March 22nd, ten weeks ago, was the last time we were able to meet for worship as Larry Schell proclaimed Christ’s Word to us; March 15th, eleven weeks ago, was the last time I had the privilege of proclaiming Christ’s Word to you. Oh, how I’ve missed you. And, oh, how I’ve prayed for you. And, oh, how I’ve longed to rejoin with you in worshiping our wonderful Savior and Lord Jesus Christ, to the glory of our kind and heavenly Father, and by the indwelling of his good and quickening Holy Spirit. I can hardly believe we’re together again. If social distancing weren’t being mandated, I would ask someone to pinch me!

Now between January and March, I had begun preaching through the Old Testament, highlighting key events from the book of Genesis and noting how part of the story told us in Scripture is that God specializes in rescuing and delivering us from evil:

He rescued Adam and Eve from evil even when they chose to follow the ways of Satan, the devil, that ancient serpent[1] in the Garden. Despite our first parents’ disobedience, our kind God clothed them and allowed them to fulfill the purpose for which he had made them, to love him and each other as together they filled and cared for the earth, albeit with difficulty, and promising to one day send One who would crush the head of the lying and evil serpent;[2]

God sought to rescue and deliver Cain when he offered God a sacrifice that was no sacrifice at all, unlike that offered by his brother, Abel;

God took Enoch, who walked faithfully with him, rescuing and delivering him from experiencing death;

And we ended by seeing how God rescued and delivered Noah and his family from the evil that was so prevalent in his day.

Yet this first Sunday back, I want to pause from these rich historical accounts of how God from the beginning has dealt with—and cared for—and rescued—and delivered humanity from evil to reflect upon the changes that have taken place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, I know that for many of us, part of the suffering we have experienced has been the suffering of being separated from one another. I think it’s important that we acknowledge this.

As I’ve considered what to preach on that might address our current circumstances, the coupling of Psalm 42 with 1 John 4 came to mind. The psalmist’s words so beautifully express how I’ve felt these past ten weeks:

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’ These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.

Notwithstanding the differences between the circumstances of the psalmist with our own—as the latter part of the psalm makes clear, he’s being oppressed by an enemy—a similarity between his situation and our own is the shared longing felt “to go to the house of God among the festive throng.”

Oh, how I’ve missed coming to this “house of God” under the Mighty One’s protection! How I’ve missed the “shouts of joy and praise,” the pure pleasure of joining our voices together in prayer, praise, and song! And how tragic it is that the very act of our gathering this morning presents us with a risk, albeit slight given the many precautions we’ve taken,[3] since the COVID-19 virus seeks to take advantage of every social gathering to try and spread. And so we pray God’s protection; and we pray his mercy; and we pray that we will all love one another enough to cover our mouths with masks as we worship and pray lest we end up spreading this oh-too-adaptable virus to one another.

I confess, as the psalmist states in the first half of verse six, that for these past ten weeks, my soul has been “downcast within me.” For though it is certainly the case that we are able to know God and his love individually—as verse 8 notes, we can be aware of how “By day the Lord directs his love” and “at night his song is with me” as we offer “a prayer to the God of my life,”—even so, as we have noted so many times in the past, the fact of the matter is that God has made us not only for himself but also for each other. And without you, my relationship with our great and wonderful Father, Son and Holy Spirit has felt incomplete.

This is no doubt why verse 12 from I John 4 jumped out at me as I looked forward to our gathering together for worship this morning: “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” My vision of God, my ability to see him, has been lessened these past ten weeks because there’s been no physical “us” gathering together as family to worship our Father in heaven, his eternal Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit he’s given us to unite us to himself and each other. Though I’ve communicated with you by email—and snail mail—and phone calls—and texts—and the occasional distant visit, I have missed seeing you and loving you in person.

For as Christ Jesus’ family we should ever, as John states starting in verse 7, exhort each other to “love one another.” Why? Because “love comes from God.” The ability to love God as he defines love is possible only in and through him. Indeed, God’s definition of love is provided for us in his Word. This is why God gave his commandments by way of Moses: in order that the nation Israel that he formed for himself through one man Abraham,[4] might know what it is to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength—the focus of the first four commands; and our neighbor as ourselves—the focus of the final six commands.[5]

For apart from God’s teaching, you and I would have no clue about how to love God for since the time of the Fall we have been self-centered, inclined to listen to the serpent’s voice, rather than God-centered, inclined to beckon to the voice of our Maker and LORD;

apart from God’s teaching us, we would never know that to love him means that we can have no other gods;[6]

apart from God’s teaching us, we would never know not to make and bow down to images of our own making; we wouldn’t know that God is a jealous God, demanding our entire devotion;[7]

apart from God’s teaching us, we would never know that we’re not to misuse or take his name in vain, in a way lacking in respect for him;[8]

apart from God’s teaching us, we would never know that he wants us to follow his example, laboring six days, but taking a Sabbath on the seventh day that we might look back on our labor and enjoy his holy presence and rest;[9]

God had to teach his rebellious children all of these things in order that they might know how to have a relationship with their God; again, that they might know the joy and wonder of knowing and loving God with all of their hearts, souls, minds, and strength.

