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25. Perfect In Love

– Chapter 25 –

Perfect in Love

We discussed perfect love in the last chapter, and caught a glimpse of its importance for our lives as new persons in Christ. In this chapter we consider other aspects of this essential life quality which adorns our lives with spiritual excellence and Christ’s beauty, such that we leave behind the spiritual mediocrity which we have been accus­tomed to.

No perfect love, no living church

Without perfect love there is no church, the body of Christ, in the New Testament sense of “church”. It is as fundamental as that. If we subtract love from “church,” what would be left of the church? An organizat­ion? Church buildings? Christian doctrines? Yes, all of these. But do these constitute the church in the Bible?

In the New Testament, “church” never refers merely to a human organiz­ation or to buildings. There were no church buildings in New Testament times. What then is the church? The word for “church,” ekklēsia (ἐκκλησία, made up of ek, ἐκ, “out” or “out of,” and klētos, κλητός the “called, invited, chosen”) literally means a group of people who have been “called out”.

The word was used in a secular context among the Greeks to refer to an assembly of citizens called out by the town crier. In the Septuag­int (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), the word referred to the assembly or congregation of the Israel­ites. Its meaning in the New Testament is well expressed by Peter’s statement that God “called you out of darkness into His marvelous light”:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may pro­claim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1Peter 2:9, ESV)

The phrase “his marvelous light” refers to salvation, for light and life are inseparable. Christ gives us “the light of life” (John 8:12). God is both light and life, and so is Jesus.

We have been called out of death into life. The church is a com­munity of people who have been called out of the darkness of this world to live in God’s light and life given to us in Christ.[1]

But light and life are also inseparably joined with love, which is God’s very nature (1Jn.4:8,16). It is impossible to have His light and His life without having His love.

When Paul speaks of the church, his first preference is to refer to it as the “body of Christ”. The word “body” does not in itself indicate whether it is dead or alive. Yet Paul is certainly not speaking of a dead body but a living body with its various members working together for the benefit of the whole (1Cor.12-14). And what do we find in the middle of this discourse on the body? A homily on love, in the middle chapter 13! God is telling us by this striking arrangement that love is the very heart of the body of Christ, one that pulsates with God’s life and God’s love.

1. Where do we see the body of Christ today?

In the world today, where do we see the body of Christ in the biblical sense of that term? There is no shortage of church buildings and church organi­zations, but where do we find a body of God’s people that conforms to what we see in Scripture?

In my student days in London, England, I at­tended one of the most famous churches not only in London, but in England. In that church there was a preacher and pastor of great renown with an extraord­inary gift of teaching; he was gifted in the clarity and the expository skill of his preach­ing. Church attend­ance was perhaps about a thousand per service. People flocked from all over London to listen to his preaching. When we walked in and sat down, there was a certain sense of expect­ation as we waited for the preaching of the word. But after the service was over, people would head straight for the door, rarely greeting or shaking hands with anyone.

It was in this church that many of us received our spiritual nourish­ment. We were also attending another church at the time, but like so many churches, there was little teaching or preaching of any substance there. To survive spiritually, and to get solid exposition of God’s Word, people had to go elsewhere.

An old friend of mine also attended this famous church. I once asked him, “We attended that church for several years in our student days. Did you get to know anybody there?” His answer was no. Of all the amazing things that could happen in the world, we attended that church for several years without knowing anyone in it! There was not even a church get-together where people could have fellowship over a cup of tea.

In what sense then is this a New Testament church? It is of course a church in the sense of its having a building, a congregation, some administra­tors, and a preacher, but not in the sense of its being a body in which people are related to one another. How many churches in the world would you describe as an integrated body, not in some vague theoretical sense, but in a dynamic and spiritual way?

2. A Bible lecture?

Where do we find a church in the New Testament sense of the word? We scarcely know what it is. Today we go to church to listen to a Bible lecture with some time allotted for hymn singing. Dignifying a lecture with the word “sermon” or “homily” does not change the reality of the matter. There is, of course, nothing wrong with having Bible lectures or calling them sermons, but that does not make a New Test­ament church.

