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Love is Greater (LifeLift #7)

lifelift podcast Mar 10, 2020

I read an interesting story about a French village that got sacked during World War II. Lush with vegetation and well-drawn water, the small locale in Northern France was ripe for the picking of the Axis forces. Though they occupied the houses and public buildings as their own for a season, when they found themselves pushed back by America and her allies, the German troops ravaged the city.

After the war ended, the locals rebuilt. After restoring everything they could, they gathered near the city square for an afternoon of celebration and rededication of their small town.

"What about that fountain?” an elderly man asked.

He pointed to the large water feature prominently poised in the roundabout near the main thoroughfare. 

“What about it?” the local priest replied. 

It had been the church's role to maintain the fountain and its nearby landscaping. They’d proudly done so for decades— perhaps even centuries. The statue of Jesus with outstretched arms had, in their mind, welcomed people into their village. They took pride in presenting Him well…

“Jesus’ hands?” another person inquired.

"They're missing," another observed.

Though others hadn’t yet noticed that Jesus' hands were “knocked off" at His wrists, thanks to the three from the crowd, it was now obvious to everyone present.

"He doesn't have any hands!” a child added.

"Where are His hands?”

Murmurs began to crescendo. 

The truth is that the hands of Jesus went missing when the statue was knocked from its base by retreating soldiers. In that instant, the entire centuries-old concrete creation shattered. 

Most of the pieces were recovered, and Jesus was painstakingly “put back together.” A closer look revealed that cracks and small "fault lines”  were visible throughout His entire body. The image was imperfectly perfect, the most obvious flaw being that the craftsmen were never able to locate either of His hands…

There was a pause. A long quiet. The kind you can feel.

Then, finally— “OK, this Jesus has no hands..." the priest conceded.

“But we can't have a Jesus with no hands!”

“No, this doesn’t make sense,” another onlooker added, expressing their discontent.

Finally, the priest continued, “He has no hands but yours…"

Think about it… 

No hands but your hands…

 

Your hands = His hands

A few talks ago we concluded that we live the presence of Christ in the world today. We are His presence. We are His hands.

But living His presence isn't just about being here. Nor is it about simply doing the things He would do. More than that, it's doing the things He would do in the manner He would do it. That is, more than simply doing what He would do, we want to do it like He would do it.

You’ve heard the saying “It’s not what you say it’s how you say it.” This is what that is... but it doesn't just include the words we say, it involves every single one of the works we do.

How would He do it?

That’s a deeper far deeper question than “What would Jesus do?”

In 2 Timothy 1:7, we find a great outline. In that passage Paul encourages one of His disciples, Timothy, to fulfill his own ministry and calling, just as we’re seeking to do in this book. Paul reminds Timothy (KJV):

God hath not given us a Spirit of fear, but of power, love, and of a sound mind.

We want to live as Christ in the world with an expression of all three of these. Neglecting any of them, as we’ll see, moves us away from our form— from living the full expression of Him. Omitting any area projects an inaccurate picture to those around us.

 

In the next few talks, we'll review all three, as they set the tone for the ministry we do.

  • Power. Paul reminded Timothy that there would come in a day when the church has a form of godliness (i.e., things look right), but denies his power (2 Timothy 3:5). He says avoid that trap! After all, it requires supernatural power to do the supernatural task we've been called to (chapters 8, 9, 10).
  • Love. Paul says “the greatest”— even more important than faith— is love. 
  • Sound mind. Earlier in this book we learned that we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). Paul encourages us to “let the same mind  be in us” that was in Christ (Philippians 2:5-8). That is, he encourages us to allow His thoughts to reign rather than our own. In other places Paul talks about taking every thought captive to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). And, we’re told to be transformed… by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2) (see chapters 11 and 12 of this book).

For the remainder of this talks, we'll discuss ministering in an environment of love. Then, in the following chapters we'll discuss power and sound mind.

 

Love is the environment

1 Corinthians 13, the "love chapter," gets massive “air play” at weddings. Though an appropriate venue to read those verses, the context of the passage has nothing to do with marriage.

