April 11, 2021
You can actually Google Coffee Cup Theology and receive millions of hits. There is even a coffeecuptheology.com website, subtitled, “Reading the Bible one cup at a time.” So, I did some surfing – here are a few of my favorite theological coffee cups:
“No, the Door was Fine; I’m just fixing your Theology.” Martin Luther, 1517
“But God – When God backspaces on the period and makes it a comma.” What does that even mean?
“Catch up with Jesus. Lettuce praise and relish Him. ‘Cuz He loves me from my head to-ma-toes.” I don’t even know what to do with that.
Coffee cup theology is a challenge. The same can be said of tattoos or tee shirts. What do I mean? Coffee cup or tee shirt theology is often simply printing a verse somewhere, on your body, on your clothes or on your cup, without regard to context. In fact, verses are often read and applied without context. Make them say whatever you want. Some of the perennial favorites are:
- Be still and know that I am God.
- I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
- With God, all things are possible.
- For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you hope and a future.
Those almost sound more like motivational speech than Scripture. Of course, you could always add one from our text today, I John 4:18, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.” The challenge, again, is taking verses out of context, and making them fit your narrative. Your particular need. Now, sometimes the truth extracted may be right, but it’s not what the verse actually says – we say it like this, “right truth, wrong address.” You use a verse to say something that may be true, but it’s not what the verse is saying.
It’s one of the things I love about going verse by verse through the Bible – besides forcing us to cover all Scripture, including those difficult passages – it forces us to take verses in their context. For example, the “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” is not carte blanche to do anything and everything I want – run faster than a speeding bullet, be more powerful than a locomotive, leap tall buildings in a single bound. Rather, it means I can be content in whatever circumstances I find myself under God’s good and sovereign care. Life is hard, but I can find contentment in Christ – I can do all things, even find contentment, through Christ who gives me strength, in the midst of life’s challenges. Paul wrote that passage from prison.
Which brings us to our text in our continuing study of I John, which includes the verse, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.” You cannot, you should not, wrench that verse from its context and apply it willy-nilly – to whatever you want. Walking into a haunted house, preparing and delivering a speech in your speech class, going on the first date with that special someone. I need not fear, because God’s perfect love casts out fear – I really can jump out of this plane with or without a parachute. Is that what John writes?
I was writing my sermon on Friday [not making this up], took a moment to look at Facebook. Someone had posted a song they called anointed singing with the following words, sung with great passion, to the hoots and hollers of the audience:
You split the sea so I could walk right through it,
My fears were drowned in perfect love,
You rescued me so I could stand and sing,
I am a child of God.
That may be a fine song, but what exactly does that mean? It’s just stringing a bunch of verses together. Well, let’s read the truth in its context. But before we read it, since it’s been a few weeks, let’s review the context. We know by now the aged apostle John is writing to churches – perhaps a group of churches in Asia Minor – who were facing very specific challenges. Namely, there were those who had left the church – we’ve been calling them successionists. But not only did they leave the church, in some way they were denying the person and work of Jesus, disobeying His commands, and not loving Christians. Further, it seems they claimed some superior knowledge – they knew the truth, and the Christians who remained were uninformed. Understandably, those remaining were concerned – am I right? Are they right? Do I know the truth? Am I really a Christian, or am I missing it? Have those who have left the church of Jesus Christ today – de-converted – have they caused you to wonder?
So, John writes to give them assurance. Don’t miss that – the primary purpose of the letter is to assure his readers – to give them confidence of their salvation and in believing orthodox and right truth concerning Jesus. Remember, he gives the purpose statement near the end of his letter, just like he did at the end of his gospel. We saw that, John 20:31, “these things have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that by believing you may have life in His name.” He wrote his gospel so that we could be convinced of who Jesus is and what He did and be gloriously and wonderfully saved.
In his first letter, he’s writing to those who have believed, so his purpose is not necessarily salvation, but assurance of salvation, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Assurance. But, what are these things he has written? They can be grouped around three tests that he gives his readers – to include us. The theological, the moral and the relational tests.
