“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (John 15:8-10)
- At the core of discipleship is the knowledge that Jesus disciples us in the same way that he was discipled by his Father.
- This means that a genuinely biblical approach to discipleship and the “means of grace” in the Christian life (Bible, prayer, fellowship etc.) will strongly emphasise the humanity of Christ.
- As stated last week that whilst “the testimony of Jesus” (Rev 1:2, 9; 12:17; 19:10), likely means both “the testimony Jesus gives” and “our testimony to Jesus”, priority needs to be given to Christ’s own personal witness to his Father in his life.
- This week’s teaching concentrates on the testimony of Jesus’ life as a testimony of love. This topic is foundational; not only because of its importance in scripture, but because a revelation of the love of Christ is the solution to the discipleship crisis besieging Australian Christianity.
- It is a only a revelation of God’s great love that will turn us away from our self-centredness to Christ- centredness.
- We will love and obey Jesus to the extent that we are grasped by the reality of his great sacrificial love for us. As Paul; “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15) Our discipleship can only be as deep-seated as our experience of the love of the cross.
The Love of Jesus
- In what is commonly called The Great Commission Jesus unhesitatingly associated discipleship with obeying divine commands; “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)
- Contrary to our reflexive responses to the Old Testament, obedience to God’s commands was never meant to be law-centred but based on love. “But when the Pharisees heard that he (Jesus) had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40)
- Jesus however went further than expounding the centrality of love under the old covenant. He gave God’s command to love a radically new dimension and identity by defining love in terms of himself, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35). Christian discipleship means loving as Jesus has loved us.
- Jesus’ own great motivation to love the world was the love of the Father. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love” (John 15:9). As Jesus motivation was to image the love he experienced from his Father, our motivation to love is to communicate Jesus love for us.
- We come to know that we are loved by God through his involvement in our lives because the Father was fully involved in the life of his Son. From the accounts of Christ’s life in the Gospels, the Father particularly conveyed his love for his Son through the gift of the Spirit and the promise of an inheritance.
- The baptism of Jesus represents a rich example of the love between the Father and the Son which goes out to all humanity. “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”” (Luke 3:21-22)
- The timing of this intense spiritual experience of the love of God for Christ is not accidental. The outpouring of the Spirit on Jesus and the heavenly voice communicating the full extent of the Father’s pleasure come at this point because in Jesus’ life because he is now stepping forward on the costly road to redeem humanity.
- That the various lines of God’s saving plan are drawing together at the time of Christ’s baptism is reflected by the Old Testament quotations underlying God’s own words to Jesus. “You are my beloved Son” is drawn from Psalm 2:7. This is a psalm that speaks of the promise of the LORD to give the nations as an inheritance to the Messiah. “I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” (Psalm 2:7- 8). No doubt as Jesus prayed during his baptism (Luke 3:21) he was asking the heavenly Father for the gift of the Spirit so that he might be given this kingly inheritance. This ties in with the expression, “with you I am well pleased” whose background is Isaiah 42:1. Here God describes the saving ministry of the Servant of the LORD; “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” (Isaiah 42:1)
- The other Old Testament context which speaks powerfully to the intensity of Jesus’ experience of the love of the Father at baptism is the sacrifice of Isaac. “After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” (Genesis 22:1-2). The sacrifice of Isaac is a prophetic type of the death of Jesus. As a real human being like us (John 1:14; Heb 2:14-15) Christ needed both a special revelation of the Father’s love and a deep empowering of the Spirit to go to the cross.
- It is at the time of his baptism that Jesus comes into the mature realisation of what it means to be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Two things come together at the same time in his heart, how much he is loved by the Father and how God so loves the world (cf. John 3:16; Rom 5:8; 2 Cor 5:14; Gal 2:20; Eph 2:4; 5:25; 1 John 3:9-10, 16; 4:10).
- The context in which Jesus is vitally aware that he is loved by the Father is one of utter dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit for the sake of the coming kingdom of God, “For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.” (John 3:34-35) Christ’s own experience of being loved by God (and so to love God) was not merely an inner feeling, it was to be embraced in a dynamic directional movement of restoring everything to its proper place in God’s purposes (cf. Eph 1:10; Col 1:19-20).