Let me show you what it does have to do with…  

1 Corinthians 12 speaks about spiritual gifts, as does 1 Corinthians 14. Right in the middle we find this incredible passage which describes the tone of ministering via the supernatural gifts. That is, the context for using the power God gave us to express the presence of Jesus to this world is love!

Look at 1 Corinthians 12:4. Paul tells us, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit” (NIV). He explains that “there are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them” (12:6 NIV). Then, he outlines several of the gifts (12:7-11), he likens the church to a human body (12:12-13), and he reminds us that we need each other as much as the various parts of our bodies need the other parts (12:14f.). (We’ll circle back to this image and these gifts in Part 3 of this book, by the way, when we define spiritual gifts and work through each of the gifts.)

Here's what I want you to see in particular: at the conclusion of chapter 12, Paul says two things— 

  • First, desire the greater gifts (12:31).
  • Second, exercise the gifts in a greater way (13:1).

That second point, about describing a greater way, leads us into the 'love chapter.”  

I've included the entire chapter here. Notice that Paul highlights several of the spiritual gifts we'll later study. The prerequisite for using any of the gifts is love. In fact, without love, the gifts are worthless. Paul writes (1 Corinthians 13 ESV), 

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

After referencing these gifts, in the very next sentence, Paul admonishes us, “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy” (14:1 NIV). His position seems to be something like this: if you can’t do it in a loving way, then don't do it.

Let’s make this incredibly practical.

  • Have you every been nervous when you heard people praying in tongues? 
  • What about when someone stands to deliver a word of prophecy? Has that ever created any feelings of anxiety?  
  • Have you been so unsettled about some of the gifts mentioned in the New Testament that you actually avoid being around them?
  • How about preaching? Have you ever felt condemned rather than gifted with words of life? 
  • Or when someone has given you something or served you in some other way… Did they ever make you feel guilty, as if you had "put them out" when they chose to do something for you?

It might be— yes, it may be— that they didn't understand the Biblical paradigm for using the gifts. Or, it could be that they didn’t share their gift from a context of love…

Jesus told the disciples something related to this in John 15:9:

As the Father has loved Me, so I have I loved you.

He adds, "Remain in My love" (15:9b).

Remember the picture we've been sketching throughout our study? 

We labeled several arrows, denoting that Jesus reveals the Father and Jesus reveals us. We also highlighted that the Father sent Jesus, then He sent us. And we mentioned that the fullness of God dwelled in Jesus, and His fullness inhabits us!

Here’s the picture again. Take a few moments to review it before moving on. 

Now, let’s add something else to it. Notice that love is the context for everything we do. Love is the only environment for Biblical ministry.  

 

Perfect love = full potential love

Over the past year I’ve pondered 1 John 4:18 over and over. It’s a verse I’m trying to implement in my interpersonal relationships, in my writing, and from any stage or platform from which I speak. 

Here are two translations—  

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love (ESV).

And, 

Love never brings fear, for fear is always related to punishment. But love’s perfection drives the fear of punishment far from our hearts. Whoever walks constantly afraid of punishment has not reached love’s perfection (Passion).

I want to highlight three concepts from the verse:

  • Perfect love
  • Casts out fear
  • Fear reveals that we’ve not yet been perfected in love

First, let’s define what “perfect" means. The word used in this passage doesn’t infer we’ll always love each other “without flaw,” rather it suggests we will love each other maturely.

Do you remember that word telios which we discussed in chapter 5? 

Paul used the word in Colossians 1 when he says that he endeavors to present “every man complete [perfect] in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). John  places the same word here.

The word translated as “perfect” in this verse is also telios, which means “reaching the full potential.” 

Or, “fulfilling the purpose for which it was created.” 

In the same way Paul longed for his congregants to “live their purpose," John wants us to “love our purpose.” That is, he wants our love to be whole, complete, and full of Jesus. Since Christ indwells us in His fullness, that is our potential— to deliver the very heart of the Father to the world in which we live.

