Trinitarian love is made complete in the Christian community

In a previous post I looked at how 1 John shows that Trinitarian joy is made complete in the Christian community. In this post we look at how Trinitarian love is also made complete in the Christian community.

1 John 2:3 says: ‘We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands.’ John has in mind a specific command here. In verses 7-8 he talks about an old command that is a new command. He has in mind Jesus’ words: ‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.’ (John 13:34) It’s the old command to love, but Jesus has given it a new quality or a new standard. So throughout this section obeying the commands of Jesus and living like Jesus are just different ways of saying loving like Jesus.

As in chapter one, John lists three false claims (2:4, 6, 9). They’re the claims of people who say they know God, but don’t love their Christian brothers and sisters. Today people calling themselves Christians are condemning the Bible’s teaching on hell, on sexuality, on the uniqueness of Christ. And they hate true Christians. They denounce us for holding to biblical truths. Verse 4 says: ‘Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands’ – that is, his command to love the Christian community – ‘is a liar, and the truth is not in that person.’

That’s the negative. But with each false claim John goes on to give us a positive encouragement. So verse 5 says: ‘But if anyone obeys his word’ – to love the Christian community – ‘love for God is truly made complete in them.’

Back in 1:4 divine joy is made complete in the Christian community as it proclaims the word of Christ. Now divine love is made complete in the Christian community as we love one another. That means our love for God reaches its goal. Love for God finds fulfilment in love for our brothers and sisters. Love for one another is the proper way to love God.

So you can’t love God on your own! Love for God only becomes complete when you love other people. You’ve got to be part of a Christian community. That’s what it means to know Jesus, obey Jesus and live like Jesus (2:3-6).

We enjoy God when we receive love

In 4:12-13 John says: ‘No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.’ John’s point is this. People can’t see God. but they can see us. So people see the love of the invisible God in the love of the Christian community. God’s love becomes a reality that be seen and heard and touched in the love of the Christian community.

And brotherly love is not a poor substitute for the real thing, for divine love. For brotherly love is divine love. God loves us through the love of other Christians.

The brother who speaks a word of comfort to you, the sister who bakes a cake for you, the family who welcome you into their home – they are the hands and feet of God. When a brother hugs you, Christ is hugging you. When a sister sits by your hospital bed, Christ is sitting by your bedside. When a friend weeps with you, Christ is weeping you.

The love of Jesus was the overflow of the love within the Trinity. God’s love spilled over to us in Christ. It was generated from within, out of sheer grace. In the same way, Christian love is the overflow of God’s love to us. ‘Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God … Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.’ (4:7, 11)

We enjoy God when we give love

Did you notice what John says about why he writes in 1:4? ‘We write this to make our joy complete.’ You might expect him to say, ‘to make your joy complete.’ (And it seems some early copyists thought that’s what it should have been so they changed it.) It’s clear he does write to bring his reader joy. So why does he say ‘our joy’? The point is that ‘your joy’ is ‘our joy’. What John enjoys is seeing other Christians experience joy. There’s nothing he likes more than people having joy in Christ. That’s complete joy.

Pursing my joy in Christ can be self-defeating. If it’s a selfish, self-centred exercise in self-fulfilment then joy will elude you – even joy in Christ. But if we pursue one another’s joy then our joy is made complete and our love for God is made complete. So if you want to have joy stop looking for joy and instead start working for the joy of other people. The strange thing is that you’ll never really be happy while you’re pursuing your own happiness.

Recently my wife said: ‘You’re weary, you sigh when people ask you do things and you’re not being intentional in discipleship.’ Wham! She was right. Everything I had to do felt like a burden. So I was trying to do what makes me happy, but it wasn’t working. Her words flicked a switch. I started being intentional about serving others and, as it happens, I felt so much better as a result. Nothing has changed and everything has changed because I’m seeking to serve others more.

To give is to gain in the economy of Christ. I don’t mean this in the sense that is touted by the prosperity gospel. I’m not suggesting that giving money will lead to a full bank account. That lie suggests you give up earthly treasures to gain more earthly treasures. It reinforces the selfishness that robs us of true joy.

