One of the most common questions modern Christians ask themselves is,
"What does God want me to do?"
With this question in mind, they then embark on ways and means to discern what God is wanting them to do.
And the way they find out can move from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Some Christians, believing that God speaks through his word, treat the Bible as a magic guidance book.
All they need to do is read a section of scripture they feel "led" to read,
and God will speak to them directly through it.
Other Christians bypass the Bible altogether,
and rely upon direct guidance.
They focus upon their feelings at a certain point,
and look at how their circumstances are all building up together to show them the path God wants them to take.
Some are so convinced of the path that God wants them to go on
that they believed it would be a sin to refuse.
Naturally there are problems with these sorts of ways and means of God guiding.
However, God has spoken to me through particular Bible passages that helped to guide me,
and I believe that God does arrange circumstances to give us guidance.
But the problem with modern Christians is that they are too self-oriented in their quest for guidance.
They focus upon what God wants for them,
rather than upon what God wants all of his people.
While I believe that God will guide people individually,
it is far more important for us as Christians to follow God's unchanging rules about what to believe and how to live.
I believe in a sovereign God.
I believe that no thing happens outside God's will.
It is God's will that I appear here today.
It is God's will that I didn't appear here five years ago.
It is God's will that I am wearing these clothes.
It is God's will that my breakfast this morning was...
So when it comes to God's guidance in an individual's life,
I simply believe that wherever you are and whatever you do, that is God's will.
How do we know what God wants for all of us?
How do we know God's ethical and moral guidelines?
How do we know what things to believe, and what things to reject?
We know it because God's Holy Spirit guides us,
and He guides us through the book he has written - the Bible.
The topic we are looking at from the Bible is titled "Obeying God".
Not a great sermon title, but that's what we're doing today.
Obedience to God does not, however, come naturally to us.
Because we are sinful we are incapable of truly obeying God.
However, God, through his Holy Spirit, works in us to ensure that we can obey.
But there is no doubt that such a subject - obeying God - is a vast undertaking.
How am I going to summarise the entire teaching of the Bible into a 25 minute sermon?
Is it possible?
Yes it is.
It's possible because the Apostle John has written this passage for us to look at today
- a passage which, believe it or not, summarises the Bible's teaching on how to obey God.
Let me read 1 John 3, verses 18 to 20.
Dear Children, let us not love with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth. This, then, is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
1. God and the Disobedient Heart (3.18-20)
The first point on your outlines is "God and the Disobedient Heart"
I have to say at this point that verses 19 and 20 are very hard to understand.
The reason is because the NIV translators apparently didn't get it right.
Now I don't know New Testament Greek,
so I have to trust the books I read on this passage.
So if I get it wrong, don't blame me, blame the author of the book I read.
Understanding verses 19 and 20 requires us to understand verse 16 to 18.
In these verses, John is saying that because Jesus has laid down his life for us, we, too, should lay down our lives for our brothers.
In practicality, this means that we should help our brothers and sisters in Christ with material possessions if they need them.
But what about a person who calls themselves a Christian who does not help their fellow Christians in need?
To this person, John says "how can the love of God be in him?"
To finish up in verse 18, John then states that loving others is an active, practical, thing to do
- it is not something we only talk about.
Then we move on to verse 19.
This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us.
When you look at this verse in the NIV translation
it seems to say that loving each other with actions ensures that we know we belong to the truth.
More than that, our heart, that is, our conscience, is put to rest in God's presence whenever it condemns us.
In other words, if we feel guilty that we aren't loving someone,
then our hearts are put to rest whenever we decide to help someone practically.
Sounds good, but that's not what John is talking about here.
Now this is getting a little bit complex, so stay with me
- I'll try to make things as clear as I can.
When John uses the word "heart", he uses the Greek word "Kardia".
Kardia, as may of you know, is a word associated with the heart.
When you have a heart attack, it is called a "Cardiac Arrest" by the medicos.
