Overall Objective: Luke 2.41-52

What’s the overall objective of your life? Have one? Ever thought of that?

Reflecting on the Second World War, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote in his memoirs,

Advantage is gained in war and also in foreign policy and other things by selecting from many attractive or unpleasant alternatives the dominating point … failure to adhere to this simple principle produces confusion and futility of action, and nearly always makes things much worse later on (The Gathering Storm, 225).

In Luke 2.41-52, Jesus is a twelve-year-old boy. He and his parents have made the three-t0-four day journey to Jerusalem for Passover. After the ceremonies and celebrations, his parents can find Him nowhere. Three days after first missing Him, they find Jesus in the Temple listening to the teachers and asking question.

The crux of this passage lies in the relationship between verses 48 and 49.

Mother Mary: Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress. 

The boy Jesus: Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? 

Notice the contrast here, between the earthy house of Joseph and the heavenly house, located in that time (before Jesus’ official coming) in the Temple. Jesus is not being “cheeky” here. He’s saying, As a child I belonged in my earthly father’s house, but now I belong increasingly in my heavenly Father’s house where I’m seeking to know God. In other words, He’s saying, I will be obedient to you NOW, but my overall objective is to know God and do His will.

Knowing God and doing His will would eventually lead Jesus to the cross. His parents didn’t get this (:50). Later, his disciples won’t get this (See 9.44-45). And, sometimes, as we seek to know God through Jesus among doing a whole host of good things, we don’t get this!

But, we can!

We can understand that, unlike Jewish people before the coming of Jesus, we don’t need to go to a place to seek God. Instead, we seek God through Jesus, who took our sins on Himself and credits us with his perfect righteousness when we trust Him by faith. And, we can make seeking to know God through Jesus our overall objective.

So, this week I took my kids to Milwaukee on a field trip, cross-country skied (and crashed five times), visited somebody who is sick, finished a book, and tucked my four-year-old into bed.

All of these are good things, but none of them is the main thing. All of them (except crashing on skis) is a do-over, but they’re all things that have to be done in faith.

Jesus, in Luke 2.41-52, helps me with this. In this bridge passage that shows Jesus moving from childhood to adulthood, we see Jesus grappling with the tension of multiple priorities, but prevailing to make the seeking of His Heavenly Father the main thing in His life. We can do the same, by seeking God, in Jesus.

Our proper overall objective is seeking God through Jesus in every corner of our lives.

How about you? Find somebody to discuss with and have a crack at these questions after reading through Luke 2.41-52:

What can we learn from Luke 1-2 about the progress Jesus made in His humanity, as He learned to seek God? Notice the progression of Jesus as baby (2.16) … child (2.40) … boy (2.43) … and, finally, Jesus the young man (2.52). Consider also what it meant for Jesus to increase “in favor with God and man” (:52).

How practical is it to make seeking to know God through Jesus the overall objective of your life?

How practical is it to make seeking to know God through Jesus the overall objective of your life?

What would it look like to bring all your various activities and endeavors under this overall objective?

What does it actually look like when we do bring all our endeavors and activities under the objective of seeking God through Jesus? What does it look like when we don’t do this?

What will this cost us, if we do? What did it cost Jesus? 

Is it worth it? What do we gain, if we do seek God through Jesus and make this the overall objective of our lives?

What questions do you have about Jesus do you have as we move from learning about Jesus the young boy to learning about Jesus the adult teacher?

Growing in Faith at Christmas: Luke 1.57-80

Has God ever called a timeout in your life so that you could grow?

This week, in Luke 1.57-80, we consider the birth of John the Baptist, and think especially about his father, Zechariah. Remember, Zechariah had been taken aback a bit at the angel’s announcement of his wife’s pregnancy: How will this be?  (1.18). God responded by making Zechariah deaf and mute, so that he’d have time to ponder what God was doing.

Zechariah’s naming of his son “John” at the baby’s birth, and in obedience to God’s command, indicates that Zechariah has grown in faith during his time of silence. Then, Zechariah responds by speaking of what God will do through the boys, John and Jesus.