- The mystery of discipleship is only revealed in the environment of the Father-Son love in the power of the Spirit for the purpose of restoring God’s kingly inheritance to humanity; of which Christ is the head (Eph 1:22-23; Col 1:18). It is only in fulfilling the mission of the Father that Jesus is aware of God’s love for him. Attempts to “make disciples” who know God loves them (and who love God) outside of this missional context are therefore condemned to be futile. Part of the modern crisis of discipleship arises out of our confusion over the relationship between mission and love.
- Some parts of the Body of Christ emphasise “The Great Commission” (Matt 28:18-20) whilst other parts labour the two Great Commandments (Matt 22:34-40). Mission and love are however only united in the dynamically obedient God-pleasing life of Jesus himself. Apart from a vital union with Christ our attempts at mission and love descend into ideology, doctrinalism, elitism and law.
- Great emphasis is placed today on the unconditional nature of the love of God. This is a healthy focus because “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Jesus however did not teach that the experience of divine love is unconditional.
- He said, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.” (John 10:17). Christ was not saying that he is earning God’s love as a reward for his painful obedience, but that in going forward to death-and-resurrection he is in perfect communion with the loving will of the Father. Outside of such union with the will of God the experience of the love of God is not possible.
- Christ made it completely clear that this truth also applies to us, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (John 15:8-10). Or in slightly different words, the promise “I am with you always”, is given to those who obey the charge of The Great Commission to go forth and make disciples.
- This means that when a Christian is struggling with feeling unloved by God (and unloving towards him) the reason is almost certainly a result of disobedience to the divine commandments. This however is not some spiritual rule or formula. The Christian life is not based on laws or principles, but on sharing the obedient earthly life of Jesus which culminated the cross. As Martin Luther said, “The cross puts everything to the test.”, only the death of Jesus illuminates the apparent exceptions to the ever-present love of God in the life of Christian disciples.
- Love for God means obedience to his commands. “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.” (John 10:17-18). The rest of the New Testament makes it clear that the death of Jesus is the pinnacle of his obedient love for the Father (cf. Heb 2:10; 5:7-9). If such love involves entering into the way another person is feeling, then the seemingly paradoxical nature of the cross suddenly is resolved.
- Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross; ““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34) is utterly paradoxical to a normal human way of thinking (1 Cor 1:18-25). At the same time as the obedient Jesus is most intensely loved by his Father (John 10:17; Ps 22:24; Eph 5:2; Heb 5:7) he is completely cut off from the experience of God’s presence. It is at this moment of that he enters into the absolute absence of fellowship and communion between God and a disobedient and rebellious humanity, his experience of abandonment means Jesus loves the Father (and us) to the point of being absolutely immersed in the wrath of God against our sin (John 1:29; 2 Cor 5:19-21; 1 Pet 2:24). At the height of his intercommunion with his Father Jesus must endure on our behalf the total loss of the awareness of God’s loving presence (cf. Matt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30; 2 Thess 1:9; Rev 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8).
- Commenting on Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”; Luther says, “All the prophets did foresee in Spirit that Christ should become the greatest transgressor, murderer, adulterer, thief, rebel, blasphemer, etc., that ever was or could be in all the world. For he, being made a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world is not now an innocent person and without sins, but a sinner. Our most merciful Father sent his only Son into the world and laid upon him the sins of all men saying: Be thou Peter that denier; Paul that persecutor, blasphemer and cruel oppressor; David that adulterer; that sinner which did eat the apple in Paradise; that thief which hanged upon the cross; and briefly be thou the person which hath committed the sins of all men; see therefore that thou pay and satisfy for them. Here now comes the law and saith: I find him a sinner, therefore let him die upon the cross. And so he setteth upon him and killeth him. By this means the whole world is purged and cleansed from all sins.” The death of Jesus is so radical that one prominent theologian was moved to exclaim, “God loves us more than he loves himself.” (T.F. Torrance)
- If the cross is the climactic manifestation of the love of the Son for the Father and the world, the resurrection and ascension of Jesus is the full revelation of the Father’s love for the Son.
