Working toward love
by Jack Wald | January 23rd, 2000

I Peter 1:22-25

[Start with rocks, plastic cup and pitcher of water.]
I have here a glass and a pitcher of water. My goal is to put as much water in the glass as I can. [pour water] How can I get more of this water in the glass? Don’t tell me now, but later in the sermon I’ll be asking for suggestions.

Knowing another language is of great help in understanding your own language. A second language helps you to understand the nuances of your own language. For example, my father hired a chemist from Holland who, when playing bridge – a card game using the four suits in a deck of cards, clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades, would bid 2 shovels. Do you get it? Spades. Shovels. How many people playing cards have ever thought about spades and made the connection to something you use in the garden?

If I tell you someone is funny, what do I mean? I lived in Germany for a year and became aware of two words in German, both translated in English as “funny”. There is funny lustig which is funny amusing and there is funny komisch which is funny strange or weird.

In our text this morning, we read the word “love” twice, but in the Greek, there are three words which are translated into the English “love”. There are times when it makes a big difference which Greek word for love is used and this is one of them. Those three words are eros, philos and agape. Eros is the word used to express sensual love, the love of beauty, a sunset, a man or woman, or food. Philos is the word used for relational love, brotherly love, affectionate love. And agape is the word used for unconditional love, costly love. Agape love is the love God has for us that caused Jesus to die for us.

Before we get to which of these three words are used in the text this morning, let’s put this text in context. Remember again that in this letter, Peter is writing to people facing persecution. Peter has talked about our identity as Christians, about our living hope and sure inheritance. Then in verse 13, he says “Therefore.” Peter moves from what we will experience in the future to what we can do now in the present. Peter moves from what even angels long to look at to what we mortals on earth are to do.

So there is a string of active instructions: Therefore, prepare your minds for action. Therefore, be self-controlled. Therefore, set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. Therefore, be obedient. Therefore, do not conform. Therefore, be holy. Therefore, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.

So let me set again the progression: We have a future to look forward to that is glorious beyond our capability to understand and that is more permanent than the earth we stand on. Therefore we are to be obedient in the many ways I just mentioned. And this leads then to the next step in Peter’s thought process, our text for this morning.

“Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.”

We will take a look this morning first at what it means to purify yourselves by obeying the truth. Secondly, the natural consequence of purifying yourselves which is sincere love. Thirdly, the next step of loving one another deeply, from the heart and finally, why we should take this step of loving deeply from the heart.

Peter writes in the text, “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth.” What does it mean, to be purified? In the Old Testament, there were rites of purification to make objects and people ritually clean. In Numbers 31, after Israel defeated the Midianites, Moses instructs them to pass tin, gold, silver and anything they took from the Midianites that will not perish in fire through the fire. Then that plunder and anything that will not withstand fire, presumably wood and people, is to be purified by water. After seven days, the plunder and people were allowed into the camp, having been purified. The emphasis was on purification of material things.

In the New Testament, purification is of a moral nature. There are many examples of this. Jesus pointed out in Matthew 15:11 “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him unclean, but what comes out of a man’s mouth, that is what makes him unclean.” It is not the material food that is unclean, but expressions of a person’s heart, words and actions, that are unclean.

Later on in this letter, Peter gives some advice to wives and husbands. He says to wives, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” The point is not that woman should abstain from wearing jewelry or fixing their hair, but that contrary to the world of models and movie stars, true beauty comes from the inner being, not the external appearance.

In Galatians Paul makes the argument that we are free from the law and writes, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

And even in the Old Testament there is this emphasis that what matters most is our moral nature. In David’s psalm of repentance, Psalm 51, he writes, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Peter writes that as we are obedient to the truth, to the teachings of Scripture, we become purified. Our hearts become pure.

The emphasis here is on becoming. It is obvious to Christians and non-Christians alike that we are not perfect. Our moral purification is not a one-time, immediate event. It is a process. We are becoming pure. When we become Christians, whether it seems to us a slow developing faith over time or a momentous turn in our lives, in either case there is a time when we become God’s child. There is a time when we pass from not being God’s child to being God’s child. At that point in time, we are accepted by God, we are justified. God views us as being holy and perfect because when he looks at us, he sees us through the perfection of Jesus.