In the same way, many of us get time to ponder during the Christmas season. Much has happened since Zechariah praised God at John’s birth. Jesus has come in the flesh! He’s died for our sins, and we await His return. Still, Zechariah’s response, even as he was released from his time of silence, can be a pattern for us during these deep and rich days after Christmas.

Growth in faith for each of us this Christmas looks like recognizing our need for God and responding to the saving work of Jesus. 

Maybe, you’d like to do the following:

  1. Take some time this Christmas to consider your need. What areas of my life am I keeping from God? Where do I need to trust Him like never before? 
  2. Then, just read the Gospel of Luke. Get to know the Savior. Learn more about how God will accomplish His purposes through Jesus.

And, have a blessed and Merry Christmas! See you next week …

Praise, for God’s Merciful Blessing: Luke 1.39-56

Most people don’t think about it when they pull their phone cameras from their pockets to snap a picture, but every lens has an “infinity setting”. In the old days, like when I used my Nikon F2 “film” camera, there was a little figure-8 setting that let you crank the lens to one extreme to bring into focus everything past a certain distance, as far as the eye could see. 

That’s the “infinity setting,” and it’s a picture that helps us understand our passage this week. 

In Luke 1.26-38 Mary gives praise to God for His merciful Blessing in Jesus. She considers what God has done, and what God will do. The setting of the passage has Mary visiting her older cousin Elizabeth. A journey of 80 to 100 miles brings Mary to the house. When she enters, and Elizabeth sees her, Elizabeth’s not-yet-born baby, John, leaps for joy. Elizabeth blesses Mary: And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord (:45). 

Then, Mary gives God praise for what God will do in Jesus (:46-55). She praises God for His mercy to her, for His mercy to all who fear Him, and for His mercy to those in covenant relationship with Him. Along the way, she praises God for the way He has: … scattered the proud … brought down the mighty … sent the rich away empty. And, she praises God for the way he has: exalted the humble … filled the hungry with good things.

Pertinent question for us: Has God really done this? I mean, this week there was another school shooting in Virginia. (Didn’t notice, did you? They’re so common now.) There’s constant squabbling and accusations and scandal in our highest leadership circles as a nation. I read this week about another mega-church meltdown—accusations of pastoral power-abuse and misappropriation of funds. 

In what sense has God “made all the sad things come untrue?” as Tolkien’s Samwise Gamgee says at the close of the Lord of the Rings.

One of Luke’s purposes throughout the rest of his gospel is to show how God’s work of redemption in Jesus comes in two stages. There’s Jesus’ first coming—the incarnation, for which Mary gives God praise, and in which (as Mary will learn) Jesus will die but then be raised from the dead. Then, there’s Jesus’ second coming. That’s when He’ll reign. That’s when He’ll “make all the sad things come untrue”. 

Mary is seeing God’s prophetic plan through the “infinity setting” of redemption, as the Spirit enables her. She speaks of ultimate redemption as though these acts of God’s deliverance had already take place because, at the coming of Christ in the flesh, they are as good as done. 

How about us? In this Christmas season when incomplete pictures of Christ and His work abound in our culture, leading, sometimes, to cynicism and despair, do we give praise to God through His “infinity setting”? You bet, things aren’t what they’re supposed to be. But, as those who live between Jesus’ two comings, we live in hope. Amidst the fallenness of our world (and our own fallenness), we can praise God, having believed that there will be fulfillment of all that God has spoken and promised. 

My right response to God’s merciful blessing in Jesus is praise!

Have you ever been depressed, cynical, or even downright antagonistic about Jesus during the Christmas season?  What do you think that said (or says) about your view of the totality of Jesus’ work in His two comings? 

How does realizing that things aren’t yet the way they will be help you depend on Jesus and long for His return? How does this realism make the Christian story more believable for you? 

Mary starts her hymn: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices (literally, “has begun to rejoice”) in God my Savior.” How does looking at everything Jesus will accomplish in His two comings change the way you relate to God in your troubles? 