But it is true that we find ourselves by giving ourselves. Our problem is that too often we want to be radical Christians leading comfortable lives. We want to give everything for Christ and have everything this life offers. We want to tell the world about Christ and we want to be liked by our peers. We want to grow more like Jesus and enjoy the pleasures of this world. But this double-mindedness doesn’t work. Pleasure-seekers are world-weary. High achievers are insecure. Jesus said

‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?’ (Mark 8:34-36)

To gain a life that it rich and full, a life into which eternity has begun to shine (2:10), we need show the sacrificial love of the cross and lose ourselves.

If you simply hang out with a group of peers – people of your age or people you find fun or people with your interests – you’re not loving like Christ. It’s self-interest. By all means have a good time. But don’t call it Christian love because you’re not doing anything different from the world around us. What’s distinctive about christlike love is that the way it crosses personality divides, ethnic divides, generational divides, social divides, singles and married, young and old.

So love the people in your church. Spend time with them. Build community with them. I realise that spending time with your peers offers a quick reward – it’s fun. But loving your Christian community will bring deep and lasting rewards.

Verse 8 says: ‘I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and you …’ The distinctive character of Christian love that it is seen in Jesus is also seen in you. Your church may have all lots of problems and failings. It’s all too ordinary. But see beyond that for a moment. Look at your community as John sees it. He sees the new age taking shape in your community. We are the prototype of the new creation. We are the proof of concept. The future has broken into history and can be seen in your Christian community. Our cities and towns are places in spiritual darkness. But every time we plant a church or missional community it’s as if God switches on a light. Light shines through Christian love.

Let me leave you with one practical thing to do. Have a meal. Invite some round for food or out for a drink. That’s the best first step for living in community.

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Trinitarian joy in Christian community: a case study

In a previous post I looked at how 1 John shows that Trinitarian joy is made complete in the Christian community. In this post we look at a case study of this in action. 

Perhaps the main thing that robs our joy is our awareness of sin. Our sin makes us wonder whether we really know God. And that’s especially the case when other Christians claim to be more godly. And this was what was going on among John’s readers. Three times in 1:5-10 John says, ‘If we claim’. Each time he’s talking about people who claimed to have conquered sin. But against each claim John says: they lie, they deceive, they make God a liar.

I suspect John’s readers would have been relieved to read this. And so should we. Remember people have left the church claiming that sin is not a problem for them or that they have victory over sin. That’s going to make you feel threatened and fearful. Every time you sin you’re going to feel that confusion.

A couple of years ago I realised I’d been a Christian for more than forty years. Do you know how I felt? I was grieved that I had made such little progress! So I started to wonder: Maybe I’m deceived. Maybe I don’t really know God. And then I hear John’s words: ‘No. It’s the people who claim to be without sin who are deceived.’

In washing powder adverts they always hold clothes up to the light. It’s in the light that you really see the dirt. John says God is light (1:5). The more you know God, the more you see yourself in the light – the clearer your sin appears. In the half-light you can think of yourself as a good person. But the more you step into the light, the more you see the stains of sin.

But the good news is that each of these false claims has a corresponding promise:

1:7      ‘If we walk in the light … the blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin.’

1:9      ‘If we confess our sins … [God] will forgive us our sins and purify us.’

2:2      Jesus ‘is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.’

Yes, we still sin. But Jesus purifies, forgives, atones.

There’s nothing like hearing the words, ‘You’re forgiven.’ Maybe had the experience of letting down a good friend. And it made you miserable until they said, ‘You’re forgiven.’ We’ve let God down. But we don’t need to feel miserable. Because, if we confess our sins, God says, ‘You’re forgiven.’

Here’s my point. You don’t need the Christian community to know you’re forgiven by God – but it helps! Sometimes our hearts condemn us. And the word of Christ spoken by a brother or sister cut through the confusion.

Often when the church meets we an opportunity to confess our sins together. It’s not that God is holding us at a distance until we make up with him. Quite the opposite. We’re the ones who are holding him at distance. Confession is an opportunity to come back to God. It restores our assurance because we hear his word of forgiveness by faith in the promises of the Bible. It doesn’t change God. God doesn’t love us any less before that act of confession. But it can change us. It can make the objective reality of God’s grace a subjective reality for us.