A church service is basically a meeting that you attend for an hour or so, in which you sing a few songs and listen to a sermon, and then go back home. If the same sermon is given in the faculty of divinity at a univer­sity, it would be called a “lecture”; but because it is delivered in a church build­ing, it is called a “sermon”. Yet there is no fundamen­tal difference be­tween the two apart from the fact that at the university you would not normally sing before the lecture. But is this what God wants His church to be?

3. Is a church really a church without love?

What is the answer to this question in the light of Biblical teaching? As we will see, a church is truly a church only where there is love. By that definition, of course, a college is not a church; in fact even a church might not be a church. We need to elaborate on this definition because we could easily arrive at a simplistic understanding of what a church is and what love is. We are not seeking a theoretical but a practical and spiritual understanding of the matter. The church as the body of Christ is a profound concept and can only be touched upon in this chapter in a preliminary way. Love as perfect Christ-like love is profound, and we aim to consider it more fully in this discussion.

The church I attended in London had a thou­sand people per ser­vice. Love one another? We didn’t even know one another. Christian love was mentioned in the preaching from time to time, but that meant little in reality because in the rush to go home for lunch, people hardly found time to greet one another.

At the end of the church service, the speed at which people rushed for the doors was amazing. Those who are pressed for time might want to take up jogging in order to beat the traffic jam at the exits where a thousand are trying to get out. It is advisable to preserve your dignity in so doing, by not rushing for the door like a commuter chasing a bus, but quietly trucking along with long, elegant strides.

In that church, the topic of love was brought up occasionally in the sermons, but most people were not interested in communicating with others apart from showing a polite smile.

In all my years in this famous church, I was wondering if it was a church. I attended the lectures (sermons) — good solid lectures — week after week for several years without knowing anyone there, not even the pastor. In all those years, only once did I speak to him, and it was not even in church. We bumped into each other at the narrow door of a Christian library, and exchanged a greeting. I never spoke to him in church because he never stood at the door to greet people. Immediately after the church service, he would retreat to the privacy of his study. Somehow people got used to it.

4. What is a body?

Without perfect love there is in reality no New Testament church, that is, a church as delineated in Biblical teaching, in which it is called the “body of Christ”. What is a body? We don’t have to study medicine to know what a body is; we all possess a body and know something about it.

What can we say about a body? For one thing, the members of the body don’t need to be in direct contact with all the other mem­bers. That is not even physically possible. A brain cell cannot be in direct contact with a liver cell; they are linked indirectly through the network of cells in between. Each cell has a direct link with its adjacent cells. The link is not of course a mere physical juxtapos­ition but a vital, living connection. If a cell is isolated from its neighboring cells, it will die.

In the body of Christ we likewise don’t need to be directly related to every other person in the church universal; that is not physically possible. But it does mean that we ought to be vitally related to those immediately around us.

Let us suppose that, like many Christians, I go to church once a week, and say hello to the people there. When the service is over, I don’t rush for the door but stay back ten minutes, even half an hour, to greet some of the people. I chat with them for a while, “How are you? You’re down with a cold? Take some medicine and drink plenty of fluids. And how about you over there? Oh, you’ve bought a car? I hope it’s running well.” After this I say goodbye and head back home.

If we call this the body of Christ, we must be jesting. Does a cell come into the body once a week to say hello to the other cells, and then disappears for another week? If you think this is getting comical, you are getting the picture. Someone may point out, how­ever, that this is the way things are nowadays; people are individ­ualistic, so they don’t want to get too involved in people’s lives.

If that is so, how can we ever prac­tice love? For the moment, I am not even talking about perfect love but a general and superficial love that we might call communal friendship or social rapport. How do we practice love when we are living an individ­ualistic way of life? By sending Christmas cards? Or contributing cans of food to the needy? There is simply no body of Christ without perfect love.

