Revelation 3:7-13 – Love and Obedience

Chuck Colson quote

“To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:

These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you. Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.

I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (NIV)

Over thirty-five years ago, the late Chuck Colson, a former White House Counsel and founder of Prison Fellowship, wrote a timely and influential book entitled Loving God.  In it, he presented a simple yet biblical premise concerning the life of every believer in Jesus: The way to love God is to obey God.  Everything turns on our listening to God and doing what he says to do.

Jesus himself communicated to the church at Philadelphia (not Pennsylvania, but ancient Asia Minor, now present-day Turkey) affirming their faithful obedience of the message.  Because of their steadfast observance of the gospel, the Philadelphian believers would be protected and loved by Jesus.

The church at Philadelphia did much more than offer a confession of loving God – they affirmed that confession through loving obedience to Jesus. In some Christian circles, we call this “living into our baptism.”  That is, it is one thing to experience the sign of baptism as being set apart by the Holy Spirit for a relationship with God through the person and finished work of Jesus.  It is quite another thing to “live into” this reality by knowing God’s Word and dutifully obeying it.

Human beings are complex creatures in their psychology, sociology, and history. However, there is at least one simple straightforward biblical truth we all can live into: To love God is to obey God. Therefore, it is quite necessary for us to spend extended times reading and knowing our Bibles well so that we can adhere to what it says.

“It is not what we do that matters, but what a sovereign God chooses to do through us. God doesn’t want our success; He wants us. He doesn’t demand our achievements; He demands our obedience. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of paradox, where through the ugly defeat of a cross, a holy God is utterly glorified. Victory comes through defeat; healing through brokenness; finding self through losing self.” –Chuck Colson

Gracious God, thank you for the message of good news that in Jesus Christ I have forgiveness of sins.  Help to hold onto this gospel through all the vicissitudes of life so that obedience springs from my heart in all things by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

On Loving God

Last Supper Barbados
Depiction of the Upper Room by Unknown artist from Barbados.

This week, as I reflected on the words of Jesus:

“If you love me, you will obey what I command,” (John 14:15) 

my thoughts kept coming back to a dear friend of mine.  In the Fall of 1992, Wesley was on his deathbed in an Iowa hospital.  At the time, I was pastoring a small Michigan congregation and was able to take some time off to go and be with him. I was there for a week, spending my days at the hospital and only leaving his room to sleep for the night. It was my habit to rise about 5:00am and make my way to Wesley’s room where we would spend some quiet unhindered time with each other for a few hours before family members arrived. Wesley was deathly ill and could barely communicate anything above a whisper. Yet, those hours with him were incredible times of spiritual bonding and true Christian friendship.

You see, what was so amazing about my relationship with Wesley is that only a year before, he and I had a strained, difficult, and awkward relationship as he was about as far from God as anyone could be and did not want much to do with a Pastor.  Yet, in a matter of a few months, we had become devoted to one another as brothers.  Through a series of circumstances that I ascribe as God’s gracious hand, Wesley embraced a spiritual life that was as rich and full as I have ever seen (that is a story for another time). Now, as I sat with him six months later, Wesley was at the edge of his life.

During that week, I watched in the background as day after day, friend after friend, and relative after relative came into Wesley’s room to visit him for the last time.  The majority were much like Wesley before he wholeheartedly followed the love of Christ – having made a profession of faith as children, they had long since outgrew their Sunday School belief.  With each person, as frail as Wesley was, barely able to lift an arm more than a few inches, he would grab a hold, pull them close and say into their ear: “Look at me! I am dying. Is this how you want to end up?”  And then he said to every one of them: “If you are really a Christian and love Jesus, obey him and live your life for him.”

Love and obedience – they go together in Scripture like a hand in a glove.  The words of Jesus to love through obedience are part of what we call the Upper Room Discourse, or Farewell Speech. They are the Lord’s final words to his followers before his crucifixion – quite literally being Jesus’ deathbed message to those he loved. These are the words Jesus did not want his followers to forget. The disciples were distressed and troubled over the prospect that Jesus would not be with them, and they needed some focused words to live effectively with encouragement in the days and years ahead.

Upper Room
Pewter art of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. A gift from Wesley.

There are a two truths Jesus said to his disciples (and saying to us) as he was grabbing them and holding them close before his death:

Love is practiced through obedience to Christ’s commands.

Love through obedience is accomplished through the Holy Spirit’s help.

If we are to love Jesus, we will obey him – which begs the question: What are his commands?  There are three summaries of Christ’s teaching and commands in the Gospels that encompass loving him through obedience: The Great Commission; The Great Commandment; and, The Beatitudes.

When Jesus first began his teaching and healing ministry, he sat all the people down who were following him and gave them a summary of the Old Testament understanding of God’s righteousness.  These are the things, Jesus explained, that characterize a person who loves God:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. 

