In the sermon where Jesus described Himself as the Good Shepherd, we find Him telling us the reason why He had come into the world,
- “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” John 10:10b
He came to give life to those who would follow Him, and not just life, but an abundance of life. In the original language the word has the connotation of an overflowing amount that is far in excess of what is necessary, an extraordinary amount. But how can one have an “extraordinary amount” of life? One might wonder if perhaps this refers to the eternal length of life that Jesus came to bring (John 3:16). Although this is certainly a part of it, this reference has not only a quantity of life in mind, but a quality of life as well. Jesus is saying that He came to give us a rich and full life that is beyond the measure of any normal life lived apart from what He alone can bring. The Apostle Paul echoed this same truth in his letter to the Ephesians:
- “...the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints” Ephesians 1:18-NKJV
Although this is a glorious truth, it often impacts people in a way that one would not expect. Rather than filling people with joy or enthusiasm, it arouses guilt, shame, frustration, or discouragement. This is because many are not at all confident that their lives as Christians reflect this abundance that Jesus spoke of. Many are even unclear about what this “abundance” is supposed to look like in one’s everyday life. They wonder what it is that God truly wants from them, and how they are to achieve a life that can by any measure be considered “abundant”.
Among evangelical believers today, there is a real and present absence of a confident understanding of what the Christian life is, and how it can be practiced in a way that genuinely pleases God. Many believers are simply uncertain either how to go about being the person God wants them to be, or how to successfully achieve the goals that God has for the lives of those who are His. Additionally, to many of these believers, God seems distant and silent. He is more a theoretical part of their lives rather than a real being with whom they share a relationship. Instead of being involved in a dynamic relationship with God, they are merely living according to the abstract principles of a religious lifestyle. It is because of this sad reality that I have chosen to write this study. Because despite all that has been written already, there are still far too many believers who are not living the life that Jesus came to give.
Many of the truths of Scripture are represented with metaphors so that we can have a better and practical understanding of an abstract truth. Throughout the Scriptures (particularly in wisdom literature) the course of our life is pictured as a journey down a roadway or a path. This metaphor is intended to help us visualize many important truths about life.
- “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” (Proverbs 14:12)
In this verse we see that the path of our life’s journey is leading us to an inevitable destination and that this destination can be far different than what we imagine it to be. Specifically, one’s life may be headed toward ultimate destruction despite the fact that the one walking that life path thinks that he is going in a direction that is right and beneficial for him.
- “The highway of the upright is to depart from evil; he who keeps his way preserves his soul.” (Proverbs 16:17)
Conversely this proverb teaches us that the life path of the righteous person is one that moves away from evil and in doing so “preserves” his soul. The idea of preserving is that of guarding, protecting, or keeping careful watch over something. In this case the one who chooses a life path that moves away from involvement with evil is making a choice that will protect his soul from danger.
This metaphor is used repeatedly to illustrate that life has a direction to it, and that what we choose now will impact what happens to our lives down the road of time and circumstances:
- “He who keeps instruction is in the way of life, but he who refuses correction goes astray.” (Proverbs 10:17)
- "The way of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but He loves him who follows righteousness. Harsh discipline is for him who forsakes the way, And he who hates correction will die.” (Proverbs 15:9-10)
- “Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of evil.” (Proverbs 4:14)
This sort of metaphor is not restricted to Old Testament wisdom literature. Jesus Himself employed this same metaphor to help His disciples understand what life is all about.
- “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)
Here Christ warns His listeners that there are two general paths of life. One looks easier and more pleasant and is more readily traveled but leads to destruction. The other life path is more difficult and less traveled but it leads to life. Again one’s direction in life is pictured as a road, and expresses that one’s choices lead to an inevitable destination that lies at the end of that road. This same point was highlighted in a conversation between Jesus and one of His disciples:
- “Thomas said to Him, "Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:5-6)
In this case Thomas unknowingly was asking how to get to heaven. Jesus’ response was that He Himself is the only path that leads to heaven, indicating that if one wishes to get to heaven it is not simply a matter of living according to certain rules, but through one’s connection to the person of Christ.
Therefore as one ponders what it means to live life as a disciple of Jesus Christ, we must first understand that the way of a disciple is a lifelong journey and not simply a few right choices. Additionally, it is a way that requires one to be intimately connected to Jesus Christ. But how is one to discern among all the options presented to us in this world (by both Christians and non-Christians alike) which is the correct path? After all the warnings from those passages cited earlier is that it the wrong path can often look like the right one to us.
The answer is that the Scriptures were given to us so that we might recognize the right path, and be able to stay on that right path as it winds its way to its ultimate destination.