But is isn’t only love for God that we need to be taught. We also need to be taught how to love our neighbor as ourselves. As the LORD goes on to instruct his people by way of Moses, this love for neighbor includes honoring our parents;[10] and not committing murder;[11] and not committing adultery;[12] and not stealing;[13] and not giving a false testimony against our neighbor;[14] and not coveting anything that belongs to our neighbor.[15] The fact that much of our society upholds many of these teachings can cause us to lose sight of the fact that at one time, God had to teach his people these basic precepts of loving and living with one another. And loving one another with the love whose source is God alone is what John is exhorting us to.

John goes on to state, starting in the second half of verse 7 into verse 8, “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” This complements what John taught earlier in chapter 2 of this letter: “No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also;”[16] and in this chapter in verse 2: “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,….” As John addresses followers of Christ, he affirms that in addition to acknowledging Jesus, the way we know whether or not someone has been born of God is that they are seeking to live according to the ways of God who is love. That God is love, as one commentator notes, “…means that God continually gives of himself to others and seeks their benefit…. God’s love is the ultimate source of any love that Christians are able to display (1 John 4:11, 12, 19).”[17] In other words because God continually gives of himself to others and seeks their benefit, if we claim to be Christians we are to continually give of ourselves to others and seek their benefit.

Now God not only defined love by providing us his written Word but he also chose to make his love known to us by sending his eternal Son to take on human flesh in the person of Jesus in order that he might, in deed and truth, teach and show us how to live and love as he intended. Indeed, verses 9 and 10 of this passage present us with the greatest expression of love humanity has ever known: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Dear brothers and sisters, do you see what John is saying? The love of God the Father is the source of the love we have for one another. The reason our heavenly Father sent his Son is not only that we might live—for prior to our coming to faith in Christ we were dead in our sins[18]—but that we might live through Jesus. Sins are the source of God’s wrath for God is holy but Jesus bore that wrath on the cross for us, on our behalf. For Jesus who is the eternal Christ, the promised Messiah, is the means God has provided for those sins to be covered and taken away. He is the atoning sacrifice. He is the only one who is able to make amends, to make reparation, for our sin. By his obedience and sacrifice we have been set free to know, love, and serve him for he has taken upon himself God’s wrath toward sin by becoming a substitute in our place and, in exchange for our sin, he has given us his righteousness so that when God now looks upon us, he no longer sees our sin but he sees his Son’s sacrifice for those sins. Amazing grace, indeed!

All of this has been made possible by means of our union with Christ, or to use Paul’s language, of our being in Christ. This is the very truth Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 1: “It is because of him,” i.e. God’s choosing, “that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.”[19] And again Paul teaches in his second letter to the Corinthians, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”[20] Jesus is the one who knew no sin. He was tempted as we are, yet without sin.[21] This awesome exchange of Christ taking on our sin and death and giving all who believe in him his righteousness and life has been made possible in and through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. He is the one whom the Father made to be sin, i.e., regarded and treated as sin for us. Therefore, if we confess and turn from our sin and believe in him, accepting his sacrifice on our behalf, our sin no longer belongs to us. It now belongs to Christ Jesus. As Peter also taught, “‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed.’”[22] This is what it means to be “in Christ.” It means that by means of our union with Jesus Christ, we are declared “not guilty” by our heavenly Father because of and through Christ’s obedience and righteousness. As Paul further teaches in his letter to the Romans, “22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”[23] This is the atoning sacrifice of which John also speaks in verse 10.

John provides the take-away of this teaching in verse 11: “Dear friends”—or an even better translation is “Beloved.”[24] “Beloved, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” Again, how did God love us? God loved us so much that when we were dead in our sins, he sent his Son to give us his life;[25] God loved us so much that when we were dead in our sins, he took those sins upon himself, upon his Son, in order that we might never be separated from his love.[26] Therefore, if God loved us so much; if he was willing to sacrifice so much that we might know him and the love he has for us, then we must do the same for each other. We must do all in our power to love and care for each other; to give life to each other by how we love; to live our lives now the way we will be living them with him for all eternity.

For as John goes on to say in the first half of verse 12 which I commented upon earlier, “No one has ever seen God;” Now I must point out that in his Gospel John makes the same point about no one ever seeing God. But there he adds the following: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”[27] Only Christ Jesus who is God, who is God’s Son, has known God. Therefore, only Christ Jesus who is God, who is God’s Son, is able to make God known to us. And he has come to earth that we might know our heavenly Father.

John goes on to state in the second half of this verse, “[B]ut if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” Again, even though we may know and love God individually, we were made to know and love him corporately by the way that we love one another. As we love one another, “his love is made complete in us.” If you’ve ever wondered why God made us, why he gave us life in the first place, here’s your answer: he made us to love him and one another. And when we love one another the way that he intended, his love is made complete in us. For when we love one another the way he intended—i.e., by his teaching in the Scriptures and the example of his Son—we are able to see God.

