this is just a reference to the presence of the Holy Spirit manifesting Jesus in the body of Christ, although of course it is that. But I think it also points to the underpinning of truth found in the law, where a matter has to be established by two or three witnesses. (2 Cor 13:1) Where two or three witnesses are gathered in His name, His presence is a proven reality and is a fulfilment of the law.

But we cannot just leave this as an article of faith. “The just shall live by faith.” (Habakkuk 2:4) Our faith is not just a given set of principles that we believe: it is the source and fabric of our lives. Faith colours and directs what we do. It’s a reality: “the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) The presence of Jesus “in the midst”  when two or three are gathered in His name is a reality to be experienced, evidence that testifies to the truth of His existence. It is the testimony of Jesus.

The qualifier that I think we can pass over rather too easily is the need to be gathered in His name. The ancient idea of “name” is so much more than an identifier or a label: it is the whole of a person’s identity, it is the reality of who they are. To be gathered “in the name”  of Jesus is not to be together in one place that has the name of Jesus on a plaque outside; it to be gathered in submission to His will, open to His power, and as vessels for His love. If we gather in the name of Christ it is with our desires and our agendas laid at His feet.

When we fulfil these requirements the Holy Spirit can come and make Jesus an experienced reality among us: we are gathered in unity, the blessing is commanded (Psalm 133), and the prayer of Jesus quoted in John 17 is fulfilled. The spirit of prophesy is evident. If we do not lay down our agendas we are being double-minded, and cannot therefore “expect to receive anything from the Lord.” (James 1:7) If we bring them to the gathering with us, the only requirements that are fulfilled are ultimately those of “confusion and every evil thing” (James 3:16) and of religion that “has a form of godliness but denies its power.” (2 Timothy 3:5) And we know what the Scriptures say about that.

Follow the ancient paths

I was driving along a country road the other day when I saw a buzzard perched in a tree top. It was the classic image of the bird on a dead branch high in a treetop surveying its surroundings. I decided to turn the car around and drive towards it again to take a photograph, if there was somewhere suitable where I could pull the car in. Two minutes later I was approaching the tree again and the bird was still there; what’s more there was a little place at the side of the road where I could park the car close enough for a decent shot. So far so good. And then came the stupid moment: instead of just pointing my camera through the windscreen, I decided to open the door and step outside. It won’t notice me, I thought.

Wrong! As soon as the door moved, the bird opened its beautiful huge wings and flapped slowly away. And away with it glided my classic close-up (with my zoom lens) photo of the buzzard on the high dead branch.

But I felt God spoke to me as I dove away in disappointment and anger at my stupidity, and spent much of the morning reflecting on the lesson I felt that the Lord was teaching me. It was this: when I looked at the buzzard I only saw the photograph I want to take and the actions that I could carry out in order to take that photo. I did not look at the buzzard and see what it was and what it was doing. The buzzard wasn’t a photo for my collection , it was a wild bird with far keener eyes than my own, perched on a vantage point where it had sight of all that moved within its range of vision. That included me and my car door. I gave no thought to the impact that I would have on the buzzard; only the impact the buzzard would have on my collection of photos.

We cannot love others unless we consider the impact that we have on them, and we can only do this when we understand who they are, what they are doing and why they are doing it; what is going on in the world that they were in before we turned up. We achieve this is by approaching gently, with consideration and understanding. If I am approaching a bush where a warbler is singing I will approach as gently as I can because I don’t want to scare it away: why do I barge into the “bushes” where other people are and expect them to welcome my disturbance of their world? “Let your gentleness be known to all,” wrote Paul (Philippians 4:5). Jesus told us to learn gentleness from Him when we take His yoke (Matt 11:29). Gentleness is an essential characteristic of love and part of the fruit of the Spirit. If I had included gentleness in my approach to that buzzard I would have taken a picture through the car windscreen instead of scaring it off by opening the door. Instead, without love, I ended up with nothing (1 . Cor 13…)

Jeremiah 6:16 says: “This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Jesus Himself is the ancient path: He is the Way, the “good way.” And when He speaks to us about taking His yoke and following Him, He quotes the very words that the Holy Spirit speaks through Jeremiah: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls, For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt 11: 29-30)

Every moment in any relationship is a crossroads. We have a choice. We either charge across in the direction that we have in our minds, open the car door and scare away the bird; or we can stand, which means we have first have to stop. And having stopped, we look, which means we consider the other person, who they are and the circumstances they are in. And having looked, we seek Jesus, the good way, and look for those ancient paths of His that He wants us to walk in. If we don’t have an immediate revelation, we can’t go far wrong with following the guidance of 2 Tim 2:22, which is to “pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace.”  If we do that, not only will we proceed with gentleness and find rest for our own souls, but we will bring Jesus into the other person’s situation and we might help their soul to find rest as well.

Don’t rush to open the car door… (this one was much further away, and is much enlarged.)

(Note for readers in the USA: the bird in this story is a european common buzzard; not a turkey vulture, which is often called a buzzard in the USA).

Rescuing Bertie: The Fields Are White Unto Harvest…

Yesterday evening Anne and I went for a walk at a spot about half an hour’s drive from our house. We parked the car and were only about 20 m down the path when I saw something that looked like a dead bird. When I approached it though, I saw that it was actually very much alive: it was a young pigeon, but it was lying on its back and flapping around hopelessly in the dirt. It couldn’t seem to turn over. At first I thought it might just be stranded because it was on its back, so tried to put it right; but it immediately flopped back upside down and continued to flap its wings around to no effect other than to make desperate circles in the dirt. I picked it up, and saw that one of its wings had some sort of injury. It had been bleeding, and it was caked in dirt around the wound. We didn’t know how to look after it if we took it home, but we knew that if we left it there it had zero chance of survival. Two friends of ours at church are vets and live very close to us, so we decided to take it home and ask their advice. However when I rang on the doorbell there was no reply. I had decided to call the pigeon Bertie. From that moment Bertie’s life was in our hands.

Fortunately Google knows all about what to do with injured baby pigeons, and even more fortunately Google also knew that there happens to be a wildlife rescue centre about 10 minutes drive from our house. And even more fortunately still, the centre was open from 10 o’clock this morning (Sunday – church starts at 10.30). I also “just happened” to have the perfect sized empty box, with everything necessary to make a warm comfortable bed for Bertie (as you do), in the car. It definitely seems as though God was on the case.

We had everything that Bertie needed

So we made Bertie comfortable in the box, and went to bed hoping that we wouldn’t find a dead Bertie in the morning. We didn’t: in fact he was a lot more perky then he had been, having recovered from the obvious state of shock he had been in. So I took him to the rescue centre, they had a quick look at him and confirmed that his wing was injured, said he would be fine, that they would look after him and would “put him with all the other pigeons.” I even managed to arrive at church in time for the beginning of the service.

I left Bertie in the hands of the wildlife centre, happy that our little rescue mission looked like having a good outcome. But then I began to think about what a powerful metaphor the whole story was for God’s love and our mission to share it with others. Before God reaches down for us, we are just like Bertie, wounded and flapping around desperately in the dirt that is caked on wings that were made to fly. Unless we are rescued, our chances of survival are zero: we would flap around upside down in the dirt and into a lost eternity without ever knowing the freedom of flying into God’s eternal purposes. God in Christ left the heavenly realms and came to us; He parked his car here on Earth where He walks down the path where we have fallen, and if we will let Him He will step down lovingly and rescue us from the dirt, clean us up, heal our wounds, and release us to fly with “all the other pigeons“ that He has taken into his House.

We thought we needed our friends the vets to look after Bertie, but that wasn’t the case: we had everything that we needed for our part of the rescue mission, including the box and a warm soft lining him to lie on, as well as the availability of all the necessary information. And what I found even more amazing was that there is a specialist wildlife rescue centre just down the road, which has been there for years but that I knew nothing about, even though I call myself a wildlife lover. I can even top that: the first picture on their website of the work that they do was of a baby pigeon very similar to Bertie. All that was needed from us was the willingness to take that first step, to reach out, pick him up and bring him home.

