We Shall Be Like Him: The Purifying Hope of Christ's Return
I John 3:1-3Shortly before his recent death, ex-Beatle George Harrison was asked about his spiritual journey. The question was apt since it was Harrison who introduced the Beatles to Eastern religion in the 60s and (after the group broke up) wrote the song My Sweet Lord (a hymn of praise to the Hindu deity Krishna). To the end of his life, Harrison continued to investigate spiritual matters. He summed up his priorities this way: “Everything else in life can wait, but the search for God cannot wait.”
He is absolutely correct in that assessment. We were made to know God and nothing is more important than filling the “God-shaped vacuum” inside every heart. Nothing this world offers can take the place of knowing the God who made you. If you live 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 or 80 years and you don’t know God, then it doesn’t matter what else you have done with your life. If you don’t know God, you have missed the very reason for your own existence. If you miss out on knowing God, you have missed the central reality of the universe. Compared to knowing the One who made you, everything else is just crumbs and nibbling around the edges. We are incurably religious by nature. That’s why every human society—no matter how primitive—has some concept of a higher power, some vision of a reality that goes beyond the natural. On one level that explains why science has not eradicated religion from the earth. Science can never do that because technological achievement can’t meet the deepest needs of the human heart. That’s why millions of people read their horoscopes every morning and millions more watch or call psychic hotlines.
People are hungry for spiritual truth and if they cannot find it by normal means, they will reach for anyone or anything that claims to give them an answer. There is something in us that drives us to seek ultimate meaning outside ourselves. That “something” inside us is put there by God. Augustine gave us this oft-quoted prayer: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
A few years ago Tanya Donelly, formerly the lead singer of an alternative rock group called Belly, put the matter this way: “For some reason, God is embarrassing to people. It doesn’t embarrass somebody to talk about how they got completely bombed the night before and puked all over themselves, but God is a really embarrassing subject, and that’s kind of strange.” She’s right on both counts: God is an embarrassing subject, and that’s strange since everything else in life can wait, but the search for God can’t wait. No one lives forever, not even rock superstars or ex-Beatles. Searching for God is good, finding him is much better.
Can anyone legitimately claim to know God or is it all just empty talk and wishful thinking? Our text reveals the truth about the children of God and explains why the world so often does not recognize them. If you would like to know what’s ahead for those who know the Lord, then keep reading. This message is for you.
I. What We Are
“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him” (I John 3:1).
A. The “unearthly” nature of God’s love
The phrase “how great” translates a Greek word that means “from what country.” It’s a question and an exclamation rolled together: “What country did this kind of love come from?” Good question, because God’s kind of love doesn’t come naturally on planet earth.
It’s possible that some of us have forgotten what we were before God saved us. Romans 5 uses four different words to describe our spiritual condition outside of Christ. We were powerless, ungodly, sinners, and enemies of God.
When we were powerless to change our ways, Christ came for us.
Although we were ungodly, Christ loved us.
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Even though we were God’s enemies, Christ reconciled us to God.
And Ephesians 2 says that we were “dead” in our sins, so dead that we couldn’t do a thing to help ourselves. We weren’t “sort of” dead or “mostly” dead or “partly” dead or “not quite dead” dead. Even though we were alive physically, in the spiritual realm we were as dead as dead could be.
Not long ago a man wrote to tell me about a ministry he and his wife share together. Their goal is to help anyone struggling with issues of alcohol addiction. The man commented that for most alcoholics (he was speaking from personal experience), the hardest part of the process is admitting that you need help. He spoke of the difficulty of being totally honest about the mess your life is in and how easy it is to rationalize, to minimize, to make excuses, to tell part of the truth but not all the truth. Those who have been in the program will tell you that the first step is the hardest—and the most crucial. Until you face the bad news about your condition, you can’t truly and totally turn your life over to God and ask for His help.
The same is true for all of us, no matter what our personal issues might be. Sin has left us powerless and enslaved, totally unable to save ourselves. Until we admit that, our lives can never really change.
It is our total helplessness that makes the love of God so “unearthly.” In this world our love tends to be conditional: “I love you if” or “I love you because.” But God’s love is always “I love you in spite of the way you are. I love you even though you hate me and want nothing to do with me. I even love you when you deliberately break my Law and pretend I don’t exist. I still love you after you’ve thumbed your nose at me and even used my Name as a curse word.” The message of the gospel is simple: “I love you. I love you. I love you.” And to prove it, God sent his Son to die on a bloody Roman cross.
What sort of world did that love come from? It’s not from around here.
Sometimes we send out a different message: “How fortunate God is to have us in his family.” But it’s not like that at all. God didn’t save you because he looked down from heaven and said, “My, she stands head and shoulders above all those other sinners. She would be a real asset to my Kingdom. I think I’ll save her.” There was no merit in you that caused God to save you. It was pure, sovereign love that reached out and took you in. God desires that his enemies should become his children. That’s why he saved you.
B. The privilege of being God’s children
When John says we are “called,” he uses a word that means something like “officially designated.” We are “called” the children of God because that’s what we truly are. Called by whom? By God! And since God is God, if he calls us his children, that’s what we are. Period. End of discussion. But isn’t it presumptuous to say that we are the children of God? It would be as if we were calling ourselves the children of God, but since it’s God who does the designating, it can’t be presumptuous. It’s a simple statement of fact. All those who trust Jesus as Savior are called the children of God. This means, by the way, that not everyone on earth is a child of God. All are created by God and all are made in God’s image, and all are greatly loved by God, but God’s family is made up of men and women redeemed by the blood of Christ.
I have always regarded it as a great honor to bear the name of my earthly father. Even though he died 27 years ago, I think of him often and I still miss him very much. The thought struck me for the first time this week that in our entire congregation, only my wife and I ever knew my father. Marlene met him a few times before we were married in 1974. He died several months after our wedding. My boys never knew him and most of the people I meet on a daily basis never knew him. But in some imperfect sense, I bear his name and his image and his likeness in the world. He was a good man and I try to live in a way that honors his memory, and I feel that obligation very strongly even though he has been gone for over a quarter-century.
Our text tells me that I have a Father in heaven whose name I also bear. I am his true son and I also bear his image. By divine grace I have been adopted into God’s family, and by the miracle of the new birth, I have also been born again. It’s a double miracle: adopted into his family and born into his family.
God’s amazing love has made us his children in actual fact. We are the sons and daughters of the living God. Remember who your Father is, and rejoice.
C. The incomprehension of the world
But not everyone sees this truth about us. Some people think we’re bragging or just talking foolish when we claim to be the children of God. John explains this strange incomprehension: “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”
At Christmastime, we are reminded once again that the world did not know him. When Jesus was born, there was no room for him in the inn so he ended up in a stable. The Son of God came to the world he had created, and the world (his world!) had no room for him. Only the Magi and the shepherds marked his birth. Herod tried to kill him and the religious leaders ignored him.
No room in the inn. No time for Jesus. No place for the Son of God. As the old spiritual says, “Sweet little Jesus boy, we didn’t know who you was.” There is a phrase in the famous Christmas carol, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, that captures the essence of this truth: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.”
Â· When he was born, people thought he was just another Jewish baby. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.”
Â· As he was growing up, the neighbors assumed he was the literal son of Joseph and Mary. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.”
Â· Most people thought of him as a great teacher or a political leader who could free them from Rome. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.”
Â· His opponents claimed he worked his miracles by the power of the devil. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.”
Â· During the last week of his life, the religious leaders conspired to kill him. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.”
Â· Pilate was confused and curious and drawn to this man he could not understand. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.”
Â· The angry mob at the cross shouted, “If you are the King of Israel, come down from the cross and we will believe in you.” “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.”
But when he died, one of the Roman centurions at the foot of the cross cried out, “Truly this was the Son of God.” “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.” You have heard it said that “seeing is believing.” But in the realm of the spirit, the opposite is true: “believing is seeing.” The centurion believed and therefore he could see. The shepherds believed and therefore they could see. Those who believe are given the gift of spiritual sight to see Christ clearly. Everyone else stumbles in the darkness.
The world didn’t know Jesus then and it doesn’t know his followers now. When the world looks at us, some people see a nice group of religious people, gathered on a Sunday morning, well-dressed, nicely groomed, singing sweet religious songs. Others see deluded fanatics who believe things that can’t possibly be true. But either way, we should not be surprised or alarmed or bothered. The world was wrong about Jesus. That’s why they are wrong about us, too.
The real problem is Jesus. Ramesh Richard of Dallas Seminary is right when he says that if you take Jesus out of the equation, it would be true that Christians and Muslims and Jews all worship the same God. But Jesus is a real sticking point to the people of the world. That’s why they don’t want us to pray in his name at public gatherings, and that’s why they want to say that we’re all worshiping the same God. They would say, “You have God with Jesus and we have God without Jesus.” But that is one thing the Christian can never say. As far as we are concerned, Jesus is God and there is no God without God. We don’t do anyone any favors when we deny or downplay that truth.
