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Lord's Day Liturgy

Upholding Love

In what’s called the Olivet Discourse Jesus told His disciples about the signs of His coming. There would be wars and rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, famines and earthquakes in various places. There would also be an increased intolerance against Jesus’ disciples, alongside an increase in false prophets. After all that Jesus said: “And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12).

Our modern teachers tell us that law and love don’t ever mix. But it is a lie that love, to be true love, must have no external restrictions, no given shape or schedule. Love, according to our false prophets, is only spontaneous and free and unhindered.

Is it really a surprise that “love” covers a multitude of sins, by which I mean love is used an excuse for lawlessness? In the name of love men do some of the worst things (breaking marriage vows because of “love,” or pursuing unnatural relationships for “love,” as just two examples). But it is neither genuine love nor is it genuine freedom.

When Jesus said that lawlessness will lead to cold hearts, to extinguished love like a fire that has gone out, He didn’t specify whether the love was love for God or love for neighbor. It is both, because the horizontal necessarily follows the vertical. And while obedience isn’t finished without love, the way to increase love isn’t by ignoring standards. There are plenty of places this applies; removing standards at home, in the classroom, in the city, is not the way to increase warm feelings between everyone.

As Christians we are justified by faith not law, but we are not a lawless people. We uphold the law (Romans 3:31), and this is good for upholding love.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

What a Friend

To my memory I haven’t talked publicly about why I really have to work at singing “Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners.” It’s not just because of the verbal association with the popular and irreverent “Jesus is my homeboy” Christian t-shirt fad that thankfully seems to have faded, along with the various contemporary Christian rock music that makes it sound like Jesus sound like my girlfriend, which is even worse.

Jesus is Lord. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is the Christ. Jesus is Savior. Jesus is the eternal Word. Jesus is the Firstborn from all creation, the Head of the church. Jesus is the Lion of the tribe of Judah. Jesus is the Lamb, standing as having been slain. Friend is too casual, too comfy, for a song about the King.

But I do sing the song, even though I have work to prepare to do so, because it was Jesus Himself who, without directly calling Himself our Friend, called us His friends, and showed Himself a friend in action.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one that this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. … I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:12-15)

We are His servants, yes, but He says we are more than that. Therefore we shouldn’t try to be more “spiritual” than He says. We needed His sacrifice for sake of escaping God’s wrath, but He says His sacrifice was also for sake of showing His love. He says we are His friends, and He’s prepared a table for us to share with Him.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

Law and Love

I’d like to make two observations about the relationship between law and love, on the way to exhorting you to confess your sin.

Because Jesus made it clear, we know that the great commandment is to love God, and the second is like it, we’re to love our neighbors (Matthew 22:37-39). Perhaps this surprised (at least some of) the Jews who were known as those who had received the law of God. It turns out the commandment was to love.

Twice Paul wrote about love not only as the first commandment, but as the summary commandment.

For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)

Likewise,

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Romans 13:9)

So obedience to God is others-ward, and righteousness is relational. The law, God’s commands, aim at love.

The law also aims to show us that we need Christ (Romans 3:19-20; Galatians 3:24). None have obeyed all the law, which also means that none have loved perfectly. And really, not murdering my neighbor seems a lot easier than loving my neighbor.

This is why, at least in Galatians 5, Paul moves from love to walking in the Spirit, to the fruit of the Spirit, which is love et al. Love summarizes God’s law, which also is the first, or final evidence as to why we need Christ and the Spirit. If you have a lack of love, confess it to Him. If you want to love more like He commands, imitate Christ and be filled with His Spirit.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

A Mathematical Baby Step

John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, wrote many books, including The Saint’s Knowledge of Christ’s Love, or, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ. It has also been published recently under the title, All Loves Excelling. The entire book is a forrest fire of goodness sparked by Ephesians 3:18-19.

[May he grant you] strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

In Greek, one article (precedes and) welds all four dimensions together in verse 18. Paul wasn’t thinking about four things, but the immensity, the vastness, the incalculability of one thing. But what is that something? I believe the one thing is Christ’s love, explicitly named in verse 19..

Breadth refers to area. Christ’s love covers the widest span. Length refers to distance, how far things are apart. Christ’s love reaches the farthest intervals. Depth refers to the bottom. Christ’s love descends to the lowest levels. It is unfathomable. Height refers to the top. Christ’s love soars at the summit.

His love is too large to frame, and even if it were, there isn’t a wall large enough to hold the frame. Imagine the most oversized, mega-gargantuan container you have at home; now double-it; now multiply by the next number higher than you can conceive. You’ve just taken a mathematical baby step toward comprehending Christ’s incalculable love.

I love Bunyan’s question:

Couldst thou (sinner) if thou hadst been allowed, thyself express what thou wouldst have expressed, the greatness of the love thou wantest, with words that could have suited thee better?

—Bunyan, The Saint’s Knowledge of Christ’s Love, 37

In other words, if someone asked you to describe the kind of love you hoped for, could you have imagined it this good? His love fills us, and the bread and cup remind us of His body spent in loving sacrifice for us.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

No Greater Harbor

If a harbor would be home to many ships, its shore must be broad. If a man would be host to many for a meal, he must not only have a large table, he must also have a large heart. As one of your shepherds, I love you, but the head of this communion table is Jesus Christ, the one who love us and freed us from our sins. His heart is great.

God has the greatest love. His love is constant; He is love according to the apostle John, and that is always true among the three Persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, from before the world began. His love is potent; He does not just love those who love Him, He loves His enemies who hated Him out of rebellion and adopts them as His own. His love is costly, nowhere shown in its worth more than at the cross where Jesus took our sin on Himself, the just for the unjust.

The apostle Paul knew that it takes God’s own Spirit to teach us about God’s love, and it will still be more than we can fathom. Paul prays that God would strengthen us in power that we would have the strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:18-19a).

When preaching on this passage, John Bunyan asked,

Couldst thou (sinner) if thou hadst been allowed, thyself express what thou wouldst have expressed, the greatness of the love thou wantest, with words that could have suited thee better?

All Loves Excelling, 37

In other words, if you could ask to be loved, could you have asked for more? The heart of Christ is great and great with love, and He invites us to commune with Him.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

All a Pitter-pattering

Is love more science or more story? Is love an historical fact or a philosophical idea? Is love a Platonic ideal, an abstract quality existing Up There, or is love an Aristotelian reality, expressed Down Here in hands and lips and bodies? Where do you learn about love best? Reading the dictionary? Reading the Bible? Hearing a story? Getting a timely hug from your dad?

As much as I love a good dictionary, dictionaries don’t inspire. Definitions are helpful and even necessary, but statements of meaning distinguish between things more than they activate affection for things.

The Greek word agape means “the quality of warm regard for and interest in another.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines love as “intense feeling of affection and attachment.” I’m sure your heart is just all a pitter-pattering now.

Again, I like a good proposition and I think a well crafted sentence of explanation is like truth gold set in syntax silver. But what informs and impels our affections are not notions of love as much as narratives of love.

The gospel is the ultimate story. In our last Omnibus Tenebras class we talked about stories and “myths” and tales and legends. Whatever word you’re comfortable with, “in this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9).

This is an eternal and true story that tells us who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. It is the ultimate, overarching story with chapters still being written by the Author of our salvation. We are not just fed our lines, we are fed bread and wine for living and participating in the saga together by God’s grace.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

Perpetual Shortfall

There are a couple sure-fire ways to get almost any Christian to feel guilty. One way is to ask a believer about his prayer life. A recurring response is that, “It could be better.” Well of course it could. You don’t really need to sleep, right? Jesus spent whole nights in prayer…what is your excuse?

