The book of I John has two main themes, love and obedience. John is an old man by the time he is writing these words, and all of his theology is now focused on the basics, which he repeats over and over. John is the writer who remembered and recorded those great words of Jesus about God’s love in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Now, nearing the end of his life, John continues that emphasis on God’s love.
In I John 3:1 he rejoices in this truth, saying, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be able to be called children of God.” In the words that follow, John tells us that such love of God should lead us to a response of obedience. Verse three says, “everyone who has this hope in him should purify himself, just as Jesus is pure.” In verse five John says, “Jesus appeared to take away our sins, so when we are in him, there should be no sin.” The Bible doesn’t describe only God’s love, nor does it describe only God’s commands. Both are there, and the two are most profoundly linked in the person of Jesus Christ. John tells us that by looking to Jesus we can be inspired to obey.
I once heard this illustrated in a sermon by an old pastor talking about his father, a stern and dignified judge in rural Nebraska. The son seldom saw his father wearing anything but his black suit, white shirt, and bow-tie. He remembered how, when he was small, he looked forward to his father returning from work, even though when his dad did return it was always the same routine. Always the dignified one, the father would say “Good afternoon, son,” and then sit on the porch swing and watch the boy play. The father would not pick up a ball and play catch, he would not come down and push his son on the swing, he would not push the toy trucks around and make engine noises. That was all kid’s stuff, and stern and proper fathers, especially those who were judges, were supposed to sit and watch, and maybe, on a rare occasion, smile a little. That was what the father thought, and the son never saw it any other way, so he thought that is what fathers were supposed to do.
One day, the son got into all sorts of trouble with his mother. He chased the dog around in the house, knocked over an end table, and broke his mother’s favorite lamp. Then he got in a fight with the boy next door and came home with his shirt all bloodied and torn. And then he spoke disrespectfully to his mother and even said a bad word. There had been several days like that recently, and this one was the worst. The mother told her son that she would be reporting all of this to his father and that he would be dealing with the boy when he got home.
When the father got home, his wife met him at the door and asked him not to sit on the porch swing, but to come inside. The son was playing on the front yard, dreading what would come next. He had never seen his mother so upset with him. Finally, the door opened and the father came out and stood on the porch. For a long time he looked at his son with that familiar stern look. Then that father did the strangest thing. He took off his suit coat and laid it on the porch swing. He took off his bow-tie and rolled up his shirt sleeves. And then he knelt down in the dirt by his son, picked up a toy truck, and said, “Son, show me how you work one of these things.” And for the next half hour, that father and son, for the first time ever, played together in the dirt.
Sixty years later that son, by then a retired pastor, described the impact that simple act had on him. He said what his father did was probably very difficult for him, being the proper gentleman that he was. But it was so unexpected and it expressed such love, that from then on, the son wanted to be good so that he would never have to disappoint his father– this father who would get down on his knees to play with him in the dirt, and to do that when the son was expecting a much deserved spanking.
God wants us to be good. When we obey his commands, life is better for ourselves and those around us. That is why he gives the commands in the first place. In the Bible, as in the home, there are several ways God encourages our obedience. There are threats and promises, there are blessings given and blessings denied, and there are punishments and rewards.
But most of all, there is Jesus, the high and mighty, perfect and holy one, who comes down, not from the porch, but from heaven. He comes to us and gets down on his knees with us in the dust and dirt of this life. And in seeing this from Jesus, God’s own Son, and in getting to know Jesus not only as our God, but as our friend, we can begin to trust that his commands for us are good. That’s what John meant when he was always saying things like “So we love because he first loved us,” and “No one who lives in him will want to keep on sinning,” and “If anyone obeys his Word, then God’s love is truly made complete in him.” (I John 4:19, I John 3:6, I John 2:5)
Lord Jesus, fill us, we pray, with your light and life that we may show forth your wonderful glory. Grant that your love may so fill our lives that we may count nothing too small to do for you, nothing too much to give to you, and nothing too much to bear for you. Amen.
–Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order (1491-1556)