The Greatest of These Is Love: An Introduction to the Series

This new series of messages has been in my heart and on my mind for a long time—for several years, at least. I am calling the series, "The Greatest of These Is Love." What I would like to do this morning is give you about ten reasons why I believe this is what we should focus on for the foreseeable future in our preaching and worship. I'll begin with the more biblical and theological reasons and move to the more experiential and personal.

1. God Is Love

1 John 4:8 says, "The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love." And 1 John 4:16 says, "We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him." This is a massive claim. And we will have to come back to it in time to unpack it more fully. But it seems like the deepest starting place I could think of for a series of messages on love. God is love. In a word I think it means something like: God's absolute fullness of life and truth and beauty and goodness and all other perfections is such that he is not only self-sufficient, but also, in his very nature, overflowing. God is so absolute, so perfect, so complete, so full, so inexhaustibly resourceful, so joyful, that he is by nature a Giver, a Worker for others, a Helper, a Protector. What it means to be God is to be full enough always to overflow and never to need—never murmur, never pout. God is love. The implications of this for the way we live are big.

2. Loving Each Other Is Like Loving God

One time a lawyer asked Jesus (Matthew 22:36), "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" In other words, tell us what is the most important commandment of all the hundreds of Old Testament commandments? Jesus answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment." But then the lawyer got more than he bargained for. Jesus didn't stop. He said (in Matthew 22:39), "The second is like it [an utterly key phrase for us now!], "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." The second reason for a series of messages on love is that Jesus said loving each other is like loving God. The two commandments are inseparable. We need to study that too. But for now just marvel at it, and let it motivate you to be engaged with this quest we are setting out on. The great commandment is: Love God with all you are. The commandment to love your neighbor is "like it."

3. Love of Neighbor Fulfills the Law

In the very next verse, Matthew 22:40, Jesus says, "On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets." Everything else hangs on these commands of love. Whatever else there is in the Christian faith and in the life of obedience, it all hangs on this. But even more amazing is what Paul says in Romans 13:8–10, "Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. (9) For this, 'You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,' and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' (10) Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law." Here Paul is willing to say that love of neighbor is a fulfilling of the law—he doesn't mention loving God. We will need to ask why. But the point here is that love between humans is so crucial that Paul says, when it really happens, it is the fulfilling of all God's teachings.

4. Faith Expresses Itself Through Love

In Galatians 5:6 Paul says, "In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love." "Faith working through love." What this verse means is that love is the way faith expresses itself and proves in life that it is real. Without love faith is dead. This is what James meant when he wrote, "Faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself" (James 2:17). So the works of love are the evidence of living faith. Without them a church is dead and a heart is dead. Here's the way John put it in 1 John 3:14, "We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death." Where love is absent faith is dead and we are dead—no matter whatever else is happening.

5. Love for Each Other Is the Badge of Christianity

In John 13:34–35 Jesus says, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. (35) By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." I personally like it when people put fish symbols on their cars and wear crosses and put "Hope in God" signs in house windows—but if you ask Jesus: what's the mark of a Christian that will set them off and help the world know that they are your disciples, his answer would be—his answer was—"By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." Love for each other in the church is the badge of Christianity.

In the book of Acts Luke is eager to show that one of the first effects of salvation and community life in Christ is practical, costly care for one another. Acts 2:45: "They began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need." In other words, meeting needs in the church was more important than personal possession. This is very God-like. Recall he is so full and content that he is by nature LOVE—giving, caring, helping, supporting, protecting. Love among Christians is the mark of Christ in the church. By this will all men know that you are my disciples.

6. The Goal of Our Instruction Is Love

In 1 Timothy 1:5 Paul tells us what he aims at in all his teaching: "The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith." In all his teaching, and all his late night instruction, and all his study with the books and the parchments the aim was love. Yes, from a pure heart, and yes, from sincere faith in Christ (no love without it!), but still the aim of it all was a loving church. And that means the aim of all my preaching and the aim of all your study and reading and discussing must be love.

The last four reasons become more contemporary and contextual and experiential and urgent and personal.

7. Torch the Glacier of Coldness and Hate

In Matthew 24:9–12 Jesus gave a description of what the last times would be like. He described them in terms of hate and love. He said,

They will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations on account of My name. And at that time many will fall away and will deliver up one another and hate one another. [So there will be hatred from the outside and hatred on the inside of the church.] And many false prophets will arise, and will mislead many. And because lawlessness is increased, most people's love will grow cold.

So it feels to me like there is a kind of end time urgency to this series of messages. Hate will be multiplied from the outside against the church. Hate will increase inside the church as one betrays another to the authorities. And love, everywhere, will grow cold.

Now with all my heart I believe this dire prediction does not have to be your destiny, or the destiny of this church—or even this city. That it is going to be true far and wide does not mean it has to be true for any particular person or church. But if it is not to be, we must know the forces against us. It will be like a spiritual glacier moving over the world and the church. Love will survive and thrive where we consciously torch the glacier with the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit with a view to loving each other rather than hating each other. It will be an uphill battle, against many forces. May God give us grace, partly through these messages, to torch the glacier of coldness and hate.

8. Show the World Another Way to Relate

Our nation is permeated with a spirit of varying degrees of hatred and rancor and mean-spiritedness. It ranges from Nazi-like skinheads declaring open hatred for Jews and any non-whites, to children killing their parents, to gangs dealing almost entirely in a tone and atmosphere of anger, to radio talk-shows that capitalize on people's unseemly love for cutting cleverness, to politicians who know that the soundbite is not long enough for a fair consideration of the alternative view, and who, therefore, choose the most emotionally loaded phrase to demonize and undermine not only the viewpoint of the other side, but also the character of its proponent. Every day the newspaper documents a nation of hate and meanness.

