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Sermon: Love that Gets Its Hands Dirty - 1 Thess 1, Gal. 5, John 13

The level of your labor of love determines the measure of your Christian maturity. 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3; Galatians 5:1-6, 13-16, 22; John 13.

Sermon series: The Measure of Our Maturity

  1. Getting Inside Your Defenses
  2. Faith that Puts You to Work
  3. Hope that Makes You Endure
  4. Love that Gets Its Hands Dirty

Scriptures: 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3; Galatians 5:1-6, 13-16, 22; John 13


Over the last few weeks together, we have been convinced by the Bible that spiritual maturity is the full expectation of God for every single believer. He wills that you and I as individual Christians, and we all as a church together, attain to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13). So often, however, we have settled for less - a position that the Bible will not abide. Living things grow and mature. If something stops growing, it's either dead or artificial. This is why Paul was so stern with the Corinthian church: But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it (1 Cor. 3:1-2). Paul went on to say they were behaving like those without Christ - mere men, not Christians.

It seems clear, brothers and sisters, that if the apostles were dropped into the church in the U.S. today, they would have some hard things to say to us about how we're doing. In light of this, we have asked the Spirit of God to take THE MEASURE OF OUR MATURITY. We have opened our Bibles and let Him search us.

And what we've discovered is that He basically checks our spiritual vital signs in three areas: faith, hope, and love. These three show up together repeatedly in the NT as the apostles assess the various churches to which they write. But it is 1 Thess. 1:2-3 that translates these three qualities into measurable standards: We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

How important are faith, hope, and love to your Christian life? Paul says us they have the fingerprints of the Trinity all over them, that these three are only present when the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are at work in our lives. Notice at the end of v. 3 we are told that faith, love, and hope are in our Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, these 3 qualities are the particular spiritual effects of being in a personal relationship with the living Lord Jesus.

They are also tied to God the Father. In the middle of v. 3, it is God the Father to whom Paul gives thanks for their faith, love, and hope - remembering before our God and Father, Paul says. And if you add v. 4, this connection to the Father gets even more specific. In v. 3, Paul says, "We give thanks for your faith and love and hope, and then he adds: for (by this) we know, brothers loved by God, that He has chosen you." That's adoption talk. We know that God the Father has adopted you into His family because of we see the evidence of your faith and love and hope.

And then, notice the relationship to God the Holy Spirit. Verses 5 and 6 continue: because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. So the change in these Thessalonians is not only evidence that they are adopted by God the Father, as verse 4 says, or evidence that they have a personal relationship with Jesus, as v. 3 says. It is also proof that the Holy Spirit was powerfully at work within them.

The upshot of this is huge. How you measure up in the areas of faith, hope, and love indicates whether you are alive in Christ or still dead in your sin, whether the Father has indeed adopted you into His family or you are still a spiritual orphan, whether the Spirit of God lives in you or you are simply on your own in your sin.

Are you in fact, in a vital relationship with the Triune God by faith in Christ Jesus? Then these three - faith, hope, and love - will be operative, will be growing in your life. If they aren't, you have just cause to be alarmed that what you have told yourself about being a Christian, perhaps for years, is dead wrong!

"Okay pastor, so what should I look for to find out if I actually am real, that I do have, in increasing measure, faith, hope and love?" Well two weeks ago, the Holy Spirit examined us by the Word, looking for saving faith in you and me by checking for the Christlike works that always follow that kind of faith. It's what 1 Thessalonians means by your work of faith.

Then, last week, He looked for biblical hope by assessing what it will take for you and me to wane and waver and walk away from the things of God. What's our quitting quotient? Do we endure when the going gets tough? That's measuring your steadfastness of hope.

Today, we will close this series by once more submitting to the Spirit's examination in third category of this trilogy: what 1 Thess. 1:3 calls your labor of love. I will caution you right now that these words in English are completely inadequate to convey what the Bible means. It isn't that they're wrong, it's that they are too weak.

You see, the word labor is as good as we can do with the Greek word kopos, which the Holy Spirit had Paul use. And when I speak the word love in this room, with our cultural understanding, it bears no resemblance at all to what God had Paul write. So let's break this down into its component parts and ask God's Spirit to sift us.

I. Your labor of love defined

Take the word labor. We think of work or some activity we do when we see that word. But the Greek word kopos means much more than work. It also carries in its meaning the cost paid, the pains taken, the strength spent in the work. The Greeks actually associated this word with something resistant and difficult. There are passages in the NT where this same word kopos is translated as trouble (Matt. 26:10; Mark 14:6) or bother (Luke 11:7).

So this is not casual, light-weight tasks that you fit into your life when it's convenient. There's nothing here that suggests it's a cake-walk, requiring minimal commitment and offering an easy out. This is not a cheap quick-fix. This is strenuous toil and costly effort. This is work that wears you out. It is labor poured out for the sake of another.

Now let's get a handle on the word love. It is agape. Let me show you why this word is so special.

a. Love without conditions

It is love that is not earned, love that we did not see coming and did not have coming. It is unexpected. It is unmerited. It just comes to you. Agape has nothing to do with the behavior of the one who is loved. Think about it: most love that operates in the human realm is conditional. There's an if/then at work: "If you love me back or if you do nothing to forfeit my love, or if you're beautiful, if you're interesting - if, if, if - then I will love you. Then I will continue to love you." But agape springs from the heart of the lover, not from the lovability of the beloved.

b. Love rooted in the will

The way we tend to operate is that we feel something first and then decide. There is a feeling of attraction or pity or thankfulness or passion - some kind of emotion - that leads to a decision: "Because I feel this way, I will love you." But agape love completely reverses this pattern. This is love that is not about a physical buzz or a sentimental feeling; it is fixed in a determination to pour oneself out for someone else. This is why Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, can command, "Love your enemies" or "Pray for those who persecute you" or "Do good to those who despitefully use you." Immanuel Kant read those words of Jesus and dismissed them. He said they were impossible - that you can't just command love. And he was right if you're talking about a "feeling" kind of love.