And how does a conventional church as we know it differ from a secular organization? If you say that your church is a body, what about your company? The non-Christian works from nine to five, and spends far more time with his colleagues than church members spend with each other. He knows the people in the office better than the church people know each other because he spends far more time with his colleagues. The people in the office are more appropriately called a “body” than are the people in church.

Is there any reason for your reluctance to call the company a body? In the company you have the boss, the operations manager, the sales manager, the office staff, and so on. They spend a large part of the day and the week (and sometimes a good part of their lives) working together, even eating together at the cafeteria. That is more like a body in actual or realistic terms than what can be found in most churches. There is a commitment to one another because the survival of the company and their jobs de­pend on cooperat­ion and shared objectives.

In what sense is the church a body if the people get together for an hour or two a week? That is perhaps why some theolo­gians speak of the “mystical” body of Christ, a body so mys­tical that nobody knows what or where it is!

The New Testament never talks about a mysti­cal body of Christ. We read only of the “body of Christ,” a tangible, living, dynamic body. Today this body of Christ is scarcely visible any­where, so in an ironic sense, sadly, they are not entirely wrong when they say it is mystical. But if we describe it as “mystical” to justify its being spiritually non-­functional, then we fall into self-deception.

5. Where in practice is the one body?

We won’t have a body of Christ in the New Testament sense unless its cells are vitally connected to one another in love. But the aver­age church today has no structure of interconnected cells, much less a body in which there is constant interaction in a vital relation­ship between all its members.

Students who share a household would understand what I said at the beginning, namely, that without perfect love there is no body of Christ. When you live toget­her, you see the importance of love, without which it would be impossible to tolerate each other for long. Perfect love is vital when you stay together as a household, or a team, or in com­munal life, because without perfect love, people won’t be able to stay together in oneness.

People who isolate themselves won’t need to concern themselves with love because they are not living in a direct relationship with others. All they need to do is to show up on Sunday with a friendly smile. But when people stay together, love is indispensable. It is easy to put up with people one hour a week, but not ten hours a day. So if there is no love, you are obliged to seek refuge in isolation.

Many Christ­ians are afraid of communal living because of its special pressures. But if you live a solitary Christian life, in what sense are you a member of the body? When people remove themselves from a living relationship to each other in the body of Christ, the body starts to fall apart.

Right after Pentecost, as love was being poured into their hearts by the Holy Spirit, the Christians at Jerusa­lem began to draw close to one another. Where love permeates the heart, people are drawn toget­her. These Christians “broke bread” or had meals together whenever possible. They inter­acted with one another. Not even the married couples isolated themselves from the main body. Everyone had a vital link to the others in the body of Christ on the cell level, and practiced hospitality.

In the body of Christ, commitment to one another is not some­thing option­al. If you live an isolated Christian life, commitment wouldn’t be nec­essary. Do you still remem­ber how easy it was to be a Christian when you stayed by yourself? Love was not really necessary. But when you moved in with others, suddenly it became very hard to be a Christian. You stepped on each other’s toes, and stumbled over each other. In the household are people of different temperaments and different ways of doing things. In this situation, the necessity of love becomes perfectly clear.

6. What is our concept of the church?

We now see why we do not, in practical terms, have a body of Christ today. The question before us is whether we are truly engaged in building up a New Testament church. If all we want is a church where people get together on Sundays, but who don’t interact for the rest of the week, then the task is relatively easy. If we all yield to our egoism and individualism, what will happen to the body of Christ? Do we think we can be saved without being members of his body?

Has love become a luxury today? In this age of spiritual poverty, is talking about perfect love as farfetched as a beggar talking about living in a palace? Do we tell ourselves that perfection of love is out of touch with reality? That we spiritual beggars should not waste time talking about love and other lofty topics? If so, we might as well say the Bible is irrelevant, for it was Jesus himself who called us to be perfect.

Either we strive for perfection, aiming for noth­ing less than per­fect love, or it may be better that we don’t talk about the church at all. When we talk about the church today, we talk about raising funds for a church building. But the Bible never talks about a church build­ing. We form a congregation and call it a church, but it is not a New Testa­ment church unless its members are committed to one another in love.