When you give someone CPR- when you press their chest and breath into their lungs
- the C stands for Cardio, heart.
But in the bible, this word is not associated with the idea of conscience
- that is, how you feel guilt.
Your conscience is some other Greek word.
So John is not talking about conscience here.
So what does heart mean in the Bible?
First, and most obviously, it's the organ that pumps blood.
But the Bible uses heart symbolically.
It refers to our spiritual state.
It refers to our attitude to God.
The other problem is that the NIV says in verse 19 "how we set our hearts at rest in his presence".
The expression "set your heart at rest", seems to suggest that we feel better about something.
We feel bad about something but when our hearts are at rest, we no longer feel bad.
But heart does not mean conscience.
"Setting our hearts at rest in his presence" should actually be translated differently.
According to Colin Kruse,
the guy who wrote the commentary that I got all this from,
the word "to be at rest" actually means "to persuade" or "to convince".
Now if you're confused at this point, you're probably not alone.
I don't appreciate it when know-it-all preachers get up in front of a congregation speaking Greek,
as though they have some secret knowledge from God that only they can understand
- and which no one else can.
And you can tell that no one else understands this secret knowledge because no one can understand the stupid preacher!
But this is important, and I'm trying to make it simple.
What have I said so far?
1) Heart (Kardia) does not mean conscience.
It refers to our inner spiritual state, not how we feel.
2) When it says "setting our hearts at rest in his presence", it isn't talking about rest at all.
It's a mistranslation.
It actually says "persuading or convincing our hearts in his presence".
So what I've done is given you a retranslation of verse 19.
You should see it there on your outlines.
It's from the NNV translation, "Neil's New Version".
This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our stubborn hearts to be convinced in his presence whenever this heart acts to condemn us.
If so, then you're still probably not alone!
Let me try to simplify it further.
If we see a brother or sister in Christ in need, do we help them?
Of course we do.
We help them because Jesus laid down his life for us.
But what sort of person ignores those in need?
What sort of person would not help their brother or sister in the faith?
A person with a hard heart.
A person whose heart is set against obeying God and loving others.
A person who may call themselves a Christian, but is not born again
- which of course means they're not a real Christian.
And when God looks at our heart, our hearts condemn us.
God sees us for who we really are
- a person who does not want to love God or love others.
Our hearts are stubborn.
Our hearts are selfish.
But our hearts are not impossible to move.
In the presence of God, our hearts are changed.
Our hearts move from opposition to God to loving and obeying God.
And a natural part of this change involves a change in our attitude to other people.
And how does this happen?
We might like to think that verse 18 is the key
- by loving others in a practical way,
we can know that we belong to the truth,
and our hearts are changed by the presence of God in this circumstance.
But I don't think that works.
Here's a better way to understand it.
When we come into the presence of God, our hearts,
which were previously set in opposition to God,
are now driven by the desire to obey God and love people.
When that happens, we are capable of loving others in a practical way.
(say it again)
But what is this "presence of God" that we go into?
It is when God calls us into his kingdom by his Gospel.
When a person becomes a Christian, they are born again
- not by anything they have done, but what God has done.
You see there in verse 20 it says "God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything".
This is a pointer to God's sovereignty.
Our hearts are hard, but we don't change them,
The God who knows everything,
the God who knows our sinful and rebellious hearts
is a God who brings us into his presence and changes that heart.
It's not the other way around.
We don't come to God asking him to change our hearts
- we can't!
Our hearts are too hard.
Our natural state is one of rebellion against God.
As the Apostle Paul says in Romans 3.10-12.
"There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands. There is no one who seeks God. All have turned away. All have become worthless."
Our hearts are so full of sin and misery that we cannot even choose to serve God even if we had the chance.
What these verses speak of ultimately is the power the God has.
The God who knows everything is the God who can change people's hearts.
And when people's hearts are changed,
they move from being disobedient to being obedient.
