Above All Things (v. 8)
For Peter to lead us from the “end of all things is at hand” to “above (or before) all things have fervent charity among yourselves” shows how much higher is God’s wisdom than ours (Isa. 55:8). If we see that the Lord is toppling some false prop in our lives or bringing judgment upon a nation so that it seems that the very foundations are being shaken, our first thought may be to find a safe place to hide until the storm passes. On the other hand, wicked men use societal chaos to grab as much of other people’s goods as possible. We have seen this throughout history when governments and economies collapse or when the Lord sends various disasters. Some fear and flee; others scheme and profit. Tumultuous times reveal what is in a man. They often feed and breed his ugly self-love and coldness. It is every man for himself, though a few noble souls think of others. Some believe the tide can be turned and fight vigorously. While neither laying down one’s life nor determined attempts at reformation are excluded by these words, Peter puts before us a much higher and comprehensive duty, a more God-honoring response: love. There are many courses we might take when told that the end is near, and there are certainly many good things we can and should do. Yet, just as Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 13, without love, all the gifts, knowledge, and power in the world are utterly useless and completely worthless. Since our Savior will soon return to consummate all things, and as he ever moves his kingdom closer to its destiny of victory by judging wicked men and nations that will not kiss his royal scepter and submit to his holy law, we must above all else – influencing all else, informing, directing, controlling everything else we do – have, hold, and possess the most fervent love for one another.
Nothing is more necessary than mutual love among Christians. This is a unique love; only Christians possess it. It is not the common feeling of goodwill we are to show to all men by virtue of sharing humanity with them and desiring to see them won to our Master (Gal. 6:10). It is distinctly Christian love or charity: supremely exemplified and defined by God’s wondrous love to us in Jesus Christ (John 3:16). It is sacrifice and self-denial, a self-forgetful giving of oneself for the good of others. It is the love Jesus Christ manifested toward us when he gave himself on the cross: not a general love for all men but a definite love for his sheep that led him to lay down his life for them, bear their particular sins, and satisfy the justice of God for the curse that clung to them like so many leprous rags (John 10:11,15; Heb. 9:28). We love one another fervently because we share a common faith and redeemed nature. We love one Lord and pursue one dominating aim in life: to know the love of God in Christ that surpasses knowledge (Eph. 3:19).
Many things may divide believers; together they pale in comparison to that which unites us: believing awe before the crucified Son of God, the desire to be found in him, the hope of knowing and worshiping him, together with the Father and Spirit, for all eternity. Five minutes ought to be sufficient to bind our hearts closely together, for it is “Christ in you” by the Spirit that calls from one believing heart to another. While we hear a great deal about universal love, humanitarian love, and unconditional love, only one love defines Christians: the “I lay down my life for the sheep” love of the Son of God. When the church is dominated by a consuming love for Jesus Christ, many of the important things that divide us such as biblical doctrines, piety, church government, and worship, as well as a host of secondary beliefs and convictions, will be more resolved than they currently are. This is not because these issues will become irrelevant, and certainly not because we shall dismiss them in some sort of bland ecumenism. God has committed his truth to us, and love never sacrifices truth but grows from it, even as truth feeds legitimate love. As love flowers in union with Jesus Christ, these issues will be decided by men whose deepest desire is to know and love the Savior better. We shall listen to one another more carefully and willingly yield his word its rightful authority over us. It is lovelessness toward God and man that makes his word unclear to us; when he puts the love of him in us (Eph. 5:5), he also rolls back the clouds of doubt and ignorance that prevent us from understanding his truth more clearly. We shall also be strengthened to put away the fears and pride that lead one Christian or one group of Christians to seek preeminence over his brothers. Love disdains preeminence. It gladly takes the lowest seat at the feast if only it can be with him, learn from him, and bask in the rays of “Christ the wisdom and power of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). He must increase; I must decrease.