- The pledge of the Father’s love to Jesus through the gift of the Spirit and the promise of the eternal inheritance of the kingdom continue for the exalted Christ at a new level of breadth and intensity. This is why these themes appear as the climax of the first preaching of the gospel at Pentecost; “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:32-36)
- The New Testament abounds in language proclaiming that the period of time between the first and second comings of Jesus is the period of the advancement of his kingly inheritance. E.g. Psalm 2:7-8; “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” is cited in Matt 3:17; 17:5; Mark 1:11; 9:7; Luke 3:22; 9:35; John 1:49; Acts 13:33 cf. Rom 1:4; Heb 1:5; 5:5; Heb 1:2, 8 – 9; Rev 2:26- 27.
- The Father’s passion in the outpouring of the Spirit and the gift of disciples to Jesus (John 6:24, 37, 39, 44; 10:29; 17:2, 6, 9, 24; Heb 2:13) is a means of establishing him manifestly as “the heir of all things” (Heb 1:2 cf. Gal 3:16; 1 Cor 3:21-23).
- Jesus is now one the one through whom the Spirit passes to the disciples; the impartation of the Spirit by the Lord to the waiting Church is a baptism into the perfect communion of the Father and Son, which is the substance of the love of God (Matt 3:11; Luke 24:49; John 7:39; 20:22; Acts 2:33; 8:17 cf. Rom 5:5).
- This means that all that all that belongs to the life of the Trinity is now ours. Such is the measure (immeasurability) of the love of God. “ The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Corinthians 13:14 ESV)
- As disciples, the “love of God” means sharing in Jesus’ passion in the power of the Spirit that men and women come to know and love the Father as he does and share as heirs of God’s eternal kingdom. “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17:22-24)
- Since Christian discipleship means being like Jesus in every way, and love is that attribute of God and Christ which binds everything together, love holds a place of pre-eminence in the Christian life. E.g. “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Col 3:14); “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13); “But the fruit of the Spirit is love….” (Gal 5:22).
- Love is never set in opposition to God’s law, but fulfils the law of God because it contains within itself a desire to act for the complete good of the person to whom it is directed. “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10 cf. Gal 5:14; Matt 22:34-40)
- Remembrance of the new commandment that Christ personally gave us is vital to discipleship, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35).
- Such remembrance is vital not because we must adhere to some new and external Christian “law”, but because the command of Christ contains within itself the power we need to obey. Secondly, are hearts are filled with faith to fulfil the new commandment because the Spirit testifies to us that Jesus, who dwells in us, has already kept all the commandments of his Father to the max! Hence the confidence of Paul, “ I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:12-13 ESV)
- The topic of love is an enormous one, embracing mutual service (Gal 5:13; 6:2 cf. Luke 17:7-10) in following the way of Christ’s own servanthood (Mark 10:45; Rom 15:8), constant dependence on the power of the Spirit (1 Thess 3:12-13) and many other matters which are beyond the scope of this present teaching.
- Our love for God and others finds its wellspring in his love for us, “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
- Such obedience is frequently painful, and it as at this point that many Christians cease to grow in Christ-likeness.
- It is impossible to separate love of God from love for others, “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…. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:16, 20)
- The crunch point in the way of loving discipleship is that love involves obedience, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (John 15:8-10).
What do we Fear?
- A Personal Testimony
In the weeks and months after my conversion (at 21) I had many intense experiences of the presence of God. At times the Lord was so close that it almost felt like I was in heaven. Although there were various emotional upheavals and confusions caused by demonic powers, prayers seemed to be answered easily and I could sense real spiritual growth in my life.
Then at one point, and I can still remember the time and place, I felt that God was reaching out to love me in a closer and more intimate way. I stubbornly and foolishly said “No!” A daily inner struggle followed to keep Jesus at a “safe” distance because I could sense he was reaching out to me by his Spirit, including through spiritual gifts in church meetings. This rebellion seemed to freeze my spiritual growth for a number of years. (Even though my intellectual knowledge of Christian things multiplied and my teaching gift became increasingly apparent.)
In hindsight I can now see that I was experiencing the overtures of the grace of the Spirit (Heb 10:29) through the lens of a variety of damaging childhood experiences. Sadly there was no one close enough discipling me to help me realise what was really happening. For a variety of reasons I did not understand that the New Testament language of “Christ in you” had nothing to do with being controlled/dominated by God but sharing in Jesus’ own life. God was trying to draw repentance out of my heart and to prune me to be more like Jesus, but it felt like the Spirit trying was trying to take over my life (John 15:1ff.). I did not understand that divine discipline was God’s way to give me space to grow to be the person I was always created to be (Rom 8:28-29).
