January 10, 2021
I don’t typically refer to current events in my introductions or illustrations. I prefer to refer to history, long after the facts/truth of events can be investigated and verified. But the last 12 months or so have proven to be a treasure trove of cultural mores and sermon fodder. Consider:
Who would have thought a year ago, a worldwide pandemic would begin, brought to the US sometime in December or January, maybe earlier. Who would have thought the coronavirus would bring masks as a new fashion accessory, and the introduction of a new term, social distancing. Who would have thought by the end of the year, you would be told not to gather with family during the holidays. Who would have thought the virus would be implicated in the deaths of over 365,00 Americans, and almost two million people worldwide. Who would have thought the pandemic would bring lockdowns, economic chaos, and online learning, with all the associated psychological baggage. Who would have thought the US government would write over $2 trillion in “stimulus checks” – mostly to pet projects – from an account already overdrawn $25 trillion. And…who would have thought the virus would infect the church of Jesus Christ – not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually, and thereby divide the church – brothers and sisters in Christ pointing fingers.
Who would have thought the senseless, vile death of a black man in Minneapolis police custody would have sparked national protests, devolving into riots and looting lasting for months, condemned by the right, promoted by the left. Who would have thought the resulting racial chaos would strengthen movements like Antifa, Black Lives Matter and Critical Race Theory. Who would have thought part of downtown Seattle would literally be occupied, with the expressed purpose to succeed from the Union, as if they could. In the ensuing heightened racial challenge, who would have thought that, again, the chaos would infiltrate the church of Jesus Christ, with every word of a church leader parsed so that he was either overly sensitive to issues of race and oppression, or not sensitive enough.
Who would have thought our country would be so politically divided, with the rest of the world looking on in amusement. Oh, I know, we can point fingers at this or the other party, this or that governmental leader. Who would have thought this same year would see the impeachment of a President, with another seemingly on the way. Who would have thought we’d see in this same year the most hotly contested election in history with accusations of voter irregularities and fraud. Who would have thought the presidency and both houses of Congress would be captured by one political party. Well, that’s not that unusual, I guess.
But, who would have thought the accusations of fraud would devolve into what we saw last Wednesday, January 6. Epiphany – the day celebrated in church history as the day the kings from the East came to bow at the feet of Jesus. If only our kings would do the same. Both Houses of Congress had gathered jointly to certify the election results – a largely ceremonial process. But this time, pro-Trump protesters did the rioting, actually storming the hallowed halls of the US Capital building. Did you ever think you would see a temporary occupation of that structure? Oh, order was quickly restored, arrests were made, election certified. This time, interestingly, both sides appropriately condemned the riot. But, does the national chaos and the election results indicate this US experiment of a democratic republic is on its way to the trash heap of history.
And if that statement, or any others I have made, trying to be as neutral as possible – if any has bothered you, perhaps, just perhaps, this message is for you, today. You see, when we speak of the hallowed halls of the US Capital, we use the same word as, our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Is there some confusion there?
There are many other questions I could ask, hitting closer to home, at least for me. How did we get here? What has happened to our world, more, our country, most, the evangelical church? Has she become more concerned about political positions than the gospel? And, what happened to evangelical doctrine? In its popular rise from the 60’s through the 90s, did the evangelical church ever have a theology, or did attracting the masses become the mission? Sing some songs that sound like you’re on the radio listening to your favorite band, hear a motivational speech, learn how to apply some principles to live the good life. Is this our best life now?
Let me remind you of the title of a book that took the church by storm in the 90s by David Wells, No Place for Truth, subtitled, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? Or, to quote Carl Trueman in his 2020 book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. In the introduction, Trueman asks, how did we get here? How did the statement, “I’m a man trapped in a woman’s body” become normal? How could a sitting US Congressman, supposedly also a pastor, end a prayer in the house chamber, amen, and a-women? How indeed did we get here? How did the church get here? Many of your social media posts are more political, racial, economic, social or medical, than they are spiritual. How did we get here? Is this the mission of the church, to preserve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Are we confused about who we are, and what we are to be in this world?
I’m always amazed, even though we go verse by verse through the Bible, at how the biblical text finds significant current relevance. The text before us is familiar to most, but is most appropriate for today – following 2020, November 3, and last Wednesday. Read it with me, I John 2:15-17.
It’s almost like I picked the text for this morning – I did not. It picked us. Regarding this text, one of my commentaries said this:
“It is possible to dismiss John’s darkly pessimistic words in this section as parochial extremism or partisan overreaction to doctrinal or political reversals, in hindsight rather trivial, in one or more churches known to him. Especially those in the Western lands may feel that economic prosperity, political stability, material plenty, and intellectual refinement combine to make John’s warnings sound a little gauche, at least as regards their application today.” (Richard Yarborough, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the NT, 2008). I suppose it might sound a little more applicable just over a decade later.