This love is incomparably valuable. It is self-denying, serving, foot-washing love that shows we are begotten of God, have an interest in our Savior’s death, and possess his own life in us (John 13:15; 1 John 5:1). So valuable is charity among believers that God does not leave this lesson in the hands of men or to the feelings of our giddy heart. He himself teaches us to love one another (1 Thess. 4:9). How seriously, then, we must take Peter’s “above all things!” This does not mean that the church settles into some sort of sentimentalism or mutual admiration society. Love works (Gal. 5:6). It serves and sacrifices. It makes one willing to suffer for the name of Christ and to go without for the good of its brothers and sisters. Love quickens great fervency in our callings and families and in the use of the gifts and graces the Lord has given us. Its aim is to please him in all things (1 John 3:22). Love does not turn away from God’s law; it fulfills it (Rom. 13:10). Love always leads us to God’s truth, for in ourselves we are wholly incapable of rightly loving him or others until he dispels our darkness and brings the light of his eternal wisdom into our lives. Thus, so far from love being opposed to truth, if we are not walking in the truth of God, we cannot walk in love. It is for this reason that neither the world nor our own hearts can teach us what love is or how to show it. Just as God alone can give us love by working in us new hearts and new affections, so he must direct this precious gift by his own holy word. Christ’s love in us will make us concerned about doing God’s will as it did him; it will make us lay down our lives for one another as he did for us.
This love is fervent. The word means “stretched out.” Its practical meaning is intense, earnest, and passionate. We stretch toward things we love: hobbies, a favorite book, an upcoming vacation. Whatever the cost of enjoying these, we do not feel put out at all. It is a pleasure to pursue them. Are we stretched out in love to one another? Here we can do no better than to look upon our Savior’s love for us. It was costly, painful, even terrifying to him. Bloody sweat, deadly sorrow, and hell’s terrors were the path of his love for us. He would not leave it even at the end (John 13:1): though he knew what it would cost him, though the last struggle virtually unhinged his frame and required angelic assistance to see love through to the end. Look at the cross and see love stretched out to the limits of divine purpose and power. Behold him bearing our curse, suffering our separation from God, and consumed by our punishment. And yet: behold him forgiving his tormentors, making provision for his mother, and saving a poor sinner standing but an inch from the gate of hell. What wondrous love! What utterly self-denying love! What passion for the word and covenant of his Father, for the salvation of his sheep given to him from eternity! And we complain about cooking yet another meal for a needy family, or taking the time to pray meaningfully for one another, or leading our families in worship and service? We must repent, be humbled in the dust for our lovelessness. Love is not love if it does not flow from the cross; love is not love unless it stretches: sacrifices, denies self, and gives the last full measure of devotion. This is wholly beyond us. We must seek from our Savior a heart to love as he loves. He will give it to us. We are crucified with him. The old ways – selfishness, fear, a censorious, unforgiving spirit – he will tear these grave clothes from us and let us go free into the loving liberty of the sons of God if we will seek from him the strength and grace that we lack in ourselves.
We should also note that Peter does not say that the most important thing is to love other men generally. Christian love is exclusive. Now, true love would embrace the whole world in a universal feeling of love, as Calvin once wrote. But however much we love our unsaved neighbors, they can never love us as we love them. Christian love is particularly toward “one another” because only those who are possessed of a “like precious faith” can feel the same way about God, his mercy and grace, and their own need of him. Only those who feel deeply that they have been saved from leprosy, blindness, and death itself can sympathize with others who share the same history, the same redemption, and the same destiny. We do love our unsaved neighbor and seek to do him good. Our hearts grieve when we see the misery of poor sinners, the self-inflicted wounds that lacerate their souls, the guilt they carry. We should be drawn to seek their deliverance. Even so, it is only Christians who share this love and can show this love. We ought to feel so bound to one another with the very nails of the cross, so part of one another, that the most challenging service feels a light thing, a joyful exercise, a taste of heaven on earth. Is it not lovelessness among Christians, the fact that we often “bite and devour one another” (Gal. 4:15) that turns the world’s stomach toward the words we say to them of God’s love in Christ? They witness our civil wars, some of which are necessary, far more than they witness our kind words about one another, even those who differ from us. They do not hear us speaking and treating one another as “the excellent ones in the earth, in whom is all our delight” (Ps. 16:3). When we love one another as Peter directs, the world will know we are Christ’s disciples (John 13:34).