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. 

Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:12-17, NIV).

Genuine lovers of Jesus are characterized by their: authentic humility; deep concern to the point of tears over sin; gentle and meek spirit toward others; intense desire for personal righteousness and corporate justice; daily life of mercy, purity, and peacemaking; and, willingness to accept adversity for the sake of Jesus. Yes, lovers of Jesus are distinctly and profoundly characterized by grace. To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with their God is the normal everyday default life-setting for lovers of Jesus Christ.

When Jesus wanted to put all the Law and the Prophets (The Old Testament of the Bible) into a summary that would be easy to remember and understand he said:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it:  Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40, NIV)

What Jesus requires is an holistic love for God. Humanity is meant for wholeness, integration, and alignment between head, heart, and gut – with the glue of love. We are designed to have all of life in parity and balance – work, play, family, and church – because Jesus is Lord over it all, not just the church part. In the totality of our lives, in every relationship, and in every activity, Jesus invites us to grab hold of the kind of love that seeks a righteous agenda based in grace and mercy.

What is more, Jesus gave clear instructions of how to occupy our time on this earth while he is away preparing a place for us so that he can take us to be with him.  The gracious and pure living of the Beatitudes and the love of the Great Commandment are to be fully utilized with the Great Commission. Jesus stated:

All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.  Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.(Matthew 28:18-20, NIV)

Making disciples is at the heart of Christ’s commands. Every Christian is to be Christ’s apprentice learning the ways of Jesus in all of life, being spiritually developed so that we can be characterized by the Beatitudes and the Great Commandment. Jesus wants lifelong students in the faith, continually learning to love God through integrated and aligned selves in the church and in the world.

This is a big job.  In fact, the task is so huge that Jesus left us with the means of accomplishing it – he has given us another “Counselor” to be with us forever (John 14:16). “Counselor” (NIV) is translated in various ways in versions of the New Testament because the Greek term “Paraclete” is a rich word that is hard to encompass with a single English word. Other translations include: “Advocate,” “Comforter,” and “Helper.”  They are all accurate words to describe the Holy Spirit.  I think the best term to portray who the Holy Spirit is for God’s people is “True Friend.”

A true friend is the kind of person who you can call in the middle of the night and they will answer and listen; will drop everything to come and be with you in a time of need; will say hard things to you in love so that you can be a better person and have a better relationship with them; and, maintains a committed and consistent relationship with you.  A true friend is simply a person you enjoy and are deeply thankful for having them in your life.

Upper Room Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit given to the disciples of Jesus.

That is what the Holy Spirit is – the Spirit helps us when we need help; encourages us when we are down; comes immediately to our side when we are in need; and, gives us a good loving kick in the backside when appropriate.  The Holy Spirit is our True Friend in the world.  The Spirit continually speaks truth to us and leads us into truth. The Spirit will come alongside and apprentice us in the faith and guide us in grateful obedience to Jesus.

Because of God the Father’s love in sending the Son; the Son’s sacrificial love through the cross; the Spirit’s consistent loving presence; and, the triune God’s insistence on living a life of love, Christianity is both duty and delight – and they go together in perfect harmony.

Wesley miraculously lived through his deathbed experience. God was not quite finished with him yet.  Wesley’s Christian life displayed that loving assurance and trust in Jesus leads to a no-holds-barred obedience which is grateful and joyous despite the most awful of circumstances.

In the summer of 1993, at 29 years of age, Wesley went to be with his Lord.  Not in my lifetime have I personally seen such a complete turn-around of a person so far away from God to a person whose every thought and word reflected the Beatitudes, the Great Commandment, and the Great Commission.  And I enjoyed a relationship that was totally changed from one of animosity to one that could be characterized as “true friend.”  Because of his love for God, Wesley now sees Jesus.

There is only one level of commitment to Christ – the high charge and privilege of duty and delight. A true disciple, a genuine follower of Jesus, loves him and lives an obedient life to the Lord in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we have our lives so planned and pre-determined that when the Holy Spirit shows up to take us to a place of obedience to Jesus, we struggle to realize what’s happening. And we miss what God is doing in this world.  At other times we observe the commands of Scripture and feel the gentle nudging of God’s Spirit, yet we either cannot or will not respond out of fear, busyness, or even grief.  And then there are times when we are attentive to God’s Word and God’s Spirit and seek to obey Jesus – only to mess up so that we are left wondering if God could ever really do anything in us.

The truth is this: Love conquers all. Grace overcomes everything. Mercy never fails. We are here on this earth because of our True Friend. Even though we walk with Jesus in a three-steps-forward-two-steps-backward kind of way, the Spirit accommodates to our weakness.  To be a disciple, an apprentice, means we keep learning the ways of Jesus under the tutelage of God’s Spirit who patiently and powerfully works within us so that God’s kingdom breaks into this world and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.