Let it Be to Me: Luke 1.26-38

This week the nation buried President George H. Bush. We flew our Woodland flag at half-mast, and our family streamed snippets of the ceremonies, in between care visits, large-group hosting and homeschooling. I had to wonder what it would be like to conduct that service in that cathedral—five presidents present, four of them living. The eyes of the world trained on Washington D.C.

Also this week, we lit the Christmas tree in “downtown” Westboro, Taylor County. A few of us gathered in the dark. Candace plugged in the tree she’d decorated herself, and we all cheered. Then, we sang Christmas carols, especially the ones about Jesus Christ. You know, the Son of God come in the flesh. Nobody minded. Most of those who might be offended have never heard of Westboro, Taylor County. Then, we went inside for cookies and a craft. 

Two different places, Washington and Westboro. Do you think both matter to God? 

In Luke 1.26-38, Gabriel the angel announces the coming of Jesus to Mary. The passage contrasts with 1.5-25. Two  places (the temple in Jerusalem and an unknown setting in Nazareth); two mothers (one married to a priest, one engaged to a carpenter). You’d expect the Christ-child to arrive in the temple or, better, a palace. Mary is surprised to learn the Savior would be born to her. Who is Mary? Where is Nazareth? The whole thing is unlikely.

There’s three exchanges in Mary’s short interview with the angel. There’s a greeting  and a troubled silence (:28-29)Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you! says the angel. Mary doesn’t respond; she ponders. What’s this all about?

There’s a promise fulfilled and an honest question (:30-34). Gabriel says: … you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus … He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High … the Lord will give him the throne of his father David … and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever.

All of this is fulfillment language for 2 Samuel 7. King David had been promised a descendant to rule forever. How does Mary respond? With a question: How will this be, since I am a virgin? She’s not doubting; she just wants to know how this is going to work. 

Finally, we see the promised, life-giving power of God and a willing spirit (:35-38). Gabriel explains: the Holy Spirit will come upon you … the power of the Most High will overshadow you … the child will be called holy—the Son of God. God will give life without the normal, human biology. He’ll “overshadow” with His shekinah glory (see also Luke 9.34). What’s Mary’s response? Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word. 

Stepping back from this well-known passage, a couple applications present themselves: 

First, God continues to create life in Jesus. He does this … not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit …(Titus 3.5). Whenever someone trusts in Jesus (“let it be to me according to your word”), new life is created by God in Jesus through faith. 

Also, God continues to work in small, out-of-the-way places when people respond to Him with a willing spirit. Mary’s response to God’s work is a model one, not because she’s in a palace or a temple, but because she had a willing spirit before.  That’s why there’s hope for Westboro. That’s why there’s hope for any of us.

Could it be that God might be preparing a significant response to Himself in little Westboro through largely unknown people who respond to Him this Christmas in Jesus and with a willing spirit? Might He do such a thing where you live?

My right response to God in Christ is a willing spirit.

In what areas of your life do you need to respond to God with a “let it be to me”-response? 

Why is there hope in this passage for all o us, no matter how unknown we are or how small our place? 

How would you go about sharing the message of this passage with your friends and neighbors who aren’t thinking a bit about Jesus this Christmas? 

Have a great week of Christmas preparation in the Lord!

Jack and Henry make a craft at Westboro’s Christmas tree lighting.

The singing, Christmas-celebrating group in Westboro. 

Almost Time!: Luke 1.1-25

Have you ever had to wait until it’s time?

Of course, you have. Every expectant mother waiting for a baby, every schoolchild waiting for recess, every chemo patient waiting for hair to grow knows what it’s like to wait.

When we come to the New Testament, we’re looking at a people who have waited—waited for some sign that God is there, that He cares, that He’s coming. Four-hundred years have gone by. The nation is occupied by a foreign power. The work of the priests in the temple go on. But … nothing. No word from God.

Luke records what happens when God breaks His silence (Lk 1.1-4). His gospel account takes the form of a meticulous, “orderly account” written for a certain Theophilus, probably a high-ranking Roman official having something to do with the Apostle Paul’s impending trial in 61-62 CE.