I often look forward to this act of confession. And I can tell you exactly when and where the anticipation begins. I usually pray on my walk to work. I start by confessing my sin as I walk down our road. And then I turn the corner and walk up the hill through the trees. And that’s moment when I begin to look forward to our time of corporate confession. I know God has forgiven me. But I still enjoy hearing his word of assurance and forgiveness in the Christian community.

In the film The Mission, set in eighteenth-century Latin America, the repentant slave-trader Mendoza (played by Robert De Niro) climbs a waterfall as an act of penance with his armour – the symbol of his past life – roped to his back. The film powerfully portrays his struggle to reach the top. Release only comes when one of the indigenous people, whom he had formerly terrorised, cuts the rope so that his burden falls away. The objective reality of acceptance with God becomes a liberating experience through the acceptance of others.

In a future post I’ll look at how Trinitarian love is made complete in the Christian community. 

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Trinitarian joy is made complete in the Christian community

I want to look at how in his first letter John shows how the Christian community helps us enjoy God. In a future post I’ll look at how Trinitarian love is made complete in the Christian community.

I want to suggest the Christian community is the main place where you can experience divine joy. When you think of your church you might not find that prospect look very promising! But I want to suggest that, if we have the eyes of faith, we will see in our brothers sand sisters a hundred ways in which the divine joy and divine love are made complete.

Trinitarian joy is made complete in the Christian community

In 1 John 2 John describes how people have left the church (2:19). It’s not hard to imagine how that might would have caused confusion. It seems these people were claiming a deeper knowledge of God, a higher level of holiness, a greater anointing of the Spirit, a more victorious life.

If you’re just an ‘ordinary’ Christian, that’s pretty intimidating! In fact it’s joy-sapping. You’re going to live with a sense of fear or inferiority. But John writes to show that the people who’ve left are not all they seem.

This explains the strange opening of the letter. There’s no greeting. There’s no, ‘I hope you’re well.’ He jumps straight in. And three times in this opening paragraph John says we proclaim what we have seen:

verse 1: ‘that which … we have heard … seen … and … touched – this we proclaim’

verse 2: ‘[what] we have seen … we proclaim to you’

verse 3: ‘we proclaim to you what we have seen and heard’

What is it that we have seen and proclaim? The word of life, the Lord Jesus (1:1). These verses echo the language of John 20:27 where the Risen Jesus appears to his disciples. Jesus said, ‘See my hands’ and now John says, ‘We have seen.’ Jesus said, ‘Reach out your hand’ and now John says, ‘Our hands have touched.’ John saw and heard and touched the Risen Jesus. That’s why the word is the word of eternal life.

But the question is, Who are the ‘we’ John keeps talking about? In these first four verses he refers to ‘we’ or ‘our’ or ‘us’ sixteen times. And he’s not talking about ‘we Christians’. After all, you and I didn’t see or hear or touch the Risen Jesus. And John talks about ‘we’ in contrast to ‘you’, his readers. No, the ‘we’ here are the people who heard and saw the Risen Christ – the first Apostles.

God revealed himself in Jesus, but you and I weren’t around to witness that for ourselves. So how can we encounter God’s revelation in Jesus? The answer is we have the testimony of the Apostles. We have eye-witnesses who heard and saw and touched Jesus.

And how do we encounter the testimony of the Apostles? They wrote it down. In verse 4 John says, ‘We write this to make our joy complete.’ Here it is in our Bibles.

Jesus appeared and John writes so that Christians might have fellowship or community. This community is with the Apostles – ‘so that you also may have fellowship with us.’ (1:3a). But this community is also with God – ‘Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.’(1:3b). Together Christians participate in the life of the Trinity.

We’re just ordinary Christians. But there is nothing ordinary about ordinary Christianity! We have fellowship with the Father and the Son. At the end of the letter John writes, ‘We are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ.’ (5:20) We’re connected to Christ by faith and so we’re connected into the triune God. Because we’re in the Son, we experience what the Son experiences. The joy the Father has in his Son is the joy that he has in you. The love the Father has for his Son is the love that he has for you. You’re future is as secure as the future of Jesus.