If fairness, the author was speaking tongue-in-cheek. A page later, he writes, “It is possible to smile wanly at his apocalyptic-sounding pronouncements. Or is it perhaps the case that we are to be pitied to the extent that we have lost John’s wistful acuity regarding life’s daily deathliness and barely restrained darkness that seeks to extinguish all true light?”
We arrive today at the first of only ten imperatives/commands in the book of I John. Relatively speaking, that’s not very many. He’s just given tests to ascertain the reality of Christian faith. Then, wanting to encourage his readers, and assure them of their salvation, he writes somewhat poetically to my little children, young men, and fathers, to say, your sins have been forgiven, you know the Father, you have overcome the evil one, and you know the one who has been since the beginning.
But now, the first imperative finally arrives – and not a moment too soon, nor too late for us. Hear him say it to us today, my little children, do not love the world. He’s getting ready to tell us in verse 19, the false teachers had left the church. They left to pursue their own false spiritual enlightenment and their own sinful behaviors. I’m reminded of Demas in II Timothy 4, who had deserted Paul, having loved this present world. Well, John gives the command, followed by the rationale for the command. Here’s the outline:
- The Command (15a)
- The First Reason for the Command (15b)
- The Explanation of the Command (16)
- The Second Reason for the Command (17)
The command is easy enough – do not love the world. But, at first glance, that seems a little confusing. I thought when Jesus was asked, what’s the first and greatest command, He replied, love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. And then He added, the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself. (previous verses) And of course, the most famous verse in the Bible is John 3:16, For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. So, is this a contradiction – is God allowed to love the world, but we are commanded not to? But didn’t Jesus tell us to love the world – at least our neighbors? And what about when He told us to even love our enemies. What is John saying here?
Very simply, for the believer, there can be but one supreme object of our devotion. You see, to set your heart on the world is to expel God from the heart. To attempt to love God as a multitasker, dedicating one portion of your love to the world, and what’s left to God is fruitless, because it fails to acknowledge God for who He truly is: sole, unique and sovereign – who alone deserve our highest allegiance.
We need to define a couple of terms. First is the word world, kosmos, and it is the first of 23 times the word appears in this letter. But he uses it six times in these three verses. Now, you must know John actually uses it in a number of different ways, for example, the natural world, the world of people, or the fallen world’s systems as they stand opposed to God and His purposes.
It’s important we understand that, because clearly, we are to love the people of the world – the children’s Sunday School song is right: red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world, and so should we. After all, John already told us Jesus is the propitiation for the sins of the world, and later he’ll tell us He is the Savior of the world. Because He loves the world of people. And so, we love people, all people, created in the image of God. It should be our desire to see them come to faith in Christ with us. Our motivation for sharing the gospel is twofold – love for the Father and His glory, and love for people, for whom Jesus died. So we can and should love the world of people.
As for the natural world, we can love that. Well, we can at least admire it. A beautiful sunset, a majestic mountain range, a crystal blue sea, white sandy beaches, the Grand Canyon, you get the idea. They can be awe inspiring, such that we say, we love God’s creative nature.
Clearly, it’s the last of the ways I mentioned in which John uses the word, kosmos that we are not to love, or pine after. It speaks of this fallen world, and it’s sinful, self-absorbed systems which live in opposition to God and His purposes for His creation. Worldly attitudes or values that are opposed to God. For example, John will speak of the world being under the power of the evil one – so it speaks of human society under Satan’s control. Do not love that, John says. One of my commentaries says it this way, don’t set your affection on that. John Stott says, speaking of the world, “Viewed as people, the world must be loved. Viewed as an evil system, organized under the dominion of Satan and not of God, it is not to be loved.”
Because that’s the second word we have to define – love. Again, to quote Stott. He suggests the word has different shades of meaning, given its object and motivation. “In the one, it is the holy love of redemption; in the other it is the selfish love of participation.” I find that incredibly interesting. One is focused on others, and their good; the other is focused on self, but not for our good. The first love aims to save the sinner’s person; the second aims to share his sin. One seeks the good of others; the other is focused on pleasure and self-gratification.