The (slightly younger) “Bertie” on the rescue centre website.

We are on God’s rescue mission. There are “Berties“ all around us, created by their loving father to spread their wings and fly, but broken, wounded and upside down in the dirt where they will stay unless we reach out to rescue them. We don’t need an “expert“ to do the job: it has been given to you and me. And we don’t have to carry out the whole rescue, just our part; but everything that we need for us to do that part has been made available to us since before time began. God has already got their pictures on His website.

The fields are white unto harvest. Will we go?

The Point of the Cross

A friend of mine said that when we approach to cross we see a sign saying “welcome all who enter here,“ and then after we have passed through it and look back from the other side we see another sign that says “chosen before the foundation of the world.“ Both of these statements are scripturally true, yet by any human reasoning the one appears to contradict the other. I know people whose faith has crumbled to dust because they’ve stumbled over a doctrine of predestination which has convinced them that they are excluded from God’s grace. I know of others whose faith has become meaningless because they have believed that ultimately nothing matters since everyone is accepted in the Beloved anyway. And I know somebody else who he is tying himself into tighter and tighter knots because he’s trying to square the circle by making sense of them both with his intellect. So how can we reconcile these two doctrines?

The fact is that we can’t. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. We are saved “by grace through faith, and that a gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8) Faith comes to us from above: we do not grasp it with our understanding. At the cross the vertical, heavenly, plane meets the horizontal, earthly, one; and Jesus hangs there with his arms stretched across one and his feet nailed to the other. Only He can bring the two together. We receive His life when we believe in His name. We enter into this life where the vertical and horizontal meet: at the meeting point of the human and the divine, at the point of the cross.

Jesus thanks the Father that the gospel was revealed to babes, not to the wise and learned. (Matt 11:25) Paul tells Timothy to avoid controversies and speculation because they only cause strife (2 Tim 2:23), which James would tell us is earthly, demonic wisdom and not “the wisdom from above.” (James 3:15 ) The first epistle of John uses the phrase “by this we know” eight times. We know that we know God, that we abide in Him and  He in us, that we are walking in the Truth and can discern the spirit of error, that He loves us and that we love one another. By what do we know these things? By the facts that He has given us His Spirit, that we love Him, and that we keep His commandments. We do not know them by the striving of the intellect.

We are called and sent to dwell in peace, love and unity, and to build a Kingdom where righteousness reigns, where God’s will is done on Earth as it is in Heaven. Sitting in a Roman dungeon and knowing that the day of his execution is probably near, Paul writes to Timothy “A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all…” (2 Tim 2:24). Those who strive to assert the validity of their understanding above that of a brother or sister are excluding themselves from everything that they are trying to prove.  For the Kingdom of God to be established on Earth the world has to be overcome, and it can only be overcome by what we receive from above: “whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.” (1 John 5:4)

If the human brain could grasp what our God-given faith tells us is true, the cross would have no point.

He that is in us is Greater than he who is in the World

We’ve all seen this sign: there is a bumpy road ahead. There are bumps ahead for all of us: political and economic bumps as systems weaken and collapse in the face of “the beginning of sorrows” that Jesus prophesied in Matt 24:7, and emotional bumps as we navigate our paths over them. Some will be minor disturbances; some will be catastrophic upheavals. Some we will face as individuals; some as churches, and some as nations. But whatever goes on in the world, the truth is this: “He that is in us is greater than he who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4)

Is this truth something that is alive for us, burning in our hearts like a bright fire against the cold and the dark, or is it just another Bible verse – albeit a powerful one, we acknowledge – that we know is true but that somehow we don’t experience the truth of? We know that He has given us His peace, “not as the world gives,” but do we walk in it? “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27) As we hit the bumps  we need to know how we can receive the peace that the One who is in us is giving. The apostle John gives us some pointers:

No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Saviour of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.” (1 John 4: 12-16)

By this we know…

If we wanted to write down two of the central planks of New Testament theology it would be that we are in Christ and He is in us. In these five verses we find four references to God being in us, and three references to us abiding in God.