Here’s the key thing for our purposes: we experience this joy as we participate in a word-proclaiming community. It’s as we read what the Apostles (and Prophets) have written and as we proclaim what the Apostles proclaimed that we experience joy together. In other words, we experience joy as the Bible is read and proclaimed in the Christian community.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, ‘The Christ in [our] own hearts is weaker than the Christ in the word of other Christians.’[1]

Here’s what he means. Later in this letter John speaks about moments when our hearts condemn us (3:19-22). Perhaps we’ve fallen into sin. Perhaps we’re plagued by doubt. And our thinking gets all in a stew. Our hearts are muddled. And then a Christian speaks. It might be the preaching on a Sunday morning. It might a conversation with a friend. But for you the words of that preacher or your friend are the words of Christ. They come to you from outside. This is not your internal monologue with all its confusions. These words come as an objective reality, speaking good news to your heart.

This is our experience, isn’t it? Most of the moments in which we’ve felt God speaking to us to comfort us or challenge us have come through other Christians. Of course, it can happen while you’re reading the Bible on your own, but more often it happens through others.

Bonhoeffer links this to what the Reformers called our ‘alien righteousness’. We’re not made right with God because of anything within us. It’s not that we get ourselves good enough for God. Instead what makes us right with God is the righteousness of Jesus. We are righteous in him and through him. It comes to us from outside of ourselves. So we need a word from outside. Bonhoeffer said:

Christians encounter both death and life only in the Word that comes to them from outside, in God’s Word … In themselves they are destitute and dead. Help must come from the outside; and it has come and comes daily and anew in the Word of Jesus Christ … But God put his Word into the mouth of human beings so that it may be passed on to others … Therefore, Christians need other Christians who speak God’s Word to them. They need them again and again when they become uncertain and disheartened because, living by their own resources, they cannot help themselves.[2]

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Psalms: Prayerbook of the Bible, Fortress, 2005, 32.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Psalms: Prayerbook of the Bible, Fortress, 2005, 31-32.

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The Glory of the Story Sample: Day 117 – Remember, remember – a pause for reflection

Reading: Psalm 105:1-23

Here is another extracts from The Glory of the Story, my father’s devotional introduction to biblical theology in the form of 366 daily readings which show how the Old Testament story is fulfilled in Christ. The Glory of the Story is available as a Kindle book for $2.99 from and £1.99 from I’m posting extracts from the chaper on the story of Jacob, usually on the first Monday of the month.

Today’s psalm surveys the sweep of events from Abraham to the entry into the promised land. Though it covers many years it paints one picture: a promise-making, promise-keeping God, mysterious in his ways, but always mindful of his people. The first fifteen verses (plus most of Psalm 96) are from David’s prayer of thanksgiving when the ark was brought to Jerusalem
(1 Chron. 16:7-36). Possibly it was recited on each anniversary of this event and made the occasion for covenant renewal. In this way the saving acts of God became present realities for each successive generation (8; cf. Ps. 78:4-8).

1. God remembers (8-23)

He remembers his covenant (8)

He remembers it not merely by calling it to mind, but by acting on what he promised (cf. Gen. 8:1; 19:29; 30:22). His covenant is the word he commanded (8); and not one of the LORD’s good promises fail (Josh. 21:45; 23:14). Contrast: ‘I remembered your birthday. I didn’t do anything about it, but I did remember it!’

Verses 12-15 describe the three generations of Abraham’s family (cf. Heb. 11:8-9) living as nomadic strangers in the land (cf. Gen 20:7).

Verses 16-23 describe the circumstances that led them to migrate to Egypt. He called down famine … he sent a man before them… (16-17). This is far more than a history lesson; it is a record of God’s grace and faithfulness.

2. We remember (1-7)

Remember the wonders he has done (5)

We have seen how every Christian belongs to this family and so we view its miraculous beginnings with more than a spectator interest. These are the early chapters of our own story! Granted that ‘a thousand generations’ (8) is a figure of speech – by its own terms it represents 30,000 years! – it still indicates how Scripture views the reach of God’s covenant dealings. What must our response be?

Give thanks (1-3). Give thanks … call on his name … sing praise to him … glory in his holy name … rejoice. Here is doxology. This is not only our story; this is our song!