Which more and more brings to mind the words of the Scripture (2 Timothy 3:1–5):

But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; and avoid such men as these.

Do you see the words that grip me: revilers, ungrateful, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious, haters of good. It's very contemporary. Our nation is in desperate need of another way to relate.

I would like to encourage as many of you as possible to read two articles in the Christianity Today magazine dated March 6, in our library. One is by John Woodbridge of Trinity Seminary, called "Culture War Casualties: How Warfare Rhetoric Is Hurting the Work of the Church." This was a very convicting essay for me to read. It came as a strong affirmation from the Lord that this series of messages is appointed for this time. It raised the question of how Christians can show the whole biblical Christ to the world when aspects of our Christian morality have become so politicized that we tend to relate to the world almost entirely around "issues"—like abortion and homosexuality—and therefore in a very combative atmosphere, because the emotions run so high, when you are talking, for example, about the taking of the life of unborn children, and whether homosexual people may promote their practices in public schools. And so we become defined in terms of issues that are volatile. And these so called "culture wars" are fast becoming more like war and less like culture—with real bullets and not just hard words.

The other article I would love for you to read, even more than that one, is a reprint of Francis Schaeffer's "The Mark of a Christian" also in this same issue of Christianity Today from last week. Schaeffer's challenge was even more convicting to me than Woodbridge's. The burden of his article was how Christians can disagree, when they must disagree, with visible, manifest, love. He posed a question that comes as close as anything to setting the agenda that I think we are called to in this series of messages. Here's what he said:

We have conferences about everything else. Who has ever heard of a conference to consider how true Christians can exhibit in practice a fidelity to the holiness of God and yet simultaneously exhibit in practice a fidelity to the love of God before a watching world? Who ever heard of sermons or writings that carefully present the practice of two principles that at first seem to work against each other: (1) the principle of the practice of the purity of the visible church in regard to doctrine and life and (2) the principle of the practice of an observable love and oneness among all true Christians?

This is what I want to struggle with and dig into and grow in. I want us to have and to be a word from God for our nation concerning how disagreeing groups love each other. I have much to learn. I certainly do not have all the answers, especially in the politically loaded atmosphere of the culture wars of our society. But together I think God will guide us and grow us and humble us and make us strong with a kind of strength that combines the holiness and love of God in new ways that we have not known before.

9. Differences Are Golden Opportunities for Love

Inside the church we have differences that call for deep and real and relentless love toward one another. Schaeffer, in that article on "The Mark of a Christian," said that this is our golden moment.

It is in the midst of difference that we have our golden opportunity. When everything is going well, and we are all standing around a nice little circle, there is not much to be seen by the world. But when we come to the place where there is a real difference and we exhibit uncompromised principles but at the same time observable love, then there is something that the world can see, something they can use to judge that these really are Christians and Jesus has indeed been sent by the Father.

Let me mention three "golden opportunities" for us at Bethlehem—and I really do see them as that.

  1. The differences in the way we judge the loss of the organ last year—the way I and the elders and the staff handled it. Here is a great call for love. The issue is complex and revolves in large measure around this very issue of what love is and how it works under different circumstances. Perhaps the Lord will give us fresh insight if we give ourselves to study and prayer and heart-searching, not only about what love called for in the past, but what it calls for now as we view the past. I thank God for the love and grace that many of you have shown toward me. No pastor can live without it, because James 3:2 says to teachers, "We all stumble in many ways."
  2. There are the differences among us in what we find helpful in worship. What kind of music? What kind of instruments? What kind of singing? What kind of atmosphere? These differences are threatening the unity and love of churches all over the world. It's what they wanted to talk about in Brazil when I was there last October. Here is a golden opportunity to learn love and show love in the midst of difference. The key question is not just what should worship look like, but what should love look like among Christians who don't agree on what worship should look like.
  3. There are the differences between the "urbs" and the "burbs." Some live in the city and some live in the suburbs, and some in between. Some eat and drink urban ministry. Others think in different categories, also with a ministry orientation. Here is a golden opportunity to learn love and to show love.

How easy it would be, as Schaeffer said, if we all thought the same on all these things. But as it is, in the real world, we have a golden opportunity for love. I hope I can be a good shepherd during these days of discovery and growth in love.

10. I Long Personally to Grow in Love

Finally, the tenth reason for a series of messages on love is that I long personally to grow in love. I take heart from the apostle Paul that love is not an all-or-nothing affair. It is something you can grow in. So he prays in Philippians 1:9, "I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment." That's what I want, as I get older.

I am keenly aware that no man on his deathbed ever looked up into the eyes of his family and friends and said, "I wish I'd spent more time at the office." What love looks like for a pastor is not an easy question. I ask for your prayers and I ask for your patience.

A Closing Illustration of the Struggle for Love

Let me close with one illustration of my own struggle and what I am learning. For the past two weeks I have been isolated in my study working to finish the book, Living by Faith in Future Grace. Hundreds of you were praying, and by the grace of God it is basically finished.

As I put the finishing touches on it Friday night, the pressing question for me personally was, "Is this a work of love?" Is it a loving thing to isolate myself from people in this way and deal with ideas and words? Here's what I think the Lord showed me. That way of loving the church and the world will be authenticated or not by the other ways of loving people that I am called upon to perform as husband, father, friend, pastor, leader. It's like what we saw in Isaiah 58: Your fasting on Sunday will be shown to be authentic by the way you treat your workers on Monday. Each different occasion for love in our lives adds to or subtracts from the authenticity of love in all the other areas of our lives.

May the Lord use these weeks in his loving Word to fulfill in us Paul's word in 1 Corinthians 16:14, "Let all that you do be done in love."