Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 08/29/1999
"Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ himself also loved you, and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma."
Last week we saw that being imitators of God is both a summary of walking worthily and the means of doing it. Now, the Apostle continues to fill out in more detail how and in what we are to imitate God in general and Christ in particular. Last week we saw that we are to do so in forgiveness (4:32); now, we are to imitate him in love (5:2) and moral purity (5:3). Today, we will look at following Christ's example in love. For there remain these three, faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love. I want to examine three important defining characteristics of the love of Jesus.
We are to "walk" in love. The verb implies an ongoing and sustained loving, a consistency, a steadiness of striding forward, not the inconsistency of fits and starts. In his essay on "The Consistency of our Actions," Montaigne points out that consistency is necessary to the real possession of any virtue as a character trait as opposed to a mere eruption. A person truly courageous, for example, would be brave at all times and against all foes. He would not be fearless under enemy fire but then wilt at the threat of cancer. Otherwise, we witness not a true defining character trait in action, but only an arbitrary and unpredictable series of responses. Montaigne doubts that consistency is possible for human beings. But for Christ, it was possible, and particularly in the love he had for his disciples. In Luke 9:51, he "set his face like flint" to go to Jerusalem and face the Cross for them. In John 13:1, the man who knew the most about the love of Jesus observes that, having loved his own, he loved them "to the end." As God, Christ was the same yesterday, today, and forever. But it was as Man that he loved his disciples to the end. Had he turned aside from that commitment, we would not be following him today.
Love like this must be more than a feeling, for feelings by their nature come and go. Feelings of attraction, affection, compassion, or passion may aid us in the task of loving (or hinder us). But they are not themselves love. It is rather not in essence a feeling but an orientation of the soul, a disposition of the will, a fixed commitment rooted in our very character, to treat another person in accordance with 1 Corinthians 13. Such is the love of Jesus that Paul wants us to emulate.
We are to walk in love just as Christ loved us and "gave himself up for us" as "an offering and a sacrifice." Well, what did Christ sacrifice? In the first place, he sacrificed his Prerogatives. He did not consider equality with God a thing to hold on to, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant (Phil. 2:5-7). Second, he sacrificed his own Will to the greater good of the Father's will, praying "Not my will but thine be done" (Luke 22:42). But most importantly, he sacrificed his Life. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends. But God commendeth his love to us in this, in that while we were yet sinners--not friends yet at all, but sworn enemies--Christ died for us. And as he was doing so, he cried out from the very Cross itself, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Such is the love of Jesus that Paul wants us to emulate.
Well, then, what are we to sacrifice? Well, that is an interesting question. For what do we have to give that does not already belong to him? In a sense we cannot sacrifice anything, for to do so involves the pretense that we are our own people, our own masters, with anything of our own that we could decide to give or withhold. But Christ has purchased it all already on the Cross, and we gave it all to him in principle when we took him as our Lord.
For us, then, sacrifice can only be a metaphor. Still, that which we do not own, we should readily be willing to give up if doing so would serve our Lord. Paul says we must die to self in order to live to God. And this we must do daily. We must also give up our selves, our lives if necessary, for our fellow believers or for the cause of the Gospel. And this we quickly say we would do; who would deny our Lord the "sacrifice" of martyrdom if called upon to make it? But we say we would make the big sacrifices because the demand for the present seems only theoretical. It is too easy. What if we were actually being called upon to do it? Then we would discover how serious we were. but we can prepare for such times, which hopefully will never come, by the much harder task of making the little "sacrifices" that are asked of us daily. Time is a struggle for me--to be gracious when my oh so important projects are "interrupted" by mere human beings who need my help. What is the struggle for you? Identify it, and begin there to practice the art of "sacrifice." For such is the love of Jesus that Paul wants us to emulate.
The love of Christ was sacrificial precisely in such a way as to be satisfactory, that is, to make satisfaction for our sins. It "satisfied" completely the demands of God's justice, making it possible for him to extend his mercy to us in forgiveness. We are reminded of this by the language of sacrifice and offering "as a fragrant aroma." We must picture the smoke arising from the altar. Now, smoke can be either a very pleasant smell or a very putrid one. I can think of few things more appealing than the smell of a campfire. But if it is not tended properly, if it gets out of control, or if the wrong kinds of things get burned, the smell can be acrid and burning, not pleasing at all.
Well, the smoke of a sacrifice rising from the burnt offering symbolizes the offering being made to God as it rises up to heaven. But just as not all smoke is pleasant to human noses, so not all offerings are acceptable to God. Abel's offering, made in faith, was accepted, for example, while Cain's was rejected. O.K., then, the important question becomes "What makes an offering acceptable?" If we are to love like Jesus, whose love was sacrificial and satisfactory, how can we be sure that our sacrificial offerings of love will be, like his, acceptable? There are a number of biblical criteria we can use to answer this question.
First, to be acceptable our offerings must be made in faith. For he who comes to God must believe that he is and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him (Heb. 11:6). And whatever is not of faith is sin. And it is faith specifically in the promises of God, in the Word of God, and therefore in the blood of Christ. So any offering we make, to be acceptable, must be covered by the Blood of Christ. The best we have without it is nothing but filthy rags. Though nothing we have or can do is worthy of God, some things are pleasing to him if covered by the Blood. But though nothing is worthy, that is, nothing can be offered acceptably based on its intrinsic merit, we still must offer the best we are and have. The Old Testament sacrifices had to be an unblemished first-born male of the flock. So also, whatever we do to show our love to God and his people should be our best. Whatever we do, we should do all to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). We are to do it "heartily" unto the Lord and not to men (Col. 3:23). Whatever our hand finds to do, we are to do it with all our might (Eccl. 9:10). This does not make it acceptable; only God's grace and the Blood of Christ can do that. But what less can we offer and be offering it sincerely in faith? Such is the love of Jesus that Paul wants us to emulate.
Would you walk worthily? The whole worthy walk is summed up in the imitation of Christ (5:1), not as a form of works or legalism but as an offering of love (5:2). Therefore let your love be, as his was, sustained, sacrificial, and satisfying to God. Then you will be children of your heavenly Father; then you will be like Jesus. And this you cannot do in the power of the flesh; this you can only do as Jesus lives in you through his Holy Spirit. Let us therefore draw near to him as ha has taught us.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams