I invite you to take your Bible and turn with me to the first letter of John; 1 John chapter 3. If you’re using one of the Bible in the rack in front of you, it’s on page 1022. We’re actually going to begin reading in the second chapter at the very end, verse 28, so that we keep the whole section together. You’ll see why that’s important in just a moment.
First John chapter 2, beginning in verse 28:
“And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.
Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”
This is God’s Word. Would you join me in prayer?
Father, we come to You again and ask You for the grace apart from which we cannot understand Your Word. Would You please work in our hearts – our hard, indifferent, distracted, and frustrated hearts as You know them to be? Work in our hearts. Soften them. Draw us near and enable us to see Your truth. And in the process, would You change us from the inside out and send us forth from this place with joy and gladness and great expectation of what You will complete, even as You’ve begun that good work within us. We look to You in Jesus’ name, amen.
I want to tell you where we’re going to end our study. We’re going to end by singing together, “Amazing love, how can it be that You, my God, would die for me?” That’s where we’ll finish. Let me tell you the thesis from our whole study. If you remember nothing else, you can remember this and you’ll be in good shape. The core of what we’re going to be talking about this morning is this – God loves you, and you and I need to be reminded of that. He loves you so much that He actually makes you His child at great cost to Himself, and in the process, He’s making you radically like Himself. That’s the sermon. He loves you, He makes you His child at great cost to Himself, and in the process, He's making you radically like Himself.
The passage we’ve just read is set in the context of the two appearings of Jesus – an appearing in the past and an appearing in the future. Each one is mentioned twice. The past appearing is in chapter 3 verse 5. “You know that he appeared in order to take away sins.” And again in verse 8, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” So John is talking about that first appearing, His incarnation, His becoming one of us, and explains why that was – why He came. And then he looks forward to the future and said He didn’t appear just once. He will appear again. And he mentions that twice. In chapter 3 verse 2, he says, “What we will be has not yet appeared, but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” And at the end of chapter 2, verse 28, he says, “So that when he appears, we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.”
Here’s John’s whole point in writing this letter. There are two appearings of Christ – one of the past; one yet to come, in the future – and that puts us right in the middle between the two appearings of Christ. And the core question that John wants to answer is this – What does it mean to really know this God and what does it look like to walk with Him? How do you know that you’re walking with Him, that you belong to Him, that you’re truly in union with Him? What should our present experience look like in light of that past coming and the certainty of the future coming of Christ? Those are the boundaries, the framework, of what he’s talking about.
Two points to our study. First, in Christ, in union with Him, we are deeply and dearly loved. That’s the first thing John is hammering home. The second part is that, in Christ, in union with Him, we are being radically transformed into His image. And that’s it.
In Christ, We are Deeply and Dearly Loved
Look with me at the first part of this. In Christ, we are deeply and dearly loved. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us that we should be called children of God, and this is what we are.” It’s not just that God calls us His children. It’s not just that He adopts us and gives us the legal rights of being His children. He actually makes us His children. Something radically has changed in the person who belongs to Christ. In union with Christ, you are fundamentally different. You are, truly, a child of God. Let me talk to you about what this means by showing you the opposite.
When I was a much younger man, I lived just north of San Antonio, Texas, and I had an unusual pet. I found this pet as a bunch of feathers lying on the ground beneath a tree. It had fallen out of a nest. I had no idea what kind of baby bird this was, but it was about the size of my first. I gathered it up, I was riding my motorcycle, drove to the vet's office because I couldn't just leave it there, and I said, "What is this?" And he laughed. He said, "You've found yourself a baby roadrunner!" I said, "Well what do I do?" He said, "Nothing. His beak's broken; he won't survive." I said, "But what would it take to get him to survive?" And he said, "Well, Gaines-Burger's dog food every two hours or worms or crickets if you can find them." And so I did what anybody would do, I tried! And low and behold, this little baby roadrunner with a broken beak, his beak healed, he grew up, and he became a full-grown rooster, male roadrunner! I named him, Buzz! In deference to Buzz Lowry! This roadrunner went everywhere with me. He thought he was one of us. He was raised in my hand, in my house. He would sit on my shoulder as I rode my motorcycle, and the faster I would go, the more he'd stick out his neck and his tailfeathers would fly behind him and he would dig in so tight with his claws in my shoulder! When we would walk out in the fields around the ranch where I worked, the other roadrunners would see him with me and they would run toward us in alarm clattering, “Get away! Danger!” And this roadrunner thought, “What are they doing?” And he’d run between my feet, hiding in fear from his own kind! At night, he would sleep between my tennis shoes by the door. If it rained and thundered, he would cower under the bed where I slept. When he needed to go outside, he’d peck on the glass door until I opened it. He’d go outside and come back in. It was cooler inside and he liked it that way. I would call him, “Buzz, my boy!” He was one of us!
