Love: One Strategy, One Message

I personally believe that one area where Satan has really muddied the waters in the American church is on the topic of love.  I believe Satan is quite content to see our message proclaimed basically without interference here in the States while he busies himself sowing seeds of discontent and strife among the body.  As we learned last time, this disharmony takes the power right out of our message and our witness.  I can think of at least two ways Satan delights in this current situation.

First, we have taken the life out of our message because we have reduced Christianity to an adherence to a moral code (see yesterday’s excellent post on this very thought by Mark Galli at Christianity Today online).  We have failed to emphasize the finished work of Christ for not only our justification, but for our sanctification as well.  We have diminished, in our teaching, the provisions of the New Covenant for living the Christian life.  In short, we have missed the “everything is new” message of the New Testament.

Second, we focus on content over love.  Think about the miracles of Christ, for example.  The message that I have heard over and over – and have myself taught – is that the miracles of Christ are recorded to demonstrate the deity of Christ.  Their main point was to show that Jesus is indeed God and operates in God’s power.  They are a debating point to support the claims of Christ.  And they clearly do serve that purpose.

But could it also be that the miracles of Christ are meant to show the heart of Christ, the love of God as well?  As Jesus went around healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and raising the dead, do we only see the power of a deity or the loving hands of God’s rescue.  When Jesus raised the dead son of the widow of Nain – a woman grieving the death of her only son – do we see only a demonstration of God’s power or do we also see an incredible heart of love that restored this son to his mother.

The apostle Peter summarized the ministry of Jesus in Acts chapter 10 while visiting the house of Cornelius.  “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil; for God was with Him” (Acts 10:38).  Peter puts the power of God in Jesus and the goodness of God in Jesus together.  Because, in His essence, God IS love.  And as His children, love should be our essence as well.

“The early Christians had one strategy, one agenda, one message, one weapon, one force with which to overwhelm the empire of the Caesars:  love.  It was Christlike love that brought the empire to its knees, and erected the symbol of the cross over the ruins of the Roman capitol.  Love was an unstoppable force in the first century AD, and it is just as irresistible today!” (Ray Stedman in Body Life).

Love: The Final Witness

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35).  The world has a God-given right to judge our affiliation with Christ on the basis of our love for each other.

Jesus extends the connection between our love and His mission as One sent by the Father in John, chapter 17.  Listen to Jesus’ prayer for His disciples and His followers who will come after them.  “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.  The glory that You have given Me I give to them, that they may be one even as We are one, I in them and You in Me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent Me and loved them even as You loved Me” (Jn 17:20-23).

Twice in this passage Christ ties His claim to being sent by the Father to our unity as a community of believers.  In essence, our love is a witness for the claims of Christ to a watching world.  While we need to be clear on our content and teach pure doctrine, the world generally sees our content as just another option in the religion salad bar.  What they can’t explain away is our love.

And our love is not just a witness to an unbelieving world “out there”, but is a strong testimony to our young people at the crossroads of staying or leaving the faith.  You may recall that we started these posts about love as a way to address one particular complaint of those leaving the church; the complaint of “hypocrisy and lack of caring among church leaders.”  Just as the love was the answer to strife, envy, and disharmony in the church at Corinth, love is also the answer to hypocrisy and lack of caring in today’s church.

These charges – hypocrisy and lack of caring – are both answered in Romans 12:9-10, “Let love be without hypocrisy.  Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor.”  When our love is genuine, when we abhor evil and cling to good, our lifestyle will agree with our words and hypocrisy will be defeated.  When we honor and give preference to one another, we provide a powerful antidote to a perceived lack of caring.

When our young people judge the Christian faith on the basis of our love or lack of love, they are not being shallow, selfish, or overly emotional.  They are merely doing what Jesus said to anticipate.  Our role is to embrace the challenge and respond with a vibrant and relentless love not only toward each other but toward our seeking generations behind us as well.

Love Is…

The New Testament verses about love are nearly inexhaustible and we could probably spend a year just on this topic.  But we will try to take this train of thought to the station in the next few posts.  Here are a few more pictures of what love looks like in a healthy community of believers.  It behooves us to ask ourselves if this is a description of our contribution to our church community.

Love is authentic – “Let love be without hypocrisy.  Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor” (Rom 12:9-10).

Love communicates and cares – “For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears; not that you should be made sorrowful, but that you might know the love which I have especially for you” (I Cor 2:4).

Love serves – “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal 5:13).

Love refreshes – “For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother ” (Philemon 1:7).

Love edifies – “Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge.  Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies” (I Cor 8:1).

Love encourages – “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Heb 10:24).

Love is hospitable – “Let love of the brethren continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb 13:1-2).

Love does not offend – “For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love.  Do not destroy with food him for whom Christ died” (Rom 14:15).

Love forgives – “Above all, keep fervent in you love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (I Pet 4:8).

Love keeps the faith – “But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith; praying in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life (Jude 1:20-21).

Love obeys – “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (Jn 14:15).

A word I have borrowed from pastor Ray Stedman to describe this love is relentless.  It also characterized the early church.  “The early church saw its mission as one of reflecting God’s holiness, revealing God’s glory, and witnessing to the reality of Jesus Christ  – and it did so by demonstrating relentless love, both toward those within the fellowship and those outside” (Ray Stedman in Body Life).