To the world this is politically incorrect heresy. It is divisive and exclusionary. To which we respond, “You’re absolutely right.” The truth about Jesus divides humanity. You either believe in Jesus or you don’t. You are either a child of God by faith in Christ or you aren’t. We can’t expect the world to understand that or to accept it, but it is true nonetheless.
The world did not recognize Jesus 2,000 years ago, and it does not recognize us as the children of God today. But the world’s ignorance cannot cancel the reality. We are the children of God whether the world knows it or not.
II. What We Will Be
“Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (I John 3:2).
The key word in this verse is “now.” In the Greek it appears first in the sentence to emphasize its importance. John wants us to know that we are the children of God right now, today, in this very moment.
Right now we are the children of God. Today we are forgiven. In this moment we are redeemed.
What a wonderful truth this is. We do not look to some future date when we will be justified. Our justification is accomplished already and we are the present possessors of eternal life. Having been redeemed by the blood of Jesus, we face life knowing that should we die today, our destiny is not in question because our home in heaven has been secured for us by Jesus Christ himself. Therefore, we do not wake up and wonder, “Am I a child of God today?” Why wonder about that which is already settled in heaven? If we are “now” the children of God, then the only question left to us is whether or not we will believe what God has said. But even if we choose not to believe it, the truth cannot be changed. Our standing does not depend on us but on God who has declared that those who trust in his Son are his children now and forever.
But what about the memory of sin and the sense of continual failure that dogs the steps of even the most godly Christian? Can those sins and failings and repeated mistakes remove us from God’s family? We might ask the question another way. Are we the children of God because we obey and serve the Lord? To ask the question is to answer it. We must not be turned aside by our doubts or be overly impressed by our obedience. Our only hope of heaven is to lean wholly on Christ for our salvation. We are to live by faith, resting wholly on the One who loved us and gave himself for us. And we must say again and again that our feelings simply do not matter. We are not saved by feelings but by Christ alone.
A. What we do not know
Having established our present status as the children of God, John points out that there are many things about the future that remain mysterious to us. For all that we know about heaven, there is much more that we don’t know. Have you ever wondered what believers are doing in heaven right now? I mean, what are believers doing in heaven after they die but before the resurrection of their bodies? Sometimes I hear well-meaning Christians speak of their recently-deceased loved ones like this: “I’m sure she’s playing the piano in heaven.” “I’ll bet Andrew is up there going fishing with St. Peter.” Maybe so, but I wonder how you go fishing or play the piano without your physical body. Perhaps there is some sort of “intermediate body” provided for believers (theologians have various theories about this) between death and the resurrection. I don’t think the Bible is entirely clear on this point.
And there are many other questions we would like to know. Can the saints in heaven see us on the earth? Can they hear us when we talk? Do they cheer for us to finish the race well? Do they pray for us? Toward the end of his life Martin Luther pointed out that while it is possible that the saints in heaven may pray for us, that is no reason why we should pray to them.
And I’m reminded of the familiar question, Do our pets go to heaven when they die? The only people who scoff at that question are those poor souls who never had a beloved family dog or cat or some other pet they valued. Children especially ask this question. I love Don Cole’s answer. He said, “When you get to heaven, whistle. If your dog comes, then he’s in heaven.” That’s as reasonable as any other answer I know.
I heard a preacher once say that we will all be 33 years old in heaven because that’s how old Jesus was when he died. That same preacher said he thought we would have 500 senses in heaven instead of the 5 we now have. Of course, that’s just speculation. The Bible says nothing about those things and anything we say is just a guess.
The truth is we really don’t know much about the state of affairs for the glorified children of God. No doubt that is because we simply don’t have the capacity to understand it. When the Apostle Paul remarked in II Corinthians 12 that he knew a man who had been caught up into heaven (I think he was speaking of himself) and had seen things which it was not lawful for a man to utter, it means there was no way to convey in human words the wonders he had seen. In one of his sermons, the late Senate Chaplain Peter Marshall gave an illustration that went something like this. Before a baby is born, it can recognize its mother’s voice. If you shine a light into the womb, the baby will react to it. If you push the baby, it will kick your hand away. How much does that unborn child understand of life outside the womb? Not much, just the sound of one or two voices and the sensation of movement. Inside the womb the baby feels safe and secure. If you could somehow converse with the child, it would feel very confident in discoursing on what life will be like once it is born. The child swims, moves, tosses and turns, quiets to the sound of its mother’s voice, reacts to her emotions and to sudden movements. What a shock awaits that child when suddenly it slides through the birth canal (a harrowing, terrifying experience) only to find itself being held upside down in the glare of bright lights and loud voices. “Who are these people? Why are they wearing masks? Why am I so cold? And why is this person slapping my bottom? I didn’t do anything wrong. Where is my mother?”
