He Laid Down His Life for Us
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
On February 21, 2018 the Rev. Dr. Billy Graham died at 99 years-of age. It would be hard to put into words the influence of Dr. Graham for the proclamation of good news of Jesus Christ. If Protestants venerated saints he would be one. I recall organizing a bus load of people to attend his 1978 crusade in Toronto—many were called to faith in Jesus Christ upon hearing him preach the good news. Every fall when we fill shoe boxes as part of Operation Christmas Child we participate in an initiative of an organization that Dr. Graham founded—and thus extend his legacy.
Instead of a list of his accomplishments, I’d like to share with you a story of the intersection of the life of Billy Graham with our missionary friend Reg Reimer. These are the sort of stories that give us a window into the heart of a person. Reg was going through some documents of his early missionary days in Vietnam and was reminded of how he and Dr. Graham crossed paths in the course of their ministries.
Reg writes, “in Dec. 1979 while directing World Relief’s huge response to the Cambodian emergency I got typhoid and was completely exhausted from endless 12-14 hours days. World Relief superiors visited me in hospital, caucused briefly and promptly made arrangements for me to go Hawaii to get treatment and recuperate—with my family. Just before departure I received a letter from a Dr. Richard Chang in Honolulu. Dr. Chang was Billy Graham’s personal internist I later learned. His letter said, You were referred to me by Dr. Billy Graham who called from North Carolina very concerned about your health. When you come to Hawaii please contact me and I will make an appointment for you.”
The sequel to this story is that Reg received a personal letter from Billy Graham dated March 17, 1980 in response to Reg’s letter of thanks for setting me up with his doctor in Hawaii—the doctor did not charge for treating Reg. In that letter Dr. Graham wrote, “Ruth and I are forever grateful for your friendship with Franklin (Billy Graham’s son). There is no doubt that God has touched his life and used people like you to help deepen him.”
Billy Graham’s proclamation of the love of Jesus Christ for a lost world is on every page of his sermons. What we see in this intersection of lives is how he responded to the love of Christ in his relationship with others. Or as the first letter of John puts it, because we know Christ gave his life for us we ought to lay down our lives for one another. Dr. Graham didn’t know Reg personally but reached out to help nonetheless. You also hear Dr. Graham’s love for his son Franklin. Parents know that it is often the case that our children have selective hearing; they learn from others what they long could have known from us. Dr. Graham is simply grateful that others in their faithfulness to Jesus Christ have contributed to his son’s faith. I think this is a picture of what the “for one another” of the gospel looks like in action.
1. One of the reason’s I shared this story with you is to prompt us to think about the heart of the person that is behind the words on the page of a letter. We read today from the letter we know as 1 John. In many respects this letter is written to clarify the meaning of John's Gospel for a community which reads that gospel as its central guide to faith and action. If you want to understand the heart of the person behind the teaching in this letter you will find it in the gospel of John. The letter of 1 John in an application of the truths regarding Jesus Christ announced in the Gospel of John.
John’s gospel is, in my view, the gospel of the one identified as the beloved disciple. He knows himself profoundly loved by Jesus thus profoundly loved by God. John is the one who tells us of Jesus’ saying, “if you have seen me you have seen the farther.” John is the one who tells us the Word (Jesus) was God. He wants people to believe in Jesus and find life in his name—John is the one who relates Jesus saying, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) John is the Apostle to whom Jesus commends the care of his mother Mary as he hangs on the cross. This is not to say that the other disciples lacked in some way—it is to say that John’s bond with the heart of Jesus is profound.
“We know love by this, that he (Jesus) laid down his life for us.” The letter of John doesn’t offer up little vignettes from daily life to help us define love for fellow Christians; he hangs a masterpiece portrait of love in our mind’s gallery. Love is nothing less than this picture of Jesus hanging on the cross, the long promised Christ crucified with common criminals, the very Son of God emptying himself of not only his dignity, but even his very life, for our sakes. This portrait that the letter of 1 John calls to mind is painted for us by the Gospel of John.
The stories in John’s gospel are written you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and that through believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31) He tells us for instance of a Pharisee named Nicodemus who comes to Jesus by night. The story of Nicodemus is for all those who aren’t quite sure about Jesus and don’t want any of their friends to know they are interested in him. Jesus will entertain such enquiry even on the QT. John tells us the story of the Samaritan woman who Jesus met at the well for all those who might feel somewhat marginalized and pushed to the side because their life is messed up. It is safe to come to Jesus.