Make known (1-2). Make known among the nations what he has done … tell of all his wonderful acts. How can we keep silent? (cf. Acts 4:20).

Seek his face (4). All that God has done is with a view to having an obedient people (42-45). Without godliness, praise is only religious noise (cf. Amos 5:23-24).

Remember (5). Reflect on God’s wonders, miracles and judgements (the dark side of his saving miracles). This is the God in whom we live and move and have our being, and through whom we experience an even greater redemption than those who lived under the old covenant.

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New Song: Baptised in Christ

Here’s a song based on Romans 6 from the new TCH Sheffield album, Dust to Life. I wanted to a write a song that did two things. First, I wanted a song which spoke of our union with Christ. It’s such an important theme and sadly under-represented in our range of songs. Second, it is striking how Paul makes baptism a reality which should shape our present experience as Christians. I wanted a song which expressed this. In other words, I wanted to write a song that could be sung when people are baptised, but also one which could be sung at any point since we sing as baptised people.


Here are the lyrics:


Verse 1
Baptised in Christ who died our death,
who took our sin and broke its reign,
in him we live, our lives made new,
baptised in Christ, we rise again.

Verse 2
Baptised in Christ, the old is gone,
no longer bearing Adam’s name,
no longer ruled by Adam’s sin,
baptised in Christ, we rise again.

Verse 3
Baptised in Christ who died to sin,
who rose to conquer death’s do-main,
so when he comes we’ll live with him,
baptised in Christ, we rise again.

Chorus 1
We thank you for the gift of life
to those once dead in Adam’s race.
We thank you for our life in Christ,
we thank you for your reign of grace.

Verse 4
Baptised in Christ, from sin set free,
no reason to obey its claims,
to righteousness we now are bound,
baptised in Christ, we rise again.

Chorus 1
We thank you for the gift of life
to those once dead in Adam’s race.
We thank you for our life in Christ,
we thank you for your reign of grace.

Chorus 2
We count ourselves alive to you,
we offer up the life you’ve won.
Help us to live as those made new.
help us to live in Christ your Son.

You can listen to, and purchase, Dust to Life on Bandcamp.

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Bible Reading Plan 2017

I’ve posted this Bible reading plan before. If you’ve been using it then you’ll be interested in postcard-sized weekly reading plan for 2017.

Note: Those who have been following it this year will notice that the first reading in 2017 is a repeat of the last reading of 2016. I’m afraid that was going to happen eventually because a year is not a neat number of weeks. I suggest you do something special for a week then start with Genesis 1 at the beginning of 2o17.

Here’s the complete three year plan. And here it is in Word so you can create your own handy version of it in the future.

If you’re not reading through the Bible then the approach of the new year is a good time to review your Bible reading habits. Here are a couple of old posts on why that would be a good idea – Hearing God Speak and Must I Read My Bible Every Day?

This plan has a number of differences from other plans.

1. Flexibility

The plan specifies a number of chapters for each week rather than for each day. This makes it more flexible. You can read a chapter or two each day or you can read it in two or three sittings. Or you can set out reading a chapter a day and then catch up at the weekend. It means it fits more readily around people’s lifestyle.

2. Communal
It is designed to be followed with a partner or among a group of people. There is only one section each week (occasionally two shorter books). So you don’t have to read a section from one book and then a section from another book each day. It means the sections are somewhat uneven, but it makes it easy to discuss what you have been reading when you meet up with other people.

We’ve been using it for a year now and it works very well in this way. I meet up with a friend each week for lunch. It’s easy for us to discuss what we’ve been reading because there is only one Bible book to focus on.

It also means I only need look at the Bible plan once a week – I don’t need to refer to it each day.

3. Realistic
Following this plan you read the OT in three years and the NT twice in three years. This works out at about nine chapters a week. It means you are not rushing through what you are reading to ‘get it done’. I’ve found with other plans I tend to read it with my mind disengaged. This plan gives time to meditate on the passage.

4. Balanced
The plan balances OT history, prophecy, wisdom, Gospel and Epistles throughout the year. You move between genres so you’re never faced with reading OT prophecy continuously for six months.

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