Luke then tells the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Lk 1.5-25). Of their desire for a child, and (like Abraham and Sarah and Hannah before them) of God’s deliverance of a baby for the benefit of the whole nation. It’s a sign that God has not forgotten them; that God cares and is coming for them.

As we begin Advent at Woodland, we’re recognizing that people are still looking for signs—in nature, in near-death and out-of-body experiences, in the clouds. Everybody wants to hear from somebody who (like Zechariah the priest) gets to go behind the curtain and hear from God.

In the midst of all this searching and anticipation, we get to celebrate the greatest sign ever given by God. It’s the coming of the Lord Jesus, carefully researched and documented by Dr. Luke (see Col 4.14). A man of science, he gathered the eyewitness accounts of the Lord Jesus, and we get to benefit.

The reason Luke prepared his orderly account is so that the world may know that the Christ has come. 

And, you know what? Because Jesus came the first time, He’s coming again. And, that’s our hope as we enter into this Advent season.

Here’s some questions to consider with friends:

What about Luke’s approach as a researcher you do you as a modern person find compelling? What about his content is appealing to modern people, but also hard to believe? (Think: angels, prophecies, private experiences). 

How do you see Luke setting us up, in this first chapter of Luke? You know the story, but there’s a contrast between Zechariah and Elizabeth (and their “fitness” to bring about a prophetically significant child) and what God will actually do. What is Luke preparing us for? 

Have you been waiting for a sign from God? Are you waiting to believe? What would you consider a “good” sign, the kind of sign you’re looking for? 

What do you think about the idea that the Lord Jesus is the best and clearest sign that we could possibly receive from God? 

See you Sunday, or next week. Then, we’ll hear from Luke as he develops his careful account of the Christ-child who has come, and will come again.

Have a great week, in the Lord.

Assurance in the Presence of God: 1 John 5.4b-18

Even as we enjoy the goodness of God’s creation on Thanksgiving Day, we’re wrapping up our 1 John study at Woodland.

We began the study several months ago by thinking about assurance, and the need we have for it. Sunday, we’ll round out our time talking about, well, assurance and what it looks like in the everyday business of our lives.

First John 5.4b-18 reminds me a bit of mincemeat pie. It’s the wrap-up to the letter that includes everything and all the themes John has been expounding to this point—obedience to God, love for brothers, right belief about who Jesus is. Toward the end of his conclusion, however, John shows us what happens when we have assurance in the presence of God (thinking of 5.13-18, in particular).

Three things happen:

First, we know we have eternal life (:13)I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. There’s a sequence in this letter that involves: hearing … believing … obeying … living and, finally, knowing. When we KNOW that our life with God is eternal and real, then we have confidence before God. We’re free to act in keeping with God’s will, and it feels rich and full and wonderful.

Second, we know we’re heard by God (:13-15). When my children ask me for a horse (not really an option on our wooded property), I try not to shut them down with the truth. Instead, I try to let them know that I hear. “I hear you … Maybe someday, but not now.” They might not be perfectly happy with my answer, but it matters that I’ve heard them. John Stott says of these verses that “Asking according to God’s will is the qualification for answered prayer.” We might not get what we want, but we can be content that we’re heard. And, as we learn to depend on God, we can learn to bend our wills around His, not try to bend His will around ours.

Finally, we bring life to other believers (:16-18). Read over verses 16-18, would you? There’s two sins here that require explanation.

There’s the sin that doesn’t lead to death. If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life … (:16). This is a sin committed by a real believer who believes that Jesus is the Christ. The brother who has confidence in God’s presence leads his erring brother or sister to Jesus who serves as advocate who everyone who confesses his or her sins. In this way, the confident Christian becomes a life-giver to her insecure brother or sister.

There’s also a sin that leads to death. There is a sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. This sin is a categorical denial that Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh. Like the false teachers described in John’s letter who deny that Jesus is Christ born in the flesh (1 John 2.19) , these brothers or sisters can’t simply confess a sin and be saved, because they don’t believe rightly in Jesus Christ who can save them. This is not a sin characteristic of true believers, however, since, We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on keeping, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him (:18).