But agape love isn't primarily about feelings. It is a mindset, a choice of the will. And this is what makes agape so powerful. Love like this holds fast even in the face of resistance, even if that love remains unrequited. It loves when rejected or ill-treated. It keeps loving even when another emotion is called for.

c. Love that must give

This is absolute un-self-centered sacrifice. It is so other-focused in its pursuit of the one who is loved, so driven by a determination to do them good, that all thought for one's self is laid aside. It is putting another person's well-being ahead of my own - not because they are lovable or likable or because we feel like it in the moment or because it's convenient or comfortable, but because that's what love does.

We could say that agape love is acting in someone else's interest unconditionally (no matter what they've done), willfully (no matter how you feel), and sacrificially (no matter what it costs). But let's move from describing this kind of love to seeing it in action.

Okay, this is a lot to hold together, but let's try. When the Bible speaks of your labor of love, it's talking about love that moves us to do hard things, that motivates us to get its hands dirty for the sake of someone else. The consistent evidence that the love of God has been shed abroad in your heart is that you pour yourself out in the service of someone else, that you give up and give away for another, regardless of whether they are deemed worthy or not, whether it's easy or not, and whether it's reciprocated or not. Let me show you a picture of this.

II. A labor of love modeled

In John 13, we are in the Upper Room just before the Passover meal. For Jesus, every motion is weighed down with what lies before Him. The shadow of the cross hangs over everything. Horrible, unthinkable things await our Savior as He prepares to be the sin-bearer for the entire world.

John 13:1 describes the moment like this: Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end (or, as some translations have it, He showed them the full extent of His love). The wording suggests that He was about to demonstrate the ultimate expression of love, beginning right there in that room.

So do you know what He did next? He washed their feet. It was a common custom in those days before eating for a household servant to wash the feet of guests. But there was no household servant. The one person in the room who shouldn't have done it was Jesus. First of all, He is the Son of God, before whose preincarnate state angels served. Second, He was the rabbi. There is not a single mention in ancient literature of a rabbi ever stooping to wash his disciples' feet. But even more so, from a human perspective, Jesus was the neediest person in the room. He was hours away from a brutal self-sacrifice for sins He did not commit. If anyone needed to be served that evening - to be loved and cared for - it was Jesus. But look at what happens.

Verse 4-5 says [He] rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. His labor of love was begun. It would culminate the next day with His crucifixion. Those men in the room didn't earn this. They didn't have it coming. It was unmerited. And it was all about love.

And then, in v. 12-17, Jesus turned His example into a mandate: Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

Later on, John reflected on this moment and the events of the next day and wrote the words of 1 John 3:16: By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.

Have you ever wondered why you're here at FBC? You're here because God wants you to give something back. He brought you here to serve. You have something - background, talent, skill, ability, contact, network He wants to use. So the question is, How are you doing with what God has given you? Love labors. It pours itself out in acts of service that have nothing to do with deserving. It doesn't make excuses. It isn't too busy to be involved in other's lives. Like Jesus, Christians carry the expense. They lay down their lives for someone else.

Maybe you figure, "Well, nobody's watching what I'm doing with my time, my resources, my energies, my abilities." God is watching. Look at this verse - Heb. 6:10: For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. God keeps tabs on what you do with what He's given you. Is God going to be able to say to you, "Well done, good and faithful servant?"

You know that moment in the Upper Room when Jesus said, "Love like this. Follow My example"? I don't think He had the 80/20 ratio in mind in that moment - where the same 20 percent do all the labor. He had in mind a thousand ways to love. "I will volunteer to be a greeter even though I don't like getting up earlier on Sundays." "I will stop by the hospital to see how you're doing." "I parked away from the main entrance so you could find a closer spot for church." "I took care of your baby so you could worship." "I'll sing your music, even though I prefer something else." "I will tell another person about Christ today, regardless of the inconvenience." "I came over to say hello, even though I'm not sure how to pronounce your name."

Can you imagine the revolution that would take place if every Christian was filled with the Holy Spirit and took 1 John 3:17-18 to heart?: But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

What would happen to our homes if husbands loved their wives like Christ loved the church? What would happen in our neighborhoods if we loved our neighbors as ourselves and our labor for them demonstrated it? (James 2:8) Can you imagine the healing that would happen in relationships if we stopped acting and reacting like the world, and instead fleshed out Eph. 4:2, where we're called to live with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love. And how might our church grow if Heb. 10:24 was a reality: And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.

I will stop looking for servanthood that costs me nothing. I will not gauge the level of my giving to the level of my getting. Count me in, Pastor. I will look for chances to help, to give, to pour out, to let love loose.

Let me make you a promise. One day, when we stand before the Lord, we won't hear Him say, "I wish you had kept more for yourself." No one here will regret the sacrifices made in the service of love for the glory of Christ. You will not feel one second's remorse over the money you gave or the time you spent or the sweat you poured or the hundreds of behind the scenes efforts you expended for Christ's sake in the lives of others.

Lloyd Stilley is pastor of First Baptist Church, Gulf Shores, Alabama. He is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Leeanne and is the father of Joey and Craig.