What does that kind of love look like?

Well, a telios love pushes fear out and makes massive space for grace. 

A la 1 Corinthians 13, telios love hopes for the best, believes in the best, and never fails— even when the person being loved clearly falters (13:4f.). In fact, this love keeps no record of wrongs at all. It actually endures and abounds all the more aggressively when sin is present (see Romans 6:1).

 

Perfect loves expels fear like a demon

Second, let's discuss what "casts out fear" means. John tells us that mature love— the love that reaches its full potential— dominates fear. It doesn’t incite fear or insecurity; it eliminates it. As such, telios love makes people feel safe. 

I reviewed several translations to see how they communicate the term “casts out.” Here are four ways translators describe what perfect love does:

  • Drives out fear (NIV)
  • Expels all fear (NLT)
  • Casts out fear (ESV)
  • Banishes fear (ISV)

In other words, this kind of love is strong. 

Here’s how intensely it creates security: the same word used of “casts out” fear is the same verbiage used throughout the New Testament to describe how Jesus treated demons. When He bumped into them, they had no choice but to leave. He expelled them. He forced them to go. He eliminated them.

It’s a great analogy. Mature love, the God kind of love, does the exact same thing to condemnation, fear, and shame. Perfect love drives fear away with this same passion. Fear has no choice but to leave when people are loved in this way. 

Take a look at our graphic that follows. I’ve added “fear" to our picture. Notice that fear doesn’t exist in the boundaries of perfect love.

Now pause. Step back. Do a heart check. Let’s be honest. 

This is the exact opposite of what many people experience when they come in contact with the church. Rather than driving fear away from the relationship and communicating, “Hey, come in close… tell me what’s really happening…” we often invite fear and place it on the person like a cloak of shame.  

I’ve done it in parenting, I’ve done it in preaching, I’ve done it in relationships. We often like it when others have a “healthy” measure of fear, because it allows us to control the interaction and maintain the upper hand. We’re afraid that if they don't experience some degree of fear, they might not see how desperately they need grace. 

But think practically about the environment which surrounded Jesus…

  • Tax collectors not only felt comfortable talking with Him, they felt confidant enough in His love to invite their wayward friends to a party at which He would be present  (Matthew 9:9-13).
  • Women who earned their money in licentious ways knew He would receive them. They were so certain they would be accepted by Him that they barged into dinners where they weren't invited (see Luke 7:36f.).
  • Lepers— people the Law demanded stay away from others— actually approached Jesus so that He might touch them (Mark 1:40f.). 
  • Roman soldiers, those who occupied the Jewish areas like warlords, keeping Jesus and His people in physical subservience, were able to look beyond the Us vs. You dilemma and approach Him for personal needs (Matthew 8:5f.). Jesus rewarded their great faith.
  • People who were considered "unclean" and excluded from the Temple (like the women with the flow of blood)— and considered to be so unclean that they would make others ceremonially unclean by touching them— boldly moved through crowds and touched Jesus (Mark 5:25f.). They knew they would be embraced.
  • Religious leaders approached Him, too. This included men like Jairus, whose daughter was at death's door (Mark 5:22f.). He abandoned protocol and knelt before Jesus publicly, imploring Him to visit her. This group also included men like Nicodemus, one of the elite Pharisees (John 3:1f.).

Are these the people who feel welcome near us? 

What about inside the four walls of our church?

Or would they be afraid to approach us, because we haven't been perfected in love?

Love is more important that the gifts. If we don’t love people, the gifts will push them away. On the other hand, if love draws them, we create an environment in which the gifts can minister effectively to them. They’re able to receive.

The full expression of God’s love is only experienced as we funnel that love through us. In other words, we will always limit what we can encounter if we do not share the gift of the God kind of love with others. 