Important is that assurance is not just internal, personal and subjective. It’s outward and social. Assurance in the presence of God looks like something to others. And …

Assurance in the presence of God comes by belief in Jesus the Christ. 

Now, with that closing word from 1 John, I’m more excited than ever to celebrate Jesus’ birth at Advent. Truly, the Son of God has come in the flesh. Let’s prepare our hearts!

Here’s a few questions to consider with others:

Where do you most struggle with confidence before God? 

What about John’s teaching in this letter gives you the most courage?

Thinking of John’s three tests (obedience to God, love for brothers, right belief about Jesus), where have you seen these proofs in somebody you know well? Do you think it might be encouraging for you to mention this to him or her? 

Have a blessed Thanksgiving!

Giving Thanks to Jesus: Luke 17.11-19

This week we enter our celebration of a favorite holiday of mine. (Toss out a comment to guess my very favorite, if you want to …)

Thanksgiving has mostly defied commercialization. It’s subdued, understated, contemplative, and is basically a celebration about what we really need. And that’s where I, as a Jesus-follower, begin to think through my proper response to the holiday.

Luke 17.11-19 helps. In a holiday featuring turkey and sesame seed gravy, cranberries and my mother’s special pea-salad that I make each year, this passage is about leprosy.

Jesus met ten lepers in his travels toward Jerusalem. They recognized Jesus (:11-13) They hailed Him from a distance, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!

Why the distance? Under the Mosaic Covenant, the name “leprosy” served to described a whole host of skin diseases that included Hanson’s Disease (so-called in the 19th century), as well as ringworm and lupus. Some varieties were contagious, others not so much; some forms were temporary, others permanent. In the old covenant system of the nation of Israel, the priest (the religious figure!) was to examine anyone suspected of leprosy and prescribe a waiting period before the suspected would be permitted to re-enter society (Leviticus 13-14). The person might recover. But if the disease proved leprous, the person wold be pronounced unclean and removed from civil society, living perhaps in a leper colony outside the village. Skin would become infected. Nerves would die. Numb fingers would become burned or injured. Digits would fall off. The leper would die.

But, more than a dread physical disease, leprosy meant social isolation and separation from formal worship with God’s people in the temple. As such, leprosy became a picture of sin and its ravaging results—the numbness of the human heart as it dies to the things of God; separation from God, and, finally eternal death.

Happy Thanksgiving! … But, wait.

Despite the distance between them, these ten lepers received from Jesus (:14). Upon hearing them, Jesus shouted, Go and show yourselves to the priests. 

There’s an irregularity we can’t miss here. Jesus chooses to operate under the Mosaic Covenant. He’s following Leviticus 13-14 to perfection, in prescribing the cleansing ritual. But, the wrinkle is that the suspected leper would undergo cleansing after the skin had healed. And, the priest was to initiate the ritual. You didn’t just walk into the temple with leprosy.

Verse 14b tell us what happened. And as they went they were cleansed. Got that? While they were in the act of obeying Jesus, the ten lepers received not just healing but religious cleansing that made them right for full integration into society. They were cleaned without the ritual, without the ceremonial washings and sacrifices, without a priest even.

One changed man responds giving thanks to Jesus in faith (:15-19). Nine lepers gave thanks, I’m sure. They gave so much thanks that they ate turkey, took naps in their favorite recliners and then watched the Dallas Cowboys at 3:00 on CBS. They gave thanks, in general. But, did they give thanks to Jesus?

Verse 15-16a tells us: Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks …

Notice how the distance has collapsed. No more shouting from afar. No more social isolation, priests and religious rituals. This man has come to Jesus in thanks! And Jesus commends him: Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well (:19).

That’s my Thanksgiving Day message from this passage. I’m to go right to Jesus Himself with my thanks.

This Thanksgiving my proper response to God’s good gifts is thanksgiving directed to Jesus and offered in faith. 

How about you? What will be your response in faith to God’s good gifts this Thanksgiving?

Like the TEN, we’re all lepers and we need to be restored—to God and to one another. Like the TEN we’re distant from God, and we need to be brought near. Like the ONE we receive what we truly need only by faith and only in Jesus.