Today “church” refers to any Christian group with an organiza­tional structure. We have the Roman Catholic Church, the Baptist Church, the Methodist Church, and so on. That in itself is not a “church” in the New Testament sense. The New Testament has in view a body that functions as an organism, not merely as an organization. A body is a living organism, or it is not a true body. The Body of Christ is a living spiritual organism, hence Paul could speak of members who function as feet, ears, eyes, or hands within it (1Corinthians 12:15ff).

I am preaching the gospel today, but maybe I should get another job. If we have no body of Christ in the New Testament sense, then neither do we have a church. If that is so, then I have no ministry, for I don’t want to preach God’s word as a Sunday lecture. Either the preaching of the Word brings about the body of Christ, or I have no useful function in the church. My task, as I see it in Scripture, is to build up the body of Christ.

The danger of partial obedience

One of the most dan­ger­ous things in the Christian life, and therefore for the life of the church, is partial obedience as opposed to perfect obedience. Partial fulfillment deceives us because it manages to soothe our con­science by making us think that we have done something when in fact we have not done it perfectly. If we obey partially, we think we have met our obligations in one sense or another.

Anything less than perfect obedience will only lead to self-decept­ion. As we have seen in an earlier chapter, Scripture says that no sacri­fice is acceptable to God unless it is perfect. You cannot offer Yahweh a sacrificial sheep that has the slightest blemish. If it has a limp or a deformed ear, it is unacceptable. The priest inspects the sheep carefully to make sure it is perfect. Only when it passes the inspection can it be offered to God as a sacrifice.

In much of Christianity today, people offer just about any kind of junk to God. Christianity has become a garbage collection center where people offer to God imperfect, partial, or half-hearted service. Yet they think they are doing quite well because they are doing more than those who just go to church and offer nothing, not even a tithe. And there are those who go to church with the intention of getting whatever they can for themselves.

Saul fulfilled God’s command partially, and thought he was obey­ing God. Samuel said to him, “Why then did you not obey the voice of Yahweh?” To which Saul retorted, “But I did obey the voice of Yahweh” (1Sam.15:19-20). Like so many Christ­ians today, he thought he had obeyed Yahweh God when in fact it was only partial obedience.

Partial obedience, as Samuel pointed out to Saul, is disobedience and the rejection of God’s word: “Because you have rejected the word of Yahweh, He has also rejected you from being king” (v.23). If Saul had continued to obey Yahweh, his kingship over Israel would have remained in his house and lineage forever; but that was taken away because of his partial obedience which, in God’s sight, is disobed­ience. Samuel said to Saul:

“You have acted foolishly; you have not kept the command­ment of Yahweh your God which He commanded you, for now Yahweh would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not endure … because you have not kept what Yahweh commanded you.” (1Samuel 13:13-14)

On judgment day, some will commend them­selves to the Lord Jesus, saying, “Lord, Lord, haven’t I done this and that, and even cast out demons in your name?” Yet Jesus will say to them, “Depart from Me, you evildoers” (Mt.7:22-23). Evildoers? How could he say that? Surely exorcism benefits the spread of the gospel, and demons are cast out only by the power of God. Satan doesn’t cast out demons because that would weaken his own kingdom (Mk.3:23,24). Hence those who cast out demons must have functioned by God’s power. In what sense, then, are they evildoers?

We could imagine them pleading, “Lord, Lord, haven’t you called us to cast out demons and do mighty works to build your kingdom? Surely we have done your will.” They did obey, but it was partial obedience. When will we learn, once and for all, that disobedience in one area despite obedience in another is ultimately disobedience in God’s eyes? Christians seem to feel that be­cause they have obeyed in one area or another, they will be safe on the Day of Judgment.

On the day when all Christians stand “before the judgment seat of Christ” (2Cor.5:10), many will find themselves in serious trouble with the Lord, not because of outright disobedience but because of partial obedience. Like the people in Matthew 7:22, they will say, “Lord, Lord, I went to church every Sunday, gave financial help to so-and-so, and even cast out a couple of demons,” only to hear the reply, “Depart from me, you evil­doer.”

