No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us (1 Jn 4.12).
In the middle of a literary “love” feast John peculiarly injects the statement that God has forever been unseen. What does God being forever unseen have to do with God’s radiating love? Why would John seemingly interrupt a glorious foray into God’s love with the fact that “ain’t no one ever seen God”? He did so to elevate the power of God’s love displayed in the church to manifest God’s presence. Though God has never been seen by anyone, his abiding presence is still nevertheless experienced through his perfecting love in the Christian community.
How can we be sure that someone we’ve never seen really lives in our house and loves us? We see the effects of their presence in the precious gifts they regularly leave for our joy. How can we be sure of God’s abiding presence and everlasting love? “We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us” (1 Jn 4.16a) in the abiding presence of God displayed in his love among his children (v11). “We know (the) love [lit. ten agapen] by this: that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 Jn 3.16). We know God’s love (and see God’s abiding presence) in the life-laying-down ministry of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
We know God abides in us by the Spirit he has given us (1 Jn 3.24; 4.13), the very Spirit who confesses Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world (4.14-15). The very Spirit who manifests God’s love in the joyful, sacrificial love among the saints (4.21).
Therefore, I humbly submit:
1. Without a local church you can neither know nor believe the love God has for you to the extent God intends. A deeply-entrenched commitment to the local church is necessary to see God’s love manifest in us. God hasn’t left us to imagine he loves us, but to tangibly experience and taste his perfecting love in the Spirit-filled ministry of brothers and sisters in the local church. Those distant from the new covenant community struggle to see, know, believe, glory in God’s love for them. They’re left to imagine what God’s love might be like rather than tasting what it really is. How would Jesus minister to you if he were physically here? He would do what his Spirit-filled brothers and sisters now do in his name.
2. Without a local church you can neither know nor believe you love God to the extent God deserves. A key evidence that you are born of God is that you lay down your life for your brothers (and sisters). The local church is the necessary context in which life-laying-down ministry is cultivated. Left to ourselves, our life-laying-down ministry consists in some holiday charity work or taking the hypothetical bullet for a hypothetical believer. But in the local church we’re provided and urged toward the daily ministry of giving our lives away to our brothers and sisters in Christ; and thus provided the constant assurance we’re really born of God. How would you minister to Jesus if he were physically here? You would treat him how you now treat his Spirit-filled brothers and sisters (i.e., the “manifesters” of God’s abiding presence in Christ).
3. Life-laying-down ministry is more than taking the proverbial bullet for your fellow church member. Jesus did more than “just” die for his people. He lived for them until he died for them (1 Pt 2.21-25). He laid down his life in every respect for them. He emptied himself of all self-advantage in order to become a bondservant to men, even unto death (Phil 2.5-11). At his own expense, he spent time on them, fed them, touched them, healed them, comforted them, taught them, encouraged them, exhorted them and confronted them. Our life-laying-down ministry is to look the same. We don’t pursue our own agendas and stop every so often to serve folks. Because Jesus bought us and now indwells us, our agenda is service to the brethren.
Though not commending all of Richard Foster’s thoughts, I am impressed by these from his classic Celebration of Discipline:
“When we choose to be a servant, we give up the right to be in charge. There is great freedom in this. If we voluntarily choose to be taken advantage of, then we cannot be manipulated. When we choose to be a servant, we surrender the right to decide who and when we will serve. We become available and vulnerable” (p132).
“If our goods are not available to the community when it is clearly right and good, then they are stolen goods” (p89).
Brothers and sisters don’t steal, they give. They lay down their lives for each other. And in so doing they leave tokens of God’s love in Christ for the world to enjoy.