Love and the Message of First Corinthians

The apostle Paul often commended churches for the strength their faith and love.  The church in Corinth, however, was not worthy of such a compliment.  In fact, following Paul’s introduction in his first letter to them, he starts through a laundry list of problems the church faced, offering specific instruction in church discipline (chapter 5), lawsuits (chapter 6a), immorality (chapter 6b), marriage (chapter 7), gray areas (chapters 8-10), roles in the church (chapter 11a), the Lord’s Supper (chapter 11b), and the exercise of spiritual gifts (chapter 12).

Then we come to I Corinthians chapter 13.  It is as if Paul is writing along saying, “Do this, don’t do that, act this way” in very specific instructions.  Then he puts his pen down, closes his eyes, and says to himself, “You know, the more I think about it, here is the summary answer to all your problems.”  Then he pens the great love chapter, I Corinthians 13.

Studied in its context, chapter 13 answers the specific problems that plagued the Corinthian church.  Paul starts with a bang.  “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love it profits me nothing” (I Cor 13:1-3).  Remember the church at Corinth was blessed with extraordinary knowledge, speech, and giftedness (I Cor 1:4-8).  However, without love, these gifts are useless.  Not merely diminished, but of no value whatsoever.

Starting at I Corinthians 13:4 and following, Paul begins comparing and contrasting what love does and the Corinthian experience.  It may be instructive to us to think about which of these two paths we find ourselves on.  “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not jealous” (vs 4).  Compare to I Corinthians 3:3, “For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly?  Are you not acting like mere men?”

Love does not brag and is not arrogant” (vs 4).  Compare to I Corinthians 4:18, “Now some have become arrogant.”  Or “Love is not rude” (vs 5).  Compare to their habit of partaking of the Lord’s Supper in a rude manner (I Cor 11:18-22).

Continuing on, “Love does not seek its own good” (vs 5).  Compare to Paul’s admonition concerning gray areas, “Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, that I might not cause my brother to stumble” (I Cor 8:13).  And, “Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor” (I Cor 10:24).  Compare also to fulfilling our duty in marriage (I Cor 7:3-5), embracing our roles in the church (I Cor 11:3), and the practice of our spiritual gifts “as each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (I Cor 12:7).

Love is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered” (vs 5).  Compare to I Corinthians 6:1-8 where Paul chastises the Corinthian believers for taking each other to court.  And finally, “Love does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth” (vs 6).  Compare to the church’s arrogant acceptance of immorality among its members in I Corinthians 5:1-2.

Well, you get the idea.  The spiritual immaturity demonstrated by the Corinthian church is addressed by specific answers that Paul details throughout this letter.  But the overarching answer to their problems is love.  We saw last post that the theological answer to strife, envy, and disharmony in the church is the cross.  The practical answer to strife, envy, and disharmony in the church is love.

“Let all that you do be done in love” (I Cor 16:14).

Humility and the Message of First Corinthians

While we are on the topic of love and humility, let’s take a quick look at the book of I Corinthians.  This letter gives us a fascinating look at healthy body life in the church by examining the negative.  That is, the church in Corinth was marked by division, selfishness, and worldliness.  “Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly – mere infants in Christ.  I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it.  Indeed, you are still not ready.  You are still worldly.  For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly?  Are you not acting like mere men?  For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere men?” (I Cor 3:1-4).

The phrase “mere men” suggests that the Corinthians were indistinguishable in their selfish behavior from their pagan neighbors.  Their jealousy, quarreling, and lack of unity left the church spiritually ill.  Paul introduces a prescription for what ails them in his four-chapter introduction to the book.  In short, Paul explains that the theological answer to strife, envy, and disharmony in the church is the cross.

We saw in chapter 3 that the church was split into various factions following different teachers, a list of groups that Paul expands upon in I Corinthians 1:11-16.  Then in verse 17, Paul clears the air with, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, that the cross of Christ should not be made void” (I Cor 1:17).  Paul addresses the division in the church with the idea that he did not come to gain a following for himself but to preach the cross of Christ.

The message of the cross is foolishness to the world.  “For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (I Cor 1:18).  Paul goes on in the remainder of I Corinthians chapter 1 to explain that the preaching of the cross is foolishness to the natural man.  It is foolishness to the wise of this world.  It is foolishness to the Jew who never expected their Messiah to die on a cross, and foolishness to the Gentile – or Greek – who believed no deity would die a death so shameful as to hang on a cross.  Remember the historical setting of the time.  We see the cross as a steeple on a church, a piece of jewelry, or a religious icon.  The people of 1st century AD saw the cross as a naked man dying a painful and shameful death.

But Jesus “despised the shame of the cross” (Heb 12:2) and turned it into saving glory on our behalf.  Because of the cross, Paul closes I Corinthians chapter 1 with, “No man should boast before God.  “But by His doing, you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption.  That, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord’ ” (I Cor 1:29-31).

We are offended by the cross being “His doing” because it makes our own merit of no account for salvation.  Understanding “His doing” completely destroys our pride and it should.  The theological answer to strife, envy, and disharmony in the church is the cross.  At the foot of the cross, we are all on level ground.