Now if you’re thinking that it’s impossible to love him and each other the way that Jesus Christ loved us, you’re right. For the only way we’re able to even begin to love one another in the manner he intended is by the Holy Spirit he sends. As John states in verse 13, “This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit.” This is in keeping with what Paul also teaches in the first chapter of his letter to the Ephesians: “13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.”[28] By sealing us with his Holy Spirit, our precious Lord Jesus has guaranteed our inheritance until he returns to redeem all who are his. His Holy Spirit is the one who gives us life, who delivers us from death, who cleanses us, who unites us with Father, Son, and each other for all eternity. Through the Holy Spirit Jesus gives, we’re able to know the love and eternal life that the Triune God has ever known and enjoyed.

This is no different from what Jesus taught his disciples prior to his death, resurrection from death, and ascension to heaven, when he had not yet sent his Holy Spirit. In the fourteenth chapter of his Gospel, John records Jesus’ teaching: “15 If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever17the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”[29] Christ’s Holy Spirit is the means by which Christ Jesus comes to us. He is the means by which Christ Jesus’ sacrifice is applied to us. He is the one who makes us holy even as Jesus is holy—he is the Holy Spirit, after all! Notice how Paul tells how “we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”[30] And again Jesus taught concerning him, “‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’ 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.”[31] But now that Jesus has been glorified and is ruling at the right hand of our heavenly Father, we who believe in him have been given the very Holy Spirit he promised. Isn’t is awesome to know that all who believe in Jesus Christ are given of his Holy Spirit who is that eternal living water who makes it possible for us not only to be transferred from death to life as he conforms us into his image, but also to know and love God as his adopted children and to know and love each other as siblings not only now but for all eternity?! For the only way we are able to know our heavenly Father is through belief in his Son, Jesus Christ, who, when we confess and turn from our sin, believing in and receiving him, sends us his Holy Spirit in order that we might know, love, and follow our Maker and Redeemer and enjoy him and the eternal life he so richly bestows both now and forever.

This is how we see God, both individually and corporately:

By reading his Word;

By acknowledging, confessing, and turning from our sin;

By believing and receiving his Son;

By heeding his written and risen Word;

By loving him and one another by the Holy Spirit he gives;

By glorifying our Father in heaven by that very same Holy Spirit.

The psalmist, though he lived years before God had fulfilled his promise to send his Son, nonetheless knew that hope placed in God is ever a hope that is sure. Let us close by listening to the answer he gave to the question he posed to himself in the midst of his darkest hours: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”[32] Oh, how grateful I am to be with you this morning to express together as God’s family our hope in and praise for our loving and gracious Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!

Let us pray.

 

[1] Revelation 12:9: The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

[2] Part of the LORD’s curse upon the serpent is found in Genesis 3:15: And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.

 

[3] Including cordoning off pews to maintain distance, wearing masks, providing goggles, remaining seated throughout the entire service, opening doors, controlling entering and exiting, etc.

[4] Genesis 12:1–3: 1 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.2 I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

[5] See Jesus’ response when challenged by the Pharisees in Matthew 22:34–40:34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” and Leviticus 19:18: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

[6] Exodus 20:2–3: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.You shall have no other gods before me.

[7] Exodus 20:4–6: You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

[8] Exodus 20:7: You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

[9] Exodus 20:8–11: Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

[10] Exodus 20:12: Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

[11] Exodus 20:13: You shall not murder.

[12] Exodus 20:14: You shall not commit adultery.

[13] Exodus 20:15: You shall not steal.

[14] Exodus 20:16: You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

[15] Exodus 20:17: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

[16] 1 John 2:23.

[17] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on 1 John 4:8.

[18] See, e.g., Ephesians 2:1–5: 1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.

[19] 1 Corinthians 1:30.

[20] 2 Corinthians 5:21.

[21] Hebrews 4:15: For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.

[22] 1 Peter 2:24.

[23] Romans 3:22–24. See also Philippians 3:7–9: But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.

[24] Ἀγαπητοί is a derivation of a Greek word for love, ἀγαπάω. As noted in Bill Mounce’s online Greek dictionary, ἀγαπητός, -ή, -όν means “dearly loved one; the object of special affection and of special relationship, as with Jesus the beloved of the Father.” (https://www.billmounce.com/greek-dictionary/agapetos) Concerning the verbal form of this word, “to love; in the NT usually the active love of God for his Son and his people, and the active love his people are to have for God, each other, and even enemies.” (https://www.billmounce.com/greek-dictionary/agapao)

[25] Romans 5:8: But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

[26] Romans 8:31b– 39: If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:“For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

[27] John 1:18.

[28] See also: 2 Corinthians 1:21–22: 21 Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22 set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.; 2 Corinthians 5:5: Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

[29] John 14:16–18.

[30] 2 Corinthians 3:18.

[31] John 7:37b–39.

[32] Psalm 42. This refrain is found in verse 5 and in verse 11, the final verse of the psalm.