Several months after I became a Christian I attended a fall conference for college students from several universities within the state. I wasn’t doing very well that weekend, and Saturday evening when I went to my bunk I found a small packet on my pillow. I opened the bit of paper and read, “This was given to me in love. I give it to you so the love will grow and spread.”
Wrapped inside the note was a silver fish pendant with ἰχθύς , the Greek word for fish, inscribed within its outline. The paper wasn’t signed, but I found the person who had written it. She told me she’d noticed I was depressed and wanted to give me the fish.
The night before Jesus died, He said to His disciples:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”John 13:34-35
Later that same evening He prayed:
“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.“The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.”John 17:20-23
Francis Schaeffer said the love of Christians for one another is The Mark of a Christian, and in the book he wrote by that name he called John 17:21, The Final Apologetic. This is the apologetic given by Christ Himself to all peoples and for all times. Questions asked of Christians may change according to the issues of the day, but our love remains the mark that we are His disciples, and it remains the final apologetic to the world that Jesus was, in fact, sent by God, and that God, in fact, loves those who have believed in Jesus. Our love for each other proclaims to all, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son…” Our love for each other proclaims to all, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ…”
So what about the times when those who say they are Christians do not love their fellow believers? Those times when Christian love seems as broken and cracked as the ἰχθύς wheel symbol on the right? This is something I have thought about a great deal because it has bothered me a great deal. I want to answer by first looking at why and how Christians are able to love one another.
Edmund Clowney comments on 1 Peter 1:22–23:
“Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” [1 Peter 1:22–23]
“…he urges Christians to love one another, he shows that what we are to do is grounded in what Christ has done. God’s word renews, cleanses, and matures us for a life of love….
“…Peter requires love for fellow-Christians as the great mark of true holiness. He is not satisfied with tolerance or acceptance, far less with formalized distance. He will have love, sincere love, without pretense or hypocrisy. (In the New Testament, ‘unhypocritical’ always describes love.) But even sincerity is not enough: our love must be ‘deep’ and intense. Peter uses a word that means ‘stretched’ or ‘strained’….
“How can such love be commanded? …For such love to appear, the pride and selfishness of our alienation from God must be swept away. They must be replaced by a heart made new with the motives of grace. It is the word of God, the good news of the gospel, that is the means both of our new birth and of our nurture in holiness.
“Because God’s love is the source of ours, the message of his love is what kindles ours. Christian love may be demonstrated by a hug, a holy kiss, or a helping hand, but Christian love cannot be transmitted that way. Christian love is born as Christians are born: through the truth of the gospel…”2
As I mulled over Clowney’s words, I realized that in the churches and individuals in which I have seen and known the greatest love, there has been the greatest gratitude for God’s grace and forgiveness. A ‘first love’ for God has been present, and a hunger for His Word—to read the Bible and understand the Bible in order to know and obey the living God revealed in the Bible. There has been within those churches faithful and fervent preaching and teaching of the Bible, week in and week out, and that teaching has born fruit in lives that were changed.
In those places in which love for fellow Christians has been thin and sparse, gratitude for God’s grace has been thin and sparse, and people no longer “in humility receive the Word implanted.” Not always, but usually the Word has not been faithfully and fervently taught by men who themselves have received it in humility.
The New Testament is also clear that there will be those within the church who appear to be Christians, but in reality are not. Paul told the elders from the church at Ephesus that savage wolves would arise who wouldn’t spare the flock, and that from among them men would arise who would speak perverse things and draw disciples after them. Over and over in 1 John, John emphasizes the link between our love for God and our love for each another, with one demonstrating the reality of the other.
We used to sing a song in my early years as a Christian:
Beloved, let us love one another:
for love is of God;
and every one that loveth is born of God,
and knoweth God.
He that loveth not knoweth not God;
for God is love.
So, Beloved, let us love one another.
1 John 4: 7 and 8.
After almost forty years, I still have that fish. At low points in my life it still reminds me that, yes, love is the mark of a Christian, and, yes, that that love confirms that God, in fact, sent Jesus, and that God, in fact, loves me.
So, Beloved, let us love one another…
1Francis Schaeffer, The Mark of a Christian.
Ichthus (the ΙΧΘΥΣ) Wheel in Ephesus: public domain via Wikipedia. The wheel is an overlay of the uppercase letters, ΙΧΘΥΣ. The fish has been a Christian symbol since the early years of the church. The Greek word for fish is an acrostic; each letter is the first letter of one of the five words of the phrase: Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior. ͑Ιησοῦς Χριστός Θεοῦ ͑Υιός Σωτήρ.
2Edmund Clowney, The Message of 1 Peter (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove IL: 1988) 74–75.
Original content: Copyright ©2010–2013 Iwana Carpenter