The theological test – you must believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, come in the flesh to be the propitiation for the sins of people. The moral test – if you believe in Jesus, calling Him Lord and yourself a disciple of Jesus, you must follow Jesus – you must seek to obey His commands. And the relational test – if you call yourself a Christian, you must love other Christians – after all, this is the new commandment Jesus gave His disciples – which was no longer new. Several decades – and for us, two millenniums later – the truth remains – we must love one another.
This loving one another has been a primary topic of the chapters 3 and 4. I’ve told you John uses the word love 46 times in this letter – but 28 of those times are in chapters 3 and 4. This is where some of those other famous coffee cup verses are:
3:1 – See how great a love the Father has bestowed (or lavished) on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are.
3:11 – For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.
4:10-11 – In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
And sprinkled throughout those chapters are the other two tests of believing rightly about Jesus, and obeying His commands. But the overriding theme of these two chapters is God’s love for us, our love for God, and therefore our love for one another. He says some very strong things like, if you don’t love one another, then you neither know nor have the love of God. You see, it’s a test of true, saving faith.
The last time we were in I John, we finished with this verse, 4:16 – “We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” Christians are loving – they love God and one another. So that’s the context, bringing us to our text today – read it with me, I John 4:17-21.
Did you catch the context? Since God loves us, we love Him. Further, this love is perfected or matured in us, so that we may have confidence, when? In the day of judgment. There is no fear of judgment, because perfected or matured love casts out fear. You can have assurance of salvation such that, you need not fear death and what it brings. Let me outline the text:
- Perfect Love Dispels Fear (17-18)
- Prefect Love’s Divine Origin (19)
- Perfect Love’s Direction (20-21)
Starting with, Perfect Love Dispels Fear. But what fear? People are filled with all kinds of fears. This week, I tried to determine what people’s greatest fears are, but it depends on who you read. But generally, making most lists of people’s top fears, we find the following phobias, in no particular order:
Fear of snakes. It’s called ophidiophobia, and if you look it up in the dictionary, it has my picture.
Next, arachnophobia – Fear of spiders.
Fear of flying (aerophobia).
Fear of clowns – apparently, that’s a real thing (coulrophobia).
Fear of death (thanatophobia).
And fear of public speaking (glossophobia).
Interestingly, Chapman University publishes the results of an annual survey of Americans’ greatest fears. In the early years, fear of public speaking and death ranked at or near the top. But first on the list the last few years has been, Corrupt Government Officials. More recently it was called Trump Derangement Syndrome.
Well, what does John mean when he talks about perfect love casting out fear? Does that mean we could be a snake-handling church? He writes, by this – by God’s love for us and our consequent love for God and one another, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment. In other words, as followers of Jesus, we need not fear the coming judgment. You see, we understand judgment is coming for everyone. And since the consequences of that judgment are eternal, it ought to bring fear. Jesus once said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell.”
The context of that verse is Jesus is sending out the disciples to preach the message of the kingdom – the gospel. And He tells them, listen, you’ll be opposed. If they persecuted Me, they’ll persecute you, too. But don’t fear them. There’s nothing they can do to you that is lasting. Don’t fear them, fear the judgment, is the idea. By the way, it’s also where Jesus goes on to tell them, you’re more valuable than a sparrow. God has the very hairs of your head numbered. Confess Me before men, no matter the cost, and I’ll confess you before My Father.
So, as believers, we do not fear death, as some kind of fear of the unknown, and we do not fear the judgment to come following death. We know Jesus, and He will stand in our place. He has stood in our place. Our sins are forgiven, and there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. God’s perfect love for us casts out fear. Fear of death and what it brings.
I’m reminded of Paul’s letter to the Philippians – you know, from prison. In the last chapter he says, I’ve learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. But in the first chapter, he writes these incredible words – these are great coffee cup verses, especially in this time of COVID:
21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
22 But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose.
23 But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better;
24 yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.