Then begins this process of sanctification as we become pure and holy. We, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, work to transform ourselves to be the perfect and holy person God sees us to be through Jesus Christ. The word translated purification comes from the same Greek root as holiness and sanctification so this is what Peter is talking about when he says we are purified by obeying the truth.

When Peter says, “Now that you have been purified,” he does not mean that we have achieved perfection. He could be referring to the moment of conversion or to daily acts of obedience. In either case, he makes the point that our lives change when we become Christians and when we live lives of obedience.

[children come forward] I filled the glass with water already. How can I get more water in the glass? [the kids suggested getting a larger glass. Pour out the water. get another glass. Then I lowered the glass so they could see the rocks in it. “Oh!” Now they knew what the problem was. They all took a turn taking rocks out of the plastic cup] The more rocks I take out, the more water I can pour in the glass. [then I made the point that we are the cup, the rocks are sin and the water, God’s love. Each time we are obedient, we take a rock out of ourselves and become more full of God’s love.]

This is exactly what Peter is talking about. When we obey the truth, when we let go of evil thoughts and desires as Peter talks about in 2:1, “Therefore rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind,” each time we are obedient in a particular situation, we take a rock out of the glass and create more room for our purification.

Let’s say someone in the church does something that annoys you. What are you going to do about it? Will you let it fester until it becomes a larger issue? Will you talk to others in the church about how irritating that person is? Or will you either let go of the issue by taking the log out of your own eye or if it is too big an issue to just set aside, go to that person and work it out?

How about someone in the church that seems to have it easier than you. What are you going to do about it? Be jealous? Get angry because they don’t share in the way you think they should?

We are constantly confronted with these choices to be obedient to rid ourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.

Our sanctification is a process of taking rocks out of the glass as we choose to be obedient and this leads to our purification.

Peter continues in the text to say what is the natural consequence of this process of purification by obedience.

He writes, “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers.” The natural consequence of obedience, making these daily choices to be obedient, is sincere love for your brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. This is the natural and inevitable consequence of obedience. Our hearts are more pure and we have more room for God’s love which naturally spills over to those around us.

Now which of the three Greek words for love is used here when Peter talks about sincere love? The love talked about here is philos, relational love, brotherly love, affection. This relational love is not something you have to work at. It is the natural consequence of obedience. David in Psalm 16 writes, “As for the saints in the land, they are the glorious ones in whom is all my delight.”

There are times when we meet a Christian for the first time and there is an immediate deep feeling of affection for that person. I had that experience with many of you when I visited for two weeks in September. After two weeks and even less than that, I had the feeling that we had been friends for a long time.

I remember a man named Ken I met when he came to a mid-week prayer meeting at Park Street Church in Boston, Massachusetts. I was in seminary and spoke that night at the prayer meeting. Ken was in the Coast Guard and had just been assigned to Boston. We went out to eat afterwards and spent a lot of time with each other over the next three or four weeks he was there. I was amazed at how close we felt and how immediately we could share with each other at a deep level, even though we had just met.

Now I realize that in addition to love of the saints, there is a thing called natural chemistry, but my point is that I have had this experience time after time and our obedience to the truth naturally leads to sincere love for our brothers and sisters in Christ. That bond we feel with other Christians is not something we work to achieve, it happens, naturally, as we are obedient to Christ.

Let’s review again the progression in I Peter: We have a future to look forward to that is glorious beyond our capability to understand and that is more permanent than the earth we stand on. Therefore we are to be obedient. We become purified by obeying the truth so that we have sincere love for our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Now Peter takes us to the next level. Sincere love for our brothers and sisters is the natural consequence of choosing to be obedient, but Peter takes it further. “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart.”

“Love one another deeply, from the heart.” Peter uses the Greek word philos, relational love to say we have sincere love for your brothers. Here Peter uses agape to say we are to love one another deeply, from the heart. Agape love is costly, unconditional love. This is love which sets aside our own interests and puts the interests of others before us.

John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,” that is agape love.

Matthew 5 “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” this is agape love.