This love is so remarkable that it covers a multitude of sins. This covering is not the modern spirit of tolerance and non-judgmentalism. Peter quotes from Proverbs 10:12. The context makes clear that the “covering” is a humble refusal to take offense at the offenses of others and the strongest aversion to stirring up strife by a hateful spirit that broadcasts the faults of others and takes offense at the slightest provocation. We must extend the same mercy to our brothers and sisters as we have been shown. This is far from the attitude that we should ignore sin or redefine sin so that it is no longer sin. It is certainly a perversion of love to conclude that we can treat sin lightly. Did God’s love for us lead him to take this approach: to accept everyone without dealing with the sin that separates us from his holiness and makes us liable to all the miseries of this life and the pains of hell forever? Divine love covers sin by providing a sufficient atonement, a covering for sin through the precious blood of his Son. Thus, in dealing with the sins of others, we are not to pretend they are not sins. One often hears today a very false and dangerous view of grace bandied about to the effect that moral judgments should be avoided and every man is his own best judge of what is right for him. In its most evil expression, it would make our blood-bought sonship a license to sin, or at least permission never to feel guilty or worry about them. After all, this would disturb the flow of my happy life and finding God’s best for me, usually on my terms. These attitudes are producing toleration of abominable perversion within the holy precincts of God’s temple, a cowardly unwillingness to confront sin, and lackadaisical piety. Can Peter honestly mean that each man is good just as he is, that none should make moral judgments in terms of God’s word, or that grace entitles us to accept or tolerate what God has forbidden, evils for which the Son of God took the sword of divine justice into his own soul? Perish the thought! He who wrote, “That we, being dead to sin, should live to righteousness; by whose stripes ye are healed” (2:24), would have us flee from all such perversions of the gospel. They spring from the pit of hell like so many deadly fumes.
Christian love draws its light and life, its passion and strength, from the humble and meek soul’s deep, saving sense of the mercy of God in Christ. Never must we forget that the Lord has cast our sins behind his back “as far as the east from the west” (Ps. 103:12). We are the ones in our Savior’s parable who have been forgiven a debt we can never repay – no, though the fires of hell roared for an eternity of eternities or we cried an ocean of tears. It was the blood and righteousness of Christ alone that have obtained our redemption and secured our justification. And when we sin now, on what terms are we forgiven and restored to the right relation with God that our Savior purchased for us? Again, it is nothing but the blood, nothing but the obedience, nothing but the advocacy of Jesus Christ at the Father’s right hand (1 John 2:1-2). It was God’s undeserved mercy that called us out of our darkness, made us sons and daughters of the great King, and secured our eternal inheritance (Eph. 2:4). We may not, must not ever lose sight of this, the sense of gospel, the agonies of the cross, the joys of grace. These only are able to keep us humble in a world of pride and loving in a world of unforgiving coldness. How can lost men truly forgive when they lack any sense of being reconciled to God, when they are burdened by guilt? For those who cling to the risen Savior, life is very different.
Fellow-believers certainly disappoint us, sin against us, and vex us. We hear things about other Christians that sometimes frustrate and drive us mad. How could he be so blind? She so immodest? How could they have gone to this place, watched this movie, or allowed their children to act as they do? How could that congregation believe that, deny that? Never can we forget that though sin has been defeated among God’s people, it has not yet been banished. We have warfare to undertake: inside our own hearts and outside among one another. We must “contend earnestly for the faith once for all given to the saints,” without compromise or apology. Yet in this midst of our warfare, in the light of the approaching end, love shows us the way to defend God’s truth, confront our brothers, and even to be confronted by them. I have been forgiven, we think to ourselves. How can I not forgive? Love has lifted me from the lowest hell, from a life of miserable separation from God and eternity of hell. But even more than forgiveness, covering means that we must endeavor through God’s mighty power to think the best of one another, pray for one another, hide one another’s faults.
This hiding is not from God, and it certainly includes confrontation and urging to repentance. The spirit with which we go about this, however, is humility, controlling awareness of personal weakness, and a sense of being nothing more than a forgiven sinner ourselves (Gal. 6:1). Our only boast is in the cross – not what we know, what we have experienced, our progress in holiness (Gal. 6:14). Love’s boast in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ breeds patience. Is not God’s long-suffering our salvation? It means we do not publicize one another’s sins, even under the mask of “you really need to pray for this.” Love means we take no secret, pernicious pleasure in the failures of other believers, their doctrinal errors or piety failures. These often give us a very selfish sense of superiority, which is soon joined with a haughty avoidance of weak sheep to whom we should draw near to nurture all the more as we see them struggling. Love means we ardently pray for and work toward the whole church’s greater holiness, deeper adoration of the crucified, risen Savior, and closer conformity to his revealed will. And though their sins may be many, so are ours. And our Lord says to us all: “Seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22). We can confront while we cover, even follow Christ’s instructions in Matthew 18:15-20 while we cover. But cover we must; love covered our sins. It blotted them out through the precious blood of Christ. If we have tasted that the Lord is gracious, we shall willingly cover one another’s.