Nate Atwood preaches a chapel message entitled “What We Become” on 1 John 4:7 at RTS Charlotte.
Good morning. How y’all doing? For the Scripture this morning I have chosen a familiar text as a jumping off point. It’s 1 John 4 and really just verse 7 because it gets to the heart of the matter.
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”
Father, we thank you that this is a living book, that it is filled with your Holy Spirit, entheosed. We ask that you would speak to us today for the glory of your Son Jesus in whose name we pray, amen.
I am one of these preachers of whom it could be said, “prone to wander, Lord, I feel it.” By that, I don’t necessarily mean the status of my soul, I mean more the direction of my feet. I tend to wander around a little bit when I preach. How much does that mess up the whole sound thing if I do that, a lot or a little? Just a little. All right. So I’m going to do if it’s just a little.
It’s show and tell at the RTS chapel today. I brought something that a friend of mine gave me many, many years ago. He and his wife departed as missionaries to Nicaragua, and they went up into the back country of the hills, and they were among truly tribal people sharing the gospel. One summer, when he was back on furlough, he gave this to me and he said, “Hey man, I want you to have this.” I said, “What is it? He said, “Well, it’s a spear that the people that my wife and I minister to use to hunt. Among other things they hunt wild boar with it.” It’s just a bamboo shoot. There isn’t much to it. It just barely weighs anything. If you were to hit like a boar, or any kind of animal with it, it would be sort of like, “doink,” and fall to the ground.
I said, “Are you kidding me? I mean, do they really hunt with these things?” He said, “Oh yeah, absolutely.” The edges of the bamboo are ground to a fairly fine point, and all they are seeking to do is just draw the tiniest little bit of blood because the edges are chipped with a very significant poison. Just a little cut, that’s all they need. Then the poison fairly quickly works into the bloodstream of whatever animal it is that they’re hunting. They just follow it till the thing keels over and dies.
I was fascinated when he put this in my hands because I immediately thought of the devil. Because the first image we get of the devil in Scripture in Genesis 3 is of a serpent. You know a snake bite, in and of itself, there’s not much to it. A dog bite would be potentially far more dangerous than a snake bite. But the issue isn’t the bite, the issue is the poison. How the poison gets into you and begins to slowly shut your system down.
Now you all are heading into ministry, and this morning I want to protect you from a certain threat. I’m going to talk to you about two figures in Scripture that had every reason to die by Satanic puncture, and yet someway somehow they didn’t.
The Traumatic Ministry and Gentleness of John
The first is the Apostle John. Now I just read to you 1 John 4:7: “Little children love one another.” I love that verse because as I understand it, it was written toward the end of John’s life, and John at that point was on Patmos. I have another friend whose specialty is ancient Ephesus, and he lives over there and constantly does archeological work. One time, I was over in ancient Ephesus, and he was talking to me about the ministry of John the Apostle from Patmos and eventually as the bishop over Ephesus. He told me this story, maybe you’ve heard this story. At the end of his life, John really could no longer walk. He was old and decrepit, and during church each morning when there was church, every Lord’s Day, he would be carried in, he would be sat down in front of the people, and as the tradition has it, he would just begin to weep. And though he had a sermon prepared every week, he generally couldn’t even get to the sermon because of his emotions and he would just barely be able to choke out, “Little children, love one another.”
The more I thought about it, I thought, “What an unbelievably tender heart.” I reviewed in my mind the events of John’s life, and I thought specifically about he was the one apostle who was at the cross when Jesus was crucified. I don’t know if you’ve ever in your life experienced something which is so traumatic, so violent, so intense, so cruel that it could be like a serpent’s bite. It could slowly poison you over time, increasingly haunt you and own you.
I’ve been in pastoral ministry—I was ordained in 1987—but I’ve been in pastoral ministry as a non-ordained person since 1982. I’ve known a lot of people who’ve had events in their lives which are intensely traumatic. Maybe 10, 20, 30 years later, they’re still working on trying to get over. The child who was abused. Maybe the SEAL who went to war and who saw horrific things, was involved in horrific things, still trying to overcome his nightmares, which he has almost every night.
The Traumatic Ministry and Love of Paul
I thought about John; I also thought about Paul. Paul lived his life with just unbelievable intensity. You all know the story of Paul’s life: the stonings, the shipwreck, the serpent bite (literally), the numerous plots to kill him. I thought about Paul, and I thought, “If you live a life like that, that’s going to get inside you. All that violence, all that cruelty, all those attempts on you.” For most of us, candidly, that would warp us. It would mess with our soul. It would be like the spear successfully placed; the initial impact, though somewhat shocking, isn’t the real deal. It’s the poison that begins to embed itself in your soul as the years pass.
You will have things that will happen to you that have the ability to sour you on life, sour you on church, sour you on people.Let me tell you something. Satan still hunts the servants of God by spear. The reality is you’re going to have events in your life where you’re going to have some trauma. The event itself, whatever happens, the impact of the spear is not the real danger. The real danger is whether or not you get poisoned.
Here’s the truth: the devil wants you hard, and he wants you mean. I wish it weren’t the case, but regrettably, as you go through your years in ministry, you will have things that will happen to you that have the ability to sour you on life, sour you on church, sour you on people with Satan’s poison. The way poison works, in most snake bites, the deal is that it begins to shut down your nervous system. You lose the ability to feel.