Philippians 2 “ have the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others,” this is agape love.

Agape takes love to another level. This agape love is not the natural consequence of obedience. It is not inevitable. This is a deliberate choice that has to be made, putting others ahead of yourselves. This is love that costs me something.

It is interesting to compare this passage to another incident in the life of Peter where the word love is used. At the end of the Gospel according to John in chapter 21, Jesus reinstates Peter as the leader of the new church. He asks Peter the same question three times.

“When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?’
‘Yes, Lord,’ he said, ‘you know that I love you.’
Jesus said, ‘Feed my lambs.’
Again Jesus said, ‘Simon son of John, do you truly love me?’
He answered, ‘Yes Lord, you know that I love you.’
Jesus said, ‘Take care of my sheep.’
The third time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’
Peter was hurt because he asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ He said, Lord you know all things; you know that I love you.’
Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep.’”

The progression of these questions is fascinating. Jesus starts out asking Peter, “Do you agape me?” and Peter responds, “I philos you.”

What else could Peter say? Just a short time ago, at the Passover Supper before Jesus was arrested, Peter had boldly stated that he would lay down his life for Jesus, an expression of agape love. Then what happened? When Peter’s life was on the line, he denied even knowing Jesus. Peter came to the point when agape love was demanded and he failed misearbly. So when Jesus asks him, “Do you agape me?” Peter, still conscious of his failure replies, “Yes Lord, you know I philos you.” What a painful moment that must have been for Peter.

Then Jesus asks again, “Do you agape me?” and Peter responds again, “I philos you.”

Twice Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me with a sacrificial, unconditional love?” “Are you willing to lay your life down for me?” and Peter responds with, “Yes, I love you in a familiar, relational way.” “I have deep affection for you.”

So Jesus comes down to Peter’s level with the third question. He asks, “Do you philos me?” And Peter responds, “Yes I philos you.” And on that basis, Jesus instructs Peter to lead the church and tells Peter in somewhat vague terms, that he will one day lay down his life for Jesus, in agape love. Not long after writing this letter, within a year or two, Peter was crucified, requesting that he be crucified upside down since he was not worthy to die in the same manner as his Lord.

Jesus comes down to Peter’s level and then in Peter’s letter, written thirty some years later, Peter urges us to start at the philos level and work up to the more demanding agape love Jesus called Peter to. Thirty years later, Peter is past the humiliation of his failure to stand with Jesus and he urges the readers of this letter to move beyond the natural affection we feel for each other to a more costly sacrificial love. Peter does not do this easily. He knows all too well how difficult it is to love with agape love.

This was Peter’s struggle and it is ours as well. It is easy to love those who love us, but how do we love those who have hurt us? It is easy to love those who respond to our love, but how do we love those who are indifferent or antagonistic to us? It is easy to love people who are like us, but how do we love those with whom we have personality conflicts? How do we love people who irritate us?

In our fellowship at RPF we have affection for one another. Particularly in a dominant Muslim culture, we are aware of our need for fellowship with other Christians. But there are times when people irritate us or hurt us or cause us to feel envy. When these times occur, we need to take the costly step of loving with agape love. It requires sacrifice on our part. It may require us to set aside our pride but this is what Peter calls us to.

And Jesus asks us, “Do you agape me?”

You may be at the point where the call to love with agape love is just too painful. Perhaps, like Peter, a failure to obey God’s call to love with agape live is fresh in your experience. Perhaps you are struggling to have enough energy to love in any way at all. To be asked, “Do you agape me?” is too painful a question.

That’s OK. We are loved by God with God’s agape, unconditional love. Regardless of our response to the call to love with agape love, we are loved fully and completely. We cannot be loved more and we cannot be loved less, regardless of what we do good or bad.

But maybe you are ready to take the next step. Perhaps right now, as I am speaking, God has brought someone to your mind that you need to love with an agape love. This week, I challenge you to take the further step of obedience. Let God bring someone to mind and then love them this week with an agape love.

Jesus asks you this morning, “Do you agape me?”

May you experience this week God’s agape love and find the strength of heart, mind and soul to say, “Yes, I agape you,” to love others in the Body of Christ with that agape love.