In what sense an evildoer? Since this statement occurs in chapter 7 in the Sermon on the Mount, we can ask ourselves whether we are obeying the Sermon itself. It is precisely in this Sermon that Jesus calls us to be perfect in love (Mt.5:48). Will not the rejection of this clear command be the downfall of many Christians on that Day?

Not just love, but perfect love: Jesus’ love

Brothers and sisters, partial obedience is why we don’t have a function­al New Testament church. Even in New Testament times, not all the churches lived up to the Biblical teaching. The Corinthian church is a well-known example. Towards the end of the New Testament period, we see serious failings in five of the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. These failures in the “obed­ience of faith” arose from partial obedience. They were called to repentance, with stern warnings of the consequences of continued disobedience. We do well to heed these warnings in Revelation 2 and 3, for these were written also for our instruction.

Hence we are not hiding the faults of the various local churches of the New Testament era, which had their own fail­ings even if they were generally better than the churches today. What we mean by “New Testament church” is the church as it is meant to be by the standards of the New Testament.

In New Testament teaching, there is no true church if love does not prevail in it. In fact Jesus’ require­ments are even higher than “Christian love” as we understand that term, for he says, “This is My command­ment, that you love one another just as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

Some may object to my repeated reference to perfect love: “Did Jesus really call us to perfect love, or are you setting a standard higher than what Jesus and the Bible require?” I would never dare set a higher standard than what Jesus sets for his people, but neither do I dare to set a lower standard.

What is the standard set by Jesus? It is stated lucidly in the words, “Just as I have loved you”. The question is not whether we love one another, but whether we love one another as Jesus loved us! And how did he love us? At the cross he poured himself out for us without reserve, holding back nothing even to his last breath. Isn’t that the absolute expression of perfect love?

Yet he calls us to it. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1John 3:16). Again the call to love as he loved. Perfect love or perfected love is mentioned in 1John 4:18, but the idea permeates the whole New Testament, especially in regard to Christ’s saving work for us. Perfect love is not something new that appears for the first time in the New Testament, for God had already called His people to such love in the Old Testament. Jesus himself emphasized this fact. To the question, “Which is most important of all the commandments?” Jesus replied:

The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no command­ment greater than these. (Mark 12:28-31, NIV)

Notice the fourfold “all” and the totality of the call to love. Yet it sums up the “old” commandment of the Old Testa­ment:

Beloved, I am not writing a new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word which you have heard. On the other hand, I am writing a new com­mandment to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining. (1John 2:7,8)

Jesus’ perfect love for us is the standard of love to which we are called by this “new” commandment: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34).

The “new” in the “new commandment” brings out the substance and character of “as I have loved you” of Jesus’ cruciform love. Can we love as he loved? Yes, but only if God’s love is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. God has done this very thing in those who have yielded their lives to Him in the obedience of faith. This is what Paul says in Romans 5:5, “The love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (cf. Acts 5:32, “the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him”).

If we are truly God’s people, it means that He has already provided us with a more than adequate supply of His love, in fact an abundant supply as ex­pressed in the words “poured out”. What then would be our excuse for failing to love with His perfect love other than that we refused to open our hearts to His outpoured love?

It is clear that we who profess to be God’s people have refused to open our hearts wide to the influx of God’s love; thus we don’t have His perfect or total love to channel to others. I once asked a coworker, “Do you think your teammate loves you?” The answer was yes. When I asked further, “Do you think your teammate loves you totally?” This time the answer was no. Very significant indeed! “Yes, my teammate loves me, but not totally.” There was love, but it came with a great measure of hesitation. The question is not whether we love others (to which the answer would be an easy “yes”), but whether we love them as Jesus has loved us.