For a few seconds, the baby feels totally abandoned. Then he hears a voice—a tender, melodious voice he has come to know, clearer now than he’s ever heard it before, “Come here, sweetheart.” Someone takes him toward the voice and he settles in, listening to that one voice he knows, resting above her heart. He has no idea where he is or what has happened. He does not know what will happen next. But when the baby hears his mother’s voice, he knows that all will be well.
In this life we are like that unborn child. We know as much of life after death as the unborn child knows of life after birth. We hear the sound of laughter coming from the other side and stories of a great city unlike any city we’ve ever known. It seems so fantastic as to be almost a fairy tale. Like that unborn child, we comfort ourselves that we know so much about heaven, but in reality we know so little that we hardly know anything at all.
We really only know one thing for certain. When we die, we will be with Jesus forever. This was his promise to the dying thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Heaven is not going to a place; it’s going to a Person. Heaven is where Jesus is and that is where we are going when we die. Heaven is a real place but it is called paradise because of the presence of the Son of God. If we are with Jesus, then we are where we wanted to be all along. The rest is just details.
B. What we do know
John goes on to say that in contrast with our limited knowledge about our future state, there are three things we know for certain:
First, we know that Jesus will come back again. “When he appears.” Not “if” but “when.” Jesus said he was coming back and you can take it to the bank that one day the Son of God will return to the earth. Let the scoffers scoff and the doubters doubt. The children of God have no doubts whatsoever. Though 20 centuries have come and gone, we look with eager eyes for the day when the Lord himself will return from heaven to receive us to himself. “We know,” John says, as if it were a fact just as certain as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west, a promise as certain as the unchanging laws of nature.
Second, we know that we will see him as he is. Note the last three words carefully. “As he is.” Not as he was. Not as a little child resting in the manger. Not as a traveling teacher walking the dusty roads of Galilee and Judea. Not even as a miracle-worker who heals the sick and raises the dead. We will not see him as he was on the cross—beaten, bruised, abused, more dead than alive. Nor will we behold him as he was in the tomb—a corpse wrapped in a linen winding cloth. We will see him as he is in heaven. Risen, ascended, victorious, the Lamb who is also a Lion, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Do not doubt for a moment that it is Jesus himself we will see. Again, the long passage of the centuries has caused some Christians to lose hope and to despair of ever seeing Jesus. They think that the only Jesus they will ever know is the Jesus they see with the eyes of faith. As wonderful as Jesus is now, how much better it will be to see him in person.
Face to face with Christ my Savior,
Face to face what will it be?
When with rapture I behold him,
Jesus Christ who died for me.
Not a picture or an image or some sort of computer-generated hologram. But we will see Jesus himself. And not from a 1,000 miles away or in an image flashed on some interstellar screen, but we will all see him personally, face to face. “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face” (I Corinthians 13:12 NKJV).
Third, when we see him, we will be like him. Ponder that thought for a moment. We will be like Jesus. In this life we are being transformed into the image of Christ little by little, day by day, step by step, by the Spirit of God. But the work is so slow and progress is so difficult, and it often seems as if we are going backwards and not forwards. If you ask, “How have you become more like Jesus in the last year?” I hardly know how to answer the question. I tremble to think of it and in my heart, I refuse to answer. Who would dare to judge themselves as being more like Christ? If we know ourselves at all, we would be better off not answering the question but leaving others to answer for us (if they will), and God alone is the final judge. I see places in my life where I think I’ve made progress, and perhaps I have, but then I see other areas where sins and weights and bad habits and the flesh and so many imperfections seem to cling to my soul.
If the Christian life is a slow climb up the stairway to heaven, why is it that so many of us keep falling off? And when you finally meet a saint who has traveled (so it seems) far up the stairway, that saint tells you, “Now I see my sin more clearly than before.”
We all sin in many ways and fall short of God’s glory. There are days (and weeks and months and even years!) when sanctifying grace seems hard to find. And even when we “get on a roll” and start to make progress, the truth of Romans 7 rises up to slay us again and we end up doing what we said we would never do and we fail to do what we promised to do. For many of us, the Christian life seems like four steps forward, five steps to the left, six steps to the rear, and round and round in circles we go. No wonder we despair of ourselves and sometimes we wonder if we will ever make it to heaven. No wonder we doubt our own salvation.
