The two foundations of Christian community are truth and love. Truth without love does not reflect God’s nature, and often turns people off. Love without truth ends up not being real. It provides affirmation without actually being loving. In Christ, we find the perfect balance of both truth and love.
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1 Peter #10. 1 Peter 1:22-25
These verses provide us with the two essential foundations of what it means to live in community with other Christians. Often, we don’t realize that being part of a church is, according to the Bible, the same thing as being in community with other Christians. I don’t mean we have to live in the same neighborhood, or start a commune. But properly speaking, churches are gatherings of Christians who are committed to one another in Love and in Truth. These are the two things Peter addresses here.
He starts with love. In the first place, there is a group of people that we should differentiate from all others: those who have been purified by obedience to the truth. It means those who have accepted the truth about God and Jesus Christ in faith, and who submit to that truth in the way we live our lives. In short, love begins in the family of God: our first call, after we have begun to love God, is love our fellow Christians.
I know that some of you will get hung up on the way Peter words things here. The ESV reads: “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth.” That makes it sound like we are the ones who have purified ourselves, and we’ve done it by obeying. First, the Greek word “obedience” carries a different set of ideas with it than our English term. One way to describe it might be: “listening attentively, with the intent to act on what is heard.” It is also very much related to submission, or compliance. So the idea is, we have heard the truth, and our intention is to act in accordance with what we have heard. We submit to the truth we have heard.
Second, we need to remember to interpret individual verses according to the whole teaching of the Bible. Therefore, we should not take it to mean that we have somehow made ourselves holy, or acceptable to God, by what we have done. We know from other, more clear verses, that this cannot be the case. It is God who justifies us, calls us, and purifies us. Any attempt to make ourselves holy is doomed to failure (See Galatians 2:16 & 3:10; Ephesians 2:8-10, Romans 5:1-8 & 8:33-34 if you are not sure about this). For Peter’s point here, I’ll give you “Tom’s Explanatory Translation”:
Since you all have aligned yourselves with the reality (about God and Jesus Christ), submitting to that reality has purified you. You have brothers and sisters who have also been purified in this way, therefore, you must love one another like a good family; in fact, love one another sacrificially, with unwavering commitment.
I’ve said it before, and I will continue to repeat it: after loving God, our next priority as Christians is to love each other. Too many Christians seem to forget that the command of God is, in the first place, specifically about loving other Christians. It is not that we should ignore or hate people who aren’t believers, but rather, that we cannot effectively love those who aren’t Christians if we have not learned to love our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Love is a unique thing in that you actually develop more when you give it away. In other words, it is not like there is a finite amount of love, and if you love your fellow Christians, there won’t be enough for the world. No, our love for the world (people who don’t know Jesus) is supposed to overflow from our love for one another. In fact, this is a reflection of the love of God Himself. God, who is one being, exists in three Persons. The Father loves the Son and Spirit, and the Son loves the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. All of the love that God has for the world – that amazing love we talk about all the time – is merely the overflow, the excess, you might say, that comes out of the love between the Persons of God. So, in the same way, we are to love our fellow Christians first, and when we truly do that, it will overflow into love for the world. Contrary to some thinking, loving the world before loving other Christians does not convince the world. Jesus himself made this very clear:
34 “I’m giving you a new commandment: Love each other in the same way that I have loved you. 35 Everyone will know that you are my disciples because of your love for each other.”(John 13:34-35, God’s Word version)
The thing that convinces the world is not that we are trying to love them. No, it is our love for each other that says volumes to non-Christians. The nature of our love for each other makes us open to, and eager to find, new people with which to fellowship. But after loving God, our love must begin within His family. John reminded Christians of this in his first letter:
9 The one who says he is in the light but hates his brother is in the darkness until now. 10 The one who loves his brother remains in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. 11 But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and doesn’t know where he’s going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.(1 John 2:9-11, HCSB)
Now, this last passage is worded very strongly, but we should remember a couple things. First, love is not a feeling – it is a commitment to value another. We can commit to value someone else even when we don’t really feel like it. Secondly, I believe that John’s words above are intended as a diagnosis, more than a prescription. What I mean is, if we are truly trusting Jesus and loving God, it will result in love for other believers. If, on the other hand, we have contempt for our fellow Christians, that is a symptom that helps us diagnose a problem. If we don’t love our fellow Christians, the likely explanation is that we have not actually received the grace of Jesus Christ. The answer is not to try harder, or pretend to be loving. Instead, we need to examine our relationship with God himself.
I want to say this, also. When we make love into something too general, or we turn it into a kind of nice idea, it loses the force of real love. I am not asking you to love a bunch of Christians you have never met. Love the ones you know. Concentrate on loving the Christians with whom you have regular fellowship – for instance, those in your house church, or small group.
If you happen to be in a large church, you probably need to begin by finding a smaller group of Christians with whom you connect regularly. The kind of love that Peter is talking about involves actual, close, human contact. It involves taking care of one another when there are physical needs.
