by Matthew Raley As I remembered Grandpa in the hours after he died, I thought of 1 John 3.1-3.
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.
I struggled with my memories of Grandpa that night. Each memory was good without giving me comfort. In fact, some of my most important memories of him were like a slap in the face. Grandpa is gone. I won’t see him again in this life. There were some gifts that only he could give because he was Grandpa, and no one can replace him. Though I can remember what he gave, he won’t give anything more.
The words from John helped me understand something about Grandpa’s life and death. Meditate on them with me.
John’s point is that the Father has given us a unique relationship. Look, John says, at “what kind of love” the Father has given. John doesn’t marvel that there is so much of God’s love, or that God’s love toward us is so deep, but that God’s love is a specific kind. His love is the kind that calls us his children.
John explains what he means elsewhere in this letter. Human beings are sinners, and have no fellowship with God (1.6, 8). So we do not become his children because we love him, but because he loves us first. And the Father loved us by giving his Son Jesus on the cross to pay for our sins (4.10). When we believe in Christ, John says that we are “born of God,” that God “abides in us” (4.13-16; 5.1).
The love that calls us children of God is the kind that bought us a second birth in Christ.
Grandpa believed these things. He and Grandma realized who Jesus is and began to follow him at a Billy Graham crusade. Grandpa knew that God’s love is not a generic benevolence, but a sacrificing love.
The next statement John makes is stark. He describes the alienation between the world and the Father. “The reason why the world did not know us,” John says of himself and the other apostles, “is that it did not know him.” John also explains and repeats this statement throughout his letter. There is no darkness is God, and darkness does not have any fellowship with him (1.5-6). “Do not love the world or the things in the world,” John writes (2.15). “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”
This kind of alienation from the world was something Grandpa knew too. He told me that, before he started following Christ, he had been made Sunday school director at his church. Grandpa realized that he had been in charge of teaching children about Christ, but hadn’t been following Christ. So he went to the pastor and resigned. The pastor didn’t see that Grandpa’s lack of personal experience with Christ made any difference, and declined his resignation. Grandpa was astonished. “You mean, it doesn’t matter to you whether your Sunday school director is a Christian?” A major reason why he and Grandma moved here in 1955 was the realization that their church didn’t think being “born of God” was important.
In fact, the new birth is constantly being downgraded from essential to optional. Those of us who claim to follow Christ tend to rejoice in our sins being paid without looking too carefully over the itemized bill. The logic of John—the logic of the Bible as a whole—is relentless on this point: sins by nature are destructive and incur a cost. Grandpa’s sins were costly. His redemption came at a price. The logic drives on: if that cost is paid for me, then I do not belong to myself anymore. Grandpa struggled to reach that conclusion. And so we all do. We sometimes wish that we could take some of the world’s plastic into the streets of gold.
John’s next sentence is the reason I thought of these verses the night Grandpa died. “We are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared.” There are two points in those words. He says we have this amazing identity right now: we are God’s children. All the acceptance, security, and love of God’s household belong to us. The story has passed the turning-point. But then John says that we can’t picture what we will be. The Last Day hasn’t come. Our final image hasn’t downloaded yet. The story isn’t over.
So when Grandpa was with us, he belonged in the Father’s household. He was a child of God. But there is more to Grandpa that remains hidden.
These words from John helped me because I realized that the best gifts I received from Grandpa were from Christ. In this life, Grandpa was born of God, and the many good things Grandpa gave were the overflow of that new birth.
Some of those things were simple.
He knew how to delight and amaze his grandkids. He could twist an apple in half with his bare hands. He made all sorts of toys: trucks, puzzles, guns. He taught me the first lessons I can remember in creativity. When I was 8 or 9, I asked if he would make me a rifle. All I had in mind was the shape of a rifle cut out of wood. Grandpa went to his shop, drew a rifle onto a scrap of plywood, and proceeded to cut it out. But I could see that the barrel was way too short. I was worried. Didn’t Grandpa know about rifles? Didn’t he know that the whole point of a rifle was the long barrel? I gently pointed this out to him, but he didn’t seem concerned at all. So I figured it could still pass for a sawed-off shotgun. But Grandpa had other ideas. What I thought was the barrel was actually just the stock. For the barrel he used a couple feet of half-inch PVC pipe. When the bad guys saw me coming with that rifle, they all ran.
The first lesson in creativity was, “Don’t rush the genius.” The second was, “A creation is the best gift.”
Grandpa could be extremely funny. He was the master of deadpan storytelling. I can’t tell his masterpiece the way he told it, but I can give you the gist.
Across the road from the family home was a field that Grandpa was clearing, and in the field was a stump. He decided that, instead of cutting the stump out, it’d be faster to blast it. So he went to town to buy dynamite from the only place you could get it, and that was the Baptist pastor’s wife. She sold him the dynamite, but she gave him some advice. “Don’t pack too much under the stump. Only use a little.”
He nodded but thought, “What does she know?”
When he was finished packing all the explosives he had under the stump, he lit the fuse and took off running. The blast shot the stump into the air, past Grandpa, across the road, over the family home, and into the back yard.
Moral: listen to the pastor’s wife.
The simple gifts are worth a lot, whether a toy or a tall tale. But some of the things Grandpa gave me were deeper.
I worked with him on his rentals for two summers as a teenager. I learned from working alongside him, and I learned from watching how he related to people—open, polite, understated. I saw these things and more because he gave me time.
He also gave me understanding.
One summer I preached a sermon at a Free Church youth conference in Denver in front of a panel of three judges. I was seventeen. My model for public speaking was William F. Buckley, Jr. When I finished and sat down with my youth pastor, Dan Tedder, and the judges, one of them held up my notes and said, “What is this? What are you trying to do?”
Grandpa was on the church board at the time, and he heard from Dan about how the judges reacted. A couple weeks later Grandpa and I were reroofing one of the 7th Street houses, and somehow we started talking about Denver. He stopped, set his hammer down, and said, “I heard what that judge said about your sermon. That wasn’t right. You just keep following the path you’re on, and the Lord will use you.”
I was blessed in my teens to have people in my life who understood me, my parents and Dan Tedder included. Grandpa’s gift of understanding at that moment was powerful.
John’s words helped me understand that Grandpa’s gifts to me really came from Christ’s work in Grandpa. God used Grandpa’s gifts to stir and strengthen my spiritual life, and I continue to grow because of them.
John’s next words helped me understand Grandpa’s death. “But we know that when [Christ] appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” John picks up the idea that we don’t know yet what we will be in eternity. The end of the story is when Christ returns. We will finally have an unobstructed view of him. No more speculation about what he is really like, no more wondering what he would do or say. We will see Christ as he is, and John says we will then become like him—just the way children learn.
What is Christ like? Glorious, gentle, meek, true, life-giving, gracious, loving.
Grandpa had some of those qualities some of the time, and because he was a child of God those good things built us up. Now Grandpa sees Christ as he is. Grandpa is like Christ. He has all of Christ’s qualities eternally. His story is finished.
John’s last words in these verses give us a glimpse of Christian integrity. “And everyone who thus hopes in [Christ] purifies himself as he is pure.” We don’t purify ourselves by willing away our sins, nor by rationalizing them. We purify ourselves by setting our hope as God’s children on the Last Day, the hope that we will see Jesus Christ in his perfection, and that we’ll become complete in him. This hope arouses us to reject the plastic gloss of this world and strive for the prize of the upward call.