Of course, he was just a bird, right? And the fact that I brought him into my house and raised him didn't change the fact that he was just a bird. How unlike that picture is what John is saying here. He says, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us that we should be called children of God, and so we are.” This is what we really are. Verse 2, “Beloved, we are God’s children now.” God doesn’t just call us His children. He doesn’t just adopt us and say, “Well, you can hang out with Me.” He makes us His children and this is astounding. As a matter of fact, John uses the phrase, “born of God.” Chapter 3 verse 9, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him.” And he cannot keep on sinning because he has been “born of God.” Chapter 2 verse 29, “You can be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of God.” Five times in this passage he uses the phrase, “children of God,” or “children,” and he wants to hammer home it’s not just that God calls you children that you’re in relationship to Him, but He actually makes you His children. This is astounding. This is the new birth. Regeneration. And the writer is saying this is astonishing.
Now we currently have our youngest grandchild staying with us for five days and it’s our first granddaughter, Millie. Our son and his wife named her after my wife, Emily. But she is a jewel. I have never met a child like this. She wakes up happy. She goes to bed happy. She’s happy every minute in between. And to hold this child in your arms is like magic. She’s a snuggler; she wants to get in close. And I love this little girl. I mean, I love this little girl! That’s a dim, dim picture of how your heavenly Father loves you in union with Christ. It is frankly so astonishing that the writer of this passage struggles to find the right word. In English, verse 3, it says, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us.” That’s a really weak translation. It’s a problem because it’s an idiom in the original Greek. It would be like looking outside and saying, “It’s raining cats and dogs!” and trying to translate that into Mandarin or Turkish or Portuguese. It wouldn’t make sense. What do you mean, “cats and dogs”? You’d have to change the language entirely into that language. This is what John is doing.
The original here means, “from what country is this love of God? From what planet? From what universe?” Meaning, I don’t have a category, I don’t have a context within which to think about the depth of this love God has for me. I don’t have a category. It would be like the opposite of this. Tim Keller uses this illustration. He said it would be like going to work all month – you show up early, you stay late, six days a week, you’re exhausted, you work hard! At the end of the month, you go to the boss’ office to get your paycheck, he hands you an envelope, you open it up, there’s your check, and you say, “Behold, you paid me! From what country would this? Wow, astonishing! You paid me!” You wouldn’t do that. You would say, “Of course you paid me. I deserve it. I worked hard for this. This is mine. It would be wrong for you not to give it to me. I’m entitled.”
And isn’t that how so many of us respond to being children of God. “Of course it’s supposed to be this way. Yep, I’m a child of God. Yawn.” John says, “No, you don’t get it. It is the most astonishing thing imaginable. God doesn’t just call you His child; He makes you His child. It’s a miracle. It’s the new birth. You belong.” This, I need to be reminded of over and over again. He loves me. He embraces me as His own. In union with Christ, I have it all. There is nothing deficient, there is nothing to which I can point and say, “Well, if only God did this, then I’d be together.” No, I have it all. All that is Christ’s is mine because He loves me to that degree, because He loves you to that degree. In union with Christ, you and I are deeply loved children of God.
In Union with Christ, We are Being Radically Transformed into His Image
Secondly, in union with Christ, we are being radically transformed. That’s where he goes in the very next verse 3. “And everyone who thus hopes in him, purifies himself just as he is pure.” I want you to think about this. This is not a command. In the original language, it’s not an imperative – “You must purify yourself.” It’s actually an evidence. He’s saying if you understand how deeply loved you are, then you’re going to be purifying yourself. It’s an evidence that you know and are experiencing your belonging to Him.
Let me show you what this looks like. I once heard Jerry Clower tell this story. I’m not sure you’re supposed to tell a Jerry Clower story at First Presbyterian Church! But Jerry Clower told a story about a woman who had nine children whom she was raising by herself in a small house on the edge of a construction company’s storage yard. And she had warned her kids, “Don’t you ever go into that yard because it’s dangerous. There’s heavy equipment there. There’s sheet metal there. It’s sharp. There’s nail-embedded wood and there’s these big 55-gallon drums of fuel and diesel and hydraulic fuel and grease. Don’t go over there!” One day she called her kids to supper and they all gathered in and she looked around and one chair is empty. And sure enough, “That Willie!” She said, “I know exactly where he’s gone! It’s just like him!” She went to the back door and she said, “Willie! Supper!” No answer. She walked to the back of the yard and she looked across to the construction storage place. Sure enough, one of the barrels was moving ever so slightly. So she squeezed through a hole in the fence, went back there, and peered over the edge of that 55-gallon drum that was partially filled with hydraulic fluid and grease and there was Willie, covered head to foot with this greasy, nasty stuff. And she reached down, grabbed him by the nape of the neck, pulled him up and held him at eye level and said, “Boy, it’d be a whole lot easier to have another one of you than it would be to clean you up!”