It also means being genuine with one another. When Peter writes about sincere love, the actual word used refers to masks worn by actors. We are supposed to take off our “masks” when we are with our Christian community. We need to be real with one another. Because of that loving each other will sometimes involve the messiness of dealing with each other’s foibles and weaknesses – and our own. This love is not supposed to be theoretical – it is practical. It is “doing life together.”
Let’s look now at the second essential part of Christian community: Truth. In the first place, it is only when we align ourselves with truth that we are able to love. We became part of God’s family through hearing the truth, and submitting to what we have heard, with the intention of living accordingly. Without truth, love is fake. Without THE Truth, our relationships with each other are not based on a solid foundation.
Peter explains that our love is based on the fact that we are born again through the truth of God’s living Word. Here again, by the way, is an affirmation that we do not some how impart holiness into ourselves – we are brought to spiritual life (born again) by God’s action, not our own. We also have Peter explaining the eternal nature of God’s living Word.
Many Christians call the Bible “God’s Word.” I am among them. I have shared before how it is unique among the world’s religious books, and, in fact, unique among all the books in the world. Of course the Bible is really like a whole shelf of books. It has been repeatedly verified in its historical details, to the point where it is the most reliable ancient document in existence for every period that it covers. On the other hand, no archaeological discovery has ever contradicted a historical detail in the Bible. In fact, my wife Kari (not knowing I was taking this particular tack for this sermon) just emailed me an article about how Biblical texts are actually helping scientists learn more about the earth’s magnetic field. In the article, I found this quote:
This isn’t the first time the Bible’s accuracy has been vindicated, of course. The Old Testament predicted the existence of ancient groups like the Hittites long before anyone discovered evidence of their culture. Its description of the assassination of the same Assyrian king Sennacherib matches the one his son, Esarhaddon, provides in his records. At the ruins of Jericho, many archeologists believe there is evidence of a sudden structural collapse, which would align with how the book of Joshua describes the city’s destruction.
Of course, many mysteries remain about how the many pieces of the archeological record fit with the Biblical one. But in the words of archeologist and Jewish scholar Nelson Gluek, “[It] may be clearly stated categorically that no archeological discovery has ever controverted a single Biblical reference.” Yet, “scores of archeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or exact detail historical statements in the Bible.”(https://www.christianpost.com/voices/the-bibles-accuracy-vindicated-again.html, accessed 1/18/22)
The scholar quoted above, Nelson Gluek, is certainly neither the first, nor the last, to make that observation. The whole article above is worth a read, but please finish this message first! 😊
About two years ago, I was reading some of the writings of the early church “fathers.” These were the next few generations of leaders after the apostles. I was struck by something when I read the writing of Clement of Rome. Clement is actually mentioned in the Bible, in Philippians 4:3. He was known to be one of the companions and co-workers of the apostle Paul. He was perhaps the first, and eldest, of the “early fathers.” Not long after Paul’s death, he wrote a letter to the church at Corinth. Much of the letter is very good, and encouraging. But at one point, Clement takes several paragraphs to describe the legend of the phoenix – a bird, he reports, that lives for five hundred years. When it dies (goes the story) a new bird grows in its place from a worm that feeds on the decayed remains of the old. The new bird carries the bones of its parent, says Clement, to a city in Egypt.
Now, while he is merely using it as an illustration, it is clear that Clement believes the legend to be true – in fact, he uses it as in illustration of the resurrection! Obviously, it is not true. If Clement’s letter had become part of the Bible, I would have to admit that, at least in that respect, the Bible was not reliable, and in fact, I think it would have caused some people to question the historical truth of the resurrection.
Think about the situation. Luke was a companion of the apostle Paul, a well known and respected leader throughout the early Christian church, almost of the same generation as the apostles. Luke’s writing became a part of scripture. Mark (John-Mark) was also a companion of Paul, younger, and his gospel was also included in the Bible. Clement was a companion of Paul, a well known leader in the church. And yet, Clement’s letter was never, at any time in history, considered part of the Bible, the Word of God. Why not? Externally, he seems just as qualified as Luke or Mark. My take is that God intervened to prevent something that was patently untrue from being part of his Bible.
Now, you might say that was just a lucky exclusion. But if Clement believed that legend, it is quite possible that others of the first generation of Christians believed such things. It may even be that the apostle Paul himself believed it. Even so, that legend never made it into the Bible. There may have been other false things, like the legend of the phoenix, but different, that the first Christians believed. Perhaps even the apostles believed them. Yet God somehow prevented any of that sort of thing from becoming part of scripture. In fact, when you think about it, it is remarkable that a document written two thousand years ago is absolutely free from those types of false myths and legends. Luck doesn’t seem adequate to explain it.