That’s an easy one, but the one exhortation to rule them all is not about Bible reading or prayer, it’s not about church attendance, it’s not about how many dates you’ve taken your wife on in the last year, it’s not if you’ve ever spoken to your kids in impatience or anger.

There is one law that none of us obey, not even one. If we had a week of only telling the truth, of only sacrificing for the good of others, of only faithful working and stewarding as image-bearers, of only being in a good mood and always giving thanks in every circumstance, we still can be tagged with not loving God with all our hearts.

It’s good to have goals that are measurable. The Great Commandment is absolutely measurable, and the measurement is repeated three times by Moses (Deuteronomy 6:5) and all three times when Jesus quoted Moses. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).

What should we do about our perpetual shortfall to this command? How can we accept it without being buried in paralyzing shame? What we most certainly cannot do is ignore or even lower the law. What we can and most certainly must do is come to the Father who commands us to love, not because He needs it, but because He knows that we need it. Love Him, and love that He faithfully loves us in Christ even when our love is halfhearted.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

Born with Flesh

The apostle John wrote that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). A few chapters later John recorded Jesus, who was talking with some grumbling Jews, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).

The enfleshing of God in Jesus led to the death of God in Jesus, which we know led to the resurrection of God in Jesus, and then led to eternal life with God to anyone and everyone who believes. We eat Jesus’ flesh by faith, we drink His blood by faith; the eating and drinking are abiding in Him, and we do that in constant dependence on Him.

This is our life, and this is love. In his first epistle John wrote, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16).

You can’t take on flesh, you were born with flesh. But you can give it, and that is the way of glory and truth. Love Jesus, love the soul satisfaction only found in Him, eat His body and drink His blood. He is our greatest good and will be forever. So “beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7).

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Lord's Day Liturgy

Remembering How We Are Supposed to Die

Jesus told His disciples a number of things on the night He was betrayed including: “all people will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Based on the letter we know as First Corinthians, it was hard to identify Christ’s disciples in Corinth.

Instead of love for one another they argued about who had social priority, who was part of the better “club” with the better preacher, who had the most important spiritual gift. Instead of love for one another they took each other to court for sake of personal rights and advantage. Instead of love for one another they humiliated the hungry and judged each other for what they ate.

The most pointed and poetic chapter in Scripture about love is 1 Corinthians 13, and Paul wrote it not as a celebration of how the Christians were identified.

It’s one of the reasons why the communion meal is so important to share. It can be abused; the church in Corinth did. But this Table confronts and comforts us with the cost and characteristics of love. Love dies to bring life. Love is more than pretty words and abstract thoughts and self-aggrandizing sacrifice. Love is for others, love is for us to come together.

We are a people identified by love, and we know what love looks like. We see love on a cross, love demonstrated through death and resurrection. We remember the love of Jesus as we eat His body and drink His blood, and we remember how we are supposed to die to live like Him.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

As Old as Dirt Made into Man

Jesus commanded His disciples to love one another. He told them that such love would identify them in the world and that He His life was the standard of love. Love for your brother is a distinctive of believers but was actually meant for every image bearer from the beginning.

For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. (1 John 3:11)

When is this “beginning”? Maybe John meant the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. But the biblical reports of Jesus’ early message were about calls to repent not calls to love. More likely John’s use of “beginning” refers to the beginning of beginnings, the beginning when the Word was with God and was God and then made all things. The message of brotherly love began in Genesis.

Further evidence for the historic nature of this message follows from John’s illustration in the next verse.

We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. (1 John 3:12a)

We’ll can consider why Cain killed Abel later. For now, let’s meditate on the fact that the call to love is as old as dirt made into man. From the beginning men were created in the image of the God of love and we are to love the people we can see (family, brothers, one another). We are to do it in deed and in truth, not just in word or talk.

According to John “we know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the brothers” and “whoever does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). How we treat one another, not merely how many Hebrew or Greek or English words we can list for love, is the behavior expected from the beginning.