And then we need to run to Jesus! 

So, my suggestion. Do it up at Thanksgiving! … Family, friends, favorite fixings. Make Thanksgiving big. But, make Jesus bigger! If Jesus hadn’t made it to the cross, we’d still be in our leprosy. He went to the cross, so let’s focus our gratitude and give thanks, to Jesus and in faith!


Here’s a few questions to get you talking with others:

What about Thanksgiving do you just love? 

How do those things that you love about Thanksgiving point you to Jesus’ work on the cross? (For example, I love family which involves belonging and togetherness. Jesus’ work at the cross brought me together with God and other people who love Him. I need to give thanks to Jesus by faith to Jesus for family that is from Him.)

How will you go about sharing your thanksgiving to Jesus with those who don’t yet “get” the significance of Jesus’ work and are only giving thanks in general?

Have a blessed Thanksgiving, in Jesus and by faith …


Overcoming the World: 1 John 4.1-6

Have you ever been in a group and heard someone say something that you know can’t be right? Like: …

“… I know I can’t afford the payments on this truck, but I think God wants me to have it; so, I’ll buy it.” Or …

“I know God wants me to stay in this marriage, but I believe He wants me to be happy too; so, I’m getting out.” Or …

“I know God doesn’t heal everybody, but I’ve had a dream that He’s going to take my cancer away; so, I’m trusting in that promise.”

How do we know that what we’re hearing and thinking and believing and basing our decision-making on comes from God?

In his first epistle, Apostle John has been giving us tests for our assurance that we belong to God. First John 4.1-6 includes another of the Tests of Right Belief about Jesus. And while we need to tie into what was going on in first century Christianity to understand the passage, John’s idea is immediately relevant to us every day. It involves decision-making that is dependent on Jesus, not on the world’s way of thinking.

Make Jesus big in my decision-making (:1-3). John’s instruction starts with a command: … test the spirits to see whether they are from God (:1). This is a picture of early church worship that would involve singing from the Psalms, reading in and instruction from what we call the Old Testament, readings form the Apostles (what became the New Testament) and a time of prophecy and testimony where believers could spontaneously and under the direction of the Spirit give testimony to what God was doing. Imagine now, if someone were to stand up and say, “The Spirit has revealed to me that Jesus was only a man who became the Christ, and we can become christs like Jesus, if we …” (fill in your blank).

Here’s the test for such an occasion, John says: By this you will know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of antichrist … (:2-3)

The critical message, as we might translate it, is: “Jesus has come from God as the Christ”.  Jesus is God who took on flesh. Jesus is not flesh who took on God. Every teaching that misses Jesus as God and teaches you to depend on something else is not from God!

This is much more than a history lesson for us. There are two world and life views at work here. The World System says, “We need to do something to perfect ourselves so that we will get God’s blessing. The Jesus-Centered, Overcoming-the-World System says, “We are blessed because of Jesus and what God has done and is doing through Him, and we depend on Him.”

Jesus said that we’d be able to identify the true Spirit of God because the Spirit would point to the Son: But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, he will bear witness about me (Jn 15.26).

So, just like the Spirit of God, we’re to magnify Jesus. We’re to make Jesus big in all our listening and learning and thinking and decision-making. In so doing, we (along with Jesus, Jn 16.33) overcome the world and its thought systems. This is practical stuff. It will involve believing things like:

“I know there a good reasons to buy a truck, but debt makes me a slave, and I already have a Master in Jesus; so, believing in Jesus as the Christ matters in my finances.” Or, …

“I know marriage can be hard, but we learn to depend on God through hard times; so, believing in Jesus as the Christ matters in my marriage.” Or, …

“I know God heals, but He hasn’t promised physical healing in this life; so, believing in Jesus as the Christ matters as I endure suffering without losing my faith.”

Decision-making that overcomes the world magnifies Jesus as the Christ.

What decisions are you making right now?

How would you make these decisions according to the World System that values the world’s economy in this passing-away now-time? 

Now, how would you make these decisions in a way that agrees with the Spirit of God and magnifies Jesus? 