But while Satan wants you hard and wants you mean, Jesus wants you soft. I mentioned to you John the Apostle, and I’m still trying to get my head around it, how does how does a guy who lived through events like John the Apostle lived through, how does he get to the end of his life and he’s just not crazy? How does he get to the end of his life and he is not hard and almost become cruel himself?
You all know the passage out of 2 Corinthians 11. I’m just going to read a little bit. This is Paul’s experience in life:
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.
All this stuff pressing against Paul, each one of those events like the spear thrown at him laden with poison. Satan trying to atrophy Paul from the inside out. Yet the amazing thing is that after a lot of those events had happened, because a lot of them happened during the 40s and the 50s, Paul wrote this:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”
Who Will You Become After Traumatic Events?
A lot of your thoughts at this point in life are about what you will do for the Lord, and I commend you in that. You should think about that. You should have ambitions and dreams and hopes and all that. But I just want to remind you, the big deal is not what you do for the Lord, but it’s who you become. And incidentally, what you do will eventually come out of who you become. If you can really do something valuable for the Lord, it will first come out of a heart that somehow grasped, “I will not allow the poisons of life to atrophy me. The devil won’t make me hard or mean. I’m going to somehow follow in the course of John and Paul. The events of life and ministry, I have determined they’re going to make me softer, gentler, kinder, more compassionate, more human, in the Christian sense of being human.”
The Greek word for offense in the New Testament is the word skandalon, and it’s fascinating. It’s the trigger of a trap. You set a mousetrap, and that little piece of metal in there, you put the cheese on, whatever, if you just toggle that thing and all of a sudden it slams on your fingers. That’s the skandalon. The point is that offense is the devil’s skandalon, it’s the trigger. If you allow yourself to become offended, then you are caught in the devil’s trap. Or to switch back to the earlier analogy, you got hit by the spear. It didn’t just go “doink.” The poison got in the blood, and it began to work its way into your life.
So how do you battle that whole thing? How do you stay away from it? I’ve done a lot of ministry over the years, gang, and gosh, I’m on my 33rd year of ministry. That’s amazing. I’ve pastored churches. I’ve been the moderator of a presbytery. I’ve been the moderator of a denomination. I’ve led a major movement in a denomination that has had implications nationally and even internationally. I’ve got friends all over the United States and interacted with pastors of almost every shape and size.
If you get out there, spears are going to be flying at you, friends. I promise you that. So who are you going to become? What are you going to do? But first of all, who are you going to become? What’s going to happen in those moments and how are they going to shape you? Will you get to the end of your days and will you be like John or Paul, shaped by the image of Jesus, gentler, softer?
We Are Safe and Soft When We Fix Our Eyes on Jesus
When I was thinking about this conversation we’d have this morning, I was thinking about the bronze serpent. And you know how the bronze serpent would be lifted up in the wilderness and the people of God who have been bitten by snakes, they’d look at the bronze serpent, then they’d be healed. We all know that the bronze serpent is one of those Old Testament metaphors that the New Testament grabs specifically and says this is really about Jesus. And so it is. Fix your eyes on Jesus, author and finisher of our faith (Heb. 2:12).
One of my favorite Calvin quotes is, “We worship what we love, and we become like what we worship.” And you do. There’s only one protection for you, and that is you got to stay so close to Jesus. So let me ask you this question: What’s your love relationship like with Jesus? I mean, really. Is your heart tender towards him? The only thing of value that you will ever do in ministry comes out of that. And if you lose that, friends, it doesn’t matter what’s on your resumé. You lost your ministry.
The hallmark of the believer is love.A friend of mine put a book in my hands that I’ve been reading slowly over a few weeks, The Jesus Manifesto by Leonard Sweet. It’s a terrific book. There’s a bunch of stuff in there. I’m going to read you just one quote, and then we’ll wrap up. Leonard Sweet is talking about Jesus’s question to Peter: “Peter, do you love me?” And in commenting on that, he writes,
Unfortunately, “Who do you say that I am? is no longer the only question. “What are you doing to do to bring in the Kingdom of God?” is now an equally asked question, as is “What are you doing for justice?” and “In what causes are you engaged?” Or “What are you doing to evangelize the world?” and “To whom are you accountable?” and “What’s your gift?” And especially “What kind of leader are you?”
Yet Jesus Christ quizzed Peter with one ultimate question, and only one. And that one decisive question is the same one that He asks us today.
It is not “Are you ready to accept leadership status in My church?”
It is not “Do you know how to build a movement?”
It is not “How many people did you lead to me?”
It is not “Have you spoken in tongues yet?” [Sorry for the offense of the question for some of you.]
It is not “Is leadership your passion?”
It is not “To whom will you be accountable?
It is not “Are you doing better than the best you can do so God will be happy with you?”
And it is not “Will you surround yourself with people who have leadership potential and who will make you look good?”
The question is only this: “Do you love Me?”
What does Jesus want from us? Leadership? Or love?
Let’s pray. Jesus, thank you for the keeping power of the Holy Spirit. Lord, I just want to pray over myself and pray over each person in here: protect us from the poison of the evil one. Always make us tender, soft, forgiving, compassionate, patient, kind. We acknowledge that the hallmark of the believer is love, beginning with love for you. Holy Spirit, come into our hearts again. Fix our eyes not on our resumé or our hopes or our dreams or aspirations, as wonderful as they may be, or our accomplishments if we are looking backwards on life. Fix our eyes on Jesus, author and finisher of our faith. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen and amen.