The solution to these sorts of problems is to discern the difference between the perfect love of God and the pain and rejection that flows from the deficiency of human love.
2. There is no Fear in Love
- The scriptures are full of exhortations about the cost of discipleship. Jesus said, ““If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple….So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”” (Luke 14:26-27, 33)
- We are warned that it is through “many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 13:22). The life of the disciple is one of many trials and hatred by the world and the powers of evil; “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”(John 15:18-19 cf. James 1:2-4; 1 John 3:13; Rev 12:10-11). These words of Jesus make it plain that suffering for his sake is a necessary condition for experiencing the love of God- just as it was in his own life.
- The apostolic writers are very clear that such sufferings are a share in the life of Christ, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” (1 Peter 4:12-14) In calling this “the fellowship/communion of his sufferings” (Phil 3:10) Paul is testifying that such agonies are an essential part of what it means to be loved by Jesus and to love him in return. This is how the apostle lived and how all genuine followers of Christ must also conduct their lives.
- The New Testament also teaches a clear connection between such afflictions and a consciousness of inheriting with Christ the kingdom of his Father; “You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Luke 22:28-30); “and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17; Gal 4:6 cf. Matt 13:43; 25:34; Luke 22:39; Acts 20:32).
- To participate in these things is to experience the resurrection power of the Spirit. Paul is a brilliant example of living in this truth; “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.” (2 Cor 1:8-10 cf. Phil 3:10). Suffering for Christ is not a mark of shame but preparation for a glorious destiny; “And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”” (Luke 24:25-26); “So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.” (Eph 3:13)
- Without such difficult experiences for the sake of Christ we will always be deprived of a living awareness of the love of God. This brings us close to the heart of the central reason why the Church in Australia is undergoing a discipleship crisis.
- The great theologians have extolled what they call “the wonderful exchange”.
“He who enriches others becomes poor. He took to himself the poverty of my flesh so that I might obtain the riches of his godhead. He who is full empties himself. He emptied himself of his godhead for a brief time so that I might share in his fullness.” (Gregory Nazianus);
“This is that mystery which is rich in divine grace to sinners: wherein by a wonderful exchange our sins are no longer ours but Christ’s, and the righteousness of Christ not Christ’s but ours. He has emptied himself of his righteousness that he might clothe us with it and fill us with it; and he has taken our evils upon himself that he might deliver us from them.” – Martin Luther
“This is the wonderful exchange which, out of His measureless benevolence, Jesus Christ has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, He has made us sons of God with Him; that, by His descent to earth, He has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, He has conferred His immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, He has strengthened us by His power; that, receiving our poverty unto Himself, He has transferred His wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon Himself, He has clothed us with His righteousness.” (John Calvin)
- Much of the Church has misunderstood this teaching and failed to instruct the children of God that we must continue to suffer if we are to keep growing to be like Jesus. “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,” (Colossians 1:24). I believe we instinctively pull back from the fullness of discipleship because of past painful experiences.
- Without the revelation of the Spirit all psychological, spiritual or physical discomfort is interpreted through the damaged conscience as evidence of judgement, punishment, or rejection by a God who conditionally loves us. The lens of the life of Christ teaches us however that the constant discipline of our Father experienced through all the circumstances of life, though at the time painful, is actually a sign of his abiding love (Heb 12:5-11).
- The apostle John, in so many ways the premier message bearer of the love of God in the Bible, has this to say about fear, love and judgement. “By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:17-19)
- His bold statement, “as he is so also are we in this world”, testifies that God is dealing with us in the same manner of love as he dealt with his Son. This is our security that we are truly loved.
- Mature discipleship accepts that sharing in the mission of God’s kingdom is an indispensible environment for the revelation of the love of God and the growth of love in the Christian community.
- This encompasses an understanding that the spread of the gospel requires suffering for Christ’s sake.
- Neither the world nor the Church can learn to abide in the love of God apart from the pain of God’s people (cf. Rom 8:22-23; Gal 4:19).
- Paul’s own words sum up the heart of discipleship; “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)
- The “Love of discipleship” means we loving embrace this manner of life as the way of Christ.