Union with Christ
And it hits me. This is exactly what God our Father could have said to our first parents, Adam and Eve, when they fell into sin and were covered not with grease and hydraulic fluid, but covered with shame. God could have easily looked at them and said, “It’d be a whole lot easier just to speak a whole ‘nother world into being - wind you up, throw you out, and start over. It would be a whole lot easier.” But He didn’t. Instead, at great cost to Himself, He set about making us new, restoring, rescuing, rebuilding, beautifying. Isn’t that what it is that John says in verse 5? “You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him, there is no sin.” This is our Missionary-God who goes after broken and rebellious people like you and me and He keeps bringing us back. And then He invites us into the mission and says, “You are My ambassadors going after people who will always run away, who will always go in their own direction, unless someone brings them back.” Our God is a Missionary-God. And so, because He loves us, and because He calls us in verse 2, His “beloved children,” John says in verse 3, “and everyone who thus hopes in him,” in union with Christ, “purifies himself just as he is pure.”
Evidence of Union
Now, what does that look like? Remember, it's not a command. It's an evidence. Think about it this way. You may have heard the story of the young man who was walking on the streets of New York City. He came up to a woman and said, "Ma'am, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?" And she looks him in the eye and smiles wryly and says, "Practice, young man. Practice, practice, practice!" Well, that may seem like it doesn't connect at all, except it really does. Because, in this passage, seven times you find that word "practice" over and over again. Look at it – chapter 2 verse 29, "You may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him." Chapter 3 verse 4, "Everyone who makes a practice of sinning practices lawlessness." Verse 7, "Whoever practices righteousness is righteous." Verse 8, "Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil." Verse 9, "No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him and he cannot keep on sinning." Verse 10, "Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God." Seven times he uses that word "practice."
If that’s not enough, three more times he adds the phrase, “keeps on sinning,” to hammer in that point. John is not saying that a Christian will never sin again. What he’s actually saying is that a Christian does not make it his ordinary practice to keep on in sin as if there’s no consequence, as if there’s no discipline. A genuine child of God, born of God, is going to be shown his sin and will grieve over it and turn from it in repentance and run back to his Father.
Think about the word “practice” and what that really means. A couple of dictionary definitions. To practice is “to do something again and again in order to become better at it.” Or, “to do something regularly as an ordinary part of your life.” It’s my practice to get up earlier. It’s my practice to take a nap in the afternoon. It’s my practice just to eat vegetables. Or, practice is a main preoccupation vocationally. Like I may be in legal practice or in medical practice or dental practice or I’m in private practice. It’s the ordinary course of your life. It’s the predominant marker of who you are. And what John is saying is, if you want to know what your present experience is supposed to look like, if you want to know what it is to be in union with Christ, then first of all look at how deeply loved you are and then ask yourself, “What’s your ordinary course of practice?” Are you becoming more and more like the One who gave Himself for you, at great cost to Himself – inestimable cost to Himself?
“No one who knows him keeps on sinning,” verses 6 and 9. When I was in seminary, I lived in the seminary townhouses in Clinton. And across from us lived this family who had a four-year-old little boy whose name was Will. And Will, boy, he was a piece of work! All of the property around us funneled the water right to their side yard, and that side yard separated their door from their carport where their car was parked. Little Will loved the mud, which was always there, because of all the water sitting there. Will, it didn’t matter how often he was threatened or warned or spanked or relegated to his room in solitude, he loved the mud and would keep going back to it. He would either run through it, splash, or he would just dive in and slide into home through the mud! Loved it! Couldn’t keep him out of it! And when you did grab him out of it, he would be kicking and screaming, thinking about, “How can I get back there again?”
One morning, his father, Larry, was late for class. He had a handful of books and juggling the car keys and his phone and wasn’t paying attention, hit that mud puddle and his feet went out and – bottom first, right into the mud! And you could have heard him, “Ah! Cannot believe I did this! Already late!” Ran back in the house, peeled off his clothes, scrubbed himself, wiped off his books, and got back out the door and made a wide birth around the mud puddle.