- “Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the LORD!” (Psalm 119:1)
- “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105)
Therefore in order to understand the life to which we are called we are to see that the Scriptures are in a sense our road map so that we can travel along the path that leads toward the life that God intends for us. This metaphor is a helpful one and will be employed throughout the rest of these studies. The idea to keep in mind is that as we seek to live a life that pleases God, we need the Scriptures to direct our way and help us to identify the correct course to take from all the potential misdirection that we will encounter as we go forward in our lives.
We must have a basic distrust of our own inclinations about life and recognize that an initial part of our call as disciples is to accept that as we enter this journey we are filled with many false ideas about life. This is complicated by the reality that we do not even know for sure where our ignorance and misunderstandings lie. So in a sense we begin our journey lost and disoriented, but with the impression that we do know which way is right. So our commitment is to put our trust not in our own inclinations, but only in the truth that is revealed in God’s Word. Everything else we hear or are exposed to must be evaluated in light of the truth we find in God’s Word before it can be accepted. That does not mean that the Bible addresses every subject, but rather that it gives us a grid through which we can have an understanding regarding the parameters of truth for
- “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)
THE BIG PICTURE
It is possible to be conscientious and sincere and yet to take the wrong path concerning how we are to live in relationship with God. Therefore it is truly vital to understand the truth about what God really wants from us. What is it that truly makes the difference between a life that does please Him, and a life that doesn’t please Him? What is the correct path that leads to the abundant life?
The first step in any journey is to understand precisely where one is going. That is because the destination of any journey is what defines the nature of that journey. Since we are talking about achieving the “abundant life”, we are talking about understanding what Christian maturity ultimately looks like. That in turn will help us understand how to map out a course of life that takes us to our intended destination.
The Bible is filled with admonitions and instructions regarding how we are to live. There are so many specific things we are told to be or to pursue that without putting them all into context it can be overwhelming, confusing and eventually even frustrating. What is needed in order to go forward is to see the one basic unifying idea from which all these specific instructions spring, which defines them and gives them a proper understandable context.
Jesus Himself explained what it is that encapsulates all these admonitions into one general characteristic:
- Matthew 22:37-40 “Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.’”
Here Jesus makes it clear that if you boiled down all that the Old Testament had to say about living a godly life it would reduce down to this formula. It is that we are to love God with all that we are, and love others as we love ourselves. Everything else that is recorded in the Old Testament is an elaboration upon that basic theme. The New Testament brings greater clarity to what this means and how it is achieved, it does not change this basic message, in fact it further emphasizes the centrality of love. This fact is seen in the following passages:
- John 13:35 “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Jesus says that “love” is so characteristic to what it means to be one of His disciples that even the unbelieving world around will be able to discern one’s authenticity by it.
- Romans 8:28 “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”
In this verse Paul speaks of love for God as the defining characteristic of a true believer, so much so that it is in essence equivalent to being identified as one who has been “called” to salvation.
- Romans 13:8-9 “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Here Paul echoes the words of Christ saying that the specific commandments that define godly behavior are summed up in the general commandment to love others as we love ourselves.
- I Corinthians 13:2-3 “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.”
In this passage Paul writes that divorced from love, even the most astounding ministry gifts and the most sacrificial good works are meaningless before God. Indicating clearly that if love is absent from our souls, our lives are unacceptable to God. Therefore love, in and of itself, is what makes the critical difference before God and is therefore the essence of what God desires in His people.
- Ephesians 5:2 “Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us”
Paul writes here that we as believers are to imitate God’s nature. We do this by following Christ’s example, living a lifestyle of love.
- James 1:12 “Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.”
James writes that the crown of life (another way of saying salvation) is promised to those who “love” God. Once again we have a reference to one who is a lover of God being synonymous with saying that such a person is part of the redeemed.
- 1 John 3:14 “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death.”
John writes that it is our love for other believers that should give us assurance that we are in fact saved. So John too emphasizes that being a person characterized by love is the very nature of what the Christian life is all about.
The idea of general statements expressing the big picture of what God is calling us to is not new. God, having given the Law with its 621 specific commandments for the people, encapsulated the essence of all of them into three basic principles through the prophet Micah:
- Micah 6:8 “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
This did not mean that God was abrogating everything else that He was saying, but rather these three commandments expressed a summary of what all the specifics were intended to point the Israelites to. In the same way, everything God says to His people can be summed up in the commands to love God supremely with all that we are and to love others as we love ourselves. This is necessary to protect us from redefining for ourselves what it means to love God and others. The rest of this study is an attempt to demonstrate how all the particulars of what it means to be a disciple of Christ fit into this big picture.
