January 31, 2021
Many of you are familiar with the annual celebration, primarily in New Orleans and other Roman Catholic cities, known as Mardi Gras. Beads, masks, dancing, drinking, parades, and more. The motto of the festival is, Laissez les bons temps rouler, (Leh-seh leh bon taw roo-leh), which means, “let the good times roll.” What you may not know is the history – yes, I said the word – the history and significance of the event. Some say it goes all the way back to the second century BC, as a pagan festival to the gods celebrating spring and fertility. The festivals were grossly immoral, not unlike today.
When Christianity came to Rome, the celebrations were kept, but Christianized, of sorts. You see, the debauchery and excess of the event continued, but came right before the Christian season of Lent – a forty-day period of fasting and penance. So don’t miss it, after the sinful excess came fasting and penance, so all is good.
Mardi Gras is French and actually means Fat Tuesday. The celebration lasts from shortly after Epiphany, January 6 – celebrating the arrival of the wise men from the East – through Fat Tuesday, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Note that: between these two significant Christian observances, partiers binge on rich, fatty foods – historically, milk, meat, lard, eggs and cheese, since you would give those up for Lent, lasting from Ash Wednesday until Easter. During that forty-day period of Lent, you would typically only eat fish – or fast on Fridays. That Fat Tuesday, the actual day of Mardi Gras, is also known as Shrove Tuesday, from the Latin shrive – which means, to administer the sacrament of penance.
The first Mardi Gras took place in the US on March 3, 1699, by some French explorers who made their way up the Mississippi River, landing at a point they named Point du Mardi Gras. They held a small celebration, and it’s largely been here ever since. If you know anything about the festival, it is quite unseemly – I would share more, except for the mixed audience present, to include children. I would show you pictures, but many are inappropriate.
So, put that all together. A Christianized, immoral pagan festival. It’s interesting – it’s like a period of time set aside for people – even professing Christians – to permissively live indulgently sinful lifestyles. But that’s alright – Ash Wednesday and penance are coming. God’s grace allows such sinful pursuits, right? After all, we’re only human. We can live in passionate, sinful revelry – the way we want to live, before we do penance, seeking absolution, and live for forty days how we don’t want to live.
Is that the way we think of living the Christian life? It’s such a bore, no fun, but somebody’s got to do it. If only I could give into sinful appetites every once in awhile – you know, maybe once a year – life would be so much better. Then John’s words come to us, “Now, little children, abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming.” Oh yeah, that’s right, we talked about that last week: Jesus is coming back, and I certainly don’t want to be caught doing something I shouldn’t be doing, no matter how much I want to. I mean, the call of the culture and the lure of sin is so enticing, promising fun and satisfying pleasure. What would a little matter? But okay, we try really hard, because Jesus is coming back, and we don’t want to be ashamed. So grin and bear it, right? As if living in sin would be so much better, but well, we’re Christians, so we can’t.
But notice, John then goes on to write, “If you know that He [that is, God] is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him.” End of chapter, but not end of this truth. But let’s start there, shall we – you see, the reason we pursue righteousness is not because Jesus is regrettably coming back, but because Jesus is joyfully coming back. And when He comes, we want to be found practicing righteous lives, because it’s good and best – because we have been born of God. (Perfect tense)
John here introduces a concept that will carry through the rest of the book. We are born of God. Begotten of God. The old nature is gone, the new has come. New creations in Christ. We are no longer dead in trespasses and sins – we are alive in Christ, born of God. The Holy Spirit has come to live within, to teach us, to guide us, to transform us, to guarantee our inheritance. The life we live in the flesh we live for the Son of God, who loved us and gave Himself for us. He is our greatest treasure, and living for Him, following as His disciples is the greatest life imaginable. Not the easiest – but the greatest. We have been born of Him.
And as John thought about that, he broke into exclamatory wonder. Incredulous wonder, actually. And he uses another word that he’s already used a couple of times, but will now take center stage. He will use the word love 46 times in this short letter of 105 verses – most in chapters 3 and 4. Forty-six times – that’s almost every other verse. And John begins chapter 3 overwhelmed by the truth that God loved him. When is the last time the wonder of, Jesus loves me, this I know, took your breath away? I know, that’s a children’s Sunday School song – but John was probably in his 80s when wrote I John – and the wonder of God’s love was still breathtaking to him. Read the text with me – I John 2:29-3:3.