 

Fear of being punished, humiliated

Third, finally, let’s discuss why people are afraid, that is, the difference in Jesus’ presentation than the stereotypical way people often view the church. John, who spent three years with Jesus and was present at each of these encounters, provides us with a clue. After telling us “telios love expels fear” he explains why people feel fear…

He says it clearly: “Fear involves punishment” (1 John 4:18).

In each of the instances above, people who approached Jesus knew they’d find themselves pulled closer rather than pushed away and punished, regardless of how big and horrific the issue was.

They didn’t need to self-protect. They didn’t need to preserve their dignity. They didn’t need to hide behind a veil. He elevated them higher than they’d ever been.

In another verse in the same chapter, John writes (1 John 4:12 NLT), 

No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us and His love is brought to full expression in us.

Notice what John says. Even though none of us have physically seen our Redeemer, we tangibly experience the complete manifestation of who He is when we encounter unconditional love from another human. That is when we feel safe to be completely exposed and vulnerable. 

Only that kind of love works. In fact, that is the kind of love that shreds fear and shame, truly breathing life into people.

Imperfect, immature love does the exact opposite. It instills fear, it creates hiding, it empowers shame. Non-telios love focuses on the rules rather than the relationship; it values written letters over love in action. 

Look back at the graphic. We can walk in great supernatural power and we can walk with incredible discipline (sound mind). But, if we don’t pursue the path of intentional love, people will feel pushed away rather than pulled in close. We’ll come across as legalistic.

Ponder this. Jesus wasn’t legalistic, nor did He diminish the definition of holiness in any way. In fact, you might say He actually elevated the expression of holiness while simultaneously reaching deeper into the pit to rescue people than anyone dreamed possible. 

Some of the biggest offenders of loving people imperfectly are the most oblivious to it, and even use pop psychology and well-worn phrases to mask the dysfunction. Sure, their stance has the appearance of wisdom, as Paul says in Colossians 2:23, but it has no value and ability to manage the flesh. In other words, imperfect love looks smart and sounds intelligent, but it has no place in the Kingdom of God.

Perhaps this is why Jesus said, “People will know you are My disciples… by the way you love one another” (see John 13:34-35). 

Love communicates something that preaching, relevant songs, and even the spiritual gifts can’t. Love is the greatest apologetic to an unbelieving world. And love creates sacred space where much-needed ministry happens.

By the way, Paul mentions at least seven spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 13, often referred to as the “love chapter.” As I read and re-read this passage it dawned on me, he’s not listing random gifts to simply explain, “Love well when you minister any of the gifts.” Rather, these are the specific culprits most often used to make people feel unloved and insecure.  

Look at the list on the picture above. 

  • How many times have people with a speaking gift use that gift to impart shame rather than salvation, making people feel insecure in their relationship with God rather than safe in their righteousness before Him? (I know I have!)
  • How many times has the gift of tongues— be honest—  been used as a benchmark for a “higher level” Christianity? And how many times has it been exercised in ministry settings in ways which seem more chaotic haphazard rather than sacredly beautiful?
  • And what about prophecy? Isn’t this a gift that’s been used enough as a battering ram so often that most people actually fear it?
  • Understanding or insight… how many times have people been made to feel “dumb” because they can’t understand something?
  • And then there’s faith— the very thing often used to blame people for why they're not healed or why life isn’t working out as they planned.
  • And don’t some people give to be seen or give with strings attached?
  • And even martyrdom… Is there a more loving way to do this that sparks hope, courage, and revival— a way that draws the offenders towards repentance in the same manner that Jesus’ death on the Cross elicited the instantaneous conversion of a thief who hung with Him and a centurion who executed Him (see Luke 23:34,47).

Perfect love, telios love, doesn't exist in an environment of fear or  intimidation. Nor does an expression of holy supernatural power. 

Remember, Paul told Timothy that God didn't provide us with a spirit of fear, but He did provide us with a spirit of power (2 Timothy 1:7). In the same way that telios love and fear aren't related, God’s power and human fear stand on opposite ends of the spectrum, too.

In the next episode we’ll talk more about walking in that power— even as we pursue the way of love.

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