This is what John is talking about. It’s not that someone that deeply loved by God doesn’t sin anymore. It’s that, more and more, he’s avoiding the places that he knows will lead him in the wrong place. And when he is led out of the mud, into which he’s fallen again, it’s not kicking and screaming but it’s, “Thank You, Father, that You’ve not given up on me. Thank You that You’re willing to clean me up again.” Verse 10, “By this it is evident who are the children of God and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” It’s all about practice. Remember, these are not commands to purify yourself or to practice a certain way. It’s evidence, and it makes all the difference.
Abide in Him
I need to quickly say, though, that there are several commands in this passage, though they will surprise you. There are two imperatives in the original language, and you need to see them, because they set this all into context. Both of the commands are introduced with words of affection – “little children.” John looks at us and he says, “Little children, first command.” Verse 28, chapter 2 – “Now, little children, abide in him so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.” Abide in Him. Live out your life in union with Christ. Believe that you are that deeply and dearly loved by Him and live out of that sense, that reality of being loved by Him. John makes it more clear in chapter 4 verse 16, the next chapter, when he says, “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love, abides in God and God abides in him.” He says you’ve got to buy into the fact of how deeply He loves you. Abide in that love. Believe it so that it changes from something you understand to something you stand under. Does that make sense? It’s not just that you understand how much God loves you, but you begin to stand under the love of God and realize, “I’m okay. I’m safe. I am deeply and dearly and eternally loved. And if that’s true, I can face anything.” Abide in that love. That’s the first command that he sends to little children like you and me.
Don’t Be Deceived
The second command is in verse 7 of chapter 3. Again, “Little children, let no one deceive you.” Don’t be deceived. Look, from the very beginning that’s been the biggest battle. Hasn’t it? It goes all the way back to our first parents who, when the serpent came to Eve, it was a deception. And he wasn’t just trying to get her to rebel against God. No, the deception was much more subtle. Kind of as subtle as it is in your life and mine. Where the serpent said, “I didn’t really say that. Of course he didn’t mean that.” And at the core, what he was saying was, “Can you really trust this kind of God? I mean, you’re not really going to die. God knows something that He’s trying to keep from you. God’s holding out on you. He knows that when you eat this fruit, you’re going to become like Him, knowing good from evil.” And the deception took hold almost as easily as it takes hold in my life and yours today. The question is this – What is God really like? Can He really be trusted? Does He have my best interest at heart? Or is He really more selfish, more interested in His own glory and His own plan and He’s not all that concerned about me and where I am? Can you really trust Him? Is it true what we sang – “Great is Your faithfulness”? You will never go back on Your promise and You will never change Your character. Does He really love me? Don’t be deceived.
It takes a while for that reality to settle in. Doesn’t it? I have a friend who, with his wife, went to China to adopt a little boy who spent his first year of life in an orphanage. And they brought this little boy back to Mississippi, enfolded him into their family, four biological children, a little Chinese boy now adopted by them, and you would think that being taken from an orphanage where he was left alone to being brought and enveloped into this family where he is loved, you would think that would change everything; that it would make him a boy of deep security and delight and confidence and joy and free him to be settled and secure. But it’s not so, really. And that little boy, for the longest time, would wake up screaming with night terrors. He had questions. He had concerns. Now that he’s older and able to articulate his anxieties, his questions are, “Do you really love me the way you love your kids that look like you? Because I don’t look like you. Will you really keep loving me? I mean, you brought me here. Are you ever going to take me back? Do you really love me? Can I trust you to love me?”
It takes time for our belonging to settle in, for us to really buy into how deeply loved we are. It may actually take the rest of our lives. William Still, a Scottish pastor, one of David Strain’s favorites from the past century, wrote it this way. He says, “Christ is a new world of being, not a new set of rules. Christ is a Savior who saves us by gaining our trust and confidence more and more and training us to live our total life in trusting Him.” He’s a Savior that rescues us by teaching us, gaining our trust and confidence more and more. Verse 7, “Little children, don’t let anyone deceive you. He really does love you and He really is changing you.”
The point is this. You’re either listening to the voice of God who loves you and delights in you and reminds you of how precious you are to Him, you’re either listening to that voice or you’re listening to the enemy of your soul telling you that you don’t belong, that you really can’t trust Him. He doesn’t love you the way He loves her or the way He may love him. You, not so much. Because really at the end of the day, you’re a fake. And if people found out what you were really like, they wouldn’t want to have anything to do with you. You would never be an insider with God. The question is, “Which voice are you listening to?” The voice of the One who loves you immeasurably – “Behold, what manner of love the Father has given to us that we should be called children of God because that is what we are.” Is that the voice you’re listening to? Or the voice of the one whose steady and constant determination is to deceive you and to leave you wondering whether or not you’re really loved?