The reason we pursue righteousness is not necessarily because we have to. I can’t do the “fun” things in life because I’m a Christian. No, we pursue righteousness/purity because we are overwhelmed by the truth of God’s love for us, causing us to be born again, making us His children. If there is anything I want us to leave with today, it’s this: Jesus loves me, this I know. And God’s love for me is so undeserved, so stunning, so incredible that our only response can be one of joy-filled wonder, awe, amazement, and obedience. I desire to follow Christ. I don’t have to, I want to. Let me give you the outline of the text:
- The Love of God (2:29-3:1)
- The Likeness of God (3:2)
- The Hope of God (3:3)
John makes the point in verse 29 that since God is righteous, that those who practice righteousness – as a way of life – have been born of God. This concept of being born of God is an incredible truth found in John’s Gospel. For example, in the prologue of John 1, we read these words:
12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name,
13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
These are interesting verses. John had just said that when Jesus came to His own, His own did not receive Him. We’ll come back to that in a moment. But, as many as did receive Him, to them He gave the right, the privilege, the power, the authority to become children of God – even to those who believe or trust in His name.
Notice, as many as received Him John defines as believing in His name. To believe in the name of someone is to trust in the person – to believe in the name of Jesus Christ is to believe He is who John says He is – the Son of God, the Word who is God – and to believe He did what He came to do – to rescue us, and to do that through His death, burial and resurrection. To believe that is to receive Him, which results in the incomprehensible right to become the children of God.
To these people, God gave the right to become children of God. Notice, they are born of God, not of blood – meaning, not because we are born a certain nationality, Jewish, for example, nor that we have been born into a Christian family. No, we’re born of God – not of the will of flesh – any flesh, nor the will of man, any man – but who are born of the will of God. It is God’s will that causes us to be born again. R. C. Sproul said, “We do not believe in order to be born again; we are born again in order to believe.” We are dead in trespasses and sins – and God makes us alive, causes us to be born again, so that we may exercise faith. Without God’s prior work of regeneration through the Holy Spirit, there would be no saving faith.
John says more about that in John 3, when talking to Nicodemus:
3:1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews;
2 this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?”
5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
6 “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
7 “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’
8 “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
This is what it is to be born of God – to be born again by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. To be born the first time physically/biologically into a physical family; to be born spiritually the second time, into a spiritual family. And a few verses later in John 3, we read, for God so loved the world He gave His only begotten Son – so that we could receive eternal life, so that we could be born of God.
And this amazing truth never got old to John. Even as he was now the aged apostle – it’s about sixty years since he walked with Jesus, and saw His death and resurrection. And now he writes, “See – Behold – it’s an exclamation of wonder and amazement – unbelievable, how great a love the Father has bestowed or given us. The word means just that, but the NIV has it translated as lavished, trying to capture the sense of John’s expression of God’s stunning love given to us. Behold, how great a love God has bestowed on us.
And just how was this lavish love seen in it’s giving? That we would be called children of God. Stop right there. Why does this cause John such wonder? Think about it. God could have loved us, or pitied us, and done something about our lost, miserable condition. He could have demonstrated His love for us by sending His Son, which He did. And Jesus could have died for us, being raised again the third day, which He did. And God could have said, for those who believe in the name of Jesus – who He is and what He did – turning from their sin and placing their faith in Jesus – will be saved. Which He did. I sent Jesus, He died for you, you believed on Him, and you are saved. Eternal life for you. Welcome to heaven as my eternal servants. That would have been amazing. We could sing of amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see. Awesome.
But God didn’t stop there. How great a love the Father has bestowed on us that we would be forgiven. Yep. That we would be redeemed. Yep. That we could be reconciled to God. Yep. That we would be called children of God. We could have received the glories of heaven and salvation without adoption into the family of God, couldn’t we? But that wasn’t God’s plan. God so loved us – it was a great love – that we, when redeemed, would be adopted into the family of God, that we would be called children of God. John never got used to that truth. He never ho-hummed that truth. We should not either. It overwhelmed John, and it should us, too. Through faith in Christ, we become children of the living God.
And such we are, as amazing as it is, right now, John says. We do not become children of God upon death – we are children of God right now, through being born of Him.
Of course, there is a challenging consequence for that. For this reason, that we are children of God, John writes, the world does not know us. They don’t know who we are, they don’t understand us, they don’t accept us. In fact, we have seen, they will oppose us. But this should not come as a surprise. Jesus promised it – if they hated me, they will hate you also. John says as much here, they don’t know us, because they did not know Him. He said as much back in John 1:
10 He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him.
11 He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.
And then come the verses we read earlier, but as many as received Him, to them He gave the right, the privilege of actually becoming children of God. So if you are a child of God, placing your faith in Jesus, do not be surprised by the rising tide of opposition against you. But remember who you are, and remember whose you are.
Leading us to our second point, verse 2, the likeness of God. Beloved – loved ones – he repeats the earlier truth: now we are children of God. Right now – not sometime in the future. Now. But, there is something marvelous in the future coming. And it has not yet appeared or been made manifest what we will be. Which is interesting – the end of verse 1 said, the world does not know who we are now; the end of verse 2 says, we don’t yet know now what we will be. Something greater is coming in terms of being children of God. It’s not greater than being His children, but it is the result of being His children. Here it is: we know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. Paul says it this way in Romans 8, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son.”