If you go back to Old Testament times, it is certain that almost everyone believed that the earth was flat. There are Psalms that use imagery that suggests a flat earth. But those Psalms are not teaching that the world is flat – they are merely using poetic images to describe the greatness of God’s creation in terms that everyone in those days would understand. The verses themselves are not about the shape of the world, but God’s greatness. So, in fact, there is no direct teaching in the bible that tells us the earth is flat. That alone is remarkable, unless we believe that God had a hand in the Bible.
By the way, if you are thinking that people went back later on and changed what the Bible said, you can forget it. I know some people think that, but it is the stuff of pure fantasy. Believing that is like believing… well, like believing the earth is flat. We simply know too much about how the Bible was formed, and when. If you want more information about how the Bible came to be, and why we can trust it, please pick up a copy of my book, Who Cares About the Bible, on Amazon.
Let’s get practical about God’s Word for a moment. Sometimes, submitting to the truth of the Bible means we must affirm certain truths that will make us unpopular. Now, I don’t mean we need to go out of our way to “drop truth bombs” on everyone. If someone has a large nose, you don’t have to go out of your way to point that out, even if it is true. However, there are some aspects of obedience to the truth that we must affirm; and some of them are difficult, and might make others angry at us.
For instance, the Bible is very clear that it is not acceptable for someone who has trusted Jesus to continue to live in a long-term pattern of sinful behavior. I’m not talking here about someone who struggles with the same sin, over and over. That person is struggling against sin, which shows that their faith is alive and active. They are continually repenting, and seeking God’s forgiveness. But I’m talking about someone who has said, “I don’t accept what the Bible says about how I want to live. I’m going to do my own thing, and I believe I am a good Christian anyway.” The person who lives like that for a long time is endangering their faith, and it is our responsibility, as fellow believers, to encourage them to stop.
1 Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. 2 Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. 3 If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important.(Galatians 6:1-3, NLT)
We are not too important to ignore the word of God! We all must submit to it, and sometimes, the most loving thing means sharing a hard truth with a fellow Christian. A Psalmist shares the perspective of a wise Christian, when it comes to being told the truth about sin:
4 Don’t let me drift toward evil// or take part in acts of wickedness.//Don’t let me share in the delicacies//of those who do wrong.//5 Let the godly strike me!//It will be a kindness!(Psalms 141:4-5, NLT)
If they correct me, it is soothing medicine. Don’t let me refuse it.
The writer of this psalm is pointing out that if others correct him, and prevent him from drifting further into sin, it is actually a kindness. Telling the truth in that way is an act of love. He prays for the wisdom to remember that. James, brother of Jesus, agrees:
19 My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, 20 you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back from wandering will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins.(James 5:19-20, NLT)
Some people who call themselves Christians have begun to actively deny parts of the Bible. It is not loving to tell them that they are right, when in fact, they are not.
Imagine you go to a doctor because you have a strange lump. The doctor knows you, and he knows that if he says you have cancer and need treatment, it will upset you. You might even lash out in anger at him. So, instead, he tells you what you most want to hear: “It’s nothing to worry about.”
But many months later, more symptoms appear. You go to another doctor, and she says: “I’m so sorry, but you have cancer. If we had caught it sooner, it would not have been a problem, but now, it is too late for any treatment to be effective. You need to get your affairs in order, because you don’t have much time left.”
Which doctor is more loving – the one who was truthful, saying things that are hard to hear, or the one that lied to you so that you wouldn’t feel bad? Obviously, we believe the truthful doctor was more loving. In fact, the untruthful doctor would have, for all intents and purposes, destroyed your life by failing to tell the truth.
There are Christians who seem delighted to tell people that they are sinners, and they might burn in hell. Frankly, I’m not sure that all such people are real Christians. For instance, the infamous Westboro Baptist Church is not actually a Christian church, but a cult that denies many of the teachings of Jesus. But there are others, within real churches, who are sinning by delighting in bringing bad news.
Even so, real Christians are called to be ready, at times, to warn people who call themselves Christians about what could happen to them if they continue to ignore God. People who don’t claim to be believers are in an entirely different kind of category, and I don’t have space to deal with that here. However, if someone claims to be following Jesus, but is actually ignoring Him, that person is in a unique kind of spiritual danger. They might think they are healthy, while all the while spiritual cancer is eating away at them, untreated. The most loving thing for a fellow Christian to do, is to tell the truth about what the Bible says.
Truth (especially the truth of the Bible) and Love are the essential foundations for any Christian community, any church. When we have only “love,” without truth, we find that while we might be accepting, we aren’t necessarily loving. All we have is meaningless affirmation and emotion, that often does not help, and sometimes even hurts, one another. If we have “truth” without love, we can become hard and cold, and we stop reflecting the loving heart of God, and we drive people away from Jesus unnecessarily.
When we have both truth and love, they balance one another, and they lead us to maturity.
14 Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. 15 Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. 16 He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.(Ephesians 4:14-16, NLT)