We know it’s true that we love one another. (verse 12) We might not express that love all the time, and we may not feel it consistently; but there are times in our lives when we know that the love that God has “poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom He has given us” (Romans 5:5)  flows through us and reaches a brother or a sister. John tells us that this love that we carry in our hearts for one another is the proof that God “abides in us”, because it comes from Him, not from our own flesh. However this is still head knowledge, and to have the proof in our heads is not enough for it to become the experience of our hearts. John – and Jesus – wants more than that for us. He says “By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.”

More head knowledge, you may say. But I don’t think it is. To “know” – ginōskō – is to know fully and intimately, empirically as well as intellectually. We know fully and completely the reality of God dwelling in us when we experience the person of the Holy Spirit operating in our lives. “By this we know – have experiential knowledge – that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.”

So the proof that he abides in us is that we love one another, but the experience of that truth is the empirical knowledge of the Holy Spirit who has put that love into our hearts. What follows from those two statements is this: the more we express the love that we have for another, the better we know the one who is in us. And the better we know the One who is in us, the better we know that He is greater than the one who is in the world, and the more we are able to express the love that He has given us for one another.

Gently does it.

And so we come to the bumpy road and a practical application of these verses. How do we go over the bumps? By going slowly. Gently does it.  If we don’t go gently we are likely to crash. This is not just an application of material experience to spiritual ideas: it is a scriptural principle. Gentleness is an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit. Jesus tells us to learn from His gentleness in Matt 11:29. When we hit the bumps in life, our first recourse must be to behave gently and not be quick to react. The victory that has overcome the world is our faith (1 John 5:4), and we need faith to slow down instead of being driven headlong into the bumps by our flesh. It is only by trusting God and not our own abilities that we can be still enough to listen to Him and be led by the Spirit in gentleness. Those bumps might be out there in the world, or they might be right inside our own front doors. Wherever they are, trusting God enough to be gentle gives us time to love, and when we love we walk in the proof of His presence within us, the One who is so much greater than he who is in the world.

There is bumpy ground ahead: when we face it, we need to remember to walk slowly enough to love one another, because

When we love one another we can know His presence,

When we know His presence we can feel His power,

And when we feel His power we can receive His peace.

By This We Know Love

By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” (1 John 3:16)

We all know John 3:16. 1 John 3:16 is less celebrated, although it is of course a familiar scripture. A reading of John’s first letter probes the heart and challenges us in our walk of faith, and no more so than in this verse. We can imagine the apostle remembering the words of Jesus that he recorded in his gospel account (John 15:13) as he sat down to write this letter: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends,” and thinking, ‘Yes, this is at the heart of it all.”

What do we think when we read it?

I once watched a seal in the River Liffey in Dublin. A school of salmon was swimming up the river, which in itself was a splendid spectacle; and I stood for a while and enjoyed the glitter and flash of the darting shapes in the water. The seal was enjoying it for a different reason, which was in its mouth, half-eaten. But a detail I remember clearly was that there were also three or four small crabs clinging to the mutilated body of the salmon, having their own little feast How they had got there and how long they had been clinging I don’t know, but it was definitely one of those “I wish I had my camera” moments and it is printed very clearly on my memory. There are at least two “crabs” attached to this Bible verse.

One of those crabs is religion. Religion reads those words and says: “See! You must live a life of sacrifice. No fun for you. Don’t even think about enjoying life. Look at the rules! They say you must always put other people first. They say you have to be a doormat. It’s good to be a doormat! Who knows, you might even have to be a martyr. After all, isn’t that what Jesus said? He laid down His life, and he expects us to be willing to lay down ours, literally…” And so it goes on, seeking to present to the world the image of a joyless, dour and discontented assembly that the world will shun. And for centuries it has succeeded.