1. Perfect love: love to the end

Since we are commanded to love as Jesus loved, the obvious question is: How did Jesus love his disciples? John 13:1 gives the answer:

Now before the feast of the Passover, Jesus know­ing that his hour had come that he should depart out of this world to the Father, hav­ing loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

Jesus loved his own, but more than that, he loved them to the end. That is perfect love indeed. He was about to be crucified, to lay down his life for his people. Having loved them, he loved them to the end — that is, unto death. And he expects the same from us when he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

The phrase “to the end” comes from the Greek eis telos (εἰς τέλος). Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich’s Greek-English lexicon (eis, section 3) says, “In addition to place and time, it can be used to indicate degree: εἰς τέλος completely, fully, absolutely”. Referring to John 13:1, the lexicon goes on to say that the verse “combines in εἰς τέλος (eis telos) the meanings to the end and to the uttermost”. Jesus’ perfect love means loving his disciples to the very end, to the farthest extent, to the absolute limit, to his last breath upon the cross.

2. Enduring to the end

To understand what it means to love to the end, let us look at another instance of eis telos. In Matthew 10:22, Jesus says, “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake, but he who endures to the end will be saved.” Here eis telos has to do with salvation.

What does it mean to endure to the end? This verse stands in the con­text of persecution, which is so severe that it could cost his disciples their lives, as the previous verse stated explicitly. Endur­ing to the end means enduring to the end of one’s life, enduring unto death. It has in view a martyr’s death, which could mean a death by stoning (Acts 7:58,59) or by crucifixion, the most terrify­ing form of torture-execution. Jesus loved his own to the end, unto death on the cross.

Such love is possible in us only by grace and faith

Just as we are saved by grace through faith, so per­fect love is possible only by grace through faith. We need grace and faith to attain what we cannot accomplish for ourselves, things such as salvation, perfection, and loving to the end.

If Jesus didn’t require perfect love in the first place, why would we need grace and faith? It is humanly possible for us to love in a human way without God’s help. That kind of love would not, of course, be perfect love, but a partial or selective human love. The non-Christian doesn’t need grace to love his family members. Or to believe in Jesus intellectually. There is nothing inherently difficult about believing in the historicity of Jesus, or that he died a heroic death. We don’t need God’s grace to believe in historical facts.

It takes grace and faith, however, to accom­plish the impossible. By any standard, perfect love is humanly impossible. That is some­thing that everyone knows from experience. It helps us to see our dire need for saving faith, for we now realize that if God’s perfect love is not in us then His life, eternal life, is also not in us. His life and His love are one integrated whole. Without the one we don’t have the other.

The necessity of grace becomes equally apparent, for it is out of His boundless grace that God gives us His life and His love. When we draw upon God’s grace by faith, we will experience the power to love with His perfect love — to the end, to the uttermost, to the absolute limit, even unto death.

Persistent, stubborn love

The term eis telos (to the end) appears also in the parable of the unright­eous judge who refuses to take up the case of a widow because she has no money to bribe him with. In her desper­ation, she takes the only course of action available to her: nag him to the end (eis telos). As a result, the weary judge says to himself,

Even though I do not fear God nor respect men, yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection lest by continually coming she wear me out. (Luke 18:4,5)

Where does eis telos occur in this passage? In the word continual­ly. The widow pursues the judge eis telos — absolutely, persist­ently, to the end. When he sips his cup of tea, he gets a phone call from her. When he collects his mail, he finds a letter from her. When he opens the front door, she is standing outside. He is losing sleep over the widow, and has nightmares about her. This is eis telos — persisting to the end.

So when eis telos is applied to love, it portrays persistent, deter­mined, stubborn love. As the widow would not let go of the judge until her cause reaches the desired conclusion, so Jesus loved his own to the end irrespective of their failings and weaknesses, or how spiritually dull they may be. Jesus calls us to love one another as he loves us: tenacious­ly, tirelessly, resolutely — to the end, unto death, even death on a cross.

“As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34,35)

[1] The importance of “call” is seen in its frequency in the New Testament: kaleō “call” 140 times; klēsis “calling” 11 times; klētos “called” 10 times.


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