And this is my second point
- God and the Obedient Heart.
2. God and the Obedient Heart (2.21-24)
For us to fully understand what God wants us to do,
to fully understand what his will is for us,
we must be obedient to him.
We must be born again.
Let me read to you verses 21 to 24.
Dear Friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he has commanded us. Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.
The first thing we notice here again is the word heart.
John says that if our hearts do not condemn is,
then we have confidence before God.
Now heart doesn't mean conscience.
John is not saying that if we feel guilty before God then we lack confidence and God won't give us anything
- that's the sort of answer that would be popular with those who preach health, wealth and prosperity.
It is as though the quantity of confidence and faith in God gives us the power to ask whatever we want.
What John is here talking about is the state of our heart
- its spiritual state.
The state that only God can see truly.
And if our hearts have been changed by God's presence,
then they no longer condemn us.
We're not talking about guilty feelings here.
We're talking about evidence in the trial against us.
1God examines the heart,
and finds it clean and true because he has changed it.
Our hearts do not condemn us.
Therefore says John, we have confidence before God.
When our hearts have changed our sins have been forgiven.
We are no longer opposed to God but love him.
This being the case, we have confidence before God.
We know that by his mighty work to change our hearts that he has made us acceptable to him. We don't need to be afraid of God's judgement any more.
Charles Wesley, in the hymn "And can it be" states quite clearly
"Bold I approach the eternal throne and claim the crown through Christ my own".
When our hearts have been changed,
we can approach God with confidence,
knowing that no sin stands between us and Him.
In verse 22 John says that because of this
"we receive from him anything we ask because we obey his commands".
Now this is one of those verses that can get misquoted and misunderstood.
Does this means that God will magically answer any and every prayer we pray for?
After all, John says that we'll get anything from God now because we obey his commands.
Now this is not a sermon about prayer,
so I'll just be brief at this point.
In one respect, all our prayers will be answered in God's time.
We may be sick and dying, and pray to God that he heal us.
And he may do that - but he may not.
But in the end, we live with Christ forever, so the prayer is answered.
We may pray for an end to our poverty,
and God may do it - or may not.
But in the end we have the riches of eternal life.
God will give us what we ask for in his time, not ours.
But what is interesting about verse 22 is
that we are able to ask God for these things because we obey his commands
and do what pleases him.
Now this goes back to our understanding of what it means to do God's will.
Fortunately John answers this for us in the next verse, verse 23.
And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.
John here reminds us of two of the most famous sections of the Bible.
The first is from Matthew 22 verses 37-40.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.
The second is written by John himself, in John's Gospel verse 34:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
If we are to love the Lord with all our heart, soul and mind,
then, according to John, we must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ..
And if we love Jesus, then we also love one another.
I said earlier that modern Christians always focus on what God wants for them as an individual,
rather than on what God wants for all his people.
1I also said that we should focus more on what God commands every one of his children to do
rather than on his secret individual plans for them.
What is God's command?
To believe in his Son,
and to love one another.
Not very special is it?
Not exactly riveting stuff is it?
And it may seem boring and simple
- but that's the way God wants it.
It is simple - we believe in Jesus.
We put our faith in him.
We put our trust in him,
knowing that his death on the cross is the means by which we attain eternal life.
Of all things in life that you do, nothing beats that in terms of its importance.
But many Christians would say,
"Yes I believe in Jesus. That's important. But what's important now is trying to work out what else God has in store for me."
What is important then is just as important now.
Do you believe in Jesus?
Do you place your life in his hands?
If so then that's always important.
Just because you have accepted it and have become a Christian
doesn't make belief in Jesus any less important.
Too many Christians think of Christ the same way they would think of a ticket to the grand final..
Without Jesus we cannot get to heaven.
Without a ticket, we can't get to the grand final.
So the ticket to the grand final is important,
but in the days leading up to it, are you focused on the ticket or the game?