The other crab is the intellect. This is one I know well. The intellect reads scripture, thinks about it, maybe writes about it, tears off little pieces with its claws and puts them into its mouth to savour – but doesn’t live them. The intellect loves to dwell on the theory and the theology but doesn’t apply them to the here and now. We see examples of this from time to time when well-known ministries are discovered with their hands either in the church finances or on someone they shouldn’t be touching – or both – but the problem is far more widespread than the public fall of a few high-profile individuals. A couple of verses on from our opening scripture John wrote : “My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:18) It’s easy to talk and write about love, but what counts is when we do it. The widow who gave her mite almost certainly had far less knowledge of the Law than the Pharisee who withheld his fortune.

So what is meant by the principle of laying down one’s life? Yes, we are called to serve. Yes, we are called to give. Yes, we may be called to literally die for our faith. Nothing that the religious spirit speaks of is untrue in itself, but it leaves out the most important part of the picture:

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matt 16:24-25)

The Bible doesn’t teach us to lay down our lives out of duty, but out of desire. We have to desire to follow Jesus, and when we do, we will find our lives. At the beginning of his letter, John says “And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.” We lay down our lives so that our joy may be full. This is not the religion that shrinks the soul or the intellect that puffs it up: this is the abundant life that Jesus came to give us (John 10:10). The life that we find is not the life that we were born with, but the life that we were born to: it’s the life of the Spirit that is ours in Christ. Whenever we find that life we find peace and joy, we find patience and self-control, we find kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and above all we find love: all the fruit of the Holy Spirit flows like rainbow colours in that living water. And if we need a gift from Him for someone that we are with – healing, prophesy, a word of knowledge – it will be there for us, carried along on the current, whenever we lay down our lives for Jesus and the gospel.

Whenever, not when or if. Because, as we know from many scriptures, that stream is always there for those who are born of God. Although it flows out of us (John 7:38), we also have to step into it (Ezekiel 47); and to step into it we have to step off our own dry land. But to do so is not difficult or complicated; it does not need the worship band or the anointed speaker, and we don’t even need to remember this morning’s Bible verse or even – shock, horror – to have had a quiet time, for “His commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3) To step into the river we just need to step into Love, and this has just one simple prerequisite: to love another person we need to leave our own agenda on the bank.

I really do believe that it is as simple as that. Whenever we give ourselves to the person we are with, the Holy Spirit has an opportunity to flow into the relationship and bring His agenda into it. By contrast, whenever the outcome that we desire is for the person we are with is, one way or another, to give themselves to us, the river of Love will just flow past. We can worry so easily about what will happen if we let our agenda go, but if we believe the scriptures we know that “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights” (James 1: 17), and that it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom (Luke 12: 32).

“He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32) writes Paul. This is the life that Jesus holds out to us when we lay down our own to love another. How can we not desire it? Because surely it is to die for.

Perfect Love Casts Out Fear

“My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him. For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God. And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight. And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us  commandment.” (1 John 3:18-23)

“Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.” (1 John 4: 17-18)

“Perfect love casts out fear.” This is a Bible truth that we have all turned to, been turned to, or turned others to at different times and points of need in our walk with God. If certain scriptures are familiar “meeting rooms” that we all know and visit on many occasions, this has to be one of them. But I think that there is an aspect of this room, a décor, that maybe we don’t often see, and that I would like to spend a bit of time looking at and appreciating here, and it’s this: the perfect love that casts out fear is not just the love that has been poured in, but the love that we pour out in obedience to God’s command. It’s the love that we walk in. Output, as well as input. And not only does it have implications for our emotional and spiritual well-being, but also for the effectiveness of our faith. We know that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom 5:5), but we have to walk in love for it to be manifested: it is only when that love is manifested that we do actually love “in deed and in truth” and not just in word and tongue, as John so succinctly puts it. That is when “As He is, so are we in this world.” (1 John 4:17)