When John tells us of Nicodemus, for example, he recounts Jesus telling Nicodemus of the price Jesus will pay for eternal life; “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Here Jesus tells Nicodemus of the extent he is prepared to go for Nicodemus using Old Testament imagery that is very familiar to Nicodemus. And then John gives a summary of the meaning of this interchange between Jesus and Nicodemus; a much loved summary that we know by its reference—John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” That’s what it means to love other believers. This is the heart out of which 1 John 3:16 flows. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
So powerful and profound is this gospel portrait of the love of God in Jesus Christ it compels the writer in the letter of 1 John to say that God is love. (1 John 4:18) Ponder this for a moment. Love is God’s essence, God’s nature, God’s innermost character. God’s jealousy, on the other hand, God’s anger, God’s grief are all reactions in God; reactions in God to something about us (specifically, to our sin). But God’s love isn’t a reaction in God at all; God’s love is what he is eternally. God’s love is what he would be eternally even if the creation had never appeared. The apostle John writes, “God is love”. To be sure, God hates, God rages, God grieves. But nowhere are we told that God is hatred, or God is rage, or God is grief. Hatred, rage, grief are reactions within the heart of that God whose eternal nature is constant, consistent, persistent, undeflectable love.
John is careful to say that Jesus laying down his life was for us. There is something in us (sin) that necessitates such an act; as John would point out in this same letter—God sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 2:2; 4:10) To grasp the significance of “for us” consider a paraphrase of an illustration from Scottish theologian James Denny. “If I were sitting on the end of a pier on a summer day enjoying the sunshine and the air, and some one came along and jumped into the water and got drowned “to prove his love for me,” I should find it quite unintelligible. But if I had fallen over the pier and were drowning, and some one sprang into the water, and at the cost of making my peril his own, saved me from death, then I should say, intelligibly, “greater love has no man than this.” We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us…
2. The gospel of John is written so that you would come to believe; the letter of 1 John has believers in mind with the purpose of promoting fellowship with one another, at least in part. (1 John 1:3-4) Clearly, for the Apostle John, the gospel announces that God turns us to himself in love and out of that love towards one another. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. This emphasis on turning towards one another in John’s letter is an application of the command Jesus gave his followers at that last meal before he gave up his life for us. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Perhaps like me, it is the scope of this love that you find daunting. To love as Jesus loves is a tall order. The portrait of our Lord’s self-forgetful self-giving on the cross as the picture of what ought to guide our love towards one another is, well, rather demanding. Jesus laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. In my heart I want say—look John, I can sit next to them in the pew—but lay down my life? That is a little more than I bargained for.
Let us remember that the commands of our Lord are covered promises; what he calls from us he enables and enables us when we face difficulty. The unreported story in the current century, as far as news media is concerned, is the persecution of Christians. While we do not face threats to our lives because we believe, yet many in our world do. I had the privilege of a short term teaching assignment at a seminary in Indonesia—the president of that seminary routinely received death threats. I was inspired by the courage of these Christians in a hostile environment. In many respects they lay down their lives for us—as believers together with us they show us that the good news of Jesus Christ cannot be stopped. Time and again, I have been inspired by the courage of others to keep on announcing the good news of Jesus Christ.
So what does it mean for us to lay down our lives for one another? John gives us a very practical example. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” The implication of the question is that God’s love is shown in meeting needs of one another, in helping to relive suffering where we can. These needs vary among us. A visit, a card, a meal, a listening ear—these and in copious other ways we meet each other’s needs.
I think of how this also teaches me to be attuned to the needs of another. It teaches me to be on the lookout for the one finding it hard to fit in. It teaches me to be on the lookout for the one who is missing from among us.
I think of family life—charity begins at home, we like to say. If the self-forgetful, self-giving love shown to us by Christ was the model for how spouses acted towards each other wouldn’t our homes be safe places where we were built up and not torn down? In other words, if I take seriously my Saviour’s love for my wife; if I regard her as one for whom Jesus holds nothing back shouldn’t that bode well for how I ought to treat her? Jesus held nothing back for me so should I not accord that same for the one I say I love? And if two people offer themselves to one another in this way should that not lay the ground for much joy?
I understand that some hear this text that we ought to lay down our lives for one another and balk because it sounds like a recipe for setting up oneself for abuse. I underline that this text has people mutually committed to obeying Jesus Christ in mind. It is important to underline the “one another” of this text. Yes, it does have a spill-over effect of love towards all. But remember that while Jesus loved his enemies—that is he did them no harm—he did not entrust himself to them. This is not a call to be abused—we recognize that there is a mutuality to what is being commanded.
Saint Jerome was priest and theologian whose life spanned the late second and early third century. He is most famous for his Latin translation of the Bible. Jerome tells this story about the apostle John that had been passed on to him. “When the venerable John could no longer walk to the meetings of the church but was borne by his disciples, he always uttered the same address to the church; he reminded them of that one commandment which he had received from Christ himself, as comprising all the rest, and forming the distinction of the new covenant. ‘My little children, “Love one another.”’ When the brethren, wearied of hearing the same thing so often, asked why he repeated the same thing, he replied, ‘Because it is the commandment of the Lord, and if this one thing be attained, it is enough.”
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.