But there is a better day coming for all the saints of God, a day when the trials of this life will be put behind us once and for all. When we see Jesus, the very sight of the Son of God will transform us from the inside out. We will be like him for we will see him as he is. His holiness will make us holy through and through. We will grow more in a glance from Jesus than in a half-century of personal study.
Better days are coming, child of God. Let this thought encourage you in your long journey home. God has determined to make you like Jesus. Because you are his child, you will one day be like his Son. That family resemblance, which is today so faint as to sometimes be almost invisible, will in that happy day be so clear that no one in the universe could miss it.
Think of it! All the sin and evil and inner turmoil, all the memories that keep us chained to the past, in one shining moment the burden is lifted, the chains are broken, and we are set free.
Lust gone forever.
Anger and bitterness finally banished.
Greed replaced by love.
Sorrow gives way to joy.
Addictions gone, their place taken by a fervent love for God.
Hurtful memories healed.
The fires of worldly ambition replaced with holy zeal for righteousness.
Foul speech gives way to praise.
Evil habits extinguished.
Violent temper replaced with a gentle spirit.
Lying lips now speak the truth.
All that we wanted, all that we dreamed but could never attain, the people we knew we could be and should be, in one shining moment when we see Jesus, it all comes true for us.
God has big dreams for us. He knows what he is about to do for us. I can imagine him saying to us, “If you only knew what I plan to do for you …” I John 3:2 is a wonderful reminder that God is not finished with us yet.
III. What We Should Be
“Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (I John 3:3).
If we believe that we will one day be like Jesus, we should live like him right now. Keep the promise in view, and then live up to it. One day we will be perfected, let’s move in that direction now.
How do I purify myself? Surely it doesn’t refer purely to human effort, as if holiness depended on human energy alone. I John 1:7 tells us that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from every sin, and having thus been cleansed, we walk in the light of God and have intimate fellowship with God and with other believers. It is because of Jesus’ blood that we are invited to confess our sins (I John 1:9), knowing that God is faithful to forgive our sins and to cleanse us (same idea as purifying) from all unrighteousness. We purify ourselves by using the God-appointed means of purification—confession and repentance. Confession says, “I’ve been walking down the wrong road,” and repentance says, “By God’s grace, I’m going to go in a new direction.” When we take sin seriously, that is, when we don’t make excuses and stop pretending and quit blaming others or our lousy circumstances, but when we cry out to God for mercy and grace, then we are both forgiven and “cleansed” from the things that have held us back.
There is a key phrase in verse 3 that we must not miss. Our hope is always “in him.” That’s the secret. We have hope in Christ, not in ourselves. It is the positive hope of seeing Jesus that gives us what we need in the here and now.
Finally, notice one little word that is mentioned five times in verse 2.
We are the children of God.
What we will be has not been made known.
When we see him.
We shall be like him.
We … we … we … we … we. The first “we” assures us of our position in God’s family; the last “we” reveals our ultimate destiny. We shall be like him. Not “I shall be like him,” though that is true. Not “You shall be like him,” though that is also true. But “we,” you and I together, all the brothers and sisters in the family of God, all the saints of all the ages are included, in the end we will march together, side by side, joining hearts and hands, raising our voices in a thunderous song of praise as we enter the celestial city.
Today our little band seems ragtag and disorganized. It seems that way because in truth, that’s the way it is in this world. But God has ordained that all his children will make it safely home. Not one of God’s lambs will be lost. All of the sheep will find their home to the Great Shepherd. And so we march on as best we can, often stumbling, sometimes falling, stopping to help a brother or sister whose courage has failed or whose faith has nearly vanished. Sometimes we pause to bind up the wounded and occasionally we send a scouting party out to reclaim a brother or sister who has gone AWOL. Sometimes with joy and sometimes with tears, the army of the Lord, the redeemed family of God, marches on toward heaven. As we near the gates of the city, we hear the sound of music and laughter, of happy singing, and the voices of those gone on before float through the air, “Don’t give up now. Keep going. Don’t stop. You’re almost home.”
What a great day that will be. And that day is coming sooner than we think. We’re not there yet and no one knows how much longer we must wait. But whether sooner or later, we know that Jesus is coming again. This hope sustains us as we journey toward heaven. When Jesus comes, we will be like him for we will see him as he is. Amen.
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