One last story and we’re done. In 1965, Patricia McGerr wrote a story called, Johnny Lingo. I don’t know if it’s fictional or if it’s biographical. She writes it as if it were part of her travel log. She writes that she was visiting the island of ————- in the South Pacific. And she learned of a man who had done something spectacular, truly unthinkably spectacular. His name was Johnny Lingo. That was actually the Americanized pronunciation of his native name. But he had purchased a bride to be his wife. And in a culture where an ordinary bride would be purchased, the dowry would be two cows, three cows if she was a great wife. If she was stunningly beautiful, she would bring four cows, but that was highly unusual, extremely rare. But in a culture where that number of cows was what it took to pay the dowry for a bride, he brought with him eight cows to buy his bride. Eight – unthinkable. No one had ever heard of this before. And it wasn’t just that the bride price was unthinkable. It was also the bride that was unthinkable.
Her name was Serita. She was the older of two daughters; the younger was really attractive and the belief was, she would bring at least three cows. But the older daughter, Serita, to call her “plain” would be a compliment. I mean the villagers described her this way. She was little and skinny with no endowments really. She walked with her shoulders hunched and her head ducked as if she were trying to hide behind herself. Her cheeks had no color. Her eyes never opened beyond a slit. And her hair was a tangled mob half over her face. She was scared of her own shadow; frightened by her own voice. She was afraid to laugh in public. She never romped with the girls, so how could she ever attract a boy?
But Johnny had known Serita when she was a little girl and he an orphan boy. And she had been his friend. She was actually his only true friend. And he had thought of her each day since leaving her island as a young teenager. Now, ten years later, Johnny was a handsome young man. He was well-known across all of the Polynesian islands as a very skilled trader and guide. People came from all over the world to see him and have him guide them on fishing trips. And now he was back and he had purchased his bride. For eight cows, he had purchased Serita, knowing who she was, having thought of her every day for ten years since she was gone. Eight cows!
Well, the author heard the story and said, "This can't be true! I have to see this for myself! I’m a writer. I need to know.” So she took a boat to the island where Johnny and Serita lived. She was led to a beautiful, large home at the edge of a lagoon. And Johnny met her at the door and invited her in. They sat down together and began to talk. Johnny asked, “Do they speak much of me back on the island of —————? What do they say about me?” And the author said, “Well, they say you are a sharp trader. They say also that the marriage settlement that you made for your wife was eight cows and they wonder why.” “They say that?” Johnny said. “Everyone in ————-knows about the eight cows?” She nodded. His chest expanded with satisfaction. “Always and forever, when they speak of marriage settlements, it will be remembered that Johnny Lingo gave eight cows for his bride!”
Just then, a woman walked into the room. She placed a bowl of blossoms on the dining table. She stood still a moment to smile gravely at the man beside the author. The author writes, “She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my entire life. The girl had an ethereal loveliness. The dew-fresh flowers with which she had pinned back her lustrous black hair accented the glow of her cheeks. The life of her shoulders, the tilt of her chin, the sparkle of her eyes, the grace with which she moved – she looked like a queen. I turned back to Johnny who was staring at me with a smile on his face. And then he turned to look at the woman, and he said it. ‘Serita, would you care to join us? I’d like to introduce you to our guest.’”
What happened there? See, a young woman about whom saying, "She's plain," would be a compliment, and yet to be loved at the price that was an extravagance beyond measure, that woman is radically changed. To know you are that deeply loved will never leave you the same. It will change you radically. That’s the point. Our God loves you deeply, He loves you dearly, so much so that He makes you His child. And in the process, He's changing you radically to be beautifully, radically like Himself. "Behold, what manner of love the Father has given to us that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are." He's given it to us. It's a gift, which means it has to be received. So there’s the question. Have you? Have you received that gift – the love of the Father who is making you new, who is making you radically beautiful like the One who gave Himself for you? And are you receiving that? Are you believing that? Are you abiding in that reality? And are you rejecting the deception of the one who keeps telling you you’re not attractive, you’re not beautiful, you don’t belong, you’ll never measure up, you’re not enough? “Behold, what manner of love the Father has given to us that we should be called children of God, that is what we are.”
Let’s pray together.
We don’t normally pray this way, but would You join me in singing our prayer?
Behold, what manner of love the Father has given unto us! Sing with me. Behold, what manner of love the Father has given unto us! That we should be called the sons of God. That we should be called the sons of God. It’s astounding, Father, that You would love us and that You would keep us and that You would make us Your children. It’s astounding that one day we will see Jesus face to face and we will be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. Would You enable us, embolden us, empower us to live this day in light of the certainty of the coming of that great day? We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.
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