Walking in Love

God’s desire is for His love to be manifested on earth as it is in heaven. We love the Lord and His love is revealed in us when we obey His commands; and John tells us clearly that when we obey Him we know that we abide in Him: “Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him and He in him.“  (1 John 3:24) Moreover, “Whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him.” (1 John 2:5) When we keep God’s word His love is perfected in us, and so we have no fear of condemnation, because perfect love casts out fear. John tells us that fear involves punishment ( “kolasis:” correction, punishment, penalty. NKJV above: “torment”), so to put this simply we know we aren’t going to get punished because we know we are being obedient. While it’s the input of God’s grace through the cross that brings us to salvation, it’s what comes out of us when we express that love in obedience to His word that casts out fear. And when we walk in the manifestation of this love, we will receive whatever we ask, because we are asking in the full assurance that we know we are walking in His purpose. “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him.” (1 John 5: 14-15)

Much of 1 John is a reprise of what Jesus taught and John recorded towards the end of his gospel (see John 15): we love Jesus and remain in Him when we keep His word; when we do this we will do even “greater things” than what He accomplished during His earthly ministry; when we remain in Him we will “bear much fruit,” but without Him we can do nothing.

All the time we walk along the path of love, we walk in ‘the works which are prepared for us beforehand’ (Ephesians 2:10), and we will receive whatever we request to accomplish them because we won’t be asking for anything that is not on our path. If there is a tree in front of me and I need the fruit that hangs from a branch that I can’t reach, God will give me a ladder by the power of His Spirit, because I am keeping His commandment and abiding in His purpose. “Now he who keeps his commandments abides in Him and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.“ (1 John 3: 24). However if there is another tree, or even a whole orchard, beckoning from somewhere over the fields and off my path, God will not give me the means to reach it. And if I do, stubbornly, manage to beat a path there myself I will find that the fruit is either under-ripe, inaccessible, or rotten.

The Lie of Condemnation

The devil is always working to thwart the purposes of God in Christ, and we are called to achieve them by walking in faith and love. We are fighting a war, and these are the battle lines. The devil will use the world and the flesh to try and tempt us away from the path because these are the domains under his sway; and he will undermine our faith by telling us that we are not walking in love, because if our hearts are under condemnation we will not have the assurance of faith that God will answer our prayers. Faith only works through love, so if he can weaken our resolve to love and convince us that our love isn’t perfect enough, our faith is undermined and our prayers ineffective. Bringing us under the lie of condemnation is one of the enemy’s main strategies.

But “God is greater than our hearts”: He knows that we love Him, and He knows that He has called us according to His purpose. Even though the heart of the old man is “deceitful above all things” (Jer 17:9), the heart of the new man – the new, soft heart of flesh – has God’s  law written upon it  (Jer 31:33) and is therefore always directed towards fulfilling His purposes. And when we miss this direction because we fall into the ways of the old heart, we know, and God knows, that if anyone sins “we have an Advocate with the FatherJesus Christ the righteous.” (1 John 2:1).

The commandment that we are given, which as John says “is not burdensome” (1 John 5:3), is to love one another and to believe in Jesus. These two are like the twin poles of an electric current: out of our born-again, righteous heart we walk “after the Spirit and not after the flesh,” (Gal 5:16) loving one another with the resources that the Holy Spirit has poured into our hearts. And when we fail to obey this part of God’s commandment – which we will do, regularly – we obey the other part, which is to believe in the power of the blood of Jesus and the Grace of God to forgive our sin. So perfect love – the love that is perfected in us by our obedience to God’s commandments – casts out fear, because There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1) Free of condemnation, we can walk in faith that our prayers will be answered.

Come Boldly to the Throne of Grace

To complete the picture of the electric current, there is (in the UK anyway) a third pin on an electric plug, and that is the earth. We can neither hear what Jesus is asking us to do, nor receive His forgiveness for not doing it, unless we stay close to Him all the time. So we need to always be earthed in the presence of God for the twin poles of our obedience and His forgiveness to be active in our lives. When they are, God’s current flows and the power of the Holy Spirit moves among us, and those “greater things” become possible.

So brothers and sisters, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need,” (Heb 4:16) knowing that in this place the devil ‘has nothing in us’ (see  John 14:30). When we can ask, free of fear and in full assurance of faith, for whatever it is that we need to see His Kingdom furthered, His love will be manifested among us and the name of Jesus will be glorified on the earth.