25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith,
Do you see? Paul says, for him to live means one thing – Christ. Living for Jesus. And to die is gain. Just in case there’s any confusion about that, he says, I have a desire to depart – that means die – and be with Christ, which is very much better than living. Do you see – for the follower of Jesus, while we don’t have a death wish, we don’t look forward to the process of dying, we don’t fear death or what it brings, because we know it is better to be with Christ.
By this, love is perfected, come to full maturity, with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment. We don’t fear it. Because as He is, so also are we in this world. That simply means, we are like Christ in the world – living lives of loving sacrifice, living lives pleasing to our Father, loving one another, proving we are His. We love one another like Christ did. He loved His own. Further, just as God loved His beloved Son, so also God loves us, and we Him.
Verse 18, the coffee cup verse, in context, there is no fear in love – that is, when it has been brought to full maturity such that we know God loves us, and we love God and one another – there is no fear in love, but God’s perfected love in us casts out fear – of death and what follows – of the judgment to come. In fact, he says, those who fear are not yet matured or perfected in love, because this fear he’s talking about is fear of punishment. The only other place in the NT this word punishment is used is in Matthew 25:46, where Jesus is separating the sheep from the goats at the judgment, “These [goats, unbelievers] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Because we know God’s love for us, and us for Him, we don’t fear future punishment.
Bringing us quickly to our second point – Perfect Love’s Divine Origin. The good news is, we don’t have to muster this up. We don’t have to produce it. This isn’t a matter of our doing at all. You see, verse 19, we love, moving toward perfect, mature love, because God first loved us. He was the initiator. Don’t miss that – God didn’t wait for us to love Him before He returned our love. He didn’t wait for us to notice Him, to surrender to Him, even to worship Him before He loved us. He loved us, and His divine love prompted a response from us – namely, love. Let me say it this way – if God had not loved us first, we would never have loved Him.
Nor would we have loved others, one another – if He had not loved us first. Did you notice verse 19 doesn’t say, we love Him because He first loved us – it simply says, we love, because He first loved us. His first love for His children prompts our love for Him, and one another.
That’s the point of verses 20-21, our last point. If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar, for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. What a brilliant verse. Over and over, John calls people liars who claim to know God, love God, but don’t pass the tests:
1:6 – If we say that we have fellowship with Him [God] and yet walk in darkness, [that is, not obeying His commands, living in sin] we lie and do not practice the truth.
2:4 – The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.
2:22-23 – Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father…
And now, 4:21 – If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar.
Do you see all three tests? You cannot say you know God and then not keep His commandments – you’re a liar. You fail the moral test. You cannot say you have God but deny Jesus is the Christ, you are a liar. You fail the theological test. And now, you cannot say you love God and hate your brother – you’re a liar. You fail the relational test.
He has written these things – these three tests – not so you fail the tests and arrive at the conclusion, I’m not a Christian. He writes these tests so that when you pass them, you have assurance you truly know and love God. You have assurance of salvation – eternal life.
Brilliant argument at the end of verse 20 – the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. It is true – we have not seen God – Christianity is a matter of faith. And our faith in and love for the true and living God is evidenced by our love for our brothers and sisters, whom we see all around us. Calvin said it like this, “It is a false boast when anyone says that he loves God but neglects His image which is before his eyes.”
Verse 21, he reminds us of the commandment – the new commandment from Jesus in the Upper Room which is now an old commandment – but one they’ve from the beginning of their walk with Christ. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also. We’ve noted this before, but to pass both the moral and the relational tests requires love for one another, because this love for one another was commanded by Jesus.
Lots of talk about loving one another. But remember, it is love expressed in both word and action. Love without action is mere sentimentality. We prove it by serving one another, meeting one another’s needs, caring for one another. Being together. Which means, we need each other. We need the church of Jesus Christ. I’m not reducing the church to this Sunday morning hour. Oh no, we need each other regularly – daily in our walk together toward the celestial city.
Let me close with this picture I recently saw…we need each other.