Have a talk with somebody about your decisions. And have a great week in the Lord.

Sacrificial Love: 1 John 3.11-24

Recently, our Woodland youth received a chance to serve. When a prominent community member was diagnosed with cancer, our kids (with adult supervision) turned up to cut, split and stack a pulp load of firewood. (That’s 12 face cords, also called “ricks” here in the Midwest). The turnout so impressed our neighbor that he called the local paper which ran a story. “A Great Place to Live,” the caption read.

I like that.  But I hope there’s a little more going on here. Far from a place where people just serve each other randomly, there is sacrificial love taking place up here in the woods. And, it turns out, sacrificial love is one of Apostle John’s tests of assurance we read about in 1 John 3.11-24.

According to the old apostle, sacrificial love issuing from our relationship with God is critical for our assurance that we belong to God.

Sacrificial love assures (:11-18). This is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. John is certainly thinking about Jesus’ teaching on love in John 13.34. In that passage, Jesus is teaching His disciples at the end of His ministry and just before His death. He’s speaking as one who has kept the Old Testament law perfectly and will now credit His perfect law-keeping to those who depend on Him. And more, Jesus will enable His followers to love with the same kind of love with which He loved them. That’s us today! When we love like Jesus we demonstrate that the content of the Gospel has moved from our minds to our inner persons.

John wants us to know more about this heart-change and what sacrificial love looks like, so he lists five things about sacrificial love in this section:

  1. Sacrificial love will be opposed by the world (:12-13). Cain, in the true account from Genesis 4, proves to be the original example. He murdered his brother because he was angry with God for rejecting his sacrifice.  Abel, his brother, had brought his own sacrifice “in faith” (Hebrews 11). So goes the world. We’ll be opposed, if we love like Jesus, because Jesus is opposed (Jn 15.18).
  2. Sacrificial love evidences life (:14-15). We evidence life when we sacrifice, because this is the oppose of hate, which Jesus compares to murder (Matt 5.21-22). Love embraces our brother; hatred involves wishing our brother weren’t present.
  3. Sacrificial love originates with Jesus (:16). By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. This is the heroic sacrifice of Jesus, the most important event ever, and it is a kind of sacrifice that reoccurs through His people through the ordinary business of Christian service.
  4. Sacrificial love looks like practical kindness (:17). But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? These verses don’t say that we give in the same way to everybody. They don’t say we do only one kind of ministry. They do say we don’t “close our hearts” toward anybody.
  5. Sacrificial love is revealed not through talk but action (:18).

Easy, right? Let’s all go out and sacrifice for each other! But, it doesn’t work that way, does it? It so happens that my heart, yet in process as it is, sometimes doesn’t want to give up my time, money, hobbies and energy. Sometimes, I think people should do more for themselves. I might be right about that, but I’m not to “close” my heart.

Sacrificial love overcomes my reluctant heart and gives me confidence before God (:19-24). The rest of the passage tells me how God helps me when my heart is weak.

God helps me when I don’t want to love (:19-20). By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 

These verses make more sense when we understand that “reassure” (ESV) or “set to rest” (NIV) might better be translated “persuade or convince”. This is the reading of both the New English Translation and Holman Standard. Basically, this is describing what it looks like when I’m trying to serve but I don’t really want to. The language is probably from Deuteronomy 15.7-12 where the Israelites were told not to be stingy with their brothers. There’s going to be times when I need God to overcome my heart that, sometimes, opposes His work. God proves greater than my doubts and knows my struggles.

God blesses me when I do love (:21-22). When our hearts come clean with God, we have confidence before God. We receive what we ask of Him, because we ask according to His will, because we’re living in it by obedience.

God grows my confidence when I obey (:23-24). The benefits of of obedience are abiding in God and being assured that we belong to God by the Spirit He has given us. In other words, growing in assurance.

Loving sacrificially like Jesus grows our assurance that we belong to God. 

How about you? Is there somebody in your life God is asking you to love in a sacrificial way? When you do, you’ll participate in the life of God and see your assurance grow as your love increases.