To say that loving God and others is the essence of Biblical Christianity requires very clear definition lest its meaning be misunderstood. Saying that “love” is the central component to Christianity does not mean that doctrine is unimportant. The truth is that doctrine is essential if we are to understand the true nature of the God we are to love and the way His love is made available to us. Further, to say that “love” is at the heart of our faith does not mean that one lays aside the rest of the Bible’s admonitions concerning how we are to live our lives. These instructions are not given to add something to love as our central obligation to God and other people instead they define for us the true nature of what love is and how that love should manifest itself as we relate to God and others. Finally, to say that love is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian, does not mean that believers are to be ruled by sentimentality, nor does it mean that believers are forbidden to confront evil and wrongdoing in others. The love that the Bible exhorts us to pursue is righteous and is not founded upon the fickleness of our moment by moment feelings but in the objective truths that God has revealed to us in His Word.
It is important to understand that this is not an attempt to provide a simplistic formula that supposedly makes it easy to attain true godliness. Instead, it is meant to make it easier to understand the nature of what we are called to be and how we are intended to achieve it. If one were to conclude that truly loving God and others is easy, it would mean one of two things. Either one is ignorant of the high standard of love to which God calls us, or one is ignorant of the degree of wickedness that still resides within even a redeemed heart. The fact of the matter is that apart from the work of Christ within us we are by nature decidedly unloving people as the Apostle Paul makes abundantly clear:
- Romans 1:30-31 “…backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful;…”
- II Timothy 3:2-4 “For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,…”
So if we are to start well in our spiritual pilgrimage we need to recognize that though our calling may be simple to comprehend, it will require an incredible transformation in us if it is ever to be realized, and that this transformation will not come easy.
But though this transformation is not an easy goal to attain it is the purpose for which we were redeemed. It is accomplished by recognizing the depth of the profound love that God has for us, which in turn arouses our love for Him and from there spills over into a love for those who in community with us also are defined by their love for God.
- “The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.” I John 4:8-12
What is “love”? If it is to be the central focus in our pursuit of the abundant life, it would seem clear that we need to know what it is that we are attempting to focus on. Does the Bible define love? In a way it does, and many would cite the following passage as containing that definition:
- I Corinthians 13:4-8a “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”
In fact, this is not really what we would normally think of as a definition. Actually it is a description of what love looks like, rather than a theoretical definition of the concept of love. In Scripture, this is the way God communicates to us about what love is in ways that are far more vivid than any mere definition could be. When God wishes us to understand that His love is real for us He cites specific concrete facts that communicate the reality of His love in ways that are meant to grip our hearts:
- 1 John 3:16 “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.”
- Romans 8:32 “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?”
These concrete examples are important because it is easy to have an abstract belief in something, and to speak passionately about it and yet live out a life that is radically distinct from what we claim to hold dear. So the first thing we must know about love is that it does not exist in theory, but only in the way we interact with God and other people.
It is in our nature to try to distill things down to the essence of what they are so we can better understand them, and refute false ideas about them. In our day a popular expression has arisen that is meant to do just that in regard to the nature of love. The expression is, “love is not a feeling, it is a choice”. The concern that this expression addresses is that some people confuse love with the emotional feelings that accompany love. There are many destructive consequences for believing such a thing so it is good that people have attempted to correct this misconception about the nature of love. However, I think in doing so they have created another misunderstanding in its place, because although love is not a feeling, it is not simply a choice either. Love certainly motivates choices but so do many other things. That love is not simply a choice should be clear to anyone who chooses to think about it for awhile. Would anyone truly believe themselves to be loved if they were told by someone dear to them that the relationship consisted only of a commitment to making good choices on their behalf. I am not saying that such a commitment is bad. It is in fact good, and Biblical, but it is only an outward obedience to God’s ethical commands, it is not in itself love.
So then what is love? Love is a commitment that is made within one’s soul to either God or to another person. A real commitment and attachment of one’s soul to another person means that you value them at least as much as you value yourself. This is precisely the motive that Scripture exhorts us to have in our dealings with others whom we are called to love:
- Matthew 7:12 “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
- Ephesians 5:28-29 “So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church.”
This is the critical component that motivates us to make those good choices for others. Not because it is theoretically important or right to do so, but because we want to. And it is this component that is so challenging for us. Because as we learn more about what it means to experience the abundant life, we will get ever clearer glimpses of how selfish and self-centered the human heart truly is.
Finally, one might wonder why love is such a big deal. Why is being a loving person the linchpin for being the sort of person in whom God delights? The simple answer is that to be a loving person makes one compatible with God Himself:
- 1 John 4:8 “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
Not only that, but God created us, and then redeemed us to live eternally in relationship with Him. The relationship that we have with God and with the rest of the redeemed is designed to be a manifestation of perfect love that mirrors the relationship that has eternally existed between the three persons of the one God:
- John 17:21-23 “…that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.”
- 1 John 4:16 “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.”
So love is a big deal because relational love is the environment of our eternity with God and each other. When we are the most loving - we are the most like God and the most fit for Heaven.
It should be a part of our regular mental routine that we reflect upon the truth that God wants us to become people characterized by love for God and others, and that we seek to continually learn what it means to be a genuinely loving person.