When He appears is referring, of course, to His return. He already referenced that back in chapter 2, verse 28, “Now little children, abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming.” As I said earlier, that can sound like such a negative motivation, and in a sense, it is. We don’t to be ashamed at His coming. But now, John give us the positive motivation – something better is coming. A transformation, if you will. We will be like Him.
What does that mean? Does that mean we will be divine – little gods – when He returns? No – he goes on to tell us in the next verse. When He comes, we will be like Him in purity. In righteousness. No longer will we struggle like we do now. You see, when Jesus came the first time, in His incarnation, He was fully human. And when we see Him at His second coming, we will become like Him in all that He is in His humanity. Perfect. We will see Him in all His glory, and that sight will change us. Old theologians used to call it the beatific vision. We will see Him in His beautiful perfection, which will grant us holy bliss, holy joy, is the idea. It is a beatific vision which will transform us, not to deity, but to human perfect purity and joy. We will reach that for which we have striven all our lives.
It’s a joy-filled promise. So, we don’t pursue righteousness because we have to, although we do. We don’t forsake sin because we have to, although we do. It’s much greater than that. We are headed for something much more glorious, much greater. We will be like Him in holiness and purity – we will be transformed to be what we were created to be. As God’s children, we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is. It is that for which we long.
Meaning, we don’t long for the fleeting, destructive pleasures of momentary sin. We don’t pursue the excesses of Mardi Gras, thinking that will fulfill, satisfy. Sin always leaves you empty. It never delivers what it promises. We forsake sin, knowing the joys that come with pursuing righteousness – to be like God. Like Father, like son, like daughter. People should see in us not just righteous behavior, but joy that comes from such a pursuit. It’s not – hey, do you want to go with us to this sin-filled event – party or drug induced bliss or sex-crazed activity and fulfilled joy? No, I can’t because I’m a Christian, and we don’t get to have any fun. No. It’s no, because I have something much better, which brings eternal lasting joy as opposed to the hangovers and guilt of such sinful pursuits. Do you see?
Last point, verse 3. Everyone who has this hope – that is, the hope of His coming, seeing Him as He is, and this hope of transformation – everyone who has this hope fixed on Him, purifies Himself, just as He is pure. Two thoughts. First, hope in the NT, as we know, is not how we use the word hope today. I hope something happens, which speaks of a desire for something to happen, but no assurance that it will happen. I hope it snows, I hope it stops. I hope I’ll get an A, I hope I get the job, I hope the treatment works. As much as you hope for something, in its common, current usage, there is no assurance it will happen.
But in the NT, hope is not elusive or uncertain. Our hope is certain, because it is based on the promise of God through the work of His Son. Jesus promised to come back, and so we know He will, to receive us to Himself, so we will see Him as He is, we will be like Him in purity, we will be transformed. That is our rock-solid hope. Since this is certain, we who have this hope in Him, we purify ourselves now. We don’t wait, we begin the process of purification, of sanctification, of being like Him, now. And it is glorious and joyful to do so.
If we as Christians just walk around with this Eeyore attitude of woe is me, I’m a Christian so no fun for me, no joy for me, no friends for me – will people want we have? Will you even want what you have? I don’t want to rail against sin today, what we can’t have; I want to revel in what we do have. If we understand, we have been born of God; God has demonstrated a great love for us such that we are, right now, children of God; if we look forward to what awaits when Jesus returns, because we get to see Him and be like Him in holiness – if that is our attitude, it will attract others. It will at least interest them. And we will have the opportunity to tell them of the reason for the hope we have. It is a hope we have, it is not a ball and chain we carry.
As we close this morning, I want you to understand, every person falls into one of two categories – willful rejection of Christ, the Son of God, or willful reception of Christ, believing in His name by faith. If you are a follower of Jesus this morning, your response can only be one of wonder and praise. He came to your rescue. He brought you out of darkness into His marvelous light. He made you His child.
But if you are not a follower, then to this point, you have willfully remained in darkness. I want to ask you – is that working for you? This willful rejection and loving sinful darkness? Because I found it didn’t work for me. Most people in this room will tell you that their attempts at self-reformation were ultimately failures. Their pursuit of sinful fulfillment left them empty.
And I suppose some of you might be finding that your captors, sin and the devil, have left an awful taste in your mouth. A terrible sense of guilt in your heart that you cannot shake. Oh, you might be able to numb it – medicate it – or worse yet, maybe your conscience is dead to you. I want the Spirit to awaken it today, and tell you there is grace and forgiveness, and new life available, for you – the Son of God stands ready to rescue you – it is as simple as saying, I believe – I receive, I trust what Jesus did for me. I’m tired of my sin – I give it up for You, Jesus – take my life, make it yours. Be my Savior and my God. He came to do just that. Let Him rescue you.