Take a minute to answer a few questions:

How is the sacrifice of the world different from the sacrifice of God’s people?

What are some excuses that we sometimes use not to love each other sacrificially? How many of these excuses are particularly American? 

Was there ever a time when you hesitated to sacrifice for another believer but then finally did? What happened? How did you change? 

How has God used your own works of sacrificial love to increase your assurance of your own salvation? 


Righteous Children of God: 1 John 2.28-3.10

It’s wood stacking time in the Northwoods. Actually, it’s always wood stacking time, but with our first snow dusting behind us and more snow in the distant forecast, time for easy outside work is short.

And this sets me to thinking about wood piles. And to asking this question: what does a wood pile have to do with God’s character, and ours? 

Much, actually. In 1 John old Apostle John writes to the churches under his care to assure those who believe in Jesus that they belong to God. John poses three cycles of three tests each: the Test of Obedience, the Test of Love, the Test of Right Belief about Jesus. Moving in to the second cycle in 2.28-3.10, John’s Test of Obedience is all about righteous living. Righteous living shows our family resemblance to Jesus and results in confidence before God. 

And that’s where the wood pile comes in. “Righteousness” is a hefty theological term that means “just”, “upright”, “right standing”, or my favorite gloss from the world of carpentry, “squared up”. A good wood pile is “righteous” in that it’s squared up to gravity and the earth’s core. A really good wood stands up all by itself. This gives us a start at understanding something important about God. He is righteous to Himself, requiring no other justification. Jesus is righteous with the perfect righteousness of the Father. And (praise God!) we take on the family trait of righteousness when we believe in Jesus, because we receive Jesus’ righteousness.  And, it turns out, the increasing practice of righteousness becomes the family trait that identifies us, to ourself and others, as those who belong to God.

John’s discourse in 2.28-3.10 ties this family resemblance of rightness to Jesus’ two comings. Christ’s second coming will make complete our family resemblance as righteous children of God (2.28-3.3). As it turns out, this doesn’t take place all at once, but my righteousness will be complete at Jesus’ return. Look at the sequence in 3.1-3:

The world rejected Jesus when He died for us because sinful humanity (including us) didn’t recognize the family resemblance of God’s righteousness in Jesus.

We believed in Jesus and took on the family resemblance.

Like imagining the emerging features of a baby, we can only imagine what it will be like to be fully complete in righteousness at Jesus’ coming.

We will be changed at Christ’s coming to be fully and morally righteous, like Jesus.

Now, we hope in Christ and are made pure as we grow in assurance.

At the same time, Christ’s first coming made certain our family resemblance as righteous children of God (3.4-10). These verses include a double pattern that emphasizes the seriousness of sin (:4, 8a), the purpose of Christ’s appearing (:5, 8b) and the moral conclusion. Essentially, sin is rebellion against God. And, it’s serious. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil … But, Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil with the result that, increasingly, if we’re believing in Jesus, we will not sin but be squared up with God. 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 (:9).

So, if you and I belong to God, we’re righteous—with the righteousness of Christ that is God’s rightness. And, we will be growing in obedience to God in a way that will culminate at Christ’s return.

Righteous living shows our family resemblance to Jesus and results in confidence before God. 

Take a minute to answer some questions from this passage.

The most obvious concern many people have from reading this passage is about whether we should expect to reach a state of sinless perfection in this life. What do you think John means in verse 6 when (twice) he says “keeps on sinning”? And in verse 9 when he talks about “make a practice of sin”? (This is the ESV translation).

What kind of sin is John talking about in this passage? Is John, in these verses from the last question, talking about habitual sin without repentance? How would that be different than occasional sins for which believer’s seek forgiveness? (1 John 1.8, 10; 2.1).

Martin Luther talked about “sinning boldly”. He was referring to the way true believer’s in Jesus have confidence in God, despite their imperfect practical righteousness. What do you think this looks like for the growing Christian? 

How does our growth in righteousness cause us to look forward to Jesus’ return? And, what does it mean when, in 2.29, the text says, ” … we … may not shrink from him in shame at his coming”?