You're focused on the game, not the ticket.
And when you're at the game you forget about the ticket and enjoy the spectacle.
In fact you tear up the ticket and forget it.
Is that the same in the Christian life?
Is Jesus just the ticket?
Obviously you need him to go to heaven,
so he's vitally important,
but once you've placed your trust in him do you then focus on the more important things?
Like the blessings that God is going to give you now or later in heaven?
If Jesus was just the ticket you need to get into heaven,
then Paul and John and the other New Testament writers spent a great deal of time talking about a simple ticket.
If you want to do God's will in your life then you believe in Jesus.
You put him first in your life.
You acknowledge that it is only through him and his death and resurrection that you can have confidence before God.
Jesus is not the ticket into heaven,
he is the experience of heaven itself.
Heaven is being with Christ and the Father in eternal paradise.
When we compare our puny, limited lives on this sinful planet,
believing in Christ is more important than anything.
And of course believing in Christ naturally leads to loving each other
- a topic which we've explored a bit in depth already as we've travelled through 1 John.
Loving each other is practical
- it involves sacrificing your own needs so that others may benefit.
But loving others is a command
- it's not an option in the Christian life.
It's a natural result of the love that God has shown us by sending his son to die for us.
John ends the chapter by saying that those who obey Christ's commands live in him,
and he lives in them.
It's a bit of poetry, but it describes something profound.
Whenever we believe in Christ and love others, then we somehow "live in Christ".
We enter into relationship with him on some grand spiritual scale.
But at the same time he lives in us
- he is with us in the world.
He is with us at this present moment in time.
It's like having one foot in heaven and one foot on earth.
As Christians we are already living a heavenly life
- we must do because we are "in Christ",
and Christ is seated with the Father in Heaven.
But we are also living an earthly life,
and our life is not alone because Jesus is "in us" as we walk this earth.
People still see, hear and experience the power and presence of Christ through his people
- through us.
So how should we live the Christian life?
What is God's will for us today?
The first thing to realise is that we are terribly sinful.
We are so sinful, that our hearts are incapable of loving God.
It takes God to bring us into his presence in order for our hearts to be changed.
It means therefore that we have to trust in the mighty sovereign power of God
- a God who is greater than our sinful hearts and knows everything.
The second thing to realise is that we need to have Jesus as our Lord and Saviour.
This means that we have to come to the Father and say "I'm sorry for my sins. Please forgive me through your Son Jesus. I believe that he is the only person who can save me."
It means that we have to put our trust in Jesus,
trusting in his love and his sacrifice for our sins.
It means that we commit ourselves to loving and serving Christ.
The third thing to realise is that as Christians we are called to love and serve our brothers and sisters in Christ.
It's the natural result of our belief in Christ.
We are to care for one another,
pray for one another,
support each other,
so that when Christ returns we will share eternity together.
God may have special plans for you.
You may be called upon to do something quite unusual.
I've always believed that God has called me to preach his word, which is why I'm here today.
But some of you may not be called into anything special at all,
and there's no problems with that.
Because in the end God's plans for us will always come to fruition.
We can't avoid the plans that God has for us because he is in total control.
What we should be worried about are more important things
- believing in Jesus.
Loving each other.
Lord, it is only through your mercy and your grace that we come before you in prayer this day. You have called us into your kingdom through the Gospel, and you have caused us to willingly repent and trust in you. Thank you for changing our dead and sinful hearts.
Help us always to focus upon the author and perfecter of our faith - your son, Jesus Christ, our saviour and Lord. Help us to believe, to give our lives to your service and to trust that you are always in control.
And help us to love our brothers and sisters in the faith. Open our eyes to their needs and our hearts to their suffering. Give us wisdom to know how best to serve them, and convict us when we do not care.
And thank you for the hope of eternal life. Thank you that through your son all our requests are answered, and that you are a faithful God who loves his people.
From the Kerygmatic Department
© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 License.