So, one translation has it, don’t set your heart on the godless world. Don’t pin your hopes and dreams, your passions there. Back to my introduction. To be clear, I was grieved by the events of Wednesday. I have also been grieved by ongoing rioting and looting, the destruction of businesses and livelihoods, through the summer. I am also grieved by racism and oppression. I am grieved by the vitriolic political divide that lies between us. I am grieved by the now majority party’s passionate commitment to slaying babies in the womb. But wherein does my hope, indeed, my love lie? If these events have been soul-crushing, there may be a problem. Because we are not to love this world, but to passionately pine after, long for the return of Christ, whom we love and to whom we declare our sole allegiance.
To not love the world means to not be taken up with this world and all it has to offer, instead of seeking God’s will and ultimate purposes. Which is why Jesus taught us to pray, thy kingdom come, thy will be done…on earth. Because it isn’t.
Before we look at the two reasons for the command, let’s continue with John’s definition of the command. He actually says, “Do not love the world, nor the things in the world.” Well, what are the things in the world? He goes on to tell us in verse 16, For all that is in the world is not from or of the Father, but from or of the world. We have another of John’s stark contrasts – God, and the world epitomized by God-rejecting, self-exalting people. It’s interesting the way he says it – it is almost exactly the way Jesus prayed for us in John 17:
14 I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
15 I do not ask You take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.
16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
The wording is the same in the Greek. The point is this – what John tells us are the things of the world are not of the Father – they are of the world – that is, the evil world system, and they are things we should not love or desire or put our affection on. What are those things? He lists three:
First, the lust or the desires of the flesh. The word for desire is used 38 times in the NT, and all but three times are negative – as here. They are the desires of the fallen flesh – the human nature apart from God. It is what naturally dead people want. It is wanting what this world has to sinfully offer, in opposition to what God offers which altogether good. The broad range of sinful desires include lust, greed, gluttony, addictions and sexual immorality, to name simply a few.
Second is the lust, same word, the desires of the eyes. We see it, and we want it. This desire is activated by what is seen. It is all that is physical that surrounds us, that we can see with our eyes, and we covet. The idea is, we want it, we set our affection on it more than God and His goodness, and graciously gives us. It is to always want more.
Third is the boastful pride of life. It speaks of boastful arrogance because of the things of life. The word for life is not the usual word but speaks of biology – the physical part of life. It refers to our possessions and as a result, our lifestyles. He uses it again in 3:17, “But whoever has the world’s goods and see his brother in need…” The word goods is the same word as in our verse – again, it speaks of this world’s property or possessions. A livelihood. To sum, for all that is in the world is sinfully desired by the flesh, is sinfully desired by what we see, and is arrogantly boasted by what we have – we covet, and when we have it, we keep it and boast about it.
Which brings us the reasons, or why John tells us not to love the world. He gives two. The first is found at the end of verse 15, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Remember, John speaks in terms of stark contrast with no middle ground. The love of the Father speaks of our love for the Father. John clearly says, you cannot love the world – that is, this fallen world system and pine after it – and love the Father at the same time. This is entirely convicting, because if we were honest, much of the time, some of time, frequently or occasionally we are drawn away by this world has to offer.
John says, if this is the character of your life – if the things of this fallen world are more desirous to you than God, than you do not love the Father. No middle ground. Jesus said the same thing, “No one can serve two masters; for the either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” James says it this way, “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself and enemy of God.”
Very interesting, the next verse in James says, “Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us?” God jealously and rightly desires our sole allegiance and love. If you love this fallen world, and all it sinfully offers, as he has said in the rest I John, you do not know God nor love Him.
The second reason is found in verse 17. Despite the clarion cry of the world, it is passing away and also its lusts. John had said the same thing earlier, “the darkness is passing away and the true Light is already shining.” All those things we love, pine for, long after, are passing away. They are temporary, they are not eternal – they are simply dust in the wind. Here one day, offering fulfillment, satisfaction and happiness; gone the next. The promises of fulfillment and abundance are found empty, wanting. But, the one who does the will of the Father, pursuing Him and His righteousness, will live forever, speaking of eternal life.
As we close, I am reminded of the parable of the talents told by Jesus in Matthew 25. You likely know it. A man was going on a long journey, so he entrusted his possession to his slaves. To one, he gave five talents, to another two talents, to another one. They were expected to do something for the master while he was gone, because he would one day return, and there would be an accounting. You remember when the master returned, the one who had received five talents had invested, and earned five more. So also the one who had received two. To these two, the master said, “Well done, good and faithful slave. You have been faithful over a few things, I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.” Meaning, the best is yet to come.
Isn’t that what we long to hear from our Master, Our Lord, our Savior. Well done, good and faithful servant, slave, son, daughter, child. You have not been distracted by the things of this fallen world. You have served faithfully. Enter into the joy of your Master. Only one life will soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last. Everything else is ultimately polishing brass on the Titanic.